Haiti Still Rebuilding

I promised to write a post on the first of every month about Haiti until the crisis was over. I missed last month because I was just generally MIA the entire month anyway. That does not mean that rebuilding in Haiti is not still going on or that people in the U.S. have largely moved on to the next thing. In the face of the Gulf Crisis in particular, including flooding in the surrounding areas, it’s hard not to see why compassion fatigue has set in. But, as is my way, I would not doubt that fatigue would wipe Haiti off the immediacy map anyway.

So what is going on in Haiti?

1. Wycleff Jean for President …

limelight.org

First Wycleff Jean has made it known he is considering running for President. When Fernandez originally took office in the Dominican Republic there was some complaint that he was from New York not RD. His focus on transnational issues, “Americanized” sense of blackness and identity, and his progressive ideas were all things that his opponents attacked in his original campaign and to a lesser extent in his subsequent campaign that ousted Mejia. Some people have pointed to Fernandez’s success in uniting factions in RD and changing racial and socio-political discussions for the better, particular in terms of his ability to advocate for a more respectful place at the table of U.S. foreign affairs, as a reason why transmigrants might make more globally successful presidents for the Caribbean. Given that Haiti shares the island, comparisons between Jean’s potential bid and Fernandez’s presidency seem to make some sense as well. However, Jean is first and foremost an entertainer not someone deeply involved in politics and governance like Fernandez. His charity has come under scrutiny more than once over financial issues that range from general lack of knowledge about establishing proper status for the organization and pay structures for its employees to the more disconcerting accusations about the use of funds. His own involvement has been critiqued from multiple sides and should be evaluated in the context of his newly stated political aspirations. Regardless of whether you see him being politicized by his needed philanthropic work in Haiti or his charity work as a stepping stone to a political career, I think questions have to be asked about Yele in light of this announcement. And I don’t think asking those questions distracts from the work Yele or Jean himself did in Haiti during the earthquake crisis; work this blog helped to highlight. More than that, if you do interpret the bulk of questions surrounding Yele as lack of knowledge, then how does that reflect on Jean’s ability to run the much larger budget of a nation-state?

2. Women Rebuild

Women were amongst the hardest hit by the earthquake. Not only did they make up 50% of the heads of households in Haiti but they were early reports of sexual assault and child trafficking that spoke to the targeting of women in the aftermath by relief workers and opportunists alike. Women and children also outnumbered men in the relief camps but footage coming out of Haiti pointed to several young men bullying them out of food lines and food, water, medicine and sanitation shortages leading to the death of newborns, pregnant women, and small children, leaving surviving mothers with classic PTS and depression. These conditions have been documented around the world in refugee camps that do not provide enough security or gender related supported to women. However, both women and men involved in the relief effort in Haiti have pointed out basic ways that women can and should be supported:

The Merlet International Feminist Solidarity Camp, named after a famous Haitian feminist killed in the earthquake, also worked to combat some of these issues. It was organized by women’s groups in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the LACs region, and the Global Fund for Women with the goal of ultimately being run exclusively by Haitian women. The camp helped coordinate women’s centered relief efforts coming through the Dominican at a time when relief was still sitting untouched at the Haitian airport. It also provided a holistic health center for women to deal with both physical and emotional issues related to the earthquake.

Both International women’s organizations and NGOs within Haiti and the Dominican Republic began helping women in Haiti from the beginning of the Earthquake. I mentioned these organizations in prior posts including links to their donation lines but here is a video of the work that was being done in February.

MUDHA’s work is particularly important because it is a well-established women’s organization focusing on women’s rights and equality in both RD and Haiti. Their work in the Dominican Republic in particular has been critical to ensuring both Haitian women and Haitian descended women receive services, funding, education, and health care that have largely been denied them in the Dominican Republic. Their partnership in the relief efforts with Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees also helped bring a needed transnational element to their work, including support of Haitian women fleeing the earthquake, Haitian transmigrants in the U.S. and RD, and women’s organizing in general. You can read more about the efforts women are engaging in on the border of the Dominican and Haiti from the perspective of the Director of the Women and Health Collective here (Spanish only). As you can see from the interview, the majority of the displaced are women and they face major antihaitianismo hurtles despite the relief efforts.

According to Dir. Galvan, 6 months later, Haitian women also continue to face problems with lighting and security in camps in Haiti despite the promise of money to fix these issues. They also do not have enough access to jobs, food, or milk for their children. Their complaints about sexual assault have not been taken seriously enough nor have changes to protect against further assault. Nor has enough money been spent on women’s specific mental health needs in the aftermath. Worse there is limited to no access to birth control or post-birth or post-abortion services in the camps. Yet women are banding together to demand representation, services, and inclusion in the rebuild including 7 demands presented specifically to the government and the relief workers in Haiti.

Revista Amauta/Roberto Guerra

While women centered NGOs and women’s organizations are small but strong in Haiti, many of them do not represent queer women, and women make up a very small percentage of the government itself. Since the government is re-establishing its ability to make decisions about funding and rebuilding efforts in the aftermath, female representation in the government is critical. Haitian women have begun to advocate for themselves in light of this situation, along with pre-existing women’s political organizations, Vital Voices has emerged as an organization by and for Haitian women that is helping fund the campaigns of over 70 women for office. They are also working on educating women about political participation and its import and getting women registered to vote. Vital Voices receives training and money from international sources but also provides training and leadership from within Haiti; meaning, that they are in charge of the organization and work on an exchange of skills model rather than allow international funders to dictate what happens.

The Centre National des Equipments, which is in charge of government sponsored infrastructure rebuilding, has also centered women in the rebuild efforts. The majority of their workers are women and in the aftermath of the earthquake leadership has extended job and training offers to women in the capital. According to the Seattle Times, 85 trainees/65 women were on site clearing rubble within hours of the earthquake. Their work, and CNE’s in general, is helping to challenge gender stereotypes about women’s work, leadership, and strength. With so many displaced women, it is also providing an opportunity to regain self-sufficiency and develop new and needed skills. CNE’s salaries also represent middle class incomes for women who may not have other entry points into similar economic status. Though it comes with the potential for engendered conflict between men and women, and even domestic violence, it also represents economic freedom and the chance to make new lives for women and their children at a time when those lives seem nearly impossible.

In the day to day existence of Haitian post-earthquake, women have also taken on many of the roles ensuring the nation’s survival. These women have provided food, education, and care in communities that were the last to receive international aid as well as those still depending on displaced camps. According to Bell, they are

Street vendors, factory workers, farmers, professionals, and unemployed, they compose a national force which has sustained hungry, wounded, and abandoned survivors. Though they may be on the razor-thin edge of survival themselves, though they may already be caring for many, women have been finding and cooking food for strangers, taking in children left orphaned and others left homeless, and seeking out medical assistance and health care or improvising their own. Some have taken it upon themselves to organize education or recreation sessions for children, who have little to do since Port-au-Prince’s schools have closed. ‘It’s just our social obligation,’ said one woman.

These women, and all of the women involved in organizing in Haiti, represent individual and collective efforts that speak to the power and resilience of Haitian women in the face of tragedy.

Here are the donation links I posted in the past for women’s organizations working in Haiti.

A Little Peace

Chris Clinton/Getty Images

Last night, I attended a dinner with at least 6 people with whom I do not get along. This situation was rare because it is still technically summer which mostly means I get to be more choosy about the company I keep and that in the waning days of Dr. Crackhead (she’s begun talking retirement), dysfunction in at least two of my Departmental homes is at an all time low. Put another way, for a surprisingly long time now, must of us at Pov U, have all gotten along quite well. Even the divas in our prospective departments have all been making an effort to hold up less meetings, growl at fewer Juniors, and stop yawning with menace at every tentative change in direction we discuss. It’s been a blessing that has formed many new and productive collaborations, funding deals, and exciting changes in the curriculum and type of students we have been able to retain.

As one of the more radical people on our faculty, you can imagine what went through my head when I looked around the room at last night’s dinner and saw people whose intellectual and political commitments include derailing the funding and mentoring of graduate students of color, the nearly successful attempt to return the “Great Books” to the core of the curriculum, and the intentional destruction of important global studies research and study abroad opportunities that were once envisioned as a cornerstone of our little U’s rebirth.

peter j wilson/2007

In sitting with people more radical than I, yes that’s what I said, those folks are the bada– that make giddy with the stupid when they get to telling stories of their “pre-ivory tower days”, I began to feel that familiar rumble. Like a volcano warning all life that had been living peacefully on its terrain, there was heat, electricity, and the promise of devastation lurking just beneath the surface of our pleasant little planning meeting. Soon Bambi would not know where to run to shed those big, big, “I’m innocent and their scary” tears. And the people in the middle would be seeking shelter in the no man’s land sprung up in the devastation.

But I just wanted to eat my veggie rolls in peace and get on with the 3.5 hours of boring presentations we had to sit through before we could vote.

And that is when it happened. I saw woman whose feminism means everyone but her can get out of the way or be called sexist who had single-handedly driven out an entire cohort of students of color from our department one year and instead of sucking my teeth from the tenure porch, I said hello.

I think I startled her.

I think I startled everyone.

In the hush that followed, I asked her how she had enjoyed the first several presentations on mundane drivel that keeps the uni running that we had been subjected to before “dinner.” Never one to think her opinion is not central to the inner-workings of the universe, she warily began to wax poetic about her thoughts on new heating coils for the gym. In the 20 minutes that ensued, we discussed both the mundane and the surreal that is part of life at Pov U with more than a few overlaps in opinion. To her credit, she only made one disparaging remark about non-gender specific identity studies and the scholars who engage in it and only one barbed comment about me personally. It was a record for her. And in exchange, I did not exploit her fears of women of color and sense of inadequacy around people who know more about certain subjects than she does. We both considered the conversation a fair exchange. When she left, she left smiling and nodding at me like she’d finally realized I was human. And I smiled back, hoping that this rare moment meant that maybe we could forge ahead with less conflict in the future.

At our conversations end, I noticed that others who had often been on the other side of major political battles at Pov U had drawn close to our conversation and were now jockeying for similar attention. More than that, I noticed the radical colleagues with whom I was eating had let the call of the thunder and lightening lull to a threatened of slight drizzle. It was odd and yet wonderful. Somehow, I thought we could keep the peace and the Golden Age of collaboration could continue.

But then I realized my naivete. The people crowding near our conversation did not want to discuss mundane Pov U business as a metaphor for working together and committing to decrease oppressive behavior on campus.  The woman who had tried to deny my tenure on the basis of … blackness… and who had made a career of encouraging students of color and queer students in her Department to quit school all together or “for the love of g-d, transfer!!!” stepped in front of me and painted a clearer picture with her broad smile and barbed opening, disparaging my intelligence and my outfit all in a single flick of her tongue. Her smile said she expected pleasantries and her demeanor said she’d beat them out of me if necessary because she too wanted a public chat in which everything seemed friendly and nice to observers.

Suddenly, I felt like an overwrought Priest during confessional.

Sorry lady, this chapel is closed.

Not every space has to be transformed into a war zone between the people clinging to power and the people exploiting their clinginess to wrench it from them. Sometimes, everyone is just grateful to keep eating. More than that, in a moment in which so much good is coming out of our ability to cooperate it would be a mistake to let people who tear things down have a forum in which to justify it. I understood this when I made the gesture to a woman I’d rather did not work here and she understood it when she took the offer from me, a woman she wished did not work at all.

And yet, even with this most fragile peace, there is always someone who wants to exploit the very well-defined boundaries to their own ends. If I had let her, the second woman who wanted to talk, who intentionally blocked my path to back to my table, would have torn the whole social treaty forged just 20 minutes earlier to pieces. And for what? She was not looking for a chance to chat with me anymore than I her. What she wanted was what all unrepentant guilty people want, a public absolution to go wreak havoc another day. In her arrogance and her sense of single issue victimization she believed such an absolution was her due and that my denial of it would be more proof that she was the radical and I the interloper.

Roger Corman/1962

This, by the way, is why people do not try. As long as the people with entitlement issues and privilege-evasive blinders think themselves the victims due apologies all the while oppressing everyone around them, their intended victims will always prefer attack or disdain over peace or learned alliance. After all, these are the colleagues who bring eggs and throw them, then complain about having to walk on eggshells whenever they are near us.

The impending conflict ended when two extremely Senior male colleagues got between us with the proverbial “Girls, you’re both pretty.” As she stalked away in a feminist huff, taking no responsibility for the problem but only marking the sexist way in which it was ended, she looked over her shoulder at me and said “Well, I guess we’ll have to talk later when you have time to be around the women of the college.” Score one for [single-issue] feminism or not.

The women back at my table simply laughed and asked if I enjoyed my turkey and pumpkin pie.

And so that little peace was shattered. Our Golden Age tarnished. Even now, my phone is ringing with colleagues wanting to gossip about the unmitigated gall of academics who see themselves as saviors because they occasionally mention race or class before reverting back to their navels. And I know exactly what was gained by the other side, because when we don’t work together then Pov U has little chance of moving into this century intellectually, economically, or with regards to diversity and that makes it easier to revert to conservative arguments about what needs to change and what does not. Score one for delusional bigotry.

Politics Quick Fix

You may have noticed that after all the intense writing I did about politics during the election season here at the blog, the focus of the blog has moved decidedly in different directions from DC and its outliers. Nevertheless, sometimes you cannot look away and this Super Primary Tuesday is one of those moments.

On the Left

AP Photo/unattributed

The big news today is that Blanche Lincoln managed to hold on to her seat despite not supporting the public option or the union bill that would allow workers to join and support unions in private instead of under the watchful eye of the bosses they were trying to keep in line. According to MSNBC pundit Ed Schulz and a report yesterday am on CNN, there may have been voter tampering involved in her win; both channels reported that districts that had been heavily in favor of her more progressive primary opponent received less voting areas than it has in the past and that promises to rectify this with a special Saturday am polling station for early voters were against the law in Arkansas and led to all kinds of voter confusion. Video of Arkansas’ voting in those districts included packed parking lots, long lines, and even a car accident.

Why is this important?

Blanche Lincoln is a Democrat. Democrats have long chaffed over supposed and proven voter tampering by Republicans over the last 8 years. Efforts by both Democrats and Progressives to ensure an end to voter tampering were so feared by their opponents in fact, that they launched smear campaigns to stop people from getting out the vote or challenging election results. We have documentaries and news specials full of cynical or shocked faces on the Left proclaiming the immorality of the Right with regards to voting dating back to the Florida scandal in the first Bush election. In other words, it is part of our voting knowledge and our democratic vocabulary that one thing that sets Democrats apart from Republicans is that the latter cheat, often, and using multiple tactics that including moving polling centers (OH and MI I am talking to you).

So if the polling stations were down to only 2 from roughly 50 in previous primaries in districts that were likely to come out against Blanche Lincoln then her win is actually a loss for Democrats everywhere. In one, highly publicized primary, we have lost the moral high ground on voting “irregularities” in favor of supporting a candidate who has failed to support many of the policies that the majority of the country was behind when she, and other Democrats, were overwhelmingly elected.

Her joy and incredulity last night in accepting the nomination mask a potentially much darker turn in the party in which not only voting is in question but so is the power of support from the administration. Both President Obama and former President Clinton lobbied hard for Lincoln in the past few weeks. Clinton even stumped for her and was part of her ad campaign. As progressives continue to be disappointed in the middle road policies of this administration, we cannot help but note how they have rallied for a woman who was willing to fillibuster with Republicans to stop us from having decent health care. Their continued support of her in the face of these policy “contradictions” is only slightly less disconcerting than the fact that by doing so they too are implicated, however tangentially, in the voting poll controversy.

On the Right

The other big stories this morning are the wins of  former ebay CEO Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California. Like Lincoln, Whitman’s win casts a bright light on potentially questionable election practices by her Party while Fiorina’s win may simply show that when comes to politics the old boy network has room for a few [corporate] women.

While voting polls appear to have been at their standard number for each community in CA, Whitman’s raised huge flags with the amount of money she was willing to spend to get elected. According to Time, she spent $80 million on her primary campaign.  Many are claiming this morning that it is the clearest sign that she “bought the election” of any candidate in the nation’s history. Her actions, though questionable, were not illegal and ultimately people have to ask themselves why they are so swayed by the amount of time they see a candidate but not by the knowledge that candidate spent the GDP of some small nations to win a primary.

More intriguing to me is the way Whitman became a player in the Republican Party in the first place. If you think back to the Presidential primaries and start counting the number of times John McCain told anecdotal stories about “the CEO of Ebay” you’ll know what I mean. I, for one, had no idea who Whitman was before John McCain decided to wax poetic about her every chance he got during the last legs of his election bid. Many watching and commenting on his speeches, assumed that he was going off on random tangents or grasping at straws to include references to a woman in a campaign where he may have “chosen” a female running mate but ultimately continued to operate as if it was an old boys network. Did John McCain know something we didn’t? Was he asked/told to stump for her in advance or even paid to do so? We will probably never know, but again, her bid for CA Governor has to make you wonder why she was the woman McCain fixated on 9 times out of 10 during an election she had nothing to do with.

campaign photo/unattributed

Fiorina was also mentioned by McCain several times during the Presidential Primaries until she openly mocked Palin’s qualifications. However, Fiorina worked for the McCain campaign as the economic advisor and therefore her mentions at least makes some sense.

What is more important in her case is her incredibly negative business image vs. her crushing win yesterday. As CEO of HP, Fiorina was considered a disaster by many because of declining stock and shares of the computer market. Market Shares Blog reported that HP stock went up 7% after she was fired the day the news broke. Fiorina on the other hand has always maintained that she was forced out and that gender was a critical factor in the decision. If we believe the former assessment her win is just as suspect as all of the women in NY who were disqualified by the public as backdoor candidates whose runs were considered part of an unearned legacy rather than legitimacy on their own. Some of those candidates may not have had direct political experience but they did have tons of transferable philanthropic experience. Can Fiorina, as a potentially disastrous business woman, count her time as CEO to explain away similar unearned keys to the kingdom?

Two-Parties One System

On the one hand, this primary season has seen many women coming to the political foreground. The Republicans in particular have ushered in a large number of women as their candidates, proving for those who did not learn this lesson from the suffragettes that biological sex and political beliefs are not fused together once and for all. But except for those hold out biological determinists and wrongfully educated WS folk who think “any woman” winning is a win for “women”, these wins, regardless of the Party, do not bode well for the progressive movement in this country. While some of these women will support middle class feminist goals, stances against unions and health care mean that their feminism will not extend to the majority of women struggling in this country even if they call themselves feminists. So for me the presence of so many women in the primaries is noteworthy but not a real measure of any larger feminist advance.

For the majority of voters, the primaries should be a wake up call no matter what. While neither progressives nor Tea Party challengers fared well in this election, the reason for their defeats may have more to do with shady practices than with voters. When neither Democrats nor Republicans can successfully shake off their own dirt to point at the filth of the other party, this country is in trouble. When it happens at a point in our political sentiment as a nation that incumbents are failing us, traditional government is lying to us, and what We the People need most is ignored or denied, the very public failures of both parties to uphold democratic ideals in an election only serve to further entrench dissatisfaction. While some on the Left may believe that this dissatisfaction can only be interpreted as racism, and much of the expressed disdain right now is (see my anti-Obama poster page in the tabs @ the top of the blog for evidence if you need it), progressives and others are beginning to become seriously concerned about environmental issues, employment, health care, etc. that still have not been solved. And while those of us on the Left can see across history to note how many of these issues and problems stem from past administrations and economic and global policies from past ideologies, we are also smart enough to look at the choices made by this administration. When potential or perceived voter tampering on both sides gets added to that plate of complaints it seems like the table might break.

So readers, what do you think about yesterday’s primaries and about our two party system?

Dr. Who Super-Quickie

Doctor Who Series 5 episode 4/BBC 2010

So as much smack talking as I have done about Matt Smith and the rehashed plots of the first few episodes of season 5 of the rebooted Dr. Who, you know that if I am saying what I am about to say, you better take it seriously: If you watch no other episodes this season, you need to watch “The Time of Angels” and “Flesh and Stone”. The two episode story that brings River Song and the Doctor back together to face the Weeping Angels are classic Doctor Who episodes that I would argue are among the finest the series has offered overall. (In the U.S. they air this weekend and next weekend.)

The writing is fresh and compelling; even though they are bringing back old villains, there is no re-hash in this episode at all. Everything is new. The story moves both the plot and the characters forward in truly compelling ways. More than that, it reinvents certain aspects of recognizable characters in ways that honors the past, something that has been missing from other episodes, while taking a fresh new and complex look at them. I wasn’t scared of the Angels before, in fact I found them kind of boring, but Moffat’s version ratchets up the creepy in ways that will make you think twice about how you look at statues and shadow.

ibid

Matt Smith’s emotional range in these episodes continues to be spot on, and unlike previous episodes, the arrogance he brings to the character is appropriately tempered by both the gravity of the situation he is in and the return of complex concerns the Doctor has about time and human connections. Watching these two episodes confirmed for me what I thought when watching the original one this season, when this year’s cast and crew gets it right they are going to knock it out of the park and knock it out they did. Smith’s Doctor was all the right mix of strength, concern, inquiry, and compassion. Unlike other episodes where I have worried that both the lack of restraint in his acting and in the writing itself was transforming the Doctor into a morally ambiguous arrogant twat, the Doctor who stand us in these two episodes is the Doctor I think any fan would follow to the ends of time and back again.

ibid

The only place these episodes fail for me, is when Amy Pond tries to jump the Doctor’s bones at the end of the two episode story arc. For younger viewers, this will no doubt go down in the “the new Doctor is HOT!” drivel that is dominating reviews of the show; for those of us with a more critical eye, it is another attempt to make Dr. Who racy instead of just trusting the plot and the audience. Obviously, I am not opposed to the Doctor having a life or hooking up with a companion, but the feminist in me sees nothing empowering about young Amy Pond’s googly eyes at the Doctor while he backs up in farcical horror. My issue is with the tone of this scene more than its content. The actors and the director seem to switch gears from typical Dr. Who fare to a British comedy in which the actors are laughing with the audience at something none of us is supposed to take too seriously. It isn’t just a totally different direction than Davies took with Dr. Who’s relationships, its that the direction lacks any real weight or seriousness that compels us as an audience to question what Amy Pond’s desires mean for her and for the Doctor or ties into the plot in ways that can be transformative or even sexy. (I am not saying the actors lack sex appeal for many people watching, I am saying it lacks sophistication and thus comes off comedic and I think that is intentional.) And I worry about how Moffat will make the leap from his comedic leanings with regards to these characters desires to the moments in every season of Dr. Who where these desires become serious.

Far more compelling for long term viewers is the way River Song takes the Doctor’s aid for granted and wraps him up in winks and nods tied up in a “Sweetie” bow while Pond teases him about it. Alex Kingston brings her A game to these episodes and raises the bar for everyone else on set and it shows. These three characters are at their best in this episode and especially when on screen together. If this is what is in store for us with Smith’s 5 year contract, then I am finally excited and on board.

What Are They Teaching Those Kids?

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you that I was once recruited by Harvard as an undergraduate. Based on my SAT scores and GPA, they promised me early admission and a full tuition waiver as long as my application materials were in order. As I was considering their offer, I received several materials from Harvard which included information about housing discrimination that encouraged me to live far away from the Harvard area and take public transit into school and campus climate information that actually made me concerned for my safety as a student and as a person moving on and off campus regularly. That material was actually the deciding factor in my decision to go to a less recognized top 10 school where the funding was less inclusive but the community was much more so.

These events occurred before many of my non-faculty college readers were born and certainly before the “formative educational years” of the student in question below. So imagine my lack of surprise when I ventured over to PostBourgie blog and saw an article about a 3rd year, white, female, Harvard Law student who argued that black people’s genetic encoding may make them less intelligent than white people and that she was then defended by members of the Harvard community.

Stephanie Grace/unattributed

While I have pasted Stephanie Grace’s controversial letter below for your perusal, for me, the more interesting aspect of this case is the opinion poll about whether or not she was in fact being racist which I discuss further down in the post.

… I just hate leaving things where I feel I misstated my position.

I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. I could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances. The fact is, some things are genetic. African Americans tend to have darker skin. Irish people are more likely to have red hair. (Now on to the more controversial:) Women tend to perform less well in math due at least in part to prenatal levels of testosterone, which also account for variations in mathematics performance within genders. This suggests to me that some part of intelligence is genetic, just like identical twins raised apart tend to have very similar IQs and just like I think my babies will be geniuses and beautiful individuals whether I raise them or give them to an orphanage in Nigeria. I don’t think it is that controversial of an opinion to say I think it is at least possible that African Americans are less intelligent on a genetic level, and I didn’t mean to shy away from that opinion at dinner.

I also don’t think that there are no cultural differences or that cultural differences are not likely the most important sources of disparate test scores (statistically, the measurable ones like income do account for some raw differences). I would just like some scientific data to disprove the genetic position, and it is often hard given difficult to quantify cultural aspects. One example (courtesy of Randall Kennedy) is that some people, based on crime statistics, might think African Americans are genetically more likely to be violent, since income and other statistics cannot close the racial gap. In the slavery era, however, the stereotype was of a docile, childlike, African American, and they were, in fact, responsible for very little violence (which was why the handful of rebellions seriously shook white people up). Obviously group wide rates of violence could not fluctuate so dramatically in ten generations if the cause was genetic, and so although there are no quantifiable data currently available to “explain” away the racial discrepancy in violent crimes, it must be some nongenetic cultural shift. Of course, there are pro-genetic counterarguments, but if we assume we can control for all variables in the given time periods, the form of the argument is compelling.

In conclusion, I think it is bad science to disagree with a conclusion in your heart, and then try (unsuccessfully, so far at least) to find data that will confirm what you want to be true. Everyone wants someone to take 100 white infants and 100 African American ones and raise them in Disney utopia and prove once and for all that we are all equal on every dimension, or at least the really important ones like intelligence. I am merely not 100% convinced that this is the case.

Please don’t pull a Larry Summers on me,
CRIMSON DNA

Stephanie’s letter was written to clarify a discussion she had with two other female Harvard Law School students in the cafeteria, all of whom are in their last year of law school.  The conversation was about affirmative action. Both Stephanie and another student in the group opposed Affirmative Action, and at least one of the three women put forward the genetic argument about intelligence as one of the reasons they opposed what they felt was affirmative action related admission of black students into places like Harvard. In other words, one can infer that a white female student at one of the top rated institutions in this country, about to complete an advanced degree in higher ed, was arguing that black people do not deserve to go to places like Harvard because they are stupid. AND black are “stupid” because they are “genetically inferior to white people.”

Both these students’ level of education and the context of their conversation are  critical here. These are not Freshman with limited access to diverse knowledge or research skills. They are people who have completed one or more undergraduate degrees, that should have provided 12 or more credits of general education (ie a breadth of basic humanities and science knowledge and diversity credits) and basic research skills and diversity education in their major. They are also on the verge of completing an advanced degree at one of the highest rat4ed education facilities in the country. Meaning, they should have above and beyond the basic research skills, theories, and data (at least legal data) to recognize outdated and statistically unsupported research like eugenicism. (For those who do not know, among the many things eugenicism argued was that racially groups are genetically different and that people of color are genetically inferior both with regards to their intelligence and capacity for civility and civic engagement; all of which, has been proven inaccurate by social science and scientific research including the genome project. Among its many discoveries, the genome project proves beyond a reasonable scientific doubt that human being are actually more genetically similar than dissimilar.)

Science aside, social norms continue to reflect eugenicist thinking. Thus, for those of us who attended high ranking colleges and universities or fill positions at them, law firms, or businesses, Stephanie and her friends’ comments about are not new. From a white supremacist perspective, people of color “unfairly” “take spots” away from white students or employees who have “earned” those spots. In other words, Affirmative Action gives unquestioningly “unqualified” people of color jobs and education that unquestioningly “qualified” white people would otherwise occupy.

Regardless of white entrenchment believes however, the majority of black students in high ranking institutions, regardless of whether they are faculty or students, represent the top 10-15% of their class while similar white students represent the top 30%. These statistics are not racially exclusive. Meaning, black students are not at the top 10% of black students but rather the top 10% of their classes, ie all students, including white ones. In the same way that white students are not at the top 30% of white students but rather of all students in their schools, including people of color. Thus the common perception that black students in the ivy league are either ignorant in general or only smarter than other black people is inaccurate.

Contrary to popular belief, Affirmative Action is also not a “black program.” The largest group benefiting from Affirmative Action is WHITE WOMEN not black people (regardless of gender). One of the largest ironies about challenges to Affirmative Action is that white women have been at the forefront of legal challenges to these programs, particularly with regards to admissions decisions, yet, they are the largest benefactors.

The failure of white female Harvard Law students to engage readily available statistical information while claiming both a right to intellectual inquiry and evidence in order to hide a racist supposition is not only racially offensive it is also poor scholarship. Rather than engaging in intellectual inquiry then these women negated it at the most basic levels in order to re-entrench themselves in racial privilege.

Yet, not only was Stephanie’s “right to intellectual inquiry” defended at Above the Law but according to their online poll (based on a review of the stats on 5/3/2010 @ 12pm):

  • 56.8% of their readers believe that no racism was involved
  • 34.4% believe there was nothing offensive about the assertion that black people are less smart than white people (including 12% who believe the statement to be true)
  • 34.4% found it “somewhat offensive”
  • 68.8% felt the comments were somewhere between correct and only slightly offensive; meaning slightly more than 30% found the comments unacceptable

Since the poll is online, it is unclear how many of the respondents are members of the Harvard community. However, one can assume that the majority of the people reading Above the Law have some relationship or knowledge of Harvard in order to know about the publication and because many of the statements in the comment section identify people as Harvard Students or alums. (Above the Law is a legal blog that covers stories about the top law schools and legal controversies in the U.S. )

Early in the conflict, Stephanie was cast as the victim. Both she and others claimed that the controversy surrounding her “innocent” questions “based on liberal politics” jeopardized her status at the school, advancement through internships, clerkships, and mentoring, and any number of other complaints as documented on multiple academic and legal message boards, blogs, and newspaper comment sections.

Some even claimed that the Black Law Student Association at Harvard was actively trying to take her internship at the 9th Circuit Court away and stirring up a maelstrom against her. These comments were recreated online (and presumably in print) by Above the Law. Yet, the BLSA denies having done anything to impact Stephanie’s internship or otherwise sanction her, and they would not have the power to do so even if they had wanted to. Such sanctions would have to come from either Harvard Law itself or from the 9th Circuit Court not an organization representing black students on campus. But in order to understand that, you would have to be thinking rationally. If, on the other hand, you process these events through the lens of white entrenchment then the fact a white student maligned the intelligence of an entire race and student organizations have no power to sanction students with regards to their academic is erased in favor of the myth that black people have unfair power in this country and wield it regularly against the aspirations of white people.

On Thursday, April 29, The Dean of Harvard Law, Martha Minow, corroborated the BLSA’s denials in an open letter to the Law School community:

Dear members of the Harvard Law School community:

I am writing this morning to address an email message in which one of our students suggested that black people are genetically inferior to white people.

This sad and unfortunate incident prompts both reflection and reassertion of important community principles and ideals. We seek to encourage freedom of expression, but freedom of speech should be accompanied by responsibility. This is a community dedicated to intellectual pursuit and social justice. The circulation of one student’s comment does not reflect the views of the school or the overwhelming majority of the members of this community.

As news of the email emerged yesterday, I met with leaders of our Black Law Students Association to discuss how to address the hurt that this has brought to this community. For BLSA, repercussions of the email have been compounded by false reports that BLSA made the email public and pressed the student’s future employer to rescind a job offer. A troubling event and its reverberations can offer an opportunity to increase awareness, and to foster dialogue and understanding. The BLSA leadership brought this view to our meeting yesterday, and I share their wish to turn this moment into one that helps us make progress in a community dedicated to fairness and justice.

Here at Harvard Law School, we are committed to preventing degradation of any individual or group, including race-based insensitivity or hostility. The particular comment in question unfortunately resonates with old and hurtful misconceptions. As an educational institution, we are especially dedicated to exposing to the light of inquiry false views about individuals or groups.

I am heartened to see the apology written by the student who authored the email, and to see her acknowledgement of the offense and hurt that the comment engendered.

I would like to thank the faculty, administrators, and students who have already undertaken serious efforts to increase our chances for mutual understanding, confrontation of falsehoods, and deliberative engagement with difficult issues, and making this an ever better community.

Sincerely,
Martha Minow

While her letter is seemingly non-committal enough that those who support Stephanie and her supporters’ assertion that she was simply engaging in intellectual inquiry can focus on the beginning of the letter to find support and those who find the lack of intellectual depth and basic research allowing for such an assertion offensive can find it in the last part of the letter, we cannot forget that Minow is both Dean and being considered for a Supreme Court nod. Her job is to protect the school’s reputation and ultimately to protect her own aspirations. At the same time, those of us who are used to writing or reading these kinds of letters can see that Minow held a meeting with black students, condemns racial disparity, and is trying to shift an increasingly tense situation toward a learning opportunity.

Another key aspect of Minow’s letter, is her reference to Stephanie’s apology for her comments. Very few articles addressing this issue have mentioned Stephanie’s apology. On the one hand, her apology at least represents some acknowledgment that she was putting forward a line of thinking that is both racially biased and unsupportable. On the other, it has become all too common to issue an apology when one gets caught saying something racist and experiences a minimum of public sanction for it; most recently, John Mayer offered one and was back to his usual self/twitter adoration in less than two weeks. In Stephanie’s case, her apology was sent not to the students whom she addressed her initial comments (who we can assume somewhat agree with them) nor to the Law School at large but rather to the BLSA. Stephanie’s comments have negatively impacted the entire law school as people question what is going on at Harvard nor were her comments directed at any specific member or leader of the BLSA. Thus directing her apology to the black student association represents 1) the narrow idea that racism only impacts black people and 2) continues the personalization of this incident so as to erase both the other people involved and the milieu that allowed to occur in the first place. Worse, her focus on intent (assuming erroneously that one has to be aware of being racist in order to commit a racist act) and her own pain at the situation (ie continuing to cast herself as partial victim in an act she committed against others, b/c she too is in pain) continue the “good person” narrative that permeates similar public apologies with limited real paradigm shifts. As such, her apology smacks of a John Mayer more than a learning curve in which she has learned anything about race and racism:

I am deeply sorry for the pain caused by my email. I never intended to cause any harm, and I am heartbroken and devastated by the harm that has ensued. I would give anything to take it back.

I emphatically do not believe that African Americans are genetically inferior in any way. I understand why my words expressing even a doubt in that regard were and are offensive.

I would be grateful to have an opportunity to share my thoughts and to apologize to you in person.

Even beforehand, I want to extend an apology to you and to anyone else who has been hurt by my actions.

Equally telling, is that her apology denies that she has ever supported the idea that black people’s genetics make them less smart than white people even though that is exactly what is implied by the letter she initially sent. Or to be more precise, the language of her original letter implies that someone else at the table, who has emerged from this controversy unscathed in the pursuit of erasing large context and milieu, put forward the idea that black people were ignorant b/c of genetic inferiority; Stephanie then decided that she was willing and able to agree with the idea that black people were intellectually inferior after thinking it over. The sad thing is, at some point in the conversation that predated the email in question, Stephanie likely argued against a genetic argument hence why she felt she needed to clarify she was open to the idea later. Again, as this story is fleshed out, I think it would be wrong to forget that this conversation involved other people, had a larger context of racist discourse, and that the pressure to align with whiteness at Harvard was enough to encourage Stephanie to change her mind in writing and to believe that doing so would not lead to any social sanction should that email surface. While that pressure seems to have shifted as national level concern has been raised about Stephanie’s comments, we cannot forget that the internal pressures Stephanie felt were decidedly in a different direction. Nor is the national level concern and the Dean’s own statements about inclusively supported by the poll cited in this post which shows the majority of respondents overwhelmingly unconcerned about the racism of the comments Stephanie made or the conversation as a whole. Moreover, Stephanie and her pro-genetic argument colleagues involved in this conversation are not first year undergraduates with limited access to knowledge about diversity and/or basic research skills, they are third year graduate students in a Law School with considerable knowledge about how to do research.

As far as I know, despite the victim stance of Stephanie’s supporters, Stephanie retains her lucrative admission to Harvard and all of the intellectual, social and economic capital it represents and her clerkship with the 9th Circuit Court and access to all of the doors of power such a clerkship will ultimately open for her. Her fellow students, involved in the conversation against Affirmative Action, have escaped without critique or seemingly-socially-forced apology. While no one should question their right to stay in school based on their comments, I do think we have to question their internships as well as their overall contribution to the law. After all, their thoughts about black people’s intelligence, genetics, and right to higher education certainly raise concerns about what they will contribute to an already biased legal system. Their commitment to a genetics argument about racial intelligence, certainly casts doubts about why they have been given opportunities, like interning at the 9th Circuit, over other students with a wider breadth of knowledge and a deeper capacity for basic research.

The irony in this debacle is of course that were Stephanie and her friends reading a story about a black Harvard student who engaged in a line of questioning that could easily be addressed by looking at secondary data and reading around the subject, they would likely use it as proof that Affirmative Action, and not qualification, had gotten that student admission to Harvard. Given what we know about the largest group benefiting from Affirmative Action in the U.S., it’s hard not to throw Stephanie and her friends’ thinking right back at their feet.

Go Ask Alice II (SyFy Channel Movie Review – Spoilers)

In Part I of my “Go Ask Alice” posts, I suggested that your money might be better spent renting the SyFy Channel’s update of the Alice in Wonderland story called Alice and waiting to see Tim Burton’s version on cable.  While I enjoyed much of Burton’s film, I honestly have no faults with the SyFy version (though the lyricism of the original is gone from the latter). Those familiar with SyFy Saturday film offerings should be reasonably skeptical here, but unlike those z-rate bad CGI throwaways, Alice is a medium budget film, has both new comers and accomplished actors and actresses, and a well written script.

James Dittiger/SyFy

Like Burton’s version, SyFy’s Alice also stars a grown up main character in a Wonderland set in the far of future from the time of the original story. This time the mid-to-late 20 something Alice lives with her mother and believes her father abandoned them when she was just a girl. She is drawn into the world of Wonderland through the capture of her boyfriend and potential fiance Jack, who is seemingly kidnapped by the White Rabbit. Thus begins an adventure that is more 1960s 007 than Victorian classic in which Alice holds the key to restoring both Wonderland and the lives of enslaved human beings.

At the center of the plot for SyFy’s version of the classic tale is a sort of Brave New World dependence on drugs to make the Wonderland population docile and obedient. To quote Director, Nick Willing:

“What I was interested in was [the idea of] being able to manufacture your emotions. One of the things I fear may happen to us is that we swap genuine emotions for something that is given to us. We cry at the television commercial and think that those tears are genuine. I was fascinated with, not so much in how these things could be addictive, but how we are slowly constructing a world where we swap genuine emotions or something which is manufactured cheaply. Wonderland seemed to be a good place to set that in because the Queen of Hearts has that kind of personality in the book.” (SyFy)

In this world, the “soma” comes from the milking of human emotions against their will and without their knowledge. The White Rabbit, an organization of henchmen trained to serve the interests of the Queen of Hearts, use the Looking Glass to enter the human world and steal unsuspecting humans for the procedure. These humans, called “oysters” because of the “precious pearl” of emotions inside them, are then put in a trance state and sent to the Casino where neurotransmitters in the floor collect their emotional responses to sexual stimulus, success at gambling, and other similar emotions. Like the oysters in the original Alice and Wonderland, the humans are entirely consumed by the people supposedly caring for and keeping them safe. Their emotions fuel a legal drug trade that is robbing Wonderland of its sanity, strength, and sense of purpose. Among those in charge are the re-imagined Walrus and Carpenter who are in control of the emotions extraction science and who, in the case of the Carpenter, ensure Alice’s import to revolution.

Standing against the tide is the resistance made up of a series of human versions of anthropomorphised animal characters from the book.

Animals

white rabbit/Dittiger/SyFy; white rabbit promo event/unattributed; Mad March/Dittiger/SyFy

There are no animals in Alice, unless you count the completely erased Cheshire cat. Instead, each of the characters has been re-imagined as human on both sides of the war. As I’ve already said, the White Rabbit is no langer a bunny in a top coat but instead a white haired man in a full suit with two ponytails down his back like rabbit ears. Alongside him, and his fellow henchmen who wear the mark of the White Rabbit organization, is Mad March (the hare). Willing’s March is a goon straight out of Goodfellas with a heavy accent and a pension for violence. A previous accident has left him without a head, so in keeping with the animals as human theme, Mad March’s head has been replaced by a porcelain rabbit head.

Tim Curry as Dodo/Dittiger/SyFy

The “animals” on the resistance side are no less imaginative. Dodo has been transformed from a bird into a cunning leader of the resistance played by Tim Curry. Where the original Dodo and the “caucus race” highlighted the problems with governmental caucus during  the late 1800s, the re-imagined Dodo questions the efficacy of a resistance in which winning matters more than the people for whom one fights. Tim Curry’s Dodo is willing to kill both oysters and Wonderlanders to overthrow the Queen of Hearts and he is willing to do so without consulting the rest of the resistance leadership. Moreover, at one point in his struggle with Hatter, he tells the members of his cell (also animals in the original) that they will not have to live in the basement any longer, implying that his real motivation is his own personal power over the political system of Wonderland. Whether you read Dodo as a beleaguered rebel who has sold his idealism for the follies of power over others or as a dogmatic leader who was really never as interested in the people as he was being at the helm of the cause, this re-imagining is a powerful though brief critique of politics on the left.

Alice, Caterpillar, & Jack/Dittiger/SyFy

Perhaps the best re-imagining of an animal character is the Caterpillar, who is now the eccentric head of the resistance. While he is visually stunning in his velvet smoking jacket that resembles the actual animal, gone is the seemingly nonsensical wisdom and condescending majestic of the character. Instead, this Caterpillar knows exactly who Alice is and why she is needed. Though he still seems to float outside of both worlds, he lets Alice know in no uncertain terms what is at stake in the struggle for Wonderland. Like Burton’s White Queen, he also asks Alice to choose the burden she must bear, but unlike Burton’s White Queen, he comes across as both compassionate and burdened by the struggle around him. As the alternative face of resistance, he both contextualizes why Dodo would have grown weary with his underground machinations and why real activism requires a commitment to The People (both the oppressed and those who have not yet learned that oppression exists) as much as the ideas for social justice to be successful.

While all of these characters are truly innovative and seeing how they translate is its own kind of magic, the absence of the Cheshire Cat illustrates what is lost in the SyFy version. Instead of the magical disappearing creature who is both wise and wily, we get an ordinary cat who walks through one scene in order to direct Alice’s attention to where she must go. In the original the animals provided both the biting critique and the whimsy of the text, their poetry and lyrical deconstruction of words and ideology was essential to the wonder in the land. SyFy’s Alice has neither lyricism nor much non-human magic, in fact, in a very literal sense, magic is replaced by technology. For die-hards of the original, the absences here will be a major stumbling block and yet, as some one who loves the lyricism and what it represents in the orignal Alice in Wonderland, I can’t say this version is worse, rather it is unique and intriguing despite its key differences. (I would also add that Willing’s Hatter is in some ways the way I would imagine the Cheshire Cat as human. His spikey hair, humor, and ability to move between the Queendom and the resistance with guile, is very similar to the dual agent I assume the Cat would be in Willing’s Wonderland, and yet, I think Willing really should have put his immense imagination toward transforming the Cheshire Cat as a character in his own right.)

You will also note that the absence of animals also means the absence of comment on the treatment of animals.

Women and/or Feminism

The conflict in SyFy’s Alice is between the resistance and the Hearts. Men outnumber women on both sides of the conflict, and in fact, the resistance is almost exclusively populated by men versus the Hearts which have some key female players. This is obviously problematic; what kind of new world will Wonderlanders have if there are no high ranking female resistance fighters? Nevertheless, the women on all sides of the conflict represent intelligent, savvy, and self-directed characters who do what they want to get what they want.

In the real world, Alice is a martial arts expert with commitment issues. One of Willing’s most subtle comments on gender politics, is the way he consistently blocks the characters in fight scenes so that the men of the resistance try to position Alice behind them but ultimately Alice must come from behind to protect both herself and them. Time and again, it is Alice who rescues them from impossible odds with her physical strength and bravery. Though, like the original, she often marches into situations without a clue how she will handle them, she also comes up with some of the best plans to rescue her father, her friends, and the humans.

Alice and Jack/Dittiger/SyFy

Where her feminism may falter, is in the fact that Alice is motivated by her heterosexual love affair with Jack. All though she will not go with Jack when he invites her to meet his mother, she follows him through the Looking Glass when she thinks he is in danger. Her decision is far from lovestruck, she actually falls into the Looking Glass while demanding the White Rabbit agent tell her what he has done to Jack. Nevertheless, she does not go to Wonderland out of curiosity or interest but rather to find her boyfriend.

Despite all of the stories about the oppressive reign of the Queen of Hearts, during the first half of the movie Alice cares very little about the oppression in Wonderland. Instead, she continues to redirect everyone to her quest to save Jack. When Hatter tells her that she has inspired him to join the resistance in earnest and fight for his people’s freedom, Alice actually gets upset because she is starting to like him and his decision for the greater good means he can’t spend all his time following her around. This is hardly revolutionary sexual politics here. All though her motivation changes near the end of the film, toward saving all of the humans, her story still ends with the kind of family romance tale of patriarchy’s past. (And just to be clear, it is a romantic tale in which I too rooted for the man Alice chooses and was swept away by their reunion, but it is still problematic that Alice’s story ends with “alas dear reader, I married him.”)

Queen and King of Hearts/Dittiger/SyFy

The Queen of Hearts in Alice is true to the original in her myopia and her cruelty. Unlike Burton, who reduces the Queen to a differently-abled meglomaniac whose psychosis is a direct result of her “laughable” physical difference, Willing gives us a Queen drunk on power. She runs the kingdom with a heavy hand not because she is unloved, the King loves her, but because she is easily bored and does not tolerate incompetence. Her commitment to the mining of human emotions is also more complex than simply oppressing one group of people (humans) in order to oppress another (Wonderlanders); in this version, the drugs keep Wonderland’s economy booming and an economic depression at bay. Much like Dodo then, the Queen is a commentary on investment in power by any means necessary.  Like Thatcher, the Queen of Hearts uses the master’s tools to run the Queendom and those tools are based upon and honed in oppression. For those who support a feminist narrative invested in female leadership at any cost, the Queen of Hearts has done her part. She employs a vast amount of the population, works to keep the economy prosperous, has ended overt war, and is respected as the most powerful person in the land and yet, she is a violent, slave-owning, leader who spies on and terrifies her people and revels in the psychotic aspects of her rule. Hardly the woman anyone would want in charge or representing the face of feminism.


The Duchess/ Dittiger/SyFy

Rounding out the female cast is the Duchess, Jack’s fiance. I must admit that what I love about her is that she looks like she was torn from the pages of Barbarella with her long tresses, heavy eye make-up, and go go boots. As implied, where Alice represents female brain and braun and the Queen of Hearts represents corrupt female leadership, the Duchess is all female sexual power. While many will dismiss her as just another pretty face in a short skirt, the Queen of Hearts tells us the Duchess is one of her best operatives. Not only is she good at getting information and manipulating men around her, but it soon becomes clear that the Duchess is no coquette. Instead, she understands that in the largely male world of Wonderland her survival depends on the ability to both manipulate men and align with powerful women. Like Alice, in the course of the story, she never compromises her own integrity for power. And while she does feel considerably jealous of Alice, Willing makes sure not to play up unilateral violence or internalized sexism between the two women beyond the Duchess’ reducing Alice with a glare. There is something wonderful about how Willing allows the Duchess to work while still making Alice the object of desire in the room; in lesser hands, these moments would have come off as trite, useless female infighting, or simply a game of who is prettier (which they do play but only until everyone’s motivations are finally on the table).

The Duchess, Jack, and Alice/ Dittiger/SyFy

While I would not say that these characters are all feminist or even that the majority of them are, they are far more complex than either the orignal Alice in Wonderland or Tim Burton’s film make women out to be. I liked that each one of the main female characters had both positive and negative characteristics, that they were motivated by both individual feeling and larger structural issues, and that at no time did the script degenerate into a “cat fight” that demeaned one or more of the women involved. Instead Willing’s directorial eye seems to treat each of these women with respect even as he remains true to the critique of the Queen and her Queendom.

This is not to say that film is without unnecessary eye candy. The casino is populated by Vegas Show Girls and mini-skirted black jack dealers whose job is to look pretty and keep the peace. Most of these girls have no names and no lines and are simply background. And while the femme in me revels at the Duchess’ outfits and thinks they are appropriate for the role she plays, some will likely take offense to how much skin she shows and that her major power comes from seduction.

The only woman on the side of the resistance, besides Alice, is a mouse; literally a woman playing what was once a mouse in the original text. She dresses like a 1950s housewife and squeaks her way through her role. However, when she believes the resistance is threatened she steps up, showing a steely resolve that is otherwise absent from the character.

Race

10 of clubs/dittiger/SyFy

Willing also does a great job of taking a film originally set in England and remembering that it can populate it with anyone. While there are no people of color in major roles, there are two in recurring ones. Both the Nine and Ten of Clubs are played by men of color, one Asian-Canadian and one Latino. Both of these characters are high ranking officers in the Queens court and empowered to put even her son and her spies in check when they are not following the Queens demands. The Nine of Clubs, played by Alessandro Juliani, formerly Commander Gaeta on BSG, is so important that the King of Hearts stays his execution when the King orders him killed in a rage.

There are no major female characters of color in Alice. However, Carmelina Cupo, who is 1/2 Italian and 1/2 Latina, plays the only dealer in the Casino with a speaking role. Like the men of color in the Queens court, Cupo holds a position that is seemingly interchangeable and yet integral to the running of the entire Queendom. Cupo also tries to stand up to Alice when Alice begins the overthrow of the Hearts.

The near absence of women of color calls the Duchess’ role into question. As the femme fatale, her blonde-haired blue-eyed, alabaster skinned, presence as the woman everyone wants reaffirms white hegemony through sexual desire. Not only is she Barbie but she is a Duchess to Cupo’s black jack girl. And yet, in a world in which woc are absent, Willing really does take the Barbie as beautiful myth to task by making Alice the center of everyone’s attention and desire and recasting Alice as a dark haired, intelligent, and physically strong woman. Ultimately, the critical eye he takes to white women does not negate the need for more women of color in this film.

It is always easy to excuse away why there are no characters of color in fantasy or sci-fi, especially when the material was written in the past. What astounds me about how easy it is, is the fact that people are willing to accept talking animals, singing plants, or even aliens and twenty tentacled demons before they are willing to ask why there are no people of color or queer folk in fantasy land. While Willing doesn’t offer us major poc characters, or any queer ones, I for one am grateful he at least tried.

Ability

Frewer as the White Knight/Dittiger/SyFy

As I said in my review of Burton’s Alice and Wonderland, the ableism of that movie is entirely invented when it comes to physical difference. Willing therefore neither needs nor uses similar devices in his plot. In fact, he has stripped Hatter of his supposed madness, which readers of the book will know was more of a disguise than an imbalance anyway, and replaced it with cunning and know-how.

There is one character who is clearly “mad”: The White Knight. Matt Frewer, who usually delights, was grating as the seemingly unstable man who has taken on the White Knight persona in lieu of there being any surviving Knights from the war. His madness however is indistinguishable from his actual psychic abilities and pure luck. In many ways, Willing offers us a character whose abilities are more in keeping with the idea of people, regardless of ability, as differently-abled; while the sane characters in his script are prone to inexplicable behavior, the mad man in Alice is often able to use his “madness” to get the job done. When he fails, he fails due to cowardice not mental instability.

Conclusion


What Alice lacks in whimsy and lyricism, it more than makes up for in intrigue and innovation. The story is compelling from beginning to end. Instead of giving us trite and transparent venues and flat characters, Alice and it’s Director, Willing, gives us a vibrant, three dimensional, reimagining in which each and every character is complex. (Though I didn’t spend time on them in this review, It should also be noted that Potts does a superb job as Hatter and the re-imagining of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum as mindbending torturers for the Queen is inspired.) Willing also retains both the class critique of the original and adds to it a critical eye to modern societal issues and what they mean for who we are becoming. His criticism of leadership and his subtle exploration of resistance are far more powerful than much of what we get in this world of blogging, twitter, and headline news.

My only criticisms are that the Cheshire Cat is missing and the White Knight is truly annoying. When Frewer is centered in the scene, I literally found myself holding my head and looking away. But other than that, I did not want to miss a minute and neither should you.

If you didn’t see it on cable in December, you can rent it at your local video store, check it out through Netflix, or buy it for fairly cheap on both itunes and local video stores. I guarantee you that in comparison to the over-hyped and underwhelming Burton version, you will think it is money well spent.

Please Don’t Forget Haiti

I promised to tweet on the first of every month reminding people to stay vigilant in their support of Haitian recovery and relief. I set aside the following post to do the same, but it did not post when scheduled, so here it is now:

As the media turns away from Haiti, Haitian children become even more vulnerable to coerced immigration, Haitian women become more vulnerable to the military and prison industrial complexes that seem far too prevalent in the relief efforts, and the Haitian people become even more vulnerable to exploitation born out of centuries old retaliation for daring to take back their freedom. If you can, please consider giving more money to Haitian relief and making sure that where you give is actually serving in a decolonized and intersectional way. If you don’t have the funds to give, consider spending some time this month re-raising awareness about Haiti, re-energizing your communities for Haiti’s relief and recovery, and re-committing yourself to being a global witness to ensure that Haiti is not re-colonized b/c nature provided the tragedy necessary for an unnatural disaster.

Mud Mothers

AFP/Getty/Unattributed

the children of haiti
are not mythological
we are starving
or eating salty cakes
made of clay

because in 1804 we felled
our former slave captors
the graceless losers sunk
vindictive yellow
teeth into our forests

what was green is now
dust & everyone knows
trees unleash oxygen
(another humble word
for life)

they took off
with our torn branches
beheaded our future
stuck our breath up on pikes
for all the world to see

we are a living dead example
of what happens to warriors who―
in lieu of fighting for white men’s countries―
dare to fight
for their own lives

during carnival
we could care less
about our bloated empty bellies
where there are voices
we are dancing

where there is vodou
we are horses
where there are drums
we are possessed
with joy & stubborn jamboree

but when the makeshift
trumpet player
runs out of rhythmic breath
the only sound left is guts
grumbling

& we sigh
to remember
that food
& freedom
are not free

is haiti really free
if our babies die starving?
if we cannot write our names
read our rights keep
our leaders in their seats?

can we be free
really? if our mothers are mud? if dead
columbus keeps cursing us
& nothing changes
when we curse back

we are a proud resilient people
though we return to dust daily
salt gray clay with hot black tears
savor snot cakes
over suicide

we are hungry
creative people
sip bits of laughter
when we are thirsty
dance despite

this asthma
called debt
congesting
legendarily liberated
lungs

- Lenelle Moïse

Lenelle Moïse hailed “a masterful performer” by GetUnderground.com, is an award-winning “culturally hyphenated pomosexual” poet, playwright and performance artist. She creates jazz-infused, hip-hop bred, politicized texts about Haitian-American identity and the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality, spirituality and resistance. In addition to featured performances in venues as diverse as the Louisiana Superdome, the United Nations General Assembly Hall and a number of theatres, bookstores, cafes and activist conferences, Lenelle regularly performs her acclaimed autobiographical one-woman show WOMB-WORDS, THIRSTING at colleges across the United States.

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Moïse will be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, March 10-13, 2010, in Washington, DC. The festival will present readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, film, activism – four days of creative transformation as we imagine a way forward, hone our community and activist skills, and celebrate the many ways that poetry can act as an agent for social change. For more information: info@splitthisrock.org.

Please feel free to forward Split This Rock Poem-of-the-Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this email, including this request. Thanks!

This poem is reprinted from Split This Rock’s blog–where you can find other great poems and poetry news <http://blogthisrock.blogspot.com>