June 1, 2016

What’s Next with “No Budget”?

Plantain in concreteThe president of the University, Tim Killeen, just sent an email to everybody in the University of Illinois system called “No state budget.” I do not want to minimize the enduring damage that has been done to programs and services that have benefited many people in the state and that have had to close due to the budget impasse. I do not want to minimize the harm already done to those who have been laid off, not hired, or not promoted due to the budget impasse. In other words, I am not celebrating “no state budget.” But the brokenness of the state offers an opportunity to rethink things and, like it or not, puts the University’s values in relief.

The massmail from President Killeen arrived after a recent blog post by Joanne Barker about the erasure of the Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) Department at the University of Illinois.  While I find her words very powerful, I am aware that I do not know the full extent of the pain and anguish perpetrated on colleagues by a series of toxic and destructive decisions, and that perhaps I contribute to the pain with my comments. But it was only in Ms. Barker’s post that I learned that “the UIUC administration will not commit itself to hire another NAIS scholar for 2 years, effectively absorbing the approximately $800,000 annually for the six faculty lines in NAIS into the campus coffer.” This was news to me and I think must be discussed across campus, at all levels. It’s possible that it is being discussed; I am so very part-time (by choice) that many conversations occur without my knowing about them. But, somehow, I think this particular conversation is resoundingly quiet. And this refusal to act on hiring by the administration is unacceptable, whatever the budget.

President Killeen wrote: “All options are on the table as we go forward – layoffs, reductions of academic programs, closure of units and cuts in a health-care enterprise that provides critical care to underserved populations in Chicago.” These layoffs, reductions, closures, and cuts are going to continue to reflect the ethics and values of the institution. The decision to hold off on hiring NAIS is, I believe, not a financial decision, but rather a continuation of the racist climate that has long been nurtured here. Budget decisions, like many other decisions, reflect and reproduce oppressions.

What if, instead of erasing NAIS, we asked the now-dispersed and numerically fewer faculty what (new) campus structures would help them? Then, supported, of course, by real funds, other colleagues, and policies with traction, we found ways to make those changes, to center their agendas? What if values that promoted indigenous knowledge and practices were evident in the budget? It’s a legitimate concern that white-identified administrators can’t promote those values, but it’s not an unresolvable concern. The administrators could get out of the way, for once.

The conclusion to Glen Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (2014) is called “Lessons from Idle No More: The Future of Indigenous Activism.” Coulthard summarized some of the main points he already made:

  • “Settler-colonialism is territorially acquisitive in perpetuity.” (p. 152)
  • He argued that settler-colonialism is not only coercive and violent but also “the practices of dispossession central to the maintenance of settler-colonialism in liberal democratic contexts…rely as much on the productive character of colonial power as it does on the coercive authority of the settler state.” (p. 152) I take this to mean that capitalism is very effective at co-opting everyday practices and making itself seem natural.
  • Coulthard used Frantz Fanon to discuss how recognition politics almost always benefits the colonizer (s/he who recognizes.) Further, the colonized tend to “internalize” their oppression, but, according to Coulthard’s reading of Fanon, “colonized populations…are often able to turn these internalized forms of colonial recognition into expressions of Indigenous self-empowerment.” (p. 153)

Coulthard then turned to “Indigenous resurgence,” and theorists of that idea, Taiaiake Alfred and Leanne Simpson. Alfred called this resurgence paradigm “‘self-conscious traditionalism’,” and Simpson argued that “‘[b]uilding diverse, nation-culture-based resurgences means significantly reinvesting in our own ways of being’” (p. 155). Coulthard stressed that for Alfred, Simpson, and himself, this resurgence is not a retreat to “an uncritical essentialism,” but a “self-reflective revitalization” (p. 156). Coulthard went on to point out “the centrality of sexism to the colonial aims of land dispossession and sovereignty usurpation” and the necessity of queering resurgence (pp. 157-58). “Indigenous resurgence,” Coulthard claimed, “is at its core a prefigurative politics—the methods of decolonization prefigure its aims” (p. 159, italics in original).

Red Skin, White Masks ends with “Five Theses on Indigenous Resurgence and Decolonization”:

  1. On the Necessity of Direct Action;
  2. Capitalism, No More!
  3. Dispossession and Indigenous Sovereignty in the City
  4. Gender Justice and Decolonization
  5. Beyond the Nation-State

Coulthard developed each of these theses eloquently, and I cannot do him justice. But I would still like to stress a couple of aspects. “Direct action,” however varied, is usually described by the media as threatening and disruptive; in a word, uncivil. In fact, these actions loosen “internalized colonialism, which is itself a precondition for any meaningful change,” and they build “skills and social relationships…that are required…to construct alternatives” (p. 166). These social networks have endured for decades against frequent efforts to weaken them. I love this: “Through these actions we physically say ‘no’ to the degradation of our communities and to exploitation of the lands upon which we depend. But they also have ingrained within them a resounding ‘yes’: they are the affirmative enactment of another modality of being.” Coulthard asks: “How might we move beyond a resurgent Indigenous politics that seeks to inhibit the destructive effects of capital to one that strives to create Indigenous alternatives to it?” (p. 170).

Thanks to Angela Piccini in Bristol (UK), I know about this lecture, “Rage against the Empire,” that Glen Coulthard presented at the Vancouver Institute for Social Research in 2013, which covers much of the same material as his book.This lecture is about 30 minutes, with some Q & A.

I write this post in the basement of my comfortable brick house in Urbana, Illinois, with little sense that my opinion matters or might induce change. On the other hand, I know I am not alone in being appalled at the state of things, and that there are others who want to enact other modalities of being, modalities that foster respect and imagination. And I do think asking questions can be tools that contribute to further, useful questions.

This week I have been inspired, and saddened, by Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmiths in London, reported on her blog.

It is not that this activity [in this case, sexual harassment] is coordinated by one person or even necessarily a group of people who are meeting in secret, although secret meetings probably do happen. All of these activities, however complex, sustain a direction; they have a point. A direction does not require something to originate from a single point: in fact a direction is achieved through the alignment between points that do not have to meet. Different elements combine to achieve something that is solid and tangible. If one element does not hold, or become binding, another element holds or binds. The process is rather like the cement used to make walls: something is set before it hardens. Perhaps when people notice the complexity, the movement, the inefficiency, the disorganisation, they do not notice the cement; how things hold together; that things hold together. Then when you say there is a pattern you are heard as paranoid as if you are imagining that all this complexity derives from a singular point…

To try and bring someone to account is to come up against not just an individual but histories, histories that have hardened, that stop those who are trying to stop what is happening from happening. The weight of that history can be thrown at you; you can be hit by it. 

But, cement can also be broken up, sometimes even by plants poking up through the cracks. I am one plant, poking up.

 

October 5, 2014

On Not Moving On

CoulthardI am reading Glen Sean Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks (2014). One strategy I use when I am confused and trying to figure out next steps in politico-cultural action is to pick a book like Coulthard’s and find passages in it that help me understand what might be going on. Not that Coulthard is or should be the last word, or that he speaks for all First Nations people, or that he speaks for all Dene or Weledeh Dene people, but nevertheless there is much I am learning from him about Indigenous studies and colonial relations. And, Indigenous studies is at the center of my anguish about the undermining and disrespect of American Indian Studies and the unconscionable treatment of Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois.

The University of Illinois is a colonial enterprise. A land-grant institution, it sits on stolen land, exploits resources inequitably, and profits from and reinforces a long history of racism. That could be said of many institutions and agencies in the United States, of course, but I am trying to name and describe the situation at my “home” institution since I feel so angry and alienated here. Coulthard writes: “Territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element….[C]olonialism [is] a form of structured dispossession” (p. 7).

We are not going to “get over” the Salaita debacle until we “get” some very fundamental problems with current university priorities. And these priorities are very slippery—Public Relations spins them in a mind-boggling number of ways. Coulthard again: “[A]ny strategy geared toward authentic decolonization must directly confront more than mere economic relations; it has to account for the multifarious ways in which capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the totalizing character of state power interact with one another to form the constellation of power relations that sustain colonial patterns of behavior, structures, and relationships” (p. 14). This convergence of relations seems like a brick wall, though assuredly there are cracks. One crack is that some have started to mis-behave: some are no longer acting like “colonized subjects.” This behavior appears rude and uncivil to those in power, and even to some of us watching from positions of less power.

Coulthard identifies time as a major axis along which Western views align; this aids in a linear assessment that declares many oppressions to be in the past. Viewed as a “legacy,” racism is far easier to discuss (even though we don’t even do that) than it is to face the attitudes and structures that support our institutions and lives in the present. Quoting Vine Deloria, Jr., Coulthard notes the gulf between these approaches: “‘When one group is concerned with the philosophical problem of space and the other with the philosophical problem of time, then the statements of either group do not make much sense when transferred from one context to the other without proper consideration of what is taking place.’” And yet the University seems to be uninterested in having Indigenous viewpoints ‘make sense’ within the institution, insisting that they be “reconcilable with one political formation—namely, colonial sovereignty—and one mode of production—namely, capitalism” (p. 66).

The University administration would like Salaita’s de-hiring and their egregious treatment of American Indian Studies to be in the past, so that “we” can move on. “[R]econciliation becomes temporally framed as the process of individually and collectively overcoming the harmful ‘legacy’ left in the wake of this past abuse,” writes Coulthard, “while leaving the present structure…largely unscathed…. In the context of ongoing settler-colonial injustice, Indigenous peoples’ anger and resentment can indicate a sign of moral protest and political outrage that we ought to at least take seriously, if not embrace as a sign of our critical consciousness” (p. 22).

In response to the Salaita de-hiring and its many implications, there have been valuable panels about academic freedom; important forums about Israel and Palestine; perhaps-useful listening sessions with faculty about governance. I acknowledge the hard work of organizing these opportunities for discussion, these small steps that are significant nonetheless. These events are also not frequent enough–despite people’s exhaustion at organizing and attending forums, panels and meetings–because time-consuming interactions around these issues are crucial to witness each other’s responses. At these events, may we feel the tension, experience the hostility, and stay with the moments of embodied discomfort. That is compassion: being with each other, often in pain. The constant “background field” for these University events is “the reproduction of hierarchical social relations that facilitate the dispossession of…lands and self-determining capacities” (pp. 14-15).

I want to stand with those unwilling or unable to “move on.” I want to “take seriously” the anger and resentment. I believe I must embrace these emotional and intersectional analyses. They point not only to negative conditions now, but also offer “invaluable glimpses into the ethical practices and preconditions required for the construction of a more just and sustainable world order” (p. 12). I don’t have any ready answers to what my “stand” looks like…yet.