Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Mythos of the Power of the Individual

Rosa Parks died on Monday at the age of 92. She has been labeled in the history books as the mother of the civil rights movement through her simple act of defiance--refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.

Listening to Democracy Now on WRPI yesterday, I learned a few interesting tidbits about Parks. The first was that it's a popular misconception that the reason Parks didn't give up her seat was because her feet were tired, and she didn't feel like standing. Parks herself worked hard to conteract that myth in her retellings of that fateful day. She refused to give up her seat, as required by the Jim Crow laws, because she no longer wished to be a second class citizen to white people. She was an active member in the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and her defiance in giving up her seat was activism.

I also learned that two black women in prior incidences had also refused to give up their seats on buses when demanded they do so by whites. These women are not in the history books, because they didn't get arrested. The critical ingredient in Ms. Parks' defiance is that she was arrested and fined $14.00 for her disobedience.

Of course, the incident might not have made anyone notice, except a 26 year old Reverand named Martin Luther King, Jr. urged a boycott of the buses when Ms. Parks was arrested, and that propelled her act of defiance onto the national stage.

Now, I don't want to be misread as saying that what Ms. Parks did was unworthy of the attention she received. She does deserve to be named and identified as an essential figure in the civil rights movement.

What I want to highlight is how many other people likely were doing similar acts as Ms. Park, small acts of disobedience in the face of injustice, but who have not become part of our national mythos. I also want to highlight how it wasn't Ms. Parks alone, but people leading up to and afterwards, that launched the first stage of the movement for civil rights for blacks in the United States.

Humans are creatures of narrative; that is, we need and create stories to make sense of our realities. Stories have main characters usually with vast agency to influence their surroundings. The story of Rosa Parks is a compelling narrative; it gives us a key actor that helped launch the civil rights movement.

Perhaps, we cannot make sense of cultural changes without such narratives. Without a Ms. Parks to serve as our protagonist in the story of injustice, we would not recognize the beginning of the civil rights movement. We would not know that change was occurring.

A recent protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your position) Cindy Sheehan is another case in point. Since the beginning of the war in Iraq there have been U.S. citizens against the war. Yet, the tale we are now telling about the anti-war movement starts with Sheehan's protest at President Bush's Texas ranch.

In order for a movement to be recognized as existing, we need an individual to mark its beginning. This effectively eviscerates the the collective group that gave rise to the individual moment. Parks likely would not have refused her bus seat if she hadn't joined a group, the NAACP, that was raising awareness of injustice, urging people to become agents of change rather than agents of the same. Similarly, Sheehan likely would not have camped out at Bush's "ranch" if she hadn't been encouraged and supported by other people against the war, to help mobilize her to camp out in the Texas sun.

The myth in this culture is that single individuals can do momentous things. They do, but only when they are made aware by others that there is a need for change, and are supported in helping to make that change by joining with others for a common goal.

Our "rugged individualism" is a myth that hides the critical importance of the collective for change.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Indentured Servitude does not a Democracy Make

A downplayed news article I caught in the Albany Times Union reports that Halliburton's primary subsidiary in Iraq, KBR (which is the largest military contractor on the U.S. payroll for Iraq), is hiring subcontractors to find cheap labor to help in the rebuilding and securing of Iraq.

These subcontractors, according to the article, are luring men from countries, such as Nepal, with lies promising them work in safe Middle Eastern countries, like Kuwait, for lots of pay. When they are brought to work in Iraq and paid far less than promised there is little they can do, since they are often indebted to the subcontractors who brought them to the country and must work to pay off the debt (hence, indentured servant). According to Coalition Casualty Count nearly 100 foreign national contract workers have died in Iraq out of the 270 total contract workers who have died since the war.

The U.S. government and Halliburton are both pleading ignorant on this morally unconscionable practice. They claim that complaints about who is being brought into Iraq to work should be directed to the subcontractors.

The State Department urges sanctions on governments that engage in such practices, countries like Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, for the trafficking of indentured servants and slaves into their countries for cheap or free domestic and physical labor. Yet, President Bush waived the sanctions against them (since we're engaging in the practice ourselves), which allowed the U.S. to sell those countries weapons (this of course keeps the military-industrial complex appeased).

We cannot claim to be a nation that advances democracy while we allow our military contractors to engage in slavery practices. Bush's current premise (note that it's not the original argument for war) is that we are there to build a democracy. It appears to be a democracy for some.

The hypocrisy runs deep.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Feeling Like a Lemming

Okay. I've decided to make the leap to "real" blogging. I've been "musing" on my website for over well over a year now, but I haven't had the functionality of comments nor the ease of automatic archiving.

I've received a few requests by the handful of people who actually read my musings to switch to proper blogging software so that they may comment publicly to my thoughts.

I've resisted the urge to switch to blogging software, I must confess. I'm weary of fads.

But, I've given in. I think I decided to make the jump because my friend Josh has a beautiful blog, and it's clearly so easy to update and maintain. I'm envious of the ease, and so, well, I'm making the jump.