I was once on the steering committee of the Syracuse University Women’s Studies Department, so sure, I hestitatingly crashed the afternoon plenary given by Chandra Mohanty (who is now the chair of that same department) and M. Jacqui Alexander. They spoke about pedagogy and collaborative writing, but this was a front, really, for reframing global-wide heteronormative, misogynist, xenophobic neocolonialism. For it has been a few epochs now since a sizable portion of the world’s population lived free from borders. Mohanty and Alexander would like to push back against the conservative movement that has created a whiplash since the tragedy of 9/11, capturing “immigrants,” “terrorists,” and “citizens,” and redefining America in a way that is too narrow to sustain itself.
One of the points that they made, not in a passing way but also not as their main thesis, was that after this careful and comprehensive analysis that included borders as sites of violence, prison systems, grassroots international radical women’s groups, queer transnational organizations, cartography and geography, repressive state-based ideologies, fundamentalist religion, colonial and postcolonial oppression, late capitalist pressure, and xenophobic responses to terrorism, Mohanty and Alexander were critiqued for leaving out indigenous peoples in their frame. Of course they responded to this criticism seriously and as feminist intellectuals, have reanalyzed and expanded their research questions to include just such these sites of struggle. The critique resulted in an even more in-depth analysis.
But it also is a moment in which the operations on the progressive far left differ tremendously from those on the Tea Party and other-affiliated far right. Feminists are open to subsequent improvements, but often they find themselves stymied because there is always another piece to include, another group one ought not leave out. That said, nobody actually advocates for a totality, except some Marxists, and they are often critiqued by feminists for their sexism. We just do not see the lock-step on the progressive side of cultural analysis, and often we are at odds with each other. This gives conservatives and especially ultra-conservatives a kind of space to formulate rhetoric to use against the left: think “the death tax,” “intelligent design,” “abstinence-only education,” “tax and spend,” and so on. All of these are spins on less successful campaigns. They’re not arguing so much about what they think collectively—they’re collaborating on what to call the agreed-upon issues so that they will sell better.
Anything written, especially when it’s on the Web, in advance of a progressive agenda can be criticized by individuals from any part of the political spectrum. This put the person who wrote it into a perpetual state of defense. Again, improving theory, when it leads to more careful theory and/or more useful practice, is a great result. But arguing over some topics amounts to a continual cycle of ideas being destroyed, all while Glen Beck assails even the middle ground of the developed world. At some point we need to start thinking not about shutting down critique but about being able to prioritize actual principled engagement and move away from the oppression olympics that so frequently stops conversation in its tracks.
Globally, we have seen some terrible consequences of the conservative response to the events of September 11, 2001, even as there was terrorism before that day, and even as we could have learned after that moment that discriminating against people of color in the economy, citizenship, parental rights, health care, and housing are not effective means to keep humans safe around the world. When someone shuts down an active engagement to struggle against and improve world or even local conditions, we need to ask why and find ways to get moving again.