Isle of Dogs is Not about Dogs

Isle of Dogs is not about Dogs.


And it’s not about an Island.  And it’s not about Japan


A whimsical tale of a boy and his dog.  A celebratory pastiche of Japanese culture.  A techneeky binge of cinematic brand.

No, Isle of Dogs is none of those things.  Not really.

Wes Anderson’s latest film imagines an authoritarian society governed by a fear-mongering dictator who constructs his power by defining a species of his subject population as a threat to public well-being.  By executive decree, he deports them to a wasteland beyond the safety and comfort of civilized society.  His administration then invents an army of robots to replace the emotional and custodial labor of that population.

Does anyone really think we’re talking about dogs here?

When first we encounter the deportees, two groups of them engage in a desperate brawl over a box of moldering scraps, the kind of scarce resource occasionally made available to them by the continually-dumped refuse of affluence.  Is their Hobbesian struggle proof of their essential badness?  The brawl ends not in death but in dominance and a stern warning, “Don’t come around here anymore.”  And despite the despotic innuendo inscribed on their tags (Rex, King, Duke, Boss, and Chief), they enact a remarkably genteel dialectic of inspired leadership and deliberative democracy.  Compared to the mass spectacle of totalitarian power they’ve been exiled from, it’s a refreshing experiment in grassroots good-governance.

The deportees are not the only ones living beyond the borders of civlization.  Midway into the film, we are introduced to a different population of this species living in the wasteland, a supposedly aboriginal group of wild savages rumored to be cannibals.  Turns out, they’re not a group of premodern savages but rather the products of modernity.  They’re a group of torture refugees, victims of violent exploitation, the vile alter-ego of modern mass capitalism.  And they are cannibals, yes, but reluctant, merciful, and tragic cannibals who cannot stop howling their soulful remorse.  They don’t want to hurt one another but occasionally they have to in order to survive.

So, turns out, the wild hinterlands of modernity where there’s not enough food and no good drinking water, where people are malformed and deformed by the conditions in which they are forced to struggle, these are not places where civilization has failed to reach but places actively produced and maintained by modernity itself.    

What force is there to counter the dual oppressions of the totalitarian state and capitalist exploitation?  Opposition takes the form of Science, whose leading character invents a cure to the public health crisis—-only to be silenced and eventually murdered by the dictator.  Because, of course, that crisis was no accident but actually the product of collusion between Big State and Big Capital to further the interests of both.    

A bleak picture, one that traces the shadows of our current predicament.  But this is a children’s movie, in more ways than one, and it’s shot through with hopeful idealism and the promise of redemption.

As in life, it’s the young people who dare to speak truth to power, wearing their badges of resistance, raising their defiant fists.  Among them, student journalist Tracy Walker, embarks on a crusade to reveal the corrupt misdeeds of the dictator, thus unleasing a chain of events that results in his eventual overthrow.

Question:  if this is a film about a boy and his dog, then why is the film structured so as to obscure his speech?  Throughout the film, we can only make out his meaning in the guesswork of other characters.  The one human in the film whose speech we understand directly without translation is this journalist, an American exchange student working on the high school newspaper.  With her blond bouffant and her pale freckled face (or are those little spots supposed to be acne?), she’s a different kind of outsider, free from patron-client bondage, beyond the reaches of scapegoating.  She brings to the struggle her own cultural inheritance of rugged individualism and investigative pluckiness, the kind that brought down a crooked president in her home society a generation ago.

If there is a dog in this film, it’s not Spots.  It’s Tracy, the idealized watchdog of Western journalism.

It all ends well, of course.  After his tyrannical uncle is removed from power, the boy inherits the throne and governs as a benevolent sovereign.  He and the journalist fall in love and dedicate themselves to nurturing the puppy offspring of his retired guard dog.  It’s a misceginated future, where differences combine in the multicultural  (yet nuclear, straight) family.   And it’s a a progressive future, with a good guy in power enacting good-guy (albeit top-down) policies.  Curious how the film offers this undemocratic and nepotistic version of succession as a solution to good governance rather than the much more participatory (albeit bickering) form of pure democracy practiced by the subalterns in the wastelands (and shitholes) of the world beyond.

No mistake, this film is a glorious puzzle of cultural and political meanings, a joy to watch and a pleasure to contemplate.  It’s the perfect parent-child film for our times.  My eight-year-old daughter was delighted by the banter-laden adventures of the dog pack and the innocent sentimentality of its canine and human relationships.  If it really were about dogs and/or children, then its depiction would be spot-on.  Oftentimes kids do love dogs and oftentimes dogs do their best to understand, entertain, and protect them in return.

But the small narrative of boy and dog is embedded in a much larger vision of authoritarianism, resistance, and redemption.  This is what makes the film such a surprisingly rich experience for the intellectual class of adults who are likely to accompany their children to this movie.  And here is where the film unfortunately misleads us.

Like the citizens of Megasaki, we are living in a dark time of specular repression, governed by a corrupt demogogue bent on destroying the truth-producing institutions of science and journalism, replacing them with bilious propaganda.  Like Kobayashi, he rules by decree, using tribal disavowal and populist fear to justify his most repressive measures.  In the liberal wing of our news media, there is much talk lately  of the looming threat of totalitarianism, parallels with Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR.

But Trump is no Kobayashi.  Or rather, sometime he is and sometime he isn’t.  His scowling tantrums seem more like adolescent mood swings than totalizing ideology.   Which is to say, he’s not much of a totalitarian.  He may try to banish immigrants and build a wall but when he meets resistance in congress and the courts, he “forgets” what he said before and redefines what he meant all along.   

And as for the watchdogs, what are they really barking at?  What if Tracy Walker, our girl-journalist, were also partly responsible for the rise of the dictator Kobayashi?  Think Katy Tur or Maggie Haberman, both antagonistic watchdogs at the forefront of liberal resistance.   Yet both were catapulted to fame in their fascinated coverage of the Trump campaign.  What if the institutions we look to for redemption are actually in deep collusion with the actors we seek to depose?  What we have now is not so much nascent totalitarianism as late capitalism, the vanquishing of the public sphere by sensationalist consumerism.

In an interview about why he made the movie, Wes Anderson explained that he wanted to make a movie about dogs and he wanted to make a movie about Japan.  Watching the movie, one can see how he wanted to do both of those things.

But what he did do is another matter. Isle of Dogs is not about dogs and it’s not about Japan; it’s about getting rid of a (totalitarian) bad guy and replacing him with a (benevolent) good guy.  But the system that produced the bad guy remains intact.  And the real post-despotic democracy of the dog pack is left behind in the wastelands (and shitholes) of the hinterlands.          

Hooguh Holidays!


It’s been a shitty year, if I’m honest, so how does one pretend it’s a normal happiness we’re wishing each other this year? “Happy Holidays!” I sing out to various neighbors and acquaintances but it’s a kind of forced cheerfulness since what I’ve been feeling is something else. If I’m honest, the usual happiness is not a real option.

“If I’m honest” is a phrase I’ve picked up from watching endless episodes of The Great British Baking Show. It’s a great way of cutting through those dissonant situations when you want to be polite but reality is just too rude for the usual niceties.

In my translation, “if I’m honest” is British for “I don’t want to be an obvious asshole (since that would not be British) but I am forced to say that, at a purely hypothetical level, this object/condition/situation could be considered by someone, somewhere as really, unbelievably, almost unbearably awful.”

As in, “If I’m honest, your creme patissiere has curdled, your gingerbread tastes like cardboard, and all your tarts have soggy bottoms.”

Or, “If I’m honest, your president is a dangerous imbecile, your tax bill is a blatant giveaway to the rich, and your holiday greetings sound like nails on a chalkboard.”

So I’m casting around for some other way of wishing, some other way of feeling the holidays this year. And I think I’m not alone in this. I mean, did you see how the first lady decorated the White House for Christmas?



It certainly looks like she’s feeling some kind of dissonance. Other commentators have remarked on the ‘spookiness’ of the hallway lined in bare, white (dead?) trees. To me, as holiday decor, the whole effect is really, unbelieveably, almost unbearably cold. Watching her stride down the hallway in those drafty, bell-shaped sleeves, I just want to say, FLOTUS, sweetie, put on a sweater! And maybe some long johns under that long chiffon tutu.

The icy austerity of her decor may be an elegant reflection of the predicament that Melania finds herself in at this point in her life. And come to think of it, we’re all in that same predicament. A brittle-cold reality that we’re forced to endure for (at least) three more years. Artfully rendered as…a Winter Wonderland! In the sense that we wonder if we can get through the winter without giving up on this American experiment and going back to Slovenia (or whatever nicer place our people originally came from).

But this is not the Winter Wonderland my daughter keeps singing about. In the song, the snow is glistenin’ and it’s a beautiful sight (just like the White House, if I’m honest), but also in the song (crucially, insistently) “We’re happy tonight!” That seems key. Here’s the part of the song I like best:

Later on, we’ll conspire as we dream by the fire
to face unafraid the plans that we’ve made
walkin’ in a winter wonderland.

Because after you’ve been outside frolicking in the snow, making all kinds of reckless promises to snowmen, nothing is better than coming inside, peeling off all those ice-encrusted layers of thinsulate and smart-wool and putting on your fluffy fleece pants with the candy canes all over. And kicking up your Fairisle-encased feet in front of a blazing fire. With snifter of something indisputably cheerful. And then, just….conspiring.

I think it’s called “hygge,” this feeling I’m going for. Pronounced “hooguh,” it’s a Danish term meaning “coziness” and apparently the Danes cannot get enough of it. Deep in the thick of a frigid Scandinavian winter, they love to don their comfy pants (hyggebukser), eat their cardomom buns, and sip their cherry glogg in front of the fire—alone or in small groups. It’s all about creating beautiful, intimate moments to savor and share. They do this despite (because of) the long, dull month-upon-month of monotonous winter.

Many years ago, after the end of the Cold War, there was public discussion about what to do with the so-called “peace dividend,” the money we were going to save because we didn’t have to fake-fight the Russians anymore. A good friend of mine (Natasha Gray) told me that the Dems should run a presidential candidate under the slogan, “Let’s Get Cozy!” Meaning, let’s use the money to do all kinds of socially nurturing things like good healthcare and quality education.

Now that’s Hygge. And it’s also very Danish. But alas, it’s not the reality we currently inhabit. But it’s worth conspiring about….

So Hooguh Holidays! Because that’s what I wish for you, all of you. Don’t worry if you’re not feeling unambiguously “happy” this year. Put on your comfy pants. Light a fire in the fireplace. Add some candles here and there. Invite people over (and tell them to wear their comfy pants). Bake something and share it. Make those beautiful, intimate moments.

And don’t forget to conspire.

Wait and See: Social Vision, Dave Chappelle, and ‘the Fundus’

People who are losing their vision often don’t even know it. With most degenerative eye conditions, the loss in vision is so gradual that you don’t notice. Until you fail to see something important in your field of vision and you collide or fall, hurting yourself and others. Then you go to the doctor. They do some tests and the results can be quite a shocker.

I don’t know this personally; it’s just something I read on the internet.

Over the past three weeks, we’ve had a lot of discussion about the blindness of white liberals and progressives. How did we not see this coming? How could we be so wrong about the American public? We’ve also seen an immediate dismissal of this discussion as white liberal self-indulgence.

Maybe for some it is, a public display of dumbfounded realization upon discovering that the unsavory realities of American culture so strenuously disavowed by a certain (coastal, metropolitan) class did not really disappear just because they wanted them to.

But many of us did know that the realities of American racism and misogyny were still there, especially those born and raised in places where these social forms are still ubiquitously and even proudly on display.  The problem is not (only) the individual indigo-centrism of liberal professionals, but more specifically, the problem of collective, political imagination.

When I was in Ghana in early October, my good friend Etse Sikanku invited me to be a guest on his Class FM radio show, “America Decides,” discussing the presidential campaign in the US. Confidently, I argued that the narrowing polls were misleading, that all the electoral predictions suggested a strong win for Hillary.

People who poll for Trump are not reliable voters, I said. I grew up in southwest Missouri and I went to a working-class high school. I’m familiar with this segment of our population. Minimally educated white people in the hinterlands may like the populist spectacle of Trump rallies and to some hopelessly misguided rednecks it feels good to spout racist, homophobic, misogynist nonsense.

But many of these people won’t vote (I said). And if they do go to the polls, once they’re in that booth, alone with their conscience, they will surely consider the dire consequences of a Trump presidency and either vote for a third party candidate or write someone else in.

And moreover, Trump’s rhetoric is so abhorrent (I said) that women, immigrants, and people of color will come out in droves to vote for the democratic candidate, no matter what their (legitimate) misgivings about Hillary Clinton.

At home, my husband was not so certain. As election day approached, he became more and more nervous about the outcome.

Don’t worry, I assured him, Trump is gonna get creamed.

Creamed. The heavy, fatty sound of that word was so deeply satisfying that I said it over and over again in anticipation. He’s gonna get creamed.

There’s a song called “Cream” on Prince’s Diamonds and Pearls album. In the days before the election, the words kept cycling into my consciousness.

This is it
It’s time for you to go to the wire
You will hit
‘Cause you got the burnin’ desire
It’s your time (Time)
You got the horn so why don’t you blow it
You are fine (Fine)
You’re filthy cute and baby you know it

Get on top
You will cop
Don’t you stop
Sh-boogie bop

Well, we certainly went to the wire but I guess the burnin’ desire was not enough in this case. Not enough to get us on top.

I’m a social scientist, a cultural anthropologist to be specific. I specialize in media and poltiics in West Africa. So I have spent a lot of time thinking about how media create very particular ways of imagining society—and how different media forms structure very particular kinds of dialogue and action within those imagined societies.

Something is amiss in the way that many Americans are imagining the society we live in. In the way we imagine different categories of people, their everyday lives, their social and political desires. And in the way dialogue among those social categories is structured in ways that divide and polarize, making strategic forms of social and political action nearly impossible now.


The Monday after the elections, I go to the eye doctor for something called a “fundus photo.” I lean my head back as the technician gently pulls open my eyelids. “The first drops are anesthetic,” he says, “because the second drops, the dilation drops, can sting a little.”

He is an African-American man, perhaps in his late fifties. For a second, I wonder how it is for him, if he suspects that most of the white people in this chair, even the nurses, the doctors all around him in this suburban medical center—if he suspects that many of them voted for Trump. I wonder if he thinks I voted for Trump.

Everywhere I go now, I wonder but I do not ask, did you vote for Trump? How about that white twenty-something guy in the enormous white pick-up truck, did you? And that middle-aged white woman buying a basketful of artificial flowers at the craft store, did you?

But it’s different for me than for a person of color, I know. Regardless of the answer, no one is going to harm me. If this man has to walk through a near-deserted parking lot late at night, or if his car breaks down in a certain neighborhood…or really, if he walks or drives in a perfectly legal way anytime, anywhere—the answer to that question may be the difference between normalcy and all-hell-breaks-loose.

This is the new normal, always teetering at the sharp edge of monstrosity. Many politicians and media pundits now are urging a “wait and see” approach to the new administration. We hear again and again, Trump deserves an open mind, a chance, our willingness to work together, to find common ground. Maybe he won’t be able to do those awful things after all. Maybe the wall will be mostly fence. Maybe Obamacare will be only slightly amended. Maybe he won’t be able to back out of the Paris agreement. Maybe….

I feel the cool liquid wash over my blinking eyes. I lift my head. It doesn’t sting at all, the anesthetic has done its job. Already, everything is getting blurry, sharp edges melting, colors swimming. Beautiful, actually. As the world around me distorts into impressionism, I have the sensation of suspended reality.

“You can wipe your tears,” he says softly, handing me a tissue, and I realized that the drops have overflowed my eyes, “but don’t wipe out the medicine.”

I go back out to the waiting room to wait for my eyes to dilate completely. There is wi-fi here and though I can barely read the screen, I manage to write an email to an artist friend to see if he knows about any artists doing radical graphic art, something that people can download and use. I want to put up some kind of radical yard sign in front of our house and I want it to be strikingly beautiful. He writes back, sounding depressed, talking about his children. As for protest art, he’ll have to think about it.

I am called back into the procedure room. The same technician is there and he tells me to sit down in a chair connected to some kind of machine. I lean in to the machine, resting my chin on the beige plastic chinrest.

He positions a tiny gold pinpoint of light in front of my right eye. “Focus on this with your right eye as we photograph the left eye.”

“I have lazy eye on both sides,” I say. “So if I use the right one to focus, the left one will wander off to the side.”

“That’s ok,” he smiles. “We can compensate for that.”

I shudder as a bright beam penetrates my right eye, panning across it like a searchlight. I hear clicks, sporadic, like muffled gunfire. The beam crosses through again, going over the same territory but more slowly this time. More clicks.

He pauses then glances over at a screen that I cannot see, checking his work, I assume. I watch his eyes, hoping to detect some reaction to what he sees but his gaze is opaque, unrevealing. Then he tells me to put my chin on the chinrest again and we do the whole procedure on the other side.

He rolls back on his stool, telling me that we’re all finished. He reminds me how to exit the office and again, I am watching his eyes, but if he knows something, he is practiced at hiding it.

That night, on the recommendation of a friend, my husband and I watch last weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live on Netflix. There’s a skit in which Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock are watching the election returns with a bunch of young white liberals in an urban apartment. The running joke of the sketch is the denial and shock of the white liberals who cannot believe what they are seeing on TV as the results come in, cannot believe that Americans are that racist. All the while, Chappelle and Rock trade inside glances, smiling, nodding, feigning the same outrage which only makes it more ridiculous.

The blindness of white liberals. A running joke in Chappelle’s repertoire.

In the relationship between eye and brain, going blind is a silent process of disappearance and replacement. Points of your visual field start to disappear on a daily basis and this loss accelerates over time, resulting in huge gaps in your visual field. In the beginning, the loss is concentrated at the periphery, in areas marginal to your line of sight, then progresses slowly to the center. Until it’s like seeing through binoculars.

The reason you don’t notice is because your brain develops the skill of filling in those points of no information. Hiding them from you—by quietly inserting what you might expect to see there.

Facebook does this. Increasingly, all of our media forms do this. Measuring our interested clicks and minutes of attention, our personalized media give us more of what we habitually look at, what’s in our direct line of sight, actively “disappearing” marginal and contradictory points of view. Facebook and other websites learn over time how to do this better and better, filling in more and more peripheral spaces of attention with a kind of false repetition of what we expect to see.

Like misguided rednecks who don’t vote. Like women, immigrants, and people of color who always vote Democrat.

Unlike the shocked white liberals in the SNL sketch, Dave Chappelle does not live in an apartment in a blue coastal metropolis. He lives on a farm in western Ohio. And he’s a black person living in a society steeped in denial about the realities of race. No matter what was happening on social media, his everyday experiences with smalltown Ohioans kept his vision keen and he knew what to expect from the outcome of the elections. And how not to expect what you’ve come to expect.


Two days later, I return to the eye doctor’s office for two more tests. This time, the technician is a younger guy, also black. He introduces himself as Eric, then confirms my own name and sits down at the computer to bring up my file.

I glance over his shoulder at the computer screen as he types. Along the bottom of the screen, I see my fundus photos from Monday. A row of luminous golden bubbles, with small shadows and striations that may or may not be ok. I know I am not really supposed to see them, at this point. And I certainly cannot ask Eric if they are normal. I gaze at the images, trying to identify distinctive details that might help me remember them later. Then Eric turns his head to me and I look away, embarrassed to be caught staring at my own fundus.

Leaving the doctor’s office, I stop and sit on a bench in the hallway. I take out my computer and do a google image search for ‘fundus photography.’ I can’t find the quick and dirty guide that I am looking for but I do learn a few things about the ‘fundus.’

I realize that I didn’t really know what a ‘fundus’ was, I just kind of assumed that I knew. Like so many things. Due to the difficulties of medical scheduling, I’ve known for over two months now that I was going have my ‘fundus’ photographed. Why did I not look this up until now? I mean until after the actual procedure?

The ‘fundus’ is the part of any hollow organ furthest from the opening. It comes from the Latin for ‘base’ or ‘bottom.’ Oh right, as in ‘fundamental.’ The optical fundus is at the back of the eye. You can’t look in the mirror and see your own optical fundus. The doctor can’t study it in any detail without a very bright light and a special camera.

I don’t know what’s going on with my fundus, not yet; but it’s clear to me that many Americans now have a dangerous impairment of social vision. And it’s not entirely their fault (partially but not entirely). Fundamental elements of American social life are systematically hidden from our view by the very media forms we thought would enlarge and diversify our perspectives, enhance our social engagement, and inform our democracy.

We need very bright lights. We need special cameras. We need new media.

And we need to reach beyond media, finding ways to recognize, to be with, to talk to those people who have dropped out of our social vision. And we need to build a politics that draws people out of their divisive bubbles and into mutuality and coalition.

10 Lessons from African Politics that Americans Need to Learn

Below is a list of things that many Africans know about politics based on their own historical and cultural perspectives.  As a cultural anthropologist specializing in media and politics in West Africa, I’ve been struck by how closely the American political scene now resonates with the scholarship on the African state.  Each point below deserves much deeper discussion, but here’s is the quick and dirty version:

1. Beware of ‘strong men.’ Scholars of African politics often describe how African politics is too often dominated by strong men, charismatic elites whose power is based on personal patronage. 

Such strong men tend to have very little real political vision or ideology but promise special treatment to specific groups as a way of winning their support.  Their power is based on patron-client relationships, maintaining exclusive control over resources and distributing those resources to their subordinates on the basis of favoritism.    

Across the continent, Africans have struggled to get rid of strong men.  It is a constant struggle requiring sustained effort.

2. Beware of ‘straddling.’ The power of strong men comes from ‘straddling’ both economic and political realms (converting wealth into political power and vice versa).  Their original power may come from the military or from the business realm but the result is the same. Once in power, ‘strong men’ use the state as a vehicle of further accumulation.  That is, they channel state resources into their private interests.  This is ‘kleptocracy.’  Google “Mobutu” for details.

3. Beware of politicized institutions. In a 2009 speech in Ghana, President Obama famously said, “Africa doesn’t need strong men.  It needs strong institutions.”  Obama then described how strong institutions can hold the power of the executive in check, holding the government accountable to the people while increasing the power of the state to carry out the people’s mandate.

Currently, in the US we have a strong man now staffing our strong institutions with white supremicists, mysogynists, and homophobes.  So we possibly have the worse case scenario on this one, increasing state power plus decreasing accountability—all infused with hate. 

4. ‘Democracy’ is not always democracy. In the 1990s, a wave of democratization swept across the African continent, often called the ‘African renaissance.’  However, many of these democratic transitions have not really changed the political scene all that much.  Scholars refer to many ‘pseudo-democracies’ that create a thin veneer of open political contest while actually just recycling power among a handful of elites. 

Sound familiar? 

4. People tend to vote in regional blocs.  This is mostly due to historical and economic reasons.  Outsiders sometimes call it ‘tribalism’ (and some Africans use this term, too); but it’s not really about ethnic identity—or at least that’s not the only thing it’s about.  In most countries, different regions each have a specific array of resources such as particular mining products, agricultural crops, and labor.  Regional economies are constructed on the basis of these economic interests.  This is a process that has played out through history in complex ways.

In some communities with valuable resource (such as gold), trade and revenue from that commodity have formed the basis of regional empires and proto-states (in the precolonial period).  Empires tend to generate powerful cultural identities (drawing from pre-existing group identities, unifying and politicizing them against regional rivals).  The West African empire of Asante is a good example of this.  Some other areas become (willing or unwilling) suppliers of labor to the more powerful regions.  This generates a quite different form of cultural identity, informed by conquest and marginalization as well as economic dependence.

Both Asante and ‘the North’ are now encompassed by the nation-state of Ghana.  They are associated with distinct voting blocs, affiliated with different political parties based on distinctive political ideologies.

Looking at the red-blue polarization of voting in the US, we might think about the economic interests that have created very distinctive and powerful cultural identities in coastal/metopolitan areas versus “the hinterlands.”   These identities are now politicized against each other.  To Africans, it may look a lot like (what used to be called) ‘tribalism.’

5. Tyranny relies on a strategy of divide and rule.  When Europeans sought to gain power over African societies in the colonial period, they found ways to pit those regional identies against one another and hold them in constant conflict, undermining efforts at resistant coalition.  One tactic was favoritism, giving access to schooling, health care, and other social services to certain regions and recruiting privileged groups into administrative positions in colonial government.  This created resentment among other groups and regions.  The Hutus and Tutsis are a grim example of the consequences of this tactic.

Another tactic involved coopting local leaders (in some places, chiefs) by making them collect taxes and organize work teams to build roads, work in mines, and other forms of forced labor.  This polluted and undermined local leadership and made it difficult for communiites to organize at broader, regional levels. 

Donald Trump’s entire campaign is a strategy of divide and rule.  In fact, he talks about very little else.  We can expect divisive policies reminiscient of colonial rule.

6. Mining will not save the working class. Oil and mining do not create sustainable economies for working people.  Countries (and communities) whose economies depend primarily on oil and mining for revenue tend to suffer from something called ‘the resource curse.’  Primary resources are subject to the global dynamics of supply and demand, resulting in price fluctuations.  The communities where resources are extracted have no control over these dynamics.  Rather, powerful global corporations manipulate the global market in their own interests.  And they don’t care that much about the well-being of communities (just ask the peoples of the Niger delta where oil companies are detroying the environment). 

It is impossible to create long-term economic plans when state revenues are bouncing around unpredictably and uncontrollably.  And there’s a more complex phenomenon called ‘Dutch disease’ which makes it difficult for other economic sectors to develop and thrive when oil or other mining sectors are dominating the economy. 

So, for communities dependent on mining and other extractive industries, further extraction is not the answer.  Working-class communities do better with more diversified economies.

7. Manufacturing is good for the working class. Currently, Ghana is in the midst of a presidential campaign.  In their political platforms, both of the main political parties (the encombent NDC and the oppositional NPP) are emphasizing the importance of industrial manufacturing to constructing a sustainable and resilient economy.  The NPP has proposed a ‘One district, One factory’ policy, promising to create public-private partnerships to build factories in each of the 216 districts.  The NDC has also voiced commitment to supporting industrial development, though much more focused on building infrastructure. 

Time and time again, Ghanaians on both sides of the political spectrum told me that industry creates jobs for Ghanaians, adds value to primary resources like crops and mining products, and makes for a more stable economy.   There’s a popular “Made in Ghana” movement that animates this bipartisan consensus.

As the colonial experience demonstrates, global trade tends to support the power of (white) elites against the interests of working peoples at home and abroad.  There is good reason to be suspicious of transnational trade deals that typically provide little to no protection for labor and the environment. 

In response to scapegoating rhetoric about immigrants ‘stealing our jobs,’ we should think about ways to rebuild our manufacturing sector to provide living-wage jobs for everyone.  Rather than deregulation and other methods of reducing government involvement in the economy, we should think about ways that government might actively promote industry in partnership with private interests.

9. Don’t dismiss the power of symbols.  In 1700, a group of disparate chieftaincies in the Asante area of south-central Ghana were facing military threat from a neighboring kingom, Denkyira.  Legend has it, the group of chiefs of came together in a meeting and a powerful priest summoned a golden chair down from the sky.  The priest announced that this Golden Stool would be the symbol of unity for the Asante peoples.  The chiefs all pledged their allegiance to the Golden Stool and vowed to serve and protect the union it represents.  They then formed a military coalition and defeated Denkyira.

We’ve heard a great deal of discussion about symbols lately.  The safety pin was proposed as symbol of unity among liberals and immigrants, people of color, women, and the GLBT community.   Just as wearing a symbol might be superficial and self-congratulory, attacking symbolic unity might also be less helpful than just going ahead with the real challenges of working together to form coalition to defeat our common enemy.  We certainly need to be mindful of the dynamics of power within coalitions and strive to promote the voices of those historically disadvantaged groups.  This requires dialogue.    

History has demonstrated time and time again, symbols are not the end of political change but the very beginning. 

10. Often, the radical solution is the most effective.  In many parts of Africa, the early movements toward independence were led by gradualists—African professionals (lawyers, doctors, journalists, civil servants) who worked to increase African representation in colonial government as part of a slow, gradual strategy for gaining independence.  These groups formed the basis of the earliest political parties in the colonial period.

In places like Ghana and Tanzania, people got fed up with this gradualist approach in the 1950s and got behind more radical, populist leaders like Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere.  These leaders unified disparate groups of farmers, youth, miners, teachers and other working-class peoples in coordination with elite professionals to create powerful political alliances.  Nkrumah used a campaign of boycotts and strikes, all publicized in his own newspaper, to demand “Self-Government Now.”  The radical approach was effective and Ghana became  one of the first independent nations in Africa with Nkrumah as its first head of state.

In the US, we now hear the call to give Trump a chance, to “wait and see” what he might do in office, then to work within the new political reality to achieve the very modest forms of change we might be able to achieve.  This is compromised gradualism. 

We need strikes, boycotts, and protests.  We need media.  We need bold leaders with integrity, wisdom, and vision.  We need radical coalition.

Good Grief: on mourning, faketivism, and coalition

Freshly showered, I stand in front of the closet in my underwear.  It is 5am and I am getting ready to go to campus for my lecture.  I have lots of new clothes, hand-me-downs from a generous aunt who has recently cleared out her own closet.  There are colorful tunics, one with flowing sleeves and a spiral print, another with elaborate blue and white paisley.  All are “designer” pieces.  I’ve never owned clothes like this before.  A few days before the election, I had lined up these outfits in the order I thought I might wear them for my lecture days.  I couldn’t wait to appear in public in these clothes.

Instead, I reach for a plain black skirt and top.  I cannot bear to wear color.  This is my second lecture since the election and my second time in all black.  I wonder how long this will last, maybe to the end of the semester.  I wonder if my students will notice.   I briefly consider assuring them that I am not really in mourning.  But then, I think, maybe I am and I just don’t feel like talking about it in class.

In the days after the election, the safety pin became a symbol of solidarity.  I bought a box of black and white pins and some rainbow glass beads to make something that would symbolize not only safety but coalition.  I showed my daughter how we could put the rainbow beads on the pins and link them together, black and white.  I told her what this meant to me, to wear this in public.  The day after I first put on my pin, I went to a local meeting for Black Lives Matter.   I should have been more active all along.  I was wrong.  I will do better.

Shortly after becoming popular, the safety pin became the target of critique from the blogosphere.  The pin was a sign of denial, of liberal white guilt, self-indulgence, faketivism.  All valid arguments.  White privilege and power will not be dismantled—or even decentered, or even knocked off balance–by a safety pin, no matter how many people wear one.  But just as the critique emerged, other voices from threatened communities (Muslims, immigrants, LGBT persons, people of color) expressed their relief at seeing safety-pin solidarity, knowing that allies were there for them.

How does social change happen?  How are activists made out of distracted and busy citizens, people whose lives are complicated by neoliberal work and family pressures?  Becoming an activist, building coalition, these are processes requiring many, many small steps.  Some of those steps may be symbolic, particularly the earliest ones.  And some of those steps may be dialogic, the ones that come after.  It seems to me that this is when we need to respect our differences and at the same time look through them to find common ground, building the trust necessary to construct strategically powerful alliances.  It seems to me that the structure of virtual discourse does not always support these processes, that we need to be mindful of tropes of denunciation, sensationalizing conflict, and immediate obsolescence embedded in the very modes of virtual discourse.

I stand in front of my class, talking about all of this.  I meant to mention it as an aside but I go on and on for half an hour.   “Regardless of your political orientation,” I say, “the relationship between symbols and action is an important aspect of political”….blah, blah, blah.

But what I am really saying, with my mourning dress and my wordy academic circumlocutions is, please, we have to do something.  The dream of a good society is dying or maybe has died already.  Pins or no pins, we have to do something radical and we have to do it right now.  

So I have started this blog.  Our lives have changed and there is no going back.  I will write and I will go to meetings and I will protest and I will not stop, ever.

Addendum:  I took off my safety pin and ordered a Black Lives Matter pin and an LGBT rainbow pin.  And then I thought about it and I put my homemade pin back on.  I will wear all three together.