Notes on Citizen Who by Eric Liu: What If US Citizenship Was Earned?

Last night I walked down the street to the neighborhood theater (what up big city living), and saw the debut performance of Eric Liu’s Citizen Who.

As an immigrant myself, I loved Liu‘s mediation on what it means to be an American citizen. Like all good storytellers, he interspersed personal stories rich with detail and surprise turns with broad summarizes that brought together the disparate threads of theory and history. The same story – that of how his  mother came to the US, for example – was told multiple ways, and through that telling the audience saw the slippery category of citizenship, the way immigrants, or those who look like immigrants can suddenly become “foreign until proven otherwise” or exist in a perpetual in-between-ness of tenuous belonging (to paraphrase Liu).

Since we’re such a new country, and have little common history, customs or beliefs to bring us together (at most, the eldest of our lineages are only about 14 generations), belonging is the central tenet of the American dream. But belonging is both a legal status (Never give up your US passport!) but also a social status (Do you look American?). Liu points out that citizenship, while repeatedly mentioned in our beloved Constitution, is never once defined. In times of doubt, those who were once citizens can suddenly become a “non-alien” or “other”. So this “we” of “we the people” cuts both ways: we, as citizens, are responsible for what we have done and accomplished. Both the horrible and the great. We are one nation, indivisible, despite all that divides us. “In” and “out” are not the only categories here; because of our “color-coded legacy” (Liu’s spot-on word choice ), sometimes citizens and non-citizens not only look alike, but are sometimes the same person. We may have the right papers, but can still be treated as an outsider.

One non sequitur in my notes that I have been mulling over: Freedom is made up of simple pleasures. No matter the context of the suffering, people dream of escaping to experience the same things: mouth-watering meals, the sensation of soft touch, light and airy gatherings with laughter.

One particularly riveting question Liu posed was: When is loyalty dissent, and when is dissent loyalty? What is the threshold for us to participate? As equal parts patriotic and dissatisfied citizen, I appreciated Liu’s call to participate in our democracy, to contribute to our community as a way of rekindling, reviewing, reigniting our citizenship vows. What if we earned our citizenship, rather than were given it by birthright? What if it were renewable, based on whether one participated, served the common good? We are, after all, responsible for our own country.

There are photos here, and you can even watch the whole video of last night’s performance here. And they say there’s no good live theater in LA! Ha.


Post-Election Recap: Bronco Bamma, Elizabeth Warren, Marriage Equality, and Other Reasons to Celebrate

The election is over. Phew! No more Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney invading our phone lines, interrupting our television shows and making your Facebook feed blow up with political comments!

Well, depending on who you’re friends with, that last part might happen year round. Either way, the candidates are done polluting our planet by traveling by back & forth across the country:

We can un-glue our eyeballs from the mapselection dashboards, and scenario predictions. We can think of all of the things that campaign money could have been spent on.

Some of my friends waited hours to vote. Old ladies and pregnant women voted! I am grateful for their persistence, for their willingness to participate in the process. Not everyone is happy though. But it’s OK. We believe in the democratic process here! The people have voted & their votes (well, and the electoral college) make the decisions. It’s one of the only times that celebrities and common folks have the same power. I love it so much. I bet the rest of the world is pretty happy about it too. Now the time has come to watch videos of our charming president groove!

Thank you, Rhea Kappa for sharing this awesomeness!

In terms of ballot questions, medical marijuana passed in Massachusetts but doctor-assisted suicide did not. In some counties, it was only a 21 person difference! As a friend of mine said, we can’t die with dignity, but we can get high until the end. Har har. Marijuana was legalized for recreational use in Colorado and Washington, which should result in some interesting conversations about the balance of state and federal laws. I’m looking forward to seeing how that all turns out.

Voters in Maine, Maryland, and Washington approved same-sex marriage, joining Iowa, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts on the right side of history. Minnesotans defeated an amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage. If people want to take on the very personal and public gamble of marriage, I say, go for it. I am concerned about the implications for same-sex couples who don’t want to get married, but may have to marry in order to receive the legal protections heterosexual domestic partners receive. We’ll see what this new freedom means for those who don’t want to partake in this whole marrying business.

An early victory that got the night started on the right foot was Elizabeth Warren‘s defeat of Scott Brown in Massachusetts. It was a dirty race. I am so proud of my state. I am also very happy about Claire McCaskill winning in Missouri, as I was so disgusted by her opponent that I donated money to her campaign despite not having very much money myself.

It feels a little like Christmas morning right now, in my heart. Of course, there is always more work to be done, and some nail-biter cases in the courts right now. But for today, I’m celebrating the era of big data, another four years with our president, and the start of some big political changes.


Gloria Steinem on “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Votes” at UCLA: The Quick Notes Version

Yesterday, I saw Gloria Steinem give her “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Votes” talk at UCLA. It reminded me of seeing Eve Ensler speak at Clark in 2008. It was the feeling of feminists gathering in one spot to hear a superstar speak, speak to us, in our language. It was riveting, electrifying. In all her glory, Gloria Steinem at 78 speaking to a full auditorium. She got two standing ovations before she even began speaking.

To set the scene: she began by commenting that lecture halls are based on hierarchy, which is based on patriarchy, with the audience seeing each others’ backs and unable to interact with each other. She prefers a circle (like all feminist teachers I know), and said “we [women]are linked, not ranked.” I took 5 pages of notes and rather than dump all the details onto you, I’ll share with you the tastiest morsels:

1. The central theme of the talk was “seizing control of reproduction” and how this control is fundamental to racist, classist and nationalist divisions. By isolating the women of the “superior” group and exploiting the women of the “inferior” group, all women are controlled. The gender imbalance caused by preferring one gender over the other (as is in China) causes destabilization, where all divisions are normalized and racism, classism and other forms of structural violence become normalized.

2. Attacks on abortion providers is large-scale domestic terrorism. The anti-choice activists responsible for this terrorism have now taken to the legislatures. 55% of women of reproductive age now live in states with restrictions on reproductive rights. The current Republican platform includes the Human Life Amendment plank, where a pregnant women’s body becomes nationalized, can be searched and detained (as is done now with addicted or jailed pregnant women).

3. Legislators have “real jobs” before they came into office, and many worked in insurance, the prison industry and liquor. Using their legislative power, they push through the regulations that benefit them. For example, despite numerous legislators campaigning on the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in the 1970s, it was never ratified. Legislators must be held accountable by those who vote them into office.

4. The biggest economic stimulus would be mandating equal pay for men and women…because women would spend the money. (From progressive to reductionist in one sentence!)

5. The night’s most interesting tangent: Most religious buildings are built as the body of a woman, with the inner and outer labia entrances, the vaginal aisle, the ovarian side structures, and the pulpit womb. Men in skirts take over the cartel of giving birth, by taking over the mythic significance of reproduction. While women may give life, these men give everlasting life. The message is: heaven is superior to, is better than women.

6. Best quips: Abstinence-only sexual health education is the only federally funded program that rewards ignorance with taxpayer money. Voting matters – it’s when the least powerful has just as much power as the most powerful. Women didn’t leave the Republican Party, it left them. The means we choose dictate the ends; the means are the ends. Loss of memory is the root of oppression.The best decisions come from mixed-gender groups because there is no masculinity to prove. National boundaries don’t stop pollution and immigration. We have more in common than we think; ask what others need and support them. How is it that men can be CEOs without having been pregnant?

7. Recommended reading: Sex and World Peace by Valerie Hudson et al, which argues that polarized sex roles are correlated with race and class divisions.

8. Piece of advice:  Say “how interesting that you feel that way” when disagreeing.

9. The US is the only democracy with no national childcare, which puts pressure on the individual rather than the social policy.

10. Lastly, feminists have been too nice. We would have accomplished more! Persuading and asking takes longer than doing. We need to harness our consumer power. The AA group structure may be useful – it’s everywhere, it’s leader-less and there is a strong community.

Despite my enthusiasm about the talk and the speaker, it’s important to note that some claims were cherry-picked. Steinem made several claims that didn’t hold up to light questioning after the talk: First, that 70% of native women were sterilized because the government told them they wouldn’t understand how to use birth control. The highest I could find was 25-40%, in the 1970s. Though even that is questionable. Second, that in Europe, 6 million witches were killed for sharing dangerous knowledge that helped women. Access to, and knowledge of, contraception and abortifacients allows women – not the state – to decide when to procreate. (Not the church, not the state!) But, it looks like it was closer to 35,000 or 110,000200,000 at the most. Lastly, she contrasted civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who was sterilized without her consent, and Hamer’s grandmother, who had 22 children (20 as a result of rape). Steinem argued that farm equipment was the difference; the bodies of Hamer’s grandmother’s children were needed to work the land; Hamer’s reproductive capabilities weren’t necessary. Yes,  it’s true that Hamer was sterilized…at the age of 44. It’s a much less compelling argument when understood within the context of the average woman reproductive life: from 15 – 45 years old. Sterilizing someone without their consent is wrong at any age, but the contrast with her grandmother’s experience is less powerful in this new context. Despite these poorly chosen examples, it’s true that compulsory sterilization has happened and is happening all over the world, and that women continue to be targeted for violence. I just wish she had chosen her examples with the help of a fact-checker.

PS She looks jaw-dropping-ly great for someone two years shy of 80. I was sitting towards the back, but she looked no older than 60 to me. Take away message: wear black and do what you love?