Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Amanda Marcotte: a case for the defence

Little did Amanda Marcotte think when she wrote a workmanlike piece on immigration policy and how it impacts women's lives that she'd become enemy number one in some parts of the feminist blogosphere.

The piece, which argues that "Describing immigrants in dehumanizing terms like "illegals" turns immigrant women into targets for sexist oppressors, from anti-choicers to rapists" explores how the "intersections of oppression," (gender and race) reinforce one another, leaving immigrant women in a particularly vulnerable place. It's an issue that needs raising time and again that "illegal immigrants" are extremely vulnerable members of society and open to the worst excesses of rape, exploitation, assault and murder that our civilisation has to offer.

It was only a couple of years ago that Birmingham saw rioting over the alleged rape of a teenage immigrant too frightened to come forward lest she get deported, but sadly the issue rarely hits the headlines unless a community forces it up the agenda.

Amanda raises a similar case in the US to demonstrate that "it's front-loaded and racist to describe a human being as "illegal,"" and that legal status, or lack of it, contributes to a "dehumanization [which] makes immigrant women juicy targets for assorted sexist oppressors, from anti-choicers to wife beaters to rapists".

You'd have thought having written a piece that was worth reading on a worthy topic would put Amanda in line for some good karma from anti-racists and feminists alike. A call for a more liberal immigration policy that helps protect those particularly vulnerable to serious crime - something the entire progressive left can unite behind. Yes? No.

Whilst Amanda was obviously attacked from the right, she was also attacked by potential allies too. Not because of she deviated from the orthodoxy but because she adhered so closely to it some decided to accuse her of plagiarism.

Now this is an interesting concept I'd not come across before among political activists, only academics. Instead of being pleased when someone takes up your arguments (having made a convert) to be angry because they've stolen *your* ideas and are now trying to promote them - that's an odd set of priorities right there.

For instance one typical commentator says "Interesting. Women of color bloggers and activists have been talking about this issue in exactly these terms for years. I'm glad to see this analysis and this issue in the conversation, but I'm shocked not to see any reference to the women who have been saying this over and over again already while the blog set that Pandagon is in ignores it. Brownfemipower for example has been blogging about this all year... and gave a speech about it at WAM a couple of weeks ago."

Now I've never read blogger Brownfemipower but I suspect she is not the sort who'd hope that when she spoke she convinced no one of her ideas. I'd like to think she's the sort of person who *wants* to see her politics popularised and become so common place that she doesn't stand out in the crowd.

Our objectioneer goes on "All I'm saying is: Don't spit this like it's brand new. Undercutting and ignoring (or not citing) the labor of women of color in this discourse participates in the type of discrimination that you are talking about.""

Now it's important to point out that Amanda does not say her ideas are "brand new" nor does she make claim in the article to be saying something so original that we must all look up to her in awe. In fact, no disrespect to Amanda, Brownfemipower or anyone else, but the ideas date back to the seventies and beyond. She simply makes the argument that no-one is illegal and cites a recent example that had been in the mainstream media to back up her point about race and gender - an example that, understandably, other like minded people also used. Hence the accusations of plagiarism.

But it doesn't stop at a bit of a nasty comment thread - I wouldn't have even mentioned it if it had. It becomes a full scale war on Amanda Marcotte, her life, her works, her career all over sections of the feminist blogosphere out of all proportion to any supposed misdemeanors she is supposed to have committed. I mean I thought the left could be full of vitriol but this was ridiculous (and after some thought I'm not linking to any of it because, frankly, I either have to link to lies or to blogs I quite like that I don't particularly want to single out as if they are the worst offenders, google will get you there fast enough).

Once the charges of plagiarism were quietly dropped, due to being unfounded, those who'd accused her found themselves having to justify why they were so angry and started to blame Amanda for the very wrongs she was railing against. Now Amanda was the racist because, and I think this is a fair paraphrase, she took what some black feminists were arguing and, because she agreed with it, argued it herself. Apparently this is called appropriation because she didn't link to them, and specifically to Brownfemipower who was so upset by the whole episode she took her blog off line.

Since these ideas are not new ones, not particularly complex ones and since no one can lay claim to inventing them this cannot be "appropriation". But even if it was, that is not a bad thing - that's politics. We actively seek to have our ideas appropriated as widely as possible, at least we do if we are sincere. It's academics who try to demarcate their ideas as their own because their primary focus is on their careers and their book deals.

If people want to steal any ideas I might have (if any of them are worth stealing) and pass them off as their own please go right ahead. I'm a political activist because I'm passionate about ideas, about issues, about green and socialist politics and I hope that I can make some sort of positive difference to the world. I want people to take my ideas and pass them off as their own, that's fine by me - although if you want to link to me that's awfully generous of you, ta. Linking is good practice and makes a post a fuller resource, but not linking to a specific blogger is not a shooting offence - it hardly even merits a tut.

Ironically Amanda is the author of It's a jungle out there : the feminist survival guide to politically inhospitable environments and she may want to take some tips out of her own book to survive what must have been an unpleasant period for her. To be called a racist by your allies for writing an article attacking racism, what a pain, and a demonstration of how a movement does not need opponents in order to come to no good.


Jack Ray said...

jeez, just had a quick look around some of that stuff. I dunno, if I found people plagiarising my agitprop, magazine writing, blogs, I'd be delighted. On the other hand if people plagiarised my academic work, or made any money off my work, then I'd be pissed.

If the former, I can only assume it's an American thing. I think having a voice is per se a massive issue across the race and gender divides there (not that it isn't here, but still), so who is speaking the words becomes in itself important, more than just the words being spoken.

Jim Jay said...

I know, literally hundreds of enraged comments on all sorts of different threads... man!

I don't think you would be pissed if someone made money off you frankly. If you wrote a blog post and then a journo saw it and wrote a piece using some of the ideas in your post you'd be well chuffed I think even though they make money - you don't lose out at all.

"Having a voice" looks to me, from these threads to be a deeply reactionary individualistic approach to politics. Essentially they are saying AM can't agree with them because of who she is - and it's more important to them to attack allies, even when they are in agreement!

Anyway, the article is hardly full of ground breaking novel ideas that can be claimed by any particular person. No disrespect to the author.

Jack Ray said...

and to think, I can't get any comments even when I slag off Socialist Unity and Harry's Place in the same post!

I agree about the individualistic approach. But I suppose it's borne out of a traditional of paternalistic "liberation" politics in the US.

Rob Ray said...

Hell the next front page of Freedom is based on one of Jack's blogs (looking at the spread of academies on the back of his notice that Manc will soon be 2/3 non-state). I'm lifting ideas all the time for my work for the very good reason that I learn through others, omniscience being unavilable to me...

Plus there's several ocassions when I've come across articles of mine lifted wholesale, never mind paraphrased, and I reckon it's an honour to have something I wrote considered worthy of straight repetition, byline or not (as long as it's not taken out of context of course). Means I'm probably doing something right.