Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Eric Schlosser - Reefer Madness

Recently, I began reading Eric Schlosser's "Reefer Madness". You may recognize Schlosser's name from his book "Fast Food Nation". I have found the book so far to be very intriguing. Although I am less than half way through the book, Schlosser's intent is to investigate how marijuana, pornography and illegal migrant workers are driving forces in our economy. In Schlosser's first chapter on marijuana, he compares how users of different economic and social status are treated by the criminal justice system:

"In 1997, Gary Martin was arrested in Manchester, CT and charged with possession of marijuana. Almost twenty years earlier, he'd been severely beaten in a robbery, resulting in permanent brain damage. After the beating he endured a series of strokes that left his right side paralyzed. He developed circulatory problems, and his left leg was amputated. Martin began to smoke marijuana to relieve the "phantom" pains from his amputated leg. After being arrested for possessing less than four ounces of pot, he was evicted from his apartment at a special (federal) housing complex for elderly and disabled." (Schlosser 2003)

Compare this experience to:

" In 1990 Congressman Dan Burton introduced legislation requiring the death penalty for all drug dealers. 'We must educate our children about drugs', Burton said, 'and impose tough new penalties on dealers.' Four years later, his son was arrested while transporting nearly 8 pounds of marijuana from Texas to Indiana. Burton hired an attorney for his son. While awaiting trial in that case, Danny Burton II was arrested again, only five months later, for growing thirty marijuana plants in his Indianapolis apartment. Police also found a shotgun in the apartment. Under federal law Danny Burton faced a possible mandatory sentence of five years in prison for just the gun, plus three years in prison under state law for the pot. Federal charges were never filed against Burton, who wound up receiving a milder sanction: a term of community service, probation and house arrest." (Schlosser 2003)

As I was reading this, I began to think some more about crime and who it really targets. Schlosser has at least five more examples of high ranking government officials whose children had much more marijuana than Gary Martin, and who were never sentenced to the harsh punishments their own fathers had fought for in Congress. Why is it okay for a poor or working class person to be sentenced to life in prison for possession of a small amount of marijuana, yet a senator's son who is selling pounds of pot to other dealers gets off with community service? This is yet another example of how crimes are written to target the poor, and how those in power are able to manipulate the criminal justice system.

I highly recommend this book, and I hope to have more posts before I finish it. Schlosser also talks about how prostitution, marijuana, and illegal migrant workers are fueling our economy, and how without them, our economy would collapse. He also points out that currently more money is spent on illegal drugs in our country than tobacco, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. Food for thought...

Monday, May 24, 2004

Military Families Speak Out in support of Conscientious Objector

Camilo Mejia, a conscientious objector, has been sentenced to a year in prison for deserting. Jeremy Sivits, one of the participating Military Police at Abu Ghraib who told investigators about the abuse-torture, has been sentenced to a year in prison ...hmm.

Mejia is the first soldier returning from Iraq to attempt to claim conscientious objector status. He has the support of his family and friends as well as other veterans. There is a growing movement of family and friends of current soldiers in Iraq in addition to current soldiers and veterans of previous wars opposed to the occupation of Iraq. Organizing occurs around this shared political opposition to the Bush administration forcing one's self or loved ones into harms way - around a theme of sacrifice for what? Of course there are many different individual positions within the group, however, this is the common ground able to bring people together.

If you are interested in this portion of the current anti-war movement two website of interest are http://www.mfso.org/ (Military Families Speak Out), and http://www.bringthemhomenow.org/. There are many more veterans against war websites, while these two focus on families-of-soldiers, which is a relatively new way of organizing.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Military Industrial Complex and Deterioration of State Power in Empire

I've been interested in the privatization of military personnel by companies like Blackwater, Erinys, and Dynamics Technology, Inc. I've read in places where these companies are paying $1500 per day for services to retired military turned contractors, while national guard specialists typically make $60 per day, both paid out of the same $80billion contract.

This is actually what I was trying to find, the disparity between pay with some better information. But in my internet search, I think I still found some information to note, such as the way these companies, such as Blackwater, represent themselves - grossly fascinating. Also, the shameless way the military recruits through offering citizenship to enlisted persons and preferential treatment to their families (you can find the pamphlet on the right hand column).

To me it's coming down to a more obvious conflation of a "democratic state" and capitalism, beyond networks of those running the show, although I now need to read C.W. Mills' The Power Elite. But somewhere in my search I ran across a study by the RAND Corporation on military retention rates, wanting to know what to do to keep the higher skilled officers! So the state's contracts are hurting the state's own ability to retain the persons it trains for warfare because they can make so much more money from the private corporations these contracts fund, and if you're vaulable why not make some cash for yourself? This fascinates me. Any thoughts on how the military industrial complex is aiding in the deterioration of state power? Bourdieu would not like my take here - but how else can you explain this? I'd love to hear others' thoughts on this so please comment!!

Sunday, May 09, 2004

The Public Domain and Weblogs as Forums, Not Revolutions

There is an interesting article in Mother Jones "The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged" by George Packer, who has self-disclosed as a blog addicted blog-hater. He gives an overview of the political discussion blogs and how they will or won't change politics. However, in his article there isn't anything on the kind of blog we are trying to do here on PS with attempting to build bridges to/from academia, and more specifically sociology. Being new to blogs, I haven't had the time nor inclination to look at how they will or won't change politics. But I think they do at least have potential to offer forums in the blogosphere where new connections can be made, all taking place in the public domain.

On our weblog, there is a link on Crooked Timber under sociology, and there may be something on public sociology and weblogs in the next Footnotes with specific reference to PS.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Teaching and Public Sociology

My plan was to debate the military industrial complex in Iraq using David Barstow’s April 19, 2004 New York Times article “Security Companies: Shadow Soldiers in Iraq.” I sent the article home with my James Scholar section of “Introduction to Sociology” the week before, so they could read and be prepared to discuss in the next class meeting.

[A note on the James Scholar students: They are for the most part highly motivated and engaged. Also, many are from relatively privileged backgrounds. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a selective state school. Another article from the NY Times April 22, 2004 by David Leonhardt “As Wealthy Fill Top Colleges, Concerns Grow Over Fairness” references UIUC as one of the state schools with a large number of wealthy students.]

When it came time to discuss the privatization of the military, most students had read the article. However, they knew nothing else about the recent situation in Iraq. When I mentioned Falluja, they looked at me blankly. They did not know that April had already had the greatest number of deaths for the U.S., let alone the number of deaths for Iraqi’s. Nor did they have any sense of the political context of the recent battles. At this point, I asked if any of them knew anyone over in Iraq, not necessarily any family or close friends, just someone they knew. Three raised their hands out of the 25.

After I gave a quick and frustrated overview of the situation, one of my students asked, why Iraqi’s were fighting against the building of infrastructure, if it was going to help them have a better quality of life [this is before any reports of abuses on prisoners was out]. This started off a debate. Students left the classroom still debating and asking questions. Contrary to David Brady’s assertion that “By and large, it is very difficult for sociologists to get their students interested in, let alone passionate about, politics” (p. 6), all I did was bring up the discussion, get frustrated by the apathy and implicitly expose the privilege we had just discussed two weeks previous when we covered social stratification, which led to some opening that triggered debate that they were willing to stay after the bell to hear, and left still discussing.

This situation leads me to initially think 1) student apathy has a structural component beyond the obvious social privilege issues and not all students came from economic privilege, there is something to it in the structure of higher education that educators need to look at reflexively 2) once students see their privilege and how it affects their knowledge, even implicitly, they gain some sociological understanding of their privileged apathy. We are all interested in ourselves, so if we can relate our personal troubles/experiences to greater social issues, even the most apathetic among us can get interested – especially if that privilege ironically limits our “knowledge”.

So if my thoughts are in the right direction, how do we restructure our classes, as part of the education system that allows/expects apathy, to expect normatively that students be relatively informed on public issues - such as war - as part of being a responsible student? What are effective ways of exposing and underscoring the privilege that hinders their engagement? Am I making some poor assumptions here about privilege and the mutually constituted educational structures? Am I lacking reflexivity in deeming it important for them to be aware of the Occupation of Iraq, privilege, and the privatization of the military when we talk about globalization as a sociology teaching assistant?

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Sex and the Stereotypes

In yet another disingenuous and intellectually dishonest column, David Brooks today pretends to be reporting on new social science research on sexual marketplaces in cities, but it's really just an excuse to haul out the usual conservative stereotypes about the sex-and/or-marriage patterns of different groups.

Note, for example, that he associates being gay and lesbian with being white and affluent, and that while he says disapprovingly that "43 percent of the gay men in Shoreland have had more than 60 partners," he doesn't bother telling us how this compares to non-gay men in comparable partnership and SES categories.

I don't even know how to start pointing out all the racist and sexist under- and over-tones here (for a sexist one, though, how about where he says, "If men can have multiple partners, they have little incentive to limit themselves..."). Just read it and be disgusted.