Aug. 21st, 2010 08:40 pm
ajnabieh: A seagull standing on a "no seagulls" sign, with the text FIGHT THE POWER (fight the power seagull)
Have you ever taken the PATH train from the World Trade Center stop?

It's something I'm contemplating these days.

I lived in New York for the first time in the summer of 2002, and I've had a permanent-enough address here since 2003. (Even while finishing up school in Connecticut, I came down at least once a month, do to my co-op shifts; that's gotta count.) I first experienced the World Trade Center site as a giant hole in the ground, with a fence around it. They had finished most of the real clearing work by the time I saw it, so, to me, the area was mostly the ghostly Cortlandt St stop on the R train, the giant, brightly-lit construction zone between me and the concerts at the World Financial Center, and a knowledge that terrible things happen, sometimes.

For various reasons, I've taken the PATH train at least twice from the World Trade Center stop, heading into New Jersey. It's a little strange to me, sometimes, that they kept the name, but then again, I can't tell what else you'd call it; that's its name, in a deep and meaningful way, and you can't just erase what something's been. The station is beautiful and clean--more like the SEPTA regional rail stations of my youth than the MTA subways I take every day. I remember the first time I took it, being impressed with the clarity of the station, and settling in to a seat on the train, ready to venture into the wilds of Jersey City.

The train pulls out of the station and into the light, and its reminiscent of taking the train from Penn Station, how some of the tracks before the tunnel are open-air and below grade. And this feels normal, until you realize where you are. You're going in a giant circle around the base of the square pit where the towers used to be. This makes sense, on some level: the trains used to run under the towers, and this station will, at some point, be underneath whatever they eventually manage to get built on the site. But it's as disconcerting as the name: shouldn't there be something special about this ground? Shouldn't we not be driving trains over it? Shouldn't we be leaving it alone?


I am thinking of this as I think of the level of bullshit being directed towards a group of Muslims who have the audacity to build, on private property, a community center, several blocks away. Who think that they have a place in this city, as its residents; who think they have a place in this neighborhood in particular, because it bears wounds from those who share a faith with them. Who think that there is work they should be doing, and want to do it.

I am wondering why it's okay to drive trains through something, but not to pray the wrong way in the vicinity.


I am thinking of this as I am thinking of Pakistan. A fifth of the country underwater; 20 million displaced; the world torn apart. And yet, torn-apart becomes the new normal, eventually. There will be months of waiting. There will be losses and losses and losses. And then from destruction will come construction, and places that were lost will become rewritten. Someone will remember, this was my farm. Someone else will know, this is my bridge. The world will change, and change, and change.

And someone will build trains there.

And mosques, too.


Park51, otherwise known as Cordoba House
A list of aid organizations working in Pakistan
[ profile] help_pakistan, a fannish auction to support aid work in Pakistan
ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (amal)
Last Monday, I attended a rally calling for the New York City schools to close on the two Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The rally was organized by the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays; catchy, no? Unfortunately, my photos turned out pretty poorly; I'll see if I can find some better ones and post them. However, I want to make a few observations about the event, the cause, and the politics around it.

1) Like any ethnographer working in a fieldsite that is reasonably keyed into information technology networks, I googled the coalition and event before I went. Most of what I found was news articles on previous steps taken by the group, including the 15-0 vote in favor of the holiday by the city council (see this NY Times article). Nearly all these articles included Mayor Bloomberg's quote, "If you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school." And every article, without fail, followed this immediately with the information that the NYC schools already take off for Christmas, Good Friday, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover. Clearly, Bloomberg's attempted framing isn't getting any traction in the media.

2) The Coalition's framing of the issue, on the other hand, was clear and consistent. This issue is about equal treatment and respect for the major communities of the city; about 12% of the students in the school system are Muslim. However, a subargument was made that I found very interesting: that the effects on the school system would be minimal. Over the next 12 years, one speaker said at the rally, only 10 instructional days would be lost, due to holidays falling either on weekends or during summer vacations. What's interesting about this is that it's a classic claim that the desired action is a minimal one. This is an easy claim to accommodate, in addition to being one justified on grounds of mutually agreed upon values (multiculturalism). Social movement theory: always relevant.

3) There was clearly an effort made to emphasize the diversity both of the Muslim community in the city, and the members of the coalition. The rally was co-emceed by a gentleman who appeared Arab to me (though he might have been South Asian, and I didn't get his name, and a woman who was East Asian. At least half the speakers were non-Muslim allies, self-identified. There were both Muslim and non-Muslim teachers, both Muslim and non-Muslim parents, and two non-Muslim representatives of unions (the teachers' union and the public employees' union). There were two other Muslim speakers, a coalition member giving the calendar data, and an imam talking about how many elected officials supported the measure. Of the Muslims who spoke, one was Latino by last name, one was South Asian, two were black, and one was Arab; of the non-Muslims, two were black, one Latina, one East Asian. The crowd was as ethnically mixed as this implies, and was prone to break out in spontaneous chants of si se puede.

3a) Yet the largest gap I saw was in getting Muslims there, particularly young Muslims. I attended with staff from the Arab-American Association, where I've done a great deal of my fieldwork, but unfortunately they weren't able to get their substantial youth base to show up. Among the reasons? An Eid trip to Six Flags. Frankly, there weren't a lot of young people there at all; elementary school students with parents, but not a lot of teenagers. Some of this might be reluctance to go into the city, which many outerborough teens have; some of it might have been the fact that it was the second (or for some, the first) day of Eid, and they were busy with holiday activities; some of it, I'm sure, was Six Flags. Teens can be a hard crowd to mobilize, as I remember from my own high school organizing days. But it was too bad more of them couldn't get out there.

4) Another interesting language/identity issue is what, precisely, to call the holidays that are being asked for. You'll note above I say "Eid al-Fitr" and "Eid al-Adha." I spell them this way because I'm a speaker (so to speak) of Arabic, and that's how one transliterates the names into English from Arabic in most general usage. But the Coalition's website says "Eid Ul- Adha and Eid Ul-Fitr," which strike me as South Asian transliterations. The NY Times as "Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha," which strike me as stupid transliterations; I think you need a character there to represent the ع in عيد , and skipping it looks just...wrong. (Perhaps this is a common transliteration in some context?) The Examiner link has both the second and the third. I don't have any conclusions yet on what these differences mean, but I want to flag them. Perhaps you, my almost non-existent readers, have thoughts on this question.

5) And a final note to self: maybe the next time you bring the baby to a fieldwork-protest, bring a tape recorder. It's hard to take notes and give a bottle simultaneously.
ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
One of the pleasures of big disciplinary conferences is the collision of papers that don't necessarily have much in common. (Of course, one of the downsides of big national conferences is...being in a room with people who don't have anything to say to each other. But anyway.) At APSA, I was on a panel about race, racisms, and xenophobia, on which I presented a paper on theories of recognition, the Arab-American experience of injustice, and why we need to consider discursive misrecognition as a real field for social struggle. In classic APSA form, I, an interpretivist ethnographer presenting a paper on political theory was paired with one historian and two survey research behavioralists/political psychologists. Nevertheless, the research was all fascinating, and I was glad to be on the panel.

One of the other papers was Measuring Respondent Agreement/Disagreement with Framing Experiments: Race, Religion and Voting Against Barack Obama in 2008, which Baretto and Redlawsk presented handily. You can read their abstract and paper at the link provided, but, essentially, they tested in what ways framing Obama as pro-Muslim, pro-Christian, or pro-black influenced how people later ranked him on various measures. They found that a successful framing of him as pro-Muslim hurt his numbers, pro-Christian helped a little but a failure of that frame hurt him more, and that being pro-black actually helped his numbers. They also explored the evidence that whether or not the interviewee agreed with the framing question had an independently significant effect on their support for Obama in later questions.

I found their work extremely interesting. The idea of 'framing,' is, in many ways, the way folks who don't come from my theoretical corner talk about what I call discourse; one could gloss 'discourse,' say, as the sum total of plausible frames, a sort of grammar of possibilities for understanding a political incident. I don't think this is a perfect definition of discourse, but it works, and certainly captures much of what I mean when I say it. Part of what was so interesting about this paper was that it allowed for the possibility that individuals could either accept or reject the frame presented to them: they could either agree with the way the question positioned Obama as pro-black, pro-Muslim, or pro-Christian, or disagree with it, and that choice influenced their later answers. This really is an excellent addition to the use of framing in research.

At the same time, I found myself having any number of thoughts about the structure of the questions that Baretto et al asked. I'm an interpretivist, methodologically; that means that the questions I ask about politics have to do with meaning. And these questions seem to 'mean' a number of things to me, many of which were not intentional.

Here are the three framing questions (from page 14 of the paper):

Muslim Frame:
Because his uncle in Kenya is Muslim, and for a few years he was raised in Indonesia, a
Muslim country; how much do you think Barack Obama can sympathize with the Muslim
community in America? Is it very much, somewhat, only a little, not at all?

Black Frame:
Because he worked as a community organizer for a Black church in Chicago, and
represented a majority-Black district in the Illinois Senate; how much do you think
Barack Obama can sympathize with the Black community in America? Is it very much,
somewhat, only a little, not at all?

Christian Frame:
Because he was married in, and attended a Christian church, and has stressed his
Christian values; how much do you think Barack Obama can sympathize with the
Christian community in America? Is it very much, somewhat, only a little, not at all?

The Muslim question stopped me, every time I read it. Why? Because if you asked me that question--before the election, today, or any other day--I would answer either "very much" or "somewhat," depending on my mood. And then, if you asked me about how I felt about Obama, I would reply (again, depending on mood and recent policy decisions) fairly highly. I think it is good that an elected official be able to sympathize with the Muslim community, because I think the Muslim community has been discriminated against, and that sympathy with them might mean less systemic discrimination. Now, based on the numbers Baretto et al got, clearly I'm in the minority in this reading. But I'm not alone: on page 19, we see that 20% of those who agree with the Muslim framing rate Obama in the top quadrant in their thermometer scale, and 19% say they "often" have feelings of hope towards him or his policies.

The Christian frame also made me think. Those who agreed that Obama was sympathetic to Christians rated him reasonably highly; those who disagreed rated him very poorly on the thermometer scale at the end of the poll. My guess--and I'd have to do research to back this up, but it's got some face validity--is that those who said he was not sympathetic to 'the Christian community' had a very specific notion of who is in that Christian community. Recently in American politics, "Christians" has come to mean primarily right-leaning evangelical Protestants, and often them alone: not Catholics, not mainline Protestants, not left-leaning Christians of all denominations. Most folks who self-identify in that community are not pro-Obama, to say the least. Hearing this question, their construction of what it would take to be "pro-Christian" requires not just being familiar with the community, not just being nominally a Christian or attending a church (not a masjid or synagogue), but having a set of particular and contested religious and policy goals. Obama just doesn't. But folks who thought he was sympathetic to the Christian community probably meant another sort of Christian community. Because of these differences in the construction of the community that they are being asked about, these different answers are measuring radically different things.

In general, I'm not certain if the "sympathetic to" construction is the right one here. That element of the question is where the majority of the multiple possible readings are situated. I want to know what "sympathetic to" means, and I'm pretty sure it means different things to different interviewees. Survey researchers are not a fan of questions with so many possible readings; however, I'm of the opinion that every question is going to have multiple meanings, and that you can't escape offering complex and divergent thoughts in any of your polling information. What I do think, however, is that we need to actually explore those complexities, rather than trying (and inevitably failing) to exclude them. I think this requires research more complicated than a 20 minute phone poll. I think it requires actually asking about meaning, rather than leaving them unconstructed. That doesn't make Baretto et al's paper less interesting to me; it just opens up a new set of doors that I'd like to go down, or at least see someone else go down.


ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
Ajnabieh - The Foreigner

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