Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Districts 4 and 7 Organize Independent Review of Candidates

North Austin Voting Districts
Hopeful citizens are counting on Austin’s adoption of the 10-1 city council system to result in grassroots candidates being elected this fall, while others are taking a more hands-on approach in deciding who represents their interests in City Hall.

Steven Zettner, editor of AustinDistrict7.org, believes that residents have an obligation to conduct their own review of their district’s candidates. “I'm impressed that the mainstream media has done as good a job as they have,” he said, “but there's just a lot across the city to cover. What we're trying to provide for District 7 is more depth.” AustinDistrict7.org provides a platform for residents to discuss district issues and review candidate’s positions, without interference from political campaigns or outside interests.

District 4 organizers have created a similar website, AustinDistrict4.org, to scrutinize their own candidates. Domenic Schiera, a community spokesperson, wants everyone in the city to be aware of his district’s needs. “The goal of organizing District 4 is to ensure that everyone - media, City Council candidates within and outside the district, and residents within and outside the district - understands the issues important to District 4,” he said.
Steven Zettner, Editor of www.AustinDistrict7.org

District 7 has eight candidates running, and Zettner has interviewed five, with more to come. Each has a profile on the site that gives a brief biography, references to news articles, and links to campaign websites. Austindistrict4.org also provides biographies of their eight candidates, although independent interviews have not been conducted.

As far as narrowing down key district issues to present on the site, Zettner said that it was a combined effort of the website’s volunteer staff and District 7 residents. For District 4’s website, Schiera said, “We have about 400 people on our mailing list.  We distributed a survey and request for candidate forum questions to the mailing list, in which 51 people responded.  The candidate forum questions were edited by a group of 15-20 people, who joined from the mailing list and possibly neighborhood residents who saw the posting on their list-serve.”
Domenic Schiera, District 4 Organizer

Many of those involved in these websites are also involved in the North Austin Coalition of Neighborhoods, which has served to mobilize area interests for years. “Districts 4 and 7 were preparing for 10-1 changes before the district lines were drawn,” Schiera said. This already established network gave these website projects a head start in reporting on the election. “We planned for this site last year,” Zettner said, “before there was any mainstream coverage.  We had an inkling that this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime, crazy election, which has proven to be the case.” North Austin is the only region of the city with this level of coordination between its neighborhood associations.

For concerned citizens outside of Districts 4 and 7, public forums provide a space to meet and question city council candidates. Forums will start Wednesday, September 3rd, and will continue into October. North Austin residents who cannot make these forums, however, will have the luxury of visiting these independent websites to judge their candidates from a grassroots perspective.

Friday, August 15, 2014

An Open Letter Response To My Sister

Dear Emma,

Your response to my previous post demonstrates your nuanced perspective on this issue as much as it does your love and respect for me. I am lucky to have a sister who resists the temptation to "turn me over to the wolves" as you put it, and instead takes time and energy to respond to a piece that you thought deserved neither. So, thank you. I hope in this response to both acknowledge the serious problems you underlined in my piece, but also to clarify some points that I think were interpreted incorrectly. Hopefully, I will prove that my essay was not "pretty standard Andrea Dworkin-esque anti-pornography screed." First of all, I do not think that porn should be abolished, I never said that in my piece, and I do not identify with that clique. I was advocating for 1. men to start the conversation with others about why they use porn and question whether it is problematic and 2. if they decide that it is problematic, to boycott its use. Boycotting a product is a much different idea than abolishing an entire trade. Now I will address the rest of your criticisms point by point.

1. The picture - I had a really hard time finding a picture to go with this piece. I did not want to use a picture of Christy Mack or Jon Koppenhaver, because I do not think that jumping on the sensationalism bandwagon would be constructive. I also did not want to use any pictures that would insinuate that sex workers were responsible for this violence. I also did not want to give the piece levity. I almost used a screenshot of someone deleting their porn folder, but it did not really work visually. I think you are right to suggest that the picture I used demonizes porn and those who work in the industry, but what I was trying to go for was making men question whether porn is harmless or not. However, I do think you are correct in this point, and I am in the process of finding another picture to replace it.

2. "Fantasies are served up by many kinds of entertainment: what makes porn unique?" - for me, the answer to this question is obvious - its connection to orgasm makes it unique. I'm sure people have masturbated to a Toni Morrison novel, and I am positive that people have masturbated to Sting, but neither of these mediums claims the intention of facilitating orgasms. Porn is unique, because the messages that mainstream porn conveys (which I believe are problematic as I detailed in my piece) are introduced to the majority of men when their bodies are going through puberty. Repeated correlation of orgasm with mainstream porn's simulation of women chemically instills that dehumanizing image into boys' developing brains. This transaction is much more powerful than the emotional effects given by the other mediums you listed, and that is why more extreme forms of resistance (boycott) are required to change the messages that medium primarily distributes.

3. "Where is Christy Mack the worker?" - I believe this is your strongest criticism, and one that I admit neglecting. I was very cautious to make it clear that I was not shaming or blaming Mack for what happened, which is why I wrote:

Those who underline Mack's complicity in this case also seek to distract attention from the systemic causes of her injuries. Although she and other female porn stars profit from the industry the composition of the pornographic fantasies emerges from the market relationship between the producers of these videos and their consumers, both groups predominantly heterosexual men.

One thing I should have clarified here was that I was talking about mainstream porn, and I realize that there are porn producers out there that seek to create a more ethical product. I also wrote:

It is important to note that in the following analysis Mack's pornographic roles are being referenced, not her actual person. As previously mentioned, regardless of Mack's involvement in the creative process of these videos, her pornographic persona is dictated by the desires of a heterosexual male authority and audience.

What I failed to do here, in trying to avoid blaming Mack for what happened, was neglecting to give her credit and respect as a worker. In this way, I dehumanized her, which is what I attempted to condemn in the piece. It's not like it would have been hard for me to get a sex worker's perspective on this issue. Obviously, I know that you are involved in sex workers' rights, and I have benefited from reading your writings on it in the past, and I could have easily have asked your opinion before I published the post. It was an egregious error that I left the sex worker perspective and aspect out of my article, and one that is harmful. It is a mistake that I regret and denounce in retrospect.

3. "Porn is not an unstoppable billion dollar industry" - you dismiss the point as being simply untrue, but the source you linked to, while showing that the profits of the industry are dropping, does not claim that viewership or consumption of porn is dropping, which is my primary concern. I realize that in my piece I probably should have substituted "consumption of mainstream porn" many of the times I used "porn industry." I did make the porn industry out to seem like a monolithic singular entity, when you are correct to point out that the actual industry is much more complex. Still, my main point holds true that consumption of mainstream porn is widespread.

4. "Your piece blames her performances for the violence committed against her." - I completely reject this accusation. No where in my piece do I say or imply this falsity. The reasons for the violence are complex and in some sense unknowable, but what my piece was analyzing was how the mainstream pornographic simulation of women contributes to the dehumanization of women in real life, and how that enables violence. You are right to say that we live in "a society where rape is treated as mythology by policy makers," but I never claim in my piece that the detrimental effects of the mainstream pornographic simulation of women is the only reason this sort of violence happens. As I state here, I see it as part of a bigger picture:

Koppenhaver's conviction that Mack was being unfaithful is the first example of how his violent reaction to the situation is validated by a patriarchal world view perpetuated by pornography.

Here, I should have clarified further that the "patriarchal world view is in part perpetuated by mainstream pornography," but I think it still comes across that I do not think this is the sole reason for the violence, but one that maybe is not as discussed.

5. "You dismiss the support of the community of sex workers as a cover up" - I only suggested that it is not in Fleshlight's interest to draw attention to how its manufacturing of women's bodies into commodities might contribute to violence against women, and I think this holds true for other companies involved in similar practices. I of course did not mean to devalue the support of the sex workers who have come to Mack's aid, and I think the solidarity shown by them is a testament to the strength of their community.

6. "You would not be there for me if one of my sex worker friends was attacked because of an opinion you hold" - I want you to know, Emma, that no matter what I think about this issue or any issue, there is absolutely nothing that would keep me from supporting you in times of need.

Finally, I want to once again clarify the main theme of my essay. I realize how my exclusion of the sex worker occupation and the humanity of its workers is problematic and contributes to the regressive agenda of porn abolitionists who demonize and criminalize sex work. But what I intended my piece to be was an analysis of the powerful and harmful effects that mainstream porn has on men (starting from an early age) and how these negative effects are rarely discussed between men for various reasons. There should be no subject that feminism cannot critique, including how men's perception of simulated women in mainstream porn overlaps with their perception of women in real life. The failings of my piece (which you point out astutely) should not discount the main argument I was laying out.


Questioning Porn

Kelly Houck contributed to this post.

***Trigger warning: This article analyzes violence against women and references a description of abuse. It also features descriptions of porn videos.

Earlier this week, porn star Christy Mack released a statement describing a brutal attack she suffered at the hands of ex-boyfriend Jon Koppenhaver in a home invasion last Friday. She tweeted pictures of herself in the hospital bed, showing swollen eyes, a broken nose, and missing teeth. The assailant is currently on the run, with $15,000 being offered for information leading to his arrest. Sex toy company Fleshlight contributed a third of the reward.

It is in the interest of companies involved in the porn industry to distance themselves from culpability in this case. Singling out Koppenhaver's behavior as an isolated incident helps obscure the porn industry's connections to violence against women.

Those who underline Mack's complicity in this case also seek to distract attention from the systemic causes of her injuries. Although she and other female porn stars profit from the industry, the composition of pornographic fantasies emerges from the market relationship between the producers of these videos and their consumers, both groups predominantly heterosexual men.

Consuming the pornographic simulation of women creates patterns of thinking about women in real life that extend beyond the seclusion of masturbation. Most heterosexual men believe that indulging in the pornographic imagination ends when they orgasm, but in fact this habitual gratification at the expense of women's human identities manipulates their attitudes towards women in general.

Based on Koppenhaver and Mack's testimonies of the assault, it appears that Koppenhaver cannot distinguish Christy Mack the person from Christy Mack the pornographic fantasy.

It is important to note that in the following analysis Mack's pornographic roles are being referenced, not her actual person. As previously mentioned, regardless of Mack's involvement in the creative process of these videos, her pornographic persona is dictated by the desires of a heterosexual male authority and audience.

Koppenhaver claims to have caught Mack being intimate with a male friend when he arrived (unwelcome) at her home last Friday. Mack dismisses this claim as entirely false. Koppenhaver's conviction that Mack was being unfaithful is the first example of how his violent reaction to the situation is validated by a patriarchal world view perpetuated by pornography.

Mack's most popular video on Pornhub.com is titled “Sexy Slutty Babe Christy Mack Fucks her Ex-BF's Best Friend.” The video starts with Mack welcoming a man at the front door in her underwear. Mack refers to her fictional ex as a “fucking coward,” adding “I'm so glad we broke up.” As the plot quickly escalates with Mack removing her clothes (unprompted), the ex's best-friend squeaks out a final hesitation, saying that what is happening is wrong. Mack replies, “Who cares?”

Mack is presented as an object to be attained the moment she opens the door. In real life introductions, one assumes the other is a person with friends, dreams, problems, etc. In this porn and in many others, the woman is instead immediately defined as a thing to be fucked, nothing more. In fact, in the pornographic imagination, women impose sex on men. Their presence demands it from men. The only premise needed to initiate sex in heterosexual pornography is that a man and a woman are together. Likewise, the only premise needed for heterosexual men to use porn is being alone with a computer.

As Koppenhaver opened the door early Friday morning, it can be assumed that he expected Mack to greet him as her character welcomes the man in the video – as an object ready to be used. When she answered fully clothed with another man in the house, he concluded that since she was not offering herself sexually as an object to him - she must be the other man's object instead.

When a woman doesn't fulfill the pornographic narrative conceived by a man, he infers that she is fulfilling it with someone else. The pornographic imagination, having robbed women of personal complexity, leaves no explanation for their “not putting out” except infidelity. The ease with which a virtual woman can be loaded up on a computer imbues men with a sense of power and control over their sexual urges, but it also engenders insecurity when a woman does not respond as instantaneously in real life.

According to Mack, after Koppenhaver had assaulted and kicked out her friend, he then made her undress and shower in front of him, recreating a porn-like scenario. This strange demand suggests that to Koppenhaver, there is no difference between watching porn and torturing a woman.

In another video entitled “Rebellious Daughter,” Mack plays the eponymous role, who has aggravated her mother by getting tattoos, piercing her ears, and shaving the sides of her head. The father (also the cameraman) goes in the bathroom to take a shower, and Mack is sitting on the toilet naked, waiting for him. She pleads for her fictional father not to tell the mother about how many tattoos she has, adding, “I'll do anything.” The father asks, “Why are you naked in my bathroom?” She responds, “I just wanted to show you that I would do anything,” and goes on to say, “I'm over 18, it's okay.”

Once again, Mack is reduced to a sexual object being imposed on a man. She is already naked, insists sex is the only outcome of the situation, and eliminates all other possible considerations by evoking her legal age. The line “I'll do anything” confirms that her body is at the man's complete disposal. Last Friday, Koppenhaver took this idea of total submission to its natural conclusion, by administering unrestrained violence on Mack's body.

In another tweet sent while on the run, Koppenhaver writes, “I only wish that man hadn't been there and that Christy & I would behappily engaged.I don't know y I'm so cursed.One day truth will come out.” His obliviousness to Mack's suffering also derives from pornography's presentation of women.

In another video titled “Christy Mack Swallows,” two men begin the scene by repeatedly complementing Mack's body, especially her breasts. One man asks, “You're more than just a pair of tits, right?” Mack answers, “Not at all,” but the other man contends, “Actually she's got a great ass.” Mack sadly jokes, “I'm nothing more than tits and ass.” The men ignore her and ask her to turn around.

The pornographic simulation of a woman, as an object, does not need to be treated or thought of as a person. Her words do not beckon a response if they detract from the sexual narrative, and her personality is an uncomplicated caricature. She is not entitled to free speech, to having emotions that are not sexual, or to not wanting to have sex. She is more than objectified - she is dehumanized.

Koppenhaver's tweet demonstrates his inability to empathize with Mack. He makes no mention of the serious injuries caused or the psychological trauma inflicted. His only concern is himself, who he views as a person, unlike Mack.

The majority of heterosexual men who watch porn do not physically abuse women, but all heterosexual men who watch porn are nurturing a corrupted concept of women. A mind routinely exposed to and rewarded by the pornographic simulation of women cannot prevent the characteristics of that simulation from overlapping with the authentic qualities of women experienced in real life. Heterosexual men who identify as feminist and also watch porn must recognize this inevitable collusion and its regressive consequences.

The ultimate goal of feminism is the radical notion that women are people. Pornography repudiates this idea; it insinuates that women are not as human as men are. In the process, it alienates men from half the population and furthers the oppression of women.

Porn producers and tycoons have no incentive to stop what they're doing. The Internet porn industry is the fastest growing online industry in the world, and the U.S. porn industry's revenue exceeds that of professional sports and live music combined.

The only way to reverse this growth is for heterosexual men to stop using porn. Of course, lifelong users are not going to just drop the habit spontaneously, so a more practical recommendation may be for heterosexual men to reflect on their use of porn and to talk about it. Porn has the luxury of being unexamined. The shame surrounding porn use normalizes it but also makes it inappropriate to scrutinize in-depth. In casual conversation, one risks embarrassment by talking at length about porn or by proposing it as a subject of study. If committed to advancing feminism, however, heterosexual men must not put their personal reputations before the rights of women as a group. A cooperative questioning of porn must be undertaken. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

New Leaders Surface in Wave of Texas Protests

The young adults who helped coordinate the Texas Stands With Gaza rally of over 5,000 people set a precedent for twenty-somethings across the United States who want the occupation of Palestine to end. Veteran activists like UT Professor Snehal Shingavi and ICPR's Bernice Hecker played a central role in preparing and executing this action, but the large numbers that converged in front of the Texas State Capitol last Saturday can only be explained by the new organizing talent coming out of Texan schools and cities.

Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada has argued that internet literacy has made the Millennial generation more receptive to Palestinian voices: “How many young people on college campuses get their news from the PBS NewsHour or the ABC nightly news or from CNN? Not that many that I meet. The mass media still has a big impact, but I think among young people, they're not turning to those. They're turning to media that is uncensored, where the gatekeepers cannot shut out the Palestinian narrative. That's why public relations like Israel's cannot ultimately change the direction that this is going.” Dina Kesbeh, a recent graduate of the University of Houston, echoed this observation.“We've come to realize that people go straight to Twitter or Facebook for their latest information on Gaza, completely skipping the conventional routes,” she said. Jauzey Imam of UT Austin's Palestine Solidarity Committee says that proficiency in new media can be empowering as well: “I don't think technology is a silver bullet to solving these problems, but I do think there are certain areas where young organizers can tap into technology that might bolster those tried and tested organizing methods—through social media, various web applications, and so on.” Tactics used for organizing the August 2nd rally included sharing a Facebook profile picture and the hashtag #TexasStandsWithGaza on Twitter.

The profile pic used by protesters.

The statewide rally wielded the momentum built by earlier protests held around Texas, all coordinated in part by student organizations. The night before the rally, Sana Anam Khawaja Anwar, a member of North Texas BDS, said: “We are hoping to have our voices heard by our elected officials in Texas and beyond in Washington DC. We want fellow Texans, Americans, and the rest of the world to see that we cannot and will not tolerate our own country’s support of Israel while it commits war crimes against the population of Gaza.” Ahmad Kaki, a student at Texas Lutheran University, reiterated this responsibility. “Texans have an obligation to show solidarity with Palestine,” he said.

Sarah Alfadda (left) and Mohammed Nabulsi (right) set up before the rally.

The day of the rally, young people unloaded and distributed the bottles of water, protest merchandise, and organizational information, and cleaned up the litter after the event was over. Jasmin Ali from San Antonio and Dania Hussein of UT Austin's PSC served as the emcees of the event, setting the stage for the guest speakers. Jasmin opened by thanking all of the organizers and invoking the crowd to "renew their intentions." "We are here for Gaza, and we are here for the oppressed people," she said. In her speech, Dania put the recent bombardment of Gaza in context: "If you are a six-year-old in Gaza, this is the third massacre you are witnessing."

Jasmin Ali

Dania Hussein

In the days following the rally, students at UT Austin are not wasting any time pushing the movement in Texas forward. At a meeting held on campus Wednesday night, attendees discussed the examples of Loyola University Chicago and the University of Michigan, whose student governments have tried to pass resolutions calling for their respective administrations to divest from companies involved in Israel's war crimes. Mohammed Nabulsi, a UT Law student, compiled a list of UT's implicated equity securities (Update: Mohammed notified me 8/12/14 of an error in this list - Unilever had operations in the illegal settlements but a few years ago they withdrew activity there.):

Corporation Name
Parent Company
No. of Shares (or Par Value)
Value ($)
Cost ($)

The group discussed how support for this kind of resolution at UT Austin could be raised. Protests, sit-ins, tabling at other university events, bringing in well-known commentators, and film screenings were some of the ideas suggested. Mukund Rathi, a computer science major, said that political education should be emphasized in all these strategies. Patrick Higgins, a graduate student at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, clarified how student teach-ins could be more effective as an organizing tactic than hosting celebrity speakers. “Students don't have careers to protect, so they can reach radical conclusions more quickly," he said.

The proposed resolution at Michigan did not pass, and the resolution at Loyola was vetoed by the student president after being passed twice. Even more discouraging for UT Austin activists is the fact that UT's investments are handled by an external corporation, UTIMCO. This extra degree of separation makes the adoption of a divestment resolution by any UT student government seem unlikely. Still, Jauzey Imam says that the press coverage generated by the student actions at Loyola and Michigan makes fighting to pass a resolution at UT Austin worth the effort.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Austin's Local Election Coverage Sign of Voter Apathy

Mainstream news outlets' coverage of the ongoing local election campaigns most closely resembles that of sports commentary. Typical stories highlight the competition between candidates' fundraising achievements or dramatize various campaign tactics. What's missing are serious examinations of the individuals poised to take command of the new 10-1 city council system.

The institution of this system presents a real opportunity to see a shift towards inclusiveness in political representation. Historically, voting turnout in Austin has been concentrated in the western, affluent, and white part of town, and this imbalance has shaped public policy, evident in Austin's watershed protection strategy, for example. If there is going to be a change, Austin residents (at least those who have an ID) must elect the candidates who are loyal to their district and committed to representing their constituents.

Then why hasn't the media given the public more in-depth looks at the candidates' histories to verify their fidelity to the concerns of their community? The answer is simple. There is no interest, and there hasn't been for a long time. For the past decade, voter turnout for local elections in Austin has been less than 20%. These pathetic numbers are part of a national trend - America's voter turnout has been on a downward spiral since the 70's.

The arguments against the efficacy of voting are substantial and often persuasive. Few of us missed comedian Russel Brand's explanation of his distaste for voting. Of lesser notoriety, but nevertheless convincing, was a Facebook thread where one of my friends from Wichita Falls defended his right to not vote against a legion of infuriated Democrats and Republicans. I asked him about the discussion recently, “It was a while back. The gist of it was I think you should only vote if you are (A) informed and (B) willingly consenting to be governed by the system.” The main point made by both Brand and my friend is that sometimes walking away from an old, broken system is more progressive than trying to fix it.

In the case of the 10-1 election, however, an uninformed and low voter turnout would most certainly be regressive. It would undermine the intended subversiveness of geographic representation in favor of maintaining the status quo. Without a strong showing of former non-voters at the polls this November, the new city council system will continue to represent one community above the others as the old system has for years.

In addition to higher voter turnout, there must be more of a demand for background investigations on these candidates. Ken Martin, my boss and the founder of The Austin Bulldog, has published a series of stories on mayoral candidate Stephen Adler. Through his research, Ken discovered that Adler had represented Lowe's in a case where the company won an exemption to the SOS ordinance, one of City Council's most important environmental resolutions. This discovery, in addition to other controversial cases explored in the series, question Adler's alleged commitment to environmental issues.

The campaign led by Austinites for Geographic Representation to adopt the 10-1 council system was hard-fought, but the fight for representation is not over. If the public does not increase its investment in this election and demand for background investigations, then this historic election will be no more different than any other that has come before it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

First Post

Starting this new blog to showcase my journalism and video productions. Here are some ideas for future projects:
  • Wrath of the Underclass: A show featuring short interviews with low-income restaurant workers expressing their resentment about the way things are in America.
  • Young Radicals: Interviews with young people in Austin who are involved in radical projects.
  • An investigation into Austin's Downtown Rangers
I will also be sporadically making more short music videos and posting opinion pieces here and there. In the mean time, here is my latest production - the first episode of a show called ALTERNATIVES, which looks at radical happenings in Austin, TX.