You are here

Introduction: No Access?

Political and social ideas which question basic, commonsense notions about how we should lead our lives are not as easy to find as one might think.
Annalee Newitz and Jillian Sandell

Issue #26, May 1996

Political and social ideas which question basic, common sense notions about how we should lead our lives are not as easy to find as one might think. Oppositional thoughts and practices are not accessible to most people in their daily lives. When we do hear about oppositional ideas, they are often cast as the insane ramblings of a violent few, like Ted Kaczynski, the alleged Unabomber, or Timothy McVeigh, the Christian Identity terrorist who allegedly helped to bomb the Oklahoma Federal Building last year. In general, people who are working and caring for others in their lives do not have the time or energy to seek out the isolated and often hidden places where truly radical, and non-violent, strategies of social opposition are being created.

Most of our information about the public realm comes to us through the mass media, which presents it to us in an accessible, plain-spoken style. Almost anyone in the world can understand television, although they may not enjoy watching it. Unlike socially oppositional ideas, the ideas we receive from mass media like television, the Internet, and the newspapers are widely available, but they rarely speak to our human desire to remake society in a more egalitarian way. That is, mass culture is an egalitarian practice - for (with the exception of the Internet) it reaches nearly everyone equally - but it does not present an egalitarian world view. As many people have pointed out, mass culture presents the opinions of people who already hold a great deal of power. Because these people want to keep their power and money, they understandably hold the opinion that society is doing just fine right now - thank you very much - and any opposition to it is just plain wrong.

This issue of Bad Subjects represents our effort to think through ways in which oppositional ideas might be made more accessible, and why people often find it hard to speak out against, and refuse to participate in, oppressive practices in our daily lives. One of the foundational principles of Bad Subjects has always been to make the left popular, and by that we mean accessible in the same way mass media has been. Leftists often confuse this kind of accessibility with the people who currently have enough power to gain access to it. That is, the mass media is assigned a kind of guilt by association. Yet the problem is not mass media, nor its accessible style and language, but rather people who own the media who are mostly interested in maintaining their power and earning more money at the expense of those who watch, read, or consume media.

Bad Subjects tries, and has admittedly not always succeeded, to use the mass media (on the Internet and with desktop publishing) to unite accessible forms of communication with oppositional ideas. However, we realize that "communication" is not enough. Most people need more than progressive ideas - they need the resources and social power which a more progressive society might grant them. For this reason, we do not argue simply for a more democratic representation of people in the mass media, nor even for a more balanced presentation of political ideas there, but rather for a more egalitarian society in general - where people not only have an accessible mass media, but the masses have access to everything they need in order to live. What we argue for in this issue - in various ways - is something that political theorists have called "praxis," a union of ideas and actions.

All of the articles in this issue address questions of access and accessibility and how they relate to the broader framework of leftist politics. Rena Diamond argues that while the Peace Corps does useful political work - providing westerners the opportunity to be involved in transnational politics - too often it is an organization which reproduces a model of imperialism. Focusing specifically on the Philippines, and on the relationships between US men and Filipina women, Diamond argues that the Peace Corps reproduces already existing power relations to undermine the possibility of a progressive transnational politics. Also focusing on the relationship between progressive politics in a transnational framework, John Brady discusses some the recent debates about public space and immigration in Germany. Kim Nicolini focuses on the question of access to intellectual ideas and language, specifically on her experiences as a working class female undergraduate at UC-Berkeley. She argues that the use of intellectual language frequently perpetuates class privilege, rendering those without access to the requisite rhetorical language - and who instead use plain language and make personal references - less able to legitimately express their ideas. Nicolini now uses art as a way to provide marginalized youth access to social justice. Also focusing on access to intellectual language, Charlie Bertsch and Joel Schalit discuss the ways in which progressive intellectuals use obscure and inaccessible language. Specifically, they address how leftists might make progressive ideas more accessible and meaningful to a mainstream audience, so that political ideas are more than intellectual rhetoric and instead are tools for political action.

Annalee Newitz focuses on access to history, and specifically on the relationship between the kind of access women have to their family histories and the perpetuation of male privilege. Arguing that women are too often complicit in patriarchal codes of behavior, she suggests that filling in the gaps between women's personal and professional lives is one way women can be more effective in dismantling oppressive forms of social behavior and promote women's access to the professional and public worlds. In a round-table discussion on masculinity and whiteness, Sean Heron, David Keiser, Eric Rofes, Tony Smith, and Matt Wray talk with each other about how they experience their gendered and racialized identities in the context of their personal politics. Discussing how their experiences of whiteness and masculinity are not always experiences of pure privilege, they nevertheless acknowledge the ability for white men to have access to different social and political spaces, and they contextualize their discussion as part of a desire to position themselves responsibly within political debates such as those surrounding Affirmative Action. In a meditation on his involvement in oppositional media such as the 'zine Processed World and a leftist multimedia history of San Francisco, Chris Carlsson discusses the role leftists can play in shaping new media, and using them to communicate their ideas. Each of these essays is an attempt at mapping out what progressive "praxis" would look like in the real world, and in our everyday lives.

Copyright © 1996 by Annalee Newitz and Jillian Sandell. All rights reserved.