Friday, March 24, 2006

The people, yes

Carl Sandburg lives! Inspired by a presentation by Bruce Sterling at the South by Southwest conference (see video), some folks in Greensboro have created a wiki for the use of the homeless and poor--people without access to the webbed world.

Sandburg was a creature of the establishment by the end of his career, but in his early days he was engaged in radical politics, even writing for the International Socialist Review. As a young man he was a hobo. The internet would amaze Sandburg, and I have no doubt he'd be thrilled with the Greensboro project.

"Hobo" is an old-fashioned word, one of those we don't use any more, like "vagabond," "bum," "gipsy," "tramp," "drifter," "derelict," you fill in the blank, all of them bad. I don't know how the term "homeless" caught on or when. I'm sure it was intended to avoid the sad connnotations of all of the above. It's descriptive enough, maybe too much so: it points to a lack. The lack of a home. These are people defined by what they do not have.

Labels are tricky things, and surely it matters which categories we choose. The whole idea of labeling, even, can lead to trouble. Ed Cone, who tipped me off to the Greensboro site, wonders if the label chosen by the site's creators--"anyone living at or below the poverty line in Greensboro"-- will be "off-putting or limiting." He caught it for that from the site's creators, Sean Coon and Cara Michele. Still Ed wonders: "if you give people who are typed by society according to their economic status a forum, and you label that forum according to economic status, aren't you locking them into the economic labeling?"

This conversation calls to mind another one. Around the early 1990s there arose a feminist critique of "rights theory."

[R]ights provide the opportunity for the replication and reiteration of power relationships. . . . [F]eminists cannot then turn to rights as an umproblematic strategy for legal subjectivity.

The very concept of rights as we know them in western democracy, so these white American women said, arose out of the Enlightenment, itself the creation of patriarchy. Better to throw the whole thing out and start over. Not so fast, was the response from other quarters. We've marched and gone to jail for those rights. African Amerian legal scholar Patricia Williams wrote,

Rights feel so new in the mouths of most black people. It is still so deliciously empowering to say. It is a sign for and gift of selfhood that is very hard to contemplate restructuring ... at this point in history. It is the magic wand of visibility and invisibility, of inclusion and exclusion, of power and no power ...

When you have the tools that built the master's house, it's easy to criticize and intellectualize. When you're outside looking in, maybe the labels are not the point; maybe you don't see the labels and categories as barriers, given the more substantial barriers you face. The People, Yes! is just getting off the ground. Its organizers seem remarkably committed. I'm betting it soars.

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