Harvard, Sexual Politics, Class and Resistance

A long read by Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

As we write, the case of alleged sexual harassment by John Comaroff, a professor of anthropology at Harvard, is exploding. The Harvard case is particularly egregious, not least because of the elite status of the university.

In this piece we treat the Harvard case as part of a much wider set of problems concerning class, sexual politics, inequality and resistance. Our focus initially is on universities in the United States. But we need to remember that academic enterprise today is utterly international. Everywhere the industry relies on similar economic models, has similar intellectual concerns and fosters the considerable mobility of professionals and students from workplace to workplace around the globe.

We are particularly addressing anthropology and other graduate students in the United States and across the world. Our aim is to try to answer some of the difficult questions that come up again and again in online discussion of the case.

[You can download a pdf of this long read here.]

First: Why did Caroline Elkins, who wrote such an important book about the brutal suppression of Mau Mau in Kenya, sign the dreadful Harvard letter? And why did so many other people whose work you admire sign letters like the Harvard one?

The second question is one people seem to avoid asking directly, but it is behind so much of what is being said.  At Harvard, and with other abuse cases, a strange fact stands out. Most men are not abusers. But almost all male managers cover up and enable abuse. And so do almost all female managers. Why? What is going on here?

Third: The people who write the open letters, and others who want to defend abusers, go on about due process. But due process works as a Catch-22. Why should well-educated men accused of sexual harassment be the only ones to enjoy due process, when the apologists know full well that is exactly what we want for the victims of sexual abuse? Instead of banging on about due process for abusers only, shouldn’t we all be asking how can to build a genuinely fair process for everyone?

Fourth: Harvard, Columbia, and other universities in the United States and across the world go to extraordinary lengths to cover up abuse, protect abusers and thus enable further abuse. They do so even when most of the people who run those institutions don’t abuse. Why? Why does this matter so much to them?

Fifth, and finally, how can we do good work in the toxic environment of these institutions? Or to put it positively: what can we take from the struggles against sexual violence at Columbia and Harvard to help us do good, creative intellectual work as scholars and teachers?

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EURIPIDES, WOMEN AND SLAVERY: GENDER TRANSGRESSION IN ANCIENT GREECE

The Trojan Women at the Flea Theatre, New York, in 2016

Jonathan Neale writes: We start with a theatre, and two moments of astonishing gender transgression. One happened in a theatre on a hillside in the center of Athens on a spring day in late March of 431 BCE. The second happened there sixteen years later, in March of 415 BCE. Both took place as the audience watched tragedies by the poet Euripides. These plays were about gendered oppression, sexual pain, rape, slavery and the horrors of war.[1]

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Women in Afghanistan / Frauen in Afghanistan / An Interview with Nancy Lindisfarne

Katharina Anetzberger

This interview was first published in the Austrian socialist magazine Linkswende as Frauen in Afghanistan. You can read it in German here.

LINKSWENDE: Since the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan, the situation of Afghan women has come back into focus. How does this situation look like at the moment concretely?

NANCY LINDISFARNE: I think a place to start is that we need to understand what does actually happen with the Taliban and the actual defeat of the US, militarily and politically. So we’ve got a group pf people who have fought a guerrilla war and they have actually taken over a government with the idea of continuing to be not democratic but ruling a state. And they couldn’t have done this without – nobody wins a guerrilla war, certainly not one where the two sides are so disproportionately powerful and weak – without popular support. And that means that people all over the country have decided that the Taliban are a better deal than either the occupation government or the warlords.

In Afghanistan over 80 percent of the population is living in rural areas or very small towns or villages. This popular support is from men, from women, from everybody. This has been a long time coming and has been kind of growing over a period of time. This isn’t because the Taliban are deeply loved by the Afghan people but simply that they have been a lot better than the cruelty and the corruption of the American government. So that’s the framework I think which is very important and is somehow kind of forgotten in so much of the media.

The situation is enormously precarious for many different reasons. We can’t talk about women without talk about the whole population in a sense that the American occupation, the government of Ashraf Ghani, lost because as I said of the cruelty and the corruption, all that affects everybody. You can’t have a war and bomb people and send drones out and kill only the fighters. So people are in a dreadful situation frankly, partly because the Americans have been humiliated, they’ve been defeated and one of the terrible things that they do in defeat is they exert revenge by making sanctions as a financial penalty. They did this in Vietnam, in Iran, in Iraq, in Cuba.

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A Strike against Sexual Harassment

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

UPDATE, Jan. 8, 2022: The student workers at Columbia have now their strike. They stayed out for ten weeks and they did not buckle. The dispute was very hard fought because the management desperately did not want to concede arbitration in disputes over sexual harassment and racial discrimination. But the students refused to give in. This article, first published in November, 2021, explains why that victory over how to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace is important for feminists and trade unions around the world.

This is what we wrote in November, 2021:

In the spring of 2021, graduate student teaching assistants and researchers at Columbia University in New York went on strike for the first time to win proper pay and conditions. But they were also on strike for fair arbitration of grievances over sexual harassment. And their strategy on that issue has important implications for trade unionists and feminists all over the world – and for activists on the climate and other issues.

The Columbia Student Workers are now back on the picket line this autumn. It is the second largest strike in the United States at the moment, and one of a growing number of strikes and disputes by student workers at American universities.

The strikers are graduate students who do much of the teaching for a low wage. They have organized themselves into a branch of the United Auto Workers. There are three main issues. One is union recognition. The second is increases in wages, childcare supplements and health insurance. The third is independent arbitration of grievances over sexual harassment and discrimination of all kinds.

The Indypendent reports: Lilian Coie is a 6th year PhD student in Columbia’s neuroscience department and a member of Columbia Union’s bargaining committee. She told The Indy that there’s a little black book that circulates in the neuroscience department that contains a running list of abusive professors and labs to avoid based on claims of harassment or sexual abuse. 

We really need more protection. We need more than little black books to keep people out of abusive labs… [Neutral third-party arbitration] would incentivise Columbia to stop abuse before it starts, and to remedy abuse before it reaches the level of arbitration … Everybody here is fired up because they see exactly what we are fighting for and exactly how reasonable we are.

We wrote about the background to the strike earlier this year. What we said then is worth revisiting:

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Racism and the Myth of Trafficking

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write: The myth of trafficking was invented by right-wing evangelical Christians in the United States. It is untrue, racist and dangerous to sex workers. Yet to many people it seems both feminist and left-wing. This article explores that paradox.

In 2007 the US sociologist Kimberley Kay Huong went to Vietnam to study sex trafficking. She found none, and decided to study sex work, capital flows and masculinities instead.[1] The striking thing is that, even among critical academics in the US, no one had suggested to her that maybe there was no trafficking in Vietnam. Many other anthropologists and sociologists were having the same experience in other parts of the world. When they did the actual fieldwork, the trafficking disappeared. Continue reading

#MeToo and Class Struggle at Work

Rachel Maddow Friday night

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write: Yesterday we tuned in to watch Rachel Maddow’s nightly one-hour show on the US cable news network, MSNBC. Something extraordinary happened. Twenty minutes into the show Maddow began to talk about the Harvey Weinstein case. Over the next forty minutes she set forth, in powerful and coherent detail, how her bosses had attempted to protect Weinstein from the exposure of his sexual harassment and rapes on NBC News. Maddow accused her bosses, her bosses’ bosses, and her bosses’ bosses’ bosses, of lying, and of actions that were illegal and immoral. On live TV. Continue reading

The Roots of Sexual Violence

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale  write: Lurking behind any discussion of men and masculinities is a deep presumption that men are aggressive sexual predators disposed to raging violence, while women are passive victims good only for reproduction. If this binary construction is ‘natural’, if it is our DNA as a species, then what is the point of asking ‘Why are men and women unequal?’ ‘Why are lesbians and gays oppressed?’ ‘Why are many men violent?’ ‘Why is sexual violence so common?’

Yet these are old, very important questions. For thousands of years the most forceful answers have come from the people who dominate society. Continue reading

Abortion politics: Lessons from US History, 1980-2018

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write:  With Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the US Supreme Court, the majority of justices are against women’s abortion rights. This is the second of two posts about the “abortion wars” in the United States. In retelling this history we are looking for insights that might help us to fight for abortion rights going forward. Continue reading

Defending Abortion: Lessons from US History 1964-1980

Judith Widdecombe, abortion pioneer in MIssouri

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

This is the first of two posts looking to the history of abortion rights in America. Both focus on lessons learned that we can use in the fight for abortion rights in the future.  We make two central points in this post. Abortion rights were won by a mass movement, not the Supreme Court. Second, the abortion wars continue because abortion has come to stand for women’s equality,  sexual freedom and desire. Continue reading