A model for resistance in the age of Trump
“In creating the villain of Oink in 2012, I had assembled all the worst traits of corporatization — greed, self-interest, competition, assuming that one has a right to whatever one wants — and put them into the same character, Professor Peter Elliott. I’d also taken to ending my summaries of Oink with the following question.‘Is the greedy, womanizing, and narcissistic Peter an aberration? Or is he the future? And not just at Arbor State.'”
In 2012, I began writing a mystery entitled Oink, partly to keep myself amused while writing a memoir (Tasting Home) which was sometimes arduous to compose. Plotting a mystery felt up beat because I got to write about “pigs, poisoned cornbread, a feminist network, and a university tainted by corporate values.” (My elevator version of the novel.)
Writing Oink also allowed me to tell an uplifting story about a feminist, cross-race coalition that I had helped build at U.C. Davis in the 1990s. This coalition began with a group of women whose feminism was both anti-sexist and anti-racist and attuned to issues of class, nationality, and sexual identity. The majority of women in this coalition, moreover, were women of color. As the first paid director of women’s studies, I’d worked hard to make the program’s faculty at least half women of color, and together we’d labored to initiate close ties between faculty in the women’s and the four ethnic studies programs
We’d gone about creating community in the way women often do — by consciously “working on the relationship.” We formed ties of friendship and support by showing up for each other’s lectures, working on lecture series together, attending each other’s receptions and conferences, talking out conflicts — and there were conflicts — cutting each other slack, and sharing our personal lives. We’d have lunch and coffee together, and I gave a series of large buffets. We had fun, sometimes dancing in the hallways outside our offices, and bit by bit we brought the men along.
When, in the mid-1990s a new national development (often referred to as “the corporatization of the university”) emerged, it bought us even closer together. In California, the state cut funding to the U.C. system while corporate financing of research was on the rise. Davis was transforming itself from a university focused on agriculture to one focused on more profitable ventures in biotechnology. Administrators from outside the campus were being hired at princely salaries. Student tuition was raised, staff were cut, and the university depended more and more on part-time lecturers hired without benefits at low pay.
The school’s communal spirit seemed to be giving way to an ethic based less on community — or on creating a wide ranging educational experience for its students — and more on profit. In the wake of budget cuts and an increasingly corporate ethic, the first programs to be threatened with defunding were those of women’s and ethnic studies. You can imagine how thrilled we were about that.
Ultimately, however, the administration’s very efforts to downsize or do away with women’s and ethnic studies prompted the faculty in these programs to unite and to form an even more tightly-knit community. When threatened with defunding or being merged into large departments such as English and Sociology, where we could be counted on to disappear, we (now women and men) successfully proposed becoming a named unit in the humanities.
From that moment on, we went to see the administration as a group, something they were not prepared to handle. It is one measure of our success that in 2017 all the ethnic studies programs have become departments, which are harder to defund than programs, and that women’s studies is in the process of becoming one too.
I wanted to tell this story in 2012 because I thought it should be celebrated and because I wanted to make a case against the further corporatization of the university and of the nation. By the time I’d revised and decided to publish Oink in 2016, I was thinking how in keeping it would be with a Democratic win, how it would celebrate the interconnectedness which was one of Democratic politics’ stated goals.
When, to my horror, Trump was elected instead, I realized that the book would be less a celebration of than a call to organizing a resistance. It would be an argument for political coalitions that began with thinking about and then working on relationships, that focused on finding ways to work across differences, build trust, cut each other slack, and talk out conflict.
It would suggest a politics based on love rather than on rigidity, self-righteousness, and individual purity. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of the Black Lives Matter movement puts it in a recent article, being arrogant and moralistic, mocking, deriding, or dismissing those who have not achieved the same level of consciousness is a sign of a “political immaturity that continues to stunt the growth of the American left.” Not incidentally, Oink would suggest a politics based on never passing up a good time.
In creating the villain of Oink in 2012, I had assembled all the worst traits of corporatization — greed, self-interest, competition, assuming that one has a right to whatever one wants — and put them into the same character, Professor Peter Elliott, whose work on GMOs is being secretly funded by Syndicon, a huge biotechnology company. I’d also taken to ending my summaries of Oink with the following question. “Is the greedy, womanizing, and narcissistic Peter an aberration? Or is he the future? And not just at Arbor State.”
In a way I had never imagined, history has answered that question. Now, if our resistance is to thrive, we need not just to act but to think about and work upon the nature of our political relationships.