Posts tagged NPR

Authentic Mexican cuisine

If yesterday’s post on orange chicken (among other things) made you think that I’ve got whole rants ready to go about the ways that people talk about how people talk about Tex-Mex, taco shacks and authentic Mexican food, you — well, you might be right about that.

Let’s take an example of something that’s both real Mexican food and also real USAmerican food at the same time, no matter how much we may try to border off our cuisines into rigidly separated domains. Tamales are the Mexican food par excellance. They are also straight-up USAmerican food. They spread into the U.S. among agricultural workers in Texas and city street food in Los Angeles, San Antonio and Houston. During the early 20th century, tamales spread through migrant agricultural workers from east Texas into the Mississippi Delta, and went up the river, becoming popular (as red hots) in Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago. Red hot tamales are USAmerican food. They’re so USAmerican they showed up in the blues as a metaphor for sex. But when corn-meal tamales, or chili con carne, or tacos, or fajitas, or other food products of northern Aztlan get brought up — especially when they are wrapped up in a cuisine category like Tex-Mex — there are always those who will insist that — because they are Texian, or because they are USAmerican, or because they are part of an immigrant community and a borderland — they somehow aren’t the same thing as Mexican food anymore.

But of course they are. Of course Tex-Mex is the same as real Mexican food. Mexico’s a big country — it’s so big that it even used to encompass Texas — and Mexican cuisine is the food eaten in Mexico and the food eaten by Mexicans as a whole, wherever they may be, not just the stuff that they happen to serve in the Distrito Federal, or in the parts of Mexico far away from the jurisdictional boundary with the U.S. People will insist that it’s important to distinguish Tex-Mex from the many other cuisines that you can find among Mexicans and the many other cuisines you can find within Mexico. And of course that is obviously true; and it’s not snobbish to insist on the point. But the snobbery — where it comes up — doesn’t come up in distinguishing distinctive cuisines. It comes in distinguishing them by putting down the food eaten on the periphery, or in the diaspora — which is what happens when, say, you privilege the food popular in the capital or in favored sub-regions, by calling that Mexican food proper (for example), and claim that the other cuisines are somehow less really or authentically or properly Mexican. This is part of what I was trying to get at a few years back when I wrote Whiteness studies 104: Class, cuisine, and authenticity:

See, the kind of Mexican food you’re used to doesn’t count as incredible cuisine because rustic cooking from border provinces doesn’t even count as a cuisine. Cuisine is what rich people in big cities who use gratuitous French loan-words eat. And the kind of food they make in northern Mexican states like Tamaulipas, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja California, and in former northern Mexican states like Alta California, New Mexico, and (especially) Tejas,[1] doesn’t count as real Mexican cooking either, because a bunch of farmers and cowboys and immigrants don’t count as real Mexicans. Only rich Mexicans who eat in gourmet restaurants in metropolitan Mexico City do.

In reality, part of the solution to Zwerdling’s puzzle may be that Estadounidenses had trouble with finding this incredible cuisine they supposedly have right across the border, seeing as how those Mexico City restaurants where people eat this kind of food aren’t right across the border; Mexico City is hundreds of miles away from the Rio Grande. If you go right across the border you’ll be somewhere like Juarez or Nuevo Laredo or a little border village, and they’ll be serving those swamps of refried beans … and melted cheese. But NPR-listening white folks in the U.S. of A. are expected to take the very local and peculiar cuisine of Mexico City to represent the real cuisine of the entire United States of Mexico, because NPR-listening white folks in the U.S. of A. have mostly come to believe that world food is arranged not by the messy clustering of ecological, economic, and cultural factors that actually influences how people eat, but rather by the basically military reality of discrete nations separated by fortified political borders. And, having come to believe that, we have mostly come to identify the authentic national cuisine of any given country with the preferences of the rich and powerful people sitting on the political, media, and mercantile centers inside those national borders — that is, the preferences of those who spend a lot of time eating cuisine, and little or no time growing or raising the food that goes into it.

What white people in the U.S.A. generally want, when they have the money to get it, is to eat like rich city people eat all over the world; different countries provide new brands, new spices, and, perhaps most importantly for the sort of white people who listen to NPR, new ways to distinguish yourself from the déclassé white people who don’t know or don’t like or can’t handle the real stuff. Perceived authenticity is the important thing here, and what’s perceived as authentic for any given country — and, therefore, fit for white people in the U.S. to eat — is determined not by culture, but by political economy and the orders of power and wealth.

— GT 2008-10-10: Whiteness studies 104: Class, cuisine, and authenticity

What I’d want to add on to the combo here would be: (1) to underline, again, the cultural twists and turns that Mexican food has made through the U.S. — the rapid spread of tamales from informal-sector street vendors, not only in coastal urban centers but also among (mostly black) workers up and down the Mississippi River valley; the development of mutant strains like the corn-meal tamal, the Sonora dog, and cinnamon-based Cincinnati chili; or, for that matter, the taco-shack fast-food cuisine that Authenticists love so much to hate. And then (2) to note how closely attitudes towards different varieties of Mexican food have been caught up, historically, not only in immigration politics and imperial ideology about nationality and ethnicity, but also in local struggles within U.S. cities over ownership of the cuisine — especially in struggles between informal-sector street vendors and small shop owners, on the one side, and newspaper recipe guides, cook-book authors, entrenched Chamber of Commerce restauranteurs, and other gatekeepers of commercialized culture, especially in northern Aztlan cities like San Antonio and Los Angeles.

And also (3) I’d want to mention some of the weird little ironies that have emerged from those conflicts over ownership when they take the form of local Tex-Mex (say) being deprecated in favor of white Anglophone-curated presentations of self-consciously, self-presentedly authentic Mexican cuisine — the sort of stuff that Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless specialize in.

Of course Kennedy and Bayless are very good cooks, and the culinary movements they’ve promoted have served a valuable role when they have helped introduce a wider variety of foods from central and southern Mexico, and when they have defended the possibility of taking Mexican food seriously as a carefully prepared cuisine. But their way of doing this has typically been systematically to rank down food from the borderlands and food from the diaspora; and to try and present the foods they privilege as authentic in ways that are really pretty elitist and exoticizing. Since part of their rhetorical goal is to distance themselves as much as possible from the over-familiar frontera food, the further you get from the U.S. border, the more authentic the food supposedly gets, and Kennedy and Bayless in particular have developed a fairly strong tendency to disproportionately push distinctively local foods from the far southern states in Mexico — e.g. Yucatecan specialties — as type specimens of authentic Mexican food. Of course there is nothing wrong with getting interested in specialties from southern Mexico, but the irony here, which goes more or less completely unremarked in Authenticist food writing, is that historically a lot of people in the Yucatán and Chiapas do not consider themselves Mexican in the first place, and historically many have not wanted to be part of the Mexican nation-state. There’s a long history of cultural and political conflict between the central Valley and the southern periphery, and since so many view the Mexican political identity as an identity imposed on them by conquest and occupation, the writing often comes off just as if you had a cookbook describing colcannon and bhel puri as prime, typical examples of authentic British cuisine.

Of course, you could point out that one way or the other, southern dishes have come into Mexican cuisine, and they are as good a thing to explore as any. And you’d be right about that — just as you’d be right to say that northern Mexican dishes, border food and local developments within the Mexican diaspora have become an integral part of USAmerican cuisine. Food cultures naturally diffuse, develop, intermix and produce experiments, fusions, local traditions and local mash-ups. Making food has always been an activity both of care and also of boldness, of repetition and innovation at the same time and within the same dish. Cultures naturally diffuse, naturally grow inward and also reach outward. For all that they resonate with locale and community and language and place and social relationships and shared identities, they always overflow the lines that are drawn around them; culture does not neatly obey borders, or class divisions, and cultures (including food cultures) constantly experiment with, redefine, challenge, borrow, appropriate, re-use, re-make, erase, and rewrite the formations that they themselves are supposed to spring from. Authenticism is necessarily a bogus discipline because it begins by presuming that there is a unitary, hermetic, discoverable and conveniently identity-based food culture to be authentic to. Mexican food is the food of Mexico and of Mexicans wherever they may be, and it is no less complicated, no less multifaceted, no less riven with internal divisions, no less open to external contact and influence and experimentation, and no more confined to a single nation-state than are the people who make it and eat it. Fancy food from D.F. is real Mexican food. Street food from Michoacan is real Mexican food. Banana-leaf tamales from the far south are real Mexican food. Corn-husk tamales from San Antonio, burritos from the Mission District, tortilla soup, menudo, tacos from Roberto’s are all real Mexican food. Some of these are USAmerican food too. And we are all much richer and better for being open to the un-tidy, non-exclusive, profoundly human mess that cultures constantly make as they spread and flop all over the ridiculous lines that we try to draw on maps.

  1. [1] Because southern and central Texas were especially important to the development and spread of this kind of food, it’s often been tagged as Tex-Mex — although a lot of what gets tagged as Tex-Mex is really common to northern Mexico in general, and a lot of it comes in distinctive styles that come out of other old population centers, especially in California and around Santa Fe.

Wednesday Lazy Linking

Over My Shoulder #46: On Frank Zappa (and Ayn Rand). From Richard Kostelanetz, Toward Secession: 156 More Political Essays From a Fairly Orthodox Anarchist-Libertarian (2008)

Here’s the rules.

  1. At the top of the post, make a list of the books you’ve read all or part of, in print, over the course of the past week, at least as far as you can remember them. (These should be books that you’ve actually read as a part of your normal life, and not just something that you picked up to read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Pick one of those books from the list, and pick out a quote of one or more paragraphs, to post underneath the list.

  3. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, which should be more a matter of context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than they are a matter of discussing the material.

  4. Quoting a passage does not entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the books:

And here’s the quote. This is from a section of profiles in Richard Kostelanetz’s Toward Secession: 156 More Political Essays From a Fairly Orthodox Anarchist-Libertarian. This was home reading from earlier this week.

A radical from his professional beginnings to his premature end (on December 4, 1993, at the age of 52), Zappa won the respect of some, but not all, of his colleagues in both pop and highbrow composition. Indeed, his popular music had as many enemies as ans, but because of the loyalty of the latter he survived. Admirers of his extended serious compositions included the French music mogul Pierre Boulez. Zappa was once invited to give the keynote address to the American Society of University Composers; the 1995 meeting of the American Musicological Society included an extended paper on Zappa’s work. My own opinion (as someone who has written more about classical music than pop) is that the best of his music appeared before 1973, as many of his later concerts and records disintegrated into extended vamping jams in the tradition of pointless jazz.

Though Zappa was often a vulgar pop musician, he could be courageously critical of pop music vulgarity, at times functioning as an acerbic critic of the music business and eventually of world politics. It was not for nothing that his dissonant records were particularly treasured by Eastern European dissidents. Having influenced the man who became president of a new Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, he thought about running for the American presidency, and might have done so, had he not been hit with terminal cancer.

He was present in some form or another for a quarter-century, if not as a performer, then as a record producer, sometimes as a cultural commentator. In contrast to other pop stars, he did not lapse into silence or absence; he did not, for instance, let putatively savvy managers ration the release of long-awaited albums. Indeed, in a courageous twist, he took several bootleg recordings of his own music, improved them technically, and released them under his own label. Nobody else involved in rock music, very much a business for the short-lived, could produce so much and such richly continuous cultural resonance.

Printed on the cover to his first album, Freak Out (1966), is an extraordinary list of These People Have Contributed Materially in Many Ways to Make Our Music What It Is. Please Do Not Hold It Against Them. With 162 names, the list reflects Zappa’s precious intelligence, polyartistic literacy, intellectual integrity, and various ambitions. Among the names are the writers James Joyce, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bram Stoker, and Theodore Sturgeon; the highbrow composers Arnold Schoenberg [by then dead only fifteen years], Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky, Leo Ornstein, Alois Haba, Charles Ives, Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Roger Huntington Sessions, Vincent Persichetti, Mauricio Kagel; the music historian John Tasker Howard; the blues singers Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Little Walter, and Willie Mae Thornton; the record producers Tom Wilson and Phil Spector; the jazz improvisers Cecil Taylor, Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy, and Charles Mingus; the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein [but not the Beatles], the off-shore disk-jockey Wolfman Jack, the perverse painters Salvador Dalí and Yves Tinguy; the pop singers Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Tiny Tim; the sexologist Eberhard Kronhausen; the earlier rock singers Elvis Presley and Johnny Otis; the Italian-American martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti; the comedian Lenny Bruce; he oversized actors Sonny Tufts and John Wayne, all of whom indicate not only that Zappa knew what he was doing professionally but that he also could credit the sources of his learning. Though Zappa could be an ironist, all of these acknowledgments were apparently serious (even Wayne and Tufts, whom I take to represent strong performers who could stand out from any group). While Zappa’s formal education ended at a local junior college, mine included college and then graduate school. Nonetheless, as a self-conscious intellectual born in the same year as Zappa (1940), I would have identified many of the same names on my short list at the time.

Even at a time when record albums (not to mention performing groups) began to have outrageous names, Zappa should still be credited with some of the most inventive coinages, beginning with the name of his group, but also including Freak Out, Absolutely Free, The Grand Wazoo, One Size Fits All, Joe’s Garbage Acts, Baby Snakes, Jazz from Hell, Freaks & Motherfu*%!!@#, ’Tis the Season To Be Jelly, Piquantique, Electric Aunt Jemima, Our Man in Nirvana, The Yellow Shark, etc. If inventive titling isn’t a measure of literary talent, I don’t know what is.

It seems curious in retrospect that a man who apparently had no loyal friends outside his family, who surrounded himself with paid retainers, who terminated most of his professional relationships with firings and law suits, hould still have an audience. Unlike most culture heroes who create the impression, however artificial, of someone you’d like beside you, Zappa was someone that most of us would sooner watch than know (or want to know). It is common to attribute his continuing success to his appeal to different audiences, some appreciative of his musical inventions, others of his taste for obscenity.

My sense is that his advanced pop has continuously attracted sophisticated teenagers who, even as they move beyond him, retain an affection for his work. Immediately after his death, the Columbia University radio station, WKCR, presented a marathon of his work, its regular disk-jockeys for jazz and avant-garde music speaking knowledgeably about his work. Many announcers at many other university radio stations elsewhere must have done likewise in December 1993. In this respect of influencing bright youth who grow up (e.g., the sort who become public radio disk-jockeys), he reminds me of the writer-philosopher Ayn Rand, whose commercial potential was likewise surprising. Just as her eccentric work has survived her death, so will Zappa’s.

What should not be forgotten is that Zappa lived dangerously, doing professionally what had not been done before and others would not do after him, at a time and in a country where such adventurousness was possible, even as he was continually warning that such possibility should never be taken for granted. For all the continuing admiration of his example, there has been no one like him since.

— Richard Kostelanetz (1997/2008), Frank Zappa (and Ayn Rand), Toward Secession: 156 More Political Essays From a Fairly Orthodox Anarchist-Libertarian. 300-302.

The State of the Debate

Las Vegas is having a city government election soon, and one of the noxious byproducts of the process are the debates among the ranting power-trippers who are scrapping for the jobs, which completely took over a perfectly good local news-talk program pretty much every singe day last week. The discussions are boring, and depressing, and mostly pointless, but they occasionally offer a bit of insight into the kind of a policy debate that electoral politics allows. For example, here’s an excerpt from Tuesday’s show, in which we hear from Jennifer Taylor (the challenger for the seat in Ward 6) and Steve Ross (the sleazebag currently in charge). Here they work out the range of politically acceptable debate over development in the desert around Las Vegas (which is to say, government hand-outs to politically-connected multimillionaire developers, and government land-grabs in which they arbitrarily dictate to landowners what sorts of things we do or do not need to put on their land).

Taylor leads off by proposing that she knows better than you do what sort of neighborhood you might like to live in, and that the city government ought to deal with this by forcing the developer to do what she wants rather than what they think their homebuyers will want.

JENNIFER TAYLOR: Let’s start specifically with some of the issues that I think Steve needs to address.

And of them is the absolute failure to work aggressively to truly diversify this economy. Two years ago, a group of us were down in front of Steve at City Council arguing about the Kyle Canyon development agreement, which would have allowed the construction of 16,000 homes on the eve of the foreclosure crisis. we said we really don’t need that kind of glut on the supply of homes because we were already seeing that there were problems. It would have also centered on a neighborhood casino, and I think it’s been pretty clear that when you lean solely on one industry that you end up in the type of quagmire that we are in now. We are suffering so much more than so many other cities who have taken proactive roles to diversify their economy….

DAVE BERNS: Back this up even more. When you talk about Kyle Canyon, and I hear you talking about homes out there and development… The 1,700 acre Kyle Canyon project would have put homes, shopping, offices, a casino, at the southwest corner of US95 and Kyle Canyon Rd, pretty much at the base of Mt Charleston. The developer, Focus Property Group, paid $510,000,000 for the land. In October of last year, Wachovia Bank foreclosed on the property after Focus Property defaulted on the loan. One of the criticisms that we heard of this project was that it was inappropiate. It didn’t belong at the base of Mt. Charleston.

JENNIFER TAYLOR: No it didn’t. It was just a basic, cookie-cutter repeat of projects that we had seen throughout the Valley, and really worse than that Dave, was that the contract was so poorly vetted and provided so little benefit to the citizens of Ward 6 compared to what Clark County and the city of Henderson had forced folks to do in Inspirada and Mountain’s Edge.

DAVE BERNS: Such as what?

JENNIFER TAYLOR: Such as open space. We had significantly less percentage of open space in that project; the density was significantly higher than those other projects; there was not as much public and service funding in the Kyle Canyon development agreement as there was for Inspirada and for Mountain’s Edge. And again, it centered on this whole concept of anchoring it around a neighborhood casino.

Of course, the real problem is not that the city government in Las Vegas has somehow failed to force developers to do the right things; the problem is the fact that the city government of Las Vegas controls who does and who does not get access to unused land in the first place. There was no right way for such a planned community development contract to be written, because there is no way to fake freed-market results through government monopoly on sales or politically-allocated ownership. So the solution is certainly not more aggressive government thuggery, but rather giving up entirely on the idea of half-billion-dollar politically-determined land sales for state-capitalistically planned communities.

Of course, Steve Ross is often referred to as a defender of private property rights and a friend of developers. No doubt he will point out the destructive thuggery of Taylor’s position, right? Well, here he goes: check out this principled defense of private property. (Emphasis is mine.)

DAVE BERNS: Let’s start off… let’s back up a step and then we’ll come to the campaign contributions. First of all, your position position on Kyle Canyon. Spell it out.

STEVE ROSS: You know, it’s a great thing that we live in America, where if someone wants to do something with property, they’re allowed to apply to do whatever they want with their property.

— knpr’s State of Nevada (2009-03-31)

Wait.

I’m not sure I heard that right.

You mean, they’re allowed to do whatever they want with their property, right?

STEVE ROSS: When somebody owns a piece of property they have the right to apply and do what they want with it. My role as a city councilman in the northwest is to ensure that development in that project is right for this city. Somebody owns the land at Kyle Canyon road and US95, they’re allowed to apply to do something with it. They want to build something, they’re allowed to do that. And that’s how our laws are.

— knpr’s State of Nevada (2009-03-31)

Oh.

Right.

So that’s your freedom, fellow citizen — and such an important freedom that Steve Ross had to make sure he repeated it three times within a few minutes: that, when you want to put something up on your own damn land, you have the precious right to apply to the government to do something with it.

This may be the purest expression I have ever heard of the only kind of debate that’s allowed in city politics, here in Vegas and in countless other cities across the country, when it comes to private property and land use: the Smart Growth tools who figure that you can somehow force government-privileged monopolists to do the right thing, and, on the other hand, the Growth Machine tools who will stand up resolutely and defend, come hell or high water, your freedom to apply for permission to do whatever you want on your own land.

In case you were wondering, here’s an example of why Steve Ross, by the grace of Law Warden of 6 and Vaquero Supreme of the Vegas Valley, might decide that your plans to do something peacefully on your own property just isn’t right for this city of his: it might interfere with neighboring property owners’ wishes to make sure that land that doesn’t belong to them gets subdivided into equestrian estates instead of affordable family homes.

DAVE BERNS: Can you think of a residential development where somebody owns some property — Focus Group, Olympic Group, whatever it may be — that you would vote No on. As you say, if they own the land, they have the right to do with it as they may, as long as they follow our laws. Can you think of any project, Steve Ross, that you would reject, as a member of the city council?

STEVE ROSS: Oh, absolutely.

DAVE BERNS: A residential project?

STEVE ROSS: Yeah, let me give you a heads up here.

DAVE BERNS: Give us an example of why you would.

STEVE ROSS: Well, let me give you an example of actually something that did get approved, but not according to how the homebuilder want to build them.

DAVE BERNS: Please.

STEVE ROSS: There was a project out in the northwest, on the north end of Jones Blvd. The developer wanted to build a highly dense community in basic ranch land. I mean, there are 2 to 10 acre ranches out there in the northwest, and it didn’t fit. This neighborhood was going to be next to a proposed 300 acre equestrian facility that’s still proposed for the northwest, one day when we have the funds to do it. The developer, again, I had the developer go meet with those neighbors out there long before it came to city council. Interest enough—projects are vetted out in the neighborhoods long before they get to the council level. And projects don’t make it to the council level if the neighborhoods don’t like them. And that’s just the nature of how it works. This one particular neighborhood, they wanted half-acre equestrian estates on this property. And the developer bent over and said, OK, I will do that. I will build half-acre equestrian estates, because it’s in a rural neighborhood; we want to maintain the rural nature of this area, and that’s what they did. And not because of me, but because of the neighborhood.

— knpr’s State of Nevada (2009-03-31)

When I tell people that I don’t see the use of lobbying or electoral politics as a means to social change, the first response that I get is typically some kind of complaint that I’m out of touch with the real world; that if I want to make a practical change, I have to jump in and try to intervene in the power-games of the existing political aparat. This kind of complaint is the worst sort of nonsense — the kind of dogmatic practicality that you constantly get from people who are unwilling to actually think about what gets the goods, rather than what the tiny minority of professional politicians and media professionals have decided to dignify as proper political etiquette. In the real world, the debate is perpetually, structurally locked into a very limited range of positions, oriented around two poles that are themselves fixed by the platforms of the two established political parties, and if you want to try proposing anything outside of that range of politically-acceptable debate — like, say, a genuine notion of personal freedom, or a principled opposition to government planning and privateering corporate development scams — you will quickly find that such arguments find no purchase, and no interest within any of the political parties. The message won’t fit through the channels that electoral politics makes available. If you want to advance the ideas, you are going to have to do so through other means, that aren’t filtered by the conventional idiocies, or constrained by the structural barriers, of electoral politics, because as long as you’re subject to those filters and that structure, you’re not going to get much out other than a debate like this, between the virtue of force and the importance of your God-given right to apply to the government to do whatever you want on your own property, as long as the neighbors don’t want equestrian estates, instead.

Good night, and good luck.

See also:

Institutionalized sadism

(Via Atomic Nerds 2009-02-08, flip flopping joy 2009-03-03, and NPR.)

See if you can figure out what all of these cases have in common.

Trigger warning. The stories below involve verbal descriptions, and a news video below includes repeated displays of silent but very graphic footage, of extreme physical violence by adult teachers and male police officers against young men, young women, and girls under their authority.

In Idaho, an eight-year-old girl who has been labeled with Asperger’s Syndrome was taken out of a class Christmas party at her government-run school, because she was wearing a hoodie with cow ears and a tail, which she refused to take off on the arbitrary orders of her teacher. For this minor dress code violation, she was stuck in a separate room and intervened with by a pair of teachers. While she was under their power, she peacefully tried to walk out of the room through an open door, so the adult teachers physically grabbed her and forced her down into four point restraint; when she screamed and tried to get out of the painful hold they had put her in, the teachers then called in the county government’s police, who came in, grabbed this 54-pound girl, handcuffed her, marched her out to a police car, and took her to a juvie prison, for battering the teachers who were physically restraining her when all she wanted was to be left the hell alone. This sustained assault by several different adults, some of them heavily armed, on an upset child, which has left her with bruises, is dignified as a scuffle by the newspapers:

The mother of an 8-year-old autistic girl who was arrested after a scuffle with her teachers said it was horrifying to watch her daughter be led away in handcuffs from her northern Idaho elementary school.

Police in Bonner County, Idaho, charged the girl, Evelyn Towry, with battery after the arrest Friday at Kootenai Elementary School.

Even though prosecutors dismissed the case Tuesday, the family is considering legal action against the school. They say their daughter was physically restrained to the point of causing bruises and is now tormented by memories of the incident.

… Towry said Evelyn, who loves Spongebob Squarepants, told her she was put in a separate classroom away from the party, but when she tried to leave, the teachers told her to stay put. Evelyn did not listen, Towry said, and the adults physically restrained her.

She reacted in a violent way to the physical restraint, Towry said.

Towry said her daughter demonstrated for her how she was held down by her arms and legs. And Towry videotaped the thumb-sized bruises she says were left on Evelyn’s legs from the incident.

She said I was very scared, Towry said. She told me she was being hurt.

Dick Cvitanich, superintendent of the Lake Pend Oreille School District, which includes the school where Evelyn was a student, said the school called police because there was escalating behavior that resulted in what we perceived to be an assault on staff.

No doubt; but who, in this situation, was doing the escalating?

Teachers and the principal wished to pursue charges because they felt there were ongoing problems and this was the only way to resolve it, Lakewold said.

But Towry said her daughter thinks she got into so much trouble simply because she didn’t want to take off her cow costume.

When asked what she likes best about school, Evelyn responded quickly and emphatically.

Nothing, she said. I don’t like school.

— Sarah Netter, ABC News (2009-01-04): Parents Consider Legal Action After Autistic Girl, 8, Arrested at School

Meanwhile, in Occupied Seattle, a 15 year old black girl was taken to a government jail by the county government’s cops after she and a friend went on a joyride in her friend’s mother’s car. While under their power, according to the cops, she got quote-unquote real lippy over how they were treating her, and went so far as to call them some unkind names. Then, when she was being locked in a cell, the cops ordered her to take off her shoes; she kicked off one of the shoes towards the heaily armed cop who was about to lock her securely in a room she couldn’t escape from. Instead, he decided to take this escalating behavior as assaulting a police officer, which is of course a perfect opportunity for intervention — in this case, rushing the 15 year old girl, kicking her in the gut, slamming her against the wall of her cell, pulling her back by her hair, slamming her to the ground, pinning her down, and smashing her repeatedly with his fist while she was physically restrained by himself and his gang brother.

Meanwhile, in Texas, at the Corpus Christi State School [sic] — it is actually a government-run institution where about 360 people, ranging in age from 18 to 77 years old, are legally committed, temporarily or permanently, with or without their consent, for being labeled as mentally retarded, especially if they severe behavioral and/or emotional problems — about a dozen workers are under investigation after cell phone videos surfaced in which they rousted up some of the young men under their power, late at night, surrounded them, shoved them, kicked them, and goaded them into fighting each other for the entertainment of the trained, professional staff.

At a state institution for people with mental retardation in Texas, six staff members have been charged with taking part in staging what have been called human cockfights, using residents with mental retardation. . . .

The fights became known only because one of the workers lost his cell phone. It was found and turned over to an off-duty police officer. The phone had videos of more than a year of staged late-night fights, some as recent as this past January.

— Joseph Shapiro, NPR Morning Edition (2009-03-18): Abuse At Texas Institutions Is Beyond ‘Fight Club’

The criminal charges stem from allegations this week that Corpus Christi state school employees forced disabled residents into orchestrated, late-night fights over the course of more than a year. They were caught after they captured at least 20 of the episodes on a cellphone camera, one turned over to police.

Five of the suspects – Timothy Dixon, 30; Jesse Salazar, 25; Guadalupe Delarosa, 21; Vince Johnson, 21; and Dangelo Riley, 22 – are charged with injury to a disabled person, a third-degree felony. Their bail has been set at $30,000. A sixth suspect, 21-year-old Stephanie Garza, is charged with a state jail felony for allegedly failing to intervene in the fight clubs. Her bail is set at $15,000.

Arrest warrants obtained by The Dallas Morning News allege five of the employees encouraged, filmed or narrated the fights – which were documented in dozens of still images and 20 videos taken over six months in 2008. Riley is allegedly seen kicking a resident during a fight, while Dixon, who appears from the warrants to be the phone’s owner, is accused of doing much of the filming and narration. Four of the videos show residents sustaining injuries.

— Emily Ramshaw, The Dallas Morning News (2009-03-13): State school worker linked to fight club scandal arrested; 5 others sought

Texas authorities are outraged. But they would like us to know that this is an Isolated Incident:

He said he hasn’t heard of fight club scenarios at any other state schools.

I haven’t heard any other allegations yet, he said. So far, these circumstances, these staffers, appear to have been the exception.

— Emily Ramshaw, The Dallas Morning News (2009-03-12): Texas officials make surprise visits to state schools after Corpus Christi fight videos surface

Right — an exception. Just like the literally hundreds of other exceptions that we were discussing here less than a year ago, which The Dallas Morning News, among others, have documented at Texas state mental institutions in the last 4 years — the use of physical threats, headlocks, chokeholds, tackling, dragging, beating, raping, to please the whims of Mental Health staffers or to dominate and control the patients unwillingly forced to endure their care. Meanwhile, at Corpus Christi alone in 2008 alone, there were nearly 1,000 allegations of abuse, neglect or mistreatment in 2008; 60 reports were confirmed by the administrators. 60 confirmed reports is bad enough, but what’s worse is how many of those unconfirmed reports must surely be the result of the usual institutional cover-ups and white-washes. How much do you think you could get away with if all your coworkers could be counted on to get your back, and if reports of abuse by your victims could be waved off as literally the product of insanity or feeble-mindedness?

Several of the stories about this horrible case have gone straight for the agonized hand-wringing:

The accusations have raised questions about how workers trained and hired to care for some of the most vulnerable people in society could instead treat them with cruelty.

— Joseph Shapiro, NPR Morning Edition (2009-03-18): Abuse At Texas Institutions Is Beyond ‘Fight Club’

AUSTIN – Cellphone videos of Corpus Christi State School employees forcing mentally disabled residents into late-night prize fights have left Texas families and advocates for people with disabilities in search of answers – not just about security but about human nature.

How can one human being treat another in such a wicked way? Experts disagree on the roots of such abuse. It might be a byproduct of the stressful situations people are in. It could also be innate sadism.

— Emily Ramshaw, The Dallas Morning News (2009-03-14): Forced fights at Corpus Christi State School raise disturbing questions

We are also told that maybe it’s a lack of education; maybe there’s something about the impersonal nature of large institutions; maybe it’s all peer pressure. But really, once the hand-wringing about human nature and peer pressure and all the rest is gotten out of the way, one explanation is always put forward, by those who have access to the media, as a matter of unquestionable consensus: obviously, Experts tell us, it’s the lack of training, the poor pay, and the lax supervision of the personnel who are put in the position of de facto prison guards for hundreds of institutionalized people. This is used as an entre into asserting the alleged need for more tax money, more prison guards, more Expert training — and insisting that these state institutions don’t have enough privileges and money from the state government; that they need even more money to hire and pay the very people who have turned their institutions into dangerous hellholes. E.g.:

But they [Experts] concur that the formula at Texas’ 13 institutions for the disabled – young, inexperienced and underpaid workers in charge of the state’s most vulnerable residents – lays the groundwork for disaster.

Left alone, human beings will engage in the most surprising kinds of misconduct and adjust their mentality to fit, said David Crump, a University of Houston Law Center professor who specializes in the psychology of evil behavior. We should expect this unless we take concrete and meaningful steps to prevent it.

Of course, if you’ve read this far, you’ll have no trouble believing that people are capable of all kinds of cruelty. But if you’ve read this far, you’ll also know that this kind of non-explanation is the worst sort of hogwash. People don’t, as a rule, pin and handcuff random little girls on the street; they don’t beat the living hell out of customers at their workplace who cop an attitude; they don’t run into college dorms late at night to intimidate and goad groggy students into fights for the purpose of bloodsport. Nobody but a lunatic does this sort of thing to people who can choose to interact with them or not to interact with them, or in social contexts where they are dealing with equals who have a right to make their own decisions about what’s for their own good and who can expect to be taken seriously if they complain about ill-treatment.

These horrors do happen, and people do them, over and over again, and they are perfectly predictable — but they are perfectly predictable only in a very specific social and political context. The NPR story acts surprised that in government institutions like jails and schools and mental wards — institutions that people are forced into, against their will, when they have been marginalized by their age or their psychiatric labels or by the socio-legal processes of criminalization — the people who, as the legally-designated enforcers of the government institution’s prerogatives, enjoy unaccountable power to restrain and order around the most vulnerable people in society, might abuse that power with this kind of cruelty. But in fact this is only surprising if you forget the fact that the people under their care have been made vulnerable, legally vulnerable, precisely in order to make the institution go on running with or without their consent, and if you forget everything you ever knew about how people act when they enjoy unaccountable power over victims who cannot leave, even if they pose absolutely no physical threat to anybody, and who will not be taken seriously if they should protest. This only looks like a surprise if, in short, you go on imagining that this sort of violence is an abuse of the systems of government institutionalization, rather than part and parcel of what these institutions represent. These things happen over and over again, not at random but specifically in nonconsensual government institutions, in the dedicated facilities of social marginalization and segregation under the auspices of State power. They happen not because of peer pressure or intrinsic sadism but because of power pressure and institutionalized sadism — and we hear about them, in every state of the Union and on every day of the week, one more Outrage after another, but without the dots connected, indeed with the dots carefully left un-connected, because of the enduring, and grotesque, faith that with just enough nonconsensual funding, with just enough careful training and professional dedication, you can somehow make a nonconsensual government institution run the right way, and you can somehow maintain the conditions of a prison camp without the violence that prison guards always exercise. In fact, these institutions are already running the right way, in a manner of speaking — this is Situation Normal. And there is only one thing that will ever change it — abolishing the conditions that nurture and sustain it.

The reality is that what is needed is not more money, or more guards, or better training, or even a culture change. A culture change would be a step forward, but the real solution that is needed is something that goes far deeper: a solution that strikes at the root from which that culture and these conditions grow. What is really needed is a power change, so that psychiatric wards are no longer artificially packed by court order, so that patients can leave and seek help through other means if conditions become unbearable, and so that supposed patients are no longer treated against their will and held down at the mercy of their helper-captors. If you make a hospital into a prison camp, then it should be no surprise when the hospital caregivers start acting like prison camp guards. The only thing to do — the only thing you can do that will not just recreate the same problem in a superficially different form — is to respect the will of patients, to treat violence against them as a real crime worthy of punishment, to repeal the laws that privilege and protect their captors, and to break open the doors and tear off the straitjackets that hold them back from living their lives as human beings, rather than as objects of pity and coercion.

— GT 2008-05-05: Texas psychoprisons

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