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All posts copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le.
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The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.

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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

October 12, 2011

Written by C.N.

Occupy Wall Street Movement: Real Deal or Just a Fad?

By now, I presume that you have heard of the Occupy Wall Street protests that began about a month ago, in which a small but fast-growing group of Americans camped outside of the large financial buildings in the Wall Street area of lower Manhattan to protest, among other things, the rising social inequality in U.S. society. The protests have since spread to numerous cities around the country (and apparently around the world) and at present, seem to be growing in popularity and media coverage.

Occupy Wall Street participant © Julie Dermansky/Corbis

One angle to look at is how the Occupy Wall Street movement may be the Left’s version of the Tea Party movement. While I have not looked into this particular aspect in detail, at first glance I think it is very interesting and even ironic that although this Occupy Wall Street movement shares much in common — at least philosophically — with the Tea Party movement, many of the latter’s prominent supporters have chosen to criticize the Occupy Wall Street movement. To my casual eye, this only highlights the hypocrisy of the Tea Party and confirms for me that is is less concerned about social change than it is about opposing President Obama and what he represents — namely the changing demographic, racial, and cultural face of U.S. society.

But beyond that, an even more interesting aspect of the Occupy Wall Street movement for me is its intentionally decentralized nature and how its most prominent informal leaders have specifically said that they do not feel that it is necessary or useful to articulate an overarching, single goal or unifying message for the movement. Below is a video clip from CBS News that discusses the movement’s reluctance to articulate a unified, central message.

Conventional sociological theory generally states that for a social movement to survive and have a realistic chance at achieving success, it needs to move beyond a single event and become more like a formal organization in terms of having a unifying message, clear leadership and personnel coordination, and well-developed administrative functions and capabilities. In other words, the early stages of a mass movement generally involve a sense of unrest or agitation, one or perhaps a series of events, a broad articulation of grievances, and an initial mobilization of collective action, media attention, and inevitably, some form of resistance or opposition.

But unless a movement can then develop strong leadership, mobilize resources, and sustain collective action, it is at this point where most social movements die. The Civil Rights Movement is often used as a model of how collective grievances eventually turned into a successful and sustained social movement through formalization, resource mobilization, organized division of labor, and political institutionalization. In fact, one of the most widely used books in the Sociology of Social Movements is Aldon Morris’ The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement that details how it evolved from collective grievances into arguably the most significant social movement in modern human history.

As applied to the Occupy Wall Street movement, conventional thinking dictates that it is eventually going to reach the point where it will either become more formalized, or it will flame out and pass into history. In this sense, the Occupy Wall Street movement’s choice to purposely remain unstructured and informal does not give me much confidence that it will be successfully sustained.

On the other hand, something also tells me that times have changed since the 1960s and that much like the rest of U.S. society, the cultural and technological landscape has evolved rather dramatically in the last 50 years or so. Obviously, back then resources such as cell phones, digital cameras, the internet, Twitter, and Facebook did not exist. Back then, communication and dissemination of information were slower, more crude, and more prone to confusion. If anything, knowing these limitations that existed 50 or so years ago makes the success of the Civil Rights Movement even more awe-inspiring.

In fact, scholars have described these types of social movements before and have called them New Social Movements (unfortunately creativity in naming things is not always a strong suit for academics). These New Social Movements tend to have decentralized leadership and organizational structures and instead relying on networks of groups that are affiliated or support their cause. They also tend to engage in nontraditional tactics — conventional protests but also TV ads, billboards, and extensive use of information technology and the internet. Some prominent examples of New Social Movements in recent history include the environmental, animal rights, anti-globalization, and peace/anti-war movements.

Today, with the widespread advent and dispersion of technological resources such as cell phones, digital imaging, and the internet, mass communication is infinitely quicker and more direct. Sociologists have started to write about just how much modern technology has affected and changed how human beings interact with each other on a daily basis. As applied to social movements, undoubtedly technology has made it much easier, quicker, and more effective to coordinate activities and disseminate all types of information.

In that sense, the Occupy Wall Street movement may not need to become formalized and organized into a hierarchy or bureaucracy in order to survive and become successful. The difference and advantage that they have today over their predecessors of 50 years ago is technology and the multitude of ways to dissemination information and to coordinate activities.

While technology itself cannot sustain a social movement, combined with the determination of participants and the fundamental importance and significance of the core issue of rising social inequality, the Occupy Wall Street movement may just be the right movement at the right time.

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Bonus: Check out this collection of some great protest posters of the Occupy Wall Street movement.


June 28, 2011

Written by C.N.

Asian Stereotypes in ‘Hangover 2′: When Enough is Enough

Many of you have probably seen The Hangover Part 2, the sequel to the surprise hit of 2009. I recently watched the first Hangover film and mostly enjoyed it, although it was not quite as uproariously hilarious as many of my friends hyped it up to be. I have yet to see Hangover 2 and now my motivation has declined even further, after reading my friend Jeff Yang’s recent article about it in his column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Some excerpts:

Ken Jeong in Hangover 2 © Warner Brothers

“H2″ made an absurd $103 million over the three-day weekend — an all-time record for a live-action comedy, despite near-universal excoriation by critics, who called it “uninspired and unoriginal,” “unclean and mostly unfunny,” and “rancid and predictable.” What few pointed out was that, in seeking to top the already over-the-top comic sensibilities of the original, the filmmakers chose the sleaziest, easiest possible solution, unleashing a relentless bastinado of abuse at the expense of Asians, a group that they presumably felt could be targeted with minimal concern about potential backlash.

If you’re an Asian who swallowed hard upon hearing that the sequel would be set in Bangkok, you’ll need to swallow harder just to keep down your gorge at what they’ve produced. The film’s depiction of Thailand transforms the “Land of Smiles” into a bizarro realm of brute violence, grim depravity and unfettered libido, populated entirely by broad racial stereotypes: Thuggish gangsters. Wizened monks. Lascivious ladyboys. Not to mention whiz-kid pre-meds, infinitely forgiving lotus-blossom brides and the Father of All Tiger Dads. . . .

As an Asian American who enjoyed the first film, I found the sequel bluntly and inexplicably offensive — with the fact that the movie opened in the waning days of May [Asian Pacific American Heritage Month] being soy sauce in the wound.

Jeff Yang could have ranted on about the various ways in which he found Hangover 2 offensive but most of his article actually focuses on what Asian Americans can actually do about this ongoing problem of Asians and Asian Americans consistently being portrayed using racist stereotypes in mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically, he offers some thoughts about the possibility of not only creating an alternative set of filmmakers who would portray Asian Americans more accurately, but also creating an alternative audience that would be able to sustain such independent efforts. But along the way, Jeff raises some important challenges that still need to be addressed:

For an indie filmmaker, you simply can’t make money with theatrical distribution. But if you’re talking a target not of theatrical distribution but direct-to-DVD, a film with a guerrilla $250,000 budget can make back its costs and return a healthy profit if it sells 20,000 units at $20 a pop. . . .

Now, there are currently more than a million Asian Americans enrolled in college — two-thirds of whom are concentrated in eight states. It would only take two percent of them collectively purchasing a book or DVD or CD to make it solidly profitable — supporting the work of a creative artist, and enabling that creator to continue doing what he or she does, with full freedom to make art that’s appealing and authentic and true to an Asian American experience.

This is the gist of something that, in our conversations, cultural critic and academic Oliver Wang has dubbed The Two Percent Project. Here’s how it might work: Get together a group of smart, influential tastemakers — journalists, critics, student leaders, bloggers. Have them select five indie Asian American creators — writers, filmmakers, musicians — from an open call that includes anyone with a brand-new, brashly different and commercially viable product.

Send these creators on a collective national barnstorming tour of the college campuses with the biggest Asian American student representation — reading, performing, speaking, and showing their work and their potential. The costs of the tour would be covered by student organization funds and corporate sponsors.

Here’s the kicker: Although attendance at these events would be free, every attendee would have to purchase one of the five products these artists are promoting on the spot, while enrolling in an online community that gives the artists long-term engagement with their consumers. The goal? Constructing an independent audience. Reinventing the Asian American brand. And creating recorded proof that Asian American artists are marketable and that a market exists to sustain them.

Jeff’s idea sounds plausible to me, especially if Asian Americans, young and old, keep railing against movies rife with racial stereotypes like Hangover 2. Jeff’s idea doesn’t even take into consideration the growing numbers of Asian American professionals who are making good money and actually have the financial means to support such independent efforts even more than college students. If there is a plan that can incorporate them into this movement, it would certainly produce positive results.

Either way, I applaud Jeff Yang, Oliver Wang, and others who are doing more than just complaining about injustices against Asian Americans — they’re proposing potential plans of action and solutions to the problem. Their specific ideas may or may not bear fruit immediately but at the least, they get the conversation started, get ideas rolling, and will hopefully lead to some innovative thinking and action to get something done.

Even if it’s a small step, at least it’s a step in the right direction.