Radicalism, Trump and the Past

In  the era of Trump and Hillary, we may occasionally forget about strange and seemingly ‘radical’ political moments.  But there have always been times of flux, of discrete moments of radicalism. I’ve tried my best to engage with some of these moments and some of the literature that surrounds these moments.

“The term political radicalism (or simply, in political science, radicalism) denotes political principles focused on altering social structures through revolutionary means and changing value systems in fundamental ways.”

Below are a few examples of specific radical’ moments.


For example, Peter Adams’s The Bowery Boys: Street Corner Radicals and the Politics of Rebellion (Praeger, 2005). A fly-under-the-radar expose of 19th century radicalism, the book has a lot of resonance now.

bowery boys

At the heart of The Bowery Boys – and of street corner radicalism – is Mike Walsh. His was a New York of ethnic and class division. In his 2005 book, Adams contends that the Industrial Revolution had fostered division by modifying the nature of the urban workplace. People felt disenchanted. Empty. The body was a vessel to be exploited.

He also holds that, by 1820, economic and political power had come to be controlled by a group of commercial and merchant elites (26). Walsh was an anti-intellectual rabble-rouser, who recognized and inveighed against this growing inequality. He voiced the frustrations of New York’s poverty-stricken immigrants and nativeborn alike with his incendiary newspaper Subterranean.

In short, Mike Walsh was radical in a radical time and place, a point
hammered home with vigor in this book. Adams cites Walt Whitman, one
of Walsh’s on-again, off -again supporters as writing, “At this moment New York is the most radical city in America” (63). Adams himself characterizes New York as “a center of radical thinking,” a safe haven rife with bohemians, trade-unionists, and utopian socialists (63). Walsh, a product of this environment, touted the Subterranean as “the most radical paper on earth” (xxi). And Walsh’s Bowery Boys, according to Adams, represented “a radical insurgency that threatened the public order and existing class relations” (xxii)

This sounds very familiar…

The Bowery Boys is also an instructive book for those readers interested in the history of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party’s internecine squabbling, and as popularized by Martin Scorsese in 2002, the radical ruffians and scrappers that participated in certain Gangs of New York.



I’ve also been very interested in the women and activists of the 1960s & 1970s. Hence, my close reading of Anne Valk’s Radical Sisters: Second-Wave Feminism and Black Liberation in Washington, D.C. (Illinois Press, 2010)

Valk investigates numerous grass-roots movements and organizations, such as the D.C. Women’s Liberation Movement, D.C. Area Feminist Alliance, and Gay Liberation Front. She offers absorbing portraits of movement figures like Mary Treadwell and Etta Horn, but the core strength of Radical Sisters is the delineation of the synergy, cross-fertilization, and antagonism between strains of feminism in Washington, D.C. This monograph, Valk’s first, is thus instructive for those readers with a broad interest in social movement interactions and feminism in the United States.

The book capably captures the points of both convergence and departure that characterized ‘radical’ women’s groups in Washington, D.C. On the one hand, Valk skillfully articulates how dogmatism stunted collaboration and consequently the longevity of certain organizations (the Metropolitan Abortion Alliance). Liberal feminists, she suggests, wanted legal and statutory reform and displayed a “fundamental faith in the soundness of America’s economic and political institutions,” whereas radical feminists, often far more bellicose, wanted to free women “within both personal and public realms” (4).

radical sisters
Read a full review here: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/465454

Radical feminists, in some instances, advocated the toppling of America’s capitalistic economy to terminate patriarchy, racism, and imperialism, thereby creating conditions in which an inclusive democracy would blossom.

In some cases, pugnacious radical women established shelters for battered women, children’s programs, rape crisis centers, and feminist publications such as Aegis andQuest. They were taking control of their bodies.

On the other hand, Valk correctly contends that the scholarly distinctions between radical and liberal are misleading and somewhat overplayed. She illustrates how “the line separating liberals and radicals often blurred” (8) and takes care to clarify how flexibility and adaptation also characterized interactions between movements like the Washington Area Women’s Center and National Black Feminist Organization. In explicating these tensions and negotiations, Radical Sisters paints a picture of a dynamic and protean feminism in the 1960s and 1970s.

Valk’s narrative begins with an overview of antipoverty and civil rights activism in the early 1960s, describing how branches of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) supported women participants in these initial efforts. Together, these groups campaigned to influence welfare policies, reproductive rights, and the socioeconomic status of women. Meanwhile, Valk traces the concurrent rise of radical feminists, who not only took cues from liberal feminism but also served to spark a fiery exchange of ideas about ethnic and class division in Washington, D.C., social movements. She then addresses this evolving dialogue as she unpacks and highlights the Black Power era. “Most Black Power advocates reacted negatively to organized feminism,” she explains, “and black women sought to advance gender equality through racial oppression” (11).


Finally, the narrative turns to lesbian feminism, another vital element of the fractionalized feminist landscape. According to Valk, the Furies, as the gay feminist collective was called, distinguished themselves by attacking homophobia in extant feminist organizations, igniting discussion around feminist philosophy, and ultimately alienating others in the broader Washington, D.C., feminist movement.


But then I got even more ambitious and modern with Radical in the White House?, which explored a number of books on George W. Bush and radicalism. These books included:

Fred Barnes. Rebel-in-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush. New York: Crown Forum, 2006. ISBN 030-7336492

Bruce Bartlett. Imposter: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy. New York: Doubleday Books, 2006. ISBN 978-0385518277

Sidney Blumenthal. How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0691128887

Sean Wilentz. The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. ISBN 978-0060744809

I felt that clashes over George W. Bush’s legacy – his radical legacy – had begun in earnest.

Authors of all political colorations had begun crafting books and articles about the appalling mishandling of the U.S. economy, the tepid response to broken levees in New Orleans, and the early failed strategy in Iraq, among a host of other topics. Conservatives, for their part, were especially introspective about and critical of their agent in the White House. Michael Tanner, a writer at the Cato Institute in Washington, pilloried the Bush administration’s disloyalty to principles held by those on the Right, whereas others in the conservative establishment – for instance, Daniel Casse – strived to rebrand Bush as a pro-government conservative.


A significant element of this debate centered on Bush’s putative domestic and foreign policy radicalism. In fact, the topic was broached as early as January 2003. According to Bill Kellar, Bush, the ideological torch-bearer of Reaganism, had a high-quality “chance of advancing a radical agenda that Reagan himself could only carry so far.” Not only were political and economic conditions apposite for the continued promotion of a radicalized version of Reaganite doctrines, but the Bush administration in early 2003 proved adept in pivoting off scandal. In foreign affairs, moreover, Bush’s Middle East policy was considered a “radically new approach” to the region. According to Daniel Pipes, it was time for Americans to buckle up. Succeeding years were going to be a “wild ride.” By 2008, a number of authors – including Barnes, Bartlett, Blumenthal, and Wilentz – began to address the thrills and perils of that ride.

It appears Bush was a radical of various shades. He audaciously and radically bucked the approval of the conservative establishment because he believed in the veracity of his own ideas: on prescription drug entitlements, education policy, and Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, just to name three examples. Yet Bush also oversaw the enactment of hefty tax cuts, first in 2001 and then again in 2003, and these measures – historic in size and scope – symbolized to moderates and liberals a radicalized adaptation of President Reagan’s economic conservatism. Moreover, after his “bullhorn moment” at Ground Zero in 2001, Bush embarked on a radical foreign policy that not only expanded the wartime powers of the presidential office but also included the sanctification of torture and domestic spying.

bush bullhorn

This stimulating and provocative selection of George W. Bush books asks us to acknowledge wildly disparate views of Bush and his administration. The first, a macabre vision, holds Bush as an obdurate radical ideologue who oversaw the precipitous economic and moral decline of the nation.

The second, by contrast, casts Bush as a transgressive conservative, a man driven not by dogma, but rather by a desire for results, for positive conservative outcomes in American society – and by whatever means necessary, including government intervention. His radicalism thus lay in his willingness to defy the shrill cries of his own base. The third view, Bartlett’s forceful argument, holds that Bush was a disloyal scoundrel – in effect, a liberal – and it condemns the president for his very lack of radicalism.

Bush was pretty serene about the whole thing. As he told Bob Woodward: “History. We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.”

The debate continues.

Now, however. Now.

The era of Trump. And Clinton. And Sanders. In 2016, we have a different version of radicalism. According to National Review, “Sanders and Trump Have Risen from the Wreckage of a Broken Culture” and suggests pop culture can “normalize” radicalism with “astonishing speed.” Trump, for his part, has called for a Radical Islam Commission.  He’s also been recast as a Marvel super-villain.



Let the good times roll.

A blast from the past…


The Economics of IVF

Money matters, public health spending, and policy decision-making. When mixed with the life sciences and babies, these issues become even  more complex.

In an earlier article, I wrote about legal developments in the sperm donation industry, which have raised questions about reproduction technologies and sperm banks in Canada and beyond.

I noted that three separate Ontario families have recently launched lawsuits against a U.S.-based sperm bank and its Canadian retailer, alleging they were misled about their sperm donor’s background history – and this included a criminal record and significant mental illness. Not minor oversights.


The families – all of whom used Donor 9623 – have brought suits against Xytex Corp., a Georgia-based company, and Ontario-based Outreach Health Services because, they were allegedly deceived.

Donor 9623 was marketed as very well-educated, a model of fitness, and a popular donor, and allegedly this wasn’t the case at all.


Ontario is leading the country in other ways. According to the National Post’s Tom Blackwell, “‘Huge’ demand for IVF treatment in Ontario — where it’s fully funded — has wait lists stretching to 2018.”

Essentially, Ontario’s decision to become the lone province to fully fund in-vitro fertilization has proven incredibly popular, with clinics taking just weeks to sign up this year’s limit of 5,000 patients. As Blackwell put it, this created “an almost instant logjam.”

The Ontario policy took effect late last December, but fertility specialists say they’re booking would-be parents into as late as 2018.

“Clinic caseloads.” writes Blackwell,  “have more than doubled in some instances, as the clientele grows increasingly diverse for a service that normally costs patients up to $10,000 a shot.”


The Toronto Star called this policy a “Baby Lottery.” Rather sensationally, the Star criticized the policy like this: it was “supposed to be a solution for people struggling to make a child. Instead, would-be parents are finding themselves bumped from oversubscribed waiting lists, weeded out entirely, or competing in a high-stakes baby lottery.”

Most provinces, including Saskatchewan, still do not fully fund the service (where embryos created by combining egg and sperm in a lab are inserted in the patient’s womb), although Manitoba and Quebec provide partial tax credits and New Brunswick offers a one-time grant.

On the one hand, public funding has been promoted partly as a means to stem the epidemic of multiple births stemming from fertility treatments. According to Blackwell, patients paying out of pocket “often push for use of two or more embryos at a time —increasing the likelihood of multiples as well as pregnancy…” And the Ontario program mandates that just a single embryo be “transferred.”

On the other hand, critics suggest that the lucrative industry should stick to single-embryo treatments regardless, and argue there are much more “pressing” demands for scarce health-care resources.

What do you think?


The Business of Babies and Body Products

Explosive legal developments in the sperm donation industry have raised significant questions about reproduction technologies and sperm banks in Canada and beyond.

Three separate Ontario families have recently launched lawsuits against a U.S.-based sperm bank and its Canadian retailer, alleging they were misled about their sperm donor’s background history, which included a criminal record and significant mental illness.

The families – all of whom used Donor 9623 – have brought suits against Xytex Corp., a Georgia-based company, and Ontario-based Outreach Health Services because, they were allegedly deceived. While Donor 9623 was marketed as very well-educated, a model of fitness, and a popular donor, other accounts suggest this wasn’t the case at all.

advertising poster

Court statements claim this donor was diagnosed with schizophrenia, suffered from narcissistic personality disorder, was a convicted burglar, and misrepresented his education, having claimed the IQ level of a genius. Essentially, the antithesis of what you’d normally look for.

In the Toronto Star, a recent editorial argued that Paying for Sperm Should Not be Illegal.  Just like with selling human plasma (as I’ve written about here and here), there is much debate. A lot of Canadians agree that we ought to be able to choose what we do with our body products, as Americans can. Do you? Do you think we should be able to buy and sell body products in Canada?

A fact of life with reproduction is that some people find they need help conceiving. Couples may struggle with sterility, decreased fertility, or one of the many other causes that make conception difficult. And sperm banks, which use cryobank technology, are facilities that offer solutions.

In Canada, under the 2004 Assisted Human Reproduction Act, you cannot be paid to donate. This law prohibits the payment of sperm donors (and other providers of reproductive tissues), as a matter of principle – and this is in order to prevent the commercialization and commodification of human reproductive tissues.

This legal situation has, according to some, created a “sperm shortage” and established conditions wherein, much like plasma, we hypocritically use body products from other foreign paid systems. (In Saskatchewan, much of the discussion about for-profit plasma centred on the fact that we are forced to import from the United States.)

For paid sperm donors in the US or elsewhere, screening is often vigorous and takes typically two to three months to complete. There are basic requirements, such as being 18 years of age and having no chronic health problems, but banks also have variable screening processes. Perhaps you have to be over 5 feet 7 inches. Perhaps you need a college degree.

The practice of sperm donation and cryobanking has not been without controversy. In 1954, three Iowa babies were conceived using semen that had been frozen and stored before use, a first in human reproduction. This represented a step forward in assisted conception, thus transforming the sperm bank from a futuristic (perhaps frightening) dream in The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984 or Twins into a viable part of reproductive medicine.

Picture7 Picture6 Picture5

Criticism emerged from both medical and religious circles. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, had condemned all means of artificial impregnation as early as 1897, and it reiterated its opposition, based on the separation of sexuality and reproduction, through the 1950s. Pope Pius XII called artificial insemination of any kind “entirely illicit and immoral.”

The New York Academy of Medicine initially condemned the technique in general, and the general public in U.S. demonstrated a mixed response.

At the same time, eugenicist and Malthusian undertones also led to criticism of sperm banking, with all of the pseudo-scientific, racist and sterilization images that these previously powerful movements conjured.


Of course, we have slowly accepted the practice of artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and other techniques. But in David Plotz’s excellent book, The Genius Factory, we can see, even amid a transformation from societal antipathy to gradual acceptance, how sperm banks have the potential raise questions with reproductive technologies. In short, recent history has lessons for the present case against Xytex and Outreach Health Services.

In 1980, Robert Graham, an eccentric millionaire inventor, founded the Repository for Germinal Choice, which was instantly dubbed the “Nobel Prize Sperm Bank” by the press. Graham’s plan was to encourage a kind of positive eugenics and he won over at least three Nobel winners, who agreed to be part of the master plan and delivered their seeds of genius – much like Donor 9623 promised to do.

It was a bizarre attempt at breeding a super-race which brought to life Malthusian worries and Social Darwinism, or, as David Plotz points out, converted these ideas “into dismal practice.”

The effort was undone for a variety of reasons, and one of the most significant had to be Nobel Prize winner William Shockley’s admissions about low levels of intelligence and forced sterilization. As one of the famous donors at the Genius Factory, he provided a public and rather unseemly view of picking and choosing children’s traits like flavours of ice cream.

Francis Galton

However, unlike Donor 9623 (whose real name is James Christian Aggeles), Shockley was a bona fide intellectual powerhouse. As distasteful as ideas were, he was co-inventor of the transistor and Nobel Prize laureate. He was not misrepresenting himself.

The recently launched lawsuits suggest that Donor 9623 lied about his IQ, his criminal record, as well as his health history. According to the statement of claim, the companies involved failed to screen and monitor donors properly, but, worse still, actively sought to sell the sperm after the donor’s arrests and mental health history were revealed.

“Instead of conducting an actual investigation into the claims made by Aggeles, Xytex promoted Donor #i9623 as one of their best donors,” the statement of claim said. “Xytex promoted Aggeles as a man of high integrity who was extremely intelligent and incredibly educated.”

Xytex, hailing from Georgia, has responded by calling itself “an industry leader” that “complies with all industry standards in how they safely and carefully help provide the gift of children to families…”

Bear in mind that these are American industry standards, which once again raises questions about the introduction of a paid donor model in Canada. Much like plasma, there is a large international market in sperm and a limited amount of sperm is provided altruistically here.

So should we re-evaluate our laws to allow for paid donation? This isn’t an easy sell.

In Canada, we don’t have a lengthy history of “paid” donation.

And while our neighbours to the south implemented such a system as early as 1937, Canadians have an altogether different vision of buying and selling parts of the body, including eggs, sperm and bone marrow. The recent federal discussions over plasma clinics clearly illustrated this.


Yet, the lawsuits by Ontario families may point toward the need for a deeper conversation about sperm donation and regulation in Canada.

According to Robin Henig’s book, Pandora’s Baby, the historical trajectory of reproduction technologies shows that our reservations about cutting-edge medical advancements and policy reforms gradually dissolve when couples have more chances to have families with children.