Useful insecurities

I’m a white woman married to a Black man. I’m also the mother of two Black sons.

When I write that neoliberalism created the conditions for Charlottesville, it’s not to excuse racists, white supremacists, or nationalists. It’s not to to diminish the harm they can and do cause. It’s to put their rise into historical and political context, the better to rectify its root cause, or “the fundamental reason for the occurrence of a problem.”

I am deeply interested in my family’s ongoing safety. Such safety won’t be won by painting Manichean pictures of good-versus-bad, us-versus-them totality. It is much more likely to be won beginning with nuanced examination. By looking at history and asking, “How did we reach this point? How do we get away from this point, and build political systems that ensure we stay away for a good, long time, if not forever?”

While I began following #BlackLivesMatter about three years ago, I didn’t understand how its grievances fit within a larger context of oppression. It took last year’s American Democratic primaries for me to understand there is a larger context, and to realize I’d need to read more than a few short articles to wrap my head around that. Inspired by Hamilton and my siblings, I began a reading campaign.

With each book I read, I understand more keenly exactly how we reached this point. I understand intuitively, if not yet at a readily articulated level, what it will take to go–and stay–somewhere else.

I read Princeton professor Sheldon S. Wolin’s Democracy, Inc. in May. More than any other, this book helped me understand how a very specific sequence of actions and inactions brought the U.S. people the Trump presidency: Continue reading “Useful insecurities”

No warrant other than power

Only 72 pages into U.K. professor Andrew Sayer’s Why We Can’t Afford the Rich, I already have much I’d like to write about it. Instead, given current time constraints, I’ll share a couple short quotes for you to ponder along with me.

Government debt … can be thought of as a means for upward redistribution of income, from ordinary taxpayers to rich bondholders. Instead of taxing rich people, governments borrow from them, and pay them interest for the privilege.

The above quote was excerpted from Doug Henwood’s Wall Street: How It Works, and for Whom. The below quote is direct from Sayer, and sums up neoliberalism just about as succinctly as I’ve seen:

The rich would rather lend to the rest at interest and enlarge their unearned income than have to pay taxes to support them. Neoliberal governments obligingly cut the taxes of the rich, sell off public assets to them and replace government spending on education with loans to students that will yield interest. Governments then have to borrow more from the private sector to fund the public sector, thereby increasing the power of the rich and their ability to dictate policy.

For a little more context, Sayer distinguishes between earned and unearned income: “While earned income depends on providing goods or services, unearned income does not.” He breaks unearned income into two forms, “transfers” (entitlements) and “extracted unearned income,” concluding:

whereas earned income is work based and depends on producing use-values, transfers (or donated unearned income) are warranted on the grounds of needs, while unearned income based on control of assets has no warrant other than power.

Behind Charlottesville, economic violence

Earlier this morning, I wrote a little about my least favorite Rebecca Solnit essay. Now, having had time to reflect while driving to and from the grocery store, I’d like to write about one of my favorites. Though the essay is about the violence of climate change, it has much to do with what went down in Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday.

Solnit begins “Climate Change is Violence” with the below:

If you’re poor, the only way you’re likely to injure someone is the old traditional way: artisanal violence, we could call it–by hands, by knife, by club, or maybe modern hands-on violence, by gun or by car. 

But if you’re tremendously wealthy, you can practice industrial-scale violence without any manual labor on your own part. You can, say, build a sweatshop factory that will collapse in Bangladesh and kill more people than any hands-on mass murderer ever did, or you can calculate risk and benefit about putting poisons or unsafe machines into the world, as manufacturers do every day. If you’re the leader of a country, you can declare war and kill by the hundreds of thousands or millions. And the nuclear superpowers–the United States and Russia–still hold the option of destroying quite a lot of life on earth.

In the page margin next to this, I wrote, “I spent hours this morning thinking these same things, less eloquently!” I’d specifically been thinking how much I now loathe the saying, “hurt people hurt people.” The kind of hurt it sets forth is a very narrow, limited kind of hurt compared to that wrought by a handful of people with enormous political and economic power. The people who say it are focused on violence at an individual versus social/structural level, thus concealing (from self and others) the kinds of hurt they passively participate in wreaking on people worldwide. They move violence to a micro scale that captures only a fraction of the macro scale hurt perpetrated today.

Further on in the essay, Solnit writes:

Climate change will increase hunger as food prices rise and food production falters, but we already have widespread hunger on Earth, and much of it is due not to the failures of nature and farmers, but to systems of distribution. Almost 16 million children in the United States now live with hunger, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and that is not because the vast, agriculturally rich United States cannot produce enough to feed all of us.

In the next sentence, she sums up the problem so succinctly it still strikes me breathless:

We are a country whose distribution system is itself a kind of violence.

What does this have to do with Charlottesville, exactly? My answer borne of a year’s worth of reading is similar to Solnit’s here:  Continue reading “Behind Charlottesville, economic violence”

Civil obedience

About midway through my time living in Japan, I bought Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which tells American history from the side of conquest’s victims instead of its victors.

When I’d finished reading it, I set it aside and classified it as representing interesting perspectives. That was the extent of my engagement with its material: “interesting perspectives.” I left my copy of the book in Japan, and thought little of it afterward.

I just checked out the audiobook from my library. I’m still very early in, but it’s discomfiting to approach the same text with such different understandings of the world. 

2005 me thought the book interesting, but failed to engage with it in any meaningful way. 2017 me looks back and wishes my 2005 self had tried just a little harder to look beyond the moments captured to instead explore the themes, patterns, and power dynamics they reflected.

None of this is “just history.” History is the foundation on which the present continues to be built; its cruelties and assumptions are perpetrated today, as long as people broadly assume that then was then, now is now, and there’s not much understanding then can do to improve now.

While I am still a small part of the American problem, I’m nevertheless heartened–in one regard–to compare these two points in time. Now, at least, I recognize that there is a problem.

With any luck, 2029 me will have gone yet another step beyond, having moved from seeing the problem to effectively working to change it.

So you lose your perspective after a while. If you don’t think, if you just listen to TV and read scholarly things, you actually begin to think that things are not so bad, or that just little things are wrong. But you have to get a little detached, and then come back and look at the world, and you are horrified. So we have to start from that supposition-that things are really topsy-turvy.

And our topic is topsy-turvy: civil disobedience. As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem…. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them.

Howard Zinn

those who are searching

A little more than four years ago, a carpet changed my life. 

I came into my office one Monday and found myself choking on fumes. The building’s carpets had been replaced over the weekend, and they were noxious. My colleagues and I coughed and wheezed through our first days.

The carpet vendor, saying they got this complaint a lot with this carpet, came in and did a steam cleaning. This took some of the edge off the smell, but I continued to struggle with all kinds of reactions to what lingered.

While my colleagues adapted within a couple of weeks, my reaction worsened by the day. The strictly physical pain was bad enough, but what really terrified me was when I started losing mental ground.

I called my sister ranting and rambling one evening. I was trying to figure out what to do; I had a family to feed, and so feared the consequences of either staying or going. Stay and hurt myself further, or leave and struggle financially?

I was so incoherent in my agitation that my sister was terrified. She told me the next day, “You sounded just like Mom.”

Our mom suffered years of mental illness before she died of cancer in 2010. To hear I sounded like Mom was jarring.

I did not want to follow that path.

I found a new job, and left pronto.

What is this doing on my book blog, though? Continue reading “those who are searching”

Deeper than the weather

A few weeks ago, a meticulously coiffed older woman rang up my newest order of books. “You always buy the most eclectic books!” she exclaimed, beaming.

Yesterday, I looked at the cover of one of my  newer-still books while the same woman rang up others. “Oh, that’s the image from a podcast I just subscribed to!” I exclaimed at the peculiar image.

The woman glanced at the cover, smiled, and said, “I wouldn’t expect anything ordinary from you!” She quickly added, “I mean that in a good way.”

“That’s how I took it,” I said, returning her smile.

Before I’d even reached the register yesterday, I’d already had a couple of delightful conversations with bookstore folk. One older man was especially, fabulously delighted I’d bought a book called The Rainbow Goblins when my first child was a baby.

Last night, I got the chance to recommend two books to a woman at a Long Beach Progressive Revolution meeting. It was such a joy talking politics, books, and hope!

This morning, I stood in a coffee shop line (for a decaf; none more caf for me, ever) and pulled out of my purse one of yesterday’s books. Another woman in line saw its cover and asked me if I’d mind describing it. She was intrigued by the title and the image of a lone horse galloping through waves.

I told her I’d never usually read this kind of stuff, making a face when I said “this kind.” I said that I’d picked up The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself because it came recommended by someone I admire, and that I was glad I’d bought it. Just reading one page in line, I explained, had eased my heart immensely. It left me feeling better prepared for the day.

She thanked me for sharing and said she needed something just like to ease her heart.

Then, walking into my office building a few minutes later, I shifted my book and coffee to hold a door open for someone just behind me. “You’re my superhero!” he exclaimed. “Always reading so many things while you walk.”

I laughed and said my current book is rejuvenating compared to the depressing material I usually read. He smiled and wished me a good day.

Not too many hours later, I spotted my manager walking back from lunch with a book in his hands. I grinned, delighted to see someone else too caught up in reading to stop reading one second too early.

Once again, I assert that reading isn’t always a lonely thing. Sometimes, in the right time and place, it can be an invitation to connect at a level deeper than the weather.

The Attention Merchants

While I’ve written many posts about my no-love relationship with Facebook, I only ever wrote one post specifically challenging Facebook’s claim to be “free.”

My background is in software contracts. When I wrote the post described above, I was principally troubled by Facebook’s ever-shifting privacy policies. I said that it wasn’t free, because users were paying in personal data. That we didn’t have to directly fork over portions of our paychecks didn’t mean we weren’t paying somehow.

Naturally, most comments were along the lines of how (1) it is free and (2) “if you don’t like it, don’t use it.” I was so annoyed by the comments that I didn’t return this accidentally deleted post when I returned most the others.

A few weeks ago, my sister Rache recommended that I read Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants. I’d been talking about Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and she thought this would be an excellent follow-on. She was not wrong!

Within a few pages, Wu pinpointed what I hadn’t been able to when I wrote my Facebook-ain’t-free post years ago. I’d been pointing at personal data as what users pay to access the service.

Why does Facebook–along with other providers of internet services–want lots of user data? The better to commodify users’ attention for others’ profit: “We’ve already seen the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi: draw attention with apparently free stuff and then resell it. But a consequence of this model is a total dependence on gaining and holding attention. This means that under competition, the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative.”

Data was a means to an end, not itself the end. Wu elucidates this further the deeper he dives into presenting his case, engagingly answering so many of my lingering questions.

Wu’s chapter on propaganda is an excellent overview of how susceptible human beings are to manipulation through attention capture. There’s a lot to this, but two quotes bear sharing here.

Edward Bernard, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, was instrumental in successfully propagandizing the American public. He saw “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of organized habits and opinions of the masses as an important element in a democratic society.” There might be too much too-messy democracy without it: “I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace.”

(I hope you’re already asking yourself, whose peace?!)

Some days I read bunches. Some days I read little. Overall, though, I will not stop reading. Reading history and politics is my shield against propaganda; the more I read, the more robust my protection.

Nowhere is the need for this strengthening clearer than in the words of master propagandist Adolf Hitler himself:

I do not wish to be the subject.