Post by Category : Politics

Jetsam

We Float Image Courtesy of LJ Whitsitt

Acting together we flattened the curve of the pandemic. Not the government. We did. We the people.

Remember that phrase?

Now …we the people are no longer acting together. On July 1,we hit 50,000 new cases of coronavirus. Our personal best.

Are we so weary of inconvenience and uncertainty, that we are willing to abandon parts of our society? Have we already forgotten that this virus will disproportionately kill our parents? our grandparents? those with underlying health problems at any age? the poorest among us?

Americans have neither the stoicism to actually bear the risk of dying from covid-19 nor the fortitude to embark on an indefinite period of rigorous self-isolation. Nor, even if we could muster those qualities, could we get a majority of our fellow countrymen to go along. And so, instead of deciding upon some basically rational course of action, we have collectively agreed to forget the things we could no longer bear to know.

Megan McCardle

We the people took to the streets after the murder of George Floyd. Changing our society so we can change our policing will require rigor and collective determination and time.

How long before American Amnesia kicks in again?

More Flotsam

#45 image courtesy of LJ Whitsitt

#45

We have come to see that the gaudy marketplace and our comfortable way of life is built upon the backs of the “essential” and the perennially poor. (Hedge fund managers are not “essential” workers.) It has also dawned upon us that the “world’s greatest economy” is a house of cards. “Supply chains” get sick. The human links in these chains lose their jobs and the flywheel of consumer spending slows down.

Another revelation for the middle class: the “social safety net” does not really exist! This uncomfortable truth has has long been a knee on the neck of the 20% of the American public that has no household net worth. For this economic demographic, the quaint notion that the government “has your back” actually went out the door forty years ago along with Ronald Reagan’s wits.

However, we have seen what a uniformed representative of government can do; casually kill George Floyd with one hand in his pocket.

Business as usual.

Flotsam

The “commodity fetish” in capitalism is the tendency to see the value of a commodity as an inherent property. The value of a widget is related only to the value of other kinds of widgets in the marketplace. We are blinded by the panoply of glittering widgets. The complex of interpersonal relations that go into producing widgets is ignored.

The pandemic has lifted the curtain and exposed (in Marx’s terms) the “relations of production” usually masked by “market” metaphors. “Supply chains”, it turns out, are people. “Supply chains” get sick.

Workers we took for granted and did not notice are now “essential” to our way of life. Why are these workers “essential” today? Why weren’t they “essential” on January 15? They are “essential” today because what they do is suddenly visible and cannot be taken for granted. “Supply chains” are working people whose labor keeps the groceries stores stocked so Americans never have to be without retail choice.

What do these “essential” workers have in common? They are poorly paid and their employers consider employee safety an afterthought.

If you work in a meatpacking plant, by order of President Trump, you are officially considered less essential than the steak you’re cutting up.

Eugene Robinson

Business as usual.

Flood Debris

Since February, we …comfortable white people…have come to see that even America … our insular City on the Hill …can be attacked by an invisible and inexorable enemy. We have been forced to look mortality in the face.

It became apparent that our government would not help us.

By the time of George Floyd’s murder, we had come to see that our only pandemic defense was our collective willingness to sacrifice the immediate gratifications of easy sociability and retail therapy. We came to see that our individual health depended upon community action. We sheltered in place and experienced oppressive uncertainty. Will we survive? Will our family members survive? Will our incomes survive? Will the “American way of life” survive?

Regardless of our ethnicity, we have all been imprisoned in a radically uncertain future.

The Great Flood

The paragraph that read me:

In “The Jesting of Arlington Stringham,” a story by Saki (H.H. Munro), the eponymous politician in a debate on the Foreign Office in the House of Commons remarks that “the people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.” The United States is experiencing the same excess. More outrage is being perpetrated and felt than can be contained within the existing frame of institutions and discourses. The image of things bubbling over, of energies and emotions that can no longer be enclosed, is physically manifest on the streets, as those who have been privately confined for so many weeks spill out into the public realm. But what there is too much of is not just present injustice. There is a superabundance of the unresolved past.

Fintan O’Toole

I have started several posts since the dawn of COVID 19 and finished none. I was flooded. Even during the best of times, my vicious internal editor only allows me to measure out my thoughts in coffee spoons. I have to thank O’Toole for naming the flood as a shared condition and freeing me somewhat. I can offer up bits of the the flotsam and jetsam the flood has dislodged for me .

To start, I grew up during the worst of the Civil Rights protests. I would watch African American children being spit upon in Alabama and then attend a school where most of my friends were African American. It was this experience that drove the first wedge into the complacent Republican edifice of my upbringing. I have been in and around the labor movement and distrusted capitalism my whole adult life. But so what? Where the f**k have I really been for the last 50 years? I was living my daily life (being a good consumer) in the comfortable cocoon of white privilege; intellectually dozing.

“White silence has been violence”. Yes. That is a weight I will consciously bear in the hopes that discomfort will keep me more alert to present injustice.





T.P. Two

Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I am still perseverating on the question… why toilet paper?

What came to my mind in thinking about the power of TP was Maslow’s hierarchy. This is a familiar (and very American) pedagogical tool. It is American in its blithe promotion of “self-actualization” as an ultimate goal. Nevertheless, it is a tool that can help privileged, self-actualizing American college students understand why so few very poor people are sitting next to them in class. Very poor people are too busy trying to feed, shelter and protect themselves. Such basic activities limit one’s ability and predilection to ruminate on Dostoevsky’s place in world literature.

In thinking about Mazlow’s hierarchy I realized that every level is linked by toilet paper. This is the power of TP; it is intimately rolled into our most basic physiological functions. Its very personal role is to keep us safe from the microbially dangerous waste we privately produce. In so doing, TP also sets the stage for us to experience the love and acceptance that accrues to those who do not waft of excrement. From social acceptance follows self-esteem and once we have reached the ledge of self-regard, it is but a small leap to the apex of “self-actualization”.

When something like the COVID pandemic strikes, Mazlow’s pyramid makes more sense upside down. Our lives are no longer safely arranged. Our “base” needs are no longer afterthoughts. They loom large. Will our “base” needs be met? If they are not met, who will we be? The weight of our biological vulnerability presses down. Can we bear it?

We are not masters of the universe, we are virus bait.


The Two Ply Veneer

If you lack a Hobbesian view of human nature, you are going to be late to the pandemic hoarding party. You are going to be without toilet paper.

That’s what I told myself standing in Safeway staring at the empty shelves, feeling slightly embarrassed… as if I had missed some obvious social cue. Why toilet paper? The Google offered some insight:

Stocking up on toilet paper is … a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are ‘doing something’ when they feel at risk.” This is an example of “zero risk bias,” in which people prefer to try to eliminate one type of possibly superficial risk entirely rather than do something that would reduce their total risk by a greater amount.

The Everett Herald

These days the the greater risk is going to the grocery store in the first place.

Given the amount of uncertainty in which we were swimming…self quarantine? lock down? days or weeks?… adding a little buffer stock to one’s cache of TP was rational. The effects of mass buffering however were empty shelves. For Americans, empty shelves are eerie and portentous. OMG …my neighborhood cornucopia is empty of that which can clean me…toilet paper, disinfectants and hand sanitizers. What will I be deprived of next? This is how an end-times shopping spree gets its start.

Few people appreciate how much retail inventory is “just in time”. I did a stint with Kroger a few years back (All praise the UFCW!) The only real storage space in a grocery store is the shelves. The corporate computer knows how much of any product will be (normally) needed in each store each week. Toilet paper takes up a lot of shelf space and sales are normally not volatile. In a well run store, there is only a two day supply. It is only when people get irregular that the supply chain falters.

More from the pandemic prison later.


Thinking About “Race” pt.7

Blood Quantum

Blood is a bodily substance and a rich and handy referent to a host of social meanings. “Blood is thicker than water”. Blood is not just a fluid it is also a permanent biogenetic relationship “thick” with obligations. Blood can be the symbolic vehicle for the emotions of social life “His blood is up” and “there is bad blood between them“. During the War in Vietnam, soldiers identified as African American were referred to (and referred to themselves) as “bloods” “One of the bloods was killed today.” Here “blood” stands in for “race”.

However, “blood” is not a static repository of linked social meanings, it is a flexible sorting tool. It can include or exclude. It depends on who is wielding it and for what purpose.

In 1887, the Dawes Act gave the Federal government the authority to break up Indian reservations into “allotments” to be doled out to individuals and owned  on a fee simple basis. The de jure purpose was to hasten the assimilation of Native Americans into (capitalist) society. The de facto result was that 100 million acres of Native American treaty land was opened to development.  In order to preserve the fiction of “fair” allotment, the Federal government had to count Native Americans. In order to count Indians they needed a measurement of  “Indian-ness”. From the current Bureau of Indian Affairs website (note that the B.I.A does not put quotation marks around the word blood):

Blood quantum is the amount of Indian blood you possess as determined by the number of generations of Native people you descend from, and it is the process that the federal government uses to determine whether they consider you a Native American or not.


Bureau of Indian Affairs

One “full blooded” parent makes you 1/2 Indian. One “full blooded” great grandparent makes you 1/8 Indian etc. Depending upon the tribe, a fraction less than 1/4 may make a person “non-Indian” and ineligible for tribal membership. One drop of Native American blood does not an Indian make.

Such “blood” fractions were (and are) totally foreign to Native American culture and they were not based on any scientific theory. But they were based on ideas of relatedness still held by “white” people and these ideas provided cover for powerful economic interests to subtract Native Americans from their land and reduce the Federal government’s financial obligations to ever fewer “Indians”.

Contrast this to the “one drop rule” under which any person with one ancestor of African descent was legally a “negro”. Why weren’t the children fathered on enslaved women by “white” owners considered “half-white”?

The ownership of human beings had to be justified on the basis of the “natural” biological inferiority of the “race” being owned. Linked metaphors of race supplied by notions of “white” and “black” reinforced the hierarchy of slave ownership. The color white is achromatic. If colors are mixed into it, it is no longer white. A substance is “pure” when it has no other substance commingling with it.  For the slaveholders of the South who labeled themselves “white”, one “drop” of “black” blood was a demarcating impurity that separated “white” from “black”.

Given that there is no black or white on the color wheel of human skin, why the insistence on an imagined impurity? For one, the putative superiority of the owners was a belief which needed to be tightly held. Moreover, the “one drop rule” had the fiscal benefit of adding to the number of human assets on the owners’ ledgers. Fractions of blackness in children were rounded up to whole numbers of slaves.

Blood quantum is subtractive for Native Americans. They are meant to disappear. Blood quantum for “black” people is additive, a mark of inferiority that never disappears.

The moral of the story is this: when the ravening maw of capitalism has to be fed, pay attention to the pronouns. Better it should happen to “them” than to “us”.  Pay attention to the words used to decide who  “they” are.

Thinking About “Race” -Epilogue


…what happened to America in 2016 has long been happening in America, before there was an America, when the first Carib was bayoneted and the first African delivered up in chains. It is hard to express the the depth of the emergency without bowing to the myth of American unity, when in fact American unity has always been the unity of conquistadors and colonizers – unity premised on Indian killings, land grabs, noble internments and the gallant General Lee. Here is a country that specializes in defining its own deviancy down so that the criminal, the immoral and the absurd become the baseline, so that even now, amidst the long tragedy and this lately disaster, the guardians of truth rally to the liar’s flag.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Thinking About “Race” pt. 5

The Borromean Knot


The takeaways thus far:

  • Much of our life is governed by “Reasonable” ideas that get us through our daily social life.
  • “Rational” ideas arise out of the rigors of scientific (or technical) discourse.
  • “Race” is not an idea that is supported by science yet it persists in our daily discourse.
  • One of the reasons it persists is that “race” is a notion that is bound up with our cultural mythology about kinship and identity.  “Race” encodes the belief that literally superficial aspects of our appearance act as markers for innate differences we can’t see.

“Race” is an active way of thinking that assists in the constitution of our individual identities as well as our social reality. In America, our “race” is a huge determinant or our economic, social and political fates. One of the consequences of 450 years of race thinking is that it has enslaved us all in a self-reinforcing feedback system:

The people who have been subordinated by race thinking…have for centuries employed the concepts and categories of their rulers, owners and persecutors to resist the destiny that “race” has allocated to them…..Under the most difficult of conditions and from imperfect materials that they surely would not have selected if they had been able to choose, these oppressed groups have built complex traditions of politics, ethics, identity and culture….When ideas of racial particularity are inverted in this defensive manner so that they provide sources of pride rather than shame and humiliation, they become difficult to relinquish. For many racialized populations, “race” and the hard won oppositional identities it supports are not to be lightly or prematurely given up.

Paul Gilroy, Against Race

“Race” in America may not be a scientific fact but is an embodied fact. It is only in recent years that the concept of “white privilege” has started to percolate in America. It has begun to dawn upon people of good conscience who think they are “white” that their social position is the result of the centuries-long exploitation of other phenotypes. “White” is not a neutral descriptive term (no human skin is actually white) but a social category larded with invisible values and properties.  The term “white trash” refers to people who are born “white” but who fail to live up to the invisible attributes encoded in the term “white”.

One’s self conception and one’s social identity is a hairball* of psychic, symbolic, social and economic factors. In this America of ours, “race” is a major constituent of this hairball.  Changing how we think about “race” will be necessary for us to begin the un-tangling but will not be sufficient to disgorge the hairball. The threads we follow will lead us directly to issues of power, trauma and myths of originary unity which will further challenge our political institutions and our collective self-awareness:

…where politics fails…it is replaced by enthusiasm for the cheapest pseudo-solidarities…forms of connection that are imagined to arise effortlessly from shared phenotypes, cultures and bio-nationalities.

Paul Gilroy, Against Race

*Or in Lacan’s more topologically elegant notion, a Borromean knot