Tag Archives: classism

Long arcs, bending

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

TW: racism, antisemitism, heterosexism, cissexism

I haven’t written much on here because, in spite of a quick look into what went wrong, I have felt woefully wordless. I don’t know that I have answers. I glued my attention to Trump early on in the Republican primary – something that many have held accountable for his meteoric rise. I kept the focus on him as the field narrowed, holding my ground that his visions were an American take on fascism.

His rise, his fall, his uselessness, his usefulness, held my pen captive for months. If anything on the internecine Clinton-Sanders competition I played referee, doling out criticisms on the basis of who seemed to be least examined at the moment. Their contest was secondary – whoever won had to win the ultimate battle, against an age-old adversary hostile to women in control of their own bodies and Jewish existence.

Well, he won. Sanders lost the primary. Clinton lost the general. Any hypothetical in which he would have won in her place was simply that – conjecture. But the allure of that was clearly strong to many, on a deeper level than asking who should have won the primary. It became about what should have been the focus of conversation.

Like many on the outside of the Republican hegemony, the repeated question of whether identity politics had eclipsed “economics” rang like a death knell – as if the clean water Standing Rock and Flint wanted was a resource disconnected from their racial demographics, as if LGBT rights do not cut at their core to cohabitation and hence housing and related industries, as if mandated health coverage of birth control and transgender transitioning care had affected no savings.

Decrying identity politics rarely sounded like a call for including a class consciousness in the politics of the day. If anything, it sounded like looking past some of the most economically deprived people in the country, on the basis of some or all of their identities, chosen or thrust upon them. Are we really supposed to believe that people spraypainting swastikas on walls are motivated by economic problems first and foremost?

ucd-swastika
A swastika, painted on a UC Davis residence, per Shaun King.

All of this was complicated for me by a more immediate sense of insecurity. At my new job, which was also keeping me occupied with something other than writing here, my coworkers were a motley crew of the terrified. A few days after the election, we held a visit for a recently departed member of the team – an Ashkenazi Jewish woman whose father escaped the Holocaust thanks to an integrated military unit and some elbow grease applied to a sealed train car in Nazi-occupied France. Gathered around the table with her were a Black Coptic Christian, people of color with temporary visas, LGBT people, Black people, Latin@ people, and others. The anxiety was tangible, and thirty minutes later it would spill out into the street – as other residents of the Bay Area blockaded almost every major street in a spontaneous expression of the same or similar terrors.

At the core of that terror is at least one question – which is whether it was actually true. The thing itself comes in a million colors, a thousand flavors, untold variations, but what we expected was some sense that this country was salvageable, this country could change, that this country was capable of more than it appeared. For the some among us, that means a capacity to think of women as its highest leaders. For others, that means a rejection of ethnic cleansing as social and economic policy. For others still, maybe that belief suddenly so fragile and subject to destruction was that the moral arc of the universe bends, and it bends towards justice, and it is slow but don’t doubt it. Well, this is a hell of a twist in another direction, shouldn’t we have a moment of doubt?

This doesn’t feel like a failure of the moment. This feels like running up against a wall. This feels like finding out something about the system. Something inescapable. Something unassailable. Some undercurrent that reversed, some tide that has decided to go out after so many years of going in.

Perhaps this cuts to the core of what the call for a refocusing of Democratic strategy sounds like to many of us. It doesn’t sound like shift in priorities, but a clarification of what has long loomed threateningly – that the White working class, and arguably a more specific slice of America than even that, thinks it stands to gain by other vulnerable people’s loss. Feeling like we’re suffocating under that idea, that may not sound new or radical, but it truly is. Historically, the White working class has on the whole checked the aspirations of wealthier White people.

Those expressions have at best inconsistently worked to the benefit of people of color, but a connection is hard to deny. Even at its most toxic – in the populist revolt Andrew Jackson rode into presidential office and later mass ethnic cleansing of much of the South – it easily mutated into other populist expressions of the day, including abolitionism. Whether the uniquely working class expressions of populism were always inclusive of a concern for what would happen to the newly freed slaves, is of course a reasonable concern. But the populist influence was undeniable, in that stymieing the wealthy often meant helping people of color and other groups categorically excluded from power.

What’s intriguing about US history is how every period you look to sees a similar level of success for working class politics and the politics of people of color – from abolitionism’s and populism’s fever pitch in the late antebellum, to the Gilded Age’s nadir in Jim Crow amid racist immigration quotes if not bans, and ultimately in a populist resurrection in the form of the New Deal and Civil Rights Movement (while trade unions brought integration into White political conversations). Maybe this isn’t a long arc, so much as a loose correlation between populism and egalitarianism.

Yet, that’s changed. We still have a White working class, which has begun to be defined culturally rather than economically by a social rejection of LGBT people, women’s rights, and other racially-loaded and not-so-loaded litmus tests. That labor politics leave open the door for discussing the unique needs of particular classes of labor – racialized, gendered, and so on – is increasingly less clear. In terms of symbolic representation, supposed the powerless apotheosis of identity politics, a narrowly defined White working class is at its greatest visibility – having been credited with Reagan’s wins, George Bush’s anemic win and ultimate loss, the turn towards Clinton, the close successes of George H. W. Bush, Obama’s rustbelt victories, and now Trump’s minority coalition win.

In short, it feels like gravity has stopped working, and a fundamental force in the universe has suddenly begun operating by another, still curious logic. A White working class at least generally hostile to the wishes of wealthy White elites has suddenly played a pivotal role in ushering in the wealthiest cabinet in history, after decades of almost erratic political behavior. That their questioning of the class structure opens doors to people of color and others endangered under the social and economic rules (mostly blatantly LGBT people, disabled people, Jewish people, women, and others) has suddenly been cast into doubt.

Perhaps, that’s the nature of this post-election, in which all sorts of things have been called projection. These distinctively vulnerable populations have no reason not to identify this concern – that the White working class has shifted its priorities in a way dangerous to those who wish they had their status. That’s a mirror image almost of what the supposed champions of the White working class have articulated as feeling – that they’re forgotten and left behind in a future accessible to people of color (among other marginalized groups). Yet, it’s the White working class that seems to be doing that to the jeopardizing, perhaps unrealized even, of other working classes.

The past fifty years have seen a sweeping transformation, but it is hard to perceive of it as that, from the other end of it. The historical record suggests a change within the politics of the White, and increasing cisgender and straight, working class – towards their advancement by means of undermining others struggling, and specifically away from organizing in ways that other vulnerable people stood to benefit from.

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Debunction Junction

Trigger warning: suicide, racism, classism

David Brooks’ New York Times column for today has already garnered a host of critical responses (most intriguing, in my opinion, this one about his casual equation of Sanders’ and Trump’s support). Let me just quickly hop into the fray to point out a particularly egregious falsehood he lazily propagated: that Trump’s support is being driven by class resentment.

As Brook’s put it:

This election — not only the Trump phenomenon but the rise of Bernie Sanders, also — has reminded us how much pain there is in this country. According to a Pew Research poll, 75 percent of Trump voters say that life has gotten worse for people like them over the last half century. This declinism intertwines with other horrible social statistics. The suicide rate has surged to a 30-year high — a sure sign of rampant social isolation. A record number of Americans believe the American dream is out of reach. And for millennials, social trust is at historic lows. Trump’s success grew out of that pain, but he is not the right response to it.

The pain he’s talking about there is admittedly as much social as it is economic, but in case the attribution of the Trump (and to a lesser extent Sanders’  too) insurgency to lower economic orders was missed, he spells it out later on – “I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own.”

To be frank, bullshit.

Brooks is a traveler in many circles, overwhelmingly ones that are urban and economically upwardly mobile, but several of them have been epicenters of Trumps ascendancy. Most of his time is in New York City, which Trump carried decisively and was the site of his original announcement that he would be campaigning for president. Brooks is also active at his alma mater the University of Chicago – another city with a Republican primary electorate that overwhelmingly opted support Trump.

Admittedly Brooks holds positions at Duke and a regular spot on the PBS News Hour taking him into the bubbles of moderate Republicans in Durham and Arlington respectively, but that those completely blinded him to the reality of Trump’s support in other places he works is utterly bizarre.

Brooks might claim that it’s a lower order element within New York and Chicago that he doesn’t associate with that support Trump, unlike his refined Republican colleagues. That is also, to be frank, bullshit. The Economist of all sources, a paper that you would expect to be invested in this type of narrative of deluded poor people supporting crypto-protectionism, has compiled data showing that Trump’s support is pretty evenly spread across income brackets but if anything skews slightly towards those with above median incomes.

trump income supporters

As I’ve noted here before, Trump’s support is complicated by region and class and a number of factors, but what appears the most consistent to me is that he appeals to people tired of being told to be nicer, to be better, to be respectful to people they don’t consider worthy of respect. That appeals to a lot of less well off people, sure, but most consistently to certain social not economic demographics. It resonates with White Southerns who have wanted vindication for decades. It resonates with conservative traditionalists outside of the South who live in more generally progressive areas and as a result encounter those messages fairly often.

Can Brooks not see that or does he just not want to?

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STEM: too few positions, too few applicants?

It’s become a cliché that news articles can brush off, but STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as a set of tightly interrelated fields) has received a long list of praises from almost every level of government and other type of authority in the US. In spite of the largely positive coverage, many critics have noted that how people talk about and seek to affect the STEM fields is often divorced from the reality that there are more than enough people capable of working in those fields (globally or nationally) and that the perceived scarcity of STEM-trained workers is maybe deliberately created to encourage certain policy ends.

Part of what seems desirable to many STEM companies is a basic outcome of supply and demand – creating a vast supply of STEM workers is of great use to those hiring in that field, in that they get their pick among them. What STEM companies need isn’t more workers trained in new technologies or otherwise more directly useful to them as workers. Rather, what they want is an even more cutthroat competition for those types of jobs, leading to applicants accepting lower wages, fewer benefits, and longer hours. Encouraging new visa policies only further intensifies the power inequalities in STEM workplaces, giving companies even more options, and increasing the number of workers whose residency status and employment are directly related.

Some new information has come to light that calls into question those dynamics. A recent report on STEM in early education by the California division of The Education Trust found that many students of color and lower income students in the diverse state have limited and lower quality opportunities to learn basic STEM concepts. While in the economy at large STEM workers are steadily becoming a less rare and hence valuable commodity, STEM teaching in California public schools faced a hiring shortfall of 199 teachers for the 2013-2014 school year. That may sound small, but that gap between needed and available STEM teachers “likely affected about 28,000 California students” and seems to be one of the key components in the racial and class-related gaps in education.

2015-10-19_1552From the report’s accompanying infographic, available here.

At first it may seem strange that STEM-trained workers simultaneously outstrip available jobs and are chronically unavailable for key positions. In some ways, however, this may regrettably reflect the cultural values encouraged in STEM fields. As most of the praise for STEM makes clear, it is seen as inherently marketable or otherwise tied to a life of security if not prosperity. Stereotypes of STEM workers – as at best socially awkward and at worst actively antisocial – are a sometimes loving and sometimes critical reflection of that assessment. They’re supposedly good with figures and money, not with people.

Recent actions within the tech industry make that seem at times intimately connected to a libertarian disdain for the public sector and a patronizing approach towards those who don’t own a company. From my parents working in STEM themselves, I have run into more than a few people who seemed intent on demonstrating that stereotype, including one who kept a (Jesus Camp style) life-size cutout of President Bush in his office well into the Obama years. There’s a blurry line between being better with code than people and actually caring more about your business than your communities. STEM seems to either attract or encourage a sizable number of people who regularly mix those personalities and politics together.

If we think of STEM as something of a subculture, the impression of many seems to be that it’s a space where a certain type of student and eventual worker is expected and others aren’t. There are racial and gendered dimensions of that, but it also leads to an anticipation that STEM workers will work primarily in non-service sectors, and largely in the private sector as well. Schools, especially underfunded public schools full of younger kids, are thought of as basically the last place a STEM worker would want to be. Potentially as a result of that, our society has created a generation of STEM workers who at an even higher rate than other potential teachers, avoid those types of jobs.

I spoke recently about this issue with a friend, herself a part-time teacher in an after-school educational environment that focuses on engineering and computer science skills. She had a number of thoughts on the issue, expressing a dissatisfaction with both the cultural norms within STEM as well as the broader education system. As someone who works at the intersection between the two, she surprised me by frankly calling them in some sense “incompatible”. She made clear that she loves her students, but thought of the work that goes into helping them as literally a “sacrifice” in spite of the culture surrounding what she was teaching her students being, in her words, “self aggrandizing”.

While she mentioned the on-going problem of low pay in education, she also seemed to note that the nature of the different types of work available to STEM-trained workers contributes to this. What seemed clear to her was the the economically devaluing of teaching younger students went hand-in-hand with the labor’s characterization as self abnegating and even feminine. Recognizing that, she said that the paucity of that type of teachers in the STEM fields probably “won’t change until there’s more women [in STEM].” Efforts to diversify STEM are widely understood as improving the lots of the many groups largely shut out of those growing industries, but it seems like it would also improve the lot of STEM itself, by ultimately challenging some common expectations about what STEM can be used for.

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The featured image is from the US Naval Academy’s atomic fingerprinting workshop, more information here.

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Class in Ukraine

TW: antisemitism, anti-Roma violence and rhetoric

An interesting class-focused look at the on-going conflict in Ukraine was put forward today in an opinion piece by Vladimir Golstein, a Russian immigrant to the United States and Brown professor with a degree in Slavic studies. I won’t quite link to it yet, for reasons that will become clear, but I think the question it raises (what can we see when we focus on class in the recent political upheaval in Ukraine?) is one worth exploring more broadly.

Even the comparatively pro-business sources acknowledged the reality of an oligarchic retreat from Yanukovych’s government this winter. One article from Bloomberg News at that time noted that “Business oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s richest man who acquired control of state stakes in leading power generators in 2011-2012, had relied on ties to Yanukovych to safeguard control of large sectors of the economy”. Unfortunately, the looming possibility of repressing protest movements would “signal that Ukraine is adopting the model of next-door Belarus” and justify an international response like the EU’s “visa ban and asset freeze on [Belorussian President since 1994] Lukashenko and [other] top officials”. The many oligarchs involved in politics would have been directly affected, as would have their class as a whole because of how many of them have foreign investments or assets which would at least come under new scrutiny.

A bit more foreboding to the less wealthy Ukrainians who are typically more invested in their own country’s production, is that entering the EU would create a situation where the local markets would have “duty-free access to more than 90 percent of [the EU’s] products”. The already anemic manufacturing base of the country, concentrated along its eastern border with Russia, would likely crumble in the face of EU integration, stressing an already beleaguered working class in the region.

The German paper Der Spiegel argued even more overtly that several Ukrainian oligarchs that had been essentially invested in the existing government abrupt switched sides, and actively supported the protesters in the middle of this February. As one piece explained

Last Tuesday’s [February 17, 2014] bloody conflicts tipped the scales. On Wednesday both Akhmetov’s and Firtash’s [two oligarchs] TV stations changed their coverage of Independence Square: Suddenly the two channels, Ukraina and Inter, were reporting objectively on the opposition. The message of the oligarchs was clear: We’re letting Yanukovych fall. And in parliament — where the majority party had barely budged a millimeter in the past weeks — the mood suddenly changed: Suddenly they were looking for a compromise after all. It became clear on Thursday what this would mean: the forming of a broad coalition, the return of the old constitution and, with it, a reduction of the presidential powers as well as an accelerated presidential election.

That is the economic class and socio-political faction that Vladimir Golstein sees facing grassroots resistance from russophone and perhaps even russophile groups in eastern Ukraine. He asks

But what about the heavily industrialised Ukrainian east? Those who think that it is Russia that pulls it back are deeply ignorant of the complexity of the region. The Donbas Region, which comprises 10 percent of Ukraine’s population and produces 25 percent of Ukrainian exports, is inhabited by Russian-speaking people who work in mines, steel plants, and machinery factories, and who have a less cheerful view of Westernisation.

[…]

Local workers hardly need Putin propaganda to know that many of their smoke stack plants will be closed once Ukraine joins the EU. It is sufficient for Ukrainians to look to other recent EU countries, from Hungary to Romania and the Baltic States, or even at Russia’s own economy that switched to the export of natural resources at the expense of thousands of closed factories to know what will happen to the big Soviet-style factories that still dominate the landscape of the Donbas region.

Donetsk_Ukraine_map
(Shaded in is the Donetsk or Donbas region of Ukraine, with the city of Donetsk itself marked with a red dot. It is one of Ukraine’s most densely populated areas.)

Golstein is entirely too optimistic about this class consciousness, particularly in the larger Donetsk (or Donbas) region, being removed from ethnic and even racial histories. He explained that they were united in the interest of maintaining their jobs, independent of whether they are “ethnically Ukrainian, Russian, Armenian or Hungarian”. In the past few days, there have been allegations of separatists engaging in antisemitic pamphlet campaigns and anti-Romani violence, hallmarks more reminiscent of fascism’s recent history in the region than Marxism’s. The broader issue of average Ukrainians having different political interests than their economic and political elites will likely leave Ukraine’s prospective government in a precarious position, but the unique flashpoint so far has produced not only class consciousness as Golstein notes, but also hints of a dangerous sort of ultra-nationalism.

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The threat of the executive order

If you’re on the Howard Dean-affiliated Democracy for American email list, you’ve probably already seen this image, which they sent out seemingly yesterday to their thousands (if not million plus) of subscribers:


(Literally anything?)

Huh. Now if that isn’t a symbol for our times. Not in that executive orders are more common (they aren’t), but that they’ve become necessary for basic political functions. In the 1980s and 1990s (and even the often called dysfunctional Bush years), the United States paid its bills, kept the lights on, and even updated the image of who was working and living in the United States. The legislature had it’s moments of inane or counter-productive behavior (Clinton’s impeachment seems like it shouldn’t be forgotten), but on the hold, governance was shared between a presidency, a congress, a high court, and numerous other functional elements to a political system.

That no longer exists. The threat of a executive order has been one of the sticks shown off in attempt to force congressional action on the debt ceiling, and similar attempts have now been made with regards to policy on indefinite detention, immigration, and now even the minimum wage. In a twisted way, the president has come to rely on (among other persuasion techniques) threatening to do everything himself in order to goad Republicans in Congress into action, which unfortunately only convinces them to dig in their feet harder (the better to oppose his “radical” policies!).

We’ve lost any semblance of a consensus that we as a country are viable in our current form, mostly because of rising conservative alternative theories. The resurfacing popularity among many Republicans of establishing a golden standard, of dismantling the Federal Reserve, of reversing Civil Rights victories, of overturning Roe, and of letting the US default on its debts and watch its federally-insurance banks go belly up in order to cleanse the economic system do not exist in isolation from each other. They tell a story of a long-negotiated political consensus about how the US economy and political system can and should be set up suddenly finding itself under attack in innumerable ways. It is likewise not an accident that secession is suddenly on the table again.

Within the context, it’s not just a useful threat to say that the President will keep those previously agreed-upon systems running. It’s also comforting to the people who would be protected by them. And it becomes unfortunately necessary to note that, comforting or not, executive orders have largely remained an overly polite bully pulpit for Obama, rather than an actual tool used to maintain (or even broaden) basic equalities and freedoms. Detainees are still waiting for their freedom in Guantánamo. Employees of anyone other than government contractors are still waiting for a raise. And the debt ceiling fight is threatening to come back again.

Systems are self-reinforcing, but only to a point. After a while, they need more than just a gentle nudge to keep them going. They need to be invested in and supported. How much longer will “good enough” be good enough?

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State of the Union 2014

As usual, please follow along with my comments on twitter to President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight, at 9 pm Eastern / 6 pm Pacific.

There’s been a few hints as to what we can expect tonight, but the most solid are coming from the think tank Demos, which released this informational graphic today (warning it’s large):

Continue reading

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The invisible racist

TW: racism, classism

Earlier today, Brittney Cooper published a thoughtful criticism of the way the Romney family was insulated from criticism about race, and in fact, Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor and television show host, was put on the spot to apologize for a segment she oversaw that poked fun at one of Romney’s son’s recent adoption of a Black child. It’s well worth the read, but at its core was a particularly enlightening comparison:

This faux-outrage on the right about MHP’s racism and insensitivity obscures exactly this set of truths about the right’s shoddy record on race. That both Mitt Romney and Phil Robertson have and love black grandbabies should remind us that racism is not primarily about individual attitudes. White folks can love individual black people and still build a world that is inhospitable to black folks. In fact, individual and exceptional black achievers are necessary to maintain the lie of racial progress. Their presence has very little to do with systemic change, though.

Phil Robertson (the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty family who was called out for his heterosexist and racist comments) and Mitt Romney? To quote Pia Glenn on Romney’s new grandson: “One of these things is not like the others.” No, it’s not, and that’s the entire point of Cooper’s comparison. More of her readers rightfully can interpret Robertson’s actions and statements as racist, but Romney is a little bit harder for some to grasp their heads around.

Writing about this is tricky, because it’s actually not that Romney is more wealthy or socially powerful, so much as that Robertsons willingly set the markers of their wealth and similar lifestyle aside in the name of reality television. Even if it’s all an illusion though, the Robertsons are easier for many White people to mentally cast as racists compared to the Romneys who are whatever the US’s equivalent of the British “posh” is.

That’s a divide that has many outcomes. There hasn’t been an outcry over, for example, the Wall Street Journal publishing a wistful look back at the WASP dominance that once was, complete with half-century stale stereotypes of Irish Catholics as lecherous and a carefully unspecified non-WASP group of bankers as “greedy pigs” (golly gee, what could that mean?). Discontent with equating (perceived) moral failings with ethnic statues, the article likewise insists that corruption was non-existent during the days of WASP dominance. Given that according to its author, conservative writer Joseph Epstein, the Bush political dynasty “lost” its WASP status between George H W Bush and his son, it seems like corruption or failure disqualifies you from being a WASP, so as to keep the ethnic reputation intact.


(This article, the above image it contains, and millions of people around the world would disagree.)

That same sort of fence-post moving seems to be at play in the reasons why Epstein and the Wall Street Journal didn’t come under fire for quite literally implying that things were better under codified legal dominance by not only White people, but a very specific brand of White people. A few places passed around the article as an amusing demonstration of confusion and rudeness, but most carefully sidestepped labeling Epstein, his editors, or the publisher anything like racist. One article quoted a tweet that called the article “racist”, but without really agreeing, so much as noting that as an opinion. Another one only drops either of the r-words in relation to the articles contents (or its author, editors, and publisher) in saying it was “almost too transparent, resembling something closer to satire than to outright racism.” Quite literally, a privileged, educated and fundamentally well-off racist screed is easier to understand as poorly executed humor than an extension of racism.

None of this is to claim that if racist words had come out of not Robertson’s mouth but that of a distant relative or childhood neighbor it wouldn’t be racist (or, alternatively, that the racist ideas about a happy pre-civil rights past are not prevalent throughout the South and the US generally). Instead, it’s to question who we let off the hook when it comes to racist statements without even realizing it. More often than not, it seems like it’s well-off writers for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal that are called out by fellow White people for classism, when racism is a clear factor as well. We’re too slow in picking up on and shutting down the racism of people who look like Robertson, but too many of us don’t seem to even realize the cruelties people who look like Romney regularly spew.

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The year that environmental racism started to get noticed

TW: racism, erasure of people of color, classism, colonialism, Israeli occupation

I wrote on-again-off-again about a phenomenon over the course of 2012, where historical and present realities of racism and colonialism created economic and environmental conditions for people of color that put them at greater risk in changing climates.

That August, there was a bit of joking about global warming at the 2012 RNC that was primarily met with Democratic criticism that in the future that will seem foolish. At that time it seemed pertinent to remind people that global warming was already making indigenous Alaskan communities more food insecure, as fishing times and spots had begun shifting in relation to new weather. In Fall, with Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in Haïti, it seemed important to highlight how the poverty in that country meant that buildings and infrastructure were both more likely to fail and more likely to not be rebuilt. In fact the 2010 earthquake hadn’t been dealt with, exacerbating both the fallout from the hurricane and the subsequent cholera epidemic as untreated water became a normal backdrop in Haïti. After Sandy made landfall in the US, the media seemed to wholly erase what had happened years before to predominantly Black communities in the Gulf as a result of Hurricane Katrina. The intersections between global warming, systemic racism, and poverty were there, but were seldom being connected.

To a degree, 2013 was an improvement on that, with environmental issues and the realities of racism and classism sometimes being introduced in tandem. The Idle No More movement, originally founded in 2012 by First Nations (ie, indigenous) activists in Canada became an international phenomenon in 2013, which both attracting indigenous peoples to its activism in other countries but was widely reported on. By the end of the year, a common narrative had formed. The pattern of communities vulnerable to economic and environmental exploitation attracting companies, foremost minerals extraction ones, then facing police violence in response to protests had become established. Most painfully, against Mi’kmaq protesters in Canada in late 2013. The role that racism played in these communities being selected for environmentally questionable policies and actions and later the racism that informed the police response was unfortunately largely implicitly referenced in major media.

There were additional limitations sadly imposed on this type of story, however, with them often conforming to a set formula. Overwhelmingly, it was only indigenous groups, not other ethnically marginalized people who were covered, and the near exclusive type of exploitation highlighted was mineral extraction often in association with fossil fuel companies in Canada or the United States. Just as in previous years, the on-going reality of ethnically and economically marginalized populations in South and Southeast Asia whose their ancestral lands can and often are selected to be flooded as a result of damming projects have remained largely overlooked.

environmental racism
(From here.)

We still haven’t quite gotten to the point where the global connections between poverty, racist and colonial practices and histories, and climate change are part of typical media reporting on a number of events worldwide, but we’ve edged closer. Can we wait for more people to make this connection on their own, so that it’s not a shock to them for media to cover it in that way? While we’re sitting here, the reality the Philippines were hit by a hurricane categorically stronger than any storm on the planet in more than thirty years, which sounds silly until you read the stunning wind speeds recorded as it passed through a densely populated portion of the Philippines, a former Spanish colony and US territory. The Philippines’ Climate Commissioner released a petition in the midst of attempting to contact his family, but his request for not even any specific policy change but for the largest contributors to carbon emissions to “acknowledge the new climate reality” that the Philippines now know all too well. That garnered less attention than the disaster itself, however.

More recently, unusually heavy rains flooded the Gaza territory in Palestine, whose infrastructure couldn’t handle the crisis under the weight of Israeli occupation and other international factors. Our failure to connect these forces costs isn’t just threatening people’s futures, but presently costing lives.

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The year that class apparently stopped mattering

TW: classism, racism, nativism

2012 was a fascinating year, especially from a perspective within the United States. There’s a long history of residents of this country telling ourselves that we’re a classless society, or failing that a country where opportunity is ubiquitous and untainted by social and political biases. Last year, and particularly the presidential election over the course of it, seemed like something of an abrupt end to that, with Romney’s 47 percent video solidifying class as inevitably one of the salient identities and the post-election analysis often becoming fixed on how rapidly support for the Democrat Obama transformed into support for the Republican Romney at around $50,000 per year per household in most states.

romney in a pile of money

(It was also a golden age of photoshopped images of Mitt Romney, for obvious reasons, from here.)

This past year something else happened, however, particularly in how the media analyzed issues. In short, class completely disappeared from the conversation. In some cases, the absence of class in how representative sets of groups were selected was appalling obvious, with Ron Fournier’s perceived look into the heads of current students he expects to lead the country in the future being a particularly vivid example. That the class of those he talked to (never even directly about the issue, it seems important to add) was a force that could bias them to a certain view on government was something Fournier never broached in his article. While he could obliquely reference their class status as easing their launch into “public service”, he couldn’t imagine it as something that shaped their opinions, their experiences, and ultimately their politics. It’s not that the economic system is invisible, just people’s status (that is, class) that apparently was to his eyes and ears. Likewise, the result was that the differing positions held by poorer young people weren’t considered.

Fournier was just an undeniable example of this phenomenon. Earlier in the year, in fact, Obama’s State of the Union address reflected a similar disrecognition of how his language divided immigrants into those that worked desired jobs and hence were imagined to be “highly-skilled” and even “entrepreneurs” and those that, ostensibly, are neither of those things as a result of them being unwanted. The reality that many undocumented immigrants are badly wanted as laborers by US-based businesses, but precisely because they can be exploited economically and socially, wasn’t acknowledged in the slightest. Much like the high school students with less affluent backgrounds, their reality (and hence, their political interests and needs) were outside of the discussion.

This failure to consider how class intersects with nearly all political issues didn’t merely erase poor people from the discussion, but actively distorted a number of historical figures records while they were remembered this year. From Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr, the class politics of a number of Black political figures were totally removed from public political memory, often as a part of otherwise remaking them into figures useful to White commentators. The former was done an additional disservice before his death, by BBC reporting that disregarded the economic reality of historical and modern South Africa, largely again by means of erasing the poorest residents of that country (who remain the indigenous Black communities) in order to make a political point that seemed stolen from White nationalists.

In a lot of formal and official discussions, 2013 was a year of class needlessly receding from the discussion, which often took any type of look at the beliefs, ideas, and even existence of the poorest people with it.

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Ah, so the rich do have money

TW: classism

A pre-Black Friday piece in the Nation by Lee Fang noted that the slick ads pushing back against pushes for unionization and wage increases for retail and fast food workers were coming out of one Worker Center Watch. Fang explained,

TheNation.com has discovered that Worker Center Watch was registered by the former head lobbyist for Walmart. Parquet Public Affairs, a Florida-based government relations and crisis management firm for retailers and fast food companies, registered the Worker Center Watch website.

The firm is led by Joseph Kefauver, formerly the president of public affairs for Walmart and government relations director for Darden Restaurants. Throughout the year, Parquet executives have toured the country, giving lectures to business groups on how to combat the rise of what has been called “alt-labor.” At a presentation in October for the National Retail Federation, a trade group for companies like Nordstrom and Nike, Kefauver’s presentation listed protections against wage theft, a good minimum wage and mandated paid time off as the type of legislative demands influenced by the worker center protesters.

This has prompted many to ask how companies that need currently stagnant wages to make their bottom line can afford to hire a public affairs firm which states on its website that it’s primary clients are “Fortune 500 corporations, national trade associations, non-profits and regional businesses.” You can practically hear the cash register, right?

Of course, that’s only half the story. Amid all the clamor about how both protests for workers’ rights are vaguely but clearly terrible and insistence from many executives that average workers are unskilled, an entire market for training upper division employees has developed. Perusing the (mostly US-based) conferences in the coming months listed by TrainingIndustry.com makes this clear, with cost for attending (and hence, being trained) running typically more than a thousand dollars.

2013-12-03_1821
(Here’s May 2014, for example.)

Those being conferences for the “training industry,” it’s worth noting that they’re explicitly for management – those hundreds of dollars are being spent helping executives learn how to train already comparatively skilled workers. In other words, after being hired, people in these types of positions are trained in their basic duties to the cost of hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Conferences teaching managers how to manager aren’t really an aberration from similar conferences that give them the ability to write professionally, interpersonal communication, and even time management. So while insisting that paying workers minimum wage is practically charity based on how unskilled they are and spending millions to make that message heard, many members of the executive class are being hired while lacking these basic talents and then being trained in them (often on the companies’ dime!).

Quite literally the only thing US companies don’t appear to have the money for is paying much more than the minimum wage to workers below management.

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Selling libertarianism

TW: racism, heterosexism, cissexism, sexism, classism, police brutality, appropriation

This past Veteran’s Day, the American Civil Liberties Union did something strange. They paid Macklemore to appear in an advertisement for ACLU membership – a $35 dollar card that, according to their newest representative, is a literal ticket to certain political freedoms.

There’s a number of ways of understanding this video, but let’s start with what’s happening on the surface – a musician is promoting an organization that will protect people from disenfranchisement and state policies that don’t effect him, as if they do. Following the awkwardly staged I-was-just-finishing-a-track introduction, Macklemore explains that “being beaten with a club, pepper-sprayed, and tased for expressing my political views would really slow [him] down”. He then name checks marriage being reformed to be more inclusive of queer people and regulations on cisgender women’s sexuality.

The ad is fundamentally an extension of Macklemore’s primary means of self-presenting himself – as someone who either directly experiences the difficulties a perceived audience faces or who at least deeply understands those issues. It then builds up from that an ACLU membership as a solution to those problems. The slip of paper the ACLU mails you in return for your support “lets [his] gay friends marry the hell out of each other” and apparently tells cis women “it’s your vagina”. Except, of course, if you live in one of the parts of the US where state governments have seen fit to limit those and other rights.

The liberties listed as needing to be shored up in this ad are presented as negative – freedoms from intrusive government policies – and yet, no level of government is mentioned at all. The distance that Macklemore has between him and these various issues does seem to matter here, because at least in how he’s presenting the issue, the mere act of support for these liberties is what matters. It seems that what he believes (and what he wants this ad to convince others of) is that the act of supporting the ACLU resolves inequalities and oppressive attitudes inevitably. This ad is very much a political assertion on his part that, in a word, simply identifying as an ally or advocate means something, contrary to all evidence otherwise.

Macklemore and Le1f
(On the left, Macklemore, a straight and White rapper. On the right, Le1f, a queer Black rapper who has alleged that Macklemore plagiarized his work, from here.)

Admittedly, the ACLU does sometimes spend money and time on issues pertaining to queer liberation and reproductive freedoms, but those are part of a larger pie. It also works with events like Stop Watching Us, tinged as they are with islamophobic implications, and defends free speech rights to an honestly implausible degree at times. That long history of supporting and financing racist speech is perhaps alluded to by Macklemore’s concern that he might face repercussions for his “political activism”. His other primary means of presenting himself to the public is of course as part of the gaining trend of White musicians who speak in code about people of color being materialistic. Even when showing himself as an ally, however, he often implies that heterosexist rhetoric is a fundamentally Black phenomenon.

The initial concerns he displays in the video about being subjected to brutality, presumably by the police or “community safety volunteers” seems tone deaf in light of the events of the past year. A few months ago George Zimmerman was acquitted for the death of Trayvon Martin and just within this week the grisly murder of a young Black woman faced speculation about whether her murderer would even be charged with a crime. For Black people in particular (and people of color generally), you don’t have to be saying or doing something “political” to face extreme violence, you can just be walking home from the store or knocking on a door asking for help after an accident. Before it ends, the video includes Macklemore asserting his right to call the president, the US’s first one of color, a dick if he wanted to (which he quickly says he doesn’t).

In a nutshell, it seems vital to ask what freedoms the ACLU and Macklemore thought they were promoting here. It seems that what they think of as promoting certain queer and feminist causes is tied up in self-aggrandizing attitudes in almost total isolation from the lived experience of dealing with heterosexism and sexism (to say nothing of the cissexist way that trans* people are excluded from the conversation). What they seem to think of as promoting freedom of speech and freedom from surveillance inevitably tracks back to tacit acceptance of racism and the quintessential embodiment of it among “liberals” – a sort of self-important ignorance of what their complaints sound like to communities that are targeted at the drop of a hat.

Their concerns are also decidedly libertarian – in that they’re exclusively about freedom from (usually) state intervention in daily life. There aren’t constitutional guarantees to the freedom to work without facing discrimination, for marginalized communities to be given additional assistance, or for economic redistribution to be political policy at all, and the ACLU and Macklemore’s framing here highlights that almost reflexively anti-state libertarian attitude that won’t serve many benighted groups very well.

This is not political activism which draws on the wants and needs of groups dealing with oppressive attitudes and actions by the larger society. This is an advertisement through and through which is working to sell you membership in an organization which potentially is designed to advance your rights in a way that won’t actually benefit you.

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Working in an era of turbulence

This Veteran’s Day (also called Armistice Day), I think it’s important to recall what I said last year at this time: that the conversations about and even by veterans in US politics are often detached from reality. In light of that, I think it’s useful to talk about an often overlooked group of current and former military service members, who we not only don’t use in combat but ideally hope to never need to call on. While admittedly far from the risks of combat, the members of the US military that manage our nuclear stockpiles shouldn’t be overlooked. Today of all days it seems worth asking whether our society is meeting their needs.

If Rachel Maddow’s still intriguing 2012 book on the emerging issues within the US military is to be believed, we aren’t successfully supporting those service members, and consequently are leaving our entire society vulnerable to accidents and other nuclear hazards. The problems noted by Maddow are various, but she focuses on one key issue for those that guard the nukes. New recruits assigned to managing nuclear weapons systems generally left the service at their first chance because, as one officer explained, “standing alert duty in missile silos is not considered ‘deployed,’ and ‘if you are not a ‘deployer,’ you do not get promoted.'”

In essence, as one 2008 military self-assessment noted, “We need a nuclear career field”. The lack of an established meritocratic ladder for the military members who control our nation’s vast (I’d argue too vast) reserves of weapons of mass destruction isn’t just a simple matter of not giving these service members stability and security – it impacts our military’s know-how. As Maddow reported, we as a country have multiple 1970s-era nuclear weapons that need a special chemical component (code name: Fogbank) replaced in its trigger. The unique chemical mixture was classified at the time of its development and due to the constant coming-and-going of nuclear technicians “no one today remembers the exact formula for making it.” Our institutional memory is shot and we’re paying the price for it.

Ultimately, this isn’t an issue that’s really restricted to the military, although the risky outcomes there are quite dramatic. As the Digital Arts Service Corps – one of the many smaller subsidiaries of the Americorps program – notes on their website that the new and by most measures modestly successful Americorps system is “not a career path” but “a one year commitment that you can re-up for a few years, but that’s about it”. The situation is even less rose-y if you realize that these subdivided parts within Americorps aren’t even directly connected to the work many volunteers do as a part of getting established in the public sector. They’re more analogous to the obamacare insurance exchanges – as sites where volunteers can connect with projects, rather than the institutions directly hiring them and ostensibly trying to pass down their knowledge about their position. The current system does work fairly well, but it has a weakness in how it fails to efficiently retain useful information.

Arguably, this failure to invest in these positions as even potentially long term positions is reflective of a growing trend that Al Jazeera covered at the beginning of this month. Jobs that last for a few years are something of a dying breed in the US, which is reflective of a number of factors, not least among them the comparative privilege of a well-educated workforce and the less wholesome growing disinterest within powerful corporations and even government to provide both job security and the possibility for at least mild advancement or accruing of seniority.

This common cause among military, public sector, and even private sector workers seems like the elephant in the room that few corporate media sources or powerful people will acknowledge. This experience of finding advancement out of positions that barely qualify as employment difficult seems to be widespread. Within the context of various minimum wage workers protesting for better working conditions, it’s even begun to crop up. Most recently, a protest last week among Walmart employees interested in addressing a number of concerns prioritized three demands: “a living wage, higher and more frequent merit raises, and clear path to career advancement free of favoritism and based on merit and not personality tests.”


In other words, yes underemployment is increasingly its own phenomenon, separate from unemployment, from here.

The spate of protests against a number of fast food franchises and the similar on-going rebukes of Walmart and other corporate stores have attracted most of their media attention with the focus firmly fixed on changes to the minimum wage or greater union rights (with the aim of then negotiating higher wages). That’s ultimately just one part of a larger problem – that most wages are stagnant and that accessing stable and secure employment is increasingly difficult.

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The classless generation

TW: classism

Buried inside of Ron Fournier’s rather dull and predictable article in The Atlantic on the crisis of millennial disinterest in government and politics, I found an interesting chestnut. Fournier allegedly spoke directly with one group of current high school students:

Matt Kissling teaches government at Langley High School, an elite public school in suburban Washington that caters to the sons and daughters of U.S. congressmen, ambassadors, and Cabinet members. If his students aren’t the best and brightest, they’re close enough. So I asked them: “How many of you volunteer in your community?”

Every student raised a hand.

“I teach autistic kids to ride horses,” Morgan Wallace said.

“Me, too,” said Ashley Morabito. They’re all chirping now:

“I work at a food pantry.”

“ … at my church.”

“Tutor reading …”

“… and teach English.”

“But how many of you think traditional public service is the best way to help your community and country?” I asked. “In other words, how many of you will make a career in politics or government?”

Not a hand went up. No chirping. Nothing — the only noise in the abruptly silent room was the electronic hum of a fluorescent light. Finally, Shayan Ghahramani, a student, whispered, “Is this a joke?”

Now, to begin with, the idea of community service being something entirely distinct from government work for US millennials – typically defined as being born shortly after the 1980 “Reagan Revolution” – shouldn’t be surprising. We were actually raised within a culture where governance was defined as strictly disinterested if not actively hostile to social welfare. Even if we are uniquely interested in community service, it makes sense for it to rarely occur to us to seek that out in a public sector position, because of the political reality in which we’ve been raised.


(Guess what gamed system got even more messed up during that time period? From here.)

Likewise, Fournier fails to even cursorily consider whether the “best and brightest” (by which he meant ‘born to the wealthy and powerful’ – you can practically hear the echo of older phrases like ‘good breeding’ in his words) are representative. He’s posited the millennials in the US as a classless generation, with no reasoning to support that.

While the studies to back it up don’t exist to my knowledge – I would suspect that this limitation imposed on millennials is being expressed uniquely among the socio-economic sample of us he actually spoke with. As members of what’s essentially a political and economic elite, it would make sense for many of them to wholeheartedly accept the prevailing wisdom of their subculture. In an era of elites wishing to free themselves from democratic constraints, it makes sense that their children (if motivated to improve general welfare)  would like those benefits to be mediated through charity. They would like to exercise control over who is assisted and how much and in what ways.

Among the variously less privileged classes of millennials, I suspect you would find dismay at how few government programs are actually hiring, how drastically those that remain have been cut in wages and pensions, and how dramatically smaller their purviews are after decades of welfare “reform” and other moralizing movements. In short, there’s a sleight of hand involved in pretending that there are no classes among us young folks and then that the wealthy can speak for all of us.

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Can’t look away

TW: racism, sexism, rape apologetics, classism

Nick Gillespie’s recent article in the Washington Post which attempts to “debunk” popular myths about Libertarians is absolutely fascinating, in much the way a dramatic car accident or Roland Emmerich disaster flick can hold your attention longer than you want it to.


(All Gillespie needs is a fedora to complete his ensemble, from here.)

He starts with a muddled point that Libertarians aren’t “the hippies of the right” (whatever that even means) because there’s a lot of them according to a poll put out by an avowedly Libertarian media outlet (Reason, which Gillespie edits). The conservative framing here should be obvious: hippies are recently formed and marginal agitators who ruin everything, which Libertarians can’t be compared to because they’re historied (at least for a few more decades by Gillespie’s odd count) and central to the political culture in the US.

Both Gillespie’s logic for classifying assorted movements from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as “libertarian” and the rational behind his magazine’s polling are the same – that Libertarianism is semantically devoid outside of a distaste for government policy (quirkily defined). He argues that libertarianism wasn’t a strange reaction to communism (which others have argued), but instead rooted in movements within the United States against formal imperialist structures over the proceeding century.

That libertarians arguably only oppose government-run imperialism today when it’s convenient to them is one quibble, but it’s also worth noting that disinterest in imperialism is being reduced by Gillespie to disapproval of it when conducted by the government. It’s apparently unthinkable that those liberal movements might be the antecedents to calls for governmental intervention to prevent commercial groups or other organizations from profiting from and reinforcing the conditions left by overt government-run colonialism.

This is revealed in the simplistic questionnaire that Reason used, which merely asks-

“1. ‘The less government the better’; OR, ‘there are more things that government should be doing’.

2. ‘We need a strong government to handle today’s complex economic problems’; OR, ‘People would be better able to handle today’s problems within a free market with less government involvement’.

3. Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?”

Occasionally (as the article states) over the years this survey was put out, a question actually pertaining to an issue (only marijuana decriminalization though!) rather than a vague philosophical moral would be asked. A nuanced perspective that governments’ actions are legitimate or unacceptable depending on what those actions are, is apparently by and large anathema to getting the results that 24 percent of US citizens agree with them (compared to 27 with “liberals” and another 27 with “conservatives”).

His other points are poorly strung together, and really amount to two admissions: that libertarianism doesn’t offer much to people of color and women, as well as that libertarians are a contentious political bloc that is already contending with others within the Republican Party for the 2016 presidential nomination. For the former, he only points to opposition to the drug war, support for “school choice”, and the idolization of Ayn Rand (and a few other decades-dead women, none of whom were a part of libertarianism in the past 31 years).

Prominent libertarians quite clearly only want to soften the drug war, namely by reducing the penalization for drugs which like marijuana are commonly used among more affluent Whites. School choice is openly a means of shifting the cost of maintaining de facto segregation from White families on to the government (while also making parochial education more competitive). And do we really need to run down why Ayn Rand isn’t a feminist idol? (Hint: she wanted her audience to excuse rape.)

In the end, Gillespie is left arguing that it’s a myth that “Libertarians are destroying the Republican Party” and yet that the party leadership is “worried about the party’s growing libertarian streak” so much so that Chris Christie (presidential nominee apparent, unless libertarian Rand Paul has his way) called libertarians “dangerous”.

Is it hard to be so very wrong about everything, Mr Gillespie?

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But what about White people?

TW: racism, colonialism, apartheid South Africa, class inequality

The BBC decided to do a story recently on the poorer Whites within South African society. Their article honestly begins- “The question I have come to South Africa to answer is whether white people genuinely have a future here.”

Wouldn’t a better driving question be whether Whites should have a future in South Africa? Their presence in South Africa is a result and element of the colonial disinheriting of the the indigenous Black population. The same should be asked about many other colonized parts of the world, including where I live, but that the issue is particularly relevant in South Africa considering that nearly 80 percent of the population has near-exclusively indigenous African ancestry (whether Bantu-speaking or the purportedly even more historied indigenous non-Bantu groups).

Speaking of how an overwhelming majority of South Africans are Black… the article includes this chart of income aggregated into the four common racial categories in South Africa:

So, just to remember or at least check Wikipedia, people of near exclusively White heritage comprise under 10 percent of the population of the country, but have only just seen their demographic cease to control a majority of its wealth. Yes, there are poor White people, but talking about how less than a tenth of the population now only controls more than a third of it…? Really BBC?

That’s about 80 percent of the population at the lowest rung there – with less than 10 percent of the income. If wealth were distributed proportionately across racial groups in South Africa – that’s what White people’s share would look like. Keep in mind, the end of Apartheid allowed the development of a small Black economic and political elite, who have gained inclusion in the previously Whites-only halls of power. Removing those few from the Black category would likely cause it to deflate to an even more miniscule amount.

There’s a point to be made here about how indigeneity and blackness are still the surest symbols, even in a nominally democratic and predominantly Black country, of being an undeserving investment, unreliable hire, or always suspected to be overpaid employee. But you missed it, BBC, for what about the White people!?

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