Category Archives: Capitalism

MLK and “the Guaranteed Income”

“President-elect Joe Biden will seek to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour as part of his relief bill,” reported Alina Selyukh for NPR.

Across social media, people began doing calculations of what $15/hour translates into for annual salaries, and here are a couple responses from white Christian conservatives:

McChristian, personifying the relationship between a McNugget and real chicken, seems to be aware that teachers are underpaid, but lacks any Christian compassion for other workers also being underpaid (such as minimum-wage workers often constituting the working poor and living without healthcare or retirement—or job security).

Rachel, hollow mouthpiece for the equally vapid TPUSA, doesn’t just lack compassion; she also lacks any grasp of basic facts, embodying not only the hypocrisy of the Christian conservative movement but also the complete misunderstanding of how the free market works.

Note that “[r]aising wages for fast-food workers to $15 an hour would lead to a noticeable but not substantial increase in food prices, according to a new study by Purdue University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management,” as reported by Sally French at Market Watch.

Social media, as well, was quick to point out that in areas such as DC and the San Francisco Bay, where the minimum wage is already $15 and above, Taco Bell burritos remain below $4 at the most expensive.

In the U.S., we are well beyond the point of needing to acknowledge that there is nothing Christian or honest about the conservative movement in the U.S.

And few times a year are more likely to expose that than Martin Luther King Jr. Day—when those on the Right scramble to cherry-pick one or two quotes from MLK to wave in front of their hypocrisy and lies.

The debate about the $15/hour minimum wage (as well as college debt relief and universal healthcare) is an ideal opportunity to examine the MLK that almost everyone in mainstream America chooses to ignore.

brown concrete statue during daytime
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

A couple favorite mis-uses and distortions of appropriating MLK is, first, characterizing King as a “passive radical” in order to violence-shame groups or paint a distorted “both sides” false equivalency between right-wing white nationalism and social justice advocates focusing on race and racism, and second, plastering the “content of their character” quotes everywhere to perpetuate the colorblind argument that, in fact, is itself racist.

Rare is the reference to King who strongly rejected the Vietnam War, but almost entirely absent from the public consciousness in the U.S. is King’s 1967 work, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

Here, King offers his criticism of the standard approach to eradicating poverty (approaches that persist in 2021):

Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils:

• lack of education restricting job opportunities;

• poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiatives;

• fragile relationships which distorted personality development.

The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measure were intended to remove the causes of poverty.

Wealth and Want

King was confronting that U.S. political will could only admit indirect ways to address poverty—despite, as King pointed out, that more whites than Black people suffered under the weight of economic inequity.

“In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else,” King noted, adding: “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

Not only did King call for a guaranteed income, he asserted the essential need to be direct:

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

Wealth and Want

Unlike McChristian and Rachel above, MLK as a progressive, as a Leftist (often slurred as a “communist”), understood the foundational need in a capitalist society that all people have capital:

Beyond these advantages, a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life and in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he know that he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.

Wealth and Want

But King was profoundly aware of the problems with “minimum” wages, arguing about the guaranteed income:

Two conditions are indispensable if we are to ensure that the guaranteed income operates as a consistently progressive measure.

• First, it must be pegged to the median income of society, not the lowest levels of income. To guarantee an income at the floor would simply perpetuate welfare standards and freeze into the society poverty conditions.

• Second, the guaranteed income must be dynamic; it must automatically increase as the total social income grows. Were it permitted to remain static under growth conditions, the recipients would suffer a relative decline. If periodic reviews disclose that the whole national income has risen, then the guaranteed income would have to be adjusted upward by the same percentage. Without these safeguards a creeping retrogression would occur, nullifying the gains of security and stability.

Wealth and Want

King makes a purely Christian argument about economic policy in a capitalist democracy that should and could center human dignity and equity over greed:

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

Wealth and Want

The Right is wrong about what it means to be Christian.

The Right is wrong about what makes democracy and capitalism work for people and not against human dignity.

And the Right over the next few days will once again be offensively wrong about MLK.

Capitalism Is Your Daddy: “what sort of person to die as”

From “you are what you eat” to “when you have sex with someone, you are having sex with all of their sexual partners,” we seem obsessed with fear-mongering in order to shape how people behave, and thus, who people become.

About fifty pages into Keiichiro Hirano’s A Man, the reader experiences the first hints of what becomes one motif of the novel:

In the end, although Kido would only drift to law school in the grips of the fuzzy thinking that plagues many students of the humanities, his father’s words would contribute to his firm decision, while enrolled there, to try to see things through and become a lawyer.

Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (p. 56)

A work written by a Japanese author about a Korean naturalized as Japanese (Akira Kido) resonates in several ways with growing up and making career choices in the U.S.

In less than fifty more pages, Kido is gripped in a panic attack identified as “existential anxiety”: “Kido’s fear of the same thing [death] happening to him made him painfully sensitive to the minutiae of life” (p. 99).

Kido recognizes as he approaches middle age that he is revisiting similar questions he faced as a teenager:

As was typical of someone that age, in the process of trying to decide what he wanted to be, he had thought long and hard about what kind of person he was. In the end he had drifted along and become a lawyer in accordance with his father’s advice. His doubts about whether this was truly the right path had never completely left him, but he went on looking to the future, telling himself that the person he was meant to be would be realized through the profession ha had chosen.

Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (p. 99-100)

Kido had lived “[f]or fifteen years now” complacent in those choices, who he had become—a lawyer with a wife and child. Yet in his new surge of existential anxiety, he recognized “steady work was no longer as common as it once had been, and many in his generation were denied the opportunity” he had received (p. 100):

He understood the struggles such people faced all too well because he dealt with many of them as clients. Forced to accept a life in which their social position and income were always unstable, they could never hope to self-actualize their profession as he had.

Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (p. 100)

Despite feeling fortunate, Kido must confront renewed angst prompting a new question: “Did I make the right choice?” (p. 100). And Kido becomes starkly aware “there might have been other paths he could have taken and therefore other people he might have been”:

The problem now was not who he was in the present but who he’d been in the past, and the solution he sought was no longer supposed to help him live but to help him figure out what sort of person to die as.

Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (p. 100)

For Kido, “the minutiae of life”—career as a lawyer, his family, and his Korean race beneath his naturalized Japanese citizenship—resulted in his “reignited existential anxiety:

The judicial order that Kido worked hard as a lawyer to preserve propped up his quotidian life. It protected his family’s human rights and maintained their status as sovereign citizens.

Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (p. 101)

I am now in the late fall/early winter of a life and my so-called career; I turn 60 in about three weeks.

Regrets linger around me, but they are not primary my existential anxiety (that has been my companion since birth); although I do recognize in Kido’s dilemmas my own mixed feelings about who I have become and what sort of person I will die as—since I can recognize on the horizon many endings such as my career and my ability to do some of the things associated with younger humans.

My body’s deteriorations seem exponential by not the year, but the month and even day.

What strikes me about this aspect of the novel is that we rarely utter what Kido is confronting: you are your job (especially for those of us living in capitalism). I suspect this is one fear-inspiring slogan we don’t launch at children because it is the most frightening of all.

In capitalism, we must work in order to be fully human, especially in the U.S. where working is the only access to even marginal health insurance and care as well as livable retirement savings.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. government has been the least responsive internationally in providing financial support, but one of the most aggressive about maintaining the economy (which, in fact, really means keeping workers on the job).

Millionaire U.S. senators held forth about the dangers of sending citizens money and expanding unemployment payments because of the cancerous dangers of “handouts.”

And there has been during the election cycle the ever-present mantra about “socialism” (a red herring, but common from the Right none the less).

I have been talking with a family member and close friend, one in their 30s and on in their 20s, and hearing a common theme; they are both not just disillusioned about their professions/jobs, but about working.

Why, they are asking, should someone work five days every week for the brief two days of the weekend? And why work forty or fifty years just so you can retire in your dotage?

And like Kido, I think of my father, a young man in the 1950s and young husband/parent in the 1960s who bought the work-yourself-into-the-grave mentality hook, line, and sinker.

Then, of course, he passed it onto me; he imprinted it in me.

To these questions by young people, I can honestly say that the answer is capitalism is your Daddy.

You are your job, and if you are not careful, if you fail to ask these questions and then act, that’s the person you will die as.

The NFL and the Politics of Lies

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –

“This World is not Conclusion” (373), Emily Dickinson

I taught throughout the 1980s and 1990s in my small rural hometown in Upstate South Carolina. That town literally had a railroad track separating the black and white sides of town.

The very small school district includes only four schools—primary, elementary, middle (junior, when I attended), and high—that encircled the largest church in town, Woodruff First Baptist, its steeple looming prominently over the schools and the town.

white church near trees at daytime
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Many of my students attended that church, and for a time, virginity pledges became a thing. Sunday morning services included girls and young women coming forward to pledge their virginity until marriage.

These young women received praise and recognition throughout the town and at school. At one point when this trend was at a peak, a group of young women came to me upset that, as they explained, most of their peers taking the virginity pledge were far from virgins, before the pledge or after.

These young women taking the pledge were playing a powerful game of making public displays that gave them social capital but required in no way that they practice what they proclaimed.

The young women who had not pledged, were mostly not sexually active, and felt a great deal of resentment also informed me that one of the young women who had recently been praised in front of the student body, and was also a very popular student and cheerleader, was among a secret group of young women who helped each other pay for and acquire abortions.

I have dozens and dozens of these stories, since I grew up in the deep South and am well acquainted with the power and hypocrisy of the Christian veneer.

While I have mostly stopped watching all organized sports, college or professional, I was wrangled last night into viewing the 2019 Super Bowl. What resonated with me above the lackluster game itself and the disappointment of another success story for the New England Patriots (with a coach and quarterback who personify all that is wrong with the NFL and the U.S.) was the clear drumbeat throughout the event by the NFL that the organization is deeply committed to social justice.

Over the past few years, the NFL has ostracized Colin Kaepernick for political protests and perpetuated the vapid notion that some of the athletes have sullied the game with their politics.

This same NFL began the most recent Super Bowl, as usual, with nothing except politics, the National Anthem and a military flyover. But most disgusting of all was the use of Martin Luther King Jr., ostensibly since the game was played in Atlanta, GA, to associate billionaire owners and the league with social justice.

I have never seen anyone look more out of place than the images of Commissioner Roger Goodell touring Atlanta and marking great places and moments in civil rights.

The NFL is a master of the politics of lies, playing up its own brand while simultaneously beating down any millionaire worker who has the audacity to be anything other than a player-drone for the billionaires who own them.

I understand how many NFL players feel compelled to remain stooges for the corporation that pays many of them well, even as the evidence is mounting that almost all of them are being physically and mentally maimed, that virtually all of them are just cogs, expendable. None the less, I cringed when Marshawn Lynch showed up in one of the most popular feel-good spots portraying the NFL as all that is good and happy:

There is a world unlike this one in which I imagine Marshawn Lynch as the hero and not bent by the great burdening weight of the NFL.

But that is not this world.

Concurrent with the Super Bowl has been a brewing controversy about the governor of Virginia, which Chris Emdin confronts broadly:

Today, as everyone indicts the governor for his racism and everyone professes to stew in anger at how he has let down his constituents, I am most disturbed by the ways that we allow folks to construct progressive public personas that are allowed to mask a problematic past even as the country endorses the past and the masking. WE have allowed people to use buzzwords like equity and social justice to mask their racism. WE have allowed sitting next to the right people or hanging the right painting to erase things they have done that cause pain. WE have failed to allow folks to face their history and the part they play in what they profess to fight against. It is easy to advocate for something without acknowledging that you are part of what caused it. It is easy for the governor to denounce the hatred in Charlottesville without acknowledging that he is a branch of the tree that the hate there grew from.

Emdin unmasks the progressive veneer that works like the Christian veneer—for some. Mostly for the privileged who use that veneer to maintain a death-grip on their unearned power.

In this age of Trump politics, we must recognize that billionaire NFL owners are no more committed to social justice than Trump is to Christianity.

Billionaires have been afforded their billions because of inequity, and the only real threat to their egregious wealth is equity, the cleansing sunshine of social justice.

The NFL exists on lies, it needs lies. The NFL is a microcosm of U.S. capitalism that exists on poverty, that needs poverty.

Kaepernick was sacrificed exactly because he was the Truth, unadulterated because the banishment was swift and seemingly invisible, silent. Allowed to return to the NFL, like Lynch, Kapernick likely and excusably would have merged into the fold in some uncomfortable way—like Jim Brown’s face if the commercial above is paused just right.

The NFL’s lie is just another Great America Myth, another cultural lie. The Super Bowl was its crowning act of this year’s season of lies.

The perfect team, the Patriots, now sit on that throne of duplicity like an arrogant middle finger to all that is decent and humane.

Like the church steeple ringed by my home town’s only schools.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Practitioner in Education

In the final days of my Summer I graduate course, my department chair asked me to switch from the Summer II graduate course I was assigned (a new preparation I had worked on diligently to teach for the first time) to a literacy course in which the instructor could no longer teach the class.

This course was one I have never taught, and thus, would have to prepare in just a few days to take on—scrambling as I did to understand the other instructor’s syllabus and schedule while also facing the herculean task of teaching from four assigned books that I have never read.

This afternoon, then, when I face these graduate students, I will confess that I have never taught elementary literacy (the course is a graduate literacy methods class)—having all my experience and expertise in teaching high school and college literacy, primarily writing—and thus, I will be relying on their practitioner expertise (the students are mostly practicing elementary teachers) while performing the role myself of facilitator.

In my Summer I class, as well, one assignment required students to read a professional book on literacy, and share with the class. Part of our discussion revolved around professional books in education emphasizing classroom practice (over theory and philosophy) while being written by education personalities.

The credibility of these books are often grounded in the assumption these personalities are credible; issues of validity and reliability—and even thorough citation—are ignored or de-emphasized. So I cautioned them that professional books (and education personalities) are not to be viewed as scripture, not as sacred directives, but as opportunities to think along with these education personalities in order to develop and sharpen their own practitioner expertise.

My journey as an educator has included 18 years as a classroom high school English teacher followed by 16 years as a teacher educator, and concurrently, an education scholar and public intellectual.

I lived, then, nearly two decades of sitting in mandated workshops and presentations where education consultants spoke down to us practitioners while earning in a few hours what no practicing teacher earned. These consultants and speakers may have had some classroom experience, but it was vividly clear to us they had all eagerly jumped ship to talk to lowly practitioners because the hours and the pay were much better.

K-12 teachers tend to loath this traditional aspect of being a teacher—the torture of being treated unprofessionally and the waste of our precious time that we could all better use to do the stuff of teaching, planning and responding to student work.

The edu-guru market is an ugly beast that perpetuates the notion that K-12 teachers are not professional or experts themselves, that practice is somehow just a mechanical thing that can be imposed onto a passive and compliant workforce (let us hasten to add, a passive and compliant workforce in which 3 of 4 teachers are women with undergraduate and graduate degrees and years of experience).

So when I teach or provide in-service for teachers, I emphasize my own classroom experience above all else, and couch my scholarly expertise in that practice now edging toward 40 years.

The accountability era has ratcheted up this divide, in part perpetuated by authoritarian structures (prescriptive legislation and top-down managerial styles of administrators) and in part by the market.

This latter influence must not be ignored. Publishers depend heavily on the cult of personality to drive textbook and professional book sales as well as the related consultant appearances.

Too often, however, what is being mandated and sold proves to be mostly hokum beneath the shimmer and shine of well-formatted books and over-confident edu-gurus.

Paul Murphy’s Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano highlights nearly everything that is wrong with this cult of personality that de-professionalizes teachers while also blaming them for the outcomes driven by the practices they are mandated and coerced to implement.

Murphy stresses: “For years, teachers were asked (or, more often, told) to swallow a lot of crap. More and more of us are done eating it” (emphasis in original).

In a powerful and thorough interrogation of this dynamic, Benjamin Doxtdator challenges Doug Lemov and Dave Burgess:

Both Lemov and Burgess construct masculine, individualistic heroes. Champion teachers, according to Lemov, “routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.” For Burgess, Pirates are “entrepreneurs”, “daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence.”

I have spent a great deal of my work as a scholar and public intellectual raising the same concerns about Angela Duckworth’s grit and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

Scholars of poverty and social class began lining up more than a decade ago to refute the popular but invalid training provided by Ruby Payne, who continues to profit greatly off the uncritical edu-guru poverty circuit funded mostly by tax dollars.

There are patterns to all this madness:

  • Practitioners are framed as or assumed to be unprofessional and inexpert.
  • Experts are, then, the consultants themselves, who are beyond reproach (criticize the work of Duckworth, or John Hattie, and expect to be accused of attacking the people themselves, to be shamed for the criticism).
  • Both educational research and teacher practices are trivialized as secondary to the gimmick (grit, teaching like a champion, visible learning, etc.) and the edu-guru who peddles the gimmick.
  • Teaching and learning are necessarily narrowed and over-simplified. Marzano and Hattie direct a laser focus on the impact of teachers; Duckworth and Dweck keep the accusatory eye on weaknesses and flaws in the children/students themselves.
  • Teacher and student voices are muted or entirely ignored.
  • Teachers are conditioned to behave in unprofessional ways that are used to justify treating them unprofessionally.
  • Divisions of labor and compensation for labor are disturbingly skewed so that practitioners are underpaid and under-appreciated while consultants and administrators (farthest from the day-to-day experiences of students) are overpaid and overvalued.

When I met with a colleague who designed the course I will be teaching for the first time this afternoon, she empathized with the abrupt change in course assignments and then helped me tremendously by noting that when she taught the course, she used elements of the National Writing Project (NWP) model for summer institutes.

I was co- and lead instructor of a writing project in South Carolina at the end of my high school teaching career just before entering higher education in 2002. Being a participant in and then facilitating for a NWP site were by far the greatest experiences for me as an educator and a professional.

Why? The sacred elements of these summer seminars were the professionalism of the teachers and the community of scholars that was fostered and developed.

One of the most important refrains of these communities was the call to check ourselves regularly against the allure of edu-gurus and gimmicks (we at first embraced the term “best practice” and then quickly felt it had become a mandate and not a healthy generalization for how any teacher works from a toolbox of practices with the needs of the learner guiding those fluid decisions).

K-12 practitioners remain trapped in a hellish contradiction created by the cult of personality driving edu-gurus and gimmicks: Teachers are simultaneously posed as the singular and most important factor in student learning (a verifiable lie) and then treated as incompetent technicians.

Teachers need to be relieved of edu-gurus and gimmicks; they deserve professional experiences that include the time, support, and conditions that are conducive to what is best for each student taking a seat in any of their classrooms.

Teachers must not be reduced to technocrats, must not be compelled to be martyrs and missionaries.

If we can resist the allure of celebrity and cashing in, we must ultimately acknowledge the humanity of teachers and their students, while admitting the ugly influences of sexism and consumerism that too often trump our stated goals of democracy and equity.

Love in the Time of Capitalism

When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.

“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” Adrienne Rich

When risking love, we often calculate the costs.

The emotional cost of being vulnerable with your heart, the existential awareness that our passions are inevitably our sufferings.

But the economic cost as well—gifts and anniversaries, engagement and wedding rings, weddings, honeymoons, car payments, rent and mortgages.

‘Til death do us part.

I believe in soulmates; that love is a recognition, not a choice.

These likely are idealistic, even romantic, and thus unlike virtually every other fiber of my being. And since almost all of my poetry in some way is love poetry, people are often surprised at the poetry against the other writing they know, or the person they recognize as the public and social me.

A therapist once told me that my hypersensitivity to the world (he said I see the world in techno-color when most people see black and white) is a gift—although it also was at the root of my anxiety, my being prone to loneliness and depression.

That hypersensitivity also translates into love, or better phrased, loving too deeply, too much.

I am too much, my love is too much for the unfortunate objects of my affection. A tidal wave. An avalanche.

Although I taught it for many years, I never cared for The Great Gatsby, but one scene always stood out. When Gatsby demands that Daisy tells Tom she never loved Tom, only Gatsby, Daisy breaks:

“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now—isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once—but I loved you too.”

This moment—”‘you want too much'”—sets in motion the inevitable end, the tragedy that very well could be titled Love in the Time of Capitalism.

Love that is allowed—normal love, conventional love—triumphs in a perverse way that leaves many people dead in its wake, collateral damage like the idealized love Gatsby so desperately wanted Daisy to confirm.

Their unconventional love across social class, like interracial or interfaith love, love between different nationalities, same-sex love, love across an age gap.

As I near 60, I have discovered that the costs of romantic and familial love can become too much, or at least so demanding that I have failed it—or as I recognize, I become too much.

I have at times learned to disassociate, to set aside feeling too deeply, feeling at all. Love is a kind of obsession, at least for me, and when I care deeply I am nearly always aware of that love, especially in the absence.

As I near 60, I also must admit I am far more able to appreciate the importance of love, not just conventional love, and far more willing to seek ways to ignore the barricades to love. I am apt to argue that nothing else matters as love must for any human.

So this morning, with the recent death of Donald Hall, I was introduced to Hall’s Between Solitude and Loneliness from 2016.

Aging and becoming aware of ones mortality can often be extremely liberating—paradoxically too late. Hall writes at 87 about his journey with solitude and loneliness, as a veneer for an essay about love.

Hall details an early life that seemed crowded, especially for a man prone to the solitude of writing. In college, for example, “Solitude was scarce, and I labored to find it.”

And then Hall married young: “My extremely intelligent wife was more mathematical than literary. We lived together and we grew apart….After sixteen years of marriage, my wife and I divorced.”

Hall’s essay turns, then, to the ways in which he squandered life and love:

For five years I was alone again, but without the comfort of solitude. I exchanged the miseries of a bad marriage for the miseries of bourbon. I dated a girlfriend who drank two bottles of vodka a day. I dated three or four women a week, occasionally three in a day. My poems slackened and stopped. I tried to think that I lived in happy license. I didn’t.

When love returned to Hall, however, he was vividly aware of the costs, in this case of unconventional love, a much younger former student: “One night, we spoke of marriage. Quickly we changed the subject, because I was nineteen years older and, if we married, she would be a widow so long.”

None the less, they married, and the essay cannot hide the joy of their love, that the risk of unconventional love for a man who had failed life and love was very much worth the cost.

There is nothing guaranteed about life and love—”After twenty years of our remarkable marriage, living and writing together in double solitude, Jane died of leukemia at forty-seven, on April 22, 1995.”

This essay is about a man risking love, grieving as deeply as he loved while envisioning his own death bed before him.

I was watching my two grandchildren when I read this. I cried very hard and had to navigate my granddaughter asking me to help her find her P.J. Mask dolls through tears blurring my contacts and dropping onto the lenses of my old-man reading glasses.

It was the sort of deep and unnerving cry I experience, spontaneous and uncontrollable, when I listen to Ben Fold’s “The Luckiest,” my go-to anthem about the treasured soulmate.

The lyrics are quirky and heartfelt—with the speaker admitting: “I love you more than I have/Ever found a way to say to you.”

Our metaphors of capitalism, the costs of love, ultimately corrupt not just love itself but how we talk about love.

Love fills us to bursting, forcing at times the tears from our eyes. In its absence we are empty.

Not much could save The Great Gatsby for me; I loathe Fitzgerald, and the characters leave me cold. But reimagined as Love in the Time of Capitalism, a novel as a cautionary tale calling for humans to choose the heart over our consumerism, I may be persuaded otherwise.

Love is a very human thing, and a very difficult thing for humans. In the time of capitalism, it may damn well be impossible.

But what if Gatsby were not asking too much? What if unconventional love was not just  tolerated but celebrated?

What if love was enough?

Free Speech, Free Market, and the Lingering “Rigid Refusal”

In the documentary Corridor of Shame, which explores the historical inequities of school funding in South Carolina along lines of race and social class, Senator (R, SC) Lindsey Graham claims while speaking at MLK Day in 2005: “We have a disparity of funding in a region of our state…. The reason we have disparity in funding is not cause we are prejudiced at the governmental level. It’s because we collect taxes based on property value. And our property value in those counties are pretty low because there’s no industry.”

Graham’s denial of systemic racism represents what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “elegant racism” while confronting the “oafish racism” of Cliven Bundy and former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling:

The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad. The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state’s rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s singularly segregationist candidacy.

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

Graham acknowledges inequity, but uses “prejudiced” instead of “racist,” and casually rejects systemic racism.

As Coates explains, whites in the U.S. are more apt to acknowledge oafish racism while almost always employing elegant racism, such as denying systemic racism; therefore, Graham’s obfuscation is a powerful and effective political ploy, especially in the South.

In the matter of a few days recently, this distinction has played out in a public way with the NFL instituting a new policy about players protesting during the National Anthem and Roseanne Barr having her ABC sit-com canceled after a racist outburst on social media.

The NFL Anthem policy and Barr’s show cancelation have two important elements in common: what they represent in terms of how the U.S. confronts and understands racism, and how many in the U.S. have a deeply flawed understanding of free speech.

First, when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick initiated protests during the National Anthem, the public and political response has tended to misrepresent the actions. Kaepernick and other players were protesting systemic racism, inequitable policing of blacks often resulting in death, during the Anthem.

Notably, Barr’s oafish racism, comparing a person of color to an ape, has resulted in a similar outcome for Barr and Kaepernick—the loss of work—although the former is a racist and the latter is protesting racism.

While Kapernick and other protesting NFL players have been condemned for being political (disregarding they are taking credible stands against a reprehensible social reality), Barr has a history of being bigoted.

Writer Roxane Gay has examined that history and then the recent cancelation, in fact.

Also significant about these two situations is that the new NFL policy does in fact limit when and how NFL players can express themselves, but Barr was perfectly free to share her comments, with an incredibly wide audience.

That comparison leads to the now common aspect of the public discussion of Barr’s cancelation, claims that they are about free speech: Since the NFL and ABC are not the government, neither of these situations is an issue of free speech.

As Katherine Timpf explains:

First of all, this is in no way a free-speech or First Amendment issue. The First Amendment protects us from facing consequences from the government over our speech, not consequences from our peers or our employers. Yes, what Barr said, although abhorrent, absolutely was constitutionally protected speech, and, of course, it should be. After all, giving the government the power to decide what is and is not “acceptable” speech would be giving the government the power to silence whatever kind of speech it felt like silencing, which would be very dangerous indeed. Anyway, the point is, a free-speech-rights violation would be someone trying to, say, arrest Barr for her comments, not firing her for them. Her rights were in no way violated in this case. ABC simply exercised its own rights as a private company to decide whom it does and does not want to associate with, and it’s my view that no one should blame its executives for making the decision that they made.

Therefore, the NFL policy on the National Anthem and the cancelation of Barr’s sit-com are not about free speech but the free market. Both the NFL and ABC are hedging that their actions preserve their audiences, their bottom line.

And what those concerns about their audiences reinforce is that the public has a much lower tolerance for oafish racism (Barr) than for confronting elegant racism (NFL protests). The NFL believes its audience either denies or cannot see systemic racism, and thus does not support the so-called politics of NFL players who protest while ABC feels that continuing to give an oafish racist a major platform will erode their audience.

Here is where we must confront the problem with trusting the free market since doing the right thing is linked to the moral imperative of the majority, the consumers. Currently in the U.S., that majority remains insensitive to systemic inequity and injustice; therefore, elegant racism survives—even bolstered ironically when oafish racism is shamed and seemingly blunted.

When each oafish racist is given their due, those denying systemic racism have their worldview confirmed since they see individual punishment as justice.

These actions by the NFL and ABC reflect that in the U.S. whites are still in the early adolescent stage of racial consciousness. Being able to confront oafish racism isn’t even fully developed yet.

Many in the media called Barr’s slurs “racially insensitive,” showing the same sort of refusal to call a lie, a lie that now characterizes mainstream media. But a few in that media are calling Barr’s words “racist,” and ABC folded under the weight of that fact—although we should be asking why Barr had this second chance considering her history of bigotry.

As a people, white America is not adult enough, however, to move past finger-wagging at oafish racists and to acknowledge systemic racism because, as Coates recognizes, “to see racism in all its elegance is to implicate not just its active practitioners, but to implicate ourselves.”

James Baldwin’s “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'” remains a chilling warning then: “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.”

That anything, as the NFL and ABC have exposed, is racism—the cancer destroying our democracy and our free market.

As consumers, we have a moral obligation to tell the NFL it is wrong; we will not stand for systemic racism. And we must tell ABC that canceling Barr’s sit-com is a start, but it isn’t enough.

As citizens, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror of the voting booth—something we have failed to do yet in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Recommended

Who Me?

Tiny Houses, Poverty Appropriation, and Stepping Back as a Critical Move

Once you cross that line into critical consciousness, nothing else is ever the same—professionally or personally. While I doubt this was Jeff VanderMeer’s intent, his Area X of the Southern Reach Trilogy provides a perfect metaphor for this critical “you can’t go home again.”

Maybe the most pressing aspect of being critical is the loneliness, the isolation you recognize when you are no more at home among traditional/conservative environments or progressive/liberal ones.

A close second is the exhaustion felt once you realize being critical is not something you can simply turn off in order to function at the so-called normal level—just to be one of the crowd among friends.

I was reminded of this while grabbing lunch and falling into a conversation with a very smart and very critical friend who was reading about tiny houses.

Here’s the great critical mistake: I had already worked through tiny houses (the problem with poverty appropriation) and just shut the door (hint: if you ever shut the door, you ain’t being critical).

So when my friend spoke positively about tiny houses and the movement, we did what we do: Launching into a fairly passionate conversation that certainly sounded to anyone nearby like an argument.

My first response to this exchange is to confess that I was guilty of not doing the critical move that everyone should make: No matter where you stand on an issue, no matter how much you have unpacked and teased through all the complications, you must always be willing to step back and look again, to listen once more.

Further, as I made my claims, I recognized that my argument about most issues being way more complicated than people realize is incredibly relevant to how we should respond to the tiny house movement—which does smack of poverty appropriation but also promotes a critical investigation of what it means to create a space for living as well as what it means to be a consumer trapped in the allure of gathering ever-more stuff.

The discussion unfolded along a clear line—my skepticism about the majority of those embracing the tiny house movement versus my friend’s appreciation for the possibilities of tiny house ideologies.

We also were wrestling with to what degree do intentions matter, the good intentions problem.

Ultimately, the tiny house movement does present a real concern about poverty appropriation, but the movement itself also forces anyone who is critical to return to an important aspect of being critical, the need to step back and recognize that no issue is as simple as most people think.

So what do we do once we see the poverty appropriation in the tiny house movement, once our critical consciousness is triggered?

Resist a blanket discounting seems a wise caution.

Continue to study, to listen, seems a necessary step as well so here are some ways I found to continue thinking critically about the tiny house movement:

Navigating the tiny house movement may seem too academic, too removed from our every day lives (since some of our discussion was strongly grounded in how being privileged allows someone to make decisions that can easily trivialize many people’s lives that are without such choices). But I think how we manage this issue is a powerful example of all of our living once we have critical consciousness.

To be critical, Paulo Freire argued, is to resist fatalism, and thus, if our critical sensibility erases hope, unpacks anything and everything so finely that we are left paralyzed, then we are not being critical.

To be critical is to recognize that being human is a political act; we are always securing the status quo or affecting change. No other option exists.

Being critical must not be reduced to mere academic dismantling—the state of fatalism—if it is to remain critical, and thus revolutionary.

Being critical is not mere cynicism, not the calloused dismissing of a hand waved.

And that leads me to a final thought on being critical: Surround yourself with smart friends, and then be always ready to listen.

To return to my opening nod, Vandermeer’s Area X, we must add to our critical consciousness that interrogating tiny houses, for example, is a subset of investigating the larger systems within which any movement or behavior exists (my friend uses an analogy to veganism, trying to unpack its ethics versus the ethics of meat eating).

Area X is expanding, seemingly unstoppable, and it changes everything, including people (maybe replacing them with copies) and anyone’s perception of reality.

There is always another level if we are willing to step back far enough, but as soon as we do, we often see ourselves in the mirror of criticism, and then, another layer of discomfort awaits us.

I certainly need to keep stepping back. I certainly need to face myself in that mirror.

Make America Great, Finally?: The Archeology of White People (Redux)

America has never been great. Including now.

The problem with such a claim is that a blanket statement  leaves too much room to discredit the argument, and of course, we must all agree on the definition of “great.”

Large-scale evidence that America has never been great is obvious: slavery, lynching, the Japanese internment, the Trail of Tears, the Tulsa massacre, and the bloody litany of mass and school shootings that characterize America in a way distinct from all other democracies.

At any moment in the history of the US, what can be called “great” for any group of people, when unpacked, can be exposed as the consequence of some other people’s suffering. It has always benefitted the winners in the US to keep everyone’s eyes on the winning so that we can conveniently ignore the necessary losing.

That is part of the message in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

That is what I confronted in the last stanza of my poem “the archeology of white people“:

Ignore the body in the road
we whisper in their tiny innocent ears
Isn’t that golden car spectacular?

Myrtle_gets_hit_by_the_car
The Great Gatsby (2013)

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, America is great for Tom and Daisy, but if we refuse to look the other way, that comes at the expense of Myrtle, ripped apart and dead in the road; of George, dead at his own hand; and of Gatsby, perversely shot in his opulent pool.

This is America: “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” (“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich).

Or as Langston Hughes’s speaker challenges: “(America never was America to me.)”—the too often ignored voice of those who live the fact of America not being great.

To rally around “Make America Great Again” is a perversion of hope; it is delusion.

Delusion is not the result of a lack of knowledge, but a refusal to listen, to see because you are driven deaf and blind by a fear of acknowledging the truths that refute your beliefs.

The delusion of clinging to guns, instruments of death, as a symbol for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

On social media, I witness this daily—those for whom proof and evidence mean nothing, those who shout the loudest, know the least, and listen not at all.

While there is no credible greatness to recapture in America, I do not deny yet the possibility of greatness. In fact, I can rally myself around “Make America Great, Finally.”

Greatness is certainly a worthy aspiration, although that too requires that we agree on exactly what “great” is.

Let me pose two examples we may want to follow.

Teachers in West Virginia, a right-to-work (non-union) state, have demonstrated a quest for greatness by recognizing and then acting on the power of striking. If citizens would more commonly recognize and then act on the power of mobilized groups with common interests, unresponsive government and political leadership could be eradicated in the name of the greatness we claim to seek.

Students across the US, prompted by Parkland, Florida students, have also demonstrated the potential for the powerless to organize and assert power with the nation-wide walk outs demanding action on gun control. Even before the walk out, student activism had prompted large corporations to change gun sale policies without any policy changes from political leaders.

WV teachers without the legal right to strike along with children and teens with almost no direct political power have demonstrated that power exists where it appears absent and that greatness springs from community and not individual zeal, not necessarily reduced to a zero-sum gain.

The choice in the US does not have to be between Daisy and Myrtle, in fact.

That American dream is only a dream for some because it is a nightmare for many.

There is nothing great about wealth or the wealthy; there is nothing great about coaxing most Americans to develop the grit to overcome adversity.

Great is the absence of poverty, not the presence of wealth.

Great is the absence of adversity, not the presence of grit.

Teachers in WV and students all across the nation have played great first hands.

Your turn.

 

Capitalism Creates Cover for Open Secret in #MeToo Era

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver asserts without hedging:

Let’s be clear: no woman asks to live in a rape culture: we all want it over, yesterday. Mixed signals about female autonomy won’t help bring it down, and neither will asking nicely. Nothing changes until truly powerful offenders start to fall.

The #MeToo movement, Kingsolver argues, must not be muted by backlash, especially one that focuses on tone. This commentary coincides with what appears to be a never-ending unmasking of open secrets, recently including Sherman Alexie and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket).

While the backlash and perverse charges of “witch hunt” are valid elements to investigate and reject, just as discussions of race and racism are often derailed by arguments that our problems are really about social class, the #MeToo confrontation of the open secret about sexual harassment and assault tends to skirt the larger culture that allows the secret to fester—capitalism.

Consider David Perry’s Sherman Alexie and Daniel Handler that includes a very important point that can be linked to Kingsolver’s “truly powerful offenders”:

In my Daniel Handler story, I referenced a series of anonymous comments accusing Alexie. I received a little pushback on that, but felt confident in the appropriateness of citing it. I brought it up because of this twitter thread from Allie Jane Bruce, one of the women who talked about Handler….

Bruce writes, “What you will hear, if you listen, is two cis men who speak the language of liberalism, progressivism, and feminism *perfectly* and are capitalizing on it. Using it to promote themselves and their books.” [1]

The #MeToo movement has been a powerful force for exposing toxic masculinity and rape culture, but we must also come to understand that toxic masculinity and rape culture flourish within an even larger culture targeted by Bruce, capitalizing.

The open secret phenomenon is fueled by, made possible because enough people are somehow profiting from the monsters perpetrating sexual harassment and assault.

This helps more fully explain nearly all of these high-profile predatory men from Trump to the newest revelations about Alexie and Handler.

Gender, race, and social class imbalances of power are created and perpetuated by capitalism (a twisted lottery effect that coerces people to tolerate and hide monstrous behavior because they may profit—even when those chances are slim to none), and as a consequence, open secrets persist because sexual harassment and assault are underreported; for example, as Alexie’s non-apology statement confirms, women sexually harassed and assaulted often remain silent, and silenced:

The majority of sexual assaults, an estimated 63 percent, are never reported to the police (Rennison, 2002). The prevalence of false reporting cases of sexual violence is low (Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, & Cote, 2010), yet when survivors come forward, many face scrutiny or encounter barriers. For example, when an assault is reported, survivors may feel that their victimization has been redefined and even distorted by those who investigate, process, and categorize cases. (Research on false reporting)

As Kingsolver implores, #MeToo voices need to press forward, women supported by men as allies. The unmasking by #MeToo can unravel toxic masculinity and rape culture, but even as that important work builds momentum, I think we must not be distracted from the equally toxic influence of capitalism, the allure of profit, that also provides cover for the monsters walking among us.

The powerful preying on the powerless is a terrible curse on humanity; supporting and listening to the voices of victims can serve to restore some of that humanity lost as we must once again admit that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”


[1] See How to talk about sex, according to ‘grey-haired’ dads


See Also

In the Shadows of Slavery’s Capitalism

I, Marxist

It is not for the theater alone, but the theater itself would justify the moment in each class I teach when I out myself as a “communist” (pausing, then clarifying the whole communist-socialist-Marxist mess that most Americans cannot untangle).

And that comes early so that I can punctuate about once a class period a key point with “Here is the communist propaganda of the day.” Eventually, this prods laughter when at first there were silent faces, eyes down, of utter fear.

In almost all of my courses, we back up and reconsider terms such as “theory,” “hypothesis,” “belief,” “objectivity,” and of course the cursed trinity, “communist-socialist-Marxist.” What is interesting as well is that most of my students are as ill-informed about “capitalism,” “democracy,” and “republic” as they are misguided about the Red Scare.

While I remain resistant to any and all labels (see this about my born-again agnostic confession), I am, in fact, more or less a Marxist, with the caveat that the term itself and the ideologies surrounding it are contentious, at best.

I was never an Ayn Rand simpleton (excuse the redundancy), but in my early life as a would-be intellectual/academic (my teens), I was powerfully drawn to American Romanticism’s star-struck gaze on the individual—the stuff of the three-name bullshitters, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (for whom I still have some affection, by the way).

But my twenties and thirties included a great awakening that ran through John Dewey (rejecting the either/or thinking of society v. individual) and directly into Paulo Freire, a (the?) patron saint of educational Marxists.

The boy-to-man transition can be a slow one, but I eventually shrugged off my idealizing the individual and demonizing the collective (damned Society), and came to a much more nuanced understanding of the moral and ethical implications (or absence thereof) inherent in the rugged individual myth and the larger consumerism/capitalism norm of the good ol’ U.S. of A.

This transition, I realize, is part of a personal journey to an ethical way of being, and thus, I had to reject rugged individualism and capitalism (consumerism) for their amorality; I had to embrace Marxism for its moral imperative.

Of course, I realize that “moral” and “ethical” are social constructions, not some objective thing handed down by G(g)od; however, I think humans can create norms that seek ways to honor the collective and individual good.

I am still traversing along Dewey’s call to reject the either/or—despite the wealth of post-apocalyptic science/speculative fiction (that I love) grounded in the evil collective assaulting the idealized indivdual. See Winston’s head trapped in the cage under the threat of loosed rats.

Pretty damn hard to resist this warning, but it’s hokum, mostly, especially since this sort of propaganda by Randian capitalists and aimed at demonizing the government is a distortion of a more credible warning about totalitarianism, something more likely when government is corrupted by corporations (not the implied message that government is the inherently corrupt force in the universe).

Thus, my Marxism runs toward the recognition (the paradox) that if we do value individual freedom and the so-call free market (insert sarcastic cough here), the path to those ideals begins with insuring the robustness of the public good first.

Randian capitalists preach that the free market comes first, as the sacred Invisible Hand—while public institutions (gasp) are to be tolerated only and always under a skeptical gaze.

As ideologies, both of these approaches are idealistic, and possibly inherently unattainable.

I remain with the Marxist camp because it is the moral idealism against the amoral idealism of Randian capitalism.

I am willing to concede that having two or three competing pharmacies facing off across the street and corners from each other can work to depress prices—possibly more so than depending on the usually bungled bureaucracy of government to serve the people well (here, read some Kafka).

But the public good will not be served by Walgreens and Ekerd alone in terms of just what pharmaceuticals they sale; in fact, if anything, the U.S. is a horrible parable about the failure of allowing the market to drive the selling of medicine. (Consider Tamiflu, which is mostly sold to create profit for drug companies, but likely is not close to being cost effective or curative for patients).

The free market spawned Viagra and Cialis, we must consider, but cancer is left to private non-profits begging for people to be decent, and, human.

Charity.

So to stand before my students and confess “I, Marxist,” is no mere theater, although it serves that well also.

It is, in fact, an act of confessing my own moral imperative as a teacher, and a human—as flawed as all that is.

It is a defiance in the wake of all the cartoonish Red baiting that has characterized the U.S. for more than a century.

And I persist, although “I’m not sure all these people understand.”