Doing Good

Plague Poems #15

PandemicMoi

It's Friday, and Tiki Bar will be open later. PM me if you want an invite.

Happy Hour

Every Friday
they flash like fireflies
onto my screen:
Boop! A new face,
caught unaware and pleading
(please work please work please work)
before the connection goes live
to four time zones and
a half-dozen or more shifting urbanities
—Greenville, Chicago, Oakland, Augusta,
Winnipeg, Lansing, L.A.—
New York City
the hub of a web of friendships
suddenly tenuous and fragile.

Week one it was still novel
like the virus itself,
sheltering inside and
using the tools of the masters
to keep us connected
in our own houses.
We dubbed the screen arrangement of ourselves
the Brady Bunch, still lighthearted
—but so socially distanced it was painful—
the meaning of the pandemic
still unclear and surreal,
its impacts still occult.

Weeks two and three contained a
restlessness under the joy of new faces,
of books, recipes, trenchant analysis, even
a defiant merrymaking
in the face of lives
ground to a halt—quarantine
like sand in the gears—
and in the hands of a murderous, incompetent fool.

By weeks four and five
some of us were fractious, or
making mad plans
to build our own green screens
to fill with fantasy backgrounds
to entertain each other and fool ourselves, or
hanging string lights
to make it feel like a real party
here at the end of the world,
all the while
beginning to fray and break
as sheltering began to feel like
lock-down,
as the body count mounted, and
refrigerated trucks appeared in rows
outside the all-ICU hospitals,
ice rinks were turned to morgues,
and graves were dug
on public lands
across the country.
It was all so medieval, remarked
the medievalists amongst us,
so Monty Python, said others,
in a horrible way,
laughing uneasily
in our gallows humor.

The weeks dragged on.

At each gathering,
some of us wept, for ourselves
and at the kindnesses of others. The rest tried
not to. We all
clung to each other,
opening our arms wide
in our Hollywood squares,
blowing kisses as we disappeared
one by one:
alone together
at the Friday Night Zoom! Tiki Bar Happy Hour
in the COVID-19 Pandemic
in the 21st Century,
never knowing which one
might be our last.

‒May 5, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner, 2020


Plague Poems #8

PandemicMoi

Cranky this morning after yesterday's encounters. So there's this:

Cover Up

Fashion statement or
cosplay for survival?
All the cool kids are doing it.

The DIYers are making their own
of every style, from
elastic ear-looped to tie-in-back,
to the full out Plague Doctor
like the Venetian Carnival
in steampunk leather,
Halloween latex,
or home-school cardboard
with lesson plans.
The less crafty among us
improvise with
long-sleeve tees, bandanas,
old nylons.
Designers offer
bright-colored fabrics
in bold patterns—all
to keep us from spreading
our poisonous spit
everywhere to everyone.

It’s not all fashion.
Some of us are desperate
for the medical- and construction-grade
versions, unlovely as they are,
because that’s what
the professionals need and
what the heroes wear
or the folks who
were smart or lucky or who
might die without them.

So now you can stop
mocking/fearing/hating
the woman in the niqab
who has always worn it to protect
her modesty, her reputation,
her way of life,
because her faith
asked her to.
You look just like her in that get-up
of a long-sleeved T-shirt
wrapped around your head.
And now you can stop
following black people
wearing medical masks
in the midst of a pandemic
around the grocery store,
like a racial profiling jackass.
And stop blaming Asian-Americans
for taking precautions
before it was cool.

Because contempt
for your fellow humans
is now bareface(d),
running, biking, shopping
with your sneer
clearly visible,
your ignorance plain to see,
your breath spewing time bombs and
spit flying like shrapnel
without regard for your neighbors.

Get a mask.
Nobody
wants to see
your infectious face.

‒28 April, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner, 2020


Plague Poems #5

PandemicMoi

Briefing

“And you don’t have the right, frankly, to take … people who are literally putting their lives on the line and be cavalier or reckless with them.”
‒New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, April 25, 2020.

And if not for yourself and your family

then for your neighbor’s kid with leukemia
your friend’s friend with the new kidney
for the workers making
your inconvenience
merely inconvenient
the people making a different
sacrifice
more dangerous than yours
the grocery clerks and restockers
the delivery people
bringing you food
and masks and cat litter
bringing you the Amazon snake oil
of possessions
to make you feel better
in your isolation
until the EMTs and the ambulance
come to cart you
hacking and fevered
to a stroke or a ventilator
or a frigid mortuary truck
that last hauled frozen food
like you’re so much meat
to a data point in the statistics
or leave you to a small room
with your family
to sweat it out
and fucking pray like you haven’t in years
or ever
like the nurses and doctors and orderlies and respiratory therapists
pray every single moment of consciousness
to save your ass
and their own
and the bus and subway drivers and cleaners
the bank tellers and pharmacists
the garbage collectors
the police and firefighters
the engineers at the power and water plants
the folks keeping your internet going
and the gas stations open
where you fondle the handles
not knowing where they’ve been
or who touched them before you
without gloves—

For Christ’s sake, for Allah’s, for Buddha’s and Krishna’s
for the sake all the small and large gods of the world
but Mammon—

Stay. The. Fuck. Home.

‒26 April, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Quarantine Thoughts, Part 1: Reshaping the World

PandemicMoi

"Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate."

–Michael O. Leavitt, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 2007

 

Soooooo many thoughts. So many.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the Big Picture lately, and that's where I want to go right now. I'm not all that detail-oriented as a person but I'm good at pulling back and seeing patterns in events. If I could parlay that into working the stock market, or cared enough to, I'd be rich. But I'm more interested in the ebb and flow of history and social trends. Fascinated by it, really. William Gibson's book Pattern Recognition really spoke to me. I think I may have to re-read it. Anyway, I fear this will be one of a multi-part series. If the pandemic goes on long enough, I'll have my own collection of plague letters.

Because you realize that's what this is right? It's a plague, like the Black Death. A plague, but not The Plague. Not as virulent, thank goodness, but potentially able to wipe out a significant percent of the total population. And the Black Death, when it swept through the world in the Middle Ages, changed everything, in a way the last great pandemic, the Spanish Flu, did not. I'll append some links to useful information and science-geek sources on Covid-19 (the disease vs. the virus) at the end, but I've been doing a lot of that at my Facebook page (yes, I caved and went back; more on that in another post), where you can search the #covid19 hashtag, but that's not where I'm heading right now.

Right now, I'm seeing this as a watershed moment not just in the US, but the world. We are at a tipping point of many consequences, one that has the possibility to change the way we work, the way we interact socially, our political systems, our economics. Even how we arrange our lives. I don't think it will be long before most of the U.S. is forced into quarantine like China, because our response has been so woefully inadequate from the git-go. Americans don't obey orders well, and the last several years have seen us inundated with scientifically illiterate talking heads, poor scientific education for the masses, and most recently, a demagogue who is a moron and a fool who believes only in what he knows, which ain't much. So this is unlikely to be the orderly quarantine of China or Europe.

As an example, there's "Katie Williams, a former Ms. Nevada who was stripped of her title for putting pro-Trump postings on the non-political Ms. America social media accounts [responding to AOC's call for people under 40 to stay the hell home:] 'I just went to a crowded Red Robin and I’m 30. It was delicious, and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I’ll do what I want,'” cited by the indispensable Heather Cox Richardson. I had an argument just last night with a young college-age idiot who repeated the "this is just a media hoax to weaken the president" party line from Fox (the perpetrator of which has since been put on leave, to Fox's credit). Assholes like that, and like a well-educated Facebook acquaintance—who insists on traveling because he's old, and he's got a zillion frequent-flyer miles to use up, and doesn't care what happens to him—are what make pandemics what they are. Quarantines only work if people have no physical contact with infected people or surfaces. It's not about you getting it, dumbasses, it's about you spreading it. This is why I'm at home right now.

I've been a little under the weather since about last Thursday (March 4th). The symptoms have been so mild that I didn't think much of it: a teeny fever I didn't know I had until I bothered to take my temperature; an almost-sore throat; a cough I attributed to seasonal allergies, though my nose isn't running much. By the time I had the information and presence of mind to think I might have been infected, it's possible that I'd been spreading it for at least a week, if I've got it. I'm not happy about that. I'm not sick enough to warrant going anywhere for treatment, and I couldn't get tested if I did, because our government has fucked this up so royally that we may never get a good count of how many people this virus infected, unlike China or Korea, who will have tested hundreds of thousands if not millions of people to get accurate data. But the idea that I've possibly been infecting other people really bothers me.

But this post is not about me. This is not me virtue-signaling either. This is me trying to model what the right thing to do is because so many people don't understand how serious this is. Stay home if you can. If you must go out, keep your distance, wash your hands, cover your mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough and throw the tissue away, wear gloves you can either throw out or wash. Stay. Home. I've been self-quarantining now for a week, and will continue to do so. My office asked us all to work at home if we could on March 5th, the day after I decided to stay home and take a sick day. Yesterday, our CEO announced that it seemed likely we would be working at home beyond the initial projection of March 23rd. I think we're likely to be doing it for a long time.

A looooooong time. Like, months. (A friend who was on a CDC conference call today said they are predicting ongoing infections into next year.)

And the longer that time is, the more businesses shut down or shift the way they do business—from us going to them to them coming to us—the more changes happen in our economy. The more changes in our economy—lost jobs, mandatory paid sick leaves, quarantining of all non-essential workers (medical personnel, people in infrastructure jobs, repair people, banks, pharmacies, grocery stories, delivery people) the more our way of life changes. The longer that goes on, the more normal it becomes. The more normal it becomes, the less we want to go back to the old ways when this is over. The end result is massive social change.

There is a tsunami of things that need to happen to support ordinary people in the midst of a pandemic, especially in a country like ours where there is very little in the way of social safety net. When people get sick or infected, we don't want them working in public or with pubic goods. That means mandatory sick days or loss of jobs for people who are running public transportation, delivering your mail and goods, manning the gas pumps. When people lose their jobs, they can't pay bills or rent. Landlords and banks lose mortgage and rent payments. They can't pay their bills. Wealth doesn't trickle down, but poverty sure does in this instance. Our lack of mandatory paid sick days is a major failing. My vote for Most Despised Motherfucker in the World, Jeff Bezos, owner of Whole Foods, has offered his serfs two weeks of paid sick leave and unlimited unpaid sick leave, and urged his workers to donate their vacation time to their colleagues. Like he couldn't afford to absorb a month or more of paid sick leave for all his Amazon and subsidiary employees without missing anything in his grotesque pile of cash.

Hoarding wealth & TPI can rant about Bezos's lack of humanitarian values all day, but Amazon, especially, is illustrative of the underlying problem. If you cannot afford to not work, you are a source of contagion. If you are too sick to work, your fiscal house of cards falls over in the winds of a system that demands money for everything. When enough houses fall over, when enough people are evicted, have their utilities cut off, their internet turned off, their houses repossessed, their cars—that plunges more and more people into the kind of poverty it's almost impossible to get out of later. Capitalism has no mercy. And with the majority of wealth concentrated in the hands of a few people, we are in no position to weather even a couple of months of non-payments. That will lead to economic collapse. And the dispossessed are an excellent pool of vectors, so the pandemic takes longer to burn itself out, and then they become endemic sources. Trade and tourism get shut off because we can't get our shit together. That tanks our economy further. The cause and effect here is really fucking brutal. 

Closing schools is another example of the unintended consequences problem. School is a source of contagion. Kids are germ factories and snot everywhere. We all know this. But if you close schools, who's going to watch the kids of people who can't afford childcare and must go to work to pay the rent, many of whom perform vital services for the rest of us? Where are the kids who depend on school lunches for their main meal of the day going to eat? What if we had a basic income? What if we had affordable childcare for all? What if we had a president who wasn't eviscerating the food stamp program? What if he hadn't bankrupted so many farms with his stupid manufactured trade war bullshit? 

And don't even start me on healthcare. I don't think I need to explain what a hot mess that is in the middle of a pandemic, with or without gutting the CDC and making us utterly unready to face this. Or the fact that so few of us have access to healthcare that won't bankrupt us. And when people start dying in large numbers of something their government should be helping to alleviate, it tends to make them a little testy. That can lead to all sorts of world-changing things. Or at least regime-changing.

So the system we have now, of unfettered capitalism and the sequestration of wealth among a few people, along with a group of leaders who think less government is more, is abysmally failing the test of the pandemic. Now what?

I can see this going a couple of ways, one good, one not so good.

After 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers did an amazing job of helping each other out. People lined up to give blood, to volunteer, to search, to help rebuild, to feed, clothe and shelter each other. Sure there were some ugly incidents. There always are. But overall, we pulled together and helped each other. We became not just a city, but a community. Even when government failed, and it did in both instances in a big way for many people, the community didn't. 

Now, we've had too many years of meanness both on social media, via Faux News, and from our own elected officials. I don't think there's ever been an American administration as gratuitously, indifferently, indiscriminately cruel as this one is, even the ones that practiced genocide on Native Americans, supported slavery, and locked up Japanese Americans in concentration camps. This one fucks over everyone who is not a rich white male of a certain age. If you are not rich, fuck you.

One way this pandemic can go is that we can follow the lead of the administration and adopt an every man for himself attitude. Can't get healthcare? Too bad. Die, motherfucker, and your little dog too. Can't afford to not work or don't have any paid sick leave? Too bad. Work while you're sick, spreading the disease. We don't care. Quarantined and can't get out to get food? Too bad. Starve. Lost your job and can't pay your rent or mortgage? Too bad. Out the door. In this scenario, disaster capitalism rules and everything gets privatized or bought up that isn't already. The black market that is already getting started continues unchecked and encompasses more and more goods, including food and medicines that may or may not be efficacious. T-Rump uses this opportunity to impose martial law at the height of the quarantine and institute his favorite fascist policies. Your civil rights, always dicey during national emergencies, are "temporarily" suspended. Elections are "delayed." Schools and universities are permanently closed. Big business is bailed out but the common consumer is not. Eventually, the pandemic subsides, but we are left with a massive number of homeless people, and more dead than we should have had. The National Guard, or perhaps the army, deployed for the first time on American soil to enforce the quarantine, remains in place to suppress citizen unrest. The U.S. becomes a fascist state with Trump as president for life, our government pared down to nearly nothing, the rich getting rich and the poor—eh, let them eat cake.

Probably the sole check on the full horror of this scenario is that the pandemic is not Ebola or something more virulent and deadly. With that kind of a disease, even close neighbors can easily get panicked enough to weld you into your house and/or set it on fire with you inside, while handing over all their authority to whomever's in charge, hoping to save themselves.  Covid-19 is pretty mild by comparison. Being an old fart with at least two contraindications myself, I'm not going to say it doesn't matter that it mostly affects older people and the immuno-compromised. I have two friends with new kidneys I'm deeply worried about. But that it doesn't prey indiscriminately on everyone is far better than otherwise.

Now, here's what I'm hoping will happen: 

First, all those old, rich, white, male Republicans who pooh-poohed the severity of Covid-19 and went everywhere shaking hands and raising money for their re-election get sick as dogs and die. Kidding! (Maybe. Something has got to stop that sociopathic fuckhead Mitch McConnell from using his ideology to obstruct anything that might help people who aren't his donors and cronies.) Somehow, we hold T-Rump's feet to the fire and Congress manages to pass a massive aid bill (suck it out of the border wall funds and some of the military budget) that includes: mandatory paid sick leave; free covid-19 testing and treatment; a basic income to tide over people who have no other source of income and can't work during quarantine, have lost their jobs, or who are too sick to work; a moratorium on evictions and mortgage, rent, and utilities payments for the duration of your illness; strict enforcement of the ADA regulations forbidding people from being fired for this illness; suspension of student and other loan payments for the duration; investment in internet infrastructure to facilitate distance work and learning (let's just call it a public utility and be done; we all know we're paying too damn much for it now). Let me know if I forgot something.

None of this is impossible. Some of it is being instituted now in New York City and California, who I hope are leading the way to more community-minded action. AOC, Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi (and Bernie, I think; I haven't kept track) have all put forward plans to help ordinary people out, while T-Rump and his gang of robber barons are busy shoring up big business. But it's less the details of plans themselves that are important, though they are, than the message they send, which is, Take Care of Each Other. Help your neighbors. Don't pretend you can do this alone.  As my friend Sylvie Richards posted:

Do you know who the elderly people are in your building or neighborhood? In my building, the doormen have identified the elderly people who live alone. We are making sure that they have groceries, medicine, wipes, etc. and that they know that they are being cared for. Now is the time for us to take care of each other. Please -- identify and care for the elderly around you.

And of course, one of the reasons Mitch McSatan is fighting anything like this tooth and nail is that this legislation is a slippery slope to FDR-like programs: single-payer healthcare, free college, an infrastructure that serves the people not the corporations, loan forgiveness, job protections, maybe even—gasp!—higher wages. Not utopia, by any means, but a better way of life. Just as a sample of what this might lead to, the unintended consequences of supporting people: With better, cheaper internet service, maybe more of us will continue to telecommute, having broken the grasp of our micromanagers. Our cities would become less congested We'd need less office space and have more room for affordable housing. Imagine less commuting, less pollution from that commuting, less crowded public transportation. But again, the biggest change would be in us abandoning the bullshit myth of pulling ourselves up by our non-existent bootstraps, and bootstrapping each other instead. I'm not going to use the words kinder, gentler because they leave a bad taste in my mouth now, but there's so much room for us to become more humane. In becoming more humane, we become more human, less bigoted, more welcoming. 

My company had a massive Zoom meeting partially about our response to Covid-19 this Friday, followed by a note from our CEO. This is what she said, in part:

Please end the week by noticing what an incredible set of colleagues you have, and take time this weekend to rest and rejuvenate. I am so grateful to work with all of you, and proud of how everyone has engaged in problem-solving this week, across all levels of the organization and all our departments.  Take care of yourselves -- this is going to be either a half-marathon or a marathon, but certainly not a sprint.

Let's start work on Monday by finding ways to continue being kind to one another - for example, set up some cyber coffee breaks that help you connect with others at [work], relaxed time with either people you work with regularly or perhaps someone you've been meaning to get to know better. This is a weird circumstance in which our usual rituals of gathering with friends in our communities - whether at church or temple or at a restaurant - are being curtailed just when we need those comforting interactions.  So just as we have been creative at solving the challenges facing some of our projects, let's think outside the box about how to stay connected with one another and offer each other support. As one of many emerging examples, the intrepid group working on our Thursday 3/19 "critical conversations and celebrations" has been reworking it into a cyber-based community gathering. Something to look forward to toward week's end! 

In this spirit, I decided to organize a once-a-week or so Virtual Happy Hour in Zoom to keep track of my friends both online and the ones I usually see in meatspace. It's likely to be awhile before we can meet in person again, and seeing one another via videolink is far better than just interacting on social media. Let me know if you're interested, and I'll add you to the email group. Because our actions as a community and in-community might help tip this the right way for everyone and reshape the world in a good way.


Filthy mittnesAs promised, some #covid19 resources:

Natalie Dorfeld's Colonel VonMittens (left) says it all.

Advice and explanations from science reporter Beth Mole at Ars Technica.

Very in-depth and multi-sourced information on Reddit.

Geeky: Covid-19 Surveillance Dashboard. And this one, made by a 17-year-old. Watch this motherfucker spread.

Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

For the thick among you, a vivid illustration of how your heedlessness and selfishness makes other people sick. From WaPo.

A really great podcast.


The Problem of Intent

Writer Moi I haven't been back here in a while, due to various circumstances I won't go into here. If any of Rob's class is watching this space, I just want to say hi. Hope you enjoyed the essay of mine that he assigned.

Anyway, I woke up this morning thinking about the word "intent," as I have been off and on for some time, for reasons relating to the circumstances mentioned above (more on that in a later, catch-up post). My ruminations finally solidified yesterday after watching an episode of Red Table Talk on Facebook (another reason I haven't been back here in a while—Facebook, not Red Table Talk). It's a good episode with Chelsea Handler talking with Jada Pinkett Smith and Adrienne Banfield-Jones about white privilege and parts of it are really painful to watch, mostly the bits from Handler's documentary, in which she interviews white women, mostly poor and conservative, about whether they think white privilege exists (they don't). Handler's own previous dumbassery on the subject is also pretty painful, but she's getting it right now, and that's what matters most.

But there's a point in the video where she tells a story on herself, illustrating her former dumbassery and the person who calls her out said, "It's not about the intention, it's about the reception." A little further on, Handler acknowledges that white people don't want to learn because it's uncomfortable to learn not to be an asshole or a bigot to other people, "you gotta go head first into deep things and get in trouble and say stupid things to learn how to say smarter things." All of which is true. Not just say smarter things, but know smarter things, I would add. The process of learning to be a good ally to people who don't have your privilege is hard and embarrassing and upsetting. It's heartbreaking and guilt-making to realize you've been walking through the world hurting people (if you're not a Rethuglican who enjoys that kind of thing; but I digress.) 

And then Jada Pinkett Smith says that key thing that I've been thinking about for ages now: "I think we gotta make some room for people to say stupid stuff sometimes," because racism has been going on for so long that most of it is unconscious now. People don't realize they're being racist unless it's pointed out to them (and that's where other white people need to get off their asses; it's not Black people's job to do that). She continues, "Not every—you know, not every action is racist." So while it may feel racist to the object of the action, it may not to the actor and it may not have that intent behind it. 

This is why intent matters—also. Not by itself, but in addition to reception. Because if we are doing our damnedest to be a good friend and generous person, to do the right thing, to not be racist, sexist, bigoted, insensitive, ableist, oblivious to the experiences of others, and we fuck up along the way, a little compassion helps fuel the struggle for everyone. There's a mental health element to this too, and Handler prefaces her part of the discussion with what seems like her irrelevant experiences in therapy to make this point. She spends a long time talking about her own struggles with pain and anger and how realizing how angry she was was because she was in pain was the thing that broke her open, finally, and got some real work done. When we're operating primarily on a foundation of pain (and here I walked away to go make my bed, because, yanno, pain), then the world becomes our enemy. Everyone becomes our enemy. Everyone is out to hurt us, to insult us, to fuck with us, plotting against us to make us miserable, being mean to us. Everything everyone says or does to us that hurts us (and when we're already in pain, this doesn't generally take a lot) is intentional. Because people are bad and mean and hurtful and fuck all ya'll anyway. I hate people.

And that's clearly bullshit. It feels right when we're hurting, and damn if there aren't days when I get up in the morning and look at the news and think What the ever loving fuck is wrong with you people? about nearly everyone in the world after seeing all the hurt we do each other. But to think the whole world is your enemy, that every person you meet, every friend you make, will ultimately betray and hurt you creates a huge number of problems and solves nothing. First, believing we are somehow important enough for individuals in our lives (never mind the rest of the world) to spend their time machinating about how to hurt us is one of the best examples of narcissism I can think of, and utterly delusional. That's like gaslighting yourself. It's also an example of flawed perceptions and expectations. It's our expectations of others, ultimately, that wounds us: expecting perfection, expecting an intimate and automatic understanding of our POV, expecting unearned unconditional love, expecting all the attention. Love people as you find them, and if they, in their own pain and rage, hurt you, love them from a distance.

Worse than this, though, is that anticipating injury from other people assures that this is all we'll ever get from them. Ever. Because everything they do will be an injury to us if we fail to see their intent and their focus. One of the last times my mom came to visit me here in New York, we were walking along the street and she said, in what was clearly a revelatory moment for her, "wow, people are really so focused on themselves that they don't really pay attention to anyone else." This was coming from a woman who agonized over what other people might think of her if she went out without looking perfectly dressed, perfectly coiffed, perfectly dignified, who was painfully self-conscious about how her disability made her look. I wish she had had more time to enjoy the liberation of that revelation. Because she was right about that. People are all dealing with their own pain, their own stuff, their own troubles, and hurting or judging you is not a high priority on their to-do list.

Unless they are so wrapped up in their own pain that they are going to lash out first, and there are some people who are that hurt, that broken. It's good to remember that it's still really not about you in those circumstance; if they are hurting and judging you, what they see  in you that they hate is almost always what they hate or feel insecure about themselves. Those folks have a lot of work to do that you can't do for them; all you can do is wish them well and get out of range. Because in their pain, they create more of it. This is what intentional, unexamined and institutional racism and sexism does to people. It creates a cycle of pain that needs work to be broken.

Again, this is why intent matters. If I'm hurting you out of maliciousness that's one thing; I need a slap upside the head and a boot in the rear. If I'm hurting you out of my own pain, that's more understandable but still not excusable; I've got some work to do on myself, then, and owe you an apology and an effort to do better. But if I'm hurting you by accident, because I'm learning to do better and still making mistakes, cut me a break please. Work with me. Call me out, by all means. I can't learn if I don't know I've screwed up. If it's really egregious, don't spare your anger. I can't rightly ask you to do that and I probably deserve it. But don't use my mistake to make judgments about what kind of person I am at the core, because then you're doing the same thing that bigots do. If you think I'm the kind of person who would intentionally hurt others, then we already have a problem of perception and reception on your end. And that's bad intent.


Closed Borders

Prick us
and we bleed
like all animals.|
And prick each other
we do
with guns and bombs and
fear most of all
until we see an enemy
everywhere
who does not look like us
as though our own tribe
were not capable
of the same atrocities.
Like the snailwe pull ourselves inside
our imaginary walls
and close the doors—
or think we can.
But the guns and bombs
are just tools,
the real enemy not other people.

When we look at each other
only through borders
we can’t see
what a wide and splendid world it is.

–For Beirut and Baghdad and Gaza and Paris, Nov. 14, 2015


Failure of Leadership: Money, Power, Privilege

RadicalMoiI'm generally a big picture kind of person, though my own focus for activism right now is pretty narrow. In case you haven't been watching my every move, I've been spending the last couple of years concentrating on education labor activism but my personal impulse is to be outraged by every sort of injustice: racism, sexism, homophobia, economic inequality, war, greed, you name it, I'm pissed about it. I've always believed that everyone should have equal opportunity, a fair and level playing field, and the right to be treated in every way with dignity as fellow human beings.

I have to give my parents credit for that. In many ways, they were a lot like Alice Dreger's Polish emigre parents. My dad was a working class, old school FDR/JFK Liberal and my mother was a deeply religious woman constantly outraged by injustice. Dad's belief in civil rights and free speech were unshakable and he had a real soft spot for underdogs, even if it did take him a while to come around to feminism. Mom was more the avenging angel type and would have gladly carried one of those Biblical flaming swords, had they been issued to mere mortals. So I grew up in a kind of Truth, Justice and the American Way household, without the jingoistic patriotism. In my house, everybody deserved respect and a fair break. Is that so hard?

It sure seems to be. And I've been thinking a lot about why, lately, as I get ready to teach my research course that focuses on economic inequality this summer. Human failing is the obvious "Duh!" reason for injustice, or what we more frequently call human nature. We have it in us to be absolutely selfish, vile shits, but we also have it in us to be amazingly altruistic. The sheer number of beautiful, generous, uplifting things we do for each other is one of the best parts of the internet, along with cat videos. We make cheap artificial limbs for kids and dogs. As individuals, we collect massive amounts of money for the victims of natural disasters. We turn our ingenuity to making the lives of refugees and the poor easier. We get out in the street and protest injustice even when popular opinion is against us, changing those opinions in the process.

OutofbalanceAnd still, what we see in the news, and in our lives, is a grossly unequal and unjust world where far too few people hold not just most of the money, but all the cards. Two immediate examples, one petty, one part of an ongoing battle: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's administration spawned, among other scandals, something called Bridgegate, in which Christie's cronies "conspir[ed] with Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly to close the lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 to 'punish' the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie in his re-election bid." This doesn't sound like much; traffic sucks in New York and New Jersey most of the time anyway. But this was an intentional obstruction that created a public safety hazard and held up EMS vehicles, resulting in at least one death. Christie and his cronies grossly inconvenienced and endangered thousands of drivers and helped cause the death of a 91-year old woman because somebody didn't play pattycake with them.

I'll just let that sink in for a moment.

The second example, much more immediate and appalling is the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. Charges have just come down today against six police officers who not only illegally arrested Gray, but then proceeded to beat the crap out of him somehow in the back of the van he was being transported in. It's too early to say exactly what happened, but it seems clear that neither Mr. Gray's safety nor dignity were paramount in the minds of the cops who picked him up. His pleas for help were ignored and he was not secured safely in the back of the van. Somehow, he acquired a spinal injury that killed him between the time he was cuffed and when he arrived at the station. The New York Times has highlighted a practice called the "rough ride" or the "nickle ride" used all over the country to rough up suspects without having to physically touch them, a form of torture not quite as egregious as that practiced by the Chicago Police Department but nonetheless abhorrent.

A third example, larger and even more systemic than the deaths of black people at the hands of police, is the denial of living wages to workers all over the world, and the sequestration of the majority of wealth in the hands of a few, and the way that gets talked about by others with relative privilege. Far too often, as in the case of this white, male, privileged tenure track asshat, it leads to a rhetoric of blaming the victim for the very injustices under which they are suffering. Likewise this equally phantasmagoric piece by David Brooks, in which he asserts that poverty is not really about lack of money but social psychology. The poor are poor because they want to be, because they're lazy, because they're incapable of taking "advantage" of a broken public school system handed over to shysters, an overpriced higher education system that leaves them tens of thousands of dollars in debt, or of non-existent living wage jobs. Meanwhile, living in poverty has a whole host of deleterious physical, psychological, educational and social effects. So, we fuck children up by not helping to provide secure, healthy living conditions and then blame them for failing. It's a brilliant strategy with all kinds of denial of responsibility built in.

This is where we come to the title of this post. All of these examples illustrate a failure of leadership—or the success of a certain kind of leadership inimical to the welfare of the people these leaders are supposed to be serving. If we posit the idea that political life in a democracy (hell, any political life), especially leadership, should be grounded in morality, compassion, and justice, then the leaders have, in these cases, failed spectacularly. Or succeeded in upholding a morally bankrupt, bigoted, unjust social order. Take your pick.

Humans are herd animals, by and large. We like to be together, we like to be led, we like to follow for the most part (see also: crowd theory). Even so, we are rightly suspicious of the motives of leaders who emerge from the crowd. Lord Acton famously said "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." What seems to actually be true is that the exercise of power heightens already existing personality traits. If we are compassionate, moral people when we're given power or find ourselves in power, we tend to exercise it with those qualities in mind to the best of our abilities. Nobody's perfect, but we've had some truly compassionate presidents in my lifetime, and before (FDR, JFK and Jimmy Carter all come to mind, despite their human failings). We've had plenty of the other kind too: the sorts who are more interested in power and personal advantage than they are in service to their countrymen or anyone else. I don't think you need examples of those. *Cough*Bush-Cheney*Cough*

Money, however, seems to have a more universally deleterious effect on people. Money creates a buffer between us and the rest of the world. When we have enough of it to live comfortably, it reduces stress and makes our lives easier and healthier (see above). It also allows and encourages us to be generous. Poor and middle class people give larger percentages of their income to charity than the wealthy and uber-wealthy do. Anything in excess of a comfortable income seems to turn us into greedy asshats for whom there is never enough money. We think, hey, I've made it; I don't care about the rest of you. This kind of contempt is the polar opposite of what we should want from our leaders, whether they are political, financial, or intellectual leaders. Sadly, that's mostly what we've got now: police departments that see a large proportion of the people they serve as insurgents; educational leaders who see children as nascent criminals and sources of income; political leaders who see citizens as potential terrorists and their own nation as a battleground; business leaders who see natural resources as exploitable commodities.

Leaders like Chris Christie and the chiefs of particularly abusive police departments foster an atmosphere of contempt in which abuse, selfishness and cruelty thrive. Christie is known for being a particularly petty jerk who verbally abuses constituents who challenge his god-like self image. It's not surprising that his administration should cook up a juvenile scheme like Bridgegate. That's the kind of tone that Christie sets; he has all the diplomacy and maturity of a 12-year-old schoolyard bully. Likewise, the kinds of police chiefs who look the other way when their officers brutalize or racially profile the public they're supposed to "serve and protect" foster contempt for their own communities. Broken Windows policing sounds good in theory, but without including respect for the people in those communities, it fosters the idea that everyone who lives there is currently a thug, practicing to be a thug, or used to be a thug and might be again at any moment. We then stray far from the principle of innocent until proven guilty and common sense, not to mention the spirit of the law. And if our elected leaders allow the (often useful) paranoia of intelligence agencies to be the pervading attitude toward our nation's citizens, that fosters distrust, hatred, and disrespect of everyone who does not look like "us." Who that "us" might be in a nation of immigrants from all over the world eludes me, but there are plenty of "others" to go around in the minds of the frightened. Right now, it's Muslims who are the potential terrorists of choice, even though lone wolf homegrown white supremacists like Timothy McVeigh are far more dangerous.

What concerns me most in all of these examples is the almost complete lack of compassion for our fellow citizens. More and more we as both nation and individuals are exhibiting not just a lack of compassion but an outright contempt for others who have less power, less money, less luck, less stuff, less education, less privilege than we do, whoever we are. We are "punching down" more instead of lifting up. In the courses I teach, we talk about inequality and social violence of many kinds. Most of my students are first generation college students (like me); many are first generation Americans (like my dad). Most of them buy into the "work hard, get ahead" American dream and are shocked to discover it is out of reach for most of us. But when they read about the fraying safety net we have, they immediately bring up welfare queens and foodstamp fraud, even though many of them have used those services themselves. The rhetoric of our privileged leaders is teaching these kids not to work hard but to hate themselves and their families for failing when they can't realize the return on their own investments. It's hiding from them who the true culprits of their oppression are and turning them against each other. It's an excellent tactic for social control and our leaders are making very good use of it.

But this doesn't let the rest of us off the hook. We're currently living in a society that lionizes socio- and psychopathic personalities. If you think I'm exaggerating, think about who we admire most: hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, bankers—none of whom actually produce anything—the Forbes 400, most of whom (with some notable exceptions) are vile, exploitative creeps. Example: The Koch brothers (numbers 3 & 4), the Walton family (numbers 6, 7, 9 and 10). Even when they mean well, as I suspect Bill Gates (#1 with $81B) does, money seems to give them an excess of paternalism that is completely misplaced, as though knowing how to make a fortune means you have the intelligence to solve all the world's problems, or even know when there is a problem. Gates's meddling in education is a prime example. According to Bill, our public education system is failing and needs the expertise of Microsoft's genius to fix it. Instead of listening to actual experts in the field—you know, people who've been educators their whole lives, who have degrees in it, and years of study and experience—we should let Bill tell us what's wrong and how to fix it. And now we are eviscerating public education, and firing our best teachers on the basis of an untried testing regime that makes kids hate learning. But that's another post.

Worse than the moneymakers are the politicians, like Christie, that they buy with those billions: ultra conservatives like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann, Bobby Jindal, the Bush boys who apparently really hate poor people, women, minorities, immigrants, or anyone who can't give them money for reelection. Why do we elect these people? Evil must have better PR. We're not just voting for them though. We're validating their frightened, narrow, cruel worldview and often parroting it. We're encouraging their failed leadership and becoming part of the problem.

Stop voting for petty, mean, selfish assholes, people, lest you become their victims. Better yet, maybe it's about time the compassionate, honest people who care about justice showed the leaders we've got now how it's done.


Shock Parents! Enlighten Students! Embarrass Badmin!

Adjunct Wage Theft MoiTell your stories to PrecariCorps in 300-500 words. What's PrecariCorps and why should you care? If you're an adjunct professor anywhere, you know what the wages and treatment are like. Unless you're the kind of adjunct who has a full-time industry job and moonlights because you like to teach, you're making poverty-level wages for those contact hours, teaching up to 9 classes at multiple universities/colleges/on-line for profit diploma mills to make ends meet with no guarantee you'll have anything to teach next semester, let alone next year or over the summer. This is the new academic precariat and we're 75% of the faculty now. Our wages are a fraction of what similarly credentialed experts make in industry, yet we often can't get jobs outside academe because we're overqualified. That's a fine Catch-22, yet many members of the public don't know that their tuition dollars are not going to our salaries, or that their taxes are subsidizing us the same way we're subsidizing WalMart workers: via social services we need to pay our bills: Obamacare, food stamps, unemployment (if we can get it), WIC and other forms of welfare.

That's where PrecariCorps comes in. Their primary purpose is "Improving Lives and Livelihoods of Contingent Faculty with Hardship Relief Funds or Grants for Faculty Development. To accomplish our first goal, PrecariCorps will offer contingent faculty donations through one of our programs, the Hardship Relief Fund or the Grant for Faculty Development. Applicants may email a completed application to receive either a donation to help them pay one bill or help them travel to one conference." To this end, they're applying for 501(c)(3) status as a charitable organization.

Think about that for a minute. Imagine if public school teachers in pre-K-12 were dependent upon charitable donations to survive while doing their jobs, instead of making a middle class living (though that has become more rare now too). Imagine if engineers, doctors, pharmacists, lawyers and other highly qualified professionals were in the same boat. Would you want a doctor who couldn't pay off her med school bills and had to scramble for work among four or five different offices, never knowing where they'd be and making it impossible to see the same doctor twice? Oh wait, that's what it's like at many clinics for the poor. And we see how well that works by the mortality rates for the poor.

At the same time, professional administrators make many times what adjunct professors do, and never set foot in the classroom, never do the real work of a university, which is education. At many institutions of higher education, there are now twice as many administrators as faculty, full-time or otherwise. Twice as many.

Guess where that tuition money is going.

So to my mind, a large part of PrecariCorps purpose is to highlight the shame of our academic system which is being sucked dry by an overabundance of parasitical administrative positions at the cost of the quality of some of the best education in the world. Hungry, stressed, impoverished teachers don't and can't do their best work when they're worried about survival. No one does. It's time we decided who was more important in higher education and start supporting our educators and not via charity.


Call for Submissions: Teaching Poor: Voices of the Academic Precariat

SupermoiOkay, I have officially lost my mind. Here's what I hatched with a bunch of cronies over the weekend. We already have publisher interest. I am boggled. I think the project is suddenly taking on a life of its own. Get on board with us:

Call for Submissions: Teaching Poor: Voices of the Academic Precariat

The career of college professor, giving back to the society that provided for them through education, was once a respectable path to the middle class. That class position is now slipping through the hands of the very people who helped create it, thanks to the erosion of tenured and tenure-track positions in favor of short-term contract positions without security. What should be rags to riches stories about the power of education to lift people out of poverty by providing a pathway to better jobs have become, for many academics, stories of stagnation, downward mobility, and outright impoverishment under the burden of massive debt uncompensated for by the very academy that helped contract faculty incur it.

Teaching Poor: Voices of the Academic Precariate will be a collection of voices from the world of so-called adjunct or contract college instructors who now teach 60-75% of all college courses in the United States and are paid wages equivalent to Walmart workers. In the tradition of Studs Terkel’s Working, Teaching Poor will honor both the difficulties and the triumphs of this new class of impoverished white collar laborers in the academic trenches, detailing personal struggles with the resultant poverty produced by low wages, crushing student loan debt, lack of healthcare and retirement provisions, and the professional and cultural costs this system levies on individuals and the students they teach.

I welcome creative non-fiction, biographical essay, short stories, poems, comics and, in the spirit of hacking the academy through digital humanities, may eventually expand to multimedia and a permanent archive of work similar to Story Corps.

This project is in its very early stages and I’m looking to see what kind of interest there is both in contributors and publishers before defining it or looking into other funding/publishing sources. I have publishers in mind (AK, Haymarket, Soft Skull, Atropos, Verso, ILR, Atticus, Riverhead), but also welcome suggestions. I do want this to be more than a self-published ebook though, and perhaps something truly groundbreaking if we can make a collaboration work.

Send your queries and submissions to Lee Kottner at teachingpoor@gmail.com.


New Year, New Focus

NYCMoiIt's been almost a year since I blogged here and I admit I've kinda missed it. I like writing, and I've been doing a fair amount of it (novel, poems, diatribes, conference papers), an awful lot of it on Facebook. In case you haven't been keeping up there, I've gotten myself neck deep in activism of various kinds, mostly the petition signing kind for human rights, environmentalism, social justice of various sorts. But I invested in a pretty big way in the labor movement too, especially educational labor.

For instance, over the summer, I went to the UALE/Cornell Summer School for Union Women, which was a fantastic experience, and at which I made some great friends/contacts. My local, (or one of my locals) AFT 1839 at New Jersey City University, where I'm part of the executive committee, footed the bill, for which I'm extremely grateful, as I couldn't have done so myself. I was on employment for the first time since 1992 because even freelance work is thin on the ground right now. While I was up at Cornell, I met women from all kinds of unions and labor organizations, from all over the world: retail workers from NYC, telephone workers from Africa, forensic lab techs from Puerto Rico, make-up artists, auto workers, housekeepers, cafeteria staff, and a number of faculty members, many of them from CUNY's Professional Staff Congress (PSC) and from SUNY's UUP, both unions I also belong to. I quickly became known as the three-union woman, because I was the only contingent faculty member there (I think). It was a warm, fierce group, and I thank Marcia Newfield of CUNY's PSC for suggesting I go there.

Also on Facebook, I've been doing a lot of national organizing and this last summer, nearly became an oAdjunct working conditions postern-the-ground organizer for SEIU upstate, at the urgings of my new best friend, Teresa Mack-Piccone, Texan English Ph.D. extraordinaire, who's organizing for them out of Albany. I think 25 years ago I would have been all over that job like white on rice, but I'm pretty sure I don't have the energy for it now. So my organizing has been quieter and a little more subversive. For Campus Equity Week, I plastered my New Jersey campus with signs that said A is for Adjuncts: Our working conditions are Student Learning Conditions, and encouraged folks to post how many adjuncts shared their office or where in their department in very public places. I'd like to follow that up this semester with some agit prop theater in the commons, but I'm not teaching there this time around, so we'll see how that goes.

In the spring. Teresa invited me to give a conference paper with her at the Washington DC SEIU HQ, where I got to meet Joe Berry of COCAL, Maria Maisto of New Faculty Majority, and reconnect with the inimitable Anne Weidner of UUP. We dragged along one of the few vocal tenured allies I've met, Seth Kahn of West Chester U, someone else I met through Facebook, and again met some amazing people fighting to get decent working conditions for adjuncts across the country. I really have to give kudos to SEIU, which is one of the few labor unions in country that's actively organizing adjuncts. The Steelworkers in Pittsburgh were chosen by the adjuncts to represent them, and the same with the UAW in Michigan, but SEIU has gone into DC, Boston, LA and now into New York and actively organized adjucts in a campaign that has been met with as much hostility as any mineowner's, including the hiring of union busting law firms. There's a good use of tuition and endowment money.

And the conditions, make no mistake, are killing us. In September, what I still think of as my semi-hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, ran a story called "Death of an Adjunct," detailing the miserable conditions 25-year veteran French adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko died in after not being rehired. I don't know an adjunct who isn't terrified that this might be us. More than a few of us are graying (remember, academic careers often don't even start until you're in your 30s or 40s), many of us have chronic conditions, children with chronic conditions, or have been struck down by cancer or other illnesses without any health insurance. Thanks to ACA, that might change, but that doesn't absolve the institutions we work for from treating us with the dignity we deserve. If you can pay for administrators, who add very little to the intellectual reputation of the university, you can damn well pay for the people who make or break your reputation as an institution of learning. More on that in later posts.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that somehow I'm becoming the activist I always wanted to be. I have a cause (several, in fact) and have found my voice, and don't have any fear about using it out loud anymore. I don't have to hide my outrage, and I can use my writing as a way to accomplish something good in the world. This doesn't mean I've given up the creative part; far from in it. In fact, I stumbled into a great writing group and have managed a rewrite of the novel I've been working on forever, and I've been writing a lot of poetry. So this change I've been undergoing, from silent, not very good Christian person, to vocal, skeptical Buddhist fellow-traveller proceeds apace. I like where it's going.

Stay tuned for more about education and activism and education activism.

 


Occupy Wall Street II—Agendas

ProtestorFolks in the media and elsewhere complain that OWS has no agenda, has no demands, has no solutions, but I think this is willfully naive and ingenuous. This is not like the 60s, where there were clear cut problems like discrimination and the Vietnam war. This is a failed system, a failed regime, that people are tired of being oppressed by, and if that sounds like pinko commie liberal rhetoric, so be it. There is so much wrong that we hardly know where to begin. Here's the list that I see, in no particular order:

  • Enormous wealth disparities between upper management and workers
  • Enormous wage disparities between people who actully produce goods and people who just move money around.
  • The concentration of liquid capital in the hands of too few people
  • Unconscionable tax inequity between the ultra wealthy and the rest of us
  • Lack of investment in the infrastructure by the people who make the most use of it, i.e., corporations (see tax inequiety, above)
  • Politicians who are unresponsive to constituents who cannot pay to have them re-elected, i.e., corruption
  • Raging injustice, as exemplified by Troy Davis, who is only one among hundreds, if not thousands
  • A gutting of our educational system by running schools and universities as though they were for-profit corporations or factories and learning was a "product"
  • The elevation of profit over the well-being of workers and the nation itself (or the world in general; globalization hasn't treated foreign workers kindly either)
  • The glorification of individualism to the point of psychosis (this covers everything from thinking the anonymity of the internet and the right to free speech give you the right to be an uncivil and hateful asshole to the inability to empathize with the plight of people who are not having the same luck in life that you are.) I blame some of this on the gutting of our educational system, where we used to learn to get along with each other.

And that's just my short list. These are systemic problems, social, political, and economic. How do you sum that up in a sign, or make into a list of demands, especially when the people to whom you would present that demand clearly do not give a good goddamn and haven't for the last 30 years? The only documents that would cover these issues were written in 1787 and 1789. They're called the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. Maybe it's time for new ones.


Occupy Wall Street I—A Personal Story

Protestor I've been trying to get to these rallies for the last two weeks and can't seem to shake the cold I've gotten from getting up at 5:30 and getting home at 10:30 twice a week to work two jobs. So I thought I'd use my powers for good, and at least write about why I support them. Unlike a lot of people, I'm not really hurting, or don't consider myself one of the hurting, anyway, in part because I've made certain choices about my life that helped put me where I am. Unlike the so-called 53 Percenters, I realize that no matter how lucky or content I consider myself, this is not what the American Dream is supposed to be.

Despite this cold, I realize I don't have it that bad, so I'm not complaining. I could be doing this five days a week, or seven, like the English department secretary at NJCU, who works at Home Despot or some other big chain store on the weekends. I also don't have a lot of debt, and what I do have is less than five figures—less than most people pay for a car. My student loans were small and are paid off, despite the fact that I went to an expensive private school for my undergrad degree, where I accrued those debts. I had a teaching fellowship at the state school I went to, and I paid tuition there too (which seems unfair when I was also working for the university), but it was in-state tuition and I had no loans. I feel like I live pretty comfortably, but my standard of living is well below what my parents enjoyed, even though neither of them went to college and my dad was a blue-collar worker. I don't own a house or a car, don't even own my apartment. I've got next to nothing in the bank, and a very small retirement fund. Even so, I'm better off than many, and have a lot of freedom and time to myself.

So why am I supporting the protesters at Occupy Wall Street? Because I'm both taking responsibility for my choices and acknowledging that lots of other people don't have that luxury, and/or didn't even make the choices I did and yet find themselves in much worse shape.

As I said on a sign I made for the rallies, I'm a 51-year-old single woman with no dependents (other than my nagging cat, whom I will not have to send to college) and a Master's Degree. I haven't had health insurance since I left school for more than a a few years at a time. I worked full time for a while out of grad school, and a couple of places where, despite my education, I was treated like both an idiot and a flunky, for barely a living wage. Every year, I used up all ten of my sick days in one shot with bronchitis, and spent my two weeks of vacation with my parents. I'd come out here to go to grad school at NYU, where I had no scholarship, so I had to pay for my exorbitant tuition by working full time. About halfway through the second master's degree I was working on in a new field, I realized that several things were going to happen: I would probably have to take out loans to get through the Ph.D., because I was having enough trouble doing the kind of work I knew I was capable of while working full time. The doctorate was going to cost me a fortune and there were no guarantees of a job when I was done. If I did get a job, it was likely to be in the middle of freakin' nowhere, and certainly not in New York City. I wanted to stay here more than I wanted to get a Ph.D., and I wanted to write more than I wanted to be an academic. I hadn't written anything but graduate school papers while I was working full time, and it was killing me. So I totally rethought and refashioned my whole life.

Annoy a ConservativeI left school, I quit my full time job, and I started temping and freelancing and working part time. In a lot of ways, my life improved drastically. I was happier, I didn't get sick, I did a lot of writing and started to get published. I had the luxury of taking poorly paid teaching jobs because I was doing other things too, and met some great people along the way, some of whom became life-long friends. In other ways, it was not so good. It was a good thing I didn't get sick or hurt, because health insurance eventually doubled from an affordable $245/month to something astronomically out of reach. Money was very tight, even though my folks helped out, and I learned to live pretty frugally. Even so, there were three years where I couldn't afford to pay the taxes I owed, and didn't file. I also got into some serious credit card debt. The low point was the infamous neck bone stew I made when I was down to my last couple of dollars and waiting for a client to pay me.

To make matters worse, at the time, even when I did get a paycheck, it took days to clear, and often I didn't actually know how much money I had in my account. In nine years of undergrad and graduate school, I'd never bounced a check. Now I did it with alarming frequency because my tally never matched the bank's: not Citibank's, Chase's, or Chemical's. That was because of banking regulations that allowed them to hold even local checks drawn on their own banks, for three days before releasing the funds, instead of making them available right away. Thankfully, that finally changed, but before that, I found a bank, HSBC, that didn't try to screw me with overdraft fees by playing with my balance. I've bounced only one check in the 12 years I've been with them.

I also finally found a great part-time job that I stayed at for just a little more than ten years before there was a mutual parting of the ways. I still had no health insurance, but my bosses treated me with respect and it gave me a lot of freedom and a little 401(k) that I put into a high risk fund to earn some quick dough while my very safe TIAA-CREF fund slowly built up through ultra safe investments. That 401(k) disappeared when the housing bubble burst and the stock market crashed. I cashed in what was left—less than $2,000—because I needed it for living expenses. Since then, I've been freelancing and teaching again, which I love. But I discovered that in the ten years I'd been working part time and only occasionally freelancing, rates for editing and writing have not risen at all. Not even to reflect the cost of living or inflation. In fact, if you consider those two factors, they've actually decreased. There's a lot of work out there for freelance editors, but you should see the griping on the discussion board of the Editorial Freelancers Association.  It's not that we're unhappy about the amount of work, but we're really unhappy about what people want to pay us for our skills and years of experience, and the fact that so many of our clients, even big publishing companies, make us wait 30 to 90 days after submitting an invoice for a paycheck. Until recently, freelancers have had no union or organization to protect them, and why should we need one? Because too many employers want something for nothing.

That's not even my main source of income now, nor the one that concerns me most. My real complaint is the structure and disparity of pay in the post-secondary educational system. This is just one of many places where the capitalistic model has run amok. When I was in grad school in the early 80s, very little teaching was done by adjuncts. Community colleges were populated by teachers with master's degrees, and the PhDs taught at 4-year and graduate institutions. Now, there is such a glut of doctorates (thanks in part to the misleading advising of professors, who seem not to realize that the market isn't infinite), that community colleges regularly require a doctorate for new hires. Worse, as much as 60% of any department's classes are taught by adjuncts now, people with advanced degrees who are limited by policy from most of the rights and privileges of being an academic: no tenure, no job security, no opportunities for research support, and most importantly, no employment benefits. Oh, and did I mention the the wretched pay scale?

When I worAdjunctsked in industry, my skills as an editor and layout designer were billed out at between $60 and $90/hour. Obviously, I didn't make that much myself, but that's what I was worth. Most editorial work goes for about $35/hour, unless it's highly technical or science editing which is far better paid. When I first started teaching as an adjunct at a community college in New Jersey in the 90s, I was paid $1200 for a three-credit class running four months and meeting for 180 minutes a week, and that's not unusual. At one school I recently taught at, I was paid about $1800 for a four credit course that met for about the same number of minutes each week. That's just the gross pay, not the net. and that amounts to about $30/contact hour, the hours I'm actually in class—far less if you include the hours I work outside of class. Neither of those jobs provided me with an office where I could meet students or keep my books or even required me to keep office hours, much less paid me for them. But good teachers always have office hours, always make time to see their students. I can't tell you how much totally unpaid tutoring I've done.

At universities with unions, the pay is much better ($1200 a credit, rather than a class), and so are the working conditions. But I still have no access to affordable health insurance, no job security of any kind (imagine not knowing if your job was going to disappear every four months), and often, my schedule is so crazy that I spend four to six hours on the road just getting to the various places I teach. Needless to say, this makes going to faculty meetings or seminars or anything that might make me better teacher nearly impossible. Not to mention how it isolates you from the rest of the faculty. Just as an example, a couple of years ago I was teaching in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, not all on the same day, but the Staten Island and Bronx jobs were. That meant I left the Bronx in the morning, took a train and an express bus to Staten Island, where I also took a campus bus to my class, taught a three-hour class, had office hours, and took the bus, a ferry, and another train to the Bronx, taught another three-hour class, and took a bus home. If I didn't catch the right ferry, I was late for the Bronx class, so it was always stressful. And the commute was never less than two hours. Now, I have an hour and a half commute to New Jersey for a job that pays well, but not well enough for me not to have to teach somewhere else too, because I'm restricted to 6 credits or two classes. With three, I could actually make a good living.

The adjunct system is good for university endowments, and bad for its students and faculty. The constant searching for, hiring, and class observations of adjuncts, most of whom are transient doctoral students, takes time that department heads and committees could better spend on department administration. Adjuncts are less available to their students, and have less time to spend developing their courses or teaching methods. Many of them are untried as teachers, and don't have much supervision the way we did as teaching assistants at Michigan State. But by god we're cheap, and the administration likes that. In many places, we're as faceless and interchangeable as factory labor, without unions to protect us from lousy pay and long working hours.

Replacing regular tenured faculty with the cheap labor of adjuncts is the equivalent of outsourcing jobs overseas, or hiring illegals to pick your produce. But we're not talking about consumer products here. Education is not a consumer business, though we've led students to believe it is. "I pay this much tuition, I damn well better get good grades," many of them seem to think. They've been led to believe that the value in what they're getting is in their GPA, not in gaining skills or knowledge or learning how to think for themselves. In part, that's another issue, but it's one that has sprung out of the idea that the education is a business, not an art or a service. The product model of education is bankrupt and is bankrupting our future by making students believe that we can just "give" them an education, that they can just "buy" it, not that they have to work for it. Using adjuncts to replace tenured faculty exacerbates this attitude by offering them sometimes-shoddy teaching, and removing the opportunity for them to develop any kind of mentoring relationship with someone they may really feel they learn from. Many of the students I taught in the Bronx were deeply disappointed that I wasn't going to be there this semester to teach a required class I usually teach. One of them begged me to let her email me her paper for some help. How could I say no? I love working at that school because of them, but I can't afford to work there because, even with the maximum number of classes, I can't pay my bills each month.

Let me repeat that, because it's what's fundamentally wrong here: Even if I teach the maximum number of classes (3) I'm allowed, even with with a special dispensation for an extra class, and a class or two at another institution, I cannot pay my very modest bills, let alone save anything, or afford health insurance. Four to five classes are considered a full-time load. Even with that, I am barely getting by.

This is what the 99% are pissed about.

The social contract used to be that if you worked hard, got an education, and found a job, you could make a decent living. That is no longer true. You can work hard, get an education, find not one job, but two or three, and still live at the poverty level with no sense of security. Now, my choices to work part time instead of full time earlier in my life have given me less security for the future than most people, and that was my choice. I'm not complaining about that; I knew what I was doing when I did it. What is deeply wrong, however, is that so many of us must work extravagant hours well beyond the 40 hour work week to even keep your head above water. There is no getting ahead anymore, except for a very few. Costs have risen, wages have fallen, and the middle class seems to be paying for almost everything.

Taxes that should go to infrastructure go instead to the military industrial complex for unnecessary wars. And the people who use that infrastructure the most don't help pay for its upkeep. Sure, we all use in the infrastructure: roads, dams, railroads, telecom, electricity. But without that infrastructure, no business would even get off the ground, let alone grow to become a multimillion or -billion dollar enterprise. As I said in a conversation on Facebook, shipping companies, not cars, beat the roads and bridges to pieces . Bandwidth is eaten up by corporations, not private users (it's why they're trying to suppress streaming video--because it cuts into their usage). Corporations are the largest consumers of electricity (who leaves all those lights on in the skyscrapers?). Passenger trains make way for freight, which is what the majority of rail traffic is. Harbor facilities are almost exclusively for shipping and freight now, with a little bit of passenger traffic. Even airlines make more money from cargo than passengers. And who craps up the water? I'm not dumping any chemicals down my toilet, are you? The heaviest users need to pay the heaviest "fee," in taxes, for that usage. It makes their wealth possible.

Balance-the-budgetNot to mention that we, the workers—the teachers who educate them; the technicians who keep the equipment running; the people at the CAD station doing the specs and on the production line following them; the salespeople on the road; the marketers and graphic artists who provide the sales materials; the packagers, truck drivers, train engineers, and other shippers and delivery people; the HR people who keep employees happy and bargain for the best benefits; and the people who manage these people, are all doing the actual work. Without them, commerce grinds to a halt. We're not asking for anything more than our fair share of your success, 1%. We all helped make you what you are. This goes for the Masters of the Universe who do nothing more than move that capital around. Why do they earn so much for producing nothing tangible, especially when they have the power to wreck entire nations, and aren't afraid to do it? Capitalism is as much a group effort as Socialism; Socialism just distributes the rewards more equitably. What we have now looks more and more like feudalism.

And this isn't even touching on the corruption of our representatives by PAC money, or the safety net we all, as moral human beings, owe the weakest members of our society. Without a sense of obligation to one another, we are worse than animals. This is what bothers me about the so-called 53%, many of whom have the attitude that "I work hard and get by. The rest of you are just whiners." There is a shocking lack of empathy or foresight in that attitude. How stupid do you have to be to realize that if you're hit by a truck tomorrow and paralyzed from the waist down, your working days at your three jobs are over? Do you really want your alternatives to be begging in the street or a private charity poor house? None of us are immune to disaster or misfortune. Some of us, in fact, are born into it and have no power to change it for the first 18 years of our lives. The cold-hearted selfishness of this "I've got mine, screw the rest of you" attitude sickens me, and millions of others.

I've made choices in my life that leave me more vulnerable financially than many, and I'm willing to shoulder that responsibility. All I want is the opportunity to make a decent living at something I'm very good at doing. I don't want a handout, or even a hand up. All I want, all most of us want, is a fair shake for our own efforts.


The Road to Hell

RadicalMoi Many years ago before I'd left college, I read an article about the "Me" generation, questioning what kind of world this newly affluent, comfortable, coddled, self-centered group of people would make in the coming years. I'm at the tail-end of the Boomer generation and missed most of the stuff I would have liked to participate in: anti-war protests, Woodstock, feminist marches, in part because of my age, and in part because of who I was then. But I was lucky to grow up with the benefits of a generation who though that government should have more of a role in our lives than just providing for the protecton of the country. I went to good public schools. I benefitted from new highways built in our rural area, and the streetlights that came with it. I had decent food, safe medicines, buses to take me to school. We never needed it, but some of my friends made use of welfare programs that kept food on the table and clothes on their backs in one of the poorest counties in Michigan, one that had no industry and few jobs that weren't tied to farming or tourism. But as more of my generation joined politicis, there was a constant tug of war between those who felt some social responsibility toward their fellow humans, and those who just wanted to get everything they could for themselves. It's not entirely a clear-cut division along party lines but it's definitely a liberal-conservative split.

The current budget slashing is just an extreme example of it. And so much of it seems penny-wise and pound foolish. Out go funds for Planned Parenthood, which provides not just abortions (a small fraction of their service costs), but family planning which helps keep people from having too many kids that they can't support. Out goes funding for public broadcasting, which supports a number of educational programs for children that commercial TV wouldn't touch, giving them a boost up the ladder to help them succeed in school. Stripping the FCC of power to regulate the airwaves assures that only those who can pay for internet access will get it, leaving a huge number of rural and urban poor out of the greatest communication and information revolution in human history, and giving other countries a huge education advantage. South Korea has more people with broadband internet access than we do. This is not really a war about ideology. Or rather, it's a war about a different kind of ideology than we commonly think it is. Sad to say, it's really a war between compassion and privilege.

Say No to Government in Medicare I'm not even talking about the haves vs. the have-nots. A lot of the folks who are screaming bloody murder against what they call big government, are not particularly well-off themselves. Some of them are middle class folks who got screwed by Wall Street and are turning their anger on the government. Some of them are the working poor who feel that "other people" (read: minorities) are getting more of their share than they should be. But most of them feel put-upon in some way, and feel they're being taxed to death for things they don't use, or that the government is somehow interfering in their lives for no good reason. And yet many of them fail to realize they are recipients of that same government's investments in infrastructure (things as basic as sidewalks and highways) and the bare bones safety net of programs like Medicare. When you see protesters carrying signs against Big Government that say "Keep Govt. Out of my Medicare" the cognitive dissonance just boggles. Who do they think provides it in the first place? There's not some privately owned or publicly traded insurance company called Medicare.

There are very few people still alive who remember what it was like without any safety net at all, before Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and various welfare programs existed, or before government took a hand in regulating the safety of food, drugs, dangerous manufacturing industries, and enforced building codes, before unions helped guarantee a decent living wage for workers. If you want to see what that's like, spend some time in China, which is now undergoing its own early industrial period similar to the age of the Robber Barons here.

For example, take a look at coal mining, one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. According to the Dept. of Labor, a total of 71 miners died last year in the U.S.

In 2010, 19 coal miners in addition to the 29 who lost their lives at the Upper Big Branch mine were killed in mining accidents. Twenty-three miners in the metal and nonmetal mining industry also died in mining accidents – 45 percent were contractors. Not including the Upper Big Branch-related deaths, it appears that more than half of the 42 additional miners died in accidents involving violations of the Rules to Live By standards.

1907, the year the Bureau of Mines was created, saw the deaths of 362 miners in one disaster alone. By contrast, in 2008, 3,215 miners died in Chinese coal mine disasters alone (down from 5,986 in 2005), not including other mining disasters. China has a huge number of small coal mines, many illegal and under the radar, but even their large official mines do not have the safety regulations ours do. Our government decided that mine owners did not have their workers' best interests at heart and stepped in to regulate safety codes. Whenever those rules are disregarded, people die. That's one of the benefits of so-called Big Government. That's why we elect people: to represent our interests where we're powerless to do so.

Take away the govenrment's ability to regulate, to fund where market forces would not, to provide a safety net for the poor and powerless, and you would live in the country of snake-oil salesmen, company towns, disease epidemics, and grinding poverty, a country without decent highways, police, fire fighters, or health care for anyone who could not pay.We've experienced that in the Great Depression, in the Dust Bowl, in the Pinkerton strikes, in the years of labor organizing. Why would we want to go back to that? Are the people crying for the end of Big Government merely short-sighted or more selfish than even the Robber Barons?

What saddens me about this turn of events in American history is the utter lack of compassion it demonstrates. We've put such a high price on independence and self-reliance that we fail to see our obligations to each other and our interconnectedness. Social institutions that provide services for the poor have always been with us, whether private, religious, or governmental. Behind those institutions are people who are well-aware that not everyone is as lucky, capable, or healthy as they are, people who are privileged by class, income, intelligence, or race to be able to make it on their own. But with 45% of the wealth in this country concentrated in the hands of 1% of the population, do any of us really think private funding is going to pick up the slack? I don't see anyone stepping up to help cover health care costs for those who can't afford it. Oh, in individual cases, yes, but no one is stepping up to offer affordable health insurance for the 45 million of us who are unable to afford its currently exorbitant rates. I see new cell phone towers going up but not much in areas that don't have enough customers to recoup the cost. This is what government does: builds infrastructure and funds programs that are not all about the bottom line.

I'm all for austerity measures, and I'm willing to bite the bullet myself, but when you are already in the lower brackets of income, there's not much bullet left to bite. Austerity for the rich is not austerity for the poor. And when you ask the poor and the middle class to bear the brunt of the tax burden AND the austerity measures, you are risking exactly what's happening in the Middle East right now. People who are unemployed, unable to pay their bills, unable to put food on the table, afford a place to live or send their kids to school have nothing to lose, and the rich have everything. Spreading the wealth around via taxation and government sponsored social programs keeps everybody happy. If the rich are not going to help support the society in which they live, and from which they benefit, they deserve neither its privileges nor its protection, and certainly not its accolades.

That 1% of the wealthy are happy to make money off of the rest of us, but they don't give back much. This is not to say that all the wealthy are, by definition, greedy bastards. But it's interesting that FDR, one of our most socially conscious presidents, was considered "a traitor to his class" and that the Kennedys are so much more the exception than the rule. Even Andrew Carnegie must be ashamed of the current crop of super-rich. And the anti-government fools are happy to help them.

It's not your party that matters. It's not your religion. It's not how much money you have or don't have. It's how much empathy you have for the people around you: your next door neighbor, the people on your block, in your town, in your city, whether you know them personally or not. The new motto of this country seems to be "I"ve got mine. Fuck the rest of you." And that's just sad.


Remembering Nick Bucci on World AIDS Day

Precipitation

That spring, a cold one, not enough
years later,
the trees bloomed on St. Mark's
like reborn, slumming angels,
petals blowing in drifts
like the snow we never had that winter,
like the year before
         and the year before
and the year you died
when I could not see them
for what they were.

Your ashes, long scattered,
carried by soles and skin and air
through the five boroughs, Times Square,
the summer fire updrafts of L.A.,
ride the high atmospheric winds
across the world on new wings
or form the core of raindrops, ice crystals, cloud.

Outside: a warm October drizzle,
the leaves
just tinged with color, impossible
to think that it would ever snow
again,
that you would ever become
just a memory,
a film of dust, rain-streaked.



© Lee Kottner 2010


Dangerous Weirdness in Small-Town Mississippi

RadicalMoi I have a bunch of internet-only friends from my fanfic activities, and one of the things I love about them is that they will often do shit for each other that your local friends can't: start huge fund drives to help pay your rent or medical bills, or spread the word that something scary and dangerous is going on in your life that you can't fix and need help with. That's what this post is. I'm blogging about this situation in the hopes that if the word gets out everywhere, it will help protect the family involved. Caveat: this is a friend of friends, but to me, this sounds like way more than somebody just looking for attention. In a nutshell, here's the story. (And here it is in full, from the horse's mouth.)

Next door neighbors of Friend of Friends (FOF) show a sudden spate of late-night activity at a previously abandoned trailer that abuts FOF's property, accompanied by mysterious break-ins of FOF's house (some while she's in the house with her children), threats from local deputy (neighbor's nephew), strange phone messages, reporting of FOF to the local Child Protection Services (investigator is neighbor's relative) and an obvious effort to get FOF and her family out of their house, in which they've lived for 14 years. Move is in the works, but they have special requirements (they have livestock), so it's not going quickly. Meanwhile, the threatening behavior and harassment continues; no local lawyer will help them. County Attorney will not return their calls. This screams meth lab or local militia or some other kind of illicit activity to me.

FOF is now so scared that she's publishing her address on her LJ and asking others to do the same:

I currently live at

591 Hwy 41 E
Okolona, MS 38860

Catherine Young's old trailer is next door.

Someone probably thinks i saw something or someone over there I should not have.  Having me committed would discredit me as a witness.  Please circulate this post.

Pass this on to any contacts you may have at news outlets or federal law enforcement. Other friends have advised her to set up some surveillance via webcam (her phone and internet have both been sporadically cut at the relay), take photos and make copies of everything, including answering machine tapes (one has already been erased in another break-in, but there are other copies off-site), all of which she's doing. 


feminism and me—it's complicated

HotheadPaisanMary Daly died recently, and that has set me to thinking about my relationship with feminism, since so much of it is wound up in my relationship to religion. My mother was a proto-feminist who taught me that girls could be anything they wanted to be, and made damn sure I went to college, because education was the way to economic independence. At the same time, the religion we belonged to told us we were to be subordinate to male authority and not allowed to teach in church, while at the same time women did the majority of the grunt work in evangelizing from door to door, which was a big part of worship. So we could serve in the trenches, but not at the "altar." And that was different from Catholicism or mainstream Protestantism (or any other religion) how? Women's studies courses and departments were just a gleam in most feminsts' eyes when I was an undergrad, but the college I went to was strongly feminist and had its own radical tradition. That's where I first read Mary Daly and heard her mentioned (I forget by whom) and ran into the idea of God the Mother for the first time. And didn't that rock my world.

At the same time, there was something uncomfortably male-hating about many of the feminists I knew then. There was a strong separatist contingent at the school, and that turned me off. Men were a pain in the ass, but I wasn't by any means sexually attracted to women (I know this may come as a shock to some of you), so what's a girl to do? I distanced myself from the feminists. It didn't change how I acted or dressed or how I felt about sexism (wrong, immoral, vile) or my propensity to call people on it, but I stopped calling myself a feminist.

Then I went to grad school, where I was talked over in class by guys and had my ideas paid attention to only when they were picked up and repeated by men. And that pissed me off enough to reclaim that label. I haven't stopped calling myself a feminist since. Getting jobs outside academe only reinforced that choice. Male behavior is so often institutionally, deliberately, casually, and/or even just unconsciously sexist that it's impossible to live as a self-aware, intelligent, and self-confident woman and not want to call somebody on some kind of stupid sexist shit at least once a day, usually more. Sometimes with a frying pan upside the head. With hot grease in it.

We live in a culture—hell, a world!—that systematically and consciously not only devalues women but, in many cases, actively beats them down and beats them up. In addition to the gap in pay, the lack of support for children and family issues, and the general marginalizing and silencing of women, there's the outright violence. Far too many of my students are living day to day with male partners who threaten their safety and well-being physically or emotionally or psychologically. At least once a semester I deal with a student who is either going into, living in, or coming out of a domestic violence shelter—or who needs to get into one and doesn't realize it yet. Sometimes it's more than one. That movie "Precious"? Ask my students how real that is. Many, many of them have been raped in the past, sometimes more than once. And it's not just my students in their socioeconomic ghetto, it's my friends, as well, rich and poor, educated and not. I can count on one hand the number of my female friends who have not endured some kind of sexual or physical or emotional assault from men. It's enough, really, to make any woman a riot grrrrl, like Hothead Paisan.

But. There's always a but, in any movement. They're never all good, no matter how noble the cause, because people are complicated. And the "but" in my case is the constant rage and utter joylessness in so many feminists. Lately, I'm feeling a little bombarded by it in blogs, books, articles, whatever. Even when there are steps being taken to change people's ideology and awareness, even when there is something positive happening, it never seems to be enough for some folks. It's a bit like the people who are pissed off with Obama for not initiating the changes they wanted instantaneously upon taking office. Here's an example, just a small one:

LuannCar
A comic I read with regularity, "Luann," apparently does not pass muster in this particular instance, even though it has a main character who is a strong, independent female firefighter who fixes her own cars and extricated herself from an abusive relationship to have one with a guy who happens to appreciate her just the way she is—not, incidentally, just because she's beautiful. The writer then goes on to carp about how comics are just not as funny as they used to be. Boohoo.

I really like this comic for precisely the reasons I state above. Toni is a great role model for girls: a fully realized person, and a woman who is strong and self-confident enough to have rescued herself and work in a male dominated field and find a new guy who respects her strengths and abilities. This is not feminist enough how? Taken out of the context of the storyline, this panel isn't a particularly funny comic but I fail to see the outright sexism. In context, it takes on a different meaning, one not particularly insulting at all: Toni's got a better touch with Brad's car and that makes Brad feel inadequate and betrayed by his own possessions. That doesn't mean he feels Toni is inferior in any way. I feel that way every time a tech person can get my computer to do stuff I can't, regardless of the tech person's gender.

And there's more carping at something that is not "enough" in some way: sending special care packages to women soldiers with (gasp!) make-up and Cosmo in them! That the Dove self-esteem campaign actually helps sell Dove products at the same time it raises girls' awareness of the fakeness of advertising! That the Nicholas Kristoff/Cheryl WuDunn book Half the Sky does "more harm than good" by not being a weighty, theory-heavy tome! Jesus, people.

My point is that if you are going to take active offense at everything that is not perfect, or not just the way you think it should be, you will hate everything in the world, including yourself. Lighten the fuck up, and stop the navel-gazing. The suffering of women is not the center of the universe or the source of all injustices or problems in the world. Yes, the world would be a far, far better place if women were respected and valued in equal measure to men. It would also still not be a utopia.

While I happen to agree with Barbara Ehrenreich's thesis that too much positive thinking is akin to brainwashing, I think that applies in the opposite direction as well. Anger can be a very powerful force for good in the world, but on its own, cut loose from compassion or any sense of joy in life, it becomes destructive, self-destructive; coupled with any ideology without the tempering of joy or compassion, it becomes fundamentalist extremism. We've all seen how destructive and dangerous that is, to those who swallow that joyless ideology, to others who refuse to embrace it, and to the movement itself. If we don't use our anger constructively, if we only see what's wrong and not what's right and what's changing, we risk losing people who may support us and yet cannot bear to see everything in the world as a horror show. Every war needs victories and needs to celebrate and enjoy those victories to have the heart to keep fighting. Don't rob people of that.

Feminist-BookstoreI keep this Callahan cartoon around to keep me honest in my feminism.  Yes, it's a stereotype, but every stereotype exists because somewhere, somebody fits it. Ask yourself, sistah, if it's you, and how much your own attitude is making you miserable—and hindering the movement, too.


teaspoons and awakenings

Badgirl MoiAs I mentioned before, this has been a hellish semester, crammed with classes. My two writing labs just ended and I was looking forward to sleeping in on Wednesdays again, but now I've just acquired two more classes that meet on--guess when?--Wednesday morning. I'm filling in for another adjunct who's had a heart attack. Here's hoping I don't have one either. So I'm back up to five classes now, for another five weeks.

And sometimes I wonder why I"m doing this, and I wonder if I'm reaching anybody. My Modes and Logic classes at CNR have been fraught with fraughtness this semester, including a power struggle to get the media resources I need. The discussions, which are usually so lively there, have been like pulling teeth. Students have been falling asleep in class; we've all been sick as dogs. One of my students just found out she has small cell lung cancer. Another's been in the hospital off and on with asthma. The absenteeism has been alarming. And the coming in late pernicious.

Just when I'm ready to throw in the towel, something happens like what happened this morning, at the make-up class that was half-empty. Whatever stories I pick for this class, I try to teach them from a feminist, and a humanist, perspective. I want us to be able to talk about not just sexism, but racism, and class, and any other kind of discrimination and bigotry, because that's what so many of the great stories, and our stories, are all about. And I try to infuse those stories and the backgrounds to them with as much feminist theory as I've gleaned from my own readings (since there were no women's studies classes when I went to school) and relate them to our lives today. We talk about the limited choices women have been presented with, about the madonna/whore dichotomy we're saddled with, about how childcare and caring for everyone but ourselves is always our responsibility, how important education and economic independence are for women, and how even now women pay for their desires with their lives. I'm never sure it's sinking in, or making any sense, until I get comments like this:

As we're sitting waiting for the rest of the class and the AV equipment to show up, my one student who's always there when I walk in says to me, "you know, your class has really opened my eyes to a lot of new ideas about the way women are treated. You really got me thinking about that now." And as I'm doing a little happy dance inside, another student agrees and starts to relate how she's begun rebelling against the way her husband treats her as property, as something he has the right to rule over or boss around, and describes her most recent act of rebellion, which consisted of going out of the house wearing pants instead of a skirt, and giving him the stink-eye about it when she came home, all because of the way we've been talking about The Awakening, and "The Story of an Hour," and "Seventeen Syllables," and "The Lesson," and "Eveline."

Then I'm glad I got out of bed and shouldered my teaspoon and went to class. There's nothing like seeing feminist awakenings happen right under your nose to make it all worthwhile.


theory kills

WorldWearyMoi I've been having an interesting but frustrating discussion over on Facebook with a 26-year-old that's really making me feel my age in some ways. He's a proponent of free-market capitalism at its most extreme, a Libertarian wedded to the theory of complete government non-interference. Economists, I've concluded, are a strange bunch. The field is a combination of complexity studies, human psychology, and faith, as far as I can tell, though it leans very heavily on the latter, more than the former. Market behavior seems to be like gravity: everybody experiences it, but nobody knows what it is or how it works.

One thing that really sets us apart in this discussion is my lack of faith in theories. I'm not talking about things like scientific theories that explain natural laws, but theories of human behavior, whether they're theories of altruism, politics, criminal behavior, or economics. Humans are such complicated, complex systems individually that ascribing behavior to any single factor, no matter how complex it is itself, will always lead to exceptions. Our societies are such complex organisms that I'm not sure we'll every understand how even a large crowd works, let alone cities, states, or nations. The more I travel, the more true that seems to me. I've always been interested in what, exactly, goes into making of national character, and China really challenged me to define that as much as I could, which wasn't much. Simplified, US character vs. Chinese character is rugged individualism vs group harmony, but that's so simplified that it's actually worthless. What kind of groups do you have when everyone's an only child? When more and more Chinese are alone in cities rather than together on family farms? Theories like this are like statistics: you can make assumptions and predictions on a group level, but those predictions break down on an individual level.

Anyway, we've been arguing about universal healthcare. He thinks it's not a right, and I say it is and there's really no possibility of reconciliation of those two views. It seems to me that it is an excellent investment for any nation to ensure the health and education of its citizens, to increase their productivity. In his mind, the interference of government in our personal lives (i.e., demanding we help fund healthcare for those less fortunate than us) is more abhorrent than others going sick and possibly dying prematurely. He believes this should be funded voluntarily, which is a lovely thought. But I've learned over the years that people are not that generous, and not that kind. Sure, when asked to give in individual cases we very often come to the rescue and are happy to do so. But to ask us to fund a system for the faceless and unknown, for people we may not think deserve it, is ludicrous. I wish it weren't so, but it is. And this is where the role of government comes in: to push us, as Ted Kennedy so often did, beyond our base and selfish impulses to have compassion for people we do not even know. Unregulated systems are dangerous because they treat human beings and their lives as abstractions and numbers. Any theory about human behavior does this, even the theories that lead to helping people. Regulation provides, to some extent, a correction of that impulse. But what each system really needs is compassionate administrators to correct the rigidity of any system. This is not to say that we should all get what we want. Sometimes, what we want isn't necessary, but when you're gambling with people's lives, I think it's better to err on the side of generosity than strict adherence to law.

That's because a life of compassion is far more fulfilling, far better for everyone, than a life dedicated to theory. I don't think I've learned this just as a humanities teacher or student, but in the life experiences I've had too. I've been so down it looked like up to me, emotionally, physically, and financially. Yes, my friends pitched in, but I really could have used some help paying for that $35,000 worth of therapy that made me a productive citizen again. I still would have had to do the work involved, but the difficulty would have been halved. I don't regret the investment, but neither would my government. It's never a bad idea to invest in people, not to make them dependent, but to help them get where they want to go. The people who don't want to go anywhere? That's a different matter. But the people who can't and want to? Why would we not want to help? And in the case of healthcare, not helping them is tantamount to passive euthanasia: standing by while nature takes its course. Sometimes that's appropriate, but often it's not. Good healthcare decreases the burden on the state and the burden on its citizens.

And a little compassion never hurt anybody.


Letter to the President: Torture

RadicalMoi Got my activist on and decided to write another letter to President Obama. It's so funny; I'm turning into my dad, who was a great writer of letters to politicians, newspaper editors, and other public figures he didn't agree with. It seems to be a Kottner trait; my grandmother did it too.

Here's a draft of my latest missive. I'm going to let it sit a couple of days before I send it, so any comments, typo spotting, corrections, suggestions, welcome.

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

20 April, 2009

Dear President Obama,

I’m a teacher, poet and artist living in New York City. I have been a disinterested non-voter for most of my life, but President Bush’s policies and actions—and your candidacy—galvanized me and changed my world-view. I’m writing first to thank you for the increased transparency you’ve brought to our government since taking office, and for striving to keep so many of your campaign promises. I applaud you especially for making the commitment to closing the unlawful prison at Guantanamo Bay. Since voting for you in the last national election, I’ve become increasingly involved in political and human rights activism, and I thank you also for that inspiration.

Which is why I’m also writing you today to ask you to reconsider your stance on forming a Truth Commission and the prosecution of interrogators who practiced and condoned waterboarding and other forms of torture under the aegis of the CIA and the Justice Department’s Orwellian definitions. I’m sure you’ve heard these arguments before, but I think it’s important that you know they’re also coming from some of the ordinary citizens who voted and campaigned for you, because we saw you as a new broom. I’m also writing to you because I need to be able to say I’ve done as much as I can to put an end to a practice which places the country I am a voting citizen of in the same category as benighted, tyrannical regimes.

I agree with you that this is a divisive issue, and I understand and sympathize with your desire not to create more divisions in this country. But I think it’s important to make a distinction between merely bowing to the demands of a group of people who have been newly restored to power and doing the right thing. If we deny our wrongdoing, that allows these wounds to fester. Witness the ill feelings regarding the denial of a Turkish massacre of Armenians just after World War I, and the Japanese denial of the enslavement of Korean women during World War II, for example. That denial thwarts the efficacy of diplomacy on many levels, as well as presenting a barrier to the social and political growth of the deniers. The Allies were able to bring the perpetrators of Nazi genocide and torture and Japanese atrocities to justice because Germany and Japan were conquered and occupied nations. Because we have no such pressure on us, it is even more imperative that we take steps to right our own wrongs and do so publically. Politically mature nations, like mature individuals, are able to admit their wrongs, take the consequences, and move on. South Africa has set a clear example in this area with its apartheid truth commission. It’s not a simple solution or an easy one, but it’s a necessary one, for a number of reasons.

Torture is one of the most heinous violations of human rights, whether it involves waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, threats of rape or bodily harm, or fear for one’s life. Laws against intentionally harming a fellow human being are part and parcel of every civilized legal code on the planet. The difference between assault and torture is merely one of nomenclature and alleged purpose. Any argument of a real distinction between the two acts is sophistry, especially in light of the fact that torture produces so little—if any—useful information. As cartoonist Gary Trudeau pointed out in one of his Bush-era strips, it “used to be a given” that the U.S. did not torture its prisoners. We’ve lost the benefit of that moral high ground now. Sweeping the wrongdoing under the rug will not help us regain it.

A country which allows its agents to practice torture has no credibility in the world at large when it comes to speaking of human rights. How can we pressure countries like China to treat their prisoners humanely when torture is a part of our own repertoire? How can we condemn countries like Syria for their treatment of prisoners if we’re using them to do our dirty work? Hypocrisy like this taints everything we do on the world stage. If the U.S. is to be a true leader, we must face our errors, punish those responsible for them, and clean house. If we can’t clean our own house, Mr. President, we can’t ask others to do the same.

As signatories to the Geneva Conventions, this nation is bound by law to prosecute those officials who violate it. Article 131 says, “No High Contracting Party shall be allowed to absolve itself or any other High Contracting Party of any liability incurred by itself or by another High Contracting Party in respect of breaches referred to in the preceding Article.” We have clearly breached the rights of prisoners not to be tortured; prosecution of those responsible must follow if the rule of law is to be respected. In this country, without the rule of law, our experiment in democracy means nothing.

Finally, I know I don’t need to speak of the danger our policy of torturing prisoners places our troops in, but I will. My father, who died in 2005, was a WWII Army Air Corps, and later Air Force, veteran who was appalled by the existence of Guantanamo and the treatment the prisoners were subjected to. More than once, he told me this was not what he fought that war for. We need to repudiate that policy as strongly as possible to help ensure the humane treatment of our captured troops, as well as the humane treatment of everyone who comes to our shores. That sense of fairness was what my dad fought for.

For decades, the fact that American law, political philosophy, and foreign policy worked fairly well and were grounded in a strong sense of right and wrong allowed me to go along my complacent, non-involved way, confident that I lived in one of the best countries in the world. The Bush era’s egregious violations of the Constitution and American civil rights changed all that, so perhaps it wasn’t all bad in some senses. Now that our economy is struggling from unregulated greed, 48 million of us suffer from economic apartheid in health care, and our freedoms have been underhandedly undermined by the very people who are supposed to protect them, I can’t let myself stand by without saying something. I won’t ever be that complacent again, but I would like to regain that sense of confidence in the country I live in.

This is a long letter, and I’m not sure it will even reach you, Mr. President, through no fault of your own. But someone in your administration will read it and, I hope, pass on my sentiments, if not my letter, to you. I also know I’m not telling you anything new. You know these arguments, and you seem to me to be a reasonable, careful, and also moral person. I hope you will consider my words not as criticism, but as a call to action, the same call you gave that resounded in me. Thank you once again for the opportunity to express my views, and for doing the many good things you’ve already done.

Yours respectfully,

Etc.