An Essay Disguised as a Reading Roundup*

The Very Busy, Very Unproductive Life of Leon Wieseltier / Vanity Fair / Lloyd Grove

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Wayward Intellectual Finds God / New York Times / Sam Tenenhaus

Growing up, I wanted nothing more than the sort of literary success a man like Leon Wieseltier enjoyed. If there’s anything redeeming about this, it’s that my sought-after fantasy was less elitist than Wieseltier’s reality — as a teenager in western Pennsylvania, I assumed success lay somewhere between Henry Miller’s Parisian destitution, Ernest Hemingway’s Parisian destitution, and…James Baldwin’s Parisian destitution. A limited vision, admittedly, but what I got right, as did Wieseltier, was grasping a central element defining American literary success of the type my idols had achieved: that one is a man.

Which created complications for me, a woman. I imbibed story after story about heroic men and their romantic exploits — when not reading the novels of Baldwin, Camus, Dickens, Faulkner, Hemingway, Kerouac, Miller, or Steinbeck, I was reading their memoirs, their letters, their notes. And with each new influence came further confirmation of my quandary: masculinity seemed to be key to their ingenuous lives and work; while women entered into their stories, in some cases as mythical sources of desire, in others as desultory bodies to fuck, and very occasionally as admirably full characters (rarely, but it happened), women did not write the stories.

What was a teenage girl to do? I’m sure every young woman resolved this differently — or ideally, never had this trouble thanks to reading more women writers than I was exposed to — but for me, I internalized the values of my idols. Women were frail, distractions, hangers-on; I’d become masculine, independent. And I did. I grew to resent other women and resent myself whenever I had a thought or desire that didn’t fit with my vision of how these men lived. I couldn’t be a woman. After all, if I were, I’d never produce anything worthwhile.

***

I’d never heard the name Leon Wieseltier before this month. While I’ve always had a literary bent, some combination of my feeling that it’s unbecoming for a left-winger to dally too deeply in the elitist universe of high literature and my inescapable lack of a social pedigree that could familiarize me with that world, kept me from knowing many of the most recognizable names in the American literary pedigree, of which Wieseltier, apparently, was one.

So after reading his name, first, on a list of men who sexually harassed women, and next, in articles about how he was the latest victim of the ongoing societal “moment” of outing serial sexual harassers, I went looking for information about who Wieseltier was to those who had known his name in connection to a pursuit other than sexual harassment.

I found two profiles of Wieseltier (there are surely many more, but I wasn’t willing to give infinite time to a now-disgraced man; after all, hadn’t he taken too much time from too many young women already?). One is from Vanity Fair in 1995, the other from the New York Times, 1999.

Both profiles are laudatory, even when criticizing Wieseltier, in the way that writing a profile of anyone is an act that offers its subject the benefits of national attention.

I’m not interested in retrospectively reading into twenty-year-old profiles a “gotcha” of the future Wieseltier (although sentences like “For Wieseltier, the tension between the scholarly and the sensual is not easily resolved” from the Times profile certainly lend themselves to such a reading). Rather, it’s the “type” of which Wieseltier is exemplar that I want to consider.

The Vanity Fair profile is skeptical of its subject from the start: its headline reads “The Very Busy, Very Unproductive Life of Leon Wieseltier,” and indeed, it’s hard to finish the profile without questioning whether Wieseltier is a fraud. The story quotes celebrity after celebrity praising Wieseltier’s genius — Ruth Bader Ginsburg tells us “I like his mind,” Wyton Maralis insists upon our subject’s soulfulness — and yet, no quote as to Wieseltier’s character sticks out so much as that from his only celebrity detractor in the piece.

On the phone from Ravello, Italy, Gore Vidal makes alarming retching noises.

“YEEECCCCCH!” he exclaims the moment Wieseltier is mentioned. “I’ve not got a strong stomach! This name is literally nauseous, as in ‘creating nausea.’”

Won’t Vidal at least give Wieseltier his due for likability?

“He’s a social climber!” Vidal proclaims. “You’ve got to learn some skills!”

Vidal, in many ways a model for the man Wieseltier aspires to be — infamous, beloved, controversial, a loud-mouthed asshole, but a genius nonetheless — suggests an alternative reading of the source of Wieseltier’s renown: his elevation is a matter of fashion and trend, rather than of substance.

Similarly, in the New York Times profile, we read of Wieseltier’s position at the center of “Washington’s glitterati.” Mentions are made of how interesting Wieseltier is, even as note is also made that he continues to struggle to produce what sounds like a painfully boring book on “sighing,” a subject that’s mentioned in the four-years-earlier Vanity Fair profile, too.

Read back-to-back, these profiles suggest a fake, a man who only standout qualities seem to be that he saw how thin the basis for insider status in America’s elite cultural and literary circle is, and ensured he aped the norms and tastes of this circle convincingly enough to become one of its darlings.

Which calls into question the judgement of this circle itself. It’s hard to believe so many smart people were simply repeating a fashionable opinion in praising the man.

While I have since grown up and lost my desire to enter the high-literary world (as well as learned of the many women writers — and organizers — after whom I much prefer to model myself), reading about Wieseltier reminded me of the kernel of truth in what I knew as a teenager: the intellectual world is made for men. Reading of how Wieseltier considered women “second tier to male intellectuals,” of his sequence of “extremely beautiful, alluring girlfriends,” and elsewhere, of how he was “linked to an astonishing array of prominent women,” I can’t help wondering if the bullshit rubrics used by the elites who anointed him “brilliant” are hard-wired to reward men who treat women as disposable, to see in such behavior a reflection of brilliance, or at least, to view a “brilliant” man as enhanced by his ability to behave as Wieseltier did toward women. The remarkably similar allegations against Knight Landesman, Artforum‘s publisher, and Loren Stein, the Paris Review‘s editor in chief, suggest as much.

Ours is a supposed era of sexual freedom. We’re supposed to encourage women to pursue whatever sexual behavior suits them. And while I do, reality is not nearly so straightforward. Women who sleep around like Wieseltier risk having whatever success they achieve attributed to their willingness to “fuck their way to the top” (a charge that, unsurprisingly, comes up precisely zero times in the profiles of Wieseltier; indeed, it’s laughable to imagine such an accusation against a heterosexual man). Moreover, perhaps we should question a culture that so glories in a type of man who, by all looks of it, wielded his reputation as a means to ensure women accepted his abuse. Perhaps we, women, are now under pressure to accept our role as the arm candy of “brilliant” men if we want to get ahead, and perhaps, from the outside, that looks identical to a new sexual freedom for women even as it operates almost identically to the sexism in which our intellectual lineages are steeped.

Anyway, I don’t mean to dismiss women’s agency, or cast aspersions upon anyone in particular — aside from Wieseltier, at whom everyone should feel free to lob as many insults as they want — but the ongoing revelations (or confirmations, depending on how prevalent you thought sexual harassment was prior to last month) of sexual misconduct in elite circles suggest it’s past time to consider the possibility that we aren’t all making choices in a friction-less vacuum. Women, even prestigious women, may be choosing to live as best they can from a constricting set of options, options that tell them — okay, that tell us — to accept terms and standards built for men, even if some women can meet them now too.

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Julien Baker Believes in God / New Yorker / Rachel Syme

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Somethin’ Slick Goin’ On: The Proletarian Funk of Johnny “Guitar” Watson / Viewpoint / Dominick Knowles

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The Inescapable Fats Domino / New Yorker / Amanda Petrusich

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Letter of Recommendation: Detroit Techno / New York Times / Shuja Haider

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Everything is Embarrassing: On Loving The National / NYLON / Helena Fitzgerald

Having morosely dwelt upon an unpleasant topic above — and, for those who follow my work, here and here and here and here and here — I leave you with five essays about five very different types of music. Happy Halloween, happy fall, don’t get too depressed about everything, it’s just the weather and the news and the poverty making you feel that way, etc.

*I originally wrote this is on November 1, 2017, on my other site, a Patreon, but having shut that site down, I’m re-posting it here for the sake of keeping things all in the same place.

keeping time

It’s a real bitch to admit to yourself that they never saw you as an equal. For someone so literate, it’s a hell of a misreading. In retrospect, it’s obvious: you were an accessory; pretty, but nonessential.

They were older. Actually, the first one was younger. But lately they’ve been older, and more importantly, they’ve been established. Established in their ways, established in their careers. You were the opposite: radically self-doubting, self-critical. Indeed, they made you their opposite—made you think yourself dumb, made you shut your mouth rather than argue. They produced you, when you thought you were producing yourselves together, as more than your parts. Turns out they left you as they’d been when you met, while you left less than you were before. Turns out the relationships were transformative, but not in the way you’d thought.

Yet, now, they are gone. The most recent two of them—the ones you’re really writing about, even though there are others—wound up being their own worst enemies. Their behavior caught up to them, made them fall. It may not have been from a great height, but they fell all right. They’ve been wiped clean. To say you miss them isn’t quite right; how do you grieve the loss of someone who never existed?

And you? You’re in their world, more so than ever. You’re still new, after all, so you’re not quite there. Yet you get offers they had previously gotten, and each time, your mind goes straight to them. They haunt you. They will continue to haunt you, each success of yours shrouded in memories of them. Your checks come from places with names that you’d first heard from their lips, their monologues about this or that project, this or that success, always spilling out of their mouths without pause; you, walking beside them, always quieter.

What supreme irony that you exist in the places they once called home. You exist in their spaces, even though you’d always taken up less room than they did. It’s probably fair, and probably just, but it’s eerie. While writing this, you imagined them as ghosts, but what if it’s worse than that: what if you’re the ghost?

A Year in Books

This was a year of reading. I found myself in a position where writing was becoming something I do with increasing frequency, so in addition to my predictable plodding through left nonfiction, history and politics and all the rest, I added a lot of fiction and essay collections to my reading too. This list is mostly for my own record keeping, but who knows, maybe people are interested in seeing what I read.

A Non-Exhaustive List of What I Read This Year

chain of title / david dayen
mistaken identity / asad haider
rebel rank and file / aaron brenner, robert brenner, carl winslow
the empathy exams / leslie jamison
live work work work die / corey pein
the abundance / annie dillard
necessary trouble / sarah jaffe
united states essays / gore vidal
white album, slouching towards bethlehem, salvador, political fictions / joan didion
the civil wars in us labor / steve early
pulphead / john jeremiah sullivan
the liberal defence of murder, corbyn / richard seymour
miami and the siege of chicago, the executioner’s song / norman mailer
in cold blood / truman capote
bluets, the argonauts / maggie nelson
city on fire / garth risk halberg
the book of my lives / aleksandar hemon
the sympathizer / viet thanh nguyen
the sellout / paul beatty
unwanted advances / laura kipnis
labor of love / moira weigel
tech against trump / ben tarnoff
notes from no man’s land / eula biss
october / china miéville
lenin / lars lih
hillbilly nationalists / amy sonnie, james tracy
from #blacklivesmater to black liberation / keeanga-yamahhta taylor
the reactionary mind / corey robin
subterranean fire / sharon smith
behold the dreamers / imbolo mbue
class notes / adolph reed
goliath / max blumenthal
remembering satan / lawrence wright
against everything / mark greif
kill all normies / angela nagle
future sex / emily witt
the brief wondrous life of oscar wao / junot diaz

To Read in 2018

racecraft / barbara fields, karen fields
hammer and hoe / robin d g kelley
black marxism / cedric robinson
labor’s war at home / nelson lichtenstein
the romance of american communism / vivan gornick
the black atlantic / paul gilroy
the cultural front / michael denning
black reconstruction in america / w e b dubois
the history of the russian revolution / leon trotsky

A Harassment-Free Workplace

Sexual harassment is in the news again. This week, the New York Times published an investigation revealing “previously undisclosed allegations against Mr. [Harvey] Weinstein stretching over nearly three decades.” Weinstein, an Oscar-winning movie producer and one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, apparently used his position in the entertainment industry to abuse women, overwhelmingly young women new to the movie business.

The story details abusive behavior — such as Weinstein “badgering” women into giving him naked massages or asking if they would watch him shower — that suggest a man who got off not so much on sex as on dominating women who he suspected were powerless to fight back. That he got away with it for decades, and that he is only being outed now, as his power is fading — slowly, to be sure — suggests he was right.

But there’s another thread that comes through, one of women helping other women protect themselves in a situation where the power differential between Weinstein and themselves was staggering. We read of Lauren O’Connor writing a memo denouncing her boss’s conduct. We see Ashley Judd tell the Times reporters, “Women have been talking about Harvey amongst ourselves for a long time, and it’s simply beyond time to have the conversation publicly.” We are informed that “one woman advised a peer to wear a parka when summoned for duty as a layer of protection against unwelcome advances.” And we get anonymous quotes, from women employed or formerly employed by Weinstein, confirming the allegations.

In an era when so many of us know how widespread workplace sexual harassment is, it’s important to take in the details of a rare case of a harasser being outed, publicly and with on-the-record quotes from his accusers. This is the exception to the rule, which is that powerful men like Weinstein get to harass and assault women until they die, no matter how many people in their industries know about it.

But having digested these details, we — or at least those of us concerned with fighting these injustices — arrive at a question: What do we do about it? We live in an era where “feminism … is cool,” at least according to those liberal feminists whose politics fit comfortably with feminism-as-brand, and yet sexual harassment, in the workplace and without, continues unabated.

When the article was published, lots of women took to Twitter to tell their stories of workplace sexual harassment. But the proud feminist tradition of conscious raising — albeit this time in its 2017 form, tweeting — cannot stop workplace sexual harassment. It’s a way to make those few of us unfortunate enough to use Twitter feel less alone, and to educate our male counterparts about the thorny persistence of harassment in our supposed feminist age. But when it comes to stopping that harassment, its effect is negligible at best.

So, again, what can we do to reduce workplace sexual harassment?

To begin answering that, let me start with a few snapshots of my own.

  • Age 17: during my first shift as a waitress, a customer leaves me his number instead of a tip —  I am an embarrassed kid, so I don’t tell anyone
  • Age 20: within my first week of a new job as a barista, one of the coffee shop’s regulars talks to me for the entirety of my lunch break. When I bring it up with my young female manager, she responds, “Oh, I have one of those guys too. Nothing we can do about it. By the way, if the guy who insists on talking to me comes in and asks for me, say I’m busy.”
  • Age 20: I ask a professor for a recommendation to graduate school. He responds by asking me if I have a boyfriend. I do not reply, to that email, or ever again. I do not get into a PhD program that year.
  • Age 21: during my first shift as a hostess at a restaurant, one of the bartenders propositions me multiple times. When I tell the manager, seeking advice, he responds, “Well, you were hired to be looked at.” I walk out mid-dinner rush that same day, and never go back.
  • Age 22: I am a new PhD student. One of the other students informs me to avoid X, a male professor. “He touches the female students he works with, like, a lot.” I change what I plan to focus on in the program, so as to avoid working with him.

What do these stories have in common? Beyond the obvious — they’re all cases of workplace sexual harassment — in each case, I acted alone, and the action I took worsened my life. I walked away from jobs, never to return even for the paycheck I was owed. I reneged on substantial intellectual goals to avoid harassers. I suffered, doubly.

I don’t share these stories for the purpose of consciousness-raising, although if reading them makes you feel less alone, or conveys to you how often workplace sexual harassment happens, good. I write them to show how much we stand to lose by trying to resolve sexual harassment on our own.

Rather than trying to fight back against a harasser on her own, the safest bet for a women is to find a vehicle to fight the issue collectively. Not only can this multiply the power on her side — if she can only do so much on her own, her power multiplies with each colleague who stands beside her — but it protects her. Speaking out about harassment is risky when your job is on the line, but if you speak as a “we,” there is no “I” who can be identified. Sure, if the harasser knows he only harassed me, he will know I am the one who told people. But even then, if my coworkers commit to backing me up, and taking action if I face repercussions for speaking up, it becomes much harder for that harasser to win. He can fire me — or get me fired if he isn’t the boss — but he can’t fire all of us.

The above scenario is a type of collective action, one that is closer to the informal side of the spectrum that runs from informal to formal action: workers confront a harasser, threatening to take action, be it direct action or legal action, if harassment doesn’t end. It’s a step beyond the actions we read of in the Times story, of individual women warning other women of Weinstein’s actions, although the many women quoted or interviewed anonymously about Weinstein are taking informal collective action too, albeit of a type that shields them from the risk of repercussions (I hope). It’s an important step, and I have seen it stop harassment. Workers threatening to walk off the job if one of the bosses doesn’t act on information of sexual harassment can force that boss to act, if solely to keep the shop running smoothly.

But on the other end of the spectrum is an even more effective strategy: formal collective action. When it comes to the workplace, the most common vehicle for this step is a union. Language about “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment is often built into union contracts, providing a clear mandate for workers to act if harassment occurs. No longer are you “a bitch who can’t keep her mouth shut”; in a union, you’re adhering to the language everyone agreed upon.

When I was part of a union organizing drive among graduate students at my university last year, this argument — that a union is our best shot at combating sexual harassment and assault — was the most effective one I had when speaking to other grad students. According to a nationwide survey by the Association of American Universities, 44 percent of female graduate students report having been sexually harassed. 22 percent of female graduate students said this harassment came from a faculty member, while 16 percent said it came from a teacher or adviser. Multiple women, particularly those who work in the hard sciences — where funding comes directly from one faculty member (a PI) who oversees a lab of grad students — confessed horror stories of sexual harassment by their PIs, the stories often prefaced with “I haven’t told anyone else about what’s happening.” Some of these women became our most effective organizers.

And when it came to speaking to their male colleagues, no argument was more persuasive. While an engineering student might not be concerned with his wages (“My stipend’s good, and I’ll be making six figures in no time!”), he almost always could be won to supporting the union when I told him that “some of your female colleagues don’t have it so good, and they need this union.”

While sexual harassment is not a “bread-and-butter” issue in traditional union parlance, the ability of a union to provide a formal collective body that can file grievances over harassment, and promise to back up those experiencing harassment, is an invaluable argument for why union rights are women’s rights (among the many, many arguments for why unions are a feminist issue). Judging by reports from other graduate union campaigns, I’m not the only one who finds this an effective argument.

That power of a supervisor to scare a worker into silence about the harassment she’s experiencing? That exists in every sector, not just academia. For example, a recent survey reveals that 40 percent of female fast food workers experience sexual harassment in the workplace. A staggering number, it is significantly lower than the 70 percent of female restaurant workers Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) reported as experiencing workplace sexual harassment. Importantly, 42 percent of those surveyed in the fast food industry who experience harassment feel forced to accept that harassment because they can’t afford to lose their jobs. More than one-in-five of these women report that, after raising the issue, their employer took negative action, including cutting their hours, changing them to a less desirable schedule, giving them additional duties, and being denied a raise.

In other words, they were punished for speaking up. So it’s no surprise these workers are fighting in ever-greater numbers for not only a raise, but a union. Any of us who want to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace should be fighting for those protections too, no matter what type of work we do.

Note: an abridged version of this essay ran in Jacobin this week. It originated as a paywalled post on my Patreon, but given that I’ve seen union folks, especially those in the grad union movement, sharing this piece as a means to talk about sexual harassment, I’m posting it here so the full version — which has more specifics about grad unions — is accessible to everyone. If you want to support my writing, subscribe here.

Why The Left Opposes Police Unions

I.

On June 10, 2016, in a small town just north of Savannah, Georgia, three Teamsters stood on the side of the road outside of a company called XPO Logistics, leafleting truck drivers about their rights as workers. As the truckers left the facility, the Teamsters offered them a flyer, chatting briefly and answering any questions the drivers had. While it’s illegal to leaflet on company property, the Teamsters were stationed on the roadside beyond the facility’s gates.

It was an unremarkable afternoon of outreach, until the local police arrived. Someone from XPO had called them. The officers claimed the trio was blocking the flow of traffic, even though the only drivers on the dead-end road were trucks driving in and out of the facility, and the Teamsters had made a point of standing on the side of the road, flagging drivers down and only approaching once they had stopped driving.

In a state as unfriendly to labor as Georgia, which has the fourth-lowest rate of union membership in the country, the encounter between these Teamsters and the local police was about more than just the actions of these three organizers. No need to believe me; here’s a transcript of the conversation captured by the officers’ body cameras:

“It ain’t like it was back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with all those wildcat strikes and those riots and everything,” says one of the officers in the video.

“You smell that?” he continues. “You smell that?”

“The paper mill?” responds one of the organizers quizzically.

“No. Fresh air,” the officer caustically remarks. “We want to make sure everybody can continue to breathe the fresh air.”

A letter later sent to the town by a Teamsters lawyer, who is threatening a lawsuit over the incident if the city doesn’t drop the charges against the organizers, asserts that “there was no other reasonable interpretation” of the “fresh air” remark except that “the police department considers union activity pollution.”

“They wanted to make it seem like us dispersing content is illicit,” said Ben Speight, one of the Teamsters organizers. “The content, the union aspect, is what they were trying to stop.”

Speight speculated that the police citations would make some of the drivers feel uncomfortable talking to the Teamsters in the future for fear of drawing attention to themselves by association.

II.

The encounter between Teamsters and cops is a snapshot of the agonizing difficulty of organizing unions in the South, a place of hostile and organized anti-union machinations. The face of that hostility? The police officers who show up and antagonize union representatives, who ultimately brought charges against the three Teamsters when Speight asked for one of the officers’ badge number.

For the Left, supporting unions is a given. Whatever differences we may have — many, to be sure —we all agree that rebuilding the labor movement is central to achieving a more just society. While the labor movement is not limited to unions, these organizations, the primary place where working-class people are already organized, are a major locus of our attention.

At their best, unions are schools for workers’ democracy, vehicles through which the working class experiences the power of collective action and learns how to demand ownership over the value they produce. In the face of a decades-long organized backlash against unions and declining union membership — which, as a recent Economic Policy Institute study noted, hurts all workers, reducing weekly wages for non-union workers by $14 to $52 — supporting unions is more important than ever.

In the case of those Teamsters leafletting in Georgia, what that support looks like is clear: we’re on their side, against the cops. Sure, these officers were just doing their duty, responding to a call from XPO. But their visceral opposition to unions, analogizing union organizing to pollution and favorably contrasting the anti-union present to the “strikes and riots” of earlier decades, shows a propensity to go far beyond the call of duty.

It’s an easy case, save one complication: cops have unions too, or at least, cops have “unions,” union-like organizations such as the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (PBA), and the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA), with the latter housed within the AFL-CIO.

For many progressives and some on the Left, these organizations throw a wrench into an otherwise coherent picture, leading some to engage in intellectual gymnastics to explain away the anti-union sentiment on display in the encounter between the cops and Teamsters in Georgia. But it shouldn’t.

Instead of forcing us into a corner, leaving us muttering that “cops are the 99% too” — a statement heard so often during the Occupy movement — the contradiction revealed by police unions should throw into relief an important distinction between liberals and the Left, namely, the reasons each of these groups support unions. This difference too often goes unacknowledged and in light of the anti-police-brutality movement and the recent uproar over the election of a police-union organizer to the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), it’s worth clarifying the distinction.

III.

The Left supports unions not because they’re an inherent good, but because they’re vehicles for building working-class power. If and when unions do not build that power, we should challenge and criticize them, pushing them to reform. And in the case of police unions, we stand against them as such, because no efforts for reform can change their very reason for existence, which is to undermine working-class interests in general, even as they increase the power of their limited membership.

A huge number of young people are entering left politics today, drawn in by the Sanders campaign, the anti-police-brutality movement, and their own experiences of growing up in an outrageously unequal country. Making explicit the Left’s reasons for supporting unions is critical to advancing the higher level of politics needed in these urgent times. An exploration of police unions provides a means to consider this matter concretely.

As Bill Fletcher Jr and Fernando Gapasin argue in Solidarity Divided, a key difference between liberal and left unionism — what they term “pragmatism” or “traditionalism,” and “leftism,” respectively — is who we consider the proper constituency of the union movement, and toward what end we’re struggling. While the traditionalist/pragmatist views union members as the movement’s constituency, with winning gains for the members (fighting for “bread and butter” as it’s often put) as the goal, the leftist takes all members of the working class to be the proper constituency of the union movement, with strengthening this class’s power our goal.

While these perspectives often align, allowing proponents of both views to work together, police unions drive a wedge between liberals and the Left. If police unions undermine working-class power, even as they achieve gains for their limited membership, the Left should call for their delegitimization wherever they operate, whether within the AFL-CIO or outside of it. But we in doing so, we should be prepared to debate otherwise allied forces — the traditionalists and pragmatists.

IV.

Before moving to the reasons for rejecting police unions, it’s important to consider the argument for them. Despite widespread (and justified) outrage this past weekend over a police union organizer gaining a position on the DSA’s National Political Committee, much of the labor movement includes police unions within its ranks. If we want to win the argument against this view, we must understand it.

At its left-most, this is an argument for the strategic value of engaging progressive dissenters within police departments as a means to splitting their constituents and building power. Those who advance this argument recognize the impossibility of unifying with the bigots who rise to the top of these unions — people like Patrick Lynch, the president of New York City’s largest police union, who blamed Mayor Bill de Blasio for the death of two NYPD officers in December 2014. Rather, left-wingers who hold to this view advocate critical support for those seeking to achieve progressive changes from within the police force.

For example, Cedric Johnson argues that the Left should engage “reformist elements within police unions and departments,” people such as “minority law enforcement professional organizations, whistleblowers and dissident officers, and other progressive elements,” all of whom we can unite with on a desire to build a more meaningful and less unpopular model of policing. While Johnson takes care to distinguish what he’s advocating from support for police unions as such, his argument rests on a flawed understanding of the dynamics at play within police unions.

In a rebuttal to Johnson, Shawn Gude argues that “Hoping for reform-minded police unions is delusional.” “If anything,” he adds, “reform groups would benefit from being able to organize without the influence of an overarching union. The same goes for individual officers.” Free of the stifling force of the union, “those of good conscience” — the elements with whom Johnson is concerned — could fight for a broader vision of social justice and radical changes in policing. By dismissing the possibility that police unions work against any reformist interests, Johnson advances a strategy of engagement that doesn’t match the landscape of contemporary US policing.

It’s from a consideration of the purpose of the police and the conditions on which their jobs rely that Gude arrives at his position. The livelihood of the police relies on perpetuating the most repressive aspects of the status quo — de facto race and class segregation in our cities, rising inequality, and what sociologist Loïc Wacquant terms the “carceral continuum,” a state in which the inner-city merges with the prison, with both coming to resemble each other in form and function. Under such conditions, empowered police organizations can only advocate for new weapons, less transparency, and murkier repercussions in the case of police wrongdoing, as these are the “reforms” that benefit their membership, the constituency of interest to their leadership, traditionalists in Fletcher and Gapasin’s schema.

This is not a moral argument about the goodness or badness of police. Rather, it’s a response to the propensity of the police, as Kristian Williams, author of Our Enemies in Blue argues, to “organize as police, not workers.” This perspective, rooted in a left unionism interested in strengthening the working class as a whole, cannot align with organizations pursuing policies that improve the conditions of their membership at the expense of the broader working class.

When we look at what police organizations have accomplished, the argument that they’re incompatible with a progressive labor movement looks like common sense. As detailed in an interview with the New Republic, University of Nebraska professor and criminal justice reform expert Samuel Walker explains one project these associations have successfully implemented: Law Enforcement Officers Bills of Rights. These are contract prescriptions “negotiated in the shadows” and codified into state law, and include investigative waiting periods, a stipulation that lacks “any evidentiary justification or legitimate labor interest.” With related aims of blocking efforts to install body cameras, as was recently attempted in Boston before a judge struck down the patrolman union’s request for an injunction against the cameras, police associations are incompatible with even the most broadly defined social-justice unionism.

V.

No union is perfect. To varying degrees, all our unions are run by bureaucrats with split interests. While these officials are concerned with furthering the power of their membership, they also maneuver to hold onto their positions within the union, which can lead them to weaken members’ power. When this happens — like when SEIU fires their staff organizers for daring to demand a union of their own, or when the Teamsters undercut the UFW’s organizing, or when the UAW yet again files for an election prematurely — we shouldn’t shy away from criticizing them.

But police unions will never rise to the level required for even this critical support from the Left. They cannot, for they function to repress working-class power.

The biggest objection to this argument is that criticism of police unions can be applied to other public-sector workers, such as teachers. Where this response fails is in grappling with the fact that teachers are already under attack, and that any and every argument against their unions is already in play right now.

We can return to Cedric Johnson’s article on police unions for an example of this objection. He writes, “like other public workers, [police] are increasingly expendable, and subject to the same pressures of fiscal austerity, expected to ‘do more with less’ especially in large urban jurisdictions.” However, the evidence doesn’t support this claim. The police aren’t suffering from austerity measures; rather, they’re more empowered than ever, particularly when it comes to their budgets for equipment, with many departments enjoying unprecedented military hand-me-downs.

What goes unconsidered by those who share Johnson’s concerns is the possibility that police occupy a structurally distinct role from their brothers and sisters in public-sector unions. But if we look at the ongoing backlash against public-sector workers, police aren’t subject to the same pressure as their peers.

Take Scott Walker’s historic attack on unions in 2011. His anti-union bill — which struck down collective-bargaining rights for public employees — included an exception for the police.

This did not go unnoticed within the house of labor. In 2015, UAW Local 2685, representing 13,000 graduate workers on University of California campuses, unanimously passed a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to end its affiliation with the IUPA, the AFL-CIO’s largest police union.

“Historically and contemporarily, police unions serve the interests of police forces as an arm of the state, and not the interests of the police as laborers,” the resolution reads. It continues, “If the Black Lives Matter movement has taught us anything, it’s that cops are different than other public-sector employees.”

This complements resolutions from the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions also passed in 2015 in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and for the demilitarizing and disarming of campus police. These resolutions commit their supporters to pursuing strategies to strengthen the Black Lives Matter movement and disarm campus police.

Or consider the recent actions of teachers in Minneapolis. Gathered in the city for the AFT convention in 2016, the local teachers unions led a march to protest the police killing of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul. Castile, who worked at a public school, was a member of Teamsters Local 320, a local that also represents law enforcement officers. Although the Teamsters wrote a letter mourning Castile’s death, the presidents of the St. Paul and Minneapolis police unions were “appalled” by the demonstration, suggesting the extent to which police organizations cannot resolve the contradictions at the heart of their involvement with the labor movement.

Within the anti-police-brutality movement, we see a similar distinction between solidarity with unions and rejection of alliance with police “unions” being made. July 2016 saw a coordinated set of demonstrations and sit-ins at FOP and PBA halls in Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Washington, D.C. by activists associated with the Movement for Black Lives.

Interviewed about these actions, Clarise McCants, an organizer with the Black Youth Project (BYP100), explained, “We’re definitely pro-labor union,” adding that the coalition’s message is “that the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) is not just like any union. They are a fraternity — and they are the most dangerous fraternity in America.” If McCants can distinguish between the function of the FOP and that of unions, rejecting their surface-level similarity, there’s no reason the rest of the Left can’t do the same. Protests like these should be supported by the labor movement, with organizations like BYP100 welcomed into its fold: after all, they’re composed overwhelmingly of workers, and particularly, workers of color.

What organizers like McCants are voicing is not a contradiction — although they recognize that some might see it that way — so much as Fletcher and Gapasin’s definition of a leftist unionism. From a perspective that states that we’re not fighting for unions as such, but for unions in so far as they’re a proxy for greater working-class power, there is no inconsistency in rejecting police unionism.

Police are not like other workers. It wouldn’t be misplaced to claim they are not workers, period, but rather, managers of class struggle. They belong outside the labor movement, which is where we already find them in instances of increased waves of struggle, repressing anti-racist activists, the Occupy-Wall-Street movement, Standing Rock water defenders, and anyone else who dares demand their rights.

VI.

Let’s not condescend to our boys in blue: very few of their organizations call themselves unions, and neither should we. An argument against engaging with police organizations can be incorporated to weaken other public-sector unions only if we don’t insist on the distinction between the two.

No one wants to shrink an already imperiled labor movement. But allowing police to remain present within the AFL-CIO, or to masquerade as if their fraternities or associations are progressive forces, discourages union growth. We shouldn’t hesitate on this point. Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in America, and African-Americans are emerging as the new face of organized labor. It would be a dismissal of the seriousness of racist police brutality to ignore the message it sends people of color to treat the police as legitimate partners in working-class struggle.

Racial justice has always been the leading edge of effective unions — whether it was the IWW’s multiracial organizing in the early years of the labor movement or the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), which fought both for union gains against the employer and against the racism of their white union brothers and sisters. In the face of a vibrant anti-racist movement today, one that consciously connects itself to the Fight for $15 and defines itself as pro-union, we should draw on and extend this legacy.

An anti-racist labor movement requires an end to collaboration with the police, and the police offer a critical example of what we on the Left mean when we say we’re pro-union. The beginnings of this conversation are visible in the actions of UAW Local 2685 and Minneapolis teachers, and it’s from these progressive elements within the labor movement that we should take our cues. In an age where company unions are taking advantage of the dearth of nuanced conversations about power to repress worker organizing, we must stop automatically defending any organization that presents itself as a union, and instead, begin rebuilding the power of the working class, as a class.

Extremely Abbreviated Description of One Female’s Pain

1

Last year, a doctor’s aide took my vitals. I sat at ease in a chair, until she told me matter-of-factly that my heart was beating fast enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room.

Had I exerted myself before going to the doctor, she wanted to know. I hadn’t. The hospital where this doctor was located was out of the way, inaccessible by public transit, so I’d taken an uber to the front door. I’d even taken the elevator to the neurology clinic, shamefully choosing not to walk the two flights of stairs from the main entrance.

“No,” I responded.

“You’re lucky we caught this. I’ll have the doctor talk to you right away.”

2

The only reason anyone caught my heart abnormality was because of my headaches. They’re migraines, technically. I’ve always gotten them, at least since I was a little kid. I’d long ago given up on doing anything about them. But after I had one so bad that I fainted and wound up in the hospital with a skull fracture, I was forced to go through the motions of seeking the cause of the pain. I soon gave up on finding the cause – rather, my doctors soon gave up. So I sought medications that might at least relieve the pain. That’s why I was at a neurology clinic getting my vitals checked.

It feels tired to write about being a woman with headaches, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And it is tiring to be a woman with headaches. I am tired of it.

3

I write too often about fracturing my skull. I reference it compulsively. Only when reading Leslie Jamison’s essay on female pain did I admit to myself why. Jamison quotes from a memoir by Lucy Grealy, a woman who had childhood cancer and whose face was disfigured by it, cause for the title of Grealy’s book: Autobiography of a Face. In it, Grealy writes, “I was excited by the idea that something really was wrong with me.”

“Grealy had been craving the identity-locus of damage even before it happened to her; and was happy, as a little girl, when trauma first arrived,” writes Jamison.

For the first few days in the hospital after fracturing my skull, I was torn between fear of dying and self-pity. These are related feelings: self-pity follows from awareness that one is too young to experience fear of dying, and this acknowledgement often strengthens that fear, goading a person to think of all that she will miss should she die.

For me, this manifested as yelling deliriously at a nurse. “You don’t understand, I can’t have a head injury!” I screamed, trying to keep her in my field of vision despite being strapped into a too large neckbrace, which forced me to look straight up at the white ceiling if I wanted to minimize the cutting pain the brace caused as it sliced into my too small, too thin collarbone.

“I finally have a job where I need my brain” I yelled, no longer able to see her.

When the nurse reappeared in my line of vision, I told her to let me check myself out of the emergency room. If I left, I reasoned, the injury would cease to exist. If I was someone not in a hospital, I would no longer be someone who needed to be in a hospital.

I lost consciousness before I could hear her response. Maybe she didn’t respond at all.

I soon acclimated to my new existence as someone confined to a hospital bed, someone who understood how to use a bedpan and who no longer cringed at the needle stuck into her arm every four hours by a blurry amalgam of nurses, made indistinguishable in the darkness of late sterile nights when she, or he, woke me from sleep to prick me for another blood sample. A new feeling came over me, not unconnected to fear or dying or self-pity, but distinct: I felt grateful. Something very bad had happened to me, something no one could deny was terrible. I had a traumatic brain injury. I might not recover. The doctors told me I had a brain hemorrhage. They told me that my spinal fluid could flood the space between my spinal cord and my skull, and that this could kill me.

I did not cease to fear for my life, or wish I hadn’t gotten hurt. But given that I had, I felt precisely what Grealy felt. I was excited by the idea that something really was wrong with me.

4

I know better than that. I know I should be what Jamison calls a “post-wounded” woman. “Post-wounded women know that postures of pain play into limited and outmoded conceptions of womanhood,” she writes, and it’s true.  I fear my parents will read this essay and misunderstand me. That they’ll be hurt, or horrified, because they haven’t read Jamison’s essay, or think my excitement about being an authentically unwell, tragic woman compares in magnitude to my resentment and self-pity about my health. It doesn’t.

And yet…

And yet, I have a new wound; one I could be accused of choosing to prolong for the sake of pity. Ever since fracturing my skull, I’ve become paralyzed at the thought of making an appointment with a new doctor, or keeping up with the old.

I managed it for a year or two. I saw the neurologist, who gave me three different sets of pills for my headaches. I saw the ENT specialist, who explained to me that while I might never get my sense of smell back – a loss that came from a piece of my skull slicing through the nerve endings that translate odor into scent – I might. He wouldn’t say anything more definitive, surely fearing litigation. I saw a therapist, who saw a young woman so wounded as to be unfixable, so she gave me some pills, and I stopped seeing her.  I saw a specialist who was supposed to tell me why I felt dehydrated all the time, which, combined with the migraine, had caused me to faint in the first place. He cut open my lip and sewed it together again, testing for Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that was the only explanation he could think of for my dehydration. I can still feel the stitches through my face. When he told me I’d tested negative, I saw someone else, who gave me pills to take three times a day, pills meant to stimulate saliva so my teeth wouldn’t decay, the enamel eroding and rotting the bone at an accelerated rate. I saw a dentist, who saw a thin girl with no enamel left on her teeth. “Are you bulimic,” she asked, adding that repeated exposure to stomach acid erodes one’s teeth. Even when I explained my condition, she seemed to still see a bulimic. I saw my new primary care physician, who helped me coordinate all these doctors, until she didn’t.

So now, I see no one. For the most part, this is okay. But when it comes to the heart abnormality the neurologist found, I never saw a cardiologist. It was over a year ago. I can’t seem to make myself schedule an appointment. When an ex saw me continue putting off the call that could have gotten me an appointment, he first tried to help. Then he gave up. We broke up, with him telling me to “see the doctors already, I don’t understand what is so hard about that.” I told him I would.

When I told the guy I see – “I wouldn’t call us ‘dating,'” he once told me, so I don’t – that it’s been over a year since a nurse discovered my heart abnormality, he told me I should see the doctor. I didn’t respond.

Jamison would probably add me to her cases of women dwelling in woundedness. She would be right. But I’d add – and so would she – that it’s more complicated than that.


Note: I’ll incorporate this essay into a longer piece elsewhere, but I wanted to share it as is in the meantime.

 

My Neighbor

There’s a homeless encampment across the street from my apartment. It’s been expanding since I moved in. At first, it was a sleeping bag and a cardboard sign, hardly noticeable. It’s been accumulating stuff ever since: blankets, a sleeping pad, bags, trash. Stuff.

My room’s been accumulating stuff over the same period of time too: books, clothing, empty coffee cups, receipts, flyers for protests.

I walk past the encampment every day, watching it expand as my life expands here too. There’s hardly ever anyone there. Occasionally, mid-day, I see a rail-thin woman’s head peeking out from under the assorted blankets and sleeping bags. She’s always asleep. When I walk by late at night – 2, 3 am – she’s isn’t there.

I’ve never seen anyone talking to her, or touching any of the things. I live a block from a busy subway station, on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. But no one seems to mind the increasing space taken up by my neighbor’s belongings.

Occasionally kids marvel at the stuff as they walk by. There’s a school at the end of the block, so we get a lot of foot traffic. One time, a little girl stopped to look more closely at the pile of trash (I do not call it trash as a judgement, but merely to speak of what much of it consists of now, as it grows: plastic bags, food wrappers, empty cups). Her mom, or older sister, or whoever, tugged on the girl’s shirt, hurrying her along the way adults do when teaching a child how to behave in public. That was the closest I ever got to seeing someone acknowledge the encampment.

New York housing is a nightmare, which I sometimes think is why no one looks perturbed by the woman’s accumulating stuff. The inability to live, to pay rent so as to avoid sleeping outside, is a fear the majority of the city’s residents have, so we can relate. Rents continue to skyrocket, with people pushed further into the distant edges of boroughs. We all then commute in, creating a dilemma for our cities with their failing infrastructure.

Here, that dilemma is becoming a crisis. The MTA is ridden with dysfunction: trains shut down without notice, leading the agency to advise passengers to stop going to work entirely, promising to begin an ‘awareness campaign’ of emailing employers to encourage this ‘solution.’ A video went viral the other day of passengers trapped on the F train, the footage more evocative of a zombie thriller than real images from one of the world’s wealthiest cities. The Governor, Andrew Cuomo, refuses to address the issue, ignoring the thousands of “FIX THE SUBWAY” replies his voters leave to his every tweet. The post-industrial city suffers under its own contradictions: advertised as a post-material economy and under girded by austerity, the city still relies upon the ability of real people to travel through real, not cyber, space, to our real jobs.


I started this essay a few days ago, intending to make it some meditation on public transit or housing. But this evening, on my way home from dinner, I walked by the part of the sidewalk where the encampment should have been. The sidewalk was immaculate; my neighbor’s stuff nowhere to be seen. I stopped walking, with no idea what to do. Had the woman moved on of her own accord? Had someone – the city? a business? a vigilante? one of my other neighbors? – thrown it all away while the woman wasn’t there? I looked around, but no one else seemed perturbed. No one else was even looking in my direction, the foot traffic as steady as ever. There wasn’t a trace of the stuff left. There was nothing I could do. So I crossed the street, put the entry code into my apartment building, and walked inside.