being watched

I woke up on the cold concrete floor of the coffee shop. It was May 2, 2014. A wave of weakness had overtaken me as I moved through the line of customers moments earlier. When I reached the register, my vision narrowed to a pinhole, then faded to black.  Now, looking up from the floor, I saw an old man – the cashier who was handing me my change when I fainted. His eyes were on me, his hand doing the sign of the cross over my body.

As I propped myself up on my elbows, lifting my head off the floor, he told me not to move. It was only in retrospect, weeks later, that I realized he’d been doing a stroke test, hoping my eyes would follow his finger as it moved before my face. I wonder if he told the paramedics I’d had a stroke.

Everyone else in the cafe was watching me, and watching him watching me. It was the closest I’d been to being on stage since my years as a gymnast. Back then, as a kid, the force of eyes on my body was grounding. Balance beam was my best event, and it was in arenas where the crowd was on all sides that I excelled. I’d imagine their eyes gluing me to the four inch wide surface, the force of so many gazes powerful enough to defy any of my wobbles or slipups.

After I recovered enough from my fall in the coffee shop to leave the house by myself – one, maybe two months later – I tried to walk to a nearby park. It was summer in Boston. As I walked, dressed in black jeans and a tank top, my usual modest outfit despite the relentless heat, I felt the eyes of each man I passed flicker over my body, resting on my eyes, my lips, my collarbone, my chest. I’d forgotten what it was like to exist in public. Fifteen minutes into the walk, I could no longer breathe. I changed my route, heading instead to the nearest store that sold sunglasses. Maybe that would stop me from feeling the pressure of these men’s eyes on me, allow me at least the appearance of refusing eye contact.

I wore the sunglasses every time I stepped outside after that, only retiring them when winter came.

Monkeys at the zoo get stressed out by the presence of visitors. Until recently we didn’t know why, but experts from the University of Melbourne found that it’s the presence of eyes on them that is the source of anxiety. Researchers placed five monkeys in an enclosure with a one-way screen that prevented them from seeing visitors, while the other half remained in their regular unmodified enclosure. The screened-off monkeys were 68% less likely to display aggression. Concentrations of chemicals linked to stress were a third lower in this group than among the monkeys that could see people watching them.

Summarizing the theory behind a panopticon, a design principle created by Jeremy Bentham as a cost-effective way to structure prisons that involves placing all cells in sight of a central guard tower, Michel Foucault writes “”He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”

In the panopticon, the prisoner becomes the guard, so much so that the actual presence or absence of guards becomes irrelevant, so long as the belief in the guard is instilled in the captive.

When he sent me the email about why he was killing himself, Kevin said he saw himself as he existed in my eyes, or at least, how he imagined I saw him: bloodstained from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I can’t live as a monster,” he wrote. If he’d given me the chance, I’d have told him I didn’t see him that way. But maybe it was enough that he’d started looking that way to himself.

That was New Year’s morning, 2014. He hit the send button at 2am, four months, one day, and ten hours before I fainted.

These days, I don’t wear my glasses when I’m out in public. I cannot see much beyond three or four feet in front of me. I can see the world, but it’s out of focus. I can’t make out faces, recognize friends. Most importantly, I can’t tell where anyone is looking. If men’s eyes consume me, I’d rather not know.

I am writing this essay in O’Hare, my laptop balanced awkwardly on my knees. After starting to write, I run out of complimentary wifi, so I give up and turn back to the book I have with me. It’s Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss. In an essay on life in the Midwest, Biss writes, “Another friend of mine, a black woman, once described to me her experience of walking through a Wal-Mart in rural Iowa, where she was stared at until she could not bear the attention anymore. Her husband suggested that she take off her glasses so that she could not see the stares, and that, she said, had helped.”

Tonight, from the plane, the city lights below look like tinsel for a Christmas tree, strands of yellow-orange and white winking at me. Without my glasses, I can’t see anything but the tinsel.

Domestic Violence and the Anti-Police Brutality Movement

Listen to a police scanner for a few hours and you’ll notice a pattern: there are a lot of calls about domestic violence. In fact, there are more calls about domestic violence than anything else.

No surprise; many of us already know domestic violence is common. Yet the subject has been largely absent from discussion in the movement against police brutality.

A significant wing of the movement wants to ultimately abolish the police, or at least render them redundant: defunded, demilitarized. But the number one reason we invite cops into our communities despite knowing the dangers we expose ourselves and our neighbors to by doing so remains outside the purview of the movement.

Domestic violence is exceedingly common, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying when it happens. When a loved one, more often than not a man, inflicts violence on his partner or family member, more often than not a woman, victims or bystanders have very little time to take action to minimize the harm. Who can blame them for calling the police, the rapid-response force our society has in place for just such emergencies?

At this point, it’s important to acknowledge how futile calling the police can be, even if one doesn’t object to the police at an institution. In an astounding number of cases, cops respond to domestic violence calls by arresting the victim, or both the victim and perpetrator. They can insist on arresting someone even if, as Matthew Desmond points out in Evicted, it results in the eviction of the victim from her residence.

And lest we forget, many cops are perpetrators of domestic violence themselves. Studies have found police officers abuse their loved ones anywhere from two-to-four times the national rate. This heightened proclivity for violence – whether preexisting their time on the force or a product of cop culture – means cops are hardly the group we should look to for help in situations of domestic violence. Further, research finds cops commit sexual assault and violence against predominately women, predominantly vulnerable women – i.e. women of color, working class women, and sex workers – at alarming rates. These are the same women disproportionately affected by domestic violence.

All this adds up to a sense that when shit hits the fan at home, calling the police can be a recipe for disaster.

The anti-police brutality movement enters at this point in the story, rightfully pointing out that calling the police, particularly in communities of color, places you and your community at risk of police brutality. Prison abolitionists proclaim a need to stop allowing police into neighborhoods. One thinks back to the Black Panthers chant: “no more pigs in our community!”

If we want to make these demands more than slogans, we have to think about what an alternative system for addressing domestic violence, a problem afflicting all of our neighborhoods, would look like.

I’m not even close to the first to think about this. In 1979 in Boston, where I live, residents of Roxbury and Dorchester, predominately black neighborhoods, instituted a system of safe houses to offer an alternative to calling the police for victims of domestic violence. The safe houses – indicated by a green porch light – were open to people escaping violence at home, promising a safe haven in the home of a community member trained in handling domestic abuse victims.

This system prefigured today’s complex of non-profits, some of which offer similar, if more formalized, spaces for victims of domestic violence. Unfortunately, safe havens cannot address those few moments when violence erupts at home, nor do they enjoy the robust backing of the state, reliant instead on grants and philanthropy for sustenance.

I don’t know the answer to what changes we can or should demand of the state that might render the police unnecessary in situations of domestic violence. For the moment, many people don’t call the police in situations of domestic violence for all the reasons I’ve mentioned –cops are ineffective, cops threaten further violence, cops can be cause for eviction, etcetera – preferring to come up with whatever liveable compromise they can in a difficult situation. But to pretend this isn’t of relevance to a movement against police violence and for police abolition is to sweep the concerns of victims of domestic violence under the rug, something we, in these intersectional times, cannot possibly countenance.

The Boston Globe Defends the Harvard Administration’s Class War

globes

Three writers at the Boston Globe signed their name to an article that ran in Tuesday’s edition of the paper, coinciding with the start of a strike by the dining hall workers at Harvard University, represented by UNITE HERE Local 26. The headline reads, “Harvard strike could be seen as a battle against the 1 percent. It’s not.”

It is. These writers don’t substantiate this argument in the body of the piece. Because they can’t. Harvard University is one of the wealthiest and most powerful institutions in the Boston area, the United States, and the world. The authors even do the math for us, writing “Harvard’s $35.7 billion endowment is bigger than the economies of nearly 100 countries.”

That’s right: Harvard’s endowment is big enough to give it the economic power of a major player in the global economy, and that’s without accounting for the social and political elites who would hold citizenship in such a gold-plated country, with alumni status presumably the passport needed for entry. One-percenter status – no, 0.01% status – has never been so obvious.

Rather than dispute this, the authors focus on the conditions of the dining hall workers who are striking for better compensation and working conditions. Citing arguments put forward by the university administration – the boss in this labor dispute – they note that “its average dining hall worker makes nearly $22 an hour,” translating to $30,000 per year.

As one of their demands, the workers are arguing that any worker able to work year-round deserves $35,000 a year (again, this is at an institution with a $36 billion endowment).

This demand is excessive in the eyes of our dear frugal journalists.

Never mind that Vaccaro and Woolhouse, the first two names on the byline, regularly write for the Business section of the Globe, making it hard to believe they don’t make more than $30k a year. While Yoo, the third name on the article, appears to be a co-op student, her LinkedIn shows an impressive array of prestigious internship, including her current one at the Globe, suggesting she’ll also wind up making above $30k a year straight out of college.

But bringing up such vulgar details about the article’s writers is rude. “It’s beside the point to mention what Globe staff make!” we can imagine the editors crying indignantly, “This is about dining hall workers!” they insist.

So what if we know how hard it is to live in Boston, one of the most expensive cities in the country, on $30,000 a year, much less raise a family on that. “These are unskilled workers, they’re supposed to suffer!” respond the authors. “It’s the way of the world! Fuck ’em!”

At least, that’s what the Globe means to say. But a newspaper doesn’t achieve its status as the Paper of Record in the city by writing so crudely – that’s for the Herald, not the well-mannered diplomats of the Globe. Just as Harvard accrued its $36 billion endowment by exploiting the labor of first, slaves, then low-wage workers like those on strike today, so the Globe maintains its status by legitimizing such exploitation, and insisting those at the bottom thank the bosses for whatever crumbs they receive.

People can’t live on crumbs, especially not in this city. Dining hall workers need more than that, and eventually, we – working class people in this city – are coming for the whole fucking endowment. Support the striking workers, and argue with, isolate, and ridicule anyone who advocates anything less.

looking for recommendations

When I got involved in politics as a teenager, I was less knowledgeable and younger than everyone I hung around with, so I decided I’d voraciously study as much as I could to catch up. Five years later, I finally feel I’ve done enough studying to cut back a bit and read fiction (and literary non-fiction, if it’s good).

But having tuned out all mention of these genres for years, I don’t know where to begin. So, you, my cultured friends, should recommend your favorites, particularly work that’s come out in the past 10-15 years since I think the most recent fiction I’ve read was The Corrections (which wasn’t bad, even if Jonathan Franzen is terrible).

Also, what publications and sites do you follow to find good new work? That way I can start keeping up with this stuff on my own.

I’m sure this post will elicit an onslaught of well intentioned but entirely not-what-I-was-looking for input, but I suppose that’s life on the internet.

personal note

 

These days, it’s rare I write about myself for the hell of it, but an uncharacteristically-sincere feeling of gratitude leaves me wanting to share an update.

I start my third year of my PhD program this week. Despite being unwaveringly a words, not numbers, person, I’m taking quantitative methods classes in hopes of maybe being employable someday. That means I’ll be spending a lot of time learning R and GIS along with TA’ing a statistics class. None of this is what I do for my own research, and none of it comes easy, so it’ll be a tough few months.

I’m doing political work too! It takes up a lot of energy and is an insane time commitment. But it’s good work, the slow and methodical type that stays after you leave and teaches you a lot in the process. I’m thrilled to be doing it.

I also just moved into a new apartment. After years of relying on buses, I feel like I won the lottery. There’s good mexican food and a coffee shop and bars, all nearby! I can walk places, and it’s a quick train ride to work. While I’m still poor as hell, my quality of life has gone way up and it’s hard to believe life can be so good.

Finally, it’s been a year since I decided to Figure Out How to Write. And man, if I’m being honest, I hustled: despite being in grad school and having all the commitments that come with that, I’ve gotten published a few places, learned how to pitch and write stories – unevenly, but apparently well enough – and became colleagues and friends with some great writers.

The political work is time-consuming enough to necessitate I take a break from non-academic writing (at least in theory; we’ll see if I stick to that), so bear with me if I write less.

It may sound melodramatic, but my life’s better than anything I could have hoped for, or even imagined, a few years ago. After years spent studying all sorts of subjects on my own – seriously, that’s why my library’s so sprawling – in an attempt to feel confident enough to hold onto my own opinions, I’m finally starting to feel sure of myself. I’ve got more friends and support than I know what to do with. Some of you are intimidatingly brilliant and inspiring. And I’d like to think that I’m slowly starting to pull my weight.

USA, USA

I’ve avoided writing about the conventions because both the Republican and Democratic parties disgust me – no point in driving myself mad elaborating on that in writing when it’s the topic of so many of my daily conversations.

But I was taken aback to turn on the broadcast tonight to see General John Allen, the former Commander of US forces in Afghanistan, proclaiming a vision of shared values that includes “all ethnicities, races, and faiths,” set to a backdrop of veterans and a roaring “USA” chant from the crowd. This man and his armed forces have the blood of so many brown people on his hands. Other brown people or gay people killing those people is still people killing people.

This man proclaimed proudly that “the American military will continue to be the shining example of America at our very best,” and will not “become an instrument of torture.” Surely he knows our military does engage in war crimes, indefinite detention, and systematically rapes women, including their fellow female soldiers. And yet, the crowd carried on chanting: “USA, USA.” Reportedly this chant gained strength as a way to cover up scattered chants of “No More War” from some of the Sanders delegates. If anything, that anti-war sentiment is beyond decorum at the convention only makes it worse.

“To our enemies: We will pursue you as only America can. You will fear us.” he concluded, and the crowd went wild. As only America can? I can only presume this is a reference to the US military’s ability to flout international war conventions, with drone strikes occasionally killing even our own citizens alongside dozens and dozens of innocents from other countries. People celebrating weddings, people whose only crime is existence outside our borders: that is what John Allen means by pursuing our enemies “as only America can.”

Militaristic embrace of the same old US exceptionalism recast in a multicultural sheen. A set of “principles” broad enough to allow Democratic leadership to invite NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton to speak on the same stage as the mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Sandra Bland. This the truth of the Democratic Party. This is it’s core – more pernicious than the GOP because it is superficially diverse. No, these parties are not the same. Yes, in many ways, Trump is worse than Clinton. But maybe, just maybe, this will be the election cycle so unapologetically repugnant to convince enough of us that neither the Republicans or the Democrats are for us. These are their parties, the rich donors who power both. All we have is each other.

But by definition, the numbers are on our side. We just have to get as organized as the people we’re up against.

Broken Record

In an interview published today in Jacobin, David Harvey, a theorist of neoliberalism and one of my favorite vulgar Marxists, asks a controversial question:

“Here’s a proposition to think over. What if every dominant mode of production, with its particular political configuration, creates a mode of opposition as a mirror image to itself?

During the era of Fordist organization of the production process, the mirror image was a large centralized trade union movement and democratically centralist political parties.

The reorganization of the production process and turn to flexible accumulation during neoliberal times has produced a Left that is also, in many ways, its mirror: networking, decentralized, non-hierarchical.”

Harvey poses this as a provocation, one based on his analysis of the neoliberal organization of production but not explored at length in the interview. But what would such an exploration look like?

Rather than critique the horizontalist mode of organizing Harvey’s referring to, I think there’s another, related, sense in which the substance of politics on the broadly defined Left today mirrors neoliberalism. While Harvey’s focus is on the material organization of the political project of neoliberalism, the ideological current that follows from the organization of what Harvey calls the “new capitalist class” – the tech capitalists of Silicon Valley – also shapes this “mirror image.” After all, if the ruling ideas of every age are those of the ruling class, we should expect these ideas to influence the Left in a powerful way.

Driven by a decentralized entrepreneurialism that fetishizes the individual and the bootstrapping do-it-yourselfism of lean-in feminism, these ideas emphasize an assumed chain of individuals, identity, and language, with the latter two elements part of the self-expressive empowerment so central to project-based start-up culture.

How does this trickle-down to progressive politics? While some call the political current that constitutes the mirror image of these ideas “identity politics,” I prefer Carl Beijer’s phrase “liberal identitarianism.” A clunky mouthful to be sure, “liberal identitarianism” is helpful in its ability to differentiate this current from a left identitarianism.

As Beijer distinguishes the two, left identitarians have  “maintained their commitment understanding power and oppression thoroughly by including class identity in their analysis, as all of the great identitarian scholars have always done – whereas liberals, by definition, neglect it.” In other words, while liberal identitarians may acknowledge class in the sense of individual wealth, they refuse the left analysis of oppressions as present to reinforce class exploitation. By taking class as one static element among many axes of oppression, rather than a relational process reinforced and perpetuated by oppression, liberal identitarians come to a fundamentally different definition of liberation. For liberal identitarians, gaining equal representation and voice within a class society is the – often unspoken – goal.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in theory: it does make for a less hostile environment for oppressed groups, offering breathing room at the symbolic level of society. While it’s true that these aims can’t achieve liberation as understood by the Left – the end of oppression and with it, exploitation – and instead, fit snugly into neoliberal ideologies of self-expression, that’s no reason for us to pay more than passing attention to these politics. But what follows from these ideas is a focus on who you are and what you say rather than what you do combined with a claiming of the mantle of progressivism, and this is where the problem lies for Left critics.

By placing language and identity as primary determinants of political standing, liberal identitarians open the door to cynical cooptation of our movements by elites. If identity and language are the central markers of one’s legitimacy, rather than organizational ties or policy positions, a person with the ‘right’ identity – say, a person of color and/or woman – can learn the magic words needed to gain entrance into the charmed circle of progressive politics and use her elevated position to further oppression.

And that’s exactly what we see. It’s why the RNC featured black men leading the crowd in “all lives matter” chants, emphasizing their Blackness throughout their speeches despite supporting policies that further the oppression of their fellow African-Americans. Their identities serve as a shield, enabling them to go further in their racism than their white counterparts.

It’s why Donald Trump, in his acceptance speech as the Republican Presidential nominee, claimed he’d look out for “the people of Ferguson,” even if his policy positions assure the opposite. As Beijer points out, Trump added a “Q” to his invocation of the LGBTQ community, one that wasn’t even in the draft remarks, going a step further than even Clinton in his incorporation of progressive political terminology to support reactionary policy, as in this case, where he insisted his Islamophobic policies are enacted “to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful ideology.”

If language is a key element of political practice, Trump at the moment of his enunciation of that “LGBTQ” is good. Which is patently absurd – one only needs to read the rest of the sentence to see this terminology is being mobilized to legitimize Islamophobia.

This is the basis of the left critique of a liberal identitarianism that implicitly imbues a homogeneity to identity groups. It’s a criticism of the “shut up and listen” approach to multi-racial or all-gender organizing. Left unspecified in this approach is which oppressed leadership ‘allies’ are to listen to, as the internal class division within oppressed groups is ignored in favor of a liberal essentialism that assumes everyone of X identity shares political views. In the case of black leadership in the anti-police brutality movement, should white people listen to David Clarke, the black sheriff who insists that the movement is “the enemy?” Or in my city, to the black clergy who organize pro-police rallies? If not, on what basis can we deny their standing?

The obvious answer is that what Clarke does – and what these clergy are doing – furthers the oppression of working class black people, whether or not they themselves happen to be black. This is the basis for rejecting their political legitimacy. Truthfully, only the most hardcore liberal identitarians would disagree with this, but it requires breaking with the logic of their analysis to condemn Clarke or these clergy. Similarly, a concern with what she does is our basis for rejecting Hillary Clinton as a feminist: she may be a woman, but what she does is oppress other, poorer, women, both at home and abroad. We can only reject Clarke, the clergy, or Clinton’s right to speak as members of the oppressed if we admit a primacy to what they do, not who they are or what they say.

We live in a world where, as R.L. Stephens puts it in a recent essay, “a Latino and an Asian-American crafted the Bush torture memos, which were then carried forward by the nation’s first Black president.” Diversity at the top doesn’t mean progress for us at the bottom – far from it. Trump mentioning Ferguson doesn’t make him any less of a white supremacist. Clinton claiming the mantle of feminism doesn’t make it true. When anyone claims political legitimacy, we should always respond with the question Stephens raises in his essay: What exactly is it that you do?