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Poverty and the Individualizing of #MeToo

I have been listening to Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (the book website gives a pretty good overview of the book). Desmond followed I think 11 different people around Milwaukee in 2011 as they were evicted and tried to make do with very little money and an eviction on their record. The most striking revelation of the book is the perverse incentives that housing policies and laws create for landlords as well as tenants. For example, federal housing vouchers enable their holder to pay only a third of the rent, encouraging landlords to evict current occupants and jack up the rent to what is a good deal for the voucher holder but way above market value for the property, in effect making federal housing vouchers good for individuals but bad for poor people (public housing turns out to be much better than this privatizing move).

At the same time, I’ve been reading a number of things that have been written about the direction of the #metoo movement. Alecia Simmonds reviewed Linda Martín Alcoff’s book, Rape and Resistance, in the Australian Review of Books. Simmonds calls attention to questions Alcoff raises of the colonial history of juridical concepts of consent and property as they pertain to sexual violation and rape to ask how far they get us. Also this week I came across Ann Snitow’s piece, “Talking Back to the Patriarchy” in Dissent Magazine. She begins by averring that the #metoo movement is “simply marvelous.” But she goes on to articulate some worries. Generally, I find that the worries people raise (what about due process?!) tell us more about their investment in the status quo than real concerns about justice. But one line struck me in Snitow’s list of pressing worries: “fear of a misdirection of the eye toward individual “monsters” and away from the need for systemic change.” Indeed, this point seems most important.

The focus on individuals instead of systems is part of what allows #metoo to be for better off women. Even the systems that the women of Hollywood are trying to change seem far away from the systems of power non-celebrities work within and even further away from the systems of power that affect the poor.  Read more

An Appreciated Teacher

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States, which frankly seems like a scheme to make the appreciation come in the form of useless cards and treats rather than cost of living raises and the securing of pensions. Apparently, it began in 1980 sanctioned by Congress originally as one day in March, but then in 1985 the AFT rallied to move it to a full week–the first full week of May. Today, May 8 is Teacher Appreciation Day.

A couple things have got me feeling particularly sympathetic to K-12 teachers this year. For one, I spent a lot of time in the last several weeks expending some effort on behalf of a student that finally came to a good result and I’m very happy about it. But this work took a considerable amount of my time at a very busy part of the semester, and up until the very end when the happy result was achieved it felt like it was going nowhere. Good teachers at underfinanced schools do this kind of thing all the time. The extent to which it was emotionally exhausting to me gave me renewed appreciation and empathy for public school teachers.

Yesterday I was going through some old papers, looking for my autograph from Ollie North on the occasion of his ascendancy to the presidency of the National Rifle Association. And I found a note that my ninth grade English teacher wrote to me when I graduated from high school (see photo above). Mr. Bender had a sign over the chalkboard in his classroom that read “Homer Nods.” Homer nods, Mr. Bender would explain to every new class of girls at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, means that even great geniuses, literary and otherwise, make mistakes. My senior year I was selected as one of the graduates to speak at graduation on the basis of my submitted speech I called “Homer nods.” I can’t even remember what it was about now. Probably something about humility amidst our capacity for greatness.

Mr. Bender would argue with me in the hallway even after I was no longer his student about the finer points of grammar. He thought I was wrong to pronounce “harassment” with the emphasis on the middle syllable. He joked about HARassing me to pronounce it correctly. I was happy to show him that the dictionary included both pronunciations. Even Homer nods.

Neither he nor I had any way of knowing that I would become a specialist in ancient Greek thinking, that whether Homer really nodded would become a live question for me, that I would become a student of those for whom Homer had been the teacher. I didn’t know then the poetry of the teacher telling the student that even the great educator of the Greeks fell short. I didn’t know how provocative the notion that the Greeks might have been educated by a nodding teacher could be, or perhaps the notion that all teachers nod.

I found this note in which Mr. Bender inverts the meaning of nod from making a mistake to signaling approval and I thought, how very Greek this poetic recasting would be.  The teacher nods and nods. And this I appreciate.

 

Having No Reaction: Dealing with Rejection in Philosophy Publishing

One of my favorite yoga teachers likes to say after particularly difficult poses in Bikram, have no reaction, just stand still. I’ve been thinking about how “having no reaction” seems like good Stoic practice for dealing with various frustrations in academic publishing.

A couple days ago I received a rejection from a top-tier journal on a paper that I’m pretty excited about.  The reviewer said that my paper does not talk about one particular thing that everyone who writes on x has to talk about and that my lens for interpretation is not the useful key that I think it is. I do not think that x is that important to my reading or even really to the questions I am addressing and so I have no interest in talking about it. I do think my lens is a useful key. As I was reading the review, at first, I felt my blood beginning to rise. Then, my yoga teacher’s mantra occurred to me: have no reaction. I began to think about what it might mean to consider this response as information that the field gives about what it is like, but that positive or negative feelings do not need to be had in response to that information. Just stand still.

Everyone who knows me knows that I am not a Stoic. I have far too many opinions to be a Stoic. I usually so quickly go to the judgment that I have been wronged with these kinds of rejections. Sometimes, that’s true. More often than not, I go to the place of thinking that rejection is a personal judgment. It can feel like that. I think sometimes recognizing how rejections are unfair motivates us to raise important questions. I think that we need to get angry and organize to change the field, especially to become less narrow in its thinking about how publishing decisions are made. I’m working on that too. Read more

The New and Constant Gardener

I spent the afternoon gardening. Last Monday it snowed, so this might have been foolish. But it’s almost the end of April, and I just decided I would act like it was Spring, whether the weather thought so or not. It was a nice day for it. Cloudy at first and then the sun came out. Last fall, I raked leaves into the flower beds, so this spring I raked some up and tried to turn some of the beds over to keep the nutrients from the leaves. I bought flowers and planted some in the ground and put others in pots and put them along the porch steps. I put some new plants in the garden bed in the back and spent some good time with my hands in the dirt.

I feel satisfied. But I’m wary. Last year I also planted things. Some plants returned. Others did not. I brought a bunch of plants into the house through the winter and was happy that most of them made it, but my hanging plants especially made it outside in the sun in the nick of time. Planting, I was thinking, requires hope.

I’ve been teaching a seminar on Hannah Arendt this semester. Much of the class has been working through her Life of the Mind treatment of the faculties of the mind, first of thinking, then of willing, and now, judging. The judging part didn’t make it into Life of the Mind, but she indicated she had plans for such a section and a seminar she gave on Kant’s political philosophy that focuses on how judgment is a political project, edited by Ronald Beiner, was published in 1982, soon after her death. In the first volume on “Thinking,” Arendt describes the project of thinking as a dialogue with oneself, a dialogue that she describes as one between an actor and spectator. In the second volume on “Willing,” she suggests that the will is what we call the faculty that begins something new. She spends considerable time addressing the critiques of the will in the history of philosophy and the ways that the will is saved by some thinkers only to have very little latitude or effect on human life, as when Epictetus counsels to will only that which you can control, which is to say, well, very little. And Nietzsche makes of the will the capacity to reaffirm what one might have regretted of the past in a way that serves to overcome the regret, if not the past. Arendt concludes by describing the will as that which allows for a new order, but she does not dismiss the great difficulty if the impossibility of a world in which chains of causes determine what is to follow. The will is what we call the specifically human capacity to break the chain. For something that was not expected, not determined by a previous series of events to occur, that is to say, for human beings to act. Read more

If You’re Cringing at Facebook, You Should Also be Cringing at the Market

I recently learned of people who think that Facebook is listening to them through the microphones in their phones.  This weekend someone told me a story about how she was reading a book out in nature and then when she got back to her car, her phone was recommending the book she was reading to her.  Another person had a story of telling her business partner of a thing they needed to get, not on email but in person, and soon after gettings ads for it.  Everyone seems to have a story like this. People think Facebook must be listening to them, because it just seems like magic. The algorithms at Facebook, it turns out, collect information to predict your interests and your wants and your concerns to target ads to you for just what you want at just the right time that it makes people feel as if the only explanation is that they are listening to you.  But Facebook isn’t listening to you. As an article about six months ago in Wired argued, they don’t have to. You are giving them the information. They target ads to you the way that those mindreaders get people to say something through suggestive questions. Because we can’t see the algorithms and can’t tell how they work, we think, it must be magic. And for most of us, it feels creepy.

In this regard, Facebook is a lot like the market. We put information into the market by buying things at a certain price, by buying cheaper versions of the same thing or more expensive versions, by deciding to spend our money on travel and food rather than shoes or clothes, by leaving one job for another, by turning down jobs that don’t pay enough or taking jobs that are below our credentials, by renting the too small apartment for too much money, or passing up the small apartment when the rent is too high. We think we as individuals have made an agreement with the landlord, or with the people at Macy’s or our boss, not unlike the way we think that Facebook is listening to us. We think it is about individuals making decisions, but so much less freedom and choice is involved. The market collects the information to sell us the goods at the price point it expects we will buy and we buy it and we think we have made decisions, when the market has collected masses of information to give us what we want at the point we are willing to pay for it.

The magic of Facebook creeps us out. But this creepiness should be extended to the market as well, if not more. The collective cringe at Facebook’s capacity to target to us the things we didn’t even know we wanted should be extended to the market’s work of giving us the things we want at the point we are willing to pay for them. Instead of supposing that this is the happy magic of the market, we should find the magic cringe-worthy. The cringe at Facebook betrays the truth of the impersonal determination of our desires. What’s surprising is only that we don’t also cringe at the market. The cringe at Facebook is the recognition that we are getting played. If we think that’s less the case with the market it is only because its workings are even more opaque to the everyday worker and consumer than Facebook’s are.

Many people in response to the recent publicity of Facebook’s data becoming available to other vendors are calling for regulation of Facebook. Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina offered guidelines this week on NPR for how Facebook could become a force for good community instead of for feeding consumption. Cathy O’Neill has similarly argued for how to make Facebook a place for community, beginning with making their algorithms more transparent. Facebook itself is rushing to show how they plan to better regulate themselves in the face of grossly underinformed U.S. Senators who were unable to grasp both the workings of Facebook and the implications of this current situation. But again this interest in regulation of Facebook, not unlike the move to regulate previous utilities like telephones, should point to a greater willingness to regulate the market. If we wish to regulate Facebook because we think that the algorithms cannot tell us what is good and might themselves need human input and human restraints, then it seems we should be able to see how the market similarly cannot tell us what is good and needs human inputs and human restraints.

Arguments against human interference in the market have worked by arguing that human beings can never have enough information to determine the best distribution. Only markets can. This situation seems to be exactly the case Facebook is in. They have the most information. And yet our response to that is to cringe. To the extent that you cringe at Facebook’s vast information about us and the decisions that follow from it, you should cringe at the notion that the market has more information that can better determine and organize our lives. This operation is not freedom from tyranny, it is the tyranny of market forces absent human engagement and deliberation.

Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality at IUPUI

I saw Kimberlé Crenshaw speak at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis tonight. Crenshaw’s work on the unique legal and political situations that Black American women faced led her to coin the term intersectionality. As she said tonight, she meant for this term to be a dynamic term of analysis rather than a noun of identity, but she graciously allowed that concepts are dynamic and take on a life on their own.  As an analysis, intersectionality shows how Black women’s concerns could be captured neither by race in the law, which considered Black experience in terms of men, nor by gender, which considered women’s experience in terms of white women.  A new analysis was needed to see that adding black to woman did not just mean adding those experiences up but in fact pointed to a unique set of concerns.  Intersectionality has so become a part of our discourse that it is now being used against the very movement that spurred its coinage.

Tonight she gave a talk that was a model example of how public intellectuals should be engaging public audiences.  The talk was purposefully marketed to the community: the Black woman sitting next to me told me she heard it advertised on Praise Indy, A Black Christian radio station in Indianapolis. Some of the leadership team of BlackLivesMatterIndy were there, as well as other activists. And of course, a bunch of academics. Crenshaw staged her talk as an interview that lawyer, civil rights activist and now radio show host Barbara Arnwine conducted with Martin Luther King, Jr. today, in these times. King wanted to know what the state of racial justice was since he’d been gone. Using that narrative device, Crenshaw was able to dramatize the real harm that has been done to the cause of racial justice by forgetting history, tracing back to Dr. King’s own work how the movement erased the previous work of women like Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks. She argued that Parks has become pacified and acceptable to white Americans through the story of how she was too tired, but Parks was actually an activist who had been defending Black women for years, purposeful in her planning for this moment.  She spent much of the talk drawing connections, as she explained them, between unlearned history and the present moment, having the talk show host explain to King how the things that he left unlearned from his history help produce this moment, like the forgetting of Harriet Tubman in favor of Frederick Douglass.

While effectively dragging Mark Lilla for his critique of identity analysis, she pointed to how people across the political spectrum from Black male civil rights leaders to white conservatives bought into  “Moynihanism”–the idea that the responsibility for racial injustice lies with the Black family–which allowed them to naturalize patriarchy as a point of departure for advocacy up to and including in Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper project.  Crenshaw argued that everyone from the right to left internalized this view and effectively ignored the structural workings of those invested in maintaining racial power.  As she put it, when we broader the frame, our sense of responsibility shifts.

She took this device further to draw attention to #SayHerName and the women who have been killed by police, and to say in drawing to the close, “When we take leadership from the margins, things change.”

As I sat and listened and learned from her, I thought about how effective she was at engaging a public audience in her work even as that work was complicated and deep. She didn’t make it less complicated. But she found ways to make her case that did not require jargon and made the work significant for her audience. She honored the contributions of activists to her own work. I have shown her Ted Talk (below) of this same title–The Urgency of Intersectionality–in classes. But she wrote a new talk for this moment and this place that made this case in a new way, urgently.

The Truth of the Body

I had to get some blood work done this morning at my doctor’s office. I was struck, as I always am when I submit my body for testing, of the sense in which the body is treated as a confession by the medical establishment.  I am always nervous about this process because I fear what truths my body will tell.  I fear that I cannot hide my bad habits as they might show up in my body.  I am reminded of a police procedural, maybe it is the CSI series, where it seemed like in almost every episode someone would say, “The truth is in the body.”

This week I was also having a conversation about the status of the body in Black Mirror, specifically in some of the episodes that produce cookies out of human DNA, which is to say, the DNA becomes digitalized in ways that produce a person in the virtual digital world.  What strikes me about the cookies is that they are independent even though the person controlling the system can change the bodies of the cookies (as in USS Callister) and cause them great pain (White Christmas, Black Museum, Playtest).  It seems to me that even in the digital world, the truth seems to be in the body.  That is, the fact that the body suffers is a report on the conditions.  The body is taken as material that exhibits a truth about the situation. Read more

Wabash Chapel Talk: Nasty Snake-Filled Heads and the Workings of Ideology

(A group of student leaders on campus at Wabash organize a weekly talk by a member of the Wabash community.  This is a transcript of the talk I gave this morning.)

As a philosopher, one thing I like to think about is how our ideas about the world affect the way we live in the world.  Today I want to talk about how our ways of thinking about how things are variously affect the ability of different people from different groups to thrive. I want to talk specifically about how we use the concept of “natural” to describe the ways we experience the world.  We tend to describe things as natural, as “just being that way,” as the way things just happen to be with no input or interference from human beings, when we are unaware of the history of how they came to be that way.  That move whereby what was formed for political and social reasons appears as natural is what we call ideology.

As a philosopher, I want to own some responsibility for this, since, as Nietzsche says, “Lack of a historical sense is the original error of all philosophers.”

To correct this error, I want to first back up a little bit and think historically about how the turn to nature has been used as a justification for ways of organizing the world.  Leo Strauss explains the historical turn to a concept of nature as a turn to philosophizing.  As he puts it, as long as everyone seems to do what you do, you do not prompt the question, is that right?  It’s right because it seems like the only way.  It is right because it has always been done that way.  It is right because it is what everyone you know does.  But when you leave your people and you encounter other people who do things differently, you begin to ask whether what your people do is right.  Like when you are a kid like I was in a big family where we always sat down together for dinner every night and you think every family sits down for dinner every night until you go to your friends’ house and they have dinner in front of the television and you go home and ask why you have to eat dinner together and your mother tells you it’s because you don’t have a television.  Not having a television also seemed right because it was what my family did.  Like taking vacations in the mountains instead of at the beach. Read more

The Robot in the Market Machine

News reports from yesterday’s sharp drop of the Dow point to the role of computer algorithms that sell stocks when they reach a certain point as one of the main sources of the drop.  This explanation would appear to be the logically absurd conclusion of a so-called free market economy.  Defenders of a free market economy maintain that the market can best distribute goods at the right prices when human beings each act for their own self-interest.  Will Roberts makes the case that this surrender of human decision-making to the market is why Marx argues that capitalism does not cultivate freedom.  In a market economy, human beings no longer deliberate collectively about what is best.  They each act for themselves and the market decides.  They lose the collective work of speaking together about how to direct the community. Read more

We Have Dreamers, Too: Trump and the Deceptive Appeal of the American Dream

In Trump’s State of the Union he tried to take back the “dreamers” language from recent immigrants, saying, “We have dreamers in this country, too.  You can’t forget our dreamers.”  He  went on to say:

I am extending an open hand to work with the members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion and creed. My duty and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber is to defend Americans, to protect their safety, their families, their communities and their right to the American dream.

Trump restricts the American dream for citizens and restricts the duty of those in office to citizens, forgetting the immigrant history of those citizens.  The American dream language works almost identically to the America First language as I map out here.  It makes those who have been left out of the promise of prosperity feel none the less that the dream is for them if only the work hard enough.  And it makes them understand their poverty as a result of lack of hard work, not as a result of structural barriers to economic mobility.  It makes them think the Dream is possible, if only they can get there.

Immigrants who came to the United State as children and are appealing for a road to citizenship seized on the language of the dream and contend that the dream should be accessible to everyone.  By taking up this language, these immigrants have also reminded us that the American dream functions to exclude.  When Trump said, “We have dreamers in this country, too,” he ignores that those immigrants are in this country and divides the country between those who are supposedly “rightfully” a part and those who are not.  Such a move reminded me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ description of the United States as “a country lost in the Dream,” in Between the World and Me (12).  Lost in the Dream, America cannot see itself.  Coates describes America’s investment in the Dream as undergirded by fear (34), and that seems precisely what is played on in the #AllLivesMatter kind of turn to “We have dreamers too.”  The way Trump’s appeal works is to trump those forgotten and excluded by being denied citizenship by foregrounding those forgotten and excluded who are already citizens but find the country no less invested in them.  Attesting to the investment in the forgotten poor produces the sense that they are the concern of the country’s elected officials even as a new tax law is passed that will put more of the tax burden on them than on those who are living the Dream.  Recognizing their fear of exclusion and acknowledging their rightful place in relation to the aspiration to the Dream while denying them any path toward the dream pits them against those made to appear unworthy of the Dream.  But neither are given access to the Dream.

Coates argues that Dream is oppressive to those for whom it is never even held out as a promise.  That oppression is of a whole different order than the oppression of those for whom it is held out as a promise (106).  The oppression for those for whom it is denied functions in the active forgetting of those to whom the Dream is denied, which it is why it is striking to see Trump so boldly assert that “our dreamers” can’t be forgotten, when everyone knows who the “our” is and who it is not.  As Coates writes in reference to the discussion he has with the mother of Prince Jones, a young Black man who was killed by police:

When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best–it forgot him.  The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream.  They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.  They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world.  I am convinced that Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free (143).

When Trump asks that we not forget our Dreamers, he invites us to continue to forget the conditions upon which that dream thrives, and he invites people to be more invested in their whiteness than their freedom.