Human Rights and Selective Amnesia: Gazans’ expulsion from humanity

In 1946, mostly due to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, the spouse of the late president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a committee was convened to draft what would become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As Mary Ann Glendon and Johann Morsink, individual authors of separate books on the UDHR, point out, the context for this document was hardly ideal: it was being developed in the midst of the increasing tensions of the Cold War, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the British handoff of Palestine to form the new Jewish state, and in the midst of an emerging insistence on self-rule in South Asia, among other places. Passed in 1948, ratified by 48 nations initially, the UDHR is heralded as a guidebook for human rights, presumably obligating all 192 UN member nations to acknowledge, if not observe it. It is, by most accounts a “Western” document, crafted by philosophers among others. It evokes the ideals of liberalism and the sacrosanct rights thought to be afforded to the individual, as well as the Kantian notion of human dignity (as something that is beyond value, that does not have a market price). It expresses the unconditional protection that individuals are thought to have with regard to their lives, their health, their ability to marry who they wish (an idea that has taken on a new light in the last few years), to form community with whomever one chooses, to have the ability to determine oneself as one pleases.

The UDHR is a breathtaking document, a mix of unadulterated optimism and seductive naïveté. It is impossible to read without asking how such a framework would ever be enforced. Indeed, this is exactly what students in my courses ask (or more cynically, scoff at). Hannah Arendt, writing in the aftermath of the Holocaust, criticized a human rights framework because of this paradoxical nature:

 

The Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable—even in countries whose constitutions were based upon them—whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state.[1]

 

The question of enforceability ironically reveals the point of the UDHR: these protections should be assumed to be universal, unconditional, unanimously observed. And yet, as Arendt implies—the loss of human rights is predicated on the increasing dehumanization and vulnerability of those same human beings. The loss of human rights is preceded by the loss of one’s home, the loss of recognition of one’s “distinct” and precious existence.

The question of human rights arises when a people is inexorably moved toward dehumanization: displaced, violated, removed from their land. But the removal of people from their community, their home, already signals “the loss of government protection,” as Arendt says, and the loss of status as beings worth protecting: political beings, legal human beings. This loss is succinctly clinched by philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s phrase “bare life”—the unique, sacred existence of a people rendered into a barely distinguished mass of existence.

The long-standing paradox of human rights is that the declaration to observe them is a hollow scream that follows their loss, which is the consequence of the loss (if there ever was) of government interest in valuing a people.

We see this loss in US government policies since 9/11, most recently inaugurated by the Bush Administration but continued and enhanced under the Obama Administration: solitary confinement in Supermax and Guantanamo Bay; the tortuous force-feeding of Guantanamo hunger strikers; the aggressive detention of undocumented migrants in the US; the aggressive deportation attempts of child refugees from Central America, the rendition of suspected terrorists in CIA black sites (and eventually to US prisons); the entrapment of Black and South Asian Muslim men in FBI stings.

Today’s most vivid example is the continued support of Israel’s assault on Gaza, and the US’s support of that assault. Even as pictures of severely injured and dismembered children proliferate on-line, the Washington Post publishes team editorials and op-eds insisting that Israel must “crush Hamas.” Israel justifies carpet-bombing Gaza and the death of hundreds of children by insisting that Hamas uses “human shields.” Even while confessing to being traumatized by pictures of dead civilians, Senator John Kerry repeated the White House line that Israel “has the right to defend itself.”

The latter is a stale and hollow canard, reiterated by American newspapers and politicians alike. It is especially hollow in the face of an obviously one-sided genocidal pummeling of a tiny region. Gaza is, let’s remember, one of the most densely populated regions in the world—where there are no exits or escape from the relentless bombing except into the sea.

As of last night, the sixth UN school was bombed by Israel despite 17 warnings as to the shelter’s location. The UN schools were supposed to be protected shelters—intended as refuges for Palestinians who feared their homes would be targeted by Israeli missiles, Yet, despite reports of massive numbers of injuries and casualties, no one in the Israeli government has seen fit to issue an apology. “Self-defense.”

Let us assume for even a moment that despite many first-hand accounts to the contrary, Israel is correct in that Hamas is using “human shields.” Shouldn’t this very possibility give Israel pause? If it were indeed a brinksmanship game, given that Israel has been—will be—barely scathed by Hamas’ rockets, shouldn’t it refrain from blanketing Gaza with missiles that are seen to be annihilating hospitals, children, doctors—all unanimously agreed to be innocent targets? (Never mind that Palestinian men, too, are innocent targets, even as few acknowledge that.) It may be relevant to mention here that Israel is familiar with practice of using Palestinians as human shields. Despite a 2005 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that banned the Israeli government from doing so, it was accused of the same practice as recently as last year.

Yet, the constant Israeli retort of “self-defense” obscures Palestinians’ entitlement to human rights as channeled into the UDHR, prioritizing a selective amnesia in the aftermath of the genocide of European Jews. This robotic line is hardly unique to Israel. It has been echoed in justifying the U.S.’s “war on terror.” Remember President George W. Bush’s insistence, in the aftermath of 9/11: “You’re with us or against us”? This is what the assemblage of a “national security” apparatus is—the totalizing, synchronized governmental rhetoric that surrounds us whichever way we turn: From the creation of the US Department of Homeland Security, to the expansion of the NSA (the National Security Agency), to the shift in name from INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) to ICE (Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement), the modern Western discourse reminds us that “national security” takes priority above any other consideration. The message emanates from its paid lackeys and chicken hawks alike, from Senator Dianne Feinstein to NSA Director Keith Alexander and to DNI Director James Clapper to politicians looking forward to their next campaign (witness Elizabeth Warren’s page and the votes of “progressive politicians from Bernie Sanders to Patrick Leahy) to mercenaries looking for their next million. But “any other consideration” includes not just cost, labor, energy—but also the Lives of Other People (Just Not Ours).

In effect, this is the current post 9/11 global paradigm: F*ck the Lives of Other People (FLOP) in the name of national security. Pundits have called it the New Imperialism, but I think it’s much more apt and succinct to label it as National Security FLOP. This is not to say that NatSec FLOP is original, unique, or singular, but it heralds in a (relatively) new epoch, in which human rights have no currency (except when convenient to a government’s rhetorical ethos). Herein lies the brilliant rhetoric of “self-defense,” used all too often to launch an overwhelming, disproportionate attack on an already vulnerable group, invoking the human rights of those that are not in danger: Kill, but always insist that it’s in order to protect “our own”—even when the facts say otherwise.

The seduction of NatSec FLOP is contagious, especially when consumed in conjunction with the self-aggrandizing allure of hunting “TERRORISTS.” Indeed, both of these positions were enthusiastically adopted by nations whose agendas were conveniently enhanced and justified by riding the coat-tails of American muscularity: the UK, India, Turkey, Pakistan, to name a few.

This is the paradox of human rights that seems to be in play in current moment: the rights of certain individuals can only be secured through the promise to kill others in the name of human rights. This is the supposed trade-off promulgated by the United States, borrowed and appropriated by other nations as convenient: National Security versus Rights. For the US, the trade-off promises, at the domestic level, to be deceptively effective: Freedom v. Security (if you want to be safe, then agree to give up (“some of”) your rights—to privacy, to your public dissent, to your conscience, to the violation of your home, your person, your speech, your freedom. Except that most of us–especially Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, the poor–residing in the US were never offered that choice.

Internationally, National Security has become the defense, the Maginot line against which cries of human rights evaporate.

We see this with regard both to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to condemnations of Israel’s bombing of Gaza hospitals, UN schools, private residences, and massive number of children dead: Israel has the “right to defend itself.”

Here’s the thing about self-defense: Self-defense means the deployment of sufficient force to block attacks or injury on one’s property, home, or person. It does not mean initiating and sustaining attacks that are disproportionately larger than any imaginable provocation. Self-defense does not mean continuously bombing innocent bystanders—not even accidentally—not one, not two, and certainly not thousands of them—children, women, men, doctors, safety personnel.

According to Norman Finkelstein, who recently wrote a piece on Human Rights Watch’s artful evasion in blaming Israel for its large-scale killings:

International law prohibits an occupying power from using force to suppress a struggle for self-determination, whereas it does not prohibit a people struggling for self-determination from using force.[…]The International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated in its 2004 advisory opinion that the Palestinian people’s “rights include the right to self-determination,” and that “Israel is bound to comply with its obligation to respect the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” Israel consequently has no legal right to use force to suppress the Palestinian self-determination struggle. Israel also cannot contend that, because this self-determination struggle unfolds within the framework of an occupation, it has the legal right, as the occupying power, to enforce the occupation so long as it endures.

It is difficult to reconcile Israel’s actions with its claims to self-defense, when it has complete control over Gaza’s borders. Self-defense is usually accepted as reasonable when one (person, community, region, nation) is unable to leave the region under attack. Self-defense does not mean blockading all possible openings to a densely packed region that has no other exits nor avenues to get out of the way of these rockets.

In the U.S., it is easy to be habituated to corporate media’s spin and ideology surrounding Israel’s actions toward Palestine, Gaza, and the West Bank: it is a fairly standard position that has had long-standing, even when contradicted by opposite realities. And certainly, it is no secret that the US and Israel share the close intimacy, from providing Israel’s funding, weaponry, and moral support, even in the face of heinous crimes.

Here is Arendt again:

What is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one. Suddenly, there was no place on earth where migrants could go without the severest restrictions, no country where they would be assimilated, no territory where they could found a new community of their own…this moreoever had nothing to do with any material problem of overpopulation; it was a problem not of space but of political organization. Nobody had been aware that mankind, for so long a time considered under the image of a family of nation, had reached the stage where whoever was thrown out of one of these tightly organized closed communities found himself thrown out of the family of nations altogether.” (Arendt, 1951, 293–4)

 

Arendt here is referring to European minorities who had been displaced, survived the camps, been relocated into refugee camps. But it doesn’t take much to extend this discussion to Palestinians today.

Man, it turns out, can lose all so-called Rights of Man without losing his essential quality as man, his human dignity. Only the loss of a polity expels him from humanity. (Arendt 1951, 297)

 

How does one go about resurrecting the humanity of a people that has been completely, politically, legally, internationally, abandoned? The answer is obvious, but the solution can only occur when Israel, the US, and the rest of the West drops their convenient, selective, amnesia.

_______________________________

[1] Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, 1951). P. 293.

Advertisements

Treating Prisoners as Well as Farm Animals

The legislature in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is now considering passing Bill S.2232. Officially entitled, “An Act to ensure continued humane animal care in Massachusetts,” this commendable bill is designed to prevent cruelty and ill-treatment to farm animals. Here are some key excerpts:

The purpose of this section, subject to exceptions, is to prohibit the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.

(b) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person is guilty of unlawful confinement of a covered farm animal if the person is a farm owner or operator who knowingly tethers or confines any covered animal, on a farm, for all or the majority of any day, in a manner that prevents such animal from:

(1) Lying down, standing up, and fully extending his or her limbs; and

(2) Turning around freely.

[snip]

(d) For the purposes of this section:

[snip]

(3) “Enclosure” means any cage, crate, or other structure (including what is commonly described as a “gestation crate” for pigs; or a “veal crate” for calves used to confine a covered animal).
[snip]

(6)”Fully extending his or her limbs” means fully extending all limbs without touching the side of an enclosure
(7) “Person” means any individual, firm, partnership, joint venture, association, limited liability company, corporation, estate, trust, receiver, or syndicate.
[snip]

(9) “Turning around freely” means turning in a complete circle without any impediment, including a tether, and without touching the side of an enclosure.
[snip]
(e) Any person who violates any of the provisions of this chapter is guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000).

This simple, yet precise bill raises the standards for the ethical treatment of animals that will, eventually, be slaughtered for food. Thus, while it is clear that the animals in question will most likely meet their demise intentionally, according to this bill, they should be treated humanely.

Perhaps I should say, “better-than-humanely” or “animal-humanely,” since as we know some tens of thousands of human beings, if not more, are currently confined and shackled in small cells, which certainly impede their ability to “fully extend their limbs without touching the side of an enclosure,” or to “turn around freely without any impediment, including a tether.” As we know, even when we choose to ignore it, our well-deserved sympathy for farm animals or house pets, or many other animals, often does not extend—even as a matter of federal policy—to human beings considered undesirable: imprisoned Black men and women, undocumented migrants or children, and mostly Muslim men who were casualties of American fear in the endless War on Terror—namely those who have been or still reside in Guantanamo.

Some significant portion of these prisoners are in solitary confinement in US prisons. The numbers, as the organization Solitary Watch (SW) states, are difficult to determine. Official numbers do not appear to include those who are undocumented and in “detention facilities”—including thousands of child migrants. None of these prisoners are likely to be granted the same range of unshackled movement, or even the same level of “animal-humane” treatment from their captors or guards. As a recent story by Katie Pavlich demonstrated, child migrants are expected to live inside caged facilities while the US government considers how to process them. The photos obtained on townhall.com show multiple children stuffed into chain-link cages with hardly any room to turn around “without impediment.” The slideshow at a CBS news website shows similar crowding and cages.

There are too many stories are out there about the subhuman treatment of pregnant prisoners who give birth while chained, with prison officials by their side. While there is a federal prison policy, passed in 2007, that prohibits shackling pregnant women, there are only a few similar prohibitions against state prison facilities, pertaining only to about 20 states. To its infinite credit, Massachusetts is among the most recent of states to pass such a policy. S.2063 was passed earlier this year, although its standards are lower than the humane animal care bill under consideration.

While S.2232, the humane-animal care bill, mandates unconditional freedom of movement for farm animals, Massachusetts’ prohibition against tethering pregnant prisoners onlymandates “the opportunity for a minimum of 1 hour of ambulatory movement each day.” Also, unlike a similar bill passed in California, the Massachusetts bill does not pertain to undocumented women. Plenty of other states have no such restrictions, as seen in this horrific recounting from the documentary Checkpoint Nation, of Maria, a woman who was taunted by an ICE official by her side in Tucson, Arizona, while giving birth.

Similarly, the stories of men locked up in tiny cubicles for years at a time proliferate without limit. Listen to these comments by Anthony Graves, wrongly convicted and sentenced to death row. Graves spent 18 years imprisoned, 16 of them in solitary confinement. He has also likened his 8 x 10 cell to a cage fit for animals, prompting prison officials to taunt him like an animal. In similarly dehumanizing fashion, Khalif Brauder was held in solitary confinement, without adequate nutrition, in Rikers as a teenager for fraudulent reasons. Mahmud Abouhalima is imprisoned in a Supermax prison where he has been shackled and forced to live for years in a cage no bigger than 8 feet wide. Yet others tell of being imprisoned in cells that are even smaller, as in these answers to the question of how large a prison cell.

There are countless stories of men who have been beaten and tortured so badly their spines have been broken.

But every single story that is published about these sub-human standards of treatment—in light of S.2232, perhaps we should call them “sub-animalistic” standards—is met with contempt or indifference. Others cheer that these men and women (and children) are being met with appropriate, well-deserved or justifiable treatment. And this Old Testament attitude persists despite the countless—yes, countless—cases of wrongful convictions or, in our post-9/11 legal world, the normalization of the complete absence of proof.

Back in 1997, political philosophers Robert Goodin, Carole Pateman and Roy Pateman published a scholarly article entitled, “Simian Sovereignty.” In it, they argued that simians—apes, orangutans, chimps and others of that species closely resembled human beings, and thus should be able to live and co-exist side by side with human beings. Goodin et al. cited several philosophers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who argued for the close resemblance between human beings and simians. For example, they cite Lord Monboddo, as being “optimistic” that “the Orang Outang is, if not in the beginning, at least in one of the first stages of society, and in the progress towards a more civilized state.”

The premise of Goodin et al’s article was that simians most closely resemble human beings and therefore deserve to be treated in a superior fashion (as presumably human beings are). When I first read their article in 1997, I was rather skeptical of the comparison, because I wasn’t convinced of their premise. Today, I am still rather skeptical of the comparison, but for obverse reasons: the superior standards that they argue be extended to simians have not yet been extended to many who are supposed to fit into the category of”human”— particularly those who are undesirable, vilified or marginalized.

We are accustomed to thinking of human beings as autonomous, of being individuated, of—through long periods of Kantian story-telling—according them a certain level of respect, of ascribing them a certain dignified status, and by extension, a certain level of protection. In the Kantian story, humans exist between angels and animals, with their intellectual faculties rescuing them from the status of the latter. Their faculties are utilized to govern and restrain their material sides and impulses. Kant’s story continues to be a predominant linchpin in organizing our understanding of the world. In French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s posthumously published book, The Animal That I therefore Am, he points to Adorno’s stance that an idealist insults man by referring to the animal in him. It is certainly true that for many centuries to be understood as merely an animal was an insult. It was a condemnation of all that was unreflective, irrational, morally uncontrolled by one’s intellectual faculty.

There is a documented history that demonstrates how sympathy for animals is elicited much more prolifically and easily than is sympathy for others who suffer similar conditions to caged animals. We see it in this story, from 1994, about how orphaned mountain lion cubs elicited two and 1/3 times more donations ($21,000) than did the children ($9,000) orphaned after their mother was attacked by the cubs’ mother. Today, all 50 states have felony penalties for cruelty to animals.

Notably, in February 2006, a 38-year old man in Columbus, Ohio, was arrested for dog fighting, after officials found twenty-six wounded pit bulls confined in wooden crates. As the chief deputy sheriff reported then: “These dogs were kept in these things with no windows…It is still a phenomenon to me that people enjoy watching these animals suffer like this. It’s just so brutal.” I point to a case that is nearly 8 years old, because the sympathy (rightfully) expressed for the dogs—caged in crates with no windows–is still withheld from men and women and children  who are imprisoned in similar conditions: in Supermax prisons or in Guantanamo Bay or in immigration detention facilities.

We seem to have arrived at a moment when the term “animal” no longer refers as accurately to the non-human animal. If anything, as we have seen over the last few decades, non-human animals are seen to resemble human animals more and more: dolphins can think and sing and feel; chimpanzees can communicate. Octopi have been discovered to wield and implement tools. These facts shatter the foundation of Karl Marx’s celebration of the singularity of human potential.

Yet, there seems to be an inverse disparity between our unadulterated love for animals and our shame and moral outrage in the face of mistreatment and cruelty and the relative lack of concern for human beings facing similar conditions. What are we to make of the seeming fact that certain human beings will not be recognized as having the same kind of protections afforded to animals? How do we understand both their status and their continued misery—a misery that continues and hears fewer objections, less outrage?

The strongest argument in favor of cruel treatment to prisoners is that they have been convicted of heinous actions, and as such, they merit such treatment. But that argument is easily undermined in the face of the fact that so many prisoners who are caged have never seen the inside of a courtroom for their supposed crimes. Most detainees in immigration facilities or in Guantanamo have neither been tried nor convicted, as we well know.

A more cynical reading would suggest that S.2232, pending in the Massachusetts legislature, only offers super-humane treatment to animals that will eventually be slaughtered and eaten, and as such, is not a real fix. But shouldn’t treatment of human beings who are vilified approximate the treatment of farm animals?  It is not too cynical to say that if we had a federal, uniform standard of treatment for imprisoned men, women and children matching the standards of S.2232, that would mark some level of progress in a world in which the US government professes to believe in human rights.

________________________________________

A version of this piece was published on truth-out.org today.

Is Violence Cultural?

 

As the #YesAllWomen hashtag trended over the weekend, I tweeted out a few of my own. In response to one of my tweets [about having been menaced on 3 separate campuses by male students who were antagonized by the low grades or critical evaluations that I gave], a friendly tweep asked whether my experiences could be ascribed to a culture of violence. It was an important question, and I didn’t respond as 140 characters seemed to be rather limiting. I want to think through one part of that question here. But I want to note: my comments are not a reflection on my friendly interlocutor; rather, I’m trying to explore my concern about the phrase.

I’m always surprised when the words ‘violence’ and ‘culture’ are placed in close proximity. Much like the phrase “social construction of race,” the notion of a “culture of violence” seems to create an artificial stopping point at what should be the beginning of an analysis. These days, the phrase ‘social construction of race’ indicates a moment in the political development of theories of race rather than some meaningful insight in itself. Similarly, the notion of a ‘culture of violence’ is often the description given to explain the pro-gun discourse that marks the US in international lights, or the massacres that seem to be occurring with increasing frequency in the United States. The most recent one to come to public attention was the one that a young man, Elliot Rodgers, carried out a few days ago. The phrase ‘culture of violence,’ seems to be immediately problematic in several ways. First, it obscures the specificity of various kinds of violence (a shooting in cold blood versus a woman who shoots at an ex-lover in self-defense; a serial massacre by a young man versus a military massacre of a village). I’m not suggesting that they are all horrific or heinous. Rather, I want to suggest that the level and quality of (dis)approval in each case is affected by the conditions and institutions which supported that action. The second, closely related, way in which the discussion of a ‘culture of violence’ is problematic is that it elides state-led policies that endorse certain kinds of violent actions—based on who is committing the violence and who the violence is committed against—rather than on the action in question.

Examples of the second would include executive policies such as a memo that authorized the use of drones to kill people who are suspected of terrorism (or having a governmental body vote in favor of a federal judgeship for the lawyer who co-authored that memo); or the actions of federal judges who exculpate police officers who shoot young black men while sentencing a political protestor to prison for elbowing a policeman for a boob grab, or a range of bills that unanimously approve the pre-emptive policing, or potential detention, or profiling and entrapment thousands of people who loosely fall into the same group as the 19 men who flew into the World Trade Center in 2001.

You get my point.

‘Culture,’ like ‘social construction,’ seems to sidestep an assumption that certain traits are permanently embedded, without confessing to that assumption. It seems that culture is most often used in 4 different ways:

1. As a marker of identity: Indian culture, Russian culture, Irish culture, etc.

2. As a comparative descriptor, such as when praising a group of people affiliated with a certain society as having superlative values: French culture, Western culture, progressive culture.

3. To ascribe ‘primitive’ or ‘regressive’ traits to a group of people who are united on the basis of some practices or beliefs or (mutual) recognition of identity: Muslim/Islamic culture, Black culture, Masculine culture, etc.

4. To describe a set of (negative) practices that people abide by or embrace (wittingly or not), and therefore become part of that group: A culture of: consumerism, rape, terrorism, narcissism, violence.

Over a decade ago, at the first philosophy conference I attended after receiving my doctorate, my excitement melted into despair as I heard the keynote speaker, a white feminist philosopher of some renown, painstakingly describe how Palestinians and other Muslim cultures were more prone to a ‘culture of terrorism’ than those in Western societies. It seemed to link violence to a population while avoiding references to biology, ontology, or nature. [Uma Narayan, Talal Asad and Edward Said have challenged such a link in their considerable writings, but to judge from its frequent invocation, it still seems to remain an easy go-to place.] And in forging this link, the keynote speaker indicated that these actions were compulsive, driven by the culture to which said people belong.

This kind of deployment of ‘culture’ is striking for its complete bifurcation from a discussion of historical, (geo)political, economic, social, legal structures: what is the history of Palestine (or Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, etc)? What are the material, geopolitical, social circumstances in which certain men and women engage in certain specific practices? What are the legal structures that punish certain men and women for acts of violence while retaining a blind eye towards others? How do we construe violence or terrorism, when lone individuals or groups associated with non-state entities who blow up cafes become the prime figures of terrorism (and if they survive, will most certainly face punishment at the hands of government or military forces)–while other figures–surrounded by government security personnel as they instruct others to deploy drones against certain persons in Yemen selected by a computer algorithm–are hailed as heroes and voted repeatedly back into positions of power? All this, while those who provide legal validation for such practices are elevated to the nation’s highest courts (the most recent example being, of course, David Barron)?

Such a disarticulation from a discussion of underlying structures entrenches the belief that these practices are inherent – perhaps uniquely so — to the group with whom they are associated. So, to talk of a ‘culture of violence’ suggests that there is a set of violent practices that constitute the fabric of a society, bringing that very society together as a unit, which that society (or some part at least) doesn’t necessarily question, criticize, or challenge.

That may not be the intent of using this phrase, since—in none of the above 4 senses is culture used as a factual descriptor (even when that is the intent of the speaker) but more as a rhetorical descriptor. It is always possible to falsify a statement about culture that presumes that most if not all of its people ascribe to a certain belief. Hindus are not all vegetarian; Not all feminists believe that the hijab is oppressive; Not all Muslims (women or men) believe that the hijab must be worn. The French don’t all believe in republicanism. All of these groups have internal debates about various issues, and it may be impossible without (even with) extensive surveys, to discover which part of the group practices/believes in the belief under question, and whether that part of the group constitutes a majority.

My concern with the above deployment of term ‘culture’, is that the speaker obscures the very structures that s/he claims to take into account by locating violence/narcissism/entitlement/rape in a generic culture. It is true that the phrase ‘culture’ can accurately connote a set of embedded attitudes regarding violence, rape, narcissism or consumerism. But—especially when ascribing these attitudes to a group that is already the subject of criticism—s/he connotes that the actions of these populations are driven by their culture. By ascribing certain events to a ‘culture of violence,’ I wonder if it prevents us from having a more insightful conversation about the specific elements that drive a certain event.

Let me be clear: I do NOT want to exculpate men (or women) who benefit from patriarchy, white supremacy, or other systems validating hierarchies or endorsing oppression against groups on the basis of race, gender or nationality. These are systems—grounded through laws, economic policies, geopolitical history, and social policies of rewards and benefits–which can engender acceptance about the privileges that accrue to some persons on the basis of being – say — male or white (often without regard to class), or to being middle- or upper-class white women. And while it’s possible to talk of a set of beliefs that seem to be shared by those who benefit from patriarchy or white supremacy, I think it’s much more effective and important to prioritize a focus on systems rather than culture.

A useful followup to this rumination might be to problematize the discussion of “privilege”—as in in white privilege, male privilege, etc. That will be for a future post.

Children murdered, homes foreclosed: How the government makes “mistakes” with impunity

Anyone who’s been at the mercy of the DMV, the IRS, or a health insurance company knows that bureaucracies make mistakes. Most people are accustomed to bureaucracies making mistakes. And even presidential administrations and U.S. Armed Forces make mistakes.

Yet when considering U.S. national security policies, raising the question of mistakes that cost lives is chalked up as a minor issue: “We have to expect collateral damage in wars/drones/bombs/armed conflict.”

If we know that organizations make mistakes, then it’s not that hard to see that organizations without external oversight and accountability will be empowered to make mistakes with impunity.

Not rectifying mistakes, not allowing oversight, refusing to be accountable to an external judicial body is considered by many an abuse of power. But abuse can only be claimed when a state promises to be accountable. If the state claims that it can’t be accountable, can’t be reviewed for mistakes, can’t rectify mistakes because such practices would be dangerous (the reason isn’t really important here), then at most levels, it’s hard to name the state’s attitude as abuse.

Moreover, as journalist Margaret Kimberley points out, the Obama Adminstration has claimed the right to kill American citizens without charge or trial. That’s not an abuse of power. It’s a complete usurpation of power. There is no space by which to claim the Administration should have acted differently by its own lights.

Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call this, not the abuse of, but the monopoly of power?

In 2005, Rahina Ibrahim was “cuffed, detained, and denied a flight” to Hawaii to deliver a conference paper about sustainable housing. She was allowed to return home to Malaysia, but because her name was on a U.S. government no-fly list, Ibrahim’s visa was subsequently revoked; she was prevented from returning to the U.S., thus effectively ending her doctoral studies at Stanford.  She eventually finished her dissertation in Malaysia, and sued the US government to have her name removed from the no-fly list. But the courts initially ruled that she had no legal standing to sue the US to change its policies because she is a non-citizen, and the US’s efforts to fight terrorism could not be challenged by a foreign national.

Ibrahim persisted, and at least in the most recent round, won.  Despite the US’s best efforts to the contrary, Ibrahim is the first to successfully force the US government to remove her name from the list. U.S. District Court William Alsup’s ruling points out that the US government had erred: an FBI agent confessed to having filled out the No-Fly list form for Rahina Ibrahim in exactly the opposite way as he should have. Alsup had suspected as early as December 2009 that Ibrahim had been the victim of a “monumental” government error.

Murtaza Hussain, in an excellent assessment, points out that Attorney General Eric Holder abused the state-secrets privilege in the Ibrahim case. In an affidavit from April 2013, Holder invoked the state secrets privilege as the reason that the Department of Justice could not turn over the records regarding why her name was put on the no-fly list. Referring to the 2009 State Secrets Policyy established under a young Obama Administration, Holder promised that he would not claim the state-secrets privilege to hide wrongdoing, incompetence, inefficiency, or embarrassment. Nor would he invoke it to “prevent or delay the release of information the release of which would not reasonably be expected to cause significant harm to national security.”

Clearly, Holder lied. The reason we know that Holder lied is because of what was revealed in Judge Alsup’s decision.  In this specific instance, we have clear evidence that the Obama Administration abused its power—on the view that the abuse of power is constituted when an government has promised to behave within certain procedural bounds and legal limits, but has stepped beyond them.

As journalists Kevin Gosztola and Marcy Wheeler demonstrate, the Obama Administration is completely indifferent to its own state-secrets policy, except as a subterfuge. They have invoked it time and time again, for horrendous ends. As Shahid Buttar, head of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, communicated to Gosztola back in 2012 about the invocation of state secrets privilege:

 

the ability of the FBI to “stand above the law” and not answer to any authority when they outright lie or make deliberate misrepresentations about what kind of operations they are or are not conducting. Also, it makes it possible for the Executive Branch to enjoy extraordinary immunity from punishment when incredible abuses of power are committed and cases on torture, warrantless wiretapping or spying are brought forward in court.

State secrets privilege is but one of multiple excuses that the Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, has used to expand its own power without any accompanying review or oversight of it. Whether the continued renewal of FISA (which candidate Obama voted in favor of in 2008), the NDAA 2012, NDAA 2013, or a myriad of other laws, under the Obama Administration has endorsed the unchecked expansions of power claimed by the FBI, the CIA (often in collusion with the NYPD, the DOJ. Countless foreigners have been rendered from Somalia, Sweden, and elsewhere, and interrogated without defense lawyers; numerous men have been placed in solitary confinement in prisons around the country, still unaware of the charges against them, with sketchy trials at best. Some of these men have been rendered stateless with the help of the British Home Office, such that their kidnappings could not be contested. Muslim communities all over the United States–in Southern California, Oregon, Minnesota, NY, Pennsylvania, New Jersey—have been subject to spying and entrapment.

Let’s not forget Terror Tuesdays and the Disposition Matrix, where Obama Administration officials gather to determine which alleged terrorist to execute next—without evidence, without oversight, with impunity.

It’s also been recently discovered that the FBI—the agency whose agent made a mistake in placing Rahina Ibrahim on the no-fly list–holds the power to delay the citizenship applications of Muslims—a policy enacted under the Bush Administration but still in effect today.

Mistakes, shmistakes.

The targeting of Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, the 16year-old U.S.-born son of Anwar Al-Awlaki was a mistake.

Putting post-surgery, wheelchair-bound, Stanford doctoral student Rahina Ibrahim’s name on a federal No-Fly list in 2005 was a mistake.

Hundreds of thousands of people were subject to housing foreclosures due to mistakes.

The Obama mortgage settlement allows for a threshold error rate for mistaken foreclosures.

Killing scores of civilians by drones is a mistake.

Incarcerating innocent (but not guilty) men without charges or trials is a mistake.

Holder’s behavior and that of many of his colleagues in the Obama Administration, such as DNI James Clapper, indicates that they have no problems with mistakes, or with lying about government practices, evading demands for evidence, or concealing violations with law.  This may make them corrupt—on the view that there should be a higher standard of behavior from government officials, one that conforms to consistency and accountability.

To the extent that the Obama Administration has conceded to calls for oversight, it has facilitated pseudo-review boards, as when Obama appointed the DNI Clapper to review the NSA’s protocols. Even the name of the group, “Director of National Intelligence Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies,” indicated no interest in external oversight.

On the view that lying, evading and concealing are the (counter)part and parcel of the Obama Administration’s approach to national security—the other part being that any and all strategies will be utilized without regard to accountability or oversight–because these are necessary actions to protect the public at all costs, then Holder’s and Clapper’s actions don’t reveal an abuse of power, but rather the precise and intended application of power.

 

If the Administration promises to behave within certain procedural bounds–along with the proviso that it will be the sole arbitrator on when and how to proceed to execute its power, whom it will delegate its power, and who will be subject to its power—then we should not name that the abuse of power, but the ultimate monopoly—indeed, the ultimate expression of power–and laud the Administration for resolutely carrying out its own promises and marvel at its own rare consistency!

In fact, as many have pointed out, the Obama Presidency is following in the footsteps of the Bush Administration. It might be more accurate to say that the current Administration is carving out even bigger footsteps for itself, what with its impressive record number of drone murders, solitary-confinement based incarcerations, domestic and global surveillance, deportations of migrants, and its pointed indifference to looting bankers. By claiming the right to wield power without apology in all areas of national security domestic and foreign, and on behalf of Wall Street, the Obama Administration is claiming the status of the Leviathan, as the sovereign authority in Thomas Hobbes’ 16th century treatise on politics is named.

The Leviathan claims both to be the actor and author of the collective will: once people have handed over their consent to the sovereign (demonstrated by abrogating each individual’s rights to kill), then the Leviathan claims that power in the name of the people completely. The Leviathan can do no wrong and admits to no wrong. What’s more, unless a person can find a stronger protector, they have no choice to but to submit to the Leviathan’s authority.

So, the Obama Administration—by refusing to admit that its policies are fraught with mistakes, by refusing to concede that its mistakes have hurt innocents needlessly, by refusing to correct those mistakes in the name of state security—and by resisting all attempts to make it accountable by resorting to incarceration (John Kiriakou), mock trials (e.g., Chelsea Manning) or no trials (Barrett Brown), rescinding passports (Edward Snowden), coercing other sovereign states to incarcerate challengers to its power (Yemen/Abdulelah Haider Shaye), and killing citizens and foreigners alike without review or impunity (whether by drones, financial starvation), it claims to be the ultimate sovereign authority—without challenge, dissent, or resistance. It makes the same claim as the Leviathan.

At some level, the question that needs to be addressed is not whether the Obama Administration is interested in holding itself accountable—it clearly does not—but whether we are interested.

If US citizens are interested in the accountability from an Administration that considers itself to be not only above the law, but is unilaterally creating law and (by extension) determining others’ criminality through its own (often secret) standards, then we have to decide how to wrest back power from an absolutist state. By an absolutist state, I mean an Administration that considers dissent, scrutiny, and criticism from any lowly individual unforgivable, while insisting that its own mistakes (real and contrived) are necessary to its self-awarded status as the ruler of the world.

________________________________________________________

This piece was originally published at Salon.com.

Correcting the Poor: The Civilizing Impulses of Homo Corporatus and Private Charities*

This is the next post in my series on Neoliberalism and Charity. Part 1 is posted here and at New Economic Perspectives.

_________________________________

Should anyone—the state or any other source–have an obligation to interfere with you in order bring your best, flourishing, self about?

Certainly, this is the debate that philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin and libertarians such as Robert Nozick have engaged in heartily, with a view to socialist frameworks that redistribute resources in order to produce certain kinds of outcomes. Should the state impose certain ideals and goals upon you, and why? There are certainly examples of very good certain state-imposed expectations such as seatbelts or prohibitions against drunk driving, as well as terrible examples, such as state-imposed prohibitions on certain kinds of drugs.

In a neoliberal era, the corollary to above question is whether non-state organizations should have the ability to interfere with you in order to bring about your best, flourishing, self?

This question emerges in the wake of the heralded contrition of Sam Polk, as expressed in a New York Times opinion piece, where he offered a self-congratulatory description of his decision to give up being a Wall Street trader and “money addict,” and instead to form a charity that awards “grocery scholarships” to “poor moms.”

Polk’s charity, Groceryships, on its face appears to be a thoughtful idea.  Indeed, the basic Groceryship is a “scholarship for groceries.”

 Soon a simple one emerged: what if we bought groceries for a family for six months. I imagined a single mom, working overtime to try to put food on her table, and falling short. We wanted to give that mom some breathing room, and her kid some healthy food in the process.

The language of Groceryships is certainly neutral, but tells a story that reveals a number of assumptions about poor folks. In his tale about how Groceryships started, Polk gives a narrative about how he and his physician wife learned about eating better. And how they might be healthier if they ate better (apparently, this was previously unknown to them).  So they got to work, switching to whole foods, eliminating processed and fatty foods. Though they suffered “withdrawal” from their addiction to unhealthy foods, they were able to kick their habit. (addiction seems to be the lens by which Polk understands many phenomena).

We started buying tons of vegetables and whole grains, and cut down on fatty meats, sugar, and processed foods. It was hard. Very hard. Kirsten and I both experienced what we can only describe as withdrawal symptoms—nightmares, panicky feelings, irritability.

After a few weeks those symptoms faded. We found we enjoyed eating healthy and especially how good we felt. We no longer had to battle ourselves about whether to eat another Cheetos, or felt shame about eating too much cake. That everyday battle-stress just faded away. We ate at mealtimes, snacked when hungry, and felt great. After three months, Kirsten got her cholesterol levels tested. They’d been cut in half. She went off Lipitor.

Polk and his spouse were so impressed with the results that they wanted to share their newfound knowledge and to give back to society at the same time.

A few months later, we watched A Place At The Table (sic), a documentary focused on the staggering numbers of Americans, especially children, facing food insecurity. Each day 50 million people in this country (including one in four children) go hungry.

Growing up, my parents struggled, living paycheck to paycheck. But it never got so bad that food wasn’t on the table. Kirsten and I were horrified that so many people—kids!—were hungry. We were especially horrified that many of these kids lived down the street from us. Los Angeles is a segregated city. It’s easy to forget that just a few miles away people were starving.

I guess the truth is that we had known that; we’d just never taken ownership of our responsibility to do something about it. That day, we decided to help.

Polk recognizes the correlation between poverty and hunger, but he frames this correlation in the language of “choice” and options:

Hunger in America looks strange; there is a definite correlation between food insecurity and obesity. You’d think that people who can’t afford food would be rail thin, but it’s often the opposite. People that struggle to make ends meet tend to opt for the cheapest calories, processed/fast food. They often live in Food Deserts, areas where nutritious produce is simply not available. (Emphasis mine)

Perhaps the implied causation was inadvertent. Perhaps Polk recognizes that such “opting” is the result of being short of cash. In which case, the solution would be to distribute sufficient money to buy healthier food. And certainly, that seems to have been the initial idea, but Polk frames the solution in these terms:

…we realized that mom could also use some nutrition education and group support. We remembered how difficult quitting sugar and processed/fast food was for us, and we realized that a structure of support would be helpful, necessary.

It suggests helpfully, liberally, perhaps due to no fault of their own, that poor moms don’t know much about nutrition.  So, families who receive a “Groceryship” will be supported not only financially, but medically, educationally, and emotionally. Support typically means resources are available to help one advance towards a goal, but not mandated. By contrast, mandatory resources are not forms of support, but a form of discipline: if you must avail yourself of a resource, then you are not supported, rather you are compelled.

Groceryship awards are not merely the distribution of groceries with the “option” of attending nutrition classes; rather the classes are required. “Poor moms” who apply for the meritorious award must swear their allegiance and commitment to attending nutrition classes, “weekly meetings” and to do weekly homework. It’s as if they were young, naïve, subservient children.

Indeed, Polk acknowledges that his program is different from “but can be used in conjunction with SNAP (food stamps) which provides financial to support to struggling families (link not in original),

 but doesn’t insist the money be spent on healthful foods, or teach families how to prepare and shop for those healthy foods.” (emphasis mine)

In that simple sentence, Polk reveals more of his (limited) worldview: the state “does not insist that the money be spent on healthful foods.”

Had Polk searched, he would have found that, if anything, food stamps severely constrain the purchase of healthy foods. According to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, the maximum monthly budget for a family of 4 (i.e. those who have no other income) on food stamps is $632.

That boils down to $5.64 per person per day. Whole Foods, expensive as it is, accepts food stamps; there are multiple sites where families have accepted the “Thrifty Whole Foods” challenge to shop for whole foods on a food stamp budget. I’ll let them tell their stories—many of which have various helpful hints about how to shop and cook on a limited budget.

In short: it is possible to cook healthy foods on a severely restricted budget. But healthy foods require adequate kitchen facilities to process and cook them.  Poor families, who can presumably afford housing that is cheap (cheap because landlords don’t make repairs to provide decent stoves, rat- and cockroach-proof storage, adequate refrigerators needed to store fresh foods), often do not have those facilities, therefore tenants are forced to choose processed, sealable, storable foods.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, time (or more its scarcity) becomes a severe constraint if a “poor mom” is also working or doesn’t have access to child-care so that she can schlep to her Whole Foods easily/quickly, and also process said healthy foods. The issue of access to transportation that allows her to get to her Whole Foods will also, chances are, constrain her free cooking time further.  But all of these constraints raise another urgent issue: namely the assumption that someone who is both cash- and time-poor is expected to cook whole foods after long, difficult, days. How many working professionals are expected to cook full, healthy meals after a full day of work?

Aside from the sheer difficulty of spending money on “healthful foods,” there is also the issue of why any state should impose a certain standard on those who are dependent upon public monies for survival, when it does not impose the same expectations on the rest of its citizens.  It calls to mind Isaiah Berlin’s discussion of positive liberty.

For Berlin, positive liberty–defined as the ability to “be my own master,”[1] is least harmful when I am able to decide how to live my own life, to make my own decisions, rather than to have to depend upon external forces. As a counterpart to negative liberty, namely that where I would be protected from being harmed by others and the state, positive liberty allows me to find a way to flourish, to decide how I want to live.  In this idea, Berlin marks an idea that re-emerges a decade later in Hannah Arendt. Arendt criticizes the “Social,” that dimension of society that is subsumed by the economy, where one’s acts are instrumental—where one works in order to make a living.[2]

For Arendt, this idea undermines our very humanness. It coerces us into thinking only about life, about living, rather than acting, understood as great words and great deeds. The economy, with its inducement to consume, to work in order to live and consume—was anathema to Arendt. Arendt was critical of the notion that one’s goals must have utility. Being healthy is exemplifies this idea: Health has become naturalized as an end in itself, but in fact is about usefulness: to be less of a drain on society, to be aesthetically pleasing, to appear successful.

To be fair, Arendt’s is precisely not a socialist ideal, where one’s needs are met through a communal society, where one hunts, fishes, reads, in the model of a balanced life. Nevertheless, Arendt’s fear comports with Berlin’s, who skeptically asks:

“What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”

To find a way to flourish without being forced to live out another’s expectations for you—this was both Arendt’s and Berlin’s concern. This question was a challenge to the authoritarian state whose creeping influence, in their experiences, had been detrimental, to say the least.

But the creeping state is not the issue at stake with regard to Sam Polk and Groceryships. Rather, the issue of state-imposed expectations has been derailed with the forceful emphasis on civil society as the arena by which to solve various social and economic problems.

Civil society, a term that G.W.F. Hegel used to indicate that arena where the public and private meet, has a distinctly different sense today. Whereas Hegel circumscribed civil society as that where the individual and the state can interact through intermediate organizations such as guilds, or unions, today’s civil society is that arena where the state has dialed back its obligations in order to allow private organizations and individuals to pick up the slack.

Polk’s charity, like that of many others (such as Teach for America, charter schools, Kiva) that have sprung up in the last several decades, reflects the success of a paradigm that has emerged over the last 3 decades. This paradigm endorses private, faith-based, or “non-profit” charities as the foundation of civil society (defined as a non-government sector). These organizations, endorsed by every U.S. President since Ronald Reagan, have facilitated the evacuation of a public safety net—an evacuation that goes hand in hand with the deregulation of the banking industry, and the steady erosion of unions, public pensions, and labor protections.

Certainly, it is unreasonable to expect that the state can or will address all levels of public need. But private non-governmental charities have fewer Congressional or procedural inhibitions  what they may demand of the constituents that they claim to want to help, such as the ability to impose certain behavioral features.

Groceryships imposes many strings for the mere flaw of being poor.  According to the rules of applying for a Groceryship, being poor apparently means one chooses to eat unhealthily. Being poor apparently means that one is “addicted” to fast foods and sugar (this isn’t such a far-fetched idea for Polk, who frames his past actions in finance as the result of an “an addiction” to wealth).

Thus, to be eligible for a Groceryship, poor moms can’t have excessively large families (“no more than 3 children”), and be only moderately poor. And they “must” need/want/be eager/be motivated/be ready to adopt a healthy lifestyle, to want to be healthy, to be open to new ideas. See here.

Groceryships’ expectations fit into the neoliberal paradigm that I discussed in another piece, namely that poor people, more so than the non-poor, have an obligation to be moral, aesthetically reasonable, healthy, happy, and eager about it.

The most vulnerable—or as I say elsewhere, those who are perceived to be unruly—are seen as scary, dangerous, frightful because they are seen as “failures” due to their personal characters rather than through their circumstances: Why are they poor? Why don’t they eat better? Why are they fat? Why are they rude? Why are they noisy and loud?

If the poor just worked harder, smoked less, didn’t do drugs, shunned McDonald’s and cooked more, then they too could be as aesthetically pleasing—and perhaps as successful and happy as Sam Polk and his spouse.  This is one of the pernicious implications of a neoliberal economic model: the poor are expected to fulfill the aesthetic and moral expectations of the upper-class of what it means to live “a good life,” to flourish. And they are subject to those who are precisely in a position to be able to dictate the life goals for those who are more vulnerable.

Being poor means that if one wants to have one’s poverty relieved slightly or temporarily (remember, the Groceryship is for 6 months, after which one still remains poor), one is at the mercy of the ex-money addict Sam Polk and his neoliberal buddies, who are cheered for “helping the poor.”

Let’s remember that Polk’s money-addiction days were part of a milieu—a group of traders/financiers/bankers who were engaging in a set of practices that were both induced and condoned by state power and general pre-financial crisis societal approval. That is to say, his role in JP Morgan Chase, or other financial corporations who contributed heavily to the banking crisis (including mortgage foreclosures on the working class and minority populations) was seen as a positive contribution, until around 2008/9. Moreover, the state—both Congress and the Executive Branch–continues to condone it through (pro-banking) legislation that allowed CEOs to receive large bonuses in spite of their roles, or through supposedly punitive legislation that slapped banks lightly on their wrists, and paid out less than $2000 per person to those who lost their homes over a three year period. Moreover, this settlement changed nothing in the relationship between the borrower and loan servicing company.

By framing Polk’s actions within an individualizing framework (be it therapeutic or moral conscience), and without locating them in a larger political/cultural structure, this frame precisely engenders the kind of glorification that is showered upon Polk, by Jacqueline Novogratz and many others such as Rachel Cook, Jessica Jackley…and the Nobel Peace Prize winning innovator of microfinance himself, Mohammed Yunus, who are engaged in similar, if not identical, shifts.

What Polk et al. appear to be doing here is making a move from a “corporate free market” to a “non-profit free market,” which in no way challenges the idea that poverty and wealth are exclusively about individual choices. Rather, Polk’s (and Novogratz and Yunus) shifts still emphasize the ideology and primacy of the “free market,” coupled with a rhetorical emphasis on hard work, along with individual moral, personal, social accountability for darker or non-American population.  In Yunus’ case, micro-lending is tested in Bangladesh; for Novogratz, it’s taken to East Africa, India, Pakistan and Ghana, and for Polk, it’s applied to black and Latino populations of Southern California.

But there is another aspect of this that is also troublesome: the self-satisfaction experienced by these “free market successes” who reclaim their moral sensibilities through the act of walking away after making millions in profits and then turning to “help the poor” on their terms. They are cheered for their charity work (in an individualist frame) without being asked about their participation in a financially corrupt, morally bankrupt “free market” system that allowed these individuals to “flourish” at the expense of millions of individuals who are unable to access the free market system because they don’t have the connections or “moral luck” to have been born in the right place at the right time.  As economist Dean Baker clarifies in his book, The Conservative Nanny State, there is nothing “free” about the free market: it is rigged to benefit those who already have at the expense of those who don’t.

As well: this kind of neoliberal framework ensures that the ruling class will shape the poor, by forcing them to behave, reshape themselves through these seemingly neutral, or generous, charities in Sam Polk et al.’s own ill-informed visions of what it means to be a successful citizen.

This, then, is an expression of Michel Foucault’s biopolitics: those who are induced to cultivate themselves in the image of the ruling class are those who are the most vulnerable—subject to the whims and dictates of the wealthy and the powerful.  This is the success of the neoliberal paradigm: it renders to Homo Corporatus (or Homo Wall Streetus) the freedom and flexibility to shape the actions and character of the most vulnerable to those who have the money, the power, and the favor of the state; simultaneous Homo Corporatus’ contributions, the results of plunder and the corporate nanny state—are read as an individual/private acts of generosity to help those who are most needy, those were rendered needy through institutional/governmental/financial practices.


[1] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” p. 131. In Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford U Press: 1969.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, ch. 6. University of Chicago Press, 1958.

*Updated version. Thanks to Robin James, Janine Jones, and Robert Prasch for their helpful comments.

 

The Debt Crisis in Puerto Rico: Why Is It Not More Newsworthy?

This piece, by TransEx blogger Robert Prasch, is reposted from yesterday’s New Economic Perspectives. It’s a timely piece which raises concerns about the lack of “newsworthiness” of an American territory.

__________________________________

By Robert E. Prasch

Anyone who follows the news periodically, if not more often, wonders about the criteria making certain issues or persons “newsworthy,” and others substantially less so. One reliable indicator of newsworthiness is that the story happens in Washington, D.C. A second is an unusual or counter-intuitive event (“Man bites dog”). A third is the prospect of large losses. This last quality, however, renders the relative neglect of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis an interesting anomaly.

To get a sense of this conundrum, let us reflect back on the extensive coverage preceding Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy this past July. At the time of its filing, Detroit was a city of 700,000 persons, down from 887,000 as recently as 2005, and 1.2 million in 1980. The mass media began to cover the story months before the city’s formal declaration of bankruptcy. A common feature of these stories was that Detroit’s filing was by far the largest muni-debt bankruptcy in U.S. history, with an estimated $18 billion on the line (Jefferson County, AL and Orange County, CA were a mere $4.2 and $1.6 billions respectively). We saw numerous stories about the demise of a once-great city, the politics surrounding the payment crisis, and a fairly robust investigation into the plight of the city’s pensioners, residents, home owners, and sundry other stakeholders.

By contrast, Puerto Rico has a much larger population with approximately 3.7 million residents. As with Detroit or any other location under economic pressure, its population has been shrinking rapidly, by about 1% per annum since 2010. This is not too surprising since Puerto Rico’s GDP has only recently begun to stabilize after contracting in every year since 2006. A large portion of this contraction is due to greatly reduced levels of investment and construction, along with stagnating “exports” to its primary trading partner, the United States. Unsurprisingly, its “headline” unemployment rate is 15.4%, much higher than any state in the Union. While I have not become aware of any substantive data on the demographics of those who have left and those who have stayed, similar economic stresses across other cities and regions make it safe to presume that those who have departed are younger, more educated, and more employable.

As to the crisis itself, depending upon whom you read, somewhere between $55 and $70 billion of municipal or “muni” debt is at risk of default. Of this, just shy of $1 billion must be paid out or refinanced over the next month. In light of the market’s bearish turn on Puerto Rican debt, this will be neither easy nor cheap. As an index of market sentiment, consider that yields on Puerto Rico’s 20 year bonds, which were around 5% as recently as May, have now surged to over 10%. The market’s sense that Puerto Rico’s debt load is unmanageable was given additional impetus this past week when S&P and Moody’s downgraded the ratings on the Commonwealth’s bonds to “junk.”

With its population and economy shrinking, yields on its debt increasing, tax levels rising, businesses struggling, and bond market sentiment becoming notably bearish, Puerto Rico is in a terrible bind. To add to its woes, legal opinion currently holds that as Puerto Rico is not a sovereign government, it most likely does not have the legal authority to file for bankruptcy. Such an inability means that it cannot use the threat of a filing to garner leverage in working out terms with its creditors, and it cannot count on an informal deal freeing it up from predations by “vulture funds.”

Given all of the above, why is this story not more newsworthy (a late exception is this Sunday’s New York Times)? If we merely consider the size of the problem, it should be evident that more people will be directly afflicted by cuts in government services, lower pension payments, and a weakened labor market, etc., than occurred as a consequence of the collapse of Detroit’s or Jefferson County’s finances.

To be certain, some stories have appeared – almost all of them in the business press. The “angle” has been almost entirely on the financial side – the ratings downgrades, the outlook for investors, the efforts on the part of the government of Puerto Rico to balance its budget, etc. Again, with a few exceptions, we have not seen any “personal interest” or “man on the street” articles featuring interviews with pensioners, residents, small business owners, school officials contemplating more budget cuts, or individuals contemplating migration to the New York, Miami, or elsewhere.

I would speculate that part of the reason for the coverage gap is the absence of two U.S. Senators and a handful of Representatives. Representation in Congress would make this a Washington story, and thereby “on the radar” of all political reporters and most newspaper editors. Another reason may be related to Puerto Rico’s quasi-sovereign status.

Or, is it that we are becoming accustomed to such stories? Perhaps we have quietly given up on the notion that the United States is or should be a first-world nation with the ability, capacity, and obligation to ensure that all of its states and territories have the wherewithal to support a decent standard of living. If the latter is true, then the lack of interest in the prospects facing the people of Puerto Rico is just one more signal that plutocratic values and perspectives are increasingly dominating our politics and media.

Sam Polk and his civilizing mission

A shorter, cleaner, version of this article was published over at Salon.com on Jan. 23, 2014. Here’s the messier, longer, less clean version:

Part I (yes, a few more parts to come):

In the Sunday New York Times, former trader Sam Polk has a weepy confessional candid opinion piece, “For the Love of Money,” about his addiction to money, and how he’s overcome it (but not before pocketing the millions, mind you). It doesn’t really stand out, whether as contribution to the genre of former plunderers financiers, or a redemption narrative. But it is helpful in understanding the “pipeline” from the “free market” to the neoliberal (bio)politics of charity.

You see, Sam Polk locates his “addiction” within the context of his addictive personality, to cocaine, to alcohol, and finally, to money. He points out that he was the child of a Willie Loman-like father, who always wanted to be rich, always dreaming the big dream, but who never got there. I suppose, inpart, his piece is supposed to locate his desires as part of a quest to fulfill his father’s dreams. But even in this, he doesn’t stand out. After all, many children grow up to be adults who strive to fulfill their parents’ hopes for success, however that turns out.

But the issue that really pisses me off troubles me is his proseletyzing zeal (like the kind that envelops ex-smokers and new vegans or philosophy students who’ve just discovered Foucault) with which he points out that having all that money really isn’t that great, and that it’s better put to use in distributing among the less fortunate.

Conspicuously absent in Sam Polk’s heart-warming confession is any description of the role he played in a financial sector that led to one of the most destructive economic decimations since 1929, and to a widespread societal poverty or misery. Apparently, his only sin was gluttony.

And voila: back to a moral accounting. After all, this is a Judeo-Christian framework, isn’t it?.

What better way to atone for one’s sins than to confess and pursue redemption by distributing alms to the poor. And coincidentally, it dovetails with the ongoing neoliberal mode of addressing widespread social crises: increase pressure on “civil society” to remedy hunger, poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, access to reproductive rights social problems through private charity.

As we know, these are social problems created through the decimation of federal budgets, because its much more urgent to feed the chickenhawks by funding the War on Terror through its respective bureaucracies: the NSA, DHS, ICE, the DoD, etc., etc. And they’re created by the same corporations who are now bereft of the voracious, graciously hedge funded presence of Sam Polk.

But then again, maybe redemption has an upside. Here’s what Sam Polk has decided to do in his saintly afterlife: he has created a charity that “gives” six months of groceries to needy families (those who make less than $40,000 annually). You might think, kudos to Polk! Wow, what a guy!

But as we know, nothing in life (that actually matters) is ever free. In a very beautifully worded story, Polk and his beloved physician spouse, watch a show about eating more healthily. Spouse bursts into tears at the new idea (New? Really?) that eating more whole foods and grains will make her healthier. And sure enough, after a few weeks of better eating, the Polk clan feel better, lose weight, get off Lipitor, lower their cholestorol, etc.

So they decide to share their newly discovered insights to (drumroll, please)–say it with me:  Help. The. Needy. Watch out, Bill and Malinda!

And how will they do so? By using their So. Cal networks to pressure Gov. Jerry Brown to commit more money for poor families to be able to buy better food? By hounding the California State legislature to expand welfare budgets? By using his former Wall Street influence to pressure their Senators DiFi and Barbara Boxer to start winding down the War on Terror so as to make local foods more affordable? To re-allocate defense spending in favor of transportation subsidies?

Um, in case you haven’t guessed already, no.

Instead, the Polk family (and there are many of them listed on the website; check it out) will “award” grocery scholarships to those who REALLY want it (I kid you not).  Yes, the allusion is certainly to “merit”—because not every single poor family is worthy of eating well, simply by being alive—instead they must commit to taking weekly nutrition classes, meetings, counselors, tests, etc.

Much like a Christian charity, where the needy must accept a healthy lecture on their sins along with their dinner, the Polks have created a cult of granola, in which the needy will be helped only if they realize that it is in their own best interest to eat better.

Apparently, that is what is missing for poor people: knowledge and know-how about nutrition, at least according to Sam Polk and Doctor Spouse. Not money, time, or the social space and dignity to arrange their own lives on their own terms, but “rewards” with strings attached.  That’s because—remember–the poor don’t have beliefs; they only have compulsions and misguided beliefs and ideas. True moral uplift means the poor must be cultivated in the image of Southern Californians and other bourgie liberals who focus on the body as the site of virtue. You are what you eat. So fat, dark people (let’s face it, that’s who Polk and friends are targeting—look at the website!) must be cultivated to seek self-improvement. Morality, yet again, is individual. To hell with pressuring the state to reallocate funds for a well-funded social infrastructure enabling people to decide how to live a healthy life (say, expansive healthcare, subsidized public transportation, no-strings attached food subsidies. Just a thought).

Groceryships reveals Sam Polk to be the former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (surely you haven’t forgotten his failed ban on large sodas). Just add photogenic dimples, long sunbleached hair and a tan.

“What’s wrong with helping poor people eat better?” you ask “Even you eat kale and legumes on a regular basis. Are you such a classist hypocrite that you want to deny poor people that chance, too?”

It is true. I am more into granola and yoga these days than in my youth. But it is a decision that I made after years of a diet weighted toward animal proteins and fermented grape and barley. And my partner has mostly disdain for it and doesn’t join me. And doesn’t have to. Because each of us can afford to make the decisions we like without having to account for it to anyone else (except to my mother, who was a strict religious vegetarian tee-totaler her entire life. No eggs, no meat, no booze, no cigs—licit or otherwise. But she died after succumbing to diabetes, breast cancer twice (20 years apart), kidney failure, high blood pressure and cholesterol, all before she hit 70. She lived a fairly healthy life. But there are no guarantees. And she, like me, offered no explanations or accountability to anyone.

And that is the point. The ability to live a dignified life should not be dependent upon the whims of others—or on one’s personal (lack of) wealth. And if one or many do not have sufficient money—perhaps because they lost their already meager homes, wealth, and livelihood in the course of the recent financial machinations and ensuing crash (with hedge fund traders, among others, at the helm), then they should certainly not have to be at the mercy of private monies funneled by the formerly predatory do-gooders who are seeking a new colonizing mission (to help the poor learn how to eat healthily!)–to redeem their immoral souls.

The perhaps not-worst aspect of this is the sheer condescension of the former parasites. They preach nutritional moral uplift for the poor (not because they don’t have time and energy and money, because they don’t know better, apparently). But wouldn’t subpoenas to testify about legalities of their previous business dealings be a better way to save their own souls? Now there’s real redemption.