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.

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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.

 

Adnan Latif, the Social Contract, and the American Empire

Glenn Greenwald, emptywheel, Mark Falcoff , Andy Worthington, and many others have written about the Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, who died in Guantanamo Bay Detention Facilities yesterday. Cause of death is still unknown. But if you click on these links, you will learn something about this young man, who by almost all accounts was no threat to the United States. Latif was turned over to the United States shortly after 9/11/01 by Pakistani forces in Afghanistan, which as emptywheel will tell you, they were doing quite often then. He was in detention without charges for nearly 11 years, recommended by the US Military for release in 2006 and again in 2008. His lawyers fought to have him released for a decade. According to Andy Worthington, he was cleared at least 3 times, until the Supreme Court overturned the order to release last year.  Thanks to various folks (“Heroes,” we’ll call them), was left to rot in GTMO with little chance of getting out—because the US was concerned about the lack of security in Yemen.

“At one point, military records show, Latif was cleared for release. But the U.S. has ceased returning any prisoners to Yemen because the country is unstable and its government is considered ill-equipped to prevent former militants from resuming previous activities. There are about 55 Yemenis among the 167 men held at Guantanamo.”

Translation: Latif could be very angry after his years locked up and, if he wasn’t a threat to the US going into Guantanamo Bay, he could very well be one if released. Imagine: you, your brother, locked up for 11 years. Forced to wear only underpants because it is immodest to pray in scanty attire. Punished for sequestering food, for stepping over the chalk line as “lunch” was doled out. Force-fed through feeding tubes in your nose (“like having a dagger shoved down your throat,” according to Latif) because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. He went on several hunger strikes to protest, among other things, his treatment in GTMO and his detention.

There are many protests of outrage, of which this post is but one. But what should we make of this death? As Peter Van Buren will tell you, there was a moment in time when torture was zealously denounced by the American Nation at large. There was a moment perhaps remembered by denizens of the US above the age of 20, pre-9/11/01 when human rights, while not airtight, were not laughable. Torture was not debated, because it was considered downright shady and impermissible for the arbiter of human rights, the U.S., to engage in such nefarious conduct. Pre-emptive surveillance, surveillance without a warrant from a judge, widespread interrogation, warrantless detention, deportation without judicial review for people whose religions and skincolors the US wasn’t fond of—these were not boasted of proudly. Assassinations, kidnappings, of foreign nationals—these were things that other countries did, and always with a frown of embarrassment.

Was this an idyllic time? No, of course not. African Americans were, even pre-9/11, fighting to survive the continuous contempt, the legal and political obstacles by whites to dignity, civil rights, wage parity, admission to college, employment for which they were plenty qualified (and over-qualified). Black men were—and still are—being thrown in prison. Nearly 1 in 3 Black men will expect—EXPECT—to go to prison in their lifetimes today.

Life is still extremely precarious for segments of the Black, Latino, Muslim, and Arab populations, but life has been extremely beneficial for many others at the same time.  It’s not coincidental of course. It involves a little thing called the Social Contract. As philosopher Charles Mills describes the Social Contract that is at the heart of modern liberalism—at the heart of modern Europe and North America—it is a Racial Contract.  A Racial Contract underpins the Social Contract, which means that political freedoms and social obligations are built upon the racial hierarchies that form the basis of United States political history.

That means slavery, Jim Crow, the exclusion of Chinese immigrants in 1882, the lynchings of black men, the internment of citizens and migrants of Japanese descent, the Hindu Conspiracy Trials of 1917 (where the US cooperated with the British to try Punjabi political dissenters who want Self-Rule in India), the deportation of Mexicans in the 1920’s, the Bracero program, and widespread harassment of Black Americans and migrants.

Today’s Racial Contract is slightly updated: it involves participating in the imperial impulses of the American Homeland, of doing the bidding of the American Empire.

We can see the Racial Contract operating in every area of American Politics—from designing torture policies, to pre-emptive policing, to exculpating bankers who enabled the financial and housing crises, to arguing for invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Racial Contract is being built on the drones that are killing Yemenis, Pakistanis, Saudis, Afghans in Guantanamo. The Racial Contract is being built on the lives of Iraqis and Pakistani civilians. It may soon be built on the lives of Iranians.

There’s another aspect as well. Philosopher Michel Foucault insisted in the mid 1970’s that we needed to take the emphasis off the figureheads like kings and presidents, and focus on its inner workings, on laws, bills, policies, programs that divide a society in two, and will—literally—force some to live and allow others to die.

About 10 years ago, this division was much harder to see. Today, Foucault’s prescience is stunning: Adnan Latif was forced to live until—well—until he’d outlived whatever usefulness he had for the American Empire. But his life—well, it was barely life. That was also Foucault’s point: the nature of life is also subject to the whims of the state—in this case, subject to the whims of American Empire. Ditto for non-citizens like those Pakistanis, Yemenis, Afghans. They get to live until—well—until the American state decide otherwise.

Concretely, what does this mean? It means that the American Homeland (after all, this is what the Department of Homeland Security signifies) will secure its borders through the series of laws that enable it to seize the power to control who is forced to live, who will be forced to die.  But the division is not just about the American Homeland and its empire. It’s about reinforcing the divide between citizens and non-citizens. President Obama was right when he invoked “citizenship” as the obligation to others. He was invoking the Social Contract in its post-racial moment: as the obligation to certain other (citizens). Not to Yemenis, Afghans, Iranians, Pakistanis. Not to brown women in other countries. Not to undocumented Latinos.

Foucault notwithstanding, the POTUS is hardly exculpated in for his involvement in this Racial Contract: His personal role in imprisoning journalists and whistleblowers from Abduleh Haider Shaye, his Administrations’s harassment of John Kiriakou, Julian Assange, and others,  his extra-legal assassination of Osama Bin Ladin, of countless #2’s who are supposed to be next in line to head Al-Qaeda, from Anwar Al-Aulaqi, and his 16 year old son, to Abu Yahya al-Libi, Saeed Al Shihri.  But not to worry, the Democrats will have a solid easy partnership with Republicans, who want much the same things. If elected, Romney will continue the legacy, no doubt.

Suffice it to say to that on the 11th anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001: the United States has waged a retaliatory? distracting? decade-long war. But it is hardly a race-neutral war. It is hardly a post-racial moment. Rather it is a war begun by elite whites with the assistance of populations across the spectrum, who get to reap the benefits of American Empire: Prestige, Power, Prime speaking time at the Political Conventions.

In the meantime, prisoner after prisoner will die in Guantanamo, even though they haven’t been charged, even though they have been nearly released, even though their only crime was being brown and in the wrong place at the wrong time. Innocents in other countries will die needlessly. But hey, that’s JUST xenophobia, and it happens all the time. So quit being an asshole and vote for the Dems, will you?

Adnan Latif? Wait, what happened? Who’s he?

A Moment to Love Strangers

Following one train of leftster fashion, I typically don’t acknowledge Valentine’s Day, at least not publicly. But this morning’s show of Democracy Now, which featured a series of stories from StoryCorps Oral History Project, left me deeply touched. I was a bit surprised at my own reaction, as I heard stories from couples, one half of whom had passed since their recording their love story, or from a woman recounting her last conversation with her husband. He called her on September 11, 2001 from the 105th floor of the World Trade Center as he sat trapped and waiting to be co­­­nsumed by smoke. They spent his last half-hour by talking about the happiest moments of their life together. She died in a plane crash 8 years later, as she flew to Buffalo, NY, to celebrate his birthday with his family.

I was moved by the abundance of love and joy that these storytellers expressed in the moment.  As much, though, I was moved that Amy Goodman and her production team had offered such a gorgeous, uncensored show that celebrated so many varieties of love and affection and joy. In a way it spoke to a question that had been on my mind since Saturday’s news of Whitney Houston’s sudden death. On Facebook, there were so many expressions of sorrow and mourning of someone whose amazing talent would be deeply missed. And yet, while I am saddened, I find it difficult to mourn her or any of the other celebrities who have passed during my conscious lifetime.  I will freely concede that it might be because I’m emotionally stunted.  Still, it’s also because I find it difficult to mourn public figures whom I don’t know or don’t feel connected. I will also admit that I was very saddened by the loss of Keith Aoki, one of the world’s premiere Critical Race Theory legal scholars—but then again, I had spent some time with him years back, and his deeply generous spirit and our conversations had made a deep impression on me.

A friend with whom I discussed the phenomenon of public collective electronic mourning for Houston shared an answer offered by one of his students.  She suggested that it was an occasion for us to emerge from our general numbness in the current world. I’m not sure what that “world” meant for that student, but I might imagine it was a world of dominating electronic communications, networking, and of the general vitriol and visceral responses that form public discourse about current events. I suppose it is a moment in which strangers and remote—FB—friends can come together to share in a collective grief that reminds us of our humanity.  Perhaps.

Even though I find it difficult to mourn Houston, I have found joy and solace in her voice—and perhaps it is this that others call mourning: the loss of optimism, of the certainty that she will ever sing again, the loss of her talents.  Yet, I am able to mourn the loss of millions of people that I have never met. If it is true that one can love and grieve others when one finds connection to them, then I wonder what connection I feel to the millions who’ve died untimely, unjust deaths. Perhaps it is that I grieve that they will never wake to follow through on their desires for their own lives, or for their familes. Perhaps it is that I believe that my own good life, my own good fortune, is just that–a coincident, a twist of fate that I am here, flourishing and unharmed rather than part of a population who is at the mercy of an American imperial state.  I wonder what it requires to prompt a love of peoples that one doesn’t know. Is it too abstract to grieve the lives of children and women and men who live 10,000 miles away? Is it strange to love and mourn children who will never be able to grow up and lead lives far away from war?

As I write these words, I think of the story from this morning’s show about a woman who has come to love the man who murdered her son. She forgave him, and now loves that same man as her son. I must admit that their story, as moving as it is, is a difficult one for me. But from it, I am compelled by the kernel that love is intimately connected to forgiveness. As I think about the different stories that I heard this morning, I find another truth.  As always in my thinking, this truth comes rather late in the game: grief is intimately connected to love; in order to grieve someone, one must have loved that someone as well. Is it too much to love someone that one has never met, let alone known to any degree?  I suppose this is one facet of the work (yes, work) of loving the (abstract) Other that philosophers have considered for millennia, from (take your pick) Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Rousseau, Arendt, Beauvoir, Dr. King, and so many others.  May I  ask that we spend a minute today–on a day that memorializes love and care (regardless of the Hallmarkiness of it all)–trying to find a way to love the innocents (and perhaps some of the guilty) who have died? Can we find a way to love those who have died at the hands of strangers, lovers, spouses, parents—and yes, even due to an imperial state–in order to be able to grieve them as well? As well, I wonder if it is possible to spend a long moment today loving those who are alive and struggling for their freedom in Syria and Bahrain and Libya and Egypt and Palestine and elsewhere, on other continents, and in other states, and in nearby cities?  It may be a ridiculous sentiment, but somehow, it gives me joy to think about loving utter strangers—children, women, and men whom I may never meet and yet who may in fact be amazing heroes and loving parents and bubbling people in their own right.

Happy Valentine’s Day, folks. May you find joy in loving someone you don’t know.

Why Even Good Law-Abiding People Should Care About Privacy

Coffee Customers at Mardi Gras

Coffee Customers at Mardi Gras

Since my post on Homophobic Harassment and Surveillance, I’ve been ruminating some more on the issues of surveillance and privacy.  The conversation about the importance (or lack thereof) of privacy was renewed for a lot of folks last December. That was when the news came to light that the US Congress banded together symphonically to approve the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Although ostensibly about indefinite detention, the NDAA raised concerns about the increasing encroachment over the privacy rights of US citizens and the increase of pre-emptive and warrantless surveillance. In the public debate, there have been two distinct responses. Response 1 comes from the righteous civil righters (RCRs), which amounts to, “How dare they take away my privacy!” Response 2 came from morally upstanding citizens (MUCs): “Well, if you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.”

Both of those responses seem a bit mysterious to me.  Why should we care about a “right to privacy?” After all, aren’t the MUC’s right?  If you don’t do anything wrong, there’s no reasons to worry about it. And yet…I think there is be more to it than that.  There are plenty of things we do that are legal or that happen to us…that are not things that we might want to share with everyone: having an abortion or gender re-assignment surgery; a teacher’s past life as a dancer in a stripclub; premarital affair with a TeaPartyer; a secret affinity for hot-dog eating contests when you’re the head of a major Weight Loss Organization; or used drugs recreationally during one’s more carefree days before ascending up the ladder to become the policy director at the World Health Organization (This is made-up. Promise).  These are things that aren’t necessarily to be ashamed of; there’s context, there’s moral complexity, there’s a story. But we all have sides of ourselves that we don’t care to explain to others for any number of reasons.  And as we know, when these stories come out, they cause embarrassment or shed a negative light on the person at the center of the story. In other words, when our secrets are broken by someone other than ourselves, there’s a good chance that those leaks will cast aspersions on our character, causing us to lose face, or to prevent us from moving on with our lives or toward our goals. That’s the point of leaking secrets, after all, isn’t it?

How many stories have we heard about teachers losing their jobs because they—umm—shared much more of their trip to New Orleans during Mardi Gras on Facebook than the School Superintendent thought was proper? Newly minted college-graduates not getting called back after an ace interview—because the employer discovered his credit scores were low (due to tragic circumstances rather than irresponsibility—which the employer never learned of)?

But this isn’t about wrongdoing. It’s about growing up, making (bad) judgments, moving on, and remaking yourself. That was part of the point of “going West”: you could shed your past, former associates, bad habits, bad decisions by moving on and starting over. These are some reasons that privacy is so important. But in a world where all of our movements are tracked, our ability to hold on to our humanity erodes to be replaced by fear and self-censorship.

Leaking secrets about an individual in private life is different from leaking secrets about wrongdoings that public institutions have been guilty of: like the case of the US wrongdoing as leaked by Pvt. Bradley Manning or Julian Assange or CIA agent John Kiriakou. Or most recently, by Spanish judge Balthazar Garzon, whose illustrious crime-fighting record was shut down by the Spanish Supreme Court. In all of these instances, the secrets that were leaked show the lack of accountability by the state or some of its officers.  Lone citizens aren’t held to that same standard. Public officers, once upon a time, were supposed to abide by a set of ethics and to have their actions be transparent while individuals could engage in all kinds of activities–respectable or not– in the privacy of their homes without being called out.  Instead, we’re at a place where the actions of individuals are supposed to be transparent while the dubious decisions and unethical acts of public officers—from the US military, to the POTUS, are systemically hidden from view.

After all, this is what it means to have a GPS tracking device in your car—and to make it illegal to remove it.  But POTUS can authorize the killing of a US citizen without being required to provide proof of cause, and he’s hailed as a hero.

While the US Constitution doesn’t have an explicit right to privacy, the Supreme Court has, in groundbreaking cases like Roe v. Wade, interpreted that right to exist through a “penumbra” of other rights as listed in Amendments 1, 4, 5, 9, and 14 (see section V). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights considers privacy a fundamental human right (see Article 12). It’s considered fundamental to human dignity. Why might that be?  In part, it might be because there’s a realm in which you should be able to conduct your life, as controversial as certain practices might be (like having pre-emptive mastectomies to avoid breast cancer) or as intimate as having sex with one’s lover–without having to fear someone else’s judgment AND without having to fear that surveillance will be used to punish you. Now, note here that I’m NOT talking about acts that are harmful or destructive: pedophilia, abuse, violence—these are all acts that harm others, often those who don’t have the defenses to remove themselves from harm. But these are acts are committed by relatively few compared to the enormous number of us who are being surveilled now.

We need to have a fundamental right to privacy because it enables us to make decisions in our lives that enable us to feel human rather than like automatons behaving the way others/states/institutions want us to behave. Being human consists fundamentally of making decisions within the constraints of the lives into which we are born (for example, I can’t become an Air Force pilot if I have bad eyesight). But those constraints shouldn’t be imposed and calculated and created by private insurance companies who decide whether to cover you based on the propensity of cancer or mental illness in your family, or private schools that demand a parent’s driver’s license information on a permission slip for her kid’s field trip (this is NOT made up. Promise), or FBI decisions to stalk you because you go to mosque for your religious reflection.

The ability to make love, medical decisions, lifestyle choices, or bad decisions, to take risks, to find spiritual solace—these are acts that firmly anchor our dignity, and that is why they deserve to be private decisions, free of surveillance.   Just because the MaMa Pajama or the PaPa don’t like it, don’t make it bad…

Where is Their Refuge in This World?

Once they had left their homeland they remained homeless, once they had left their state they became stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights they were rightless, the scum of the earth.” Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), ch. 9.

I’m still troubled by many (white and non-white) progressives’ diffidence over U.S. foreign policy.  Besides some of the principled and humbling speeches of Dr. King this week, I reread selections from Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece, Origins of Totalitarianism (Origins), published in 1951. Arendt, a philosopher and a journalist, fled to France from Germany in 1933.  In France, besides working to assist other Jewish refugees, she was imprisoned in a concentration camp. Eventually, with the help of friends, she escaped. She made her way to the United States, where she taught at the New School and the University of Chicago. You may have read her series of searing critical articles on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, published in the New Yorker in 1961 (eventually published as a collection under the title, Eichmann in Jerusalem).

Origins is a sobering analysis that tries to make sense of how hundreds of thousands of Jews and other minorities could have gone from being seemingly secure in their political status as members of a nation to being—first—homeless, then stateless, then rightless.  As usual, I come back to Chapter 9, which is entitled, “The End of the Nation-State and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.”  Did I mention that Ch. 9 is brilliant? Please go read it.

“The soldier during the war is deprived of his right to life, the criminal of his right to freedom, all citizens during an emergency of their right to the pursuit of happiness, but nobody would ever claim that in any of these instances a loss of human rights has taken place.”

I disagree with Arendt about what citizens lose “during times of emergency.”  I don’t think it’s simply the “pursuit of happiness,” a la Alexis de Tocqueville. I agree with Katha Pollitt that civil rights (24:10)—the right to sit at a lunch counter, to be waited on, to vote, to move about without fear of assault, without fear of violence or rape, the right to reproductive health–are unconditionally important.

But I want to make two points here:

1. The right to sit at a lunch counter, to vote, to move about without fear of violence can’t be enjoyed when one is under aerial bombardment or being shot by soldiers. Or dead.

2. Civil rights are national rights, but they are not exclusively national rights. They are not merely rights based on membership.  Rather, they are human rights that should belong to every human being, regardless of nationality, that should be enforceable through the state.

These rights must be extended to migrants and residents living in the US, regardless of political status: the right to water, the right to schooling, the right to medical care, the right to walk down the street without fear of assault or racial profiling or being arrested. But the right to know why I am being arrested, being detained—the right to know the evidence against me, the right to a lawyer, the right to a trial based on Constitutional—aren’t these really human rights protections (Look at how similar these rights are to those listed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights)?

I think Arendt wanted to distinguish the loss of civil rights from the loss of those rights that get to the heart of what it means to be human. We see something of this in the epigraph above and in the quotation below:

The first loss which the rightless suffered was the loss of their homes, and this meant the loss of the entire social texture into which they were born and in which they established for themselves a distinct place in the world…[t]he second loss…was the loss of government protection, and this did not imply just the loss of legal status in their own, but in all countries…By itself the loss of government protection is no more unprecedented than the loss of a home…The more the number of rightless people increased, the greater became the temptation to pay less attention to the deeds of the persecuting government than to the status of the persecuted.

Her words seem so urgent as I think about the indifference of US nationals to the continuation of war under the current Administration. This isn’t just jingoistic foreign policy, as anti-racist activist Tim Wise suggests. We can’t make a qualitative distinction between racism at home versus racist actions internationally. Wars—on terror, on Iraqi and Pakistani civilians, on the bodies of Muslim men (through torture, indefinite detention, solitary confinement), on MEMSA* families– is an assault, a violation of, the homes, the communities, the culture, the livelihood of millions of civilians. The loss of a physical home is mirrored by the existential loss of home.

Where is my refuge, my sanctuary, in this world?  Many of us asked as we felt that existential loss of home on September 11, 2001. We were devastated by the complete rupture in our sense of safety, the deep rent in our communities’ sense of permanence.

The women and men and children on whom we are waging war are asking that same question. The men and women migrants–in detention centers around the US for the simple crime of wanting to sustain their lives and families—ask that same question:  Where is my refuge in this world?  MEMSA’s, who are beaten, tortured, in detention centers around the country, ask that same question: Where is my sanctuary in this world?  Lakhmar Boumedienne, an Algerian relief worker detained in Guantanamo for 7 years before being released, wonders the same thing: where is my refuge in this world, where I did nothing wrong except commit the crime of being Muslim?

The right to live—for US citizens or nationals, for Pakistani, Iraqi, Afghan nationals is not—should not be–dispensable. Ditto Iran. The right to live a life free of terror, free of aerial bombardment, should be indispensable. The ability of children to grow up without fear of drone attacks, without fear of soldiers shooting: is this not a right?

Equally indispensable are the rights to one’s home, one’s culture, one’s social world, one’s status as a political being.  Should it not be an indispensable right to be recognized as a human being with dignity?  For Arendt, this could occur only when people were recognized in their political dimensions: as citizens of a nation. But without those political protections, human beings are seen, as Arendt says, as the scum of the earth.

It is not just US foreign policy that deprives human beings of these rights. Our domestic policies, including the NDAA, deprives us of these rights. Anti-immigrant laws in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia deprive us of these rights even when NO crimes have been committed: right to live without fear of arrest. The right to live with privacy. The right to water and electricity.  The right to hospital care. The right not to be detained. The right to live within our communities. If the world can recognize that these are human rights, why can’t we here in the US?

Why are we not outraged when our own President approves these violations of human dignity?  A few years ago, Judith Butler, a philosopher who has been critical of US policies over the last decade, asked why certain lives are more grievable than others. She points out that we have very few images, frames, stories to associate with the deaths of Iraqi or Palestinian (and, I might add, Pakistani) children. Is it because, as she suggests, their lives are “unreal?”  “If violence is done against those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those whose lives are already negated.” (Precarious Life, ch. 2)

Are the lives of brown men, women, and children abroad unreal? Already negated? Can they be worth less than the lives of US nationals?  I wonder if this is why the victims of the War on Terror seem so negligible that there is no urge to have our politicians, pundits, progressives, political organizations, race-advocacy organizations insist on bringing those lives to the forefront for discussion?  Would Dr. King approve of our prioritizing the status quo of our privilege (and yes, I mean mine and yours)—black, white, brown—over the lives of children who don’t live here? Over the lives of men and women who don’t live here? Can we—as progressives and liberals and feminists and anti-racists—be that inhumane as we think about our political future as a society?

Where is their refuge in this world? Where is our refuge in this world?

______________________

*Muslim/Middle Eastern/South Asian