The Politics of Distraction and Chaos

The latest Executive Order from DT, banning Syrian refugees and putting a 90 day hold on Iraqi nationals who want to enter the US has, at least on the surface, put us on a new playing field it seems. I tried to find the list of the other 5 countries that the press, from the NYT to CNN, has insisted is on the list of banned countries. There is nothing in the executive order about it, although there are references to earlier segments of US law that appear to list those countries. According to CNN, an earlier draft of the order (why can’t we have access to that??) listed the seven countries to which this EO applies. But I see no other confirmation, apart from the media parroting each other.

Here’s the upshot as far as I can tell: those five countries were listed on an original list of exceptions to Visa waivers, passed in December 2015 as part of an Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2016 (h/t to Emory Law School professor Deborah Dinner for helping me figure where to look, and for pointing me to Seth Frantzman’s site for some leads). I don’t agree with Frantzman’s conclusions, but still his efforts to find where the assumed countries are listed are commendable.

Frantzman points us to an announcement from the DHS website, wherein in they list 3 more countries to the list of 3 others already on the list to be exempted from the Visa Waiver Travel program, i.e., travelers from this list will not be eligible for visa waiver exemptions). The six countries are as follows: Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria (already mentioned in DT’s EO).

 

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You will notice that these are seven countries listed under a Travel Visa Waiver restriction that was passed in December 2015, announced in February 2016, that is, under the Obama Administration. Trump’s EO in effect develops further the policy enacted under Obama’s DHS, namely suspending visa issuances to those foreign nationals. To be sure, The Obama policy was narrower than the Trump EO, But let’s also be clear: these were countries of concern under the Obama Administration’s watch.

Trump’s EO suspends the Visa Waiver altogether, requiring in-person interviews for all persons seeking non-immigrant visas.

It is also the case that Trump’s EO is much more sweeping than the DHS restrictions, in that it seeks to suspend the entry of all refugees for 120 days, pending further scrutiny, and suspends the entry of all Syrian refugees until further notice (which is not the same as forever, but perhaps that’s a distinction without a difference).

Trump’s is a rather cleverly crafted EO, in that there is no explicit reference to all Muslims, but rather to “Islamic terrorists” (which we can certainly read as an “existential threat,” to paraphrase Judge Bruce Selya in his 2013 opinion on the Tarek Mehanna case. And we know that “terrorist” is a salient and legally acceptable category in a way that “banning all Muslims” is not. So, I suspect that this EO will-through conventionally narrow legal readings—be upheld as constitutional.

But all that is neither here nor there. I think there is another point here which is extremely salient: This is a politics of distraction and chaos in to which we would do well not to cave. Remember that this EO was effective in stopping exactly 109 travelers in the first 24 hours of the EO taking effect. 109 of 325,000 foreign nationals who fly into the US in a 24 hour period. Of course, this doesn’t include the number of travelers who were turned back in international airports, who are stranded elsewhere. But I worry that the Trump Administration in delivering these splashy—incredibly incompetent, ill-planned, insufficiently vetted EO’s–is leading us around like trained seals. They know we’re protesting, they’re expecting it, and it expends our energy while other less visible chaos is being wrought. In that sense, (and I did join the protests yesterday), I’m reminded of Walter Benjamin’s comments about the aestheticization of politics in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.

Agreed, we are not proletarian masses, and I hestitate to use the term “Fascism,” because it is overused. But I’m struck by his point that property is preserved while political expression is exercised. I’m also reminded of Hannah Arendt’s point about how the success of authoritarian regimes depends upon throwing us into confusion and chaos, while other devastating acts are undertaken under “dark of night,” as it were (my phrase).

This is not to say that there isn’t important reason to be on record as dissenting. This is not to say that there is no cause for concern—but Trump/Bannon et al are continuing a certain politics of distraction that has been in effect for a long time, including under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations—namely getting us to focus on a certain social politics of antagonism and hate, while they enact other deeply destructive economic policies: NAFTA, the repeal of Glass-Steagall (leading eventually to the massive mortgage foreclosure crisis), financial treats for pals in the investment banking industry, the loss of pensions, bailing out the banks, cowtowing to the health insurance industry, etc.

We know that Trump has put Steve Bannon, clown and white supremacist extraordinaire (excuse me, his “Chief of Staff” on the NSC), along with the NSC Executive Secretary, while removing the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs from permanent status. This is a WTF moment. Responses from the Trump administration responded that they didn’t want to waste the DNI’s or Chairman’s time. I repeat: WTF?

We also know that over the weekend, Trump launched a barely-noticed drone strike in Yemen that killed the the 8 year old daughter—and the second, US citizen, child– of suspected terrorist and US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki’s children (the first, American 16 year old Abdulrahman having been killed during an Obama Administration drone strike). You can read all about the heinousness of the Obama Admin’s actions at the previous link.

The big question for me here is: what else are these bozos up to? What are they trying to pass under the radar while keeping our noses focused on this superficial “Clash of Civilizations” approach to foreign policy and immigration/visa policies? What kind of economic destruction are they playing into? Funnily enough, even Benjamin Wittes, on his Lawfare blog (with whom I agree about almost nothing), also thinks there’s something else going on besides “national security concerns”.

Something to consider while we’re being distracted and thrown into chaos.

 

 

 

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Some thoughts as we head even further* into the KaliYuga (the epoch of terrible things)…

This post comes after a long hiatus from this blog: almost 2.5 years later. As some of you know, I lost my darling almost 2 years ago next week, and I moved to the South  which, remarkably, has showered hope on me again despite the current moment.  Salon has dropped me from their masthead (without notice), and so I return to my blog. I’d like to think that this piece constitutes a happy (re)inauguration of this blog. Happier than the one happening in DC today in any case. This piece honors the memory of Robert E. Prasch III, and speaks to some of our shared concerns. Love to you all and thanks for reading.

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Two days ago, I was called in for jury duty in my new home territory of DeKalb County, Georgia. That’s part of the 5th district, for all y’all who are keeping track of the spat between Rep. John Lewis and the Trumpster. I spent nine hours in total in the DeKalb County Courthouse. Six of those hours were in a courtroom with 17 others while lawyers for the state of Georgia and the defense asked us a series of questions. The questions were designed to weed out potential jurors who might present obstacles to either side of the case. The charges involved domestic battery, leveled against a young black man, probably not older than 20.

We were ushered out of the courtroom several times so the lawyers could confer privately or speak with some of us who declined to elaborate on our answers publicly. As the day wore on, the 17 of us (one was dismissed immediately for an important reason which I won’t share with you so as not to give any of y’all ideas) developed a sense of camaraderie, kind of like “feeling close” to the participants of your favorite reality TV show. And people’s most intimate views came out. In particular the following 2 views were ringing loud and clear: 1) the accused guy was guilty of the charges. 2) they were hoping to be excused from the jury, because they had a bunch of important work meetings. It was patently clear that a number of us were grasping at straws, but giving lame answers to questions in the hopes of getting off jury duty.

Many of us, I’m betting, were anti-Trump folks. I know that the two who expressed the previous comments were definitely anti-Trump. When they (both women) found out that I was a WGSS faculty member at Emory, they anticipated that I was going to participate in the Women’s march. I’m wondering if anyone else besides me sees the tension in this story: Participating in the Women’s march was important. But giving the man in front of us the benefit of the doubt, and feeling obligated to participate on a jury of his peers somehow didn’t occur to them.

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As I read lots of suggestions about what do instead of/after the Women’s March (talking circles, get-togethers for strangers who don’t talk to each other, be nice to people, make space for everyone to speak, “resist hate, exclusion, and policies that impoverish your community”…run for office, etc. etc.), I’m struck by how there has been little mention of practices that seem to be the least glamorous and the most important:

Maintain your civic responsibilities. Undertake your political obligations as citizens: not just to vote and to speak. But to try NOT to get excused from jury duty if you think you can be a fair juror (being impartial, I think, is next to impossible, but one can try to be fair). Juries are hugely important sites of social change and justice. Thinking thoughtfully, deliberatively, generously, and fairly is one of the most underestimated values of civic citizenship. And remember that for many decades, non-whites, women of any color or status, COULD NOT SERVE on a jury as the peers of the accused. This is, as problematic as it is, an important civic responsibility—undervalued, and casually dismissed by many of the most otherwise justice-minded of our friends and family.

On a broader level:

Figure out what kind of assistance/advocacy you can offer to men/women/children who are inadequately represented in our legal system. Be a children’s advocate. Join organizations that assist those who are charged with crimes and don’t have adequate laws or protections of their dignity and interests: the elderly, children without parents/legal guardians, men and women of color (Black, Arab, Latino, often) to protect their interests in the courtroom or in prison.

It’s important to be nice and generous and practice kindness and organize gatherings where we talk to each other and make each other feel better.

But there are a lot of folks who are already suffering under policies that, if not enacted under the Obama Administrations, were continued or exacerbated over the last eight years: Muslim men in solitary confinement due to specious material support statutes that make it nearly impossible for them to get a fair trial; men and women of color who are falsely accused of crimes against police officers; undocumented migrants who are penned up in prisons for months because they have “made the mistake” of trying to flee violence (public or domestic or sexual), disbelieved by overworked, harried, or indifferent bureaucrats. The list could/should be continued indefinitely, but you know the details.

Often, the best resistance is that which is everyday, obvious, and unsung. Be a citizen if you still have that privilege and defend others who don’t have—or who may have lost that right–through no fault of their own.

*As Jane Bunker aptly reminded me, we’ve been in the KaliYuga for a while. And it doesn’t really mean the epoch of terrible things, although it does suggest the Dark Epoch. Forgive my idiomatic interpretation…

Shoot first, ask later: Why the concept of “reasonable fear” is anything but reasonable

Hi, all. I’ve taken a Twitter breather. I’m finding that my work is a little more focused off Twitter, but will probably be back a little later. This post came out in Salon earlier in the month, but I thought I’d post and link to it here for readers who might have missed it:

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Recently, Tamara Nopper and Mariame Kaba authored a haunting article, “Itemizing Atrocity,” analyzing reactions and analyses of the police shooting of Michael Brown and the seemingly sudden militarization of the police. They point to Ferguson as an example of the excess of the spectacle that draws attention to the most extreme cases of brutality or violence, and simultaneously renders the daily, hourly, violence faced by black Americans as ordinary and therefore unworthy of the empathy engendered in extreme cases.

Attention is drawn to the “spectacular event” rather than to the point of origin or the mundane. Circulated are the spectacles — dead black bodies lying in the streets or a black teenager ambushed by several police officers in military gear, automatic weapons drawn.

Their insights resonated as every major media outlet covered the repeated, more extreme, ever-growing confrontations between protestors and Ferguson law enforcement. The sympathy for the brutalized in Ferguson emerged as a response to the documented ill treatment of relatively privileged and protected whites (reporters, supporters, observers) who momentarily faced the same treatment that is de rigeur for vulnerable blacks — in Ferguson, St. Louis, Chicago, Paterson, Charlotte, Houston, New Orleans, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Read the rest at Salon.

What Do You Mean “We” Tortured Some Folks?

About a week ago, for the first time ever, the US government, through the comments of its Chief Executive no less, confirmed that “folks were tortured.” Simultaneously, he observed that there “was little need for sanctimony” given the heightened fears of the American public in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and the enormous pressure that law enforcement officials were under to prevent future attacks.

The President’s official confirmation that “folks” were tortured and not just undergoing “enhanced interrogation techniques”–was remarkable. They were striking not so much because the public learned something new, but because they should have ramifications for those who designed, justified and endorsed torture as part the US’s National Security strategy to combat terrorism.

For those who provide the legal cover for torture, including John Yoo and Jay Bybee, there might be some fear that an official US confirmation of torture will have ramifications for them. But they claim not to be afraid of prosecution. Given the soothing, exculpatory tone of the President’s remarks and AG Eric Holder’s lapdoggish compliance, (despite his 2009 resolute acknowledgment that waterboarding is torture), they have every reason to believe it.

Yet, his remarks are notably deceptive on a number of fronts.

Read the rest at Salon.com.

Ferguson: Not a revelation, but a reminder of White Supremacy

The news that a police officer shot an African American teen several times in the chest was shocking, horrifying, gut-wrenching. But it was not surprising. As even a weekly perusal of newspapers tells us, the murders of Black teens and men by private white citizens or police officers are common, ordinary, every day events. Two days after the shooting of Michael Brown, another young unarmed Black man, this time in Los Angeles, was shot by a police officer.

Yet, in the initial twenty-four hours after Michael Brown’s shooting, I saw flashes of the same questions in the comments to news articles and on Twitter: “What did he do?” “Why?” “Wtf?” Certainly, some of these were plaintive questions asked by grieving persons. But others reflected an earnest, though frustrating, innocence—one that found a shooting of a Black teen by a policeman to be unusual, accidental, coincidental, extraordinary. Their questions echoed as I flipped through the fleeting images that followed the news of the shooting—rows of police officers with shields and batons and terrifying looking dogs, pumped up and ready to attack–accompanied by articles about “looting and riots,” tear gas, sniper guns, and bullets.

Photo 6 in this New York Times slide show, among others, remains in my mind.

In the first three days after Michael Brown’s shooting, as the Black community gathered to protest his death, “left” media analyzed this event as if it were just a case of the police accidentally losing control. Elsewhere, mainstream news sites reported on the protests as if commenting on two equally strong baseball teams: The Cops versus Black people, rather than a case of Black protests against continual injustice. Other news sites report “rioting” and “looting,” as if looting is the prime obstacle to safety, rather than protecting Blacks against an arrogant, secure police force.

Read the rest at Salon.com

 

 

 

Consumer Activism and the Biopolitics of Consumption

In my research, I’ve been exploring neoliberalism and the biopolitics of charity. How do we understand consumption and activism in a society whose social/public safety nets are increasingly eroded?

I’m going to try to post a series of pieces on neoliberal practices.  This is the first. And there’s a fun snarky video at the end.

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Last month, I wrote an article about former financier Sam Polk, whose move from Wall Street to Groceryships has been celebrated as an example of the 1% awakening to a moral conscience.  Groceryships is a charity that gives “grocery scholarships” to “poor moms” in order, ostensibly, to alleviate their meager budgets for healthy foods. But the scholarships come with many strings attached: to swear an allegiance to want to be healthy; commitments to attend weekly nutrition classes, do homework, take cooking classes. More on Groceryships in my next piece.

In my original article, I suggested that this kind of charity was an instance of a colonizing mission akin to religious charities who deliver sermons along with meals to the poor. And…needless to say, I challenged the legitimacy of this mission.

Polk’s shift from being a trader to the director of this charity (and the existence of such a charity) represents but one datapoint in an increasingly hegemonic neoliberal society. He characterizes his past existence as about addiction: he was addicted to making lots of money, as he understands it. As Chris Maisano has discussed in an aptly named article, “Chicken Soup for the Neoliberal Soul,” this kind of self-assessment is but part of a dominant therapeutic culture in which certain socially disapproved actions (e.g., excessive drinking/extramarital sex/public prayer/corporate plunder/civilian violence) are attributed to personal flaws. Therapeutic discourse individualizes the action and isolates it from larger, societal phenomena that are indicative of a certain worldview. It also locates anti-social practices in personality attributes that must be corrected and improved by the individual, presumably in ways that are easily visible to others.

This model underlies a range of consumer-activist campaigns: from spending a year producing zero trash, or without spending or shopping or driving or using toilet paper or electricity, or “voting with your fork.” The idea is that one’s politics is best enacted through what one consumes (or doesn’t).

Although the details of each of these various campaigns differ, there are some details that they have in common: each project centers on the individual as the locus of responsibility, thereby depoliticizing the issue at hand, and reducing it to an “individual” choice: to make garbage or recycle; to spend or not; to have a carbon footprint or not; to consume only healthy foods or not.

Such campaigns don’t take into account the context of the issue about which they drumbeat: whether it be waste management (such as where landfills are located, or the health impact of these landfills on surrounding populations), or trash production (involving the notable absence of regulations requiring companies to produce goods in recyclable containers).  The precise point of such consumer-activism is that larger social structures that induce ill impacts on a larger society can be ignored in favor of the “every individual can make a difference” model.  True: if 350 million individuals discarded their cell-phones, or decided to live off the grid, or stopped spending or producing trash simultaneously, we would certainly notice the impact right away. But this hope ignores several important things:

1. It is easier and morally satisfying to shame individuals about their individual behavior, even though it is not as effective as changing the choices they face.

2. It is possible to achieve changes in collective social behavior: by regulating certain practices and penalizing individuals who violate the law.

3. Passing legislation that compels companies to stop polluting, producing trash, (or encouraging them) to grow healthier crops, distribute whole foods widely, find alternative energy sources, etc., may be much more effective in reducing the overall destructive impact—though much more difficult—than changing collective behavior.

4. Consumer-activism reinforces the myth of choice and the neo-classical emphasis on free-markets by focusing on the individual as the locus of change rather than considering the role of social structures (such as the practices of corporations that benefit from the myth of free markets and individual choice).

In other words, the standard corporate response to individual-consumer activism can safely remain: Buy our products if you like them. Or don’t. It won’t really affect our profits or force us to change our practices if individuals act alone. Because hey, the state doesn’t really care, and it is the only force that can compel us to change or lose money. And they (Congress/Senate/President) won’t compel us to change, because we are among their major contributors.

Consumer-activism is but an expression of neoliberal society. There are multiple aspects to neoliberalism, but for my purposes here, a neoliberal society is one in which state support of citizens is evacuated in favor of the privatization of individual well-being. So if you want to be healthy, spend more money and eat better and join a gym, or (“less expensively”) buy sneakers/”cheap” workout accoutrements. If you want a better environment: recycle more, produce less trash. If you want to be less stressed: work less, get off the grid, go for nature walks in the woods across the street.

This model ignores the class dimension of “choice”: one doesn’t just decide to eat better, work less, use less electricity, spend “less,” in a vacuum. In fact there is an invisible context for each “individual” decision, which because it is invisible becomes depoliticized. That context requires an indefinite supply of time or money, preferably both:

1. Money and time are trade-offs. One often spends money in order to save time. One may eat out to save the time of making and packing lunch. On the other hand, it is much easier to eat better—especially in US society (where street and fast foods are often greasy, fried, and/or made of low-quality ingredients)—if one has the time to cook whole grains and unprocessed foods at home.

2. Money buys access to better resources/ingredients: organic, chemical-free, exotic unseasonal foods that are often grown across the country and shipped to one’s local health food/Whole Foods Market-like store.

3. Time is a scarce resource for the professional-class, working-poor, and the indigent. For different reasons. Some of them have to do with “labor-markets,” in which our job hours are not regulated by the state, or by other factors such as job-precarity (I may lose my job if I don’t work the longer hours my employer quietly/implicitly demands).

4. Those with limited access to money must make up for it with time:  For the indigent and working-poor, time poverty is further exacerbated by bureaucratic demands and long waits at social service organizations (public health clinics, etc.), long distances from and public transportation to areas where higher-quality/lower-cost goods can be found; time-poverty is also exacerbated by limited access to affordable child-care (when it cannot be outsourced to a private nanny or day—care center) among other constraints.

By contrast, those with money but limited time can buy their way out of politically, socially, economically exploitative situations. Likewise, those with money, to differing degrees, can buy their way out of limited choices, such as:

-Low-quality food (and thus move to more-expensive foods)
-Low-quality or resource-constrained health care (public medical clinics)
-Child-care constraints

Those with time (and a lot of money, or some money but other abundant resources, such as large plots of land, clean water, decent housing, and robust social networks) can “choose” to grow their own food, can preserves, eat organically, etc.

While this group may contain poor folks, these are often those who have been able to “downsize,” from a wealthier life. These (I’ll call them “Downsizers”) should not be confused with those who are forced to live frugally because of forced unemployment, limited employment, disability, or other imposed financial constraints (“Forcibly Poor”).

The “Forcibly Poor” do not necessarily have time in the way that “Downsizers” do, since they can’t trade in their time for money (They can’t just pick up a paying job or liquidate some of their stocks in order to access money). The corollary to this is that those who are forced, but do not “choose” to live frugally, are also treated with less dignity.

I suspect this is because those forced to live in poverty are seen as hapless, incompetent, and unable or unwilling to “choose” to have money. Therefore, they are treated as lesser rational beings, like young children, who must be instructed, guided, disciplined and ushered along.

This assumption, too, is part of the ideology of free-market liberalism: Those who are wealthy or actually choose to live frugally, are more rational than those who are poor. And those who are poor just don’t know how to live a good life. Their poverty is presumed to be an expression of their lack of desire to live a good life. This logic follows straight from John Locke’s 2nd Treatise of Government: God has given the world to all men (sic) in common. Since the earth is accessible to all, then property (wealth) can be acquired by all who choose to labor.

How else, then, to explain poverty, except by lack of rationality? The poor must be irrational (insane/idiotic/criminal/indigenous), because otherwise they could have used their God-given intelligence to labor and acquire a sufficient share of God-given resources.

If these assumptions make sense, then it seems that several things follow:

1. Consumer Activism is a certain way of comporting oneself in the world so as to appear politically conscious, without necessarily being effective.

2. Charity organizations that distribute various goods/services to the Forcibly Poor with various strings that require behavior modification, are enacting a certain mode of Consumer Activism and imposing it on the Involuntarily Poor. But instead, without the accompanying discussion of the evacuation of public safety nets, or the reasons behind the lack of money and time, such models of Charity become normalized and celebrated as the primary means to “help the (forcibly) poor.”

3. Imposing Consumer Activism on the Forcibly Poor, as Sam Polk does with Groceryships, looks a lot like colonizing/civilizing the poor. More on that in my next post.

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*An earlier version of this article discussed the “Forcibly Poor.” In this version, that term has been changed to the “Involuntarily Poor.”

**The phrase “Involuntarily Poor” has been returned to its original “Forcibly Poor.” It’s more accurate.

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.