Hey dears, long time coming: a post of the podcasts, essays, music videos, beautiful internet jetsam/takes that I’ve been thinking about and wrestling with since shelter-in-place began. As I noted when I started this post series, it’s way too easy for me to retweet-broadcast-resonate with something I read online without actually digesting it, learning from it, or responding fully to it; this series is my attempt to do more justice to challenging thinking, human complexity, and good art I encounter online. Many of these articles are old-ish; I grind slowly. Look for another post like this one soon.
1. Journalist Connie Walker’s CBC limited series Missing & Murdered: Finding Cleo is the best podcast I’ve ever heard. Finding Cleo brings historical research, bloodhound sleuthing, structural political analysis, and shattering emotional power to a story of a missing Cree girl: Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine, forcibly taken from her mother in Little Pine, Saskatchewan, and forced into foster care by white social workers in Canada’s “sixties sweep” of Indigenous children and teens. Cleo was separated from her siblings, given a new name, adopted into the United States, and then– as her siblings heard secondhand– died under mysterious circumstances. But US and Canadian governments offered the family no further information on her short life: no death certificate, no information on her series of foster and adoptive families, and no information on where Cleo was buried. Finding Cleo is the attempt by Walker (also a Cree woman from Saskatchewan) to find answers for the Semaganis siblings on what happened to Cleo. Thank you to Bri for telling me about it.
2. Bernard Avishai, “By Barring Two Congresswomen, Trump and Netanhayu Set a Trap for Democrats.” This take is seven months old, but Avishai’s take on authoritarian populism, American Jewish politics, B.D.S., and Trump’s relationship with Netanhayu has stuck with me. Avishai– an Israeli liberal who seems to have moved toward supporting a one-state “confederation” of Israel and Palestine and a right of return for all Palestinian refugees– writes of Trump’s long-term plan to paint Democrats as anti-Semitic and Israel and the United States as partners: partners not around “shared democratic values” and civil rights for oppressed minorities, but around “hard nationalism,” military might, and “traditional, populist, wall-building” majoritarian politics. Last summer, Trump publicly pushed Netanyahu to take the unprecedented step of banning Democratic Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, both Muslim, from visiting Israel. Netanyahu’s government, which has passed legislation barring supporters of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (B.D.S.) from entry to Israel, was willing to comply. Both Omar and Tlaib have expressed qualified support for B.D.S., which calls for a boycott of “Israel’s apartheid regime, complicit Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions,” and “all Israeli and international companies engaged in violations of Palestinian human rights.”
What does Avishai think of B.D.S.? “It has never been clear,” Avishai points out, “whether the external pressure that the leaders of the movement are trying to mobilize is aimed at ending the occupation or at ending the state of Israel itself.” B.D.S., Avishai concedes, makes a clear moral point: the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is cruel, authoritarian, and hardening by the year; Israel remains in the control of fundamentalists and it continues to deny Palestinian national and civil rights. Progressive Americans, including Jews, increasingly believe that Palestinian refugees deserve a right of return to a secularized and reconstituted nation; that Israel’s current policy represents “a civil-rights violation on the world stage”; and that “B.D.S., for its part, seems… a reasonable, nonviolent way to confront it.” Through a B.D.S. campaign, “[y]ou boycott Israeli institutions and agitate for disinvestment from Israeli businesses, or from global companies that partner with them; you agitate to sanction Israeli government officials, and threaten to take them to the International Criminal Court,” making Israelis “hurt until they get the message.”
But, Avishai writes, “B.D.S. is an unexamined, contradictory bundle, because boycott, divestment, and sanctions are three very different things, hurting very different slices of Israeli society.” (This comment echoes Noam Chomsky’s sober criticism of B.D.S.’s aims, given while also affirming its goals: boycott, divestment, and sanctions are divergent strategies with differing likelihoods of success.) If Omar and Tlaib had been permitted to visit Israel, Avishai imagines, they would have seen a nation whose internal divisions seem “utterly familiar”: a “comparatively élite, cosmopolitan—and frustrated—Tel Aviv coast up against poor, pietistic Jerusalem and the rest of the country.” This, Avishai seems to believe, would have shown them the nuances of Israel’s domestic politics and thus softened their support for B.D.S.
There are better tools than B.D.S., Avishai believes, to economically challenge injustice inside Israel: “One can imagine governments sanctioning Israeli settlement policies, much like George H. W. Bush did, in 1991, when he warned that he would deduct any sum that Israel spent on settlements from American loan guarantees. One can imagine international organizations setting telecommunications standards sanctioning Israelis for hogging bandwidth from Palestinian telecom companies.” But a boycott, Avishai argues, would undermine, not empower, Israel’s progressive constituencies and leadership: “[B]oycott the Hebrew University and you boycott scholars trying to bridge the studies of the Holocaust and the Nakba. Boycott Israeli chipmakers and you boycott companies setting up research offices in Palestine.” Instead, Avishai believes, American progressives need to better educate themselves on, and work to empower, their Israeli counterparts. “In both places,” he admits, “it will be a long haul.”
Left out of Avishai’s analysis is a look at support for B.D.S. among Israelis sympathetic to Palestinian demands for justice, or a cost-benefit analysis of politically isolating Israel’s current government (and possibly empowering Netanhayu’s nationalist us-versus-a-threatening-world rhetoric) as a consciousness-raising strategy to educate and mobilize fence-sitting moderates.
3. When something is neither blessed nor cursed, it’s blursed:
4. How can municipal governments make their police forces less violent, and what policy changes can activists demand that most effectively reduce state violence in their communities? I first heard about scholar and policy analyst Samuel Sinyangwe from an admiring tweet by DeRay Mckesson; he’s an insightful presence who thinks empirically and intersectionally about justice issues. Here’s a thread of his research-based solutions to police violence. (Kudos to him too for updating his conclusions slightly since he first posted his research on this topic.)
5. Troy Vettese, “Sexism in the Academy.” It’s not getting better. The representation of women in academia shrinks the higher you go; the percentage of female full professors in the US is just 32%, and there are two tenured men for every tenured man. Women have been the majority of undergrads for decades– it’s not that the pipeline hasn’t let them through yet. Male scholars “are more zealous about safeguarding time for research, they are skeptical of women’s competence, and they endanger and demoralize female scholars through sexual harassment.” Undoing sexism in the academy, Vettese writes, requires confronting a “vast ramshackle machinery” that pushes men up the ivory tower while pushing women out.
What does this this machinery consist of? First, a skepticism of women’s talent at all levels of mentorship: there is “a widespread assumption that only men can be brilliant.” This toxic belief is especially prevalent in elite life science labs (where male PIs ensure that women make up only 31% of their postdoc workforce), but it shows up as well in fields as diverse as literature, musical composition, and philosophy. In all sciences, women lose time “proving a result again” to skeptical supervisors. (The data are inarguable: female scholars as a whole are asked to spend 9-12% more time making revisions when preparing work for publication.) In the world of grants, the gender gap in awards is about 7 percent and “when women are successful in their grant applications, they usually receive less funding, about eighty cents to a man’s dollar.”
Second, the widespread and naked ugliness of sexual harassment: “women often have to change field sites, topics, or even departments to avoid predatory men, diversions that eat up precious time for scholarship, not to mention the stress of such experiences.” One fifth to one half of female postgrads experience sexual harassment from a colleague, mentor, or supervisor.
Third, the power of citation. This is pervasive and pernicious. It shows up as skepticism of entire fields of study, where “[m]ethods pioneered by female scholars, such as feminist critiques of science or constructivism in international relations, are seen by male peers as ‘soft,’ and these peers are less likely to cite works employing such approaches.” It also shows up in male self-citation: “[a] male scholar is nearly twice as likely to cite his previous work [accounting for a tenth of all citations] than a female peer is to cite her own… Self-citation builds up the base of a paper’s citation count, leading other scholars to cite that paper at a rate of about four new citations for every self-citation.” This might seem like harmless ego-stroking by male scholars, but the simple numerical weight of citation matters for tenure. And unsurprisingly, men are overall less likely to cite women: “In one study of economics articles, men were half as likely as women to cite the work of female scholars, while women manifested no such bias.”
Fourth, let’s not forget students. Course evaluations are critical for advancement to tenure, and male students overwhelmingly privilege male faculty and peers. Male students expect maternally-coded care from female professors: “students tend to evaluate a female instructor according to how well prepared she is in the classroom, which forces women to spend significantly more time preparing than men… By comparison, students expected their male teachers to be charismatic and knowledgeable, traits that require much less preparation to perform. Again, the widespread expectation held by boys and men is that only boys and men can be brilliant.” This, of course, trickles down to peer relationships among students as well: “In a study of three US undergraduate biology courses, students voted for their most intelligent peer during the semester. Generally the women gave a very slight edge to other women in their voting, but men favored other men by a nineteenfold margin.” (My emphasis.)
Fifth (for fifth column), husbands and male partners of female academics. Men are much, much less likely to sacrifice a work opportunity or research time, to take on childcare, or to explicitly value the career of a female partner than vice versa. “A woman was much more likely to say that her career was as important as her partner’s. This was true a majority of the time, even if women were making more money than their male partners, while the obverse was much less common.”
Finally, the simple fact that academic advancement is often conducted informally and secretively. A system that permits men to advance the colleagues in their networks they most admire, without any public or standard evaluation process, will inevitably favor other men. Most academic job applications are noncompetitive or unpublicized. “The problem in the academy comes down to men’s relative advantage over women, rather than any absolute gains women may make.”
Vettese examines the effects of having women in positions of academic leadership. It’s indispensable, he concludes, “though not a complete solution.” When women became chairs, deans, or central administrators, writes one scholar, “a woman’s holding of this position would devalue or minimize it somewhat, casting it into the service mode, not the power mode. We heard this comment so frequently across all disciplines that we finally named it gender devaluation.” Further, “When women step in to help other women, such as when they act as ‘diversity czars’ in the US to ensure hiring and tenure reviews are equitable, they risk provoking a backlash from men... The high risks and scanty rewards of feminist solidarity are likely why the levels of politicization among female faculty tend to be surprisingly low. Many scholars seem to see the burdens they carry as the result of their own choices or the behavior of individual misogynistic men, rather than as structured by a larger patriarchal system.”
What current models exist for alternatives? Vettese cites Turkey. At least before the AKP ascended to power, “the Turkish academy employed proportionately almost twice as many female full professors as the EU average.” This is not because Turkey is less sexist than other countries. Rather, it’s due to a mix of factors: first, the country’s universities have strict, open, and competitive guidelines regulating the appointment of professors. Turkey’s universities also mandate “that all competitions must be announced in a major newspaper, and applicants are judged on the basis of a defined portfolio.” An academic career is also considered a “safe” choice for Turkish women, serving as an outlet for “the career aspirations of bourgeois women denied other options.” Of course, as elsewhere in the world, bourgeois Turkish women’s advancement is dependent on cheap women’s labor: “servants [who] relieve female professors of the burdens of cooking, cleaning, and child care.”
So what can be done? Vettese is blunt: new rules at all levels of the academy. The struggle against sexism in the academy is zero-sum– women’s advancement depends on power being taken from men– and so, Vettese argues, strong rules to destroy informal sexist networks of advancement are the only way to break men’s strong resistance. “Courses on women’s history or feminist philosophy should be mandatory. Until male students are taught to reflect upon their biases, they should be barred from evaluating peers and teachers. Similarly, male scholars’ power to evaluate female peers and students should also be restrained. At the very least, mixed panels for a scholar’s career assessments ought to be required… [R]ising quotas should be in place for hiring more female scholars in all stages of the tenure track.” Universities should make salaries public to help ensure pay equity, and they should publish “referees’ reports to journal editors to reduce vitriol and bias. Spousal-hire programs could persuade more husbands to follow their wives.”
Further, “[f]ree state- or university-run crèches, day care centers, after-school activities, and canteens” would be a valuable partial remedy to theunequal distribution of social labor. A shortened workweek would also be an across-the-board gift: “Reducing the workweek to thirty-five hours would allow those within the academy time to enjoy their intellectual endeavors and carry out social reproduction, while spreading work among more colleagues and absorbing the glut of underemployed doctoral graduates — a group that is composed mostly of women because they drop out of the academy at every career milestone at twice the rate men do, according to one study of women in the sciences.”
This is a matter of individual suffering, not just institutional self-impoverishment: “like all scholars, women eschew potential riches to seek their intellectual fortune, motivated by a passion to learn and teach. That so many are forced to relinquish this goal because of condescending or lewd supervisors, selfish spouses, smug students, and prejudiced hiring committees is in every case a personal tragedy of an unfulfilled life.” Thanks to Lindsay Turner for tweeting about this article and letting me know it existed.
6. Robyn’s video for “Ever Again,” a Labyrinth re-enchantment: you know that kind of desire where you want someone and want to be them at once?
7. Jeet Heer, “Leftists Shouldn’t Go on Tucker Carlson.” One of my beloved “irresponsible Twitter clowns” and a fan of my bottom-dollar favorite science fiction author, Heer is also a serious-minded and big-picture lefty national-affairs writer. And, since I once semi-admiringly shared here a conservative anti-war-machine essay that Carlson wrote, I thought I owed some attention to Heer’s argument that leftists shouldn’t grant Carlson a platform, or accept a space on his Fox News show. Heer argues that it’s still sometimes worthwhile for leftists to go on Fox News generally: for politicians and candidates, “politics inevitably involves convincing those outside the fold.” But for activists and writers, “there’s a delicate balance to strike between getting the message out while also making sure that bigotry isn’t normalized.” Carlson is crafty, “as insidious as he is odious,” and is skilled at channeling anti-war and grassroots anti-business rhetoric to serve an isolationist politics and an ideological hatred of immigrants and of “coastal elites.” On the other hand, CNN and MSNBC are hostile to anti-war leftists; on which other cable show can you criticize hawks, or to argue against intervention in Syria or Venezuela? How can you not “agree with someone [such as Carlson] in a way that lends itself to bigotry”? It’s a complex dance, but Heer insists that leftists should engage it carefully, lest they build the platform of a very dangerous figure, a true American proto-fascist.
8. Jasper Bernes, “Between the Devil and the Green New Deal.” Bernes takes a hard look at the supply chain of supposedly renewable energy: the fossil fuels needed for the steel and concrete of new high-speed rail, new “green” power infrastructure, etc., yes, but also the costs of extracting copper, selenium, and lots and lots and lots of lithium for electric cars, solar panels, and wind turbines. These elements are rare– they’re as subject to exhaustion as fossil fuels– and they’re also incredibly toxic to mine and process. “In exchange for these terrestrial treasures—used to power trains and ships and factories—a whole class of people is thrown into the pits.” Bernes is skeptical that the Green New Deal’s target– zero emissions in the US by 2030– can be met: throwing open the doors to industry to meet this goal would begin “a race… likely to be ugly, in more ways than one, as slipshod producers scramble to cash in on the price bonanza, cutting every corner and setting up mines that are dangerous, unhealthy, and not particularly green.” And to build this green infrastructure, what would power the mining equipment, the container ships, the construction machinery, and the remediation needed for cleaning up the radioactive tailings ponds the mines leave behind? Probably fossil fuels; maybe biofuels, but growing these “requires land otherwise devoted to crops, or carbon-absorbing wilderness.” And reducing emissions, while still using pesticides and further extending human development into animal habitat, will do little to slow rates of species loss. The growth demanded by capitalism is going to be fatal for our species. “There is no solution to the climate crisis,” Bernes flatly says, “which leaves capitalism’s compulsions to growth intact.”
But could the Green New Deal be implemented to begin with? To force a transition to green power would “require far greater power over the behavior of capitalists than the New Deal ever mustered,” especially now that, thanks to fracking, the price of oil is going to stay low. Renewables are getting cheaper. But to be a good investment, renewables will need to be not slightly cheaper than fossil fuels, but vastly cheaper, since there are trillions of dollars sunk into fossil fuel infrastructure, “and the owners of those investments will invariably choose to recoup some of that investment rather than none of it.” There is $50 trillion worth of oil still in the ground, and forcing investors to leave it there will be an unbelievable battle: “If you propose to wipe out $50 trillion, one-sixth of the wealth on the planet, equal to two-thirds of global GDP, you should expect the owners of that wealth to fight you with everything they have, which is more or less everything.” They will fight not because they’re villains, but because they’re helpless: “Even if these owners wanted to spare us the drowned cities and billion migrants of 2070, they could not. They would be undersold and bankrupted by others. Their hands are tied, their choices constrained, by the fact that they must sell at the prevailing rate or perish.”
Some see advocacy for the Green New Deal as a transition (never named as such) to a socialist economy. Bernes is skeptical that the capitalist institutions that the Green New Deal would build up would be open to a sudden change of plans: “Beware that, in pursuit of the transitional program, you do not build up the forces of your future enemy.” And the Green New Deal’s core assumption– that its world “is this world but better—this world but with zero emissions, universal health care, and free college”– is an impossible one.
So what, besides the nightmares of geoengineering or the fortressing of the wealthy against the tides of the poor, is possible? “A revolution that had as its aim the flourishing of all human life would certainly mean immediate decarbonization, a rapid decrease in energy use for those in the industrialized global north, no more cement, very little steel, almost no air travel, walkable human settlements, passive heating and cooling, a total transformation of agriculture, and a diminishment of animal pasture by an order of magnitude at least.” But this wouldn’t be a gray, bleak world. “An emancipated society, in which no one can force another into work for reasons of property, could offer joy, meaning, freedom, satisfaction, and even a sort of abundance. We can easily have enough of what matters—conserving energy and other resources for food, shelter, and medicine. As is obvious to anyone who spends a good thirty seconds really looking, half of what surrounds us in capitalism is needless waste.” Bernes would rather work for this than for what he believes the Green New Deal is: a fantasy.
9. Cecil Taylor, “Spring of Two Blue-J’s (Pt 1).” What a holy and electrifying racket!
10. Meme upon meme upon meme: source.
11. Always read Kary Wayson’s poems:
Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Poems by Kary Wayson
12. Isaac Ariail Reed, “The King’s Two Bodies and the Crisis of Liberal Modernity.” What is it, exactly, that’s propelling right-wing populism and revealing the tattering of the social fabric of western democracies? We’re economically exploited and spiritually alienated, yes, but Reed’s answer to this urgent question doesn’t draw mostly from (say) Marx’s understandings of the dynamics of capitalism, nor from Weber’s theories of modernity’s disenchantment and its differentiation of the individual (into a being of many communities, spheres, and sources of meaning). Instead, Reed focuses on the ongoing relevance of “ancient human tendency to imagine that in the leader is contained the community.” Kingship in medieval times stretched far beyond the life and death of a given monarch; the “second body” of the king was seen as present in statecraft, commerce, ideology. Medieval lives were constituted by a felt relationship to “king and country.” When mourners cried, “the king is dead, long live the king!” they were embracing the presence of kingship beyond the life of an individual monarch.
This myth was rewoven in modernity. The American and French revolutions of the 18th century were fought against the king and on behalf of the people, a new binding and mystical body. But who, exactly, got to be people, and what is their common good? The longing of the modern era is for a good society where “every individual has two bodies… [and is] imbued with the dignitas that formerly accompanied the king.” But this longing has never been made real in a modern liberal democracy: slavery and colonial violence underlies the modern state. And it’s no accident that in modernity racism and ethnic hatred became increasingly potent as instruments of “denying access to democratic politics,” since the question of delegation of political agency in the new states was foundational to these states’ senses of themselves. “To secure delegation in a world in which every citizen is a king in his own castle, the distribution of personhood became fiercely, violently strict about its boundaries.”
And in the 20th century, we’ve seen further blurrings or complications of personhood: “Corporations become legal persons, cars have personalities, and information wants to be free.” We’ve also seen the draining of that royal dignitas from offices, institutions, and collective representations of all sorts: belonging no longer confers meaning as it used to. We are in a “crisis of all of the institutional developments that replaced the image of the king as the defender of the weak against the strong, and, in their very development, made social life not only about the strong and the weak, but also about justice as fairness, and equality as the precondition for the pursuit of distinction.” These assumptions are decaying in every modern society.
Reed also suggests that, since the Cold War ended, America has returned to a pre-modern re-enchantment with the person of our president (as opposed to the office of the presidency): George W. Bush’s cowboy shtick shaping American response in Iraq; Obama’s race as a source of a liberal’s fantasy of healing racial wounds or a racist’s nightmare of usurpation; and of course Trump’s boorish ugly “authenticity.” And Trump now (like Orban, like Netanyahu) makes himself available for a kind of hero worship, founded on explicitly racial and nationalist appeals, that invites again a medieval “incorporation of the individual in the authority of the leader.” Bigots see themselves in Trump as medieval subjects saw themselves in their king, and this identification makes brutality against excluded persons easy.
Can this crisis be resolved? Reed, a sociology professor at UVa and a Jew, saw neo-Nazis marching out his window in 2017 chanting “Jews will not replace us.” The horrors of the last century are close by. He quotes political philosopher Danielle Allen in the wake of that spectacle: “The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved. We are engaged in a fight over whether to work together to build such a world.”
But can such a fight be won? “It is possible for popularly elected leaders to respect the authority of reformable institutions, for open societies to meet demands for equality and fairness, and for the rule of law to find its moral grounding in an ethically pluralistic society. It is even possible—though it has not yet been tried—that every single living individual can be recognized as sacred, and understood as a flourishing, inevitably contradictory, and wonderfully human author of action. But what is the language in which these possibilities for sacred dispensation will be articulated?” This is the crisis Reed names and leaves us twisting in. A leftist response might be that capitalism undermines the power of social tie and institution in any society it takes root in. Until it’s checked, both authoritarian nostalgia and social decay are inevitable. A conservative (or communitarian leftist) response might be that liberalism’s empowerment of the autonomous individual as the center of society ultimately leaves that individual plummeting through space: that a world where we’re all “king of our own castle” would be a place not of equality and fairness, but of total war.
13. Rachel Kushner, “Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind.” This is the best article I’ve read in a mainstream publication on the philosophy of prison abolition. I wonder how many minds it changed? Gilmore, a lifelong activist and a scholar at CUNY, explains that “abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack. Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as Gilmore puts it, they ‘mess up.'”
Gilmore is also at pains to complicate some of the shorthand other activists use in discussing the carceral state. First, she says that mass incarceration is not about profit, but about the competition among state agencies for government revenue. “Under austerity, the social-welfare function shrinks; the agencies that receive the money are the police, firefighters and corrections. So other agencies start to copy what the police do: The education department, for instance, learns that it can receive money for metal detectors much more easily than it can for other kinds of facility upgrades. And prisons can access funds that traditionally went elsewhere — for example, money goes to county jails and state prisons for ‘mental health services’ rather than into public health generally.” The DOC isn’t an avaricious corporation, but an almost uniquely powerful lobby group that has captured the “surplus state capacity” of investors in public finance.
Gilmore also speaks of the violence and degradation of mass incarceration but disputes that it is “a modified continuation of slavery,” the uncompensated extraction of labor under threat of punishment. “The overwhelming problem for people inside prison,” she says, “is not that their labor is super exploited; it’s that they’re being warehoused with very little to do and not being given any kind of programs or resources that enable them to succeed once they do get out of prison.” Those incarcerated are “surplus labor,” carved out of the economy by urban deindustrialization and rural decay brought on (in California at least) by declining land values and lack of irrigation water. Until our economy is radically transformed, these people will remain an abandoned and abused surplus, whether behind bars or not. Gilmore argues that prison abolition is a structural, not an institutional, struggle, encompassing labor, wealth distribution, conflict resolution, racism, and the allocation of state dollars.
14. Shoutout to you for reading this far! Below, the true work of art speaks for itself: