Monday, March 25, 2013

The Deserving and the Undeserving

There was a Planet Money/This American Life piece that ran this week regarding the federal disability program. It was interesting timing, coming just a few months after Nicholas Kristof’s articles on children and SSI. Kristof’s article basically suggested that the parents of children on disability encourage disability for the checks, and, not unrelated, have poor parenting skills. The TAL piece covered remarkably similar territory. I don’t question the works were independent of each other but I can’t believe the TAL people were unaware of the Kristof piece and therefore I thought it was odd they did not respond to any of the criticisms of Kristof's article. I read the piece online, having been alerted to it by multiple tweets, which is the same way I came across the Washington Post piece that ran last Sunday, about a town in Rhode Island where the entire town appears to survive on SNAP (food stamp) payments.
These pieces coming so close to each other had me wondering about what was the thinking behind them. The Post article was descriptive; there was little, if any, editorializing.  Sorry, if you felt anything but acute pity for a couple (both who work) who had to debate about whether to eat a cheese stick or not, because it was the end of the month and one of their kids might need it, you are awful. The TAL piece on the other hand, had a fairly clear message hey look at all these people not working. Do they deserve this check? No. It was framed in a friendly way, but the implications were clear.
 I’m not going to get into specific criticisms of the TAL piece, you can read that here.  Instead, I’d rather wonder aloud about the timing of these pieces. There is no question the economy is still struggling; the way the average person defines that is by their wages and their job security. By all reasonable measures wages are stagnant and unemployment is still high. When the economy is discussed in the mainstream press, the economy tends to get conflated with debt/deficit issues. Time and time again the VSP (Very Serious People) insist that things are bad, people are suffering and the way to fix that is to  . . . “fix the debt” (an actual advocacy group of CEOs to, fix the debt). The simple fact of the matter is that if immediate actions were taken to reduce debt and the deficit people would immediately be unemployed—somehow this part of the story is never fully articulated. Instead there is a constant drumbeat of what-can-we-cut –from-the federal-government. Changes in Medicare are suggested, such as raising the age to 67 or privatizing aspects of it—which would be MORE expensive. Or we could make “changes” to Social Security such as moving from the CPI to the unchained CPI. Changing CPI is devastating cut—note that cuts to social programs like Medicare and Social Security are always described in the mainstream media as “changes”.  The vast majority of seniors are completely dependent on their Social Security—contrary to popular belief there are not that many wealthy seniors--and 401(k)s have officially been proclaimed a disaster.
Reading theses articles gives the sense of somebody saying, as main character says in the Rocking Horse Winner “there must be more money.” Here-look at these “disabled” people, living on federal checks –here’s some money. Here, look at this town that LIVES on federal payments-here’s some money. There were more then a few comments under the Post piece which referenced the family’s tattoo bill as a sign the parents were undeserving of support. What kind of parents paid for a tattoo when they had kids to feed? Qualifying for government support means that every aspect of your life is open for discussion, judgment.
Just today there was a story on Morning Edition, on a woman living by the Jersey Shore, after Hurricane Sandy, looking to move to the  . . . Jersey Shore.  Although Sandy “shook her” she was looking for another a house, closer to the shore, an “upgrade”.  There was no judgment placed on her decision, it was framed as a typical response after disasters. There was no mention of the $60 billion federal emergency bill passed to support people like this woman, or any question of the wisdom of rebuilding close to a shoreline in an era of rising shorelines and storms of increasing destructibility. Unlike people who are disabled or who have the misfortunate to be poor, disaster victims are usually portrayed with sympathy, as deserving, even if it can be argued that they too, have made decisions that may have not been wise and that are covered by the federal government.
It is striking how often in the public discourse the individual is dissected but business interests are not. SNAP payments are a regular target for cuts by Republicans, less often mentioned are the hefty fees the government pays to the banks for LINK cards, or the complete lack of transparency of the program in general.  The constant focus on Medicare cuts rarely focuses on a known source of waste, drug payments which are the highest in the world, even as we know ways to change this. 
We inevitably define people as good or bad by their actions and lifestyle based on what we know and what we are familiar with. We feel we can tell a mother how to manage her family because we have managed a family, or we know somebody close to us who has. But the actions or inactions of a corporation are more often something of a black box, we either are not familiar with that decision-making process or don’t know about it's true impact.  This needs to change. Corporate effects--taxes, privatization, "subsidies, i.e. hand-outs--usually dwarf the individual in sheer numbers and therefore are more appropriate to judge and probably modify.  If we are going to get to a society which works for the 99% we need to get above the question of which individuals are “deserving” or “undeserving” and focus on the forces that are truly taking what they have not earned.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

To smile because of the things I have done

 Ten years ago Rachel Corrie died. I remember I was in the kitchen when it was reported on the radio with the scant details, a young American woman killed protesting in Palestine. I felt that I had been kicked in the chest, could Israel just kill an American like that? There had to be consequences right?
Rachel Corrie's death mattered to me because there was a part of me that wanted to be her. I did not know anything about her when I first heard her death but I had a sense of the kind of person she was and it was confirmed when I learned more about her. Young, idealistic, overwhelmed by the awfulness of the occupation she wanted to stand in solidarity with the people she had come to know, and I'm sure, try in some small way to make up for what her government had done to them. I had at one time imagined myself as traveling to distant countries and doing such things.
I chose a different path as they say, or really I feel that a different path chose me. I had never visualized marriage and kids but at the time of Corrie's death I had a 2 1/2 year old and adventure travel was not likely in the near future. The irony was, had I not had a child I would have not had the perspective on the Israel-Palestine that I had developed at the time of Corrie's death.
My son was born September 1, 2000 about the same time as the second intifada broke out. There was a presidential election as well but I don't have strong memories of that campaign, even though I know I was interested and paying close attention. What I do have strong memories of was the endless reporting--on NPR no less--of Palestinian deaths. I spent the last few months of 2000 either in bed, on a sofa, or on my butt, sleeping or breastfeeding. I didn't do very much, I didn't go out very much, I don't even remember a lot of detail of my son's early days, sleep-deprived as they were. But all that sitting and lying around forced me to think about the crisis at hand, I could not escape thinking about it. I can easily recall the sense of awfulness, of helplessness, of what was happening so far away and thinking, can Israel just kill them? Am I the only person hearing this-because can't somebody somewhere do something? I had gradually come to learn about the reality of the occupation over the past few years before that but it was during those first few months of the second intifada that it came together for me.
So when I heard of Corrie's death I felt moved by the sense that I should be there, and equally horrified that had I been there I would have been run over by a bulldozer too, because I would have thought they would stop.
I had the chance to meet her parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie. If you are a parent, you cannot imagine anything worse then your child dying--as my mother says, it defies the natural order of things. Craig and Cindy have chosen to take up Rachel's cause--while fighting for justice for Rachel they have taken up the Palestinian cause as well. "Grace" is not a word used often these days but since I met them I feel they personify it. To take such a loss and to try to use it as force for good, to do so with not a trace of outward bitterness--they are the nicest people--that is grace.
Not long after Corrie died Tom Hurdall, a 21 year-old British citizen was shot by Israeli forces trying to protect some Palestinian children. Hurdall was drawn to Gaza for similar reasons as Corrie was and wrote to his family not long before his death
"What do I want from this life? What makes you happy is not enough. All the things that satisfy our instincts only satisfy the animal in us. I want to be proud of myself. I want more. I want to look up to myself and when I die, I want to smile because of the things I have done, not cry for the things I haven't done."
Is this not what we all strive for? In some small way, to make the world a better place, to do as much as you can with what you have, and to have as little regrets as possible.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Is it fair to blame Sheryl Sandberg for what passes for feminism?

Sheryl Sandberg's new book "Lean In" is not out yet but the media have been busy. There have been two general schools of thought--one from women like Linda Hirshman and Joan Walsh who insist she is right on and the "haters" don't get it.  The other is from women like Sarah Jaffe and Melissia Gira Grant who argue they don't even care very much about Sandberg and her ilk, it's just what she has to offer to not useful for most women. Who is right? Is Sandberg  going to " . . jump-start the laggard feminist movement" or is she just another woman fighting (individually) to break the "glass ceiling"?
Walsh argues that it's not fair to blame Sandberg for the fact she doesn't address all social ills--and that the advice she gives is useful, albeit not for every woman. Hirshman suggests that Sandberg's plan has "all the hallmarks of success" including political framing, focus, "moral high ground", and will have weekly meetings (emphasis in the original). On the other hand Jaffe and Grant consider feminism to be an integral part of a movement for economic justice and glass ceilings to be beside the point. Grant points out that:
"To the extent that someone who benefits from that business culture espouses feminism, it will be ruthlessly friendly to the corporate enviroment in which it is exercised."
By all accounts, Sandberg is all about the corporate culture. Even leaving aside the issue of just how many women aspire to that corporate culture I would question the idea that women in positions of corporate power help other corporate women. This is a central tenet of Sandberg's "Lean In" philosophy, but is there any evidence to suggest that the actions or policies that Sandberg or her tech counterpart Marissa Mayer have helped any females at Facebook or Yahoo?  I don't think that there is, my guess (not having much knowledge of either company) that both work like any other tech company. Which is to say there is an emphasis on working patterns and characteristics which are in theory gender-neutral but frequently favor men.
While I don't like to suggest it is only mothers who are in need of progressive polices it is easy prism to view a company's value on a female employee, and society in general. Like any mother who considers herself a feminist I winced at the news that Mayer would take no maternity leave after the birth of her first child--and in case you thought that was a fluke she also ended telecommuting. As CEO Mayer can do what she likes but the obvious implications are that maternity leave is a luxury, as is work flexibility--most people would consider both of these integral to keeping mothers in the workplace. It's worth noting that 20 years after the Family Medical Leave Act--you remember the thing that was going to destroy American business--getting time off for family reasons (let alone getting paid for it which is the norm in the industrialized west) is still difficult and frequently at the whim of the employer. From what Walsh suggests Sandberg is very focused on what women can do to advance themselves, and suggests that that Sandberg " . . . would never face this kind of rage for writing a how-to-get-ahead book." I agree, because I think Sandberg did write that book but framed it as book to help all women. As Grant says, if the book had been framed as something 'by and for women in positions of corporate leadership' this conversation would not be happening. There is nothing wrong about writing a book to help ambitious women but what feminists like Grant and Jaffe object to is the idea that this is all there is, that more women on corporate boards and in business leadership will help most, if not all women.
Whether this is true or not it would appear to get TO that leadership position you need to be well, not like a woman.  Hirshman is explicit in this, explaining how women's lower position is a result of social polices and "self-limiting behaviors, which are entirely in the women's control". Hirshman goes on:

"In refusing to buy into the women naturally love their children more narrative, Sandberg wound up in the opposite corner from former State Department honcho Anne-Marie Slaughter, who quit her job to take care of her 14 year-old-son. . . . old lefty fantasies that men are going to tax themselves to pay for full-time day care and say women can make come of the change themselves."

This is awful on a couple different levels, most mothers, especially those with professional backgrounds   want to be able to work and be there for their children, and want to see changes in policies to make this happen. Women's choices are not always in their control, childbearing for example is safest and easiest when women are younger, probably before they are "established" professionally. Yes, I do expect that both men AND women will contribute to these changes, whether it be by taxes or (more likely) forcing corporations to bear some of the burden. Although much maligned by the working-class feminists I found Slaughter's story useful, because her story helped show how having women in positions of power does not help other women, at least not significantly. Having female boss did not significantly change the dynamic for her to keep her job, and she notes that all the men on the Supreme Court have families, the women do not. Most of the women who have served the President (Obama and Bush) do not have families. It's fine if women do not want to have families but where did it become an axiom that if you want to be a "successful" (re: an occupation that commands a high salary or high respect) woman you can't have children, men certainly to not have to make this choice (and if you do marry you better be to the right kind of man). Hirshman goes on in this vein, it is important be be focused only on getting women into leadership positions, this is "moral high ground" as opposed to  . . . well I won't pretend I understand what she is trying to get it here. She seems to see this push for women in leadership to be something everybody should be able to rally around, as opposed to, "choice" I guess? There are plenty of people in power who don't see this as moral high ground, but again the idea that getting women in leadership will automatically help other women is questionable.
Since she just wrote a book "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution" I'm guessing Hirshman is supportive of Christine Quinn, a front-runner to be New York's first female and openly gay mayor. She is also on record for blocking paid-sick leave. This is moral high ground? This is helping women? To be fair other women are taking her to task for this but business does not want it, and guess who gives campaign contributions. (For a good description of how implementing a comprehensive sick-leave policy in a major city might look like see here.) Hirshman finishes with the final insult, the fact that in order to achieve this it depends on "weekly meetings" by which she really means women OF means getting together on this moral high ground to fix everything. Because "the revival of feminism" cannot come from ". . . the second-shift-working, overburdened, underemployed and often single parenting female masses . . .". Well maybe if they could get some paid sick days, paid maternity leave, and livable wages they might be able to go to meetings too.
In Jaffe's article she stresses that the majority of woman are these masses, they compose the majority of professions such as those in the public sector, teachers, home care workers, domestics and the like that are under attack from various quarters. For these women, the only way to get ahead is by organizing, and for many of these professions they are not considered worthy of consideration by mainstream feminists. As in almost any topic you can think of the mainstream emphasis will be on those with power, and those who look most like those in power. It is interesting to compare the dynamic of Walsh and Hirshman who insist that power can trickle down, versus Grant and Jaffe who insist it must come from below. Who is right? Well, where are the majority of women--up or down? Exactly what is the magic number of women in power which will result in a shift of the political dynamic to benefit all women? The fact is, if the overburdened masses get what they deserve--living wages, essential benefits--then ALL women will get them. It won't matter who is in charge.

Friday, March 8, 2013

thoughts on rape on International Women's Day

I don't watch much TV so it was via twitter I came across the Zerlina Maxwell story. Maxwell suggested on Sean Hannity's show that men needed to be taught not to rape. As Maxwell says

"The reality is that we need to be changing how we train and teach young men. We need to teach them to see women as human beings and respect their bodily anatomy. We need to teach them about consent and hold themselves accountable."

This was taken in some corners as some crazy, insulting idea and Maxwell has been attacked for her statement. But why? It's well-established, as Maxwell pointed out, that most rapists are known to their victims. They are boyfriends, friends, relatives, and husbands. The man jumping out from the bushes is rare. What is it about our society that these men feel it's ok to force themselves on women? Because there must be some underlying sense in the perpetrator that either this is not that big of a deal or that even if he gets caught nothing will really happen. Just as Ta-nehisi Coates is tired of "good people" who are racist, I am tired of "nice" boys who rape. Again, there is a sense of the institution versus the individual-people like to think of rape as an isolated incident that does not reflect society as a whole, since we know it is bad and nobody we know would do it. But why does it continue to happen at an alarming rate, why are prosecutions so rare, why does the focus tend to be on women learning to "be safe." Why is pointing out the obvious, that it is the person with the power, the man, who needs to change so upsetting to people? If we as a society have created norms that rape is ok, we as a society can change them, and we must.

Thoughts on "good people" and racism

Earlier this week Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a piece on Forest Whitaker being frisked at a deli. As a progressive white person I'd like to think this kind of thing doesn't happen anymore, and in New York?But it does, and that in this day and age that a person's humanity can be so denied is so depressing. Part of Coates larger point was the idea of institutional racism versus individual racism. Individual racism is between people, and any person can not like anybody else for any reason, color of skin or otherwise. Because people tend to see society as simply a blown-up model of their own individual reality there is a tendency for "good" people to assume that since they and the people they know are not racist, neither is society. Isolated incidents are just that, isolated incidents. But in this country that is simply not the case as Coates points out in a blog post :
"If Forrest Whitaker sticks out in that deli for reasons of individual mortal sin, we can castigate the guy who frisked him and move on. But if he-and other like him-stick out for reasons of policy, for decisions that we, as a state, have made, then we have a problem. Then we have to do something beyond being nice to each other."
I grew up in the era of the Rodney King beating, of the OJ trial, of Spike Lee. I remember after the King incident several news shows attempting to replicate the essence of the incident--that is a black man being stopped by the cops where a white man would not--and succeeding. It was not a shock to me but it was not knowledge I had before. I did not follow the OJ trial very closely, I saw it early on as more of a class issue. OJ was black but he also had money and people with money get off all the time. I felt sadness for his victims but I did not begrudge the many African-Americans who celebrated the fact that for once the black man got off, which is not the norm in a country where the vast majority of victims on death row are black not white. "Do the Right Thing" was controversial when it came out, Spike Lee was considered something of a radical for putting on the screen what was well known to be reality, at least among some people. I remember hearing a commentator stating that Spike Lee said in an interview that "blacks couldn't be racist." I knew when I heard that there was more to the story, and when I went to the Newsweek article there was, what he was referring to was institutional racism. What he actually said was that blacks could not participate in institutional racism since they did not have institutional power. It made sense to me then, it makes sense to me now, but what did not necessarily occur to me was the idea that racism is a creation and "If we accept that racism is a creation, then we must accept that it can be destroyed . . ." (from Coates blog).
What would destruction look like? Well it would be attempting to dismantle the structures that keep people of color from full equality, specifically economic equality. It would mean specifically in Chicago (and Philadelphia for that matter) to keep all public schools open, recognizing they are an important part of the community. It would be putting resources in those areas of the city, the south and west side, that have never seen it. Finally, there would be a real attempt, at a multitude of levels, to address the prison industrial complex that targets people of color. If we are really good people, shouldn't we be doing this?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Further thoughts on “Warmth” from a white person

       I think “Warmth of Other Suns” has affected me so much because it is so easy to see the long-term effects of the great migration in a personal light. I spent the most important part of my professional, clinical, life at Schwab Rehabilitation hospital in Lawndale. Turn one direction down the street from Schwab and the neighborhood appears to be entirely Hispanic, turn down the other side the neighborhood appears to be entirely African-American. The majority of the patients I saw were African-American, some Hispanics, an occasional white person or Eastern European thrown in there.  While most of the physical, occupational speech, and speech therapists were white like me they were not exclusively so, the physicians especially the residents were something of an international mix. The majority of the nursing staff and nearly all of the non-professional staff were African-American, with some Hispanic representation. 
            I am a physical therapist and typically at Schwab I would have a caseload of 6-8 patients, who would be seen for about an hour each. My patients by definition has some kind of physical deficit requiring them to be there—a stroke, a brain injury, a hip fracture etc.—and the session would typically involve strengthening exercises, functional training, ambulation training. When you do physical therapy you get intimate with your patients.  This is primarily physical—you are helping a patient get out of bed, to stand get up, to walk. As a physical therapist you are asking this person who barely knows you to trust you with their body.  But because the goals to move the patient to independence there develops something of a psychological bond as well.  As a physical therapist you are pushing them and challenging them to do things that they don’t think they can do, maybe don’t want to do at least at that moment. You are something of a coach, reminding them of the end-goal and trying to give them the confidence to do it.
            In-between the exercises and the walking you talk to each other, about the weather, the neighborhood, about families. It struck me early, that every African-American I talked to was not from Chicago. I heard Alabama and Mississippi the most. I occasionally thought about what it was like to grow up black in the south-I was aware of the struggle for civil rights in the 60s, and I was dimly aware of lynching, although not to the extent it occurred. But, like the vast majority of white people, I didn’t have any real concept of the day-to-day existence of African-Americans in the south or the north in the first half of the century. In the corner of my mind sometimes I wondered what these 60-80 year-old African-Americans thought about this young white woman telling them what to do. Were they used to it—was it expected? Or was it resented? I worked with a variety of personalities, some with more attitudes then others but I can’t ever remember any comments in regards to my whiteness.
            I feel I saw so many Ida Maes, (Georges as well) and the descriptions of her experiences brought so many thoughts to mind. Ida was not educated in the traditional sense; her vision was limited by her experiences in the rural south.  She was a woman who simply did what needed to be done. In that sense she is representative of so many women, especially African-American women, who have spent their lives working without a second thought. When the hospital workers at the hospital she worked at went on strike Ida did not. To be fair, it’s not clear anybody properly explained to her what the strike was about but I think she would probably have worked anyway, she had never not worked; it was a part of her being.  This incident serves as a reminder of the way race was used against organizing for better wages in US labor history—part of the reason African-Americans were recruited to the north was to keep wages down and African-American troops were often brought in to break up strikes.
      So while Ida might have not been able to identify with the idea of a union, she had a very strong sense of self—not exactly self-confidence but she knew what she was, what she could do and not do, and what she saw and what it meant. It was this strong sense of self that when asked for sexual favors by a man in a house she was working, she said no, in spite of obvious financial pressure. This sense of self led Ida to accept the reality of homosexuality—even though I’m sure it was foreign to her—noting the strong sense of loss exhibited by a man at his lover’s funeral.
            As noted in a Prison Culture post, “we (African-Americans) were not supposed to survive.” That the incredible poverty of sharecropping, the constant threat of violence—physical for African-American sexual for African-American women—did not kill off the descendents of slavery is kind of amazing.  They came to the north for a better life—and on a certain level the north was better. Ida herself noted that if she had denied a white male sexual favors in the south, she probably would have been killed. There were no “whites” only signs in the north but as Robert and George learned, there were plenty of boundaries and you might learn them the hard way.  Comparing the south and the north this way reminds me of our current political system--we are frequently told one political party is better then the alternative, on closer examination it is clear that both parties are for the status quo that leaves many in poverty and favors the few.
         Like anybody who has lived in Chicago for any amount of time I am aware of the severe segragation of the city. But until reading “Warmth” some logical outcomes of that never occurred to me. For one, there was simply not enough room in the area deemed acceptable for African-Americans for all the African-Americans who were coming. People did try to stop the migration but this was a successful as attempts to limit migration from Mexico have been. If people are insistent on coming, if they think their lives and their children's lives depend on it, they will come. The restriction of the migrants resulted in some incredibly dense poor populations of African-Americans who had no chance to develop any kind of wealth, as their best hope was to rent whatever small, overpriced, places they could get. These communities would never really change, they would never get any real chances at the wealth of the city and these same communities are now racked by violence as a result of years of neglect and poverty.
         The African-American experience speaks to the incredible will of survival of a group of people and it made me think of another disadvantaged brown group, Palestinians. Like African-Americans the Palestinians have been forced to live on too-small of an area, forced to take the least of what jobs are available, and live under a constant threat of violence from the state which does not represent them in any kind of way. Although the processes have been different most Palestinians have had no chance at wealth. Land was taken from them with the founding of the state of Israel, in 1967, or even today where Palestinian have to fight endless court battles for their land, to frequently see it given to Jewish settlers. As what passes for a peace process completely falls to the wayside, it is clear that it is the desire for Israel and her enablers is that the Palestinians will simply disappear.
        But they have not, as Palestinians refuse to just leave and the BDS movement gains strength. And of course African-Americans are not going away, the question if we in Chicago are willing to truly invest in these communities in a manner that will make them better.