Friday, December 22, 2017

The Language of Poverty

Coates is again in the news as Cornel West takes him to task for his neoliberalism.  A portion of West's thesis deals with Coates' embrace of Obama, including the imperialism he finds distasteful.  While germane to a definition of neoliberalism, I'm personally more interested in how the two deal with minority poverty.  As a white man, I recognize the privileged view from which I sit.  However, with decades of work among poor and minority communities, and a life-long grappling both (literally and figuratively) with how to help understand and solve the wealth gap, I feel my critical engagement with these issues comes from a place of deep respect.  Further, I continue to feel that true anti-racism requires humanization, not objectification of minority thought.  That said, I welcome critique of my ideas should they veer towards offensive caricature, or any other reflection of my whiteness.  But onwards.
Critiques of West have been that he is too ad hominem - arguing Coates' hasn't "earned" the right to his pessimism.  That can be read as such - shouldn't Coates' arguments be taken on their merit, as opposed to the body that voices them?  But one could read West not as impugning Coates' personally, but rather - again in line with West's thesis - his lack of a developed theory of oppression.  West is a Marxist, and places oppression in the context of an accumulation of wealth and power that is  explicitly capitalist.  Coates spends very little time with this.  Coates' paints vivid and beautiful portraits of what oppression feels like.  And this is to be admired greatly.  And his effect has been great.  But much of this effect, arguably, can be attributable to his resonance with Whites' deep ambivalence between their neoliberal assumptions and their discomfort with their obvious privilege.  Coates paints a vivid portrait for them to hang on their wall, to give passing penance.  But nothing else about the room is required to change.  The walls of the building remain.
My problem with Coates’ neo-liberalism is that it rests snugly in the neo-liberal Whites’ allergy top real economic reform. If it is all about racist white behavior, then you don’t have to deal with the deeper economic assumptions that literally perpetuate minority poverty. Whites are, have been, and likely be racist in all kinds of ways. But imagine if you got them all to stop tomorrow: what would that really change about minority poverty? We have an economic system which requires low-skill labor be paid low wages. This means historically marginalized groups will inevitably be the ones doing that work.
Neo-liberals assume that if you simply make the playing field equal, that society with be equal. But capitalism simply doesn’t work that way: it REQUIRES an underclass. Take Coates’ reparations - I’m all for them, but they don’t demand better pay for low-skill work. In fact, the neo-liberal assumption of a meritocracy in which everyone gets a good education and goes to college, ACTIVELY undervalues and views moral failing in the poor. Yet when the poor make bad choices, don’t raise their kids right, misbehave, etc. - neoliberals have no answer other than to pretend it doesn’t exist and that the problem is not the system but rather white racism. What they cannot or will not grasp is that capitalism depends on a caste system of societal capital, in which financial, emotional, cognitive, neighborhood, property, etc. resources are leveraged by market values. These market values don’t care a whit about the immorality of privilege and historical advantage. It depends upon the individual acting according to self-interest, which will always be stronger than group interest unless larger contingencies are in place. The strongest contingency of all is a system of laws that grant privilege status to property above morality. Thus, high-SES and low-SES is allowed to exist.
Of course race will be a factor in this, but it is only the language that the system uses to describe the violence that the economic system perpetrates. West’s critique of Coates is that he is “all talk” in this sense - that he revels in the language of racism without looking deeper, into its economic  grammar, if you will. 
In my intellectual evolution over the years (documented for better or worse on this blog!), I've come to develop the notion of something I call Societal Capital.  Its an extension of the Marxist notion of the leveraging of capital in a capitalist society, but reaching more broadly to include not only financial but other forms of material wealth that can also be seen as commodities.  Essentially, anything that can be leveraged to help one develop for themselves more freedom is Societal Capital.  Likewise, the lack thereof of this development act to deleverage one's freedom.  For example, when a parent reads to her child and engages her in stimulating conversation, she improves the child's cognitive capacity, which the child will be able to leverage for increased access to freedom in school and peer relationships.  Similarly, the way a parent smiles at her child, hugs her and comforts her builds up a child's emotional strength, which then she will be able to leverage outside the home. 
The notion of Societal Capital is Marxist in that it eschews the static notion of libertarian free will that is presumed by classical liberalism.  Supporters of a "free market" imagine in individuals as free actors; if people are free to make decisions, all things being equal they will thrive according to their merit.  An inherent morality is thus derived in which personal circumstance is largely the product of one's "personal freedoms", without regard to past or future learning histories.  The ultimate product of this view is that people who don't do well in school, seek to better themselves, stay in low-wage jobs, or generally make choices that are less productive, have no one to blame but themselves.  

This presents a problem for neo-liberalism, which fundamentally accepts the notion of merit and personal responsibility.  But hold on a second, you might say - I'm a Democrat and I don't blame the poor!  

Enter Coates and West.  I first began reading Coates many years ago, when he used to blog for the Atlantic.  I was interested in his take on education, especially how it intertwined with race.  But I grew frustrated with his embrace of ed-reform (a movement rooted in neoliberalism's assumptions), and the picture he painted of "poor" schools did not reflect what I knew to be the case - both from research as well as first hand experience in the classroom.  More so, I was annoyed with the what White readers - most of whom likely never spent much time in a ghetto in their lives -  seemed to conveniently elevate him.  Sure, there were racist teachers - I'll never forget one in PA who whispered a complaint to me about the "black ones".  But sadly, the racism in her words was not in the facts of the case, but rather her interpretation of them.  In Reading, PA, schools were filled with poor, misbehaved children.  And there, as is the case everywhere in America, a higher proportion of misbehaved kids were indeed minority, especially black.  But the racism dripping from her white lips was that she put the blame squarely ON THEM.  She did not understand the context of what she was seeing.  She did not see the historical marginalization, the wealth gap, and ultimately that poverty, not race was the determining factor in the behavior that she loathed.  And as a teacher, you can only imagine how infuriating poorly behaved, disrespectful, sassy, unmotivated children can be.  But poor white kids were hardly better (owing to their small privilege of being white and the modicum of Societal Capital that had allowed their family to maintain).  When I finally left the profession, it was because I simply could no longer take the daily confrontation of poor kids with no support in the rest of their lives.  I would end the day with a stack of notes to call home.  When I phoned, their parents had long given up on them, and had no advice for me.  These parents did not have enough support themselves.  And in Yucca Valley, CA, they were primarily white.
For decades now, since explicit racism has been written out of the lawbooks (segregation, miscegenation), and society has generally embraced the notion that all races should be in theory treated fairly, the persistence of the minority poverty gap has presented a problem for mainstream political thought.  The conservative Republican party views the problem as classical liberals might: free will in minority communities necessitates that the problem is individual.  Far right racists say this is biological, less far-right race "realists" say it is cultural.  The problem is not, that is, due to racism or economic structure.

The liberal Democratic party is too politically "liberal" (i.e. moderately progressive), to directly challenge the classical liberal assumptions of capitalism such free markets, property rights and individual freedom of action (free will).  Instead, (especially after the horrific example of communism's form of dismantling these assumptions) it has chosen to delicately tip-toe around these notions, avoiding direct confrontation.  Government is sold as a salve in the rougher edges of capitalism.  Supports such as public education and health care subsidies are promoted as morally necessary when individuals are unable to obtain services such as education and health care on the free market.  But when faced with the persistence of minority poverty, they are ill-equipped to confront the problem directly.  To challenge racism is old-hat.  This requires no actual challenge to any real norms.  Be nice to everyone and treat them with respect.  OK, fine.  We've all agreed that this is what you are supposed to do.  Of course, people are going to be racist in all manner of micro-aggressive, ignorant and mildly ugly ways.  But undoing any of this, no matter how hard we try, is... well, lip-service.  

Generational poverty is a product of capitalism.  If we take race out of the equation altogether, you still get economic segregation and broken communities, for the simple fact that low-wages inflict a violence upon families that is beyond compare.  It creates stresses, hardships, and instabilities that devastate Societal Capital.  It creates ghettos bereft of public capital such as parks, clean streets, role-models, nice stores, good transportation and basic safety.  It saps family capital as marriages are strained and children grow up unsupported.  Emotional and cognitive capital is deserted in early childhood, leading to schools filled with children far behind their higher-wage family peers.  Educational capital is thus hamstrung as the school-to-poverty pipe-line is reinforced.  Hope is depleted, short-term is prioritized, which reinforces behaviors that don't build long-term capital.
But all of this is to become skeptical of capitalism, of merit itself.  It is to become skeptical of  economic and social structures that are foundational to our country.  The moral portrait it begins to paint is one of inequity, specifically that the privileged no more earn their place than do those without privilege.  Inequity is not something you can simply "educate away".  All the schools in the world and lack of racism is not going to fill the vacancies of landscapers, dishwashers, maids, cashiers, line-cooks, waiters and the rest.  
This is what I took West to be saying.  Coates was his target not because he was black, but because he wasn't white.  In the neo-liberal mainstream media world, critiques of capitalism are verboten, but lip service to racism is always fair game.  And better yet, when a black writer like Coates, who so eloquently, poetically describes in rich detail the indignity of White Supremacy - yet without the deeper, revolutionary critique of capitalism, he is lauded.  Much like the erasing of Dr. Martin Luther King's pivot to poverty allows modern Whites a sort of moral cleansing, Coates' wallowing in the pessimism of a neo-liberal framework unsatisfied with its own inability to come to terms with its perpetuating forces too abets a process of toothless political meandering.

And while "woke" twitter throws shade over lattes and worn copies of bell hooks, people are still waking up at the crack of dawn to do dirty work for little pay.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Neo-Liberal Paradox

Race Counts is a great project.  Its goal is to bring awareness of racial disparities across the state of California.

"Through cutting-edge, rigorous research and analysis, RACE COUNTS will rank all 58 counties by these issue areas and provide a roadmap of how we can unwind generations of racial oppression.My package was marked delivered today, however I was at home all day.  It was marked left beside door, however I have an enclosed courtyard, and there are no packages there."
It was established by The Advancement Project, which calls itself

 "a next generation, multiracial civil rights organization working on systems change. The staff in the California offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento work to expand opportunities in our educational systems, create healthy built environments and communities, develop the connective tissue of an inclusive democracy, and shift public investments towards equity."
The website is smartly laid out,  and provides handy tools to examine data on economic opportunity,
health care access, education, housing, democracy, crime and justice and healthy built environments.  Information is broken down by ethnic group, population and county.

For instance, a chart filtered by poverty shows Fresno as having the highest levels of income disparity and lowest performance (overall prosperity, including income, graduation rates, etc.).  In a population of around 100k, nearly 30% of people live in poverty.  Clicking on the Fresno link takes you to a county overview.  Some key facts:

  • It is 50% hispanic and 30% white.
  • Highest employment levels are among Latinos.
  • Highest graduation rate is Pacific Islander at 97%, lowest is black, at 72%.
  • Whites on average had $30k income left over after housing costs, Latinos had only $23k
  • Other figures broken down by race included included: truancy arrests, curfew arrests, incarceration, food access, proximity to hazard
So, most of it is what you'd expect, with Black and HIspanic minorities generally bringing up the bottom of the disparity gap.  Some surprises, however.  White kids are actually arrested for truancy at rate more than doubling Black and Hispanic kids.  However, while curfew arrest rates are roughly equal for Blacks and Hispanics, rates for Hispanic kids are more than two thirds lower.

All well and good, but two things stood out to me.  First, the rates across ethnicities aren't broken down by SES.  For instance, how would high-SES blacks compare with high-SES whites?  My guess is we'd still see disparities, but they would be vastly smaller.  When you have a good paying job, a stable family, an education, and live in a nice neighborhood, things are kind of going well by definition.  

So this presents a problem.  Emphasizing disparity by race is important in understanding historical context of racism, legacy of Jim Crow, immigration, redlining, etc.  It makes a profound case for the present disparities being unfair and immoral.  It thus demands action as a moral imperative.

However, the danger in racial analysis is that, by emphasizing racial disparity, an easy narrative can form that racism is the problem.  That is, if we simply ended racism, things would all get better and we would have equality.  If teachers treated kids fairly, if employers looked past race, if lenders gave out loans without regard to skin color, these disparities would somehow end.

But this misses a crucial element of how we have chosen to structure our society: the setting of wages in free market capitalism.  You can treat people as fair as you want, but we will still have millions of low-skill occupations that need to be filled.  In a free-market system, these jobs will pay poverty wages.  If you look at pay scales historically for jobs in which repetitive, relatively simple and manually intensive labor is required - picking, scrubbing, folding, stacking, carrying, checking - you will find wages at the very bottom of the pay scale.  The people who will take these jobs will be the most desperate, those with the least available options - the least education, the most difficult childhoods, the most mental and physical health issues, the most unfortunate family crises, etc.  And when you require someone like this to spend 40 hours a week performing difficult, exhausting and depressing labor, and then only pay them a poverty wage, you create a perfect recipe for intergenerational poverty.  

To make matters worse, in a system of free-market housing, they can only afford to live in the cheapest homes.  Voila!  Ghettos are born.  Apartment complexes,  trailer parks, housing developments filled to capacity with poverty and struggle.  

But why stop there?  Tie basic government services to a neighborhood income tax base, and things like roads, postal offices and libraries are barely funded.  

What about the children?  Public schools in these neighborhoods will be filled with children who come from homes with vastly fewer resources.  Lower education, higher stress, more dysfunction, and likely generations of disadvantage.  Even the best teacher will struggle to make up for the cognitive, and emotional needs of their pupils.  Federal programs like Title I try to make up for these disadvantages in small ways, like providing free and reduced lunches, counseling or maybe social workers to try and support the families.  But they are for the most part band-aids that, while crucial and greatly needed, only serve to stem some of the bleeding.  

Schools try to innovate, but results are messy, and what appear to be effective interventions are often fleeting as success often requires a lot of luck and everything to be just right (above average leadership and staff, above average culture, above average... something).  But by definition, above average is not scaleable.  

Charter schools have proven to be a mixed bag - well intentioned, but more often than not merely representing a selection bias, attracting only the most motivated families: by definition the very families in these communities whose children are going to be the most prepared.  One feels for their plight - who doesn't want the best for their child, and every family deserves a good school for their child.  But if the reason your school is not "good" is that it is populated by poor kids, and you live in a poor neighborhood, requesting a selective school is helping certain families but not solving the larger issue.

Which, again, is poverty.  Even in the best scenario - the one you hear again and again from those interested in "education reform", is that all these kids go to college.  Great.  But we still have millions of jobs that pay poverty wages.  This is the great neo-liberal paradox: you spend/organize the perfect government intervention to get everyone an education and great jobs, yet millions of low-skill, low wage jobs remain.  

And OK, education is hard, not everyone is cut out for college. Maybe the answer is trade school.  A plumber, carpenter or electrician can make a solid middle class wage.  But you still haven't dealt with the problem.

What if we really used our imaginations and somehow schools were able to get all kids graduated and into trade schools or college?  So there then becomes this massive glut of highly educated/trained workers who can't find work.  Yet there still exist millions of low-skill, low wage jobs.  Are they going to all demand higher wages because of their fancy degrees and certifications?  The maid, the fieldworker, the cashier is still going to be competing for a job, and will need to work... or starve.  Degrees are poor leverage when everyone has one, jobs are scarce, and there's a line of willing workers lined up behind you.

The sad reality is that unless we find a way to raise pay for the massive numbers of low-skill jobs that our society demands, we are going to have massive numbers of people living in poverty, necessarily in poor neighborhoods, with their kids going to poor schools.

All you have to do is sprinkle a touch of historical racism and marginalization into the mix and racial disparity is guaranteed.

The Race Counts website has a list of current campaigns it is working on, including:

  • Incarceration and racial profiling
  • Investment in poor neighborhoods
  • Affordable housing
  • Better schools
  • Taxing corporations
  • Gentrification

These are all great ideas.  But notice anything missing?  How are any of them going to help raise wages for low-skill occupations?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

We Must Go Deeper

Writing in the Root, Michael Harriot discusses finding that minority and poor students received harsher discipline than whites and well-off students. Glossing over the very real issue that lower-SES students are indeed at higher risk for behavioral problems, he writes  that “the problems of racial inequality in the criminal justice system begin in the educations [sic] system.”
I would say they continue, but do not begin there. They begin in our embracing an economic system in which low-skill work is paid a poverty wage. This creates ghettos, destroys families and depletes capital (financial, emotional, cognitive, safety, health, transportation, modeling, etc.). Historically marginalized, low-capital ethnic groups will get caught in the trap of being forced into working these jobs, and thus sucked into a generational system of oppression as an underclass, as geographic isolation concentrates the effects of poverty, nowhere more so than in neighborhood schools. Dominant ethnic groups will find racism a convenient rationalization for the structural economic system which requires the dehumanization of fellow citizens in order to excuse their continued exploitation. Politicians and pundits will find that demogoguery is an effective tool to gin up support for their personal or political ambition.

The way out is simple in theory, yet difficult in practice: raising wages for this type of work, thus detaching it from ethnic marginalization and geographic segregation.  To truly dig out racism from society, we must go deeper, indeed to the root.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Brain of Kool Keith

In 1988, The Bronx-based rap group The Ultramagnetic MCs released "Critical Beatdown", a landmark in hip hop, setting a new bar both in production as well as lyrical complexity and imagination.

Its founder, Kool Keith, went on to create the album he is maybe best known for, as Dr. Octagon in Dr. Octagonecologyst, a concept album starring a "time-traveling gynecologist and surgeon from the planet jupiter".  The wikipedia entry summarizing the epic space-narrative is quite brilliant:

"Octagon specifies a few of the services he offers, such as treatment of chimpanzee acne and moosebumps, and performs rectal rebuilding surgery and relocates saliva glands.[2] Octagon also performs medical experiments at night when the moon is out. Proclaiming that his hammer is dull and his drill is broken, Dr. Octagon tells patients that he doesn't have tools. Instead, he states that he'll rip out a stomach, dissect open rectums, put needles in kneecaps, apply Clorox to vocal boxes, and watch his patients vomit green. Dr. Octagon's office number is 1-800-pp51-doodoo, and his patients often wait in a waiting room for long periods of time before he dismisses the ones that have been waiting since morning. Octagon's hospital also houses mental patients that dance in the halls. Octagon has fed green fly soup to his patients on occasion, and has given patients a mixture of Pepsi cola, Pepto-Bismol, bugs, and pop rocks to watch them cough until they turn blue. One of Octagon's patients dies in room number 105 with cirrhosis of the eye while there is a horse loose in the hospital. Another patient is taken by Dr. Octagon out of the bathroom into water to touch the submerged electric wires. Octagon claims to hide the dead bodies of his patients in Beverly Hills, CA. Octagon's uncle, Mr. Gerbik, is described as being half shark, having the skin of an alligator, and is 208 years old."

Revisting Critical Beatdown this morning, I was struck by Keith's frequent reference to brains.  So I made a wordcloud of his nearly 4000 word contribution to the lyrics of the album.

Indeed.  Brain actually occurs 26 times throughout the album.  As opposed to Spongee, which only occurs twice.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Noble Savages Across the Tracks

The Death of General Wolfe,
Benjamin West,1770
The iconoclastic Thomas Chatterton Williams goes after Ta-nehesi coates in today's NY Times.  His main beef is the racial essentialism he feels Coates embraces, and which mirrors that of explicit racists.

This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice.

My beef with Coates has always been something else.  He's a great writer.  There is a lyricism in his words, and a brash, unapologetic embrace of colloquial manners, albeit never sacrificed for imprecision.  But his passion and craft are hamstrung by a lack of nuance in the larger project of deconstructing the system he rails against.  

Much of the heft of his words lazily harkens back to civil-rights era tropes that just don't fit the times.  Racism is alive and well today, but it is of a much different sort.  Whereas before, the question of racial equality was actually on the table, and people took explicit positions against it.  This isn't true today.  Right wing leaders publicly praise Martin Luther King.  They talk about "not seeing color", and in a belief that everyone should live together as equals.

So what to make of the present, then, when inequality obviously persists, and white people behave in ways in which they seem to value minorities less?  

For black liberals like Coates, the easy answer is racism.  White people are discriminating against blacks in employment, in school, in policing.  Sure, blacks may be misbehaving more often that whites - but this is because of how racist whites are.

The problem with this critique is that it is superficial and naive.  It skips over the deeper questions about how our social and economic system is organized in ways that limit historically marginalized groups' access to and development of societal capital.  Instead, it chooses to focus in on explicit acts of white racism, as if once white people stopped acting racist, that the problems of the black community would be solved.  If only whites became more "woke" and no longer engaged in microaggressions like assuming light-skinned people are white, or wanting to touch black hair.  Or supposed macroaggressions such as moving into black neighborhoods.  Or moving to neighborhoods where the schools are "good" (read: non-minority).

The focus is always on the personal, the individual - the conscious-raising.  But as much as microaggressions are certainly real, and workplace discrimination, teacher prejudice and police brutality exist, they are not the cause of black disadvantage.  They are ugly, obvious issues.  But they aren't close to the source of the problem.

In white liberals' prostration before Coates, there is something of a Noble Savage act. Our deep guilt and uncomfortableness drive us to embrace a ritualistic display, in which, by allying ourselves with a black authority, we no longer have to be uncomfortable or guilty.
Instead of seeing native peoples as complex - even flawed at times, white anthropology sought to absolve itself from dealing with the foreign other on equal terms. It was an overcorrection, a way to make-believe that cultural understanding could happen in a sort of historical and value-free vacuum.
So too with the black "other". My hunch is that minority critics of the Coates variety find themselves torn between enjoying the attention that their broadsides against "White Supremacy", "Intersectionality" and "Privilege" enjoy among white liberals, and the suspicion that their critiques aren't actually understood all that well - that their harsh speaking of truths is a sort of Kabuki that whites are attending as a form of cheap penance that absolves quickly rather than requiring an advanced interrogation of both sides.
I've always felt that this style of white guilt is dangerous, as a vapid understanding ultimately hurts those who would benefit most from a true discourse. Poor minorities who suffer the actual disadvantage in all this become mere shadow puppets in a theater of faux-deconstruction. All the while, the actual gears of oppression churn on. 

While personal identity politics is interesting, and important, it too often gets in the way of a larger discussion about a system which depends on and reinforces disadvantage.  Solving that problem may in fact raise many more uncomfortable questions about privilege, and how we may need to radically alter some of our social structures going forward so that we can finally end disadvantage once and for all.

Monday, September 25, 2017

It Never Ends

The New York Times has a terrible article today, headlined "When Black Children Are Targeted for Punishment".

God, these articles are so frustrating.  Black students ARE far more likely to misbehave.  But if writers acknowledge this, they feel like they're agreeing with those who would say blacks are inferior.  So, they invent a narrative in which nothing has changed since 1965, and white teachers are to blame.

But these people have either never spent much time in poor minority schools, or they are willfully blind.

Here's a question: when a community inherits hundreds of years of discrimination and abuse, it's culture shunned, and levels of low-education, broken families, crime and neglect are far higher, how well-behaved are its children?

Really, you can leave race out of it (to make things a little more clear).  I've taught kids from low-SES homes who are white, hispanic, asian, black, Native, etc.  They're always the ones who misbehave.  Why, because life has fucked them over.  Their parents - or parent, or grandparent, as often, have a shitty life.  They make crappy pay, live in a crappy neighborhood, with crappy neighbors.  They develop crappy habits.  They are in survival mode, and try to find happiness where they can.  This might mean taking a nap instead of helping their kid with homework.  Or watching TV while letting their kid run around outside with the other little hellions so they can get a moments' peace.  Or handing out a quick smack.  Or forgetting to do the laundry, or pack a lunch.

By refusing to acknowledge the reality of underclass life, with all of its ugly behavioral symptoms and cyclical traps, these would-be do-gooders continue to spin this BS.  But by all means, continue to pay your clerks, cleaners, waiters, washers, diggers, scrapers and pickers a poverty wage, yet wonder why poverty exists.  Then, wonder why we have such high incarceration, violence and ghettos.  Wonder who leaves next to the airports, factories.  Wonder who is going to get high on drugs or corn chips.

I used to blog about this shit, but I gave up because I got sick of living in an intellectual wilderness.  You can either be Charles Murray or Ta-nehisi Coates.  But you can't be both.  The Devil or the Angel.

Is it too difficult to understand?  Does it require too much explanation and prerequisite information?  Do you need a bachelor's of arts to add it all up and grok the thesis?  My guess is no.  My guess is the subject is fraught with danger - for getting on the wrong side of the wrong people.  My guess is that our society reinforces tribalism and punishes free thought. (Even saying the phrase "free thought" irks me because it has become synonymous with literal bigotry - with those who would hide behind it as a hideous shield behind which they lose sight of humanity beyond reach of their cold logic.  In their case, the "freedom" has only landed them in another homogenous group of a-holes).

In the end, I am simply saddened because the real questions aren't being asked.  The real, lived experiences of these kids remains unseen.  Their misbehavior is a cry from the darkness.  The educational system is a relentless beast of order and suppression - for those who cannot navigate it's strict monotony, it acts like a vice.  The harder you squirm, the tighter the grip becomes.  By secondary school, these kids know nothing but to be prey.  The day is spent forever flitting from flimsy branch to branch, one eye on the beast, one eye on more games to play, unconsciously desperate to find some silliness, some cruel joke to distract themselves from the inevitable, crushing reality they one day they too will be laid out, exhausted, children nipping - their little resentful eyes now too growing larger, poor quality, dirty belongings tossed about in some previously dreary rush, bills stacked high, with echoes and visions of self-satisfied mid-managers barking orders and counting beans, being told to smile more.  Being told that, "One more time and you're fired."  Knowing where you live.  Knowing where your parents live.  Knowing where your children live.  Seeing the white people come in, laughing, digesting their fancy sandwiches and laughing easily.

In all of this, horrible, systemic drudgery, this pretty little articles get written.  A self-satisfied separatist religiosity permeates smugly.  Charles Murray's solution to the "achievement gap" is for blacks to start behaving better.  His recommendation is for somewhere, somehow some mysteriously delivered "message" be given to them, such that they'll stop acting like fools.  Murray is a racist idiot.

To authors of pieces like this - which do-gooder white liberal types seem to eat up like some kind of periodic penance, which they find distasteful but hope deep down will absolve them from the privilege they can't help but enjoy, but feel an inexplicable yet persistent shame over - the solution is for whites to just stop being so damn racist.  See, if white teachers would just allow little black and hispanic boys to raise their hands and turn in their homework like the rest of the class, all of our problems will be solved.

Then everyone can grow up and some can nicely go to college, and some can nicely go into the trades, and some can do the scrubbing, and cooking and cleaning and digging and fixing and watering and picking, and then return to their nice, dirty little houses with broken screen doors and cats that we can't afford to spay and so piss everywhere.

And when the school bus comes in the morning, the nice little poor boys and girls will nicely get onto the bus without their lunches (or if their lucky, with a can of soda and a bag of chips because dad stopped at AM/PM last night after the bar and was feeling generous).  And they will ever so nicely wave at each other when they come into class, each knowing how their parents were screaming and throwing things early that morning.  And when asked, they will raise their nice little hands, forgetting all about the fact that their older sister got knocked about and how mom didn't have time to help them with their science project because she was taking care of her granddaughter.  And when on the playground, and another kid tells them they're sister is a slut (because their father isn't in prison), they will politely ask them to stop, and then maybe tell a teacher, because hundreds of years of social and political oppression doesn't have consequences.  And kids from poor, broken, disadvantaged homes are no more likely to misbehave.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Only Question

The NY Times has a piece today in its "Fixes" series highlighting The Family Independence Iniative"an organization that is challenging some of the core assumptions that have prevailed in social service work for decades — particularly the assumption that poor families need a great deal of assistance, advice and motivation from professional social workers to improve their lives."  It's premise is that families don't need programs, but rather tools to help them make better decisions, as well as some financial resources to be able to better leverage themselves.

Sounds nice.  I'm all for it.  It's better than nothing.  But here's the problem:

How will we ever eradicate poverty as long as our economy depends on the poverty wages of low-skilled labor?  Who will wash the dishes?  Who will clean the hotel rooms?

This is a crucial element of the "poverty cycle", in which social misfortune drives people into accepting careers of poverty.  This creates property markets that segregate entire neighborhoods of people who make low wages, as well as struggle with social issues.  Their children then go to school together, where their high stress levels and lack of preparedness compound the struggle to get educated.

Some will always make it out.  But they are the outliers, and give lie to the idea that the system is fair or functioning.  Worse, they allow us to ignore the fact that we all depend on poverty wages.  Efforts to enforce minimum wages that would eradicate poverty are met with an argument that jobs will need to be cut.  Even if true, this is an indictment of the economic system.

Truly eradicating poverty and the social ills that it perpetuates requires eradicating our systemic reliance on a low wage underclass.  Do that, and you no longer need the plethora of band-aid interventions we've been trying for over a century - charity, jobs programs, education reform, social work, criminal justice reform, drug prevention, etc.  You can't create a system in which social ills get condensed, enhanced, ingrained and perpetuated, and then expect to be able to come up with solutions to help people "rise out of poverty".

The obvious difficulty is how to do this.  How do we change such a large system?  Raising the minimum wage will indeed limit job growth - at least, as far as I know, and it makes sense.  What would it look like if businesses were all required to raise their wages to $20 an hour, effectively doubling or tripling the labor costs in industries that rely on low wages.  Hotels, fast food, groceries, retail, restaurants - all of these would be severely hit.  They would have to raise prices.  But now the $20 an hour worker has to pay a lot more for everything.  The raised income, in effect, becomes regressive.

Or so goes the argument, and I'm no economist.  But suffice it to say this stuff is really tricky.  But "tricky" is not an excuse for maintaining the status quo, and continuing to relegate millions to lives of poverty, and exploiting a system in which social ills create an underclass of low wage workers.

We need to find a way to make every job a non-poverty job.  Dishwashing.  Picking vegetables.  Cleaning toilets.  Manning cash registers.  Mowing lawns.  Stocking shelves.  Do that, and the problem goes away.  School test scores skyrocket.  Families bounce back from hardship.  Stress levels in families plummet.  Social ills like crime and drug abuse drop.  People can afford to live in nice neighborhoods (actually, most neighborhoods become nice).  Racial resentment ends.

Sounds nice.  But how do you do it?  This is the question that needs to be answered.  It is a hard question.  But it is the only question.

Exciting News

I'm honored to announce that my article, "A Challenge to the Mentalistic Order: Barriers to the Dissemination o fa Behavior Analytic Philosophy", will be published in the B.F. Skinner Foundation's Quarterly journal, Operants.

"The B. F. Skinner Foundation promotes the science founded by B. F. Skinner and supports the practices derived from that science. In so doing, the Foundation advances a more humane world by replacing coercive techniques with positive procedures.

Our goal is to introduce the new generation of scholars and students, as well as general educated public, to the Skinner’s legacy and relevance.

Established in 1988 the B. F. Skinner Foundation has a wealth of material from Skinner’s literary estate, from donations from his colleagues and students, and from family members. The Foundation has received donations from companies that published Skinner materials or films, thus adding to its already extensive collection. The Foundation continues to maintain contact with professionals and students worldwide who are former students, or colleagues or individuals interested in his work. The Foundation is also the prime contact for permissions for reproducing Skinner material or for translations of Skinner’s works."

You can download it here:
Quarter 2, 2017

Saturday, July 29, 2017

NPR's 150 Best Albums by Women - My Takes

NPR just put out a list of the 150 best albums made by women.  Compiled by over 50 NPR women, more precisely as put by Ann Powers:
"It features albums by artists who identify as female — including some by mixed-gender bands, like Fleetwood Mac and X, that, in our view, relied on women's creativity for their spark.... It stands for music history, touching upon every significant trend, social issue, set of sonic innovations, and new avenue for self-expression that popular music has intersected in the past fifty years...."

Powers lays out some of the pitfalls of list-making, even bringing up one obscure feminist notion that list-making itself is hierarchical, and as such might be anti-feminist.  OK, so there's that.  But we're taking about art here.  Perspective and feeling, are defined by subjectivity, and to pretend that we shouldn't have personal hierarchies - to enjoy some thing more than others is just, well... too sad.  And not fun.  And uninteresting.

So, with that in mind, I present my own, entirely subjective response based on how I have experienced these artists, according to my own repertoire of response.

First, I must say that the list was very political, in that it tried to please a lot of people.  It's multicultural, high and low.  That's fine.  But it is a "list" after all, and that implies a trajectory.  Compiling a list by committee is going to be filled with contradictions.  Famous critics' lists tend to be from institutions that represent more narrow perspectives, which smooths this out.  But that's also the point.  Music (especially rock) is generally written, performed, produced, released and written about by men.  Enough said.

OK, then.  My taste runs heavily towards rock, with smatterings of reggae, hip hop, country, jazz thrown in.  I also like a lot of music that is fundamentally Not Great.  It is derivative, cheesy, overproduced, and at some level simply soul-less.  I would place most popular music in this category.  Your Foreigners, your Everly Brothers, your (I'm so going to get a kick out of this... your Beach Boys).  Then you have music that is well-crafted, earnest, and yet just not interesting enough.  It doesn't move me.  I'm talking here about your Paul Simons, your Carpenters, your Didos, Adeles and Sara McLaughlins.  To get on any Best Of list of mine your art has to be singular, brave, raw, and at some level have really made an impact on me.

Going through the NPR list, many of the artists I simply haven't heard of.  Some, like maybe Aretha Franklin or Roberta Flack, I would agree are great - but just have never been moving enough to me personally. (As for Flack, Killing Me Softly is a classic, but I would be able to name much else from her).  So, the following stand out to me:

Breeders (Pod was a better album.  And le me just say that the fact that this came in at #144 while Britney Spears was at #92 sort of sums up everything that one might despise in the particular NPR overeducated, safe, milktoast, dumbly arch set.  It's just this sort of thing that makes me want to vomit on a pair of Tevas and huck them over the fence into their DMB concert.)  Ahem...
Joanna Newsom (milk-eyed mender was better)
Cocteau Twins (Heaven or LV is spot-on)
Sonic Youth (my fave is thousand leaves)
X (Los Angeles hard to beat)
Sleater Kinney (weirdly, can’t really deal with them, but the Woods is a fucking epic)
Portishead (Dummy is excellent)
Hole (Live through This), Kate Bush (really hard to choose), Bjork (never really made a good album, but taken individually, has a handful of brilliant songs)  
PJ Harvey (Rid of me was really a lesser album, I’d place Dry as tops, followed by Stories and White Chalk)
Fleetwood Mac (Rumors is correct)
Lauryn Hill (I haven’t listened t it in years, but it was amazing when it came out - has it aged well?)... and, that's all.

From this list, I'd place Kate Bush and Breeders (Kim Deal) as tied for my tops.

A lot there that I haven't heard of.  I'm also wondering who I would add.  Plenty of bands with women as driving forces that aren't mentioned: Beach House, Camera Obscura, Cat Power, The Dirty Projectors, My Bloody Valentine, Dum Dum Girls, The Fiery Furnaces, Frankie Rose, The Joy Formidable, Laura Veirs, Low, Mitski, Kristen Hersh, Patsy Cline, Quasi, St. Vincent, Stina Nordenstam, Nico, White Lung.

The Man in the Truck

"The Carousel of Progress" - Walt Disney World
In my previous post, I argued that a large conflict had developed (or at least had boiled over in recent years) between the rural and cosmopolitan classes.  The two had very different repertoires of knowledge.  The rural valued the concrete and immediate, while the cosmopolitan valued the abstract and global.  When these views led to political and ideological positions, the conflict can deepen.  Anger over real policy disagreements can tempt ad hominem attacks based not on policy or ideology, but rather the mundane cultural repertoires of food, leisure and folkways.

"The country is more divided as it has been in a long time."

We've grown used to hearing this a lot.  It is true culturally.   It is true geographically. It is true in terms of our acceptance of previously-thought-to-be objective institutions such as universities, journalism, and published science.

A look at voting maps shows this in stark relief as vast oceans of sparsely populated rural red surround small, densely populated islands of blue.
The patterns can be seen in other countries as well.
(pink = RW populist, LW pluralist)
(blue = RW Populist, green = LW pluralist)
(blue = RW populist, red = LW pluralist)
(blue = RW populist, red = LW pluralist)

The geographic pattern is clear.  "Elite" punditry was quick after Brexit and Trump's surprise victory to look around and decry the bubble: they had been too self-involved with people like them to see clearly the upswell of populist sentiment.  Much was made of the fact that journalists (and the academic they likely relied on for expert opinion) were located primarily in the big cities, usually on the coasts.  Maybe there was, after all, something to what right-wing pundits had been decrying all along.  Maybe the "pointy-headed" "coastal elites" were "out of touch" with the "real Americans".  Alright everyone, back to Wasila, ASAP!

In 1993, when I was first out of high school I took a job with a friend of mine who worked in Masonry.  The fact that I knew him was due to a funny quirk of skateboarding - a sport that, through emphasis on outsider individualism, daring and physical prowess, often crossed class boundaries.  As Taylor Hall writes in a fascinating post on the blog Broken Clipboard, 
Members of the lower class typically choose sports characterized by violence and uncertainty based on physical strength and daring; partaking in prole sports such as boxing, wrestling, and weightlifting. These sports are often available at low cost and in urban areas and are accessible to all. These sports serve as a legitimate way of establishing self-respect and a sense of masculinity – traits necessary for survival in a modest background.

My friend had no plans on attending college.  He was kind of ripped and had a tattoo of batman on his right pectoral.  He found me a job assisting him as a "hogger", a position basically defined by the sloppy, dirty, laborious, low-skill tasks of hauling materials, mixing cement and fetching items.  The work was dirty, sometimes dangerous or painful, and rewarded a sort of fearless, can-do physicality.  It was also my first exposure to a highly masculinized work environment.  My sensitive, gender-deconstructed, feminist upbringing made me stick out.  I wasn't quite "one of the guys".   It wasn't completely Republican.  When a grumpy roofer kept blaring Rush Limbaugh, an older Carpenter hollered at him to, "turn that right wing shit down!"  He liked me and told me how one of his dreams was to drop LSD on the top of one of the great pyramids in Egypt.  

Aside from the back-breaking laboriousness of the job (I used to get home so tired I'd sometimes fall right to sleep), I think back on the experience as really turning me off from blue collar work in general.  I had nursed the idea of becoming a firefighter for a time.  But I realized that the hyper-masculinized atmosphere would make me uncomfortable; I would never be "one of them".

This was all by design, of course.  Both of my parents were college educated.  I was listening to post-rock, writing poetry and deconstructing the world around me - rebelling against any local culture I could find.  I was trying my best to be abstract and global.  I continued to work blue collar jobs.  Actually, "pink collar" really, as I found myself interested in social services - a field that tends female.  I delivered meals to the sick, handed out pills to the mentally ill and brain injured, all the while taking college courses at night, eventually becoming an elementary school teacher, and now behavior analyst.  

I could make a good case that my intellectual interests, my ideological assumptions, have led me to embrace a left-wing politics.  But what led me to those assumptions?  Surely, I was raised in a left-wing home.  And I have lived in left-leaning, cosmopolitan cities - Santa Cruz, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco.  Culture and geography has had a lot to do with it.  I have indeed come to live in a bubble of sorts.  None of my friends are really Republicans.  My facebook feed is bright blue.  I read mainstream (liberal) news sources.


Looking at the maps above, one would think that I would have to leave town to encounter "real America", to understand the white, Christian America.

But in reality, he lives next door.  Anywhere a building is being constructed you'll find scores of working class men who will reliably and overwhelmingly be voting Republican in the next election.  The carpenters, masons, electricians, fork-lift drivers, roofers, plumbers, truck drivers.  They are men who get dirty, work with their hands, drink beer after work, barbecue on the weekend and watch the game.  They drive big trucks with big tires because being manly feels good.  Like most people, they probably aren't political junkies, and so would much rather listen to country or butt-rock on the radio than Michael Savage or Sean Hannity.  But there's likely someone on the jobsite who's plugged in politically, and he is likely influential in reinforcing their worldview.  When they go to church it's probably a mega church, which reinforces their traditional values.  

The messages from rightwing media and megachurches is one of paranoia and incessant tribalism.  Over and over, the message is that a way of life is under siege.  Men can no longer be "men".  Christians can no longer be "Christians".  And who is to blame - the names are legion and all mean the same thing: liberal, elitist, pointy-headed, egghead, atheist, commie, pinko, feminazi, PC, SJW, globalist, snowflake.  By its nature, the populist position has an easy target: anyone who is different than them.  Often, simply their request for inclusion, if not their very right to exist, is viewed as an offensive attack.  

One can see how attractive this message might be - that their identity is threatened - to a group whose occupations have indeed been losing status for decades.  In this amazing infographic, in which occupations are charted by political ideology, there is an overwhelming tendency for blue collar, non-college educated work to swing right.  Click the link to see the whole page, but just take a look at this portion:

People's occupation is often core to who they are, how they view the world.   If not the actual work itself, then the culture of the profession, what kind of people work there and what kind of people are then expected to work there.  If I describe the lovely foreign film I just watched while sitting around the dirty igloo cooler with my fellow pipe-fitters, they are going to look at me funny.  Just as if, while eating Chipotle with my fellow graphic designers, I describe in detail the 3-point buck I took down last Saturday.  

Much has contributed to get us to where we are today.  Remember Revenge of the Nerds?  Remember nerds?  If you work in construction, you probably do.  The rest of us, maybe less so.  Feminism allowed men to be more sensitive and not be defined merely by a stoic, physicality.  The Information Age introduced forms of labor that required abstract knowledge than required no daring, strength or toughness.  Gay rights redefined masculinity even further.  Transgender acceptance upended it entirely.  Global commerce and media have upended tradition at breakneck speed.

Much has been said about the loss of manufacturing, economic insecurity and the rust belt swing from Blue to Red.  But while those are a significant factor, certainly with respect to electoral politics.  What is more important is the redefining of the American Male and his place of work.  There is nothing about working with your hands that requires a traditionalist view of masculinity.  However, work is to a large degree identity.  It becomes family identity, it gets passed down through generations.  These generations develop different repertoires of knowledge, emphasize different values.  If a child grows up in a home that doesn't watch foreign films, debate global religion, critically deconstruct modern art, he is going to view the world differently.  

But do these worlds have to be in tension?  Do they have to collide with such dangerous friction?  What can we do, as a society, to be more inclusive?  This is the question for our time.