James Baldwin and religion

James Baldwin is the fucking best. The following excerpts, taken from his Collected Essays, are either explicitly concerned with religion or merely religion adjacent.

By extracting bits & pieces of his writing and presenting them devoid of context, I’m not convinced I did justice to the searing totality of the individual essays themselves. Please consider reading them in full.

The Fire Next Time

[T]he blood of the Lamb had not cleansed me in any way whatever. I was just as black as I had been the day that I was born. Therefore, when I faced a congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to stammer, not to curse, not to tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize, for example, a rent strike. When I watched all the children, their copper, brown, and beige faces staring up at me as I taught Sunday school, I felt that I was committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to gain the crown of eternal life. Were only Negroes to gain this crown? Was Heaven, then, to be merely another ghetto?

[…]

I have long had a very definite tendency to tune out the moment I come any where near either a pulpit or soapbox.

[…]

It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.

[…]

From my own point of view, the fact of the Third Reich alone makes obsolete forever any question of Christian superiority, except in technological terms. White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust in Germany. They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded—at least, in the same way.

[…]

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

Preservation of Innocence

Instantly the Deity springs to mind, in much the same manner, I suspect, that He sprang into being on the cold, black day when we discovered that nature cared nothing for us. His advent, which alone had the power to save us from nature and ourselves, also created a self-awareness and, therefore, tensions and terrors and responsibilities with which we had not coped before. It marked the death of innocence; it set up the duality of good-and-evil; and now Sin and Redemption, those mighty bells, began that crying which will not cease until, by another act of creation, we transcend our old morality. Before we were banished from Eden and the curse was uttered, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman,” the homosexual did not exist; nor, properly speaking, did the heterosexual. We were all in a state of nature.

We are forced to consider this tension between God and nature and are thus confronted with the nature of God because He is man’s most intense creation and it is not in the sight of nature that the homosexual is condemned, but in the sight of God.

White Racism or World Community?

It’s got to be admitted that if you are born under the circumstances in which most black people in the West are born, that means really black people over the entire world, when you look around you, having attained soemething resembling adulthood, one can see that the destruction of the Christian Church as it is presently constituted may not only be desirable but may be necessary.

[…]

One of the things that happened, it seems to me, with the rise of the Christian Church, was precisely the denial of a certain kind of spontaneity, a certain kind of joy, a certain kind of freedom, which a man can only have with himself, his surroundings, his women and his children. It seems to me that this shows very crucially in the nature, the structure of our politics and in the personalities of our children, who would like to learn, if I may put it this way, how to sing the blues, because the blues are not a racial creation, the blues are an historical creation produced by the confrontation precisely between the pagan, the black pagan from Africa, and the alabaster cross. I am suggesting that the nature of the lies of the Christian Church has always helplessly told about me are only a reflection of the lies the Christian Church has always helplessly told itself, to itself, about itself.

Open Letter to the Born Again

It has always astounded me that no one appears to be able to make the connection between Franco’s Spain, for example, and the Spanish Inquisition; the role of the Christian church or—to be brutally precise, the Catholic Church—in the history of Europe, and the fate of the Jews; and the role of the Jews in Christendom and the discovery of America. For the discovery of America coincided with the Inquisition, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Does no one see the connection between The Merchant of Venice and The Pawnbroker? In both of these works, as though no time had passed, the Jew is portrayed as doing the Christian’s usurious dirty work. The first white man ever was the Jewish manager arrived to collect the rent, and he collected the rent because he did not own the building. I never, in fact, saw any of the people who owned any of the buildings in which we scrubbed and suffered for so long, until I was a grown man and famous. None of them were Jews.

And I was not stupid: the grocer and the druggist were Jews, for example, and they were very very nice to me, and to us. The cops were white. The city was white. The threat was white, and God was white, Not for even a single split second in my life did the despicable, utterly cowardly accusation that “the Jews killed Christ’’ reverberate. I knew a murderer when I saw one, and the people who were trying to kilI me were not Jews.

The Price of the Ticket

If I were still in the pulpit, which some people (and they may be right) claim I never left, I would counsel my countrymen to the self-confrontation of prayer, the cleansing breaking of the heart which precedes atonement. This is, of course, impossible. Multitudes are capable of many things, but atonement is not one of them.

[…]

In the church I come from—which is not at all the same church to which white Americans belong—we were counseled, from time to time, to do our first works over. Though the church I come from and the church to which most white Americans belong are both Christian churches, their relationship—due to those pragmatic decisions concerning Property made by a Christian state some time ago—cannot be said to involve, or suggest, the fellowship of Christians. We do not, therefore, share the same hope or speak the same language.

To do your first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.

This is precisely what the generality of Americans cannot afford to do. They do not know how to do it—: as I must suppose. They come through Ellis Island, where Giorgio becomes Joe, Pappavasiliu becomes Palmer, Evangelos becomes Evans, Goldsmith becomes Smith or Gold, and Avakian becomes King. So with a painless change of name, and in the twinkling of an eye, one becomes a white American.

Later, in the midnight hour, the missing identity aches. One can neither assess nor overcome the storm of the middle passage. One is mysteriously shipwrecked forever, in the Great New World.

[…]

The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white—: and, in the main, nothing more than that, or, as he was to insist, nothing less. This incredibly limited, not to say dim-witted, ambition has choked many a human being to death here: and this, I contend, is because the white American has never accepted the real reasons for his journey. I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white and who require of my captivity a song. They require of me a song less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own.

 

I guess it’s gotta be Bernie

As an anarchist awaiting a revolution that isn’t visible on the horizon (yet), I’m enough of a pragmatist to not completely ignore electoral politics.

If I told young IHFJ that in 2020 an electable candidate would be openly skeptical of capitalism, irreligious, against US global hegemony, and not afraid of being labeled a socialist, I would’ve been stunned. Bernie Sanders is by far the only presidential candidate I’ve felt an affinity for. I never believed for a second he’d beat Hillary in 2016, but here we are in 2020 and there’s no firmly entrenched candidate standing in his way. Were he to win the nomination it would be my first time voting in a presidential election without feeling completely disgusted.

What follows is a meandering, hopefully not too disjointed assessment of the 2020 presidential election as I attempt to work through my thoughts.

***

Let’s dive right into one of the main critiques of Sanders: he’s a dreaded “class reductionist” in a party that largely ignores class. When used to describe Sanders it’s always an epithet. This is absurd, because class is massively important and ignores the fact that class disproportionately affects marginalized groups. How systemic bigotries can ever hope to be confronted without wrestling with capitalism’s positioning of historically oppressed peoples in the base of the societal pyramid is beyond my comprehension. Any leftist politics that fails to recognize this is toothless and needs to be chucked into the dustbin of history.

(I’m being honest when I say I’d love to hear whether or not Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib or Alexandria Ocacio Cortez think of him as nothing but a class reductionist. I briefly considered posting a collection of shocked centrist reactions to 3/4th’s of “The Squad” endorsing Sanders – they very obviously delight in their diverse identities, but hilariously ignored their politics; anyways, I thought it too troll-ish and Bernie bro adjacent)

On the other hand, politicians who champion identity politics while ignoring economic inequality will never meaningfully enact systemic changes that can help the masses. The best they have done – and I don’t think is always necessarily insignificant – is allow themselves, after years of resistance, to get swept up in waves of social change (i.e. gay marriage), and inevitably settle on advocating for visibility and representation as panaceas to society’s problems. In essence, give some a seat at the table and hope the rest shut the fuck up and vote for them (is this not good enough for you? What are you going to do, vote for the Bad Cheeto Man?)

Centrist politics within neoliberal capitalism cannot meaningfully address economic inequality – it never has, and if you believe it can or will, you have more in common with religious adherents than you’d care to admit. While it can and has incorporated individuals of marginalized groups into the upper levels of its superstructure, the bulk of these groups continue to find themselves within its bottommost strata.

All of this aside, I have little respect for those who reduce all the world’s evils to capitalism (for instance, the patriarchy antedates capitalism by millennia). It is undeniable that capitalism objectively developed within the context of chattel slavery (no link necessary); European colonialism (no link necessary); and the expropriation of female reproductive labor, witch-hunts, and the institutionalization of midwifery and prostitution. Whether or not capitalism necessarily needed racism and sexism to flourish and become the dominant economic paradigm is irrelevant, because that is precisely what occurred – even if, paradoxically, capitalism allowed for spaces in which equality amongst the sexes and races was able to develop in certain ways for certain populations in certain places at certain times.

Can capitalism exist and function without bigotry? Certainly capitalists will enthusiastically answer in the affirmative. The only answer I can come up with is who fucking cares. While it can be interesting to engage in historical counterfactuals, it’s essentially an exercise that, in the case of the rise of capitalism, has few if any useful applications to the real world. Capitalism always has and likely always will require an underclass and, from its perspective, the various identities of this underclass are irrelevant.

Capitalism, racism and sexism are inextricably intertwined and it is impossible to disentangle the chaotic assemblage of strands to determine which is the Most Important Evil. The bottom line: the ills of capitalism cannot be confronted without simultaneously confronting institutionalized racism and the patriarchy (the same goes for homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and speciesism – smash them all). I believe the reverse of that argument to also be true.

If one believes that Sanders isn’t knowledgeable about, or just plain ignorant of intersectionality (unfortunately for his acolytes, there’s evidence of this), it is undeniable that – if were he to succeed (a big if) – his economic programs/policies will help such people he does little more than allegedly pay lip service to. Sanders probably should do better, though I doubt any of his attempts will convince those who already hate him. But I don’t believe there is any other candidate that, contra Sanders, has a deep, nuanced understanding of the ubiquity, persistence and interrelations of the aforementioned bigotries – especially considered within the context of class (it’s interesting that Barbara Smith, who coined the term “identity politics,” has again endorsed him). Overall, anyone who thinks Bernie is uniquely terrible at intersectionality is naïve to think the other candidates are significantly better. Like Elizabeth Warren.

***

I generally dislike making statements about how things “feel” to me, due to its subjective nature. That said, I feel like the same types of people who think Sanders an irredeemable sexist/racist have given Warren a pass for pretending to be Cherokee most of her life. To quickly summarize the facts regarding Warren’s claims:

In 1836, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather, a white man named William Marsh, enlisted himself in a Tennessee militia to fight in the “Cherokee War,” an occupation of Cherokee land in the lead-up to the Trail of Tears. Decades later, his grandson John Houston Crawford moved his family onto Indian Territory and squatted on Cherokee land in a move that, with no record of a permit, was almost certainly illegal.

The Crawfords were just some of the tens of thousands of white squatters who outnumber Cherokees on our own land. While Cherokee Nation beseeched Congress to enforce our treaty rights and kick them out, the squatters pushed Congress to divide up our treaty territory and create a path to white land ownership; the squatters won.

The Crawfords settled in the new state of Oklahoma. They lived among Indians, but it wasn’t always peaceful. In 1906, John Crawford shot a Creek man for hitting his son. According to The Boston Globe, his son, Rosco, would later tell stories about how “mean” the Indians were. But one of Crawford’s grandchildren, Pauline Reed, told a very different story. Not a story of living among Indians, a story of being Indian.

Pauline’s youngest child, Elizabeth, grew up with her mother’s version of the story. And though the family had no evidence or relationship to the tribe, Elizabeth Warren never questioned it, she wrote in her memoir. It was her family story, she would say.

That’s… it. That was enough for her to claim to be Cherokee for most of her life. Let’s assume that her comical attempt to use race science to “prove” her ancestry is true (in sports parlance, this was quite the unforced error). And let’s pretend that heritage, tradition and culture can be reduced to blood quanta. That would mean that, at best, 1 of her 32 great great great grandparents was Cherokee. It would also mean that 31 of those great great great grandparents were European. And yet, to her, that 1 great great great grandparent carried more weight than all the rest combined. If Warren family tradition hypothesized one great great grandparent that was Estonian, would she have frequently brought up her pride in being Estonian? If not, why is that?

She perpetuates the proud, white American tradition of wishing to procure a sheen of nobility from the savages they fetishize. Or: she (and her family) merely want to – consciously or subconsciously out of guilt – obscure, omit or deny their historical complicity in indigenous genocide. Either way – fuck that settler colonial bullshit.

If you’re white and belong to a family who, in their lore, claim descent from Native Americans, the very least you can do is keep that shit to yourself. At best, do some research; educate your family as to why this is racist and should not continue to be perpetuated – even if you locate one great great great grandparent that might “substantiate” your claim. Definitely don’t put it on work/college applications; talk in public about your family’s “high cheekbones”; submit recipes to a cookbook called, I shit you not, Pow Wow Chow (one recipe, by the way, contained mayonnaise and may have been plagiarized); or use fucking race science to clumsily “dunk” on your detractors (only for your detractors to laugh in your face at the simple fact that 1/32 – 1/512 is, by any account, not a whole hell of a lot).

I don’t care if she allegedly derived no material benefit from her claims. I don’t care if anyone truly thinks science “proved” the veracity of her claims. I don’t care if you think that “science” is necessary to confront political enemies who could not care less about what science does or doesn’t prove. Your arguments are racist trash.

If you think any of this isn’t at least as bad as anything problematic Sanders is alleged to have said, that says a lot about you. It says your concern with racism is situational and there are circumstances and groups of people you’re willing to ignore in the interest of acting as pathetic knights defending your chosen one. You are truly the liberal version of dipshit sports fans who believe the Cleveland Baseball team and Washington/Kansas City football teams are honoring Native Americans.

***

The preceding section, among other things, calls into questions Warren’s judgment and honesty (I should note here that you will not find within this blog a detailed analysis of policy – it’s already too long). Within the context of Warren’s lies about her heritage, I’m not sure why anyone would believe Warren’s claims of Sanders telling her a woman couldn’t beat Trump – especially when he was willing to defer to her candidacy in 2016, highlighted the absurdity of why he would think women can’t win when Hillary won the popular vote, and has long encouraged women to run for office. It would certainly be weird for someone whose beliefs are widely thought by both his partisans and opponents to have been fossilized for decades to make such a sudden and severe change.

Warren and her campaign were extremely prepared to capitalize on Sanders’s alleged remarks by creating a Sanders-shaped straw-man who can be told again and again that yes, a woman CAN win. It’s not even a point Sanders can argue against since he – at least publicly – believes the same thing. Bernie bros seem to think of this as the death spasms of her failing campaign, but I’m not so sure. Whether or not there’s any truth to her claims, it was obviously a calculated move to paint Sanders as a sexist, and it might pay off – especially when some of the most annoying Bernie bros wasted no time in embodying the worst stereotypes many believe all of them to have.

Speaking of Bernie bros, I’d like to point out that the scourge of the white, male “Bernie bro” is incorrect in its identifiers (this was hilariously underscored by Rashida Tlaib, not a white male, being accused of white male rage when she had the audacity to boo Hillary Clinton, someone who finds literal child sex traffickers and serial rapists more likeable than Sanders). Every candidate has a toxic section of their base that’s equally as insufferable – Warren with her wine-moms, Kamala and the K-Hive, Biden and his, uhhhh – I don’t even know if there’s a name for his obnoxious supporters and I’m not entirely convinced they exist (I mean, they really shouldn’t exist). But, anecdotally, it truly feels (there’s that word unfortunate word again) that the corporate media is more focused on one group than the others. I wonder why that is.

If you think your candidate doesn’t have annoying sycophants I’d suggest you’re being willfully ignorant. Moreover, a handful of online assholes distorts the volume of the whole – social media is not synonymous with actual life. 50 Chapo Trap House-loving Bernie bros being mean to a New York Times writer is a fucking drop in the bucket.

Outside of mainstream politics there are anti-indigenous anarchists, authoritarian (“tankie”) Marxist-Leninists, actual class reductionist Marxists who think LGBT people are bourgeois perversions, and green anarchists who veer dangerously close to antihuman eco-extremism – but these pieces of shit don’t necessarily delegitimize the decent people who have those beliefs. Moreover, they should be considered on their own merits and not their worst adherents – one doesn’t need to judge American conservatism by the actions of American conservatives to conclude that it’s a morally bankrupt, repulsive, ruinous ideology. Conceptually, this should be very clear to non-shitty atheists for obvious reasons.

All that said – in the interest of being pragmatic, annoying Bernie bros should absolutely find other ways to engage their critics than contempt and mockery. Contempt and mockery obviously aren’t going to convince one’s political adversaries, but, more importantly, it may turn off the undecideds. Just a thought.

***

Capitalism needs, if not smashing, then, at the very least, neutering. Any politician who is a self-described “capitalist to [their] bones” is not someone I support, but I concede that Warren is more palatable than the rest. The fact that I’m scrutinizing her more than the other candidates speaks to the contempt I have for them. Biden – a living manifestation of the Stephen Colbert black friend bit – and Buttigieg – appropriately dubbed Mayo Pete – would get crushed by Trump and there’s nothing to like about either.

I think Warren’s position as the candidate of compromise, with Bernie on her left and Biden/Buttigieg on her right, leaves her ill equipped to pull enough support from either side to win the nomination. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t think she will beat Trump; though outside of Sanders I think she has the best chance. If you disagree with any of this, you might very well be right. However, it is inarguable that there is a diverse mass that is dedicated to the broad ethos of a Sanders presidency; were this not true, then how else – especially in the face of extreme media bias – is he still a wildly popular, viable candidate 4 years after his failure to win the nomination of a party whose elite are dedicated to sidelining him?

The best chance the Democratic Party has, to their horror, is probably Sanders, with his diverse base and ability to reach disaffected white voters that are inclined either toward Trump or complete political disengagement. These voters are categorically not sympathetic to Bernie because he’s racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic (because there’s little evidence he is); some of these voters might fall into such categories, but if the Democrats have any hope of winning they can’t afford to write them off as human trash unworthy of anything except scorn and mockery (which, admittedly, is my personal knee-jerk attitude towards them). How well did calling them “deplorables” work for Hillary? For real, what’s the fucking game-plan if it’s not Sanders – again, who’s not a bigot, and who doesn’t automatically become one if some of them vote for him – offering a platform they can embrace? If you think the proponents of your chosen candidate are so ethically pure, I echo again the sentiment that you’re being a tad gullible.

Maybe his victory will further the inexorable growth of his movement, which will force politicians to begrudgingly cater to them. Forced wealth transfers from the target of Sanders’s ire – the hated 1% – begin the protracted process of “making things better.” Perhaps a nascent dictatorship of the proletariat (an unfortunate phrase that is better understood as the government of the many against the numerically inferior bourgeoisie/corporate elite) will emerge, unite against their class enemies, and find they are strong. US citizens will become increasingly aware of and repulsed by the fact that their standard of living necessitates ecological destruction and mass human misery both domestically and globally. The Green New Deal reverses some of the depredations of climate change thanks to technological advances and dwindling consumerism, which is finally, definitively identified as a plague that is ruining the planet. Maybe a century from now the state begins to wither away as it becomes increasingly unnecessary; not, as Lenin foresaw, as the result of a violent revolution and seizure of state power, but of democratic electoralism and the peaceful eradication of the bourgeoisie and the capitalist world-destroyers.

Is this likely? Probably not. But again I’d like to stress a better world is far less likely with centrist neoliberal democracy. If you think that is more feasible, I fully believe you are more concerned with finding a safe, comfortable alcove within Leviathan from which to watch the world burn. The best that can be said of you is that you really dislike the Tweeter-in-Chief (despite foolishly thinking he is the alpha and omega of all that’s wrong in the world) and may, at times, shake your head sadly at the state of things while rejoicing in diverse representation in politics and entertainment.

***

There is an important caveat to a Sanders victory. If he wins, and if he fails to alleviate systemic problems, it very well might be the death blow for democratic socialism (not to mention further sullying the reputations of Communism, Socialism, and Marxism). He will be hated and it’s hard to see how the actual left can recover. This is bad, because the success of combinations of leftist ideas is needed for a future that is not a blasted hellscape (due to how disregarded these ideas are, I’d very much like to be wrong about this).

A failed Sanders presidency will see centrist liberalism – the friendlier face of the death cult that is capitalism – reemerging unscathed, no worse for wear, content to blame Sanders and his irrational disciples. The far right will continue howling for blood, becoming stronger as it incubates the next Trump-like figure within its fetid, rotting womb. All in all, Sanders’s failure may lead to re-enactments of Hillary vs. Trump with different stand-ins every 4 years, as the center moves ever rightward while environmental devastation and human immiseration continues apace. Gods help us all.

Or – scorning the failed/failing ideas positioned to their right – perhaps the revolutionary left will resolve their interminable, internecine squabbles, and build societies that don’t destroy the planet; that don’t exploit, kill and enslave each other. Their ranks will swell with those disillusioned with mainstream politics. This disillusionment will differ from that felt by prior generations because it will occur within the context of a planetary existential crisis that’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Though, as climate scientists constantly inform us, the hour is late, the seeds for the creation of a better world exist in ours (I do admit it’s hard not to feel like a pathetic fool typing shit like this).

This hope for a better world highlights the contradictions anarchists (this also goes for communists, socialists, and their uncountable ideological subdivisions) such as myself face – we are severely pessimistic about both democratic nation-states and capitalism; and yet we fervently believe that we as a species can do better, despite the glaring, and as of now intractable fact that most people aren’t anarchists (or communists or socialists). Depressingly, the general population, through little fault of their own, understand anarchism as violent chaos, and communism as grim dictatorship. No one has yet figured out how to effectively spread the good word to the masses (which is especially disheartening considering how long these ideologies have existed). The utilization of social media appeared, at first, as if it would be viable and effective, but it has only served to flatten the discourse and situate most within their own echo chamber, which occasionally fight other echo chambers. Were Leviathan a conscious being, he (and it would certainly be a he) wouldn’t be able to keep from laughing uncontrollably.

It’s ahistorical and illogical to think the current socio-politico-economic paradigm will persist forever. Every civilization, every society that’s ever existed has perished, merged with other societies, or transformed beyond all recognition. Within that context, this election feels existentially important, although this is a sentiment expressed every 4 years for many different reasons. My primary vote is for guillotine and revolution. As they’re not on the ballot, I’ll go with Sanders as my second choice.

Perhaps his victory or defeat will be one of the spatiotemporal fulcrums that alters the trajectory of our species. We’re edging toward a point where we may find ourselves at the edge of such an abyss where we need to choose a new way. With our backs to the wreckage, and as the void stares up at us, hopefully we’ll have the strength, foresight, and empathy to do what must be done to have a livable and just planet for all.

The death throes of Leviathan

***This is probably my last post here. Thanks to those who have read any of my bullshit.***

He might think of it as a worm, a giant worm, not a living worm but a carcass of a worm, a monstrous cadaver, its body consisting of numerous segments, its skin pimpled with spears and wheels and other technological implements. He knows from his own experience that the entire carcass is brought to artificial life by the motions of the human beings trapped inside, the zeks who operate the springs and wheels, just as he knows that the cadaverous head is operated by a mere zek, the head zek.

[…]

Everything is artifice, and whatever is not will soon be artifice. There is nothing outside but raw materials ready and waiting to be processed and transformed into Leviathanic excrement, the substance of the universe. Some raw materials resist the transformation more than others, but none can withstand the inexorable March of Progress.

I’ve long considered Fredy Perlman’s Leviathan to be a useful metanarrative for the totality of modern-day society (or culture, civilization, “the way things are,” etc.). In Against His-story Against Leviathan! he reimagines and recontextualizes the forms and functions of Hobbes’s Leviathan as it rampages across the globe. There have been numerous Leviathans throughout human history, continually configuring and reconfiguring, dissolving and recombining, but we have long since reached the point where it is One, containing most of humanity within its entrails.

With imagination, from the outside, one can perceive it in different lights, shimmering, obscuring – here it looks like a hellbeast despoiling the wild, there it looks like comfort and longer life spans granted to the fortunate. With imagination we can behold it as a collective whole – what it has done and what it is currently doing. Even then, we can only tenuously grasp the size and scale of its monstrosity.

There are many divisions within Leviathan, constantly warring against each other. Scraps are fought for by large conglomerations of entities – nation-states, corporations, revolutionary groups (both reactionary and otherwise). On a smaller scale, individuals and families fight for access to plush areas of Leviathan’s decaying interior in the hopes of remaining relatively free from the unsightliness of its worst excesses. Members of the fortunate classes do everything in their power to ensure that they and their progeny gain access to what they rightfully deserve. The unprivileged hordes, existing in the less desirable margins of Leviathan while being exploited for the benefit of their social betters, must know and accept their place for Leviathan to function properly.

Regardless of the manners in which classes of people are divided, within Leviathan we stagger ever ahead. The diffusion of control is such that there is no one person (no “head zek”), or collection of persons that can be said to have control over it. Sure, some may have more of a say in lurching this way or that, or conjuring different ways to execute its modus operandi, but it is accurate to say that it is largely autonomous. Its agenda consists of two primary components: depositing the raw materials of the earth into its gaping maw and, in its gut, cohering these raw materials into products which diffuse into every nook and cranny within the great creature. The primary concerns are related to how to go about doing this in the most profitable and efficient manner possible. These products – with their congealed and abstracted environmental destruction and human misery – find their way via labyrinthine pathways into every facet of human life. Surrounded by the fruits of mass production almost every second of every day, it is as impossible to conceive of the human/environmental costs of each and every product as it is to conceive of life without them.

In Leviathan’s wake, vibrant mountains are converted into poisonous slag heaps, bountiful estuaries into anoxic dead zones, biologically diverse forests into denuded greenhouse gas producing pasturelands. In short, converting the living into the dead. Capitalism and industrialization are the steroids that catalyzed pre-existing processes and kicked it into overdrive [1]. But it would miss the point to apportion blame solely to these hyperobjects – the origins of what we have wrought transcends both of these human creations, as elaborated by Perlman and many, many others.

Outside, there is no life, no existence – only materials waiting be consumed. Though that is not entirely accurate: there does happen to be some form of existence, however it is – as Hobbes contends – nasty, brutish and short. It is barely worthy of legibility to Leviathan, unless, at some point, it is determined that it stands in the way of Progress. Otherwise, there is little to no utility in its quasi-existence.

***

A few weeks back, the IPCC released yet another damning report about industrialized capitalism and its conduciveness to the continued existence of human and non-human life. Like this essay, its contents are broadly similar to what has been written, researched, and reported on 2, 5, and 10 years ago. More will be written – albeit with updated scientific data – 2, 5, or 10 years in the future. When confronted with this, many will shake their heads sadly and get on with their day. Because what else can you do? We are so habituated to “the way things are,” that we cannot conceive of how to live outside of the suffocating confines of Leviathan. This is unfortunate because there is the possibility that we will, out of necessity, be forced to do so.

To live with the prospect of impending, though vaguely defined doom is new to those of us that have never labored under the delusion of a religion-inspired apocalypse. It is also new to those too young to have lived with the threat of nuclear annihilation. What we are collectively facing is frustratingly vague – if it weren’t, if it were easy to comprehend its enormity, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the situation we find ourselves. Perhaps more of us would actually perform meaningful actions to stop it.

I do not know what it’s like to believe that Jesus, with a flaming sword protruding from his mouth, will descend from heaven heralding the apocalypse. I do not know what it was like to live in fear of nuclear annihilation. The Bible’s vision of the endtimes is fantastical, but comprehensible. Nuclear annihilation is all too easy to understand. Both are less complicated and easier to grasp than what the depredations of the Anthropocene (the crystallization of Leviathan’s aforementioned modus operandi) and catabolic capitalism have in store [2].

***

Some see Leviathan for what it is and wish to extinguish its death-drive by any means short of violence against others. Thus far, despite scattered and localized success via direct action, their efforts have done little to so much as slow its gait. Their small numbers have left them largely unable to conjure tumors, or abscesses. When they do, they are easily ignored or scarred over. Moreover, Leviathan’s antibodies have proven to be very adept at infiltrating, entrapping, and mitigating infections.

Excepting illegal resistance – denied by most as desirable – leaves only the usual, unsuccessful means that have also utterly failed thus far: encouragement of responsible personal lifestyle choices and, especially in the heart of Leviathan, voting for the party that is partially less beholden to the same world-destroying interests as the grotesque party of rank bigotry, ignorance and gleeful earth annihilation. To think or believe this is sufficient is sheer wishful thinking – you may as well decide which god you find most likely to exist and get praying.

The balance of power in Washington has subtly shifted with the Democrats winning the house. Leaving aside what the political ramifications of this will be for the next two years, what if the Republicans maintain power in the next presidential election? Then what? Marches? Protests? Devastatingly witty and hilarious infotainment from celebrities and comedians? More liberal vote-shaming? More exhortations for mindful, “ecologically sound” consumerism? Not using plastic bags or straws? Will it be the same old shit that has proven unable to halt or slow our culture’s death march? Probably. And yet, much of the same things would happen under a more liberal administration but, insidiously, also containing the false sense of security that many will have with “the right people” regaining power. After all, 8 years of Obama did little to halt climate change, environmental destruction, and mass production/mass consumption (the same goes for income inequality, US imperialism, institutionalized racism, the Flint water crisis, the Dakota Access Pipeline, etc.).

On the heels of the latest damning report from the IPCC, millions are, as they have been for years, exposed to insipid bullshit like this:

See how easy it is? You can even feel a smug sense of superiority for your enlightened consumerism. After all, you’re doing YOUR part, and the only discomfort you need feel is in your pocketbook, as environmentally conscious products tend to be more expensive. (I kind of feel ripped off because I actually do many things considered to be “green” – and have for many years – but weirdly enough it hasn’t appeared to have made a difference (this should go without saying, but none of this should be taken as an argument against doing “green” things))

It should be obvious, but the vast majority of carbon emissions are the result of multinational corporations. So you reading this – assuming you are not a captain of industry – are not responsible for the existence of Leviathan and what it is doing to both its inhabitants and its host. What you do and don’t do within the context of living your day-to-day life probably doesn’t matter. You were born into a socio-politico-economic system you played no part in creating. However, you (and me) are responsible for attempting to stop those who maintain and perpetuate this destructive, fundamentally unequal/unjust socio-politico-economic system (that is, if you grant my premise, which I’m sure many of you don’t). Especially if you are a beneficiary of it. I won’t speak for anyone else but I know I’m failing.

***

If I’m correct that we are neither close to nor will ever be close to voluntarily reigning in Leviathan’s worst excesses, what is most likely to occur is a series of Hail Marys on a global scale. Geoengineering is inevitable – leave it to the First World to put our hopes in fixes that will allow us to maintain our lifestyle. In doing so we will, as we approach nearly every systemic problem, address only the symptoms while leaving the root causes undisturbed. It’s the easy way out (not that the specific geoengineering projects will be easy). We won’t abandon our hyper-consumptive lifestyles without being forced to do so. Perhaps these projects will enable “the way things are” to continue for the foreseeable future, and thus prolonging the inevitable need to confront the contradiction implicit in capitalism’s “infinite economic growth on a finite planet” ethos. Maybe this new Scientific Revolution could enable the oppressed classes to lead better lives – though if neoliberal capitalism continues as the global economic system this is almost impossible to believe.

In addition to the widespread implementation of geoengineering and its promises for a better tomorrow, there are two other broad paradigms that could be in store: the proliferation of dictatorships as resources dwindle and the consequences of climate change become impossible to ignore [3]; or collapse, as efforts to prop up Leviathan fail, leaving large amounts of people, land and resources outside of centralized state control.

If a series of collapses were to occur, the resulting communities would be kaleidoscopic in how they develop over time and depend on an uncountable number of variables: population density, environmental conditions, access to land and water, culture, religion, food acquisition techniques, self-defense abilities, base of knowledge of the natural world, and, perhaps most importantly, the extent to which any specific community is able to deal with breakdowns in the product distribution networks that are the hallmark of modern-day civilized life. Some will be violent and tyrannical. Some less so. Some friendly, others insular. Some will flourish, others will suffer and die. Some will defy conventional means of description. Most will be mixtures of every trait imaginable. And none will be static, as human communities are fluid and continuously changing.

Looking to the past, human societies have existed in countless forms throughout our history as a species [4]. To continue with the thematic narrative of the previous paragraph, some have been more egalitarian, some less so. Some relatively peaceful, some warlike. Some completely vegetarian and others almost entirely carnivorous. There have been socially stratified hunter-gatherers, and egalitarian agricultural villages. There have even been many societies that walked away from collapsed central power and thrived. Most of them haven’t rendered wide swathes of the planet uninhabitable for their human and non-human neighbors (the WWF recently determined that we have “wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970.”). And, perhaps, a number of post-collapse communities will tap into that legacy.

***

Cycling back to our present-day quagmire, to channel comrade Lenin, what is to be done? Shall we seize power and transition to some kind of eco-socialist economy that equitably distributes goods and services in a way that doesn’t destroy the biosphere [5]? Vote actual leftists into power in the hopes of mitigating at least some of the detrimental effects of mass production (and institutionalized racism, economic inequality, etc.)? Is it sufficient to merely find concrete ways to dissuade those who profit the most off of earth’s destruction? Should we myopically enact doomsday prepper fantasies? Participate in decentralized mutual aid networks in preparation for inevitable discrete and ongoing disasters that states are unable/unwilling to adequately address? Should we destroy oil extraction infrastructure? Torch gas guzzling vehicles and aircraft? Dismantle power-plant apparatuses? Or do we sit back, cling to our lifestyles based on extraction and consumption, and hope that Science and Technology, in conjunction with the friendlier capitalist political party, will save us?

Such is the immensity of Leviathan that there is an infinite number of things one can do. Such is the immensity of Leviathan that it is unknown to what extent anything one can do will actually matter – both globally and, to a lesser extent, locally. What is to be done?

There is one possible endgame – some of Leviathan’s inhabitants may claw their way out of its corpse, behold the world in a new light, and build societies on top of its decomposing remains. They may use the putrefying entrails, but these communities can work to ensure that they are never able to recombine into another monstrous iteration of Leviathan, and thus begin the world-destroying process anew. Maybe they’ll dance on the rotting husk of what used to be a world-encompassing death machine.

One may write this off as utopian and naïve. And you are very justified in thinking this, at least for those of us firmly entrenched in Leviathan. But for the indigenous the world over – from the Sentinelese in the Andaman Islands, to the San in southern Africa, to the Sami in northern Scandinavia, to the Mohawk Nation in Akwesasne straddling the border of the U.S and Canada (to say nothing of exploited, terrorized and endangered nonhuman animals) – it’s not at all inconceivable. Their hope lies in the death throes of Leviathan not taking them down as it feeds upon itself.

Perhaps I’m just plain wrong – a wild-eyed, Nietzschean madman stumbling about, howling “industrial civilization is killing the planet!” instead of “God is dead!” Steven Pinker might just be right about the likes of me. As I write this in my office cubicle, I can’t fathom how anyone in my vicinity would seriously consider more than a few things I’ve written to have merit (the same goes, I think, for many readers who’ve made it this far). Like me, they want to finish their work, go home, and live their lives. They have other things to worry about. Broadly, tomorrow will be like today. Next week will look like last week. Next month will be similar to last month. But it seems as if we are inching closer to… something. After all, our culture’s doomsday prophesiers are not the charlatans of yore; instead, they are those to whom we in the West have entrusted the empirical study of the totality of existence to.

In closing, I’m reminded of Ishmael, by the late Daniel Quinn, which is sadly even more relevant today than it was in 1992. The novel features a series of conversations between Ishmael, a gorilla-sage, and the unidentified narrator, a surrogate for the privileged, civilized man who senses things maybe aren’t so great:

Ishmael frowned […] “As long as the people of your culture are convinced that the world belongs to them and that their divinely-appointed destiny is to conquer and rule it, then they are of course going to go on acting the way they’ve been acting for the past ten thousand years. They’re going to go on treating the world as if it were a piece of human property and they’re going to go on conquering it as if it were an adversary. You can’t change these things with laws. You must change people’s minds. And you can’t just root out a harmful complex of ideas and leave a void behind; you have to give people something that is as meaningful as what they’ve lost — something that makes better sense than the old horror of Man Supreme, wiping out everything on this planet that doesn’t serve his needs directly or indirectly.”

I shook my head. “What you’re saying is that someone has to stand up and become to the world of today what Saint Paul was to the Roman Empire.”

“Yes, basically. Is that so daunting?”

I laughed. “Daunting isn’t nearly strong enough. To call it daunting is like calling the Atlantic damp.”

“Is it really so impossible in an age when a stand-up comic on television reaches more people in ten minutes than Paul did in his entire lifetime?”

“I’m not a stand-up comic.”

“But you’re a writer, aren’t you?”

“Not that kind of writer.”

Ishmael shrugged. “Lucky you. You are absolved of any obligation. Self-absolved.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“What were you expecting to learn from me? An incantation? A magic word that would sweep all the nastiness away?”

“No.”

“Ultimately, it would seem you’re no different from those you profess to despise: You just wanted something for yourself. Something to make you feel better as you watch the end approach.”

[…]

“One thing I know people will say to me is ‘Are you suggesting we go back to being hunter-gatherers?’ ”

“That of course is an inane idea,” Ishmael said. “The Leaver life-style isn’t about hunting and gathering, it’s about letting the rest of the community live — and agriculturalists can do that as well as hunter-gatherers.” He paused and shook his head. “What I’ve been at pains to give you is a new paradigm of human history. The Leaver life is not an antiquated thing that is ‘back there’ somewhere. Your task is not to reach back but to reach forward.”

“But to what? We can’t just walk away from our civilization the way the Hohokam did.”

“That’s certainly true. The Hohokam had another way of life waiting for them, but you must be inventive — if it’s worthwhile to you. If you care to survive.” He gave me a dull stare. “You’re an inventive people, aren’t you? You pride yourselves on that, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then invent.”

__________

[1] It is both tragic and somewhat fitting that the home city of the Venetian Octopus (Perlman’s term for pre-modern sea-based Leviathans), which played an integral role in the rise of globalized capitalism, will likely be rendered uninhabitable by it.

[2] Craig Collins describes catabolic capitalism as “a self-cannibalizing system whose insatiable hunger for profit can only be fed by devouring the society that sustains it. As it rampages down the road to ruin, this system gorges itself on one self-inflicted disaster after another.” This already exists in parts of the world – the question is to what extent the affluent West will experience it. The article is well worth reading in full and I can’t help but quote a bit more of it:

Catabolic capitalism flourishes because it can still generate substantial profits by dodging legalities and regulations; stockpiling scarce resources and peddling arms to those fighting over them; scavenging, breaking down and selling off the assets of the decaying productive and public sectors; and preying upon the sheer desperation of people who can no longer find gainful employment elsewhere.

Without enough energy to generate growth, catabolic capitalists stoke the profit engine by taking over troubled businesses, selling them off for parts, firing the workforce and pilfering their pensions. Scavengers, speculators and slumlords buy up distressed and abandoned properties – houses, schools, factories, office buildings and malls – strip them of valuable resources, sell them for scrap or rent them to people desperate for shelter. Illicit lending operations charge outrageous interest rates and hire thugs or private security firms to shake down desperate borrowers or force people into indentured servitude to repay loans. Instead of investing in struggling productive enterprises, catabolic financiers make windfall profits by betting against growth through hoarding and speculative short selling of securities, currencies and commodities.

[…]

Catabolic capitalism is not inevitable. However, in a growth-less economy, catabolic capitalism is the most profitable, short-term alternative for those in power. This makes it the path of least resistance from Wall Street to Washington. But Green capitalism is another story.

As both radical Greens and the corporate establishment realize, Green capitalism is essentially an oxymoron. Truly Green policies, programs and projects contradict capitalism’s primary directive – profit before all else! This doesn’t mean there aren’t profitable niche markets for some products and services that are both ecologically benign and economically beneficial. It means that capitalism’s overriding profit motive is fundamentally at odds with ecological balance and the general welfare of humanity.

While people and the planet can thrive in an ecologically balanced society, the self-centered drive for profit and power cannot. A healthy economy that encourages people to take care of each other and the planet is incompatible with exploiting labor and ransacking nature for profit. Thus, capitalists will resist, to the bitter end, any effort to replace their malignant economy with a healthy one. [emphasis added]

[3] Again I quote Collins:

As globalization runs down, this grim catabolic future is eager to replace it. Already, an ugly gang of demagogic politicians around the world hopes to ride this catabolic crisis into power. Their goal is to replace globalization with bombastic nationalist authoritarianism [the most recent example being the absolutely vile Bolsonaro in Brazil]. These xenophobic demagogues are becoming the political face of catabolic capitalism. They promise to restore their country to prosperity and greatness by expelling immigrants while carelessly ignoring the disastrous costs of fossil fuel addiction and military spending. Anger, insecurity and need to believe that a strong leader can restore “the good old days” will guarantee them a fervent following even though their false promises and fake solutions can only make matters worse.

[4] One can find sources just about anywhere. While writing this, I had in mind Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott and Worshiping Power: An Anarchist View of Early State Formation by Peter Gelderloos. I don’t expect anyone to actually purchase them so, if interested, check out this rather long article by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

[5] Unlike the Soviet and Maoist Leviathans – both as adept at world destruction as the capitalist West – hopefully this new “dictatorship of the proletariat” would actually progress towards a state in which the very scaffolds propping up Leviathan wither away. Seems unlikely.

The trauma of child separation

A recent dream was the impetus for this post. While I pretty much never want to hear about someone’s dream, against my better judgment, I’m going to begin with it:

I was doing some kind of an internship and was tasked with detaining children alone. I showed up to an apartment. I had some kind of miniature truck that had a flat tire and I was frantically trying to use my phone to call for help. A woman helped, and I slowly realized this was the mother. I took out a crinkled sheet of paper with scribbles on it and asked if this was her. She said yes and I told her I had to take her kids. She sadly acquiesced and started getting them ready. At this point, the large, angry dad started berating me. I remained calm, and tried to reason with him. I exhorted him to be friendly to social workers, case managers, and judges. Be nice to the system – for they can make your life even worse should you choose to direct your venom at it. While this was happening, the kids escaped and I began freaking out over this. Usually, once I start to panic in a dream I wake up.

I’ve never worked at a job that detained children, but I’ve worked directly with those who are actively in the process of doing so. I’ve worked directly with families navigating the messy aftermath. Even today, though my job is more administrative-focused, there are still a few functions I perform which entail seeing frustrated clients stuck in the labyrinthine child welfare system.

One of things I periodically do is administer family court-mandated drug tests. This is not something they generally like having to do several times a week. Sometimes they vent, and I let them – often this is about their shitty case managers, an asshole judge, or how difficult it is to make time for the tests –  and I sometimes find myself giving the same advice I gave in my dream: no matter how much you think the system is bad, be nice to the people in it because they can make things much worse. I don’t know if this is good advice. Warring inside my head are thoughts of “yes, I would hate it if I were treated like this” (which is what I verbalize), and “well, you brought this on yourself,” or “maybe you should have thought of this before you did whatever it was that endangered your kids and brought state involvement into your life.” Also in the back of my mind is the ever-present aversion to bootlicking.

Some may choose to ignore the litany of nuances related to American children being removed from their homes and say “fuck these child abusers,” a condemnation that parallels a common conservative response to the immigrant crisis: those parents are endangering their children by breaking the law – they have no one to blame but themselves. If you are one of those people I have sad news for you: uncompromising measures like locking up parents, or less restrictive measures, which are still formidable obstacles, all prolong the time kids spent in out of home care. This is usually very bad, and we aren’t remotely close to having an effective system in place to manage such massive amounts of human misery. The end result is that many children lost within the child welfare system – whether it’s for a few weeks or a few years – grow up facing even more hurdles than before they were detained.

***

In many, probably most, experiences I’ve had in child welfare, children love their parents, no matter what they’ve done. I’ve worked on many cases that ended in sobbing which continued until the children were dropped off at their foster homes. I can’t stress this enough. As bad as child abuse and neglect is, the trauma of separation is not to be dismissed or trivialized. This has historically been largely invisible to the general public (as I’ve stressed in other blog posts, most people give next to no passing thought to child welfare).

On the other hand, child welfare as it related to family separation at the border has rightfully gained visibility. ICE scumbags are fucking up an entire generation of children:

“It’s not like an auto body shop where you fix the dent and everything looks like new. We’re talking about children’s minds,” said Luis H. Zayas, professor of social work and psychiatry at the University of Texas at Austin.

[…]

Children who have undergone traumatic separation often cling desperately to their parents after they are reunited and refuse to let them out of their sight, say therapists and child psychologists. Many suffer from separation anxiety, cry uncontrollably and have trouble sleeping because of recurring nightmares.

Others develop eating disorders, problems with trust and unresolved anger, in some cases against their parents.

“You see some children even strike out at the parents. They don’t always understand why their parents abandoned them and sometimes blame them. So they have difficulty reattaching,” Zayas said.

[…]

Left untreated, such trauma can lead to deeper problems like post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, alcoholism and even suicidal behavior, said Jodi Berger Cardoso, an assistant professor at the University of Houston who studies the effects of trauma on immigrants.

Children intercepted at the border are often especially vulnerable to developing PTSD and other disorders because their families are fleeing violence and catastrophe.

[…]

Studies have shown that boys held in detention, even for short periods of time, such as two or three weeks, can develop anti-social behavior, violence and substance abuse problems. Teenage girls more often show depressive disorders and substance abuse.

Reactive Attachment Disorder is very prevalent among and greatly inhibits a person’s ability to form positive relationships

Much of this is also applicable to American children that have been separated from their families.

***

Of late, I’ve often found myself thinking, in one regard, like the xenophobic nativists that I revile. In the halcyon days of the George W Bush era, I recall having arguments about how I felt far more affinity to Iraqi civilians than American soldiers shooting at them. At the root of this sentiment is the simple idea that there is nothing inherently better or worse about people born in the same geographic area as I.

With that in mind, it is jarring how I reflexively respond internally to the recent outcry against U.S. immigration policy. People are (justly) moved to tears and anger over non-American children experiencing trauma at the hands of their government, but I can’t help but find myself thinking “what about actual American children who are going through this?”

As I noted above, American children separated from their parents deal with much of the same traumas as immigrant children, though they broadly occur within in different historical contexts. American children are subject to varying degrees of the structural issues underpinning their specific situations: suffocating economic inequality, institutionalized racism and all that these paradigms entail. The families arriving at our border contain in their very being the ongoing legacies of European colonialism, American imperialism, and more recently, neoliberal capitalism and its continuing devastation of the developing world.

Though every family separation is a veritable snowflake where no two are the same, similarities abound in the results. Some children will never find a stable home and, if they are not deported, age out of the system:

  • More than 23,000 children will age out of the US foster care system every year.
  • After reaching the age of 18, 20% of the children who were in foster care will become instantly homeless.
  • Only 1 out of every 2 foster kids who age out of the system will have some form of gainful employment by the age of 24.
  • There is less than a 3% chance for children who have aged out of foster care to earn a college degree at any point in their life.
  • 7 out of 10 girls who age out of the foster care system will become pregnant before the age of 21.
  • The percentage of children who age out of the foster care system and still suffer from the direct effects of PTSD: 25%.

More generally, childhood trauma related to separation increases

the risk of alcohol use by age 14 and illicit drug use by age 15. Childhood trauma also contributed to the likelihood of adolescent pregnancies and adolescent suicide attempts.

But the story doesn’t end there. ACEs [adverse childhood experiences] were also found to be associated with multiple adverse outcomes in adulthood, such as cardiovascular disease, liver disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, suicide attempts, alcohol dependence, marital problems, intravenous drug use and many more.

If there is one common thread to many of the preventable diseases we face in the U.S., why are we not paying closer attention?

An excellent question really, but with an obvious answer [1]. Victims of child abuse and neglect are mostly poor and disproportionately children of color. We as a society don’t really give a fuck about them, unless they rise from their racially and economically segregated neighborhoods to become worthy of notice and acclaim – perhaps as an athlete, entertainer, or business mogul. Then we can collectively valorize the Horatio Alger-like elements of their life – in the land of the free and the home of the brave anyone can make it if they just work hard enough.

Just as good, if not better, is when a white family shepherds them to the promised land. Consider the popularity of The Blind Side. Briefly, the movie is based on the true story of Michael Oher, adopted by a saintly white family after bouncing around foster homes, and eventually making it to the NFL. This is widely thought of as a feel-good story, at least for white people who relish any opportunity to view themselves as benevolent forces for good.

Or perhaps they’ll commit crimes and become noteworthy that way. Perhaps, their childhood will provide context for whatever it is that they’ve done. But whatever the crime is will almost always override their upbringing. Whether that’s fair or not depends on the situation and the eye of the beholder.

***

In the end, it’s hard not to feel that the advice from my dream rings hollow, even if there’s a degree of utility to it. Because the social/economic/political systems that these families exist within have set them up to fail and are ill equipped at mitigating the fallout. The well-to-do within those systems are likely to feel the consequences of those failures – perhaps by tax dollar, perhaps by crime. Perhaps they’ll feel rage, and perhaps that misguided rage will lead to health problems.

The following is particularly apt:

To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma.

One should keep in mind the sheer breadth this sentiment encompasses: refugees from the Middle East, Africa, and Central America fleeing violence; First Nations children of Canada; children in the enlightened social democracy of Norway; and, of course, children in the belly of the world-eating Leviathan that is modern-day techno-industrial society.


[1] I understand one of the reasons why: there is an unending churn of terrible things – contemporary and historical – in the world. With only a finite amount of time and energy to dedicate to learning about such things, it’s silly to think everyone will expose themselves to the same horrors as I. So, while I lament the (what I regard) as fact that people don’t give much thought to American child welfare, I get why this is.

The pope should shut the fuck up about indigenous resistance

[Note: I wrote almost all of this blog before learning of Caine’s passing. I only interacted with her a few times, but I was repeatedly struck by how fierce she was in her writings. She will be missed.

Some months back, she had written that she’d like to see her fellow bloggers write about indigenous issues and we had a little back and forth about it. A coincidence, then, that it is the topic of this post. Condolences to those who knew and loved her best, and anyone else who’s enjoyed her work on FtB.]

Via The Onion:

In a historic admission of the Catholic church’s complicated and often shameful history, Pope Francis admitted in an informal public statement Thursday that “like, 97 percent” of Catholic leadership are “probably burning in hell right now.” “Believe me, contemporary Catholics are quite familiar with our legacy of murder, rape, cultural exploitation, and thievery on every scale from splitting up South America for silver rights down to just stealing stuff—make no mistake, most of those holy men were simply terrible people who deserve to fry in their own considerable fat for eternity,” said His Holiness, who took time during an informal lunch meeting with interfaith leaders to deliver a capsule history of manifold crimes committed by Vatican higher-ups, complete with a running commentary on the church’s long tradition of manipulating and mistreating its devotees. “Keep in mind this was just the stuff they did to other Catholics—at least, they were Catholic when those vicious scoundrels were done with them. Well, they’re paying for it in searing pain and screams now. Oh, and if someone wouldn’t convert, or couldn’t be converted by force? That’s when we get into Crusades, the Inquisitions, Spanish and others, the name of Christ invoked in the slaughter of native peoples, which is why their eyes will forever boil from out of their roasting skulls.

This is one of the many times I lament the fact that The Onion is #fakenews. What a welcome sentiment this would be in light of the Cool Pope’s somewhat recent shitty comments on the Mapuche conflict in Chile (this is something I meant to write about way back in January). First, though, who are the Mapuche and what made Francis think he had the right to tell them what to do? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

[T]he arrival of the Spanish in the 16th Century seems to have triggered the amalgamation of several indigenous groups and the forging of closer social and cultural ties, all of which is part of what we know today as the history of the Mapuche identity. The Mapuche people rebelled against Spanish subjugation and burned the cities built by the European colonizers south of the Bío Bío River. This rebellion marked the beginning of the Arauco War, in which Spain was forced to maintain a professional army to guard its territorial borders and to recognize Mapuche autonomy within indigenous lands. The Mapuche people did not submit to outside rule until 1882, when the Army of the Republic of Chile began its campaign for the “Pacification of the Araucanía Region.” The campaign came in response to the urgent need to conquer usable land and was driven by an ideology that sought to eliminate indigenous groups by “civilizing” them. After the Chilean military victory, the process of colonization by European and local mestizo settlers was facilitated by restricting local indigenous inhabitants to small plots of communally held land. The direct consequences of this process for Mapuche society included a drastic decrease in their territory through reiterated, large scale usurpation, dependence on the Government as an external agent, and the breakdown of Mapuche society due to the loss of authority of the lonkos or chiefs.

The struggle has continued in fits and starts to the present day, with different groups pursuing different ends with different means – some are peaceful and some engage in property destruction (what the state and media refer to as terrorism) [1].

Their current adversaries are the usual suspects: a panoply of different entities including the state and military, non-indigenous landowners, the Catholic Church, and, of course, foreign & domestic capitalists:

Today, the Mapuche people are fighting to recover their territorial rights in the Araucanía Region. In these efforts, they confront forestry companies as well as the military. The consequences of the conflict are dramatic. Levels of poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, and illiteracy in this region are the highest in the country.

Moreover, the mass media labels Mapuche protests as “terrorist,” misleading the general public and encouraging the spread of violence. The economic consortiums that control the forestry industry in the region also own the national mass media. This relationship fuels the conflict, protects specific economic interests, and validates military intervention against the Mapuche.

As for Cool Pope, he became upset because churches were burned in Mapuche territory. But, why would such things be done?

Between 1818 and 1950 during the first stage of Chilean colonization, the Chilean State used methods of evangelization [that] were used to submit and dominate the Mapuche People.

This meant the internal plunder of the self or person (what the Chilean government and the bishopric class calls the desecration of faith). Our Machi [Medicine Healers]  were demonized, and their rewe [medicines] plundered and destroyed. Our sacred spaces (tren tren, trayenco, mawizantu) destroyed and eliminated, and among the ruins they planted pine and eucalyptus, houses and churches were built, and we were confined to spiritual and emotional imbalance.

In the definitive occupation of our territory, the Catholic Church played an outstanding, even military, role, acting as the vanguard in the displacement and occupation of Wallmapu [Mapuche Territory]. They were not only the transmitters of dominant norms and values, but also controlled and punished indigenous transgressors, prohibiting the continued belief in their traditional ways, imposing determined values of resignation, obedience and respect to so-called superiors.

Currently, it is not surprising that the Catholic Church owns all educational facilities in the Araucanía Region, and that every school serves as its economic bastion.

So into the fray he descends, bestowing these words of wisdom:

You cannot assert yourself by destroying others, because this only leads to more violence and division [actually, one can definitely do that – Christians were able to assert themselves all over the fucking world by destroying others and their culture. Also, burning churches isn’t the same as destroying others]. Violence begets violence; destruction increases fragmentation and separation. Violence eventually makes a most just cause into a lie.”[By that logic, wouldn’t violence perpetrated by Christians in the name of Christianity turn Christianity into a lie? Nah – how silly of me to apply his own words to his religion] [2]

Anyways, the pope is an asshole. That he’s apologized for Catholic complicity in the horrors of colonialism (which, next to absolutely nothing, is the bare minimum the Catholic church should have done a long time ago) certainly doesn’t grant him moral high ground – especially when the legacies of those horrors are ongoing and still perpetuated by members of his flock.

You don’t get to tell people who have been oppressed for generations by adherents of your religion how to resist their oppressors. Although, far be it from me to tell the infallible messenger of God what to do – but the Mapuche are eminently justified in telling him to fuck off.


[1] There was an incident in 2013 where white landowners, Werner Luchsinger and Vivian Mackay, were burned alive in their home by Mapuche protesters. I was only going to briefly mention this, but I ended up going down a rabbit-hole. The details are sketchy, but this occurred on the five year anniversary of a Mapuche activist shot by police on Luchsinger’s property. Both situations, the shooting and arson, were preceded by conflicts/arguments that lead to death.

There was one conviction for the arson. Most recently, 11 other defendants were acquitted, with the ruling stating there was “not enough proof to support the prosecution’s allegation that it was a terrorist attack or a premeditated plan to stir fear and pressure farmers into leaving their land.”

To give more context, the Luchsinger family

arrived in Mapuche territory from Switzerland in the late 1800s and benefited from the government’s colonisation policies for decades thereafter, becoming one of the largest landowners in Chile’s Patagonia region. Their forestry and ranching companies now occupy vast stretches of southern Chile, and impoverished Mapuches live on the margins of their properties.

The nephew of the deceased couple stated that “with this attack it seems that my prophecy was being fulfilled that the region is suffering attacks to empty farmers and entrepreneurs.” So long as the farmers and entrepreneurs remain, his prophecy may continue to be fulfilled on a somewhat regular basis.

[2] I don’t really consider burning churches as violence. One can’t commit violence against a non-sentient object. I used to think this without qualification, until I considered domestic abusers and their victims – an abuser using property destruction as an intimidation tactic certainly qualifies as violence, not to mention it being unjustified and reprehensible.

To me, when the power disparity is such that those with far less power commit property destruction against individuals or entities with far greater power, I’m not inclined to view it as violence (whether or not I agree with the cause will ultimately influence if I see it as warranted or not). The burning of Catholic churches in indigenous territory may cause psychological harm to Catholics who work there, but I don’t really give a shit – the enormity of the historical and contemporary crimes & injustices perpetrated against the Mapuche by the entity they freely chose to join utterly dwarfs destroyed property. But that’s just me.

Disjointed musings from the sidelines of atheism’s internal culture wars

“The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical processes to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. [T]herefore, it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.

– Antonio Gramsci

I can’t decide if my presence on this network makes me part of any kind of movement. I liked reading things on FTB. I asked if I could blog here. They said yes. I’ve written only a bit about religion/atheism and, when doing so, it has mostly been about the lulz involved with Christianity, which is ever a rich vein to mine.

For most of my life, I can’t say that I’ve ever felt like I’ve belonged to any group or movement. I view this as a consequence of my inherent discomfort of being around large amounts of people. For atheism in particular, I’ve never been to a convention, never been part of a group, and have never been one to seek debate or argue publicly about it on social media. At most, I’ve surrounded myself with friends who happen to be irreligious, none of whom are in any way part of a larger movement.

I wouldn’t even say I ever had a “new atheist phase,” at least in the pejorative sense. In the mid 2000’s I read Dawkins and Harris. They were fine – at least most of The God Delusion and the first and last parts of The End of Faith. I had already been agnostic since the late 90’s, and I was receptive to their critiques of religion. Nevertheless, I had long known about much of what they wrote, though their abilities to provide cogent critiques far surpassed my own. But it was nothing earth shattering to me – by the time I read them I had long considered religion to be a metaphorical house of cards which is easily dispersed with the merest breeze.

It was nice and interesting that atheism became more prominent during that time-period. But, again, at no point did I ever consider myself to be a New Atheist, a term I associated with a particularly arrogant and in-your-face brand of atheism. That was never my thing – I’ve always skewed more towards self-loathing than arrogance, which I think made me a bit less susceptible to becoming an anti-religious evangelist. To me religion was always personal, and I had no interest in persuading others to adopt my point of view. However, I’ve never really had a problem outing myself as an atheist.

***

Backing up a bit – before the rise of the New Atheists, I rejected the religion in which I was brought up. In rejecting Catholicism and their God, a process commenced where I questioned other powerful things – after all, if the most powerful entity imaginable was little more than a boring fairytale in a boring book, what else was utter bullshit?

To me, it followed that other powerful ideas and entities were worthy of skepticism. Culture, nation-states, capitalism, civilization – all were deserving of scrutiny. And all have in common the fact that, like all the gods ever hypothesized, they are socially constructed and therefore eminently fallible, both in theory and practice. These considerations led to my belief that our world is one of unequal access to opportunities to both meet basic needs and flourish. With every person confined to one life – and no paradisiacal afterlife waiting for us upon death – it is unconscionable that so many, through little to no fault of their own, have numoerous odds stacked against them to merely exist, much less flourish. I think this best describes the base of my worldview from which the rest of my beliefs/opinions flow. I credit atheism with playing a foundational role in this.

Of course, many object to this line of thinking. To them, how “good” one’s life is is a result of the consequences of their actions – success or failure is relatively independent of social and environmental circumstances. This provides justification for systemic disadvantages (if they are even recognized at all) while at the same time allowing for self-congratulation for whatever success one achieves. For such people that are nonbelievers, their non-belief is grafted onto their pre-existing, or developing biases. Here, atheism is weaponized to war against and belittle opponents, to reinforce existing hierarchies, and to blame the unfortunate for their struggles – all under the guise of their superior reasoning and logic which spreads from their disavowal of non-natural phenomena.

I guess I just don’t fully get atheists who prostrate themselves to the powerful. They have cast aside deities who would be content to torture them for eternity, but exhibit little interest in scrutinizing earthly authorities and hierarchies. The broad reason is easy to see. Many of them have, or desperately want power and privilege. It is then in their self-interest not to dig too deep into how various distinct and overlapping power structures might reify, systemize and reproduce oppression – it’s much easier to place responsibility squarely on the shoulder of those that struggle within these power structures.

I understand selfishness. I understand an inability or unwillingness to cultivate empathy for the less fortunate. But I scorn both – especially when they’re used in the service of upholding the status quo under which they benefit.

***

Of course, I don’t expect everyone to come to the same conclusions as I. The intellectual path one takes using atheism as a starting point can lead to many ends. And much of the time, one’s starting point isn’t necessarily even atheism-adjacent. But it’s pretty depressing that the popularity of reactionary atheism appears to be so ascendant.

I often wonder what the neutral observer thinks of when they think of atheism. With my family and coworkers in mind, I would bet a lot of money that precisely none of them have ever heard of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or Mythcon (funny, since the latter occurs in the state in which I reside). And I think that generally holds true among the general populace. At a shopping mall, sporting event, or fast food restaurant, most know nothing of the battle for the soul of atheism.

Perhaps they know Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye, though I’m not sure how much nonbelief is associated with them. Who they might know, though, are outspoken, shitty atheists like Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais. The thought of those two coming to the front of the average person’s mind when the term atheist is brought up makes me cringe.

***

I see religion as one of the “traces” described by Gramsci that is deposited into the recesses of our psyches. Its size and intensity necessarily varies from person to person, family to family, and culture to culture, but it is only one of the infinity. While atheists of all stripes excise religion’s metaphysical components, there are varying amounts of its framework left behind. These shards can all too easily be reorganized into a toxic brew of human supremacy, bigotry of all flavors, slavish obedience to authority, and magical thinking (not that religion is necessarily the origin of any of these).

Again, it’s not that I think everyone should think like me or arrive to the same conclusions as I, but I don’t think the SQW/Alt-right atheists really put in the work to adequately examine their inventory. Or, if I’m being more charitable than I should be, I suppose they do and I guess I just don’t agree with the conclusions that justify their beliefs.

I only have so much time in this world. With an ocean of information that is continuously increasing exponentially, it would be impossible to examine each and every point of view on atheism or any topic for that matter – even those that touch on issues I care about. I recoil at adding Fox News, or Info Wars, or Breitbart to my daily information consumption. The thought of slogging through Enlightenment Now makes me ill. I look at Twitter wars and am unable to comprehend how arguing on it is in any way worthy of time – and marvel at how extraordinarily complicated topics can be argued 280 characters at a time.

Or, restricting this solely to the Atheism Wars. Am I going to spend hours watching the various garbage YouTubers? Or listening to Sam Harris’s podcast? The answer is no, but it is a conclusion I’ve reached because of desire. I think about the ills of residing in my own echo chamber, but am too selfish to really venture too far outside it. For justification, I rationalize that most of the media I consume contains written or unwritten ideas that I object to – but the specific items listed in this and the prior paragraph are too much.

Life’s too fucking short and I don’t wish to waste large chunks of it on the Sisyphean task of confronting ideas I’ve long since decided are misguided, wrong or abhorrent (at least in terms of religion and the reactionary wing of atheism – there are, of course, other things I’m more interested in thinking and writing about ad nauseum). But such is the world we live in where it is apparently still necessary to have discussions about things like race science, Confederate monuments, and whether or not trans people should be able to live how they wish (the answers are, respectively: it’s bad and wrong, tear them down, and of course).

All of which brings me back to my presence here. I’m glad the fine folks at FtB put in so much time and effort combating the rot in atheism. It is a large reason I’ve been a longtime reader. But I’m admittedly too selfish to join in and will most likely continue to leave the heavy lifting to others. I don’t know to what extent it matters, but I think atheism is a good enough thing (due to the omnipresence of religion and its ill effects) that the task of constantly flushing the turds down the toilet is eminently admirable and worthwhile.

A palate cleanser for that terrible NYT piece about the “Intellectual Dark Web”

A recent episode of Revolutionary Left Radio (which I’ve previously fawned over) takes a deep dive into the commonalities and differences between three of the Status Quo Warrior’s described in the NYT: Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, and Steven Pinker (whom only makes a brief appearance in the article).

To me, it’s refreshing to listen to them being discussed in this format, because they all cater to different types of reactionary audiences coagulating around the center of the political spectrum that is ever shifting to the right: Peterson for the sad and lost, Harris for the arrogant, and Pinker for the starry-eyed optimist.

But! Know that by listening to Rev Left’s critiques you are contributing to the tragic misunderstanding and ultimate silencing of these precious, delicate snowflakes. If you don’t mind having that on your conscience, perhaps give it a listen.

Violence against indigenous peoples at home and abroad

I was recently thinking about the deaths of Colten Boushie and Jason Pero, both of whom were murdered by scared white men. The fear of their indigenous victims, of course, was enough to justify a hung jury in the former, and no charges in the latter. I was wondering how many people knew about it, and if it was receiving what I felt was sufficient media coverage. I think the answer is probably no.

Who can say what alchemy is involved in the viral nature of some events but not others? For example, a cop shot an unarmed black man lying on his back in a northside suburb of Milwaukee. Against all odds, charges were filed against the officer. However, the case resulted in a hung jury a few weeks back, and prosecutors have decided not to retry the case. A Google News search yields results that are almost all local. For whatever reasons, it didn’t filter out into the national consciousness.

Jason Pero, a 14-year-old member of the Bad River Band in northern Wisconsin was murdered after he called 911 to report a male walking around with a knife matching his own description. The cop – Brock Mrdjenovich –  takes up the story from here saying that Pero refused commands to drop the knife. Pero supposedly lunged from 10 feet away and Mrdjenovich, fearing for his own life, was forced to take the entirety of the legal process into his own hands as judge, jury and executioner.

Mrdjenovich reported that Pero said between bullets that he wanted to die, and Mrdjenovich was quick to oblige, despite also having a taser and pepper spray at his disposal. There were no witnesses or video to contradict Mrdjenovich’s account. St. Croix County prosecutors declined to file charges. Since he was determined to have done nothing wrong, Mrdjenovich remains employed, though the police district is  “dedicated to rebuilding and restoring trust and a working relationship with the community at all levels through continued community policing, officer education and training, and proactive involvement with all citizens of Ashland County.”

I actually kind of believe Mrdjenovich’s statement about Pero’s final words – with no one to contradict him, it would be far better for his defense strategy to claim that Pero was screaming he was going to kill him rather than himself. Then again, one would think Pero’s admission would get him to stop firing. A trial likely wouldn’t have yielded a conviction, but neglecting to bring the case to a jury trial is absurd – a man with a gun shot a boy with a knife from 10 feet away.

This is similar to another story, one I hadn’t heard of before writing this, regarding another apparent “suicide-by-cop” scenario:

Back in July 2015, Denver police shot and killed Paul Castaway [a Lakota man] who they said was charging at them with a knife. However, other eyewitness accounts and a surveillance video showed he was holding the knife to his own neck, and the 911 call his mother made said he was mentally ill and drunk. Castaway was only a danger to himself, but the police thought shooting him in the chest was the quicker solution instead of helping him.

Charges weren’t filed. Pero also showed signs of distress and mental illness. There were cuts on his arms and he had fentanyl in his system at the time of his death. The common thread of possible mental illness in the two stories highlight another area that the police are ill-equipped to deal with, especially with regards to Native communities (and, sorry, here’s another horrible story from my hometown that was recently brought to light). That mental issues may arise from institutionalized racism (both similar and different to that experienced by African Americans) is tangential to the larger issues of how the State and their shock troops interact with Native Americans, who are

killed by police at disproportionately high rates. […] [A]ccording to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native Americans were killed by police at a rate of 0.21 per 100,000 from 1999 to 2014, and African-Americans (who outnumber Native Americans roughly 10 to 1) were killed at a rate of 0.25 per 100,000.2

Even so, police killings of Native Americans are probably undercounted, said D. Brian Burghart, a journalist who runs the Fatal Encounters database, one of several independent projects aimed at producing a more complete tally of the number of Americans killed by police each year. Killings by police, as a whole, are undercounted by the CDC and other federal agencies. For instance, in 2014, the CDC logged 515 such deaths, while Fatal Encounters found more than 1,300.

And when police kill Native Americans, even the more accurate independent databases often miss or miscategorize those deaths, said Burghart and Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of the Mapping Police Violence database.

It’s a nesting doll of incomplete data that leaves Native Americans as both one of the groups most likely to be killed by police and the group most likely to have its deaths at the hands of police go unrecorded.

For Jason Pero, outside of a few articles, notably in CNN, Huffington Post, and the New York Daily News, the story didn’t receive what I would consider to be widespread coverage. There also didn’t appear to be many follow-ups regarding developments subsequent to the time he was murdered. And so, while it merited a blip on the radar, it was soon buried under the constant churn.

Colton Boushie, on the other hand, had significantly more coverage and was seen as just the latest indignity inflicted on the indigenous natives of Canada. Though it hasn’t really seemed to enter into the general consciousness of their neighbors to the south. Or perhaps it has and I’m wrong.

This time, the murderer was not an agent of the State, making him unable to benefit from having the full heft of its weight behind him. But, as a white man, he was more than able to benefit from combining his whiteness with fear. That, as we’ve seen so often, is a deadly combination, both in terms of justification of deadly force and for crushing the chances that victims and their family have for receiving any modicum of justice.

Boushie, a resident of the Cree Red Pheasant First Nation of Saskatchewan, was murdered by Gerald Stanley, on whose property the incident occurred. Though it was alleged that Boushie and his friends were attempting to break into cars in the area, they were never charged. Which is pretty odd. It was a case that focused far more on Boushie and his friends than Stanley, the only person that day who murdered someone. As Darcy Lindberg writes in The Conversation,

It is clear that Colten Boushie, despite breaking no law, was never provided the presumption of innocence before guilt that Gerald Stanley was given in his trial. The mix of being a stranger on someone else’s property, intoxicated and Indigenous were lethal to Colten’s life, and most likely fatal to justice afterwards.

While many are decrying that Colten’s indigeneity had nothing to do with his death, such a view dangerously ignores the century plus of evidence planted in the imagination of the prairie settler, one materially aided by law. Once planted, it has created a dangerous license that continues to have devastating effects on Indigenous peoples.

It’s pretty fucking enraging that so many are quick to assume that bigotry played no role. Also enraging is that the mere possibility of biased indigenous jurors was able to be weaponized by the defense – any juror who even looked indigenous was removed. Further, the chosen jurors weren’t screened for racial bias and were not instructed by the judge to disregard any prejudice they may have had (not that it would have mattered most likely). It just goes to show how malleable and adaptable white privilege can be.

Obviously there’s much more to the case than what I’ve written, but I just want to highlight the following, from the same link in the previous paragraph. Part of the defense hinged on Stanley claiming

his finger was not on the trigger when his gun went off as it was facing Boushie’s head (that is, he claimed it to be an accident and not an intentional act) and that he reasonably believed the gun was empty (i.e. no negligence).

In support of his testimony, Stanley relied on a phenomenon known as “hang fire” – a delay between the pulling of the trigger and the gun firing. In this case, there was a significant delay between when Stanley said he last pulled the trigger as part of a series of warning shots and when the gun fired the fatal shot. That period of time included him taking out the magazine, getting to the car, reaching in to move a metal object and then across the steering wheel to turn off the ignition.

If that sounds like highly improbable bullshit, that’s because it is:

Both the Crown and defence experts testified that the gun was functioning properly, not prone to misfires and that hang fires are exceptionally rare. According to the Crown expert, any delay is usually less than half a second.

Instead, the defence relied on two lay witnesses who testified about their experience with similar delays with different guns. One of them, who approached the defence to offer his story during the trial, testified about his experience 40 years ago while gopher hunting. Despite serious questions surrounding the admissibility of this evidence, the Crown did not object.

Jesus. Fucking. Christ. A fucking gopher hunter with a 40-year-old anecdote. I guess the jury of Stanley’s peers saw a fellow peer in this mysterious gopher hunter, who magnanimously came to the defense with his exculpatory bombshell.

Racial violence against unarmed or mentally ill, both perpetrated by the State and by individuals, can easily be justified by five simple words: “I was scared for my life.” For the indigenous of North America, these present-day manifestations of racial violence are seamlessly incorporated into centuries of bigotry, in conscious and subconscious form.  In its subconscious form, it is so old, so reified into the relationships with the State, that it probably doesn’t even feel like bigotry to the actual humans who perpetuate it. Can it even be called hate, at this point? To those whom are continuing the historical legacies of settler colonialism, it probably just feels like how things are. How easy it would be, such people think, were the indigenous to just act White. Although, the word they would actually use is Normal, and would likely fail to admit that White and Normal are virtually synonymous in their worldview.

***

Pero and Boushie belong to a class of people that are seldom visible to the general populace, except as “inspirations” for mascots, casino owners, or merely living relics of a bygone era. They can also, at times, emerge as a cause célèbre amongst #resistance-types, but such instances are always ephemeral – remember Standing Rock? And would it surprise you to learn that there are continuing battles between the fossil fuel industry and the indigenous? I can confidently say that that isn’t widely known. It’s not like I’m that much better – I know vaguely about a few, but it takes several Google searches to give me a better picture.

Appalling treatment of indigenous peoples by the nation states they happen to exist within isn’t relegated to North America. To name but a few, there are the reindeer herding Sami of northern Scandinavia; Sama-Bajau sea nomads of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines; Iraqi Marsh Arabs; and the Andamanese and Sentinelese  inhabitants of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Such peoples have long resisted integration into the surrounding vampiric socio-economic infrastructures that lust after unmitigated access to their land, resources, and labor. The ramifications have been and will continue to be catastrophic. At least as long as those infrastructures exist.

Perhaps most galling is the bewilderment displayed by those who are unable to comprehend why anyone wouldn’t want to shed their cultural identifies in order to fully assimilate into the dominant paradigms that have oppressed, displaced and killed them with relative impunity for generations. But then again, they probably haven’t read any Steven Pinker. Thus, they sadly don’t truly know the error of their ways – beckoning on the horizon is the shining city on the hill that is global capitalism nestled within the cocoon of meritocratic nation-states. Their humble entrance into its bottommost rungs – not as Others, but finally as true Citizens – will show them the self-evident superiority of what they’ve long feared. Truly the sky will be the limit with discipline, hard work and a can-do attitude.

All kidding aside, their continued resistance is really fucking admirable – in a just world, such resistance wouldn’t be necessary. At the very least, when they are killed, their killers should have to face actual consequences. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

LGBT youth and child welfare

I’ve written a bit about my work in child welfare. Part of my responsibilities in my prior job entailed coordinating placement for children needing out of home care. One of the really unfortunate things is that there are not a lot of options for placement of LGBT youth that are fully capable of accommodating their needs. While the needs they have are similar to cishet children, there are additional considerations. They are subject to the same types of neglect and abuse, but with the added layer of potential maltreatment due to gender expression and sexual orientation. Overall, they are over-represented in child welfare, meaning that

the percentage of youth in foster care who are LGBTQ-identified is larger than the percentage of LGBTQ youth in the general youth population. LGBTQ youth in foster care also face disparities – differences in experiences in care or treatment by the system.

Among the training and education they receive, caregivers are taught about the needs specific to providing care for LGBT youth. But, as is often the case in the field, it’s hard to say one way or the other how effective it is. With the innumerable challenges associated with working in child welfare, certain components of the whole may tend to be ignored.

For example, I was pretty stunned to learn that transgender youth are legally required to be placed in a facility that reflects their birth-assigned gender in the state of Wisconsin. So, for instance, a transgender female would not be able to go to a female group home (GH). If placement is unable to occur, for whatever reasons, in a mixed gender home, they would need to be placed in a male GH (assuming a lower level of care (i.e. foster home, or relative) is judged to be neither feasible nor desirable).

In my small way I was able to influence the process so that this largely did not occur, but it was patently obvious that the population was underserved, as well as potentially being placed in harm’s way. I should note, though, that I don’t recall any specific instances of maltreatment (which doesn’t mean, of course, that there haven’t been any), but I do know of cases in which it was obvious that needs weren’t being met. I don’t know how this differs state to state, but as of 2015, the issues facing trans youth in the child welfare system were considered widespread:

Transgender youth are often placed in housing situations where their gender identity and their gender expression are not respected. Consequently, they are at higher risk for physical, emotional, and sexual harassment, as well as bullying. For example, staff may force transgender youth to wear traditionally gender-conforming clothing and to use sex-segregated facilities (such as restrooms, living quarters, locker rooms, etc.) that do not match their gender identity. Additionally, staff may intentionally not use their transgender clients’ preferred pronouns and names. Transgender youth may also be denied medical care such as hormone therapy, prescribed by physicians and mental health professionals. Gender-affirming medical care may also be delayed, interrupted, or terminated for these youth. This creates an emotionally and physically unsafe space, which is harmful to their development.

What is described above would not rise to the legal definitions of child abuse or neglect in most states (and perhaps all of them). Allegations, to the extent that they are made, probably don’t trigger institutional responses. Research in this area is likely dependent on anecdotes, rather than documentary evidence. So, we have a ways to go in truly grasping and confronting these issues.

(One small anecdote: my colleagues were having trouble placing a transgender female and requested a specific GH that was heavily geared towards shaping upstanding Christian Men (it had the words “kings” and “priests” in the title). I was able, fortunately, to forbid this. It’s hard to tell what they would’ve done with the child, but I didn’t think it was worth finding out)

***

My hometown of Milwaukee is opening its first LGBT GH. I can’t tell if they will accept only children on CHIPS orders (which basically denotes children in the child welfare system), or children from the general population. The distinction is substantial for a number of reasons, but in general it is more difficult existing solely within the child welfare paradigm. There are many challenges faced by new GH’s. I’ve known of a handful that were either brand new, or new to the CHIPS population, and were not able to navigate the unique and ever-shifting suite of challenges. Subsequently they either scaled back operations or closed altogether.

Likely, this GH will fill up and admission will be hard to come by – Case Managers will know about this and surely advocate for placement for LGBT children on their caseload. A waiting list will be necessary, and the situation will be exacerbated further if non-CHIPS kids are admitted. Down the road, it’s possible the GH might determine that CHIPS kids aren’t worth the hassle.

But overall, this is a very positive development that I advocated for (surely this is why it happened) and I really hope it works out. Not only that, perhaps it may lead to a proliferation of similar beneficial programming. Though there are numerous challenges, it’s probably okay to have a tiny amount of hope that things are getting better in one small aspect of our dumpster fire of a world.

The allure of Steven Pinker

Think Again is a podcast that is occasionally interesting and one I listen to once in a while. Recently, however, Steven Pinker was on. The host considered himself a “progressophobe,” and Pinker was able to show him the error of his ways:

I admit it. I confess. I’ve got a touch of what my guest today calls “progressophobia”. Ever since Charles Dickens got hold of me back in middle school, and William Blake after that, I’ve been a little suspicious of the Great Onward March of science and technology.

[…]

But you know what? After devouring all 453 pages and 75 graphs of psychologist Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now, I admit defeat. The defeat of defeatism.

I didn’t listen because I don’t like listening to people I think are bad talk to sycophants that won’t challenge them.

But it made me want to write about the insidious nature of Pinker and what he does with the heft of supposedly empirical and objective evidence for how wonderful things are – and how it’s all thanks to the Enlightenment and their Enlightened descendants who are slowly but surely bestowing the gifts of freedom, trinkets and technology to the unwashed masses.

I think the desire to justify his privilege sits at the root of what he does (I can be a shitty psychologist too). No one is truly objective, least of all someone who is in the business of justifying the system that has granted him a good life. He probably thinks himself a very fine person – that he has been so justly rewarded by society with money, fame, and prestige only confirms this. From his vantage point, safely insulated from the rabble who only exist as numbers to him, human life has never been better – why are all these Postmodernist/Cultural Marxists complaining?

With his credentials, he is the perfect shoeshine boy for benevolent neoliberal capitalism. His is a clarion call for complacency as the world burns. He proclaims to the affluent, affluent-adjacent, and affluence-aspiring that things are actually pretty great. Moreover, they are not part of the problem – “Rest easy! Your good life is deserved!” Others may struggle, but it’s not too big a deal because science is inexorably leading humanity toward truth, justice and freedom. Those lives, saddled with impediments from the cradle, can easily be reduced to numbers and transformed into statistics that show, I suppose, that their sheer quantity continues to incrementally get smaller and smaller (and some get to have smartphones!). The well-to-do can respond to their plight with a sad nod, but also keep in mind that better times surely await.

At this point in the post I have to admit that I had an epiphany and now, like the host of Think Again, I too am convinced by Pinker’s rosy outlook. I reread the previous paragraphs and am embarrassed of my groundless pessimism. As a recent acolyte I’d like to do my part. So I’m going to create a Kickstarter to purchase copies of Enlightenment Now to distribute to, let’s call them troubled areas. These people need to know that, while they are crushed under the weight of systemic socioeconomic oppressions, their children’s children’s children MIGHT have the opportunity to have lives that MIGHT enable flourishing. I hope Pinker’s book gives them solace while their social betters live generally safe lives in nice neighborhoods; get access to good education and lucrative occupations; eat readily available nutritious and unprocessed food; travel the world; and congratulate themselves on their beneficence.

But that’s not all! I’ll dump a truckload of books into the Salish Sea for the resident Orcas. Orcas are really fucking smart and, I dunno, maybe it will help them understand that we are doing our best – uh, despite the messy fact that we are the primary cause of their impending extirpation in the Pacific Northwest (this is due to subjecting them to noise pollution, poison, and literal bombings, as well as destroying their primary food source (salmon) via insatiable fisheries and natal stream-bank logging). They will likely be just a few of the casualties lost in the service of providing 10 billion people a middle-class lifestyle by 2050. But no worries – orcas and all other impacted non-human animals, after all, only exist for commodification or human edification. Should their viability become completely untenable in the wild, we can just stick them in zoos/aquaria as a haunting reminder that may cause some of us to feel a twinge of regret. Or, and this is exciting, if they go extinct we can develop the technology to clone them back to life in the distant future, when perhaps their habitat isn’t a denuded wasteland.

I have to say, I feel pretty good about the future!