Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Work Less. We Need You.

May 23, 2017 By: Mel Category: Seeking, Stratification, Work

It seems like everyone I know is in one of two situations. Either they are un(der)employed and trying to figure out how to get some hours/money to survive or they are working far too many hours and trying to figure out how to fit any kind of a life into a workday.

I used to work appallingly long hours. It started because I was severely underpaid and had little choice. But it continued because I had internalized the idea of a “hard worker” being a good thing. I succumbed to the expectation that people are supposed to fit their life around their work, rather than the other way around. I also wanted independence. Work seemed like a better route to independence than housewife, the only other option on offer.

There were some rewards for all that “hard work” and long hours. It might almost make you believe in the pull yourself up by your bootstraps nonsense. Of course, not everyone can do it. While I was getting raises and promotions for being “indispensable,” my coworker was struggling just to get to the office on time. She was a single mother who lived in a part of Liberty City where the buses, when they were working at all, only ran Monday through Friday during rush hour. Ostensibly my raises and promotion were a result of all those long hours. But the reality is that requiring long hours to “get ahead” is a way of privileging certain people without seeming to.

Even a forty hour week is too much. It worked o.k. for my father, when I was small.  He was able to work full time, still have a social life, and participate in his community. But that is because he had a stay at home wife, a support staff in his office, a periodic housekeeper, and various babysitters for us kids. In other words, he had a cadre of women doing much of the work for him. Once his business was crushed by the big box stores, life changed. No more stay at home wife. No more support staff. The community participation stopped. He had a stroke and was never really able to work full time again.

So if you are feeling like you are somehow failing, if you think you need some self-help bullshit about how to manage your time better, you don’t. There is nothing wrong with you. The reason we have so many exhausted, sick people hanging by one last nerve is not that we are all inadequate. It is that the grind is killing us.

When I entered the nonprofit world things got even trickier. Suddenly, it isn’t that you are giving all your life hours to make an owner even richer. It is that you are dedicated to a cause. When the people you are ostensibly helping seem even worse off than you, how can you justify cutting them off?

Ironically, one of the first nonprofits I worked for was an organization in California that helped people who were caring for someone with a brain impairment. I worked long hours. I was tired, stressed, and cranky. I spent zero time trying to be a part of the community. I didn’t treat people the way they should be treated. While I was supposedly helping caregivers, I had a life which would not have allowed me to do any caregiving. So how was that really helping anyone?

What I have come to see is that the more we work at our jobs, the worse off we are as a society. Our work structure is designed to provide cover for continuing discrimination and inequality. It is designed to prevent us from being able to participate in the life of our communities. It relies on a cadre of women – disproportionately poor women of color – whose struggles are mostly invisible. It is exploitation that we are all complicit in, whether you hire someone to clean your house or are so busy that you need to rely on the poverty wage workers who make your fast food. I began to understand what Nancy Fraser refers to as a “crisis of care.”

Between the need for increased working hours and the cutback in public services, the financialized capitalist regime is systematically depleting our capacities for sustaining social bonds. This form of capitalism is stretching our “caring” energies to the breaking point. This “crisis of care” should be understood structurally. By no means contingent or accidental, it is the expression, under current conditions, of a tendency to social-reproductive crisis that is inherent in capitalist society, but that takes an especially acute form in the present regime of financialized capitalism.

In short, Capitalism cares only about production and marginalizes the relationship building and care that our lives actually depend on. If our communities are falling apart, it is because the time we need to nurture the relationships that make communities strong is being stolen from us. I don’t see how we will resolve any other problem unless we can tackle this one.

Clearly, this is a systemic issue that will require collective action. But one of the first steps has to be reprogramming our own thinking and pushing back on the theft of our time and well-being.

It is not easy to break the cycle. It might even be a little terrifying. We have been programmed our whole lives to believe that one false move will land us on the streets. The reality is that some people really are in such a precarious position that they have little room to push. But that isn’t true for all of us. And the more collective hours we can recover, the more time we will have to do things to open space for the people who don’t have it now.

A good start is to push back against all the voices, including the ones in the back of our heads, which tell us to judge people for not being hard working enough. Push back when people start every conversation by asking what a person does for a living. Don’t work overtime if you can afford not to. Find ways to decrease your material needs or alternate ways to meet those needs. Refuse to get on emails outside of work hours. Take every minute of your vacation (if you are lucky enough to have it).

Thank people who actually take off when they are sick. Support paid sick days for everyone. Applaud publicly those who prioritize their family and community in actions and not just words. Call out anyone who criticizes people who actually have their priorities straight. Build a support system that makes risking your job a little less scary. Be there for others so that they can take risks too. Be the one who helps those trying to live without wage labor, not the Petty Crocker who resents anyone that isn’t working as much as they are.

When you have a moment of guilt or fear, think about how this system is designed to make it impossible to have a reasonable life. Think about all the people who could benefit from a drastic shift in culture and expectations. Ask why, if you leave work early or get on Facebook at your desk, employers say that you are stealing time. Yet it is totally accepted that an employer expects you to be on email 24/7, schedules meetings during lunch hour, or takes advantage of lax overtime exemption laws to make people work late for free.  Get pissed. Remember that you aren’t just pushing back for yourself. Remember that time is not money, time is life. They are stealing your life.

No matter how you earn your living, you aren’t doing anyone any favors by abandoning your loved ones, community, and health to the organization. No person can work 40 hours a week or more, support their loved ones in the way they deserve, be an active member of a community, be aware of what is going on in the world, be conscious about the systems they support, take care of themselves, create beautiful things, and find time for the joy that makes life worth living. Too many of us are sacrificing all the most important things on the altar of work. We need to look at our lives differently. Or as Fraser puts it

“The idea that you could build a society that assumes every adult is a person with primary care responsibilities, community engagements, and social commitments. That’s not utopian. It’s a vision based on what human life is really like.”

You can (and should) read the whole interview here.

Pregnancy, Coercion, and Responsibility

January 14, 2013 By: Mel Category: Core, Politics, Religion, Seeking, Sex, Stratification

I was reading about this abortion restricting bill in Michigan. While I realize that it is another attempt to regulate abortion out of existence under the guise of safety and regulations, something in that article struck me.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has approved a controversial package of abortion restrictions that will limit abortion access for women who live in rural areas, require doctors to prove that mentally competent women haven’t been “coerced” into their decision to have the procedure, and enact unnecessary, complicated rules for abortion clinics and providers.

Why those quotes around “coerced”? I know young women who were coerced into having abortions because their parents were embarrassed, because they said they would refuse to help take care of the child, because the father would not take any responsibility, because the community would not take any responsibility, because they had no other place to turn to.

I also know many women who were coerced into having children. Women have their contraception tampered with. They are pressured by their husbands and families to reproduce when they don’t want to, even though the primary responsibility for the kids will fall on them. They are pressured by their community and religious institutions not to abort. They are pressured by the social assumption that everybody “should” have kids.

If you read The Girls Who Went Away, you will read story after heartbreaking story of young women prior to Roe v. Wade who did not have the option to abort and who were coerced into giving their children up for adoption. When I say coerced, I don’t just mean the shame and social pressure. I mean that actual force was used to get them to sign adoption papers. Sometimes the papers were even forged.

And what about all those women around the world who have no access to birth control, much less abortion, and who are poor? Some wealthy couple from the U.S. or Europe sweeps in and pays an attorney tens of thousands of dollars to adopt the child. They take the child away from their mother and community and we are supposed to think that it is a happy ending. Meanwhile, if the mother received the money that went to the attorney, she might have been able to keep the child. Isn’t that a form of coercion?

Nobody should be coerced into having children and nobody should be coerced into not having children. But it is more complicated than not telling women what to do with their bodies. It is also about economics and social support.

And here is where it gets even more complicated. Whether or not other people have kids affects us. I sincerely wish that wasn’t true. I wish my decision not to have kids meant that I would never have to deal with the responsibility of children. But much as I hate to admit it, it just isn’t the case, not even in the best of circumstances. But it is especially true when really damaged people decide to bring kids into the world.

It may be tempting to say that some people should not be allowed to have children. But as much as I may cringe at the prospect of certain people being parents, even more cringe-worthy is the idea that there is anyone out there who has the right or the impeccable/superhuman/prejudice-free judgment to determine who is worthy to have children. We can’t have judges ordering women not to reproduce. We can’t let governments decide to sterilize people because they are trans or poor or disabled.

Other people’s lives and decisions affect us – even people we don’t know. Sometimes that really sucks. Sometimes people make horrible, irrational, and irresponsible decisions that we all have to live with – and that includes people who lived long before we were born. But sometimes people also do things that we all benefit from without having had to make any effort or sacrifice. While we are quick to condemn those whose bad decisions cause us inconvenience, nobody wakes up in the morning feeling guilty that they don’t have polio because some other person’s kid invented a vaccine.

I have written before about how I think the nuclear family is a failure, that it is really a mechanism for limiting our responsibility. It has also been used to control and shame women, especially poor women. Some of those Girls Who Went Away later found out that the only real difference between them and the adopted mother was a husband and a slightly larger bank account. But those two things are significant when we live in a society that likes the benefits without the responsibilities.

Conservatives want everyone to be in the supposedly perfect and stable nuclear family where the father and mother take care of everything and nobody else (supposedly) has to get involved. Maybe your church or neighborhood might pitch in. Liberals want to get involved (entirely too much) by legislating, taxing, or sending in some (hopefully) well-meaning civil servant who is getting paid to kinda care. Because paying a tax and sending in a social worker takes a lot less effort than actually getting involved in a kid’s life. Neither way is working very well.

All of which is to say that, when it comes to pregnancy and children, there are a lot of tensions that cannot be resolved. They can only be managed. The question is how to manage those tensions in a way that is not coercive or authoritarian. How to accept that we cannot seal ourselves off from others decisions, but also not leave us constantly cleaning up other people’s messes. How to get out of these intractable and unhelpful debates where we just grab onto a platitude and refuse to listen to anyone else.

Not easy.

Small Acts of Resistance

August 13, 2012 By: Mel Category: Seeking

I’m reading this book called Freedom’s Children right now. I only just started it, but it relates to all the thinking I have been doing about motivation and participation in activism. The author interviewed thirty people who were children or teenagers in the 1950s and 1960s.

Maybe one of the reasons we find it hard to stay motivated with activism is that sometimes we think too big. We don’t always have to be aiming for thousands at a march or the total collapse of the banking system tomorrow. We need a culture of resistance that can build over time.

When I read about nine-year-olds who poured water on soda fountain counters when faced with discrimination or teens who removed the “colored, do not sit beyond this board” signs from buses, I feel oddly motivated. All those small acts seeded something.

Focusing on small acts won’t just motivate us who are already involved. It might also help more people to get involved – people with limited time or resources. I’m not talking about buying some greenwashed product. I mean small acts that challenge the system, but that are part of everyday life and don’t require spending 3 hours at a meeting every week.

More importantly, I love that this book focuses on young people, often very young people. One of the ways we fall down horribly in the activist community is making spaces unwelcoming for people with kids, or just impossible for caregivers to participate. That’s not just a problem because we lose those caregivers. It is also a problem because we lose those kids.

The first person to refuse to give up her seat was not Rosa Parks. It was a fifteen year old named Claudette Colvin. There was a children’s crusade where elementary schoolers marched and were firehosed and attacked by dogs. Imagine the power behind that and imagine what kind of person you become when you are in the struggle starting at eight or nine.

I’m not sure exactly how this plays out in the day to day – how my behavior needs to change. But I am definitely going to start paying more attention to small acts and small people.


The Nuclear Family is a Failure

October 13, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Culture

According to a study by Paul R. Amato, children  “who grow up in stable, two-parent families have a higher standard of living, receive more effective parenting, experience more cooperative co-parenting, are emotionally closer to both parents, and are subjected to fewer stressful events and circumstances.”

Amato admits that, while his research shows a relationship, it cannot show a causal relationship. But lets assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a causal relationship between two-parent households and positive indicators for children.  And lets assume that single parent households have a harder time providing the stable environments that help kids to thrive.

What do we think should be done?

Like many Americans, Amato concludes that “the importance of increasing the number of children growing up with two happily and continuously married parents… is self-evident.”  The U.S. government seems to agree.  Under the Bush administration, a program called the  Healthy Family Initiative was started to encourage marriage and to provide relationship skills training.  The Obama administration is continuing the initiative.

There is nothing wrong with a stable two-person relationship.  However, we seem to be offered only two choices for raising children – the “healthy” two-parent family or single (usually) mothers struggling along in poverty.  But the nuclear family is not the only structure for raising children in this world.

The Europeans who stumbled upon the Americas came from a culture where a man was only responsible for the children he fathered within a marriage.  He had no responsibility for children he fathered outside of wedlock, much less for other children in the community.  Many Native American communities, in contrast, had very different ideas of who was responsible for the community’s children.  In Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz tells of how one Jesuit reacted to the sexual freedom enjoyed by native women.

One missionary warned a Naskapi man that if he did not impose tighter controls on his wife, he would never know for sure which of the children she bore belonged to him.  The Indian was equally shocked that this mattered to Europeans.  ‘You French people,’ he replied, ‘love only your own children; but we love all the children of our tribe.

Other native societies believe that every man who has sex with a woman while pregnant “contributes a part of his biological substance to the child” and has responsibilities toward that child and the mother.  And in some societies, it is not the biological father but the mother’s brothers who take responsibility for the child.

All of which is to say that structures for child rearing are cultural not immutable or “natural.”  And these structures of responsibility are as much about abdicating responsibility for “other people’s children” as they are about taking responsibility for “your own.”

The two-parent family is a structure that relies on two people. Half of all marriages end in divorce.  Parents get sick.  Parents die.  And (all too often in the U.S.) parents go to prison.  Ultimately, that means that many children are not going to have that two-parent family.  Rather than trying to bury our heads in the sand, wouldn’t it make more sense to question the cultural beliefs that lead us to only take responsibility for children on such a limited basis?

The nuclear family is a weak institution.  When one parent is taken out of the equation, as so often happens, the children suffer.  Kids need more than two people that they can rely on in this world.

Women Using Women

September 08, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Stratification, Work

I have worked with many self-described feminists who have housekeepers and nannies.  I am amazed at how few of them see the conflict inherent in building your freedom on some other woman’s lack thereof.  And I’m not talking about Wall Street women.  I’m talking about liberal women who supposedly care about inequality, oppression, racism and poverty.

What I find especially frustrating is how a reliance on hiring poor women allows men to continue to shirk their responsibilities.  How many of you have friends whose husbands refuse to clean or do their fare share of the childcare?  Did they confront their husbands?  Did they attempt to confront the sexism and unfairness of it all?  Or did they just cop out and use their privilege to buy someone poorer to make the problem go away?

Racewire has an important article out that you all should read.  It is called
Immigrant Workers at Home: Hired Hands Hold Family Bonds and it reads, in part:

So immigrant workers help lift white-collar mothers toward that coveted work-life balance. But back at home, work remains the same as it ever was: hard, endless, and never fairly compensated. The difference for domestic workers, of course, is that they are still outsiders in the home, culturally and professionally. And when overworked and exploited, they end up tending to other people’s families at the expense of their ability to care for their own.

And let’s not forget that domestic workers have few rights.  They work long hours for low pay.  They work without health insurance or other benefits.  And they are specifically excluded from the labor laws that protect the rest of us.  Families that rely on domestic workers to give them time to pursue their careers, are relying on an exploitative system.

All inequality is related. If we accept the inequality inherent in using money to resolve a problem for a few women, at the expense of others, then we accept inequality, period.

The Immorality of Having Children

February 14, 2009 By: Mel Category: Stratification

I received two emails this morning that really got me going. The first was from Planned Parenthood letting me know that it is National Condom Week. The second was from Alternet and contained a posting by Vanessa Richmond called Is Breeding a Sin?.

Nadya Suleman has received a shitstorm of criticism for using fertility treatments to have 14 children with no visible means of financial support. Richmond’s article infers that it is wrong to criticize Nadya and applaud Brangelina for having a similar-sized litter. For Richmond, the only difference between the two cases is the amount of money they have.

While I see her point, nobody can possibly believe that the ability to support your children shouldn’t be a factor in whether or not you have them. More importantly, not only is there a very big difference between 14 children and 6, much of the Brangelina crew is adopted. And that makes a huge difference.

Any public discussions about breeding in our country always revolve around the abortion controversy. The discussions never focus on the amount of children who are neglected, abused, and lost in the system. In fact, a common argument from anti-choice people is that all these unwanted children will be adopted into loving homes. Even John McCain said it in one of the presidential debates.

At least McCain had an adopted child when he said it, which is more than I can say for most anti-choice people I’ve encountered. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, there were nearly half a million kids in foster care as of September 30, 2007. And, according to a study by Mary I. Benedict and Susan Zuravin, kids who live in group homes are 10 times more likely to be physically abused and 28 times more likely to be sexually abused than kids in the general population.

But at least those kids have a roof over their heads and food on the table. According to World Vision, every day “nearly 25,000 children under age 5 will die from preventable or treatable causes”. Basic nutrition, re-hydration therapy, immunizations, and antibiotics could save most of them.

If there was a starving baby on the threshold of your house, would you step over it on your way inside to go get knocked up? If you had been thinking about having a baby and that starving child showed up on your doorstep, would you take that baby in? If you could only afford one child, would you forgo having “your own” in order to take care of that baby?

I think a decent person would take that child in, even if it meant not having a biological child. And I think people who have children make that choice every time they bring a child into the world. They are choosing to give their love, and their resources, to a new creation rather than giving them to people already on this earth who desperately need it.

What is the only reason people can possibly offer as to why they insist on bringing more people into the world, a world where so many here are not being taken care of? Biology. As someone who was adopted, I find that repugnant. Implied is that my parents (and the parents of millions of adopted children) loved their children less. It’s insulting.

Given the amount of children suffering and dying in the world, having children should be controversial. People who selfishly bring children into the world without thought to whether or not they can provide for them, nurture them, and raise them to be productive members of society are immoral. People who encourage people to have children they are not prepared to take care of (anti-choice activists and the pope included) are immoral. People who want only “their own” child and close their eyes to the suffering of other children are immoral.

It’s time we started acknowledging that we all have a stake in the health and well-being of others. A child neglected or abused today becomes the mess that society has to deal with tomorrow. This is not a personal issue only. It is a social issue.

So the next time someone you know gets pregnant, don’t just provide a knee-jerk congratulations. The next time some anti-choice person goes marching around with pictures of a fetus, make them stare at a photo of a starving child for a while. The next time some religious zealot says birth control is evil, read this story about a man who beat his toddler to death on the side of a road and tell me that man shouldn’t have used birth control.

So yes. Sometimes breeding is a sin.