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

Clarity Through Microcosm

March 31, 2011 By: Mel Category: Politics, Stratification, Work

I used to work for a hotel in Miami called the SeaView. It was owned by stockholders who had condos in the building. In a crunch, some of the condos were rented out. But generally only the parts of the building that were purely hotel rooms were for the public. The interesting part is who the stockholders were.

The penthouse was owned by Dwayne Andreas. At the time, Andreas was chairman of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). That would be the food, feed, and fuel company that The Informant worked for. It was Dwayne’s kid that was found guilty of price fixing. And it is ADM that that hears that ka-ching every time congress votes for more ethanol subsidies.

ADM got to price fix and collect all those subsidies because Andreas gave huge wads of cash and other nifty gifts (like cheap condos) to politicians (Democrats and Republicans alike). This bipartisanship was evident in the hotel. We had both Republicans and Democrats who were stockholders there. Bob Dole was one. Business and media were well represented among the owners too. David Brinkley had a pad. So did the Hoovers and the Duponts.

Some of the stockholders got occasional shit for being extra cozy with Andreas. New York Magazine wrote about Bob Dole’s Sugar Daddy. And Brinkley got heat for becoming an ADM pitchman. But mostly nobody really knew who Andreas was. Nobody ever called to inquire about the high profile visitors to the hotel. Nobody protested outside. We had no need for anything more than one very sleepy security guard at night. I watched Andreas, Dole, and Brinkley take off unmolested to go eat at The Palm and decide our fates.

And while the rich white dudes of business, government, and media were out schmoozing; the rest of us held down the fort at the hotel. The nicer jobs – management, office staff, front desk, supervisors – tended to be held by Asians, Light Latinos, and Europeans. The housekeepers were Haitian women. As a front desk person, I was allowed to walk in the front door. The Haitian housekeepers had to use a back door.

Dwayne Andreas had a private jet and his own personal pilot. There were cars and drivers, of course. Management and office staff drove to work. The cars ranged from Mercedes to clunkers. I took the bus, but since I lived on the beach it only took me 30 or 45 minutes to get home. The housekeepers I worked with at night also took the bus. But they had three buses and a sometimes two hour commute home. Bad enough on its own, but a lot worse when you consider that they had to have other jobs to barely get by.

What got me thinking about all of this was a post over at Eye of the Storm.  It describes how Chuck Schumer was overheard briefing all the other senators on what they should say when their media conference call started.  It was the commentary about these powerful people being told exactly what talking points they had to parrot out to the media that brought back the SeaView.

I was working there in 2000 when the election fiasco occurred. Gore’s people stayed there for a while. Then Bob Dole swooped in to do media while the Republicans arranged the election for Dubya. The party used to fax Dole’s talking points to our hotel office. I got a kick out of reading them. But I got an even bigger kick out of seeing how much control the party had over someone who was once a skip away from the presidency.

I always thought that hotel would make a great book or documentary. Every strata of society was represented. All the relationships and machinations were blatantly obvious. It is hard to hold the illusion that government, media, and corporations have separate interests when they just went out for steaks and share the same pool boy. You can’t really believe that Democrats and Republicans are much different when none had any qualms living in a place where the people who cleaned their shit couldn’t walk in the front door. And you can’t believe that elections mean much when someone as high up as Dole could basically be replaced by a very talented and congenial talking bird.

Collaborating Across the Divide

February 11, 2010 By: Mel Category: Seeking

Here’s a hypothetical situation.

You work in a town with one factory.  You need your job.  Moving to another town, starting your own business, or getting some other means of survival is not an option at the moment.

One of your coworkers (let’s call him Bob) is a racist, sexist, homophobic SOB.  You are a black lesbian (let’s call you Michelle) who, for obvious reasons, does not get along with Bob.

You and Bob have found yourself in a situation.  Your employer (let’s call him Dick) is planning on cutting your salaries in half and doubling your work load.  Dick is counting on the animosity between you and Bob preventing any collaboration to thwart his plan.  Dick has his eye on a lovely yacht that he will be buying with your recouped wages.

What do you do here?  Take the cut in pay?  Move into your car?  Live on Ramen noodles?  Or do you find a way to work with Bob to fight Dick?

I make up this hypothetical situation because I think this is where we are stuck.  This is why, even when the majority of Americans want the wars to end or a public option or whatever else, we can never get what we want.  Yes, there is a lot of money and power blocking our way.  But that money and power would be no match for an organized and united population.

The other day on twitter, one of the people I follow retweeted the following:

Jane Hamsher on MSNBC just endorsed certain aspects of Tea Party.  I for one want nothing 2 do w/teabaggers or firebaggers.

So I asked my twitter-friend, “If the libertarian wing of the teabaggers got behind a massive anti-war movement (which they are talking about), you wouldn’t consider working together?”

The rest of the conversation went like this:

Him: No.  Just because ppl who want to undermine us support 1 thing I do is no reason to break bread with them

Me:  So you would rather have war continue and people die?

Him:  No, id rather the war end and not enable ppl who want the countrys destruction

Me:  You are stereotyping a whole lot of ppl you don’t know based on impressions from TV.  Really think you can trust TV impressions?

Him: Stereotyping, no, just listen to what they say

Me:  U mean that you have talked to them 1:1 or you listen to the ppl the tv likes to quote?

He never answered my last question.

I understand where he is coming from.  The tea party movement is, at best, blind to the racism underlying their movement.  And the movement has undoubtedly attracted many white supremacists and Christian conservatives whose views of the world are everything I would die in opposition to.


I do not believe that every person who is skeptical of government or resentful of government’s power over our lives is a neo-nazi.  And I definitely don’t believe that I can trust the media’s portrayals of who is at those gatherings.

I know that when thousands of average-looking people gather for a liberal anti-war demonstration, the media will find the one group of naked hippies with “Fuck the Gap” spray painted on their asses and present them as representative.  I know that thousands of preppy families could show up for a gay rights march and the news will find the two guys in bondage gear and present them as representative.  And so I must assume that they do that with everyone.

I don’t believe, as a Jew, I could ever work with a neo-nazi.  I don’t think, as a woman, I could ever work with a misogynist who believes he should have the right to beat his wife.  So I understand that there are some people that a person could not work with because of their extreme views.

However, I believe that people are called “extremists” for a reason.  And if we decide that we cannot work with anyone who is ignorant, fearful, distrustful, prejudiced, or angry – who would we work with?  Aren’t all of us struggling with those things to some extent?  Isn’t that part of being human?

The entirety of U.S. history is the story of elites fueling our prejudices and playing us against one another to their advantage.  If we have any hope of making things better, everything needs to be seen through that lens.

The Class War Heats Up

September 16, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics, Stratification

Here in the United States, we like to pretend that we are all middle class.  We all want to believe in that myth of equal opportunity.  Despite the fact that every day we see people with no scruples who work less and earn more, we still seem to buy into the idea that those who work hard will be rewarded for it.

This mythology, this willingness to admire the rich and revile the poor, is very convenient for the people that have been bleeding us dry.  And while we are busy blaming the poor for their misfortune, the richest 1% keep taking bigger slices of the pie.

Since Ronald Reagan, every president has run on a platform of fiscal responsibility.   And since Ronald Reagan, social programs spending (except for health care costs) has been decreasing.

The republicans managed to win elections by labeling poor, black women as “welfare queens.”  Their tactics were so successful that the democratic party fell all over itself to become “new democrats” who “reformed” the welfare system.

Now the welfare queen myth is back in new form.  Once again, that greedy 1% is manipulating people into thinking that their increasingly difficult and indebted lives are the result of poor freeloaders, rather than the rich corporate welfare recipients who really benefit from government largess.

The 1% is really ratcheting up their war now.  The war is no longer just against the poor or against liberal government.  They now set their sites on civil society.  This morning’s Heritage Foundation email attacks, not just acorn, but “poverty advocacy” as a whole

That “web of relationships” between poverty advocacy groups like ACORN is the real story here that impacts the American people. ACORN is by far not the only suspect community organizer group. Just last summer federal investigators raided a city-chartered nonprofit agency accused of abusing a federally financed program that was created to clean up houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Teachers unions have contributed over $1.3 million to ACORN and its affiliates, since 2005. And the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has chipped in another $7.4 million. ACORN founder Wade Rathke even has a book out titled “Citizen Wealth” which “shows how to cut through government indifference and bureaucratic obstacles” to achieve “maximum eligible participation” in the “anti-poverty programs still out there.”

So here we are.  The 1% is using their considerable arsenal to make sure they keep their lifestyles of the rich and famous.  Republican politicians and media pundits will happily help them blame the poor, brown people for all our troubles.  Democrats will, maybe, throw a little government money our way to look like they are for the people.

The real question is, what are we going do?  Are we going to let politicians attack the poor and those advocating on their behalf? Are we going to watch as democrats fall all over themselves, once again, trying to show how fiscally responsible and anti-welfare they are? Are we going to let race and culture and mistrust get in our way again?

Or are we finally going to acknowledge that the 1% has gone too far and it’s time the other 99% of us stand up for some justice?

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.

Greedy Whiners and Misleading Statistics

March 09, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics, Stratification

The March 7th issue of the National Journal asks the question:

President Obama has announced plans to raise income taxes on the wealthy and curb various tax breaks for upper-income Americans. What percentage of income taxes is now being paid by this group, compared with 1986?

According to them, the percentage of income taxes paid by the top 1 percent of earners jumped from 25.75% to 39.4%. The percentage of income taxes paid by the top 25 percent jumped from 76% to 86%. When you put it like that, it sounds like the rich have had some serious tax hikes in the last couple decades.

Before you start sending sympathy cards to Donald Trump, let’s take a look at those figures a little more closely.

Tax is a percentage of your income. More income means more tax. And the richest Americans have been taking a larger slice of the income pie. In 1986, the richest one percent earned only 11% of all income. By 2005 they were earning 21% of all income. The top 25% went from collecting 59% of all income to collecting 67.5% of all income.

Let’s break that down into numbers that a person like me can wrap their heads around. Let’s say that America consisted of 100 people and the gross income pie was 1 million dollars for both years. What would that have looked like in 1986 and 2005?

In 1986

  • 1 person would have earned $110,000 for the year
  • 24 people would have received about $20,000 each
  • 75 people would have received about $5,466.67 each

In 2005

  • 1 person would have earned $210,000 for the year
  • 24 people would have received about $19,375 each
  • 75 people would have received about $4,333.33 each

In this (admittedly over-simplified) example, in 1986 one person lived well on $110,000 a year while 75 people scraped by on $5,466.67. By 2005, that one wealthy person nearly doubled their income by skimming a little off the top of those who could least afford it.

What’s Curious About Benjamin Button is Who Takes Care of Him

February 19, 2009 By: Mel Category: Art, Stratification, Work

Benjamin Button lived free and died young, very young. Here I am less interested in the young than in the free. He worked out on the ocean, traveling from port to port. Later, he hopped on a motorcycle and traveled the world.

The movie makes a point of showing that it is not money that prevents people from being able to do that. Button leaves Daisy all of his money before he takes off on his bike. What the movie does not look at is how an individual is able to pursue their interests so freely when the world is full of people (young and old) requiring care.

As a child, Benjamin’s father walked away from his responsibility to his son. It was a woman who took him in and brought him up. When Benjamin had his own child, he left that child to another woman (the child’s mother) to be cared for. When Benjamin ages, it is Daisy who takes care of him until his death. When Daisy dies in the hospital, it is her daughter and a female nurse that take care of her until her death.

Art imitates life.

Somewhere between 59% and 75% of all family caregivers are women. Even where men are providing family care, it is generally for less time than women. And the women who provide this care often have to juggle work with caring for children and aging parents.

Rich women have the option of pawning off this responsibility to poorer women, women like Queenie. Not only did Queenie take care of Benjamin, she took care of a house full of elderly people. Many of those people never had so much as a visit from their families. Rich women have options for taking care of their children as well. They can hire a nanny or fly in an Au Pair. They can afford expensive daycare.

And while the cost of daycare for a child or the cost of a home health care worker for an aging parent is astronomical, the workers themselves don’t make a living wage. The average nanny or daycare worker makes about $24,000 a year. The median wage of a home health care worker is $9.62 an hour and nearly half are far enough below the poverty line to be eligible for medicaid. Even worse, home health care workers are exempt from basic wage and overtime laws.

I wonder who is taking care of poor people’s children and elderly while they take care of everyone else?

Religion, Education, and the Desire for Superiority

January 26, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Religion, Stratification

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about superiority and how many of our social problems and political paralysis stem from a seemingly universal need to feel superior.

James Baldwin* wrote that when he heard people talk about equality he always wondered, equal to what. People don’t want to be equal. They want to be superior. And we humans have invented all sorts of way to feel superior.

Throughout the colonized world, we inherited European ideas of the superiority of one race over another. In the Republic of Congo, it is height that makes Bantu feel superior. Superiority of gender is ubiquitous. And lets not forget classism. The U.S. may like to pretend that we are a classless society, but in a classless society one would not be judged on the car they drive, how big their McMansion is, or which designer’s name is written on their ass

The current financial crisis may cure us of some of our obsession with labels, bling, and the “real housewives” of the obnoxiously rich. And discrimination based on some accidents of birth is slowly becoming less socially acceptable, but other illusions of superiority stubbornly persist.

The antagonism between the “liberal elite” and the religious right is all about feelings of superiority on both sides. And the defensiveness of our discourse has everything to do with the implicit claims that, whichever side you are on, the other side considers you inferior in fundamental ways.

“Liberal elites” think they are better educated, more worldly, less racist, and more humane. After all, we have diversity. We have degrees. We speak other languages. Some don’t even eat meat. We are tolerant (of homosexuals, freaks, and premarital sex…evangelicals and conservatives, not so much).

“Heartland” people believe they are more hardworking, down to earth, family-oriented, self-sacrificing, god-fearing, and humane. After all, they join the military and lay their lives on the line for their country. They give their time and money to their church. They don’t go to the government for handouts. They take care of themselves, their families, and each other.

Our views of each other are the exact converse of all the things we think make us special. If we “elitists” think we are superior for our degrees and our diversity and our worldliness, we look down on those people in the “fly over states” as being backwards, uneducated, and ignorant.

Case in point, while I was at the University of California Santa Cruz, one of my teachers referred to conservatives in the middle of the country as people with the “bubba syndrome.” Mind you, this was a Latin American Latino Studies program. If anyone had suggested that any homophobic, anti-abortion, Latin Americans were “bubbas” (or the Spanish equivalent) a shitstorm would surely have ensued.

Meanwhile, what Sarah Palin refers to as the “real America” looks down on us coastal people as being pretentious, lazy, criminal, immoral, and selfish. Most of all, they point out, we look down on them. In fact, Republican House candidate Robin Hayes said that “liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God.”

Steve J. Sterns wrote a book called Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru. The book is about Sendero Luminoso (the Maoist guerrilla group that terrorized Peru for years and is now, reportedly, in the midst of a resurgence). In the book, he describes the rift in Peruvian society, saying:

They also believed that ‘superior’ persons were marked by their benevolence toward inferior classes (a benevolence that liberals attributed to education and conservatives to religion).

Isn’t that a perfect description of the rift in our society as well? Conservatives believe that their religion makes them morally superior, while liberals believe it is their education that makes them morally superior. Conservatives give money to their church. Liberals give money to Amnesty International. Each thinks their choices are superior.

I’m not naive enough to believe that people will ever be rid of their desire to feel superior, but it would be nice if we challenged people more. The next time that some twenty-five year old snot implies that their degree confers wisdom, remind them that George Bush has an ivy league degree and it didn’t do him much good. And the next time someone implies that religion is the only source of morality, remind them that some of our greatest moral philosophers – from John Stuart Mill to Albert Camus – were atheists.

And lets not forget that the more strongly we feel superior to another group of people, the more we need them in order to define who we are. An educated person can only feel superior when there are other, less educated, people. A churchgoer can only feel superior when there are non-churchgoers to compare themselves to.

And now, for your amusement, is a concise description of our differences from Dave Barry.


* I can’t for the life of me remember which essay this was in, so if anyone could help me out with that I would be eternally grateful.