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The Limits of Libertarianism

12 Jul

If you ever needed a better example of Fear, American Style—or a demonstration of the limits of libertarianism—here’s an illustrative story out of Washington State. For years, activists—including, to their credit, libertarians—have been pushing for the legalization of marijuana. In 2012, Washington did it. This ensued:

The first person to legally purchase marijuana in the state of Washington was fired from his job as a security worker after he was spotted on television making the purchase.

At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Mike Boyer was the first person in the door of the Spokane Green Leaf marijuana dispensary. He was captured on video by KXLY yelling, “Go Washington!” as he legally purchased four grams of Sour Kush.

The network then followed him home and filmed him smoking his legally purchased marijuana.

Boyer told The New York Daily News that a client of the security firm he formerly worked for saw him on the KXLY report and contacted his employer, who then asked Boyer to submit to a urinalysis test within 24 hours.

The test came back positive for THC, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana.

“I’ve worked for them on and off for 12 years and several years ago, I signed a document that said I wouldn’t have [THC] in my system,” he said.

For years, libertarians have fought for the decriminalization of drugs in the name of freedom. Now, with pot in Washington (and Colorado), we have it. So what are libertarians going to do about this kind of firing? They need to come clean: either they really care about freedom, in which case they need to support the rights of workers in the workplace, or they should just admit that their real agenda is to strip the state of all of its functions, good or bad.

Update (1:15 pm)

Turns out, after this story was publicized and went viral, the security company that fired Boyer decided to hire him back. Said it was all a misunderstanding. Mistakes were made.

A Reader’s Guide to Hobby Lobby

30 Jun

I haven’t had time to read much beyond the basics about today’s Hobby Lobby decision, but here are a few posts I’ve written over the years that should help put the Supreme Court’s decision in theoretical and historical perspective:

1. First, a general primer on neoliberalism, which makes the point—contra many on the left and the right—that at the heart of our contemporary capitalist economy are not individualistic choosers but men and women, in semi-”private” institutions, in thrall and subjugation to their superiors. It’s the Feudalism, Stupid!

2. Second, two posts on free-market types and birth control, how even the most libertarian-ish free-wheeler seeks to control women’s bodies: Love For Sale: Birth Control from Marx to Mises and Probing Tyler Cowen: When Libertarians Get Medieval on Your Vagina.

3. Last, a post that brings it all together—the private life of power; fear, American Style; and freedom, oh freedom—in one place: Birth Control McCarthyism.

In the coming days, I hope to have something more on the decision.

When the CIO Was Young

27 Jun

Was struck, in reading this piece by David Montgomery, by just how radical the CIO was after World War II. At its annual convention, writes Montgomery, the CIO called for:

continuation of government controls over prices and the allocation of production materials, “development of atomic energy for civilian purposes under United Nations auspices,” government sponsorship of housing to offset the failures of the market to provide for workers’ urgent needs, and expansion of social security to encompass all agricultural, domestic, and maritime workers and to include health protection.

That was in 1946, more than a decade after the Wagner Act, which some people think ended the radicalism of the labor movement. 1946 was also the year that saw the largest strike wave in American history, including a general strike in Oakland.

Supreme Court rules: the government can’t search your cellphone without a warrant; the boss can.

25 Jun

Good news: The Supreme Court ruled today that the police have to have a warrant to search the cell phone of someone they arrest.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the court, said the vast amount of data contained on modern cellphones must be protected from routine inspection.

The old rules, Chief Justice Roberts said, cannot be applied to “modern cellphones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

The courts have long allowed warrantless searches in connection with arrests, saying they are justified by the need to protect police officers and to prevent the destruction of evidence.

But Chief Justice Roberts said neither justification made much sense in the context of cellphones. On the other side of the balance, he said, is the data contained on the typical cellphone. Ninety percent of Americans have them, he wrote, and they contain “a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives — from the mundane to the intimate.”

Even the word “cellphone” is a misnomer, he said. “They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers,” he wrote.

Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that the decision would make law enforcement more difficult.

“Cellphones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals,” he wrote. “Privacy comes at a cost.”

Bad news: The Supreme Court ruled four years ago that employers have the right to search the cell phones of their employees.

A hesitant Supreme Court waded cautiously into a question that arises daily in workplaces and offices across the country: whether employers have the right to look over the shoulders of workers who use company computers and cellphones for personal communication.

In the first ruling of its kind, the justices said they do, as long as there is a “legitimate work-related purpose” to monitor them. But the court said it would proceed cautiously in deciding how far an employer can go in searching the “electronic sphere” that has become an inescapable part of the modern workplace.

In the case at hand, the court ruled unanimously that a police chief’s search of text messages sent and received by a SWAT team officer did not violate his constitutional protection against unreasonable searches.

Even though Sgt. Jeff Quon of Ontario, Calif., had some expectation of privacy, the court said, the police department’s review — which turned up sexually explicit messages to his wife and his mistress — was justified.

But at a time when many employers warn that they can monitor workers’ use of company computers and cellphones, the court was reluctant to draw clear lines between what is private and what is not.

Quon’s case may sound familiar to many workers. Even though the department told him and his co-workers that they should not expect privacy when using their pagers, they were also told that personal use would be tolerated to a certain degree. If he exceeded the monthly allotment of texts, he was told, he would have to pay the difference.

He did go over the allowed number, but his superiors tired of collecting the fees and wondered whether the plan was too limited. The police chief ordered the records from the company that provided the texting service.

After removing the texts Quon sent when he was off-duty, his bosses found that the vast majority of his texts were personal — 400 of 456 one month. According to Kennedy’s opinion, he was “allegedly disciplined.”

Quon sued, saying the search violated the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches for him and those who texted him.

A district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed with him.

But the justices said Quon should not have assumed that his text messages “were in all circumstances immune from scrutiny.” Kennedy said the department’s search was reasonable and, by eliminating those messages he sent while off-duty, not intrusive.

To my knowledge, the Court has not yet ruled on cases where the communication device in question was the employee’s personal property. That said, the fact that the pager in Quon’s case belonged to the employer does not seem to have been the operative issue; more important was, given the employer’s policies, the employee’s expectation of privacy. And since many employers make it explicit that employees should have little to no expectation of privacy on their communication devices at work, I’m not sure a case in which the phone belonged to the employee would make much of a difference.

So here is how things stand: when it comes to cell phone use, you have more protection against government searches than you do against employer searches. As an employer, the police have far more freedom to search cell phones than they do as an agency of the government.

Update (10 pm)

I should have noted this earlier, but it should also be emphasized that in the second case, the employer is the government. That the Court is even as solicitous of an employee’s privacy rights in that case as it is is probably due mostly to the fact that the employer in this case is the government. If the employer were private, there would be a much lower guarantee of employee privacy.

I should also note that in the Quon case, part of the employee’s expectation of privacy had to do with the fact that the pager belonged to the police. But the Court was careful to note that it did not want to make hard and fast rules about under what circumstances an employee could have a legitimate expectation of privacy.

These Housekeepers Asked Sheryl Sandberg to Lean In with Them. What Happened Next Will Not Amaze You.

24 May

Sheryl Sandberg claims to speak for working women. Especially poorer working women, according to the spokeswoman for Sandberg’s Lean In foundation: “The principles of Lean In are just as, if not more, important to women with lower incomes.”

So now comes Sandberg’s big test: Will she stand up for, and with, the women workers at a Hilton DoubleTree hotel in Cambridge, which is on a property owned by Harvard University? The workers want to be represented by a union. The hotel is resisting them. And Harvard isn’t helping.

Sandberg is going to be at Harvard this week, delivering a Class Day speech. The female employees at the hotel have asked to meet with her.

What happened next will not amaze you.

According to the Boston Globe, Sandberg “sent word she does not have time to host a ‘Lean In circle’ with the hotel employees.”

Here’s more from the Globe:

The attempt to unionize the workers began more than a year ago, when 70 percent of the approximately 112 nonmanagerial workers at the DoubleTree — housekeepers, banquet servers, front desk agents, van drivers, and Scullers Jazz Club employees — signed a petition asking for a “fair process,” Local 26 said.

Such an agreement would allow them to discuss joining a union without retaliation from the company. When a group of workers and Harvard students tried to deliver the petition to the former general manager, he refused to accept it, according to Local 26.

DoubleTree management has held meetings with employees, both in groups and one-on-one, to discourage them from unionizing, according to Local 26. It said management retaliated against one organizing committee member by putting fliers in the cafeteria and locker room calling him a “mole” and taking away extra shifts at Scullers.

Hilton declined to respond to the allegations.

Sandberg has been criticized for creating a movement aimed at financially well-off women, but her Lean In foundation says it has partnered with several organizations that serve lower-income women, including Dress for Success, and supports Lean In circles of domestic workers in San Francisco, as well as rescued sex slaves in Miami.

As part of the hospitality workers union, DoubleTree workers would get a bump in pay, more affordable health insurance, and standardized workloads.

DoubleTree workers are not necessarily on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Housekeeper Delmy Lemus, for instance, earns $15.82 an hour, plus tips, and has access to company-subsidized health insurance.

But Lemus, 33, said the family plan rates would consume nearly half her weekly paycheck. She decided to opt out of the benefit and enroll herself and her two daughters in MassHealth, the state insurance plan for low-income residents.

The job is physically demanding, Lemus said. When she was pregnant with her now 4-year-old daughter, Lemus began suffering sciatic nerve pain and was barely able to stand by the end of her shifts.

In her eighth month of pregnancy, she was assigned to the hotel’s laundry room. Lemus said she had to push carts loaded with linen and pull out heavy sofa beds.

“Almost every day I was crying,” the Revere resident said.

In a survey of dozens of DoubleTree workers done for Local 26 last summer, Harvard student Gabriel Bayard said every employee he interviewed complained of chronic pain, and nearly all said their workloads had increased in recent years.

More than 100 Harvard students have gotten involved in the DoubleTree campaign, including Sasanka Jinadasa, 21, president of the Radcliffe Union of Students, a feminist advocacy group. “If [Harvard] has a vested interest in the profits and the outcome of the company, it should care about what the workers want as well,” she said.

Lemus, a single mother, wants to save up enough money to send her daughters to college and eventually start her own housecleaning service. She said “leaning in” to make her voice heard, and fighting for union protections, is the beginning of that process.

“We’re just housekeepers, people without education. But we work very hard,” she said. “We have dreams. . . . We don’t want to die cleaning rooms in a hotel.”

Perhaps all the scolds who think students shouldn’t protest commencement speakers whose views they don’t like, and who think, in the face of all the evidence, that commencement speeches are an occasion of deep intellectual exchange, could now put some pressure on Sandberg to actually use her Class Day speech to say something beyond bromides and cliches. And to meet with the workers, and their student supporters, so that we can have a real exchange of ideas. Now that would be a commencement worthy of its name.

Please  support the workers’ call for Sandberg to meet with them by signing here. I know folks don’t like to sign petitions, but sometimes, particularly in situations like these, they can make a difference.

The War on Workers’ Rights

19 May

I have an oped in the New York Times on the Republican war on workers’ rights at the state level. My conclusion:

The overall thrust of this state legislation is to create workers who are docile and employers who are empowered. That may be why Republican legislators in Idaho, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Ohio, Minnesota, Utah and Missouri have been so eager to ease restrictions on when and how much children can work. High schoolers should learn workplace virtues, says the conservative commentator Ben Stein, like “not talking back.” Early exposure to employment will teach 12-year-olds, as the spokesman of an Idaho school district put it, that “you have to do what you’re asked, what your supervisor is telling you.”

And if workers don’t learn that lesson in junior high, recent Republican changes to state unemployment codes will ensure that they learn it as adults. In 2011, Florida stipulated that any employee fired for “deliberate violation or disregard of the reasonable standards of behavior which the employer expects” would be ineligible for unemployment benefits. Arkansas passed a similar amendment (“violation of any behavioral policies of the employer”). The following year so did South Carolina (“deliberate violations or disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect”) and Tennessee. The upshot of these changes is that any employee breaking the rules of her employer — be they posting comments about work on Facebook, dating a co-worker or an employee from a rival firm, going to the bathroom without permission — can be fired and denied unemployment. Faced with that double penalty, any worker might think twice about crossing her boss.

What might Adam Smith, often claimed as the intellectual godfather of the American right, have said about these legislative efforts? “Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen,” wrote Smith in “The Wealth of Nations,” “its counsellors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters.”

Indeed.

The oped is based on Gordon Lafer’s eye-opening report last fall for the Economic Policy Institute, “The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011-2012,” which you should also read.

Queering the Strike

1 May

In The Empire of Necessity, Greg Grandin gives us a fascinating history of the phrase “to strike.” Seems like a good story for May Day.

The phrase to strike to refer to a labor stoppage comes from maritime history and is an example of how revolutionary times can redefine a word to mean its exact opposite. Through the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth century, to strike was used as a metaphor for submission, referring to the practice of captured ships dropping, or striking, their sails to their conquerors and of subordinate ships doing the same to salute their superiors. “Now Margaret / must strike her sail,” wrote William Shakespeare in Henry VI, describing an invitation extended by the “Mighty King” of France to Margaret, the weaker Queen of England, to join him at the dinner table “and learn a while to serve / where kings command.” Or as this 1712 account of a British privateer taking a Spanish man-o’war off the coast of Peru put it: “fir’d two shot over her, and then she struck,” and bowed “down to us.” But in 1768, London sailors turned the term inside out. Joining city artisans and tradesmen—weavers, hatters, sawyers, glass-grinders, and coal heavers—in the fight for better wages, they struck their sails and paralyzed the city’s commerce. They “unmanned or otherwise prevented from sailing every ship in the Thames.” From this point forward, strike meant the refusal of submission.

Not unlike how gays and lesbians owned the word “queer.”

What is Enlightenment when the State is Schizophrenic? It’s The Jewish Question!

29 Apr

The New York Times reports on a complicated Supreme Court case involving the First Amendment rights of a public employee in Alabama (h/t Mark Ames). The case boils down to this: Edward Lane, a state employee, was subpoenaed to testify at a federal trial about the corruption of another state employee. As a result of his testimony, Lane was fired by his boss. Lane claims that his First Amendment rights were violated; the lower courts have ruled against him. Now the Supreme Court is considering the case.

But this in the Times report is what caught my eye:

The federal appeals court in Atlanta said it was unnecessary to decide who was right because public employees have no First Amendment protections in any event for statements they make as part of their official duties.

Since “the record fails to establish that Lane testified as a citizen on a matter of public concern,” the appeals court said in an unsigned opinion, “he cannot state a claim for retaliation under the First Amendment.”

While it seems that the Supreme Court intends to uphold the claim that employees like Lane do have such First Amendment rights (though it’s not clear whether the Court will uphold the claim that Lane himself had such a right at the time of his testimony, or at least that it was a “clearly established” right at that time), I’m struck by this disjuncture between the First Amendment rights one is said to have as a citizen versus the First Amendment rights one does not have as an employee of the government. The federal appeals court puts the contrast clearly:

Although the district court couched its decision in terms of qualified immunity, it determined that Lane’s speech was made pursuant to his official duties as CITY’s Director, not as a citizen on a matter of public concern. We reach the same conclusion.

To establish a claim of retaliation for protected speech under the First Amendment, a public employee must show, among other things, that he “spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern.” See Garcetti v. Ceballos, 126 S.Ct. 1951, 1958 (2006) (a decision further restricting public employees’ protected speech). A government employee whose speech is made pursuant to his official duties is not speaking as citizen. See id. at 1960; Battle v. Bd. of Regents, 468 F.3d 755, 760 (11th Cir. 2006). Even if an employee was not required to make the speech as part of his official duties, he enjoys no First Amendment protection if his speech “owes its existence to [the] employee’s professional responsibilities” and is “a product that ‘the employer itself has commissioned or created’”. See Abdur-Rahman v. Walker, 567 F.3d 1278, 1286 (11th Cir. 2009)

I’ve reported on this blog many a time about the absence of First Amendment protections for workers in the private sector. And though I’ve talked less about this, some of that also holds true for workers in the public sector.

But what strikes me about this case is how the state’s investment in maintaining the hierarchical relationship of employer to employee (or, at least, its investment in not extending basic constitutional rights to the employee) creates a schizophrenia within the state. On the one hand, the state compels Lane to testify at a federal trial about the corruption of a public employee because, presumably, the state has a vested interest in that testimony; on the other hand, the state does not believe its own constitutional protections protect Lane when he performs what the state compels him to perform. As the federal appeals court puts it:

That Lane testified about his official activities pursuant to a subpoena and in the litigation context, in and of itself, does not bring Lane’s speech within the protection of the First Amendment.

According to the Times, even Chief Justice Roberts seemed to think this was a bridge too far:

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. appeared sympathetic to Mr. Lane. “What is he supposed to do?” he asked Mark T. Waggoner, a lawyer for Mr. Franks [the boss who fired Lane]. If Mr. Lane testified truthfully, the chief justice said, he could be fired. If he lied or failed to appear, he could be punished.

Mr. Waggoner said that he “would never suggest that anybody not comply with a subpoena, comply with an investigation or testify truthfully.”

The chief justice responded, “But you are suggesting he can be fired if he does it.”

The whole distinction between the freedom we enjoy as citizens versus the non-freedom we suffer as private individuals (albeit individuals employed by the government) reminds me of Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” Attempting to delineate the various uses and imports of reason, Kant make a sharp distinction between the importance and protection of reason in the public sphere and the absence of that protection in the private sphere. More specifically, he makes a distinction between the public use of reason and the private use of reason.

For enlightenment of this kind, all that is needed is freedom. And the freedom in question is the most innocuous form of all—freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. But I hear on all sides the cry: Don’t argue!The officer says: Don’t argue, get on parade! The tax official: Don’t’ argue, pay! The clergyman: Don’t argue, believe!…All this means restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which sort of restriction prevents enlightenment, and which, instead of hindering it, can actually promote it? I reply: The public use of man’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men; the private use of reason may quite often be very narrowly restricted, however, without undue hindrance to the progress of enlightenment. But by the public use of one’s own reason I mean that use which anyone may make of it as a man of learning addressing the entire reading public. What I term the private use of reason is that which a person may make of it in a particular civil post or office with which he is entrusted.

In other words, rather than distinguishing between institutional spheres of public versus private, we might say that Kant is distinguishing between our different orientations of mind. When we reason publicly, we are thinking of the public; when we reason privately, we are thinking about narrower matters. Regardless of where we are (though I think Kant believes that where we are matters a great deal).

But even if we adopt that more generous reading, one could make the case that the judges on the federal appeals court are acting like good Kantians. As they write:

Although not dispositive, we consider it pertinent that the subject matter of Lane’s testimony touched only on acts he performed as part of his official duties. See Abdur-Rahman, 567 F.3d at 1282. As in Morris, nothing evidences that Lane testified at Schmitz’s trial “primarily in [his] role as a citizen” or that his testimony was an attempt to comment publicly on CITY’s internal operations.

In other words, if Lane had been speaking out or to the public about taxes, say, or even about government corruption, his First Amendment rights might have come into play (the same, of course, cannot be said if he were an employee in the private sector). But because he was speaking about matters pertaining and pursuant to his job, his First Amendment rights are irrelevant. Even though the matters he was speaking of were of vital interest to the government and the public. The fact that he was speaking as a job-holder about his job rather than as a citizen about public issues is what matters.

This distinction, of course, was precisely what Marx was targeting in his essay “On the Jewish Question.” Thanks to Piketty, Marx the economist is back in the news. But before he turned to economics, Marx was a political theorist of the disjunctures the modern state creates between our emancipated lives as public citizens and our dominated lives as private men and women. Though he was mostly focused in “On the Jewish Question” on the question of religion (and sometimes in yucky ways), the distinctions he drew there apply more generally to the divisions between private man—residing in “the sphere of human needs, labour, private interests and civil law”—and “political man,” the citizen who “is only abstract, artificial man, man as an allegorical, moral person.”

Liberalism, Marx claimed, had emancipated the second (sort of); the real task was to emancipate the first.

Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being; and when he has recognized and organized his own powers (forces propres) as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power.

Tell it to the judge.

Update (5:30 pm)

My CUNY colleague Ruthann Robson has a useful analysis of the case over at SCOTUSblog. (By the way, once I’m in a position of power , I’m going to ban all uses of SCOTUS and POTUS and FLOTUS and other OTUS’s. I feel about those words the way I feel about the phrase public intellectual.)

Wherever you live, it is probably Egypt: Thoughts on Passover

12 Apr

The first night of Passover is on Monday, and I’ve been thinking about and preparing for the Seder. I had a mini-victory this morning, when I was shopping for fish in Crown Heights. The guy at the fish store told me that thanks to the Polar Vortex, 90% of Lake Huron is frozen. Which means no whitefish. Which means no gefilte fish. So I put on my best impression of Charlotte in Sex and the City —”I said lean!”—and managed, through a combination of moxie and charm, to get him to give me the last three pounds of whitefish and pike in Crown Heights. Plus a pound of carp. Which means…gefilte fish!

Food is the easy part of the seder. The hard part is making it all mean something. When I was a union organizer, I used to go to freedom seders. Being part of the labor movement, I found it easy to see points of connection between what I was doing and this ancient story of bondage, struggle, and emancipation (a story, however, that we never seem to really tell at Passover).

Then, as my feelings about Zionism became more critical, I found a new point of connection to Passover: using the Seder, and the Exodus story, as a moment to reflect upon the relationship between the Jews, the land of Israel, and possession of that land, to ask why we have to think of emancipation in terms of possession at all. For a while there, we’d hold seders with readings from Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution and Edward Said’s brilliant critique of Walzer in Granta: “Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution: A Canaanite Reading.”

But nowadays, the Seder is harder for me. I’m more puzzled by the meaning of slavery and emancipation; I find it more difficult to make the connections I used to make. The Haggadah seems stranger, more remote, than ever.

So I asked folks on Facebook to make some suggestions for supplemental readings. Jade Larissa Schiff, a political theorist at Oberlin, suggested Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. I’ve taught this text more than a dozen times, to undergrads and grad students. But I’ve always been leery of using it at Passover. There are few things more embarrassing than being at a seder where relatively privileged people talk about being slaves. But I gave it a re-read.

Turns out, there’s quite a bit in the text that’s relevant. I don’t want to steal the thunder from our seder, but here are just a few passages that jumped out at me. I share them with you all, whether you’re going to a seder or not, in the spirit of the holiday. And in the spirit of what Walzer says about the meaning of the Exodus story in the closing passages of Exodus and Revolution:

We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibility of politics, and about its proper form:

—first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;

—second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;

—and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.

1. In this passage from chapter 6, Douglass describes his discovery of the subversive power of reading (in a later passage, he’ll describe the misery that can come with the self-knowledge that reading brings). Reading is on my mind this year for a couple of reasons. First, my six-year-old daughter began reading this past year. In the mornings, she sometimes gets up early, and sneaks a half-hour to read a page or two from one of the Harry Potter books. You can see the sense of autonomy and independence, and the subversion of authority that Douglass talks about (we try to tell her not to get up before 7), at work there.

But, second, New York, like the rest of the country, is in the middle of a battle over high-stakes testing, with an increasing number of parents simply opting out of the testing regime. Last week, parents, teachers, and students at my daughter’s elementary school held a rally to protest the latest round of tests in New York. Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of the school, wrote an oped in the Times about the insanity of eight-year-olds being forced to sit for three days as their futures get determined. It’s like the bar exam!

Anyway, reading Douglass, I got to thinking about how this activity—reading—which has been a source of joy and wonder, of subversion and autonomy, for so many children across so many decades, is now being reduced to the most mindless form of drudgery on behalf of a phantom meritocracy.

Here’s Douglass:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

2. In this passage from chapter 8, Douglass describes how his grandmother was treated when she got old and sick, nearing death. Nothing more demonstrated “the infernal character of slavery,” writes Douglass, than the disregard she was shown by her master when she was no longer useful to him. The emphatic nature of this passage—the “base ingratitude” of sending someone who is no longer useful off to die being the signature of slavery—made me wonder about how we often warehouse the elderly in homes. And what kind of slavery we’re sustaining thereby. Here’s Douglass:

If any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my poor old grandmother. She had served my old master faithfully from youth to old age. She had been the source of all his wealth; she had peopled his plantation with slaves; she had become a great grandmother in his service. She had rocked him in infancy, attended him in childhood, served him through life, and at his death wiped from his icy brow the cold death-sweat, and closed his eyes forever. She was nevertheless left a slave—a slave for life—a slave in the hands of strangers; and in their hands she saw her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren, divided, like so many sheep, without being gratified with the small privilege of a single word, as to their or her own destiny. And, to cap the climax of their base ingratitude and fiendish barbarity, my grandmother, who was now very old, having outlived my old master and all his children, having seen the beginning and end of all of them, and her present owners finding she was of but little value, her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die! If my poor old grandmother now lives, she lives to suffer in utter loneliness; she lives to remember and mourn over the loss of children, the loss of grandchildren, and the loss of great-grandchildren….

The hearth is desolate. The children, the unconscious children, who once sang and danced in her presence, are gone. She gropes her way, in the darkness of age, for a drink of water. Instead of the voices of her children, she hears by day the moans of the dove, and by night the screams of the hideous owl. All is gloom. The grave is at the door. And now, when weighed down by the pains and aches of old age, when the head inclines to the feet, when the beginning and ending of human existence meet, and helpless infancy and painful old age combine together—at this time, this most needful time, the time for the exercise of that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise towards a declining parent—my poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of twelve children, is left all alone, in yonder little hut, before a few dim embers. She stands—she sits—she staggers—she falls—she groans—she dies—and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains. Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

3. In this passage from chapter 10, Douglass describes the surveillance regime of one of his masters, Edward Covey. I was struck in reading this by the parallels with so many surveillance systems in the contemporary workplace, whether it be for maids in a hotel or white-collar workers. Particularly the emphasis on not knowing if you’re being watched or not.

Mr. Covey was one of the few slaveholders who could and did work with his hands. He was a hard-working man. He knew by himself just what a man or a boy could do. There was no deceiving him. His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence; and he had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us. This he did by surprising us. He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly. He always aimed at taking us by surprise. Such was his cunning, that we used to call him, among ourselves, “the snake.” When we were at work in the cornfield, he would sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection, and all at once he would rise nearly in our midst, and scream out, “Ha, ha! Come, come! Dash on, dash on!” This being his mode of attack, it was never safe to stop a single minute. His comings were like a thief in the night. He appeared to us as being ever at hand. He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation. He would sometimes mount his horse, as if bound to St. Michael’s, a distance of seven miles, and in half an hour afterwards you would see him coiled up in the corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion of the slaves. He would, for this purpose, leave his horse tied up in the woods. Again, he would sometimes walk up to us, and give us orders as though he was upon the point of starting on a long journey, turn his back upon us, and make as though he was going to the house to get ready; and, before he would get half way thither, he would turn short and crawl into a fence-corner, or behind some tree, and there watch us till the going down of the sun.

4. In Exodus and Revolution, Walzer points out (at least I think he does; it’s been a while) that one of the elements that made bondage in ancient Egypt bondage was the fact that the slaves had to work so much. It wasn’t merely the coerciveness, but the omnipresence, of work that they suffered and experienced as slavery. Labor was everything; labor was everywhere. In this passage, also from chapter 10, Douglass makes a similar point. It brought to mind some of the debates that several writers in and around Jacobin have been having over the last several years about the left and the politics of work: should our stance be to reform or reorganize work, to make it more just and share its burdens more equally, or to oppose it entirely, to reduce if not eliminate it? Here’s Douglass:

If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree.

In Egypt, indeed.

Chag Sameach.

Backlash Barbie

20 Feb

We interrupt our regularly scheduled arguing about Israel to bring you a word from our digital consigliere, Laura Brahm. Laura is a freelance writer who periodically—i.e., every day—helps me figure out what I’m doing with this blog. This is her first guest blog here.

Apparently it’s a banner time for ambiguous feminist heroes—BeyoncéClaire Underwood…and now, Barbie.

This week, she appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Mattel is marketing the campaign using the language of women’s empowerment (the hashtag is #unapologetic).Feminist Backlash Barbie

At first I thought this was funny and clever in a knowing, lipstick-feminism kind of way. Like Barbie was embracing her inner drag queen. But then things got ugly. In response to real live feminists who tried to rain on her beach party, Barbie took out a full page ad in the New York Times for an op-ed, “Why Posing for Sports Illustrated Suits Me.” She writes:

Upon the launch of this year’s 50th anniversary issue, there will again be buzz and debate over the validity of the women in the magazine, questioning if posing in it is a blow to female equality and self-image. In 2014, does any woman in the issue seriously need permission to appear there?

I suppose you could argue Barbie is indeed making a feminist rhetorical move here, insofar as she’s engaging in the time-honored practice of trashing other feminists. She goes on:

Ask yourself, isn’t it time we teach girls to celebrate who they are? Isn’t there room for capable and captivating? It’s time to stop boxing in potential. Be free to launch a career in a swimsuit, lead a company while gorgeous, or wear pink to an interview at MIT.

Unless that last line is targeted at boys, she’s a little off base.

There’s been no shortage of brilliant, enraged responses to this campaign. But one aspect may get overlooked in the troll-feeding frenzy.

It’s funny Barbie should use the language of careers and the workplace. If only it really were the anti-pink, non-fun-having feminists who were holding women back from achieving their dreams or even just from being pretty at the office.

But the truth is we can’t be free to celebrate who we are at work if we have no First Amendment rights there. If we are subject to “at will” employment and have no paid parental leave or flexible hours enabling us to stay home when Skipper is sick.

In short, it’s not feminists who are telling you what color you can or cannot wear to work.

As a child, I loved Barbie. I still remember the gold lamé mini-dresses and the exciting hint of the glamour of being an independent grownup woman. But with ad campaigns like this one demonizing feminists, I will never buy her for my own daughter.

So, Barbie, I agree with you that “pink is not the problem.” But before you point your insufficiently separated finger at other women, take a closer look at your boss.

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