Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Income Inequality, Violence, and A City's Health

Some haters seem to think anarchists are just some sort of spoiled whiners who just want free stuff without having to work for it. That we are just as utterly selfish and lazy as TV and right-wing economists would have us believe all of America is. That we are self-interested "rational" actors who are trying to "game the system" by complaining or protesting, for our own personal benefit alone.

What those critics don't get is that there can be rational self-interest that is not in conflict and opposition to the well-being of others. There is collective self-interest, something that is beneficial to oneself and also beneficial to society as a whole. That what is good for ourselves is good for everyone as a whole.

Wealth inequality is an arena where collective self-interest is more beneficial to everyone, including ourselves as anarchists, than individual self-interest. Where making society more financially equal leads to a better society with less power differentials between it's members, than one in which a few are encouraged to engage in never-ending self-interested greed, which tips the scales of social power and equity by increasing wealth inequality. This TED video explains it well:
New Orleans is no exception to these facts about the harmful effects of wealth inequality. In fact, if you'll notice on the video's graphs comparing US states, Louisiana is mainly near the more unequal, more socially dysfunctional end of the spectrum. So we live in one of the more unequal and dysfunctional states in one of the most unequal and dysfunctional nations. And, I'd venture to guess, one of the more unequal, and certainly one of the more dysfunctional, cities within that state, within that nation. We are likely very near our usual spot at #1 in all the categories no one wants to win, like prison populations, murders, corruption, racism, etc...

Does anyone think those in positions of power in our city are concerned about tackling wealth disparities as a means to solving social dysfunctions like high murder rates, hungry children, mental illness, and addictions? Furthermore, does anyone think they are interested in tackling the racial and gender hierarchies that create even wider gaps in wealth inequality (and therefore power in society) for entire populations of our city? Nope. Not at all. Of course not.

This is why I am an anarchist. Because recognizing that social benefits sometimes come at the expense of letting the rich explore their greediest desires puts one directly at odds with the rich and the nation-states that have been constructed to protect their wealth. Because I know that greed kills, that inequality leads to a violent society. But the rich are insulated from that fact by large gates and security officers and NOPD and surveillance cameras and the court system and white supremacy and patriarchy.

It is those like us, who cannot afford to live in such gilded self-imprisonment, who bear the brunt of the violent society greed has created. This is why all those concerned about crime should also be anarchists. This is why to end crime we must end poverty (poverty meaning relative wealth inequality). Answers to problems often require more than a one-step solution. Many see more crime, and call for more police officers, never asking the question of what social conditions are producing so many more criminals than other places. And when so many problems can be correlated to a root cause such as wealth inequality, we must stop trying to treat the symptoms and take on the disease itself.

P.S.- If anyone has links to good studies of New Orleans area wealth inequality, please post links in the comments, and thanks!

It's Great Being a White Dude

It's so great. When I say "I help publish this periodical" or "I volunteer at that project," everyone assumes that I actually run the shit and am just being modest.

When I say "I am a radical feminist" people congratulate me.

When I speak out against oppression, almost none of which affects me, I am accorded high dignity as a principled freedom fighter rather than a "whiner" or someone "playing the [whatever] card."

In my dignified and principled way, I have been thinking about race lately, due to issues of unaddressed racism within the "Occupy" movement and a recent internet argument about New York City jazz pianists. If you asked me to tell you (and since I'm a white dude, you don't even need to ask) how I conceive the hierarchy of social injustice, my breakdown would basically be

1. Gender (as distinct from sexual orientation)
2. Class
3. Race and everything else

I believe in "intersectionality," but like many, I also have my private notions of where oppression's rubber meets the road, of what the first and deepest cuts are, and the above are those notions. Part of that has to do with the raw numbers-- women get treated like shit in every country on earth, and constitute over half the population. There are even more poor people, percentage-wise, than there are women, but it seems to me that within the subgroup of the world's poor, women are disproportionately victimized and oppressed for their gender, much moreso than the poor are punished for their poverty within a given community of women.

I know that's probably not watertight logic. I'm not a fucking academic.

But lately, I am beginning to feel my analysis of race is faulty and inadequate. Now by that, I don't mean that I'm a racist. I am... but that's not what I mean. I absolutely cop to racism. I am the product of a racist society, and I wrestle with my own prejudices (including racial prejudice) daily, when I can be bothered to wrestle with them at all. Having that choice-- it being optional-- is another great aspect of being a white dude. Resisting my own prejudice is HEROIC, isn't it? Hell, even ADMITTING it is amazing! Where's my award?

I admit I am racist, just as I am sexist, just as I am homophobic, no matter how many cocks I suck... but that's not what I mean. What I mean is that I think I've been lazy and unfair in my own consideration of race's importance within the complex structures of oppression. I think I've been taking race for granted, which is a huge part of how racism works in our society.

That's more than enough chest-beating from me; I just wanted to air out some of this, to help organize my thoughts. Since this is a nola anarchist blog, and I am a nola anarchist who's been sent the password to it, I figured I'd do so in this venue.

Here are the blog posts by Nicholas Payton that are part of what's got me so pompously ruminating:

On Ben Ratliff’s Four Pianists On The Rise . . . .
More On The Difference Between Racism And Prejudice . . . .

Because nothing is simple and everything's fucked up, Payton just released a brilliant album titled "Bitches." It's not just good, it's "best of the year" good. He also said that those who object to the title are themselves bitches, so I'll accept that designation, continue to enjoy the intense wonderousness of his music, and continue to be bitchily annoyed that he called his album that. ...because, when all's said and done, I guess I'm not really threatened by it. It's great being a white dude.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is "Yankee" a problematic word?

When I moved to the American South from the American North, lo these many centuries ago, my first job was in a chain convenience store. The whole chain had recently been bought by a Japanese company, and the new corporate overlords instituted a training program for all new hires to implement concepts of mindfulness and a customer-service attitude of "fierce eagerness." They also redesigned the layouts of the stores to be more harmonious.

This was back when Japan was still a mega-super-power. The trainer for our region's (overwhelmingly Mexican-American) group of newly-hired clerks was an old white lady who took the training program's bizarre textbook very seriously and, more to this essay's point, complained to us constantly about what a shame the civil rights movement had been.

At that point in my life, I'd already learned the hard way that it was risky and sometimes counterproductive to distinguish myself by speaking up. Nobody else seemed to object to her gratuitous opinionating on the civil rights era-- indeed, no-one else seemed even to be paying attention. I didn't want trouble. What would arguing with this curdled bigot accomplish? I was young and just wanted a paycheck so I could move off my buddy's couch.

But I'm the son of a Freedom Summer volunteer, and as the trainer got more and more ugly about what scum and troublemakers those dangerous meddlers had been, I eventually broached some objection. Looking back, I wish I could claim my speaking out was grounded in noble anti-racist sentiment, but the reality was I got fed up with her denigrating my Dad. He had been brave to go into Mississippi and register voters. I knew my father wasn't someone who made trouble. To the contrary, he was pathologically quiescent, a nearly silent man who spent his whole life working at a job he didn't like. Participating in Freedom Summer was one of the only things I felt he'd gotten right.

So I objected to her characterization of the voter-registration volunteers, and she dismissed me as a yankee, saying I couldn't possibly understand. I then went on to spend many more years as a white guy in the blue-collar south, and got called and referred to as a yankee often. Sometimes it was meant as an insult, sometimes it was affectionate, mostly it was just a descriptive-- the same way poor whites from Florida were "crackers."

Black people didn't call me a yankee; people from Mexico or elsewhere in the americas didn't call me a yankee; college-educated and economically comfortable white southerners, most of whom seemed neurotically mindful of northern perceptions of the south, didn't call me a yankee... at least not to my face. In my experience of "yankee," it was exclusively a poor-white word, and used correctly it could sting like the dickens, at least as much as any other epithet I've had hurled at me.

But this isn't about my sensitive hurt feelings-- really, I promise it isn't! This is about the word yankee. I know many people who are deeply weary of hearing it, although to be fair, most of those are people weary of being called it. For those who aren't comfortable just saying "Hey, that hurts my feelings, why are you being a jerk?" the common complaint is that "Yankee" carries connotations of the Civil War and, by extension, regional white resistance to racial equality.

It'd be hard to argue it doesn't. The word can and often does mean what my convenience store trainer meant by it; snarled correctly, it can evoke not the underfed, grey-suited ghosts of the Confederate Army but the white-hooded terrors of the Klan. No matter how it's used, it always brings with it a whiff of Dixie.

I'll be the first to acknowledge all that. But it's also a "power word" used by poor people against affluent outsiders. It's one the few epithets that can make a sanctimonious and well-off white flinch. It's a useful word, because, let's face it, the majority of college graduates from the Northeast really are insufferable, condescending snobs, incurably arrogant, pious know-it-alls who wonder sadly why the rest of the country hasn't reached their lofty plane of enlightenment... and who've reached the private conclusion that it's due to inherent inferiority.

Are there exceptions? Of course! But you know I'm right-- you've met these people, had to endure them professionally, and quietly witnessed their Jane-Goodall-like manner towards those who weren't born into advantage. Some aren't from New England, but whatever coast they hail from, they share that same attitude: firm, paternalistic do-gooderism masking a rock-solid, burn-the-witch conviction that those who disagree are defective, ignorant, or evil. These are people who know what's best for everyone, especially the poor, the same way they know the sky's blue. They only want to help-- and saints preserve anyone who stands in their helpful way!

Now, that mindset is not the most pernicious form moral surety takes in our society, but it is a specific and noxious form of it, and it's rooted as deep as any religious fanatic's. What the fuck do we call these people, if not Yankees? It seems to me that's exactly what the word means.

Of course, calling one another mean names isn't really progress-- it's divisive, it's alienating, etcetera, and the word does carry ugly historical echoes. But why should anyone be in such a hurry to strip away and condemn a word that is a way for poor people to identify and call out bullying and coercive attitudes among the better-off? I also hold geographical words that mean "outsider" to be important and useful, however much outsiders may hate them.

I don't think my own opinion on "yankee" matters THAT much, but I wanted to at least put in a stroke towards its defense. Am I misguided? Do I, born in the north, have Stockholm syndrome? Has my own self-loathing led me identify with the southerners who've oh-so-cruelly oppressed me with the word's usage? Am I myopic, too hasty to brush off the word's associations?

Look, it sucks that bigotry exists. It sucks that when someone with a southern accent speaks, northerners make assumptions about them. That bigotry, which is a bigotry of privilege against a region with less privilege, is real, and I contend-- mildly, with a total willingness to be wrong-- that within a specifically white milieu, "yankee" as commonly used constitutes a reaction and resistance to that particular historically-rooted class and regional bigotry.

You might disagree. If you do, you're probably a yankee.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Cult of Convenience -- the Mall on St. Claude

It's an age of microwaves and internet-enabled pocket telephones. Those of us who haven't recently lived in real want and deprivation have been conditioned to expect convenience as our due. We are taught by media to demand it, to expect it, and that we deserve it-- why wait 12 minutes for some slow-ass to make a po'boy when you can get 2 Big Bufords in 60 seconds for $5? Why indeed... why indeed. Why go to a show when you can stay home and download an mp3 at the click of a button? Why indeed.

And now, with the opening of the orange-purple Mall on St. Claude, the crunchy-granola convenience cavalry has arrived downtown! Now your college friends back in wherever-the-fuck won't look down their noses at you any longer for getting spinach at MGZ or Sav-A-Lot! Now you too can buy into the trappings of the prefab identity your peer group has been sold. Slip on your yoga pants and get voodoo-yoga-wicca centered over a fair-trade smoothie... it's the NEW St. Claude.

But wait... is there some reason you shouldn't? Why wouldn't you? Are you hearing some tiresome murmurs suggesting you're not supposed to? What the fuck... who are these muttering spoilers, these haters trying to make YOU feel bad about your glorious Mall On St. Claude shopping experience?

The recently opened Mall on St. Claude is essentially a roach motel to attract and trap affluent whites. If you don't believe me, look who's excited about it, and who's staffing it, and who owns it, and who's on the board, and who shops there.

It is part of a deliberate and overt plan to remake the region, a trap baited with Reiki and Pilates and Sushi and World Music and Organic $5.89 packs of hotdogs... and a credit union, and a gym, and a bunch of other nonsense designed to delight and reassure the ruling-class "new-creatives" and any post-political burnout artistes willing to lend legitimacy in exchange for a foot rub.

Pres Kabacoff, the same megadeveloper who holds the contract to tear down the Iberville, used $1.8 million of scarce CDBG disaster dollars-- community money-- to build this day-glo Johannesburg Fortress. Of course that's nothing compared to his earlier $55 million backroom deals with city hall-- He built the gross Saulet apartments, Wal-Mart, and a vinyl-sided cheaply-constructed suburban townhouse neighborhood on the former site of the St. Thomas projects. St. Thomas' displaced residents, including those few originally permitted to stay in the townhouses but since evicted for violations of "community rules" like sitting out on their own stoops, have been cast to the winds to survive without their former tight-knit community and its health center. Some of them have died fending off violence from the wardies into whose unfamiliar neighborhoods they were forced to move. Lives lost... to gentrification.

But oh, "gentrification," what a complicated and loaded word. I mean, it's like gravity, right? Gentrification has no agents; it's really all of us, like the air. There's no power analysis possible. If you can pronounce the word, then YOU're part of the problem, so get off your high horse! Gentrification just happens... blamelessly... it's just change. Change happens. There are no rich people pulling the strings. Gentrification has no real meaning as a word.

Now, you may already have negative perceptions of NOPD-- I say "may," because who am I to judge? But the Guardian Angels who Pres has given a City HQ inside the mall are an actual self-described paramilitary group. What a blessing Sallie Ann's fake-priestess ass has wrought upon the 9th ward with her Healing Center... I mention the ninth ward specifically, since that's the neighborhood the Guardian Angels described to the media as being "Uzi-toting, dope-sucking, psychopathic killing machines roaming the streets."

Question:  How effectively will the Mall's co-opted co-op (for example) feed the community when it's guarded by these violent, racist thugs?

Answer:  It will only serve the tiny (but growing) stratum of the neighborhood that Pres Kabacoff WANTS it to serve. Are you part of that slice?

Will you stand in solidarity with your "dope-sucking" neighbors, or will you use your privilege and money to enjoy the organic kombucha and the safe, sanitized atmosphere of the healing center while the Guardian Angels patrol to keep you and your fellow-shoppers safe from the rest of the neighborhood?  Which side of the windows are you on?

But oh my god, what-EVER. I see you rolling your tired eyes. Of course you disapprove of these bad things. You're not pro-Mall, but at the end of the day, you just want organic hotdogs and a yoga sesh. At the end of the day, basically, you don't care.

I mean, surely those making the criticisms above don't appreciate how much YOU personally have suffered and sacrificed to live here. Jesus you've been in this miserable neighborhood for, like, multiple years. How dare anyone wag their finger at you for taking advantage of convenience, for cashing in a little of your privilege chips and enjoying some amenities of the consumerist alterna-culture you've so valiantly forgone 'til now? Don't these haters WANT the neighborhood to have access to Reiki?

It makes you angry, maybe, that anyone suggests you should care. So what if the Mall on St. Claude blasts loud music late into the night, disturbing long-time neighbors, and threatens to have those who complain evicted? So what? How does that concern you? Why should YOU care? It's not really your problem, is it?

Your life is so difficult, so demanding. The dues you've paid as a bohemian transplant roughing it in the wilds of downtown New Orleans are immense... people calling for accountability, using the term gentrification, those are just guilt peddlers. Guilt is so last-century. You don't even consider yourself white, really, not deep down.

The gaudily, perpetually brightly lit, thunderously air-conditioned, aromatherapized, McDonaldland-Massacre-paintjob Mall on St. Claude is there. What's done is done. It's there, and my lord, is it convenient!  Plus now, if the people hanging around Hank's annoy you or get in your face, you'll have a safe place to run to... thanks to Pres Kabacoff, who created it for that very reason.

No joke; you'll be SAFE inside the Mall, surrounded by the symbols of material success, guarded by NOPD and the Guardian Angels. It's like a beautiful other-world in there, a mini-vacation (from poor people). Standing in its carnival-vomit-hued belly, you'd never know you were in New Orleans at all! You're safe... breathe out, breathe in... relax. You're safe from the realities the rest of the neighborhood has lived with for however long. You're safe, and the red-bereted paramilitary and NOPD cops who guard this tiny oasis of affluence will never bother YOU, will never beat YOU up. They'll smile at you, they'll be unobtrusive and obsequious, because they know, same as you do deep down: You belong in the Mall.