Rooting It Out

August 23, 2020 at 3:35 am (By Amba) ()

Even white people who recoil from white supremacy often harbor unexamined, reflexive assumptions of white superiority.

While less noxious on the surface, this assumption is far more pervasive and insidious. It’s the vast, nearly immortal underground mycelium from which the scattered poison mushrooms of white supremacy sprout. (The mycelium of the 2,384-acre fungus described at that link also secretes root-destroying enzymes and “kills swaths of conifers,” for an even better metaphor.)

This struck me while talking to a Trump supporter friend (yes, I have some) who told me she has Black friends, even one guy she was sweet on when she was young (he brought her to his church once; she got a side-eye from his mother that would have blistered the paint off a battleship), but—”their values are different from ours.” Although she must encounter scores of Black working people and professionals every day, she seemed to take inner-city gang, drug, and gun culture as the prototype of Black culture and to attribute it to nature or character rather than to poverty and futility. (Never mind that it took working-class white people less than two generations of unemployment and disrespect to fall into opioid addiction, spousal abuse, and family breakdown.)

She’s a bit of a straw woman because she’s been soaking up right-wing talk radio for twenty years. (If you need to know why we’re friends, ask me in the comments.) But a subtler, patronizing version of the same attitudes pervaded the liberal world I grew up in. A lot of white people kinda believe Charles Murray’s insinuations about genetics and I.Q. (Of course, white people wrote the I.Q. tests; let them try and pass the speed I.Q. test of the average rap song.) They feel that the warm dialect Black people speak among themselves is defective, inferior English. The great majority of their interactions with Black and Latino people are those of employers and “help.” Take it from an insider. The separation and hierarchy Isabel Wilkerson identifies as “caste” perpetuate these assumptions and are perpetuated by them, in a vicious cycle.

What is this “white superiority” and where does it come from? It’s a belief in the superiority of European culture, and it’s founded in dominance. In what, exactly, is euroid culture, as I’ve taken to calling it (because then we can say “roid rage” and get a twofer) truly superior? In the technologies of coercion, extraction, and machine fabrication. The firepower to commandeer other lands’ natural resources and the power to wrest and reshape, roughshod, the material world. The miracle of being able to mass-produce cheap, attractive kitchenware for millions while wiping out time-intensive, one-of-a-kind handcrafts. To make expropriated subsistence farmers work for slave wages (or as actual slaves) on coffee plantations built on what was their land, and create a global commodity market coextensive with empire.

What about our art, literature, and music? You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s, and you don’t have to be euroid to love and play Beethoven, or Shakespeare. They are insanely great. But the “Western canon” is narrow and provincial. Saul Bellow once notoriously asked, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” To which my retort would be, “Dizzy Gillespie.” Shamefully imprecise: it’s unlikely that Dizzy’s ancestors were Zulu. But jazz, a syncretistic art form springing from a mighty African root that people of all origins love and play, has a genius that equals Tolstoy and Beethoven, and in at least one respect surpasses them: it’s created on the spot, in front of demanding witnesses, not polished before being published, or practiced, practiced, practiced, perfected, and finally performed.

I remember going through the Metropolitan Museum once, through a gallery of exquisite, finely detailed Asian embroidered silk garments, porcelain vessels, and painted screens . . . and coming out into a gallery of European art contemporary with it: dark, crudely hewn wooden Christs and Madonnas and angels. Gulp . . . we ARE the barbarians.

After that, when my friend Sachiko meticulously peeled her apple, or segmented her clementine after removing every fiber of the white pith, while I just tore into mine and made a mess, I would tell her I was invoking my barbarian privilege. (Also that I had been raised by wolves.)

Not to put down euroid culture . . . just to point out that it is not superior in anything but domination. Its arts and sciences don’t have to go under. They just have to move over. And disarm.

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Social Media Detox 2

August 21, 2020 at 8:46 pm (By Amba) (, , , )

Getting off Facebook again, and for the most part Twitter (I might use it to post links to blog posts if I have anything to share), at least until the election.

I’ve pretty much concluded that the fragile feel-good illusions about the Democratic party and ticket that they have, against all odds, managed to recreate (quite a feat, I have to hand it to them) are all that can just barely save the country and give it a last chance to make good. At full enough flood, that nostalgic resurgence of willfully innocent Kennedy-era idealism might be able to float the country an inch or two over the horrific threshold facing us. Since I recognize that but can’t join in the inspiration (though I feel its pull) or the cheerleading, I’ve decided to stay out of it. So fragile is that gossamer feeling that some of my friends freak out if I express any realism; others are so cynical they seem to think we need another Trump term to trigger revolution, a privileged, romantic idea if I ever heard one. Some other time I’ll post about why I think a revolution is a bad thing to wish for. (Teaser: Revolution was brought to Romania by the Red Army. Romania’s simmering Communist Party seized its chance. The rich were expropriated and set to the lowest manual labor. Yay! Revenge! Some very bright peasants’ and shepherds’ kids got to go to medical school. Yay! Opportunity! As soon as they became full-fledged doctors, they escaped the country any way they could and came to America, where they could make some money and have a nice house, car, and lifestyle. They listened to Rush Limbaugh and now they are all fulminating right-wingers.) Reform is unromantic, but if it’s serious enough (big if), it can actually improve people’s lives, rather than destroying them to save them.

Anyway, I’ll copy some disorganized thoughts I wrote in my journal this morning.

We have to be saved from the abyss if at all possible, and it’s the naïve enthusiasm of the simple (white liberal) folk that will do it. Black people spotted this early on, and it’s why they wisely pushed Joe Biden to the fore. He’s perceived as safe and kindhearted enough for a wide spectrum of frightened constituencies to accept—from the masses of voters to the dollars of donors—and so he, or his handlers, could just barely hold this improbable coalition, with the tensile strength of Jell-o, together just long enough to squeak through the door. Okay, so it’s the same old coalition of the comfortable-enough to be complaisant while the plutocrats fleece us. The difference is that the voters now want to shoehorn the diverse new America into the crude fairness and opportunity of the old (pre-Reagan) America. It was pretty good for them, and they’ve belatedly realized that it wasn’t for everybody. It’s all necessary to survive and to inch forward another half-millimeter toward such justice as glorified chimpanzees are capable of.

The rich must realize they are rich on sufferance, that the only way to enjoy their wealth in peace, without becoming murderers to avoid being murdered, is not to leave the rest of the community behind. To recognize that they are still part of humanity, with reciprocal bonds and obligations, not untrammeled demigods. They have to earn the right to enjoy their wealth in peace, and they can’t be trusted to do it voluntarily. They have to be required to pay the rest of us to grant them that limited license.

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Fall of the Conquerors

July 24, 2020 at 2:20 pm (By Amba) (, , )

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot had two statues of Christopher Columbus removed from Chicago parks and neighborhoods last night. The immediate rationale was public safety: the statues have become flashpoints for confrontations between police and demonstrators; and, in improvised attempts to pull the heavy statues down, people could get hurt. But, after “an inclusive and democratic public dialogue about our city’s symbols,” in the mayor’s words, you can bet those patriarchs will not be back on their pedestals.

I am totally down with seeing these statues disappear from literally lording it over the public square (yes, I’m aware that there have been ignorant excesses of iconoclasm as well as instances of payback targeting monuments to abolitionists). I would be happy to debate anyone who disagrees.

If we are serious about making this the inclusive and equitable country that it potentially is, about fully extending the promises of the Founders to everyone whose ancestors were drawn here by those promises or driven off or dragged here in violation of them, then yes, we DO have to rewrite history from multiple points of view, and we DO have to stop being unquestioningly presided over by the “heroes” of conquest, colonization, and genocide.

We can’t expect historical figures to have had our perspective,* [see UPDATE below], but it’s time to take an unflinching look at their perspective, and to admit that for most of them, racism was an inextricable strand in it that qualified and tainted whatever noble traits they may have had or deeds they did.

Yes, this change is disorienting when you’ve been taught standard American mythology since you were a little kid. The resistance to it is as intense as if we were losing our civic religion and identity. We are! I am all for it. We’re coming into a bigger-hearted one, and the spirit of the old one is being reborn in unexpected ways as a living part of it (see Hamilton, or AOC invoking the dignity of Congress to call out the fellow representative who insulted her).

I hope the statues reappear in dedicated sculpture gardens where their value as artifacts of history, educational aids, and, in some cases, works of art is preserved.

*UPDATE: This made me think again about that statement:

These ‘historical figures’ were significantly outnumbered by their dead. They were a tiny minority of their own population. Yet we treat them as if they are the only people in history.

When people say, “we can’t judge historical figures by the standard of our time’ what they mean is ‘the monsters did not think themselves monstrous”. What they mean is ‘colonized lives don’t matter’. Because these human beings, living at the very same time, certainly knew that these were monsters. I don’t mean in an abstract political-issues-of-the-day sense, I mean in a very real sense of ‘They’re killing me and selling my children’.

It’s as if we write about serial killers, but only from the perspective of serial killers. . . .

A few thousand Europeans colonized millions of people across the world. They laundered this theft by simply rendering the victims subhuman, an injustice we continue to this day.

We talk about historical figures and historical standards as if these millions of people simply did not exist. . . .

These perspectives matter. All of the lives that were silenced by the whip or the noose before, they are silenced by armchair historians today. People talk about a whites only history where only white feelings mattered, and because white people didn’t feel bad, it simply wasn’t bad.

This simply isn’t true. It was bad. The people living it knew.

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Heirs of the Conquerors

June 23, 2020 at 1:41 pm (By Amba) ()

The surfacing of the full extent of racism (into white recognition), like Atlantis rising, is amazing. Shocking what separate lives black and white people still lead, what separate countries we live in. The complacency with which the white country has lived with its knee on the neck of the black. Police forces are the point of the knee, but all the weight behind it is the history of the theft of labor to build the wealth the white country enjoys.

Heirs of the conquerors. All white people partake of being this, to varying degrees (the white working poor, because they sold their souls to have someone beneath them, to participate at least symbolically in the pillage). And when you bring it up to them, they basically say, “Why not?”

Aren’t all of us the heirs of survivors, that is, of the successful crimes of our ancestors? Jacques used to quote one of the French novelists, I forget which: “At the root of every great fortune lies a crime.” This must be true collectively as well. Yes, there may be lineages of honest yeoman and craftspeople but the structure of history remains basically feudal: To which warlord did you swear your fealty in exchange for protection?

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“Coronavirus hits people of color harder.”

April 4, 2020 at 5:13 pm (By Amba) (, )

Illustration of a pie chart with two slices, with the bigger slice shaped as a virus
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
Communities of color and low-income families are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus, Axios’ Sam Baker and Alison Snyder report.

Why it matters: The virus itself doesn’t discriminate. But it’s beginning to reflect the racial and socioeconomic disparities of the cities where it’s spreading and the health care system that’s struggling to contain it.

The big picture: There’s no nationwide data on the demographics of coronavirus cases or deaths. But preliminary data from several large metro areas seem pretty clear.

Black residents make up about 33% of Mecklenburg County, N.C., which includes Charlotte, but account for roughly 44% of its coronavirus cases, according to The Charlotte Observer.

Milwaukee County, Wis., is 26% black — yet African Americans account for almost half of the coronavirus cases and 80% of the deaths, according to ProPublica.

The hardest-hit neighborhoods in New York City have large immigrant populations, per the Wall Street Journal

Statewide data from Michigan show that African Americans make up a plurality of both cases (35%) and deaths (40%), but just 14% of the state’s population.

What they’re saying: “It puzzles me that none of our responses at the federal or state level has talked about race,” said Lehigh University’s Sirry Alang, who studies health disparities and inequities.“There’s been no focus on the ways in which our policy decisions might have unintended consequences for these populations.”

Between the lines: This apparent inequity in coronavirus cases reflects a slew of other, pre-existing disparities.African Americans are more likely to have several underlying health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and some cancers that can make COVID-19 infections more severe.

Lower-income areas — which tend to have larger nonwhite populations — have less access to health care services.Substandard housing, multiple families living together, and homelessness all facilitate the virus’ spread.

* * *

Consider this a companion piece to this post.

Do you think Trump and his followers feel at all badly about this? Or are they (quiet or out loud) somewhere between “act of God” and “serves them right”? It’s horrifying how this serves their agenda.

A Trump supporter I know in Chicago said to me in that “just between us white folks” side-of-the-mouth sotto voce that the majority of COVID-19 cases there are concentrated “on the South Side” (code for “Black”) and it’s because “they’re careless . . . [in a mocking simper] ‘The government will take care of me.'” Then she *shrieked* “I’M SO SICK OF SOCIALISM!!!”

I simply copied an Axios story with all its links, because it won’t let me link to just this part of the newsletter, and Facebook won’t include the links.

But I’ll relent and say, Do read the rest of Axios’s “deep dive.” The next section is headed, “… and its economic impact is unequal, too.”

The bottom line: “It’s a precarious time for people who are already vulnerable.”

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Together alone: The virus and the phone

April 1, 2020 at 12:50 am (By Amba) ()

National trauma. I read those words in The Atlantic and I think: Where is this “national trauma,” exactly? Is it located somewhere in the spaces between people, a fluid we’ve all been swept struggling off our feet by, like a toxic tsunami? Or is it granular, stuck as unique, angular shapes inside the hearts of individuals who can’t breathe or can’t pay the rent? It’s all around us but not within us, or it’s within us but not transmissible from one to another even though the virus is nothing but. We can’t get a grip on the trauma and make it real unless we get sick. And then we’re alone, in a basement or an apartment, or on a ventilator. Or shoulder to shoulder in a packed ER, where instead of our phones we’re now siloed by “social distancing” and respiratory distress. When we can’t hold and comfort our friends, rallying cries to drum up a “We” ring false. The only thing uniting us is fear, and fear is the most isolating of feelings.

“Nothing will ever be the same,” but so far it is all too much the same. We are 21st-century virtual people hologrammed into a brute 19th- or 15th- century reality. Not enough has changed yet. We’re meeting the new reality with the old tools: words, pills, takeout and streaming entertainment services. Maybe the “national trauma” is located in the yammerings of pundits, and I’d have to add us micropundits on social media. We’ve had words, words, words, decades of words, we expended so much vehemence and eloquence on much lesser ills, and the real thing hasn’t yet struck us dumb. We still have the same kinds of words and so we have no words. The words reduce this to just more of the same virtual unreality that we’ve been consuming for years in the floods of TV and op-eds and superhero movies and commercials and “social.” The silence of misery hasn’t yet engulfed the luxury of commentary. Note to self: We won’t get it till we shut up.

And we won’t shut up till we get it, and can’t breathe.

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An uneasy suspicion gathers

March 28, 2020 at 10:20 am (By Amba) (, , )

like an unformed storm.

I’m posting this tweet mainly so you can see the thread below it—a lot of “die, New York, die, LA” sentiment.

In the absence of an early smart response, bluer states are generally hit sooner, harder, faster (is this a new Olympics?) by the virus than redder states because of large cities with high population density.

And, the MAGAs would be sure to point out, diversity. Queens is full of working-class people who are being hard hit, but that very population is also, I think, the most diverse in the U.S. Immigrants and their descendants from all over the world—Romania, Thailand, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, you name it.

It’s almost as if . . . well, you can see where I’m going. Maybe better than I can. I’m not sure where I’m going.

The more thinly populated and less-diverse red states that preponderate in the Electoral College are also being hit later and less intensively by the virus. If nothing else, they will use this to tout the superiority of their way of life.

But they are not invulnerable either; the virus, unlike the species it infects, doesn’t discriminate. What will happen when MAGA communities begin to lose loved ones?

“Others” will be blamed, for sure. That’s one of the things that will happen. Blamed and possibly attacked.

Trump’s delayed and addled response will not. Wasn’t that really a smart chess move, or a lucky break, or an act of God, to decapitate and depopulate blue (and multicolored) America?

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A Case of . . . ?

March 27, 2020 at 7:42 am (By Amba) (, )

This is me, settling happily into solitary.

Until . . .

3:30 a.m. Fell asleep with the lights on in a strange tumbled position, and woke up feeling weird: slightly nauseated, shaky, palpitations. Is this “it”? It’s not quite 14 days since I saw [a friend who later got sick].

7:05 a.m. That was very strange. My heart was going double time and palpitating; my head felt light, dizzy, achy, my muscles were quivering, my body not quite shaking, although I didn’t feel hot or cold. It felt as if my body was alarmed. Not my mind: this did not feel like it flowed from fearful thoughts or bad dreams. It felt very specifically as if my body was alarmed, independently of “me.” I didn’t know how to get comfortable or fall back to sleep. I could understand how people with the new disease could stand up and pass out. I wondered colorfully if I’d have to crawl to the bathroom.

My understanding is that the immune overreaction to something unfamiliar and proliferating is what kills you, not so much damage from the virus itself. So I tried having an unafraid, curious, and receptive, even welcoming attitude toward it, even though I also felt my mind was beside the point. “Hello, little virus. Welcome to the neighborhood. I hear you’re going to be living around here from now on. We’re going to get to know each other, so we might as well get started.”

For whatever reason, the physiological alarm gradually subsided. I felt floaty for a few moments, as if my horizontal body were weightless and starting to levitate. I thought, “Maybe one way to look at this is as a trip.” My heart had calmed. My quads and jaw muscles stopped quivering. I gradually relaxed and fell asleep.

I woke up several hours later feeling pretty normal.

I think this is what’s called “a case of overactive imagination.”

It serves a purpose, though. It gives me a concrete excuse not to go out and help [a stranded elderly neighbor], just in case. This thing notoriously comes and goes. You never know.

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Hospital Hell is for Heroes

March 26, 2020 at 3:40 pm (By Amba) (, )

This is from Teresa Hanafin’s Boston Globe newsletter “Fast Forward.”

From the Globe:

At Massachusetts General Hospital, 41 members of the staff have tested positive for COVID-19, as have 45 employees at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. At Tufts Medical Center, 31 workers have the virus, and at Boston Medical Center, 15 have tested positive.

Yesterday, an internal medicine resident at Columbia named Meredith Case wrote on Twitter:

I feel I must tweet because the press does not reflect our reality. The deluge is here. Our ICU is completely full with intubated COVID patients. We are rapidly moving to expand capacity. We are nearly out of PPE. I anticipate we will begin rationing today.

Today was the worst day anyone has ever seen, but tomorrow will be worse. We are on the precipice of rationing. Needless to say, these decisions run counter to everything we stand for and are incredibly painful.

Staffing these beds requires incredible resources. Hard to say which will run out first — staffing, physical beds, ventilators, or other life support devices, e.g. CRRT machines to run continuous dialysis for the many patients developing renal failure.

Tough day. Floor beds were converted to ICU beds on the fly as a cascade of patients in the ED and on the floor required emergent intubation. Inspiring to watch RN, NP/PA and MD administration come together to find a way to care for these patients.

The number of cases in Louisiana is surging. Michigan hospitals are reaching capacity. Infections in the US are rapidly approaching 70,000, and the number of deaths raced past 1,000 overnight. New Jersey, population 9 million, has the second-highest number of cases in the country — 4,400 — likely because of its adjacency and connections to New York, where cases now have surpassed 33,000.

It’s getting bad out there, folks, especially for our health care workers — not just those in the hospitals, nursing homes, an other care facilities, but also the EMTs, paramedics, police, firefighters, home health aides … They all are risking their health and their lives, working frantically to keep the rest of us safe.

Because that is what they do.

Don’t talk to me about athletes or entertainers being heroes because they toss around a football with a sick kid. That’s really nice, and very kind, but it’s not heroic. I know a hero when I see one, and she’s wearing a surgical mask.

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Eye of the Storm

March 25, 2020 at 8:48 am (By Amba) (, , )

It is surreal being “in the city but not of it.'” I’m reading about the trouble beyond my walls same as you. I have no direct experience so far of the crisis reportedly overwhelming NYC’s health care facilities. I’m sitting here in my timeless little apartment in the middle of white silence, like Dorothy when her house was spinning through the air. I wouldn’t be surprised to look out my window and see Margaret Hamilton pedaling by.

Someone I saw 11 days ago has had symptoms for 6 days. It sounds just like the CV but so far he’s not sick enough to get tested, may it stay that way. We met outdoors on a windy day and we both felt healthy. I still do and am optimistic that I’m virus free, but concerned about him. He’s not old enough to be high-risk but has had a load of stress.

I sometimes help a friend in her mid–late 80s in the neighborhood (who also lives alone in a 4-story walk-up) with shopping or doctor appointments when she can’t get an aide. She has a fresh leg injury (a calf muscle tear from a cramp in her sleep? the timing could not be worse) and what appears to be a worsening infection. She’s at risk of falling, has an alert button. Her twice-a-week aide took a photo of the leg and she got an emergency supply of antibiotics, which make her feel sick. She’s trying to get into a rehab facility but, depending on the delay, may need me to shop and bank for her. Other friends normally help her too, but I’m the last one left now who’s still in the city, healthy, and mobile.

Online live karate classes 3x a week from the empty, shining Karatedo Honma Dojo are already a lifeline, bringing refreshment and structure to what could otherwise slump into a shapeless, listless mess. It’s so much easier to ride a wave of group energy from an inexhaustible ocean of tradition than to impose discipline on oneself. I even vacuum beforehand to make the space worthy, which makes it a lot nicer the rest of the time.

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