The language of our bondage

I have left five countries already, two of them warzones. My pen-name, Deracine, comes from the French déraciné, meaning a person who has been uprooted from their natural environment, deracinated. To me, calls of patriotism have only ever meant the lure of a conditional love. Anthems that say, give and you shall receive. Rhetoric and nostalgia may hide, respectively, the debts being collected under the banner of “ask not what your country can do for you,” or “Make America great again,” but the conditionality of citizenship is always right there.

As someone who, in a past life, studied and taught ethics, such transactional conditionality is simply a fact and not betrayal. Citizenship is service. Give more in taxes and receive more in healthcare and other services. As long as the law of equivalent exchange is upheld, there is nothing inherently problematic in this. But the relationship becomes abusive when a country demands fealty and love that it cannot reciprocate, when it blames its own failures on the citizens it fails to serve. Countries do not, and cannot, love you back.

Some of us have, of course, always known this. What we’re witnessing in America today is the mass discovery of this fact; an apocalypse, in the truest meaning of the world (apo-kaluptein = uncover, in the Greek). It should not come as a surprise that the President of the U.S. does not understand “what was in it for them” in the sacrifice of military veterans. He “simply does not understand non-transactional life-choices.”

It’s not just him, though. This image made the rounds recently, prompting outrage at the majority of Republicans and a third of Independents who considered the number of U.S. deaths from Covid-19 to be acceptable. Given how skewed the methodology is for such surveys, I’d imagine the actual numbers are far higher. Still, these numbers are not surprising to me. I have an idea how we got here.

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In that past life when I taught philosophy, it was to the smart and precocious PSAT-aceing kind of privileged high-school kids that could take summer classes in ethics because they did not have to hold down jobs. Now, these kids wanted to be good. In fact, it was unthinkable for them to not be good (academically or morally). But they would still throw their mothers off a boat without question or hesitation if it meant a cure for cancer. They believed wholeheartedly in eugenics as the most rational and utilitarian choice, until they saw Gattaca and their little teenage hearts broke for Ethan Hawke. Still, they did not understand the value of human life outside of the frame of the “meritocracy” of their educational system. Their budding sense of moral conviction was both inflexible and fragile, making them exceedingly dangerous.

These are the kids who are in government today. These are the same mother-killing children who are running product teams at Uber, Facebook, Google and yes, Palantir and Genentech. The good ones have some moral conviction. But very few of them have the muscle to navigate our present ethical crisis. This is because moral conviction can come from many places, but moral fiber only comes from trauma.

Trauma can be ancestral or individual, but it is always deeply personal. The leaders I’ve worked with demonstrate a wide range of moral capability, dependent on the degree to which they have personally experienced trauma. One executive became an activist after the immigrant ban. He said firmly, “This is different. They’re coming after my family.” Another time, I wanted to make a policy change that would help reduce bias in a certain process and took it to an exec, one who is used to moving budgets that are in the billions. But he was also an immigrant. He listened carefully to the idea.

I said, “It may not help that many people, but — ”

He interrupted me, saying, “Even one is a large number when it comes to people.”

Such leaders give me hope, but most are not like this. The vast majority of them play down the concerns raised to them, the way the brain tries to tell nerve-endings to shut up when it has determined that there isn’t sufficient danger to raise the warning levels. This is because, for the most part, and for the vast majority of people, things are still fine. They don’t even see the crisis if they have not experienced it as personal trauma. After all, the privileged (and I include myself here) have entered their escape-pods.

It is why I fear that even if we manage to have a peaceful transition of power in November (something I am very doubtful will happen) we will have failed to confront the underlying moral problem behind the American labor crisis: which is that Americans on all sides of the political spectrum, from the state-sponsored alt-right terrorists to the tech CEOs who are trying hard to move us to a robot-army future, are saying that people are expensive.

This is not a partisan mindset. Such thinking is so prevalent that it’s almost too banal for comment. It’s in how we think about where we establish call-centers or contract workers, or supporting the healthcare needs of women and transgender people, or how we enable people with disabilities in the workplace, but can also be encoded in something as subtle as how we treat the homeless or the elderly. Counting the cost is part of our language, of how we think. It is not even an exclusively capitalist mindset, and although the economic function of the 996 workweek in China might be different from the indentured labor practices of Silicon Valley, the underlying message is the same: “You are only worth what you can produce.”

For a while that message was even credible, and corporations with good benefits could use the language of “family” and “partnership” to garner deep loyalty, but the pandemic has exposed the lie that wages are at all correlated with the essentiality or difficulty of our work. After all, how can we justify any longer why any lawyer, banker or corporate executive should be paid several hundred times what is paid to frontline healthcare workers?

We talk about self-worth and productivity far more than we talk about self-love and happiness. We speak of individual contributions and liberties with more ease and pride than we speak of needing community support and mutual aid. We don’t even have to go as far back as the legacy of the slave-trade to know that modern corporations have terminology for talking interchangeably about people, money and objects: the words capital, assets, resources, funding and investment can refer to either. And so it was also no surprise when a few years ago, this ad appeared at a Bay Area BART station, funded by a self-declared progressive group, playing into citizens’ fears that they are not giving enough and are therefore considered expensive, undeserving, and replaceable by “cheaper” immigrants.

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Note the words they use in that subway station ad. Expensive. Undeserving. Expendable. The backlash against the ad called it “anti-immigrant hate” which was about as useful as having a priest talk about demons in the middle of a corporate merger. If the labor crisis is presented as a cost tradeoff, and we’re talking about anti-immigrant hate instead of reframing the conversation, we are bound to lose.

I reference this ad in today’s episode of The Night Wolves because it is indicative of so many systemic problems at once: the unchecked nature of political advertising, the pricing of human life according to productivity, and the crab mentality around citizenship that drives Americans to kick immigrants out of the country even when immigrants pay $100 billion in taxes per year in California alone. The fact that such thinking pervades a deep blue state should be a warning to everyone that the problem is not limited to a few talking heads in D.C or even to our governance structures. We would not be here if the very fabric of our society wasn’t stained at the start.

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In my essay on surfing, I talk about how the language men have established for the sport is inherently one of violence. In the same way, the language men have established for citizenship is fundamentally one of exploitation. Nowhere is this more clear than in David Graeber’s excellent essay on Ferguson and the criminalization of American life.

If two people punch each other, or even draw a knife on each other, police are unlikely to get involved. Drive down the street in a car without license plates, on the other hand, and the authorities will show up instantly, threatening all sorts of dire consequences if you don’t do exactly what they tell you.

The police, then, are essentially just bureaucrats with weapons. Their main role in society is to bring the threat of physical force — even, death — into situations where it would never have been otherwise invoked, such as the enforcement of civic ordinances about the sale of untaxed cigarettes.

For most of American history, police enforcement of such regulations was not considered a major source of funding for local government. But today, in many municipalities, as much as 40% of the money governments depend on comes from the kinds of predatory policing that has become a fact of life for the citizens of Ferguson.

Life in the “middle-class” has become untenable: more people than ever are leaving the cities, moving in with their parents, or dying in the genocide of institutional neglect or violence. America, the colony, has become the colonizer, and during a pandemic that constrains her reach to her own borders she has become the ouroboros, the snake devouring its own tail with insatiable hunger.

“You’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

I have read enough David Graeber to wish for the proletarian revolution, but I have also read as much YA fiction as I have Enlightenment philosophy to know that there will probably not be one. Because the American dream, granted to a select few, of transcending surrounding poverty and systemic marginalization to succeed on raw individual talent is no different than the Capital’s offer of a year’s reprieve to the winner of the Hunger Games. “A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.

And the spark is well-contained. Even those of us aware of our golden handcuffs this Labor Day are unwilling to give up our shot at reaching the “head” or are afraid of falling into the “tail” and being eaten. Someone making $70,000 a year in California today is a success story, but they are also barely surviving, especially if they have student loans, a mortgage, a child or a medical emergency. But that ray of hope that such a high-paying job exists at the end of four years of education sends more people, year after year, into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for a university education anyway.

Should executive pay be cut? Probably, but how unfair that we’re only thinking about this now when representation of women and people of color in those ranks is finally becoming a priority. Should billionaires exist? Probably not. But only 5 billionaires in the U.S. are Black, and only one of them is a woman. Why should those long excluded from the halls of power and inherited wealth not get a chance to experience it before being asked to let it go?

This, then, is the language of our bondage. We watch a few like us succeed despite the system and internalize their luck as our laziness or personal failure. We hope, we strive, we transact and we reach for the tops of ladders, for the halls of power, for that place where we might, finally, feel safe from violence, from exploitation, from pandemics and wildfires. For that moment where we might finally experience the country we live in not as conditional or as a debt to be repaid, but as home.

RIP David Graeber. The odds are not in our favor, and never have been. Happy Labor Day.

Author of "Driving by Starlight" https://goo.gl/N35aS1 and “The Night Wolves” http://bit.ly/TheNightWolves I'm on Twitter at @anat_deracine

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