Friday, September 02, 2016

Weekend Reading: The Two Weeks in One Edition

Thanks for the suggestions on my last post. I think my first step will be to take a proper day off. The next step is to figure out which day that can be. Maybe I can swing a day off next Friday. As a down payment, I'm taking off early today to go rollerblading by the bay. It is a gorgeous day here and I want to go enjoy it a bit!

But first, I need to share some links. I'm not sure I'll pick up all the links I meant to share last week. Maybe I'll get some more in next week.

Read Arlie Russell Hochschild's Mother Jones article about spending time with white blue collar people in Louisiana.

And then read Washington Post piece about prescription drug addition and rising death rates in white women.

Read those two together, because I think maybe they're two aspects of the same story, a story that I'm struggling to grasp but starting to understand as perhaps being a story about a failire in white American culture. I think it is linked to the lack of breathing room I wrote about back in May. (Was that really all the way back in May? My, this summer flew past.)

Like I said, I can't quite get the story to come into focus yet, but here's what I'm thinking. Note that in this thinking, I'm focusing specifically on white people in the US. Some of this may be true for people of color, too. I do not know and although I'd eventually like to understand the full picture, including everyone, right now I'm thinking specifically about what is going on in white America that gives us falling life expectancies and Donald Trump and other bad things like that.

Anyway, here's my line of thought so far: White culture in the US looks down on taking help, particularly from the government. I've seen this during layoffs, when some of my colleagues have been reticent to claim their unemployment checks, even though those are benefits they paid into and that they have every legal right to claim.

But we're not supposed to need help, and we've had generations of people telling us that taking "government handouts" is bad and a sign of moral weakness. Usually these messages came with coded racial undertones. Sometimes they came in an outright racist framing. The message is that "upstanding" people like us white people don't need help. We work hard and pay our own way.

Meanwhile, we have a culture that tells us our worth is tied up in our productivity and our work. A lot of people I know have a very large part of their identity tied up in what they do for work. In fact, I do, too. This is part of what I struggled with when I changed careers.

These things combine to make us not take the vacation time we're owed, even when we can afford the time off. I suspect this has made it easier for companies not to provide paid time off to all of their employees. We shouldn't need time off! We are hard-working! And so we have a growing sector of jobs in which employees can't even afford sick days, let alone vacation time.

Even among the salaried classes, we're working harder and harder, trying to get more productivity from our work time, not so that we can take some time off, but so that we can do more work. Because that's what makes us valuable: the work we do.

In this culture, the only way you feel entitled to a break is by being physically unable to work, by having a medical ailment.  So we work people until they have physical ailments: bad backs and the like. Or people take themselves to their doctors feeling physically unwell, and what may actually be exhaustion or something like it presents as a physical medical condition that the doctors try to treat.

And all of this stress and pressure and constant working isn't doing our mental health any good, either. So maybe we self-medicate to unwind a bit, to help us get through our lives, which feel so much harder than we think they should.

I'm thinking that maybe for some people, this eventually leads to addictions. And for some people it leads to racism like what Trump is exploiting, because we need someone to blame for how crappy our lives feel and we have a long cultural history of blaming "those people."

Like I said, I'm still trying to think this through. But that's what reading those two pieces has made me think about.

Moving on...

All of these thoughts and a bunch of others have made me think more and more about how we can create a little more breathing room of all types for everyone. Here's a good post by Tressie McMillan Cottom about one idea for creating breathing room for students who need it.

And here's a thread about what operating without margin looks like for some college students:

Here's Tressie McMillan Cottom about why the announcement from Georgetown about giving the descendents of the slaves that helped build Georgetown legacy admissions status is remarkable, but not reparations.

Read that piece even if you don't care two hoots about Georgetown. Read it and think about what it might mean for our country if we could pay reparations to Black people still dealing with the harm accumulated through slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and the like. McMillan Cottom writes:

"Reparations has three components: acknowledgement, restitution, and closure."

Think about what it would mean to acknowledge the harms and provide restitution. Think about what it would mean to enable closure. I firmly believe we're going to need to find a way to do this if we are ever going to really fulfill the promise of our multicultural, multi-ethnic society. We had our chance during Reconstruction and blew it. We'll need to try again eventually. I think it is in everyone's interest to do it. I have no idea how we get enough people to realize that, and see the promise offered by really achieving some closure on the racist wounds of our past, to make this happen.

I used to think that we needed to stop doing racist damage before we could make reparations for past damage, but I am starting to think that maybe the acknowledgement piece of reparations is going to be a necessary precondition to stopping the damage. Until we can acknowledge the past, we will continue to misread the present and that will make us do harm.

For an example of the damage we continue to do, read Gene Demby's storify on black-on-black crime.

Ijeoma Oluo's piece about growing up Black with a white mother is beautiful and moving.

Linguist John McWhorter wrote a really good piece about racial euphamisms.

Moving  on again...

Vox's Matt Yglesias has had it with the media's treatment of the Clinton Foundation.

I really liked this piece about being in the last generation that can remember life before the internet.

This is a really longread from CNN (of all places!) about journeying down the San Jaoquin river, the "most endangered river in America" but it is really worth your time.

Here's Bad Mom, Good Mom about one of the things that is great about the US: free access to weather data!

Here's my funny thing to end on, the story of how my high school English teacher told me that Langston Hughes' poem "I, Too" was about a stove:

OK, I lied. Here's another funny thing: this XKCD cartoon made me chuckle.

And now I'm off for some rollerblading to end my work week. Happy Labor Day to folks in the US. Happy weekend to everyone else!


  1. "In this culture, the only way you feel entitled to a break is by being physically unable to work, by having a medical ailment."

    Last year, I found myself wishing for pneumonia so that I could stay home from work. I got pneumonia. It was not a solution to my problems.

    1. Yeah, I've been guilty of wishing to be sick in order to get a break... but of course, really being sick is not a real break. It is messed up.

  2. Thanks for the link. I just want to point out that, in the world's largest so-called democracy (India), their citizens cannot get weather data for their own country. They come to the US to get weather data for free. If they have money, they can also buy if from the Europeans. The Chinese also come to us for free and freely-available data. That speaks volumes about what kind of societies they truly are.

    Also, the Europeans sell it but we believe that accurate and timely weather data is a human right. We don't get paid as much and we don't have as much computational power as the Europeans. What do you think about the trade-off?

  3. mary d7:09 AM

    Regarding the Mother Jones article - if you haven't been reading Sarah Smarsh, you should. She writes extensively about the poor, poverty in America, etc. in such an eloquent way. She also RTs a lot of articles in a similar vein on her Twitter account. I highly recommend "Poor Teeth" and "Dear Daughter, Your Mom", among others, but those are a good start. She grew up poor in Kansas and writes about the people she knows and loves (and still is) without the condescension we so often get from journalists trying to "understand" why things are the way they are.


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