A response to Yasha Levine’s “All EFF’d Up”

I sent the following in to The Baffler, but it does not appear that they publish letters either in their print publication or online, so I’ve put it here. I have not received any response or acknowledgment yet from The Baffler editors.

This is in response to Yasha Levine’s essay “All EFF’d Up” about the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Yasha Levine’s screed against the EFF overlooks a couple of major campaigns that contradict their thesis of its being a “corporate front”.

First, EFF has campaigned strongly against software patents which large tech companies love, as they provide leverage over smaller competitors (including the threat of their own employees leaving and starting competitive businesses).

Second, EFF has consistently fought tooth and nail against so-called “free trade” agreements such as CAFTA, FTAA, and TPP that are really instruments to reduce democracy and increase corporate power through the backdoor. If the EFF was a good corporate stooge, they would have supported such agreements wholeheartedly.

The fact is that the EFF is an uneasy mix of liberals, libertarians, and leftists. They tend to focus on things they can all agree on, which is why government surveillance has been such a hot-button issue for them, and opposition to surveillance capitalism has been harder to build internal consensus around.



Too many meanings for “reproductive labor” and “emotional labor”

It strikes me that two important feminist / Marxist concepts each have, confusingly, two separate meanings.

First, there’s the concept of “reproductive labor”. Wikipedia says it’s “work often associated with care giving and domestic roles including cleaning, cooking, child care, and the paid domestic labor force”. But there are two, maybe three, separate parts.

One part is the actual physical reproduction of new human beings, and (perhaps should be considered separate) the work of raising those new human beings, taking care of them, teaching them, etc.

The second part of reproductive labor is the daily work of maintaining a household so that the paid workers can go out and work the next day – cooking the meals, doing the laundry, etc. These two things are related, obviously, but the maintenance and renewal of existing paid workers versus bringing up a new generation are different and we should have different names for them.

The second term is “emotional labor”. If you’re new to this, there’s a fantastic PDF called “Emotional Labor: The MetaFilter Thread Condensed“. This is a somewhat newer term, and a very useful one for dissecting ways in which men offload work in undervalued and unpaid ways onto women.

But again, there are two very different parts to this.

First, there is true emotional labor – the work of handling other people’s emotions, taking care of them, etc. etc.

But there’s also something else which should be its own term, which is organizational labor. Here is where a wife complains that her husband says he’ll help out around the house, but he insists on being given tasks, and doesn’t just figure out what needs to be done and then do it. The wife often just does all the work out of exasperation.

Interestingly, this organizational labor is a kind of executive function, which in the marketplace is highly valued not only with compensation but also with control of corporations. Yet in the household it is completely devalued.

Why I no longer support the Long Now Foundation

Several years ago, I was very pleased to find the Long Now Foundation. I appreciated their focus on long-term thinking, was delighted by their 10,000-year clock project, and enjoyed their monthly seminars. The seminars were informative and thought-provoking, and best of all, were attended by intelligent, interesting people, some of whom I got to know at the receptions after the talks.

Unfortunately, the quality and focus declined and after a while I ended my membership. A staff member followed up by asking me, “We would really appreciate your thoughts on membership, especially what we could have done or offered that would have encouraged you to keep your membership going?”

That prompted me to articulate what I had grown to dislike about the Long Now Foundation. This was a little over a year ago, but I’ve been thinking about it lately and thought it might be valuable to add it to this blog.

(August 16, 2016)
I have lapsed my membership because the foundation doesn’t seem to me to be following its calling of supporting long-term thinking.

A couple years ago I noticed that I attended fewer and fewer seminars, which I used to enjoy, because they had degenerated to TED-style talks on topics less and less relevant to long-term thinking. In particular, it’s amazing to me how little the Long Now Foundation talks about climate change. The next few centuries are going to be the “Long Emergency” as we and our descendants try to cope with the consequences of current and past greenhouse gas emissions. We really need to be ringing the alarm bells about changing our society and the way we live our lives right now, rather than chatting about cheery little geoengineering ideas or marshmallow tests.

In addition, I grew tired of Stewart Brand’s focus on big technology and capitalism as solutions to the problems we face and as an assumption for our world in the future. Capitalism is a particular social form that has lasted for a few hundred years at the most. It is not logical to assume that it is the social form society will take for the next several thousand years, not if we are to have a viable planet, anyway.

Not sure that helps, but there it is.



No, We Don’t Stand Together

The slogan “We Stand Together” is as bad as “All Lives Matter”, and Bernie supporters would do well to steer clear of it.

Everyone should realize by now how hollow the phrase “All Lives Matter” is. If black people had used the slogan “All Lives Matter” originally, that would actually mean what it says. But the phrase “All Lives Matter” was only uttered after the slogan “Black Lives Matter” burst upon the scene. “Black Lives Matter” is used to emphasize that black lives do matter, in the face of a society that so clearly does not value black lives.

In that context, the phrase “All Lives Matter” is a retort – it opposes “Black Lives Matter”, covers it up, hides it under the false universal of “all lives”. But, of course, if all lives truly mattered, there would be no need to say “Black Lives Matter”.

In the same way, “We Stand Together” uses a false universal. Who is we? “We” are the white progressives who don’t want to be distracted by all this discussion of racism and white supremacy – that’s “someone else’s issue”. Why can’t we instead talk about class, or debt, or the 1% – you know, the issues that matter to “all” of “us”.

This is the same “we” of feminism that obscures women of color and trans women. This is the “we” of gay rights that says that staying in solidarity with the “T” of LGBT is just too divisive.

We don’t stand together. Some of us do stand in a very different position vis-à-vis the police, the courts, the banks, the job market, etc., etc. The reaction of the crowd to the Seattle interruption shows exactly why it is necessary to keep bringing up the issue of race.

“We Stand Together” is a blatant attempt to shut down dissent, to crowd it out, to refuse to listen to it. If you’re standing in a crowd of Bernie Sanders supporters who start chanting “We Stand Together”, do the honorable thing: sit down. Or even, lie down for Mike Brown.

What is Islamophobia?

I just had a bit of jolting experience.

I wanted to make some notes (on actual paper, for once), and I grabbed a notebook. The notebook had all kinds of random scribblings: notes about books; ideas for blog posts; to-do lists started, amended, re-written, and abandoned; German vocabulary for understanding something by Walter Benjamin; notes from a USPTO Software Patent Roundtable. I mean this thing is random. Various projects that never got off the ground over the last five years.

And I think to myself, why don’t I rip out the pages relating to the more thoroughly dead projects? As I start to do so, I stop briefly. I look down at the page. It’s got Arabic letters on it.

And I remember that one time I saw that the tiny, hole-in-the-wall mosque on my block taught weekly Arabic lessons, all levels, beginners welcome, etc. And I decided to check it out. It was a very informal affair, taught by a native speaker to a handful of students with very little knowledge of Arabic. I quickly realized that this class would progress very slowly, if at all, and said, ok, well I checked it out. And thought no more thereon.

When I paused at the page, though, it wasn’t because of this memory. It was because some tiny part in the back of my brain said, woah. Hold up. This is dangerous stuff. Might need to put that in the shredder, not the recycling. What if the feds were searching the garbage and this tidbit just elevated your KST score?

Well, it didn’t say all that. The tiny part of my brain just said “woah”. But behind the woah was a lot of forethought about danger. And although I regard the scenario as far-fetched, unfortunately it’s not as far-fetched as it used to be. (After all, we now know that the US government takes a picture of the outside of every piece of mail and that their procedures for “No Fly” lists and evaluating “Known and Suspected Terrorists” are decisively Kafka-esque.)

This is the power of state-backed Islamophobia today. It reached way into the back of my brain and planted this fear not of Muslims, but a fear of Islam as a dangerous subject, a known or suspected terrorist, a bad reputation.

When will we tire of their games? The war on Communism, the war on drugs, the war on Islam. It’d be pathetic if it didn’t have such dire human consequences.


Pantrarna! – Radical Youth Organizing in Suburban Sweden

I came across this trailer for a documentary about a Swedish group called “The Panthers” (inspired by the Black Panthers, of course) and my mind was blown. Watch it, maybe five or ten times if you’d like, and then I’ll explain the background a little bit.

Sweden, Race, and the Suburbs

In the United States, historically, the “inner city” has been populated by poor people – immigrants or Blacks – and in the last 60 years, the suburbs have been primarily known as rich, white areas. In much of Europe, this is reversed – the inner cities are richer, whiter, and more politically powerful, and the poorer people are in the outlying suburbs. In particular, the people of color who have immigrated in large numbers to Europe since the end of World War Two live in these suburbs. (In the US we are now shifting to this pattern – our cities are being violently reshaped, with evictions and displacement of lower-income people, especially people of color, to the suburbs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the San Francisco Bay Area – a topic for a different blog post.)

It’s worth remembering that race is a social construct. It wasn’t so long ago in the US that Irish people weren’t considered white. Jews are thoroughly integrated into whiteness in America in a way that would astonish someone who lived just 60 or 70 years ago. While white supremacy is a global system, it’s going to look and act differently in each place. You can see that in Sweden, people who would read as white in the US are identified as Other. So if you watch that trailer again or watch the “do not treat us like animals” documentary (see below), keep in mind that almost anyone with a little bit of melanin is likely to have a history of racial oppression in Sweden.

THAT is a dope logo.

Continue reading “Pantrarna! – Radical Youth Organizing in Suburban Sweden”

Class and Unhappiness

I had a bizarre evening. I went to a party at the house of a colleague who, it turns out, is quite rich. I couldn’t help but see class in all the interactions of the evening, especially the hired staff in the background who cleared away plates and poured drinks. I had a great conversation with the doorman, who plays poker online for a living, and was doing this job to make ends meet while waiting to collect money held up in various online forums due to the US trying to illegalize online gambling.

Later, on the way home, I ran into a friend of a friend who is a solid middle-class blue-collar worker, doing carpentry in the homes of the rich. He pointed out that the rich are often miserable. We talked for a while about how the system is so fucked up that even those who are “benefiting” from it, those who succeed by its rules, are often unhappy. In other words, even many elements of the ruling class are so unhappy under our current social system that they are amenable to a discussion about how we could organize our lives differently.

We don’t envy the rich so much as we feel sorry for them. And we extend our hand to them, to join us in creating an entirely new world.

Update – 2011/05/16

I don’t mean to imply that all rich people (or the party host) are unhappy. But I do think there is a pattern where unhappy people who aren’t well-off can imagine that their unhappiness will be cured by money; if they succeed in becoming rich, and remain unhappy, they are at a loss for what the underlying problem could be. Even the “winners” in our society are often profoundly alienated.

The dazzling hypocrisy of "Don’t Make Us Pay"

I came across these ads recently:

Oh my god! The bad mean government wants to make you pay more to use debit cards! Are they levying a tax?

Of course not. This is a campaign by the banks to repeal a law that limits the fees they can charge retailers. They really don’t like any limitations at all, do they?

Continue reading “The dazzling hypocrisy of "Don’t Make Us Pay"”

Bastille Day in Egypt: Amn Dawla and the coming floods

There’s been very little that’s hit any mainstream news sources, but the Twitter hashtag #AmnDawla follows an astounding story.

Amn Dawla (أمن الدولة) means “State Security”. This is Egypt’s equivalent of the Stasi – spying on, controlling, and torturing the citizens of Egypt under Mubarak. And – this is really important – don’t forget that the US outsourced most of its torture to Egypt. The CIA kidnaps people off of the streets of cities like Milan, or takes them from battlefields, and then engages in “extraordinary rendition”: delivers them to third parties like Egypt to be tortured.

Continue reading “Bastille Day in Egypt: Amn Dawla and the coming floods”