TEDx Cruz: Creatively destructing the presidency

imageSo let me start with a story.  The story is about some events that occurred in my life — (laughter) — and some emotions I had as a result — (applause).  One day I was watching Oprah and thinking to myself, “what a change-maker!”  You know, because she made change.  And I wondered how I could make change, too.  How could I be a thought-leader?  An influencer?  That night at supper, I asked my wife Heidi, “Heidi, hon, do I remind you of Oprah?”  But she didn’t answer because when I talk, which she prefers I don’t, she pretends not to hear.  That was all the encouragement I needed, so I decided to run for president.

Turns out it takes a lot of positive thinking to manifest the highest office in the United States of America.  I had already been elected to the Senate in 2012 when a bunch of Texans sneezed and accidentally marked the bubble next to my name, but with the decline in bee populations, I couldn’t guarantee that there would be as much ambient pollen in 2016.  So I needed a backup plan, a life hack, a philosophy of government.


I took my wife Heidi out for brunch.  “Heidi, what’s my philosophy of government?” I inquired, but she merely murmured “open the hangar, here comes the plane!” and spooned my IHOP® Berries & Cream Belgian Waffle into my waiting mouth.  So I decided that a small government would be best.  But how small?  Out I went to the tiny 2500 square foot garage behind my Houston home, where I like to relax when I get anxious about the thought that my two beautiful daughters may one day have Tumblr accounts that list their pronouns as “whatever, dude” and their genders as “FUCK THE BINARY.”  Like so many innovators before me, I knew I needed to build something that didn’t already exist, using only my ingenuity and a large amount of seed money from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s lawyer.  I began to tinker and tweak and disrupt until I had the most minuscule political structure imaginable, and then, using nuclear particles, zapped away until it was a nano-government.  I was very proud of the thing I had innovated and went to show Heidi, but she had carved “NOT NOW TED” in her bedroom door with a knife that had been used to brutally murder two California college students in September 1969, so I decided to try her again later.


The best thing about my small government is that it can be exported.  As an expert once said, size is inversely proportional to efficiency, and my government doesn’t have much size.  You could pack twelve of them into a three-ounce bottle, pop it in your carry-on, install them in a village like Africa, and be back in D.C. in time to vote on an abortion ban.  You could take them on mission trips, drop them from helicopters into densely forested areas of third-world countries, send them in envelopes along with a donation to an orphanage where all the children look very sad, but grateful for your help.  I’m telling you — these things are a game-changer.  I have a hundred or so in the pocket of my suit coat right now — I bet you couldn’t even tell!  That’s how small my government is, although the effect is exaggerated by my oversized and ill-fitting jacket.  Isn’t it great?  Heidi picked it out.


What I always say is, you can be whatever you believe in, and believe in whatever you are, if you only get in touch with the reptilian monster deep within.  America was once a superpower; now less so.  Once there were many trees here and there are currently fewer.  Even the bees said, “no thanks, Obama!” and packed up their wee apian suitcases, and moved somewhere with weaker central governance.  They send me postcards — I just got one last week, all the way from Antarctica.  It said: “Hi Ted!  Climate change isn’t caused by human activity.  Ice caps beautiful; if you want to see for yourself, better come soon.  Good luck with the campaign.”  I thought that was super.  Bees!  Who else  has that kind of diversity in their voter base?  And there’s virtually no taxation in Antarctica.  That’s the kind of innovative continent we need: icy, impenetrable, inaccessible, lethal.  That’s my dream.  Won’t you join me?  Won’t you all be the change I want to see?


Thank you, and God bless.

(Ed. note: For more on the increasingly innovative vocabulary of neoliberalism, Keywords for the Age of Austerity.  For more on Ted Cruz, his college roommate.)

Disposability, Abortion, and Crisis As Usual in Michigan

All is not well here in Michigan, and some people have noticed: noticed that the city of Flint has been drinking, cooking with, and bathing in poisoned water for over a year, and that the city of Detroit’s children have been attending crumbling and neglected schools for much longer.  This sudden influx of attention has generated an enormous quantity of discourse around the state of my state.  One of the most thoughtful structural analyses, written by the blog Third Coast Conspiracy, is “Democracy, Disposability, and the Flint Water Crisis.”  This piece redirects conversation away from the predominating focus on the shortcomings of Rick Snyder, Michigan’s governor (although they are many and his criticisms well-deserved) and on the increasing reliance upon emergency management and privatization that has enabled and exacerbated the government’s failure to provide basic services in Detroit and Flint.  Naturally, these are important aspects of the political climate that allowed such appalling neglect to be sanctioned and executed in Michigan, but Third Coast Conspiracy situates them within the context of a broader movement to gut the infrastructure of and redistribute resources away from marginalized (usually urban) communities in order to sustain and serve their privileged (usually suburban) neighbors.  Although Detroit in particular has become infamous for what it lost, thanks to the wide dissemination of images of empty blocks and burned-out houses, those losses are less often discussed or understood as manifestations of a deliberate and concerted effort to dispose of surplus populations.  And yet it is increasingly obvious that amidst crisis upon crisis, we can no longer excuse bad policies as the careless errors of bad politicians, or write them off as aberrations in a system that usually functions as it should to maintain the lives and livelihoods of the humans inside of it.  It simply doesn’t.  When workers aren’t needed to work for capitalism, they become a burden, a strike against its profit margin, and hence:

Local, regional, and state governments are removing the basic, infrastructural supports that are necessary for the reproduction of life. As a consequence, residents of cities like Flint and Detroit, in particular black and immigrant populations, have been subjected to increasing vulnerability in forms like declining life expectancy and appalling infant mortality. “Disposability” and “surplus population” sound like abstract concepts, but they’re a tangible, visceral reality for folks on the ground in Flint. “We’re like disposable people here,” one resident told the Toronto Star the other day. “We’re not even human here, I guess.”

The paradoxical logic of disposability was really thrown into sharp relief for me by a couple of case studies.  I recently spotted this flyer for an anti-abortion panel entitled “Unborn Black Lives Matter” scheduled to take place next month at Wayne State, the Detroit university where I study things like exactly what kind of destruction environmental toxins can level against a human cell, and the atomic mass of lead.


This name is a sickening riff on Black Lives Matter, a movement whose fundamental purpose is to reclaim the bodily autonomy of those from whom it has been stolen by a thousand forms of violence — police brutality has been a focal point, but sexual coercion and forced reproduction are also integral tools of white supremacy.  First case study.  A week later I read that presidential candidate and far-right ideologue Ted Cruz has decided to donate bottled water to the people of Flint — but only, in the words of Cruz’s Michigan state director Wendy Lynn Day, to those who are also “expecting moms and moms of little ones.”  And it’s not just any of Flint’s maternal citizens who stand to benefit from the Cruz campaign’s largesse; the water will be donated to crisis pregnancy centers in the area.  “Crisis pregnancy center” is a euphemism for a facility, often religious, that provides free or low-cost ultrasounds and “counseling,” which is invariably designed to discourage women from choosing abortion.  What this means is that the only people Cruz has deemed important enough to receive a substance that is necessary for survival are those who might be in the position of deciding whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy, and more specifically still, those who are seeking services at a place that will attempt to dissuade them from the latter.  (And their children, who may presumably also grow up to become pregnant people.)  “Mixed” isn’t really a strong enough word to describe the message that Cruz is sending to those whose lives are actively under siege from the subtle and insidious expansion of disposability, and whose bodies already bear its damage, but whom he also expects to reproduce.  If you follow this scenario — in which vital commodities can be withheld or distributed on a whim — to its logical conclusion, it actually begins to seem like not so much an expectation as an imperative.  Cruz demands that women give birth while simultaneously perpetuating a paradigm that denies them and their offspring the most rudimentary exigencies to sustain life and therefore to continue to reproduce.  Paradoxical logic; second case study.

As I’ve written before, I provide abortion care at a clinic in the metro Detroit area.  This has afforded me insight into the stories and histories of people who are pregnant and considering termination that I otherwise wouldn’t have access to.  In keeping with findings from the Guttmacher Institute, our average patient is an unmarried, 20-something woman of color with one or more children and an income near or below the poverty line.  Many of them come from Detroit and a smaller but still significant number from Flint.  This population that I care for, and care deeply about, is made up of precisely the same people whose lives are considered disposable by the apparatuses of our state (and State).  Ironically, the term “disposability” often comes up in anti-abortion rhetoric.  In those contexts, its meaning is exemplified by the flyer I saw at Wayne State, which tacitly accuses Black women of hypocrisy if they protest the killing of the children they have while declining to bring more into the kind of place that would sanction their killing — see: Tamir Rice.  This relies upon one of the most common misunderstandings about abortion, which gives rise to one of the most asinine and condescending arguments against it: that people who are pregnant somehow fail to understand what pregnancy means and what it means to end a pregnancy.  The law requires that we counsel women about their decision, after they have reviewed state-mandated written and verbal information about parenting, prenatal care, and development at the fetus’s gestational age.  As if our patients didn’t already know what’s inside their uteruses and inside their hearts.  Trust me, they know.  Even a 12-year-old knows, even a primagravida, and no one knows better than the majority of our patients, who have already borne children.  I believe in this work because I believe that people who terminate pregnancies do so not out of desperation or selfishness or immaturity, but out of compassion.  The onslaught of evidence as to the callous and uncaring treatment in Flint and the fact that the government didn’t begin to make even the slightest gestures towards caring until public outrage demanded some action — the revealing and devastating photos and videos of decrepit Detroit schools — all of this has only served to further convince me of my patients’ compassion.  Like I said, these women intuitively know the stakes of their decision, and intuitively understand the realities of their disposability in a way I had to work to comprehend.  Black people, undocumented people, poor people, and disabled people are all attuned to the fact that their lives are implicitly and explicitly made to not matter.  They’re aware of what it feels like to be rendered so unimportant that it takes over a year for anyone to notice that their water has been poisoned, and so insignificant that they are obligated to send their kids to be “educated” in buildings full of black mold but devoid of textbooks or adequately compensated teachers and staff.  They are subject to the “declining life expectancy” mentioned by Third Coast Conspiracy, and arrive at our office with sky-high blood pressure, early-onset cardiovascular disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression, trauma, and a thousand other sequelae of chronic stress, insufficient resources, and inadequate primary and preventative medical interventions.

That’s what they’re choosing for their unborn progeny to not endure.  It isn’t simple to get an abortion, and it usually isn’t easy either.  While some patients change their minds or require intensive options counseling, most express a high level of confidence in their decisions.  They are assured, firm, calm; secure in their hearts and minds that they are doing the right thing.  But they’re also grieving the failings of a world that makes it the right thing, and mourning what could have been were it a different kind of world, and to have watched them grieve and mourn for potentials they love and realities they hate has shown me the kind of generosity and humanity that politicians like Snyder and Cruz can only perform a skewed and empty imitation of.  You can look at a woman weeping on the operating table and either imagine that she’s making a mistake, because you also imagine that you understand her tears better than she does, or you can trust her to cry and still be sure of what she says she knows is best.

These crises in Flint and Detroit have come to a head in such a way that it’s easy for me to combine them here, but they’re also historically and structurally related as symptoms of the State’s abandonment of marginalized people.  A driving force behind the emotional tenor of the public response — shock, outrage, sadness, disgust — has been the fact that, in both cases, children are the primary victims.  The schools’ students are obviously young people; in Flint, the lead that leached into the water from corroded pipes carries with it vastly graver and more profound consequences for brains and bodies that are still developing.  As these topics occupy more of my attention, and converge in the media I’m exposed to, I can’t stop thinking of a passage from Cruising Utopia, by José Esteban Muñoz.  He’s responding to a line of thought that had become popular among queer theorists, the rejection of “reproductive futurity,” or the fixation on children and the heteronormative rituals of their creation that promote a cultural imperative to make babies and fetishize that which is yet to come.  Muñoz acknowledges that, although these criticisms have validity, they fall short in characterizing childhood as a sanitized bastion of innocence, occupied only by transcendental “privileged white babies” (94).  He reminds us that “[t]he future is only the stuff of some kids.  Racialized kids, queer kids, are not the sovereign princes of futurity” (95).  These facts demand that we refuse to “hand over futurity to normative white reproductive futurity” but rather to “call on a utopian political imagination that will enable us to glimpse another time and place: a “not-yet” where queer youths of color actually get to grow up” (95-96).  I’m as familiar as anyone with the pull of nihilism, negativity, and abjection; it’s incredibly liberating to reject obligatory optimism, and fall instead into the warm embrace of a pessimism that has always come more naturally to me.

And yet I feel compelled, at this particular place and in this particular time, to resist the urge.  Third Coast Conspiracy concludes their post: “…we are interested in thinking about what it would take to reproduce communities, or for communities to reproduce themselves, without relying on capital and the state, to create autonomous infrastructures of social reproduction that do not continuously subject black, immigrant, and marginalized white populations to premature death.”  Like Muñoz’s prescription for a “utopian political imagination,” this interest depends upon an engagement with fantasy, and some kind of faith, and the capacity for belief.  Queerness is a site of alternative models for the reproduction of communities; so too are anticapitalist movements, antiracist movements, antiableist movements.  And because the issue at hand is what it looks like and means to care for children, and because the patients who come to me seeking abortions are implicated in this struggle, I will argue that their decisions are a form of the refusal to concede territory to Cruz’s “normative white reproductive futurity.”  May we all think about what it would take for my patients and their communities to get to grow up.

Muñoz, J. E. (2009). Cruising utopia: The then and there of queer futurity. New York: New York University Press.

Dear Wayne State,

I am not proud of you right now: neither proud to be an alumna nor to be a current student, although I’m both.  I enrolled at a university whose mission statement purports a desire “to create and advance knowledge, prepare a diverse student body to thrive, and positively impact local and global communities,” and whose vision is of “a pre-eminent, public, urban research university known for academic and research excellence, success across a diverse student body, and meaningful engagement in its urban community.”  Integral to your institutional identity is an expansive definition of community that facilitates symbiotic relationships with the human beings who populate this “urban” environment so essential to your mission and your vision.

And yet this week, you chose to seal your borders.  The search for a missing 24-year-old woman named KaJavia Globe ended tragically with the discovery of her body in a backyard on the west side.  Her death was likely a homicide, the perpetrator still unknown.  When news stories began to identify her as a Wayne State student, all you had to say was that she hadn’t been enrolled in classes since 2012.  You offered no condolences to her loved ones; no resources to those directly or indirectly affected by her death; no solidarity for grief over another life lost in Detroit, the city from which you derive so much of your particularity and power.  Frankly, if the people you have appointed to serve as the university’s public face and voice are so tone-deaf to the meaning and magnitude of KaJavia’s passing, I place little trust in your ability to comprehend the collective mood on campus.  Like 17% of students (and 20% of undergraduates), KaJavia was African-American.  In her June essay for the New York Times Magazine, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” Claudia Rankine asserts that “a sustained state of national mourning for black lives is called for in order to point to the undeniability of their devaluation.”  To issue a statement of “fact,” severed from context and absent the more difficult and daring work of feeling, is to ignore significant emotional and political realities of the “diverse student body” in which you take so much pride.  Instead of deferring to “a sustained state of national mourning,” you distanced yourself from it, and from those of us for whom “close to home” is not a function of matriculation status.  I am ashamed to be part of the white majority at a school whose PR department seems incapable of paying attention and being attuned to accounts of Black experience.

I was particularly disturbed by this reaction because of its resemblance to your disownment of Amber Monroe just this past August.  Amber, a Black trans* woman, was murdered at 6 Mile and Woodward, and initial media reports described her as a Wayne State student.  You were quick to deny her connection, when in fact she had been involved with the Horizons Project through WSU’s med school, and when in fact there are many ways of belonging to a university — especially one situated in such close proximity to the surrounding city.  Do you take issue with the specific title of “student”?  Then dispute that word without withdrawing all claim to community.  As newspapers redacted and corrected in the wake of your “clarifications,” the name of Wayne State disappeared from headlines and descriptions.  By refuting their status as students, you erased all affiliation these women had with a place that would be better for having them.  Where you could have chosen a language of inclusion, you preferred to exclude; where you could have chosen to express sorrow, you stuck to the bare bones of a “truth” that fails to encompass so much of what is true.

To further contextualize the problematic nature of your approach to these tragedies, it seems prudent to remind you that graduation rates for white Wayne State students have historically been about 4 times those of our Black counterparts, and that this academic year your medical school narrowly escaped full accreditation probation for — among other things — insufficient diversity in its accepted applicants.  Furthermore, among 58 tenured and tenure-track faculty who chose to declare their race, 44 were white while only 1 was African-American.  I’m sure these are issues of which you are well aware, and I like to think and want to believe that you are doing everything within your power to discover and dismantle whatever structural barriers and institutional deficiencies have created these conditions.  But I would ask you to do more.

I didn’t know KaJavia or Amber, and I don’t know why neither woman was taking classes at the time of her death.  I can, however, imagine many reasons why a person might find it difficult to do so — and I refuse to reject them for it.  My community includes everyone whose financial aid didn’t come through, whose high school didn’t prepare them for college, who needs to work three jobs, who can’t afford the rent in Midtown or the time to navigate Detroit by bus, who is obligated to care for family, who is preoccupied with all the large and small labors of being alive; everyone who has dropped out or is struggling to get in.  I won’t let you insinuate that I should diminish or disavow community as I’ve chosen to define it.  Is your name worth so much, and guarded so tightly, that you can’t spare the smallest part of it for Amber and KaJavia — just as you can’t spare even the slight platitude of “thoughts and prayers” for those they left behind?  If so, your name is worth so much less to me; but if you’ve heard anything I’ve said I hope you will respond by listening to my Black classmates as well as your faculty and staff, whose stories demand a greater sensitivity and deeper understanding than you have shown this week.

In Which I Don’t Say His Name

(Backstory essentials: 1. I’ve worked as an abortion care provider in the past; 2. I will work again as an abortion care provider in the future.  Also 3. I’m convinced that the way we’re talking about Colorado Springs will permit it to repeat ad infinitum.  End backstory.)

Accustomed as those of us who live in the United States are to mass shootings, we know that the response tends to follow a predictable script, which inevitably flutters around in circles before coming to rest on the question of “motives.”  Staring into the face of an unfathomable actor, we try to fathom their actions anyway by categorizing perpetrators as Other, apart, as something we are not.  So in the wake of the events in Colorado Springs yesterday, many words have been devoted to whether Planned Parenthood was, in fact, the target (could it have been a bank robbery gone wrong?), to whether the shooter had left a trail of virtual breadcrumbs that would point to an ideological position (as represented by his political party affiliation), to whether he was mentally ill (cue snide remarks about his grooming habits, the decrepitude of his cabin).  Investigators of the official and armchair varieties speedily sniffed out details of his criminal and personal histories, which belong so much to him, and so little to us.

Those words are wasted.  That nameless, faceless shooter is just a big, bearded red herring.  The reasons behind this act of terrorism are irrelevant; what’s relevant is that it worked.  When considering “the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization,” the shooter’s effectiveness at the production of such a state is evident in the reactions to it.  The most dramatic examples come from extremists who actively endorse these attacks as the lesser of two evils, operating on the assumption that the termination of a pregnancy is a form of killing morally equivalent to mass murder.  When such venom boils over so rapidly in the aftermath of terrorism, we see what’s been simmering just beneath the superficial layers of a more measured rhetoric.  And yet it’s not only the ideological outliers hailing the killer as a hero who demonstrate how completely he succeeded at the essential project of terrorism.  He also triumphed over anyone who condemns him in one breath while in the next speculating as to whether some fact of his past will furnish an explanation for his actions that exonerates those structural factors that always, everywhere, inflict violence upon pregnant bodies by seizing power from the people who inhabit them.  This includes the lawmakers and pundits who spent the summer sowing hyperbole and hysteria over doctored videos that accuse Planned Parenthood of selling fetal tissue for profit, and are now acting shocked to see how what they’ve planted grew.

If you’ve studied Michel Foucault (or at least vaguely remember him from college), this is a quintessential instance of biopolitics, that modern condition in which the subject-as-person is collapsed into the subject-as-body, “through an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (140).  Biopower knows everything about individual humans while caring nothing for humanity, and achieves its ends through regimes that operate subtly but totally to coerce subjects into categories of normality and deviance centered around their corporeal being.  Both the shooting itself (violence against bodies) and sociopolitical interventions into abortion practice (dominance over bodies) decree what’s best for the bodies of others in such a way that they enact biopolitical subjugation.

This matters because every time we allow the conversation to be dominated by the specificities of this shooter and the particularities of this shooting, it deflects attention from the mechanisms of control that gave him life, just as they birthed his predecessors and even now are gestating his descendants.  This deflection is a tool that performs the work of regulating individual bodies through regulating the body politic.  And this matters to me because for every immediate victim of a single act of anti-choice violence — whether they number 3 or 300 — many thousands more are victimized indirectly, and those thousands are patients, who are notably absent from the discussion surrounding Colorado Springs.  Even as articles meticulously analyze the shooter, profile the slain officer, and even allude to theoretical fetuses, they remain deafeningly silent about the potential fallout for those actually seeking abortion services.  To me every patient is my patient, because everyone I have cared for and will care for in the future is endangered by this pervasive threat.  My patients are women terminating a wanted pregnancy because of devastating fetal anomalies; 12 or 13 or 14 year old children with inadequate access to and education about contraception, some of whom conceived as the result of rape — which is any intercourse to which they had no capacity to consent — as well as women and trans men who were never given the opportunity to consent; first-generation college students digging through their purses for change to pay for a procedure their insurance won’t cover; people with hypertension and diabetes whose pregnancies have overloaded systems weakened from poorly managed chronic illnesses exacerbated by a lack of primary care; low-wage workers who didn’t have bus fare to refill their birth control at the pharmacy; mothers who will go home to hungry children; women whose partners had bruised and battered them; women with wounds invisible to the eye.  Among them are the traumatized, the terrified, the ones I love dearly who have wrestled deeply and bravely with themselves and made their choice long before they ever walked through the clinic doors.

Certainly not everyone choosing abortion keeps company with trauma and terror.  For some there is no struggle in the decision to end a pregnancy, only liberation. But in the wake of these attacks I worry about those who are made more vulnerable by disproportionate oppression under the systems of racism, classism, heterosexism, colonialism, patriarchy…  Having been condemned as deviant from a desired norm, these lives and bodies are already under siege.  This population faces huge barriers to reproductive health care, and fear is yet another obstacle to their access.  As long as the prevailing discourse continues to prop up a paradigm that breeds and sustains this type of violence, we as providers are limited in our ability to assuage that fear.  Don’t misunderstand me; clinics take every possible precaution, and statistically I was far more likely to be injured on my commute to work than on the job.  But the real muscle of terrorism is symbolic: it generates far more psychic than physical damage.  However many safe rooms, bulletproof vests, walls of ballistic glass, security guards, panic buttons, emergency protocols, alternate routes, fences, locks, and cameras we have, until terrorism is unequivocally identified and universally censured, there’s no way we can look a patient in the eye and promise her, absolutely, that she will be okay.

I want to advocate for my patients now to give them a voice that might be heard over the clamor of speculation and distraction, and to effect changes that might enable me to one day work at a clinic that I can enter without looking over my shoulder, that might liberate my patients from the shadow of that lurking, ever-present fear.  As I followed the harrowing accounts of those terrible hours in Colorado Springs, I couldn’t help but imagine that it was my coworkers, my friends, sheltering in a bathroom; my patients seeking refuge.  I mentioned some of their stories earlier not because I lend particular weight to the reasons behind the termination of a pregnancy, and certainly not because I consider myself an arbiter of the validity of those reasons.  No, telling those stories is just how I remember them, and how I remember that the patients they belong to were real, fully-formed people with pasts and personalities, with quirks and habits and existences far too intricate to be legislated and regulated by the enormous powers, working through myriad smaller entities, that conspire to strip their sovereignty away.  Everyone is talking about the idea of abortion and no one is talking about the reality of it.  I want to rewrite this script to include a compassionate and considerate focus on all the victims of this terror and their humanity.  Caring is the antithesis of coercion, and at times like this I need to be reminded of the care I gave patients, and of the care I have for them.  Discrete moments and images keep rising to the surface of my memory: someone holding tightly to my hand, someone else’s tears, someone who played chess, called me an asshole, hugged me, spoke only Spanish, had a son starting kindergarten, whose mother had just died.  What does it mean, to care?  Just that when choosing where to spend the rations of my energy and attention, I choose the women who deserve to be heard for no reason other than simply that they’re speaking and trying to tell us something, while a lot of others are speaking over them and trying to tell us nothing.  I can’t say their names, which aren’t mine to share; but I won’t say his, and that difference is the essence of how I hold on to the power that this culture of terror would take away.


Foucault, Michel.  The History of Sexuality Vol. 1.  New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

In Today’s Edition of Language Matters: Infantilization and Minimization at Mizzou


I can’t imagine why Facebook’s algorithms thought I might want to read this really racist article written by a “non-racist” white Mizzou student who calls herself “Lucky Jo” for a website that offers “comedy and entertainment from America’s finest Greek communities,” but the Internet moves in mysterious ways its suggestions to perform.  I won’t amplify this author’s voice by actually linking to her piece, but unfortunately I did read it, and just let me say…

1. “Lucky” begins: “If someone had told me two weeks ago that my school would soon be on national news for a series of racial incidents and campus-wide chaos, I would’ve asked them what drugs they were on and advise that they seek immediate medical attention.”  Oh, that’s funny!  She’s already implied that anyone who very reasonably points out that “racial incidents” are the status quo and that “chaos” is the inevitable byproduct of a culture that violently punishes people for asserting their basic rights is under the influence of a substance, or maybe just mentally ill.  Thus ends the first sentence.

2. We still haven’t made it to the part about her non-racism and non-violence, because first she has to process her grief over the untimely death of the career that dethroned Mizzou president Tim Wolfe “worked hard to earn”:

Wolfe is gone, all because Butler [the Mizzou grad student who went on hunger strike to protest Wolfe] blamed him for the actions of a few racist individuals. This man, a Columbia native who worked hard to earn such a respectable job, is now unemployed with a permanently soiled reputation. The fact that Butler assumed that Tim Wolfe could eradicate racism in every single person on this campus is downright stupid.

So we have the people who are on drugs, the people who are stupid, and then the hard-working Columbia native whose reputation is “permanently soiled.”  How can someone mourn more deeply the soiling of a reputation than the systematic oppression of a group of human beings?  But “Lucky” wants us to know that Wolfe just simply can’t control what people think, because “[t]here are some people for whom racism is so ingrained that it is an automatic response.”  And then there are the people for whom racism is so ingrained that they can blithely type that sentence as part of an argument for why they shouldn’t be obligated to support their Black classmates, whose lives have literally been threatened and whose bodies are under siege.

3. What she really wants us to know is that the movement catalyzed by Butler’s hunger strike has made the campus more racially divided — that Butler is responsible for a “widespread panic”:

Here’s the sad truth: The #ConcernedStudent1950 movement was driven by anger and drama, but those involved did little to channel their passion into a constructive approach. They failed to make informed arguments, and instead caused a widespread panic throughout this campus.  I do not support Butler, I do not support his movement, and it breaks my heart to see what those involved have done to my school.

Just to be clear, “anger” is a word that is used to describe the feelings of Black people in lieu of listening to them articulate their experiences of those feelings, and “drama” is a word that is used to delegitimize and demean a person’s behavior.  “Drama” is the fabrication of imaginary scenarios or the exaggeration of reality to provoke an emotional reaction; “drama” is attention-seeking and manipulative.  Feeling threatened by threats is not dramatic, and protesting the implicit condonation of those threats by the silence of an authority figure is not a failure to “channel their passion into a constructive approach.”  She bemoans their lack of “informed arguments” as if the movement is a position paper for a freshman composition class, rather than a refusal to accept the fact that a college campus is unable to guarantee the safety of its students and their right to take up space there.  This is a school where one of the professors responded to an actual proclamation, widely shared in the incontrovertible form of a screencap, that its author intended to “shoot every black person [he saw],” by refusing to postpone an exam for fear of “letting the bullies win.”  Again, this isn’t a schoolyard fight, and what argument could be more informed than one informed by the tragic plenitude of recent empirical evidence that this horrific threat could be realized?

4. “Lucky” is especially offended by attacks on her “non-racism,” which has admittedly not been revisited since its brief cameo in the headline:

On top of all this, he adamantly protests that white people who don’t speak up are racists. Tell me: How does that promote equality?  I refuse to be labeled racist simply because I don’t support #ConcernedStudent1950.  I refuse to be labeled racist simply because I’m not one of the masses of students and teachers that were blindly coerced into supporting a movement because they are afraid to disagree and be deemed a racial bigot. I refuse to be labeled racist by a man who is so deluded and self-involved that he actually threatened suicide to get his way. Whether or not you choose to believe it, Butler utilized violence to get what he wanted. I don’t respect his methods of change, and I see it as a slight to people who are at legitimate risk of ending their own lives.

Oh, is this why she’s a “non-racist”?  Being labeled racist isn’t something that racists can accept or refuse, like a collect call; we’re going to tell it like it is, and you can either listen or cover your ears and hum.  “Lucky” then crosses a vast logical chasm to argue that a hunger strike is an act of violence that Butler employed to “get his way” — again, language that infantilizes and devalues the protesters, implying that their advocacy is tantamount to a temper tantrum.  “Deluded” is yet another coy jab at Butler’s sanity, and her use of “self-involved” makes me feel that the mere fact of Butler’s selfhood is enough to merit that accusation.  She defends this position by claiming that Butler’s willingness to die in order to protest inequality and brutality is somehow offensive to those “who are at legitimate risk of ending their own lives,” as if suicidal people might rise up and form a lobby to oppose politically motivated self-sacrifice.  Those who wish to end their lives may have plenty of problems, but being “slighted” by self-immolating monks or hunger strikers or disenfranchised Chinese laborers who plunge from factory rooftops has never, ever been one of them.

5. But that’s not Butler’s “worst offense.”  No, “in [her] opinion” that crime is something so appalling that she feels compelled to refer to him by his given name in order to level this accusation:

But Jonathan’s worst offense, in my opinion, is his direct attack on every student’s right to free speech.  He protests because he feels that nobody is listening to him. He feels he has been silenced. So why does he consistently silence others? Isn’t that contradictory to his argument?  Tuesday’s email requested that those who hear “hurtful speech” contact the police and provide a detailed account of the offender. It basically gave students the permission to call the cops every time someone is mean to them.  I’ll go ahead and say it: this notion is completely ridiculous. It’s a borderline laughable waste of time.  Hurtful things that people say to you may provoke an emotional response, but it is our obligation as adults to reflect on such incidences and channel our rage or sadness into productive thought. It is definitely important to recognize when people go too far and impose a legitimate threat, but we have to realize that verbal insults are just that. They’re only words, and how you choose to deal with your own damaged ego is no one’s business but your own…Jonathan Butler has no right to impede on anyone’s first amendment rights, simply because they have the potential to hurt his feelings.

Some of us are fortunate enough to navigate a world where “hurtful speech” brings to mind the passive-aggressive whisperings of Mean Girls, or the time we were burned by a scathing indictment of our Comm 101 presentation.  We’re lucky that the easiest “hurt” we can imagine experiencing as a result of speech is a bruised ego.  But from one white girl to another, you don’t even have to open your ears that wide to hear people for whom “hurtful speech” implies something different altogether explaining what it’s like to be afraid, to be in danger, to be a target, to always be on high alert, and to tell you that threats made of words are as much a manifestation of reality as threats made of atoms.  Once again, “Lucky” tries to cast the protesters as belligerent children, whose hurt feelings are just a form of self-indulgent sulking.  Like a spoiled toddler crying because he didn’t get a pony for Christmas, their requests are “laughable” and “ridiculous,” although I don’t personally feel the urge to ridicule or to laugh.  She tries to dictate the proper expression of resistance to racism because she, apparently unlike her Black classmates, knows what “adults” do.  Can she truly be so ignorant of the historical trauma invoked by the insinuation that she, as a white person, is the final authority on what adulthood means?

“Lucky,” I can’t tell you what it’s like to feel what Butler and his fellow protesters are feeling, but the least I can do is respect them and support them when they try to tell us both.  You’re freely writing this article and I’m freely answering; free speech in America is safe for another day.  But Black people in America are not, and will not be, until white people acknowledge that we are beneficiaries of a cultural supremacy that permits us to label ourselves “non-racists” in the context of a paternalistic attempt to convince members of a different race that we know what’s best for them.  You have the ability to read and write, and what you choose to do with those skills is up to you.  It would probably be best to read a lot more and write a lot less until you can understand why you — really, you — are the very object of the protest you oppose.

Mansplaining 101

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On Friday we had a feminist bonfire, and we burned some bras.  We didn’t burn them because we don’t know about donating clothes.  We didn’t burn them because we hate you.  We didn’t burn them because we’re nostalgic for the second wave.  In fact, I won’t even speak for the others.  I don’t know what this fire meant to them; I only know that I have lived 26 years in a body that is less safe, less valued, less meaningful, because it’s a female body, and I don’t believe that feminism can be “too radical” or that our gestures can be the wrong ones in a culture that disapproves of us burning our underwear while also making us feel that our self-immolation is necessary to keep others warm.  The world inflicts wounds on women and queer people every day with such subtle violence that we come to believe that it’s our fault and that the necessary punishment is to continue hurting ourselves, to execute our own destruction.  But we can learn to heal ourselves as well, and to create spaces of resistance and liberation.  We can set some shit on fire and take solace in one another.  So I posted a picture on Facebook, and a vague acquaintance set out to explain why I was wrong.  Thanks to this weird anonymizing app, I guess we’ll call him Vic Tory, and me Paige Turner:


At this point there was a fairly strange side conversation in which another (female) acquaintance told us to “go topless” instead, unwittingly linking to the website of UFO cult leader Rael, who apparently has a thing for topless ladies as a means to embrace “femininity” over “feminism” — but I’ll stick to burning bras.  Still Vic kept on arguing, and I started to realize the true value of our fire:


By now, numerous sub-threads had popped up, with various people pointing out and defining “mansplaining” and articulating the ways in which it does damage.  Vic’s fragile masculinity crumbled under the weight of these claims, and he started to get defensive, so I figured I had better give some more background on my investment in feeling entitled to any kind of feminist action I want:


Vic Tory finally gives in:

his response

Hallelujah!  At last I have successfully conveyed why his mansplaining is so destructive.  Or have I?  No, because in the subthreads, he was still just as defensive and argumentative:


Not even another male friend (Max Emum), demonstrating in real time what it means to be a feminist ally, could get through (to Vic Tory, whose name changed to Bobby Pin because this anonymizer is confusing):

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Why bother to write all this?  Well, we weren’t going to change Vic’s mind, but I think this exchange has value as a definitional illustration of “mansplaining.”  We use this term to refer to instances in which a male voice dominates a female one; by being condescending, by speaking over her, by exploiting an inherent imbalance of power.  Anything can be mansplained: yard work, football, the Civil War, music videos, whatever.  But most often it involves a man assuming the responsibility of explaining a woman’s own experience to her, because a male voice is louder even when the subject at hand is fundamentally female.  Vic wrote a paper on feminism.  Vic has read about how, in 1914, a wealthy socialite named Caresse Crosby received a patent for the backless brassiere, thus liberating women everywhere from the whalebone chambers that constrained their ability to fully participate in capitalism.  And as I said, I don’t mourn the corset, but neither do I buy the notion that new underwear styles were more important than World War I in propelling large numbers of women into workplaces where they were often treated as disposable commodities, in direct proportion to their relative poverty or wealth.

But that’s neither here nor there.  I wasn’t around in 1914, so the emotional resonance it holds for me comes secondhand.  My direct encounters with bras loom so much larger in my mind, specifically the way in which they catalyzed one of my earliest lessons in the fact that it was my job to guard my sexuality and by extension my fault if anyone should breach the defenses.  And this is why Vic’s mansplanation is harmful, and oppressive, and unhelpful: when he read about the invention of the bra, that became his context for thinking about bras.  But as a wearer of bras and a bearer of breasts, I came to that historical knowledge with another context already in place.  Because of that context, bras are not a “poor symbol” of the liberation I want and need; they’re definitely a better symbol than high heels or fake nails or bump-its (of all things!), because none of those things trigger the memory of being instructed in the dangers of owning my body.

So this is what patriarchy actually is, how it manifests.  Not necessarily in rape, in human trafficking, in employment discrimination, in domestic violence, but in the “nice guys” who convince themselves that the best way they can aid feminists in our struggle is to tell us that we’re doing it wrong — to replicate the exact psychic wounds we’re trying to cauterize.  “Nice guys” who can’t listen to our stories, who get defensive at the suggestion that there is any aspect in which they could improve.  In a way, I’m grateful to Vic, in large part because he showed me what kind of ally I want to be.  Misogyny is a type of oppression that I experience, but there are plenty of other forms of coercive power and targeted injustice that I am not, never have been, and never will be subject to.  Vic’s mansplaining reminded me to never tell people of color or trans* people or disabled people or any other kind of people how to enact their responses to the trauma that they — not I, they — have experienced.  It reminded me why it’s so important that I don’t speak over them or make their struggles about my feelings.  It reminded me that I can inflict as much or more pain through carelessness and callousness as through explicit and deliberate harm.  We might burn Vic’s effigy next, but I’ll make sure to thank it first.

I Do Not Think Abortion Means What You Think It Means

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If you’ve never worked at a job where random weirdos (who use “stupid” as an adjective to modify the word “head,” like angry toddlers) advocate for your violent assassination, it’s worth asking those of us who have before you defund the thing we believe in enough to show up, day after day, knowing that some people believe we should be dead.  Just the shallowest dip into a Facebook rabbit hole dredged up the kind of rhetorical aggression that makes working in reproductive health care so fraught, which is really the exact same aggression that women face all the time, subtly and overtly.

I don’t feel the need to talk about Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services (although they’re great and important) to defend why that organization should exist and be funded.  I don’t feel the need to justify my decision to work in a clinic any more than I would had we been providing dialysis instead of pregnancy terminations.  Even if you believe that abortion is bad, recognize that it’s the symptom and not the disease. I spent thousands of hours listening to pregnant women talk about their lives, and it never occurred to me to ask whether or not they should be able to choose to end their pregnancies. My questions are more basic: why is it that such an extraordinarily high percentage of my patients had histories of sexual abuse and trauma?  When we debate abortion “in cases of rape,” we render invisible the reality of how sexual violence manifests in women’s lives.  Whether or not it’s what got them pregnant, that experience is encoded in the same bodies, and it can’t be overlooked or dismissed as irrelevant.  I have other questions, too: how could a woman with multiple previous births present to us not knowing what a cervix is?  How could a pregnant 14-year-old present not knowing she’d had sex?  (“I thought we were cuddling.”)  How can women struggling within a system where poverty and racism and brutality have stolen their most basic sense of safety be punished again for asserting their right to more selfhood and sovereignty than just mere survival can afford them?

Others have worked harder and longer than I did on the front lines of reproductive health care, but I feel like now is the time for those of us who can answer the empty rhetoric of this latest attack on choice with real stories to speak out.  Abortion is in the news, and all eyes are on what it looks like when women’s lives are paraded through congressional hearings and pundits’ mouths.  I want you to know what those lives looked like on a Wednesday morning in an office in the Midwest when it was just me and a woman whose strength and dignity and compassion deserves a better reward than this circus, and whose future is worth so much more than a drop in the bucket of government spending.