Tag Archives: Nikole Hannah-Jones

What Is Thanksgiving to a 2020 American?

 

autumn leaves surrounding a surgical mask

Debbie says:

To begin with, Thanksgiving means something different to everyone. Some people hate the holiday and don’t celebrate it. Some people, for completely sound reasons, find it offensive. Some people are used to observing it alone, or with one or two other people. Some people come from other traditions, and just don’t get the point.

For all the years of this blog, Laurie and I have done a gratitude post for Thanksgiving: good things that have happened during the year. We have tried to make sure that our list is international and multi-subject (science, art, sport, health, politics). We decided not to do that this year. While there are things worth appreciating, this country is just in too much of a shambles, and our government caused so much pain, suffering, mental health challenges, disability, and death to so many, that general gratitude seems … hypocritical. Laurie and I both know we’ve been very lucky so far in this pandemic.  We may both have things to be grateful for–but we all have so much to lament. Frankly, we all also have a great deal to resent, and people to blame.

Since I’m feeling the lack of having (some of) my closest people with me this year, Laurie and I also decided that I should write something about 2020 Thanksgiving.I understand why the holiday is offensive, and in some ways the poster child for white supremacy celebrations. I also understand that it can easily become a paean to gluttony–the groaning board table, the expectation that we will eat too much, the inevitable waste. Nonetheless, I love the holiday. I love the food and the abundance (and I try to minimize the waste). I love the gathering with friends and family, the sense of togetherness and connection, sometimes the conscious attention to gratitude.

For many years, I have wished I had a fixed Thanksgiving plan, with mostly the same people every year, in mostly the same place. That just hasn’t worked out. For some years, my partner and I ate with friends who have small children. One year, we had a big meal in our house, which isn’t especially well designed for it, but we had a great time. Last year, he and I brought a small Thanksgiving to a friend recovering from surgery, and invited a few other friends. None of them have been my perfect Thanksgiving, but they have mostly had something of the flavor I care about.

And so will this Thursday. We’ll eat with our downstairs neighbors, who have been a pod with us since March. The food will be excellent and yes, the table will be abundant. The conversation will be pleasant, if somewhat predictable. The 8-year-old who lives downstairs will fidget until he’s allowed to play with his electronics.

But it will all happen in a context of rising cases, full ICUs (not where we are yet), the people Nikole Hannah-Jones accurately calls sacrificial workers taking chances for the rest of us. You and I, reading and writing this, may not know anyone whose loved one is dying of COVID in a hospital where no one can visit them, but we know they are there. We may not know anyone who is still unable to walk across a room four months after “recovering” from the virus, but we know they are there. We may not know anyone who has completely lost the business they gave their lives to, or the job they fed their families with, but we know they are there. In the hundreds of thousands, in the millions. We may not know anyone who refuses to wear a mask, or demonstrates for the right to large public gatherings, but we know they are there too. We also know how many people, who may be otherwise protected and fortunate, are eating alone tomorrow. Nonetheless, humans tend to cling to some kind of hope in hard times.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are a ray of hope, but it is hard to be grateful for their election when we worked to hard to get them where they are, and we know how much opposition they face, and how many ways they will fall short of our hopes — even while they turn the country’s response to the coronavirus around. Electing Biden and Harris will be the end of the Trump catastrophe, but it won’t solve any of America’s pre-existing, now exacerbated, problems. It only gives us a springboard from which to keep pushing for what we believe in.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines aren’t just rays of hope, they are beams of expectation–and they will be slowed down at least some by distribution inequities, technical issues, supply-chain failures, and people who are committed to the belief that all vaccines are conspiratorial devices.  The experts are hoping that these vaccines, and the ones behind them in the pipeline, will free us up by next late summer or fall, with far too many deaths, disabilities, failed businesses, lost jobs, and drug overdoses between here and there.

It does seem worth mentioning the landmark news out of Scotland: free menstrual hygiene products for everyone! Laurie had been following the campaign, but it came as a complete surprise to me, and another bright ray of hope on the horizon. It’s just the kind of thing we would showcase in a happier post.

I’ll be trying to enjoy what I have, keep thinking about my own efforts to heal the world, writing postcards to Georgia voters, helping amuse the 8-year-old, and not eating too much. I hope you will be doing your version of the same.

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David Graeber (1961-2020) on Bullshit Jobs

 

black and white headshot of David Graeber

Debbie says:

Those of us who followed the career of David Graeber were saddened to see his obituary pop up earlier this month. He died after a brief illness while on vacation in Venice. His wife, Nika Dubrovsky, tweeted “the best person in the world died today.”

I’m familiar with Graeber as a parent of the Occupy movement. He did not, as many have reported, invent “we are the 99%,” but he did first associate the 99% concept with the growing response to income inequality. His masterwork, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, has been pivotal to my thinking about economic justice.

I thought I’d remember him here by revisiting “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant,  from 2013, which led to his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. He opens:

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

Not convinced? Keep reading.

Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done—at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does. I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.

Like so many theories and thought experiments from the last ten years, much of this has become starker and more obvious since early 2020:

This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.

Can you hear the echo of “essential workers” in this? And don’t forget that the incomparable Nikole Hannah-Jones recommends calling them “sacrificial workers,” since as a society we are willing to put them in harm’s way every day so the rest of us can have not just what we need but what we want, or think we want, or think we are entitled to have.

To have lost Graeber’s mind, and his incisive drilling to the core of a problem, doesn’t mean we have to lose sight of his contributions; building on them is one way to move closer to a world where we can walk away from bullshit jobs and the psychological violence they engender.

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