Monday, October 14, 2019

Capitalism and the Common Cold

My friend Sarah caught an upper respiratory infection off a coworker recently. Like millions of Americans, this coworker, “Rachel,” felt compelled to ignore her illness, go to work, and potentially expose everyone else. To other workers, it’s probably a common cold—a nuisance, admittedly, but nothing catastrophic. But owing to asthma and a systemic hypermobility-related condition, Sarah has limited ability to fight routine infections. Colds, for her, often turn into bronchitis, and she’s out for weeks.

This got me thinking about the times I’ve bucked medical advice, chugged Day-Quil, and gone in sick anyway. Like millions of hourly workers, I don’t have compensated sick days; if I don’t clock in, I don’t get paid. And believe me, I’ve tried foregoing rent and groceries, with little success. Unless I’m too impaired to move, I have no choice but to ignore my illness and work. Same holds, sadly, for most nurses, fry cooks, and other low-paid workers in highly transmissible fields.

During my factory days, one of only two times I got a stern talking-to about my work ethic involved attendance. I breathed a lungful of dust off some chemically treated paper, and spent a week flat on my back. My supervisor called me into a conference room and informed me that, notwithstanding my doctor’s note from the company clinic, I had missed what they considered a substantial amount of time, and was now officially on warning.

(My other stern talking-to involved getting angry at my supervisor, throwing down my safety gloves, and walking out. That’s a discussion for another time.)

My supervisor warned me that, even beyond the pinch I’d enforced on my company, I had imposed upon my fellow line workers, who needed to offset my absence. Clearly, this warning conveyed, I had a moral obligation to ignore the signals my body told me, and come to work. This was only one among many times when the messages I got from family, school, employment, and others, told me that work was more urgent than protecting my bodily health.

Clearly Rachel got the same message, because she even lied to Sarah about how contagious she was. Even while continuing to sneeze on Sarah and other coworkers, Rachel insisted she was past the contagious stage. At this writing, Sarah has been housebound for a week, hooked to her nebulizer and struggling to feed herself. All because Rachel felt the social cue to not spread her cold mattered less than the moral imperative to keep working.

I cannot separate this morality from the capitalist ethic. Like me, you’ve probably spent your life bombarded by messages that work makes us happy, productive, and well-socialized members of society. Conversely, staying home, even when wracked with wet phlegmy coughs, makes us weak, lazy, and otherwise morally diminished. Our bodies aren’t something to respect and listen to; they’re impediments that need silenced so we can become happy contributors to the economy.

(As an aside, Sarah has already written about this experience. She and I discussed this experience, and tested ideas on one another; while she and I don’t say exactly the same thing, there are significant overlaps. My take is slightly less first-person.)

But who benefits when we power through and work sick? I certainly don’t; I feel miserable and sluggish, and also feel guilty for my inability to produce at accustomed levels. My employer doesn’t benefit, because he must pay standard wages for diminished outcomes—indeed, as I can’t rest and recuperate, he must pay more for my illness than if he offered paid sick time. And considering I must pay higher deductibles for off-hours doctor visits, my illness imposes on everyone.

In short, by making my continued attendance morally mandatory, I diminish everyone’s outcomes. Plus I infect everyone around me, including people who, like Sarah, can’t shrug off a cold. But I keep working, so hey, I benefit the capitalist class, right? So I accept the requirement to work, while socializing the risk, and my employer privatizes the outcomes. This offers a distorted morality that literally prioritizes money over individual and public health.

Perhaps you think I’m overstating things, that we don’t really value economic outcomes over health. If so, try telling your employer that hourly workers deserve compensation so they can avoid infecting one another without missing rent. See how your boss reacts with moral outrage. More importantly, see how you feel the gut-clench of wracking guilt before you even speak. That’s the capitalist ethic trying to silence you. Because we’ve made common colds literally immoral.


Also on capitalist morality:
Capitalism, Religion, and the Spoken Word

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Indigenous Jesus

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 100
Steven Charleston, The Four Vision Quests of Jesus

What is Christianity to a colonized people? Can Jesus reach the descendants of those who have been forcibly converted in His name? Reverend Steven Charleston asked himself these questions as a young seminarian; he heard God's voice telling him to keep working, and the answer would come to him. This book is the culmination of his life's work, and the resolution God has granted him.

Steven Charleston is an Episcopal priest and a citizen of the Choctaw nation. This double path colors his interpretation of Scripture. Half spiritual autobiography, half work of Christian theology, this book describes how Charleston came to understand what he calls "Native Jesus" by understanding the four times He took friends with him and undertook a classic Native American vision quest.

Charleston's people have been Christian since before Andrew Jackson chased them off their homelands. In his telling, the Choctaw invited Presbyterian missionaries into their communities, investigated their claims, and deemed their theology compatible with Choctaw beliefs. One suspects the history was somewhat rockier, but let's accept Charleston's account. His people know Jesus from the Native angle, a belief undimmed by subsequent violence, performed by Whites wearing sacramental vestments.

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus left the crowds four times, accompanied by very few friends, to have an intimate and personal experience with God. Charleston names these times as the Wilderness, the Mount of Transfiguration, Gethsemane, and Golgotha. Each time, Jesus received an important message from the Father. And each time, he returned to share it with the People.

To understand Christ's vision quests through Native eyes, Charleston first had to unlearn Christianity's burden of European cultural baggage. So, he contends, must we. Too often, Christian missions have been tacit imperialism (the word "propaganda" comes from efforts to convert Natives in South America). But when we shed European blinders, Native Jesus teaches us something new and magnificent.

Native Americans, like Jews, were a covenant people with a sacred relationship to their land. But, like Jews, Natives were conquered by a foreign empire, forced into exile, and continue to live in Diaspora. Jews and Natives use rituals to maintain their identities, while striving to protect their language from assimilation. The last century saw both peoples driven to the brink of extinction.

Reverend (Bishop) Steven Charleston
Viewed this way, Charleston writes, Jesus comes as the fulfillment of both Covenants. His coming, prophesied by John the Baptist, reflects the relationship between the Clown and the Prophet in Pueblo and Plains tradition. His anguish at Gethsemane is His version of the Lakota Sun Dance. And His death on Golgotha open Him up to all the spirits of humanity combined.

Don't mistake this, though: Charleston clarifies that the Native and Jewish Covenants are not interchangeable. Natives don't believe humans sinned at the moment of Creation, for instance, so Jesus's death cannot be seen as substitutionary penance, as European theologians paint it. No, Native Jesus does something different in that moment, something so complex and revolutionary that I'm scared to cheapen it through synopsis.

From the beginning, Charleston identifies this as his personal theology, achieved through his own vision quests. He doesn't proclaim to speak for Native Americans generally. However, he cites diverse traditions, especially Lakota and Hopi; names the experience of historical figures like Sitting Bull, Pocahontas, and Wovoka; and justifies his Native Christianity through the various perspectives of North America. What he writes is both intensely personal, and applicable to others equally.

It's also eye-opening for non-Native readers. We've grown up surrounded by a Christian message that, at times, doesn't come from the Son of Man. We interpret Christ's mission through a cultural prism that certainly makes it comprehensible to ourselves, but distorts the real message when speaking across cultures. When we believe that we have uniquely universal understanding of what Jesus accomplished, we become arrogant, which can be the first step toward colonialism.

By paring the cultural sediment off Christ's actions, Steven Charleston doesn't create something new. Instead he reveals the glory that has remained unvisited underneath, reminding readers like me that we don't own Jesus. In creating a theology for Native Americans, Charleston also prohibits me from becoming comfy in a self-granted salvation. He reminds me that God, not I, decides what is Truth.

This book runs remarkably short, barely 160 pages plus back matter. Yet reaching the end, we feel we've undergone an intense journey, and emerged transformed. No, this book isn't a vision quest itself. But reading it, I feel Charleston prepares us for our quests, reminding us that our vision matters.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

15-Minute Egyptian Chess

David G. Royffe (game designer), Pylos

We sometimes hear the phrase “three-dimensional chess” as a metaphor for complicated thinking. But most attempts I’ve seen at creating actual three-dimensional chess variations have fallen short. I like the idea of a game that forces players to think both vertically and horizontally: it increases the complexity while remaining within the bounds of human comprehension. With Pylos, I’m one step closer to finding real 3-D chess.

The board is slightly less than twelve inches on a side. The pieces are small spheres, each slightly larger than a shooter marble, fifteen each in light or dark colors. Players arrange these thirty spheres in a pyramid shape; the winner is whoever places their sphere at the apex. The rules are so brief, they fit on one page. Sounds simple, right? Well, like Go, the simplicity conceals layers of nuanced strategic thinking.

Promotional photo

Sadly, that Go comparison only carries about so far. The much smaller board and fewer pieces result in much more circumscribed options for strategy; with practice, I would assume your greatest advantage comes from learning to read your opponent. Trying to anticipate another player’s moves in three dimensions creates more subtlety than the pieces. Therefore, I suspect this game would make for good family game nights.

I have mixed feelings about this game. I’ve enjoyed playing it, and it does have enough complexity to unfold in different ways and create several variations. However, speaking as a beginner, it doesn’t feel like it takes “a lifetime to master,” as promotional literature claims. Having played it a few times, I find my hands falling into a comfy place. Unlike chess, Go, or Onitama, this game has a finite feel that I cannot quite shake.

Overall, I enjoy playing this game; it’s quick but complex, easy to learn but difficult to master. But like poker, I suspect the greatest complexity comes from the other player, not the game itself. This isn’t a criticism; I certainly don’t intend to stop playing anytime soon. It’s just a recognition that the board places limits on the game. The real challenge is your perceptions, not really the game.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Capitalism, Religion, and the Spoken Word


Every shift at the factory began with our line supervisor reading a sheet of exhortations. She’d begin by belting out, in a voice to beat the machinery: “What are our top three goals?” And we’d respond in unison: “Safety! Quality! Productivity!” The sheet then transitioned into a list of instructions, things like “Check your machines are in good working order before using them,” and “Keep your workspace clean.” Basic stuff, common to most industrial workplaces.

I worked at this factory for months before I realized this sheet wasn’t busywork. By making everybody participate simultaneously, and requiring us to chant parts of the script in unison, management was steering everybody’s thoughts toward the requirements of work at the beginning of the shift. The unified participation forced us to leave outside obligations outside, unify our thoughts, and shift our brain rhythms toward work. We have a word for this. It’s called “liturgy.”

Liturgy is the verbal assertion of what religious people believe. Perhaps it seems silly comparing industrial labor to church, but bear with me. The order of worship in Christian churches; Islam’s five daily prayers; the tightly scripted mealtime recitations on Jewish High Holy Days—all these are liturgy, and they serve to unify everyone involved in one goal. By reciting liturgy together, believers stop being individuals, and become one coalescent body. Many souls become Soul.

Religions encourage this unity because individuals are necessarily arrogant. The untethered mortal frequently becomes an instrument of appetite, consuming and consuming without ever becoming full. Our culture likes the archetype of the nonconformist bohemian, but it’s an ideal very seldom realized; most people, including myself, can’t be trusted as individuals. We need community and the shared experience of others to restrain our animal desires and become completely human; liturgy is one way to achieve that.

Émile Durkheim wrote, clear back in 1912, that liturgy makes participants speak their values aloud, together. It isn’t enough to privately affirm our beliefs, and treasure their truths in our hearts; anybody can do that, but life’s constant strains force us to compromise our values. We’re all occasionally hypocrites. Speaking our values aloud, together, reminds us not only what we believe, but that we don’t struggle alone. Religions with sturdy liturgy see very little apostasy.


Many non-religious groups recognize this unifying power in reasserting what we believe in public, in unison. That’s why public schools require students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and why it caused such controversy when football players elected not to participate in the National Anthem. For national and government purposes, refusing to participate in these acts resembled refusing to speak the Apostles’ Creed and sing Kyrie Eleison in church. They risk generating widespread national apostasy.

For capitalists to embrace liturgical practice serves two purposes. First, it gets everybody in a work mindset immediately. At the factory, we needed to reset our mental rhythms to the pace of the assembly line, without hesitation. Our shared chant, with its almost Shakespearean cadence, accomplished that. At my current job, we have no such liturgy, and getting started on any meaningful work thus requires thirty minutes of grumbling and fumbling as our brains realign.

Second, capitalist liturgy forces us to accept, on some level, capitalism itself. Sure, not everybody who speaks the Kaddish or the Nicene Creed believes the words, but they at least give some level of assent to the principles, making themselves bearers of the words’ value. Likewise, workplace chants, company songs, and the tradition (most common in Japan) of calisthenics at the top of the shift, make workers leave their identities outside and become, temporarily, Employees.

In other words, workplace liturgies, like religious liturgies, make us subjugate our identities to The Other. Whether that Other is God or Capitalism matters only sub-structurally; both approaches get us to stop being individuals. The structure of Church and Capitalism bear remarkable similarity. That doesn’t mean the sub-structural qualities don’t exist; Church calls us to stop being individuals to serve humankind, while Capitalism wants us to serve Capitalists. But they structure it the same way.

Perhaps that’s what makes Capitalism so difficult to unseat, even as we workers look outside and see our labors making someone else rich. Our conscious minds know we aren’t achieving the promise of Capitalism, but we’ve liturgically committed ourselves to the capitalist ideal. Changing our minds now wouldn’t make us merely non-capitalists; it would make us apostates. Just as leaving religion can be terminally painful, abandoning Capitalism forces us to abandon the words we’ve spoken.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Not Gonna Take It Anymore

Eric Blanc, Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics

2018 saw a sudden upsurge in teacher strikes and other labor actions in several American states, mostly states that went heavily for Donald Trump. This strike wave defied multiple accepted theories among the punditocracy: theories about how strikes are outmoded, or the “white working class” represents an ideological monolith, or that labor action does no good. What made 2018 special? Can American labor do it again?

NYU sociologist and former high-school teacher Eric Blanc was commissioned by Jacobin magazine to cover the 2018 teachers’ strikes. He focused on three: West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, the states where multi-day walkouts resulted in significant concessions from conservative governments. What Blanc finds has eye-opening implications for organized labor. But I question how portable these insights are.

Schoolteachers, like other skilled professionals throughout the American economy, accepted austerity as the necessary condition following the 2008 financial crash. But ten years later, despite putative recovery, their wages, benefits, and working environment remained locked in post-crash conditions. School districts granted waivers to put non-credentialed teachers in front of classrooms. Insurance was getting adjusted downward amid a supposedly hearty economy.

However, as Blanc observes early, “Economic demands are rarely only economic.” Schools in many states, especially states with historic Republican governments, have been long neglected, with class sizes exceeding what qualified teachers can handle, physical plants in disrepair, and an adversarial relationship between legislatures and teachers. Educators didn’t only strike for improved pay and insurance; they felt the state had denied them the authority to teach.

Legitimate action began in West Virginia. Donald Trump won this state with a two-thirds share, and Republicans with an anti-organized labor stance controlled the statehouse. Admittedly, West Virginia has a longstanding union tradition, dating back to the Coal Wars of the 1890s. It was once a Democratic Party stronghold. But like many Democratic-leaning states, West Virginia grew disgusted with Democrats running on center-left promises, and governing on right-wing principles.

Blanc provides generous evidence that, since at least Jimmy Carter, Democrats have consistently fielded a lite-beer version of the Republican economic agenda. Both parties have repeatedly cut public education funding, mandated standardized tests written by private contractors, and shifted financial responsibilities onto local communities unprepared for the burden. Teachers’ unions have complied with this trend, apparently on a devil-you-know basis.

Striking teachers in the West Virginia statehouse, 2018 (CNN photo)

West Virginia’s strike combines old-school organization with innovative grassroots action. The state’s teachers were divided among three competing unions (which isn’t uncommon in right-to-work states), so coordination had to begin with the membership. While union leaders feared upsetting the apple cart, educators and, importantly, support staff organized online, including much-despised social media, to create pressure from below. It ultimately worked.

America hadn’t seen a statewide teachers’ strike since 1990. Accepted wisdom for an entire generation held that strikes created bad blood and undermined communications between labor and management— and sometimes, they do. But compliance with authority hadn’t produced any better results, either. When union membership pushed a strike authorization vote, almost ninety percent of West Virginia teachers supported a walkout. The die was cast.

Inspired by West Virginia, teachers in Oklahoma and Arizona elected to strike. But these states learned largely opposite lessons from the experience. Oklahoma gave remarkable power to non-union firebrands who had great energy, but no organizing experience. Importantly, Oklahoma forgot to include support staff in their organizing efforts. Arizona fared better, taking time to lay groundwork for an unprecedented strike action in possibly America’s most Republican state.

Blanc basically provides an oral history of the three movements. Why did West Virginia and Arizona succeed, while Oklahoma resulted in a split decision at best? And why did other states with similar grievances, like Kentucky and Colorado, manage just one-day walkouts with only salutary effects? The answers to these questions largely exist in participants’ testimonies, and Facebook groups where the grassroots members created momentum.

Also, Blanc acknowledges significant limitations to the model he describes. Teachers were able to engage community support because their local connections cross class boundaries in ways, say, auto workers cannot. Blanc admits the strikes avoided addressing race issues, which isn’t insignificant; as Ibram Kendi points out, labor unions have long been bastions of White protectionism. Ignoring race might work for one strike, but isn’t sustainable.

Still, even if Blanc’s account doesn’t create a blueprint for revitalized American unionism, it provides pointers of ways workers build countervailing power against capitalist might. Teachers broke the taboo against labor stoppages, and proved that simple numbers can reverse intransigence. They didn’t solve everything, certainly. But they proved change is possible.