Feeding the Ouroboros: A Response to the Manchester Bombing

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I’ve been thinking of the future lately. Apparently, so have the more nefarious forces in our world.

I lived in Manchester, UK for four years. It’s a city close to my heart. I won’t pretend I have the deeply ingrained connection that long-time natives hold, but it’s where I became an adult, and therefore it’s special to me. There was a pang of violation on the night of May 22nd, when a young man of Libyan descent shattered his body and those of children and other concert-goers into a unspeakable morass of pain and anguish. The morning after of such events is often lined by a sheen of unreality, which I imagine was more palpable than ever in the streets I walked and laughed and loved and fretted.

I’m not an expert on ISIS or its simulacra, the mechanics of their operation, or the intricacies of their ideology. But I know that they are technologically savvy. They are on Twitter, FaceBook, Tumblr, and they read and watch everything from Breitbart to Jacobin and Democracy now to Fox News. They are moving with us, not always silently, along the avenues of political discourse, observing and documenting and feeling out the emergent Zeitgeist as we do. And I know that they have a quasi-Manichean worldview, a disgust with materiality–with history, nature, bodies–and a yearning for some pure reality beyond time. They have death-wish for themselves and the world. They are anti-materialist to the extreme. And this all amounts to a simple observation of them: they don’t believe in Future.

The attack earlier this week coincided with the Labour Party’s considerable gain in polls for the British national election. Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, they released a new manifesto radiating with a promise of a better future: nationalizing the railways, abolishing the water tax, free childcare for 2-4 year olds, an increase of the minimum wage, among others. Introducing to the manifesto, Corbyn said, “let’s build a fairer Britain where no one is held back. A country where everybody is able to get on in life, to have security at work and at home, to be decently paid for the work they do, and to live their lives with the dignity they deserve.” In simpler terms: let’s move towards Future, not simply preserve what we have.

The Tories, on the other hand, emphasize the maintenance and management of Now, and in some cases Then. They offer us nothing new and empowering, although they often dress up their promises as such. This commitment is painfully evident in their response to terrorist attacks. For example, in her speech announcing and justifying the implementation of a literal police-state in the aftermath of Monday night’s attack, conservative PM Theresa May cited the “liberal, pluralistic values of Britain” as a source of resistance by which “evil can be overcome by good”. In extolling this value-system, May implies its adequacy, thereby indicating little awareness or acknowledgement of the heightening contradictions this system harbors (i.e. rising inequality, deteriorating health outcomes, intensifying surveillance, ecological catastrophes, etc). This ideological farming is the result of a severe cognitive dissonance: conservatives think that the world as it is and as it was is fair, equal, liberating, just, and good. Although I suspect some are more aware of the ruse of this view, most literally think this. The remarkable and impressive feat of modern conservative movements has been to sell this worldview to the very people it disenfranchises, by which I mean not only the working classes or communities of colour, but also the middle-classes, women, and the upwardly mobile.A theme common to so much conservative rhetoric is a devoted advocacy to the Now– an appeal to agree to our own cannibalization. For example,  in a speech on the “Big Society”, which pushed for the replacement of government run services by troops of volunteers and corporate-sponsored community groups, former PM David Cameron framed it as “the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street”. Although the “Big Society” project was discredited widely, the cuts to services it required were enacted and uncondemned for some time. It’s a clear example of the sleight-of-hand conservative rhetoric often performs, a ruse that is both obvious and elliptically dizzying.

ISIS and its associates are well aware of these contradictions. Indeed, I am convinced increasingly that they aim to accelerate and exacerbate them–to feed the ouroboros. 

Aside from all the practical elements which are entailed undoubtedly by such heinous acts of violence, this observation is at work in the engineering of these attacks. Although I would love to indulge the conspiracy theories being floated on the left (that the attack was orchestrated by the conservatives themselves since it will tilt public avour towards the incumbents, or at least distract from their laughable attempts to appeal to a disaffected public), I think there is a simpler explanation: they want political elites to succeed; they want money in politics; they want the AHCA to succeed; they want Brexit; they want us to ramp up weapon production; they want Trump; they want us to to revere, to love, to cherish, to pleasure ourselves on the festering feast of our coprophagiac Now.

Borders, war, surveillance, affluenza are Now.

Universal healthcare, free higher education, state-supported housing, unilateral disarmament, and sustainable environmental practices are Future

There is only one way out of our stomachs.

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healthcare in America: a returned expat fulminates

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A subconscious habit afflicting me recently is the compulsion to flip my tongue over to the right-side of my mouth and press it against the smooth porcelain of my new crown. It’s my first dental intervention of this sort, and I’m amazed at how real it feels: better than the original tooth. By far. Oh–and it cost me around $1,400.00.

Who would of thought a tooth could break the bank?, I wrote as the first line of a poem at a workshop about a week after the implant. That sentence was all I could muster, consumed as I was by the fury and weariness of that simple fact, knowing how shriekingly unjust it is.

*   *   *   *   *  *

Eight years ago I went to a doctor in a socialized healthcare system for the first time in my life. I was living in Belfast, Ireland, a member state of the United Kingdom with access to the National Healthcare Service (NHS). Before going to my appointment I called my health insurance provider (Blue Cross/Blue Shield) to double-check that my healthcare would be covered. They told me that 80% expenses were covered and I just needed to email or fax them documentation. Later, I looked like an absolute idiot when I approached reception after the appointment and tried to pay my co-pay. Healthcare in the UK is free. You just register and go.

I had made that appointment because I had a slight and infrequent pang in my lower stomach. I was convinced it was either giardia, an ectopic pregnancy, or an ovarian cyst (the latter I had had before). This hypochondriac mindset, I would later realize, is a symptom of being able to afford healthcare in one of most exorbitant markets on the planet.

The doctor asked me a couple of questions and once we established that all the symptoms pointed to an ovarian cyst he said not to worry about it and come back only if the pain becomes constant and intense. I was very, very confused. A year earlier, I was working in the theater at my college when I collapsed in total agony. I was ambulanced to the hospital ($300+) where a bunch of tests, including a cat-scan ($1,000+), determined that a small cyst, about the size of a grape, had ruptured. It was extremely painful at the time, but ultimately entirely harmless. Nonetheless, I made an appointment with my primary care physician (PCP) and was advised to see a gynaecologist, who in turn recommended that I come in for monitoring every 5-6 months.  It must be serious, I thought.

In the spirit of this thought, I relayed the episode to the NHS doctor and asked when I should come back to have the cyst monitored. The doctor explained–very patiently–that even if they found a cyst, unless it was the size of a orange they would not be able to do anything about it. There was no need to. Cysts happen, then they go away. It’s fine.

That day I learned about more than just the medical contingencies of ovarian cysts; I learned that as a consumer of American healthcare, at least some of the healthcare I receive is a waste of precious resources. In healthcare terms, I was equivalent to royalty. My parents work for Mass General Hospital, one of the top hospitals in the world. We paid for the most exclusive healthcare package available under Blue Cross, and MGH footed a huge portion of that monthly bill. This all went to my head. Me, my mother, my family, we all believed that recommended treatment is a necessary treatment, and that since it was important and necessary we were fully entitled to it. Doctors help propagate this disposition, which is not to say doctors are nefarious, greedy individuals. They work in system that relies on healthcare being purchased, and this fundamental impetus of capital is of course dressed-up in their minds (and ours) as benevolent “care”. And “care” is what we consumers of healthcare expect, what we feel entitled to. Happily or not, the proponents of the system usually oblige. They need our business and they want to think of themselves as custodians of a system that ultimately does good in the world.

*   *   *   *   *  *

This morass of expectations is toxic to one’s relationship to healthcare. Among those who can access healthcare (and even those who cannot), it breeds a trenchant privilege that spirals into unbridled hypochondria. When my step-mother, a self-employed real-estate agent, married my father over a decade ago, she had steady health insurance for the first time in her life. Since that time, she has gotten multiple elective surgeries and treatments, from the removal of benign moles, to something done on her elbow, to the most advanced pre-emptive bunion surgery possible, among others. These interventions are always elective, and there have been times when his insurance refused to pay for them. When my grandmother, who by contrast has had insurance her whole life, visited me in Belfast one summer, my friends were astonished by the arsenal of medications and vitamins she carried around in her bag and popped throughout the day.

An outcome of this wasteful and neurotic orientation towards our health is that quick-fixes are often offered over more tried-and-true solutions to health problems. This propensity makes us vulnerable to the more pernicious elements of the system.

During elementary, middle and high-school, my mother sent me and my siblings to the local chiropractor because she was worried about the effect of our school bags on our spinal health. He told my mother that I had a condition called a “sway back”, which is just a circuitous term for slouching. Instead of encouraging me to do a couple of sit-ups to strengthen my core, he recommended I come in each week for adjustments and electro-therapy. My mother, a full-time nurse, also attended the practice, sometimes multiple times a week for similar treatments (I don’t doubt her back was hurting, but as someone who underwent those electro-treatments I now wonder whether they did more harm than good). At one point in high-school, my right shoulder started hurting a bit. More electro-therapy.

Mine and my mother’s pathological need for healthcare set us up to become complete suckers. At some point in college I received word that that chiropractor had been investigated and convicted of insurance fraud. Apparently, we was selling droves of patients expensive treatments that they did not need so that he could charge insurance companies.

Years later, I started to develop serious knee, back, and shoulder pain. This was when I was living in England, and my GP referred me to a podiatrist, who laid me down on a table and told me within two seconds that one of my legs was shorter than the other, my feet were slightly flat, and my shoulder just needed to be exercised a certain way to build up muscle in a certain spot. Twenty minutes later, I left the office with new orthodontic insoles and within a couple of weeks of doing the stretches and exercises she taught me I was free of pain. Notably, my former chiropractor had laid me on the table and conducted the exact same examinations.

*   *   *   *   *  *

In recent months, the Affordable Care Act has survived a failed assault by congress, and although I find this consoling,  I stand by the position that healthcare in America blows. Why we cannot see it as a fundamental right that provides more freedom than restriction is a myopia that I find hard to fathom now. It’s a injustice I bump up against constantly.

*   *   *   *   *  *

As I sat in the dentist’s office waiting for the crown application a young woman dressed in sweats and carrying a skateboard was trying to check out. She had just had a tooth cleaning under the first-time customer discount plan: $57.00 for a cleaning and examination. The receptionist asked her for payment or her insurance card. She handed her a New Hampshire medicaid card. The receptionist looked it over and said there was nothing indicating dental coverage on it. The young woman looked at her with passive perplexity, insisting that it was covered. The receptionist humoured her for a few more minutes, offering to call the insurance provider to double-check, but I knew she knew that this would amount to nothing. I don’t know why that young woman was on medicaid, but I expect that even $57.00 was a lot of money to her.

*   *   *   *   *  *

Later on that week I received an email from one of my students that she was withdrawing from my class and going on a leave of absence from the school. A few days earlier she had been sitting in my office, an exhausted heap, telling me that her insurance plan was refusing to pay for her medications. Her father had been laid off at the start of the year and she and her family just switched onto medicaid in their home state. She had to drive back every weekend to see her doctors for an incapacitating anxiety disorder. She also caught mono and someone rear-ended her a few weeks back, leading her neck to begin hurting. The college knows about her situation, but there is no hardship fund available. She was one of my brightest students and we had connected over the course of the year. Her email also mentioned that she would be transferring to a school in her home state.

*   *   *   *   *  *

My brother was kicked out of my mom’s house a couple of months ago. He was stealing money from my younger brother, taking cash and forging checks to buy pills. He needs to go to detox. He is unemployed so he’s eligible for medicaid, but he’s living in a world where paper-work and ringing call-centers is difficult to carry out. If he could just walk in, like one does in the NHS, maybe things would be different. My father wants to section him through the courts in order to streamline him right into detox and rehab, but the risk is that if there are no beds available at the time of his sectioning–and the current statewide opioid epidemic is making that scenario likely–he would have to go to prison until a bed is open. I was sorting through some papers the other day and found a photograph of us siblings at my 11th birthday. He has missing teeth and the widest smile.

*   *   *   *   *  *

In early March I noticed my urine smelled slightly rancid. This persisted for a few weeks until a minute burn became noticeable. I bought some cranberry juice and started to drink a lot of liquids. More weeks. The burn persisted. I finally made an appointment with my PCP, and when the nurse practitioner confirmed I had a minor urinary tract infection I beamed with relief. Thank god I didn’t pay a $20.00 co-pay for nothing.

I don’t think someone would think that anywhere but America.  

Yes, but we still need game changers …

A little over a week ago, Jessica Valenti, a prolific feminist writer at the Guardian, responded to Wendy Davis’s newly released memoir, in which Davis shares her own personal experiences of two abortions. For those who do not know, Davis is a state senator in Texas (now running for the Texas governorship) who rocketed herself to political stardom last year when she engaged in a physically and mentally exhausting filibuster of an incoming bill that would effectively restrict access to abortions in the state. Although Davis prevented the law from being passed that day, Governor Rick Perry managed to push it through at another session shortly thereafter. Despite this setback, Davis’s agonizing eleven-hour effort, during which she was not only expected to stand without using the bathroom but also stay on topic, she nonetheless managed to garner nationwide attention to herself, abortion rights, and the growing influence of the Democratic party in Texas.

For Valenti, Davis’s disclosure of her own experiences of abortion in her memoir represents the growing popularity of such disclosures amongst reproductive-rights campaigns and female political figures, for example Rep. Jackie Speier’s retort to Rep. Mike Spence in 2011. Although Valenti acknowledges the bravery of these women, she backpedals slightly and asks us to consider the gender logics in play in this particular political tactic:

In a political climate so antagonistic to women and reproductive rights, this kind of disclosure is undoubtedly brave. But in a world where there is no privacy for women and their bodies, it’s shameful that we have to lay bare our reproductive lives just so others can – maybe, if we’re lucky – view us as full people. Because, really, women’s abortions are none of your business – not even those of a public figure, not even one who became an international figure because of abortion rights. We shouldn’t have to explain ourselves or justify our life decisions: our abortions are ours alone.

I laud Valenti’s defence of women’s right to privacy, and indeed I find it problematic that the the ticket women must buy to speak in the public sphere is the reduction of their voice to their body (see my previous post). However, Valenti’s application of these principles to this particular debate does not move me. On the one hand, I believe she mistakes an activist tactics for a positive duty. On the other hand, it is precisely the divide between private/public spheres which makes it possible to efface  political claims that concerns women (and men’s) bodies.

But, before I explain this further I want to demonstrate how Valenti’s position illuminates a key tension between negative duties and positive duties. Broadly speaking, negative duties presuppose that moral agents have a duty to refrain from certain kinds of action, namely actions that would directly and deliberately involve the harming of some other individual. Conversely, positive duties presuppose that moral agents have a duty to act in certain ways (to do something) in an effort to either prevent harm or afford a benefit to others. Some philosophers contend that negative duties are strong, whilst positive duties, if they can be defended at all, are generally weak. Within this mix, other philosophers also argue for the importance and moral bindingness of agent-relative duties, which hold that moral agents have scope to act in ways that are pertinent to them and them alone, even if this means not benefitting others or preventing the harming of others. Thus, if I see two children drowning in a pond, one of which is my own child, and I only have time to save one, it is permissible for me to choose my own child. These principles can help us make sense of Valenti’s argument and demonstrate where she might be flawed.

Valenti suggests that trends within the abortion-rights movement are imposing a positive duty on women to share their personal experiences in order to benefit women at large. In her view, such a duty violates the agent-relative right to personal privacy. For her, of paramount importance is the right for women to have the personal discretion over the public disclosure of their bodily lives. She writes, ‘not all of us want to be that brave. And none of us should have to be.’ Furthermore, such political tactics can be contested because they reinscribe political norms which require women to open up their bodily lives to public scrutiny. For Valenti, the alleged positive duty to share personal experiences harms women by violating their right to privacy and enforcing norms that reduce them to their bodies, and on these grounds it can be refused by women, and should be refused by political movement.

However, I am not convinced that outspoken politicians such as Wendy Davis or the 1-in-3 Campaign are arguing for such a positive duty. If anything, they are merely pointing out the importance of such acts of disclosure. Rather than require women to be brave, they are inviting women who already feel brave enough. And the cumulative effect of such disclosures is the creation of an environment where less brave women feel less stigmatized about their past and future decisions concerning abortion. This is the penultimate endgame of such politics,and in this respect I concede  to Valenti: yes,  a feminist politics installs a prima facie positive duty to act in ways that advance women’s interests. Yet, against Valenti, because feminism also valorizes women as individual, it leaves scope for strong agent relative reasons to prevail. In this respect the feminist politics hold that women should share their personal experiences of abortion, rape, sexism, and discrimination in order to advance the aims of women, but recognizes that there are compelling reasons which make it permissible for women women to excuse themselves from these acts of disclosure.

Valenti’s contention that the public disclosure of women’s embodied experiences reinforces norms which relegate women to their bodies is, however, harder to dismiss. Indeed, it is a point with which I broadly agree.  However, I worry that the negative duty to refrain from body-speak would undermine the very claim reproductive-rights advocates are making, and would thereby reinscribe the problematic bifurcation between public/private which is so often deployed in order to silence political claims made by women, LGBT activists, sex workers, etc. In my view, the promise of reproductive-rights campaigns lies in their efforts to foreground bodies and make it difficult to draw-up institutions that rely on the abstractions produced through airy pontification, religious sentiments, or fear-mongering.  Indeed, Valenti herself recognizes this, citing research which demonstrates the social and political importance of sharing abortion-experiences.

In this vein, I am reminded of an incident in the Michigan state legislature which took place a few years ago. State senator Lisa Brown was ban from the floor in a debate on Planned Parenthood when she stated, at the end of speech ‘finally Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.’ The gender dynamics of the housepeaker’s response are striking in every respect: the house-speaker claims that by using the phrase ‘no means no’ Brown was suggesting that support of the legislation was akin to rape, an allegation which Republicans simply could not abide (ahem). For more obvious reasons, others have called the event ‘Vaginagate’.  Whatever the reason for her expulsion, both rationales illustrate the momentous effort of anti-feminist actors to foreclose an acknowledgment of women embodied experiences and impose a ‘neutral’ decorum in the public sphere, but neutrality merely translates to the occlusion of women’s experiences. This foreclosure of language makes it difficult – if not impossible – for women to talk about the reality of their lived experiences.

With this in mind, I’d like to suggest that the problem posed by a politics which asks women to speak about their embodied experiences in public is not the highlighting of embodiment itself, but the ways women are elided with their bodies. Too often women are subjected to narratives of embodiments which reduce women to hypersexual beings or passive vessels of reproduction. Such narratives tell us how to live our bodies in very specific ways. In this respect I agree with Valenti: society frames women in biological and sexual terms, while men get to be ‘neutral’ and cerebral actors. But countering such narratives requires feminists to talk about bodies in the public sphere in order to bring different narratives to the fore, narratives which justify protections and privileges that are central to women’s agency and well-being in virtue of our embodiment.

All in all, I appreciate the impulse underpinning Valenti’s article, but I worry that her argument relies on a straw-man construction of feminist reproductive-rights activism and an unhelpful reinstatement of the public/private divide. Women do not have to act in accord with feminism all the time, indeed there are many good reasons why they should not.  But if the reproductive-rights movement is to establish institutional change, then the movement needs at least some women to be game-changer. Such women challenge the norms that imbue abortion with stigma and close-mindedness and thus engage in the important feminist activity of structural change. As feminists we should stand by women’s personal privacy, but to unwaveringly do so at the expense of a wider politics seems to defeat the point of feminist politics in general. Indeed, I think Valenti recognizes this herself when she writes that women should not have to share their because ‘not all of us have the Wendy Davis support network’. I agree, but isn’t this what Davis, Speier, Brown and others are trying to build?