Optimism and misanthropy

For years, I’ve had arguments with myself about whether people are basically bad or basically good. Which side of me wins the argument has much to do with my current mood, but I’m never certain whether logic is on the side of the depressed me or the optimistic (possibly hypomanic) me.

I know what my therapist thinks. She thinks the optimistic me is right and the depressed me is delusional. I wish I could simply agree with her. The trouble is, the evidence often doesn’t support that.

On a personal, international, and historical level, the evidence is overwhelming that people are actually pretty horrible. Our particular talent seems to be taking something good and misusing it. Our legacy is one of slavery, war, increasingly creative ways to torture and kill each other, every conceivable kind of abuse, daily pettiness and selfishness, oppression based on whatever we can come up with (skin color, culture, language, gender, religion, illness or impairment, financial resources, circumstances of birth) and, finally, environmental destruction of the planet. And all of these things are totally unnecessary. You can argue that war is sometimes necessary, but until we are invaded by aliens, literally the only reason that war is or ever could be necessary is because people suck.

I come from a family in which there was inter-generational abuse. For much of my life I’ve been bullied, mocked, or simply excluded by peers and psychologically abused by people in positions of authority. (And my life has been pretty good!) And every time I let myself be optimistic that society is moving towards acceptance of those who are different, and think we’re making progress in understanding each other and listening to each other, I’ll read something on social media about how all those stupid liberals with their stupid identity politics need to just shut up and being bullied is good for kids because it keeps them from being weaklings (or whatever) and I just want to not be human anymore so that I don’t have to share a species with that person.

Despite all of this, there is a possibly insane, but improbably resilient, part of me that thinks the best of people, that believes they are basically well-meaning though damaged, that wants to like people and keeps seeking out engagement with them in hopes of proving the other part of me wrong. This is the part of me that forgives and asks for forgiveness because I’m not perfect either, that believes some kind of cosmic redemption is possible. This is the part of me that bothers with thoughts of a just society – whether that means a society that is incrementally better than what we have now, or an ideal anarchist society in which no one wields power or violence over anyone else.

The misanthropic part of me thinks anarchism is a bunch of bullshit. A power structure will always find a way to reemerge, as in communist countries. People will just kill each other like they always do.

The optimist in me says, “You’re not the only one that feels this way. There are others. People as imperfect as you, as angry as you, people stronger and smarter and more empathic than you, who are fighting injustice on all fronts because they haven’t given up hope that we can do better. Because they can’t afford to give up hope.”

I look at my son, and he’s just wonderful. I look at him and think, “How can people be bad?” But then I remember that as he grows up (if we haven’t all killed each other yet), he will be bullied and hurt and excluded by others, as I have been. Maybe much worse. And I try to find a category for all those people who hurt and bully others that’s narrower than the human race – a category that doesn’t include me.

But that category also has to leave out all the people I care about and empathize with and want to protect. So that they (we) can be the good ones. Victims, not perpetrators. The trouble is that I see the ways we’ve hurt others, too, knowingly or unknowingly, the ways we’ve participated in structures of abuse and domination. So then I start thinking, “But that’s not the same, this is worse than that, what I did isn’t like what that person did,” etc etc.

Or is it?

At various times, I’ve gone through mental gymnastics to explain to myself why I’m not like other people. Maybe I’m not really human at all, but some kind of elf! (This was Preteen Me.) Or witch! (This was Teenage Me.) Or visionary! (This was College Me.) It’s apparent to Adult Me that if I am any kind of elf, witch, or visionary, I am failing at my vocation miserably and in some very human ways.

Maybe, after all, we are all in this together. Maybe I, with my hurts and faults, am no more or less redeemable than anyone else.

When you’re low income, everything you do is wrong.

I’m almost finished reading Linda Tirado’s book Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America. I only discovered it a few days ago, so the fact that I’m almost done means it’s good. Unlike most people that explain poverty to the middle classes – for instance because they got a book contract to go undercover in low-wage jobs for a couple of months, *cough* Barbara Ehrenreich *cough* – Tirado’s been legitimately poor. (The only reason she’s not still poor is because she got paid to write this book after a freak incident where a post she’d written on the internet went viral and was picked up my major newspapers.) She gets into the psychological and physical effects of poverty in a way I’ve never seen before.

What the book really is, overall, is a reminder that poor people are actually human beings, and an elaboration of what that means. It shouldn’t be needed. We shouldn’t need a book to say, “Hey, guess what, we may not have a savings account but we still have pride and dignity and emotions and values, we have the right to have relationships and families and to pursue happiness in whatever little ways are available to us.” But we do need that book.

Because in many Americans’ minds, when you need any kind of government support (never mind how many jobs you’re working), you are suddenly reduced to a subhuman parasite on society and everything you do to survive and get through your day is an irresponsible waste of other people’s money. For instance:

You used food stamps to buy junky frozen food because it’s cheap and satisfying and you’re trying to stretch that money? You’re a horrible person. The rest of us will have to pay for your ER bills when you develop diabetes.

You used food stamps to buy organic strawberries because you’re concerned about pesticides? You’re a horrible person. How dare you waste taxpayer money on such luxuries as uncontaminated food.

You bought a toy for your child? You’re a horrible person. Don’t you know that your child should be wearing rags and begging joylessly for scraps of rotten food outside Trump’s hotel? Why are you even breeding anyway?

You have an iPhone? You’re a horrible person. I don’t care how you got it, or if it’s the only technological device you have (doubling as phone and computer), or what you use it for (staying awake during the slow parts of your 14 hour night shifts at a group home, for example); the fact that you own this one item is proof that you’re using taxpayer money to live in the lap of luxury. You probably live in a mansion and buy brand-name clothes directly from the designers and do heroin.

(But when rich people actually do all that stuff with their corporate tax breaks, it’s totally OK. For some reason, a multi-billionaire’s yacht is a better use of tax money than our heating bills or our kids’ lunches.)

When you’re low income, you’re made to feel your supposed lack of worth in a hundred ways, from your employer’s expectation that you’ll be available every minute of every day for your part-time job that doesn’t pay the bills and has zero benefits (in other words, your time is worth nothing), to the demand that you smile and be cheerful all the time in the face of verbal abuse from customers and supervisors (in other words, your emotions are worth nothing), to the lack of bathroom breaks at many low-wage jobs, or requirement to ask permission (in other words, your basic comfort and privacy is worth nothing), to the insistence that, while dealing with all of this day in and day out, you feel properly embarrassed for taking whatever help you need to feed your family.

At one of the group homes where I worked, the director decided to save money by making employees bring their own toilet paper. Well, some of the residents used toilet paper, too, so that meant we were supposed to use our part-time minimum wage money to provide toilet paper for ourselves and for the residents. Mind you, nobody bothered to tell us this ahead of time. I just showed up to work one day and discovered, when I needed to pee, that there was no toilet paper in the house. (Or paper towels.) I called my supervisor and was told I needed to provide my own. I pointed out that I was alone with three medically fragile residents in wheelchairs, so I couldn’t leave; someone would have to bring me toilet paper. My supervisor told me he would bring it himself after he was done with his meeting and all his other work. It would only be a few hours. No big deal when your bladder’s about to explode, right?

Fortunately, I was able to get my husband to bring me a roll of toilet paper on his way to work. If our schedules had been different, or if I’d waited another ten minutes, that wouldn’t have been an option.

Another time, at a different company, a supervisor reprimanded me for eating lunch on my shift. It was a 12 hour shift with no breaks, and I was pregnant.

When you work in these kinds of jobs, there are dozens of these little humiliations. Coming from a middle class background, I was shocked at how I and my coworkers were treated. My coworkers weren’t shocked, just pissed off.

Anyway, this is my personal spin-off rant on some of the subjects that Tirado addresses more coherently and with more depth. I particularly groaned over the incident where she had to pay back SNAP benefits because of a government error that she had repeatedly called the state about (this happened to me, too, with slightly different details). She discusses exhaustion, depression, the sense of never catching up. And she’s good at illustrating just exactly why it’s not possible (or even rational) to be responsible and plan ahead with money when you don’t have enough for the basics.

On the other hand, I will just note that I can’t really relate to what she says about having children. It’s not that I disagree with her in principle, but my experience parenting a child with multiple medical and developmental issues is very, very different from Tirado’s experience raising her typical children. But that’s because my parenting experience is very different from most people’s. She’s also much more accepting of capitalism than I am, although the mutual class resentment that’s on full display in her book seems to me like a pretty good argument for something else.

I’ll just end this with a passage from Tirado’s book that I found particularly poignant. No comment; it speaks for itself. A lot of free-market religious conservatives could stand to read it a few times and pray about it.

“Living in low-income neighborhoods, I’ve seen sexual health campaigns aimed at slut-shaming us into celibacy. They talk about things like self-esteem and value and all the usual abstinence arguments. They assume that our bodies are a gift that we should bestow selectively on others, rather than the one thing that can never be anything but our own. […]

These are the bodies that hold the brains we’re supposed to shut off all day at work, the same bodies that aren’t important enough to heal. These are the bodies that come with the genitalia that we should be so protective of? I really don’t understand the logic.

You can’t tell us that our brains and labor and emotions are worth next to nothing and then expect us to get all full of intrinsic worth when it comes to our genitals. Either we’re cheap or we’re not.

Make up your fucking mind.”

–Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

Evidence that Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is really an anarchist commune disguised as a constitutional monarchy

Monkey’s favorite show is Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, the animated spin-off of Mister Rogers. He watches it a lot. Thus I also watch it a lot. As in, I have entire episodes memorized down to the inflection of each sentence and I sing the songs absentmindedly in public restrooms.

In watching this show on a daily basis, I have noticed things that lead me, unavoidably, to the conclusion that despite the presence of King Friday and his royal family, the whole neighborhood actually operates on anarchist principles.


1) There’s no money. Mom Tiger goes to the bakery and gets bread and leaves. No money exchanged. (There’s something like a cash register on the counter in the bakery, but nobody uses it and that thing looks seriously antique; Baker Aker probably keeps it around as a curiosity from one of those weird capitalist societies.) The whole family goes to a restaurant and there’s no bill. Daniel goes to the doctor and nobody is asking his mom for a copay first. I don’t think they even have library cards.

2) Free public transportation. (Also sentient. Bonus points.)

3) The Enchanted Garden is a communal vegetable garden and orchard where anyone can go to get free food at any time. There’s also a community farm where they keep the livestock and horses that anyone can ride.

4) There’s no janitor in the neighborhood, so presumably everyone – including the royal family, who can be seen sweeping walkways after a storm – does the deep cleaning stuff on a rotational basis. Further evidence for this is the song, “Cleaning up is a gift we give / To each other each day.”

5) Another song: “Everyone’s job is important! We all help in different ways.”

6) Another song: “If there’s something you need, try to make it yourself.” (Not good capitalism!)

7) All the jobs that would be minimum wage in a capitalist society (grocery store clerk, waiter, babysitter) are performed by Prince Tuesday. The royal family can be seen engaging in various mundane tasks such as cleaning, and King Friday’s only real role seems to be announcing holidays and the occasional community vote (more on this later).

8) They have an official holiday called Neighbor Day which is celebrated by performing random acts of kindness.

9) There are no police officers in the neighorhood. When Daniel fantasizes about being a police officer, all he does is hold a stop sign to help animals cross the street, which is proof that he’s been brought up with no conception of law-breaking or prison.

10) Unless Daniel’s parents are independently wealthy from an inheritance, there’s just no way that Dad Tiger could be supporting the whole family with his very part-time clock business. Even if he does export some of them to other towns, how much of an income does that really bring in? With Mom Tiger as a stay-at-home, how are they covering all the medical bills for Baby Margaret’s birth?

As far as I can tell, everyone contributes to the community by means of their job and basic maintenance of the communal spaces. So Dad Tiger makes clocks and does handyman stuff, Mom Tiger is a caregiver, X the Owl is the librarian and also in charge of the community recycling program, Teacher Harriet teaches and runs a community garden, Music Man Stan gives free music lessons and instrument repairs, Lady Elaine runs the factory, Mr McFeely is the mailman and resident pedophile who would be in jail just on the basis of his name if they had a jail, Henrietta Pussycat sings and dances at the local nightclub, King Friday and Queen Saturday take care of the administrative stuff and announcement making, and they all help with cleaning and gardening and such. In return, they all get the above-mentioned free transportation, free food, free childcare and school, free healthcare etc.

11) This one’s sort of the exception that proves the rule. In one episode, King Friday announces that the neighborhood is getting a new piece of playground equipment, and since the children are the ones who will use it, they will vote on whether they want a swing-set or a slide. Out comes the polling booth and tyranny of the majority, leaving the “losing” children disappointed and despondent …. And this would appear to contradict my whole theory.

BUT notice that it’s the children who are voting. No actual democracy or constitutional monarchy lets children vote. And the adults don’t vote at all. From this, I conclude that this is a teaching method: the gateway into individual and group decision-making for the children. As they grow up, having personally experienced the limitations of majority voting, they’ll be introduced to more sophisticated ways of making decisions as a community.

So there you have it. I let my child watch anarcho-communist propaganda on a daily basis.

And I feel good about it.

Dear activists: make your protests accessible!

I tried to attend the local “Swamp Cabinet” protest at my senators’ office today. The key word here is tried.

First of all, the day did not start out well. Mr. Anarchist was out of town for work. I’m getting over a cold. Monkey was up much of the night and insisted on getting up for good at 4:15 AM. A series of accidents followed, some involving bodily functions and others involving objects being broken.

Despite all this, and despite the fact that it takes over an hour to get Monkey dressed and ready and his diaper bag packed, and despite the fact that I disrupted his routine, which can cause some major issues, and despite the drive being half an hour – by some small miracle I managed to get us to the offices on time, even a bit early. And we were prepared. We had signs and snacks and extra layers ’cause it was freaking cold.

But then.

First, there was no parking. Or rather there was, but it was all blocked off for some mysterious reason. I had to park on a nearby street and walk. This meant that I had to use the stroller, because Monkey WILL NOT walk long distances and I cannot carry him long distances as he weighs 40 lbs.

OK, so I have my enormous, medically involved, developmentally delayed two year old in a stroller. We walk through snow and some surprisingly deep puddles to the building. We’re still on time.

Oh look, stairs. Lots of stairs.

I looked for signs that might indicate a different, accessible route. There weren’t any. I started asking people who were walking by where I could push a stroller up. They didn’t know. I walked around one side of the building and up a promising looking ramp, only to find that it dead-ended at a gate with a sign saying WARNING: HIGH VOLTAGE. Then I went around the other side of the building. Finally, I saw a sign that said “Handicap access” with an arrow. I followed the sign, which led me to – I KID YOU NOT – a ramp ending in another flight of stairs.

At this point I was so desperate and pissed off that I actually hauled my 40 lb son in his stroller up multiple stairs. I don’t even know how I physically managed that; pure rage? I found the place I was supposed to meet the other protesters … there was no one there.

Later, having contacted the leader of the event about what happened, I learned that they had gone in to the office just minutes before I got there. But at the time, as I asked around, nobody could tell me about any protest going on. So I gave up and left. At which point I discovered the cleverly hidden, non-stair-infested wheelchair ramp with absolutely no signage to indicate its existence.

OK, the poor design and lack of signs is the fault of the state government, not the activist group. On the other hand, the fact is that if I hadn’t had a child with me or been encumbered with wheeled transportation for that child, I would have been on time to the protest and would have participated.

Instead – for all my political ideals – I felt completely lost and foolish and out of place, wandering around an enormous government building alone, a low-income woman with a special needs toddler, with government workers in business suits going by.

If this group wants to involve people who are disabled, or even just parents with young children in strollers, who may not be seasoned activists familiar with the layout of large government buildings, then they need to address the accessibility issue. That might mean, for example, mentioning it in their materials for the event and providing a simple map showing where the ramp is. It might mean having someone hang around for a while near the street to guide newcomers who are having trouble accessing the building.

A social and political movement that is only accessible to able-bodied, childless adults with flexible work schedules has a major problem. Period. You need the women. You need the parents. You need the working class. You need the folks with disabilities. When there are so many obstacles to overcome just in order to be there, only to find the place inaccessible, people tend to give up and stay home and resign themselves to the reality that they are just not meant to be politically involved.

On black blocs

What follows is not a discussion of the effectiveness or justification of black bloc tactics. I just think it might be helpful if everyone who is scandalized and horrified by the actions of a handful of protesters at the inauguration asked themselves the following questions:

Am I upset more by the breaking of windows owned by corporations that can afford to replace them, than by families having their homes foreclosed and becoming homeless because they can no longer afford their mortgage?

Am I outraged more by the overturning of a garbage can in a city street than by the wanton destruction of the planet’s environment – forests, mountains, water, air, habitats of living beings – in pursuit of wealth?

Am I disturbed more by a masked protester swinging a hammer at an inanimate object (which is not feeding, clothing, medically treating, or housing anyone) than I am by governments dropping bombs on civilians’ homes (and the occasional hospital) in other countries, killing innocent people with drones, and rendering water supplies unusable?

Am I scandalized more by someone punching a professed white nationalist in the face than by the disproportionate infliction of poverty and police violence on black Americans?

Do I find myself more threatened by the illegal destruction of private property during a protest than by the legal violence perpetrated by police on human beings during (for instance) the DAPL protests (eg. setting attack dogs on indigenous protesters including pregnant women and children, spraying them with water at night in freezing temperatures)?

And if so, why?

Again, this is not an argument for or against the effectiveness of these tactics, a defense of any particular action, or a dismissal of all criticism. I just think it might be revealing to explore why more outrage is expressed about these tactics than about the systems of oppression to which they are a response.

How to think like a spy

Full disclosure: I have no experience at all as a spy, unless you count watching parodies of James Bond movies.

However, when dealing with our current political landscape, I think there is a lesson to be learned from the spy movie mindset.

Say you’re a spy (in a James Bond parody) named Credulous Dude. You have to save the world from a villain named Evil Megalomaniac. As you go about this, you meet another spy named Mysterious Agent who is also working to overthrow Evil Megalomaniac. You start working with Mysterious Agent because, obviously, since both of you are against Evil Megalomaniac, you are on the same side – right?


Actually, as you find out later in an unpleasant scene involving torture and humiliation, Mysterious Agent is working against both Evil Megalomaniac AND you. He was just using you against his other enemy before taking you down, too. What you thought was a landscape of Good vs. Evil is actually Good vs. Evil vs. Evil. (Assuming you are actually good, which you may not be too sure of now …) And there could be an indefinite number of other evils, which are also opposed to each other and to you.

Most of us non-politicians think way too much like Credulous Dude at the beginning of the movie. Maybe we think that the foreign government is Evil Megalomaniac and our government is Mysterious Agent. Maybe we see these roles reversed: our own government is the bad one. But actually, we should distrust them both. We should distrust their motives, their selection and presentation of information, everything.

I have repeatedly explained to my mother that I am not pro-Putin, but every time I say anything to the effect of:

“I’d like to avoid a nuclear war with Russia,”

or, even worse:

“I don’t trust our government”

what she hears is:

“I love Putin. I hope he takes over our government and runs it from the Kremlin.”

She hears this because she is mentally living in a Good Vs. Evil universe. Many people do, which is why I’ve had similar conversations with many people besides my mother. At the same time, for the same reason, some progressives and radicals who are critical of the U.S. government’s actions feel it’s necessary to defend everything Russia does. These are variations on the same type of thinking.

Global politics is messy and many-sided. As the various Powers That Be fight with each other, bribe and blackmail and manipulate and threaten each other, make deals and alliances with each other, shift loyalties, change the stories being told about each other, and so forth, the only thing that seems to be consistent is that we – the ordinary people living under these various powers – do not have their loyalty.

We are pawns to be used in their planet-sized chess game. We can be manipulated via propaganda to believe things that benefit one side or another. (The manipulation comes from foreign governments AND from our own.) They will play us against each other. They will be “on our side” when it benefits them. They will listen when they absolutely have to.

I do believe that there are individual politicians who are good, principled people. They generally don’t have very much clout in the government. We need to stop looking up to politicians as if they are our celebrity friends or our big brothers (except in an Orwellian sense) who are going to protect us from the schoolyard bully (whether that bully is Trump or Putin or Clinton or God knows who else). They are POLITICIANS. At their best, they are as much on our side as we forcefully demand that they be.

So when it comes to powerful entities, don’t trust anyone. Listen to different points of view. Be skeptical of all of them. Don’t assume someone’s on your side. Think like a spy.

I refuse to legitimize Trump’s presidency

I do not believe that any State has inherent legitimacy. Governments are legitimate only to the extent that they embody and express the self-governing of their people. (All the people. Not just the majority of voters. Everyone.)  In many ways, Trump exemplifies the illegitimacy of our government.

Half the country didn’t vote for a president.

He did not win the popular vote, and I don’t recognize the electoral college in its current form as legitimate or just, since it gives vastly disproportional representation to certain states.

There is evidence of voter suppression of minorities in states where Trump won the electoral college.

The election (like others) was heavily influenced by corporate media and special interests.

Trump has financial conflicts of interest that should prevent him from governing.

I’m not even going to address the Russia thing.

He is a racist, an ableist and a misogynist.

I did not vote for him.

I will not watch his inauguration.

I will not call him President or President-elect.