Rhode Warriors, Care Crises

Letters from Issue 27

Specters of Sanders

Dear Editors,

Namara Smith’s “The Women’s Party” argues that Bernie Sanders “sometimes seemed to speak to a phantom of the old white male industrial working class rather than to the black, brown, and female service workers who make up the majority of the working class today.” But his extraordinary success with women under 35 and his staunch, even militant support from the National Nurses United — a majority black and brown union of mostly women — speaks to just how much he did reach the modern working class.

This is part of a broader discourse in which “what Sanders did wrong” is rarely placed against what he did amazingly right. An outsider with no real bloc within the Democratic Party, he essentially went up against the party itself. No establishment Democratic primary candidate in postwar history had more party support behind her than Hillary Clinton. But for people to whom the establishment was not a given — for, in other words, young men and women of all colors, many of them working class — Sanders opened up new possibilities.

 — Connor Kilpatrick

Namara Smith responds:

I appreciate Connor Kilpatrick’s thoughtful response to my article. I’d like to clarify a few points: I was not disputing that many people were moved by Bernie Sanders’s message. Young women, myself included, were among his strongest supporters. My argument was that many of Sanders’s campaign proposals rested on unexamined assumptions about gender and race. Take, for instance, one of Sanders’s signature initiatives, his trillion-dollar job-creation program. This was presented as a universal program — “putting 13 million Americans back to work.” Yet the infrastructure program, like the New Deal–era public-works programs it was modeled on, would have created jobs primarily in the male-dominated fields of manufacturing and construction.

To take another example, Sanders has often spoken about his admiration for full-employment programs. The most ambitious attempt to create a full-employment program in the United States, the Full Employment Bill proposed in 1945, would have guaranteed the “inalienable right” to regular and remunerative work to all American citizens, but it was drafted to exclude all those with “full-time housekeeping responsibilities.” This “inalienable right,” in other words, did not extend to almost half the population. Any genuinely universal full-employment program would have to provide state-subsidized childcare on a scale far beyond anything we’ve seen in this country — a subject Sanders rarely brought up.

All these problems are bound up in what Nancy Fraser has called the “crisis of care”: the urgent need for a new way of organizing our economic relationship to social reproduction. To do so, it’s not enough simply to insist, as Sanders did, on one’s opposition to sexism. It requires rethinking our assumptions about the economy from an explicitly feminist perspective.

I don’t fault Sanders for not coming out as a card-carrying socialist feminist during the Democratic primaries. I understand that all politics, especially promises made on the campaign trail, involve unavoidable compromises and calculations of expediency. But I do not think the writing done in small magazines should be limited by the horizon of electoral politics.

Dear Editors,

“Canvassing” was a cathartic piece to read. In mid-March I threw myself into the Sanders campaign, and by April I was spending most of my free time in the South Philly office, calling likely volunteers and pushing them to commit to canvassing shifts. I started to canvass despite feeling it was somehow vulgar to knock on random people’s doors on a Saturday morning, as if I were a Jehovah’s witness. “I’d like to talk to you today about my political lord and savior, Bernie Sanders!”

One interaction I had seemed to characterize the general response. A man about my age with a 3-year-old daughter invited me into his house to discuss the primary. He agreed with all my points about Bernie’s policies, his approach to politics, his criticisms of the pay-to-play game. He nodded, then earnestly asked, “But if politics is a horse race, isn’t the best candidate one who knows how to buy and sell horses?” I said that horse race wasn’t working for the majority of Americans, and that we couldn’t afford it — the planet couldn’t. None of the things we like about Bernie’s policies would get through unless we elected someone willing to fight the system as it is, rather than colluding with or orchestrating it. He shrugged. “I just don’t know if it’s possible.”

The night of the election, I was also at the Gaslight. I shared my disappointment wordlessly with volunteer friends. I tried to fathom the idea that all our work ended here, with all of us alternately watching and avoiding a victory speech that spelled our collective defeat.

I walked home, still without having put words to my thoughts. Ten blocks from the bar I realized I had left my tab open. The next afternoon, after helping pack up the South Philly office, I returned to the bar to get my card. The bartender pulled a three-inch stack of debit and credit cards from next to the register. “You weren’t the only one,” she said.

 — Kelly Morton


On the Rhode

Dear Editors,

As a Canadian American who spent three years in Oxford and as a historian of British elite education, I was engrossed and moved by Nakul Krishna’s “Rhodocycles.” I’ve been trying for years to write something that mingles Oxford’s past with my own experience of the institution, but have never been able to render it as effectively as Krishna does. I recognize his portrait of the institution and all the political pressures it’s under, of reactionaries and Rhodies, of what it feels like to be complicit. I have a tendency to tut-tut about erasing history and was never sure what I thought about the statue of Rhodes itself, but as long as the Eton- and Oxford-educated foreign secretary’s highest aspiration is to sail round the world on a yacht under the delusion that he is running an empire, it’s clear we still have a lot of thinking to do about imperial legacies, the institutions that sustain them, and our complicity with them.

The historian David Cannadine wrote a slim volume called Ornamentalism in 2001. It’s a neat little piece of imperial nostalgia, which when it was published was widely mocked by American historians of empire. But one thing it captures is an enduring cultural embeddedness in empire long after formal decolonization. It made me think differently about the Anglo culture my Canadian family inhabits, and helped to explain why I had to go see what the place was all about, too, and why I fell in love with it and had to work hard to push myself out of love and to critical inquiry instead. Which I suppose is all the more reason to take the money while making clear that one reviles what the likes of Rhodes stand for, and to shut up and listen when one’s students say they are angry.

 — Emily Rutherford


Literally Wasted

Dear Editors,

Tobi Haslett begins an otherwise excellent career retrospective of Gary Indiana (“Modern Love”) with a rather partial, misleading representation of the Fales Library and Special Collections Downtown Collection of archives. He writes that if you want to make photocopies of Indiana’s papers housed at the Fales, it’s going to cost you 50 cents per page; “scans cost $15,” Downtown, he intimates, is now nothing more than a diverting freak show for the monied middle classes who can afford to pay such absurd prices and who, in the cruelest of ironies, are actually to blame for making a gentrified Downtown uninhabitable for its artists and writers in the first place.

Leaving aside the fact that anyone can come to the Fales and take photos of items for their own use absolutely free, it’s worth pointing out that the absurd $15 price tag pays an archive professional to find the desired item in its collection, box, folder, bring it up from store, scan it, send it, then return with it to the store and put everything back as it was, ready for the next Downtown tourist or n+1 writer. Viewed this way, $15 is a bit of bargain.

In any case, what really seems to irritate Haslett is perhaps not so much the money as what you’re paying for: $15 for a scan of a piece of Downtown paraphernalia is risible because the Downtown Collection is rubbish, comprising the “flotsam of [lives] lived on the so-called fringe.” The papers of Downtowners like artist, writer, and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz are rubbish, trash, junk — dragged out from under beds or pulled down out of lofts by artists and writers once the promise of posterity and a quick buck came calling.

In one way, he’s absolutely right: Woj-narowicz’s collection is rubbish. Or rather it might have become so had Fales director Marvin Taylor left it in the storage locker on the West Side Highway where he found it, after Wojnarowicz’s death from AIDS-related complications in 1992. Without Taylor’s intervention, Wojnarowicz’s stuff might very well have found its way to the curb like the personal belongings of thousands of other AIDS victims who died without anyone to care for their stuff. Saving it from the dumpster and, yes, as Haslett would have it, “spookily” enshrining it in perpetuity, the Fales effects a radical transvaluation of trash like this by adding it to their archive. Yet, as Haslett observes, the tarnish of would-be garbage is never wholly removed.

In effect, the Downtown Collection at New York University is an archive of waste. In the belly of the beast, as it were, it hoards up the refuse, rubbish, and waste of lives that were quite literally wasted by AIDS or were considered a waste of Lower Manhattan’s lucrative space by City-sponsored gentrification.

 — Diarmuid Hester

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