"The Politics of Crisis: How Police Reform, Covid-19, and Climate Change are all Related" A Why? Radio episode with guest Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
6:51PM Sep 1, 2021
Jack Russell Weinstein
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The original episode can be found here: https://wp.me/p8pYQY-jdE
Why philosophical discussions about everyday life is produced by the Institute for philosophy and public life, a division of the University of North Dakota's College of Arts and Sciences. Visit us online at why Radio show.org
Hi, I'm jack Russel Weinstein host of wide philosophical discussions about everyday life. On today's episode, we'll be exploring the unifying connection between today's political crises with our guests olufemi taiwo.
My wife Kim was born in 1968. And when the pressure of current events gets too emotionally burdensome, she reminds herself what the world must have looked like to her parents, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 68. The Tet Offensive began the escalation of Vietnam War. The Democratic Convention brought the counterculture to a violent crescendo building on years of riots or uprisings, depending on your point of view, in Harlem, watts, Newark and Detroit, all inevitable responses to injustice, segregation, unequal opportunity, and the brutal backlash against nonviolent civil rights movements. It was not a year for optimism. In retrospect, it's easy to see the threads that unify these events, but at the time, it probably felt impossible to grasp, just like things do now. There are too many variables, too much hostility, too much history. And this is why Kim imagines her parents perspective, it helps her realize that this too shall pass for better or worse, and that at some point, we'll be able to diagram our current events into a single narrative. Eventually, we'll understand why everything happened at what it meant. There's a difference between focusing on cause and meaning. political scientists and sociologists do the first philosophers the second, social science explains events but philosophy excavates, the more abstract elements, it's one thing to say that police violence is caused by racism. It's another to articulate how the very concept of race distorts rationality values in our senses of self. To put this another way, historians distinguish between three ideas. History is the actual unfolding of events, it's probably unknowable. historicity is the true fact that historians try to uncover our knowledge of these are controversial and fallible. historiography though is the story we tell to show how events and attitudes are connected the narrative or the plot of history, if you will, and this is always the result of an agenda is the history of America the slow unfolding of individual liberty, or the shape shifting manifestation of white supremacy historiographies choose this is economic development, the inevitable product of human ingenuity and free choice, or the careful selection of haves and have nots for the betterment of an elite class. historiography take sides here, too. This is what the debate over the New York Times 1619 project is ultimately about moderates and liberals place slavery at its legacy at the center of the American project, but right wing conservatives insist their prefer story be told, Donald Trump's 1776 commission claims that America began with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But the time scholars disagree, arguing that the true American founding was that a slave ship first made it to the coast of Virginia. Here's the thing. deciding where a story starts is in some sense, arbitrary. It depends on where you want it to finish, but this end is also idiosyncratic if for no other reason, then nothing goes on forever. A book as the last page, a speaker has to sleep a professor has to retire. Here's where the philosophy comes in. Before we choose which narrative to tell, before we select a dominant historiography, we have to decide which story is worth telling. We have to determine whether truth, historicity is enough of a moral good to articulate even its ugliness, or whether we should prioritize a sense of our own specialists by hiding the misdeeds of our ancestors. These decisions are about values, not facts, who is more patriotic, the American who grows up to understand our country is profoundly flawed and holds the weight of future change on their shoulders, or the person who holds steadfast belief that America is the best country in the world come what may better is a key word and philosophy it has no place in the social sciences. I offer these examples, because today's guest is at the forefront of this debate. He will suggest that there are clear commonalities between all the events we are experiencing climate change, police brutality, Coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, and he'll help us make sense of their meanings. But he'll do this as a political philosopher, using our institutions to reveal our values and commitments, forcing us to acknowledge that maybe what we say is important to us isn't. throughout our entire discussion, we're going to have to triangulate our ideals personal interest and predilection for self deception. Our news commentary and social networks are famously referred to as the first draft History. But the word first here is misleading. Any draft is the product of research notes, reflection, discussion and debate, choices about what is valuable and what's not made by people with the authority to decide who not what will be the ultimate focus of today's discussion, which takes us full circle. 1968 was primarily about the violence those with power use to prevent others from getting it. Today's episode, I suspect will reveal that we're still in the same fight. 2021 is just 1968 53 years later.
And now our guest all FMA taiwo is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. He publishes both scholarly and public research on current controversies, special emphasis on power, race, radical thought and the philosophy of social science. Femi Welcome to why. Thank you for having me. If you'd like to participate, share your favorite moments from the show and tag us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Our handle is at why radio show you can always email us at ask why umd.edu and listen to our previous episodes for free at why Radio show.org Alright, so Femi, I guess I want to start by asking when you watch or read the news, do you think as a philosopher, you look at it differently than other people? Or does the philosophical lens come later?
That's interesting question. I think, as a political philosopher, I think it would be really difficult to read the news, and have that part of my self turned off. I haven't figured out how to do it. But philosophy, you know, philosophy is a big thing, right? There's people that do the philosophy of whether or not chairs exists as people who do the philosophy of sport or whatever. And, you know, maybe, maybe people who tackle different philosophical topics, and I do have a different experience of this. But, you know, I can't separate these things at all.
I have to tell you, your experience is not alone. My wife and I, I guess on our second or third date, she went to a department party with me and I had got into an argument about whether a sport was a fork or something. And she just looked at me and said, You are never not a philosopher. And through our entire relationship, that has been the phrase of contempt, you know, you're never not a philosopher, right? But, but a political philosopher is a particular kind of person and a particular kind of filter, especially now, is it? Is it frustrating? Do you yell at the news and say, why don't you see what you're doing? Why can't you see the connection? Or? Or do you just sort of accept that? I don't know, when you're in the midst of things. You just can't see it. You know,
I yell at the news team, I think, why these things come together, looking at news of what the Jeff Bezos is and Bill Gates's, of the world are up to. But I feel like watching people who do very much understand how the various pieces of history fit together. And, to me, that's the most frustrating thing. When I look at the news. I've recently, you know, I've recently taken a maybe temporary break, criminal web, social media, baby, you know, we'll we'll see. But yeah, I find a lot of I find a lot of the news and discussions about the news really frustrating. From this more, I don't know, I don't know if it's a more cynical view, or they'll put some more conspiratorial view of things. But, you know, I think, at least as far as the ruling class go, I think there's a lot of people who really do get it.
You write a lot of philosophy for the New Republic for slate, it's something that I actually personally admire a lot. Do you have to tone down the philosophy for these more political venues? Or do you have the freedom to really engage with the kind of analysis that you think explains what's happening?
In a lot of ways, I kind of turn the philosophy up in these sorts of venues. And sometimes it depends on you know, how long the article is going to be in those kinds of situations. But I mean, as you well know, a lot of what we do in academia is kind of introductory dances to the intellects. Your thoughts, right, we have to tip a hat here, we have to give credit over there, there's a lot of extra stuff that you have to do on your way to saying something, then academic journal article. And you can just skip all that stuff, if you're writing for whatever newspaper because nobody cares, right? Like, nobody's invested in whether this or that person got cited, or at least, to a much different degree and in a lot different ways. And so so you get to just, you get to just talk, right? And so, I actually find that in a lot of circumstances, I could do more philosophical thinking and talking in public outlets than in journals.
Is there? Is there room for real radical thought, either in academia or in these more public venues? And I asked that in part, because I guess we've had a couple times on the show, Jason Hill, when he was talking about Tana, he see coats and he was criticizing coats, he was saying that, you know, America is the only place where a black intellectual activist can condemn white liberals call them horrible racists. And the white liberals will applaud. Now, I don't necessarily know that that's that everyone would agree with that interpretation. But there is a sense that true radical thought, gets bracketed. It gets fetishized, it gets, you know, to be part of a fad. And it makes me wonder, and I'm curious what you think, as to whether or not radical this can really be taken seriously, in either academia, or in say, The New Republic?
It's interesting, I'm kind of of two minds about that question. Um, you know, a lot of ways that's a question I have to I think there's a lot of questioning and wondering and skepticism about radicalism in the academy and in the kind of periphery of the academy kind of jacent adjacent social spaces, whether we're talking about like whatever, newspapers or certain activist circles, and so on, so forth. You know, there's a lot of people wondering whether this or that is radical, and whether this or that form of thought being radical means that it can or can't be in certain kinds of spaces. Now, in one sense, maybe the answer is yes, yes. Right. Like Merriam Cava, the prison abolitionists just got published in New York Times, for instance. Right. And they, and, you know, they big publications like that have had Barbara Smith, for example, he's a founding member of the combahee River collective, a black feminist socialist group that put out a really famous and influential statement back in the 70s. So so people who, I think, by most criteria, not everybody's, but by most criteria, I think, would be considered not just radical people, but in a lot of ways, kind of like the radical people, right? These are, you know, these are people I look up to, these are people that a lot of people in radical communities look up to. And they seem to be able to, at least to some extent, operate in major outlets, so it doesn't seem impossible. On the other hand, I kind of wonder, you know, I wonder, who cares? And in a literal way, like who specifically is worried about whether or not something is radical? Right? Like, why is that I don't know whether tanahashi coats is radical or not? I don't know that. That's the question that I asked about his view on reparations, or his tenure at the Atlantic, or any of the ideas he expressed in that column. To me, that's not a very interesting or helpful question. Or important question from IBM, like, where are we going to do? How are we going to eat? Are we going to eat right? These are actual questions that are staring in front of us is climate crisis accelerates? And I think the answers to those questions might well be radical, they might well not be but I think the important thing is whether or not There's famine. And we should be a lot more concerned about regular answers to practical questions, then whether or not those answers fulfill a radical aesthetic or not.
So, so I'm embarrassed, right? Because the next question I was gonna ask you was, what do you think the word radical is? But now I feel completely undermined by your answer. So, so I guess, right? I want to pull this just a little bit, you know, you're arguing for Practical Action, which makes perfect sense, right. And there's a long tradition of philosophers most famously, Marx, although he himself didn't act on it. And yet, at the same time, our you know, our Instagram feeds, our Facebook is full of especially young people, right, my daughter's 15. And I see this all over the place, attacking capitalism, you know, and capitalism is the cause of all things bad and, and there's this like this woke capitalism, that that is at least the rhetoric, the virtue signaling the way that a certain group and a certain generation interacts with one another. Does that preclude action is VOCA capitalism, or anti capitalism? Something new? And do those debates get in the way of action? Or is this a necessary step? For people who are moving forward to really push the boundaries have actual responses to injustice?
So I think I've found myself saying a lot. And I'm still, I think, day by day, kind of figuring out what it is that I mean by this. But the thing I find myself saying a lot is social movements are social. And I guess what I'm trying to find words to put together is just, you know, find me a thing that's true about humans, right? Humans in groups, our interpersonal relationships, the kinds of ways that we treat each other. And I'll show you a thing that's going to show up in some way, shape or form in any movement for justice, whether successful or unsuccessful, whether a good idea, or ill advised, right. So, you know, I think there's a lot of I think we're often trying to figure out what to make of different aspects of things that are happening socially, that have their explanations in, I think, just kind of regular aspects of human society, like youth culture, you know, how old are the people acting this way or that way on social media? What media do people have access to? How is it that they articulate political demands, right? But But all these things are just kind of part and parcel of acting together. And so I don't think there's, you know, whether I agree or disagree with a particular cultural trope or a particular norm or whatever. I don't think that a position on those sorts of things is the way to answer the question of whether or not a movement is going to work or whether or not it's going to be successful, or whether it's the kind of thing we should move forward against, right. So I think there's a lot of, you know, culture war kind of cultural panics around new political culture and new political movements. And I tried to, you know, to, at least to some extent, put that stuff in perspective, you know, so just to kind of explicitly talk about the stuff he brought up. I mean, I don't know whether virtue signaling in and of itself gets in the way of doing good stuff politically. But I doubt is, I think, you know, people are just going to express themselves as social movements develop, and some of the ways that people express themselves are going to be annoying to some people, some of them are going to be inspirational and some people are, that's just all kind of part of the bargain.
Do you think that the social interaction between people is radically different based on the group the movement, the self identification, or that there are some sort of basic, if not human nature, core way of interacting with one another in a political context and a more abstract One way of asking this question is, which is his prior the natural social interaction between people? And their response to context or the institutions? Do you think that? Do you think that our political world is a response to how people interact? Or do you think that how people interact or response to our political world?
I think I think this is one of those questions where I'm at my most kind of Orthodox commie. Where I just I think, you know, I think the answer is, material conditions are the primary thing. They decide what kinds of interactions are even possible. And then after, we've asked the questions of what interactions we can have in the first place, then material conditions help answer incentive kinds of questions. So what do you get rewarded for what do you get punished for? Right? What kinds of actions when you prestige? Now I'm sounding a little less orthodox, but what kinds of what kinds of what kinds of actions get you you know, censure and insults and criticism, whatever. And you map out these reward punishment structures. And you don't have to say much else. Once you've done that, and you can already explain, I think, most of people's behavior and most of interactions, that's before you've talked about, whatever abstract moral principles, ideas, institutions, and the kind of more idea centric way of thinking about institutions, right. So yeah, it's it's material conditions. Those sorts of things explain who's doing what.
Okay, so when we get back from the break, I really want to pull that thread I want us to explore what the what the phrase material conditions mean. And I and I want to use that to look more specifically at your writing. Because if I understand correctly, a lot of what you seem to be suggesting is the news, the way we report things, even our basic understanding of justice and injustice tends to ignore the material conditions, and therefore ignores the wrong things. But we'll get to that you're listening to all FM eight taiwo and jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life We'll be back right after this.
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You're back with wide philosophical discussions with everyday life. I'm jack Russell, once your host I'm talking with olufemi taiwo. One of the most interesting things about living in North Dakota after growing up in New York City is how people interact or don't interact when they're outside, right. So I walked down the street in Grand Forks and people wave and people acknowledge one another. But if I am on the subway in New York, people intentionally don't look at one another in the eye. Now non New Yorkers will think that's hostility or rudeness but it's not it's actually politeness. It's the way that you protect someone else's privacy. You don't invade their space, it's rude to look at them unless you're making a joke or unless you have some sort of real need for personal connection. The reason why grand forecasters can wave to one another is because there's so much private space because there's so much room around us that we don't need to pretend we're not there. I use this example because the personality that I have in North Dakota is in many respects very different than the personality I have in New York City, although my wife might disagree. And that is a response to material conditions, it's a response to the fact that I have in a house, not an apartment, a backyard, not a common Park, a street where I see three people a day, or an area where I can jog where I never have to, you know, worry about knocking into a group. And just the subtle way of either looking into someone's eyes or not looking into someone's eyes, is a way of acknowledging their humanity, and respecting their autonomy at the same time. And for me, I bring up that, that example, because I want to explore this idea of material conditions. And I want to ask, first off, do you think that a person is more or less secure in who they are? Because of the space there, a lot of you, I'm sort of I'm not phrasing the question, right. But But I'll explain what I mean. Um, you have a really interesting piece in in the magazine, a on and you're talking about the notion of, of security. But what it feels what it means to feel secure and positive about your future and not in a tenuous situation in an urban environment, feels very, very different than a rural environment. Is that what you mean by material conditions? And if it does, will, material conditions, change radically, even in the same country, even at the same time, based solely on where you are and who you find yourself with?
So I think that material conditions, in one sense just refers to your actual physical conditions. So so so will involve things like how much space you have, right? And what your relationship is to that space, right? If you're, for example, somebody who's houseless in a country that criminalizes people who don't have places to live, right, that's gonna work out in one set of ways versus if you're a property, person, a landowner, a landlord, either. So I definitely think those things are involved with the basic idea has to do with more than just physical conditions in a kind of general way, right? The kind of basic materialist thought is, well, first of all, we're physical embodied creatures. So we live in a physical world, not a world of ideas, but they a physical world with, you know, rocks and air, and stuff. But the thing that's most important about the materialist insight is that we have physical needs, right? If we don't eat, if we don't have shelter, if we don't drink, if we aren't protected from interpersonal violence, and predation of certain times, then we can't continue to live and we can accomplish any other goals that we might have, besides securing our access to food, water, shelter, and interpersonal security, right. And so it's actually because of those needs, that we do a certain kind of thing. We relate to each other and to our activity, or some of our activity in a certain kinds of way to meet those needs. And that is production, right? What we make stuff. And we do stuff to meet those needs, we cultivate agriculture, we build shelter, to meet those needs. And it's the importance of that, that kind of activity and our role in that in that kind of activity. That for materialists is the basic kind of political stuff, the foundational political stuff, the stuff that drives history, and the stuff that we have to change if we want to, you know, achieve a better world than this one. So it's not just, you know, things like how land and land use is organized is going to be extremely, you know, it's going to be of fundamental importance on this way of looking at the world. But because of how it fits into this, you know, broader category of things, how do we produce things, and What relationship do each of us Have to human production of stuff. That is the basis of the kind of, you know, political materialism. And so that's why, you know, for people like Marx and them the working classes the and its struggle against the capitalists is the driving force of history, right? Well, because those are two relationships, you can have to human production, you can be someone who contributes to human production, by working, or you could be someone who contributes, you know, kind of parasitically, right, you just reap the benefits of the work that other people do. But those are relationships to the activity of producing
what happens when the nature of production changes radically what happens in a crisis, right? In the current pandemic, our access to our needs was radically altered, and for many people taken away the current crisis about police authority, and violence and the response to protester, their response to and by protesters is, is largely about wanting to different perspectives on on what needs people are entitled to have access to what happens in a crisis, when our sense of how to acquire those needs or when our access to those needs are disrupted.
The big thing that happens in a crisis is the shift of the system itself. So humans, as individuals, and especially as groups in society, you know, things ebb and flow, sometimes, we make a lot of widgets at the factory, sometimes we make a little less, you know, economies themselves cycle in boom and bust. But a lot of institutional arrangements, whether we're in like a liberal democracy, for example, or if we think at a larger scale, even balances of power between, for example, in the Cold War, the so called first world or us allied nations, and the second world, or Soviet Union, Allied nations, and the third world, everybody else, those basic kind of political team survived a lot of variation within those. But crises are things that happen in history where there's kind of a toss up, right, we have a crisis is the kind of thing that could change a government entirely from say, a liberal democracy to a fascist regime, or to socialist government, right? It's the kind of thing where not just outcomes in the system can change. But the basic building blocks of the system, the basic institutions, those things can also change to right. That's what makes crisis different from any old variation.
you know, I think recent history pushes me in the direction of pessimism about the kinds of crises we have now. And the sorts of directions that change institutions might go after crisis. So Naomi Klein's book, The Shock Doctrine, which a lot
I was just thinking or that,
yeah, yeah, it's, it's, it's, you know, one of the best books I've read about one, the political opportunity that crisis presents for, you know, what I would think of as the forces of evil. Right. And so this kind of dovetails back to your first question when we started, you know, I think, you know, having read the Shock Doctrine, I think a lot of people know exactly what they're doing. Right. And they are, in fact, waiting for opportunities to tie together threads of history. But, you know, there's also there's an analysis of be negative things that can happen in a crisis. It's also provided by Ruthie Gilmore in her book, golden gulag, where she explains how political crises in California helped create California's kind of nation leading system of mass incarceration. Right. It's not that when a crisis happens, institutions can move in any direction. Or I guess I should say, will move in any direction, right, the most likely thing is that institutions are going to find new novel ways to double down on things that they already have a little bit of the capacity to do. So there were already prisons in California before the massive expansions, that happened in the back half of the 20th century. So the crisis kind of accelerated something that was already latent in the system. And that's the same kind of thing that Amartya Sen finds in famines, right, under systems of colonial domination, slight variations in way wage earnings, or even rainfall, can exacerbate the fact that people who are colonial Lee dominated aren't living in a system that cares what happens to them. And so those kinds of ships can lead to large scale, famine and death, especially in colonized populations. And in fact,
one of the ways that I I, with my students summarize, send, and then as you know, was a guest on our second season, and he's a Nobel Prize winning economist, but also a really wonderful philosopher. And, um, I always say, basically, that we think of famine as a food supply problem. But famine is a political problem, and that it's about distribution, not supply. And these are about intentional decisions, right. And you talk about this in one of your pieces that I'll link to, on our web page. Naomi Klein, in the Shock Doctrine, talks about how crisis is used particularly by I guess, now, both Neo liberals and the conservatives, but but she's talking about neoconservatives how crisis is used to rewrite the economic structures of a society that just just, you know, hit reset by their own design. And I bring those up, because if I understand what you're saying correctly, the way the news talks about, let's say, again, the pandemic, there's a before and that there's after, and that society is going to change after the virus from what it was before the virus. But what you seem to be saying, building on these other thinkers, is that the crisis is the story and the tool. And that what we should really be talking about, at least in part is how the crisis is being used and manipulated, to alter our material conditions, to control the people who need to be controlled. Is this an accurate interpretation of where you're going with this?
Yeah, that's exactly right. And maybe one, you know, way that I would try to wrap this all together is to just say crisis is an opportunity for large scale, fast change. But there's not an equally distributed opportunity for that kind of change. It doesn't say, here, everybody who has an idea about ways that we could make the world different from what it was before the crisis gets one lottery ticket. And we're going to pick at random who gets to do it. The crisis is a very unequally distributed operty, opportunity for change, right, the people who were in power or in positions of influence before the crisis, more often than not have the lion's share of the opportunity to make changes. So, you know, when the logos go up, saying build back better, you know, we can all make a guess about whose definition of better is going to be involved in the building back. Right. And it's, you know, probably not working class global South people's conceptions of that that are going to make those decisions.
Do you think that I'll call it the conflict between the police and the protesters around the country is a battle for who gets to control the crisis? Is that a fair interpretation? Or is that putting the filter where it doesn't belong?
That's a tough one. In one sense. I think all political battles are, in some way struggles for control, but on the other hand, Especially in in, in this country in the United States we're dealing with, we're dealing with a country without a without a labor party, we're dealing with a country that has used extremely repressive tactics, both at home and abroad, in order to dismantle serious political opposition outside of the kind of controlled bar, right and center right parties that we have. And so I think the horizon of I think the horizon of struggle is often hard to interpret, especially in in street protests, right? We're not necessarily dealing with like, necessarily an organized, centralized organization that says, Here are our demands one through 13. Right. So I don't know if I would I don't know if I would use that frame exactly for this debate. But But I do agree that the overall crisis that last summer occurred in the midst of with the with the pandemic, and with kind of the anemic initial response of social support institutions. I do think those are connected. I think it's right to view police violence as its own crisis and a crisis that compounds with other crises that are happening at the same time.
And I'm really curious about this, this compounding Spike Lee's movie do the right thing comes to mind, which is often regarded as the best American movie on race. And the basic plot is it's it's the hottest day of the year in Brooklyn. And that this heat drives people to be less patient more resistant, and ultimately, because of lots of interactions and lots of power differential, it leads to, again, either a riot or an uprising, depending on how you interpret. There is a sense or there was a sense early on, that people were saying the Coronavirus is what pushed the Black Lives Matter activists over the edge that if there wasn't this larger crisis or larger context, they wouldn't have been radicalized. Do you think that that's true? And do you think that's fair? Is that what you mean by compounding? Or are they similar parallel overlapping crises with the same or similar causes? Right? So is one a trigger for the other? Or are they and I probably shouldn't talk in dichotomies here. But are they a trigger for one another? Or are they responses ultimately to the same sort of thing at the same time?
Yeah, I don't I don't think that is. I don't think that's how I would the perspective that you were explaining in terms of, they wouldn't have been radicalized unless these things happen at the same time. I don't think that's the way that I would put it. I think things that happen around the same time intensify each other. I don't I don't think Spike Lee's point was that the heat killed radio Raheem, right. Like, right, of course. The cop killed radio. Right. Right. You know, and, and there's a whole institutional historical story about why he felt empowered to behave in that way and why he was in fact, empowered to behave in that way because of what the institution of policing is. So I think, you know, I think we should avoid trying to get these institutions off the hook with compounding arguments. That's, that's certainly that's, that's not what I'm trying to do.
Let me interrupt for a second because what you just said is, is really interesting, and I want you to unpack it for the audience. Why would such a compounding argument like that? Get the institution's off the hook? What's happening there? And why does it obfuscate the issue?
Right, right. So, you know, here's something somebody could think and maybe the perspective of that you were that you were presenting. have, you know things that some people have said maybe this is more or less than thought process, but you can think, well look, policing in the US, maybe has some problems, but ultimately, it's a tolerable institution and the way it's behaving is tolerable. And reasonable people would just grin and bear it. And the only reason they didn't do that last year is because, you know, there happened to be this particular killing, while this other unrelated stuff with the pandemic, and it cetera, et cetera, what's happened? Right. So what we were seeing in Minneapolis, and God knows how many other major cities wasn't the response to an unjustifiable intolerable set of circumstances and institutional behaviors, it was just, you know, a kind of freak accident time. And I think that's, I think that's disingenuous, I think a lot of people saying that kind of thing, or just being dishonest. I'm sure there's people who genuinely believe that I'm not one of them. I mean, a good example of why just to pull for a second from my own kind of experience, as indirect and secondhand as it was.
you know, growing up, I was consistently hit with this phenomenon of every few years or so, there would be a big uprising against police violence by people who, you know, by black and brown people often in the cities, and there would be a lot of talk about it, and then it would go away, and then it would happen again. And then we'd have the same conversations, as though it hadn't happened a few years ago, people would express shock. People would express, you know, indignation, but people would, you know, present this as kind of an exception to a rule of peace, or, you know, whatever it is. Right. So, obviously, the LA riots happened in the mid 90s. I was quite young, then, the first uprisings, I remember, actually, you know, that, for me was the highlight of 2001 911, of course, happened that year. But earlier that year, in Cincinnati, which is the major city nearest to the suburb I grew up in, had uprisings because of the murder of Timothy Thomas, by police officers. And then, of course, there was Mike Brown, and gana Taylor and George Boyd and Trayvon Martin and all these people, you know, since 2001, when that happened, and every time you know, there's people saying, Well, you know, this, you know, there's all these bad apples arguments that people are saying, Oh, you know, maybe this particular officer on that day was just a bad apple, but the institution of policing is fine. As far as I know, police brutality is just some sporadic problem. And every time there's people answering those perspectives, and then there's a low as protesters get brutalized by police until they leave the streets. And then the status quo returns and then another murder happens that happens to become high profile for whatever reason. And then we have these conversations again, now even watch a watch stand up from you know, I watched stand up comedians from decades ago, making the you know, making the same jokes about police brutality, I'll read newspaper archives, black newspapers, writing the same kind of op eds, the same kinds of investigations about these kinds of things going back decades and decades. So I just I just don't, this isn't a perspective I take seriously anymore.
So sort of tie in the earlier part of the conversation again, if I understand what you're saying, and correct me if I'm wrong, or just or elaborate on it. There are a lot of people who look at these incidences. consider them anomalous, right? The people see us the bad apple argument. Of course, the the full phrase is is a bad apple ruins the batch, right? So you can't just have one bad apple, you have all of them. Right. And so people look at this as anomalous and that it's, you know, something that happens periodically because of individuals and your responses. No, it's not an anomaly, it's the same thing, because it's about the material conditions, because it's about the circumstances in which our needs are met. And the way the institutions allow or deny people to have those to have those needs fulfilled. And that is based on other material conditions, such as our attitudes about race, our attitudes about poverty, the lack of a labor movement. All of those sorts of things. Is that what ultimately you're saying that the it's not an anomaly, because the material conditions or the circumstances under which people have to fight for their own needs?
Exactly. And the only thing I would add to that is that part of the material conditions were talking about, and this is where theorists have, you know, so called racial capitalism maybe have a different take than some other people who are also anti capitalist. But one of the aspects of the material conditions we're talking about, is the unequal distribution in security. And in particular, the exploitation of that very fact. So Ruth Wilson Gilmore even defines racism as the production exploitation of group level differences in she says, vulnerability to premature death. I, I like saying material insecurity, but whatever you want to call it,
and can you define what you mean by security, because certainly, most of our listeners, when they hear security, they're gonna think of the TSA, right, they're gonna think of, well, we have to decide, you know, liberal Liberty versus security, privacy versus security, it's better to be safe. So but you mean something different? So So what does security mean, in this context?
So, to me, security is essentially stable access. So we often think of security, from violence, because of the particular way that we make people secure in this kind of society. And it's no great mystery why we think of security in these terms, right. The United States is a country that was founded on settler conquest, and enriched by enslaved labor. So what that meant in very, in very literal, you know, straightforward Matter of fact terms, is that, for centuries, settlers had to fight constantly to keep their society in the first place from, you know, indigenous peoples who were indigenous to this lands. And on top of that, they had to keep regular vigil of, at first the enslaved people on the copious labor camps of the northern and southern colonies. And then later, as industrialization happened, the immigrant workforce that came to staff, the factories, and the bees, in no uncertain terms are the origin stories of our current not just policing departments, but much of the national security apparatus. In fact, if you go to the Citadel website right now, which is a military training school, they will explicitly link their own heritage to a slave revolt, right is the reason why that that particular establishment was constructed. so on so forth, so I call that antagonistic security, the kind of security that you get, by way of guns and the militias and the barbed wire fences. What's distinctive about making yourself secure in this way is that the thing that makes you safe as the planter elite is the thing that makes life unsafe for the people being patrol by the slave patrol, right? The thing that makes you say holding the gun is the damage it can do to the person who might shoot it. Right? That is a particular approach to making people safe. And we can notice that only some people can be safe, if that's the approach that you've decided to take towards safety and security. That's different from another approach to security, that I would prefer that we try to work more towards collaborative security, the kind of security that we all have when say, everybody gets vaccines, and then it becomes harder for us to be infected by things like say, COVID-19, it's a much better model, I think, for what security is. But in either case, security is about stabilizing patterns of action. I only know that I can run this plantation, if I can be sure that I can keep this land from the indigenous peoples and keep my life from the enslaved peoples and keep their labor. And so stabilizing access to you know, stabilizing ways that the world could be is what security is about. And we can do that in ways that are anti social or pro social.
So I think that there are some people who are going to be listened to the show, who are hearing what you're saying, and are going to say something along the lines of? Well, sure. If you focus on security, you're gonna get as you just define it. And you focus on the the power that individuals have over one another, you're going to hear tell this ugly story. But the true American story is a story of rugged individualism, right? Native Americans, what happened to them, as Rick Santorum mentioned a couple weeks ago wasn't really important to our culture, there weren't really Native Americans here, and they didn't have that impact. And that what America is an expansion and power of autonomy in the individual. And the winners get the land of the winners moved from the east coast to the west coast. And what we have now is the consequence of American exceptionalism built on entrepreneurship and the ingenuity of the individual. So the collaboration that you're talking about, is a solution that never worked, because it's individuals, it's not groups. You, of course, I would assume would take issue with that. So how do you respond to that rugged, individualistic, autonomist narrative that certainly one sector of our society is really wedded to.
I suppose I can only really respond by just telling the story, the the history, as I understand it, and, you know, maybe then we just have to maybe that just moves the disagreement. But that just seems to me an odd description of the history, as I understand. The reason why the American colonies, like many other colonies involved in slave labor, in the first place, was precisely because they couldn't do rugged individualism. Right, there was no way to make the colonies productive to an extent that was financially worthwhile. using just the amount of labor you could recruit by telling individual Europeans, hey, if you move over here, we'll pay you a wage. And here's what the wage will be, come make something of yourself. The prospects for doing that would have made it would have made wages far too high. So the model adopted was very explicitly to have your individual planters, in many a case, have coercive power over the people doing the work. In some cases, that was a time bound, temporary coercive power, as was the labor system of indenter which many Europeans came over under that And in some cases, it was permanent as the people who were designated as chattel property, which were, of course, the enslaved Africans and for longer than people seem to remember or admit enslaved indigenous people as well, it was a fairly substantial trade of enslaved indigenous people throughout North Central and South America. And so it just wasn't true. Right? It just isn't the story of the development of this part of the world, including the United States. But it's it fails justice spectacularly in the rest of this continent and are in the rest of the hemisphere.
There's another aspect of it, which I'd like to talk a little bit about, and that is, the other kind of course of power the right you've talked about the course of power that takes the the desert service the slaves, the immigrants, and forces them as laborers, but but the other kind of coercion is the the social and material coercion to make new people accept that system. And what I mean by that is, I'm thinking of a book, which I'm sure you're familiar with, called how the Irish became white, I just taught it last semester, in senior seminar, and what the book documents is how the Irish immigrants came from an abolitionist position early on in Ireland, and that the longer that they were in America, the more they had to support slavery, in order for them to not be the downtrodden in order for them to earn the status of white. Do you think that this model, that that kind of acculturation into coercion, fits into this story as well that even if you're not one of the physically coerced? As the old saying goes, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem is, is that a factor in it as well?
I think it fits squarely into this story. And I think that's what's so useful and clarifying about the way that Ruthie Gilmore defines racism. So he explains it as the production and exploitation of group level differences in vulnerability to premature death. So the fact that there are group differences is produced, and it's exploited. And what we're talking about here, you gave the example of successive Irish generations, we could have used the example of so called assimilated, colonized groups in much of the colonial world, which was one other technique of producing this outcome, we could have used the example of indirect rule, which the British used in South Asia, to and elsewhere to kind of CO OPT the existing power structure into their colonial one. But the story with all the various differences that we can spend days and days talking about and all those circumstances, is, I think one that is just very straightforward, the explainable on the materialist conception of things, you just get better stuff, if you are not the group at the bottom. And that is in and of itself, an explanation of why you would get with the program, as it were, right? Being at the bottom means being the most vulnerable. So anyone who can avoid that has a reason to, and when they do, it's not hard to explain. Right? So I think a lot of times we twist ourselves up in knots trying to explain these at the level of ideas, right, which is hard to for the very reasons that come out in the details that you chose, right? People often have really admirable histories of social justice, and in their heritage, which they forsake for stuff And that is lamentable, it is sad. It is also what usually happens, right? I study a lot of parts of the world. I read a lot of different histories of different places, and it is very common. Maybe maybe even the fairest thing to say is it's human. As bad as it is, we are malleable by our circumstances, in ways that can be turned for the better, but also can and have been turned for the worse. And so I think this is I think this fits fits squarely into the picture, the materialist picture here,
if if the material conditions are and I really liked the simple way you put this the clear way you put this, which is about getting better stuff, right? And with the, the better, the higher up you are in the in the chain or in the in the ladder, the better stuff you get is the answer, then, to give people with worse stuff, more and better stuff, just by intent. And, and one of the things that I have in mind is is you work on reparations. And the theory, which I only know a little bit about is is that there was all of this unpaid labor, there was all of this exploitation, and that if we can return or we can give the descendants of this exploitation and the current victims of the exploitation, the money they would have earned, we're going to get generational wealth in communities that wouldn't necessarily that that haven't had the same kind of general wealth, if the material conditions are the problem. is the solution. Just intentionally and even explicitly just change the material conditions?
Yes. I would drop the intentionally though. Just Okay. Give people that stuff. That's it. I mean, I'm not gonna I'm not gonna tell people who want a more serious spiritual reckoning like this was Tanase coach's line, for example, you know, I'm not going to tell people not to pursue that. And I don't even disagree that it would be a good thing if there were, you know, a full throated apology and recognition of the extent of the harms or whatever. But like, give people to stop. That's really for me, that's really kind of it. Unless and until people get the stuff. reparations is unfinished racial justice is unfinished justice isn't finish, give people the stuff. People can live without reconciliation, they can't live without water. And we're at that level of politics in a century of climate crisis. That's where we're at. We all know that that's where we're at. And if we wait to not have water to find out that that that that is where we're at, then I think we're, I think we're in trouble. Right? And so, give people the stuff is my, that's pretty much my politics, in general. Just give people the stuff, I don't really care how you do it. If you do it by getting people to admit that they were wrong, then that sounds like a win. I am a moral philosopher. I'm not opposed to that. But people get the stuff you know, I live with it.
You know, it's interesting for those folks who, who know this history, right? implicit in your comment is an explanation as to why South Africa still remains such an unjust and segregated place because the Truth and Reconciliation committee was only a tiny piece of the puzzle. And Truth and Reconciliation only takes you so far. What people need is not to live in the townships what people leave need is not to live in, in, you know, the in Brazil, the favelas, right in these these metal shacks in extreme poverty, if if South Africa had given the black South Africans the stuff, South Africa wouldn't be as awful as, say Johannesburg still is now is that I mean, am I right about this?
Yeah, I think that's exactly right. I think the the fear that I have is that people will give the symbolism, the truth, the reconciliation processes instead of the stuff. Right. I think the defenders of those kinds of processes say well, you know, we could never say Gain widespread cultural shift if there aren't these kinds of reckonings, I suspect what's happening at bottom is that even at the level of imagination, certain people cannot view the world in a way where the successes and failures morally speaking of white people are not at the center. Right, it just doesn't compute for some people that it might that you could arrange the world in such a way that it really wouldn't matter. If White people as a group had internalized their relationship to this history of injustice, and so on so forth. They can't conceive of it not mattering. And just as a proof of concept to people of the thing that I'm trying to explain it, you know, I just trot out these sorts of examples, like, Who thinks that worldwide vaccine distribution depends on the stereotypes or lack thereof that the people of Botswana have about Canadians? Does anybody think that? Right? Does anybody think that like, safety in a prison depends more on what the inmates think? Should the protocol should be then what the warden does? Right? There are these, you know, does anybody think of that the repossession practices depends on, you know, individual, unorganized credit card debtors, right, people who have run up, you know, charges on their credit card versus what the bank thinks, right? In all these situations, we can clearly identify what power has to do with the moral failings or lack thereof of with the relevance of the moral failings or lack thereof of people in different positions of power. But for whatever reason, people just can't, you know, people just don't believe me when I say, you know, there are arrangements of the world where it just doesn't matter if White people recognize how bad racism is. And I think we should be trying to live in one of those.
So, so we're just about out of time. But I, I'd like you to articulate for me sort of probably a better version of the answer to the question that I asked that I sort of set as the central question of the episode, which is, you know, what is climate change? What is police reform? What is COVID-19? What does it all have in common? And your answer is, it's the stuff stupid, it's the mirror material conditions, right? And that it's not that these crises cause the material conditions, it's that these material conditions cause these crises. And so I guess the question I want to end with is, do you find this to be ultimately a unifying theory? Right? Am I right, in interpreting what you're saying, as if you really want to understand the nature of the crisis? You don't look at the effects of the crisis, you look at the material conditions that gave birth to the crisis? And pretty much all of these crises have the same ultimate context? Is that right?
Yeah, I think that's right, I think at the bottom of all these crises, is a basic fundamental distributive question. Which is, when times get hard, right, when we don't know if we can feed everybody, when we don't know if we can shelter everybody, when we don't know where and when and how devastating the wildfires or the floods are going to be. We are going to have to make decisions that are markedly different from the status quo. About who and what to protect. That's what a crisis is. We have to kind of fly by the seat of our pants and reevaluate what's important and who is important. And in racial capitalism, we have a built in answer to which people are important and which people are unimportant, which people can be sacrificed for the security and stability. with other people, and a world in which we are tested in the ways that climate crisis is likely to test us. And test our social systems is a world that if we don't make some timely interventions is likely to continue to do what it has been doing over the past few years, which is giving bailouts out of public funds to the rich corporatized. And well connected and giving a stimulus package of rubber bullets to everybody else.
I wish that we had so much more time because just that example, obviously opens a huge number of avenues of thought. But what I think is incredibly valuable in the conversation is just the sense that it really is all one conversation. And that the practicalities of the conversation. The stuff pneus of the conversation is infinitely more important than we give a credit to because we are so focused false philosophers no more so in fact than the general public about the ideas. For me, this was a super rich and interesting conversation. And you made some radical ideas quote unquote, really palatable, accessible and, and frankly, really persuasive. So thank you so much for joining us on why. Thanks a lot for having me. You have been listening to jack Russell Weinstein and all of them a title on why philosophical discussion but everyday life I'll be back with a few thoughts right after this.
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You're back with wide philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host, jack Russell Weinstein, we were talking with olefin a taiwo. about all of the different crises we're experiencing now and how they're connected. It's worth noting before I wrap up that his book, reconsidering reparations is coming out in November. And we will link to that in the page as soon as we get it. But keep an eye out for that because it will follow this discussion Exactly. And what I found, really to be the pivotal moment in our discussion was this idea about attitudes versus stuff. And I think you can picture it this way. We, especially in America, tend to think that there if there are two people living next to one another, and one person has a really, really big house, and one person has a tiny house that has no water and no sewage. And the person in the big house is a racist. And the person in the little house is African American. We think that the worst crime is the racism of the person in the big house, we would rather change the minds of the racist, then we would change the material conditions of the African American. But what feminists saying to us is, the attitude is less important than the stuff. Because if we make sure that the person in the little house does have water, does have sewage does have security does have all the things they need, then the racism of the neighbor is less important. One of the reasons why it's less important is because they have less power to inflict that racism on someone else. But another reason why it's less important is because people have their attitudes. And attitudes are only relevant to other people in so far as it materially affects other people. This is a tremendously radical idea. And by radical I don't mean fringe and by radical I don't mean unrealistic. by radical What I mean is, it goes to the core of how we see the world and reconsidering that will change all of our perspectives on a fundamental level. The stock comes first. And when people have the stuff when people have security when people have health when people have equality when people have their needs met, then spiritual reckoning, self exploration, all this stuff can be effective. But it doesn't matter what attitude your neighbor has, if you're starving, or you're dying of thirst, it's the stuff that matters. This is what the material background suggests. And this is what the history of distributive justice tells us. It's the stuff first, let's start thinking about that. You're listening to why philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host, jack Russell Weinstein, thanks for listening. As always, it's an honor to be with you.
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