One of my current pieces of reading is Quentin Crisp’s 1968 autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant. This went on my to-read list when Crisp passed away in 1999 (at just short of 91 years of age) and it’s taken me two decades to follow up. Early on in the book, he shares an anecdote of a classmate who was flogged by the headmaster having been caught in a tryst with a fellow student. I’d thought to just quote a sentence or two, but the entire paragraph is worth sharing for a couple of reasons. Both the brutality of his self-assessment (a hallmark of the book – he pulls no punches on himself) and the precision of its reflection of the larger world.

His sin was the occasion of the only public beating that I have ever witnessed. The entire school was assembled in the big hall and seated on benches on either side of the room. In the open space in the middle the modern Romeo bent over and the headmaster ran down the room to administer the blows. After the first two strokes the younger brother of the victim left the room. Even now I can’t help wishing that we had all done the same. What made this exhibition so disgusting was not the pain inflicted. Today a go-ahead schoolmaster would say, ‘This delights me more than it delights you.’ In many parts of London, such goings-on are just another way of making a party go with a swing. What was most insufferable was that a simple form of self-gratification should be put forward as a moral duty. Before that day I had disliked the head; afterwards I hated him. (p. 18, emphasis mine.)

QCselfportrait30The conflation of self-gratification and moral duty comes up in a variety of circles. One can consider it in the context of politics, military justice, familial dynamics, and general human interaction. This quote struck a nerve with me because my own schooling included a headmaster-equivalent who made an example out of kids when they were, for example, late by paddling us in front of our classmates. This was in the period my family lived in Synanon, a commune where children were kept separate from their parents. It was also a place that preached a doctrine of non-violence. Very confusing. The lines between self-gratification, morality, straight-up sadism, and personal confusion on the part of that tormentor have been blurred by more than 40 years of intervening time and the total lack of closure with the person in question.
In the political sphere, we see this dynamic play out with the conservative insistence on austerity for the poor who have somehow worked terribly hard to earn their punishments at the hands of the social system. I’m not sure if conservatives in England or the United States even mask this in the guise of moral duty any more, but there was a time. Authoritarian behaviour is not at its root sexual or deviant, until you call it something else. Is this the nature of authority in general, though? We run into folks like the current so-called leaders of the US and UK demanding the kind of moral purity from the poor that they have never exhibited or felt the need to exhibit. There’s a joke that goes around that Boris Johnson doesn’t even know how many children he has. Trump’s are from three different wives, and those who remember the impeachment of Bill Clinton have a hard time forgetting that the man who led the charge had left one wife while she was undergoing treatment for cancer and the second shortly after her diagnosis with MS. Was Gingrich’s hypocrisy and the ways he wallowed in it at the time a form of self-gratification? I shuddered at his insistence that he and his fellows on the right side of the aisle possessed some moral high ground over those on the left, and that the prosecution of the Lewinsky affair was some kind of moral duty, but I’ve always been unabashedly on the other side.
What can we say about the verbal ganging up that goes on in social media? Do we confuse various forms of virtue signalling with moral duty? And are these things confusions of self-gratification? I don’t follow many conservative leaning people on social media, but we do our own dirty work between ourselves on the left in which my support for candidate X can’t be good because candidate Y is the only one who can win (for example and for whatever reason). As if the positional debate were somehow invalid. Is this one of those places where moral duty masks self-gratification? Crisp, of course, is discussing sexual gratification, but how different is this from the gratification of our own moral upstandingness?
I want to argue that certain workplace dynamics fall into this category, but the ways in which middle management manipulates the rank and file are just a refraction of how middle management is manipulated by the various upper members of the hierarchy. Gideon Kunda in his 1992 work Engineering Culture posits that there’s much that we do in the workplace to ingratiate ourselves within an organization. Kunda quotes one person as saying, ‘Like the joke. you get to choose which 20 hours to work out of the day.’ (p. 18) How we feel about management in the context of the modern technological workplace is a product of our personal feelings and how we feel about/react to/interact with authority, both consciously and unconsciously. This workplace masochism seems to me to be an identification of a company’s stated morality with one’s own gratification on the organizational ladder.
I haven’t even delved into the various interplays of moral duty and self-gratification in the context of organized religion. Crisp is ostensibly describing a secular institution in England in the early 1920s. It’s no leap at all from there back to the Jesuit schools James Joyce describes or the Magdalen Laundries, the latter of which conflate venality and greed with claims to the satisfaction of moral duty and upholding the moral center of Irish life.
Crisp’s identification of self-gratification with moral duty is limited to that one instance of authority in the school, but it extends to how we operate in society. My tormentor was also acting out the morality of the organization, just as we attempt to act out the morality of the political world within social media.

 

In recent news, employees at the Hachette publishing group staged a walkout over the publication of Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing. Last year, Hachette imprint Little, Brown published Catch and Kill, a work by Allen’s son Ronan Farrow (by actress Mia Farrow, Allen’s partner for 12 years) about the Harvey Weinstein scandal and how powerful mean escape accountability. Farrow has also been public about his support for his sister Dylan who claims that Allen molested her when she was 7. The internal Allen/Farrow family dynamic doesn’t interest me so much as the fact that someone at Hachette felt that the house could sidestep that dynamic. They could take the kudos for publishing Farrow’s work and also have financial dealings with Allen without taking an internal or external PR hit.

Yesterday, Hachette decided to back out of the Allen contract and pulped all copies of his book, appeasing that opposition to Allen. Farrow himself was surprised at the Allen deal because no one at Hachette had informed him it was happening.

I wish I could be surprised that a large business would engage in this kind of having cake/eating it too activity. Was it really possible that no one in the organization spoke up to say, No, the Allen deal is lousy, that it just doesn’t look good, that we have to stand by a principle in this matter? No, the principle was still let’s make money on this as long as we can get away with it. After the walkout, one executive admitted to the conflict of interest and stated that the decision to cancel the Allen contract was difficult. It’s worth noting that according to Wikipedia the Hachette group is one of the Big Six publishing houses (along with Penguin Random House and HarperCollins) and publishes approximately 2000 titles per year.

Stephen King, an author who has had his own censorship issues, released a pair of tweets. The first said ‘If you think he’s a pedophile, don’t buy the book…Vote with your wallet…In America, that’s how we do it.’ He followed up by stating my point, ‘Let me add that it was fucking tone-deaf of Hachette to want to publish Woody Allen’s book after publishing Ronan Farrow’s.’

I’d say that Allen is free to get his book out there any way he can. He’s wealthy enough to publish the thing himself if he wants to. The fact that his name is toxic in entertainment circles is not the fault of Hachette (or of any of the other publishers who passed on Apropos of Nothing). The fact that nothing came of the investigations into the charges against Allen doesn’t mean he’s innocent, first of all. It also doesn’t mean he’s guilty. But at a certain point you can look at his public behavior (his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter which began when Previn was 19 and Allen 56, and while Allen was still in a relationship with Farrow) and his movies (Manhattan for a prime example) and not just be creeped out a little bit. It’s a separate matter that over and over again in his movies he shows what little use he has for middle-aged women. Since noticing it, this has always left a bad taste in my mouth.

Another thing to note about the Hachette Group is their Center Street imprint of conservative titles. Authors who have found a home on Center Street include Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump, Jr. Recent titles include Michael Savage’s Scorched Earth: Restoring The Country After Obama. It’s not a bastion of liberalism by any stretch, and if the issue was just about authors or subjects with marital issues, then the Center Street imprint would be dragged into the discussion too.

Last week I saw one of those blocks of text posted on Facebook in an image file. I probably know better than to share these things without looking up who the attribution belongs to, but no one who read it called me out on the person who said this:

Treated like starved rats in cages, human beings will interact accordingly. If everyone had jobs, healthcare, education, and safe, affordable housing, relations between humans would be transformed: With nothing to police, there would be no need for police. But with scarcity comes the need to enforce the unequal distribution of resources. The absurd contradiction we must resolve is that capitalist scarcity is artificial. There is more than enough to go around. It is only the profit motive that stands in the way of a rational system of production, distribution, and exchange in harmony with the environment.

(Attributed to a John Peterson – none of the John Petersons or John Petersens on Wikipedia’s disambiguation pages seem to be the type to utter this sort of sentiment. However, a search reveals the quote comes from a July, 2016 editorial published on marxist.com and possibly also in The Socialist Appeal. USA: Police Brutality, Racism, and the Politics of Polarization.)

Two people commented on the post. One offered a pretty flippant restating of the communist declaration (‘to each according to ability, from each according to need’) as ‘To each according to their ability to fake their need, from each according to their ability to hide their skills.’

Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

There’s no arguing the Marxist perspective of the original quote, but boiling it down to the failure of Communism to produce a just society is missing the point. The second commenter wrote something longer than most of my blog entries in which he described the key failures of communism in Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic (a place he lived for 20 years and I lived for five). The issues he brought up revolved around the tenet ‘He who does not steal from the state steals from his family’ and the soul-destroying pervasiveness of the state apparatus.

Both of these comments, however, miss the point Peterson is trying to make: We have too much money, food, and housing to deny a roof and a meal to anyone. The scarcity under which we operate is a construct we use to keep a large segment of the population in straits. I can’t explain our defense of the status quo any more than I can explain why we continue to teach children that it’s acceptable to bully the kid being raised by an interracial or same sex couple. Insert comment here about Americans all being frustrated millionaires rather than one medium-sized tragedy or difficulty from being on the street.

The trick, of course, is extricating ourselves. Politically speaking, it’s a nonstarter, at least in the UK and the US. But have you walked over the homeless in any major city? What I keep trying to say here, in as many different ways as I can is that it doesn’t matter how a person gets into straits, or finds herself unable to feed her family or ends up estranged from the network of people who raised him. The social contract we’re in as members of human society should be the one in which a person on the street gets a meal, a roof, care.

I have found myself and others concerned with the difference between what that poor person gets and what we have. And what we’ve earned that they haven’t. Politics always plays into this craziness and the flip side of housing the family on the street is looking at extreme wealth. I do begrudge the very wealthy their fortunes for a variety of reasons, the main one being that there are hungry people on our streets. Another is that the extremely wealthy find it easier to maintain power structures that enable the hoarding of wealth. And then there’s the way extreme wealth seems to multiply for some at about same rate as extreme poverty multiplies for the rest of society. Earlier I was looking at the Wikipedia article on presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. In passing, the article notes that in 2009, Bloomberg’s wealth was approximately 16 billion dollars. Think of how many people you know that have even 16 thousand dollars available to them. At the time, Bloomberg was worth one million times that sum. One question is, how has he nearly quadrupled that fortune in ten years? I think we can look at most members of the two houses of the US Congress and find similar expansions of fortune, in terms of rate, if not scale.

And I ask: Leaving 10 billion dollars in his pockets, how many people can you feed, clothe, and house for 50 billion dollars? Flip it around. If you could levy a one-time tax on wealth of that magnitude of even 10%, how many people could Bloomberg feed for six billion dollars? When we talk about how to feed people in the US, we have to look at the people in those strata because the wealth keeps getting sucked up and none of it trickles down, notwithstanding the lies of Ronald Reagan all the economists he and his successors parroted.

At what point does the hoard just become accumulation for the sake of accumulation? We know that shame plays no role in this. If it did, we wouldn’t have people working multiple jobs just to keep one step or half a step ahead of winding up in a tent city under a freeway. When does the fact that San Francisco, New York, and Manchester, London, Vancouver and Rio de Janeiro having large sectors that look like something out of the Grapes of Wrath reveal to us the poverty of our responses?

And how large do we have to think for this situation to become largely unacceptable? We’ve been accepting it so long, that it seems normal.

We’ve painted ourselves into a corner with the outbreak of Covid-19 (aka Coronavirus). How much manufacturing previously done in the West is now (not being) done in China and other countries in Asia? We made a decision in the 80s that American manufacturing was too expensive and that we’d do better as industrialists and consumers to move production to Mexico and Asia. This, I suppose, is fine, save that we stopped paying living wages to America’s (former) manufacturing employees and increased their credit lines as a sort of compensation.
That’s three of several dozen problems that have been building up in the US over the last 35 years or so. How we handled American purchasing power is a different part of the discussion. China raised its own game in the years following the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989. You can’t have democracy but if you’re a Chinese citizen you are entitled to some more of these trappings of capitalism. And it seemed to work. Many Chinese got filthy rich, casinos opened on Chinese real estate, for example, and if you weren’t used to democracy, it did work. Hong Kong? Different question. (Fairport Convention’s Jewel in the Crown seems appropriate.)
Anyhow, US and to a lesser extent, I think, European purchasing power went up, because a lot of Chinese made a lot of stuff very cheaply. So it didn’t matter that real wages in the US haven’t shifted much in 40 years. The decline of unions in post-Reagan America pushed workers into so-called service industries where real wages are kept artificially low much of the time.
Bottom line: We don’t MAKE anything, and as a result we’re in a position where the place that does make all our stuff is on lockdown for we don’t know how long. And creating a manufacturing sector out of whole cloth can’t be done so easily anymore. (It could be done if we were willing to pry a little bit of money and commitment out of the 1%. Not in the cards at the moment.) The same is true in Europe. We have the tools to create that self-sufficient situation, but it means retraining the populous to buy what they need and a lot less of what they want. We’re going to learn mighty soon that the old watch, phone, and TV will last a little longer. (A little less of the planned obsolescence would go a long way.) Clothes and everything else we buy might be more expensive, but part of what we need to do to recover, sustainably, from this crisis is to rebuild the industry and rework how we as people and consumers and industrialists relate to industry.

I know that I’m extraordinarily blessed in that I live in a country with a safety net and that my health insurance costs are capped by law. There are a lot of complaints about Dutch medical care, and I’m sure that if I delved deeply enough, I’d find some horror stories. However, in the Netherlands, and in most of Europe, catastrophic illness doesn’t bankrupt the insured. Note that no one here is uninsured – the benefits system is such that a person in straits for whatever reason is still covered. If you’re not in straits, the system requires each person to pay for a basic level of coverage. At the moment, that basic level costs something like EUR 110 per month. (I don’t know the precise number because I take advantage of a higher level.

I don’t know how to address things like GoFundMe pages for people who suffer catastrophic illnesses or emergencies or simply get blindsided by insurance companies that cover ambulance company X, but not ambulance company Y. Too bad that company Y was sent when you called 911. No, it’s not that I don’t know how to address these things, it’s the fact that we’re still stuck in the situation that people aren’t covered for illness by default. When the Clintons tried to work out some kind of universal health coverage in the US in the 90s, they were beaten back by the insurance industry. When Obama tried the same thing, he was beaten almost from the get-go. The fact that he managed to eke some success out of all that political capital, and all that bloody opposition is a credit to the man.

I worked in healthcare for several years in the 90s. My mother was a medical secretary and my stepdad was an EKG tech before he moved into fundraising at the same hospital. So I’ve always had some input and insight as to how these systems work. For an idea, see the history section of the Wikipedia article on health insurance in the US.

Because Franklin Roosevelt sidestepped the issue at the time he was pushing for various reforms in social policy, the medical industries were able to consolidate their efforts against any kind of socialized medicine. By the time Truman took up the gauntlet in 1949, the AMA was prepared. And for 80 years they and the various for-profit healthcare organizations have fought tooth and nail to prevent any kind of socialized care in the US. And because everyone with full-time employment in the US has an insurance option through one of these plans, the money keeps flowing up to the healthcare industry. Woe be to you if you have to work multiple part time jobs to make ends meet, because it’s unlikely any of them will provide you with a company-subsidized option. So no matter what you do, you’re in deep to the industry should you need care. Of course, those who are uninsured or underinsured will hesitate to go to the doctor when there’s something seriously wrong. Heaven forbid the coronavirus gain a foothold in the US, but even without it, those at greatest risk for spreading communicable illnesses are those least able to take the time to get care for them. Even in my office (software company, generous work from home options), I have colleagues who feel compelled for whatever reason to come into the office when they’re seriously ill. (I shared a crowded train with one a couple of weeks ago – he’d been home for a few days, and was obviously still sick, coughing into his hands and rubbing his eyes. Alas, the drug store was all out of hand sanitizer because of the latest rush on the stuff.)

So not a week goes by that I don’t see a GoFundMe call on Facebook from someone whose friend is needing money for catastrophic healthcare costs. One level of compassion is to give something to each of those. This is reasonable, but also ridiculous, given how much money should be in the system but isn’t. Ridiculous because it’s somehow easier and better for those with little enough money already to help each other than for the obscenely wealthy to ease up on the greed in the system. It’s another version of the rich guy, working class guy, and immigrant/poor guy looking at a plate of cookies. As the rich guy takes all but one, he says, ‘Look out, the immigrant’s gonna take your cookie.’

I honestly don’t know what to say anymore about this situation. For several years now, I’ve seen the comment that this is the point at which the French started building guillotines. I think on a gut level we know that in France politics suddenly became bloodsport and didn’t stop until the engineers of the Reign of Terror were themselves sent to the scaffold. We also seem to have sufficient bloodsport/bread/circuses/entertainment to keep us looking the other way as the things we deserve as members of this society, as contributors to the social contract are taken away.

It’s not a just matter of someone less fortunate than we are taking our cookie, it’s that along with all of the other basics that are part of surviving and thriving together, compassion calls on us to fund as individuals what should be funded by society as a whole.


Edited to add this link, posted to cbsnews.com the same day I posted this entry:

“You wouldn’t think you’d go to jail over medical bills”: County in rural Kansas is jailing people over unpaid medical debt