A Death Sentence for the American Middle Class

On Friday night, Senate Republicans voted to pass the largest tax hike in American history. But this tax bill does not just raise taxes for the vast majority of Americans, it fundamentally alters the nature of the United States as a nation.

Let’s start by examining the bill’s impact on charitable giving. Although quite a bit of the bill remains shrouded in secrecy, and is subject to some degree of change in reconciliation, we do know the basic outlines of the bill. We know, for instance, that it raises the standard deduction to around $12k for individuals, eliminating a number of other deductions in exchange.

Raising the standard deduction (and eliminating several other deductions) removes any tax incentive for charitable giving for the vast majority of Americans. Although charitable giving as percentage of income differs wildly across various income levels (with the lowest income blocks giving the highest percentage), the average US citizen donates just over 2% of their income per year – at that rate, you’d have to earn $600k before your giving would be worth itemizing to claim a deduction. For the typical household earning around $60k, their $1200 in giving will not be worth itemizing, unless they have a mortgage big enough to put them over $12000 – the interest on a typical $360k mortgage plus $1200 in giving would just exceed the $12,000 standard deduction.

Working and middle class Americans may still give, without the incentive of the tax deduction, except remember, their taxes are going up too – probably more than $1200 a year. After decades of real wage stagnation, Americans are finally going to see an effective change in our income – downward. It is reasonable to expect that, without a tax incentive and with less real income, we will see a significant decrease in individual giving over the next decade.

Of course, wealthy and corporate donors might give enough to claim the deduction – except, with a massive tax cut for the wealthiest Americans and especially corporations, there is little incentive  for them to donate to charities as a way of reducing their taxable income.

What’s more, the tax bill grossly undermines the Johnson Amendment, the regulation that restricts nonprofits’ political activity. From now on, religious organizations will be allowed to engage in political endorsement and advocacy while remaining tax-exempt, making them very attractive to wealthy donors who can now use their charitable giving to pursue their political ends.

Less charitable giving means nonprofits will be able to provide fewer services. With a trillion dollar deficit – at best! – resulting from the loss of taxes from corporations and the wealthiest Americans, it’s unlikely the federal government will be stepping in to close the services gap. In fact, they’ve spent most of this year working desperately to repeal ACA in order to lessen the impact of the tax bill, and are already discussing Medicare and Social Security reform as key elements of the Republican agenda for 2018.

That leaves states and municipalities to fill the gap. States and municipalities that have been struggling to get by for years now and with few exceptions are in no position to expand their services. The few states that aren’t struggling, like California with its high state taxes, might have been able to take up the slack – except that one of the deductions being eliminated is the state and local tax deduction, meaning people in high-tax states will now be taxed twice on the same income – and will likely be pushing their local governments to reduce those taxes. In the end, state and local governments are in no position to provide the services nonprofits will no longer be able to and that federal government is no longer willing to.

Which is the plan. Every economist in the country is telling the Republicans that this cut will not spur the kind of economic growth they keep saying will be the outcome. But spurring economic growth isn’t the point – forcing a pseudo-Darwinist, every-man-for-himself, individualist Ayn-Rand-topia is. Republicans have been telling us this forever – every time they talk about who does and, more to the point, doesn’t deserve healthcare, voting rights, housing, etc., they’re telling us that some people deserve to have more because they are better, while most people (that means you and me) deserve to have nothing because we are worse.

Trump ran on that platform – it’s just that his base, the people who voted for him, mistakenly thought he was talking about them. But of course he wasn’t – if they were worthy, they’d have already been rich.

Tellingly, education – long valued as both a route to middle class security and a key to social progress – is no longer a priority in post-reform America. Reduced federal, state, and local budgets mean reduced federal, state, and local investments in public education. Which means more costs to be borne by students, who will find their student loans come with higher interest rates – interest which, when they start repaying, will no longer be tax deductible. Graduate students are hit even harder, with new taxes on tuition reimbursement that makes graduate assistantships almost entirely untenable – except for the already rich.

Colleges and universities are targeted in other ways by the new tax bill. In a move that should make anyone who has amassed a large body of wealth very, very nervous, Republicans are raiding university coffers with an excise tax on university endowments – the interest on which provides operating funds. And a raft of expanded taxes on unrelated business income – things like sport ticket sales, logo licensing, and renting out space to non-university groups – limit colleges’ earning ability even further, making tuition hikes or program cuts a virtual certainty.

The whole dream of America, the one where science and reason and civic spirit move us towards a better, brighter tomorrow, the grand Enlightenment project that drove Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, and the rest, is now defunct. The middle class, created by a century of Teddy Roosevelt-style progressivism, the New Deal, and the GI Bill’s investment in education and home ownership, is on the gallows, if not already at the end of a rope. And the “problem” of immigration is solved for good – in five years, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who wants to come here.

Nonprofits and Civil Society

As we face an era of ever-increasing uncertainty, it is more important than ever to support organizations that stand for and protect our personal, cultural, and human rights. The collective power embedded in our social institutions, particularly in the nonprofit sector, offers one of the few bulwarks against both the threat of the mob and the power of the state.

It is the nature of our modern capitalist system that the most pressing issues facing us as a society — prejudice and discrimination, social and economic justice, education and heritage preservation, freedom of expression, environmental protection, and so on — can rarely be addressed for a profit. And so it is up to our nonprofit sector to attack these issues, often with insufficient resources, and often in opposition to better-funded and more powerful corporate and government institutions.

It is crucial, right now, that you support the nonprofits that support our civil society. This is not charity or philanthropy, something you give out of goodness or some sense of responsibility or obligation, it is solidarity and mutual aid — it is how we stand together and support each other. [Continue reading] »

So Long 2013! Make Sure the Door Hits You on the Way Out...

Last night I watched Disney movies and ate comfort food as an antidote to an afternoon spent fretting in a hospital waiting room. I know it’s unreasonable to expect a trick of an arbitrary calendar to make much of a difference in one’s life, but man, 2013 cannot end soon enough for this guy.

I’ve been reading all these year-end reviews. Some of them, like Lola Frost’s, are just beautiful. And it is a real honor for me to see, here and there, that I’ve been allowed to play a role, however small, in some people’s happiness. 2013 hasn’t been a year without highlights for me, for sure, but the low points have been rather overwhelming.

So here are the bullet points of 2013 for me, the good and bad in the order it came. I don’t know if there’s much point to this kind of exercise, but I’ve never had a year like this and maybe writing it down will help close it out right.  [Continue reading] »

10 Books That Changed My Life

Finally, a Facebook meme I give a crap about: 10 life-changing books you’ve read. I love books, and books have definitely changed my life, so that’s me all over. Except once I started really thinking about it, I realized that a mere list of 10 books wasn’t enough, that the books deserved an explanation of why they were on the list. Making it kinda long for a Facebook post.

1. How To Do Things With Words by JL Austin

2. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language by VN Volosinov

Language is important to me, as a writer and as a scholar, and Austin and Volosinov shaped the way I see language in a profound and lasting way. Both works look at language through the lens of power, and particularly at how we use language to exert our will – to effect change in other’s “ideologies” (to borrow Volosinov’s formulation, by which he means not just political stance but something more akin to worldview). Language – or signs in general – in Volosinov and Austin’s formulation, are not inert, simply referencing things, actions, and ideas in the world outside of language, but rather active forces in the constructing and reshaping of the world.  [Continue reading] »

So now twerking is cultural appropriation?


TWERK (Photo credit: mikeywally)

In the wake of Miley Cyrus’ apparently disastrous performance on MTV’s 2013 Video Music Awards show, I’ve been seeing a lot of conversations (or more often, declarations) about twerking as a form of cultural appropriation. Twerking, according to what I’m reading, is intimately bound to black culture and when white women integrate it into their own dance performances, they are essentially stealing black culture — appropriating to themselves the street cred of more authentic dancers and musicians while avoiding, due to their racial privilege, the more negative sexual and cultural disempowerments that come with being a woman of color.

OK, that’s not entirely a horrible argument. It’s true that, for the most part, black women are judged more harshly for outward displays of sexuality, which reinforce racist stereotypes about black people being innately animalistic, uncivilized, unintelligent, and deserving of their lower social status. White women can often imitate tropes of black sexuality and “shake off” the essentializing that comes with them, presenting their sexualized performances as “just for fun”. The appropriation of black sexuality as a liberating force for white womanhood has a long history — we can see it at work, for instance, in Sophie Tucker’s early-career (c. 1910) blackface performances, in which she sang bawdy songs full of double entendre (and often single entendre) as an ersatz black woman, then shed off the implications of blackness by reclaiming her whiteness, peeling off a glove at the end of her act to reveal the light skin beneath.

Cultural appropriation can do real damage to communities. Blackface perpetuated and exaggerated black stereotypes and arguably contributed to the longevity of Jim Crow segregation (itself named after a popular blackface character). Representations by white women of hyper-sexualized black, Native American, Southeast Asian, and other minority women in our “she was asking for it” rape culture contribute to the high levels of sexualized violence faced by women of color, and the ease with which that violence is dismissed by law enforcement and by the wider mainstream population. (Remember the Duke case a few years ago? Within hours of the accusations filed by a black stripper against members of the Duke Lacrosse team, articles were appearing all over the media blaming her for leading the alleged perpetrators into rape — long before any evidence about the case was made public.) White popularization of black music styles in the mid-20th century left many of our greatest musical innovators penniless while their imitators went on to fame and fortune. The use of American Indian caricatures as sports team mascots continues to make it difficult for Native Americans to be taken seriously on issues ranging from the misallocation of tribal resources and theft of tribal lands to crushing unemployment rates and skyrocketing health issues. [Continue reading] »

Sex: It’s What’s for Dinner

This essay was originally published Dec 14, 2005, at Savage Minds. Due to a server problem, Savage Minds’ archives are currently down, so I’m reposting this here.

Yam Yam Yam

Yam Yam Yam (Photo credit: cogdogblog)

The connection between eating and having sex is a fairly obvious one. Many of the words we use to describe sexual desire (hunger, voracious appetite) and sex acts themselves (eating out, munching), and even various body parts (my favorite: “the split knish”) refer to food—an obvious parallel given the importance of the mouth to both eating and sex. The connection is deeper than just slang, though—Edmund Leach noted in 1964 that the way we categorize the animals we eat and the way we categorize potential sex partners are parallel as well (at least in mid-century Britain): women and animals that live in the home (sisters, dogs) are off-limits for eating and/or sex; animals and women that live outside the domestic sphere (cattle and other animals that roam more or less freely, neighbors) are potential sex and marriage partners; and the truly exotic, those living entirely outside of the familiar world altogether (emu, Africans—from a British perspective) are neither food nor sex partners. Among the Arapesh and Adelam peoples studied by Margaret Mead (1935), a man could eat neither one’s own yams and pigs nor one’s own mother and sister, while:

Other people’s mothers
Other people’s sisters
Other people’s pigs
Other people’s yams which they have piled up
You may eat (Mead: 78).

With such a thin line between eating and “eating”, it seems unsurprising that some people would seek to combine the two more explicitly. Enter the cann-fetish (some explicit langauge, probably not worksafe)—cannibal fetishism (or cannibalism fetish). While many of us are familiar with the case of Armin Meiwes, the German man convicted recently of killing and eating a partner he met and coordinated the killing with over the Internet, Meiwes represents an extreme distortion of what is becoming a significant, if small, fetish community. For the most part, cann-fetishists stop short of actually eating or hurting anyone, rather endulging in a rather elaborate pretend-feast involving trussing the “meal” (generally a willing female, who is bound and whose various orifices will be poked, prodded, and filled with various trimmings and cooking implements), coating her (or, apparently far more rarely, him) with oil, butter, honey, and other basting substances, and “cooking” her in a make-believe oven.

[Continue reading] »

Human Terrain in Oaxaca

This essay was originally published Jun 5, 2009, at Savage Minds. Due to a server problem, Savage Minds’ archives are currently down, so I’m reposting this here.

Mexico - troops in Calle de Revilladigego [i.e...

Mexico – troops in Calle de Revilladigego [i.e. Revillagigedo] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

For the past several years, my research has led me further and further into the world of counterinsurgency, military anthropology, human terrain, and other aspects of a military regime of knowledge. What concerns me, most of all, is the way that knowledge generated by social scientists can be used (and, if the past is any indication, will be used) to the disadvantage of the people on, from, and with whom anthropologists and other social scientists generate that knowledge.

This issue is hardly limited to anthropologists, though we have traditionally held a kind of loose monopoly on the world’s most vulnerable peoples. Nowadays, social scientists of every stripe traipse through the same terrain anthropologists once considered their own – and we, of course, have no problem returning the favor.

So when a friend forwarded me a story about geographers in Oaxaca mapping the “cultural terrain”, my disciplinary ears perked up. At issue are many of the same issues at play in debates over anthropologists’ and others’ involvement with HTS in Iraq and Afghanistan, although in many ways I find the situation I’m about to describe more frightening still, as it presages wars or conflicts as yet unfought – even counterinsurgencies to insurgencies yet to surge. [Continue reading] »

In the Flesh In the Museum: Representations of Indians in American Natural History Museums

This long essay was originally published Aug 8, 2006, at Savage Minds. Due to a server problem, Savage Minds’ archives are currently down, so I’m reposting this here.

Ishi (1860-1916), last surviving member of the...

Ishi (1860-1916), last surviving member of the Yahi Indian tribe of California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“There are Indians in the Museum of Natural History,” writes Danielle LaVaque-Manty (2000: 71) “And there aren‘t any other kinds of people.” The particular Museum of Natural History LaVaque-Manty is speaking of is the Ruthven Museum of Natural History at the University of Michigan, but she could easily be describing any number of natural history museums throughout the United States—the American Museum of Natural history in New York City, the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the Peabody Museum at Harvard, the Phoebe Hearst Museum in Berkeley, the Field Museum in Chicago, and so on. Since their respective inceptions, mostly in the latter half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, the American natural history museum has played a privileged role in the presentation and representation of American Indians* to an American public largely defined in ambiguous counterpoint to the savage mannequins held at bay behind the plate glass of the museum display. Whether cast as the noble Redman sadly disappearing before the onslaught of civilization or as the savage heathen to be forcibly converted or eliminated entirely, the removal or disappearance of American Indians was a necessary prerequisite to the occupation by white settlers of the American land. The museum became, oft times literally so, the last refuge of the “wild” Indian, at the same time that the possession of the Indian in the museum came to stand for exactly the possession of the land that made the “wild” Indian an anachronism, an echo of a time not before the settlers came, but of a time entirely removed from the history of America, a time when America was, indeed, an entirely different and new world.

This paper deals with the presentation of Indians in the American museum. Where LaVaque-Manty is speaking figuratively, though—of the representation of Indians through their artifacts, relics, and bones—this paper deals literally with the presentation of living Indians in American museum settings. The most famous of these awkward denizens of the museum was Ishi, “the last wild Indian” (Kroeber 1961) who, from 1911 until his death in 1916, lived and worked in the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology under the auspices of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. But Ishi was only the most famous of a number of Indians put on display in museums and museum-like setting. Kroeber’s teacher and mentor, Franz Boas, had exhibited a dozen Kwakiutl in the “ethnographic zoo” he supervised at the Columbian Exposition two decades before, and Kroeber himself had studied the Eskimos housed, at Boas’ request, in the American Museum of Natural History in from 1897-1898. Indians were displayed at dozens of World Fairs and Expositions, many times in exhibitions sponsored and curated by the Smithsonian.

This history must necessarily be situated in relationship to the wider context of museum display, a context which includes not just the living but also the dead and the (apparently) lifelike, such as the Indians of mannequins and dioramas, and which includes not just the museum but also the museum-like, the Expositions and traveling show which aim to sugar coat science with a veneer of entertainment and spectacle (or should that be to sugar-coat entertainment and spectacle with a veneer of science?). The final aim is towards grasping the essential objectification, the “waxworkification”, that lies at the heart of the ethnographic display and that captures the Indian as an object of display in the American museum. As a final examination of the ways in which this history continues to shape museum practices (both those of curators and of visitors), and ways in which this history can be, and is, subverted, I will briefly examine the recent exhibition/performance piece Year of the White Bear: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992) presented at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian (among other places), in which two Mexican artists performed the part of newly-discovered Indians while locked in a gilded cage on display in the Museum’s rotunda. This piece highlights some of the ambiguities and ambivalences inherited by the museum space, which Indians—suddenly empowered by the passage of the Indian Gaming Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, among other factors—must deal with in constructing their own self-representations. [Continue reading] »

Thoughts on the Mass Killing in Newtown, CT: A Rant in 11 Tweets

This is a series of posts I made on Twitter following the shooting in Newtown, CT yesterday. I could flesh them out, but I like them as is, sketchy and  impressionistic as they are. Edited simply to correct two typos and expand abbreviations.

For a Gun Control

Most of the responses to today’s mass shootings, from people I mostly respect, boil down to 1) gun control! 2) crazy people! 3) evil!

Some things I haven’t seen get much attention as factors in today’s killing: 1) masculinity, 2) poverty, 3) individualism, 4) market economics.

Masculinity 1: There’s a reason most mass killers are male. We value men who are visibly powerful and use violence to solve problems.

Masculinity 2: Build your identity around self-reliance, providing, and mastery of violence, and when something’s taken away, boom!

Individualism: We have become a nation where needing help is seen as weakness and dependency and offering help is an affront.

Poverty: There are very few resources for people who need help, and fewer still for identifying those in need: financial, mental, emotional, etc.

Market economics: The market provides, where there’s profit. Much greater motive to provide tools for violence than provide help.

Gun control is probably not the answer to this kind of tragedy, though it might make a dent in the ~10k US gun deaths annually.

Greater mental health resources are obviously needed, but not all mass killers are demonstrably crazy. Killing is often the only sign.

Not all mass killers are evil, either (except by tautology). Killing is a casual part of daily life in our society (e.g. industry, military).

In the end, mass killings are product of a society willing to trade tragedy for low taxes, the illusion of independence, and traditional gender roles.

Things I've Learned at BurlyCon 2011 (Final Edition)

[UPDATE: I cut a section which I want to post more in-depth on later. Miss Astrid's "State of Neo-Burlesque" raised some really important points bit I'm not sure I'm the right person to address them.]

Back home today after an intense, amazing, mind-expanding, soul-filling, heart-warming long weekend at BurlyCon 2011 in Seattle, and boy is my mind racing!  The first two days were great, but Saturday and Sunday were simply magical. I’ve had so many amazing conversations with so many amazing people, I can hardly make sense of it all.

But I’ll try.

1) Despite Neo-Burlesque’s feminist, all-sizes-welcome ideology, big-bodied burlesquers don’t always feel the love from their smaller sisters. They get booked as “token” plus-size performers — a fact brought home when the only two in a show find themselves performing back-to-back, over and over and over. They have to listen to thinner sisters express their own insecurities and body issues in phrases like “uck, I feel so fat today”. They don’t get booked as often as thinner dancers. And people feel licensed to talk about their bodies much more than they do with slimmer women. So here’s the deal: y’all gotta get some self-awareness up in ya. Pay attention to what you say, how you act, and who you book. Because big gals enrich this community. Anyone who witnessed Rubenesque Burlesque’s off-the-hook performance during peer review can attest to that.
[Continue reading] »