The politics of water: Detroit, West Virginia, Gaza

My latest for Al Jazeera, on the water crisis in Detroit and beyond:

Detroit is one of the poorest cities in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Detroit is also surrounded by the largest supply of fresh water in the world. The US does not lack for money, and Detroit does not lack for accessible water. What Detroit lacks are people viewed as worthy of the compassion and resources given to their richer, whiter peers. They lack the rights and respect most US citizens take for granted.

At a rally in June, life-long Detroiter Renla Session spoke out for her community: “These are my fellow human beings. If they threatened to cut off water to an animal shelter, you would see thousands of people out here. It’s senseless … They just treat people like their lives mean nothing here in Detroit, and I’m tired of it.”

When rights are considered privileges, only the privileged have rights.

“They treat people like animals in Detroit,” an auto worker complained in July, but the US treats its poorest citizens worse. When the government shut down in late 2013, the food programme for impoverished women and children was suspended – but the animals in the National Zoo stayed fed. More attention was paid to the shutdown of the PandaCam, a livestream of a bear cub, than to the suffering of the US’ poorest citizens.

Water is a human right, but who is a human being? Corporations, the US supreme court ruled in June, as the parched citizens of Detroit started filling up at water fountains.

“In its last day in session, the high court not only affirmed corporate personhood but expanded the human rights of corporations, who by some measures enjoy more protections than mortals – or ‘natural persons’,” wrote Dana Milbank at The Washington Post.

The mortals of Detroit enjoy no such protection. Perhaps that is why the city’s corporate venues – like its high-end golf club, hockey arena, football stadium, and over half of the city’s commercial and industrial users – still have their water running despite owing over $30m, while its most impoverished residents have their water, and their rights, taken away.

In Detroit, corporations are people. Their worth is unquestioned because it is measured in dollars. The worth of the residents of Detroit is measured in utility, and so their utilities are denied.

Read the full article, Water is a human right, but who is considered a human being? at Al Jazeera English.

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Political princesses

For Politico, I wrote about how the portrayal of female political leaders in media, noting that the coverage of mainstream outlets is little different from the preening profiles of fashion magazines. An excerpt:

In 1963, Look magazine published a series of photos of President John F. Kennedy working in the Oval Office as 2-year-old “John-John” played under his desk. The father and son portraits were an instant hit. They heightened the president’s personal appeal without diminishing his political power.

In 2014, Vogue published a photo of U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power in a similar scene, but with a few notable differences. Like Kennedy, Power sits at her desk with her toddler—whom she ignores for her cell phone. She is flanked by two assistants, both of whom disregard Power and the child as they gaze at their own screens. The little boy clings to his blanket and stares into space.

Unlike the warm spontaneity of Kennedy’s photo, the Power photo conveys alienation. Why is her son even there? Who is taking care of him? Why would photographer Annie Leibovitz stage this scene? Power is not humanized by the presence of her child, as Kennedy was, but appears distracted, overwhelmed. She’s either a bad worker (for parenting while working) or a bad mother (for working while parenting), the image tells us.

It is a catch-22 familiar to any working mom, though that was likely not the photo’s objective. The photo—captioned “liberal hawk, human-rights champion, mother of two”—seeks to provide evidence for something Power should have no obligation to prove: that she is a caring mother who works hard at a difficult job. (“The work-life balance is the thing I struggle with most,” she says in the profile. “But everything’s a cost-benefit, right?”)

The “having it all” narrative follows Power from profile to profile. A 2014 New York magazine photo essay shows her spoon-feeding her son and sending handwritten thank-you notes. Like Mayer in Vogue, she talks like a teenager: “This was a really cool event where a number of the U.N. ambassadors came to me”; “Ukraine has been intense.”

The New York photos seem aimed at making Power relatable, but likely had the opposite effect. (It is hard to tell from online feedback, since any working mom watching Power make time for handwritten thank-you notes may have had trouble typing with both middle fingers up.) The problem for Power—for all women in politics—is there is no persona that works. Accomplished professional with a Pulitzer Prize is too intimidating, caring mom too weak. Combining both is a mommy wars minefield.

The solution, of course, is to simply accept Power as a complex individual with the right to a private life and evaluate her based on her ideas and professional actions. But that would be breaking a long media tradition.

Read The Princess Effect at Politico Magazine

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Mourning the mall

My latest for Al Jazeera English is on the fall of the American mall:

The mall has long been derided by those with the luxury of an alternative. When the US industrial economy faltered in the 1970s, downtowns in many cities crumbled, and shopping malls – homogeneous, enclosed and sterile – both enabled and compensated for their demise.

In the media, malls were pilloried as monoliths devoid of character. Mockery of the mall spurred pop culture prototypes: vacuous valley girls, meandering mall rats. Underlying the mockery was grief for the loss of a seemingly more connected and welcoming urban life: the independent businesses, local markets, and community ties built around them.

But while these were memories for some, for others they were merely rumours. A functional local economy was a story our parents told us.

For US citizens raised in cities of post-industrial blight, there was the mall and the mall alone. We did not “choose” between supporting the mall or the local businesses, because by the time we came of age there were few local businesses left to support. There were no independent boutiques and bookstores to protect from corporate takeover: Such battles were plot devices of movies set in more cultured places. We watched from afar, wondering what it was like to have something to lose. Our rundown towns had little anyone wanted: empty lots, boarded windows, vacant stores.

Decades passed, and no one rebuilt them. Now the malls follow, and no one will rebuild them either.

My generation watches the malls fall like our parents watched the downtowns die. To our children, the mall will be a nostalgic abstraction, a 404 in concrete.

Read Mourn the fall of the mall at Al Jazeera English

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The Infantilization of Graduate School

I have a new article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on parenthood and PhDs:

It is no surprise that an academic culture that infantilizes does not welcome infants.

In academia, pregnancy is often presented as a series of cautionary tales (dropout mom, jobless mom, adjunct mom); subterfuge (concealed bellies and furtive pumping); and questionable heroics (returning to teach immediately upon the baby’s arrival). Placating the prevailing structure—and emphasizing the sad fate of those who did not (or could not) do so—is part of doctoral indoctrination.

You may be a mom, but you are expected to behave like an obedient child.

Pregnant graduate students pose a problem to an academic culture that values “fit” above all else. While pregnancy may feel to the pregnant like bodily subservience, it is often viewed in academia as an unwelcome declaration of autonomy. Unlike your doubts and your grievances and your nonacademic backup plans, pregnancy is impossible to hide. A pregnant belly, insufficiently apologized for, sticks out like a middle finger to others’ expectations.

Wear it with pride. When you are too pregnant to lean in, “@#$% off” is not a bad option.

Academia’s anti-pregnancy animosity is often peddled as pragmatic advice. “In the Ivory Tower, Men Only,” intoned Mary Ann Mason in a widely-read 2013 article for Slate. “For men, having children is a career advantage. For women, it’s a career killer.”

Citing a Berkeley research study on academic parenthood, the article describes the victims of the “baby penalty”: promising female graduate students blacklisted by their advisors, brilliant female scholars consigned to work off the tenure track, search committees balking at a female candidate showing any hint of family life.

What the article failed to mention is that there are few academic careers left to be killed.

The greatest threat to getting an academic job is not a baby. It is the disappearance of academic jobs.

Read the whole thing here: Should I have a baby in graduate school?

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On being a thing

I do not write personal essays. This is the first, and likely the last, you will see.

I write articles that have resonated with millions of people, often in an emotional way. But I never write about myself or my personal life. I have multiple platforms and if I wanted to, I could. I choose not to – in part because I think focusing on myself distracts from the social and political problems I depict, but also because I value my privacy.

I am like this in “real life” too. I have been described as aloof, but I try to be generous and kind. I take care of my family and my community. I don’t care about fame, which is much more of a curse than a gift. I reject most media interviews. My priorities are my loved ones and my work. Yesterday I was reading Charlotte’s Web to my daughter: the story of “a true friend and a good writer”. That is all I aim to be. If I had the choice, this is how I would be remembered.

But I do not have a choice.

I do not like to write about myself, and I do not like to write about my pain. Today Jacobin put me in a position where I had no choice but to do that.

For the past few weeks, I have been receiving rape threats and constant harassment from people who describe themselves as leftists or communists, and apparently want to rape their way to revolution. I have attempted to handle these threats privately. I mentioned them on Twitter twice: once to violentfanon, whose podcast I nearly had to cancel on because of the intensity of the threats, and one to Kenzo Shibata, in a Twitter conversation.

The rest of the time I dealt with them in non-public ways, through private emails and discussion. I have learned that to draw attention to rape threats produces more rape threats. I was scared for my safety and did not want to do that. Any attack on me becomes an attack on my family. As a mother, it is my job to protect my family.

During the YesAllWomen hashtag, which happened at the peak of the threats, I was tempted to open up about what was happening. I was moved by others sharing their stories, many of which were similar to mine. Like many women, I deleted more tweets than I submitted. In the end, I only referred to my situation obliquely. I could not go through with it.

Today Amber A’lee Frost at Jacobin magazine linked to my conversation with Shibata in order to mock my rape threats. This tweet would have been fairly hard to find since it was merely a response to Shibata’s. As I said, had I wanted to talk about my rape threats, I certainly could have – in an article in a mass media outlet or in tweets to my 24000 Twitter followers. But I did not want this scrutiny. Instead I made a brief remark, and forgot about it until this morning, when it appeared in Jacobin – used to viciously mock my potential rape in a piece that otherwise had nothing to do with me.

There are not words to describe the experience of reading an article, coming to the word “rape threats”, and then seeing that the rape threat is about you – intended to debase and humiliate you for admitting you have been threatened.

When I objected to the piece, two Jacobin editors admitted that they had not edited or carefully read the piece in question, and removed the link. Then another editor, Megan Erickson, said I was being “childish” for noting that they had mocked me for my rape threats. She and others spent the day mocking and harassing me.

Because this was now being handled in public, I was fortunate to receive the support of hundreds of people on Twitter – as well as attacks from others. I always expect some form of trolling, but I did not expect one of the attackers to be an editor at Salon, Elias Isquith, who questioned what my potential rape meant for “hashtags” and “brands”.

So in one day, two leftist publications used rape threats to me to belittle me, humiliate me and defame me. And then others accuse me of wanting attention.

Who in their right mind would want attention for this?

I had, and continue to have, no desire to ever write about being repeatedly threatened with rape. It is a painful subject for me to discuss for many reasons. The only reason I’m doing so now is because Jacobin forced me into a position where I have no choice but to do so to clarify what happened. I don’t want attention, or pity, or to be anyone’s hero or victim.

What do I want? I want people to stop sending me rape threats. I want to do my work. I want to stop being treated like a thing – or, shall I say, like a woman.

The left has a rape problem. Someone should write about it. But it is not going to be me. I have had enough threats this year.




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Hipster economics and the problems with gentrification

My latest for Al Jazeera English is on gentrification:

Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics.

Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it “cleaned up the neighbourhood”. This is often code for a literal white-washing. The problems that existed in the neighbourhood – poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services – did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.

That new location is often an impoverished suburb, which lacks the glamour to make it the object of future renewal efforts. There is no history to attract preservationists because there is nothing in poor suburbs viewed as worth preserving, including the futures of the people forced to live in them. This is blight without beauty, ruin without romance: payday loan stores, dollar stores, unassuming homes and unpaid bills. In the suburbs, poverty looks banal and is overlooked.

In cities, gentrifiers have the political clout – and accompanying racial privilege – to reallocate resources and repair infrastructure. The neighbourhood is “cleaned up” through the removal of its residents. Gentrifiers can then bask in “urban life” – the storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit – while avoiding responsibility to those they displaced.

Hipsters want rubble with guarantee of renewal. They want to move into a memory they have already made.

Read the full article, The perils of hipster economics, at Al Jazeera English

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The broken promise of college education

For Al Jazeera English, I bravely reread David Brooks’ 2000 scifi masterpiece, Bobos in Paradise, and extracted a few lessons for the modern era:

According to Brooks, baby boomers had surmounted class and ethnic barriers through the accumulation of credentials. A degree from Harvard now carried more prestige – and provided more opportunity – than the bloodlines that had propelled the Protestant elite.

But the appeal of a college degree was also its fatal flaw: Anyone could get it. The formula could only work once. The same educational system that created new elites now threatened the prospects of their heirs.

“Members of the educated class can never be secure about their children’s future,” Brooks wrote. “Compared to past elites, little is guaranteed.”

He claimed the burden of maintaining success fell on the children themselves, who would have to “work through school” just like their parents.

As it turned out, there was another way.

In the 14 years since Bobos was published, elites have done much to guarantee their children’s security. Namely, they have raised the price of the credentials needed to participate in the new meritocracy by such dramatic measures that it locks out a large part of the population while sending nearly everyone else into debt.

Since 2000, the average cost of tuition and fees has more than doubled, while student loan debt has grown at double-digit rates and well-paying jobs have all but vanished. Since 2001, employment in low-wage occupations has increased by 8.7 percent while employment in middle-wage occupations has decreased by 7.3 percent. The most popular industries pay poorly: According to the April 2014 jobs report, four of the top six industries that saw job creation were in the lowest paying fields. Meanwhile, in prestigious professions entry-level jobs have been replaced with full-time, unpaid internships.

Today’s youth are the best educated generation in US history. But opportunities are reserved only for those who can buy them. Young US citizens have inherited an entrenched meritocracy that combines the baby boomers’ emphasis on education with the class rigidity of the WASP aristocracy it allegedly undermined.

Read the full article, College is a promise the economy does not keep

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Minimum wage workers and the struggle to maintain

Some of you have been wondering why I’ve been writing for Al Jazeera and other outlets with less frequency. The answer is my in-depth article on the fast food workers of St. Louis, “The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back”. An excerpt:

Fast-food workers begin each week with uncertainty. They do not know how many hours they will work or when those hours will be. They do not know whether they will come up with the cash — and it is always cash — to make it to the job. They do not know if the lights will still be on when they get home. They do not know where, in a few months, home will be. They hunt for cheaper or easier or safer, knowing that to combine them is impossible.

When I ask workers if I can call with follow-up questions, they tell me they no longer have a phone or worry about wasting prepaid minutes. Meetings are canceled because the car runs out of gas, because someone’s child needs to be watched, because an unexpected opportunity arises — extra hours on the job, or a chance to do some paid yard work for a neighbor.

The paradox of poverty is that tomorrow is unpredictable but the future never changes.

The word I hear over and over is “maintain.” Krystal, a 23-year-old Taco Bell employee working 25-35 hours a week, tells me that for six months she had no gas or heat in her apartment, because she could not afford it on $7.65 per hour. She took cold showers and boiled water to bathe her six-year-old son. Now nine months pregnant with her second child, Krystal is scrambling to prepare for the new baby. She and her boyfriend, a Pizza Hut delivery driver, have a “money bag” where they put spare change in the hope of paying for laundry and diapers. I ask how she handles it all.

“We maintain, we maintain,” she says, sipping on ice chips to ease the pregnancy pain. “We have lights. We have a roof over our heads. For now.”

“Maintain” is both what you do to survive and what you survive to do.

Patrick frames “maintaining” as an aspiration. “A person who has to work with the struggle — how do you expect them to pretend everything is fine and dandy?” he says, gesturing in exasperation. “The second you take off your apron, it’s not all peachy keen. It’s fake. It’s all fake! You want me to follow the rules? All I ask for is a livable wage, something to maintain.

Fast-food workers often refer to “the struggle” — not in a dramatic way, but as a synonym for life. The struggle is what people did not know about, they tell me. The struggle is what people cannot see, even though the struggle is happening right in front of them.

Read the full article here.


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Where are the women in foreign policy? Here’s your answer, from one of them

I have a new article for Al Jazeera English on the dearth of women in U.S. foreign policy. I was originally asked to write about this for Foreign Policy, who instead last week published a piece asking where the women in foreign policy are. They asked nine people: eight of them were men.

Before that, I was asked to write about the lack of women in IR for a prominent international affairs journal. I could not accept their request to do so, for the reasons you are about to read. Below is the original introduction to the Al Jazeera piece (and the FP piece), which my AJE editor had to cut for reasons of length:

A few weeks ago, I was asked to contribute to a prominent foreign policy journal. Previous contributors include Kofi Annan, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Hans Blix. The journal was putting together a special issue on women, or the lack thereof, in international relations. The editors knew my work on the former Soviet Union as well as a popular piece I had written on motherhood’s financial toll. They thought I would make a good contributor since I understood the struggles women face in the field.

Great topic, I said. What do you pay?

Nothing, they said. We offer all our contributors nothing.

I explained that without compensation, I could not afford the childcare needed to write an article on the plight of working mothers. They said that I would get great exposure. Unfortunately, the babysitter watching my kids would not accept “exposure” as a viable currency. I suggested that childcare might be a good topic to address in the special issue. They agreed. We parted ways.

I wish this journal well on their special issue, which is indeed on a topic of great importance. The dearth of women in U.S. foreign policy is a subject of continual interest, mostly because it never changes. According to a 2011 survey by policy analyst Micah Zenko, women make up less than 30% of senior positions in the government, military, academy, and think tanks. As of 2008, 77% of international relations faculty and 74% of political scientists were men. In international relations literature, women are systematically cited less than men…

Read the rest of the piece at Al Jazeera English, U.S. foreign policy’s gender gap. Please share if you like it. People need to know.

Thank you to the readers who have supported me, which include many men. The problem in foreign policy is not men – it is misogyny. And it is rampant in journalism as well.

Update: Thanks to Atlantic Wire for naming this one of the five best columns of the day, and also thank you to the many people who interviewed me on this topic, especially Chuck Mertz at This Is Hell.

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The age of the apocalypsticle

My first article for Politico is on “disaster porn”, with Ukraine coverage as a key example:

The Kyiv protests were also starting to look like clickbait. By the end of the day on Wednesday, Business InsiderTalking Points MemoBuzzfeed and Mashable had all published their own listicle versions of what Huffington Post called “Ukraine Crisis: 12 Apocalyptic Pictures After Nation’s Deadliest Day.” High in resolution, low on explanation, the articles painted Ukraine’s carnage by numbers.

A new genre had been born: the apocalypsticle.

Ukraine has never been a country that attracted mainstream media interest. The tens of thousands of people viewing, sharing and posting photos of the Eastern European state likely had little knowledge of what Ukraine looked like before the violence—protesters are now claiming at least 100 people have died in the latest clashes—took place. The fascination of the photos is not that Ukraine no longer look familiar, but that it finally does. Ukraine looks like a movie set, like World War II, like the apocalypse. It spurs the imagination because it is real.

Ukraine looks like nothing is really supposed to look, and so no one can stop looking.

Read the whole thing: The Day We Pretended to Care About Ukraine: What does our addiction to disaster porn say about us?

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