• Researching Around the Surveillance State

    Last month in the New York Review of Books, historian Natalie Zemon Davis wrote a short essay about her experience with the FBI in late 1952. Upon returning from France, where she was conducting archive research for her PhD thesis, this happened:

    Not long after my return, two gentlemen from the US State Department arrived at our apartment to pick up my passport and that of my husband. A publication event had brought them to our door. Early in 1952, I had done the research for and been major author of a pamphlet entitled Operation Mind, which reviewed past interrogations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and urged readers to protest as unconstitutional its announced visit to Michigan. (In 1954, when the Michigan hearings finally took place, students did in fact protest on campus.) The pamphlet was issued in photo-offset, without the name of author, but simply listing two University of Michigan campus groups that had sponsored it. Whatever local readers thought, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was not pleased with Operation Mind and sent its agents to the printer, who obliged with the name of the treasurer of the campus organization that had paid the bill—that is, my husband. The seizure of our passports was one of the consequences.

    I was devastated, heartsick, by the loss of my passport. I had counted on getting back to the archives in France not only to finish the research for my thesis, but for any future work I hoped to do on my new path of social history. (Remember in those days there was no web, no digitization, and not even microfilms of most documents.)

    Natalie Zemon Davis

    The FBI visit had left her cutoff from the archives she needed to finish her dissertation. She had only partially finished her research and it isn’t hard to imagine the panic she must have felt. But, Davis turned the blow from the FBI that could have derailed her career before it started (no doubt their intention) into a lever to broaden and deeper her research.

    But wait a minute! Those sixteenth-century Protestant books and Bibles, made by the workers on my three-by-five cards, were available in American rare book libraries. I could find traces of printers and other artisans and much more in the pages of these books and their marginalia; even their bindings held treasures. The FBI could keep me from France, but not from the New York Public Library or the Folger or the other great rare book collections in the United States…

    This episode also expanded my notions of human response to situations of constraint, both my own and that of people in the past. I realized that between heroic resistance to and fatalistic acceptance of oppression, there was ample space for coping strategies and creative improvisation. Much of human life was and is carried on in this fertile middle ground.

    Given the recent dusting off of the Espionage Act by the Obama administration and the NSA disclosures, the Davis essay is well worth your time. Consider it a bit of counsel and hard-won wisdom for conducting research in an age of surveillance.


  • Is Your Class in the Way?

    By: N. Jeanne Burns

    Fortune cookie image


    A few weeks ago at the YWCA Midtown I sat outside the gate to cool down from my run. I scrolled through Twitter posts about the Dunn trial and read about whites fearing blacks. Then I heard the desk clerk say, “You can only use your driver’s license three times. After the next two times, you won’t be admitted until you get a new YWCA ID.”

    I looked up and saw two black women walk toward the locker rooms and I said to the clerk, an older white man I’d seen there before, “Really? That’s the policy?” He nodded yes.

    “Because I lost my YWCA ID and got in with my driver’s license for WEEKS and was never challenged.”

    “I guess you’re just likeable,” he said.

    I was stunned. I surprised myself and went on.

    “But I’m white. Those women were black.”

    He got flustered, defensive and then said, “I’m offended. I’m not even going to talk to you about this. Not at THIS institution.”

    After calming down a bit, he asked for my last name. When I asked why, he said he wanted to see what other privileges I’d been given, as if it were a problem with me personally. I certainly didn’t do anything wrong. Eventually he asked who was on duty when this happened, but since I go every other day, I’ve gotten checked in by many different people. No one person is to blame here, I don’t think.

    I see the trust I got over and over again (by people of all races at the YWCA) as integral to the system that demonizes black men by making me as a white woman as trustable. If we can’t talk about race openly, how are we going to undo it? If an institution that I’ve witnessed doing work around race is replicating this system in small ways (and maybe big), what hope do we have for the future of racial justice work Minneapolis?

    I also see the problem with talking about race openly. Middle class people avoid conflict and value their own individual place in their work, communities and world over justice.

    In Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America, author Barbara Jensen talks about the language differences between middle and working class people in Chapter 3: Belonging vs. Becoming. She says she found that the two classes used the same language for different purposes:

    “The middle class groups used language and discussion to think and argue, to display their individual ability, and to uncover differences of opinion and debate them within the group. The working class groups used language and discussion to find agreement within the group and to connect emotionally with one another.”

    And that “…middle class language and culture tend to promote individual achievements and competition between outstanding individuals, or people who ‘stand out.’ Working class language and communities tend to recreate values of social connection, solidarity and mutual aid.”

    Yes, in the moment I thought at the YWCA that I could find agreement with staff, find a source of solidarity; I thought that they’d be well-trained in open dialog about race, that they’d understand what I could see.

    Now I understand that what I thought was just stating a fact was challenging his individual ability. He then sought to find ways to reaffirm his individuality and uniqueness.


    Barb Jensen’s emphasis in Reading Classes is about the inequality in schools because of some of these differences. But I wonder if social class gets in our way in addressing race and racism. Specifically, if the middle class way of communicating, which is highly valued and rewarded in our schools and organizations and companies, is keeping race and racism a quiet topic of discussion instead of an opportunity for solidarity and mutual aid.

    I mess up all the time around race. Recently I posted an article on Facebook about the Minnesota Supreme Court striking down a law that would incarcerate parents who refused to pay court-ordered child and spousal support. I was outraged. But a friend posted a comment reminding me about the “justice” system that unfairly targets men of color and poor people, and how that law has been used unequally. I was embarrassed that I didn’t think about race when I read the article, but I didn’t take her comment personally. She was direct and plain speaking. And I thanked her, remembering that we are on the same side, that we both want justice for families AND for people of color, that it’s not one thing or the other. That we do have a lot in common on the issue. That we are on the same side, even when I fail.

    I know a lot of white people who care about race and racism. A lot of those people are middle class.

    Is your class getting in your way toward doing something about it?


  • How Working at a Community College is Like Working Retail

    Adjuncts Unite

    Expectations are a pain in the ass. There’s an old saying, “plant an expectation, reap a disappointment.”  Yep I did it, planted and am now disappointed. I teach Sociology at a rural community college; I love teaching, but I don’t love that adjunct teachers like me are temporary, at-will employees.

    Who knew that the working conditions at a community college would be the same as they were when I was a bookseller, housekeeper, caregiver, fast food worker, and waitress? How did I wind up with the part-time shift again, scrambling for hours (classes) so I can keep up with the fuckin’ bills?

    Go ahead call me naïve, I was. I was warned by my profs in my grad program about the local community college, “they never keep the good people,” one of them said. “That’s the ultimate system of social reproduction,” said another. I liked the “good people” comment and was determined to be a “keeper.” Naïve me, I assumed that education was going to be a different sort of work environment, that it would be more fair and equitable than the crappy low-wage service jobs of my uneducated past. It’s hard not to laugh at me cynically and with sadness; perhaps some understanding as you read this. Now I know that labor practices at a community college don’t differ much from what they were at Barnes and Noble–my last job before entering the elite world of the professional middle class.

    To illustrate it’s important to note that labor costs comprise the biggest chunk of a business’s expenses; a community college is the same, the fewer benefits and salaried hours paid out the better. In California, adjunct faculty earn about 56 cents on the dollar of a full-time faculty, don’t have benefits, and don’t take up a lot of space except for the classrooms where they do their work; more adjuncts = massive salary savings. Moreover, limited access to resources creates competition, fear, and resentment among employees very similar to what I observed about the divisions amongst the retail employees that worked either full or part-time at Barnes and Noble.

    This division benefits the community college (and business) because conflict among the ranks prevents employees from noticing their exploitation. In an academic workplace adjunct faculty manage an inconsistent status, having power and authority in the classroom the same as their tenured peers while also aware that they lack benefits and are working out of their cars instead of offices. This is where labor practices differ. At Barnes and Noble a low-ranked bookseller with limited responsibilities got paid accordingly; at the community college however, all of us faculty share the same level of responsibilities, but 70% of us are paid a pittance in comparison to our tenured peers. Adjuncts are a secret working poor (we know but students and non-academics do not), and we earn anywhere from $13,000-25,000 a year (and that’s an estimate, many earn less and few earn much more). In my last year at Barnes and Noble I earned $23,000.

    The common piece of these not-so-different work environments is the fact that we serve “customers.” Faculty dislike being asked to call our students customers, but its part of the new business-tinted lingo of the community college, one that sees students as consumers of a service. It makes me feel like I should thank them for “stopping by” during office hours or tell them to “have a nice day” when they leave class. These days, receiving professional development trainings in customer service skills is the sort of silly bullshit that proliferates at institutions like mine. They (the students) aren’t fooled and neither are we (the faculty). It feels phony just like it does at Christmas when an exhausted clerk wishes you “happy holidays” because their manager gave them a script that they are required to follow.

    The inequity itches at me, I went back to school to get away from these types of labor practices. Teaching at a community college is cool, but the working conditions suck and should make anyone think twice. I have no regrets, but I also have the privilege of no regrets; I don’t have children or a mortgage – and besides, I’m working class, I’m used to this.


    *Above image by H.E. Whitney. Click this link and follow him on twitter.


  • Money Changes Everything: The Ascent of Walter White

    “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it, and I was alive.” –W.W.

    I had to wait until the finale of Breaking Bad but at last, Walter White admitted that he was in to the meth cooking for the money. I’ve been frustrated since season 3, by that time the whole, “I’m doing it for the family” thing seemed like a bunch of baloney, the manipulative excuse of a mediocre middle class guy in the throes of power grabbing; a chance to feel “alive” after a lifetime of playing it safe for fear of what “might happen, might not happen.”

    Walter is a man who has lived his life the right way: nice family, secure teaching job, steadily paying off the mortgage of his suburban house with the pool. Nevertheless, it is not enough to make ends meet and in addition to teaching, he works a crappy second job cashiering at a car wash. Like many middle-class folk, he is one medical diagnosis away from financial ruin. When we meet Walter, he is drowning in the bills he can’t cover and his wife Skyler is pregnant with their second child.

    Then he gets the diagnosis. Walter White’s American Dream is dead. This is where I pause to mention that capitalism has a funny way of exacerbating human frailties. Walt’s frailty—his decision to cook meth—is born from his inability to face his death and the steadfast belief that he can control the situation. Like a dark Horatio Alger, Walt takes the bad news with a stoned face determination to fix it through self-reliance and industry. After shuffling along feeling safe and secure in his middle class life, cancer gives Walt a reason to try and a reason to take risks. The fact that the risks Walt takes are deviant and immoral is irrelevant in TV-land, and the popularity of the show is because Walt comes to embody a lot of the suffering everyday people experience.

    These days it is hard to make ends meet, healthcare in the U.S. is a vortex of pain, and the myth of meritocracy has never been more obvious. Walter is a common man who gets pushed to the dark edges of his own self because these days success based on honest achievement is hard to reach, and talent is no guarantee of economic security. Walt did everything he thought was right but knows his death will send his family down the class ladder, a fate worse than cooking meth. Twenty years ago, this story line would be unthinkable but it reflects the insecurity of these times, the sense of economic fragility so real for working and middle class Americans.

    This is what resonates with Breaking Bad, the sense that a semi-schmucky guy on the losing end can be good at something and still make it, never mind the illegality and the extreme selfishness of his actions. Walt is successful in the meth market because his product is the best and he knows it. He ascends to power and in this, loses the fear that had plagued him his entire life; cancer changes him into a vicious, striving capitalist: “What I came to realize is that fear, that’s the worst of it. That’s the real enemy. So, get up, get out in the real world and you kick that bastard as hard you can right in the teeth.” In a culture that feels less like the land of opportunity, Walt makes it big as a meth cook and he earns respect for his skills, respect that Walt feels he deserves. It is about him and his needs. In the finale, he dies with a smile on his face, not because he provided for his family (though he has), but because he died a powerful man.

    ***Breaking Bad was in the news recently when corporate toy store, Toys R Us pulled action figures off their shelf’s on an “indefinite sabbatical.” A Florida mom created a Change.org petition citing that the toys were unsavory because the Walter White figure comes with a tiny bag of blue meth, and the Jesse Pinkman with a meth-cooking mask. In a store that sells Friday the 13th Jason action figures complete with a tiny ax and an assortment of toys from the violent (and entertaining) Game of Thrones, it begs the question as to why. In the age of a failed drug war and conservative politics however, this action says so much about fear and hypocrisy in the U.S.. I personally own a Walter White action figure and was surprised that Toys R Us was selling them in the first place. If you think about it, there’s a lot more to be scared of than a few fictional action figures, have you ever walked down the pink aisle at Toys R Us? Now there’s some violence!