Friday, April 1, 2011

An Economy of Disease and Dis-ease, or The (Self-) Hate that Hate Produced

Bitter earth
What fruit it bears.
What good is love
That no one shares?

If you know the famous Dinah Washington (or early Aretha Franklin) rendition of "This Bitter Earth," I hope that you won't think the jurisdiction a lovelorn song covers only a black woman singing the blues about some man. For these kinds of songs ("Please Send Me Someone to Love" comes to mind as well) speak of more than the romantic pair, they express a broad-based longing to matter, to be worthy of protection, consideration, care, and remuneration on this earth, in one's own society. We can begin, then, not with eros, but with agape....

Last night, I thought I'd catch up with my favorite Fake News hosts, and so I watched several episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart  and The Colbert Report in succession. Hulu is a heluva drug. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health appeared on Tuesday's Colbert Report to talk about epidemics. Declining to predict the newest pandemic, he instead reminded viewers of an older one that has not disappeared, discussing the high rates of seroconversion (HIV infection) among African-Americans and sub-Saharan Africans. The reason? While mentioning lack of health care and education--even dropping the charged word "disenfranchised"--Fauci gave the most airtime to a cultural explanation. The "black community," he lamented, stigmatizes gayness more than does the white community.

I ask, in all sincerity, Am I Missing Something? I know that I am a Humanities scholar. I work with logic, text, documents, and interpretation--not with alleles, centrifuges, statistics, and standard deviations.* Since I don't use focus groups, I can't even claim to be in the social sciences ! However, even allowing for the fact that Fauci probably has a more precise way of presenting these variables and causal relationships, something smells illogical in the Hermeneutic Circle...
I might have been a mathematician, but for the Miseducation of This Negro, which I detail, in part, below

1) Is there reliable data suggesting that black queers find stigmatization from homophobic black people less common and hurtful than being stigmatized, ignored, or maligned by white people, queer and otherwise? (This is not to even begin the comparison of the occurrence and impact of intimate violence--likely from a black neighbor--with those of state-supervised violence including police and prisons--not to mention the slow violence of persistent deprivation).

2) Do white people really talk about themselves as comprising a 'white community' comparable to what they imagine as The Black Community? Despite the widespread use of the phrase 'black community,' there is certainly no unanimity of opinion among us on any issue--including the existence and extent of racism. Still, the notion of a 'black community' is slightly less fictive than a white one because segregation, even in suburbs, tends to group us with each other rather than as individuals. You might say we often share space and predicaments, if nothing else (Angela Dillard almost commiserates with black conservatives who--while attempting to argue that other black people exaggerate racism to excuse their own laziness--find themselves with no explanation but racism to explain their own marginal position within the Republican party).

3) As I recall, black women were among the most likely groups to seroconvert in the US. Even if every single woman who has contracted HIV slept with the proverbial down-low brother (which would only be possible if AIDS were a "gay disease"), that would still make homophobia an inadequate explanation. Fauci would still have to account for the incidence of high-risk behaviors in heterosexual coupling. I fear that we would hear the conjoined twin of "black people are more homophobic"--namely, "black people believe in more traditional gender roles." Funny, how does that belief (often expressed) square with the persistent accusation from white observers that black people lack traditional family structures? At this point, I'm shaking my head and referring you to any competent black feminist thinker.

I know that I've been on about homophobia for some weeks now, and I shall MOVE ON DOT ORG (after slipping in the last piece already in the pipeline). However, tonight my target is not homophobia. I'd like to think instead about the economy of stigma. One tends to think of the causes and effects of stigma in an emotional register: disgust prompts rejection, resulting in alienation. Like the scarlet letter, stigma seems a mere affixation-- insulting and shaming, to be sure, but with little material effect. It is a label to be applied or removed. Stigma, one is told, has nothing to do with salaries, credit ratings, and joblessness. Similarly, disease--especially when sexually transmitted--would appear a simple consequence of behavior. Don't screw (around... too much); don't suffer. But any practitioner or patient will tell you that the preservation of personal health can hinge on available monies and administrative decisions--a truism that does not depend on how one fell ill.

Simplistic accounts of stigma and disease create an interesting parallel between the 'cultural' explanations for black poverty and the 'cultural' explanation for poor health outcomes in black communities.

According to the 'culture of poverty' dictates, the black 'community'--however its borders are defined--produces homophobic stigmata entirely of itself. Black homophobia springs, like Athena, from a communal black brain. It is merely a belief, a disembodied conception with no need for the nutrients supplied by an umbilical cord . In this myth, the growth and impact of black homophobia do not vary with policy funding faith-based institutions and governing school curricula, media content, access to counseling services, sexual education, and prophylactics. Seroconversion becomes a simple result of a black cultural belief system that does not value health, sexual propriety, financial responsibility, or most other civic norms.**
**That sounds like Paris Hilton to me... So why has she not (to my knowledge) seroconverted? 

To get away from these curiously detached sociological myths, to recapture the interconnectedness of culture, politics, and economy, I try to imagine the other life I might have had. This alternate story is all the more pertinent since, with my Obama-accented English and PhD, I am a person who would be touted as a success story of an increasingly colorblind America (Pardon me. It was "colorblind" in my youth. I know we have traded this term for post-racial, which means precisely the same dishonest thing). Yet, not much would have had to go awry in order for me to have gone to jail rather than to Yale--well, to the Harvard of the Midwest. Go Bears!

Let us begin this alternate adventure at the first event that made me an Angry Black Man™. In the second grade, the teacher and principal at the expensive-ass private elementary school my parents were paying for told me that I wasn't the gifted mathematician my 100% average said that I was. It is not hard to imagine that (if my parents hadn't the resources to switch me to another private school) the daily migraines and corked frustration that threatened to explode my head would have led me to reject school. Rather than a blackademic, I would have been at least a truant and, most likely, given the devil's delight at the sight of idle hands, a delinquent. 

Statistics show that, unlike my peers in wealthier neighborhoods, I would have been more likely to be stopped, frisked, arrested, and incarcerated--even without cause. If I wound up in the 'justice' system in Florida, I would have lost my right to vote as a convict. If incarcerated in New York state, despite the fact that it would be difficult for me to vote in my home district, I would have counted toward the population of the majority-white area in which I am imprisoned, strengthening their representation in legislature and their capacity to lobby for more prisons, prisoners, and attendant jobs in their region. 

If I had been convicted unjustly, or incarcerated comparably longer than a wealthier white person who committed a similar infraction, my capacity to vote the bums out would be sorely limited not only by my criminal record but by my lack of a stable mailing address with which to register. I do not doubt that I would, today, feel hopeless in the face of economic and police forces that make decisions in venues to which I have little (and lessening) access--except, perhaps, as a janitor or caddy. 

People tormented by internal demons commit suicide. Is it truly surprising that people who have the additional burden of legitimate paranoia commit the various small acts that amount to playing craps with their lives?

I suppose that if one ignores these trends in post-civil rights America, then high-risk sexual activities are simply a problem internal to the ethnic enclave of the black ghetto, the consequence of their backward ideas and utterly inexplicable penchant for destruction of self, neighbor, and communal space. But from what sources and events might they have determined that their lives are not worthy? Is it so inexplicable, to devalue one's own life when one's country has done it so thoroughly?

Might it be that a fitting analogy for high-risk sexual behavior among the unemployed and disfranchised of the inner cities is the susceptibility to alcoholism on Indian reservations? I can't say for certain, because my parents (due in part to the GI bill and the governmental push for affirmative actions to stimulate hiring of nonwhite persons) had both the financial basis and the optimism to raise me in hopeful circumstances. However, in my estimation, the cultural failing, the stigmatizing of others, the loathing of the self are "the hate that hate produced."

After journalist Mike Wallace interviewed Malcolm X on a news special with this incendiary title, "the hate that hate produced" became a popular way to describe the alleged hatred of the Nation of Islam for European colonists and white American segregationists. But what I am getting at in my title is the (self-)hate that hate produced. This might be seen as the response of a colonized or conquered people who know that Dickens's Scrooge articulated their identity and the fate of the involuntarily idle with cold precision:  "If they would rather die, . . . they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." Though never stated now so baldly, this is undoubtedly the public message marginalized people receive. Anything to the contrary is likely a precious private utterance, from a religious figure, a parent, a committed teacher, a fierce friend, or a media figure who is meaningful but untouchable.

By contrast, typical middle-class parents shuttle their children from location to location where authoritative voices shower them with (sometimes unearned) praise, proclaiming that they matter, that they are their own unique and special snowflakes, that God smiles on their perpetually innocent souls, and that their country--even the wide world--will fete them with palms when they emerge from their cocoons as glamorous, productive, necessary butterflies. But both major parties in the US are currently in agreement that average Americans can no longer expect this trajectory, trending ever upward. 

In these four decades of stagnant wages, economic bubbles, downsizing, and outsourcing, white people--increasingly of the professional class--have lamented the death of the(ir) American Dream. Former upper-level managers work the sales floor at the GAP or greet shoppers at Wal-Mart, making a fraction of their former salaries. They look at themselves--in their own eyes, and in the eyes of their families and neighbors--and they fail to see a person of worth reflected back to them. (Please forgive the descent into the heart-tugging 'example' so common in today's political speeches). 

If this is the situation in the neighborhoods where credit was bountiful and real estate values could be counted on to increase in perpetuity, how much worse must the situation be in those locales that were left to rot after the 1960s riots? 

I don't think that even the most conservative of readers would agree that a strong message of the person's intrinsic worth is conveyed by word or deed in the ghettoes and barrios or on the reservations. But the same anxiety and dread gripping the middle class has been a constant (and, if it can be believed, worsening) presence among people who have far fewer resources. Thus, while the middle-class spends its remaining credit on psychotherapy and Prozac, the poor self-medicate. While the children of the middle-class thrill-seek by drag-racing at perilous speeds, the poor engage in risky sex that requires no more material than they truly own, that of their own bodies. ** (See comments)

In his masterpiece Six Degrees of Separation, John Guare noted that an urbane art seller is not 'rich' but lives 'hand to mouth on a higher plateau.' With the crumbling of this plateau (or with its maintenance secured only through a wager on the future made with creditors), I fear that the (self-) hate that we see stimulating self-destructing behavior will only increase... That is, until we get out of our own heads enough to ask, with Cole Porter, "why the gods above me... think so little of me" to value my life--our lives, our futures, our safety and our health at such a pittance.

Think what you may of him, this was precisely what Michael Moore discussed in his visit to Colbert Wednesday night. To be honest, I cried--the few tears of disappointment I can squeeze out before returning to the stoic demeanor appropriate to the dusky realism of adulthood. I cried because I have tasted more than I'd like to stomach of what it means not to be valued. I cried because I know that others have had access only to the kind of nourishment offered by Hansel's witch or the golden arches, empty calories that fatten only to kill. And I cried because the current Republican party seems to have nothing substantial or sustaining to offer as they devalue--in every sense of the word--the contributions and worth of the living, working members of this society, as they leave surplus bodies hanging, "a fruit for the crows to pluck...  for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for a tree to drop." 

Although it may be said the Republicans have a love affair with the fetus, the best they seem to have to offer those of us in the world is a very bitter Tea to accompany the fruit of the dead.  

And if my life is like the dust
That hides the glow of a rose
What good am I? Mmm.
Only knows.
Bitter earth....

Heaven only knows? Then, as Stevie sang: Heaven help us all.


  1. ** I realize that this portrait is too stark. Poor people have cars, and teens from well-off families engage in high-risk sexual behaviors. My goal is simply to try to account for different manifestations of the same dread across the class spectrum.

  2. "It sounds to me like the vaccine is to be a rich white person." --Colbert

    Nuff said.

  3. Interesting read, and you won't find too many of my militant friends that disagree with you. Stigma like the one you mentioned, make me realize how fortunate I am. I'm from the middle class, and I had a parent who constantly told me how good I was. Ultimately not great for the ego, but it's better to have self-esteem at an early age than to "know" you aren't worth anything.

    It's a tough situation indeed, because I cannot empathize with those individuals whose lives are not valued. Sympathy is cool, but understanding means so much more and I'd be lying if I said that I truly understood.

    One thing that shouldn't surprise anybody, is that those in power tend to care about themselves. Honestly, it's not just the Republicans. On the surface level, it is very easy to distinguish the two agendas and label one as aiding and the other as self-serving, but then ask those who "aid" what they're truly willing to sacrifice to help others less fortunate.

    At the same time, I don't think you've properly addressed the inherent racism that exists in many American people. Yes, you've addressed the directed bigotry. But what about the individuals who truly feel that their life is worth more and that they're entitled to priviledge because of the color of their skin? I don't know, maybe that's the point you were making with the problems the middle class is currently facing.