The Supposed ‘American Dignity Of Labor’

One family dinner a few decades ago, my brother and I made one of our usual smart aleck remarks about how it would be nice if our monthly allowance (or ‘pocket money’ as we called it in those days) were increased by our parents. My mother shot back with a quick, “Yes, and it would be nice if you boys did a honest day’s work to earn some of that pocket money!” When we responded, “But what kind of job would we do?” my mother supplied us with a list that included sweeping floors, taking out the trash, washing the family car and the like. In response, we continued along our utterly clueless path by making disparaging noises about how that kind of work was not what we wanted to do. My mother’s demeanor changed as she shot us the dirtiest of looks. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of work, and we should have been happy that we were being given a chance to earn our allowances. She suggested we were spoiled and needed to rent a clue. (Or words to that effect.) And then, she continued in an even sterner of voice, “Do you know what children in America do? They work during the summers when they are off school! They do part-time jobs, and they don’t care what kind of work it is; they don’t turn up their noses at work! It’s not like around here [in India] where everyone seems to have a high and mighty attitude about what kind of work they consider appropriate for themselves. In America, there is dignity in labor!”

My mother was hectoring us because she knew of the snobbishness of the Indian middle-class, its elitism, its unredeemable arrogance about menial professions and ‘humble, low-class’ work. She was right, of course; we were children of the middle-class and we had absorbed all of its lessons quite well. Domestic help, the sweepers and janitors, the folks who pumped gas at stations, the shopkeepers, they were all beneath us precisely because of the work they did. And here was my mother, reminding us that in that magical land called America, where things were so much better than they were here, in this chaotic land of never-ending dysfunction, one key differentiating point was that its people respected work, no matter what it was, and who did it. That’s why it was so prosperous and powerful. So she thought, and so we believed. Many American myths traveled quickly; and they endured well.

There were many disillusionments waiting for me in America. Among them was a rapid dispelling of the very notion of an American dignity of labor. Here there was shaming aplenty of those who were ‘flippin’ burgers and servin’ fries,’  pumping gas at stations, cleaning toilets, taking out the garbage, washing dishes–or just plain doing ‘minimum wage work.’ It didn’t take me long to cotton on to this fact; my first job was washing dishes in the cafeteria, and by the end of the semester, ironically, a complete reversal had taken place. I didn’t mind telling other international students–including those from India–that that was how I was making ends meet; they knew what had to be done. But I was always mortified when I told my American friends about it. I had begun to doubt they would see any ‘dignity’ in my ‘labor.’

The Fragile Digital World Described By Zeynep Tufkeci Invites Smashing

In “The Looming Digital Meltdown” (New York Times, January 7th), Zeynep Tufekci writes,

We have built the digital world too rapidly. It was constructed layer upon layer, and many of the early layers were never meant to guard so many valuable things: our personal correspondence, our finances, the very infrastructure of our lives. Design shortcuts and other techniques for optimization — in particular, sacrificing security for speed or memory space — may have made sense when computers played a relatively small role in our lives. But those early layers are now emerging as enormous liabilities. The vulnerabilities announced last week have been around for decades, perhaps lurking unnoticed by anyone or perhaps long exploited.

This digital world is intertwined with, works for, and is  used by, an increasingly problematic social, economic, and political post-colonial and post-imperial world, one riven by political crisis and  economic inequality, playing host to an increasingly desperate polity sustained and driven, all too often, by a rage and anger grounded in humiliation and shame. Within this world, all too many have had their noses rubbed in the dirt of their colonial and subjugated pasts, reminded again and again and again of how they are backward and poor and dispossessed and shameful, of how they need to play ‘catch  up,’ to show that they are ‘modern’ and ‘advanced’ and ‘developed’ in all the right ways.  The technology of the digital world has always been understood as the golden road to the future; it is what will make the journey to the land of the developed possible. Bridge the technological gap; all will be well. This digital world also brought with it the arms of the new age: the viruses, the trojan horses, the malwares, the new weapons promising to reduce the gaping disparity between the rich and the poor, between North and South, between East and West–when it comes to the size of their conventional and nuclear arsenals, a disparity that allows certain countries to bomb yet others with impunity, from close, or from afar. The ‘backward world,’ the ‘poor’, the ‘developing countries’ have understood that besides nuclear weapons, digital weapons can also keep them safe, by threatening to bring the digital worlds of their opponents to their knee–perhaps the malware that knocks out a reactor, or a city’s electric supply, or something else.

The marriage of a nihilistic anger with the technical nous of the digital weapon maker and the security vulnerabilities of the digital world is a recipe for disaster. This world, this glittering world, its riches all dressed up and packaged and placed out of reach, invites resentful assault. The digital world, its basket in which it has placed all its eggs, invites smashing; and a nihilistic hacker might just be the person to do it. An arsenal of drones and cruise missiles and ICBMS will not be of much defense against the insidious Trojan Horse, artfully placed to do the most damage to a digital installation. Self-serving security experts, all hungering for the highly-paid consulting gig, have long talked up this threat; but their greed does not make the threat any less real.

On Being A Bully

In the long list of personal moral failures for which I will have to atone, participating in schoolyard and dormitory bullying–even if only briefly, and in attenuated fashion–must rank among the very worst. The only exculpation I can offer in my defense is that I was young, but all bullies in school are; I’m afraid there is little room for forgiveness here. More to the point, I’ve never forgotten the stricken look on the faces of my victims; they will haunt me as few other memories of mine do. I remember both their names; I hope they’ve forgotten mine.

In the fifth grade, my class included a young boy who seemed ‘different’ from us; he dressed a little oddly, spoke in a slightly different voice. He was, in short, a ‘painted bird.’ His minor dissimilarities, his tiny quirks and idiosyncrasies, were enough to produce an avalanche of ridicule directed at him. I watched all of this with a bemused air; I had suffered from some bullying myself earlier, and I knew I didn’t like it. I sympathized with him, but I did not intervene. Neither did I join in. And yet, watching his watching his trials and tribulations did not make me more sympathetic to him, more eager to come to his aid; instead, it seemed to produce a weakening of my moral fiber. One day, in the schoolyard, as we milled around in the break, the hazing grew worse; my classmates seemed to be taking turns in harassing the kid. And then, finally, I snapped; caught up in the madness, I laughed at him, pushed him around, I joined the gang for a little bit of fun. Fortunately, he ran away, off to a distant corner, seeking relief till the bell announcing the end of the break rang. His expression that day jolted me out of my brief exultation; I knew what I had seen, and I knew it was not a feeling I would ever want to be subjected to. I never harassed him again; at year’s end, I changed school and never saw him again either.

In the ninth grade, shortly after I had begun what would turn out to be a two-year stay at a boarding school, I found another ‘victim’; this time, a youngster who had become the target of choice for those in my dorm. He was a ‘freak,’ a ‘weirdo,’ his pinkie finger, thanks to an old injury, standing upright and provoking peals of hilarity; no one spoke to him, and the few interactions he had with others seemed to be dominated by mockery and ridicule. Again, less honorably, trying to fit in, trying to make new friends, trying to show I belonged here, I joined in; it was how I thought I would show I could hang with the rest. My joining the gang of his tormentors only produced a hurt look or two from this youngster; he had, after all, stayed out of the fray when I had been hazed on my arrival at the boarding school. I was a bully and an ingrate, a thought which soon brought an end to any participation in bullying on my part. I retreated, chastened, alarmed by my failure of kindness.

These transgressions were perhaps minor, but they still serve to induce shame; I was often bullied and assaulted in school; the thought that I could ever have done anything to create a similar atmosphere of terror for another youngster filled me with despondence then, and it still does. Now, as a parent, I await the higher grades for my daughter with some trepidation; she will face challenges considerably more onerous than mine. I can only hope she does not encounter too many folks like mine who lost their bearings along the way.

Shame, Rage, and Fascism

Jonathan Lear, in the course of a memorial address to the American Philosophical Association–dedicated to Bernard Williams–noted:

For Williams, shame needs to be conceived in terms of its inner psychological structure, in particular, in terms of internal objects and our relations with those objects. The basic experience connected with shame is of being seen in some kind of bad condition by an observer whose judgment matters. But: ‘Even if shame and its motivations always involve in some way or another the idea of the gaze of another, it is important that for many of its operations the imagined gaze of an imagined other will do’. This is what is involved in shame’s being an internalized emotional capacity, not merely an occurrent emotion in childhood in embarrassing circumstances.

Now, if shame is to function as a complex psychological phenomenon and if it is partially constituted by the imagined gaze of an internalized other, then we will have to admit that this internalized other is, to a significant degree, operating unconsciously. For we need to account for more than the relatively simple phenomenon of consciously experienced feelings of embarrassment before the consciously imagined gaze. In particular, we want to account for experiences that we take to be shame-filled, though they are not consciously experienced as such.

From there on, Lear is off and running, as part of his establishing that:

Williams’ approach to ethical life requires that we turn to human psychology; and the form of psychology required will have to be of a broadly psychoanalytic bent.

The unconscious operations of shame, of course, are of especial interest to therapists and their clients because of their peculiar and particular phenomenological manifestation: feelings of shame are visceral, tinged with a sense of abject humiliation, which, if not allowed to find expedited expression, may be directed outwards in ways intensely damaging to not just the subject but to those around him. Shame is intensively corrosive.

So shame and rage often go together. No one, it seems, is quite as angry, violent, or  murderous as the shamed one. When those feelings congeal into the  basis for a political ideology, they can become more broadly dangerous.

Fascism thus begs for psychoanalytic investigation; some of its central claims–like those of an imagined glorious past, lost to the machinations of a devious Other–rely on the creation of a social and political superego that instills shame in its adherents. The world becomes a stage populated by reminders and monuments of this humiliating defeat, grinning and leering from every corner. The associated shame is relentless in its invidious presence; the only escape from its sensations is a removal of those objects–humans included–that offend. Mere removal will not do, of course. The sensations of shame might only be assuaged by violent, destructive actions.  These become even more frenzied when it is realized that, shamefully, the Other was never a worthy opponent, never one that should have been victorious. The more this inferiority is emphasized, the greater the shame, the greater the rage.

It’s not just ethical life that requires a moral psychology with a psychoanalytic bent; so does politics.