Other People's Precarity

 

In 1969 Pittsburgh Courier cartoonist Sam Milai published a political cartoon, “September Morn,” a riff on the Paul Chabas painting that depicts a young woman bathing nude. The erotic painting positions the viewer as voyeur who looks on her without her consent, the beauty of the image implicating the viewer taking pleasure in the woman as object.  In contrast, Milai’s figure is well aware that she is the object of a gaze. Her vulnerability is signified by her fully visible breasts as well as by her disturbed and direct look at the viewer. The vulnerable female figure is the embodiment of Civil Rights for African Americans, and she is surrounded by what Milai understands as undermining the possibility of black freedom and futures. The phrases “Nixon Administration,” “White Backlash,” and for the moderate Milai, even “Black Power” surround her body and threaten the status of African American citizenship. Given that Milai works for a black newspaper, I’m always struck by the question of who the audience interpellated by the image is. While Chabas conventionally hails a male gaze, Milai’s figure is the black body politic and the cartoonist may be holding up a mirror. Look, he seems to be saying, at the precarious position of our community. The Civil Rights Act did not eliminate our vulnerability.
 
These are two depictions of the ways in which a subject can be vulnerable, one unknowingly, one with full consciousness. Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism compellingly argues that an unknowing precarity is impossible in the neoliberal world order, that everyone has become aware of their vulnerability to a number of contemporary realities that impact the opportunity for the “good life.” There are some people, like African Americans, who have never known a moment in the history of U.S. culture in which precarity was not part of their identity as citizens, although the period following the formal legal gains of the 1960s, along with the early days of Reconstruction, are two moments in which many African Americans may have dreamed of escaping their status as citizens-at-risk. While many individuals have surely succeeded, we’ve seen again with the election of Obama that in moments when equality looks possible success mobilizes racial retrenchment. African American insecurity has played an integral role in the white will to power. Perhaps other people’s precarity has always been important to the American Dream. While it is ostensibly about everyone having the opportunity to have a good job, buy a house, have a family with children who surpass you in their achievements, and become anything you desire, doesn’t the mythos also require that some people do better than their neighbors?
 
But perhaps doing better hasn’t required the vulnerability of the white nuclear family, since the precarity of people most like the idealized citizen in the romance of America threatens that romance. Berlant suggests that what is striking about the present moment is a willingness to incorporate precariousness into the everyday, reworking “insecurity into our ongoing present.” In 2009, a number of conservative politicians have been producing rhetoric that recasts precarity as both a right and an obligation to the state.
 
When Wisconsin legislators Glenn Grothman and Don Pridemore proposed legislation stating that single parenthood led to child abuse, the thrust of it was a critique of the “choice of women” causing a “huge change.” The empirical data clearly doesn’t support the claim that single parenting leads to abuse, but they scapegoat women who are more vulnerable because they refuse to acknowledge the failure of their own economic and social policies which do not support U.S. citizens. At the same time, the Right has been chipping away at one of the principle advances in women’s rights in the twentieth century — the legal and safe methods to control reproduction and family planning which increased their economic and bodily security.
 
The precarious woman is thus a necessity in contemporary conservative rhetoric. The state celebrates middle-class white women who must contend with unpredictable childbearing, in fact, increasing their birthrate becomes an obligation to the state. In contrast, the childbearing of poor and working class women is depicted as threatening the nation. Patriarchal retrenchment, like racial retrenchment, is an unsurprising response to women’s success, but it is also a response to their greater vulnerability.
 
Another way that Other People’s Precarity has been integrated into the state is through the everyday nature of it. As Berlant explains, when poverty and violence are ordinary and not an event, activists have a harder time selling an urgent need for political response. In this logic, the poor and violence will always be with us. But precarity can become an event when different groups of people become victims to the same thing.  When James Holmes killed twelve people and wounded fifty-eight others in a Colorado movie theater on July 20, 2012, it received a great deal of media coverage. By the end of that same month, 300 people had been murdered in the city of Chicago in just over half the year, some of them small children, the vast majority of them African American. The national press treats the violence affecting the inner city as ordinary, while mass shootings now possess the strange status of ordinary EVENTS. While many people simplistically blame the Chicago murders on an absence of black values in the inner city, a number of sociological accounts can attribute the crimes to a complex brew of multigenerational poverty and lack of educational and employment opportunities. While by no means easy, addressing the “ordinary” requires acknowledging the historical, systemic disinvestment in the perpetually precarious African American population. The loss of African American potential has become so everyday that a small population mourns the horrific numbers of the dead.
 
Of course, ordinary EVENTS become tragedies.  The entire nation is supposed to grieve. But in these contexts the victims of a precarious world are not conceived by the Right as inevitable victims. NRA proponents suggest we would all be safer packing concealed weapons. Ironically, that is the startling antithesis of safety for many people. While they depict carrying guns as the right to safety, might we also see it as treating precarity as foundational to American life? The popular constitutional discourse of the second amendment hinges on the idea of protecting the home from the state. This strand of NRA rhetoric was not foundational to the organization, so its development over the course of the twentieth century is the cultivation of a rhetoric of citizens in danger.
 
But conservatives have most clearly integrated precarity into their platform with their resistance to the Affordable Care Act. The freedom to be uninsured and thus to be vulnerable to sickness and death from treatable illnesses has been described as a constitutionally protected liberty, a previously unstated penumbra.
 
stein comic
 
  copyright Ed Stein (http://edsteinink.com).

 
Though John Roberts was the surprise Supreme Court swing vote supporting the ACA, popular conservative discourse still supports choosing precarity as a right. And it is precarity — not sickness — that conservatives are embracing. The at-risk-for-illness citizen is mapped onto a broader discourse of people who are strong enough to stave off illness, to choose insurance when they need it, all for the greater good of a capitalist health care system.
 
Precarity is really part of the fantasy of American exceptionalism — we’re tough enough to withstand hardship, and it is only those other precarious people who remain vulnerable, or break, who aren’t up to the challenge of being Americans. Precarity has always been with us in discourses about the good life and the American Dream. This dream, a relatively recent concept in U.S. history, has precarity at its foundations — the fantasy that free market capitalism will always protect those who work hard enough, an investment in property-owning that depends on significant debt, and the investment in an educational system that, despite claims about merit, so often rewards accidents of birth. The precarious woman, the murdered, and the sick body are simply the most powerful contemporary manifestations of rhetoric about America and its Others. Through profound repression, some poor and working-class white people work against material self-interest in order to maintain their self-image as strong precarious subjects. Some are waking up from the dream, but for many, the Other can never be ourselves.
 

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