More on “Entitlement”: Arguments Against Increasing Minimum Wage

I’m spending my day working on my dissertation and trying to tune out the conversations happening around me, and am having little success on either count. Building on the topics I started ranting about yesterday, though, I eavesdropped on the owners of the (small, independent) coffee shop talking to a regular about the problems with increasing minimum wage (among other opinions about the general levels of “entitlement” held by the ungrateful younger generation that made me feel stabby). The arguments they made were, to me, quite telling in exposing the problems with the whole conversation about fair compensation for work in the current economy.

They suggested that a minimum wage of $14/hour – a proposal brought forward a few months ago by a group of activist organizations here in Ontario – would be a problem because people who are currently making that amount of money would be upset that they don’t get a raise. And further, that this would mean that people emerging from skilled labour training programs would find themselves making only minimum wage, which would be inappropriate given their skills.

And that was it. Granted, it was a short, offhand, conversation among acquaintances, not a well-designed argument or essay of some sort. Still, the connections and associations that they draw in these knee jerk reactions (or not so knee jerk, since the news about the suggestion is in fact a few months old) are revealing to me. The $14/hour number was chosen by these groups because it would mean that working full time at minimum wage would put an individual at 10% above the poverty line. That strikes me as a good starting place for the discussion about what constitutes a fair wage, but the reactions are based on the perception of a slight against workers who are currently supporting themselves at this just-above-the-poverty-line level. The implication is that they wouldn’t want to be making the same amount as people who are doing lower-class work, not for economic reasons, but for reasons of pride and what they ‘deserve’ – the appropriate word there may actually be ‘entitlement’.

Now, I’m perfectly willing to also entertain the notion that people in skilled labour positions should be paid more than they currently receive, or that an increase in the minimum wage should be accompanied by some level of upswing in the wages of other workers. What intrigues me is the automatic assumption that minimum wage workers must be kept behind these others. I’m reading into this to some degree, but I think there’s a moralistic tone to it. While the advocacy group is saying that the moral social position would be to ensure that any worker putting in what we have defined as a full time work week should be able to live above the poverty line, the responses here are based on the premise that some people and positions demonstrate a superiority that must be recognized within the social contract in the form of wage disparities.

I really must consider rereading my Weber.

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Work, Life, Balance, and Not Having Any of It

There are personal reasons I’m thinking about this today, but they aren’t to be disclosed on the internet. I’m trying nonetheless to write something substantive about what those personal things are making me feel, where by substantive, I mean “something more insightful than ECONOMY SUCKS. HULK SMASH“.

The talk about “work-life balance” often floats around in discussions of women in certain types of (relatively privileged) employment, but I think about it a lot in relation to the big picture of this ongoing economic crisis. I have grown more than a little tired of those analysts and general public commentators who talk about the prospects and conditions facing the younger generation and the no-longer-so-young-at-all generation with reference to the struggles they went through back in their day. They weren’t so shameless as to freeload off their parents, they say. They were willing to work for a living, they did their time in the shitty parts of the company, they did the crappy shifts and they worked through it, and they got their reward. Refusal to recognize that it’s the game that’s changed, not the players, is no longer welcome in my earpace, virtual or otherwise. This is where I want to ask what it means to talk about work/life/balance in a context where none of those things seem available in any kind of adequate supply.

Poor pay, inhumane working conditions, unstable employment, and constantly juggling shifting schedules are, of course, not new for many segments of the population, but they are, more and more, coming to be expected for everyone. This is the outcome of the gutting of the labour movement, as my retired-steelworker father-in-law was reminding me this morning of the time a manager looked scornfully and angrily at him as he asked for certain basic conditions to be met in his workplace and said “You’re the last of the overpaid labourers”. And a decade or so later, the prediction has basically come to pass, though I’d replace a key descriptive term that manager chose to insert there.

I was trying to think about how to phrase a post on this topic that would effectively address what I am trying to say, which is mainly captured in that key descriptive term. What I find so terrifying about the current state of affairs is the way that so many of the general population has signed on to the doctrine of personal responsiblity and to the Protestant-Work-Ethic on steroids that has handed employers the power to expect a totalistic identification with one’s work and a sense that just having a job – no matter how poorly paid and no matter how mentally, emotionally, or spiritually unrewarding – is something for which we should be unwaveringly grateful. And I say this recognizing that my own hope of having a job that is in fact rewarding and stimulating is a hope borne of immense privilege. And then I came across an incredibly appropriate bit of commentary on the academic advice blog, The Professor Is In. The key bit quotes a response to an earlier article where the author talked about the economic reality facing a lot of people who are actually successful in the academic sector, which was met with comment criticizing those who would complain as “whiny and entitled”:

When did middle class become a dirty word? Why are American academics expected to embrace without a murmur the standard of living of other, less wealthy countries? Why is it somehow wrong and ethically tainted to want and expect a modicum of financial security at the end of a decade or so of advanced professional training? Why is the inevitable response to these critiques: find a different job? How have so many intelligent and educated people been so successfully indoctrinated that they’ll accept financial chaos and struggle as the ‘natural’ accompaniment of the academic career? The real financial disequilibrium of the tenure track (partic. in the humanities) is yet another layer of misinformation in the Ph.D. training enterprise, and one that like all the others is defended fiercely (especially in the humanities) so that the cult can remain unchallenged and intact.

And I would say, this isn’t just something that should be said about an academic career, though the level of expertise and education associated with that one means that it exemplifies this story to a degree of absurdity, but still – we are constantly being told that it is “entitled” to expect the kinds of wages on which a family can live, to be able to adapt to changing health conditions or fluctuations in responsibilities outside fo the workplace, or, quite frankly, to be allowed to enjoy our lives. It is a trite truism to suggest that we should be working to live rather than living to work, but even that gets absorbed into a personal advice kind of package, as though it is the fault of the individual that he or she is devoting too much energy into something that is just a job or being greedy in pursuit of just money. That article then quotes another commenter who said something very much along these lines:

When did you decide it was OK to live in a society where any job from janitor to professor did not provide the means to meet the most basic human needs of secure dwelling and the capacity to provide for a family? This is a deeply rooted structural problem perpetuated by this cult of ‘personal responsibility’ which denies the existence of society, and dictates that is your own fault if you failed to read the tea leaves properly when first embarking on your career path.

It’s not just the tea leaves that are the problem, though, as the whole structure is increasingly closing off those options that would provide a secure living. Successful prognostication about this whole thing would seem to suggest that it doesn’t matter what you pick, you’re not only going to be screwed, you’re going to be blamed for it.

I’m moving in the direction of blinding, white-hot rage again, and should probably stop before fully sacrificing coherence.

Pretending

I stumbled across an interesting list this morning, of the Top 20 Books You Pretend to Have Read. There’s not a lot of analysis included, not much wondering why people might pretend to have read books – just the vague speculation that these are “the ones we keep thinking we’ll get to someday”. And I suppose it’s a difficult question to answer from survey data, and may involve a diverse and highly personal set of reasons, but I can’t help but think that pointing towards our own future intentions and hopes is missing the mark on most of them.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s probably part of it, since those expectations of ourselves have a lot to do with our perceptions of who it is we are, but I think there’s a gulf between saying “that’s on my list of things to read” and actually pretending to have read it. They’re both about construction of identity, using books as indexes of certain types of cultural capital. That makes it interesting to see the general patterns in what specific books are on there – some are highly literary and have a reputation for being difficult to understand (Ulysses, War and Peace), while others are markers of membership in certain subcultural groups or of familiarity with major ongoing trends in popular culture (LOTR, Harry Potter, this is my only possible explanation for Fifty Shades of Gray). It also makes it interesting to think about whether it would even be possible to write a similar list about other types of media or art – I could maybe imagine a list of movies we pretend to have seen, or music we pretend to know, but I think it’s a stretch to think there would be a list of TV shows we pretend to watch/have watched. I don’t think there’s cultural capital to be gained from pretending to know the stories of Walter White, Jimmy McNulty, or Peggy Olsen, even with the general expectation in some circles that you at least know who those people are. There’s also not much to be gained from suggesting you know who won the last season of American Idol or The Voice if you didn’t actually watch – and in fact, I may even go so far as to hypothesize that, ‘golden age’ or no, there are still a lot more people who lie about not watching TV (or specific shows, or genres) than there are that lie about watching it.

Which kind of brings out a part of my point – it’s a bit of sugar coating to talk about pretending, because what we’re doing is lying. Sure, it’s a lie that doesn’t really hurt anybody, and it could be argued that it doesn’t really matter, but then why tell the lie in the first place? I say that with a clear recollection of just how much work this particular type of lie can be, because it’s not just about saying “yes, I read that” and moving on with the conversation, but about performing the identity that is associated with being the kind of person who has read X.

In 1998, when I was 18 and first moved to my university town, the kind of person I wanted to be had read Lord of the Rings, even though I hadn’t. I connected with some great people who were totally the kind of people who had read Lord of the Rings, and we talked about the kinds of things that interested us. Sci-Fi and fantasy, comic books, mythology, deeply nerdy trivia, whatever. And Lord of the Rings. We talked a lot about that, especially as the information about the movies started emerging. This made my performance especially difficult, as I had to react to each piece of casting news or rumour about plot adaptation as though I understood what was happening. What? No Tom Bombadil? I have no idea who that is, but you all seem to think it’s a big deal, so I will too. Cate Blanchett as Galadriel? I could get through this conversation based on my clarification of the differences between Winslet and Blanchett, and yes, this is the regal, Elizabeth one, not the Titanic one.

Maybe the other people who fake their reading lists didn’t make quite the same investment, especially since some of the ones on that list may have been faked for the purposes of passing a high school course. Still, as someone who has put conscious effort into moving towards authenticity, this kind of harmless-but-meaningful pretending is an extremely interesting cultural pattern.

White Resentment and Empathy

Two links posted on my FB feed yesterday nearly made my head explode. In both cases, I started to write a response calling out the racism inherent in the links, and in both cases, I ended up shaking it off, deciding that these particular incidents, in the toxic context that is a Facebook feed, weren’t worth renouncing my fray-adjacent status. I hate admitting that, even though I’m not saying these incidents or types of commentary aren’t worth caring about or talking about, just that the energy it takes to answer them in the inherently 101 at best space that is Facebook is something I rarely have.

The two stories were completely unrelated to one another, with one connecting thread – the feeling of white resentment at the recognition and discussion of non-white experiences.

The first linked to a commentary on SunNews (a horrible, tabloid media organization) about Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s new ad, with a several-hundred word analysis of the fact that this 30-second spot does not include a single white man. The author apparently demanded answers for this exclusion from the party’s representatives, and received nothing that satisfied him. He concludes that this is of course deliberate, an indication that the liberals want to portray themselves as shiny happy and diversity-supporting. You can hear the sneering and cynicism beneath the text of his entire article, and my only takeaway from it is really – so what? There were white women (several of them) and it’s not like each of the other ethnic groups portrayed were equally represented by a male and a female exemplar. Almost like white men are somehow exceptional…

The second story is far worse, and cut-and-pasted the status update discussed and dissected by Snopes here. I hadn’t heard this story, and it breaks my heart to read about such a senseless crime, but as Snopes points out in its clear, calm, fact-based way is that the connection between that story and the Trayvon Martin case to which it is compared in the chain status is quite literally non-existent. It’s a tragedy and deserves to be seen as a tragedy, but pretending that the African American community and their allies were angered by the death of Martin simply because he was ‘one of their own’, and not because of the circumstances surrounding the case itself, and everything it said about the criminalization of blackness and the depth to which that criminalization is felt within that community, in small everyday ways as well as in huge, earth-shaking and heartbreaking ones, demonstrates an appalling degree of illiteracy.

I try, in all sincerity, to think in terms of compassion for the people who say things like this, who perpetuate these expressions of white resentment. I try to see where there is real fear and real pain and real loss for them, whether it be through the loss of jobs or through the experience of tragic violence. This doesn’t excuse the illiteracy and the ignorance, the unwillingness to recognize that the very experience of resentment at these things (as opposed to the assumption of their normalcy, the built-in ways of dealing with them that are taught in the information exchanged among members minority communities) is itself the result of their whiteness. I try to think this way because otherwise, I just get angry myself and feel overwhelmed by the consequences of that resentment.

But just as it was with the Stand Your Ground laws I was talking about a couple of days ago, that degree of hostility and entitlement is foreign to me, though it shouldn’t be because it’s certainly not a uniquely US thing. I honestly want to know what it is that locks some people into that view, and what the real ways out of it are. If I’m thinking in terms of empathy, I guess the start would be to ask myself how it is that I *don’t* feel that way, but that’s a much longer post, and it is much too late to start that train.

Truth, Guilt, and Forgiveness: On Binge-watching “Rectify”

I haven’t had a chance to do a good binge-watching of anything in a damn long time, so yesterday it was kind of a treat to be able to watch the entire (6 episode) first season of Rectify while putting in a bunch of hours of data-entry that I’ve been procrastinating for about 6 months. I don’t know if it’s the best show to have binged on, or the best way to watch this particular show, but I absolutely loved it and can’t wait to see where else it’s going to go.

The whole show has a very meditative quality to it, where ambiguities abound and seem to only get bigger as you get more answers. One of the scenes in the first episode has one character assuring another simply and calmly that he will tell the truth (as a new investigation and trial into a decades-old murder case is likely to begin following DNA examination that leads to the release of the lead character from death row), and the second man asks, desperately and painfully “And what is the truth?”. The show has some of the markers of the mystery genre, as the question of whether or not the lead character is guilty despite the DNA evidence remains open through the episodes. The thing is, I sort of hope they never close that question completely, because I think this show is so much more than the mystery, and only by leaving it open can it remain that way. The story is not really about whether or not Daniel is guilty. It’s about what happens in the uncertainty, about what it means for some people, like his sister, to believe with complete conviction that he is not, and for others, like the now-senator who prosecuted the original case to fervently believe that he is. It’s about the ways that people come to conclusions about the truth – about whether Daniel is guilty, and about whether he is forgiveable and can be redeemed – using incomplete, constantly shifting information. Some elements break up the idea that it’s a binary between guilt and innocence at all, but a whole lot of messy everything in the middle, even though the law needs it to be a binary, and so many people need it to be one way or another (the siblings – Daniel’s sisters and the victim’s brother – most prominently demonstrate these needs).

I find myself thinking a lot about the title of the series, because I wonder what, exactly, it looks like to rectify a situation like this. What makes this story right? Part of that depends on that binary question – for the victim’s mother, who needs Daniel to be guilty, it could only be his death, the eye in return for the eye, or at least, she thinks that would make it more right. Assuming his innocence, what happens to the trauma of the years lost in prison? There are some beautiful details about what this experience has done to him that go along with an overall awakening-caveman kind of vibe to the portrayal – his reaction to being touched “positively” for the first time in years, his (possibly temporary) need for glasses as a result of never having had to focus on anything far away for decades, his anxiety at having to think in terms of dates and clocks again after years of doing timeless time. Not to mention the physical violence of prison, including his own experiences and the relationships he formed with other death-row inmates who were then executed. Some of the characters work to bring the questions of forgiveness into the discussion on justice and restitution, but it’s the title that strikes me most, maybe because it’s not a word or a concept that is every directly addressed.

I’ve written this review/reflection in a meandering manner, and maybe that’s the only way there is to write about the story, because no matter how much I try to think rigidly and thematically about it, my reaction thoughts snowball and fragment and become ambiguous. And then I think some more and realize that’s not just the story or this show, it’s kind of where I’m at, and it turns out there’s quite a lot of beauty in that spot.

Watching the Zimmermann/Martin Case Through a Window

There have been countless excellent essays written about Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmermann trial, but this New Yorker piece captures something I had been trying to grasp. What it says about race, and the stories that it has brought out about the experiences of young black men and the way that they fear for their lives has been a necessary conversation and one that I think a lot of white people, myself included, have benefited from hearing (President Obama’s recent statement was an excellent example of this, and a few weeks ago the comments by LeVar Burton about the ritual he goes through whenever he is stopped by police in order to ensure that he will not set off any alarms of suspicion was a smaller, yet also very powerful contribution to these conversations). Those are experiences that I would not know about without being told, because that’s what white privilege does, and while I can never say I understand them, by listening to those voices, the emotions and activities that they produce, the lives that build up around them come into sharper focus. 

This has not been how I have read and reacted to the rest of the case. Leaving aside Zimmermann’s individual personal fear and entitlement, the fundamental principles of the law that led to his acquittal is something completely foreign to me. The Stand Your Ground law is, to me, so obviously a recipe for violence of exactly this kind that I cannot fathom the series of decisions that went into it. This is where the article is useful:

This violence-encouraging doctrine has persisted, and so, too, has the reasoning of the judicial decisions that established it. There is no invocation of natural law; the argument isn’t that all men have an inherent right to kill when threatened. The appeal is, rather, to a kind of implicit cultural law: it is not in the American character to retreat.

It’s not in the American character. These colours don’t run. Stand Your Ground. I need the historical context offered in that article and others like it to understand not just the racial component of this story, but the violent one. I think it’s harder to find personal stories that reflect the ways in which this concept has structured lives, has led to changes in behaviour or emotional perspectives, because it’s a somewhat subtler, but equally pervasive, frame.

Hearing Things

One of the special features of our on-its-last-legs car is that we have no capacity for audio. Radio, CD, MP3 options, all dead. It becomes a special treat, then, to carefully choose some music to listen to when I have reason to be driving another car.

A week ago, I was visiting my mom and dug out an old CD I had burned for her one Christmas about 10 years ago. As I was re-appreciating all the songs I had once liked (and sometimes shaking my head at my early-20s tastes), I found myself hearing one song as though for the first time. Not that I didn’t remember the song, but that as I heard the lyrics, I realized that ten years ago, I had completely missed their meaning. Not in a subtle way where the implications of the poetry were lost on me, or in a never-really-stopped-to-think-about-it kind of way, either. It seems that I had somehow heard the chorus and not bothered to listen to the verses, which frame the content of the chorus in a completely different light. And suddenly the song hit me with such force that I almost had to pull the car over because I couldn’t stop crying.

Somehow I had completely missed the verses when they didn’t apply to my life, and only heard them now, when they do. I said in my last post that I’ve been resistent to the idea that having a child has changed me, but it has. Things are still the same all around me, but I hear some of the ones that I ignored or somehow missed before. I don’t know what that means for what and how I can write now. I’m hoping that stopping to listen will help me find out.