In this episode of teleSUR’s The Global African, host Bill Fletcher, Jr. looks at the U.S. budgetary process and the resentment directed towards a 13-year-old African-American female athlete
BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll discuss the current budget talks in the United States, resentment towards a thirteen-year-old black girl. That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us. Don’t go anywhere. ~ It’s that time of the year again, when Congress and the White House attempt to pass a budget for the coming fiscal year. The budget process has been very contentious in recent years, and 2015 looks to be no different. Congress, controlled by a very mean-spirited Republican Party, has crafted yet another series of budget proposals that would seriously hurt the poor and working classes. The proposals include significant cuts to nutritional programs, Pell Grants, a full repeal of Obamacare subsidies, privatization of Medicare, and potential cuts to social security. Spending cuts weren’t for everyone, however, as the Pentagon saw a large increase in funding to its already bloated budget. Budget analysts predict the proposals will result in more poverty, millions of people losing their insurance, and yet another transfer of income to the super-rich. The White House’s version of the budget doesn’t look very promising either. While the administration proposes a few modest increases to social spending, this level of funding pales in comparison to public demand. A majority of people in the United States support an aggressive jobs program targeting environmental and infrastructure needs, cuts to defense spending, taxing the rich, and more funding for education. What will it take to transfer public demand into legislative action? How do we counter the right wing’s assault on poor and working-class people? ~ We’re joined today with our panel of Dr. Tara Bynum and Dr. Lester Spence. Dr. Bynum is a native of Baltimore and assistant professor of English at Towson University. And Dr. Spence has returned to join us, an associate professor of political science in Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University, where he specializes in the study of black, racial, and urban politics in the wake of a neoliberal turn. Welcome to the program. DR. LESTER SPENCE, PROF. AFRICANA STUDIES, JOHNS HOPKINS U.: Thanks for having me. FLETCHER: As we were chatting earlier, I’m struck by the audacity of the Republicans. It doesn’t seem like they can ever–I don’t know why I’m not entirely surprised; at the same time, I’m stunned by the level of audacity in terms of the pushback. I mean, when people have said that they want to repeal the 20th century, I mean, that is exactly how it feels. I mean, what’s your take on these negotiations, or so-called negotiations? SPENCE: So I think what’s going on–it’s helpful to think of what the Republicans are doing as kind of a construction project. Right? And by that I mean that by their budget, by their public policy, by their rhetoric, they’re in the process of trying to create both the nation and the citizens that they desire. Right? So let’s talk about what’s going on in the budget. More than $2.9 trillion in health care reductions for low- and moderate-income people, $3.7 trillion of the cuts are going to be on the back of low- and moderate-income people. Whether you’re talking about food stamps for the poor, you’re talking about Pell Grants for students, or you’re talking about health care, [or] you’re talking about potential cuts in Social Security that they don’t really talk about, what they want to do is they want to drive home the idea that government doesn’t work, right, that government cannot be used for anything but defense and wealth production in, like, kind of upwards wealth distribution. And one of the ways you do that is by kind of cutting programs that are designed to help people, to the point where they’re small enough that they can be theoretically drowned in the bathwater. And then what that does is it forces people like us to kind of divide ourselves into two populations, one very small population that’s able to kind of work within the cuts and become entrepreneurial and hustle and grind their way up, and then this larger population that basically has to suffer. FLETCHER: Either of you see the film Elysium, with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster? SPENCE: Yeah, I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m familiar with it. FLETCHER: It basically posits a future where the super-rich have created this satellite that orbits the Earth that is like a paradise. And that’s where they live. And the rest of the population of the planet lives on an Earth that’s been ecologically destroyed, it’s very impoverished, and where there’s a very high-tech military operation to keep people down. And I thought, in science fiction there are these themes that have been emerging–you see it also in The Hunger Games and some other things–that really speak to that kind of dystopian possibility, which, when I look at the Republican budget, it feels very much more like a reality. DR. TARA BYNUM, ASST. PROF. ENGLISH, TOWSON UNIVERSITY: Well, it reminds me–and I can’t remember the name of the movie–the Justin Timberlake movie, where wealth was connected to time. FLETCHER: Time. Right. SPENCE: Oh, yeah. BYNUM: And–. FLETCHER: In time, I think it was called. BYNUM: Yeah. And there were parts of the plot that were more than mediocre, but I was fascinated by the idea of connecting wealth to time. And there was this entire region of the nation that was on borrowed time, quite honestly. So to think about this idea of genocide and this science fiction, I don’t know that that was necessarily the most sci-fi movie out there, but it was clear that because there were people quite literally on borrowed time, genocide was the kind of subplot of that, and the possibility that those folks on borrowed time, once their time was up, were absolutely expendable. And there were all these toll roads to get more wealthier or more, I don’t know, timely regions. So I do think that there’s something to that. And it’s been kind of by way of teaching that I’ve thought a lot more about the possibility and potential reality of genocide, almost in the way that my students where conceptualizing the world around them, and their sometimes inability to understand where social problems may exist, even, and because of that inability to bear witness to it, like, somehow knowing that they would be compliant with great ease. SPENCE: A couple of my friends, a friend of mine who’s an activist in Detroit, just published an anthology dedicated to Octavia Butler’s work, in part because she sees science fiction as a way for us to kind of imagine other alternatives that we can generate movements towards. And it’s funny, ’cause I think the Republican Party has a very clear, futuristic sense that’s backwards, but they kind of know what what their future looks like. Again, it’s a construction project. The way, the reason it’s able to be so effective is because institutionally speaking, the country’s districts, the country’s congressional districts are all gerrymandered in such a way where over 90 percent of incumbents are reelected, right, and very rarely do–and Republicans dominate, I think, maybe 30 out of 50 state legislatures who draw the district. So part of it is institutional. FLETCHER: It seems to me that there are key elements within the Democratic Party that in the 1980s embraced a good part of the economic agenda of the Republicans. I mean, people like Bill Clinton embrace neoliberalism. And, I mean, they have a different take on it, but it’s essentially embracing privatization, shrinking the public sector, I mean, a number of things, so that as a party it certainly hasn’t been a stalwart in terms of resistance. There are certain people, like Elizabeth Warren, that are ready to tackle them. You have Bernie Sanders outside of the Democratic Party ready to tackle. But look at the number of Democrats that seem to be prepared to muck with Social Security. I mean, this is unbelievable. I mean, Social Security, when they talk about Social Security has a problem, if you remove the cap from Social Security, there’s no problem. SPENCE: There’s no problem at all. FLETCHER: Right? SPENCE: That’s right. That’s right. FLETCHER: But almost no one is raising that as an issue. SPENCE: Yeah. FLETCHER: I don’t know. SPENCE: Sam Huntington writes a book called The Crisis of Democracy in the early ’70s. FLETCHER: Samuel P. Huntington? SPENCE: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. FLETCHER: Yeah. SPENCE: Yeah. And The Crisis of Democracy basically argues that our democratic problem is that if we get too many people participating, then they’re going to want too much stuff, and we’re not possibly going to be able to accommodate their interests, so we need to kind of truncate, you know, put kind of constraints around democracy. And we see that at the city level, we see it at the nation-state level in the developing nations and as we see that here. And I think that’s part of what’s going on. I think part of it is that whether it’s Obama, whether it’s Clinton, the people who control the Democratic Party are not really interested in full participation. But I don’t think that fully explains it, because I’m no supporter of neoliberalism at all, but as you know, you can actually make a neoliberal argument against Republican cuts. FLETCHER: Yes. SPENCE: Right? BYNUM: I think that it’s turned towards this–we are better than the Republicans because we are somehow way more more inclusive speaks to, I guess, the problem that I’m understanding by way of Samuel P. Huntington or how you’ve characterized Huntington’s work. The Democratic Party is kind of in the position to cater to this huge swath of people that can’t necessarily be catered to. And as a result, there is a risk aversion that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to actually countering the Republican Party. SPENCE: If you look–if you were to take the Republican–average income of the average Republican and congressional representative and you take the average income of the Democratic congressional representative, I don’t think you actually see that much difference. I think both of them represent wealthy, this very thin slice of the–they represent what we now call the 1 percent. FLETCHER: Yeah. SPENCE: So to that extent, part of what’s going on is that even to the extent you have some moderate Democrats who understand, for example, like, cutting Pell Grants means that some kids aren’t going to be able to go to college, there is no visceral connection. For them that’s kind of an abstraction. FLETCHER: So we’re going to take a quick break. So don’t go anywhere, and we’ll be back in one moment. ~ And we’re back with our panel with Dr. Tara Bynum and Dr. Lester Spence. Well, let’s switch to this–a very different kind of story, this young African-American woman, 13-year-old Mo’ne Davis, who is in my sport, baseball, and comes under this vicious assault when Disney suggests that they’ll make a movie about her. And this–a whole series of things I started thinking about in that. One is race and the other is gender. There’s been just this incredible misogynist assault on Twitter against women that speak up, and almost regardless of what they’re saying. And then you have this racial assault. And I was wondering how you look at this and why would people make this 13-year-old girl the target of such vitriolic rhetoric. BYNUM: Well, I think that the word that strikes me is Twitter, and Twitter, I think, ends up kind of being, like, another way to, I would suggest, speak about social media. And I think that there’s something decidedly powerful about how many people get a voice by way of social media and by way of the internet. And I think that what it has exposed is, like, an ongoing problem with black women and girls that black women and girls of course have known about for a long time and maybe black women and girls of spoken to others about. But now that there is this platform to kind of hear masses of people speak about what happens to black women and girls on a regular basis–and I think it ends up being very jarring to see the way that this community is consistently spoken about, imagined, and framed. And I think that the fact that Mo’ne Davis is 13 makes it all the more jarring. qq FLETCHER: It’s not just blacks. I mean, think about this whole Ashley Judd issue. SPENCE: So what Twitter allows for–and Twitter, I’ve just–and you’re right– FLETCHER: Social media. SPENCE: –when you say Twitter when you’re talking social media in general–it allows not just for people to have a voice, but it allows for a certain type of anonymity, right, where you’re kind of able to cloak yourself. And then it becomes this funnel for this, for all this visceral hatred that then is shunted towards people who in many cases can’t defend themselves. And then that’s where I think the race and gender come into play, ’cause you’re–I think you’re absolutely right that there is–I mean, hell, I’m a comic bookie. They changed–Thor is now a woman. And when they made Thor, the God of thunder, into a woman, all of a sudden there was this massive backlash, like, oh my God, Thor is a chick, what are you talking about? Right? And it’s–like it’s a comic book character. FLETCHER: Right. SPENCE: Right? FLETCHER: Right. SPENCE: But the difference is that black women and black girls are often in the position where they can’t necessarily defend themselves, even when they have voice, right? So it becomes kind of the popular culture version of what happened with welfare reform, right? So, for example, you can imagine. So when Clinton–talk about neoliberal term–when Clinton repeals welfare, basically using black women as a vehicle to do so, black women who are single mothers who are on welfare, they can vote in a lot of cases. They can go to their representative. But you can imagine them doing so. But because their own representative has so much derision for them, right, has so much hatred towards them, that they can’t actually–they can speak out loud, but their voice doesn’t mean anything. That’s what happens with black women and black girls. And that’s why what happened to Mo’ne Davis is part of a larger puzzle, but what happens with them is very particular in their relative inability to defend themselves. FLETCHER: You know, one of the things–one segment of this that I’ve been thinking about for a while–and it relates to a point that you were making, Dr. Spence–is what I call the Wizard of Oz phenomenon that exists with social media. Right? And it’s something that I noticed first with some people that I liked, which is behind the keyboard they were like,–. SPENCE: Gangster. FLETCHER: That’s right. They were, like, horrible. And then you pull them out from the keyboard, and they would be like teddy bears, right? Shy and nice, and you want to just hug them, right? And there’s a way that behind social media, people–you were saying about the anonymity that people are allowed, you know, sort of to mix metaphors, the monsters from the id are allowed to emerge and just simply run wild. BYNUM: Yeah. I think the technology ends up being the mediator or, like, the space in between. So even if, you know, I’ve seen you in person, I’ve met you on Twitter, we might exist, despite the fact that I’ve seen you in real life, something about having my computer and my phone and having the words go out somewhere and they magically appear somewhere where we can all see them, I suddenly forget that you are a human being. FLETCHER: That’s right. That’s right. BYNUM: So I mention you in something on Twitter and I’m talking trash, like, I feel empowered to do that because I don’t have to look into your eyes and see you as another person. I can just click send— FLETCHER: Absolutely. BYNUM: –and the magicians of the internet take it somewhere. And if you don’t like it, well, I’ll get re-Tweeted. FLETCHER: Right. Exactly. BYNUM: And that’s what I live for. FLETCHER: Exactly. SPENCE: Yeah. Right. And then there’s the political economy of it, right, where this thing generates its own energy and it generates its own clicks and it generates somebody paying, and then somebody writes it and then it gets fed back. I mean, Britney Cooper has to spend a significant amount of time, I imagine, kind of just dealing with all the hatred she consistently gets. Right? And she’s a columnist and a professor and just a person, right? But you have to have a very, very–the type of character you’d have to have to be able to consistently deal with those assaults. It’s, like, nobody’s business. So there’s an economic process that kind of drives this and then crystallize it and generates a feedback loop off of it that we haven’t quite figured out how to deal with or even understand. FLETCHER: So we’re going to take a quick break. ~ And we’re back with our panel. SPENCE: There’s a problematic way, I think there’s a way that those of us on the left, that we have to have a set of conversations and kind of think about what quote-unquote real politics is versus what the virtual politics is. And that’s kind of another conversation. But we can say that talking about this–so we started with the budget. We can say that the budget is real politics. But this isn’t real politics. But the reality is is that when you’re reading that stuff–that–I mean, it really does have an effect on you. It really–seeing that stuff really has an effect. And if there is a group of people who get that more than others, right, that is, if in this case black women and black girls get that type of thing more than others, that actually generates a type of virtual unsafety, right, that makes virtual space an unsafe space. And actually are real effects that we have to think about politically. BYNUM: And the results also end up becoming real as well. SPENCE: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, yeah. That’s right. BYNUM: So it’s not just about a virtual lack of safety. But because of the virtual trolls, there’s a way in which someone’s job security can be threatened or, you know–. FLETCHER: Physical security. BYNUM: Yeah. SPENCE: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. FLETCHER: Yeah. Well, then what we do about this? I mean, I like to–I’m always looking for solutions, right? So what do we do? What do we do when this young 13-year-old is attacked like this? Because what my experience is is that most people of goodwill that I encounter essentially throw up their hands and say, nothing can be done, that’s just sort of the way life is; whereas the people on the other side, the right wing, seems to always figure out ways of mobilizing, you know, when they’re feeling that they’re under assault. So what do we do? What we do? I’m waiting for the answer. BYNUM: I know. I know. I’m thinking of a good one, I hope. I think that one of the first things that comes to my mind–and this is just, obviously, the beginning of a thought: it’s to have the response almost prepared somehow and a willingness to not engage in a back-and-forth necessarily, but I think about kind of Ashley Judd initiating some kind of action. And I think that the idea that one puts up one’s hands and steps away, like, that’s not quite it. But if there was a way to generate a question in response or some kind of engagement that doesn’t necessarily accept as fact what has been said but is willing to begin to question, you know, I think that that is the beginning of something. And even if it’s from person to troll or thinking bigger about our own relationship to social media and better understanding, you know, why is it that our first go-to is to pick up the phone and to look through it mindlessly? What is that about? I asked a student of mine this the other day during break in class. She immediately picked up her phone and went to Instagram. And I said, why is that interesting? And so she started explaining social media to me. I was like, oh, I must finally look– SPENCE: Like you didn’t know. BYNUM: –oh, like that’s good. So it was like, I’ve heard of Instagram, I have heard of these things that you’re using; why is it interesting? And she had never thought of it before, which makes sense given her age, given the fact that she’s grown up with social media. But I think that all of us need to begin to have a better sense of our own intentionality with these machines that we are with so often. Like, what is it that we are seeking? What is it that is entertaining about looking at somebody else’s pictures or even responding to someone else’s life? Like, what is it? And I don’t necessarily have an answer to that, but I think we need to begin to have that conversation. SPENCE: Oh, another colleague of mine just wrote a book about shame, about kind of shame as–about shame as it connects to racial politics. And I think that we should think about–well, first, it’s important to note that people are organizing, right; whether it’s people like Brittany Cooper through Crunk Feminist Collective, there are a number of people that actually are organizing, on social media and off, against issues like this, under the general rubric that black women’s lives matter and black girls’ lives matter. Second, I think that in addition to kind of teaching folk–like, I don’t actually have a cell phone; I have an iPad, but I don’t have a cell phone–just kind of teaching folk kind of how to wean themselves off of some of this stuff is a good look. But thinking about the tactical deployment of shame, whether it’s the–whether it’s an issue like the budget or it’s an issue of somebody basically going off on a 13-year-old girl, like, how do we kind of–how do we use shame to actually generate a proper discourse and then also an alternative politics? So in this case, basically identifying the people who do it and then just making–and shaming them into saying, okay, wow, this isn’t something that’s appropriate. I mean, so here’s a way to think about it. I mean, I don’t know–I’m willing to bet even the most racist mom in the world will say, like, no, you shouldn’t be picking on a little 13-year-old girl. Like, who would do that? You know what I mean? And it’s about kind of figuring out how can we tactically use shame in this and other circumstances to kind of create kind of, like, a protective wall around people like Mo’ne, and then also to kind of, again, pose another alternative politics? Like, how should we treat people online? How should our house budget look like? FLETCHER: Well, listen, I want to thank you both very much for this discussion. This has certainly given me a lot to think about, and I certainly hope that it’s done the same with our listeners. So thank you both. SPENCE: Oh, thanks again for having me. BYNUM: Thank you. FLETCHER: And thank you very much for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you soon. Take care.