Insecurity and Inequality

  • A long NYT piece about the US economy, feeling bad, inequality, and insecurity;
  • Shorter items about hearing dialogue in movies; the latest anti-woke tantrum; and that “First they came for…” poem.

Here’s a big piece in NY Times, that could be about the necessity of everyone wanting *more* all the time — always comparing themselves to the neighbors, always needing to update to the latest model or version — to keep the capitalist economy going. Or it could be about how inequality is driven by how Republicans keep cutting taxes for the wealthy, over and over. (Because the Republican party is financed by oligarchs.)

NY Times, guest essay by Astra Taylor, 18 Aug 2023: Our Economy Thrives on Bad Feelings

Since 2020, the richest 1 percent has captured nearly two-thirds of all new wealth globally — almost twice as much money as the rest of the world’s population. At the beginning of last year, it was estimated that 10 billionaire men possessed six times as much wealth as the poorest three billion people on Earth. In the United States, the richest 10 percent of households own more than 70 percent of the country’s assets.

Such statistics are appalling. They have also become familiar. Since it was catapulted onto the national stage more than a decade ago by Occupy Wall Street, “inequality” has been a frequent topic of conversation in American political life. It helped animate Bernie Sanders’s influential campaigns, reshaped academic scholarship, shifted public policy, and continues to galvanize protest. And yet, however important focusing on the inequality crisis has been, it has also proven insufficient.

If we want to understand contemporary economic life, we need a more expansive framework. We need to think about insecurity. Where inequality encourages us to look up and down, to note extremes of indigence and opulence, insecurity encourages us to look sideways and recognize potentially powerful commonalities.

If inequality can be captured in statistics, insecurity requires talking about feelings: It is, to borrow a phrase from feminism, personal as well as political. Economic issues, I’ve come to realize, are also emotional ones: the spike of shame when a bill collector calls, the adrenaline when the rent or mortgage is due, the foreboding when you think about retirement.

So yes, about inequality, and its consequences. The writer takes a moment to ponder existential insecurity.

Of course, living with uncertainty and risk is nothing new. How should mortal creatures who have spent our long evolution struggling to survive feel but insecure? The precarious and unpredictable nature of life is what helped inspire the ancient Stoics to counsel equanimity and Buddhist thinkers to develop the concept of Zen. A kind of existential insecurity is indelible to being human. It stems from being dependent on others for survival; from being vulnerable to physical and psychological illness and wounding and the looming fact of death. It is a kind of insecurity we can never wholly escape or armor ourselves against, try as we might.

So this is a writer capable of appreciating human evolution and deep history (unlike conservatives who resort to Biblical parables). But then turns to the structure of society.

In different ways, political philosophers, economists and advertising executives have pointed out how our economic system capitalizes on the insecurities it produces, which it then prods and perpetuates, making us all insecure by design. Only by reckoning with how deep manufactured insecurity runs will it become possible to envision something different.

It goes on, with great examples and insights. In a sense this, as everything, *is* political, because by raising awareness of how the society you live in functions – awareness beyond taking it for granted because it’s how you grew up – you can become a more conscious adult and make decisions that are yours, not those that society is pushing you towards. Here’s one more example of how certain political groups drive insecurity.

Across the world, the far right has gained ground by speaking directly to atomized and isolated people’s anxieties, and by offering scapegoats: immigrants, Muslims, Jews, Black people, trans people, women seeking abortions. Too often, insecurity fuels the embrace of social hierarchy and domination. What more tempting solution to a discomfiting sense of insecurity than donning a mask of superiority and invincibility? Thus some people denounce “snowflakes” who need “safe spaces” while taking shelter behind bigotry, puffing themselves up by mocking fragility and denying their own vulnerability. In these cases, it’s not enough to point out that such individuals are often more privileged or better off than others — to emphasize inequality. Insecurity is about feelings as much as facts.

I admit to being fairly secure at this stage of my life; I am ‘privileged’, first of course because I’m a white male, in a society where white males still have implicit advantages over all others. My partner and I live in a beautiful house with a beautiful view, our needs covered by my pension and his income, with family support (on his side) around the bay. We may not be in the top 1%, economically speaking, but we’re well within the top 10%. Yet I’m aware of the drivers of capitalism that may inadvertently drive insecurity. So I try to stop us from buying more stuff, unless we absolutely need to. We have enough stuff. Instead, I read more books, seek out new experiences (within my health limitations), and I pay for the news and entertainment I consume, to avoid excessive exposure to advertising. (When I’m watching TV and have the remote, I mute the commercials. Even so, some of those have become ear worms. Ironically, without remembering what was being advertised.)


Shorter items.

NY Times, tech columnist Brian X. Chen, 17 Aug 2023: Can’t Hear the Dialogue in Your Streaming Show? You’re Not Alone., subtitled “Many of us stream shows and movies with the subtitles on all the time — and not because it’s cool.”

I’ve done this for years, and thought it was just me. For the same reason I’d prefer not talking on the telephone, but communicating some other way. I don’t trust my hearing, or simply cannot understand some things when I hear them. I’d rather see the text – the subtitles, the email, the DMs.


News from the fringes.

Salon, Amanda Marcotte, 14 Aug 2023: Newest “anti-woke” tantrum: Right-wingers don’t think kids of different races can be friends, subtitled “A bizarre racist outburst at a Texas school board isn’t an isolated event — it’s part of a national pattern”

Are these isolated instances I shouldn’t pay attention to until they become national trends? Well, but remember “First they came for the…”

A famous phrase in many variations and expansions. It seems to go back to a reflection on complicity with the Nazis. Wikipedia: First they came …

For example, from a version that circulated in the US in the 1950s.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The US right-wing MAGA folks are coming after more and more of us. Perhaps only straight white Christians are safe, because everyone else is steadily being deemed inhuman, by being written out of history and social discourse. See: Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four. See: Florida. *This* is American’s decline.







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