A Response to “In Defense of Looting”

The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO is a tragedy that had obviously elicited much media coverage and discussion.

Without explanation that’s been better said elsewhere, I came across this piece, “In Defense of Looting” by Willie Osterwiel. What follows is large excerpts of it with my questions and response.

A note in general, I have a strong appreciation for radical arguments like this. I really, earnestly want to arrive at the truth. I think it is possible to arrive at the truth. As a Catholic Christian, I want to champion the cause of the truly oppressed while also keeping in mind that there is no perfect world to be had here on earth.

And given the topic, I want to remind the reader that the Boston Tea Party was itself an act of looting.

With all that being said, here follows excerpts and my objections:

The mystifying ideological claim that looting is violent and non-political is one that has been carefully produced by the ruling class because it is precisely the violent maintenance of property which is both the basis and end of their power. Looting is extremely dangerous to the rich (and most white people) because it reveals, with an immediacy that has to be moralized away, that the idea of private property is just that: an idea, a tenuous and contingent structure of consent, backed up by the lethal force of the state. When rioters take territory and loot, they are revealing precisely how, in a space without cops, property relations can be destroyed and things can be had for free.

Emphasis added. [SMP: Yes, it reveals that there is a thin line between society and anarchy, a line that we all too often forget is present. We forget how little prevents total anarchy. While it’s true that looting reveals the tenuous nature of private property, extolling looting ignores the actual human beings who own and operate the store, not to mention the human beings who developed the product. While large corporations are not free from moral inquiry, small businesses illustrate the point well. Looting violates the justice owed to the owners, workers and developers who offer their labor in return for monetary exchange. They have staked their well-being on the legitimacy of the system of buying and trading that exists legally in the U.S. One can object to this economic system, but nonetheless, the humans who participate in it have entered into it with the expectation of remuneration for services. Looting deprives them of that.]

On a less abstract level there is a practical and tactical benefit to looting. Whenever people worry about looting, there is an implicit sense that the looter must necessarily be acting selfishly, “opportunistically,” and in excess. But why is it bad to grab an opportunity to improve well-being, to make life better, easier, or more comfortable? Or, as Hannah Black put it on Twitter: “Cops exist so people can’t loot ie have nice things for free so idk why it’s so confusing that people loot when they protest against cops” [sic]. Only if you believe that having nice things for free is amoral, if you believe, in short, that the current (white-supremacist, settler-colonialist) regime of property is just, can you believe that looting is amoral in itself.

White people deploy the idea of looting in a way that implies people of color are greedy and lazy, but it is just the opposite: looting is a hard-won and dangerous act with potentially terrible consequences, and looters are only stealing from the rich owners’ profit margins. Those owners, meanwhile, especially if they own a chain like QuikTrip, steal forty hours every week from thousands of employees who in return get the privilege of not dying for another seven days.

And the further assumption that the looter isn’t sharing her loot is just as racist and ideological. We know that poor communities and communities of color practice more mutual aid and support than do wealthy white communities—partially because they have to. The person looting might be someone who has to hustle everyday to get by, someone who, by grabbing something of value, can afford to spend the rest of the week “non-violently” protesting. They might be feeding their family, or older people in their community who barely survive on Social Security and can’t work (or loot) themselves. They might just be expropriating what they would otherwise buy—liquor, for example—but it still represents a material way that riots and protests help the community: by providing a way for people to solve some of the immediate problems of poverty and by creating a space for people to freely reproduce their lives rather than doing so through wage labor.

SMP: I certainly take the point here, and certainly there are times when people need things that society makes it hard for them to come by. If a person has a just need of such things, it’s good for them to be able to get it. However, “having nice things for free” is not a viable way for society to operate. It comes directly at the expense of those who made those “nice things” available. In short, no society (neighborhood or nation-state) could exist if everyone just took “nice things for free.”

That is not to say that our economic system is perfectly just. I would not argue that ever. But however much one objects to “wage-labor capitalism,” there are real human beings involved in it, and looting (in itself) has the potential to really harm the economic well-being of a lot of people, from the store clerks to the owners.

And finally, if the value of looting lies in its ability to question and/or disrupt the “white-supremacist, settler-colonialism regime of property” (a value that it may well have), then the intention is very, very radical; more radical, I think, than the author of an essay like this realizes.

Our current regime of property relations, yes once involving the use of black persons, was built up over hundreds of years and involves far more factors as well such as the economic and political forces in Western Europe, the geographic resources of North America, the philosophical and cultural tradition stemming back to Ancient Greece. If the author is right, that the current economic system irredeemably oppresses black persons and others, that is an enormous indictment. What then would be the solution?

A total overthrow of the social order in the West? Maybe so.

The thing is, if oppression is really an intrinsic part of American society as the author claims, a society built up over hundreds of years through infinite inter-related causes cannot be “fixed” by just stopping the oppression because oppression is apparently what this society is built on. Therefore hundreds of years of development would have to be undone in order to undue the oppression.

Now, I am willing to entertain such a claim.

But still, is there not another way? Can it be admitted that black chattel slavery was indeed part of America’s economic development, but a reprehensible one. Can we make amends and learn to live together without a total overthrow of society?

I hope so.

Because I don’t think that anyone (black, white or otherwise) would benefit very much from a total revolution and descent into anarchy. Granted, the smaller societies that rise from the ashes of the destruction might be good, but that would take generations to achieve.

I believe and hope in peaceful solutions where all can benefit.

What is really at stake in looting vs. law?

In Our Children’s Orbits

I was twenty years old when it hit me that my parents were their  own full human beings, not just extensions of me.  My mom had a name, an identity and an existence before me. She was never just “Stephanie’s mom,” as my friends sometimes called her.

Of course, the ironic thing is that during my whole childhood and continuing into today, I was really just an extension of her.

To put it another way, I was a satelite in her orbit.

And as we become adults, we start to occupy our own space. Most of us leave the shadow of our parents at some point.

And then one insane day, when the world really goes topsy-turvey as it so often does in the course of “normal” life, our parents start to orbit us. They become the ones needing help, and we become the center.

A quote from the sci-fi classic Dune sums it up well. As her son comes into the full realization of his abilities and his purpose, he starts to direct her (with love of course) instead of the other way around, she “followed automatically, noting how she now lived in her son’s orbit.”

As her son awakens to his destiny as a Messiah figure, the transformation and shift in orbits is obvious. In our own lives it’s usually much less clear cut.

For me, in a large way, I feel that I started to orbit my children the moment my first son was born. I no longer live for myself because my main purposes are directed to the service of another. This is also different from the partnership of marriage.

And yet still my children obviously depend on me and I determine the whole of their lives from what food they eat, to where they go, who they meet, and how they live. So yes, they orbit me in a way.

Maybe for most of us, we orbit each other in differing ways.

It brings me to wonder how Mary and Joseph felt about raising the God-man, Jesus. When did it really hit them that he was not just a child, but the Redeemer of all humanity? What a humbling moment!

Just reflections, that’s all. The mystery of parenthood is deeper, more transformative than I ever guessed it could or would be.

I don’t know what I’m doing

Tonight I went to the First Things lecture on “The New Intolerance.” The talk was decent. The socializing was fun, which is saying a lot coming from an introvert. I saw old professors and friends and just generally chatted–which is almost shocking for me. I enjoyed dressing up, going out to a new place, hearing an intelligent talk and seeing some old buddies. I don’t get to do things like that very often.

And the reason I don’t do things like that often is because I love being a mother, and my two little ones (2 years and 6 months) need me– a lot of me. Especially because I am committed to Attachment Parenting; we breastfeed, co-sleep, babywear and the whole nine yards. And I love it. I can feel the ways that my children have transformed and are transforming my soul. I know that in many ways they force me to give up worldly striving, success, vainglory, etc.

But…

There is still a part of me that is interested in intellectual pursuits, in reading informed essays and books (and fantastical ones), in writing my take on things, and most importantly constructing an ever-growing, encompassing understanding of world (or worldview). This last one is key–I must assimilate and learn and learn and learn. Mostly I learn that underneath every rock I turn over, there is another mountain of rocks. I know I’ll never get to the bottom, but I feel compelled to try anyway.

And there is vanity in it too. I admit that I like the image that goes along with writing and studying. Yes, I like looking smart. And it’s hard for me to admit that but it’s true. This prideful, vain and ultimately sinful manifestation of “scholarlyness” is something I need to be on guard against.

Thing is, it’s vanity because I’m no world class philosopher. I know that. I’m just little old me, and I spend most of my time changing diapers, making food and feeding hungry mouths and playing.

But somehow, no matter how half-hearted, lame, dumb or vain my attempts at understanding the world are, there is value in it for me. Because when I don’t do it, when I don’t read, write and seek new information and ideas, my world starts to shrink. My mind literally feels smaller, less adept, and more fearful of the unfamiliar. It’s a terrible feeling.

So I don’t know what I’m doing. I know that most of my time is and should be spent mothering. I know I’m not a genius. I know I have temptations to vanity. But I also know that I must learn and produce my own work in order to process the world, to be happy, and to be the mother that I am called to be.

I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to structure my time around these two ends of motherhood and scholarship, which don’t always come together easily. But I have to try, I think.

Advice and personal testimonials are welcome.

4 Glaring Problems with Obama’s Remarks Regarding Stay-at-home Motherhood

In a recent address about expanding work opportunities for women, Obama said that staying home with children is “not a choice we want Americans to make.”

And sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result.  And that’s not a choice we want Americans to make.

This came as part of his call for expanded subsidized daycares and preschools. Now, I actually agree with many of his points about expanding parental leave. But nevertheless, this comment about staying home is something that needs to be addressed.

1. It would be okay if he simply said he didn’t want Americans to be pressured to make such a choice.

It’s true that we don’t want a lack of options forcing people (women or men) into something they don’t want to do. And if mom really doesn’t want to stay at home, then lack of child care is a problem. Every mother and father must make decisions for their own families and children. But if a mom (or dad) wants to stay home with the children, why would that be a choice he doesn’t want Americans to make?

2. This mentality assumes that money is the highest possible value and the purpose of life.

The answer of course is in his sentence. It’s because staying home with kids adversely affects lifetime earnings. Now this is indeed a problem if earnings and money is the highest end of life or highest goal to be achieved. But money is not the highest end, happiness is. Or so said Aristotle about this earthly life of ours. St. Thomas Aquinas amended the highest end to include eternal beatitude. Either way, money is only a means. If a choice brings happiness as such (such as the joy of raising children or family harmony), then it is far greater than numbers in a bank account.

I hope that the president of the United States does not diminish the value of life to nothing more than a monetary calculation.

3. Who is the “we” in that sentence?

He says staying at home is not a choice “we” want Americans to make. Who decides what choices Americans should make and if they are desirable or not? The President? The cabinet? The three branches of government? The intelligentsia? Who? The implication of that answer is more than a little bit scary.

4. Clearly, the “pro-choice” rhetoric doesn’t apply to all choices. Some choices are unpopular.

Mainline feminist rhetoric has long endorsed the value of “choice,” most obviously in the defense of abortion. “Choice” has also been used more legitimately in the women’s movement to affirm the value of work and of staying at home, but not in this case. This really pulls the curtain off of radical feminism and the president’s agenda. He’s not for a woman’s right to choose anything, especially not something as integral to her life caring for her children. Instead, he only supports the “right” to choose what he wants her to choose–an embrace of a particular ideology and the lifestyle that accompanies it.