Deserving a Life

Over the last couple of months, I’ve had a number of ideas and concerns banging around in my head, clamoring for expression in some kind of post. They’re difficult thoughts because they have largely to do with my brother and his recent passing, so I’ve been reluctant to sit down and do the hard work of putting them down on the blog. In addition, I’ve been focusing my energies on getting over the last major hurdles of my PhD program before I can start the research phase. Now that I’ve done that (and also have tentatively secured funding from the NSF for the research I want to do), I have a little space to start working through these issues in the way that has always worked for me – through speculation and writing.

Basically, my concerns revolve around the question, “did my brother deserve to die?” It’s a harsh and a hard question, I know. And of course my answer is that he didn’t. But the fact is that we live in a world in which people’s individual choices are the basic moral determinants of the value of one’s life. Tim drank excessively, used illegal drugs, choose to work in a harsh and unforgiving field, and chose to neglect the illness that would ultimately take his life. That is the narrative that this world understands and accepts. It doesn’t matter that he was overworked, underpaid, had no health insurance, was often mistreated by employers, had no time or money (because he was overworked and underpaid) to go to the doctor or ER, and was ignored and ultimately misdiagnosed by the doctors when he did go. Those factors come up – obviously if he had been properly diagnosed he would still be alive, if he had had proper health care he might have been better taken care of, if he had had a stable job and better pay he would have had the time and money to go to the doctor – but in the end, it always comes back to those bad choices that he made.

I don’t want to downplay those choices. Tim could have taken better care of himself, could have done any number of things to get out of the harsh world in which he was living. He stayed because he loved what he did, enjoyed cooking, cared about making people happy, and generally wanted to be the best chef he could possibly be. So when you tell me that his choices were what ultimately lead to his death, what I hear you saying is that my brother deserved to die. It reminds me of Donna Haraway’s injunction in When Species Meet – the basic moral imperative underlying her approach to life and the relationships we have to others (human and nonhuman alike): Thou Shalt Not Make Killable! These explanations for my brother’s death that revolve around personal choice and not around the social and structural causes that are at their base, they make my brother killable. They tell me that his death was the inevitable consequence of the life he lived.

It makes me wonder, what would the world look like if we didn’t base the value of an individual’s life on the choices that s/he makes. What would happen if, instead, we started from the assumption that everyone deserves a life regardless of the choices they make – if no one could be made killable? Would we work to ensure that everyone has the basic necessities of life – health care, food, shelter, education, etc.? Would we care less about the choices people make and more about the people themselves? Would we fight the forces that would deny people the life that they deserve? I would hope so. If that were the case, I’m sure my brother would be alive today.

Dark Earth Day


Earth Day is one of those times when – as an environmental advocate and anthropologist – I feel compelled to write something. Today I’m not going to write something new, because I can’t top this post from last year (really? I thought it was farther back than that). Here are a few excerpts:

The Earth is not your mother – is not even feminine.  The Earth is multi- and transgendered.  The Earth is queer.  S/h/it is a monstrous assemblage… no, a teeming mass of myriad different kinds of flesh intertwining in a terrifying and beatiful orgy – a consummation that is also mutual consumption.  We emerge within this teeming mass more than we exist upon it…Our bodies are as much the flesh of the Earth as are the rocks, the trees, the water, and the animals.

Earth Day is a dark holiday.  It is a reminder, not of the beauty of nature or the miracle of life, but of the horrors that we have wrought upon the rocky surface of this planet: decimation of forests, toxification of water, nuclear explosions, transformation of the atmosphere, mass genocides, and so on. Earth Day emerged from the recognition of these horrors just as the pilgrimages to war sites – the Nazi concentration camps, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, the Twin Towers, etc. – emerge from the recognition of horrifying events that took place in those places.  It is a day, not for remembering a utopic vision of a harmonious world that once (but never) was, but one for recollecting (a more appropriate term than remembering), for contemplating, for praying, for making right, and for imagining a world that could be.”

Earth Day has become a happy holiday. We wish each other a “happy Earth Day,” we plant a tree, we pat ourselves on the back for the good job we’ve done saving our “mother.” But I think it is important to remember the darkness of this holiday as well, because the earth is a dark place. If we can’t come to terms with that darkness, despair, and horrifying just as much as we can with the light, the happy, the beautiful, then we risk simply replicating our own interests. We fail to encounter the earth as it is, and as we are within it, and instead reproduce ourselves and our own visions upon it. So feel good, plant your tree, pat yourself on the back, but remember that the earth is still being destroyed every day, and that there is a lot more work to be done.

The Real Face of Anti-Government Resistance

As someone who frequently identifies as an anarchist, I often feel complex emotions when I hear about people standing up to government intervention. Generally, I don’t support these actions – but why? Why wouldn’t an anarchist support anti-government resistance? I think the Cliven Bundy situation offers an excellent example of why.

The thing is, Cliven Bundy and his supporters are not anti-government activists. But look, you might say, they’re out there putting their lives on the line standing up against government encroachment and overreach! Well that may be true, but they’re not actually trying to get rid of government control over the land in question, they’re just trying to avoid paying the fees and taxes for its use. They are more than willing to let the BLM manage the land as long as it doesn’t interfere with their own interests. If the BLM weren’t managing it – and they know this – there would be all kinds of other, larger interests coming in and trying to take over the place. If the BLM weren’t there, some bottling company could come in, build a bottling plant, and drain all of the water from the reservoirs and aquifers that feed the springs in order to supply some urban population with bottled water or soft drinks. Then the cattle would have nothing to drink, and the ranchers themselves would be displaced.

So they’re not anti-government heroes, they’re just free riders – happy to have the government take care of the resource but unwilling to pay the cost of its use (which goes to BLM staff salaries, resources, contracting, etc.). And when the government comes to collect the cost, they whine and pull out their guns to fight back. I can’t support that. If the supporters of Cliven Bundy were really concerned about government overreach, then they would support indigenous land claims, and fight for the government to return the land to the Shoshone Tribes who have treaty rights to it.