The Politics of Indignity

The opening scene of this year?s first installment of AMC?s popular series Mad Men sparked a critical firestorm. It showed laughing white workers at a Madison Avenue advertising firm dropping paper bags filled with water from their windows on black demonstrators picketing the New York Office of Economic Opportunity.

What made the scene?based on a 1966 New York Times story, ?Poverty Pickets Get Paper-Bag Dousing on Madison Avenue??so powerful was the combination of racism and contempt that it captured. The overt racism of the 1960s has taken a back seat to covert racism these days, but where the vulnerable are concerned, a new politics of indignity that feasts on contempt is alive and well.

At the core of this politics of indignity is the belief held by conservatives that if they cannot legally prevent practices of which they disapprove, they can at least shame the people engaged in those practices.

New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with its requirement that food-stamp recipients be fingerprinted, provides a classic case. The mayor claims that the fingerprinting prevents fraud, but why the 1.8 million people receiving food stamps in New York City should be more prone to fraud than Social Security recipients, who face no such test, goes unexplained. A majority of those applying for food aid in New York are minorities; Bloomberg, who has labeled the fingerprinting requirement ?a prophylactic measure,? clearly does not perceive them as part of the city?s mainstream.

The mayor?s effort to make those who apply for food stamps feel like criminals, opposed by Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo (only New York City, along with the state of Arizona, requires the draconian process), has successfully reduced the food stamp rolls; the nonprofit Urban Institute estimates that at least 30,000 needy New Yorkers are not seeking food stamps because they fear fingerprinting.

A different but parallel stigmatization of the poor is being waged in Florida, which along with Alabama, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Louisiana now requires welfare recipients to take a drug test. The drug test strategy has proved a plus for Florida governor Rick Scott, who last month signed a bill allowing state agencies to randomly drug test up to 10 percent of their employees.

The irony is that in Florida, where the law was approved on the premise that it would save tax payers money, testing has actually done the opposite. Of Florida?s 4,086 welfare applicants, only 108 (or 2.6 percent) failed the drug test. The rest passed and were reimbursed about $30 each for successfully taking the test, which amounted to a $118,140 bill for the state?far more than would have been paid in benefits to those who failed the test.

The final and most dramatic indication of today?s ideology of humiliation comes in the battle over abortion. Unable to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court?s historic 1973 decision guaranteeing women the right to abortion, conservatives in twenty-four states have settled for making abortion as difficult as possible.

Virginia, which in March passed a law requiring women to submit to an abdominal ultrasound procedure before having an abortion, epitomizes the strategy of making burdensome, unneeded procedures an abortion requirement. Matters might have been even worse than they are now: only after Virginia?s Republican governor Bob McDonnell, under intense pressure from pro-choice women?s groups, threatened to veto a more invasive ?transvaginal? procedure did Virginia?s legislature opt for its current abdominal ultrasound requirement.

At a time when high school and college students reading The Scarlet Letter find it ridiculous that the Puritans humiliated Hester Prynne because she has had child out of wedlock, there is no easy answer as to why the politics of indignity have become so widespread.

But one explanation lies in the degree to which the humiliation of others has become a staple of television. Whether it is fat people, stripped to their shorts, trying to get thin on the Biggest Loser or minor celebrities engaged in frat-boy stunts on Donald Trump?s Celebrity Apprentice, we take pleasure these days in watching others lose their dignity, and that change in sensibility is more serious than it looks. When it becomes OK to laugh at the humbling of others, the politics of indignity seems like an extension of mainstream culture rather than the radical right strategy it is.

Image from photo by Michał Kasprzak, 2005, via Flickr creative commons

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.