Monthly Archives: June 2019
The World Socialist website (wsws.org) can be doctrinaire, but it often gives excellent analysis of current events, as in today’s article by Barry Grey, “Image of drowned father and daughter sparks global outrage against US anti-immigrant rampage,” 6-27-19. Here’s my edited/shortened/and-added-to version of it:
The photo of a young Salvadoran worker and his 23-month-old daughter washed up on the shore of the Rio Grande has gone viral on social media and sparked world-wide outrage against the sadistic assault on immigrants being carried out by Trump, with the full assistance of the Democratic Party. The photo of Óscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter Angie Valeria, taken Monday by journalist Julia Le Duc, encapsulates the human toll of the fascistic and dictatorial policies being carried out by the Trump administration. The two victims succumbed to the powerful currents of the swollen river one day after having sought to apply for asylum, along with Oscar’s wife Tania Vanessa Avalos, at the legal port of entry between Matamoros, Mexico and Brownsville, Texas.
The father and his daughter were among the many thousands of Central American workers fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries, the legacy of a century of US imperialist subversion and exploitation. The young family was prevented from applying for asylum as a result of Trump’s “metering” policy, which effectively strips immigrants of their internationally guaranteed asylum rights by forcing them to wait in Mexico for weeks or months in sordid, prison-like camps. This is why the family decided to risk the dangerous river crossing. Vanessa Avalos could only watch in helpless horror from the Mexican side as her husband and daughter drowned.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a denunciation of the Trump administration, comparing the photo to the picture of the three-year-old Syrian refugee child, Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean and whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015. The comparison underscored the international character of the attack on immigrants being carried out by capitalist governments across Europe and elsewhere. This includes Mexico, where Mexican President Lopez Obrador has mobilized 20,000 national guardsmen to serve as Trump’s anti-immigrant enforcers on the Mexican side of the border. Commissioner Filippo Grandi said, “The deaths of Oscar and Valeria represent a failure to address the violence and desperation pushing people to take journeys of danger for the prospect of a life in safety and dignity.”
Also on the weekend, US Border Patrol agents found four bodies along the Rio Grande in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, about 55 miles west of Brownsville: one toddler, two infants, and a 20-year-old woman.
In the most recent fiscal year, there were 283 deaths across the US southern border, according to US authorities. The real toll is much higher. US border patrol agents have apprehended 664,000 people along the southern border so far this year, a 144% increase from last year. Some 14,000 unaccompanied immigrant children remain in US concentration camps.
The Democratic Party has responded to the escalating war on immigrants by voting overwhelmingly to grant Trump another $4.5 billion dollars to build more detention facilities, shore up the US military presence on the border and otherwise strengthen Gestapo-like anti-immigrant agencies such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). On the same day the photo of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter was published, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a $4.5 billion funding bill that allocates $788 million for new CBP facilities to hold asylum-seeking families and children. It provides $866 million for facilities run by the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) where unaccompanied children are sent after they are released from CBP jails. It also includes $128 million for ICE.
In the vote on the House bill, all but four voting Democrats voted “yes” (the four who voted “no” were Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib). Of the four House members who didn’t vote, three were Democratic presidential candidates – Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), Eric Swalwell (California) and Tim Ryan (Ohio), in Florida preparing for the debates. The Senate passed its $4.59 billion version of the bill on Wednesday by a bipartisan vote of 84 to 8, with eight senators not voting, and Democrats giving overwhelming support to the Trump administration. Only six Democrats voted against the bill. Seven of the eight non-voters were Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Michael Bennet, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand. The “nay” voters were Hirono D-Hawaii, Lee R-UT, Markey D-MA, Menendez D-NJ, Merkley D-OR, Paul R-KY, Van Hollen D-MD, and Wyden D-OR. The Senate bill is even more overtly repressive than the House version, including fewer restrictions on the brutalization of immigrants and an additional $145 million for US military operations on the border, a tacit legitimization of Trump’s illegal and indefinite deployment of active duty troops to aid police actions within the borders of the US.
On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi telephoned Trump to assure him that the House Democrats were prepared to accept most, if not all, of the Senate bill’s provisions in order to avoid a threatened presidential veto. The Democrats are eager to secure a deal before the week-long Fourth of July recess, which begins on Thursday. As the Senate was passing its bipartisan version, Pelosi told reporters, “There are some improvements that we think can be reconciled.” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said, “We could quickly have a conference, talk about those four changes, try to get them in the bill, finish this quickly and I hope that’s what will happen.”
The Democrats are rushing to give Trump his blood money under the absurd pretext that the measure is a “humanitarian” effort to help the children and families caught up in his anti-immigrant campaign. Last Friday, Pelosi telephoned Trump to plead with him to delay his plan to carry out deportation raids against 2,000 immigrants in cities across the US, assuring him that she would push through a border funding bill in the House. She and the rest of the Democratic Party are petrified at the prospect that such military-style raids in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities will spark mass protests and resistance that could spiral out of control. Trump agreed to wait two weeks while Pelosi and Schumer did his bidding in Congress. He also wasted no time shattering the lying pretexts about defending human rights, making clear what millions around the world already know: that he has no intention of using a penny of the money allocated by Congress to back off from his brutalization of immigrants. On the contrary, he intends to escalate the attack as a central part of his reelection campaign and the axis of his efforts to mobilize his fascistic base of support.
On Tuesday, CBP announced that it had returned 100 children to the holding facility in Clint, Texas it had evacuated the previous day after reports of squalid conditions and rampant disease aroused mass indignation. The same day, while the House Democrats were preparing to vote for the administration’s border war money, acting CBP Commissioner John Sanders resigned and Trump officials let it be known that the White House had selected acting ICE Director Mark Morgan to replace him. Morgan, who served as assistant commissioner of CBP under Obama, has made no bones about his hatred for undocumented immigrants and desire to drive them out of the country. As acting head of ICE, Morgan authored the plan for mass raids in US cities that Trump’s postponed. He spent 11 years in the Marine Corps and 20 years in the FBI, and while out of government appeared regularly on Fox News. He’s also boasted of looking into detained children’s eyes and seeing that they are “soon-to-be MS-13 gang members,” and defended far-right border vigilantes who’ve illegally detained hundreds of immigrants points and removed emergency supplies, including water, left for migrants by humanitarian groups.
According to Wikipedia, Mara Salvatrucha, popularly known as MS-13, is an international criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles, California, in the 1970s and 1980s. Originally set up to protect Salvadoran immigrants from other gangs in the Los Angeles area, over time, the gang grew into a more traditional criminal organization. The US government deported many MS-13 members to El Salvador after the close of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1992, and the gang is currently active in many parts of the continental United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America. Most members are Central American, Salvadorans in particular. In 2018, the gang accounted for less than 1% (10,000) of total gang members in the United States (1.4 million), and a similar share of gang murders.The gang is often referenced by the Republican Party to advocate for anti-immigrant policies…This is how US policies, including propping up dictatorships in Latin America to the detriment of democratic movements, lead to suffering in those countries, resulting in increased efforts at migration. It’s called “blowback,” the classic case of which was US support for the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union during the 1980s, which led directly to the formation of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. We should pay reparations to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala and encourage democratic governments in the area, not only for moral reasons, but so that people will be content to remain in the countries of their birth.
What are the implications of the Trump administration’s efforts to ask whether respondents to the U.S. census are citizens? Here’s an article posted on the OneZero website by Yasha Levine on 4-30-19 that might answer that question. (Short answer: great, racist, undemocratic.) Levine titled his article “The racist origins of America’s tech industry: how the tools built to conduct the U.S. census fueled Nazi genocide, internment, and state-sanctioned racism and helped usher in the digital age.” Here’s my edited version — still long, but shorter, and an essential read, I think:
The U.S. census , specifically mandated by the Constitution to take place every 10 years , is back in the news not only because the next count kicks off in 2020 but because, as it’s often been in the past, the census is a political flashpoint with inevitable racial undertones. The current controversy revolves around a plan devised by Donald Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form. On the surface, it seems like an inconsequential detail. But there’s wide agreement that adding it will have profound political implications for a decade.
Aggregated population data provided by the census is a critical component in our democratic system. Its most important function is to apportion Congressional representation for the coming decade, but it also determines the structure of the Electoral College and guides the distribution of hundreds of billions in federal spending. Objections to the addition of a citizenship question are based on concerns about undercounting. The fear, widely shared by former census officials, is that asking people for their citizenship status will push some immigrants and Latinos to avoid taking part in the census, and that large enough undercount of a specific minority or socio-economic group will skew how seats are apportioned in the House of Representatives, shifting political power and federal resources away from districts where these groups reside. The Trump administration has claimed that the citizenship question is being added for a good cause: to help the federal government enforce the Voting Rights Act and protect minorities from voter discrimination. But many immigrant advocates see the citizenship question as part of Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, put it this way: “The decision by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to force the last-minute addition of an untested question on citizenship will result in an undercount of Latinos. While we don’t know the true motivation behind these actions, we know the impact: as a consequence of these actions, Census 2020 is on track to significantly undercount the Latino population in the United States.” Others are more direct. “Our president, the face of our federal government, which oversees the census, has based his candidacy on a deeply anti-immigrant platform,” says Betsy Plum, vice president of policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, one of the organizations trying to stop the Trump administration from adding the question. “What the citizenship question did was take a much broader fear and focus it onto the census. The risk to a place like New York’s congressional representation can’t be understated. I think the intent is to weaponize the census against immigrant communities. Places like New York and places like California are the target.”
There’s another, less discussed dimension to the issue. Based on a close reading of internal Department of Commerce documents tied to the census citizen question proposal, it appears the Trump administration wants to use the census to construct a first-of-its-kind citizenship registry for the entire U.S. population, something that arguably exceeds the census’s legal authority. “It was deep in the documentation that was released,” Robert Groves, a former Census Bureau director who headed the National Academies committee convened to investigate the 2020 census, told me. “No one picked up on it much. But the term ‘registry’ in our world means not a collection of data for statistical purposes but rather to know the identity of particular people in order to use that knowledge to affect their lives.” Given the administration’s posture toward immigration, the fact that it wants to build a comprehensive citizenship database is highly concerning. To Groves, it clearly signals “a line being crossed.”
Multiple states have challenged the Trump administration’s plans, and their lawsuits are headed to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear the case in April. Meanwhile, at an oversight hearing in March, Democratic U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dug into Wilbur Ross, Trump’s multi-millionaire Secretary of Commerce, who oversees the U.S Census Bureau. She accused him of conspiring with nativists and white supremacists to add the citizenship question and of overstepping his authority. “Why,” she wanted to know, “are we violating law to include this question?”
Whatever the courts decide, the latest debate over the census is hardly new. For most of its history, the census , and the constitutionally mandated government bureaucracy that carries it out , has been intertwined with nativism, bigotry, and fear of “the other.” The dark and ugly history of the census makes it a uniquely telling weathervane of race politics in America. That development of technology to conduct the census simultaneously played a central role in the history of the computer age more than 130 years ago makes it doubly relevant, offering a glimpse into how computers, surveillance, and racist government policies have been linked from the very beginning.
Governments have been counting their people since the beginning of recorded history. You can find descriptions of censuses in the Old Testament, on Sumerian cuneiform tablets, and in the writings of the ancient Greeks. There were censuses in pre-modern Europe, and most American colonies kept population records. Governments counted people for two main reasons: raising state revenue and waging war. They needed to know who and what to tax, and they needed to know how many fighting-age men could be mobilized. It was the U.S. Constitution that added a third and novel reason for counting people: representational democracy.
When the drafters of the U.S. government’s founding set of principles met in Philadelphia in 1787, one of the first things they hammered out was a clause mandating that the population be counted every 10 years. This directive for a decennial census appears up at the top of the Constitution, long before the document gets around to laying out the structure of the government. To the framers of the Constitution, the census came first because it determined taxation and the balance of congressional political power. Under the Constitution, the number of seats in the House of Representatives apportioned to each state would be based on population, which meant the government needed to know the precise number of people living in each state.
The first census took place in 1790 and was overseen by Thomas Jefferson, then serving as Secretary of State. Mostly a straightforward head count designed to meet the constitutional mandate, it was expected to take no more than nine months to complete. But despite its simplicity and our nation’s tiny population, it took nearly two years to fully tabulate. And it only got worse from there. With every passing decade, the census took longer to complete. It was filled with errors and undercounts, which led to accusations that the data was being manipulated for political ends. By the end of the 1800s, the bureaucratic problem had become untenable: The census was taking nearly 10 years to complete, meaning the results were outdated well before they came in.
When the first census was carried out, there were 3.9 million people living in 13 states. By 1890, the U.S. encompassed 42 states and had a population of 63 million , having increased by more than 16 times over a century. Never before had a country grown so fast. Still doing their work the old-fashioned way , with pen and paper , census workers struggled to keep up. Meanwhile, on top of having to enumerate a rapidly growing population, government officials began to cram the census with more and more questions: about occupations, literacy levels, criminal histories, medical conditions, home ownership, economic trends, and a whole lot of probing about people’s race and immigration status. As the 19th century drew to a close, census officials had started transforming what should have been a simple head count into a system of racial surveillance. Slavery had been abolished, allowing millions of blacks to move, attempt to take charge of their own destinies, and play a role in the country’s political life. Immigration was also making itself felt. Well into the 19th century, free immigration into the U.S. had been largely dominated by English settlers. But starting in the 1850s, that pattern began changing drastically. Millions of Irish peasants streamed into the country to escape the potato famine that killed over one million people. Millions more were fleeing the crushing poverty of southern Italy and the eastern territories of the Russian Empire. Chinese laborers were arriving on the West Coast en masseto build U.S. railroads. This influx was a boon to an emerging industrial oligarchy, a source of never-ending cheap labor. But it was also a source of political instability. Widespread inequality and exploitation led to massively popular movements for change. There were labor protests and strikes, a populist movement, and a nationwide self-help organization created by poor farmers. Socialist and anarchist ideas achieved broad adherence. Black civil rights activism emerged. America’s political establishment looked on this instability, social unrest, and change with horror. They saw the masses of free blacks and Chinese, Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants , with their tattered clothes, alien languages, unnatural religions, and demands for better treatment and political rights , as a threat.
Grasping for solutions, many settled on various strains of race science quackery. So-called social Darwinists relied on a twisted version of the theory of evolution to explain why the poor and marginalized should remain that way while the wealthy and successful should rule unchallenged. Taking this notion a step further, adherents of eugenics fervently believed that naturally superior Anglo-Americans were on the verge of being wiped out due to the high birth rates of “degenerate” and immigrant stock. To head off this threat, they advocated strict controls on reproduction , breeding humans for quality in the same way that farmers did cows and horses. These weren’t fringe ideas; they were firmly embraced by the American cultural and political mainstream. From future presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and Calvin Coolidge to robber barons like J.P. Morgan and Leland Stanford to writers like H.G. Wells and progressive activists like Margaret Sanger, eugenics was all the rage. In the first decades of the 20th century, 32 states passed sterilization laws to deal with the threat of genetic degradation , laws that were upheld by the Supreme Court. And few worried more about the threat of genetic degradation than the officials at the U.S. Census Bureau.
Born into a wealthy Boston family, Francis A. Walker served in the Civil War as a general, dabbled in journalism, and ultimately made a name for himself as an influential Progressive Era economist and statistician who would later become president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a professional economist, Walker had a keen interest in the nation’s changing demographics , and he was horrified by what he saw. Like most upper-class Americans at the time, Walker believed that the country’s original English colonists had evolved to be the most superior race on the planet , superior even to the original English race from which they sprang. To him, Anglo-Americans stood on the pinnacle of the world’s race pyramid. He and his people were “as far ahead of the English as the English were ahead of any other branch of the Teutonic race, which was in turn far ahead of the Slavs or the Celts,” he wrote. He believed that the influx of poor immigrants from Ireland and Italy as well as Jews and Slavs from Eastern Europe was diluting the United States’ superior racial stock and threatening to drag American genetic superiority back into a cesspool of degradation and decline. He blamed these immigrants , “vast hordes of brutalized peasants,” for the social and political unrest happening around him. He not only pushed to restrict immigration in order to prevent what he viewed as Anglo-American “race suicide,” he also advocated forced sterilization. “We must strain out of the blood of the race more of the taint inherited from a bad and vicious past,” he wrote. “The scientific treatment which is applied to physical diseases must be extended to mental and moral disease, and a wholesome surgery and cautery must be enforced by the whole power of the state for the good of all.” In addition to his other contributions to U.S. life, Walker served as superintendent of both the 1870 and 1880 U.S. Census.
The census had been a racial instrument from its inception, beginning with the original constitutional clause that instructed census officials to count black slaves separately from whites and to assign them a value of three-fifths of a person. With each decade, new “racial” categories were invented and added to the mix: “free colored males and females” and “mulatto” were counted, including subdivisions like “quadroon” and “octoroon.” Categories for Chinese, “Hindoo,” and Japanese were added, as were “foreign” and “native born” designations for whites. The census slowly expanded to collect other demographic data, including literacy levels, unemployment statistics, and medical ailments, such as those who were “deaf, dumb, and blind” and the “insane and idiotic.” All of it was broken down by race. Most of these questions, included in a haphazard fashion, were overtly political, added in response to whatever racial fear gripped the national ruling elite at the time. A racial category for Chinese was added after railroad companies began importing cheap, exploitable laborers from China, for example; and categories for “mulatto” came after the abolition of slavery caused a panic about racial mixing.
To Walker, these early efforts didn’t go far enough. As an economist and statistician, he wanted to collect and process more data and to professionalize and standardize the effort. He wanted it to be a proper, scientific “national inventory,” not a haphazard collection of facts. But his dreams kept running up against a hard limit: technology. The census was still counted and analyzed by hand, and the work was slow and limited, with sophisticated analysis next to impossible. What it needed was a talented inventor, someone young and ambitious who’d be able to come up with a method to automate tabulation and data analysis. Someone like Herman Hollerith. In 1879, when he graduated from the Columbia School of Mines with a degree in engineering, he was recruited to help compile economic statistics for the 1880 census, being run by Walker. Having invented the punch card system, he kept tinkering with it, and before long, he came up with a design that separated the enumeration process into parts. The first involved converting data into a format that could be read by a machine. This he accomplished by punching holes on a piece of paper. The second step involved processing the data. This was accomplished by feeding the paper through a machine that, through a combination of pins and dials, read the number and position of the holes. At first, Hollerith experimented with using a continuous strip of paper like the recent invention of ticker tape, which was widely used to transmit stock prices via telegraph. But he wasn’t happy with the results. “The trouble was that if, for example, you wanted statistics regarding Chinamen, you’d have to run miles of paper to count a few Chinamen,” Hollerith explained in a letter. Race was never far from his mind when working on his contraption. He eventually hit upon a better idea: Each person would be represented by their own punch card , an idea he picked up while taking a train. “I was traveling in the West and I had a ticket with what I think was called a punch photograph. The conductor punched out a description of the individual, as light hair, dark eyes, large nose, etc.,” he explained, noting that he’d simply done the same thing.
In March 1890, Hollerith’s machines were installed in a building not far from the White House that became the bustling headquarters of the 11thcensus. Hundreds of clerks worked around the clock in shifts, taking raw census data collected in the field and transferring it onto cards using specially designed hole punch machines, then passing the cards to another set of clerks who worked the tabulators and sorters. Hollerith’s machines clanked away day and night, with clerks crammed together like sweatshop workers. It took four years to finish and release the reports, an amazing improvement over the previous census, which took nearly a decade.
The 1890 census contained 35 questions, 10 more than the previous census, on a whole range of data: literacy levels, sizes of household, professions, the value of a family’s property, and whether they rented or owned. Perhaps most important was the racial dimension. The census collected stats on native and foreign-born Americans and broke them into multiple racial categories: white, colored, Chinese, Japanese, and “civilized Indian” (i.e., a Native American no longer living in a tribal society). It was the first census to include a complete count of Native Americans living on tribal lands. It asked for data on unemployment history, fertility rates, citizenship status, criminal history, literacy, and English language proficiency.
It wasn’t just the speed that set Hollerith’s invention apart. It was its ability to mine and sift through data and even combine multiple data points. Such fine-grained analysis on a mass scale was completely unprecedented, and it made Hollerith’s machines an immediate hit with the United States’ race-obsessed political class.
Robert Porter, head of the 1890 census, who’d overseen the adoption of Hollerith’s tabulator machines, was deeply impressed by their power to sort immigrant and non-white populations based on numerous demographic variables. He was particularly pleased about being able to analyze the three things most feared by the “race suicide” crowd: immigration rates, immigrant fertility rates, and mixed race marriages (or what the census called the “conjugal condition”), all of which could be broken down by age, race, literacy levels, and naturalization status. Overnight, Hollerith’s tabulator technology had transformed census taking from a simple head count into something that looked very much like a crude form of mass surveillance. The data seemed to confirm the nativists’ worst fears: Poor, illiterate immigrants were swarming America’s cities, and outstripping native Anglo-American birth rates.
Immediately following the census, the states and the federal government passed a flurry of laws that heavily restricted immigration. It started with the Immigration Act of 1891, which set up the first federal agency to oversee immigration and border control and turned an unused island on the southern tip of Manhattan into an elaborate screening center for immigrants. It continued through the passage of a half-dozen major immigration bills, including one that stripped women of U.S. citizenship if they married non-naturalized foreigners. The culmination was the Immigration Act of 1924 that introduced race immigration quotas. This suite of laws gave immigration officials the power to ban just about anyone, including mental and physical ‘defectives,’ anarchists and socialists, most of Asians, and many Middle Easterners and eastern Russians. Immigration rates plunged.
Venture capitalist Charles Flint bought out Hollerith, combined his company with several other businesses that made precision mechanical contraptions ( clocks, cash registers, coffee grinders, and butcher scales ) to create a computational monopoly and handed this new conglomerate over to Thomas J. Watson, an ambitious young executive. Watson then ruthlessly leveraged the Hollerith’s’s computer technology to crush competition and establish a global monopoly in the early computation market. The result was International Business Machines (IBM), founded in 1911. Installed in factories, corporate offices, and city and military bureaucracies, IBM’s tabulator computers not only sped up accounting but greatly reduced labor costs. Businesses and local and federal government agencies ordered Hollerith machines by the truckload. Insurance companies relied on them for accounting and calculating actuary tables. Railroads used them to route freight and work out schedules. At one railroad company, a single Hollerith machine operated by two people replaced the full time work of 20 clerks.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law on August 14, 1935, creating America’s first old-age pension program. The Social Security Act brought about a massive need for accounting and data processing for both businesses and the federal government. Businesses suddenly had to keep meticulous records on their employees. They needed to track salaries and Social Security contributions and file that information with the federal government. The government, in turn, had to process all that data. It needed to monitor contributions to each individual Social Security account over the lifetime of each individual. And then, when they hit retirement age, it had to cut monthly checks to millions of Americans. As soon as the legislation passed, businesses queued up at IBM to get the proper tabulator payroll systems to meet federal accounting requirements. IBM also won the contract to oversee accounting for the Social Security Administration, beating out competitors like Remington Rand. It was the only computer company at the time that had the experience and production capacity to undertake a project of that size. As one official IBM history put it, “the Social Security project catapulted IBM from a midsize corporation to the global leader in information technology.”
Naturally, the military was a big fan of the technology. In peacetime, the Department of War used the machines to keep track of enlistment data and track military pensions. When the U.S. entered the war, IBM’s Hollerith tech became a vital part of the Allied military effort. Hollerith machines were involved in almost every part of the war, from designing the atomic bomb to managing troop deployment. Special “portable” IBM machines installed on trucks landed with U.S. troops in Normandy, Tunisia, Sicily, and Italy. They were used on the home front as well. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S Census Bureau hauled out the punch cards from the 1940 census and reprocessed them to produce block-by-block population lists on Japanese-Americans in a half-dozen states, including California. Ultimately 130,000 Japanese-Americans were forced to move to concentration camps.
Hollerith tabulators were a big hit all over the world. But one country was particularly enamored with them: Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler came to power on the back of the economic devastation following Germany’s defeat in World War I. To Hitler, however, the problem plaguing Germany wasn’t economic or political. It was racial. The reason Germany had fallen so far, he argued, was its failure to tend to its racial purity. There were only about a half-million Jews in Germany in 1933 , less than 1% of the population , but he singled them out as the root cause of all of the nation’s problems. Hitler and the Nazis drew much of their inspiration from the U.S. eugenics movement and the system of institutional racism that had arisen in slavery’s wake. Their solution was to isolate the so-called mongrels, then continuously monitor the racial purity of the German people to keep the volkfree of further contamination.
IBM’s German subsidiary landed its first major contract the same year Hitler became chancellor. The 1933 Nazi census was pushed through by Hitler as an emergency genetic stock-taking of the German people. Along with numerous other data points, the census focused on collecting fertility data for German women , particularly women of good Aryan stock. Also included in the census was a special count of religiously observant Jews. Nazi officials wanted the entire count, estimated to be about 65 million people, to be done in just four months. It was a monumental task, and German IBM officials worked around the clock to finish it. Hundreds of female clerks worked in rotating seven-hour shifts 24 hours a day in a giant Berlin warehouse.
As Hitler’s Nazi Party tightened its grip on Germany, it launched all sorts of additional data-gathering programs to purify the German nation. And IBM helped them do it. “The precondition for every deportation was accurate knowledge of how many Jews in a particular district fitted the racial and demographic descriptions in Berlin’s quotas,” write David Martin Luebke and Sybil Milton in Locating the Victim, a study of Nazi use of the tabulator machines. “Armed with these data,” they said, “the Gestapo often proved able to anticipate with remarkable accuracy the total number of deportees for each racial, status, and age category.”
Germany’s vast state bureaucracy and its military and rearmament programs, including the country’s growing concentration camp/slave labor system, also required data processing services. By the time the U.S. officially entered the war in 1941, IBM’s German subsidiary had grown to employ 10,000 people and served 300 different German government agencies, including the Nazi Party Treasury; the SS; the War Ministry; the Reichsbank; the Reichspost; the Armaments Ministry; the Navy, Army and Air Force; and the Reich Statistical Office.
This history reveals an uncomfortable and fundamental truth about computer technology. “The Third Reich opened startling statistical venues for Hollerith machines, perhaps never before imagined,” wrote Edwin Black in IBM and the Holocaust, his pioneering 2001 exposé of the forgotten business ties between IBM and Nazi Germany. “In Hitler’s Germany, the statistical and census community, overrun with doctrinaire Nazis, publicly boasted about the new demographic breakthroughs their equipment would achieve.” (IBM has criticized Black’s reporting methods, and has said that its German subsidiary largely came under Nazi control before and during the war.)
Demand for Hollerith tabulators was so robust that IBM was forced to open a new factory in Berlin to crank out all the new machines. At the facility’s christening ceremony, which was attended by a top U.S. IBM executive and the elite of the Nazi Party, the head of IBM’s German subsidiary gave a rousing speech about the important role that Hollerith tabulators played in Hitler’s drive to purify Germany and cleanse it of inferior racial stock.
On the surface, it may seem like the story of Herman Hollerith and the U.S. census are historical relics, an echo from a bygone era. But this history reveals an uncomfortable and fundamental truth about computer technology. We can thank nativism and the census for helping to bring the computer age into existence. And as the battle over the 2020 census makes clear, the drive to tally up our neighbors, to sort them into categories and turn them into statistics, still carries the seed of our own dehumanization.
The world is complicated, and the mass media won’t help you if you’re trying to understand much of what’s happening in it. I knew civilian demonstrators had overthrown longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, and that they were battling with the military forces that took over the government after al-Bashir fled. The situation gained background and three-dimensionality for me only after I read “Sudan: Behind the Massacre in Khartoum,” an article published 6-14-19 on the Crimethinc website.
Here’s my edited version of it:
In December 2018, massive protests and unrest organized by labor organizations and neighborhood committees across Sudan toppled longtime dictator Omar Al-Bashir. Utilizing ancient Nubian imagery and mythology, as well as contemporary slogans and tactics, the revolutionaries expressed a diverse groundswell of rage in their efforts to escape the ethnic and religious conflicts of the past two decades. After Al-Bashir fled office, riots, blockades, and protests continued against the Transitional Military Council that seized control of the government, promising to coordinate elections in 2020. In early 2019, paramilitary groups associated with the Council began to carry out fierce attacks on student protests in Khartoum, culminating in a massacre on June 3rdwhen they brutally evicted an occupation from Al-Qyada Square. In response, a general strike gripped much of Sudan from June 9thto 11th. Some revolutionaries have pledged to continue their fight from in hiding despite the violence from these nomadic paramilitary groups.
All around the world today, we see the same three-way conflicts. In the United States and the European Union, this takes the form of a contest between centrists like Emmanuel Macron and Hilary Clinton, far-right demagogues like Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump, and social movements for liberation. In North Africa and the Middle East, this often manifests as a struggle between dictators like Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, militant Islamist groups, and social movements seeking democracy and egalitarianism. Since we see our own struggle in the social movements in Sudan; we should learn all we can about the adversaries they’re facing and the processes that produced them. Many believe that the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates are implicated in encouraging the bloodbath with which the current rulers of Sudan sought to put an end to the social movement that toppled Al-Bashir and occupied Al-Qyada Square, emphasizing the global stakes of the conflict. If the Sudanese demonstrators are crushed, the blow will resound throughout the Mideast and the world; if they survive and persist, they’ll give hope to millions.
The following text, translated and adapted from the Sudanese-French project Sudfa, explores the origins of the janjawids, the paramilitary force behind the massacre of June 3rd. In the process, it offers a chilling glimpse of how the border regimes we experience in the United States and European Union function on the other side of the global apparatus of repression, in the zones designated for resource extraction and the containment of the so-called surplus population. It also affords some insight into the conditions that produce the sort of mercenaries that can slaughter social movements; if we fail to address the needs of the disaffected and desperate populations displaced by war and neoliberal development, nationalists and other authoritarians will take advantage of them to advance their own agendas.
For more information: check out “Call for Solidarity with the Rebellious People of Sudan” at https://blackautonomynetwork.noblogs.org/post/2019/06/07/call-for-solidarity-with-the-rebellious-people-of-sudan/. This blog post presents a persuasive argument for why we should concern ourselves with the movement in Sudan and offers an array of informative resources. See “New Histories for an Uncharted Future in Sudan,” a blog post at africaisacountry.com, for some background on the protest movement. https://africasacountry.com/2019/05/new-histories-for-an-uncharted-future-in-sudan
The Janjawids in Power(the Sudfa text)
The janjawids are literally “men on horses with guns.” This phrase appeared in the 1980s, when pan-Arab partisans, expelled from Chad by US- and France-backed forces, fled into western Sudan to rebuild their movement and pursue the development of a pan-Arab movement in the region. In 2003, at the beginning of the war in Darfur, when the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) advanced on several cities provoking a massive inter-ethnic insurgency against the security forces, Omar Al-Bashir’s government called on these Arab tribes to halt the progress of the rebels. To this end, he armed groups of men from these tribes to control the region and fight the rebel forces.
As noted in the Wikipedia article on Darfur, “a famine in the mid-1980s disrupted many societal structures and led to the first significant modern fighting among Darfuris. A low-level conflict continued for the next fifteen years, with the government co-opting and arming Arab Janjaweed militias against its enemies, most of whom identify as black. The fighting reached a peak in 2003 with the beginning of the Darfur conflict, in which the resistance coalesced into a roughly cohesive rebel movement. By March 2014, human-rights groups and the UN had come to regard the conflict as a horrific humanitarian disaster, with 480,000 dead and over 2.8 million, many of them children, displaced. Nearly two-thirds of the population continues to struggle to survive in remote villages. Virtually no foreigners visit the region because of the fear of kidnapping, and only some non-governmental organizations continue to provide assistance. Since 2015 the UN has been in discussion with the government of Sudan over the withdrawal of UNAMID, the largest peacekeeping force in the world.”
The janjawids come from Arab tribes; many are from outside Sudan, mostly originating from Chad, Niger, and Mali. A recent video shows one of the participants explaining that he originally came from Chad, went to fight the war in Yemen, and is now at Khartoum to “liberate” the capital. Various testimonies from survivors of the massacre confirm this. The Sudanese people continue to call them “janjawids,” though this name is not recognized by the government. Their official name is “Rapid Support Forces” (RSF, or Rapid Aid Forces). Ordinary people have noted that the Janjaweed speak French, indicating that they are foreigners from West Africa (the Sudanese don’t speak French).
The government refuses to acknowledge that it was involved in the origin of the Rapid Support Forces. However, after 2008, it acknowledged the use of Rapid Support Forces in the “pacification” of the Darfur region, in order to “stop the chaos, protect the people, and protect the institutions.” In 2014, in a government effort to standardize these forces, they were attached to the powerful NISS (National Intelligence and Security Service). Thus, they’re officially a mobile paramilitary militia, associated with the national Security Service. This militia, predominantly coming from rural areas in the west of Sudan, has strong ties with Chad and the Sudanese government. For example, the Chadian president, Idriss Déby, married the daughter of Musa Hilal, the chief of the Janjawids at the time of the Darfur genocide in the 2000s.
Musa Hilal directed the special janjawid Border Intelligence Brigade in the north of Darfur, and in 2008, he was also the minister of Sudanese Federal Affairs. He’s the symbol of the atrocities committed in Darfur and is sought for his crimes by the International Criminal Court. These forces were known to be “ready, rapid, and brutal.”
The janjawids are from the Arab tribes of the region; for example, Musa Hilal comes from the Baggara tribe (an Arab tribe that raises cows, hence their name); Hemedti, a member of the Transitional Military Council tasked with overseeing new elections, comes from the Al-Abala, another Arab tribe that raises camels. Originally, the janjawid forces were created at Al-Misteriha, a city situated in the north of Darfur. These pastoral peoples have been in conflict with non-Arab farmers over land and other resources.
The janjawids have used rape as a weapon of war, systematically assaulting women during their attacks on villages. They burn houses and farms, and kill the men and children. They arrive on horses or in cars and raze a village in a few hours, with military planes and helicopters overseeing the operation. During these attacks, some survivors are able to flee, for example by following the wadis(streams) and hiding in nearby camps. They are often recaptured by groups waiting outside the villages. The displaced people end up in camps throughout the whole country, and in huge shantytowns surrounding the cities, where the Security Services and the janjawids continue to torment them.
The principal victims of the janjawids are the Fur population, as well as the Massalit, Zaghawa, and other darker-skinned tribes termed “African” or “non-Arab,” whose populations have been decimated and displaced. The Janjawids have been accused of genocide against these populations.
The janjawids are financed by the Sudanese government. They also control gold mines in the Darfur region, and during the Darfur war they stole money and goods as well as the livestock and harvests of the wealthier inhabitants. They attacked places for economic aims as well as to carry out ethnic cleansing: certain Fur populations with land and livestock were easy and profitable targets. The janjawids laid claim to land and houses, settling and occupying the zones they emptied. Disguised under the name RSF and acknowledged as a paramilitary force, the janjawids have also profited from the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia pressured the Sudanese government to send troops to Yemen to participate in the war there. Janjawid troops were consequently deployed in Yemen and received money and arms from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Thanks to their military involvement in the conflict since 2016, their influence and power in Sudan have greatly increased. They’ve become better organized and many young people have joined them, in particular young people from Arab tribes.
The militia is able to recruit thanks to several factors, but chiefly because their salaries are relatively high and can offer a much-needed income stream for impoverished families. They recruit a large number of child soldiers by convincing families of this.
The demonstrators see those who lead and finance the Janjawids as wrongdoers who must be brought down like Al-Bashir. The government has thus launched an effort to change the image of the RSF in the media. They named a spokesperson and have attempted to present these forces as a regular national armed force. To this end, the janjawids were established in barracks and military camps in the big cities with the soldiers of the army. Upon returning from Yemen, members of the RSF said that children made up around 40% of the Sudanese troops. They often go on six-month missions, after which the men return to Sudan and participate in government missions. The children receive almost no training (about one and a half months of basic physical and arms training) before they are sent to the front line in Yemen to serve as human shields. The Rapid Support Forces have been responsible for the massacres of the Houthi population in Yemen, including arbitrary murders of civilians and children.
Russian and Belgian arms distributed to the government are reallocated to the militias. Several dozen Chinese-made tanks and bombers have been brought into Sudan since 2004. China has built arms factories for the Sudanese government around the capital Khartoum. This factory produced the majority of the bullets and munitions used in the Darfur war and the repression of the demonstrators today. China is now the principal seller of arms to Sudan, providing the majority of tanks, planes, and trucks.
Another of their income sources is racketeering and extortion, including the taxes they demand on vehicles and convoys of displaced people on the route between Al-Fashir and Khartoum. If the vehicles or convoys refuse to pay, groups step in to attack them and steal the products and shipments on the trucks. Since this is the only route that connects the West to the capital, drivers have no choice but to comply.
The European Union and its member states have made many partnership agreements with Sudan, notably the agreement called the “Khartoum process” in 2014, reinforced by a new 2015 agreement. In the context of Sudan’s economic crisis following the separation of South Sudan and the loss of essential oil revenues, European agencies help to regulate the border, a great boon to the regime in Khartoum. Equipment and revenue seized at the border is earmarked for the police and picked up by the janjawids, who control the Libyan border as well.
Even if the EU denies direct supporting the militias, several reports, such as Suliman Baldo’s English-language report, “Border Control from Hell,” shows that the computer hardware, vehicles, and other equipment provided by the EU are obtained by the RSF via their collaboration with the police and the Security Services. The EU relies on Sudanese police to reinforce the eastern and northern borders and to regulate the passage of Sudanese, Eritrean, Ethiopian, and other migrants. The RSF is the principal forced mobilized at the borders, which the government uses to implement the political objectives of the EU, carrying out its acts of terror and chaos against the population and migrants. The janjawids thus find themselves with a special budget, which strengthens their power.
The janjawids have been sent throughout the country as a mobile force, notably in the regions of the Blue Nile, Jebel Al-Nuba, and Kordofan, where they have terrorized civilians and carried out looting, rape, massacres, and persecution. In Damazin in 2013 and in Kassala in 2018, all these regions’ civilians were accused due to their ethnic origin of supporting or participating in rebel forces like SLA (Sudan Liberation Army), SPLM (Sudan Popular Liberation Movement), or JEM (Justice and Equality Movement).
In May 2019, isolated groups of the RSF attempted to evict the demonstrators in the Plaza. On May 13th, they killed four demonstrators and wounded thirty more with bullets. The demonstrators clearly identified the assailants as janjawids. After these events, Burhan, the president of the Military Council, promised to “open an investigation” of the members of the RSF responsible for the murders. But the Security Forces then arbitrarily arrested six Darfurian soldiers, demanding they confess on national television and imprisoning them, even though some of them weren’t in the neighborhood of the attack when it happened. People denounced this deception on social media networks.
Several other attacks were led by RSF members around the entry points of the Plaza, especially around May 25th; they killed many people and wounded and arrested others. The government officially acknowledged these attacks and justified them, saying that the location was occupied by prostitutes and drug dealers.
On June 3rd, the 29thday of Ramadan, columns of RSF vehicles entered the capital with Security Service cars and removed the regular police and military. They represented a convoy of more than 10,000 members sent to the capital from all the regions of Sudan. They began to shoot bullets into the crowd around 6 AM, burning the tents in the Plaza and arresting demonstrators and throwing them into pickup trucks. They used the Khartoum University and mosque buildings to hold people for three days, beating and torturing them. Some died due to the horrible conditions of this detention. Survivors have offered chilling testimony about the treatment they suffered. Many other people were killed or wounded by bullets; the health ministry has admitted to 61 deaths on June 3rd, while credible sources report over 100 fatalities, including 19 children. The janjawids also raped dozens of women, attempted to rape dozens more, and posted triumphant videos on social media networks. Altogether, more than 500 people were wounded among the inhabitants of Omdurman and Khartoum, including many beaten, struck down, and left for dead in the middle of the street. Those who tried to assist them were also struck down.
The RSF also entered other neighborhoods in Khartoum and Omdurman, attacking civilians at random. They destroyed stores, pharmacies, and cars. Stray bullets killed some people in their houses. They entered hospitals, beating doctors and threatening them with death if they treated demonstrators, raping women and striking the wounded. They arrested the opposition, including Yasser Saïd Arman, leader of a branch of the SPLM. The members of the office of the Sudanese Professional Association have been in hiding since then.
The day after the massacre, the Military Council announced the nullification of all the agreements and gains from the negotiations up to that point with the Sudanese Professional Association and suspended all further negotiations. They announced that there will be elections in 2020, and we already know what the results will be if they’re controlled by Burhan and Hemedti.
The Sudanese continue to demonstrate, closing routes and roads, erecting barricades and burning tires; the capital is the scene of a civil war.
After 20 years, the janjawids are accustomed to using brutal force to massacre large numbers of people. This militia is financed by the Gulf countries and the European Union and poses the threat of imminent civil war in Sudan.
I’ve always felt that there’s a deep connection between spirituality and politics in a wide sense. It’s all just life. The other day I listened to a podcast expressing this. “Insights at the Edge” podcaster Tami Simon of Sounds True was speaking with spiritual teacher and author Mirabai Starr about her latest book: Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics. What Starr had to say inspired and impressed me, and I wanted to share the highlights of it with you, based on a transcript of the podcast (released 4-1-19).
Because Starr believes that “ultimately, truth, reality is the boundless, non-dualistic field of love,” she’s shied away from comparing the wisdom of masculine and feminine mystics. Not long ago, however, she “began to realize that the feminine is rising everywhere, and that the spiritual community needs to be involved in that discourse.” Feminine wisdom, she added, often “requires excavation, because these feminine wisdom jewels are hidden in the patriarchal overlay, since all of the world’s spiritual traditions were designed and built by men, for men.”
When Simon asked which of these jewels Starr wanted to highlight, she answered, “One is the inter-relationality of the feminine; the value of cooperation and relationship, but also the core-level, cell-level, physical way I think women and some men get that everything’s interconnected. It’s not a philosophical treatise about dependent co-arising. It’s a felt experience of inter-being that I think women have in general, and that’s emphasized in the feminine wisdom teachings. Another is care for the earth. Not that men don’t also adore our mother, the earth, and want to tend her, but there’s a way in which the feminine responds to the pain of the world that’s spontaneous and generous and non-intellectual, rooted in the body.”
TS: Yes. I thought one of the things you emphasized in Wild Mercy that I really appreciated was that our actual spiritual life is connected to the fate of the earth.
MS: That’s right.
TS: I wonder if you can talk about that, because I think sometimes people think, “Well, whatever happens politically, whatever happens with climate change, that’s not really part of my spiritual agenda. My spiritual agenda is to align with the moment and be at peace, regardless of what’s happening.”
Starr had “a couple of responses. One is that the way that we treat women is directly related to the way we tend the planet. I don’t think there’s any accident that this masculine-driven model of spirituality and society and politics has left the earth in the dust and done great damage. The male-driven model of doing things has caused great detriment not only to women, humans, but to the earth herself. The feminine emphasizes relationship, that we have a real living relationship with the earth. It’s not just an idea about climate change based on science, though I think it’s important to track the science. The feminine has a relationship with Earth as mother, lover, and sister. Feminine wisdom cultivates relationship and intimacy in all spheres, which leads me to the third kind of strong value of these teachings: inclusivity. There’s a way in which, when women come together, we include each other. I’m not saying all women are inclusive and cooperative and relational. Many women have divorced themselves from those kind of values. And many men, including the men that we all know and love, are deeply relational. But there’s a way that the feminine is now emphasizing inclusive, horizontal leadership.
The spiritual traditions that many of us were trained in, even when they’ve ordained women, are still patriarchal, still hierarchical. Even if the woman is the roshi or the rabbi, she’s still the boss, standing or sitting there dispensing goodies to the hungry people. There’s something that I really tapped into with this book that the more I said it, the more true it became, for me – that this is the time for leadership to be a communal experience. Almost everyone I know carries this seed of wisdom, and all you have to do is water it with your loving attention, and it germinates and flowers. I’m seeing that in all the groups and all the communities where I’m invited to speak or teach, the minute I make it about all of us, an incredible flourishing of wisdom happens. To me, this is deeply feminine – very much about relationship and loving kindness, and developing community by acknowledging that everyone has something to bring to the table.”
TS: This brings me to the question about the future of the patriarchal religious forms we’re currently seeing crumble. We’re in this interesting transitional phase. And when I read a book like Wild Mercy and permission is given to the individual to find their way among all of these different spiritual texts; to express their spirituality in activism, caring for their families, and loving whomever they love. It’s beautiful. But what are our future forms?
MS: The crumbling you refer to is really happening. The world’s institutionalized religious structures are dissolving and disintegrating before our eyes. And there’s a fundamentalist response to prop these carcasses up. But if you tap into the deep wellspring of feminine wisdom, the women are the ones who’ve always been the midwives and the death doulas. We’re comfortable with the messy margins of things, okay with ambiguity and not knowing. So we’re present for these death throes that are happening in society and religion and the emerging of a new kind of wild, unpredictable, radically authentic…I don’t even want to call it a paradigm, but reality. It’s an exciting time if you’re not looking for easy answers and fill-in-the-blanks.
Starr and Simon then agreed that patriarchal religious leaders want their followers to be loyal to a particular spiritual path; they criticize “spiritual dilettantism.” But, Starr said, she realized that “maybe we have a faculty of discernment implanted in our being that enables us to know what the life-giving truth is and what divisive, dualistic, separating teachings are, and that we can, in fact, make honey from gathering the nectar from various traditions. We can have a deep and profound and transformational encounter within multiple sacred spaces. From these transformational encounters we can find a way that’s deep and profound and has social relevance, as well as a path to personal awakening and personal development. That’s another thing about the feminine – the whole idea of individual awakening feels kind of irrelevant, because it’s truly about all of us. The bodhisattva vow of sticking around on the wheel of samsara, of births and deaths and rebirths, until all beings are free. Individual liberation is a meaningless concept to the feminine, as are practices like purification and perfection. Those words are alien, I think, to the feminine experience, which is much more organic and sensual.”
TS: So, at some point you decided to trust your own powers of discernment. “I can discern. I can be a bee and I can pick the flowers. I don’t have to sign on with one patriarchal proposition.” I think a lot of people don’t have that level of confidence. What would you say to someone who’s like, “I’m a beginner. How do I know?”
MS: It’s interesting, because I don’t just trust my own faculty of discernment, I trust yours. I trust everyone’s, as well as everyone’s ability to take what they find, that cup of water, with them out into the world.
Simon then asked Starr about the word “mercy” in the title of her book.
MS: It’s interesting. A white man, a well-known spiritual teacher said, “I don’t think you should call it ‘Wild Mercy,’ Mirabai.” He thought the term “mercy” was sappy, that it implied meekness. But this is how Mother Mary is being rescued and resuscitated, I feel, in the current inter-spiritual landscape. The term “mercy” no longer means meek. It carries this powerful energy that’s different from compassion. Compassion, to me, carries a quality of equanimity, that the feminine not only doesn’t necessarily have, but isn’t particularly interested in cultivating. The feminine is about the outpouring of the heart. And mercy, to me, carries that quality of aliveness. It’s compassion that’s been lit on fire and that melts. There’s a melting quality to mercy. There’s a warmth. I think that feminine quality of out-flowing of the heart partnered with the wildness of the feminine that’s willing to not know what’s going on, or what’s going to happen next, but is showing up for it are the core message of the book.
TS: One of my favorite sentences is “What breaks our heart is also what connects us.” I know that you’ve had that experience, and I want to hear what you have to say about the relationship between knowing the depth of loss in our lives and our capacity for mercy, our capacity to feel a loving, alive connection with others who suffer.
MS: I know a lot of people who’ve experienced great and transformational losses, and each of them has become a more open, boundless container of love and compassion. Their losses have broken them open. I’m not worried that people are going to calcify and constrict around their losses. Maybe for a time, but 100% of the people I encounter who’ve experienced loss have become more loving, more compassionate eventually. And sometimes right away, and sometimes in moments. We open and close like an accordion, in the power, the bellows of loss. Again, I believe in us. I believe in the capacity of the human heart to enlarge in the presence of unbearable experiences. And through that enlargement of the heart, serve the world in a spontaneous way.
TS: What makes a loss a transformational loss?
MS: Entering into the experience as fully as possible, even if it feels like it’s going to kill you — a feminine yielding, like yielding to the contractions of childbirth. There’s nowhere to go but to open and surrender to the experience, though you may protest along the way. When we show up for the experience of shattering loss, it becomes transformational. It’s not about transcendence; it’s about full presence. And you know, one of the things about grief and loss that I’ve found, and I think this is a truly feminine perspective, is that when we experience a really profound, transformational loss, it’s not only about us. It doesn’t make us special. I lost a child. And there were moments, in the beginning, especially, where I felt like an alien creature. No one could understand me. And then it was like, “Wait a minute, women have been losing children backwards in time and across the planet forever. So not only am I not special, but guess what? Those women, on a soul level, are my family. They’re my sisters, we’re in this together, and they’re holding me now, as I navigate this mysterious, brutal landscape of loss.” So, rather than becoming some kind of rarefied, special creature because I’d lost a child, I took my place in the human family for the first time, in a way, when my daughter died. And it was the family of women, especially, that I felt were holding me, and that I’m holding now. That’s my job going forward.
Simon then asked Starr to introduce and read the beginning of a chapter called “Laying Down Our Burden.”
MS: This is a chapter on cultivating a sabbath practice. “Here. Come here. Take a moment to set aside that list you’ve been writing in fluorescent ink, the list that converts ordinary tasks into emergencies, where ‘Feed the orchids,’ becomes ‘If I don’t accomplish this by 11:00 tomorrow morning, the rainforests are going to dry up, and it will all be my fault.’ Gather your burdens in a basket in your heart and set them at the feet of the Mother. Say, ‘Take this, Great Mama, because I can’t carry this shit another minute.’ Then crawl into her broad lap, nestle against her ample bosom, and take a nap. When you wake, the basket will still be there, but half its contents will be gone, and the other half will have resumed their proper shapes and sizes, no longer masquerading as catastrophic, epic, and toxic. The Mother will clear things out and tidy up. She’ll take your compulsions and transmute them, if you offer them to her.’ A sabbath is a revolutionary, subversive act in our consumerist achievement-driven world.
When Simon asked Starr about imagining God as the Mother, she said, “This kind of comes back to the question we opened with, where you asked about the feminine, and I felt it as a dualistic distinction I wouldn’t normally make. Philosophically, I’m more of a Buddhist or non-theist than a theist. It takes an effort for me to picture God as anything. As even God. But I feel that at this moment emphasizing the feminine in all spheres of human activity, maybe especially religion, is going to create a needed paradigm shift reflecting the feminine values of wildness and mercy, compassion and connection to the earth, relationship and horizontal leadership that can’t help but heal and mend the torn fabric of the world.
TS: One of the things you say in the book that I thought was important is that devotion isn’t an immature inclination. Because in the kind of more militaristic spiritual traditions in which I was brought up and trained, devotion was for sissies. Kind of like, “You don’t need to prostrate yourself or make offerings. That’s superstitious mumbo jumbo.” But in Wild Mercy you reclaim the power of devotion. Tell me why that’s important to you.
MS: I’m glad you used the word reclaim, because as you were speaking, that’s what was rising in my mind: To reclaim devotion, reclaim passion, reclaim the feminine landscape of the heart. I, too, was trained in these vertical traditions, where we still our minds and leave our bodies behind. All of our bodies are feminine, incarnational, part of the earth. And if we don’t respond to the impulses of the heart residing in our bodies, we’re going to be cutting ourselves off from an entire range of spiritual experience. Devotion, for me, is the impulse of the heart that cries out to the beloved who we may not believe in in our rational minds. We may call that magical thinking, envisioning Krishna or Kuan Yin as the object of our heart’s impulse to love, but it can a placeholder for the real, holy part of ourselves that calls out for love and allows us to dissolve into those non-dual spaces.
I’m devoted to Neem Karoli Baba, the great 20thcentury saint Ram Dass wrote about in Be Here Now and all his books. Maharaj-ji’s been my guru since I was 14 years old, so philosophically it doesn’t matter what I think – I have this devotional relationship with him. When I experience Maharaj-ji, there’s something in my heart that melts. It’s like he’s a warmth, a fire, a flame. And when I come into proximity, my heart softens and the boundaries dissolve. I enter this non-dual state that other people cultivate through more cool practices that aren’t necessarily heart-centered. They’re more about mindfulness.
When I chant (I also love sacred music in all languages; in Hebrew and Arabic, especially in Sanskrit, especially kirtan), my heart softens and opens and yields, and there’s a devotional quality that’s quite ecstatic. It also has an element of pain; the pain of longing. But ultimately what happens when I allow myself to fully enter that devotional space is that I almost always taste non-dual states of undifferentiated awareness that are empty in the most delicious sense of that word. I like how Roshi Joan Halifax translates sunyata, the Buddhist term for emptiness, which is the true quality of all that is, not as emptiness, but as boundlessness. Devotional practices bring me to those non-dual states. And there’s a reciprocity when I return to individuated consciousness from those fleeting moments of resting in suchness. I have an urge to praise. Praise what? Praise who? I don’t know, but it bubbles up from my heart and my body. I experienced this terrifying sweetness of being nobody for a minute.
TS: It’s interesting that you brought up the deep pain or ache of longing, because that was also one of the sections of Wild Mercy that I appreciated. At one point, someone asked me, “Do you have longing?” And I was like, “Yes, I have all kinds of longing,” but I also felt like I’d given the person the wrong answer, that I’d failed my spirituality exam. Yet in Wild Mercy you make owning our longing part of the landscape of the heart, part of our spiritual path.
MS: And in fact, the portal. Longing is a portal.
TS: At the end of one chapter, you wrote, “What do you want from the holy one? Write a letter to your beloved stating your demands and your longings.” I thought that was a great exercise, even though it doesn’t fit with people’s conventional view of what a spiritual path should be like. I’m writing my demands to the holy one. What? My demands don’t count. Do they?
MS: You’re right – we’re not supposed to want stuff. Desire is supposed to be the problem. A more sophisticated version of that teaching is to just become aware of our desires, but either way there’s a kind of cool detachment that’s expected of us in most spiritual traditions, in which we understand that it’s okay to have desires, but it’s going to cause trouble, and ultimately you’ll be a lot happier if you can detach from them. I’m advocating that we actually connect with our desires on all levels, without making a distinction between physical and spiritual. And that we stand up for ourselves in the presence of the holy and say, “This is what I want.” Teresa of Avila, the great 16thcentury renegade nun who I’ve had the good fortune of translating, was famous for shaking her fist at God and saying, “What a minute, dude. This is not OK with me.” Or, “Why do you become present with me, enter me, inflame my heart, hold me close, and then leave me? This is not OK.” Many of the great scriptures, from the Song of Songs to the Gita Govinda to Layla and Majnun in the Sufi literature are based on lover and beloved coming together in ecstatic union, then separating. He leaves her behind, and she cries out with love longing, and her cry becomes the impetus for reunification. That reunion, I believe, is the reunification of the masculine and feminine in each of us. The love longing that our hearts cry out with is a longing for the balancing of the masculine and feminine, the godhead reforming and restoring wholeness. And our beings become a microcosm for the restoration of balance of masculine and feminine in the world.
TS: I imagine that some listeners were surprised when you said that Neem Karoli Baba, this Indian male figure, has been a guru, a teacher for you, living in your heart, and then here you are, writing about the women mystics. But at the very beginning of the book, there’s this great section where you invite men into the dialogue. And I’m wondering if you can read that for us.
MS: Sure. “You don’t have to be female yourself to walk through these gates. Men are welcome here. You just don’t get to boss us around or grab our breasts or solve our problems. You may sample our cooking and wash it down with our champagne. You may ask us to dance, and you may not pout if we decline. You may study our texts, ponder our most provocative questions. You may fall in our laps and weep if you feel the urge. We will soothe you, as we always have. And then, we’ll send you back to the city with your pockets full of seeds to plant.
The secret is out. The celebration is overflowing its banks. The joy is becoming too great to contain. The pain has grown too urgent to ignore. The earth is cracking open, and the women are rising from our hiding places and spilling onto the streets, lifting the suffering into our arms, demanding justice from the tyrants, pushing on the patriarchy and activating a paradigm shift such as the world has never seen.”
There’s a call now to step up in service of our fellow human beings, other creatures, and the earth herself, and anyone listening is going to hear it. And the feminine wisdom teachings, past and present, give us radically new ways to show up at a time when everything’s on fire. The only way we can meaningfully address the conflagration is together. Feminine teachings have always been singing that song: that we cannot, should not, and must not try to be lone saviors in the crazy reality in which find ourselves. It’s only by looking around and paying attention, and listening to each other and holding each other, and pulling each other in and lifting each other up, that we can possibly hope to mend the torn fabric.
The wisdom of the feminine lies hidden in all kinds of places and spaces, and we have to be paying attention to find it. That’s why I want to call out the younger women and the transgendered people, and people who fall all over the spectrum of the feminine experience, and are drawing on these deep values of heart, of relationship, of feeling, of tending, of nurturance, of wild, radical, fierce truth telling that’s required of us right now. Is a kind of ferocity that hasn’t always been associated with the feminine.
TS: Let’s end with you reading the piece that opens the chapter on connecting and community.
MS: “You feel special. Sometimes this feels like a curse, like no one will ever understand you, like you’ll always be an alien pretending to blend in with regular humans. You’ve learned to live with this gulf, but you crave community. You long to belong to the human family, to Mother Earth. Participating in the human condition can be hard. It can seem so much simpler to ride solo, slaying your own dragons and singing the ballads you wrote about yourself. Collaboration can be tedious, and the prevailing masculine value system may have conditioned you to feel like you’re giving away your power when you share it with others. Give it away anyway. The time of the singular sage bestowing his unique wisdom is over. That was a method devised by the men in charge who sought to regulate wisdom. They taught us to suffer alone in the desert for 40 years, collecting our insights in a secret box labeled ‘esoteric knowledge,’ then dispensing them stingily to those who’ve proven themselves worthy. This world is filled with special beings, grappling our way through the anxiety of solitary conundrums and tasting the occasional reprieve of connection. When you realize this, your body lets out its breath and relaxes. You come in from the cold. You hold out your cup, and some other special being fills it with sweet, milky tea, spiced with fragrant herbs. You drink.
Our way, the way of the feminine, is to find out what everyone is good at, praise them for it, and get them to teach it to others. Maybe you know something about the hidden meanings of the Hebrew letters, or how to build a sustainable home from recycled tires and rammed soil, or loving kindness meditation. You, the one who knows the Islamic call to prayer, climb that minaret and call us. You, the one who knows how to sit quietly at the bedside of the dying, show us the way to bear witness. You, the one who knows how to get us to wake up to the shadow of privilege, wake us the fuck up. It will be chaotic, all this community building, but your cooperation will save the world. Besides, it will be fun.”