Wednesday, March 07, 2012

"We are all more blind to what we have than to what we have not"

Audre Lorde, the Black feminist essayist and poet, visited the Soviet Union in 1976, at the invitation of the Union of Soviet Writers. Her clear-eyed "Notes from a Trip to Russia" is the first piece in her excellent collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider. I'd thought I'd share a few passages from it.

In Samarkand, she encountered a man who was very interested in talking with her about Black Americans. He was surprised to learn that Black Americans were allowed to go to school, and to college, and to teach, since he was under the impression that they had no jobs. Lorde explains that it was simply "more difficult for Black people to find work and make any kind of living, and that the percentage of unemployment" was much higher for Black Americans than for white Americans.
He pondered that a little and then he asked, do Black people have to pay for their doctors, too? Because that's what TV programs had said. I smiled a little at this and told him it's not only Black people who have to pay for doctors and medical care; all people in America have to. Ah, he said. And suppose you don't have the money to pay? Well, I said, if you don't have the money to pay, sometimes you died. And there was no mistaking my gesture, even though he had to wait for the translator to translate it. We left him looking absolutely nonplussed, standing in the middle of the square with his mouth open and his hand under his chin staring after me, as in utter amazement that human beings could die from lack of medical care. It's things like that that keep me dreaming about Russia long after I've returned.

There's much that I think Russian people now take for granted. I think they take for granted free hospitalization and medical care. I think they take for granted free universities and free schooling as well as the presumption of universal bread, even with a rose or two, although no meat. We are all more blind to what we have than to what we have not.
It's remarkable how we've taken for granted the idea that one should pay for medical care. The apparently level-headed, superficially reasonable debates about the extent to which the government should "interfere" in the healthcare "market": we've all seen them, read them, participated in them. They're insane. Anyway, again, Lorde was writing in 1976; she died in 1992, so she didn't live to see how much worse it's gotten here in the U.S., nor would she have seen much of the post-Soviet destruction, "Shock Doctrine" style, of all of those basic features that she notes were (rightly) taken for granted by the Russian people.

And here she is, at the end of the piece:
It will take a while and a lot of dreams to metabolize all I've seen and felt in these hectic two weeks. [...] I have no reason to believe Russia is a free society. I have no reason to believe Russia is a classless society. Russia does not even appear to be a strictly egalitarian society. But bread does cost a few kopecs a loaf and everybody I saw seemed to have enough of it. Of course, I did not see Siberia, nor a prison camp, nor a mental hospital. But that fact, in a world where most people—certainly most Black people—are on a breadconcern level, seems to me to be quite a lot. If you conquer the bread problem, that gives you at least a chance to look around at the others.
Earlier she'd written "when you find people who start from a position where human beings are at the core, as opposed to a position where profit is at the core, the solutions can be very different". Of course, in the latter case, the solutions that are found are in fact not intended to "solve" the problems that we are likely to identify. That is, they are not intended to solve "the bread problem", to alleviate "breadconcern". They are intended to solve altogether different problems, usually something more along the lines of "how can we exacerbate the bread problem?" or "how can we increase breadconcern so that more people are compelled to give up potential power and work for less?" In which case, the existing solutions work rather well indeed.

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