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The Elaine Massacre: 100 Years Later


I have not yet covered the Elaine Massacre in the This Day in Labor History series, but it’s on the list. It’s 100th anniversary was yesterday. 1919 was an atrocious year in American history, one marked by massive racial violence, lynchings of both people of color coming off of trains from World War I in their Army uniforms and unionists standing up for the rights of working people. It was the year of the Red Scare and of the rise of J. Edgar Hoover as a force in American history. It was the year that the U.S. decided to go all-in on isolationism and reject the League of Nations. It was a no-good, awful year and I’m surprised this hasn’t gotten more attention.

But the Elaine Massacre might be the single worst event in that year of distinguished awfulness. And the descendants are demanding reparations for it.

ON THE NIGHT OF SEPTEMBER 30, 1919, 200 men, women, and children gathered in a small wooden church in Hoop Spur, an area just outside the town of Elaine. The clandestine meeting was one of the early gatherings of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union, whose leaders had been recruiting black sharecroppers across the county for the past several months.

Arkansas enjoyed soaring postwar cotton prices that made the rich soils of the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta a wellspring of profit. But black sharecroppers never shared in the fruits of this bounty. Their efforts to collect equitable payment from white landowners were met with threats of violence. In the hopes of strengthening their economic standing, the sharecroppers found inspiration in Northern black newspaper editorials that urged labor strikes and organizing. Black soldiers returning from World War I added to this volatile mix after they found that their military service hadn’t softened bigoted hearts. But newly emboldened by their wartime experiences and training, the sharecroppers of Phillips County sought to unionize.

Annie Giles was just a teenager when she and her family joined the other sharecroppers in the Hoop Spur church that September night. By 8 p.m. the house was packed. Acutely aware of the trouble that would erupt if the white landowners discovered their organizing efforts, union leaders stationed armed guards outside to keep watch.

The facts surrounding the massacre and its immediate aftermath have been documented in two books: Grif Stockley’s Blood in Their Eyes, published in 2001, and Robert Whitaker’s 2009 treatment, On the Laps of Gods. While local activists dispute some pieces of evidence presented in the two accounts today, it’s generally accepted by historians that black informants revealed the sharecroppers’ organizing plans to the landowners.

After the dust settled the next morning, one of the white men who had approached the church that night, a Missouri Pacific Railroad security officer, was reported dead. A deputy was injured. Calls came in to authorities in Helena, the Phillips County seat, where Frank Kitchens, the county sheriff and a prosperous landowner, said that the sharecropper union ambushed the men while they changed a flat tire. Declaring that a black insurrection was under way, Kitchens summoned local whites, handed out 20-gauge Winchester shotguns, and dispatched this mob 20 miles south to Elaine. These men, many of them World War I veterans, were primed to turn their weapons on the black men who had also fought for the United States.

The massacre began in earnest the next day, October 1. The white mob from Helena marched through the sharecroppers’ cabins killing people indiscriminately. Some fought back, killing or injuring some of the white men. As the mob grew in size, attracting whites from across eastern Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, the killings became a “free-for-all,” Mitchell said. News of the massacre reached Arkansas Governor Charles Brough, who quickly wired War Secretary Newton Baker to dispatch 500 federal troops stationed in Little Rock to help suppress the “black insurrection.”

By the next day, many more people had been killed. Among them was 25-year-old World War I veteran Leroy Johnston, who had returned home to recover from the wounds he received defending France from the German invasion. Leroy was living and working with his two brothers, one a prosperous dentist in Helena, the other an auto mechanic, when their fourth brother returned from Oklahoma, where he worked as a physician. According to African American journalist Ida B. Wells, who came to Elaine to document the killings, the four brothers were returning from a hunting trip on October 2 when they heard about the massacre. They boarded a train bound for Helena. But before the train left, they were discovered by some members of the mob, handcuffed, and put in a car. As the car pulled away, the mob riddled the vehicle with bullets, killing all four brothers and the white driver.

The bodies of the four brothers were left on the roadside for days, where they lay “in the hot sun just as if they had been so many dead dogs,” Wells wrote in a pamphlet she published in 1920. Historians estimate that between 100 and 300 African Americans and five whites died. Hundreds of African Americans were arrested. The 12 black men who faced the death penalty ultimately won back their lives in the 1923 landmark Supreme Court case Moore v. Dempsey. In a 6-to-2 ruling, the justices found that the actions of the white mobs had violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

An October 3 New York Times story on the Elaine Race Massacre carried the headline “Trouble Traced to Socialist Agitators.” The Arkansas Gazette placed blame squarely on the sharecroppers in a report that declared, “Negroes Plan to Kill All Whites.” Newspapers across the country blamed the violence on the black sharecroppers and communist agitators for the next several months. White men had successfully distorted the event, transforming the episode from an abominable massacre to a “black insurrection,” the sum of all white fears.

The massacre was just one of many flashpoints of racial violence that gripped the nation during one of the darkest periods in American history, the Red Summer of 1919. Race massacres occurred in more than 30 cities between May and October of that year, beginning in Charleston, South Carolina, and continuing for the next six months in smaller Southern towns and larger Northern cities alike. Until the night of September 30, the bloodiest of these clashes had taken place in Washington, D.C.—when whites began randomly beating black pedestrians after a black man was accused of raping a white woman. In Chicago, rioting broke out after a black man was stoned to death for swimming on the white side of a Lake Michigan beach.

This is precisely the type of horrible action in our history in which whites should pay for. Elaine is poor. The African-American population there is even poorer. People’s ancestors survived terrible things (or didn’t) with massive PTSD and fear that was passed down through the generations. What are we going to do about that?

At a time when progressive Democrats have thrust the issue of reparations for slavery into the 2020 primary race, the Elaine Legacy Center group claims that reparations should include the atrocities that came after the Civil War. They believe that the rampant poverty that now defines Phillips County—the 15th-poorest county in the country—can be traced back, in part, to the massacre. “There’s a lot of blame and resentment that many of the residents still have toward what they saw as an active assault on their community,” Mitchell said. “They feel as if they’re owed something. Their ancestors were killed.”

They believe that the land farmed by large agricultural corporations throughout Phillips County would belong to black residents if it weren’t for the brazen land theft that followed the massacre. However, historians like Mitchell have yet to discover any census or land records that substantiate their claims. Without finding deeds or property tax records that show black land ownership, allegations of land theft remain unsubstantiated. “We know an atrocity took place, [but] we need more proof to make demands,” Mitchell says. These views have created tensions between the academics and civil rights activists. While academics adhere strictly to what historic records can prove, the activists argue that the oral histories are the primary gateways to understanding the history. The lack of land records, they say, does not disprove their land theft claims.

Many Arkansans, both white and black, feel proper remembrance and commemoration can heal the deep-seated wounds. Others, mostly poor blacks living in the area, feel true justice cannot be served without reparations—a kind of economic atonement. Yet Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, the great-grandnephew of the four Johnston brothers who were gunned down in the massacre, wonders how such a plan could play out. “Who do you receive reparations from? The state of Arkansas? Who do you go to? The U.S. government? And then do you pay guys like me? Although I lost four great-uncles down there, I’m a federal judge and my father was a doctor, my grandfather was a doctor. Do you give me money?” he says.

Although debates over reparations have consumed African American history scholars for decades, the idea has gained new momentum in recent years. In April, Georgetown University students took a nonbinding vote to raise tuition to create a reparations fund for descendants of the school’s 1838 sale of 272 slaves to Deep South plantations. And in June, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing on H.R. 40, which calls for a commission to study reparations for the “perpetration of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity on African slaves and their descendants.”

Something like reparations are really hard to figure out. The documentation for claims about the black past often doesn’t even exist anymore, as in Elaine. How is it implemented? Who pays? And what about all the white liberals who claim to care about racism until being asked to do the first thing about it, a highlight of too many LGM comment threads about schools, never mind politically conservative whites? There aren’t easy answers. But reparations is the place that our national conversation needs to be because it is only when whites will go beyond meaningless words and engage in actual soul-searching and action that we will even take the first step toward a successful fight against racism in this awful, awful country we call home.


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17 days ago
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The Tyranny of Meritocracy

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In this quick animated excerpt of a longer talk, political philosopher Michael Sandel critiques the idea of the meritocracy, the notion that innate talent and hard work are the main drivers of personal success and “the smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve their fate”.

A lively sense of the contingency of our lot conduces to a certain humility. The idea that ‘there but for the grace of God, or the accident of fortune, go I’. But a perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace or luck; it diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. And so, it leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. This is what makes merit a kind of tyranny.

Sandel’s full talk, A New Politics of Hope, is available online here.

P.S. A reminder that the term “meritocracy” was originally a satirical term invented by writer Michael Young in 1958 to describe a dystopian society. He is disappointed to see how people now wear the term as a badge of honor.

The business meritocracy is in vogue. If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get.

They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side.

(via open culture)

Tags: Michael Sandel   Michael Young   politics   video
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17 days ago
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17 days ago
So someone on YT commented that in the future we will be able to measure IQ really well and that then meritocracy will finally work (of course it's someone who self-identifies as intelligent) and I just had to vent a bit because I have had it with those kinds of people.

This entire idea of meritocracy rests on so many flawed assumptions it's hard to know where to begin. It assumes we have a solid, rigorous definition of "clever" or "genius". That we can reduce the complexity of thought to a single number that is measurable, and that this number lets us rank people in some hierarchy in an absolute and universal way that does not depend on context. It assumes that this number is pure nature, not nurture.

All of those assumptions are flawed if not flat-out wrong. Not only that, even if they all held up, a very simple thought experiment blows down the conclusion like the house of cards that it is: just think of all the really intelligent people you know who still believe really dumb to sometimes downright insane things. Or people who are geniuses but apply these things for nefarious purposes.

IQ tells you nothing about the merit of a person. In fact, we have not even begun to address *what constitutes merit to begin with*.

The reality is that the world out there is messy and complicated. There may be an appeal to try to fit it into a model this reductionist for the sake of ones own sanity, but in practice it will only cause disaster, just like how during the last century blindly copying the scientific methods that worked for physics to all other fields of science has led to tremendous problems because it did not take into account the difference in context.

China, Political Order, and International Order


China is a highly authoritarian state with an extremely poor record on human rights. During the 2000s, it seemed like the country was very slowly and tentatively liberalizing. This is no longer the case. The cumulative weight of the color revolutions and the Arab spring seems to have convinced Beijing, like many other authoritarian regimes, that the possibility of revolutionary surprises is both real and dangerous. Xi Jinping has decided to move the country in a more autocratic direction, consolidating power in his own hands, shutting down the nascent spaces of greater political freedom

What’s sometimes less appreciated is that the structure of the Chinese state also has significant imperial characteristics. Xinjiang, where China has placed at least a million ethnic Uighurs in “reeducation camps,” has long been the site of settler colonialism. Beijing encourages the migration of Han Chinese into the province with the aim of shifting its demographic balance. Indeed, many observers point to 2009 ethnic riots as the ultimate cause of the current crackdown, even as some contend that concern over the Belt and Road Initiative also played a key role.

The policies adopted in Xinjiang have an immediate precedent in Tibet. There, the government has also sought to aggressively shift the demographic balance through Han migration and otherwise pursued a strategy of Sinicization. In fact, the current party secretary of Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, previously held the same position in Tibet.

Recently, the New York Times reported that Sinicization pressures on Muslims in China are spreading beyond Xinjiang.

That tide of “Sinicization,” as Chinese policymakers call it, is surging nationwide. A recent, unescorted trip through Gansu, a corridor that once ushered Silk Road caravans and Islam into imperial China, revealed an accelerating campaign to assimilate another Muslim minority, the Hui, a Chinese-speaking people with no recent record of separatism or extremism.

The campaign targeting the Hui does not feature mass internment or pervasive digital surveillance, the most striking aspects of the Xinjiang crackdown. But it is a purge of ideas, symbols, culture, products — anything deemed not Chinese. It permeates life, in ways existential and mundane.

Domes and minarets are lopped off mosques and replaced with curving Chinese roofs. News broadcasts are forbidden to show pedestrians wearing traditional Hui skullcaps or veils. Arabic script is outlawed in public spaces, so practically every restaurant has a sun-beaten facade with dark traces where the word “halal” has been scraped off.

Strict new quotas throttle religious education to the degree that some Hui intellectuals predict their people could become largely irreligious, like most of China, in two or three generations.

Pressures are mounting against the Hui, the distant descendants of Persian traders, at a moment when the Communist leadership is stoking nationalism among the ethnic majority Han to bolster popular support. In officials’ speeches, on television and across billboards, one frequent refrain is the “China Dream” — Xi’s vision of restoring China’s historic power and wealth, its culture and its pride.

In many ways, Chinese policy is essentially a twenty-first century variant of well-rehearsed imperial control strategies. Many empires exploit difference via divide-and-rule tactics—essentially maintaining control by setting populations against one another. Indeed, imperial systems are one of three major ways that human beings have worked out to handle ethnically diverse and territorially expansive polities. The other two are federal and confederal systems, and many political communities mix elements of all three.

Over time, particularly durable and successful empires can produce increasing homogenization via the spread of common language and cultural practices. Both the Romans and successive Chinese dynasties transformed many of the peoples who came under the writ.

But empires can also see diversity as a problem, especially when rulers either can not or will not—often for ideological or religious reasons—tolerate the persistence of subpopulations that they consider threatening. In those circumstances, they may turn toward ethnic cleansing via some combination of mass murder, forcible relocation, and coercive assimilation.

Many modern “nations” are the product of these kinds of processes, whether in their their violent or non-violent variants. For instance, compare how the United States treated many Native Americans, especially during processes of westward imperial expansion and their aftermath.

The example of the United States is particularly useful, in that nineteenth-century America was something of a transitional or hybrid polity. Its continental imperial territories became federal units, and it bootstrapped a national-state onto a federative system.

Indeed, the development of naitonal-states was almost always marked by decreasing tolerance of pluralism. Heather Rae argues that this often amounted to “pathological homogenization”, in which rulers pursue the elimination of ethnic and religious differences even when doing so is more costly than allowing pluralism to persist. They do so, she argues, primarily out of concerns for their legitimacy.

Which brings us back to contemporary China. China combines elements of national-states, imperial systems, and federations. China has historically been too large and diverse to govern without the significant use of imperial logics of organization and of imperial repertoires. Like some of its more recent forebears, Beijing harnesses the more expansive toolkit of industrial society to pursue homogenization and control. At the same, China is engaged in a grand experiment to see if the techniques of digital authoritarianism can augment these efforts.

The current Chinese model also seeks to cope with other institutional tensions. These include ones between imperial modes of control—which depends on the segmentation of territorial units to hinder the spread of political contention—and an increasingly integrated capitalist economy—which facilitates the flow of peoples and ideas across territorial units.

At the same time, we would normally expect Beijing’s targeting of Muslims throughout China to present a particular political risk, insofar as it activates common grievances across different ethnic groups spread across multiple regions. It makes “Muslim identity” much more politically salient—an identity that Chinese Muslims share with nearly a quarter of the world’s population.

But it seems that Beijing believes some combination of the following:

  • Its mechanisms of social control are sufficiently robust to minimize the downside risks;
  • The existing threat posed by its Muslim communities is great enough to justify those downside risks;
  • The legitimacy gains from targeting its Muslim populations are great enough to justify those downside risks; and
  • Its economic power is sufficient to reduce international costs, whether in terms of China’s reputation or blowback from the Muslim world.

So far, these calculations appear correct. Certainly, China has done a fairly effective job of insulating itself on the international stage.

When Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visited Beijing this summer, he hailed a new Silk Road bridging Asia and Europe. He welcomed big Chinese investments for his beleaguered economy. He gushed about China’s sovereignty.

But Mr. Erdogan, who has stridently promoted Islamic values in his overwhelmingly Muslim country, was largely silent on the incarceration of more than one million Turkic Muslims in China’s western region of Xinjiang, and the forced assimilation of millions more. It was an about-face from a decade ago, when he said the Uighurs there suffered from, “simply put, genocide” at the hands of the Chinese government.

Like Mr. Erdogan, the world has been noticeably quiet about Xinjiang, where China has built a vast network of detention camps and systematic surveillance over the past two years in a state-led operation to convert Uighurs into loyal, secular supporters of the Communist Party. Even when diplomats have witnessed the problems firsthand and privately condemned them, they have been reluctant to go public, unable to garner broad support or unwilling to risk financial ties with China.

Backed by its diplomatic and economic might, China has largely succeeded in quashing criticism. Chinese officials have convinced countries to support Beijing publicly on the issue, most notably Muslim ones in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. They have played to the discord within the West over China. And they have waged an aggressive campaign to prevent discussion of Xinjiang at the United Nations.

All of this provides, in my view, clear evidence that transformation in international order is already underway. The question for the United States is how to adapt.


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19 days ago
Sydney, Australia
19 days ago
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The Gilded Age Republican Power Grab: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

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We often complain about the unfair Senate and how all the big empty states in the middle of the country give Republicans an inherent advantage that is impossible to overcome. As Heather Cox Richardson reminds us, this was a very intentional play by Republicans in the Gilded Age.

The Republicans had won every presidential election from 1860 to 1876, and controlled both houses of Congress for all but two years of that period, but their governing majority was evaporating. In 1880, after a major Democratic scandal, the Republican James A. Garfield won election by only slightly more than 8,000 votes out of almost 10 million cast, and in 1884, a Democrat, New York’s Grover Cleveland, won the presidency. For Republicans, Cleveland’s election signaled the apocalypse. They had come to believe that the key to American prosperity was the Republican tariff system, which protected American business. Democrats, in contrast, complained that tariffs drove up the price of consumer goods and enabled industrialists to collude to raise prices. Cleveland won by promising to reduce tariff rates. Worse for Republicans, the South had gone solidly Democratic after 1876, and by the time of Cleveland’s victory it was clear it would remain so for the foreseeable future. Not for the last time, Republicans protested that the nation was falling to socialism.

So they changed the political equation. Vowing to regain the White House, Republican leaders first flooded the country with pro-business literature, and then chose the nondescript Ohio Senator Benjamin Harrison, who would toe the line on the tariff, as their nominee for president. Next they tapped a Philadelphia department-store entrepreneur, John Wanamaker, to persuade wealthy industrialists to invest in the Republican war chest, constructing a modern system of campaign finance. Their advertisements and threats that Democrats would destroy the economy enabled Republicans to win control of Congress. Harrison lost the popular vote by about 100,000 votes, but he won the election in the Electoral College. (When Harrison piously declared that “Providence has given us this victory,” his campaign manager scoffed that “Providence hadn’t a damn thing to do with it. [A] number of men were compelled to approach the penitentiary to make him President.”)

In the face of an emerging Democratic majority, Republicans set out to cement their power. The parties had scuffled for years over admission of new states, with Democrats now demanding New Mexico and Montana, and Republicans hoping for Washington and Dakota (which had not yet been divided in two). Before the election, Congress had discussed bringing in all four states together, but as soon as the Republican victory was clear, Democrats realized they had to get the best deal they could or Republicans would simply admit the Republican states and ignore the Democratic ones, as they had done in 1876. So on February 22, 1889, outgoing President Cleveland signed an act dividing the Dakota Territory in half, and permitting the two new territories, along with Montana and Washington, to write constitutions before admission to the union the following year. They passed over New Mexico, which had twice the population of any of the proposed states.

Republicans did not hide their intentions. In the popular Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, President Harrison’s son crowed that the Republicans would win all the new states and gain eight more senators, while the states’ new electors meant that Cleveland’s New York would no longer dominate the Electoral College. When the Republicans’ popularity continued to fall nationally, in 1890 Congress added Wyoming and Idaho—whose populations in 1880 were fewer than 21,000 and 33,000 respectively—organizing them so quickly that they bypassed normal procedures and permitted volunteers instead of elected delegates to write Idaho’s constitution.

Democrats objected that Wyoming and Idaho would have four senators and two representatives even though there were fewer people in both together than in some of Massachusetts’s congressional districts, but Harrison’s men insisted that they were statesmen rather than partisans. They accused Democrats of refusing to admit any states that did not support their party—a reversal of the actual record—and claimed Republicans supported “the prosperous and growing communities of the great West.” But moderate Republicans sided with the Democrats, pointing out that the Harrison administration had badly undercut the political power of voters from populous regions, attacking America’s fundamental principle of equal representation.

Harrison’s men didn’t care. “The difference between the parties is as the difference between the light and darkness, day and night,” one supporter argued in Frank Leslie’s. The Republican Party, he insisted, must stay in power to protect Big Business. If that meant shutting more populous territories out of statehood and admitting a few underpopulated western states to enable a minority to exercise political control over the majority of Americans, so be it. Today, the District of Columbia has more residents than at least two other states; Puerto Rico has more than 20. With numbers like that, admitting either or both to the union is less a political power play on the Democrats’ part than the late-19th-century partisan move that still warps American politics.

As usual, when Republicans complain that Democrats doing something is evil or socialism or tyrannical or whatever, it’s just projection because they want to do precisely what they accuse Democrats of doing. That very much includes calls to make Washington DC or Puerto Rico states. Can’t have democracy when your goal is to make democracy impossible. So let’s divide Wyoming into 3 states.


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23 days ago
Or California into six states where it just so happens that four of the six would likely elect Republican senators at the time.
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This is your phone on feminism

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A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk in Austria on smartphones and cybersecurity.

“Put up your hand if you like or maybe even love your smartphone,” I asked the audience of policymakers, industrialists and students.

Nearly every hand in the room shot up.

“Now, please put up your hand if you trust your smartphone.”

One young guy at the back put his hand in the air, then faltered as it became obvious he was alone. I thanked him for his honesty and paused before saying,“We love our phones, but we do not trust them. And love without trust is the definition of an abusive relationship.”

We are right not to trust our phones. They serve several masters, the least of whom is us. They constantly collect data about us that is not strictly necessary to do their job. They send data to the phone company, to the manufacturer, to the operating system owner, to the app platform, and to all the apps we use. And then those companies sell or rent that data to thousands of other companies we will never see. Our phones lie to us about what they are doing, they conceal their true intentions, they monitor and manipulate our emotions, social interaction and even our movements. We tell ourselves ‘it’s okay, I chose this’ when we know it really, really isn’t okay, and we can’t conceive of a way out, or even of a world in which our most intimate device isn’t also a spy.

Let’s face the truth. We are in an abusive relationship with our phones.

I ‘m really proud of this piece. The rest of it is here.

Comments here at CT v. welcome especially as there’s more I’d like to say about Kate Manne. Anyone here read ‘Down Girl, the Logic of Misogyny? Her thing is that while sexism is the rationalising part, misogyny is the law enforcement branch of patriarchy. (this is a scandalously short and impertinent summary. It’s a fantastic book and I recommend reading it.) I’m thinking that, analogously for surveillance capitalism, exploitation is the rationalisation and predation the policing mechanism. But not sure if that quite works, i.e. if the terms match up, as well as the overall analogy.

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32 days ago
Link to full piece at the end.
32 days ago
35 days ago
Washington, DC
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32 days ago
The world tech built.
35 days ago
Do you have an abuser in your pocket, purse, or backpack?
Central Pennsyltucky

The Senior Emissary from Moo.

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She hated me on sight. I don’t know why. Her compatriot, Nutmeg, was a furry little slut who climbed into my lap the moment we met and wouldn’t stop talking (still hasn’t, actually). But Minion— back in the early days, Minion would hurtle towards the front door at the sound of someone entering the house (obviously assuming that her beloved mom was home at last) only to slam on the brakes at the sight of me, like something out of a Warner Brothers cartoon. She would screech to a halt and give me a glare of pure green hatred— You!— before turning and heading back downstairs.

I hardly ever saw her those first weeks. Neither did Caitlin, for that matter: Minion, ever-loathing of the intruder, basically retreated to the basement and would not come out while I was around. I swear, I did nothing at all to piss her off.

Eventually, she relented. The BUG nudged me awake early one morning to see Minion creeping ever-so-slowly onto the bed between us. I remember my bladder filling, my back increasingly stiff as I lay there like a statue, loathe to move lest I fuck up this tiny bit of progress and startle her back down the stairs again. She basically got me to torture myself for an hour by the simple act of of snoozing at my side.

Looking back, of course, she knew exactly what she was doing. That cat was a fucking genius.

She was unremarkable to look at: your standard subcompact tuxedo, who always looked perfectly dignified and not a little reserved whether imitating a loaf of bread or a table lamp. (She did, admittedly, look like a complete goof when drinking water from the bathroom sink.) But she was smart: you could see her sizing up every room, every situation, before stepping into it. She was one of only two cats I ever knew who figured out the Sliding Window Principle on her own; the only cat who kept that discovery to herself.

We’ll never know how long she was sneaking out to explore the world while we innocently continued regarding her as an Indoor Cat; she would make her clandestine exit after we’d gone to sleep and return before the alarm went off in the morning. Sure, I could’ve sworn I’d closed the window the night before, but the BUG was always going on about fresh air; she must have slid it back during the night. Clearly none of the cats were getting out; they were all present and accounted for every morning (and it’s not like a slip-of-a-thing like Minion would be able to leap the eight feet from patio to windowsill anyway). The BUG and I were so oblivious we thought we were sharing the same dream, thought we were psychically bonded through Love: Honey, I dreamt that Minion was coming in from outside— Really? I had the exact same dream!

It wasn’t until we noticed the muddy paw prints all over our sheets after a rainy night that the truth finally sank in. By then, Minion was already Mistress of the Ravine— and once she knew we knew, she dropped the pretense. She started going outside during the day, spent her evenings sleeping with us.

She was a bit of a dictator about that. She would stand on the headboard, staring at us until we flipped over on our backs and pulled up the sheets[1]. Then she’d step down and try each of us on for size, pipping each chest, bonking each face, walking back and forth and finally settling on whichever thorax she wanted to use as her mattress that night. And while she generally selected The BUG and me with equal frequency, I could not help but notice that when she slept on the BUG she would stretch out across her shoulder, cheek to cheek, purring happily. When she chose me, she would usually turn the other way around and I’d end up spending the night with Minion’s butt in my face.

Caitlin kept calling her a “Moo”, which I’m given to understand is a habit endemic to people with a background in the Humanities (and which at least was consistent with her insistence on calling the household rabbit a “Boo”). As an empiricist with a strong scientific background, I could not let such mushy cutesiness stand. If the BUG insisted on using the term, it would fucking well mean something. Which is how Minion became “Min of Moo”— or more formally, “The Senior Emissary From Moo.”[2]

She was a master of proportional response. If, for example, you were to mime the use of her nose as a button on a NORAD missile-control panel, she would first meep her objection. If that didn’t work she would nip, but gently: Honestly, Can Opener, you do not want to continue down this road. Only if both those warnings went unheeded would she resort to the nuclear option— at which point you would find yourself walking gingerly around the house with a cat balled around your hand, anchored to your flesh by five sets of claws and a mouthful of teeth. And you would not be able to claim you hadn’t asked for it.

She was impervious to rain. She would rejoice in the snow. She’d freeze our asses off at 3a.m. in the dead of winter, hopping onto the sill above our bed, hooking her paw around the edge of the windowframe, leaning into it with her shoulder and pulling until it was open enough to leap away into the night. Frigid air would cascade into the room and I’d reach up and pull the window shut and growl That’s it, she’s out for the night and the BUG would say She is not and sure enough, 5 minutes or two hours later, Minion would be back on the windowsill knocking (no gentle paw-tap here— the previous owner had installed a little metal security grid across the window, secured with a padlock that Minion had learned to bat to get our attention). I would heroically try to ignore the incessant clacking of metal on glass but eventually I’d give in or the BUG, exasperated, would climb over me and open the window and Minion would nonchalantly hop back inside and do whatever cat things she did at 3:30 in the morning until deciding she wanted to go out again.

She stalked the night. She prowled the day. She ruled the roost. (She was, admittedly, kind of a bitch to Swiffer.) She somehow managed to be both the most aloof of our cats and the most affectionate. There was a nobility to her. It was not enough to merely love this cat: you had to admire her.

It was Caitlin who first noticed, of course. After we came back from Tel Aviv: something different about Minion. She wasn’t sleeping in the sock drawer any more. She was a little more— withdrawn, somehow. We took her in and the blood work came back— kidney disease, stage 3; then Stage 4, just a few weeks later. Weeks, the vet told us over the phone, and I didn’t believe her, and we looked up the literature and the literature said weeks and I still didn’t believe it. I’d lost a cat to kidney disease years before, you see— but not without a fight. Special diet, sub-q fluids, and you could buy a whole year of high-quality life, easy. I’d seen it. I’d done it. Fuck your median survival 35 days post-diagnosis.

So we stocked up on Ringer’s Lactate and k/d diet. The BUG and the Meez learned how to tent the skin between shoulder blades, slide the needle into that gap between skin and muscle, feel the hump of saline growing under the fur once a day, then twice. Minion bore it all stoically, even when we fucked up, even when we had to stab two or three times to get it right.

Thirty-five days came and went and we cheered. But Minion was— disappearing, piecemeal. She slept on our chests. Then she slept on the cushion at the foot of the bed. Then she slept outside. She receded from us in concentric increments as the disease ran its course.

All those behaviors so uniquely hers, that suite of Minionisms that made up her interface with the world. She stopped leaping onto the ledge ringing our porch pillars; stopped leaping onto the windowsill. She stopped racing to the bathroom whenever anyone went for a pee. That high-speed patter of paws, the leap onto the sink, the steady demanding stare until you cranked the faucet just enough to let her lap from the stream: inevitable, then intermittent, then a memory. Her appetite faded. Where once she’d line up with everyone else for brekky and dins and elevensies, now we’d seek her out in the garden or the ravine, tempt her with tuna when she turned her nose up at the k/d, try her on IAMS when the tuna lost its appeal, on salmon when she turned her nose up at IAMS. She was spending almost all her time outside now, she built little nests and hideouts to curl up in: in the back garden, in the tall grass by the oak out front, in the copse across the fence or under the hostas our neighbors had planted in their guerrilla garden on city lands.

She diminished. At first you’d just notice the shoulder blades sticking out like they never had before; then you’d scoop her up and she was light as twigs. Once or twice she’d go a whole day barely eating anything, barely even present in our lives. We’d brace ourselves and fear the worst (and I would rage inwardly because I’d been here before for fucksake and it wasn’t supposed to go like this. She was supposed to get better, we were supposed to get a few more months at least, a year or more, not these short fucking days. Not just days).  And then things would seem to turn around: Minion would jump up on the patio table and purr and bonk and eat half a tin of k/d in ten minutes, snarf a divot right down to bedrock. (And my gut would unclench because the trajectory had finally bent back in the right direction, and the reprieve was back on.)

“It’s like she’s pissed off,” the Meez said. “Like she knows she’s sick and she refuses to give in and she’s going to keep doing what she’s always done no matter what.”

Caitlin and I had a wedding to attend last week, out in Vancouver. Right up to the last day we weren’t sure we were going to make it. We’d warned the happy couple that our beloved Minion was ill and we might have to jam on the celebrations. But the day before departure we saw her rolling in the ravine, stretched out in all her bony glory and squirming in the way of cats doing their sun-worshiping thing. She accepted our scritches with hedonistic purrs. “This is a quality-of-life moment,” Caitlin told me. “If this is the last time we see her, it will be good memory.” And I thought What do you mean, the last time? She’s happy, she’s eating, we’re only gone for a few days. I swear she’s even gained back some weight.

Sure enough, when we arrived in Vancouver, Emma had good news: Minion had hung out downstairs with them. She’d eaten “with enthusiasm!”. She’d even leapt up onto the porch pillar, something she hadn’t done for weeks.

Twelve hours later she was dead.

We know when, almost to the minute. Emma couldn’t find her in the morning; she checked all the places we’d mapped out— at 6a.m., again at 9—  and found them empty. But Minion reappeared sometime before noon, curled up in our back garden; she’d stayed away, stayed hidden, until just before she died. Then she came back to that first little retreat she’d made for herself all that time ago, and she curled up in the sun and closed her eyes. She twitched, just once, when Emma found her and picked her up. Then she was gone.

Emma’s dad came over and dug the grave, in that same spot. The in-laws and Emma’s partner arrived for the burial; the BUG and I Skyped in from the coast, watched through chunky low-bandwidth video as they laid to rest something wrapped in a towel. They poured a little half’n’half into the hole, a ritual we’ve observed ever since Banana died seven years ago. All the while I couldn’t stop thinking: it was like she’d planned it.

And that’s the irony of all this. It was the best way Minion could have ended, the best way anyone could have. She didn’t die on some veterinarian’s table, surrounded by disinfectant smells and strange noises, pumped full of lethal chemicals. She didn’t starve to death; she was skinny and emaciated but she never stopped eating, never had any trouble keeping her food down, never spent horrible days or weeks unable to eat or move or take any pleasure from life. The last time we saw her— less than 24 hours before she died— she was happy, I swear it. When she’d had enough, she took herself off to some unmapped spot where she could be alone. Just before she ran out of time she came back home to die in the sun. I’ve seen a lot of cats die over the years; this was the best death of the lot, by a long shot.

So why does that make it worse, somehow?

Maybe because it implies a kind of awareness that I wouldn’t wish on any dying creature. It’s so hard not to project, not to anthropomorphize; who knows what goes on even in another Human mind, let alone a mind from an entirely separate species? But she was a being, no more a machine than any of us. And it’s like she had an agenda: she spent quality time, said goodbye, ensured she wouldn’t be disturbed by well-intentioned but pointless harassment and indignity. Finally, when there was nothing else to do, she came home to her favorite spot to die.

I don’t pretend to know how much abstraction these creatures are capable of. There’s no end of experts who’ll smugly assure you that “animals” cannot contemplate their own mortality, although none to my knowledge have ever explained  how they could possibly know that (and it’s been eight years since a different cadre of prominent neuroscientists opined that everything from parrots to octopi experience “near-human levels of consciousness”). All I can say is, it’s as if Minion knew something was coming, and chose to handle it her way. She controlled her narrative, as Caitlin put it. And if she was capable of that kind of foresight, then the dissolution of her bright little soul is an even greater loss.

She took no shit from anyone. Even dying, she was defiant in her love of life. She handled her own death better than I probably will, when the time comes. She was the very incarnation of Michael Joseph’s observation: a cat’s friendship is not easily won, but is worth having. Now she’s gone away.

They always go away. You’d think I’d be used to that by now.

Drawing up plans.

I think at this point she was starting to learn to close windows as well as open them.

The BUG gets Shoulder Cat. I get Butt-in-Face.

The Senior and Junior Emissaries from Moo.

Diplomacy was especially difficult when dealing with prey species who would fucking end you if you crossed them.

In her element.

Tell me that isn’t a relationship based on mutual respect and affection. I dare you.

Dignity under the most challenging circumstances.

Some times dignity was tougher to pull off than at others.

Well? What are you waiting for?

Half’n’half. On her Exclusive h&h delivery platform. On demand.

The Meez and The Min.

Two of the most beloved mammals in my world.

Declining. Dying. Defiant.


[1] There always had to be sheets, or at clothing involved. She would never settle on naked skin. To this day I don’t know what  made her such a prude.

[2] Due to the Law of Alliteration, Meggles was also “of Moo”, necessitating a ranking of emmisariness.

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