Kai: This is the United States of Anxiety. The show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
Deirdre Bosa: Implications Brian, of course, are massive. This is the biggest unionization effort that Amazon has ever seen on US soil--
Mary Kay Henry: We need systemic change in how corporations behave in our economy and how Black people are treated throughout society.
Arlene Holt Baker: We know that the most likely group of people that say that they would form and join a union tomorrow are people of color and women. For we have had no choice.
Protesters: Workers of the world, unite! One struggle, one fight!
William Lucy: You can't suggest that they stand before an employer that really holds life and death, in a sense, over their livelihood.
Eleanor Norton Holmes: Let's face it the labor movement was a major institution propelling us toward equality.
President Biden: The choice to join a union is up to the workers' full stop.
Kai: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. I've been thinking about an encounter I had a couple of years ago, we were gearing up to cover the 2018 midterm elections on this show. That summer I went with one of our producers to the suburbs around Pittsburgh. There was a special election there and everybody was watching it. It was considered an early indicator of what might happen in the congressional elections, which were, of course, themselves early indicators of what might happen in 2020.
It was an intense moment politically at least for this little suburb. Anyway, the Republican strategy was to make the race all about hating Nancy Pelosi. We went out with canvassers who were knocking on doors and talking to voters because we wanted to hear what people had to say about Pelosi, about this powerful often demonized woman. We were in this famously blue-collar area, a classic neighborhood of modest houses, home to the kind of workers that both parties have so often invoked as avatars of their political platforms.
We went door to door, stood on stoop after stoop. Then this one encounter really stuck with me. A woman answered the door, maybe in her upper-middle ages. She was still in the workforce. Sounded like she had a big family sprawled out around the area, all super busy with their own work grind. This woman, she looked at us like we were crazy when we asked her about Nancy Pelosi. Instead, she started talking about time and missing her kids and her grandkids and how hard it was to just stay connected to them, to be a family.
When asked what she wanted from her Congresswoman, this woman said she wanted to reclaim her time. Time to spend with her family. I'm thinking about this encounter this week because I'm also watching what may be the most notable political fight happening right now. Away from Congress, away from the White House, down in Bessemer, Alabama, where nearly 6,000 workers are voting this month on whether to create the first-ever union at an Amazon facility in the United States.
This one union drive carries so much subtext. For one, it's become the latest battleground for the fight over political power in the South. It's drawn the attention of celebrities, athletes, Stacey Abrams, and last Sunday, Joe Biden posted a Twitter video that has been called the most pro-union statement by any modern president and maybe any president ever.
President Joe Biden: I've long said America wasn't built by Wall Street. It was built by the middle-class and unions built the middle-class. Unions put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protects us from racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and Brown workers.
Kai: This was a striking statement on so many levels. Democrats going back to at least Jimmy Carter had been far more fuzzy about their ties to labor. Biden is actively embracing these workers in the middle of a high-profile union drive. Moreover, he's framed it in terms of racial justice and gender equity, which frankly hasn't always been true of unions. While he didn't name Amazon, he did directly name the workers.
President Biden: Today and over the next few days and weeks workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. This is vitally important. A vitally important choice as America grapples with the deadly pandemic, the economic crisis, and the reckoning on race, what it reveals is deep disparities that still exist in our country.
Kai: Roughly 80% of the workers at Amazon's facility in Bessemer, Alabama are Black. It's been reported that the majority of its warehouse workforce nationally are people of color. This is a story about racial justice. It's also a story about Democratic party politics and about the historical arc of social movements that have changed that party and have changed unions for that matter.
Also, there's still this deeper story about time, our time, and our humanity inside this modern economy, the stuff that the woman I met in those suburbs of Pennsylvania was trying to tell me back in 2018. To try to stitch together all of these complicated threads and better see what is really happening in this moment, I'm joined by labor journalist, Sarah Jaffe. Hey, Sarah. Thanks for coming on.
Sarah Jaffe: Hello.
Kai: Sarah's most recent book is just out. It's hot off the presses, go get it. It's called Work Won't Love You Back. In it, she's poking at our cultural ideas about work and its value and how these ideas set us up for exploitation. She has also spent many years covering the labor movement specifically and social movements around economic justice generally. She's a fellow of the Type Media Center and a big-hearted reporter and who I figured could help me understand what's really happening in this moment.
Sarah, let us start with Amazon itself. The first thing that's kind of confusing about it is they're not even necessarily demanding higher pay. It's not a wages fight per se. Amazon already pays $15 an hour minimum wage, which is what the economic justice movements have been trying to establish nationally. These workers are looking for something less transactional. I read one worker who said, “it's about being heard.” What do you think this is really about?
Sarah: I love the intro that you gave with the story about time because I think the real truth of the labor movement is it's about people trying to reclaim some autonomy over what they do with their time, which as Selma James said just happens to be our lives. I think that's a really, really important point in a story like this. Where like, Amazon is a pretty-- $15 an hour is still not that much money in most of America, but in this part of Alabama, it's not a bad wage. These workers are probably making more than they would make in other places.
But the stories of work in those Amazon warehouses are about much more than how much they're getting paid for it. It's about being relentlessly tracked over how much time, again, time, you spend off task. If you have to do something like go to the bathroom in a warehouse the size of multiple football fields-- Talk about just the grind on your body of having to keep up with machines. Just the disrespect that you feel over and over again. Anybody who's ever worked… I mean, anybody who's ever worked, let me just put a period on that.
Anybody who's ever worked that kind of job where you're mostly doing manual labor has probably known what it's like for your employer, your manager, or your direct supervisor to basically in so many words tell you that you're replaceable, that you're expendable. I think it's really notable in this case that this Amazon facility out in Bessemer, Alabama, outside of Birmingham has only been open since last March. It's basically only been open in pandemic times. I think, again, nobody who's listening to this show who's still working, if you're idle rich or retired, I'm jealous because I think we all have had our experience of work get worse this year.
Kai: How fast-- I just want to underline when you said that it's only open since March, that's how quick this unionization effort happened to that's unique to have a campaign that quick.
Sarah: It's pretty surprising. It usually takes quite a long time to do these and especially because the process at this point, they’re a well-oiled union-busting industry out there that what if it's not number one, tactics is delay, delay, delay, delay, delay? Delay, until you can through attrition or through firing pro-union employees have some turnover in the workplace. Delay so people get frustrated, delay so you have time to make some promises and maybe give some selective raises or bonuses. The fact that they've gotten to this point really quickly says they’ve organized even quicker because the votes are due by March 29th. It's taken them basically a year from starting work basically to their union vote being completed which is really fast.
Kai: And that's about what? You point to that it's been unique times. We all have clarity around how challenging it is to work, but what is different that has made that happen?
Sarah: There are so many answers to that question. Like there have been some really high profile union drives in the South in recent years, including in Alabama, around mostly automobile plants, but the workers in this union have cited the organizing that was going on at other Amazon facilities, notably, they reached out to RWDSU, the Retail Wholesale, and Department Store Union because they had heard of them organizing Amazon workers on Staten Island. They had walkouts at that Staten Island facility about a year ago. They came into that having seen other Amazon workers' militancy and also being surrounded perhaps by those stories.
Also, I'm obsessed with this particular history because one of my favorite works of labor and social movement history is Robin D. G. Kelley's Hammer and Hoe, which just happens to take place in that part of Alabama. It's a story of Black workers in the communist party in Alabama in the New Deal era. Bessemer is one of the parts of the state that he's writing about in that. You have to remember that some of these workers' grandparents might've been in some of these unions that were backed by the communist party back in those days where you had real radical Black organizing happening in this area. There are so many layers to this.
Kai: We forget about that history. That it's so easy to think about the South, in particular, as this fully controlled area particularly when it comes to workers and the absence of radical politics and there's this rich, rich history of Black radicalism there.
Sarah: That radicalism is what-- Going back all the way to slave revolts and then reconstruction and then this organizing that was going on during the Jim Crow era and then Alabama, once again, we're talking on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I believe.
Kai: Yes, we are.
Sarah: We are looking through this history of the Black freedom struggle. The way that these workers have talked about this, the way that other workers in the area who are supporting them have talked about this, it's very, very clear that they understand this as a struggle not just for workplace justice, but for racial justice. To say like we are as deserving of fair treatment and good treatment in the workplace as anything.
Kai: That too though is a new idea, a new modern idea in the labor movement. The labor movement has not been associated with racial justice for most of its time. Now here we are tonight, the president, you, those workers, we're all talking about this as a racial justice thing. How did that come to be? You have chronicled that shift in your work, can you break that down?
Sarah: There is a history of this being a contested topic within the labor movement. Unions like the Mine Mill Workers Union, the International Union of Mine Mill and Smelter Workers is the actual full name. They were multi-racial unions, even back before the Wagner Act, before the National Labor Relations Act is what that really is. Sorry. There were fights about this within the labor movement. Again, there were radical organizers for a very long time who said we have to actually include race and our argent. The history of the reasons that the South is not as unionized as the rest of the country.
The reason that right-to-work laws spread across the South was that anti-union campaigns took advantage of racism and split workforces along race lines. This was done very intentionally. The labor movement, at least the people within the labor movement who realized this was a problem realized it because they were losing, the operation Dixie, which was the campaign to unionize the South fell apart because they never really figured out how to talk about racism.
We still see this as a problem, but there is also this history that does include things like the Atlanta's Washerwomen Strike, where you have Black women, laundry workers going on strike, and refusing to do laundry back before 1900. You have a history of-- I was just looking at my notes from the book Detroit, I do Mind Dying, which is about the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, which was Black workers in Detroit, in the '90s and '70s organizing against things like automation on the factory floor and noting that the machines were always introduced in the part of the factory where there were Black workers because they would be the ones whose bodies would be sacrificed to testing out the new machines.
Kai: Speaking of machines and testing them out, this is one of the things that is core in the Amazon debate is what happens in these factories with the technology. One of the things, as you said, they're talking about the productivity models and the things that are used to drive productivity. Can you describe the time on task productivity tool that people talk about? This is the thing just to remind listeners of the whole point here is that the core business model is to get products to us fast and cheap. In order to do that, they crank up productivity inside these warehouses. Can you describe this productivity, this time on task tool?
Sarah: I was talking to an Amazon worker from Minnesota, one of the workers who organizes with the Wood Center outside of Minneapolis, and he was describing it as like getting into debt. You're working and you are picking items off the line and putting them into boxes. Your time on that is being tracked. Every item that you scan is being tracked. You get your time up to whatever point, it's always about time, isn't it Kai? You get your time up to a good level of good rate, but then you have to go to the bathroom and then you have to walk halfway across the warehouse to go to the bathroom.
Then maybe there's somebody in the bathroom when you get there. You have to wait for them to be done. By the time you get back, you've been off task for 30 minutes and your time has gone way down. You have to as he's saying, work your way out of this debt because if you don't you get written up, and if you get written up too many times, you lose your job. He kept saying to me the system is not designed for human bodies because human bodies do things like have to pee.
Kai: Or have to go to the bathroom.
Sarah: Right. [chuckles]
Kai: Coming up, we are going to turn to some of the deeper ideas Sarah Jaffe gets to in her new book Work Won't Love You Back. How does our overall culture and our feelings about working productivity isolate us from one another and set us up for exploitation? We will discuss and we will take your calls. I want to hear about your own experiences with collective action in the workplace.
If you or someone in your family have worked in Amazon warehouse, I'm particularly interested in hearing about your experience, but everybody, what's your personal experience with trying to act collectively with your coworkers, either through a union or otherwise? This is the United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. We'll be right back.
Kai: Welcome back. This is the United States of Anxiety, I'm Kai Wright. This week we are talking about collective action. I want to start with a caller Sarah introduced us to. Tyler Hamilton is a worker and organizer at one of Amazon's large warehouses in Minnesota. Tyler, are you there? Thanks for calling.
Tyler Hamilton: Tyler here.
Kai: First off, I gather you're 24 years old and have worked at the warehouse for four years now. Since you were 20 and you've held all the jobs in that course of that time to get us our packages in our two days time. I wonder if you can just quickly talk us through what that looks like for a worker to get us these packages so quickly? What were each of your jobs like? What did you do on each of those?
Tyler: I've done everything except for packing, but everything you buy online when you can get that two-day shipping it's physically there in the warehouse. That's why they're so huge. There's a large inventory area that people workaround in a workstation. The first spot in that line is people who stock the inventory. That's the store department.
I was there for a year and a half. When you actually buy something, then it has to be picked out of that inventory. That is what the pick department does. I was in the pick for a year. After you pick it, it goes down a conveyor belt somewhere off to get packed and sorted. Once it's packed into boxes, they go into trucks and they get sent out to be delivered to you.
Kai: In doing all of that, what do you think consumers and listeners need to know about that work?
Tyler: A lot of the work, it does come at a cost. Your prime membership, it pays for a good chunk of things, but the way a lot of things run, when Amazon tries to increase their bottom line, it usually comes at workers' expense because workers just fundamentally don't have a say in that decision-making process.
Kai: You guys in Minnesota warehouse, you have nonetheless tried to have a say, can you talk about that a little bit? You don't have a union, you haven't been unionized, but you have found other ways to work collectively. What does that look like?
Tyler: A lot of people don't realize that union workers, if you work collectively in your workplace, it doesn't have to be over unionization, specifically, it can be smaller things, but bigger things, but working collectively, you can have a big impact. There have been all sorts of situations, maybe a co-worker gets fired for a really dumb reason. We have had walkouts that have happened for reasons like that, where we've gotten people their jobs back.
It could be a smaller thing. A small change in your working conditions that your supervisors or someone higher up in corporate made. You don't always win, you don't always make things better, but if you don't try you can't. At least if you make that effort, you have some chance of fixing things or making things better.
Kai: Before I let you go, Tyler, how do you feel about your time? Sarah and I keep returning to this idea of time. How do you feel about your own ownership of your personal time and relationship to all this work?
Tyler: That's one of the most important things. Everyone in the warehouse, we talk about that almost compulsively. It's your time on task, your time off task. What is your time off? Do you have time off? How much do you have left? If you run out of time off at Amazon, you get fired and they automatically deduct your time off if you walk out, you strike, you punch out. That's also an issue.
Kai: Well, Tyler, thank you for calling in and offering us a testimony.
Tyler: Absolutely. Thank you.
Kai: Let's go to Frank in Princeton, New Jersey. Frank, welcome to the show.
Frank: Thank you. I'm at Princeton Junction, but it's close to Princeton.
Kai: Oh, I'm sorry.
Frank: It's okay. I work at City University of New York at Baruch College. I'm an English professor. In the Union there, which is called the Professional Staff Congress has about 30,000 members of CUNY, mostly, professors and adjunct instructors, and also some staff, higher education employees. We're constantly engaged in a battle with the administration and with the state of New York as well, about funding. We're suffering atmosphere of continuous austerity. I make about maybe 60% of what people make at other colleges in comparable positions. We're relying more and more on part-time instructors, adjuncts who were paid just terrible wages. Not bad for adjuncts, but still not really living wages. Anyhow, the problem is, we as a union have been denied a very important tool that many unions can use and that is that we cannot go on strike. There's a law in York state called the Taylor Law, which prohibits Public Service employees, teachers, policemen, garbage collectors, firemen, we are not allowed to go on strike. If we do go on strike, or have any action, like a job slowdown, or what have you, we are fined two days pay for every day we do that. Then the union is fined enormously and union leaders are put in jail. What I would like to know is does the public know about this law, the Taylor law? It's not actually unique to New York. There are many states that have similar laws, but it's a terribly draconian measure. Can we do anything to get rid of it? Can we give unions some power again?
Kai: Sarah, quickly, can you answer that question before we get to some more callers? Just about what exists to prevent people from being in unions?
Sarah: Oh, my God. The thing about labor law in the US is there's federal laws, like the National Labor Relations Act that I mentioned before, that gives you things broadly, your right to take concerted activity, is what they call it, which is collective action on the job is protected by federal law. But there are things like the Taylor Law that your caller was just saying, that do put severe restrictions on workers' right to organize in a lot of places. Well, I've got Andrew Cuomo on the brain, because he's all over the news lately. This notably came up in the last governor's race in New York, because Cynthia Nixon who was challenging Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary, she said she wanted to repeal the Taylor Laws, because she said employees, like your caller, should have the right to strike, like private-sector workers do. It's one of the reasons that being a labor journalist in this country is so stressful as I've got to remember a patchwork of local laws all over the place, but yeah it's really striking.
Kai: Let's go to Gina in Brooklyn. Gina, welcome to the show.
Gina: Thank you. I was working at an Amazon facility, a Whole Foods here in Brooklyn, last year in the heights of the pandemic, just walked into my kitchen heard your show, and had to call in, because collective action is definitely something that I knew there was a need for in the space but it felt impossible to happen. There were instances literally in the middle of March, April, last year where implementing masks came a bit later. We had one guy who wore his mask into work and they took actions against him to reprimand him for it because at that time wearing masks, that was not implemented at the time that wasn't required yet. So just in passing people with my little shopping cart, I'd be like, "Oh, my God, did you hear that happened?" Nothing came out of it. Everybody was concerned, but the conversations that grew dynamic that needed to be there just could not be facilitated because I think of two main things: one, downtime is just not a thing. You don't have time to sit and congregate and talk because you're on the clock, you have to be packing things off the shelves continuously. You don't have- the few breaks that you have, you need to take because you will collapse being on your feet for just six hours straight. So the downtime, not being a thing is one, but also, two, the way that they do scheduling really prohibits group congregating because they drop shifts every day, your schedule could literally change from day-to-day. So there's no guarantee that you're seeing the same person in a given week. I just thought that those two things definitely were barriers to the kind of collective action that you're talking about.
Kai: Thank you so much for that testimony, Gina. Sarah, this is something we hear about a lot, is just that literally the way the workplace has changed to prevent us from getting together. In your book, you're also chronicling these ideas that have shifted, and I want to talk about that for a second. You write in the conclusion, "The promises made to a generation of hope laborers are being revealed for the lies they are." What do you mean by this?
Sarah: I mean on that level, it's the basic idea that if we work really hard, again, like your caller whose a college professor. If you work really hard, you work your way up, you will get to this job where you have stability, and you have a decent paycheck, and you have respect. Except what actually happens, like your caller said is that more and more people who are getting PhDs in this country are just doing part-time adjunct work. And that's one of the ways like each of your three callers, they were talking about time in such interesting ways because part-timing of what were full-time jobs is one of the ways that this has really been destroyed. Now, whether you're a college professor, or you're working at Whole Foods, each boss is using this hyper-segmented control over people's time, in order to disempower the workforce in different ways. So whether that's adjunct professors who get paid by the class, and they don't get paid for any of the other things that go along with being a college professor, like doing your research, presenting at conferences, publishing in academic journals, which don't pay you, all of those things are denied them or if you're at Whole Foods, this high tech scheduling software that is used in so many of these retail outlets these days is designed to slice and dice scheduling down by the minute, and yet also seems to mysteriously always be really good at punishing workers who do anything like speak out on the job by cutting their hours. The way that control over time has been used to continually just make work worse is my recurring theme here, isn't it?
Kai: Well, another recurring theme, we've got a couple of minutes left here. You seem really concerned with the way it has made our internal lives worse as well, that we are isolated from each other in a unique way.
Sarah: Yes. The subtitle is cheeky, but it is true that I think that when we're encouraged to devote all of our emotional attention to the job, what are we not spending that time on? What are not spending that affection on? Also, as we're talking about this in the context of collective action. Literally, the job is increasingly designed to keep us separate from each other so that we don't organize and make trouble. But on so many levels, we need other people. I'm so aware of this right now because we're not in full lockdown here in New York right now, but I'm still living alone during a pandemic and it's pretty depressing. I'm hyper-aware of this now that the separation of people from each other, which has a lot to do with work, but it's not exclusively due to work, it's really painful and stressful.
Kai: Sarah Jaffe is the author of a new book Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone, out now from Bold Type Books. Sara, thanks.
Sarah: Thank you.
Kai: I'm Kai right. This is the United States of anxiety. We'll be right back with more conversation about collectivity.
[music] Hey everybody, a quick program note, we're going to continue thinking about collective action in our next episode, but in the context of the pandemic, I want to ask for your help in advance of that episode. We're thinking about how communities of people have been banding together in new ways out of need throughout the past year, through emergency care networks, and food banks, and any number of things that fall under this newly popularized term "mutual aid."
What is that? What is mutual aid? What's its history and how have we all used forms of it? Whatever we called it. That's what we're going to talk about. We want to hear from you in advance about your own experiences with it. We're going to take your calls throughout the episode, but send me a voicemail now. Let me know. Have you joined any collective effort to take care of each other in your community over the past year? Record a voice memo on your phone and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Again, that's email@example.com. I want to know why you joined the effort and what you got out of it or what you didn't get out of it. Again, send your voicemail to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll pull them together and use them in next week's show. Thanks so much. Welcome back, this is the United States of Anxiety. I am Kai Wright. Thanks to everybody who called in, in our last segment. Sorry to those we didn't get to. You can always email me your thoughts email@example.com.
Now I'm going to turn to another topic on collectivity at some point deep into the darkness of 2020, one of our reporters, Jenny Casas started talking about a novel by Octavia Butler, it's called Parable of the Sower. It's one of those classic texts that a lot of people found or rediscovered during the course of the pandemic because it feels disturbingly relevant. Jenny read Parable of the Sower and we started talking about the book and I'm just going to let the conversation we had speak for itself. Here's Jenny.
Jenny Casas: Just to refresh, it was written in 1993 and it starts in 2024. Really close to where we are right now.
Kai: This is a really, really bad time to read that book.
Jenny: Or the best time to read this book! I don't know, I guess, it depends on how much you desire to sleep well at night or how much you want to sit at peace in your heart, but Octavia Butler paints this dystopian future.
Octavia Butler: The society that I portrayed is pretty much broken.
Jenny: And Octavia Butler described her thinking behind this dystopian future in an interview she gave when she was still alive.
Octavia: The people who are surviving with any decency at all are living in walled communities and risking their lives whenever they go out. There are a lot of reasons for this. Drugs, of course.
Jenny: And growing wealth inequality.
Octavia: Deterioration of public education.
Jenny: And capitalism and climate change disaster, and shortages of resources like water.
Octavia: Global warming is practically a character in Parable of the Sower.
Jenny: There's a lot of like desperation and violence. People are just like they need to survive so they will do whatever they need to make sure that that happens. And that can involve burning down your house or stealing all of your stuff or killing you or violating you. I'm sure when you read it, you felt this way too, but it's horrifying because you're like, "I know that this can happen."
Octavia: Their problems now, they become disasters because they're not attended to.
Kai: It's too real. It's a fantasy of a dystopia that feels quite real and I read it before all of these things started happening. Because isn't there also a Christian Right, narcissist, wildly destructive, hate-spewing president that led to all this too? Isn't that one of the characters?
Jenny: Yep, yep, yep. The central character is this young woman named Lauren Olamina who in the chaos of this moment is bringing together various skills and preparing essentially for the collapse of her community and in a world where it feels like one must be out for themselves because things are so desperate. Our main character is so unique in that she is actively trying to not do that. She's trying to move collectively and work collectively.
Octavia: She is a person who has a mission. She has a religion that she feels that she has discovered as opposed to created and that she feels would make humanity a little bit more survivable if they paid attention to it.
Kai: It's one of those books that all the 2020 people did start talking about. A lot of people picked Octavia Butler back up. The Handmaid's Tale was another one. Some of these books that seem to have predicted the future in which we live and then I'm joking that I would have found it stressful to read right now, but a lot of people also were looking to it for inspiration and understanding as a way to just understand the moment we're in.
Jenny: Right, and one of those people is one of my favorite authors adrienne maree brown, who's an activist and a speaker and a doula and a facilitator, and also a scholar of Octavia Butler's work. And she, and the legendary musician.
Toshi Reagon: Toshi Reagon.
Sarah: Launched a podcast this last year.
adrienne maree brown: We are the cohost of Octavia's parables, a chapter by chapter reading of Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower.
Jenny: They talk about what this story means for us right now.
adrienne: If we can't turn and face this story, then we can't turn and face our own reality and find the opportunity to move out of this reality to something else.
Jenny: Kai, when you read the book, do you remember a character named Keith?
Kai: It's Lauren's brother, right?
Jenny: Yes, exactly. Keith is a foil for our main character.
adrienne: What are some of the things that Keith has done?
Toshi: Keith kills an elder. He thinks the elder is absurd. He sees him as vulnerable. He befriends him enough to get close to him and figure out what he has and where he thinks he's going and then he kills him and takes his stuff.
Jenny: All of his actions underscore this point that when we are out for ourselves, we are actually only marching towards our own demise.
Kai: You're in this world that's falling apart and it's Lauren and Keith are both seeing the disaster hit and they react in very different ways. He has this idea that strength will save us. That might will save us and if I can be mighty, that's what's going to help. It turns out to be dramatically wrong. It's exactly the wrong thing.
Jenny: It ends up getting him killed.
Octavia: I know that we can be better human beings than that, but it's so tempting to be greedy and have power and keep it from other people.
Jenny: And thinking about-- There's so many examples, but the pandemic is the most clear and obvious one to me where it's like you actually can do tremendous amounts of damage and never see the consequences of it.
Kai: It's also that it's very easy to be Keith. It's very easy to think, "Oh, I can take care of me. I don't know. I can't solve this whole pandemic business. I can't do anything about COVID, but I can live my particular life and the way I want to do it and it won't affect anybody else. It'll just be me. I can make choices about when I do and don't wear masks and where I travel and all of that. It's just my own choice." I feel like it's easier to make selfish choices oddly at a moment when collective choices are so important.
Jenny: I think the biggest reflection that I leave from the book is that we have to be willing to work collectively, or we will not make it. It's just been sitting really heavy on me because I think I feel pretty hopeless about our collective ability to do that now because we can't agree on-- It just feels in this country specifically, we can't agree on anything. And that's why I love to turn to adrienne's work because if you read her books, they are able to hold the nuance of both looking directly at the bleakness of what we've created. The inequities, the injustice of this world that we are all responsible for, but not only that, but there's possibility in the future. If we can build this crummy situation, we can also build something that serves people thoughtfully and with care and it can be different. It doesn't have to be like this. Plus she's a Virgo like me. In general, it's just constantly calling us to consider where we sit in the collective.
Kai: You went to talk to adrienne about this.
Jenny: Yes, I got to bring to adrienne and ask her about what to do with all these hopeless feelings.
Jenny: As I was preparing for this conversation, I was really trying to pinpoint where is my hopelessness? Where is that?
adrienne: Where is it in you?
Jenny: I think it was or the best way that I was finding words to describe it was like, "A hopelessness and our collective desire to care for each other." Then, I was also like, "I have a tremendous community of people that I love and respect to care for me so how is it that I can be so hopeless?"
adrienne: I feel you on that. I think that's the tension of interdependence. Is that, even if I only want to pay attention to those who love me and treat me well, I'm also in an interdependent species. I cannot deny or disconnect myself fully from those who hate me, from those who refuse to wear masks from those who refuse to listen to science, from those who refuse to turn and get in right relationship with the earth.
adrienne: Sometimes I think it would be a dream world if I could just be like, "I don't have to mess with you or think about you ever again." That'd be so great. Unfortunately, we're interconnected. All of that is also my responsibility because I've been saying this a lot that we're not responsible for convincing anyone to love us, but we are responsible for saving what we love. I think time will tell, If you were writing science fiction this year couldn't be written better as a year. It's like, "Here along comes something that in order to survive it we have to learn how to be in relationship with each other in an accountable way. That we will not make it if we don't turn towards each other in that way."
Jenny: You mentioned like, "There's a lot of Keiths in the world right now." There's a lot of people.
adrienne: They are, yes.
Jenny: I felt myself wanting to be in that conversation and just be like, "So what do we do?" You're right we can't cut out.
adrienne: We don't just ignore. I think there's a lot of lessons. I think one that is always really important to me is to humble myself to the fact that I can't save anyone who doesn't want to be saved. I can't heal anyone who doesn't want to be healed. I can't control anyone who doesn't want to be controlled. Even those who do want to be controlled, you just can't really control. I've tried because being a Virgo means you do think like that. I've got better solutions, I've got a great way forward all the time, but it doesn't matter because fundamentally each person on this planet has a sovereign entity.
adrienne: They're moving of their own accord and recognize us and with their own internal realm that is determining that. I think with someone like a Keith character, sometimes it's just the practice of modeling what it looks like. That you can take accountability. That you can actually change. That you can admit you are wrong and you will survive. I'm trying to be that kind of human. Is someone who can be like, "I'm not perfect. Actually, I make mistakes and I'm going to keep learning. There's people who know me deeply and love me and are invested in my growth. They fortify me to live in a world of Keiths."
What happens in the book, I always say, "I don't think you can spoil Octavia." This may be a spoiler but what happens in the book it's like Keith meets his own demise because of the decisions he makes. I think a lot of us have people in our lives who are getting sick, dying. Some of those people tried to be safe the whole time and others didn't. I'm angry with them and I'm grieving for them.
I'm grieving about the systems that created the conditions in which-- This shouldn't have been something that was individual by individually decided. The places that have had the best response to COVID are the places where they have been mandates at the national level about what the boundaries were going to be, so the disease wasn't left up to people. Now we have to sit with what happens when someone makes a choice and the consequence comes and you're next to them or you're grieving them. This is part of our human conditions. Is learning how we be in that emotional state and how we choose to show it too. My flavor of Virgo work what I need to do. Is not being like, "I told you so." [laughs]
adrienne: I told you so. One of the things I feel like I have learned the hard way is I told you no one ever wants to hear that. It doesn't add anything to the conversation and it doesn't add anything to your spirit. In moments where I'm like, "I think I know better than you about your life." When I actually-- I'm often thinking is, "I want to protect you from a lesson because I had to learn it and it sucks to learn this lesson and you can skip it." It doesn't actually work that way.
For whatever reason, we are wired such that we like to learn through experience. We can read a billion books about it and I have so many people who's like, "I've read everything about love." I'm like, "Yes, but learning to love takes loving." It matters that you chose and you experienced and now you have to reflect and you have to learn and then you have to figure out what your next choice is going to be. It really helps for me, to have something I come back to every day that reminds me that most of what I feel and experience during the day will be a result of the choices I make.
There's all the external conditions. There's the things that are beyond what I could shape, the things I can shape, the things that only I can shape, and really being able to feel in that line. A lot of my energy I'm going to spend on the things only I could shape. What can I do? What can I be? How can I be in relationship with others? How can I love? How can I care? I try to spend very little attention on the things I don't feel like I can shape.
There's so many ways that we could be and we take it for granted that the way we are now is the way. This is a way. People were a different way a thousand years ago and they will be a different way a thousand years from now. Hopefully, we're still here. Everything else is up to us.
Jenny: The caveat is a terrifying one but also so weird.
adrienne: Kind of, but I will also say this. This gives me peace. Dinosaurs were amazing and then they were gone. It doesn't mean they were any less amazing because they didn't last. As far as we know they didn't leave for any reason of their own activity. They just were like munching on something and then asteroids. We are in a position where it may be sad we may make ourselves extinct, but Octavia said our fundamental flaw is intelligence and hierarchy paired together. That we can't seem to use our intelligence for anything other than supremacy over each other and I'm like, "Okay, so maybe that is our flaw. Maybe we don't survive it," but we still are absolutely incredible. Absolutely miraculous. There's still so much beauty. There's so much pleasure. There's so much art. There's so much being created all the time. Children are still fricking awesome. There's just so much that is still absolutely a worthwhile endeavor about our species. And so I’m like, it doesn't have to be forever to be amazing. We could be another dinosaur species that maybe we go and then something else even more dynamic and incredible comes after us and looks at our bones and wonders about us and drives cars with our fossils, who knows! I don't know, just to me, if we stopped being overly attached to like our right to be the dominant species on earth, I think we can find some peace in the experiment of it all.
Jenny: I'm like, "Dang I didn't realize it went that deep." Now I'm like, "Yeah, of course, it does."
adrienne: It does. And then on the other side of grief there's room to recognize like, "I feel hopeless because I love this place and I want to protect it. I feel grief because I felt deep gratitude for the connections that I got to have and I want more of those people." It makes me turn to the people who are still here and I'm going to be greedy about the way I love all of that. It's like, "I want to spend time with you and talk with you. I don't want to take for granted what we have. I know how precious it is. Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude, right? It's all precious and you will grieve it when it's gone so you better live into it and love into it now."
Kai: I'm going to carry that into my week. I'm Kai Wright. This is the United States of Anxiety. Thanks for spending this time with us.
Kai: United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Joe Plourde makes the podcast version. Kevin Bristow and Matthew Marando were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Carolyn Adams, Emily Botein, Jenny Casas, Karen Frillman, and Christopher Werth. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band.
Veralyn Williams is our executive producer. I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @kai_wright and as always, I hope you will join us for the live version of our show next Sunday, 6:00 PM Eastern. You can stream firstname.lastname@example.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Till then thanks for listening and take care of yourself.
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