This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. — Combahee River Collective Statement (1977)
The thing about chemicals is that sometimes people talk about them in kind of silly ways. Like, “I don’t like to drink stuff with a lot of chemicals in it!” Problem is, water is a chemical, and humans are more water than anything else. As a scientist, it’s easy to get picky about this. But the reality is, intuitively we often understand what people mean: they don’t trust artificial chemicals (and other possible toxins) because there have been so many stories over the years about the government and corporations allowing people to be slowly poisoned by them. This week the big story is about East Palestine, Ohio, where a train derailment lead to a spill and fire involving vinyl chloride, an essential ingredient in PVCs.
We are left with a series of questions: is it safe to go home? What could and should have been done to prevent it? Are the physical ailments people are experiencing a sign of worse to come? Will East Palestine, OH be a cancer cluster in 10, 15, or 20 years? Are the animal deaths residents are reporting a coincidence or related to the strong chlorine smell they’ve also been reporting? I think we mostly don’t know the answer to these questions. It may legitimately be safe to go home; and also, given US history, I understand why people are skeptical of what they’re being told, too.
In my view, this is a story about train safety, the pressures on workers, the Democrats using the waning days of their majority to engage in strike breaking, and capitalists squeezing every dime they can out of people and land, at the expense of the people and land. It is also a story about how global governance still treats the well-being of ecosystems — and the people linked to them — as subservient to capital, colonial, and militaristic interests. Which links it, in my mind, to another story 4,555 miles away.
In December 2021, I published a newsletter here about the colonial poisoning of Hawaiʻi by the U.S. military — specifically the case of the Red Hill fuel spill. My hope in sending it out was to help readers understand that the fight over the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is linked to these colonial, militaristic activities. I made the point that astronomer support for the TMT is tainted by the fundamental link between how astronomy arrived on Maunakea and how the military — and its subsequent fuel spills and bombing on Hawaiian lands — arrived in Hawaiʻi.
Fast forward to 2023 and the link is even clearer: there was a fuel spill in January at a military telescope on Haleakala. It happens to be the case that facility’s ties with the astronomy community are strong enough that back in 2005, without realizing exactly what I was doing, I ended up being part of a group visit to this same military facility. Two things were memorable about this trip. The first is that the telescope, which we were told was used to track missiles, moved hella fast and was quite a feat of human engineering. The second is that we were followed around by a member of the military police who had a pretty serious weapon on him.
Astronomers like to make the case for telescopes in Hawaiʻi because of the beauty of doing astronomy. But tracking missiles, using Hawaiʻi as a theater for war, and a gun next to a telescope? Actually nothing awe-inspiring about that. Nevertheless, we astronomy PhD students were brought there as part of a trip where we were being trained to teach. There was no critical introspection about what the military’s presence there signaled. We learned nothing of how traditional Hawaiian knowledge teaches that the land is a family member and that to desecrate the land is to harm your family.
Fast forward to the spill at the telescope last month. When I heard about it, my heart broke because I am now much more familiar with how it feels for many Kānaka Maoli to see something like this happen, and also I think more now about the ecological impact, in part because of what I have learned about how Kānaka Maoli think about who the land is to us.
Understandably, some folks like the group Kākoʻo Haleakalā are calling for all telescopes to be removed from Haleakala and the Mauna. Ultimately I agree with those who say that Kānaka Maoli should make the final decision about astronomy in Hawaiʻi. I also think that the current political and economic structure makes it difficult for them as a community to make an autonomous decision. As I described in my last post about the Red Hill spill, the threat always hovering behind these decisions is, “If you don’t give us telescopes, your economy will hurt, and your people will starve.” It’s a nasty, cruel threat with lasting material consequences.
It is classic colonialism.
And it’s not something that kānaka people chose for themselves. By contrast, some people on social media have pointed out that East Palestine, OH voted for republicans. Some people went as far as saying that they brought this on themselves and deserved it. I saw Hanif Abdurraqib call this “ghoulish,” and I cannot agree more. However they voted, they deserve to be safe and well-taken care of.
And it’s literally not clear the democrats would have done better by them. As it is, the Biden administration broke a strike by rail workers that was in part about safety and derailings. A coalition of unions told The New Republic that they were trying to prevent disasters exactly like this one.
So, I’ve just broken a cardinal rule of talking in public, according to the democrats: I’ve said that they might not do any better for East Palestine, OH. My job, according to them, is to beat the drum that Republicans are bad and Democrats are good and if we just let Democrats rule us forever and ever by always lining up to vote for them, they will take care of us.
I actually believe that voting is a super important tactic, and I disagree — tactically — with the people who say we shouldn’t participate.
But I also know that President Barack Obama — who has undeniably been the victim of extremely public and violent racism — started a program that emphasized that Black boys are in need while doing fuck all for Black girls, and the premise of the program was that Black fathers were especially absentee. It was both misogynist and racist. President Bill Clinton, despite growing up dirt poor, signed into law a devastating anti-poor welfare “reform” bill.
There’s that funny meme that goes around sometimes saying that the difference between democrats and republicans is that democrats put a rainbow sticker on their bombs. I have mixed feelings about this meme because at the end of the day, I think GOP policies kill more people than democrat policies, and I think fewer dead people is an important victory. But it’s also true that Democrats, even more so than Republicans, are heavy investors in the idea that our civil rights goals include the right for gay people to join the American colonial establishment. (The GOP is too busy trying to commit an anti-LGBTQ+ genocide to think productively about how to integrate us into their Authoritarian wet dream.) As a queer person who is also a lifelong opponent of American militaristic imperialism, my response to this and other forms of homonationalism is a loud NO THANK YOU.
Queer writer Yasmin Nair has an absolutely beautiful essay that discusses these issues in the context of Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy for president in 2020. In “American Gay: Pete Buttigieg and the Politics of Forgetting,” Nair discusses how, for example, mainstream white gay male-dominated LGBT+ organizations pushed to make gay marriage the main queer civil rights fight, despite the grassroots saying they had other priorities. As a gay divorcée, I will say that I am all for marriage rights mostly because they provide you some protection in the event of a breakup, but over the years I’ve come to understand more and more why radical grassroots activists were so disturbed by the fight for gay marriage. Queer people are more likely to be living in poverty and have immediate material needs than hetcis people, yet all we got was this campaign for integration into middle class life. Black trans women, for example, face extreme levels of violence that don’t improve because gay marriage is legal. The fight was, at best, insufficient.
Nair’s essay excellently explains how Buttigieg’s surrogates repeatedly invoked his sexual orientation as a shield against political critique, and how Buttigieg positioned himself as the promise of, well, making America great again, but just happening to be gay while doing it. A score for the future past plus the multicultural representative present. As a veteran of both the US military and the neoliberal institution McKinsey & Company, Buttigieg articulated himself as, “Not queer as in fuck you! Queer as in just like you in all of the important, politically legible ways.” (And his memoir includes a put down of the Harvard Living Wage Campaign, which successfully fought to increase the wages of the lowest paid workers on campus. Lovely.)
As a queer person of color, I was not at all impressed by his campaign. And I was frustrated by the public pressure to support him simply because he was a viable gay candidate. His politics were moderate to conservative and effectively aligned with Joe Biden, which led me to quip on twitter recently that he’s Gay Biden, Jr. (It was so “interesting” having people [who don’t read carefully] tell me — a real live queer theoretical physicist who talks about how spacetime is gay as fuck — that this was proof I am homophobic. You’re like that meme, where the point is going right over your head.)
Here’s the thing: our identity isn’t a badge that guarantees our politics. Being oppressed does not guarantee we will not oppress others. McKinsey has been implicated in so many human disasters, including most recently the opioid epidemic. Wages around the world have been undercut by efficiency managers at places like McKinsey that helped companies squeeze the most out of workers while giving the least income and benefits in exchange. And the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not only a human disaster built on lies, they were also an ecological disaster that poisoned the land in some cases.
There is no promise of representation and inclusion that can make me okay with someone who celebrates their complicity in any of that. (Not to mention how Black people were disproportionately harmed by Mayor Pete’s housing policy in South Bend, IN.) And frankly, I think it’s offensive to use the badge of queerness to try and pry the door open when so many things you have done inevitably contribute to fucking queer people over. Because yes there are queer sweatshop workers, queer Afghans, and queer Iraqis. (Nair gets into this more, as do the fantastic books Gay, Inc.: The Nonprofitization of Queer Politics and Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, if you want to understand the argument more deeply.) And this is not why trans people of color — among others — kicked off an anti-police uprising at Stonewall.
Today Buttigieg is a person of particular interest because he happens to be Biden’s Transportation Secretary, which means he played a role in breaking the rail worker strike in December, and the response to East Palestine, OH is partly up to him. Some of that will be the EPA, but a lot of it will be the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which falls under Buttigieg’s Department of Transportation. So far, he hasn’t said much, and the FRA doesn’t have any statements on its website acknowledging the catastrophe in East Palestine.
I hope people remember this when he’s making promises to us again about what his success as a gay candidate represents.
But also, it’s a problem that we are letting his identity act as a stand-in for his politics. As queer feminist philosopher Alexis Shotwell pointed out to me, his politics are a form of slow violence against queers, and the fact that he is gay does not change that. I see people get distracted by defending his political significance, and don’t put the same energy into ensuring both that he does the right thing here and that the story of what is happening in East Palestine, OH gets sufficient attention. I get that people like the salacious gossip part of political discourse (as we saw with the attempts to make #RenameJWST seem like a spat between individuals and not about institutional homophobia), but it’s really awful how easily distracted people are.
We really need to keep our eyes on the prize: our ecosystems are being pushed to their breaking point, and politicians (and their surrogates) who stand for the status quo are asking us to give them our support because their identities align with a marginalized community. Keeping our eyes on the prize means asking people to have a politics that sustains the communities they come from rather than just invoking us as a shield.
I’m a Black queer Jewish agender/woman worker in the Black and queer radical feminist tradition, and that means I won’t settle for a milquetoast politics of integration into American imperialism and ecological destruction. It means I stand with Palestinians, and I generally think borders are violent. I may have tactical disagreements with other people working in the same tradition, but I ultimately share their goals. I’m not interested in being represented by people who share my community identities but whose politics run counter to our survival. And I’m disgusted by the way establishment queers are policing queerness by making political agreement with them a requirement to be understood and recognized as queer.
Anyway, Happy Black History Month except to all the white moderates and the people who cape for them:
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. — Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April 1963)