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Family Planning

A few weeks ago, the embattled Planned Parenthood in Dallas, Texas refused a $500,000 dollar donation from Tucker Max. The Dallas clinic is one of only a handful left in North Texas, after Planned Parenthood lost $73 million dollars in funding in 2011, in an area with one of the highest uninsured populations in America – 25%. The size of the donation would have bestowed naming rights, however, meaning that a Planned Parenthood building would have worn Tucker Max’s name forevermore.

Max made his millions through a series of memoirs filled with drinking tales and tips for bedding women, which turned out to be super-popular with misogynists all over. He once actually tweeted: ‘Planned Parenthood would be cooler if it was a giant flight of stairs, w/someone pushing girls down, like a water park slide.’

Without a doubt, Tucker Max is a scoundrel.

But it was a mistake, I think, for Planned Parenthood to adopt a moral stance on the subject of funding, to not take this lifeline offered to them. As Planned Parenthood has stressed time and again, it’s a health service, not a political organisation. What’s more, it’s a health service facing a very real existential threat. What is the difference, exactly, between taking money from Tucker Max and taking money from Governor Rick Perry, who is trying to prevent Planned Parenthood from receiving any government funds because he’d like to put an end to ‘the abortion business’ altogether? (He also thinks Medicare and Social Security are unconstitutional.)

Principled stands come with assorted rationales: organisations we wouldn’t work for, lows we wouldn’t stoop to. But what is the outcome of Planned Parenthood not accepting Max’s half a million dollars? Does it mean they care for women any more or less? Does it mean that Max will stop promulgating his sexist escapades and treat women as his equals? Will conservatives lay down their weapons in recognition of Planned Parenthood’s ethical funding choices?

For a principled stand to matter there must be a political outcome, otherwise it’s a meaningless gesture. To paraphrase Lenin, the Left believes in morality, but it’s not an ethical framework guided by the Commandments and invoked when it suits the likes of Rinehart, Gillard or Pell.

That is, we ‘must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing immutable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.’

 

Persona non grata

It is possible that Dave Eggers believed he was taking a principled stand last week when he declined to attend The Albatross award ceremony, a €40,000 prize funded by the Günter Grass Foundation, which he won for Zeitoun, a non-fiction book about the experiences of Abdulrahman Zeitoun in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Albatross is awarded to writers of works that promote ‘freedom of thought and an unconstrained engagement with every area of our life, world and times’. Zeitoun, said the judges, made ‘a powerful case for civic conscience and convictions’.

In my abbreviated version of his explanation, Eggers stated that he couldn’t attend the ceremony at this time because Günter Grass had written a poem about the prospect of Israel bombing Iran. ‘The issues raised in Grass’s recent poem are not issues I am prepared to speak about,’ Eggers said. He then donated the money back to German organisations that work on ‘interfaith understanding’.

Grass was declared a persona non grata by Israel after the publication of ‘What must be said’; that is, for Israel, Grass has ceased to exist and, as a result of his nonexistence, will never again step foot on Israel’s soil.

Grass was accused of being a lifelong anti-Semite, someone who still maintained the views of his Hitler-Youth past (Grass was drafted into the Waffen SS in his adolescence), because of lines like, ‘Israel’s atomic power endangers /an already fragile world peace’.

The offending poem concluded with the hope that the world:

may insist that the governments of
both Iran and Israel allow an international authority
free and open inspection of
the nuclear potential and capability of both.

Curiously, the Voice of Witness series founded by Eggers and published by McSweeney’s, which uses oral histories to highlight human rights crises, has never published a collection of Palestinian voices, despite an international focus. Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe are indeed countries with terrible human rights abuses, but they’re also countries that don’t work with the United States; in fact, they’re countries often identified as in need of humanitarian intervention (which is precisely what Eggers’ book What is the what? called for).

Wouldn’t Palestinian stories about experiences of life under occupation, of 65-year-olds who’ve spent their entire lives in refugee camps, of house demolitions, non-citizenship and 760km concrete walls be the kinds of stories a political publisher may want to tell?

In an instance where two opposing principled stands are made, the one that dissented and wrote what others were too scared to print, an act resulting in figurative death, is the stand that meant something, rather than the one that viewed the oppression of Palestinians as a difference in faith.

 
Bad capitalists

Both the Voice of Witness series and 826 Seattle are recent beneficiaries, along with 38 other not-for-profit organisations, of literary grants from Amazon.com. According to Salon, the grants of up to $25,000 allow seriously underfunded and under-resourced projects to get off the ground.

Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent, whose work focusses on translated literature, commented that translators love Amazon, not only because of the grants, but also because of the translation awards Amazon runs.

They’re working for maybe $500 a book, books no one wants to touch. Then Amazon comes along and suddenly they’re benefiting from an industry that doesn’t help them, ever. Five thousand dollars is enormous to them. I can understand people are concerned with Amazon’s power in the marketplace, but I have a hard time chastising them when they directly benefit people who struggle their whole lives to do what they think is important.

Not everyone in publishing loves Amazon, however. Alexander Zaitchik writes in the Salon piece that an Amazon grant is ‘considered the devil’s kiss in many corners of the publishing world, and many grantees are in no rush to blow a ram’s horn announcing their acceptance of money.’ One anonymous independent publisher was quoted saying:

They are a rapacious, horrible company from top to bottom. But they have all this excess capital, so $25,000 here and there is nothing to them. And it’s working. People say, ‘Oh, look, they’re funding a translation prize, what could be wrong with that?’ Yet everything about them is still evil.

Then, just yesterday, author and poet Sherman Alexie tweeted:


 

Last year’s exposé on one Amazon warehouse revealed that workers were casually employed, paid $11–12 an hour, had extremely poor working conditions with no job stability, and regularly suffered heatstroke. Morning Call reported:

Both permanent and temporary employees are subject to a point-based disciplinary system. Employees accumulate points for such infractions as missing work, not working fast enough or breaking a safety rule such as keeping two hands on an inventory cart. If they get too many points, they can be fired. In the event of illness, employees have to bring in a doctor’s note and request a medical waiver to have their disciplinary points removed, those interviewed said.

Not working fast enough, or failing to “make rate,” is a common reason employees get disciplinary points, those interviewed said. Workers are expected to maintain a rate, measured in units per hour, which varies depending on the job and the size of inventory being handled. Products moving through the warehouse range broadly in size, from compact discs and iPods to chain saws. Workers use hand-held scanners to track inventory as it moves through the warehouse, which enables managers to monitor productivity minute by minute, employees said.

These conditions are not anomalous when compared to the treatment of casual staff at other warehouses and factories in the States, particularly those owned by online stores. Mac McClelland wrote an essay about her experiences briefly working in one while on assignment for Mother Jones. It begins:

“Don’t take anything that happens to you there personally,” the woman at the local chamber of commerce says when I tell her that tomorrow I start working at Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc. She winks at me. I stare at her for a second.

What?” I ask. “Why, is somebody going to be mean to me or something?”

She smiles. “Oh, yeah.” This town somewhere west of the Mississippi is not big; everyone knows someone or is someone who’s worked for Amalgamated. “But look at it from their perspective. They need you to work as fast as possible to push out as much as they can as fast as they can. So they’re gonna give you goals, and then you know what? If you make those goals, they’re gonna increase the goals. But they’ll be yelling at you all the time. It’s like the military. They have to break you down so they can turn you into what they want you to be. So they’re going to tell you, ‘You’re not good enough, you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough,’ to make you work harder. Don’t say, ‘This is the best I can do.’ Say, ‘I’ll try,’ even if you know you can’t do it. Because if you say, ‘This is the best I can do,’ they’ll let you go. They hire and fire constantly, every day. You’ll see people dropping all around you. But don’t take it personally and break down or start crying when they yell at you.”

It’s a grueling and depressing piece, worth reading in full, but it also gives an insight into the working day of a modern casual employee:

The culture is intense, an Amalgamated higher-up acknowledges at the beginning of our training. He’s speaking to us from a video, one of several videos—about company policies, sexual harassment, etc.—that we watch while we try to keep our eyes open. We don’t want to be so intense, the higher-up says. But our customers demand it. We are surrounded by signs that state our productivity goals. Other signs proclaim that a good customer experience, to which our goal-meeting is essential, is the key to growth, and growth is the key to lower prices, which leads to a better customer experience. There is no room for inefficiencies. The gal conducting our training reminds us again that we cannot miss any days our first week. There are NO exceptions to this policy. She says to take Brian, for example, who’s here with us in training today. Brian already went through this training, but then during his first week his lady had a baby, so he missed a day and he had to be fired. Having to start the application process over could cost a brand-new dad like Brian a couple of weeks’ worth of work and pay. Okay? Everybody turn around and look at Brian. Welcome back, Brian. Don’t end up like Brian.

What’s my point? In Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman wrote that ‘there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it plays within the rules of the game.’ Amazon is disliked for its hunger for monopoly, for bullying publishers and because it’s suspected of predatory pricing (whereby a company drives down prices so the supplier will be ultimately forced to sell for less. Once they have total monopoly, they can charge whatever they like).

In other words, Amazon is seen as not playing by the rules.

But this rationalising of capitalism is plain weird. Companies cannot exist in a capitalist system without competing against other companies. Indeed, that’s what the market does: pits them against each other to see which can make the most profit. There are many ways to maximise profit, but nearly all involve lowering wages or lessening conditions in order to make something cheaper or turn it around more quickly.

It’s not a matter of good capitalists versus the bad capitalists. Sure, some companies have labour practices that are dreadful and we should try and change those – but this idea that we can have principled fidelity to publishers or booksellers, as though they, unlike Amazon, are not in it for the profit, is simply untrue.

It’s like Chad Post said, ‘The grants give Amazon something to point to, but people don’t see Amazon’s business practices any differently. It’s the same as with any corporation. Money is money. I take money from Citibank, and I fucking hate Citibank.’

Jacinda Woodhead is Overland’s deputy editor. She is in the midst of a PhD project about abortion in Australia and nonfiction as political intervention.

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Comments

  1. “Smoke filled rooms, nobody’s lungs stay clean, but there’s a difference between a swim and a wallow…”
    If Things Were Perfect
    james

  2. “Scoundrel” is a very civil way of describing someone as loathsome as Tucker Max.

    Do you think, though, that Planned Parenthood thought it might play out *worse* for them in the long run if they took his money? In the context of a very conservative Christian community, to be endorsed by a guy who’s made a life out of boasting about his sexual endeavours – you can see exactly what would happen. Links would be drawn between the ‘kind of women’ who might have sex with Tucker Max, and the ‘kind of women’ who might seek Planned Parenthood services, and the ‘kind of women we want our daughters to be’ and all drenched in the awful sexist stereotypes that characterise these debates. Doesn’t mean it would have been *wrong* for PP to take his money necessarily (although I’m not wholly convinced) but perhaps it was a media management strategy decision, rather than a deliberate political statement?

    Also, that McClelland essay gave me the heebie-jeebies.

    • So is ‘bedding women’. I’m trying my hand at civility.

      I agree with you about their reasoning. The unsuccessful sting against PP engineered by James O’Keefe (behind the ACORN sting) and Lila Rose furthered the controversy around PP and the relentless media attacks are causing a lot of damage. But as Jill Lepore wrote in her excellent history of Planned Parenthood in the New Yorker, ‘The fury over Planned Parenthood is two political passions – opposition to abortion and opposition to government programs for the poor – acting as one.’

      In the current political climate, one where the Republicans are filled with religious conservatives, I’m not sure that things could be much worse for PP, and conservatives already despise them and make these kinds of judgements anyway. Honestly, any organisation that represents women’s sexual freedoms is always going to present a threat to the conservative worldview.

      Unless there’s a concerted campaign to save Planned Parenthood, they’re not going to win. (see ‘Don’t uterus with Texas’.)

      In the past, PP has taken money from Chevron, Whole Foods, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, the Bush Foundation, Freddie Mac – all exploitative companies and organisations with suspect politics, but PP failed to take a political/moral position on any of that funding.

      I’m arguing that moral decisions have to have a political basis, otherwise they don’t change anything and they don’t count. I don’t see how accepting or not accepting money from Tucker Max (an individual, as opposed to an exploitative business or government) can have a political outcome. Max is a product of a sexist culture, not the cause of that sexist culture.

      If, however, feminists had a campaign specifically against Tucker Max – rather than a general opposition to Max the misogynist – that would change things.

  3. That’s interesting, and I’m a bit surprised at Eggers, particularly since the Grass ‘scandal’ seems so contrived.
    But on the more general issue of funding, what are the implications for advertising, another obvious revenue source for literary projects? Should one apply any moral or political criteria about the advertising one accepts?

    • Being a left-wing magazine, we do have a political project and so can make ethical distinctions based on possible funding. For instance, we wouldn’t take money from the State of Israel or an Israeli company because of the BDS. We wouldn’t take money from the Defence Department, the ACCC or Fair Work Australia ¬– they’re directly related to struggle.

      Nor would we take money from a mining company currently in dispute with an Indigenous community or a company involved in union busting.

      Every company and business exploits. So it’s not based on exploitation, it’s based on the current political relationship between that company and any kind of campaign.

      Therefore, it’s less what would Jesus do, more what would Lenin do.

      But it’s thorny. The thought of running an advert for a Big Mac on this site turns my stomach. We’d have to use a progressive advertising scale – so one month of Big Mac ad = $100,000.

    • Why the Bush years? I would’ve described him as the embodiment of Reaganism – a combination of American Psycho and all those 80s movie protagonists before they learned their lessons.

  4. If that is an accurate translation of Grass’s ‘offending’ poem, it is just dreadful. It reminds me of Gina Rinehart’s epic ‘Our Future’ with the line ‘Our nation needs special economic zones and wiser government, before it is too late.’

    Emily Dickinson need not be worried.

  5. So I’ve been thinking on this since I read it, and I’m not sure everything about your first section about Planned Parenthood sits well with me. Here are some slightly unconnected thoughts that make me want to discuss it further with you. Though I’m not implying I’d necessarily arrive at a different conclusion about the donation to you…

    1. You say ‘As Planned Parenthood has stressed time and again, it’s a health service, not a political organisation’. But yet they definitely are a political organisation (not just an organisation caught up in a political situation). Whether they see themselves as political is kind of irrelevant. They are political because of the type of function they perform (as both a result of the polarising nature of the abortion question in the US historically and because of the wider question of women’s choice), and because public health is one of the most political questions in the US and that is what they ‘do’.

    2. You say ‘For a principled stand to matter there must be a political outcome, otherwise it’s a meaningless gesture’. Yes, I agree with. But the difficulty is that given Planned Parenthood is a political organisation but insists it isn’t, and tries to stay outside politics in (what appears to be) a very MSF kinda way. They refuse to do what needs to be done in order to make their decision a meaningless gesture, and you and Stephanie and others get at this in the comments. But is it worth saying that it’s the liberal political framework of PP that is failing them, not that they are just trying to take a moral stand without considering reality. The liberal framework offers them a context for their moral choice about Tucker as an agent of gross sexism (yes he is a product and not a cause of sexist culture but he is also an agent), but provides them a poor framework for understanding their relationship to the state and capitalism and what might be necessary to ensure they can do their function.

    3. Tucker is not the only political question, the other is private funding of health care. This is again there in what you say, especially in your first comment about attitudes to funding programs for the poor, which provides greater/useful context for the history of PP. But I think it is worth underlining this given you say later on rhetorically (?) ‘What is the difference, exactly, between taking money from Tucker Max and taking money from Governor Rick Perry, who is trying to prevent Planned Parenthood from receiving any government funds because he’d like to put an end to ‘the abortion business’ altogether?’. Clearly in Australia progressive people would argue there is a massive difference between the state (ie. the equivalent of the Governor) and a private wealthy individual (Tucker) funding primary health care. Clearly the US is a different context with health care significantly more privatised there, so I’m not saying this would be enough to stop me from arguing to take the donation. But I don’t think it is right to argue there is no difference (as implied in your question) and in the process obscure the role of the state and political society. Do you think there would be (hypothetically) no difference between taking money from Kyle Sandilands or from John Howard’s government, for planned parenting service, here? And if you think there is, why is the situation in the US different?

      • With the Tucker thing, didn’t a donation of such an amount mean that the facility had to be named after him? That seems relevant to me. Acception a donation from Kyle Sandilands would be one thing. But naming a centre after him might dissuade women from using, something that would undercut any value from the donation.

        • That seems a kind of weird neoliberal logic to me – like, when women are seeking family planning/health advice/termination, the name of the building would influence their decision.

          Besides, many buildings and hospitals are named after people – the Baillieu Library, the Prince Alfred, a gazillion others.

          It’s standard for PP to give naming rights if a donation is between $250,000 and $500,000 (and this surely influenced Max’s logic, but I never suggested he was donating out of altruism). Over the years, PP’s had large donations from the Bush Foundation, the Gates Foundation, etc, so must have various buildings and centres named after all sorts.

          • Names like Baillieu, Prince Alfred and even Melbourne (Lord Melbourne opposed the abolition of slavery) are a little different because they don’t have the same immediate resonance, though occasionally even historic associations become immediately political. But I don’t think it’s so far fetched to say that naming a birth control clinic after someone so immediately and publicly connected with blokey sexism would have an impact on how the place was used.

          • Well, the issue wasn’t the naming of the building – it was taking money from Tucker Max.

            And the centre would still be called ‘Family Planning Dallas’, but presumably one of the buildings would have a plaque or lettering on it. So I’m not convinced the naming of the building would have made any difference.

    • Hey Liz, thanks for raising these. I think you’re right on a number of points. Am just writing a response – jack

    • Actually I agree with all of your points. The problem with PP is that by not identifying as a political organisation, but then taking political stances on issues such as Tucker Max, they’re unable to defend themselves from cuts to funding and political attacks on their services.

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