Reckoning Debt

I’m still in the process of mourning and grieving and processing. My sense is that the grueling grind of capitalism will not let us pause and reflect and take stock. This has to happen individually between meetings or while driving your kid to and from school. We don’t know how to mourn collectively in a healthy way. After 9/11, we had these patriotic overblown events where we dive deep into the myth of our exceptionalism. More flags, more military bands, more words like freedoms, and very little reckoning. Of course, this is the plan because it feeds into our notions of power and entitlement. And if we really did reflect, we might see the ways our country is in the wrong.

In Adam Serwer’s great essay, “The Cruelty is the Point,” now a book, he talks about the relationship between cruelty and power. It benefits white people to be cruel. It’s how we keep the power:

“Only the president and his allies, his supporters, and their anointed are entitled to the rights and protections of the law, and if necessary, immunity from it. The rest of us are entitled only to cruelty, by their whim. This is how the powerful have ever kept the powerless divided and in their place, and enriched themselves in the process.”

Adam Serwer

In this reckoning that’s happening right now, there is a huge outrage about Critical Race Theory (which sounds like a boogey but really is a nuanced look at how white supremacy has permeated everything in our culture) and here in Boston, exam schools, we are watching the kick back against inequity. White parents are furious that they might not have the advantage anymore, feeling that it’s unfair, which I wish I could point out to every single one of them, means that it has been unfair for everyone else for much much longer. And if you talk to the KIDS, really they are interested in having a good community, having friends, feeling safe. Only a few (and I am sure it comes from the parents) are hoping their school is in the 98th percentile for SAT scores. 

I read this great opinion piece about debt, “Make Americans’ Crushing Debt Disappear” and found that debt has been used by the powerful for a long time:

Since before this nation’s founding, indebtedness has been useful to the powerful as both a source of profit and a tool of social control and racial domination. Thomas Jefferson’s view is particularly revealing: While he fulminated against debt as an unjust encumbrance on posterity and argued for the termination of debts unpaid after “natural limits” (which he took to be the span of a generation), he recommended wielding debt as a tool to dispossess Indigenous people, “because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.”

Astra Taylor

Debt is tied into power and cruelty. Astra Taylor is leading a huge effort to cancel student debt and you can join her here. After reading about how debt is used to oppress, I read this horrific article about civil asset forfeiture, a really nice way of saying that the police can take your money or your car or anything else they want if they believe it is associated with a crime. And if we follow the thought that we have criminalized blackness, then we have a police force that can harass black folks and take their money.

We have medical debt – which is massively unfair because the health care system is not transparent in its pricing, insurance coverage is arbitrary and those companies like to have prior authorization, which is making medical decisions without a license.  I wonder what it is like to go to the doctor and not worry about paying for it. I have been suffering from really bad headaches. I have seen one specialist who has referred me to another. I have yet to make the appointment because it’s stomach churning, thinking about what it might cost.

I have school debt. It’s not overwhelming right now, but I am scared of it and what it will do to my family. I have heard horror stories of students paying for college two times over because of the interest. Either we move away from the idea that college is necessary for a well-paying job or we cancel the debt and make universities free. 

Debt is a form of bondage. It keeps one trapped. In the regency books, one could dick over the tradesmen but could never back out of a debt of honor. It preys on the vulnerable or the unlucky. It always costs more to scrape out of.

I am in your debt. I owe you. I will pay you back one day. There must be new language that we can use for the relationship versions of debt. Or maybe we let go of that debt and cancel it. Maybe it’s being a good friend or parent who gives freely. I don’t expect repayment for the kind things I do.

A long time ago, I was at a work retreat in Canada. The game we had to play had to do with resources and how they were shared. Our teams were countries and as countries, we wanted to sell our resources and expected payment for everything. Our first round had us up in arms and declaring war on each other in minutes. The facilitator had us back off and start again. That’s when my teammate said, ahhhh. And when the first country asked us for something, he said, give it to them. We were dumbfounded. And he started handing out things without demands. Soon we were all sharing and everyone got what they needed and war was avoided.

Sometimes there is real scarcity, but most of the time, it is a myth pushed upon us to make us fight our neighbor for spots at that one good school. It’s exhausting to have to fight for something that we could make readily available with a little bit of courage and kindness.