People Are Not Things

not thingsIf you want to know what I’m writing-aloud-in-reaction-to, read this post and then read these posts.

Full disclosure: I’m one of the governance group for the CAA and extended the invitation to Brad Houston to write for us. I still think this was a good idea and I think Brad wrote a decent piece.

However. Much as Brad would like to take exception to Jeremy’s use of “bloodless neutrality,” I would like to take exception to Brad’s use of “frenzied,” “hysterical,” and “breathless” along with the general tone which the use of these terms implies.

To put it bluntly, these are all belittling terms. Their use implies that the user does not take what they are describing seriously — unless, of course, they’re commenting on a footrace in which case ‘breathless’ might make perfect sense.

“Hysterical” is particularly a loaded term given that it has a long and ignominious history of use in dismissing health concerns, particularly mental health concerns, particularly women’s mental health concerns. “Hysteria” was long the dismissive diagnosis for conditions we might now understand as ranging from acute epilepsy to mild depression to severe postpartum depression to schizophrenia or various forms of dementia in women and men. Equally, it was used to medicalize conditions such as depression in unhelpful ways, turning a manageable condition into an incurable disease. Using it in this context to describe the attitude of those alarmed by the possible destruction of records documenting, among other things, possible abuse and sexual assault of ICE detainees is an unfortunate choice.

The other big problem is a systematic one. Taken together, Brad’s posts boil down to “It’s okay, the system will work it out.”

This is simply not correct. If we have had nothing else over the past eighteen months, we have had proof raining down on us day after day to demonstrate that the system will not work “it” out. Or, rather, the system will — but only to the benefit of itself. Inasmuch as the system “wants” or “needs” anything, it “wants” or “needs” to perpetuate itself. That’s it. That’s all it does. Think of Richard Dreyfus in Jaws: “All it does is swim. And eat. And make baby sharks.” Well, all systems do is perpetuate and ingest and make baby systems.

There was a lot of hopeful talk just after the election last year that “the Constitution will protect us” and “the Congress will balance it out” and, no. It won’t. The system is not some magical apparatus like something you might find in the back of McGonagall’s classroom at Hogwarts or sitting under the TARDIS console. The system is people. The system is only as good as the people in it and, frankly, most of the people in it? Are not great. And the ones who are great face incredible systemic obstacles in getting even the simplest of tasks done.

The problem here, I think, is one larger than this discussion of NARA policies; it has to do with the fact that aspirationalism is the American disease but that’s probably a different blog post. Aspirationalism urges us all to identify with “winners” — we could all win the lottery next week! we could all win those Super Bowl tickets in the office draw! we might all luck into a million dollars from a rich uncle! Yeah, we might — but the odds are so far against it as to make the prospect laughable. Is buying a lottery ticket a problem? Not unless you have a gambling problem. Is looking at the next ten years of your life and saying, ‘Gosh, when I’m forty, I’d really love to be able to buy a house’ a problem? No, in and of itself, that’s a reasonable goal. Is believing that you’re really one of the “winners” and if only all these other people weren’t here, you’d be up there with your very own gilt apartment a problem? Yeah, it is. That’s a huge fucking problem.

The aspect of that which has bearing here brings us back to the use of the term “bloodless neutrality.” Relying on the system to fix things not only leaves out the part where “the system” has no agency of its own for good or bad but also elides the part where the people caught in “the system” are, in fact, people. The entire issue has been made bloodless by walking it so far back from the initial issue — ICE wants to destroy records pertinent to serious misdimeanours on their part — that the individual caught in the system has become invisible.

We — and I speak as a processing archivist and historian here — think of records as so many boxes, so many cubic or linear feet, so many folders, with such and such a date range, to be filed in our catalogs under such and such subject headings. And this is all true while at the same time allowing us, if we choose and as I believe has happened here, to lose track of the fact that the record is, really, a person. Or people. Or a family. Or an academic department. Or a school. Any given archival or records management unit you choose is, in the end, going to be made up of individual people.

The people at risk here are people with far less agency and privilege than any of us currently in this discussion have. It may seem like a small thing to remember that an ICE detention record represents a 25-year-old man who was born in the Dominican Republic, grew up in Connecticut, and has finished three years at NYU, but, if you think about it for a minute, it really isn’t particularly small.