In This Episode
This week on Hot Take, Amy & Mary talk to Olúfemi Táíwò, author and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown, about tokenism, reparations, how the powerful have appropriated identity politics and turned it into a tool of division, and more. Taiwo is the author of Elite Capture and Reconsidering Reparations and a real-life philosopher.
If you want to contribute to relief efforts in Florida, here are a few places to give to:
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Proyecto Matria (women’s rights org):
Taller Salud (women’s health org)
Amy Westervelt [AD]
Mary Annaise Heglar Hey Hotcakes, its Mary just wanted to drop in and acknowledge that the audio for this week is not exactly what we would have wanted. You’ll notice in our guest’s background today you can hear some sirens. And while I can confirm that Olufemi Taiwo is not on the run from the law, though that would be fun and interesting. He was just in a hotel room and there was a lot of ambient noise. So that’s what you hear. But I promise this conversation is worthwhile. So, you know, just sort of imagine that those sirens are coming to arrest fossil fuel CEOs.
Mary Annaise Heglar Hey, hotcakes. Welcome to Hot Take. I’m Mary Annaise Heglar.
Amy Westervelt And I’m Amy Westervelt. Well, Mary, I feel like every week we say this, but there was a lot of climate news this week. So much.
Mary Annaise Heglar Yep, there was.
Amy Westervelt So much.
Mary Annaise Heglar Yeah. I mean, this episode, we’re going to be talking to Olufemi Taiwo about so many other philosophical questions. But before we do that, yeah, let’s talk about some of these big events that have happened. I hear tell that something’s happened on your continent, correct?
Amy Westervelt That’s right. In Brazil, the whole world has been watching the elections there, mostly in the climate sphere, because, you know, there’s this sense that if if Bolsonaro can get ousted from power, that maybe we have a shot at protecting the Amazon rainforest. So it felt like a really high stakes climate election. Bolsonaro’s main challenger is Luis de Silva. Lula. As he’s known, very much like a Workers Party labor movement guy far left. And he was really gaining in the polls in the lead up to this election. He did get, I think, about 6% more of the vote than Bolsonaro. But in Brazil, basically, if you don’t get more than 50% of the vote, then they have a runoff election. So that is where we are now with Lula getting, I think, 48% like he just missed it. So they will do a runoff at the end of the month. And that sounds like it might be a win. But unfortunately, like, I don’t know, all the people I’m seeing in Brazil are kind of like, no, this is really bad because yeah, you know, if it wasn’t decisive, then that’s where we feel like there’s going to be a lot of Bolsonaro kind of saying, Oh, there’s fraud and sort of stoking violence. And then also quite a few people from his party won elections further down the ballot. So that means that they will still have a significant amount of power. I think people were really hoping for like a real decisive like no to fascism vote.
Mary Annaise Heglar A rejection. Yeah
Amy Westervelt Yeah, that didn’t happen. So yeah yeah.
Mary Annaise Heglar I mean, we’ll talk about this in more detail in a future episode. But Bolsonaro is a horrible, horrible human being.
Amy Westervelt Just the worst, literally full of shit. That was my favorite news story of 2021. Did you catch that one where he had to like he basically like hadn’t pooped for like 14 days and had to go to the hospital to have his poop removed because he was so backed up.
Mary Annaise Heglar I want to unknow this so bad.
Amy Westervelt Do you? Or is it perfect?
Mary Annaise Heglar I don’t want this impervation in my head. I don’t. No. I’m not asking follow up questions. I am not asking follow up questions about that. Absolutely. No, I don’t want to know anything else.
Amy Westervelt It’s it’s like I’m sorry. That is the image in my head. Every time I hear or say that someone is full of shit, that’s Bolsonaro literally being full of shit.
Mary Annaise Heglar All of our listeners right now. I’m sorry. Okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t know this was coming. In all seriousness, Bosner was not expected to perform this well.
Amy Westervelt No, not at all. Yeah, that’s concerning.
Mary Annaise Heglar Is. Yeah, it’s deeply concerning. And he’s already been laying the groundwork, saying that he won’t leave even if he loses. If he loses, there’s been fraud. And yet he has a very Rabbitte base is very much like Trump. And this dude is in control of the Amazon rainforest, among so many other really important climate implications, for lack of a better term. Like it’s not all fossil fuels, although there is a lot of fossil fuels, there’s a lot of like, you know, deforestation projects. And yeah, it’s it’s a lot of power to give to a fascist.
Amy Westervelt Yeah. Yeah. The biggest thing in the Amazon under his watch has been just massive, clear cutting of forests for cattle grazing. So that’s kind of a12 punch when you think about deforestation plus beef. And then on top of that, like a complete disregard for for indigenous sovereignty, just, oh, absolutely. Trampling over the rights of of the communities who live in those places and whose land is being just taken from them. So yeah, not a good indigenous hostility. It is. Yeah. Like yeah really it is. There’s actually there’s a really good documentary coming out soon called The Territory and it centers on this indigenous community in the Amazon and how they’re trying to protect their land from just random people charging in and cutting shit down during the night. Like they’ll go in in the nighttime and do this. Mm hmm. So and like, I talked to the one of the people that worked on that, and she even a few months ago was like, you know, even if we get Bolsonaro out, Bolsonaro’s, Mo is here to stay. And, like, you know, it’s very, again, like very, very similar to what happened with Trump in the EU. Yeah. So yeah, but we’ll definitely keep an eye on, on what’s happening there and we’ll see what happens at the end of the month.
Mary Annaise Heglar Yeah. The other thing to touch on really quick is these horrific storms. So Hurricane Ian hit Florida and South Carolina last week. It was almost five actually. Yeah. When it hit Florida it was pretty destructive and it passed through South Carolina. I’m not sure what the category number was, but still a hurricane. Yeah, and this is a really terrifying phenomenon. It used to be conventional wisdom that when a hurricane passed over land, it would slow down and now that’s not really happening. So Ian passed over Cuba. Category three, gathered even more strength in the Gulf, hit Florida, then weakened to a tropical storm, gets back over on the water and goes to South Carolina as a hurricane. Again, this is not how hurricanes used to behave. And honestly, the first time I saw a hurricane behave this way that I can remember was Katrina. Katrina hit Florida, went back into the Gulf, got more strength, and then came back to Mississippi and Louisiana. And this is getting more intense because of climate change. And I talked about this a little bit on what a day last week that, you know, people will say, though, it’s hard to attribute a hurricane to climate change. It’s not hard to to attribute how much worse a hurricane gets right to climate change, because, sure, hurricanes exist as a phenomenon before climate change. Right. But this type of behavior is strange. And yeah, so climate change is making these storms move slower, which means they just sit on you, which is not what you want. In the case of a hurricane, climate change has made sea levels rise. That means there’s more water to be brought in with the storm surge. Climate change has made the oceans hotter, which means like that’s that’s what feeds the hurricane is hot water. And so if it passes through Cuba and, you know, the land is supposed to nullify it, but it sits right back on those hot waters of the Gulf. Well, it’s just going to get stronger again. And our our oceans have absorbed 90% of global warming since modern recordkeeping began.
Amy Westervelt Yeah. Yeah. There was this period like in the early science where like even some not some scientists that weren’t working for fossil fuel companies even were sort of like, like tentatively hopeful that like, oh, well, maybe that the oceans will save us kind of, you know, like the oceans will absorb all this stuff and then it’ll all be fine. But they quickly realized like, no, in fact, not find it.
Mary Annaise Heglar Yeah, yeah. I mean, honestly, like, the oceans are a big carbon sink. Yeah. So that’s where all the they’re absorbing all this carbon that we’ve been putting into the atmosphere. But like that is what carbon capture and storage kind of is. Yeah. You know, or like that’s I just don’t think it bodes well for everybody who like touts we’re just going to capture. The carbon from the fossil fuel plants and stick it in the ground. Cause like this is what’s happening when the oceans stores carbon. Yeah. Yeah. It just seems like there’s probably a lot of unforeseen consequences, but whatever. I also just want to mention that there’s been some problematic coverage of these storms that kind of pits it as DeSantis versus Biden.
Amy Westervelt Yeah. And a lot of people being like, oh, now Ronda Santos is into FEMA. And, you know, it’s like I guess it’s like it’s easy to kind of look at it and say, oh, you know, you voted against disaster relief for people in New York after Superstorm Sandy, for example, and you’ve been very vocally anti anything climate. But like, I don’t know I’m like yeah DeSantis is a is an idiot but the people of Florida as what we need to be concerned about here you know like.
Mary Annaise Heglar Yeah yeah. It’s, it’s just, you know, it used to be kind of thought of that in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is not the time to talk about climate change. And I don’t think that’s true. I think that that actually was never true. But in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, I don’t want to hear shit about. No. All white men fighting. That’s right. I really don’t. It’s immaterial at this point. Yeah. And let’s let’s save that analysis for the hypocrisy of the right wing for later. But also, that’s not news. They’re always hypocrites. It’s not.
Amy Westervelt And it’s also not like actually I was just reading something from someone who studies rhetoric and I wish I could remember her name right now, but but basically that like accusing people of or pointing out hypocrisy is like is not a convincing argument. Like it doesn’t do anything. It sort of makes you feel good and smart, but it doesn’t convince anyone else of anything.
Mary Annaise Heglar Right.
Amy Westervelt You know.
Mary Annaise Heglar Even in that case, only momentarily. Right. Because, like, a liar is going to lie.
Amy Westervelt Right. That’s right.
Mary Annaise Heglar You know, it’s it’s just kind of what they do. So anyway, I don’t want to see any more headlines like that, like media. Please do better on on that. But again, these storms are not going to stop. Hurricane season is not over and these problems are far from over. So I actually think that’s why it’s good that this week we’re taking a step back to talk to a philosopher about the big philosophical questions around climate change.
Amy Westervelt Yeah, really, really great conversation with Olufemi Taiwo, who is a philosopher. He’s written two books recently, one on Reparations, with a real specific focus on climate reparations. That’s called Rethinking Reparations. And the other one is looking at the sort of warping and weaponizing of identity politics that’s kind of gotten us away from actual structural change and towards these kind of more surface conversations about who’s saying what. So, like, just super, super interesting guy definitely looks at this stuff from this like a zoomed out view of, of what’s needed for structural change, which honestly made me feel a lot better and like more like, okay, we can still do stuff.
Mary Annaise Heglar Yeah, yeah.
Amy Westervelt Yeah.
Mary Annaise Heglar I mean, once I got over, you know, my starstruck ness, learned a lot in this conversation. Yeah. And very excited to share it with folks. So without any further ado, I think it’s time.
Amy Westervelt It’s time to talk about climate.
Amy Westervelt Olufemi Taiwo, welcome to Hot Take. You’re our first philosopher here. Thank you. Thank you very much.
Mary Annaise Heglar Amy, I like to think of myself as a philosopher, so. You know.
Amy Westervelt Yes.
Olufemi Taiwo I’ll try not to ruin it for any future philosophers.
Amy Westervelt We’re super excited that you could make time for us while you’re out there touring for two books. Not one, but two.
Mary Annaise Heglar Yeah.
Amy Westervelt It’s amazing.
Mary Annaise Heglar Yeah. So we feel very honored. Yeah. So when did you first start thinking about climate and what what led you there? Let’s just go ahead and get into it.
Olufemi Taiwo So actually, you know, I’m not a environmentalist or, you know, earth scientist by background, obviously. Right. I’m a political philosopher. And I’d say for the better part of the last decade, I’ve started to drift more and more towards climate politics. And I didn’t really set out to do that. I was just trying to think about kind of orthodox topics and political philosophy, you know, and politics in general. So what are good economic structures? You know, what are the trends in geopolitics? I worked on Colonial. Thought, an anti-colonial thought. And so, like, you know, we’re the baddies of the world going to be up to the next few years and what’s it going to take to counter them? You know.
Mary Annaise Heglar This is sounding like a comic book.
Olufemi Taiwo It’s it’s getting real. It’s getting real comic booky out there. I’m not going to lie to you, you know, especially. Yeah, you know, but. But the dark comic books, you know, the Frank Miller stuff. But.
Mary Annaise Heglar Mm hmm.
Olufemi Taiwo I basically just kind of backed into it from there as soon as I tried to answer any of those questions on a timescale longer than a few years, I kept running into basically all of the stuff that climate scientists are talking about. You know, where’s the water going to be? Where’s the arable land going to be? You know, what kinds of. Energy moves are the big powers of the world going to make? Those are the questions you have to start thinking about. If you want to know 20 years from now what the world is going to look like. And so eventually, after coming to that conclusion from five or six different angles, I just thought, you know, maybe I just need to look at climate politics directly.
Amy Westervelt Hmm. That’s interesting. What was it like the first the first thing that you started looking into in any detail on that front?
Olufemi Taiwo Um, basically, I’d say the first thing. I was starting to look out was militaries. So as as folks might know, the the US has a bunch of bases across the African continent. There’s all these various, you know, counterinsurgencies that they claim to be running. They’re not alone. France and Russia have big footprints across the continent. And you dig in to what, you know, security studies people and all the you know, and all these the huge complex of people that. Work on these issues and, you know, are involved in national security, this or that. And they’re all you know, they’re pretty they’re pretty honest about things. You know, they expect more conflict as the world gets hotter, as displacement becomes a bigger and bigger problem. And people are displaced in bigger and bigger numbers and they are very explicitly tooling up to be fighting conflicts in more of the world and fighting harder conflicts in parts of the world where they’re already fighting.
Amy Westervelt That’s super interesting and terrifying. Okay. I have a really important question for my God. And that is. It’s happening, Mary. How do philosophy students feel when they fail an exam on empiricism?
Olufemi Taiwo *laughs* Oh.
Mary Annaise Heglar Amy, I’m so proud of you for this. At the same time that I’m just, like, cringing so hard.
Olufemi Taiwo You know, I don’t think obviously nobody likes to fail anything. But, you know, I think students are very confused when they don’t do well in philosophy. You know, isn’t it isn’t it just vibes? And at the end of the day, vibes and questions.
Amy Westervelt Just what I how I feel about this.
Olufemi Taiwo You’re actually. You know, that’s most of it, you know. But there are, you know, arguments and such. So you do have to do other things in philosophy, other than just have opinions.
Amy Westervelt Femi, the correct answer here is humiliated.
Olufemi Taiwo You know, you.
Amy Westervelt Hume-miliated.
Olufemi Taiwo that’s on me. That’s really on me. You know.
Mary Annaise Heglar I would like to speak up on the part of our listeners for whom this is over their head and just say, this is over my head, too. I have no idea what the hell ya’ll are talking about. I knew it was a dad joke, but I have no idea what this is.
Amy Westervelt It’s a philosophy dad joke. Just for you.
Mary Annaise Heglar Right.
Amy Westervelt I combed the internet.
Mary Annaise Heglar [AD]
Mary Annaise Heglar Femi, I was telling you earlier that you’re one of my favorite followers on Twitter. And Twitter is just such an interesting place, this like where we’ve gone to have all of our public discourse really, especially in the pandemic. And there’s no better place to realize that our public discourse is just broken. And one of them, like you know, like all the conversations around cancel culture, etc., but also identity politics. So you’ve written a lot about identity politics. So can you tell us what were identity politics originally and what would you say they’ve become?
Olufemi Taiwo So the term identity politics comes from the Combahee River Collective, which was a group of black feminist socialists, queer black women who were socialists. And they met in Boston and came up with this way of thinking and way of articulating their politics. And as I understand what they said back in the late seventies, identity politics is basically. An idea about how you get started doing politics. One way you could get started doing politics is to just, you know, have a bird’s eye view of what the entire world system or what your country’s political system looks like. And from that view, from 50,000 feet, decide what the most important issue is, regardless of who you are and where you are in that system. Just deciding to work on that. That’s how some people think about politics. But another way of thinking about politics is the one that I think they were suggesting with this term identity politics, which is start from where you are. Right? Look around. What are your priorities based on your social position, based on what’s happening in your life, based on your immediate circumstances and, you know, the kinds of things that inform what we now describe under the term identity. Right. Stuff that pertains to you. Start there. Figure out what’s important to you. Do politics from there that’s compatible with moving on to working with other people who are differently positioned and who have different priorities. But you’d be working with them in a real self-determined way, in a way that took where you are in the world seriously. And I think there’s a lot to be said for that. I think it’s a good idea and that’s the team I would say that I’m on now on social media and in general in the years since the seventies. There’s people who have taken the idea of working on identity based issues and taken it to mean, well, what you should be up to is working with people like you and working on issues that have to do with your circumstance. And you should be skeptical or even hostile to people outside of that kind of small group. So people have taken a sort of anti-coalition direction. I don’t think that’s a necessary part of identity politics, and I think that’s a good part of identity politics or politics in general. And so I would be against that, I guess.
Mary Annaise Heglar So how do you identify with politics? Huh? Huh? I was trying to get philosophical.
Olufemi Taiwo Yeah. I mean, Pan-Africanist socialist, eco socialist. You know, there’s a lot of. If you could describe me as. But I think those are fine.
Mary Annaise Heglar Oh, shit. I didn’t expect to have an actual answer for that, but I am talking to a philosopher so, there you go.
Olufemi Taiwo No one ever asks me that directly, you know.
Mary Annaise Heglar Oh really?
Olufemi Taiwo Its surprising. Yeah. Yeah.
Speaker 3 Yeah.
Olufemi Taiwo No.
Amy Westervelt That’s funny.
Olufemi Taiwo No one ever asked.
Amy Westervelt Okay. Sort of following on from from there. What can you define elite capture for us? I know this is like the focus of your most recent book, but, you know, a lot of people may not have heard that term. And especially with respect to identity politics, what does that mean?
Olufemi Taiwo Yeah. So elite capture is just what happens over time when the most advantaged people in a group get control of stuff, and maybe more importantly, processes that should be for the whole group. So social scientists who are studying the idea of elite captor would often talk about how aid packages that were meant for a whole village or town or state ended up the lion’s share of it, ended up with the people who were most advantaged, you know, big landowners or religious authorities, whatever the case might be. Another version of that would happen was something other than monetary resources. But the political direction of a movement or an organization is also something that can be subject to a lead captor. So the example I’ve been giving these days is one that echoes the criticism of LGBTQ organizing. That Barbara Smith of the Combahee River Collective is one of the people who have leveled this criticism. And they say that for a while there, the movement got overly focused on marriage equality to the exclusion of other things that were also of interest to queer folks and arguably of greater importance to the larger group of queer folks. And one explanation of the reason for that is that marriage equality was the big priority of people who were advantaged within that group of people white, cis, gay men, for example. And if that’s the case, then that would also be an example of this thing. I’m calling it a cultural could.
Amy Westervelt Would it would it be accurate to say that sort of like the Girlboss feminism is kind of an example to this idea of like as long as I’m on top of the power structure, the power structure is fine.
Olufemi Taiwo Yeah, yeah. Girlboss feminism is a, is a great example, right? You know, not many women are in a position to be bosses, right? So the gender politics of who is a boss and how we relate to bosses is clearly of interest to that group of women, that small subgroup of women. But maybe isn’t what the entire group of people under that identity label would require for their liberation.
Mary Annaise Heglar Yeah. I always thought something was kind of wrong with the whole Girlboss situation because I felt a lot of bosses in my life and a lot of them have been women. A lot of them have been incredibly shitty. Anyway, in your book you write about how politicians and corporations co-opted Black Lives Matter as a classic example of elite captures. So can you explain a little bit more about that here?
Olufemi Taiwo Yeah, one of the examples that I use in the book and you know, it’s just an example that I connect with personally because I live in Washington, D.C. But one of the examples I used in the book was the painting of Black Lives Matter on the actual physical streets of Washington, D.C.. So a couple of years ago, in the summer of the protests, that happened after a bunch of police killings, including the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and chanting dead and many others. There were all those protests across the country. The various police forces are out there, you know, tear gassing all of us. And. Hitting us with batons and kettling us and this that and the third. And the mayor of D.C. has. You know, has Black Lives Matter painted on the streets in front of the White House where this has happened, that sort of challenge to the Trump administration and maybe a message to your base of something like solidarity with the movement and then goes on to approve a larger budget for the police, which the movement had been kind of centrally organized around fighting. So the symbol of solidarity doesn’t end up being in lockstep with the actual kind of substantive political decisions that this politician, a black politician in this case is making.
Mary Annaise Heglar Hmm. Somehow I didn’t quite I didn’t clock that they increased the budget for the police at the same time that they painted that.
Olufemi Taiwo Yeah. You were, you know, we were all looking at the we were all looking at the paint.
Amy Westervelt Yeah. Right.
Mary Annaise Heglar And the Trump administration.
Olufemi Taiwo That’s that’s that’s part of. That’s part how it goes. Yeah. And. Yeah. And the Trump administration. Right?
Mary Annaise Heglar Right. It kind of feels like it’s harder for people to hide behind symbols now that Trump is out of office. And a lot of these companies and different entities haven’t caught up to that. So they’re still trying to, like, you know, offer these symbols and symbolic gestures. But now the big bad is kind of not gone but out of the White House. So it’s harder to do that.
Olufemi Taiwo Yeah. I mean, I imagine it is harder to hide behind symbols at this point, but you can say that they don’t really need to. Right now, President Biden will just say, I want more money to go to the police. And, you know, there isn’t much that the rest of us can really do about that. And this is actually one of the things that I’m trying to point out in the book. It is true that sometimes when it’s convenient, politicians will co-opt slogans like Black Lives Matter and paint it on the streets.
Mary Annaise Heglar And listen to black women. Remember that one?
Olufemi Taiwo You know, some people on the left will be like, well, this shows some kind of special deficiency of identity politics. You know, the fact that it can be co-opted in this way. But, you know, clearly, whatever kind of power, co-optation or not, that Biden is wielding or and responding to when he just says, I’m going to increase the police budget and then attempts to do so is not the kind that the deficiency of identity politics is in a position to explain. Right. So I think we I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we’re so focused on the dishonest things that politicians do with our slogans. And we kind of replace our frustrations with those dishonest things that they do in place of a more sober and serious, to my mind, analysis of why the politicians have the power that they have.
Amy Westervelt Do you do you see any difference at all in the sort of elite capture approach of corporations versus politicians like, you know, when Exxon or BP or whatever, as like we care about the LGBTQ community or, you know, Chevron kind of infamously did a whole Black Lives Matter thing on their Twitter feed when when those protests around too move a lot. That’s a lot. But yeah, like I guess I’m curious about like what what difference you see between those things, if any?
Olufemi Taiwo I’m not sure that I see much of a difference. You know, I think at the end of the day, neither President Biden nor Chevron needs the majority of people to really believe in what they’re doing. It would be nice, I guess, if there if there is a difference. You know, it’s that we do vote for who is going to be president. You know, we have a nominally democratic way of electing political leaders. And so there is some actual leverage that people have as an electorate over the maintenance of power of those officials, you know, whatever criticisms we might have of liberal democracy. But there is there isn’t even the pretense that the actions of Chevron are going to be put to a vote by the people who are affected by carbon emissions. No one pretends that the shareholders meetings includes us. So if there’s a difference, it’s just that. But that seems like a difference of degree, maybe more than a difference of kind.
Amy Westervelt The thing I was thinking about this when I was when I was reading your book that like especially around the like the tendency to focus on the deficiency of identity politics instead of like looking at power structures. Like, I feel like that happen that’s happening right now in the, the climate movement. Like there’s this huge. Like, oh, maybe we shouldn’t talk about how climate impacts black and brown people first and worst, because there’s research that shows that, like, white people tune out when we do that. Or like, I don’t know, like, there’s, there’s this way that that like fossil fuel companies are able to really sort of easily weaponize the movements and, you know, kind of lack of a racial lens to to its favor. You know, it’s it’s very easy to say, oh, you know, the green transition will leave out low income communities and people of color because like the climate movement has a huge history of actually doing that, you know? So anyway, I don’t know. I just like I wonder if I wonder if that’s like a good lesson for the, the climate movement to like instead of worrying overly much about, you know, how people in power will or won’t react to identity framings to like just look at the fundamental lack of justice in the movement and fix it.
Olufemi Taiwo Yeah. Yeah. At the end of the day, you have to decide for yourselves what is important. The other side.
Mary Annaise Heglar Mm hmm.
Amy Westervelt Mm hmm.
Olufemi Taiwo Is going to lie, cheat and steal. And the way that they lie, cheat and steal will depend on what you give them to lie about. And you know what things you develop that they’ll want to try to steal. But the fact that they’re going to try to co-opt the language or peel off support from people is something that is remarkably consistent across various kinds of things. You might try to do whatever you’re going to do. Chevron is going to try to downplay it or co-opt it. You know, whatever it occurs to them because they’re on the other side of the political issue. If you let opposing them become the main or only thing that we’re paying attention to, then you’re going to lose track of your own principles and values. And, you know, that’s not a strategic advantage of any kind that I can think of.
Mary Annaise Heglar Mm hmm. Yeah. We need to go to an ad break, but I just have one really quick question before we do. If you put the DMV on a scale, what would it weigh?
Olufemi Taiwo Ha. DMV as in Department of Motor Vehicles or are you talking about the area around D.C.?
Mary Annaise Heglar No. The aria.
Olufemi Taiwo It would weigh a ton. All right.
Mary Annaise Heglar It would weigh a Washing-ton. Get it? Get it?.
Olufemi Taiwo I was not told to prepare for these puns.
Mary Annaise Heglar All right. We’ll be back.
Mary Annaise Heglar [AD].
Mary Annaise Heglar And we’re back. Okay. So so, Femi, you have pushed back on the listen to group of people trope, like I just mentioned, like they’ll listen to black women trope that that was run around for a while. Can you explain why and what you’d prefer to see in terms of inclusivity that doesn’t default to, quote, identity politics?
Olufemi Taiwo So I’m still on team identity politics, so it’s not identity politics that I want to leave aside. But there’s a way of using identity politics that I want to leave aside. And that’s what I’ve been calling deference politics. And I think that’s the thing you were describing in the question. Right. So the idea that we find somebody from the marginalized group. Right, make them a spokesperson, slash thought leader, slash, whatever, and we take their political judgment and political judgment. We take direction from them, so on and so forth. I’m not about that. I think that gets a lot wrong. One of the arguments I make against it is at the end of the day, we don’t have equal or even representative access to. Other people’s views or perspectives, especially marginalized folks. Right. Some people get pipeline to prisons and other people get pipeline to PhDs. Right. So if you stand on the end of all the social processes that decided whose opinions, you’re even in a position to interact with and which people you’re in a position to interact with, it’s gone through all these filters of this unjust social structure that we have all these problems with, and you have no reason to think at the end of that. The particular person or viewpoint that the world has put in front of you is the one that’s going to produce a, you know, good, progressive, revolutionary perspective. All right. So I tell you, one of the stories that I talk a little bit about, one of the cases I talk a bit about in the book is the idea of the the or not the idea the actual. Flint water crisis. And the direct thing to say is, you know, actually, we’re not trying to figure out what it’s like to have your water poisoned. That’s not to say that everybody already knows what it’s like to have your water poisoned, but that isn’t the question. The question is how do we clean the water? Right. And that is a question that’s going to involve obviously listening to people who live in plant boats, getting involved, listening to plumbers and getting involved, listening to the kind of lawyers who can sue the government. It’s going to involve listening to the kind of organizers who can rally support and organize citizen science campaigns. It’s going to involve listening to a lot of people, and the questions that we’re asking them aren’t about this experiential idea of what it’s like to be marginalized or oppressed in a certain way. But it’s about how to do a practical thing, which is resist and, you know, destroy a power structure that is doing the harmful thing in the first place. Hmm.
Mary Annaise Heglar So part of me wants to argue with this because I want people to listen to me specifically because I am right about everything. So, you know, that’s my thing.
Olufemi Taiwo Yeah. To be clear, everybody should be citing Mary. You know, that is built into it.
Mary Annaise Heglar Damn right. Damn right. We can end the episode right there. But we won’t. There’s more to talk about. But, I do kind of worry about it specifically in the climate space where black and brown people, women, just like basically anybody who wasn’t already a rich white man, has not really had access to light work on the solutions. So much like it’s been such a white dominated space that it’s like, well, if we take away this idea that you need to, you know, listen to the people who are on the frontlines of the climate crisis because they’re more intimately aware of what it feels like to be on the frontlines of the climate crisis and therefore may know more about the solutions than the people trying to solve the problem. Does that put us back in the same place of where it’s really just wealthy white men working on the solutions who happen to be the exact same people working on the problem, you know, demographically.
Olufemi Taiwo Hmm. So I guess there’s two things to say. One, we are there. Like what you just described is is correct in terms of who has been put in a position to work on these issues from a, you know, kind of more technical background. We are in a position where, you know, the people who have certain specific kinds of expertize are going to skew, you know, white, male, middle class, upper class. All the things we can fill out. But this critique isn’t what puts us there. This critique is just for us to admit that that’s where we are. Right. And actually trying to change the subject to. We need to figure out what it’s like to be. Oppressed isn’t going to change that reality. What is going to change that reality is changing that reality. We actually could, as a as a matter of concerted, deliberate political action, try to change who it is that gets access to the kinds of information that lets you participate in discussions about how to fix this or that. We actually could decide that we want to democratize scientific processes, democratize the collection of information, and who gets to be in those conversations. And that would require, you know, not a norm of listening to, you know, different people as though they have all the answers already, but actual structures of how we asked the questions in the first place.
Mary Annaise Heglar Hmm.
Amy Westervelt You know what this is making me think of? And it’s so like, ahhh, is, is that, you know, who is, like, the only sector that I know of that’s investing a serious amount of money in, like, STEM training for young people of color. Oh, my God.
Mary Annaise Heglar Can I guess?
Amy Westervelt In low income communities. Who is it, Mary?
Mary Annaise Heglar Fossil fuel industry?
Amy Westervelt That’s right. That’s right. So, like.
Olufemi Taiwo Yup. Yup.
Mary Annaise Heglar Ohhh the predictability.
Amy Westervelt Yup. Wow. That’s so interesting. You you kind of you made this comment in your book that I think is is related to this. But correct me if I’m wrong about like instead of worrying so much about who’s in the room, we need to leave the room altogether. But it feels like what you’re suggesting is that people, like, just take a step back and look at the actual structural stuff instead of worrying about this, this point, that kind of like two steps beyond that in terms of like, oh, let’s worry about how we talk about it.
Mary Annaise Heglar Mm hmm.
Olufemi Taiwo No, I think that’s exactly right. Right. And obviously, these structures and the people on top of them have more resources than the rest of us. And, you know, we’re not going to be able to challenge this huge global structure of capitalism just by looking at it differently. Right. Obviously, I’m not trying to suggest anything like that. All that I want to do is take a look at deference, politics and point out that we’re not challenging things at all. Right. Or deference politics isn’t challenging things at all.
Mary Annaise Heglar I mean, so it sounds like there’s a lot of arguments here to focus on systems and not individuals, which generally I’m for. But is it okay if I individually hate CEOs of oil companies though?
Olufemi Taiwo Oh, yeah, fuck em.
Mary Annaise Heglar Just wanted to make sure that was still cool.
Olufemi Taiwo That’s fine.
Mary Annaise Heglar As Amy well knows I’m all about prison abolition, but just like, give me a couple of gulags to hold on to. For some very specific people.
Amy Westervelt That’s true. It’s true. That’s very true. Okay, so this is super interesting. And first, when I when I saw that you had this second book coming out, I was like, oh, my God, how does he do it? But but they super relate to each other, I think, in this in this very interesting way, like what we were just talking about, I think kind of goes directly to some of the arguments that you’re making in reconsidering reparations around sort of the need to to not just think about repairing damage or compensating people for past damages, but also like how do we fundamentally change things so that that damage doesn’t keep happening now and into the future? So yeah, I’m just wondering about like how you think about this idea of world building or, you know, a constructive approach to politics and like how it kind of crosses into both of these realms.
Olufemi Taiwo Yeah, I definitely use these terms, you know, world making constructive. Politics in. Both of the books, and I really think the idea is more or less the same. But you need to actually make the world different if you’re trying to make the world and you put it like that and everyone’s like, Well, of course. Right. Like, what else would we be doing?
Amy Westervelt Right.
Olufemi Taiwo But if I’m right about the if I’m right about the criticism of deference politics, you know, not everybody is, in fact, thinking about politics or organizing politics in that way. Right. Much more importantly, I think, you know, there’s a sort of ecological view that. I’m trying to push for both, specifically on the topic of reparations, but more generally and less politics. And, you know, we have to think what is the environment like in the sense of overall political environment, but also in the sense of the literal environment? But what would the environment be like where we can actually win any of these political contests that we’re trying to win? Like, do we think we can challenge corporate power with a union density of 10% like we have in the United States? Or would it need to be triple that or quadruple that if we wanted to win? I think that is a constructive question. If you’re trying to build a labor movement that can stand up to the corporations and political elites that run everything.
Amy Westervelt That’s super interesting. I guess. Yeah. Like, how does that how does that relate to. I don’t know. I guess like kind of getting back to the original intent behind this this term of identity politics, that the the thing that makes you say that you’re still team identity politics. How do you kind of how do you think through moving everyone over over to that interpretation instead of this like this difference politics thing.
Olufemi Taiwo So one of the ways that I think through. The relationship of identity politics to this. And one of the ways that I think identity politics is particularly valuable is that we have this ecological view. One of the things that explains is why we don’t all have to be doing the same thing. So I think for some people there’s a kind of central organization that would be the engine of progress. Maybe it’s a mass socialist organization. Maybe it’s a political party. That was maybe a genuine Labor Party in the United States, for instance, or maybe a better left party than the existing ones. As might be the case in other parts of the world that have Labor parties. But some people think, you know, the struggle of trying to make the world different is trying to get people to follow this line and join the particular good party and. Or good revolutionary vanguard or whatever the case might be, and get enough people doing the right thing to make the world change. But if you have this other more ecological view. Then maybe that’s not what you think. Maybe you think it’s good and potentially helpful for there to be more labor unions. It’s good and potentially helpful for there to be more, say, debtors unions. It’s good and potentially helpful for there to be more tenancy unions. It’s good and potentially helpful for there to be a stronger left feminist movement defending reproductive justice. It’s good and potentially helpful for there to be a stronger abolitionist movement trying to close prisons and defund police departments. And the proliferation of each of those things is going to help each of the other things. And you can make that case at the level of issues. But I think what’s also just demonstrably true from history is that another thing that helps decide which people, some people are willing to work with and how deeply some people are willing to work with other people has to do with these things that we’ve called identities. Right. Like maybe. There are some people who would be willing to be part of a debtors union that was specifically geared to transfer folks. Or maybe there’s some people who would like to do. Prison abolition work that was centered around black experiences with incarceration and policing. And if you’re like me on team identity politics, I think that’s fine. That’s maybe, you know, helpful. I could easily see how that could fit into a larger social movement that ended up with changing the world. And I don’t need to convince them to join, you know, my mass party and agree with all of the things that I think are true about the Russian Revolution, 1917 or whatever. I don’t think I need to convince everybody of all these particular things. I just think I need to convince enough people to do one of the many things that would help push politics.
Amy Westervelt It just sounds so practical. I love it. It’s like, let’s do some specific tasks and get them done. I’m not trying to minimize your approach. I actually think it’s like it’s. It’s really, really. Like it’s weirdly like mind blowing, but also just focusing people’s minds on like the practical tasks at hand too, in this way that I just don’t see a lot of people doing right now.
Mary Annaise Heglar Yeah.
Amy Westervelt It actually makes me feel less overwhelmed to hear you talk about, you know, like when you hear the term world making, it feels it can feel a little bit like, oh shit, we have to, like completely redo everything. But you’re right, if every, if you have like, like small groups of people who are, you know, maybe part of a loosely connected collective, but like each working towards this shared goal and each doing a different role and a different thing, then then it becomes much more achievable. Why do you think there’s been such a like tendency towards doing things. We. are done now like this? You know, we must all be part of this, you know, these big groups, it’s just money and like power consolidation or like, I don’t know, I just like, yeah, is there some. Social tendency towards that. What’s what is that?
Olufemi Taiwo I think it’s just been it’s just been harder to do lots of campaigns. All right. So the flip side of noticing that union density has fallen in half since the 1980s and, you know, decreased by even more if we take a longer timescale, is that it’s just harder to do union stuff, right? Each union that exists as a potential resource for other workers that might unionize, a potential source of examples for other workers who are unionized, trying to figure out potential strategies that might work or might not work. And if you have fewer of them, it’s just harder to do the union thing. And one of the things that’s happened over the past few decades since, you know, a major, I would say, win for the global left over the decades that followed the Second World War is there’s been a global crackdown on. Left is a of all kinds. Right. They’ve persecuted people. They’ve killed people in mass. They’ve made it more difficult for folks to transmit knowledge and resources and even whole institutions across generations. And so it’s just harder to do the range of strategies that people were doing when all those intergenerational and intra generational links were intact. But the more we build workers unions and veterans unions and tenants tenants unions, and the more we do ratepayer strikes and the more we build left media outlets and podcasts like this one and.
Mary Annaise Heglar Thanks for the shout out.
Olufemi Taiwo We build out all of these structures. Yeah. The easier it will be for us to do all these things next year and the year after that and the year after that.
Mary Annaise Heglar Yeah. So you seem really drawn to talking about how things, you know, forces can help each other for the greater good. Let’s talk about how they can hurt each other for the better, greater, bad. So how does something like the politics of difference and benevolent racism intersect with eco fascism?
Olufemi Taiwo Oh.
Mary Annaise Heglar Yeah.
Olufemi Taiwo Oh, boy. We get right to it.
Mary Annaise Heglar Eh, it took a little while, but we got here.
Olufemi Taiwo Okay. I mean, I think one of the things that emerges on the other side of this kind of essentially quasi tokenism, really, if, you know, if we’re talking about it. Right. But the idea that. What you need. To do is find somebody of the right identity category and take political direction from them. It is just the co-option of that strategy by the right. And again, as I said before, we shouldn’t be surprised that they co-opt that strategy. They would co-opt any other strategy that was happening. But what it does mean is that, you know, their Herschel Walker’s of the world.
Mary Annaise Heglar Mmmhmm.
Olufemi Taiwo Are going to find and the Candace Owens of the world and whoever else, you know, they’re going to find a ready and willing audience on the right. And I mean, they’ll find lots of resources to get their particular brand of politics out. Even in Italy, there are some articles I’ve read recently say that’s the new brand of fascism there is adopting a a red brown approach, as they call it, fascism with left anti-colonial vibes.
Amy Westervelt Yes, I’m seeing that. I’m seeing that here too.
Mary Annaise Heglar In Costa Rica?
Amy Westervelt Yes! No, I’m sorry. In the U.S. Not in Costa Rica.
Mary Annaise Heglar Fair enough.
Amy Westervelt Yeah.
Olufemi Taiwo Yeah. They’ll. They’ll quote. Left anti-colonial luminaries. You know, you’re in criminals and sane cars in the service of fascist politics. And I think that’s a particularly extreme version of it. But, you know, maybe the D.C. mayor painting Black Lives Matter on the streets and then helping to fund the costs is a more centrist version of it. I think the the lesson we should take from that is just, you know, it is there’s 7 to 8 billion people in the world. And you can find a person from any group who believes that anything. Right. So. And you can find a quote from even people who disagree with you where there there’s overlap of opinion know how the entire US political spectrum quotes Dr. King for this that regardless of what the guy actually thought. Right. So all this is to just say deference. Politics isn’t going to. Provide you a good strategy of figuring out your political direction, you know? But that’s not to say that identity politics won’t.
Mary Annaise Heglar Mm hmm.
Amy Westervelt That’s super interesting and terrifying. It’s all a little bit terrifying.
Mary Annaise Heglar It’s a climate show.
Olufemi Taiwo Yeah.
Amy Westervelt It’s true. It’s true. Uhhh. Okay. So I’m I’m assuming that you saw the the interaction between Farhana and John Kerry, where she was asking about this. This was at like during Climate Week. They were having a whole conversation about the US’s role in the international climate summits. And John Kerry was asked, you know, when will the US actually deliver on their promised kind of funding for for loss and damages and and also stop getting out of the way of people having that conversation. So I’m curious, like a what you think about like the conversation around loss and damages with respect to your thoughts on reparations in general. And then and then also, yeah. What, what your take was on that whole exchange. John Kerry got very like flustered, huffy. Very huffy, I would say.
Mary Annaise Heglar Yeah.
Amy Westervelt There was a flounce.
Mary Annaise Heglar He was not having a good time, lets just put it that way.
Amy Westervelt Was not. Yeah. Yeah. So, yeah, I’m. I’m curious what you what you think of all that.
Olufemi Taiwo Ugh. Adorable. Yeah Kerry? Well, let me not. All right. So.
Mary Annaise Heglar You can. Just so you know.
Olufemi Taiwo In general, I actually am not, I’m not familiar with this exchange. That’s the only reason. That’s the only reason I’m going to go in on him for this particular thing. But just reacting to your description of it. All right. I I find that unsurprising, I’ll put it that way. And in general, what I would say about the loss and damage is, you know, I think loss and damage is a great idea. It’s a great vehicle for the kind of redistribution that. I think would be a necessary condition for remaking the world in the right kind of way. Right. Because it’s not just building solar panels and putting them up, but it’s also building the political structure around those that are going to be compatible with self-determination for everybody. And so it’s going to involve redistribution of money and power, essentially. And loss and damage is one vehicle for doing that. And I think it fits squarely in to how I would think about reparations and I think how lots of other people think about reparations and climate. I’m, of course, not nearly the first person. There’s decades and decades of people talking about ecological debt and essentially related concepts, if not identical concepts. Right. But I think loss and damage clearly fits. And a lot of the people who have been advocating for loss and damage as a vehicle have said so already. And I just think they’re right. I guess the only other thing I would say, which is, again, what advocates of loss and damage also themselves say, is that, you know, the broader reconstructive. Ethos is bigger than loss and damage. You don’t want to wait until something is gone to think about redistribution from the rich to the poor, from the global north to the global south, and to build the world in the direction of justice. You also want those kinds of redistributions to happen for climate adaptation. So preventing the losses in the first place, also for climate mitigation would also help prevent losses in the first place. And I think those are important not to lose sight of.
Mary Annaise Heglar What do you think of the assertion that, you know, nobody has the wherewithal or the money to pay for loss and damage.
Olufemi Taiwo Somebody’s got the money, I just.
Mary Annaise Heglar Well, that was the argument with Farhana and John Kerry. It was like nobody has that kind of money. Like, whatever. And it’s like, well, what about your military, though?
Olufemi Taiwo And I’m saying, like, the Department of Defense has that kind of money.
Amy Westervelt Yeah. Yeah. So does the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, which I believe is entirely funded by oil. Just as a start. As a start?
Mary Annaise Heglar Oh, do tell.
Amy Westervelt It’s about $1,000,000,000,000 in there, guys. Let’s get after it.
Mary Annaise Heglar Yeah.
Amy Westervelt Yeah.
Olufemi Taiwo You know, it’s one thing to say. That nobody could pay for all the damages that are happening all at once. I don’t think. I’m not even sure that’s true because of all the things we just rattled off. Right. But even if it were. That’s not to say that you that the US and lots of other places in the world can’t kick in more than they’re kicking in towards addressing huge disasters in Pakistan and Puerto Rico and the Horn and all the other places that are, you know, dealing with crisis right now. And it’s just it just seems very disingenuous, bordering on dishonest. Not not bordering, just dishonest. I don’t even know why I said that. It’s this seems dishonest to say otherwise.
Amy Westervelt Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And I’m sorry if the Farhana that we’re talking about is not just. She doesn’t just go by one name, like Cher. It’s Farhana Yamin, she’s a climate lawyer, and she’s been involved in, like, a lot of the the climate negotiations over the years. So I think I mean, actually, I heard from someone there that she very intentionally kind of moved to the front row to ask Kerry that question. Which was an interesting move. It was a good one. I liked it. But I also actually it makes this makes me wonder about kind of some of the stuff we were talking about earlier around structure. Like there’s this huge focus on getting the money, which obviously is very important. But like there’s there’s been not that much around how that money would then actually be redistributed and who would do the redistributing, you know, like we don’t want the World Bank, for example, in charge.
Mary Annaise Heglar Oh dear God.
Amy Westervelt Like. Yeah. So, like, I don’t know, just like. Is that something that you’ve, you’ve thought about for me? Like, what? What would an equitable redistribution of money in, like a loss and damages framework look like? Just that. Just solve that on the fly. Yeah. Or not? Yeah.
Mary Annaise Heglar I assume this is in the books.
Olufemi Taiwo I talked about it in the books. So. All right. So. There’s a there’s obviously a lot that would have to happen for any of this to work, but. The broad thing I would say is that multiple scales of redistribution need to happen. And transfers redistribution happening on individual or household level scales is a possibility and already happens now with much smaller amounts than we would like. But you can just, in fact, give people money. There is unconditional cash transfer programs happening, lots of places. A lot of them are billed as experiments. I don’t really know. I couldn’t tell you why people are so convinced that we need to do experiments around this. We actually know a lot about what happens when people get money. But, you know.
Amy Westervelt More research. More research is needed. Yeah.
Olufemi Taiwo Yeah, but but groups like. Back to Echo Associa del Sur Build Build Unit Universal Basic Income as part of their broader view of what ecological justice looks like. And part of the reason, I think, is what’s behind your question. We we have lots of imperfect political institutions. The IMF and the World Bank are certainly on the list, if not the top of the list. But also, you know, national governments are not perfectly representative of everyone in either the global north or the global south. And so we can’t pretend like just transferring money from government to government is going to be, in and of itself, a panacea to our problems. But I think that the kinds of corruption and mismanagement that we see at the level of national governments, including in the global south, is related to how much money they have. Right. In part because lack of state capacity turns into one a you know, probably a sense of hopelessness about whether or not the social problems can actually be solved. And if you don’t think they can be solved, why wouldn’t you just graft? And two, they turn into openings for foreign actors to co-opt the policymaking progress process, whether it’s McKinsey offering, quote unquote, technical advice to Global South governments or whether it’s big institutions like asset managers coming in and offering to finance problems and make up for, you know, budgetary shortfalls or lack of budgetary capacity that Global South governments have. And then creeping into the policymaking process that way. All that is just to say that transferring money, canceling debt, which I’ve also had a bit to say about and many others have had a bit to say about all these things would go some distance to making at least the current levels of corruption that we see across the world, across the North-South divide. A little less tempting to the powers that be.
Mary Annaise Heglar Yeah. Well, Femi, we clearly could talk to you forever, and we clearly need to have you back on the show soon. So I think we’re going to have to leave it there. But thank you so much for coming. And everybody should go follow you on Twitter and wishing you the best through the rest of your book tour because it probably is exhausting.
Olufemi Taiwo Thanks a lot. Thanks for having me.
Amy Westervelt Thank you.
Mary Annaise Heglar Hot take is a Crooked Media production.
Amy Westervelt It’s produced by Ray Peng and mixed and edited by Juels Bradley. Our music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos. Thimali Kodakara is our consulting producer and our executive producers are Mary Annaise Heglar, Michael Martinez, and me, Amy Westervelt.
Mary Annaise Heglar Special thanks to Sandy Girard, Ari Schwartz, Kyle Seglin, and Charlotte Landes for production support and to Amelia Montooth for digital support.
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