sartwell on wiggers
right, here's my piece on cultural appropriation for the la times.
a couple of additions: dreadlocks originate as a religious expression among jamaican rastafarians. now, if a black american gets it done at the hairdresser, is that cultural appropriation? how much might such a person know about the meaning in the original context, or how much must she know to make it ok? it is not implausible to hold that jamaican rasta and black american cultures are not the same culture. but on the other hand they are of course connected and are both african diasporic cultures.
and just edging toward paying off on what i said about new orleans: try to figure out the cultural positioning of the mardi gras indian.
what do you think about men appropriating women's culture? if you're opposed to cultural appropriation by dominant groups, surely you oppose, say, drag queens and transvestites of all sorts. now, one might think that one thing drag does is criticize the gender categories and preopossessions of the dominant culture. and that is what, say, many wiggers are doing as well: to attack one's own suburban whitebread world, one tries to do a little emigration; crossing and passing are ways of critiquing dominant cultures from within, on a good day, making their values evidently optional or even displaying them as oppressive.
i'm gearing up to teach the writings of the amazing quaker saint john woolman, who in the mid-1700s was arguing for indian rights and the immediate abolition of slavery, and traveling around trying to convince masters to free their slaves, etc. in his rather remarkable essay "a plea for the poor", he argues as clearly as can be for peter singer's 'effective altruism': the idea that we have a moral obligation to devote most of our resources above subsistence to helping those in need. really, quite the same argument as singer.
more surprising, perhaps, is that in 1763, for god's sake, he's arguing straight up for reparations to the descendants of slaves, and calculating what they should be.
Having thus far spoken of the Negroes as equally entitled to the benefit of their labour with us, I feel it on my mind to mention that debt which is due to many Negroes of the present age. Where men within certain limits are so formed into a society as to become like a large body consisting of many members, here whatever injuries are done to others not of this society by members of this society, if the society in whose power it is doth not use all reasonable endeavours to execute justice and judgment, nor publicly disown those unrighteous proceedings, the iniquities of individuals become chargeable on such civil society to which they remain united. And where persons have been injured as to their outward substance and died without having recompense, so that their children are kept out of that which was equitably due to their parents, here such children appear to be justly entitled to receive recompense from that civil society under which their parents suffered. . . .
Suppose an inoffensive youth, forty years ago, was violently taken from Guinea, sold here as a slave, laboured hard till old age, and hath children who are now living. Though no sum of money may properly be mentioned as an equal regard for the total deprivation of liberty, yet if the sufferings of this man be computed at no more than fifty pounds, I expect candid men will suppose it within bounds, and that his children have an equitable right to it. Fifty pounds at three percent, adding the interest to the principal once in ten years appears in forty years to make upwards of one hundred and forty pounds.
i wonder whether anyone else was making arguments like that in the 18th century.
on the other hand, here, from my very own neck of the woods, is an approach to the rebel flag that i can respect. (also it shows our rural industriousness: we do our flag burnings at the convenience store at 5:30 am, cause that's when we coffee up and start working.) people really do fly that sucker around here. of course, we're just a few miles from gettysburg, where the army of northern virginia found its waterloo, and real buffs might have a series of union and rebel flags out on the porch, welcoming the flood of july re-enactors). but that's not really why most who people fly it do so.
the other day i was in the target parking lot in hanover when the guy loading groceries into his truck next to me - featuring several rebel flag stickers - walked over and said 'my wife and mother-and-law [who were sitting in the cab] say i'm a racist because i fly the rebel flag. what do you think?' (possibly, he was encouraged by my 'don't tread on me' front license plate.) he was also wearing a stars-and-bars ballcap. well, i say i don't know you at all, man, but they do, and i have a feeling they might have a point.
the chief of police in atlanta says he considers placing rebel flags near the ebenezer baptist church a hate crime. people are terribly confused. that is no kind of crime whatever. if you don't believe me go read the first amendment. 'placing flags' is not at all like assaulting someone.
what the control-the-symbols approach to racial healing has accomplished here is more or less what it always accomplishes: it transforms the repressed symbol into a supernatural weapon. people really do think that you could assault people at a distance, perhaps hundreds of people at once, just by waving some rag around. that is, you've given your enemies super-powers.
i think people may be tiring of purely symbolic responses to substantive questions. charles blow is still spending all day complaining about what words we use to describe root, in a situation in which literally everyone is competing to condemn him most vociferously, in which the gov is calling for his death, etc. and most of the debate seems to have moved to the confederate battle flag. this is beacuse symbols and signs are more easy to adjust than real objects and attitudes. don't let people like that tell you that they also want to have a substantive conversation about race: all they want is euphemisms: all they want is unconscious racism. then again, obama talked about the word 'nigger' today, and he didn't go all 'n-word' superstitious. i've seen some black commentators here and there rolling their eyes. the symbolic stuff just takes the media down a miserable conetentless road of distraction, quite as though none of them want to do or say anything.
the rachel dolezal reverse-passing case is pretty interesting. i see why it's a problem, especially in a situation where one might benefit from affirmative action, or have a job that is partly race-based. but...there just isn't any such thing as race either, right? a fungible social fact. so, why isn't rachel dolezal, for example, trans? maybe she can be the caitlin jenner of race. maybe people's surface doesn't always represent "who they feel like deep inside" etc. now, both in caitlin's and rachel's case, the idea of being something deep inside presupposes the duality. but keep migrating about through genders and races and pretty soon you've thrown the existence and nature of such identites into fundamental chaos, or even made yourself impossible, or problematized the notion of being male or female, black or white, at the surface or deep inside.
if your gender is a matter of how you self-identify, for example, then why not your race? if we should use the pronouns for someone that they declare or prefer (and i think we should), then why not treat people racially on the same sort of grounds? is your problem that people might reap advantages from being black? boy i don't even know where to start on the ironies.
now the sudden explosion of trans identity seems progressive, etc. but then again, many forms and moments of feminism presuppose the essentiality of gender identities. that includes affirmative action, or for example the sheer assertion that women make less money than men, and a million other things. and likewise with race: all the affirmative action and attempts to uplift the black community and black pride and so on presuppose that there is such a thing as race and that it is fundamental to identity. but what happens when - potentially in an apparently progressive way - these categories liquify completely, and all of that becomes impossible? i'd say the political reconfigurations that this entails are completely wild and unpredictable. progressive politics, no less than reactionary politics, presupposes the identities as fundamental realities. watcha gonna do?
one thing i'd predict: people are going to be more comfortable with gender-trans identities than race-trans identities. this is ironic because i'd say race is even more problematic than gender as an objective or biological fact, even more obviously 'socially constructed'. it has been liquid from the get-go, with a million variations, complications, and every possible mix. people have been passing one way or another or enacting the other, or defining themselves or one another as octaroons or whatever since they invented the concepts. but maybe for that very reason, the boundaries require extreme policing.
of course, if racial identities were to dissolve, that could be a terrible problem and a terrible loss. for example - and this would be typical of the history in various ways - it could just sort of mean that everyone gets to be a white person. you can't have black culture in a society with no or thousands of races, and that would be an astonishing cultural loss (i'd not mourn the death of white culture the same way at all, e.g.). on the other hand it might be a wild multiplicitous love-in, an opening up of a milllion now-inconceivable possibilities. race has been a nightmare too, hasn't it?
i am incredibly tired of all the attempts to create and enforce collective consciousnesses. races, classes, nations are supposed to be historical agents. for example, generations are just ridiculous fictions (as i have often said, across any given population, people reproduce continuously, not all at once every twenty years), but all of these have, let's say, fictional elements: they are ontologically problematic at best. i am even weary of genders and sexual orientations conceived in terms that give them personalities: women think this; men want that; men are from michigan; women are from yonkers, and so on. right and left in politics are becoming collective agents. now, you might think that individualism is tearing us apart, and you might yearn to be as one with somebody or even everybody. but think for just one second about whether thinking of ourselves in terms of races, nations, generations, classes, political parties has united or divided us, whether collective consciousnesses and agencies have created unity or conflict.
i can hardly read dubois and his descendants anymore, for example, because races start doing things and deciding things and have talents and failings and personalities and so on. someone made that shit up, i'm telling you. (in fact, pale people made it up in an ecstasy of self-congratulation.) collective agencies are real to the extent that they are enforced: black people, let's say in 1900, are poor, lazy, ignorant: you might be too if you were enslaved, prohibited from various kinds of employment, excluded from literacy by law, etc. the fiction of the collective agent is made quasi-real by itself; it creates the agencies it then purports to describe. the structures by which genders, etc are enforced or made actual might be a little more subtle, but these are all artifacts of exclusion in one way or another. the french are busy enforcing frenchness, in language, dress, and so on, and then confirming empirically what they invented. it all has the same structure as, say, anti-semitism: 'the jew does this and that; the jew wants money; the jew has no nation. the jew the jew the jew. well, the american thinks that; women need x, y, and z; millennials believe this; the greatest generation was courageous, etc. solidarity and exclusion are the very same thing.
maybe we can't just ditch out of this kind of thinking instantly and entirely. but we can think about it critically every single time it comes up, or try to work our way out of it slowly. because it's liable to be fatal to our species. our species doesn't want that; or actually, our species is pretty murder/suicide-oriented.
To some, the bigoted nature of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons is clear. “It’s a racist publication,” Ms. [Francine] Prose, a former president of PEN, told The Nation last week. “Let’s not beat about the bush.” (nytimes)
since when is islam a race? not to beat around, or even about, the bush, but i always thought it was a gender.
i do think that shooting people over cartoons is a sort of hyperbolic pc: they kill you for caricature; we just exile you for using the wrong phonemes, thug. but people really do confuse being offended with being assaulted, which would indicate that, unaccountably, they have never been assaulted. no one has a right not to be offended, or else each of us has a concomitant duty to maintain absolute silence. christ i'm offended all day every day, for example by the words 'impactful', 'relatable', and 'proactive'. it feels like an attack on my family and my identity: i come from a long line of prose stylists. consider the latest ad for microsoft robotics: 'the real question that needs to be aksed is, what can we do that is impactful?' fetch me my club, b, and i'll show you.
10:20 cnn reporter miguel marquez, getting pushed away by police from people who are getting arrested: "are we under martial law? we have a right to work." "i think the constitution still applies." " this is a curfew, not a police state."
10:10 one possible issue: the police might be angry. put down the fucking sticks.
10:07 baltimore is interesting tonight. the curfew itself has become the issue, and it would really be a shame to straight-up provoke a problem in a fundamentally happy city by sheer military-style occupation. the occupiers are themselves the issue tonight; the massed national guard, the horses, and so on. i don't think that curfews in general can be constitutional, for one thing. but if things go bad tonight, they have only themselves to blame.
10:30 maybe it's going to be relatively quiet tonight after all.
10:17 fox sent geraldo rivera, for pity's sake.
9:38 the argument about 'thug' is completely characteristic of today's political discourse. megyn kelly is bashing people about it right now on fox: folks are 'thug is a racialized term'. right, replies megyn. so you're saying that obama and rawlings-blake are racists? because i look at barack obama and i don't see a racist. really, they're snickering about it. for god's sake argue about something rather than nothing. i realize that nothing is easier to deal with than something. people really do have a straight-up magical account of language. words are powerful. they're probably at home right now doing incantations to control the weather, or folding up the names of their enemies on slips of paper and setting them on fire. 'words are powerful' is prologue to the censorship. people think that not saying 'thug' or finding some new euphemism or whatever would address the problem. the prohibition on 'racialized language' is fundamentally how white racism went unconscious. i can't be a racist because i don't us the wrong words. but every word has a dozen close synonyms; you just have the same thoughts in slightly different terms. people think that is substantial improvement. protesters or criminals? i don't know, they are doing what they're doing. you can see it. call it whatever, you haven't changed it.
9:15 note on the march route in philadelphia: the federal detention center is a block from the national constitution center. the former certainly gives a clearer, more honest picture of what america is. they should just toss the schoolkids in there when they come to see the liberty bell and let them fend for themselves.
8:32 seriously it's quite as though they are trying to provoke (and justify) violence. hard to know, but this might be pretty different than the last couple of nights.
8:27 where is barack obama? our first black president is our second white richard nixon. country's kind of teetering on the brink right now. i guess i am, as expressed at 8:15.
8:15 honestly? i'd be responding by theorizing that the police threw those molotov cocktails at themselves. for very good reasons, they wanted to self-immolate. part of their relentless pursuit of justice. to serve and protect. or just to serve up some good pork barbecue. or, to back off a second: maybe before you served up some ridiculous evil bullshit, you should have thought about just how angry that would make people.
8:05 yo it is tough in philly right now. this is pretty amazing; certainly unprecedented since the 60s: multiple american cities in serious civil unrest. seems like police have let them onto 95? hard to see exactly where they are. at any rate, right near my lover jane irish's place. no i guess they diverted them.
5:05 you'd have to be truly bent to take seriously the police leaks about how freddie gray assaulted himself. this is one of many things that show you who we're dealing with, and who the people of baltimore have been dealing with for a long time. quite the vicious piece of self-defense, and one that will help you assign credibility to whatever report may someday be produced. there may be no solution short of getting rid of absolutely everyone who has ever in any official capacity been anywhere near the baltimore police. these people expect to have credibility because of their 'authority' and outfits and stuff. when that finally dissolves...never respect, for example, the president in virtue of the fact that he is the president; that's mere self-subordination. and surely any superficial acquaintance with american history etc would teach a rational being that presidents or police chiefs etc are no better - no smarter, no more decent or truthful - than average among human beings. i'm not saying they're not worse, however.
4:55 one thing i like is that it took the authorities 40 years to realize that the 'war on drugs' wasn't working, or that it was an insane racist nightmare relying on the principle that the state has a right to control your body and immediate environment: a total assertion of the legitimacy of tyranny. now even hillary clinton is pretending to re-think. but really, we're just going to continue to place our lives in the hands of politicians who are this immune to reality. we ourselves might be immune to empirical evidence about what political 'leaders' are: how smart, how worthy of our deference and trust. every time it didn't work for forty years, that was an argument for redoubling our efforts to incarcerate all black men or whatever. the sudden realization now is sad and stupid and based merely on polling.
4:40 as a matter of fact, philly is in the house. 'philly is baltimore'.
martin o'malley, defending his legacy on cnn as he runs for president: "we've got to constantly improve our policing, and our policing of the police." now that is a good basic statement of one extreme dilemma of statism: who will police the police who are policing the police? and who will police the police who are policing the police who are policing the police? if you were sincere about trying to restrain the arbitrary power of the state, you would be instituting an infinite regress of oppression. good luck! you are definitely going to need to annex all resources of the society, and then all those in the universe. for one reason or another (for example, that the state has the power by definition to take stuff, a circumstance under which most people will convince themselves that they have the best reasons to take ever-more), we've been in that spiral for centuries, with no end in sight.
ps, martin o'malley is now a non-starter as a presidential candidate.
my favorite law enforcement clone on cnn is tom fuentes, "former assistant director of the fbi". what he wants to know - really the only thing he wants to know - is why no one is outraged by black-on-black crime. giuliani famously took this line on ferguson. (a) plenty of people are concerned or outraged about black-on-black crime. (b) it's a mere distraction, also a racist distraction, i feel. it's as though you were criticizing isis, and people were all like, 'why is no one worried about geese migration?' or maybe they are more connected than that, because implicitly the idea is that that is what justifies police brutality against black people. why doesn't anyone understand that we're dealing with animals here?
10:25 many people would like to say that the violence was a distraction, and that the peaceful protests are really making a difference. i think it could not be more obvious that the violence has galvanized everyone. politicians are in west baltimore promising a total transformation, of employment, education, poverty, etc. would you get there without the violence? (not that they're going to pay off on it.) what got obama's attention, got him making a statement and working on promises? what? i do not want balt to burn or people to be hurt. but that is what made the whole country sit bolt upright.
9:57 maybe i was unfair to elijah cummings. at least he's there. purely identified with the cops/soldiers. but there.
8:55 the presence of under armour in maryland is rather dramatic. stephanie rawlings-blake wore a logo cap at her news conference yesterday, and larry hogan had a ua logo on his 'governor' shirt today. i hope they are being personally compensated, like a golfer or nascar driver. cashin seven-figure checks and still breaking necks. how much for naming rights to the state?
8:30 it moves me that there are demonstrations in dc and boston, and man that is a big old angry thing taking form in nyc. philly, you in the house? i really do think that bmore and philly are as similar as any two american cities.
[hat tip: susan feldman.]
kind of hard to escape the impression that baltimore is under military occupation by the apartheid regime.
i congratulate the new york times for running this dose of reality by my, er, ex-wife marion winik's ex-student d. watkins.
one thing about the news media now: they seem to treat social media as an unimpeachable source, while the police use it for 'intelligence'. so, any evidence that the crips, bloods, and black guerilla army joined together to 'take out police' yesterday? no, but someone posted something like that on facebook, and that extremely sensational claim, repeated everywhere all the time without much skepticism, is part of what freaked everybody out. i'd think perhaps it had something to do with the police non-response, or the fact that the police had just one major goal: keeping themselves safe. i've said this before: you don't know how easy it is to shut a city down or stop air traffic or alter all conditions with some half-assed post in this situation, which has basically arisen because of 'the war on terror': all threats must be taken seriously. you're giving incredible power to anyone with a facebook or twitter account. the police call reading facebook 'intelligence' and then whatever you say on facebook is their actionable intelligence. the media is so concerned with chasing and catching up to social media, and not being made obsolete by social media, that they try to be social media. they are so proud that they are reading social media that they take seriously or regard as credible anything that comes up there. if you're on social media, think about how good an approach that really is.
e.g. on the basis of social media chatter, they shut down the social security administration and other offices today. really, you could make the government inoperable just by sitting at home typing. i think it's fair to say that, as in v for vendetta, let's say, the government does fear the people. or it's just that fear is the dominant emotion in the sort of people who become government officials. in seeking to make themselves and others safe, they are liable to make themselves impossible.
at any rate, on behalf of the crips, bloods, and international order of oddfellows, i declare that today we will be planting a biological agent in governor larry hogan's butt.
10:15 but i'm just gonna drift off tonight praying for the city, where i've lived or worked on and off for decades, where my kids have been raised, and which i sort of love. when i moved there in 1981 from dc, i loved the personality, of which dc has none: the ethnic and blue-collar flavors, the deep funk of the place, like john waters and the world he depicts in his bent way. there's a lot of there there, little down 95 in our nation's capital. it's paradigmatic america, which itself is terribly disturbing tonight.
9:40 obama's detachment on these occasions has shown you who he is. martin walked so barack could hide.
9:30 i predict that the basic task of the national guard will be guarding the police stations and stuff, or maybe one guardsman accompanying each officer muttering self-esteem affirmations or pretending with them that they all have balls.
9:25 reporters have been infinitely more courageous than the police, and without the guns, armor, shields, tasers, gas, etc. this is what might really rock the country: if we suddenly see that the police are an illusion. they strut around in those uniforms, looking for a scrawny ass to kick in a big gang. but lunge at them suddenly and they piss themselves and start whimpering. they better hope that the black guerillas don't show up tonight in a hostile mood.
9:18 the police are going to blame rawlings-blake for holding them back. the gov blamed her for not asking for help much earlier. she is going to be toasted in this fire. i think they were eyeing her for the senate or the governor's office; her carer is over, and she has been pathetic. but no more pathetic than everyone else. no one is going to take any responsibility for anything, which is what government bureaucracies are for (that is, they are for shoving off responsibility). the police who were there know that they are actual cowards, though. they got their ass kicked, and they better be glad that there weren't actually outside agitators or competent insurrectionists, or there'd have suddenly been projectiles coming from behind the police lines too, and no space in the hospitals.
9:07 gov hogan says this is nowhere near as bad as '68. yes it is, and it could be much worse.
9:03 there's a big-ass fire now; looks like a burning block. but where is that, exactly?
8:55 when firefighters were trying to put out the cvs, they were doing it in front of the police line. people were stabbing their hoses. the firefighters' priority was putting out the fire. the police's priority is 'officer safety'. probably they're in an armored convoy right now, heading to atlantic city.
8:40 you know, they wonder why people destroy their own neighborhoods. first off, that's where they are, and that's where the police are abusing them. and second, people who are more less trapped in poverty, in a racial ghetto in a significantly segregated city (in that, bmore is like most american cities), are going to be intensely ambivalent about their neighborhood, which is both a source of pride and symptom of oppression. i want to say again that in many ways the criminal justice system just took over from jim crow as the basic nexus of racial control and destruction. try not to wonder why people are angry, or why criminality itself can be folded into resistance..
8:10 actually police have regained the mall.
8:05 one thing that's clear - and that's different than '68, which i remember (i was 10 years old, in dc) - is that the police are straight-up intimidated. as they keep saying, their first priority is officer safety. they're looting mondawmin mall with impunity right now. that's the mark of an insurrection; the rioters control whole regions. stephanie rawlings-blake and other officials have been in hiding until this moment, when they're finally going press conference. guts would put people like this at the scene.
6:50 actually al jazeera america probably has the best coverage on national networks. they have people who know the city, for one thing.
6:35 elijah cummings sort of looks like john lewis. but he has nothing: no truth, no inspiration, no connection, no idea.
5:50 i believe if i were obama, i'd go to baltimore.
5:45 cnn should stop putting lawyers and law-enforcement people on to the condemn the rioters etc. yeah, i've got that. 'these are not demonstrators; they're criminals". quite the sort of people who only have one sentence, and all of whom have the same sentence. i'd think of cnn's job as showing and telling what is actually happening. or here's their other sentence: 'hard to believe this is happening just 40 miles from the nation's capital!' yeah, stunning. you probably think it can't happen in dc, you doinks.
5:30 they're showing plenty of looting with no police presence. the earlier injuries of police have obviously intimidated them, even with all the armor and teargas etc. so first, let that be a lesson to you about who the police actually are. but of course there might be a big counter-attack later. not sure how well that will go, really. i do love the 'outside agitator' theme; really the mindlessness of the strategic communications hasn't changed since 1965.
5:15 npr is frigging pathetic; no reports from the ground; they're doing movie reviews or whatever. this with their headquarters in dc. a goodly portion of their staff lives in baltimore. really if they can't cover this live, they should fold.
4:12 looks like the intifada out there.
4:00 hard to tell what's gonna happen, but a word to the balt police: a lot of people in balt are armed, and you severed somebody's spine. you might want to think carefully as you roll in the armored vehicles and start firing up the teargas.
3:40 baltimore is rocking in insurrection; watching rock-throwing battles near mondawmin on cnn; they've got no local reporters at all; athena jones has no idea where she is. they've been throwing big rocks at cops, and the cops are now taking the approach of chucking them back, which is never a good sign. could go this way or that, but could go extremely wrong.
amazingly, michael slager, who shot walter scott eight times in the back as he was fleeing, was listening to this beautiful song about human connections across various barriers as he pulled scott over.
one lesson that all sorts of people are drawing is: when the police tell you what to do, do it. black men such as mark morial and don lemon are saying that on cnn as i write. i understand why they say that, and they are trying to keep people alive. but on their own account, they are endorsing sheer capitulation to a regime they themselves regard as a regime of racist violence. lemon said: 'never run from the police. running from the police never works out.' depends on how fast and clever you are, son, and i'm telling you from my own ancient experiences that sometimes it works out just fine.
there is nothing sadder than american progressivism. first of all, it was never coherent: the only plan was to help people by subordinating them. all day every day for what's coming up on centuries now, the left gets a bunch of experts together to tell us how to fix...black people. it has not changed in decades; there are no ideas, no imagination, just autistic repetition. de blasio is going back to the high-rise housing project. the first time around, it was a straight-up reservation system, and the indian reservation was also a progressive program for the uplifting of a backward race riddled with pathologies. the basic model of the 'great' 'society' was the internment camp, built by demolishing actual streets, houses and communities. in this case it was the imposition of a completely state-dominated concrete environment designed by evil cretins, i.e. experts: just the sort of people who rise in our meritocracy. then you wondered why the residents tore the place up. let's see...it must be their pathologies! we need professors to tell us how to fix them again. and again. and...
or how about some forced residential integration? in both these cases, allow me to point out that community cannot be imposed on people through sheer prescription, backed by force or even incentive. perhaps there is a bit of energy on the left just now. i am just begging y'all not to use this energy to run backwards to the same old disasters. also i am saying this to you straight up: you don't know how people do live, and you don't know how people ought to live, and the only decent situation is one in which people decide that for themselves, not where harvard professors decide it for them. the first datum for any actual movement toward social justice has just got to be this: people's autonomy must be respected. it's their account to themselves of themselves that matters; to think anything else is just to perpetuate the privilege to which you purport to be opposed: your own privilege, bill de blasio; your own, rahm emanuel.
daniel patrick moynihan, let's say, was what we might term an internal colonialist, bwana in a pith helmet on safari to uplift the dark continent within and bring to it the blessings of civilization.
probably folks like those think that they have devoted their careers to remediating the hierarchy they are themselves perched atop, and they propose to remove it specifically by its ever-more thorough exercise. they are enjoying it, claiming it, and imposing it. and simultaneously they are identifying it as the problem they're trying to fix. spend the next few generations in withering self-examination instead of other-examination, alright?
black people and poor people or trailer trash or whomever you're thinking of: they are far more qualified than robert reich to decide how they should live, and unlike robert reich they have a right to. i'm serious: there is no ph.d. that will help you know how people should live; there are no ethical qualifications, no certifications, no expertise except living your life with other people in your place. for example, cass sunstein prescribes the nudge, but the whole thing just effortlessly assumes that people like cass sunstein understand what each of us should be nudged toward. there are no experts on that but each of us. and you should contemplate the extreme arrogance of people who simply take it as a given that they know how everyone should live. that's an ethical failure, a golden rule violation. but it also just shows the breathtaking incomprehension, self-regard, and unconscious evil of the privileged, and helps reproduce the structure of that privilege generation after generation. and the program is supposed to be egalitarian. no doubt they're off rocking davos on behalf of the oppressed.
people like reich and sunstein exemplify the ways class and race are articulated or actually made now: they move back and forth from academia to think-tank to state, through the archipelago of social-science expertise, epistemic prestige, and real power. (and i am telling you that even rahm and bill are future distinguished professors at the kennedy school of government or whatever as they wait to cycle into the cabinet.) but reich and sunstein, for example, take on the neutral voice of the social scientist and they are chock full of statistics. this voice is an extremely central example of the 'unmarked' position of privilege: they do not implicate themselves in their advocacy. but the social sciences - overlapping with a medical model of pathologies and also a criminal-justice discourse - have been the nexus of racial and class construction since the early twentieth century. (before that they measured your skull and tried to fit your people into the sequence of evolution: somewhere between slug slime and nature's crowning achievement rutherford b. hayes.)
all the state-implemented racial transformations, each layer of new welfare and housing programs, each new war on poverty and discrimination, has been justified by the social sciences. many have been unalloyed disasters, but expertise always gets it right this time, by its own account.
the thing about expertise, especially the (pseudo-)scientific variety: you ought to be silent before it: you have to bow to the facts; the claim is to a special power to declare what is real. and yet the categories of the statistical tables just recirculate and reinforce the wretchedly problematic race and class taxonomies, and the whole thing presupposes that we have a right to gather information on them so we can address their problems: their problems as named by us. the power dynamics are completely inbuilt, the numbers a kind of spectral emanation of the a priori stance and categories. and a long century of this has left us fundamentally untransformed. these hierarchies are more extreme and intransigent than when y'all started. how have democratic administrations done at ameliorating income inequalities, for example? i will say again: that's because the solutions and their rhetorics are imposed by direct exercises of domination by the very people who are the problem, from the very top of the power hierarchy. that just is not going to have liberating effects: not last time or the time before that and not next time.
[note to post-marxists: guess what? political hierarchies and hierarchies of knowledge are as real as economic hierarchies, and in general they coincide. it is not necessary for robert reich to be the richest man in the bay area for him to be a person of tremendous privilege in more or less every dimension.]
how are we going to get better on race and class and so on? start by giving up. you have no status that entitles you to re-locate people or re-educate them, to watch or cure or name them. until it's their own voices, not the experts and political authorities speaking on their behalf, it's all sheer cultural domination or even annihilation. let go. let people make their own lives.
a bit more selma. as you may know, i have been reading about and writing about malcolm x for many years, for example, long chapters of act like you know and extreme virtue. reading the autobiography in 7th grade was a real revelation to me, as i went to a mostly-black school in chocolate city; it transformed my understanding of the racial situation in the world and in my life, and it set me on a road to political radicalism. in my own view, it taught me something important about trying to speak the truth as i experienced it, as he did: the truth about the world, about oppression and liberation, about my own life. now, in selma, it's pointed out that malcolm called martin an 'uncle tom' (his favorite, though, was 'house negro'). i would say even in selma, king is doing stuff that might make someone construe him sort of like that (i am not asserting that these were ultimately fair characterizations at all). but the relationship with johnson is what works in this sort of direction. many people, including maureen dowd today are for giving johnson much more credit for the whole thing, and joe califano has asserted that selma was johnson's idea. (i can only say that that appears ridiculous to me.)
but at any rate, johnson is pictured as using king to try to prevent people like malcolm x or later militants from leading the civil rights movement. king is in and out of johnson's office, maybe also conjuring the spectre of malcolm x (the, um, 'field negro' on his own account, who wants to see massa's big white house burn). now this, even in the movie a bit (king does more or less stand there and take johnson's patronizing attitude), but surely, surely in the accounts of califano, dowd, etc, really would tend to substantiate malcolm's basic reading, and it would tend - in my opinion, at any rate - to discredit king. if califano's account is right, then i'm actually pretty comfortable with malcolm's characterizations of king, though for a white person like me to call any black person, much less king, an uncle tom, would be excruciating or insane. but if you are intent on hagiography - and everyone is, where king is concerned - i would suggest not playing this up too much. at least the movie portrays king as using johnson in a way, bringing ever-greater and finally irresistible pressure. i think this makes king much more admirable than the alternative (that johnson was using king, or telling him what to do), and i also think it is a more plausible account overall, though i have not listened to all the relevant johnson tapes or something, and though of course if we are doing history we ought to say whatever's true.
j. edgar hoover was surveilling king in order to destroy him. bobby kennedy authorized that, but it would surprise me if johnson opposed this approach, and it would surprise me if he didn't try to make use of it to run king. but i don't think that he was running king, and i think that's obvious from what king was doing, including in selma. i think he decided to go on despite the blackmail, which is how the film portrays it. but surely this whole thing makes the portrait of johnson as king's champion or whatever implausible. i guess the claim is that hoover was running johnson; i don't necessarily buy that, and any sort of decent pres would have shut that shit down with extreme prejudice, especially if, as these folks are claiming, he was on king's side. in my view johnson was attacking king's life and family, and trying to put him under his thumb. and in my opinion that did not succeed. johnson was capable of almost any strategem to get what he wanted, and i think blackmail was central to his amazing effectiveness as a senate leader.
and though johnson, whatever his reasons, did do a lot for civil rights, it is worth recalling his monstrousness in other dimensions: he was killing hundreds of thousands of vietnamese people for reasons that were simply incomprehensible, in a war that was unwinnable, and he invented the incident that led to the congressional authorization for extreme 'escalation'. he lied about vietnam all day every day, and he got everyone else in the american state lying about it too. i remember lyndon baines johnson, baby, and i felt the emanation of murderous evil and soul- and democracy-destroying lies, lies, lies.
i did think that the most human, and maybe the most (and even only) surprising moment in selma was the moment martin accused coretta of being 'enamored' with malcolm. but perhaps my response reflects my fascination - a little difficult for me fully to explain, maybe - with the profound contrast and connection between malcolm and martin. in my head, they embody two ways to resist vicious power, and even two ways of being in the world. for whatever reason, it seemed and seems like an existential choice to me, and i still just feel malcolm in the way a lot of people feel king: i was a little white boy who wanted to be malcolm x, and now i'm a 55-year-old white man who, left to me own immediate emotional responses, still feels that way. i think if one took the approach of attacking my right to make any judgments on this, or even to feel these connections in any authentic way, one would have a point. on the other hand it runs deep, and i can't really stop, and i guess i think that even if i am horribly wrong to be this way, i am not doing a great deal of harm to anyone.
i just saw selma, and i'm going to express a negative assessment. but first, the production design is excellent; it really gives that feel of the deep south in the '60s. and it is a great and inspiring story, though a bit compromised in its inspiration by the slow or non-pace of racial justice in the decades since.
but there is perhaps too much reverence for king to make a realistic movie about him. it is hard to escape the impression that the actors were cast as look-alikes, and that in itself might make you a little suspicious; they were perhaps not chosen for the excellence of their acting. but it's hard to tell, really, because the script and direction and even make-up makes them like wax figures of king, andrew young, john lewis (that actor was a cut above, though, even if he was partly cast on the basis of the size of his nostrils), coretta scott king, hosea williams, and so on.
there are a few half-hearted attempts at humanization, but they are...insincere, i think. perfunctory. everyone talks in extremely written complete sentences: they simply emit inspiring speeches at one another all day, which does not actually constitute dialogue. they don't talk like human beings. when a tear flows down the face of a character, it's like a miraculous but hieratic crying icon of mary or something. this turns the whole movie into quite the didactic little history lesson rather than a real human drama. honestly, it's also a lesson that is taught incessantly to everyone already in every school in america, a million television shows, etc etc, a lesson you cannot have avoided on a thousand previous occasions. and i don't think that david oyelowo as king quite brings off the electrifying preaching, admittedly an extraordinarily difficult task. but truly, there is no reason to pay money to see david oyelowo deliver king's speeches, because there are recordings of the real ones.
on the other hand, i also don't think, as some have asserted, that johnson is portrayed too negatively. i'm glad they included a little malcolm x, but lord i wish they'd shown a bit of his speech in selma: they just showed other people talking about it. anyway, i wouldn't have nominated it for any academy awards except in set design, art direction, and such.
oprah produced the thing and cast herself as annie lee cooper. she is repeatedly beaten. now, watching civil rights protesters getting beaten fills me with rage. but watching stupefyingly banal self-esteem entrepreneurs/billionaires get beaten, which was quite how i experienced those scenes: well, i don't actually straight condone it, but i wouldn't say i take absolutely no pleasure in it either. go back to inspiring us by your yoyo diets or whatever, sweetie.
here's another little problem. basically, a film about king is above criticism, expecially if you're a white person. that is a formula for making and selling bad movies. but the thing is a mega-million cash franchise produced by oprah winfrey, for god's sake. nothing anything like that can be above criticism. you can't be required to give academy awards on the grounds that someone played king or whatever it may be. just because your gigantic movie is about king doesn't mean, for example, that it couldn't have been better in many filmic or human dimensions. i sort of think a lot of people are pretending to think selma is a good movie to avoid being racists.
i think that abuse is inherent in a situation of police power, and that you're not going to get away with thinking the problem is 'a few bad apples' while of course the vast majority of police officers are doing a bang-up job, as it were. i actually don't think 're-training' and so on is going to address the basic issue at all.
so you are arming one part of the population against the rest, or authorizing some to use violence and coercion that, for the others, would be criminal. the first thing to ask is what sort of person, overall, is likely to want to perform this role, and why. i am sure there are various motivations. one is surely an attraction not to the law or to the public but to the power, which is of the most concrete variety: real control of real specific people. and then you should contemplate the effect of routinely having this sort of power over a decade or whatever it may be. a certain air of arbitrary superiority is likely to develop, due to the real superiority.
the legal status of a police officer can be accurately reprersented as a series of legal impunities, as being authorized to do what would be crimes for others: binding or kidnapping people, for example, strutting around with guns and clubs on their hips, and so on. and it relies also on an informal exemption that is much more wide-ranging than that, as seen in the cases before us. these things are not addressable, i think, within the basic conceptuality that presupposes that such power is necessary and legitimate.
i do not think it is particularly plausible that constituting this sort of power is likely to reduce violence in the society as a whole. or, i wonder what evidence could actually be produced that it does? this is always asserted at the outset; it is 'common sense'. but the idea of arming one group against the others and immunizing them from the law does not, let's say, obviously entail a reduction in violence or crime however construed. and notice that in various complex ways this police power will of course mirror the power hierarchies of the society: racial, for example, and then it reinforces or reproduces or enforces those hierarchies. if you really thought about the role of policing in racial oppression through our whole history, you'd see that it is central: a necessary condition of the whole horrendously violent history, and ever more so in a situation in which mass incarceration replaced jim crow as a mode of segregation.
i think that the militarization of the police indicates that we had better strap and armor up. i heard one of these defend-the-popo kind of guys saying that the message of the garner case was 'comply with the police'. i'd elaborate on that: comply. comply unto death. but if, contrary to my advice, you are not going to comply, you may find yourself needing to resist with extreme prejudice. you don't have to be a cop to choke someone out, baby.
i don't know what to say about the failure to indict in the nyc garner case except that it is incomprehensible. i do want to remark from the anarchist perspective that exemption from the law is of the very essence of police power.
let me try to diagnose 'unconscious racism', which has reached an amazing hallucinatory pitch of intensity at which the whole society is structured on racist lines (residential, educational, political, income, incarceration rates, unemployment, etc), but no actual person is a racist. here's how that happened. one aspect of the civil rights movement - which continues to be central - is speech control. the word 'nigger' for example, is an emblem of racism, but then people made the faulty inference that if you eliminated the word, you would have ameliorated the injustice. more widely, people have been very confused about the relation of words to reality, and have really seemed to think that if you forced people to use the right words, you would have substantially addressed the problem. words are powerful, after all, though sometimes that seems hard to believe when everyone is yapping slop to no effect for decades on end.
now, combine this with the fact that the culture more or less came to a consensus that racism is evil. at this point white folk p faces a syllogism: 'racists are evil; i am a racist; therefore i am evil'. there are various ways for p to deal with this personal crisis. one would be to spend long years reflecting on and dismantling a wide-ranging structure of racial attitudes. the other would be to leave all the attitudes intact and just deny that he is a racist. or run the thing backwards: 'racists are bad people; i am a good person; therefore i am not a racist'. you spend all day muttering to yourself 'i am a good person' 'i am a good person' 'i am not a bad person'. that is what the worst people have where other people have a conscience; they have a voice that says 'i am a good person'; and they need that voice; it gets them through whatever bad things they want to do or believe.
maybe you don't know this, but when white people talk to other white people they very often do this: 'i am not a racist, but...' 'i don't have a racist bone in my body, but...' i take such locutions as demonstrating the combined self-delusion and racism of the people who utter them. at any rate, the obsession with words in the various liberation movements hints that to be a racist is to have certain epithets or stereotypical characterizations run through your head. so, to not be a racist, all you have to do is censor your internal monologue. once you have, your internal monologue features paraphrases of the censored material rather that material itself, and so you spend the rest of your life congratulating yourself on your substantial accomplishment and for being such a very good person. also you get to unconsciously clean up on your own advantages, and to focus on your great deservingness.
it's unconscious alright, and it's unconscious because of each person's extremely concerted failure to introspect, each person's program of self-esteem enhancement. this is a safari into the dark heart of whiteness, or the white heart of darkness, if you prefer.
if ever there was a demonstration that there is more to the world than words, this would be it. (if you need such a demonstration, however, that's just sad.) anyway, it's all euphemisms, self-delusion, and an intractable situation on the ground. then people, every time out, wish desperately for a 'free-wheeling' or 'frank' 'dialogue'. this is after decades of imposing overwhelming social sanctions on the frank expression of racial attitudes. it's because of those sanctions that people are desperate for the dialogue, and it's because of those sanctions that the dialogue is impossible. and it's partly because of those sanctions that white liberals live in a stupor of self-congratulation, and partly because of them that you can have an obviously racist society in which no one believes of themselves that they are racist. also, at that point, there is very little hope for change, because it is impossible even to describe the situation honestly.
the way i think about race is that it's a series of generalizations based on a bad taxonomy. that is, there is no basis in reality for distinguishing people into races. but then once you have it's not precisely that the generalizations you make are necessarily false: for example you detect real voting patterns among the races, real income levels, educational levels, incarceration rates. not only that, but a lot of actual stereotyopes are true. that is what race really is: race is a series of technologies designed to make the antecedent taxonomy real.
this happens again and again: so the stereotype is ignorant, godless savage. then you actually pass laws making it illegal to teach black people to read. right? black women are oversexed or whatever, not like your wife; then they are free game for rape. see? racism tries to manufacture a world that matches its conceptuality, with mixed success. the stereotype is violent, criminal, so then you start filling up prisons with millions of black men. you are just enforcing the law; no, you are enforcing the law in reflection of a problematic taxonomy that the result of that enforcement confirms. now we see that there are astonishing rates of crime among young black men, precisely because it is enforced on them, and it is enforced precisely because of the antecedent set of categories. one makes the structure of categories or the typology true and then finds it to be true in experience. one helps create what one then detects, as though quite intentionally.
and we are so so stuck in the taxonomy, cannot even conceive ourselves without it: just listen to the ways every pundit starts by breaking us down into racial groups in order to understand us politically, and simultaneously how racial groups polarize toward certain parties or positions. race becomes ever truer as it mutates. but it does matter that it's actually false.
or, race is and is not false: it's the sort of social construction that is massively enforced and hence becomes a massive fact; it's not merely imaginary, sadly. start by thinking about the way it articulates the way bodies are distributed in space. it is always being enforced and naturalized. but then precisely because it is actually false it is always falling apart and always being enforced anew. the fact that it is enforced - in large razor-wire enclosures or on the streets - shows that it's not true; if it were not enforced it would cease to exist; it has to be held in reality by force. in some sense if we stopped thinking about each other this way it would disappear, but that's not under anyone's power because of the centuries-long history of the concept's enforcement on people's bodies; it's impossible to the extent that it is a reality external to each of us. race shows the power of our social constructions and also the lurid flimsiness of our self-serving fictions.
apropos of demonic faces and white policemen, i draw your attention to this baudrillardian pre-enactment and pivotal moment in the history of cinema, starring my distant relation william marshall.
[he is my mother's step-mother's, er, nephew? ps there are a lot of far-lefties where i come from, and later a rich history in the blaxploitation industry. so i'll always have those to fall back on.]
one of the aspects of white privilege is that we often don't have to be aware that we are under occupation by the government. there are many places where that is easy to know, though. however, we too are under occupation, and as per usual, privilege is difficult to distinguish from fantasy. i guess what i wonder, though, is how there is not much more black anti-statism.
watching all the election analysis, last night and this morning, i am struck above all by the racialism of american politics. every polling expert, consultant, and even politician, on both sides, basically conceives the american population in racial terms. so, people always win or lose because of the black vote, or the latino vote, or the white vote. every demographic analysis starts with that, and every campaign everywhere works a racial strategy. indeed, the dem party's long-term hope is entirely cast in racial terms, as we become 'majority-minority' etc. congressional districts are basically articulated in racial terms, which ends up being the content of gerrymandering. when push comes to shove and it's get-out-the-vote time, people are scouring the streets for racial types; it's all profiling; we've got to get out the black vote, or we've got to get out the older whiteguy vote. then, those are the constituencies you represent; that's your base. it is a racial base, and it begins to look like the inkatha freedom party vs the national party in apartheid south africa.
there are many ways that the population might be split or conceived, and in my opinion any demographic segment of similar size could be represented as decisive in any election no matter how they vote. if our whole political system conceives the racial categories to be the most important categories, racial differences the most important differences, that shows who we still are, what we still obsess about. and operating politically under the assumption that racial differences are the most important differences has its role in freezing all the categories and segregations in place. i really do think dems and reps do this equally.
simplified scenario: take a situation in which the black vote is 13%, which goes 90% dem, and the republican loses by 5%. a pundit will draw the obvious conclusion: the black vote was decisive. had the rep gotten half the black vote, he would have won, for example. but let's say white men ages 55-74 also form 13% and vote 90% rep. had half of them voted dem, the dem would have been elected. they are decisive in just the same sense and to the same degree. now say left-handed people form 13% and split their vote. had they voted 90% republican, the republican would have won. that is, the left-handers were decisive in just the same sense as the black vote. no one group is ever decisive, or all always are, but the question is: who can we break off and appeal to as an integral audience, with their own media, etc. then your whole strategy both mirrors and redoubles a basically segregated social and political terrain.
you might want to pause for a moment in your project of getting elected and ponder the devastating question of who you are.
here is a good and typical example: the diane rehm's show election debrief this morning, with nia-malika henderson, doyle mcmanus, and ron elving. you would really think that the election was primarily about race. it's both the way people conduct the campaigns and the way pundits or experts analyze them. in neither case is this a forced move, or even plausible as a primary explanation. but the conduct of the campaigns and the analyses are mutually reinforcing.