Saturday, June 07, 2008

Disarming the Discourse

I've been meaning to link to this Hilzoy post for awhile, because it gets at a very important point:
If people want to redefine the word "racist" so that only actual slaveholders count, let them. I'm more interested in the "critical reflection" [Ta-Nehasi] Coates rightly says that the "I'm not a racist" move is designed to shut down; in asking: does race play a role in someone's thought and action that it ought not to play? rather than in asking: does that role reach whatever bar of horrificness s/he wants to say it would have to meet to qualify as "racist"?

I've tried to make this point in my own work with my distinction between "finding the evildoer" and "solving the problem" in racial discourse. When engaging in dialogue on issues of race, I am not particularly interested in figuring out whether my interlocutros are Bad People, even if I disagree with them or think their views/policy positions are part of the structure which reinforces racial hierarchy in America. I'd much rather, as Hilzoy and Coates say, critically reflect on the manner in which those views intersect with race and racial inequality in the hopes that we can come to just solutions to the issue. I am more than willing to "sacrifice" calling these people racist in exchange for having that conversation.

But the corallary to this is that a lot of people tend assume that any liberal critique of their views on race is akin to calling them a racist. Over the past few years of attempting to avoid this pitfall, I'm beginning to think its inescapable: no matter how I phrase my inquiry, there will be a class of people who will huff "are you calling me a racist?!?!?" and there ends the discussion. It is, I suspect, a psychological defense mechanism to avoid grappling with the intricacies of the subject matter. Making the question "am I a racist" (which, in this frame, is synonymous with ultimate evildoer) allows the interlocutor to deflect attention from the particular moral or policy dimensions of the object of discussion, and instead change the inquiry into "am I an awful person?" Since most people are relatively persuaded of their status as not-awful-people, they can then react with offense that "I am implying" that they are. Having established that they are not awful, it is assumed that the original critique has been "answered", and nothing more needs to be said. So long as any racial discussion that involves more than the most perfunctory critique can be derailed in this manner, there is simply no hope of discussing these questions in any substantive, meaningful fashion.

So, new rule. Unless I specifically say the words "you are a racist", I am not calling you a racist. That can be our safe phrase: unless I actually say them, you can be assured the point of my conversation is not to label you a racist.

All clear? Excellent.

Quote of the Day

Grace Jantzen, "In Order To Begin: Death and Natality in the Western Imaginary," in Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington: Indiana UP 1999):
Arendt was painfully aware that one of the features of a totalitarian regime is that it seeks not only to eliminate its victims, but also to eradicate even the memory of their lives, wiping out their stories so that they sink into 'holes of oblivion' as if they had 'never existed at all'. This makes it it all the more imperative for the survivors to try and recover the lost memories of the victims, to tell their stories, so that the totalitarian regime shall not have the last word. Though Arendt does not draw the comparison, many feminists will find in her emphasis on reclaiming the stories of victims of oppressive regimes resonances with the efforts to reclaim the 'dangerous memories' of women who have been silenced, oppressed, and consigned to the oblivion of the unrecorded past. It is indeed in part the feminist work to give voice to these voiceless ones, whether in the past or in the continuing oppression of the present; and as we have seen, the possibility of women learning to speak as women is in reciprocal relation to becoming (women) subjects. (148)

I think it parallels my post on the need to recognize the Armenian genocide very nicely, and I think the extension to feminist (and, I think, all anti-subordination theory) is likewise quite insightful.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Wrongs of the Right Critique

Phoebe Maltz takes on the right-wing critique of academia, explaining why it's demeaning to the very principles the right purports to be defending.

My favorite part was when she mentioned how the "reforms" the right plea for echo classic liberal call for diversity, "verging on demands for affirmative action." I, good liberal that I am, have been sympathetic to the idea of ideological affirmative action in academia for awhile (and not only as a tactical stance to chide conservatives for their hypocrisy). But I do seem rather alone in explicitly and consistently calling for it.

In any event, the article is very good, and I highly recommend it.

UPDATE: Phoebe responds to critiques of her article at the National Review's Phi Beta Cons blog. Who would have thought that the National Review would be terrible at this sort of thing?

Ezra Klein Loves Blood

Don't we all.

Video Games and the Paradigm Shift

Thomas Kuhn was a trained physicist, but he is most famous for his theories on the manner by which science progresses -- often known as the "paradigm shift". The standard view of science is that, as it progresses, it solves new problems in a relatively linear fashion: the more we do science, the more knowledge we accrue. Kuhn, though, says that science proceeds in terms of "paradigms" -- overarching organizing theories by which information is categorized, and through which scientists conduct their research. Inevitably, the paradigm will not be able to explain everything, and as anomalous results build up, eventually the paradigm hits a "crisis", and someone proffers a new paradigm (the revolution). Once this occurs, the paradigm "shifts," and the cycle begins anew.

But importantly, paradigm shifts entail at least some loss of knowledge. Even though the new paradigm presumably possesses greater explanatory power than the old, there will still be some types of knowledge or explanations which work under the old theory but not (or not yet) under the new. Hence, progress also entails loss -- a key element of the Kuhnian paradigm shift.

It is this observation that I want to link back to video games. As gaming technology increases, we don't just get better games, we fundamentally change the type of games we get to play. And some elements of old games are lost, not because they were not fun, but because they don't fit within the new paradigms of gaming which emphasize, for example, good graphics and 3-d environments.

Take, for example, the Final Fantasy series. Up through Final Fantasy IX, all the "speech" in the game was text based, in those stereotypical blue boxes. In Final Fantasy X, however, the developers managed to make the characters actually "talk", hiring voice actors to say their lines. This is "progress", and I agree, but it entailed loss as well: in the case of the Final Fantasy series, it meant that you couldn't name your own characters anymore (because the names had to be set for the voice actors).

Similarly, if one looks at the original Super Mario Brothers game, up through Mario Three (and even Super Mario World), it's pretty clear that they are operating within a similar paradigm (though each game tries to improve on the last). But today, even though everyone thinks those were stellar games, you would never see a game released that is of the same basic form as Super Mario World (a 2-d platformer). It doesn't make sense within the current gaming paradigm -- it is a design that is no longer available to game developers.

Again, not saying this is a bad thing, just an interesting observation.

Pound It

The Obamas rock the fist bump after cinching the nomination. Some conservatives went crazy, but I think most of us found it cute. Also, I agree that while Obama has had to take pains to prove he isn't "too Black" for the ever-skittish White voters, he's also demonstrated that -- even in timid form -- he is able to push boundaries and increase what is socially acceptable for Blacks in America, and that's important.

Also, Wes Clark apparently beat him to the dap (I've never heard the term "dap", but apparently it's in use. I'm so old!). Another sign that he's right VP choice? It was in an ad featuring Clark's views on Outkast, after all.

The Anticlimax

Incidentally, today (well, yesterday now) was my last ever day of classes at Carleton. Kind of bizarre, when I think about it. I have to admit, it didn't feel that weird walking out. Maybe because it didn't really register.

But still, it feels worthy of note.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

They'll Do It Every Time

Didja ever notice? On discussions on race, White folks love to keep the focus on themselves. Liberals on how much pain they feel about the persistence of racism, conservatives on how awful and epidemic "reverse racism" is. But try and focus the discussion on what obligations racial dialogue and progress requires of Whites, and suddenly they can't turn the focus away from Whites fast enough.

Today I guest-presented in an African-American history class about Black Conservatism and how White folks can engage with it. It's not that there were no useful contributions, but I fought a persistent (and losing) battle to try and figure out what Whites had to do to engage this group. And yet, the responses kept being "Black people need to enter into coalition politics" (but Black Conservatives are skeptical about the utility of coalition work) or "Blacks need to work with and trust White people" (which begs the question and doesn't properly put the onus on Whites to earn back the trust they've lost) or "Black Conservatism antagonizes White people" (well, maybe it's Whites that should stop throwing temper tantrums, then?).

It's like pulling teeth, trying to get Whites to even think about anti-racism strategies in which they are responding to Black concerns, not dictating the terms of the debate.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Samantha Power is a BAMF

Not that you needed me to tell you that. But still, I envy the folks at Pitzer.

Priestly Power Politics

Rev. Michael Pfleger has been asked by the Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, to take an (involuntary) leave of absence to reflect on his comments regarding Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The comments, which sparked Obama's resignation from the Trinity United Church of Christ, mocked Clinton's "tears" in New Hampshire and accused her of having her "White entitlement" violated when Obama ran for President.

I found Pfleger's sermon to be in very poor taste, and tinged by more than a hint of sexism. It was condemnable, and Obama was right to condemn it. That being said, Pfleger did apologize, so I'm not sure what purpose this leave of absence serves except political grandstanding by Cardinal George. Particularly since George has feuded openly with Pfleger in the past, this strikes me as quite an opportunistic move. I would think that the needs of Pfleger's congregation -- where by all accounts he has served with unusual distinction -- would take precedence over a bit of political showmanship by the Cardinal.

The Other Stories

This is a great article documenting the experiences of other Black law students at Yale around the time that Justice Clarence Thomas attended (Thomas famously regretted attending Yale, claiming his education was worth "15 cents" and that firms would not take him seriously after graduation, assuming he got in via affirmative action).

Thanks to PG in the comments for the pointer.

Radical Review Part One: What Causes Civil Rights Progress?

If there is anything I've learned over the past few days, it's that most people have a weak grasp -- if any -- on the actual arguments being made by non-mainstream theorists and philosophers. This, of course, doesn't stop them from making bold claims about what "liberals say" (or whatever). And that, in turn, infuriates me, and I occasionally flip out. It's particularly bad when folks act as if they don't need to know a group's actual argument and analysis in order to wax lyrical about how awful it is.

Hence, the "Radical Review." It's what it sounds like: I'll review the actual arguments of relatively out of the mainstream thinkers (generally on race) on a particular question or issue that seems to stick in the craw of the mainstream. By and large I am not offering my own opinion here -- just laying out the argument in a (hopefully) accessible, unprejudiced, and informed manner.

Today's issue can be summarized as follows: If America is "structurally racist", what explains civil rights progress over the past 60 years or so?

Excellent question! Radical writers on race have several hypotheses on what might be the cause of racial reform. But before we get into them, it's important to note that few would describe America's racial history as a straight forward progression. We have advances, but we also have relapses. Many would argue that, while things are better today than in 1958, they might be worse along some axes than in 1978. The legal protection afforded to race and commitment to overthrowing racial hierarchy, for example, has been beating a steady retreat for the past several decades. Some writers, such as Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, would say that we are in a period of "retrenchment", during which racist structure rearticulates and reestablishes itself in the wake of liberal attacks. Furthermore, whatever progress has been made has come from a pretty high baseline. Insofar as momentum has stalled today, it has done so well prior to where we could say that systematic racial disadvantage has been rendered a thing of the past.

That having been said, few would deny that important strides were made in the 1960s and the civil rights movement. What caused this?

Perhaps the most important radical theory on this topic is Derrick Bell's "interest-convergence" theory. Interest-convergence holds that Whites only accede to Black civil rights demands when it is in their interest to do so. Brown v. Board, for example, was not a case of White people just "coming to their senses" finally. Rather, it was a direct response to Cold War pressures -- the U.S. was being killed in its diplomatic efforts to sway the non-aligned states by our well-publicized segregation and discrimination. The State Department was receiving a flurry of screaming memos from our foreign ambassadors to this effect, and that prompted the U.S. Federal Government to intervene on behalf of a civil rights plaintiff for the first time. In her book Cold War Civil Rights, legal historian Mary Dudziak did the historical legwork and found that Bell's hypothesis was largely accurate, in that Cold War pressures did seem to play a significant role in convincing the American government to reconsider its racist policies.

However, several authors, such as Paul Finkelman and Rachel D. Godsil have identified several cases and actions where White actors seemed to protect Black civil rights when no immediate benefit was to be had. To this, Bell would respond that these constitute "contradiction closing cases" -- one's in which the dominant order was not threatened, but White actors could seek to prove that the deck is not stacked, that the legal system and the judiciary could be trusted to be be fair and neutral. Godsil's example, for instance, are the "race nuisance" cases around the turn of the century, where Whites sued arguing that the presence of Blacks nearby (in homes or churches or businesses) constituted a "nuisance" under the law. Blacks often won these cases. Godsil argues that there is no immediate interest Whites possessed in ruling such, and hence an exception to the I-C theory appears. But Bell would presumably respond that by Godsil's own admission, "nuisance" rulings were not necessary to preserve America's segregated environment, so courts could afford to be "neutral" on them secure in the knowledge that there would be no practical effect on the Jim Crow structure they represented.

So that's interest-convergence. But it is hardly the only theory out there. In their book "Black Power", Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton argue that Black progress only occurs in situations where Blacks have "closed ranks" so as to express sufficient political power to achieve their needs. Government responds to political pressure, only when Blacks are in a position to provide such pressure does true progress occur. As an example, they cite the establishment of the Tuskegee Institute (where Booker T. Washington spent most of his career). Tuskegee came into being because a local Democratic politician needed the votes of the Black community. He asked a local Black leader what it would take to deliver his community's votes. The man responded by requesting funding for a normal school. The candidate agreed, the votes were delivered, the school was built, and Tuskegee was born. Only because the politician felt he had to be responsive to the political power of Blacks, did Blacks see any material benefit. Whatever gains Blacks see in America's political arena today are directly correlated to the amount of political pressure they can bring to bear as a community. The 1960s saw a huge increase in the political mobilization and unity of the Black community, leading to positive governmental response. When their power as a group is diluted (gerrymandering, inability to elect the representatives of their choice), they lose influence.

Relatedly, James Cone argues that Black progress has historically occurred through a sort of "good cop/bad cop" mentality between various elements of the Black community. Martin Luther King was seen as a rabble-rousing radical by much of the White community -- until the Black Power movement began to arise in full force. At that point, the implicit argument made by the "mainstream" civil rights forces was "deal with us, or you'll have to deal with them." Civil rights progress only came into being because of the more radical "threat" Black Power posed in the background. Without the "bad cop", the "good cop" of idealistic liberal reform would have remained on the margins.

So, those are a few of the theories floating out there, explaining mechanisms for civil rights progress to occur while still taking account of the persistence of racism. Rather than civil rights being a case of Whites "seeing the light", the discourse is better seen as a struggle between the entrenched racial order and various responses by the Black community which managed to distress but not dislodge ingrained structural racism. If one believes Bell, racial progress stops at the moment where it ceases to be in White interests; if one believes Carmichael & Hamilton, racial progress stops where Blacks no longer possess the political power to enact reformist agendas; if one believes Cone, racial progress stops where there is no backdrop of serious radical challenge to force Whites to come to the bargaining table with "moderates."

Update on the Computer

It's in God's the SCIC's hands now. They say they won't know anything by Thursday at the earliest. Right now, it appears the hard drive may have blown out, which I presume to be a bad thing. They will see if a) that is, in fact the problem and b) try and fix whatever problem it ends up being. If they can't, step next is trying to salvage my data.

Fortunately, I backed up most of my important information on Friday, when it crashed the last time. And the fact that my computer managed to bring itself back from the dead once gives me hope that it can defy death once more.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Rich Hills proclaims himself "certainly an anti-intellectual." Undoubtedly this is in part a function of my current mood, but though deliberate obscurity can be very annoying (and quite bad things), whatever tendency (certain classes of?) intellectuals have towards that sin is far, far, far outstripped by the anti-intellectual "I don't need this 'knowledge' crap to know that someone's argument is [racist, sexist, anti-American, anti-family, stupid]" trope. The people who will make bold pronouncements about what a person says or means -- not only without a gesture towards actually reading them, but with a smug assertion that they don't need to -- represent potentially the most aggravating sin in America's public discourse.
It takes the convoluted abstractions of a Carl Schmitt or a Heidegger to offer apologetics for Hitler; a Sartre, to temporize about Stalin; a Foucault, to defend Khomeini. it doesn't. All three found plenty of sustenance in the more mundane "anti-intellectual" defenses and support of their cohorts.

Computer Died Again

This time I was there when I watched it slowly sputter and freeze. I restart, and nothing but a gaping, black void (empty screen). Time to bring more pleas, prayers, and a burnt offering to the SCIC...

God I Hate Misbehaving Two Year Olds

Look at this one! He had the temerity to immigrate from Armenia to America (the article doesn't make it clear if he was legal and his visa lapsed, or originally illegal). Sixteen years later he has virtually no knowledge of his "home" country -- but did become valedictorian of his high school class.

I agree -- the only proper response is to deport him. If you don't crack down on toddler misbehavior, they'll never learn. And if there's one thing America needs less of, it's really smart people.

Pet Peeve

Articles that are stapled incorrectly. Staples in the upper right corner of an article are only appropriate if the article is in Hebrew. This article is not in Hebrew. Angering.

Bahrain Appoints Jewish Ambassador

This is kind of neat. And apparently there are rumors it might presage the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Bahrain. Which also would be kind of neat.

Beach Week

The Washington Post takes on a DC high school tradition: high schoolers who take to the Delaware beaches en masse after graduation to, er, celebrate for a week.

Despite not being a drinker myself (indeed, about 20 of my friends and I decided to go to the Outer Banks for beach week instead, for a quieter atmosphere), I don't really get worked up about it or think it is the scariest thing in the universe. The impetus to respond to it as if it were a menace to society grates me far more. Here's Rehoboth Beach police chief Keith Banks:
"In one call last year, the parents were upset and crying and telling me I've ruined their child's [future] because they had a college scholarship revoked because of an arrest. I had one parent tell me, 'My child was just drinking beer and didn't even buy it in your town.' I said, 'How did they get the beer?' And the parent said, 'I bought it for them.'

"I ask you: Is that a responsible parent?"

Perhaps not, but it sounds far more like over-policing to me.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

"She started hanging out with white people, and she started smoking meth."

The WaPo has an interesting article up about race relations and the Black community in Utah. The verdict from the Black community there seems to be that folks aren't mean-spirited as much as they are incredibly, incredibly naive. But I have to say, a lot of the things they described (folks randomly tugging on their hair, Katrina victims being frisked as soon as they deplaned) sound like things that require less a sophisticated knowledge of racial dynamics and more just basic awareness of how to treat human beings with dignity. A state senator called a bill a "black baby" and described it as "a dark and ugly thing." When the Black community responded with outrage, he (of course) got defensive:
He complained of being persecuted by a "hate lynch mob" and finally asked, "How do I know what words I'm supposed to use in front of those people?"

Eventually he did apologize.

Anyway, the whole article is good, and hopefully it will really stress to the high heavens the limits of the "I have good intentions" catch-all response to the idea that racism exists.