Saturday, August 13, 2005

Nice Guys Finish Last

That's it in a nutshell isn't it? Democrat-allied group runs distortive and disgusting attack message (NARAL Ad), and get nailed by their fellow Dems for the lie. So they withdraw it. Republican-allied group runs distortive and disgusting attack message (SBVT), and not a single GOPer bats an eye. So they win an election.

Kevin Drum has more. And I for one, am at a loss. I detest this sort of evil, manipulative, predatory politiking that characterizes Swift Boats. And yet, damn it all to hell, it works. You can't win without it anymore.

And the bad mood continues...

Right and Wrong

Is That Legal points us to Jackson, Wyoming, where new citizens were praised by Rep. Barbara Cubin for becoming citizens "the right way".

The feature immigrant/citizen in the story was an Irish Salon owner who learned to ski on the east coast and decided to try the West (Jackson Hole has great skiing).

So, if moving from a first world country to live in a ski resort is the "right way" to become a citizen, what then is the "wrong way" to become a citizen? It can't be via illegal immigration--we don't give them citizenship (not even an amnesty program would do that). Mysteries, mysteries...

Wait--I've got it! The wrong way to become a citizen is to be from a poor, third world country who wants to try for a better life! Because how dare they flee poverty and authoritarian dictatorships to try for freedom? It's...It's...It's unamerican is what is!

How improper of them.

UPDATE: I had completely forgotten that it was Rep. Cubin who decided all Blacks were drug dealers. On the House floor debating gun control, the lovely lady said the following:
My sons are 25 and 30. They are blond-haired and blue-eyed. One amendment today said we could not sell guns to anybody under drug treatment. So does that mean if you go into a black community, you cannot sell a gun to any black person, or does that mean because my --

At this point she was interrupted by Rep. Melvin Watts who demanded the remarks be striken from the record as inappropriate. She refused to back down. Upon full House consideration, not a single Republican decided that the worldview of "Black as presumptive drug-dealer" was offensive enough to be striken from the record (these are the same folks who were "outraged by the outrage" over Abu Gharib).

So at least she's in good company. And folks wonder why America is still skeptical over Chairman Mehlman's "mea culpa" to the NAACP.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Firefly, Won't You Shine Your Light

I watched the first episode of Firefly today. I'd already seen it (but only this episode), so it didn't tell me anything new. I had forgotten how LONG it was though--1 and a half hours. This made the trade I made with my brother--one game of Ping Pong in exchange for him watching it with me--seem slightly unfair. But I'ma bad mood anyway (see below), so my sympathy is limited.

Also, note to self: While taking slapshots in the basement is a wonderful stress reliever, the good effect is largely eliminated when you break a picture frame.

Finally: This Post's Title is based not on the TV show I just watched, but rather the song of the same name (but no apparent relation) by Breaking Benjamin. It's also quite good (though I prefer "So Cold," "Forever," "Rain," and "Forget It" on my personnnel BB depth chart).

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Why the Conspiracy?

N.S.T. points me to this story on Black perceptions of the AIDS virus. The findings are disturbing:
More than one-quarter [of surveyed Blacks] said they believed that AIDS was produced in a government laboratory, and 12 percent believed it was created and spread by the CIA.

A slight majority [53.4%] said they believe that a cure for AIDS is being withheld from the poor. Forty-four percent said people who take the new medicines for HIV are government guinea pigs, and 15 percent said AIDS is a form of genocide against black people.

At the same time, 75 percent said they believe medical and public health agencies are working to stop the spread of AIDS in black communities. But the responses, which varied only slightly by age, gender, education and income level, alarmed the researchers.

First things first--let's note what this doesn't show. It doesn't show that "blacks are delusional about AIDS." The only negative statement in the poll that garnered a majority view was also the one that was arguably true--one could plausibly note that we a) have treatments for AIDS that b) aren't making it to poor communities. We can debate about causes, problems, and extents, but the point at least is debatable. Aside from that, all of the questions fell short of a majority, and the statement with the most support was that Blacks thought medical and health communities are trying to stop the spread of AIDS.

Second, I was distressed by the rhetoric the reporter used to frame the issue. The article was a classic case of he-said/she-said journalism. As such, it presents two competing views that nominally are opposites. But I think the views are distorted and, if framed properly, could be perfectly compatible. The author writes:
The findings were also no surprise to Na'im Akbar, a professor of psychology at Florida State University who specializes in African American behavior.

"This is not a bunch of crazy people running around saying they're out to get us," Akbar said. The belief "comes from the reality of 300 years of slavery and 100 years of post-slavery exploitation."

Akbar cited the Tuskegee experiment conducted by the federal government between 1932 and 1972. In it, scientists told black men they were being treated for syphilis but actually withheld treatment so they could study the course of the disease.

Today, he said, African Americans are more likely to live in communities near pollution sources, such as freeways and oil refineries, and far from health care centers. "There are a lot of indicators that our lives are not valued," Akbar said.

Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles, said past discrimination is no longer an excuse for embracing conspiracies that allow HIV to fester.

"It's a huge barrier to HIV prevention in black communities," Wilson said. "There's an issue around conspiracy theory and urban myths. Thus we have an epidemic raging out of control, and African Americans are being disproportionately impacted in every single sense."

In a nutshell, then, the two "sides" are presented as "The belief 'com[ing] from the reality of 300 years of slavery and 100 years of post-slavery exploitation," versus "past discrimination is no longer an excuse for embracing conspiracies that allow HIV to fester."

But I don't the quote following the latter statement justifies the position it purports to uphold. All Mr. Wilson says is that the effect of the conspiracy theory is to harm efforts to stop AIDS' progress. He doesn't say that the longstanding abuse of Blacks in America doesn't "justify" their paranoia--even if in this case it is false.

Instead of being oppositional, I think these two statements can be read together as saying: "Centuries of racial subjugation have affected Blacks' entire way of seeing the world. Having been (and continuing to be) the victims of white exploitation for so long, they now see their hand in all problems facing the black community. In the context of the AIDS virus, this is having drastic and intolerable negative consequences that are preventing health workers from stopping the epidemic." Viewed this way, the question is "how can we convince Blacks of our goodwill--given that our past history makes us less than trustworthy partners?" This, in turn, reifies what Crits have been saying all along--that in order to address the problems plaguing Black society, one has to deal with racism first. We can't stop AIDS when the entire Black community is in a state of psychic shock over centuries of hate. Telling them to "just trust us" is akin to telling a rape victim who has been raped again by her last 20 doctors to trust this next one. Even assuming that this doctor really does have good intentions, the strategy isn't likely to work. The problem falls on our end to rebuild trust within racial communities that is desperately needed and sorely lacking.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Dissections of Power: Can Blacks Be Racist To Whites?

First things first. I've added Alas, a Blog to my blogroll, both because their posts are superb and because their comments are intellectually invigorating. I'm glad I've stumbled across them, and hope that we have many more intelligent conversations.

The comments this post have veered into an interesting discussion of whether it is possible for blacks to be racist against whites. Everyone agrees they can be prejudiced, but the argument is that racism is a power relation--it is not just the thought but the effect of subordinating someone due to their race. Furthermore, racism cannot be separated from racist histories--that is, racism draws upon past inequalities to justify and reify present ones. Since blacks are not and were not in a position of power in America's racial scheme, they cannot cause racially disparate effects and thus cannot be racist.

If you prefer, here's the more technical form of the argument. Joe Feagin and Hernan Vera write:
"Racism is more than a matter of individual prejudice and scattered episodes of discrimination. There is no black (or other minority) racism because there is no centuries-old system of racial subordination and discrimination designed by African Americans to exclude white Americans from full participation in the rights, privileges, and benefits of this society. Minority racism would require not only a widely accepted racist ideology directed at whites, but also the power to systematically exclude whites from opportunities and rewards in major economic, cultural, and political institutions."

Marilyn Friedman continues:
[L]et us consider what an incident of racism might be like when isolated conceptually from a social pattern of racism. In such a case, a perpetrator would express or enact hatred or scorn toward a targeted person in virtue of her race, but there would be no history, or prevalent pattern of racism that pertained to the target person's racial identity. There would be no commonly known stereotypes of members of the target's racial group. There would be no commonly known slang words available for insulting such persons. In addition, if the targeted person were not relatively socially disadvantaged, it would be difficult to shame her on economic grounds let alone associate that shame with her racial group. There would simply be no racebased context of hatred or scorn for making sense of such an act. A conceptually isolated act of racism becomes little more than an act of mere hatred or scorn that happens to be prompted by the race of the target person quite independently of the culture in which it occurs or the history of that culture.

I might start my disagreement by noting that I think this definition of racism is wrong. We might quarrel over whether racism with significant effects is more morally culpable than racism without it (I'd agree it is), but I don't think that the latter is not racism. Furthermore, it neglects forms of voluntary power construction. While I might have the option of maintaining myself at the top of America's racial hierarchy, I don't. Because of my beliefs, I voluntarily make part of my sense of wellbeing contingent on what the disadvantaged think of me--I want them to know me as someone who cares for their plight and is working to remedy it. In other words, I give them power over my self-esteem--their comments matter to me. So if a minority tells me, "you're just a racist cracker like all the rest," that draws on the power I've ceded to them in order to harm my self-image--on account of my race. That I "chose" to construct my sense of well-being in this manner in no way obviates the power the relationship has over me. I think we've all said to someone who we care about who utters a hurtful word to us, "well, I don't care what you think!"--and we all know what a lie it is. Power does not just lie in coercion, often, it is part and parcel of our own decision about what we deem important.

But even if we make coercive power the litmus test for racism, I still think it is possible for Blacks to be racist against Whites. Power operates on many levels. In ABA's comments, for example, one person noted that Jesse Jackson probably has power over his white Janitor. It was responded that an individualist view on racism obscures the way structures are racist--Jackson may be more powerful than the Janitor, but when they drive home from work, it'll be the reverend who gets pulled over on a DWB.

We blind ourselves when we ignore any level of power--individual, structural, or what I term "mid-range." As has been noted, individual racist acts can occur by any race--I do believe that a black owner of a grocery store who continually berates his white employee with racial taunts, refuses to promote him, and blames him for all the store's misfortunes, has the requisite power level and thus is engaging in racism. By contrast, on a structural level, whites rule and thus overarching structures are racist towards minorities.

Where things get interesting, in my opinion, is at the "mid-range" between the overarching superstructure and the individual level. This would include communities that are subsidiary to the overall community--for example, Academia or Politics. Mid-range race discourse is not necessarily the same as at the levels above or beneath it. Take academia, for example. Academia still operates within a superstructural racist climate in America. And individual students at a college may still utter racist remarks or engage in other racist conduct. But at the mid-range, colleges and universities in America have thrown themselves entirely against racism. The structure of academia has wholeheartedly embraced (as I do) Critical Race Theory, Standpont Theory, Intersectionality, and other post-modern anti-racism remedies. In this context, a new empowered group emerges--consisting of the minority scholars and writers crafting/applying these theories, and their allies. They can, if they wish, use this power as leverage against persons, including whites, they dislike (I'm not saying this happens often, only that it can and occasionally does). If they claim that a certain professor's work is racist, that guy will be in serious trouble (especially if he isn't tenured). The very notions of "standing" and such that Crits are so proud of will make it almost impossible for him to give a defense--he is not considered "competent" to speak on race issues since he isn't a minority--an odd inversion of the "rules of racial standing" Derrick Bell talks about in our daily life. Even if he is cleared, the stigma will remain--he might not get invited to conferences and his articles may get blackballed, a hostile work environment (who wants to associate with a racist?) might drive him out of his job altogether. This power, to both make the accusation and demolish the framework by which the accused can conduct a defense, is a power that blacks arguably have over whites in the context of academic discourse. Other examples abound. The explicit argument that Whites should stop writing (or write far less) on a given topic is legitimized. Claims that white culture is fatally defective are seriously discussed and argued. All of this occurs inside a power matrix where, ironically, the very black professors who hold power over their white counterparts still might be pulled over on the way home from work, and still might have to suffer through racist comments overheard in the Cafeteria.

Politics operates similarly. The battle against racism, as Mari Matsuda notes, has "legitimating force." Those who are seen as against racism are deemed as good, those who are not, bad. Who controls the label of "racist" in this context becomes critical--which is part of why the right and left love to fight over it so much. Insofar as someone is effectively dubbed as "racist", their career is pretty much over. Yet the process is very inexact. John Cornyn gives a police officer whose false drug accusations imprisoned an entire town's worth of black persons (often for life) "Lawman of the Year" award, he is elected Senator from Texas (thankfully the sentences were eventually overturned). Trent Lott praises Strom Thurmond, and is forced to resign is leadership post, though it is difficult to see (aside from whether Lott was wrong) how his comment was worse than Cornyn's act. But in political groups which do value the voice of color (and there are some), there is a very real opportunity for black persons to use their position as "definers of racism" to tar politicians they simply dislike. If they choose to do this, it is racism. And of course, that does not get into Black-majority cities--where the political establishment as a whole (which is as big a power player as there is) is controlled by African-Americans. If that government chooses to race-bait, that qualifies pretty clearly as racism.

The idea contained in this is that power can operate at cross-purposes even within the same system. Blacks can be both dismpowered and empowered within even the same context--which brings along with it the possibility of cross-currents of racism. If racism is a function of power, than anytime blacks are given the power they have been unjustly denied there is the potential for racism. Even accepting the obvious truth that racism still overwhelmingly is skewed against Blacks, it still does not affect the pockets of Black power where they have the opportunity to be racist against whites.

This isn't to create a misperception that this sort of minority-on-majority racism happens all the time. It doesn't, and even when it does it pales in comparison to the volume of white-on-black racism in the world. But the anti-racism crowd does itself no favors by falsely universalizing power to one group. To do this denies contemporary realities and reduces the credibility of the anti-racist message as a whole.

Is That a Challenge? Jewish and Christian Interpretations of Ezekiel

Mark Olsen of Pseudo-Polymath asks me, literally me, to comment on an interpretation of Chapter 6, Book of Ezekiel he calmly labels "somewhat interesting." And if you didn't laugh at that, then you clearly didn't click the link to PPM. Shame.

Specifically, he wants me to "explain how this reading differs from the Jewish tradition/exegesis."

Before I begin, I should make two caveats. First of all, I'm not an expert on Ezekiel. In fact, I dare say I've never read a word of it. So this is my thoughts based on my knowledge of Judaism as applied to this interpretation. It does not draw from any source of Rabbinic commentary on Ezekiel to make comparisons, for the simple reason that I've never read any. Second of all, it is important to remember how fractured Jewish theology is in terms of perspective. This trait, already present in the early Rabbinic commentaries (often called the "these and these" principle, referring to God supposedly saying both of the oft conflicting Hillel and Shammai schools ("these and these") are the words of God), became even more prominent in the post-Holocaust era, which led to a significant series of internal critiques and reinterpretations that often differ tremendously with the "normative" tradition. While this makes it difficult to ascribe something as shared amongst Judaism and Christianity ("which Judaism are we talking about?"), it also means that my perspective comes only from a specific branch of Jewish thought, one that I'd say is more accepted than "fringe" but not quite mainstream--a respected minority voice, perhaps? Specifically, I am a adherent to the theology of protest, which holds, among other things, that mankind has an obligation to challenge God over the injustices wrought in His name as opposed to a docile submission to Divine Right. See, e.g., Anson Laytner, Arguing With God: A Jewish Tradition (1998) (Jewish discourse often portrays the relationship between God and man in quasi-legal terms, with mankind pleaing for God to deliver the justice He has promised); David Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (1993) (arguing that God's character in the Tanakh (Old Testament) is akin to an abusive father--love and care for His children punctuated by moments of horrific and inexcusable violence); Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God (1995) (describing an imaginary event in which the last survivor of an Anti-Semitic Pogrom places God on trial for violating His covenant); J. Jonathan Schraub, "For the Sins We Have Committed By Theological Rationalizations": Rescuing Job From Normative Religion, 86 SOUNDINGS 431 (2003) (claiming that the book Job is not about Job (eventually) learning to accept God's infinite knowledge and justice as superior to his limited human capacities; but rather about Job's bold protest against Divine Injustice).

Finally, while differences in versions and translation often cause difficulties for interfaith comparisons, as far as I can tell the Jewish translation of the passage in question does not differ materially from the one offered.

With that said, let us proceed.

Some of the post is rather obviously incompatible with Jewish exegesis. The Christian foregrounding prior to the interpretation, for one. This passage, too, would seem a little out of place in a typical Jewish tract:
Israel was severely disciplined not in spite of the fact that they were the chosen people of God, but because they were the chosen people of God. At the present time that responsibility has been transferred to the Church: we are now the elect of God and we are charged with reflecting His glory and proclaiming His salvation. The privilege, the responsibility, the consequences are all enormous.

However, even beyond that I think there are significant differences in the Jewish response to the passage.

I think that the backgrounding of events we'd agree on. God was upset with Jews forsaking Him and His Torah, and so he was gearing for some smotin'. However, the conclusions I think we come to almost exact opposite. The author of this commentary believes that the Jews were lulled by the temporal aspects of their faith (IE, the Temple), and that was why the message was sent. This is in keeping with the generic Christian view of spiritual over temporal. Indeed, that is the theme of his entire post--he concludes by saying:
The day for the church will one day come when the bodies of Christians will be scattered before the idols of their hearts - banks, governments, stadiums, schools - in a demonstration of the utter inability of any of these things to save. Perhaps not literally slaughtered, but certainly just as effectively crushed. Eternally secure; temporally undone and destroyed.

The point then would be that true faith needs nothing material on this earth, it is solely a facet of an individuals relationship with God.

Jewish exegesis would take the opposite view. Specifically, they'd focus on how the Jews were in violation of God's laws on earth. Following or not following the law is a material act--the Jewish conception of doing Mitzvot is not just because God said so and we should honor God, but rather to create a more just world (Tikkun Olam, repairing the world). The Jewish conclusion would be a redoubling of effort toward the material aspects of life that make it tolerable or intolerable--MORE justice, MORE tzedakkah, MORE love for ones neighbor. It is an explicitly temporal philosophy that stands in stark contrast to the harsh This Life/After Life split found in the Christian commentary.

That's the "stock" difference (although I use the term cautiously). My branch of Jewish thought would agree, but add another split. Both the "stock" Jewish story and the Christian counterstory assume that God is perfectly within His rights to undertake this action. This is either because He's God, and can do whatever he wants or, if pressed for a reason, that a) the people deserved it because they abdicated the law (Jewish version) or b) that God wasn't taking anything of value anyway, because it was all temporal and ultimately irrelevant (Christian version).

Protestors would question whether or not God was right at all to do this. As the Christian commentator puts it:
God is very serious about two things: sin and His holiness. He is not going to tolerate the sins of His people indefinitely and He is not going to compromise His holiness. God is serious about sin because He is serious about His holiness: He will purge the evil in His people no matter what it takes or what it costs them in temporal terms. By His terrible acts of judgment upon His people, God will (1) remind His people that He - and He alone - is God and that He will not share His glory with another, and (2) demonstrate to the unbelievers nearby that He is deathly serious about these things even if His people are not. If they will not reflect His holiness, then He will make them an object lesson by which others may learn to fear Him.

One might note that this seems rather egomaniacal by God. He cares about Himself and "His Holiness," and He cares about sin because it compromises His holiness. Essentially, He finds it rather like mocking Him. But the punishment seems vastly disproportionate to the crime. Like the abusive father upset that his kids aren't showing him proper respect, He flies off the handle and vows to exact vengeance, in this case, specifically vengeance in the form of mass murder. And it follows a pattern of behavior by God in the Bible--professed love for his children (kind Father) when they are good, but terrifying rage when they disappoint Him (abusive Father). Although we might say generically that parents have the right to expect obedience and respect from their children, we don't carry this to the conclusion that they can abuse their children for disobeying.

While the Christian subtext to Ezekiel is that God isn't taking anything that matters (it's only temporal, and even lives are just returned to Him), Judaism doesn't have that out. The temporal world and (especially) human life DOES matter, and cannot be dealt with so casually. Indeed, the Jewish doctrine of Pikuach Ha'Nefesh, to save a life, explicitly exempts one from any Biblical law in order to save a life. This principle has been cross-applied to God Himself--recall how Abraham argued with God to spare the lives of innocents in Sodom and Gommorah.

While this latter interpretation is more radical, both the standard and protest Jewish interpretations seem to be materially different from the Christian one.

Hope that helps!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Internal Critic and Intersectionality: Who's Looking Out For the Minority Right?

Ampersand's latest post argues that there is a material difference between blacks accusing other blacks of being a "race traitor," and whites doing it. Specifically, he argues:
I don't find Blacks using the term "race traitor" objectionable the way I'd find the same term used by whites (liberal or not) objectionable. It's a little like when Chris Rock uses the word "nigger." I don't think it's acceptable for whites to say "nigger," by and large. But at the same time, it's not my place, as a white guy, to police the language Blacks use when having debates about Black identity politics within the Black community. That's none of my business. [...] Context - that is, what race the speaker is - does matter. It's clear that when blacks use the word "nigger" or its derivatives, they're not using it in the anti-black way it's typically been used by white racists. Similarly, the analogy between right-wing racists who have used "race traitor" (for whites who favored civil rights), and anti-racist Blacks who use the same term, doesn't hold much water.
Before I begin, I'd like to note that I was way too casual in the whole "race traitor" deal. It was a heated statement, and I regret it. More embarrassingly, from my perspective, is that the "book by two Georgetown Law Professors" is one I've actually been meaning to read, and both the authors (Mari J. Matsuda and Charles Lawrence III) are writers I admire and consider myself to be heavily influenced be. Also, I agree that context matters, and that there is a qualitative difference between white racists using phrases like "race traitor" and the same sort of claim being made by black leftists to other blacks. My argument thus should not be construed that both are equally objectionable, just that both are, indeed objectionable at all. That being said, I disagree with Ampersand that blacks calling other blacks "race traitor" is akin to the use of the n-word by blacks. The reason is simple--and it has everything to do with the context of use. Like Amp, I may find the use of this word by anyone distasteful. However, black people don't use it in a context designed to degrade or isolate the subject of its use (whereas any white usage necessarily carries with it the baggage of past racism). By contrast, "race traitor" is an epithet designed to intimidate, the purpose is to assault minorities who aren't displaying the proper "solidarity" and the intent is to strip them of their blackness--if you're not with me, you're not black. I briefly overviewed the theory of intersectionality in a previous post, but it's worth running through again:
[Intersectionality argues] that the experience of a double minority is different than the sum of the two minority groups she belongs. For example, the status of a Black Woman is not merely Woman + Black. Similarly, the status of a female minority conservative is not just Female + Minority + Conservative. The simplest reason why this is so is because whereas becoming a conservative by itself means joining a relatively popular and broad group, becoming a minority conservative means being subjected to endless taunts of being an "Uncle Tom" or traitor, accusations (and occasionally, true moments) of being "used" by majority peers, and other hardships. In other words, while my (White) life would not be significantly changed by switching my political affiliation, for a minority, this switch comes with a lot of baggage. Because the tropes associated with "conservative" are contingent upon one's other identities, one can't simply atomize conservatism (or any other identity) and examine independently of the rest.
Ampersand views this entire spat as intramural, blacks arguing amongst themselves about what it means to oppose racism. To me, this obscures the divisions in power relations that exist within the black community. Since the black left is far more powerful than the black right, the effect of them using this term is to leverage the influence they have over anti-racism discourse to suppress views they don't like. This is akin to when minorities began to criticize the fact that civil rights scholarship was nearly all-white (and didn't cite to any emerging minority writers). See Richard Delgado, The Imperial Scholar: Reflections on Civil Rights Literature, 132 U. Pa. L. Rev. 561 (1984). The terminology used by black leftists is not neutral debate, it is a deliberate attempt to link black conservatives to an ideology inherently opposed to black people. It's like a Jew calling another Jew a Nazi--irrespective of the validity of the criticism itself, the term is offensive because of the particular tropes and tenors it carries in the Jewish experience. Acting as if this was just folks debating ("free speech"?) blinds us to the realities of power and forces us to pretend that Blacks do all agree on the terms and conditions regarding opposition to racism--and moreover, we have to play that role by accepting the very controversy that is under dispute--that black leftists are "right" in how they frame the racism debate and the conservatives are "wrong." This does not address the second part of Ampersand's critique--that even if we (white liberals) think that the term is wrong, it's none of our business. As I wrote in my last post, my Jewish background places me deeply opposed to the "it's not our problem" school of thought. The history of genocide is replete with examples of tyrants who knew that if they just kept their actions an internal affair, they could escape international notice and condemnation of even the most brutal of crimes. Within this paradigm, Hitler's crime was not that he slaughtered millions of Jews, it's that he invaded Poland (which of course made it "everybody's problem"). Had he just concentrated on the Jews in his own border (like Turkey with Armenians, Rwanda, Cambodia, Sudan, etc.), he'd have been home free. I reject this logic. Obviously there is value to letting groups solve their own problems, just as there is value in respecting national sovereignty. But this is predicated on the notion that all members of the group in question stand on roughly equal footing, and that the object under consideration is not whether or not to expel a disempowered sub-sect. Because I believe the position of black conservatives does not meet either condition, and because I believe that outsiders have obligations, when possible, to rectify even injustices that aren't within their own community, I register my disagreement with Ampersand.

If Hitler Hadn't Invaded Poland, Would Anybody Care?

In Their Silence They Cry Out

One of the attorneys at my law firm knows a woman who grew up in Germany during World War II. She just published a book, and our attorney brought her in to speak about her experiences on the matter. I think about genocide a lot (cheery guy that I am), so this once again spurred my mind to reflect on how America reacts to mass murder.

It occurred to me that the Holocaust is really rather unique amongst genocides in the psychic impact it has on the world. Several reasons have been given for this: The fact that it was not committed in a spate of ethnic rioting (like, say Rwanda), but was a calmly and deliberately planned massacre spanning around a decade; the sheer universality of it, how it expressly targeted every Jew on the planet for elimination; the fact that the "image" of the victim was white and middle class (as opposed to an ethnic minority we can effectively divorce from our own experience), etc. etc..

But it occurs to me that the biggest distinguishing factor between the Holocaust and other genocides is that we experienced it first hand, albeit as a third party. US and Russian troops were the ones that liberated the concentration camps. Thousands of young men saw first hand the horror that had been inflicted upon the Jews--this helped lead to the moral outrage that created Nuremberg and "never again."

But what if none of that had happened? What if Hitler had never invaded Poland at all, but had just quietly sat within his borders and carried out an extermination there?

It's relatively clear that Hitler's pathological hatred of Jews and his megalomaniacal desire to rule the world are intertwine, but also separable. The establishment of the first concentration camp (Dachau) predates any aggressive actions by Germany by several years, as do many of the early anti-Semitic laws, moreover, Hitler consistently acted to kill as many Jews as possible even when it harmed the war effort (e.g., using trains needed to ferry supplies to the front to transport Jews to death camps instead). So it's no answer to say that absent the war, Hitler wouldn't have engaged in genocide--he probably would have. A smaller scale, to be sure, but the amount of German Jews killed alone approaches 200,000.

Looking at the American reaction to other genocides, we can relatively safely say that our reaction to this hypothetical would have been...very little. From Armenia to Cambodia to Rwanda, genocide that does not immediately affect American interests tends to attract little attention. For whatever reason, the requisite empathy for other persons appears simply absent. Even when there is press coverage as the genocide is on-going (like in Darfur now), Sure, we make condemnations. Big deal. Has there been any serious talk of military intervention? Agreement to airlift out refugees and give them asylum within the US? We cry and sigh, and they still die. It's shameful.

Examining how America acted even during the real WWII lends credence to this hypothesis. America refused to let in Jewish refugees (recall the plight of the S.S. St. Louis), nor did they directly condemn the horrors perpetuated against Jews (Roma, Poles, and others as well) specifically (making only vague mention to wartime excesses). Indeed, even granting wartime constraints, the US response to the Holocaust (which we did know about) was anemic--even before we entered the war at all. This is not to absolve the rest of the world--with a few exceptions (Singapore, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden come to mind)--all failed in this basic test of human dignity. But being an American blog with mostly American readers, this should require a hard look at ourselves.

The vast majority of abuses in the world have absolutely nothing to do with us. We can ignore them, and nothing bad will happen to us. The screams of the raped, mutilated and murder don't fall upon deaf ears, they don't even reach the ears at all (being drowned out by Michael Jackson and the latest Celeb hookup). In fact, there is only one way these atrocities have anything to do with us:

America has the power to stop them.

If we through our collective weight in the global system in a complete and absolute opposition to genocide, we could make a difference. If America's leaders knew their citizens would stand by and make the sacrifice so that others might live, we could make a difference. It isn't necessarily throwing troops into every nation on the planet who doesn't meet ideal human rights standards. It's about using our tremendous leverage in the global community to force other nations to act with the basic decency and humanity that anybody can expect.

It's difficult, because it involves looking out for number two, at no tangible benefit to number one.

In prior posts, I've been talking a lot about standpoint theory and how perspective informs analysis. For example, the author, the woman who was a German child during World War II, at one point warned us that we must be wary of those who use propaganda and drew a parallel to the "illegal and unjust" war that America is currently engaged in. It's been noted that in the wake of the Holocaust, Germany has a severe aversion to the use of armed force in any situation--it always sees it's own shadow--and this was a perfect manifestation of that. At the same time, I marveled at how my own perspective, reflecting on the same series of events but informed by my Jewishness, led me to the exact opposite conclusion. I do not fear unrestrained aggression, I fear a world that can not bring itself to care enough for those crying out for its aid. America turned its back on me--I will not turn my back on the next generation of victims. And hence, that's why I supported the war in Iraq--the horror of Saddam Hussein's sadistic regime struck far too close to home. Perhaps we could contain Saddam. So what? All that means is that we can safely ignore him while he slaughters more of his own people. Containment is the vanguard of aversion--a Saddam we don't have to pay attention to is a Saddam whose crimes will continue on and on.

For me, that's an intolerable situation.

Do you have the courage to care?

Murphy's Law in Action

Bad news folks. Just as I start to get a fair stream of hits, my home computer blows its internet router. So blogging may come at a reduced schedule for the next few days (though I'll try to keep up as best I can--right now, I'm on my mom's computer, which is the only one with internet access).

Monday, August 08, 2005

Buried Treasure

This didn't deserve to get lost in the morass of comments:
I just did an informal survey, among some friends of mine (all attorneys ranging from moderate progressive to slightly conservatie to libertarinian/objectivist). All work here in Colorado, drink beers with me occasionally.

I asked each (separately): "Say, do you know and/or like Michelle Malkin?"

Most didn't know her. 9 out of 16 to be exact, had no clue. More liberals knew her than conservatives/libertarians.

Those that did either were vehemently opposed ("she's a racist"), or pretty impress ("good writer").

Then I asked: "What do you know about Michelle Malkin?"

This is where it got uncomfortable, at least for me as a liberal.

The progressive friends, immediatly went into "uncle tom" and, I guess, race conscious "ungrateful," stuff with lots of labeling along the "hypocracy" view. These folks had heard of her from liberal blogs, and there was more than one derogatory comment about her either based on her sex or on her ethnicity. I was actually shocked and surprised at the "friend" (i'm reevaluating this relationship) who called her the "neocon's pocket gook whore." This is a gay man, and given the crap that the GLBT community has to deal with in terms of prejudice, I was literally sitting there with my jaw on my lap. He saw my surprise and said something to the effect of: Listen, she's so 'bad' that nothing is off limits with her.

That offended me and, as I see it on display EVERWHERE in the blogosphere right now, it still offends me as a liberal.

It offends me a lot.

Interestingly, when I asked the more libertarian/conservative guys and gal who knew of Malkin what they knew about her or how they heard of her, all three said they had been forwarded something or read a link sometime back in 2002 or 2003. I asked if they knew she was fillipino, and two of the three said "Malkin?" They didn't know. I should add that none of my friends are as "net" focused for news and commentary as I am, but it did surprise me that two of the "fans" had no idea about that. The other one (the woman) said "yeah, I guess I heard that..."

SO I asked her: "Do you think her writing is really that good, or does she get 'traction' out of being able to say things with a moral authority arising out of her sex and race that other conservates can't." She said she didn't think so, because she knew for sure that she liked Malkin and her writing BEFORE she knew her ancestry. "She writes well," was my friend's overall summary.

Suffice it to say that I'm upset by the results of my little informal poll over the last couple days. To be sure, the plural of "anecdote" is NOT evidence, but my informal inquiries have revealed that only the progressives seem to be viewing everything Malkin does through the lense of her sex and ancestry. The conservaties who even knew who she was liked her writing.

And I do think I know these folks well enough that my take on their comments is accurate (they weren't playing dumb, so to speak).

That the two progressives, including one man I would have expected better from given the bigotry he has HIMSELF had to deal with, somehow found so much loathing for Malkin that even "off limits" issues weren't off limits in terms of her.

And we as progressives need to fix that. We need to fix it really bad, because we don't "own" women or minorities, and if we keep treating them as defacto proxies who will be disowned and denigrated for straying from the "hivemind," we will surely alienate our chances of ever hoping to retain their participation in the progressive sphere.

The Rightwing Split in a Nutshell

Balloon Juice brings us a disgusting rant by Joe Farah attacking John Roberts for aiding "reprehensible" clients (IE, homosexuals in Romer v. Evans. Both Bill Quick and Nick Danger move to quickly disassociate. Danger's comments are best:
Reprehensible clients? Please, Joe, I don't need this. There may well be reprehensible causes. There are probably even reprehensible laws. But can we please leave the clients, personally, out of it?

While I'm not thrilled about it, I do understand why the ACLU defends the right of Nazis and Klansters to march in the streets. Certainly either of those groups would make most people's list of things reprehensible. And yet we also understand that if those people are made to shut up, the rest of us are not far behind. But here comes Joe Farah to tell us that some clients are so reprehensible that the honorable thing to do is resign before touching them with a ten-foot pole; that or excuse oneself from the situation on "principled, moral grounds."

Perhaps Farah thinks that the law at issue in Romer (specifically, a constitutional amendment that prohibited laws protected homosexuals, and only homosexuals, from discrimination) was perfectly okay. But that wasn't what his rhetoric pointed to. It was the clients whom he should have refused to associate with. In other words, the dirty gays.

Farah says what groups like the FRC only think--any association or positive portrayal of homosexuals is a betrayal. Indeed, except for their conclusions, the FRC and Farah reacted remarkably similarly to news of Roberts' actions. Both panicked to start, and implied that support for homosexual activists would be a death knell for their support. The FRC just happened to decide Roberts didn't do enough to make him a gay-lover.

The distinction between the sensible right and the extreme right is that for the latter, even the barest hint of contact with the "enemy" is an anathema. When its walking parodies like Bill O'Reilly, we can just laugh. But this issue is no joke--it's a substantial portion of Americans united in a hateful ideology premised around the subordination of homosexuals and any who seek to affirm their dignity.

Conservative For A Day

I'm tired. Defending minority conservatives has drained a lot out of me. It's a thankless job, for obvious reasons. Liberals aren't happy because they don't like being interrupted while flogging an easy target. Conservatives aren't happy because my argument essentially boils down to "her being an idiot is enough--no need to bring her race or sex into it." And moderates are so fed up with the partisan fireballing that they don't pay attention anyway.

It's interesting, though, how things get projected onto you when step out from the pack. In the comments on this post, for example, I was continually described by some folks (but, as I was reminded a post too late, not all as I might have implied) as a "conservative," a man who opposes Affirmative Action, and someone who wanted to see Malkin "shielded from criticism." Part of this I brought onto myself. In the midst of a very frustrated period I wrote, in classic conservative fashion, "apparently Liberals think that being Filipino is 'close enough' to Japanese that she's a race traitor." In anger, I resorted to a crude statement and was rightly called on it. I still think that the underlying sentiment of how minority conservatives were being treated in thread was correct (see here for the elaborated version in the thread). Nevertheless, I certainly didn't help my own cause by that comment. And since I value thoughtful and engaging discussion over trite polemics and flames, I'm upset with myself for stepping out of that model.

That being said, however, it was still amazing how despite my near constant avocation that I dislike Malkin, find her views detestable, and am an overall liberal, it was still continuously implied that I was conservative. It was a perfect example of the "your with us or against us" mentality I deplore in President Bush. I believe it was Erving Goffman, an expert on stigma and author of "Stigma: Notes on a Spoiled Identity," who noted that those who defend an unpopular minority or group often will be assumed to be part of that group. Hence, a gay rights activist is assumed to be gay, or someone opposing anti-Semitism is told to be Jewish. In this context, I was taking the unpopular (amongst liberals) position of defending a conservative, and so I was assumed to be conservative. My protestations to the contrary fell on deaf ears--after all, my actions proved everything they needed to know. Even though I tried to clearly separate the illegitimate sexist assault on Malkin from the very legitimate ideological critique, my opposition to the former was prima facia evidence of opposition to the latter. If explicit disclaimers of a particular intent is not enough to persuade an opponent of the content of one's advocacy, what is? And heaven help you if you don't make everything explicit--even having said that I think Malkin's views are detestable, I still had to content with the assertion that I thought the sexist comment directed at her was "worse" than Malkin's defense of Japanese Internment. It isn't, and shouldn't be portrayed as such.

In spite of it all, I still believe that most liberals and most conservatives do not engage in these trite smears of each other. I take solace in the fact that the leader of the dominant Leftist theory in American legal academia (and a personal role model of mine) has not followed the stereotype of shrill partisanship and anti-Republican paranoia.

But talk about a confidence rocker...

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Standpoint Theory, The "Voice of Color," and "Uncle Toms": Positioning Conservative Minorities

This post began as an update to "We Are (Are We?) Better Than This", condemning sexist attacks on conservative minority Michelle Malkin. Because of the length of the post and the wide subject matter, I have decided to expand it into its own post. For an overview of the background controversy, see David Bernstein as well as the post under fire itself.

I can't tell what Protein Wisdom thinks of my brief explanation of how one could make a reasonable case linking Malkin's popularity to her ethnicity and sex. To review, the argument runs as follows:
[For example,] a woman who speaks against "feminism" is presumed to be speaking against her "own interests" and thus receives additional weight ("enhanced standing"). Under this view, Malkin's popularity is partially premised on her position as someone conservatives can point to and say: "Look! We're not racist--some minorities agree with us!"--a status that is interwoven with her status as a woman and minority. And one could then extrapolate that if Malkin didn't provide that particular service to conservatives (IE, being a conservative minority woman), she'd be a non-entity.

I gather he isn't a fan of this particular argument, but I can't tell if he thinks I like it.

Again, reserving judgment on whether/how this applies to Ms. Malkin, I'm sympathetic to this sort of argument because I do believe in standpoint theory. That is, I think the position of an actor has relevance to their comments on a particular issue. Minorities have a different perspective on racism than do whites--it is facile to say that we can gather a comprehensive perspective on racial issues only from talking to white folk (which is why I support diversity in academia and elsewhere). Critics of this view claim that we are rejecting "merit" in favor of "identity politics." I don't see how this is so--if merit (with regard to speech, anyway) is defined as "an opinion which breaks new ground, gives us a more nuanced perspective on a existing issue, or otherwise causes the listener to think and analyze in a new or novel way," then the benefit of the "voice of color" (or other minority) is perfectly meritorious. As Lawrence Blum notes in his superb book "I'm Not a Racist, But..." there are plenty of perfectly reasonable cases where race affects one's merit for a position. For example, if a school created a group dedicated to fostering interracial dialogue and understanding, and 19 of its first 20 members were Latino, it would make perfect sense for the school to try and recruit white and black students to join the club, even if they were less qualified in "other" respects. The reasoning is clear--you can't have interracial dialogue without different races. The goal of the club--the measuring rod by which merit stacks up--is completely intertwined with race. No less of a conservative authority than Judge Richard Posner has acknowledged this. In Wittmer v. Peters, 87 F.3d 916 (7th Cir. 1996), dealing with affirmative action for underrepresented blacks being hired for "Lieutenant" jobs at a boot camp that seeks to rehabilitate convicts, he wrote the following:
The black lieutenant is needed because the black inmates are believed unlikely to play the correctional game of brutal drill sergeant and brutalized recruit unless there are some blacks in authority at the camp. This is not just speculation, but is backed up by expert evidence that the plaintiffs did not rebut....[The experts] opined that the boot camp in Greene County would not succeed in its mission of pacification and reformation with as white a staff as it would have had if a black male had not been appointed to one of the lieutenant slots. For then a security staff less than 6 percent black (4 out of 71), with no male black supervisor, would be administering a program for a prison population almost 70 percent black....

Judge Posner then upheld the preference given to a black candidate for the lieutenant job as constitutional.

Hence, I do believe that the standpoint of a speaker (including, in areas related to racism and racial issues, their race) is relevant to how we evaluate the speech. However, I am disconcerted at the tendency of some on the left to only trumpet certain stories while deriding others--namely, the opinions of minority conservatives.

Malkin's "story," so to speak, is one of minority conservatism. This is a minority story--especially given intersectionality theory. This posits--correctly in my view--that the experience of a double minority is different than the sum of the two minority groups she belongs. For example, the status of a Black Woman is not merely Woman + Black. Similarly, the status of a female minority conservative is not just Female + Minority + Conservative. The simplest reason why this is so is because whereas becoming a conservative by itself means joining a relatively popular and broad group, becoming a minority conservative means being subjected to endless taunts of being an "Uncle Tom" or traitor, accusations (and occasionally, true moments) of being "used" by majority peers, and other hardships. In other words, while my (White) life would not be significantly changed by switching my political affiliation, for a minority, this switch comes with a lot of baggage. Because the tropes associated with "conservative" are contingent upon one's other identities, one can't simply atomize conservatism (or any other identity) and examine independently of the rest. Hence, Malkin's conservatism has to be examined within the context of her being a minority--it can't just be placed under the generic rubric of "conservatism" and thus be easily dismissed.

This blindness amongst leftists to the ways in which they create the very hostile environments they deplore is what lends a germ of truth to statements like this:
Woe be to the average person who dares say a single word that can be construed as racist or sexist. That's now the sole purview of leftist elites to be employed by them as punishment against women and minorities who dare to think for themselves.

Conservatives find themselves frustrated at the seeming double standard of the Critical "Voice of Color" thesis: where minority speech is privileged and exalted--unless it is by conservative minorities. Liberal minority speech is deemed authentic, conservative minority speech is the result of an "impaired consciousness." Who's being the paternalist now?

To sum it up, I believe two things here. 1) It is probably true that some of the value of some conservative minority views comes from the fact that they are minorities and 2) this is perfectly fine--we need to hear the perspectives of conservative minorities as much as we do any other group. Because I believe the voice of minorities is important, I believe the voice of minority conservatives is important. It's that simple.

We Are (Are We?) Better Than This

I remember once reading Andrew Sullivan on Michelle Malkin. Now, Sullivan is not a fan of Malkin (nor, for that matter, am I). But I distinctly recall him saying that regardless of our disagreements with her, Malkin endures far more than her fair share of racial and sexual epithets thrown at her--and that it is shameful for so-called liberals to indulge in this sort of crude personal assault.

Why bring it up now? Because David Bernstein points me to a "Taxonomy" of Conservative Blogs that engages in yet another one of these smears ("If she didn't have tits, she'd be stuck writing at"). Which, as Bernstein notes, wouldn't be so bad, if the entire left blogosphere didn't appear to be endorsing the post (to be fair, there are exceptions).

Honestly. I don't like the bloggers on this list either (except Volokh. They're cool. And jury's out on Dean's World and Buzzmachine). But the smear style attacks should not be tolerated--and I don't care that "they do it too." In my post on how the far left/right treats centrists, one commentator argued that leftists are more likely than righties to attack their opponents based on sex, race, or sexuality. I noted my skepticism then, and I'm skeptical now, but damn, we're not making a good showing of ourselves here.

We're better than this.

PS: There is a reasonable way to make the case that a conservative blogger's status as a woman or minority does effect her popularity amongst her peers. Blogcritics, for example, talks about Derrick Bell's "Rules of Racial Standing" here. The pertinent rule is:
Few blacks avoid diminishment of racial standing, most of their statements about racial conditions being diluted and their recommendations of other blacks taken with a grain of salt. The usual exception to this rule is the black person who publicly disparages or criticizes other blacks who are speaking or acting in ways that upset whites. Instantly, such statements are granted 'enhanced standing' even when the speaker has no special expertise or experience in the subject he or she is criticizing. [emphasis added]

In law, this might be seen as an admission against interest. That is, a woman who speaks against "feminism" is presumed to be speaking against her "own interests" and thus receives additional weight ("enhanced standing"). Under this view, Malkin's popularity is partially premised on her position as someone conservatives can point to and say: "Look! We're not racist--some minorities agree with us!"--a status that is interwoven with her status as a woman and minority. And one could then extrapolate that if Malkin didn't provide that particular service to conservatives (IE, being a conservative minority woman), she'd be a non-entity.

That argument is sophisticated, controversial, and debatable (I make no comment on whether or not it is correct as applied to Malkin). It is not, however, conveyed in a crude posting that marks Malkin's success as solely attributable to her "tits." Make the latter argument, but the former should be an anathema to true liberals.

UPDATE: Alas, a Blog joins the "Malkin-bashers defending Malkin" group. We should start a club.

UPDATE 2x: With regard to how we ought view minority conservatives, I have just posted what originally was to be an update to this post but, due to length, became a post of its own. It is entitled "Standpoint Theory, The Voice of Color, and "Uncle Toms": Positioning Conservative Minorities" and I highly encourage you to take a look.