Saturday, May 31, 2008

How I Read Rev. Wright

After I wrote my well-received post on Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Black Conservatism, my former history professor contacted me and asked if I would like to lead a seminar on it for his African-American history class this term. I happily agreed. But when I met with him a few days ago, he said that we might have to change the topic. "Wright is old news," he said.

But it seems he spoke a bit too soon. While Obama's resignation from the Trinity Church was not precipitated by Wright but by comments from Rev. Michael Pfleger (who is not completely unknown to me but with whom I am far less familiar with), it certainly has brought back into the limelight the Black Liberation Theology that Trinity preaches.

The knowledge of politically engaged people is, as a rule, wide but not deep, save for a few issues. I include myself in this. Even though I consider myself relatively engaged, my knowledge of most issues is basically what a reasonably intelligent person would glean from reading The Washington Post or The New Republic. That's enough for me to feel reasonably okay talking about Iraq, or foreign policy, or economics, but it's more accurate to say I possess information rather than expertise. It is rare that I would feel confident second-guessing the "factual" coverage on these issues, for example.

By contrast, I do consider myself to have a pretty deep knowledge of Black Political Thought -- to the degree where objectively I simply have a stronger background than most of the mainstream media coverage of it. I've read from most major American Black political thinkers, left and right: Fredrick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, George Schuyler, Stokely Carmichael, Huey P. Newton, James Cone, Derrick Bell, and Clarence Thomas (the only major missing name is Thomas Sowell). I'm sure economists want to gouge their eyes out when they see how the mainstream media covers budget questions, because I'm feeling the same way about how Black Political thinking is being utterly butchered throughout this whole campaign season. Unlike most people, I've actually read more of Jeremiah Wright than you'd get on YouTube or CNN clips. And having both that direct exposure to his works, as well as the background in Black Political Thought (and Liberation Theology specifically) to put it in context, makes all the difference in the world. It bothers me that people who have no relevant background in the field, have done no reading of the thinkers in question (not even Wright himself -- let alone Cone or Carmichael!), feel so confident in making assertions on the subject. Do people do this in economics? I ask this seriously -- I would not, I think, venture such bold opinions on an economics question, because I know I am no economist. Yet it seems when the subject is Whites talking about Black Political thinking, this restraint does not apply. And that is worrisome -- it implies that Whites assume they automatically (by virtue of being White?) possess all the relevant knowledge by which to cast judgment.

A while back, I received in the mail two collections of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons: What Makes You So Strong (1993) and Good News: Sermons of Hope for Today's Families (1995). I was supposed to review them, but never got around to it -- so consider this my review. Over the past several months I've been perusing them, and it has created a strange disjuncture between the portrayal of Rev. Wright and his Trinity Church, and the actual words he's spoken and commitments he's made as a pastor.

I obtained the books as part of a project I am working on regarding Black Political Thought, and I opened them expecting Wright to be a pulpit-version of the controversial founder of Black Liberation Theology, James Cone. But quickly, I discovered that this was not the case. Though he has a doctorate, Wright is not an academic theologian. He is a minister, and as such his concerns are more localized. The vast majority of his sermons focus on personal and collective uplift. It is, in this sense, quite (Booker T.) Washington-esque -- strikingly so, when read (as I did) side-by-side with Washington's writings. He wants Black parents to demand their children succeed in school. He urges Black families to stay together -- and that Black men show commitment to their spouses and children. He works against the scourge of drug addiction and gang violence. Whatever relationship that has or does not have to White racism is not his primary concern.

Does Wright discuss White racism? Absolutely, though not at the once-every-three-words clip that Fox News implies. But the context is not "hate Whitey." It's really more, to be crass, "screw Whitey." As in: White folks aren't going to solve your problems (why on earth would you be foolish enough to trust them to? Have you noticed a kind of pattern in that regard for 250 years of American history?). You have to solve your problems (Clarence Thomas has cited this same logic as his reason for embracing a libertarian-conservatism, saying "It reminded me of the mantra of the Black Muslims I had met in college: Do for self, brother."). And that's the bigger theme: personal responsibility and racial uplift. Wright tells parents they have the "right to demand excellence" as well as obedience from their children. He urges that interdenominational disputes in the Chicago religious community be cast aside because
You need every last one of those preachers. We need one another. We have enough crack cocaine in our community and enough ignorance in our community to be working from now until Jesus comes. Those aren’t your competitors. Those are your companions.

This, incidentally, is why Trinity has forged relationships with Louis Farrakhan, who for all his faults (and they are a legion) has done tremendous work in terms of criminal rehabilitation and drug treatment -- the same reasons why conservatives such as Robert Novak, Dan Quayle, and Jack Kemp urged Republicans to ally with Farrakhan in the mid-90s.

Sometimes, "screw Whitey" takes the form of turning the other cheek to White insults. Whites say Blacks don't have a history independent of White America? But Blacks do have such a history -- proud and glorious. Whites call their speech differences "dialects" but Black linguistics "bad English." Bogus. Wright believes that racial pride is a precondition to racial uplift -- you have to love yourself in order to make something of yourself. It is a profoundly conservative observation, indeed, precisely the mentality White Conservatives have been urging Blacks to adopt for years. It is a mentality that Whites hold tensely -- we want them to not depend on us, but still trust us and love us. But there is not much ground we have to demand the latter two qualities. White Conservatives want Blacks to be only partially independent because they see it only with regard to the broader White political project of small government; it requires no severance with broader American society or norms. Blacks, if they so choose, will declare independence because that's what they feel they need to do with survive -- and that remains just as true with regards to American society as it does American government. This is not hateful. There is nothing hateful about surviving.

So no, reading Wright's sermons, I never encountered anything that was hateful to Whites. I found a lot that urged Blacks to ignore Whites, and admonishments (backed up by considerable history) not to depend on Whites, but nothing that was incitement to violence or bigotry (unless it is bigotry on the part of Blacks to not put their stock in White magnanimity). Now, one could argue that the collections I read are biased -- that they would not contain Wright's most inflammatory material. There's a little to that (the "God damn America" sermon, for example, was not there -- I believe it was delivered after the books were published), but ultimately I find that prospect doubtful for at least four reasons. First, the books were published in the early- to mid-90s, well before anyone could have predicted that Wright would have the attention of the entire media. Second, the books do contain plenty of condemnations of White racism, it just isn't the focus. Third, Wright's claim to fame as a public figure when he was writing these (i.e., before he became "Barack Obama's pastor") was as a Black Liberation Theologian -- he had no incentive to downplay his radicalism in his published works. And finally, if there is one thing we know about Rev. Wright, it's that he does not exactly view discretion to be the better part of valor. Outspokenness is a pretty well-established character trait of his -- there's no reason to believe he'd pull his punches in his collected sermons.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the "God damn America" Jeremiad. This is, in many ways, an apex of Wright's preaching -- it is not an outlier, but, like the sermon delivered by Rev. Pfleger, nor is it simply the repetition of the dominant themes of Trinity's sermon (Of course, I'm 100%, absolutely positive that Michael van der Galien made that statement after a good faith analysis of a solid, representative cross-sample of the last 20 years of Trinity's sermons. It would be horribly irresponsible to say such things without having even looked at the evidence.).

Jeremiads are interesting -- they have a long and distinguished pedigree in the Christian tradition, and one defining feature of that pedigree is that the targets of the sermon are never keen on being so identified. Conservative pastors launch Jeremiads all the time, condemning America for being too tolerant of homosexuals and abortion. Wright's Jeremiad condemns America for being too tolerant of racism, sexism, and homophobia (Wright, incidentally, has been a key leader in trying to rid the Black Church of its homophobia -- a serious problem for which he deserves great accolades for tackling). For my part, I do not know how effective Jeremiads are (don't they usually get ignored until God Herself starts raining down the hellfire?). But I certainly do not object to the point that America needs to be awakened as to the reality of racial injustice here. And I do not believe America possesses some inherent quality making as immune to damnation. We, as everyone else, have to earn our blessings.

Recall what I said earlier -- about how Wright is urging his flock not to hate Whites but to ignore them. That is the linchpin of this sermon as well. It is crushing to be told you have to love your abuser -- physically, emotionally, spiritually. America has abused Blacks (physically, emotionally, and spiritually). Why should they praise America? "What, to the Negro, is the Fourth of July?" (as Fredrick Douglass so memorably put it). Why should they count on America to look out for them? It hasn't, and Wright believes, it won't. God damn America represents spiritual and psychic release from an abusive relationship. Freed from the shackles of having to love their abuser, Blacks can love themselves and lift themselves.

One might gather from all of this that I agree with Rev. Wright on every point, or at least every point I've discussed hitherto. I do not, although my position is more complicated than that makes it out to be. I've noted that, as a White person, I cannot ethically place anti-racism practice as "screw Whites". I have an obligation as a White person to break down the belief that engagement with Whites is a waste of time. But the bridge must be over my back -- I have precisely zero credibility with which to demand such engagement. So in that sense, I would hope that Rev. Wright would come to see Whites as a partner in the project of uplift, but I cannot "disagree" with him if he does not see us so.

Having made that concession, I can still indict certain strategies for Black uplift as unwise or even potentially immoral (as I've done, for example, with regards to his words on AIDS). But the basic acknowledgment of autonomy and self-determination: that Blacks have the prima facia right to determine how they want to pursue their project of liberation, has to come first. And part of allowing Blacks autonomy in this project means allowing them to say "screw Whites -- we're doing this alone."

Obama Resigns from Trinity

Interesting news. Interesting timing, as well -- what on almost any other day would be a bombshell may manage to get drowned out by the resolution of the Florida/Michigan delegate controversy (it tickles me that what is essentially an obscure committee vote on a technical question of DNC rules might dominate a news cycle over something that -- for better or worse -- has served as the juiciest bit of media gossip this campaign season about Obama).

I'll be keeping an eye out for what Obama's reasons are, if he gives them publicly, and what the media commentary is like.

Fuck You Google. Seriously

I typed in "map of Maryland" into Google, and obviously the first hit is for the Google Maps link. So I clicked on it, and this is what came up (click to enlarge):

It's hard to tell, but the arrow is pointing a little southwest of Annandale. Annandale , Virginia.

I zoomed in, and yep. Definitely Virginia.

Oh, Hell no.

UPDATE: Hey wow -- this is on the first page of results for "fuck google" on Google. Neat.

UPDATE #2: I should note that Google has fixed the problem. Hurray!

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Gitmo Effect

One of Matt Yglesias' cobloggers (Alyssa) wonders if the attention garnered by Gitmo and our other extra-legal detention centers have served to deflect attention from prison abuse at home. I had always assumed, though, that the effect ran the other way: I never really though about prison abuse in any serious fashion until the abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Gharib came to light -- and particularly their lack of significant distance from the stuff we tolerate in domestic prisons.

I suppose I might be biased in that I'm the type of liberal hippie who responds to an assertion that our prisons resemble Abu Gharib with a "oh God" rather than a "hell yeah!", but still -- I'd think the public has been moving towards the position that even really bad people -- including terrorists and criminals -- deserve certain rights, and that's due in no small part to the Bush administration's overreaches.


I just want to salute the Carleton SCIC (our computer tech support people) for fixing my computer when I thought it had died. They not only got it back from a blank black screen in about ten minutes, but the explained what likely caused the problem and how to avoid it. HP tech support, by contrast, not only misidentified the problem, but wanted to charge me $50 to tell me how to solve it by myself over the phone. I mean, I could understand it if I needed to send the machine in -- but $50 to talk to a technician over the phone? That's bogus.

So thank you SCIC, for saving me a lot of heartache.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Senior Banquet

Walking down the stairs to dinner tonight, I had, of all things, the "Ribbon Dancer" jingle stuck in my head. Ribbon dancer was some toy marketed towards elementary school girls which ran a ton of advertisements when I was a kid. I never had one, and I don't think I ever knew anyone who had one, but still, there was the song. I found it amusing that -- in spite of being normally incredibly forgetful, I could remember a totally random ad jingle from the 1990s with perfect clarity.

I got to the bottom of the stairs, and observed there was an event in the Great Hall. That happens rather constantly at the end of the year, so I didn't think any more of it, until I entered the dining hall and discovered that half of it was closed for the event. I asked off-hand what was going on, and someone said "I think it's the senior banquet."

To which I, a graduating senior, replied: "God, I hope not."

I rushed upstairs and sure enough, it was senior banquet. I didn't know what to do. Everyone was dressed up, I was in a t-shirt and shorts. Everyone had a name tag, I had, obviously none. It seems ridiculous, but I sort of panicked -- I assumed I'd miss the whole thing -- a really important element of senior year, and I blew it.

And then, two old friends of mine -- one from my pre-frosh trip, one from my freshman floor -- saw me. Both demanded I attend. I demurred. I was late, I wasn't dressed, I had no name tag, and the hall was already packed. They said if I RSVP'd, the name tags should be downstairs, and that I might be able to sneak in and grab a seat if I was lucky anyway. And then they reiterated that I had to attend -- that my presence was missed by my friends.

I ran upstairs and put on a golf shirt, then down six flights of stairs to check to see if I had a nametag. I had forgotten if I had RSVP'd, then forgotten about it, or forgotten to RSVP altogether. It was the latter -- no name tag for me. Oh well. I wandered into the Hall, and found a table filled with my old freshman floormates, a gang that remains very close even today.

And then, something funny happened. I still expressed awkwardness that I had no nametag. So, impulsively, my friend Lauren peeled hers off and gave it to me, and shooed me over to the food line. After I ate, Mandy came over and, seeing that I was not, in fact Lauren (nametag notwithstanding), she gave me her nametag. Then Mikaela followed suit. At that point, people started noticing, and as the event broke up and people started saying goodbye, more and more started giving me their nametags. My freshman year roommate did, as did a friend of mine who I've known since pre-school, and two people who I don't think I had ever actually met before. In all, I am now currently wearing 12 nametags -- all which were a simple but incredibly touching testament to the kindness and friendship I've experienced from the Carleton community, and so many individual Carls, for all four years I've been here.

You are all such wonderful people. Thank you.

I met a girl who kept tattoos for homes
That she had loved
If I were her I'd paint my body
'til all my skin was gone....

Price Waterhouse and Clinton

PriceWaterhouse v. Hopkins is one of the most important sex discrimination cases in recent history. Ann Hopkins was denied partnership with the Price Waterhouse accounting firm. Testimony established that she was caught in a double-bind: while the general culture of PW demanded a sort of hyper-masculinity to succeed, when Hopkins attempted to emulate this norm, she was castigated for being insufficiently feminine. It was ruled that this bind constituted actionable sex discrimination. This situation exists in broader culture as well: society articulates the routes to success in male terms, but when women attempt to follow them they find that traditional gender norms are strictly held against them. While everyone is to some degree boxed in by social conventions, women have a far smaller box to play in than men do.

I was reminded of Price Waterhouse and the more general ailment it signifies when reading this editorial by Margaret M. Russell and Stephanie M. Wildman. They are answering the charge that women supporting Obama represents a sort of betrayal of the sisterhood, and point out some reason why women might legitimately prefer Obama over Clinton. One passage stuck out at me, though:
We value his explicit and repeated emphasis on the language of diplomacy to solve problems, including his own; conversely, Clinton’s threat to “totally obliterate” Iran, as well as her metaphors of Rocky Balboa and boxing gloves, leave us cold.

I find this distressing, because it seems clear to me that Clinton has been pressured into adopting these tropes specifically because she's female. Certainly, the "man card" form of identity politics is nothing new in American elections, but there's a reason that Clinton is not the one challenging it, just as there's a reason Nixon was the one to go to China and not LBJ. I'd love to push political deliberation beyond the current "who can down more shots at the bar" standard, but Clinton can't press the issue too much because she's a woman -- she's ultimately the target that these patriarchal norms are designed to suppress. A male candidate might be able to effectively critique these norms from the inside, because his success would performatively indicate that men can still succeed under the new regime. A female critique directly threatens the male privilege these norms are supposed to protect, making backlash inevitable. Hence, women trying to succeed in a patriarchal world often times are forced to prove they are "one of the guys", rather than demonstrate that things can go just as well even if she remains proudly a gal.

In such a world, criticizing Clinton for adapting the classical male tropes that we typically demand our politicians adhere to represents one of the key enforcement mechanisms of sexism. It's like when Barack Obama was being indicted for not being enough of a "fighter" -- he has to adopt the soaring, conciliatory posture that he does because if he shows the slightest bit of passion he immediately will be cast as the "angry Black man." At that point, criticizing him for being not-John-Edwards enough totally misses how racism operates in public context. Likewise with Clinton. That patriarchal structure forces her into postures that are not to our preference is not a fair indictment of her -- it blames the victim for the crimes of the perpetrator.


This felt so, so good to read. In the wake of the latest campaign "flap" around the fact that Obama's great uncle liberated Buchenwald (it was only a slave labor camp!), not Auschwitz, a far right blogger emailed the curator of a website dedicated to preserving the legacy of the 89th infantry (in which Obama's great uncle served), with the intention of digging up some more dirt. The owner replied:
Please crawl back under the rock you came out from.
Good day
Raymond Kitchell, veteran 89th Inf Div

Oh thank you! Thank you!

More from The Carpetbagger Report.

Geographical Elitism

I am a geographical elitist. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have it, and I admit it. I am a geographical elitist.

In politics, there is a lot of talk about elitist folks on the coast (east and west), but it is primarily presented as a class issue, or an urban/rural divide pitting the cities of the east against homespun, heartland folk. But that doesn't quite get at what I feel. My geographical elitism centers around the fact that I live near the capital, which is in one corner of a very sprawling nation. It feels very imperial: there is the capital, and then there are the provinces -- like the difference between Rome and Gaul or Lycia. Other East Coast cities (the Washington -- Boston corridor) at least feel like they are part of the same segment of the nation (they are all Italia). Get much beyond that, and things start to become strange.

I spend time sojourning in Minnesota, with their strange customs (ridiculous quantities of politeness), dialect ("ofer cute!"), and food (lutefisk?), and it's difficult to resist the sentiment that I'm approaching the borders of the imperial reach. The Twin Cities are a charming little outpost. And I know it's not an urban or population thing, because I have similar views of Chicago, even though it is nearly 5x larger than Washington. They are far-flung tendrils of the American civilization, but when the empire falters and begins to crumble, they're going to be the first to go. By the time Washington is sacked, they'll have been long lost to the Canadians.

It's a very bizarre feeling, but it's very much there. D.C. is very central to my identity, and it feels very much like the center of the world. So I apologize to all my friends who are not east coasters. I mean no disrespect, and since I've signed on to another three-year tour of the mid-west, maybe it is a character flaw I can outgrow.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Diet of Humility

Some Carleton students, for the past two years (at least) have organized this nice thing called "diet of music." Basically, you make a mix CD, put it in the organizer's mailbox, and they anonymously pair and redistribute them. After a few days, they reveal your "partner". It's a great way to expand your musical "diet".

So I got my CD today, and tonight one of my closest friends at Carleton IMs me to talk about the respective mixes we received. Here is an excerpted rendition of our conversation:
XmatthewXcoleX: did you do the musicla diet thing this year
dsadevil: ya
XmatthewXcoleX: how is the mix you got?
dsadevil: not my style
dsadevil: one song i kinda like
XmatthewXcoleX: mine would be good
XmatthewXcoleX: if the middle 14 songs
XmatthewXcoleX: werent awful
XmatthewXcoleX: there's a rob zombie song thats cool, and some kind of electronica thing near the end
XmatthewXcoleX: the wrest is generic angsty nu-metal
XmatthewXcoleX: generic angsty post-grunge
XmatthewXcoleX: and generic angsty emo
dsadevil: so...i'd love it?
XmatthewXcoleX: i dont know if id say that
dsadevil: its tough to go wrong by underestimating my taste in music
dsadevil: my mix had a lot of R&B and 70s-style "rock" (aka, crooning)
XmatthewXcoleX: i associate 70s style rock
XmatthewXcoleX: with Led Zeppelin and David Bowie
XmatthewXcoleX: so, awesome
dsadevil: it had one Led Zep song
XmatthewXcoleX: i can see my person liking maybe 3 songs on the mix i made
XmatthewXcoleX: that makes me sad
XmatthewXcoleX: i was aiming for life chaning
XmatthewXcoleX: *changing
dsadevil: i am skeptical that my partner and i will overlap nicely
XmatthewXcoleX: mine also ahd random film music
XmatthewXcoleX: so it was like eclectic
XmatthewXcoleX: but an eclectic mix of things that are middle-brow and bad
XmatthewXcoleX: mines a girl
XmatthewXcoleX: i can tell from the cd handwriting
dsadevil: im guessing mines a guy
XmatthewXcoleX: based on what?
dsadevil: i dunno ... the R&B feels very "i'm a sensitive and moody guy"
dsadevil: until i mentioned the Lauryn Hill song on it, everyone thought I got Rob Hildebrandt's cd
XmatthewXcoleX: ok lol
XmatthewXcoleX: this out of control
XmatthewXcoleX: i have a hypthesis that we got each others cds
dsadevil: oh god i hope not
XmatthewXcoleX: hahhaa
dsadevil: the Rob Zombie song -- its not "Reloaded" is it?
XmatthewXcoleX: i couldnt say i just recognize his voice
XmatthewXcoleX: but if the Lauryn Hill song is "Every Ghetto, Every City" and the LZ song is "Since I Been Lovin' You".....
dsadevil: oh god
XmatthewXcoleX: hahahhaa
XmatthewXcoleX: omg
XmatthewXcoleX: this
dsadevil: is hilarious and awful
XmatthewXcoleX: well, if there was any doubt
XmatthewXcoleX: we have further confirmed that we do not share much musical taste

Ah yes. Good times.

The People and The Candidates

Guest-blogging at Matt Yglesias' place, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes an important point regarding the proclivities of Black and female voters to support candidates of their respective race/gender (he also notes that this whole discourse has taught us that Black Women Do Not Exist. Separate point).
This whole notion of masses of people "excited about a black president,"in particular, ignores the fact that since 1984, we've had a black person at least declare for president every year. In 2004 we had two--a black man and a black woman. I don't recall there being much excitement around the notion of President Al Sharpton, amongst blacks or whites. It's true that there is a great deal of excitement now about electing a black president--but that's because the prospect is Barack Obama. Ditto for Hillary.

This idea that Blacks are mindlessly flocking to Obama because he's a Black face (or women, to a lesser extent, for Clinton) is unbelievably patronizing to everyone involved. Blacks have proven themselves to be more than willing to vote for White candidates -- including against other Blacks (recall that Clinton lead Obama amongst Blacks early in this campaign). Same with women. Same with Black women for that matter (Carol Mosley-Braun all the way!). It is Whites and men who have historically shown far more ... reticence at straying from the bounds of identity politics over America's electoral history. The reason we see high support for Obama and Clinton is because they are both fantastic candidates.

Given that it seems Blacks and women have been far more willing to evaluate candidates "on the merits" than Whites and men, perhaps, come the general, we might deign to wonder as to the cause if Whites (I'm assuming Obama will be the nominee at this point) don't follow along. Who has shown the more neutral, dispassionate judgment in the past?

No Scarf For You

Dunkin' Donuts caves into radical right bloggers protesting an ad where the actress wears .... a scarf. Not just any scarf, mind you. A black and white scarf. Which might be (but in fact, is not) a kaffiyeh. Which could be taken as a symbol of Islamist Jihad and the Intifada. Logically, the only proper move was to boycott.

Now, I'd like to just giggle at how these bloggers are making fools of themselves (mixed with a bit of chiding for Dunkin' Donuts for giving in), but unfortunately as Modern Mitzvot reminds us, when folks such as this (who get a disproportionate amount of attention directed to those who "support Israel") advocate in this manner, it makes all the rest of us look bad. By which I mean crazy.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How Can You Guilt Me In The Afterlife When You Cannot....Speak?

Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Denver, just issued a statement regarding Catholics supporting pro-choice politicians. If they were to do so, they would need a "proportionate reason" to justify it.
What is a 'proportionate' reason when it comes to the abortion issue? It's the kind of reason we will be able to explain, with a clean heart, to the victims of abortion when we meet them face to face in the next life - which we most certainly will. If we're confident that these victims will accept our motives as something more than an alibi, then we can proceed."

I have to admit, the fact that aborted fetus' neither have the mental capacity to comprehend a "motive", nor the physical ability to communicate acceptance or rejection of that motive, makes this thought experiment slightly less compelling in my mind.

Via MoJ.

Guesswork Originalism

No matter what branch of originalism you subscribe to, it seems pretty clear that it requires a pretty heavy engagement with primary source historical texts which can illuminate the original intent/meaning/understanding of the clause in question. If law only carries normative weight via its original "construction" (which I'm using as a catch-all for these three variations), then there is no substitute for knowing this history.

But I have to say: the number of putative originalists out there far, far outstrips the amount of people who I can even optimistically imagine to be such history buffs. Some originalists undoubtedly do know the history like the back of their hand -- many originalist academics, perhaps many originalist judges. But in the public arena, I am very skeptical that official adherence to originalism is matched by the knowledge base necessary to make valid originalist claims.

By itself, this wouldn't be a problem: one could adhere to originalism, and, knowing one's relative ignorance of the pertinent history, declare one's neutrality when various politically-charged decisions come down. What grounds do they have to judge -- they have no idea what their own theory is telling them the law should have said! But of course, that doesn't happen. It seems many nominal originalists do engage in bitter recriminations against court decisions they dislike, even though they exhibit little to no knowledge of the historical circumstances that would give their critiques weight.

Guesswork originalism is thus the practice of assuming what original construction is in absence of specific knowledge of the relevant history, and then stating claims on basis of that guess. It is, to be blunt, an embarrassment to the originalist project (at least when it is not called out), because guesswork originalism is rarely anything but politics and wish. They hope the 14th Amendment's original construction mandates the recognition of interracial marriage (Loving v. Virginia), but they don't know it. Contributing to public discourse in such a way is an act of bad faith -- it makes claims on the basis of particular warrants that the speaker doesn't actually know exist. Since their interlocutors (who, not being originalists, are even less likely to know the history) can't cross-check, it leads to a debate that is entirely hypothetical even as it purports to be concrete.

Color-Conscious Adoption

CNN has a neat article up on the request by several major adoption-advocacy groups for the US to adopt more "color-conscious" policies regarding adoption. The current "color-blind" approach, which prohibits race play any consideration in deciding who the ultimate adoptive parents are, and also prohibits any special training for parents who are undergoing a trans-racial adoption, was designed to help reduce the inequality by which Black children languished in foster care for far longer than their White peers. The agencies want at least some consideration to be made encouraging same-race adoption (not a rule, just a preference), and, more importantly in my view, want to enact special training for parents adopting a child of another race.

A few years ago, I was at a meeting at the Black Student Union at Carleton where this precise issue was discussed. In fact, one of the students' parents worked at an adoption organization that specifically grappled with the issues of trans-racial adoption, and was very clear that it poses special problems under which parents might need a helping hand. One illustrative example, precisely because it is so mundane, has to do with hair-washing. The student mentioned that Black hair doesn't need to be washed everyday -- in fact, to do so is bad for the hair. Most people in the room (who were Black) nodded knowingly, but I was surprised -- it simply never occurred to me that hair-washing regimes would differ for straight versus kinky hair. And then he continued, as if he was talking about some exotic people, "apparently, White people need to wash there hair everyday," and now it was the Black students who looked surprised. It's no knock on any of us -- when's the last time you've thought to ask someone about how often they wash their hair? -- but it does illustrate the fact that there are things even well-meaning, engaged parents might need to be told with regards to trans-racial adoption.

The bigger problem particularly for White parents adopting Black children is getting them prepared to handle their child facing racism. Most Whites underestimate the amount of racism in the world, but having a Black child offers a rude awakening on that score. Knowing how to respond and give support to the child is absolutely essential, and is not something that necessarily comes naturally to White folks who do not experience racism daily.

All that being said, I recognize that there are dangers in raising screening requirements and onerous training burdens, and these shouldn't be overlooked. I merely want to raise the fact that these topics aren't as simple as we'd like, and problematize this lovely, idealistic notion that color-blind policy solves all ills.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Obama and the Racists

A bizarre meme that's been cropping up recently has been conservatives complaining that if they don't vote for Obama, they'll be called racists. Mark calls it "A theme I'm guessing will repeat somewhat tirelessly until November." Perhaps, though so far it's one I've only heard from conservatives complaining about it, which makes me suspect that it actually represents a struggle with their inner demons about what it means to vote against Obama. The social psychology research on these sorts of problems is fascinating.

But I digress. Of course it's possible to vote against Obama without being racist. There, are, of course, racist reasons to vote against Obama, and thus far it seems that much of the discussion on this issue has stemmed from examinations of cases where there is, in fact, good reason to suspect racism is playing a role in voting behavior (Appalachia, for example).
Pollster: It seems that racism played a major role in Obama's loss to Hillary Clinton in West Virginia.

Republican Voter: Are you calling me a racist!

Pollster: You're not a Democrat. And you're from New Mexico.

Some might say this is defensive behavior.

But I digress again! Some guy named Kender claims that, though he's not a racist, he's not voting for Obama. We know he's not a racist, because he says so: "I am not racist." My experience is that when people feel the need to presage their remarks with that comment, the likelihood they're about to say something racist increases exponentially. So why is Kender voting against Obama?
Now, I don't dislike obama because he's black. I dislike obama because he's a socialist and will lead this country down a very dark path, one we may not recover from, one that will destroy our economy, steal our freedoms and make us all slaves to the state.

Alright then. I think it's fair to say that if you believe that "taxation is theft", then Obama is not your man (nor is McCain, really, but that's another matter). Nobody would say that this person's vote against Obama is motivated by racism. Motivated by extreme and inane views about economics and governmental legitimacy, perhaps, but those are different sins. I question who, upon encountering a voter such as this, would say "were Obama not Black, this guy would be voting Democratic!"

So quit the defensiveness. Nobody's calling you racist except yourself (and I suppose Freud, by extension). We know that the reason you're voting McCain is because you're off-the-rails crazy.

Everybody happy now?

Walter Jones is a Piker

Though at the moment Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) is known as the most prominent Republican defector regarding the Iraq War, at one time he was best known as the man who brought "freedom fries" to the House cafeteria. It was a ridiculous display of jingoistic "patriotism", designed to insult the French for being, well, right, as we now well know.

But it could have been worse. Kathleen Bergin was reading some old newspapers and came across this gem that was proposed in Mississippi:
[T]humbing through the Dothan Eagle as I sometimes do, that is, the March 26, 1948 edition, I came across this headline: Mississippi Balks Move to Outlaw "Missouri Waltz." Apparently, lawmakers wanted to make it a felony to play or dance the waltz anywhere in the state. First offenders would receive a $1,000 fine and a prison sentence of not less than 5 years. Use a piano and the fine increased to $10,000 and life in prison. Gheeze.

The background here is that the measure was introduced after President Truman called on Congress to pass comprehensive civil-rights reforms, including "communistic measures" as the Southern Block referred to them, like anti-lynching and anti-poll tax laws. Truman was from Missouri.

A fine tradition Jones continued (at least, thankfully, in diluted form).

Also, I'm 100% sure each Mississippi legislator who supported this bill was 100% the most qualified for their position.

Memorial Day

Carleton doesn't give us days off for holidays, making it easy to forget they exist. Today is Memorial Day -- a day that takes on special meaning now, when our troops are out in the field in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places around the world. We pray for their safe return, while remembering the sacrifices of those who did (and will) not.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

When Gibberish Goes Wrong

The head of the Carleton Conservative Union sent me a link to a piece called The Post-Left: An Archeology and a Genealogy, calling it "provoking". For the sake of the college I am leaving behind, I can only hope he meant something other than "thought provoking", or if that's too much to ask, "provoking thought about how awful it would be to believe this is worthwhile scholarship", because otherwise I have serious fears about what my dear Carleton conservatives consider to be a compelling argument.

[Update: Thus far it appears my prayers have been answered, as all the responses from the CCU listserve I've received have been in agreement that this article is only "provoking" in the sense of making me want to throw something.]

The author of the piece is one Gabriel Noah Brahm Jr., and the outlet he published it in is known as Democratiya, a journal dedicated to book reviews. In their own words:
Democratiya aims to be accessible to 'the common reader'. The discipline of the plain style, and a refusal of the obscurantist prose of contemporary academia, is today a political act of the first importance. We seek good writing, less adorned and more luminous, as well as thoughtful analysis, and a bit of style. Anyone seeking a model should look at Dissent. Careful exposition of the central arguments of the book under review is important. But so is the critical response of the reviewer. Authors will have a standing right of reply and reviewers a standing right of rejoinder.

I give this brief prologue just to highlight all the more the ridiculous manner in which Brahm writes. Here is a sentence from his "review" (I never did figure out what precisely he was reviewing -- an observation which rapidly took on multiple layers of meaning as I muddled through). Not just any sentence either: the very first sentence:
A synchronic (structural) and diachronic (historical) analysis of today's anti-Western left is sorely needed.

And here is the first sentence of Part I ("Archeology of the Post-Left: The Case for Discursive Regime Change"):
Post-left thought is an exercise in ressentiment unhinged from politics in the Aristotelian sense of politike, or the 'art of the common life.'

"Common reader", indeed. Now, I like good old fashioned jargon as much as any fine leftist. And I know it when I see it. So tell me: Is there any doubt at all that Brahm is trying to mimic the very "obscurantist prose of contemporary academia", that of the very leftists (or post-left or whoever it is he's talking about -- more on that in a moment) he's reacting against?

So the review is a catastrophic failure of style (is this a political failure "of the first importance"?). Perhaps it can do better under the "thoughtful analysis" or "careful exposition" rubrics. It'd be an easier task for me to evaluate if I had any idea what Brahm is reviewing, but it is never specified -- Brahm appears to want to take on the entire "post-left" writ large. Not quite a "review" then, but still, maybe Brahm can make some insightful argument on what the "post-left" is, and why we should care.

Or maybe not. Brahm does, to his credit, give a reasonably (for an obscurantist academic, anyway) coherent list of six tenets held by the "post-left":
1. Inverted Exceptionalism. Take the old 'exceptionalist' idea and flip it. America is unique among nations – just not uniquely good, that's all. The horrid US, with its crude consumer culture, unparalleled racism, and war-mongering politicians, is to blame for everything.

2. Post-Zionism. Ditto the above for Israel. One is the tool of the other in the US-Israel relationship, though it's not clear which is which. For Walt and Mearsheimer, Israel manipulates the US. For Chomsky, it's the reverse. In any event, Israel's right to exist is put in question (at best).

3. Third Worldism. The wretched of the earth ('multitudes,' whatever) are not just unlucky but morally superior to the earth's beneficiaries. Empowered by powerlessness to take the place of the proletariat in conventional Marxist doxology, the Third World Other can do no wrong. It's all 'resistance' whatever it is, up to and including terrorism. In this salvation myth, any two-bit despot – from Hugo Chavez to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hasan Nasrallah, even Osama bin Laden – can be seen to represent a salutary rebuke to American Capital and The West. So the millenarian imagination persists, after 'the end of history'.

4. Cultural Revolution. It's Manichean also. Because of #1 and #2, a complete transformation of consciousness is needed to wipe away all the micro-corruptions of US-led capitalism, and replace these with more salutary (revolutionary) habits of mind (to be discovered thanks in part to #3). Eventually, everything 'bourgeois', 'white' and 'male' will have to go. For now it can all be 'deconstructed'. Stir in to this 'methodology' heavy doses of Sixties-style antinomianism and Seventies-style New Ageism, and you have a heady cocktail: the mind slips its moorings.

5. Totalitarian Ideology. Ah, but moorings are so very reassuring when one finds oneself adrift! In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt outlined the closed-world world-view of the totalizing mind and its self-serving auto-validating procedures. She was talking then about Stalinism and Nazism, but it works for the post-left too (if that sounds like a harsh comparison, see #6 below). [4] For inside the cramped and airless theoretical space of the post-left one finds that (a) every question receives an exhaustive total explanation, situating the smallest detail of an argument within a vast theodicy with no outside and little room for ambiguity or surprise. Nothing escapes and no light gets in, while (b) such explanations are independent of and resistant to experience. The post-left's is an entirely 'a priori' structure of thought. And this inclusive, arbitrary narrative without a referent is also (c) ultra-consistent. Why not, when you're making it up as you go along? Not only does everything fit that gets in, and nothing gets in that doesn't fit, but the results are always the same: the same demons, the same victims. And finally (d) we find the ascription of collective guilt to 'enemies'. The condemned in the post-left scheme of things will be judged not according to what they do or say or think but what they are. The post-left, in short, offers its followers a tidy picture of a messy world, suitable for lazy and credulous minds.

6. Islamism. With #1-5, the nascent post-left prepared the way for the embrace of radical Islamism after 9/11 as a form of 'resistance', indigenous to the Third World (#3), aimed at a guilty US (#1) and Israel (#2), striking a blow for 'difference' (#4), that simply had to be good in some way (#5). And it was this final element, I suggest, that catalyzed the other ingredients to produce the post-left proper.

Hopefully that dispelled any doubts that my mockery of its style resulted from passages out of context! In any event, I read this section, and I am at once illuminated and confused. Illuminated, because I think I've got what Brahm means by "post-left". Someone is "post-left" if they think that America and Israel do everything wrong and are the supreme evils, that the "third world" can do nothing wrong, that we need a revolution to correct these corruptions and erase every vestige of them, in a narrative is totalitarian and all encompassing, and that the immediate political manifestation of the whole deal is an embrace of militant Islamism. None of these elements are cited anywhere, of course, despite the fact that the essay is footnoted.

Confused, because while I certainly can think of people who embrace some of these elements (though rarely in the cartoonish version Brahm lays out), and perhaps can conceptualize someone adhering to all of them, I am given no serious reason to believe that this nexus of views represents anything approaching a movement, much less an influential one, even amongst "the left". Though "post-left" would seem to imply something "beyond" or "after" the left, it is clear Brahm believes the ailment he so meticulously describes to be some sort of malignant sub-species of leftist discourse. At this point in my read, my feeling was that even if this argument was being robustly maintained, I have no idea what it has to do with "the left". Would it not be just as sensible to say that these "post-leftists" hate the "conventional(?)" left, and vice versa, and proceed from there? Not if the purpose is to engage in the academic S&M that constitutes supposedly liberal folks flogging "the left".

It's possible I am wrong, of course, and the "post-left" infestation is in fact running wild through left-wing circles. Already, however, there is reason to be skeptical on this accord. If the plague were so wide-spread, one would expect it would be easy to find examples -- and once found, they would be, you know, "left." Alas, this appears to be too much to ask. Of the three people he identifies as indicted under this model, only one can in any true sense be identified as of the left at all. Noam Chomsky is most certainly left-wing. Stephen Walt and John J. Mearsheimer most certainly are not, unless neo-Realism is suddenly a leftist ideology. Why they are persistently lumped in with the left eludes me, save the fact that they nourish the idea that only leftists have problematic views with regards to Israel -- hardly sufficient reason for the categorization. There goes "intelligent analysis." But it was a flippant reference anyhow. Maybe if we keep going, we will see how post-leftism is a persistent thread throughout the theorizing of the left academy.

No, as it turns out, our original instinct was correct after all. To buttress his argument that the "post-left" as he describes it is a salient force, Brahm cites to ("engages with" would be far, far too kind) a grand total of four people (not including the aforementioned one-off for Chomsky, Walt & Mearsheimer): Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (who should really count as one since they co-wrote the book in question), Saba Mahmood, and the ever-present Judith Butler. It is not even worth our time to "address each in turn," for the simple reason that even if they all had co-written a book together arguing precisely this "post-left" ideology that Brahm says is so prevalent, four people are not enough to prove even a trend, let alone a worrisome one. In fact, from what little I know of them, I would not be surprised if both Hardt & Negri, and Mahmood, would fit roughly under Brahm's post-left frame. H&N are old-school Marxists, of course, and old-school Marxism has fallen somewhat out of style amongst the rest of the left, as Brahm might have noticed if he had stopped fighting the Cold War along with the rest of us. Mahmood I've been singularly unimpressed with when I've come across her, but that does not happen often. Regardless, even with this meager cast of characters Brahm does not actually link back the words of these authors to his six-element list of post-left tenets. One might think that if you're struggling that mightily to find a soul to fill your scarecrow, there might be larger problems afoot.

It's Butler, however, that deserve special mention here. The citation to Butler comes not to one of her academic texts, but to an answer she gave during a Q&A session after delivering a speech, as reported by a blog, so already we're on shaky terrain. This is the sentence Brahm devotes to her: "Judith Butler, professor of Rhetoric at Berkeley, and leading figure of the post-left, endorsed Hezbollah and Hamas as 'part of the global left'." (But are they "post-left"?) Now, recall Brahm's third element of what constitutes "post-left" -- that the third worlders (of which Hezbollah and Hamas are presumably a part) can do no wrong. Now, append the part of Butler's quote which he leaves out, but which is quite present in the blog post he links to in the footnote: "but [it] doesn't stop us from criticizing them."

Selective quotation is a grievous academic sin, particular when it leaves out such important modifiers like "but". In this case, the "but" seems to knock Butler conclusively out of the "post-left." The third world, it seems, can do wrong after all! Butler specifically says that their membership in the "left" (however defined) doesn't preclude that. In other words, her argument is the precise opposite of the typology Brahm puts her in. This is borderline academic misconduct -- though perhaps his peers will take into account the entirety of the article and conclude its actually parody. To be blunt, it's his only hope.

To be very, very kind, Brahm is shadow-boxing at a nearly non-existent foe (and losing). To be less kind, he's trying to smear a wide swath of "the left" via association to this phantom via a menagerie of dodgy argumentative practices. One of Brahm's early complaints about the "post-left" is that its "explanations are independent of and resistant to experience." Experience teaches us that virtually nobody is making the arguments Brahm is talking about, and that those who are possess virtually no influence. And experience has now continued to teach us that -- when writing and reacting to the arguments of the left in all its diversity and splendor -- we should look to brighter and more sophisticated thinkers than Gabriel Brahm.

That Would Have Been Bad

Headline from Ha'aretz: "Israeli warplanes almost shoot down Tony Blair's plane."

Blair, the former Prime Minister of the UK and now a mid-east peace envoy, was flying to Bethlehem from Cairo, Egypt. Unfortunately, his plane's communication equipment malfunctioned, meaning that it did not respond Israeli requests for identification when the plane crossed into Israeli airspace. Assuming the aircraft was a hostile, fighters were scrambled, but fortunately were able to establish contact with the plane before anything bad happened.

And how bad it might have been. The Israeli air force shooting down Tony Blair's plane? It'd have been a conspiracy theorist's wet dream!

Hebrew University To Award MacKinnon Doctorate

The Hebrew University in Jerusalem will be awarding Catherine MacKinnon, one of the legends of feminist legal theory, an honorary doctorate in recognition of her work advancing woman's rights and human rights.

Take that, Washington University.