Saturday, October 09, 2010

What Type of Slur is "Racist"

Commenting on yet another "I am not a racist" non-sequitur, Ta-Nehisi Coates wants to know
what it means among white people to be considered a racist. I don't mean under the sanction of black people. I mean in places where there are no black people. It almost feels like, among whites, to be accused of being a racist is a class slur. Like racist is short for "inbred uncultured hick."

It's an interesting analogy, but I'm not sure it gets quite at what's going on. My views have evolved since I wrote this post, but it captures a very real dynamic. There's indignation about the possibility of being labeled a racist, but there is also terror. The proportions may vary, but both feelings are definitely there. Racism is America's original sin, and the term "racist" has become emblematic of a supreme evil. To be considered "racist" is to be a Nazi, a slave-owner, or a Klansman. It is to be a person who must be shunned in public society.

All of this is amplified by the fact that there is no generally accepted definition of racist in the public discourse. The sanctions of being successfully labeled "racist" are high, but there really is no way to determine in advance who will be burned by it. Michael Richards' career is ruined, but Ann Coulter survives more or less unscathed. There is a wanton and freakish quality about the whole discourse, and I do think most White people view the accusation of racism as akin to a bolt of lightening: powerful, random, unpredictable, and deadly. They do not know what causes the blow to rain down (except that saying anything -- and I do mean anything -- related to race makes it more likely), so they intone their "I am not a racist" incantation to the heavens in panicked hope that it will serve as a ward. It's main quality is totemic.

And being subjected to such uncertainty, in turn, breeds resentment. It's simultaneously self-sustaining and self-serving. Self-sustaining because the resentment renders true dialogue about what "racist" means impossible, maintaining its mystical quality and preventing any sort of enlightenment. Self-serving, because the entire cycle serves as a warrant for the hostile sentiment in the first place. The anger and rage that those people seem to hold power over me -- that they can end my career, sever my friendships, and expel me from the community with but a "casual" word -- burns with a righteous fury. At that point, railing against the entire idea of racism becomes effectively a subspecies of populist anti-authoritarianism.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Kiryat Arba Synagogue

A little while back, Will Saletan asked about the "ground zero synagogue" -- a synagogue being built in Kiryat Arba, near the site of one of the worst acts of Jewish terrorism against Muslims (Baruch Goldstein's Hebron massacre). It's an analogy I've endorsed. Indeed, for all the unsubstantiated blather about a "victory Mosque", the local settlers really did try to build a shrine to Goldstein. The Kiryat Arba settlers are amongst the most radical and violent of the settler movement -- unlike the Park 51 Mosque founders, they are self-identified sympathizers of Jewish terror. But my endorsement notwithstanding, many of Saletan's readers apparently didn't appreciate the comparison. In general, I thought Saletan did a good job dispatching their arguments.

The one response which at least gave me some pause was the argument to "leave Jews out of the Mosque debate". I made a similar point when Dutch Muslims published a cartoon claiming the Holocaust was exaggerated as protest against allegedly anti-Muslim films produced by Geert Wilders -- despite the fact that the Jewish community was largely uninvolved in the latter dispute. I don't think Saletan's citation of the ADL's spectacularly ill-judged intervention is sufficient to render Jews parties here. Nonetheless, I think the comparison remains valid -- first, because the analogy is considerably more precise, and second, because it's a thought experiment, as opposed to an actualized effort to hurt or restrict the rights of other (if Saletan actually marched over to Hebron and started demanding the removal of Jewish shrines from the area, I'd think differently).

Thursday, October 07, 2010


Whirleyball caps off a whirley day! Possible news to report soon (I know, I know -- I'm such a tease).

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

20 Years

When one hears of a theory that posits that judicial decisions are caused by nothing more sophisticated than "what the judge had for breakfast", one assumes that it is the creation of some academic too long ensconced within the ivory tower. The phrase is attributed to the legal realist movement through Jerome Frank, and while it is a slight exaggeration of Frank's views (and thus a considerable exaggeration of the realist position, as Frank was well on their fringe), it does at least cast some illumination.

Frank believed that legal decisions are the product, not of legal doctrine, but of the fact-situation presented to the judge. Legal reasoning is just dressing to make it sound good. Moreover, Frank believed that how judges react to various fact-situations is nearly entirely idiosyncratic -- in that sense, it might as well go back to what the judge ate that day, for all the prediction one might do.

But Frank was not actually an academic at all. He was a trial attorney for 20 years, then chair of the SEC, and then a judge on the 2nd Circuit. Which I think makes his legal realist philosophy sound less ivory-towerish -- and more like a depressed drunk:
Let me tell y'somethin'. *hic* I've been, been practisin' law for 20 years. And it's all random. All of it. It's just whatever, whatever the judge thinks is right that day. Law -- you can find law for anything. Judges don't care. They just do whatever they think is right, and who knows what that is. 20 years of practice and it's, it's all random.

Or maybe not.

Monday, October 04, 2010

The Social Script of Objectifying Men

I find the story of the Duke "fuck list" to be very interesting, in a perverse sort of way. I admit my first reaction was very similar to the one I had after the Larry Craig scandal broke -- that is, how many women are looking at the list and saying "been there!" I feel like this list shows up in every other issue of Maxim, no?
One of the things I've noticed about dominant social views on sexuality is that men really believe that a zone of sexual inviolability surrounds them and get really angry when it's penetrated. They want, at all times, to be in complete control of any sexual event or happenstance that involves them--but they don't seem to believe that women deserve the same courtesy. So when there is even the slightest risk of breaching a man's sexual perimeters (e.g., a gay man coming on to you in the bathroom), we erect all sorts of social and legal barriers to block it. Some jurisdictions seem to allow or at least condone violent assaults by heterosexual men being hit on by a gay man at a bar. And as Senator Craig's case shows, even something as tenuous as possibly signaling a sexual proposition of another man in a public place can get you arrested. Stacking that sort of treatment up against the yawning silence we give to the massive amount of street harassment women (especially urban women) face is mind-blowing.

These things seem to only become "problems" when the victims are men. What makes this list so shocking is that it makes men into women -- that is, casts them in the social script typically reserved for women. They stand passive and naked, judged solely on the amount of sexual pleasure they gave to this woman, and (horrors upon horrors!) some of them didn't make the grade. At the risk of hyperbole, that never happens in the American public sphere. And while I certainly understand why it would be disconcerting to be cast into that spotlight, once we get past the gender-inversion, it's hardly uncommon.

My second thought was that there is simply no winning position for women in this sort of scenario, whereas for guys there's at least something of a mixed bag. There are basically three roles one can play: the list writer, at the top of list, or at the bottom. If you're the guy whose at the bottom, well, yeah, that sucks pretty unambiguously. If you're a guy at the top, though, that's a little awkward, but also kind of a badge of pride. And if you're the guy who wrote the list -- well, you'll probably be seen as a cad. But you're also a stud who banged 13 ladies (hells to the yeah!). Again, at least a mixed blessing. By contrast, a female writer of this list is a slut, a woman who tops this list is a slut, and a woman who is at the nadir is either a frigid bitch or an untalented slut. Yeah, that's no-win.

Finally, I'm curious about the social meaning of this designation for the guys involved. As a society we have basically no experience with this sort of naked sexual objectification of the male body. It just doesn't happen. So if this list becomes a top 10 google hit for these guys in the future, what's the likely result? We don't know if we're supposed to be sympathetic, or high-five them, or shun them, or mock them, or what (for women in analogous situations of course, the answer is shame and shun). I think our collective confusion will result in it being effectively ignored.

This, I think, goes back to my old post, Second Thing We Do, Objectify All The Men. Because men aren't in a situation where, as a class, their moral subjectivity is unrecognized, recognition of their objectivity is considerably less threatening.

This doesn't mean that this list didn't cause a lot of pain and embarrassment, or that we shouldn't be attentive to it. But it does illuminate some deeper issues of sexual inequality that are clearly, I think, more intense (and more ignored) when the victims are women.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Two IDF Soldiers Convicted of Crimes During Cast Lead

They were charged with ordering a 9-year old boy to open packages they thought might have been booby-trapped. The punishment has not been announced.