Saturday, July 23, 2016

Russia

I am getting an unusually large audience from Russia. If you are in Russia and you are reading this blog, please email me at paulwilliammorton [at] gmail.com. I'd love to know who you are.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Mauritius

Someone in Mauritius is reading my blog.

If you are this person, please email me. I would like to know who you are.

paulwilliammorton (at) gmail.com

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On White Privilege, Accompanied By My Own Mini-Memoir

The coming-out story. The I-was-a-victim-of-a-hate-crime story. The I-was-a-victim-of-rape story. The what-it's-like-to-be-[X well-known minority]-in-[Y social environment] story. The what-it's-like-to-be-[Z minority that you don't even think about]-in-[Y social environment] story. The what-it's-like-to-be-a-victim-of-child-abuse story. They are all first person accounts, mini-memoirs. And now we have the I-have-recognized-my-privilege-and-I-am-acknowledging-the-long-road-I-travelled-before-I-was-given-sight-and-now-I-have-come-forth-to-teach-my-fellow-privileged-folk-about-this-truth-that-I-have-discovered-for-myself story.

There are great examples in every one of these genres. I don't fault any of the first six. They're all necessary. But I don't much care for the seventh, even if the person that "I" pronoun refers to can be interesting. The basic thesis of these essays assumes that black people, and minorities in general, are burdened by the task of having to explain their oppression to the non-oppressed. These writers have taken it upon themselves to discover the inner workings of racism to relieve minorities of that burden and now they are educating their readers about their privilege, and noting the ways they are fighting such injustice.

I don't doubt the sincerity of these religious experiences, but the basic assumptions underneath are annoying the hell out of me. You don't think minorities should have to educate anyone? So now you want to speak for them? Do every one of these minorities feel the same exact way about racism? or sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia, for that matter? Isn't educating one another about ourselves what human beings do? In what context do you believe these white people should educate themselves? Reading books? Listening to radio? Starting to notice small ways something could be racist or not racist? But just not, absolutely not, asking questions of black people when they want to tell you about racism, under any circumstances? Assuming every single black person is an expert on racism? What successful social movement in history has involved oppressed minorities demanding that majorities educate themselves? 

Perhaps I'm being reductive. Perhaps there's a more subtle way I could read this argument. Oh hell...I give in. Here's my version:

I went to a magnet program in middle school. It was fucked up. The school was located in the poorest, blackest, most hispanic part of an affluent majority-white school district. The program bussed in 200 seventh- and eighth-graders from all over the county, most of them white, and the richest like me had the longest commutes. Every morning, when we were just a few blocks away from the school, we passed the parking lot of the 7-11 where immigrants, many of them with kids in the general student population, hung out waiting for work. The students in the magnet program had primary access to  a state-of-the-art computer lab and media room. Oh, the other students could use them if they really wanted to, but there were designated times and it was harder. 

Some of the kids in the magnet program hung out with kids who weren't in the magnet program. But most of us did not. And yeah, I guess this was the time I had my I've-seen-the-light moments concerning racism. A lot of us had those I've-seen-the-light moments. Some of us didn't. I remember the day a hispanic student said to the class gossip that she was the only black person he liked. Either way, I don't think it changed our behavior or made any of us more willing to fight the bullshit system. 

But here's the part though...here's the part I remember most of all...the part I've never experienced since...the part that cracked me up then and cracks me up to this day...

It was drilled into every white kid where I grew up that you never ever ever ever said that word. You could get away with fuck, shit, and even faggot, but that word was the end of you. That word got you suspended. That word could get you expelled. That word earned you a lifetime role as social pariah, lower than the faggots and lower than the retards. You could be the sweetest, nicest kid, but that word earned you the mark of Satan. And we all knew that every black kid had every right to that word, even if we did not. Yes, we knew that then, at that age. And those feelings were so drilled into me that I just corrected this paragraph and replaced every instance of that word with "that word," while allowing faggots and retards to remain. Yeah. That shit doesn't die. 

And here were all these black kids throwing that word around like it was going out of style, all at each other...and at us too. 

One day, I was headed out of the cafeteria and a black student said behind me: "Hold the door for me, nigger!" I turned around and stared in his face and saw that this black kid meant absolutely no malice whatsoever towards this white kid. That was the moment when I realized how the most evil word in the American language could be so elastic, could carry so many multitudes, could be so damn interesting, so damn musical and God, years later, I so wished I were as good as Mark Twain so I could use that word what, like 200 times in a 300-page manuscript. (I guess I just found a way to use it once in about 800 words.) 

I learned more in that moment than I did in any African-American History Month celebration, more in that moment than I did from reading Frederick Douglass, the required black writer in our English class, or from Black Boy and Go Tell It on the Mountain, which I read on my own. I learned that the idea of race could take you to the weirdest places, that black people are people, not one of your fucking symbols in the neo-social-realist dramas that play in your head, and that, even now, with the awfulness of this past week, there should be at least some semblance of joy when you talk about black people and when you talk about race.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

On Narratives and Facts

I know someone who went to Duke. I chatted with him 10 years ago, when the lacrosse scandal was falling apart. He's a lawyer, he hated the prosecutor, Mike Nifong, and I didn't blame him. Still, I asked him if he knew why the story sounded credible to so many people. I can only paraphrase the answer: "A friend of mine said it best: 'If I was told that a group of people on campus invited a black stripper to their fraternity and then gang-raped her, I would say that it was the lacrosse team. If I was then told that it wasn't the lacrosse team, I would say, no, that's not true. It was the lacrosse team.'"

The national news media did an awful job in covering the case. As late as the fall in 2006, when it was becoming more and more obvious that the case was bogus, the Times ran an insanely long article from a sports journalist who threw up his hands and claimed that there was no way to know what happened on the night in question. But under the microscope, the media did pick up stories that matched the basic thesis: If there was one group of people on that campus, hell, in this country, who would be capable of this atrocity, it would be the lacrosse team. These guys told evil, misogynist jokes. They followed a pack-herd mentality. One of the accused went to Landon, a private school in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I grew up, that had a reputation for grooming these types.  

The sad thing is that the Duke lacrosse case became a focal point for all our issues of race, rape culture, misogyny, power, and class on college campuses. The narrative, if true, would have been perfect for activists who could have screamed, "See! This is what it is! This is what it is! This is what it is!" Instead, the case became fodder for everyone who ever wanted to complain about reverse racism or the myth of sexual assault. Jeannie Suk, writing about a similar case nine years later in The New Yorker, diagnosed the problem: "The imperative to act as though every accusation must be true -- when we all know that some number will not be -- harms the over-all credibility of sexual assault claims."

Obviously, a parallel could be made with police shootings. I remain convinced that Eric Garner's murderer should be rotting away in prison, as should George Zimmerman. I'm not so sure about the cop who killed Michael Brown and neither was Barack Obama's Justice Department. I'm not convinced Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Grey, or the rest were angels whose farts reeked of sweet perfume. I am convinced that they all had their good points and bad points in various measures, that they were all as mediocre as myself, and that none of them deserved to die. And I believe that if they were all white, most of them would still be alive. 

The victims may not be the most likable people on earth. But I, personally, would feel no differently about the need for body cameras, a Voting Rights Act-equivalent for policing and gun control if it were proven that Alton Sterling was a terrible human being, or that the video was somehow engineered by an evil mastermind.  The film studies part of me knows that any video can lie. If I died tomorrow in a national tragedy, there would be plenty of people to sing my praises, but there might be some real sonofabitches who would use the opportunity to tarnish my memory and humiliate my family. Those policies should not be reliant on the twists and turns in any particular case, or unpleasant footnotes in the biographies of any of the victims. 

And although I'm not sure of the policies necessary to fight sexual assault on college campuses, I was just as certain after the Duke lacrosse case fell apart as I was before that reform was needed. And apparently, everyone was just as certain as they were before that the Duke lacrosse team were a bunch of jerks.

I don't know how you solve this problem. Movements need narratives. They need stories and martyrs. Statistics don't speak to anyone's emotions. Human beings do. Most people are not going to read a smart, subtle examination of any particular tragedy. And so the Black Lives Matter movement is reduced to deflecting any criticism that may tarnish the image of Alton Sterling, and it is caught in the uncomfortable position of acknowledging that the police shooters deserve a fair trial while also knowing that nothing less than a guilty verdict will offer any satisfaction. 

The inconvenient facts of the Emmett Till case were unknown at the time and were only revealed decades later. Among them, some of his killers were black. Those facts if known would have complicated the narrative. They would have confused the racial dynamic the case presented. They would have prevented Till from becoming the icon the Civil Rights movement needed.  

Monday, July 4, 2016

On Elie Wiesel, Continued

I put a lot of faith in fine sentences and stirring language. Here's the fine, stirring quote from Elie Wiesel's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, given 30 years ago, that has made its way into the obituaries, the Facebook and blog posts: 

"I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe."

I believe every word of this paragraph, from when I started reading it to the moment I finished reading it. 

And then, after a couple of minutes, you ask if you really believe that neutrality always helps the oppressor. And you start to ask if the identities of the oppressors and the identities of the victims are clear. In most conflicts, each side has a fair number of Nazis and Jews. 

In 1999, good left-of-center liberals understood that Slobodan Milošević was the new Hitler and that he had to be stopped through violence, even if such violence would end up killing many civilians. The Serbs were the new Germans. And the Kosovars were the new Jews. Fifteen years later, prosecutors in the Hague finally realized that the Kosovo Liberation Army -- the liberators -- were attacking Serb civilians. 

For all the screaming and self-performing on college campuses, the closest tragedy to the Holocaust today is occurring in Syria. And no, even at this late date, I'm not sure if we should intervene. George Packer's summary of the dilemma is as relevant now as it was three years ago. Would intervention make the situation worse? Which side would the United States back? I'm also of the belief the countries of Europe and North America should take in as many refugees as possible, and then at least a million more after that. That position may qualify as some form of "neutrality," but does it qualify as "silence"? 

A phrase with the ring of truth doesn't necessarily sound the whole truth. 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

On Elie Wiesel

It would take a special kind of moral idiot to greet the death of Elie Wiesel with anything other than despair. Night has become the first and unfortunately often the last book anyone reads about the Holocaust. Unlike the reprehensible Schindler's List and Life is Beautiful, Wiesel's work sets a proper example for the seriousness with which one should approach genocide or any atrocity. Wiesel, a symbol of a generation whose last member will die in less than ten years, stood up for the rights of most of the oppressed, for the victims of mass killings, for Tibetans, Cambodians, and the victims in Darfur. He knew that he had to tolerate the idiocy of mainstream culture for the greater good: Oprah Winfrey, in all her epic narcissism and willingness to commodify absolutely anything, wrote about how Wiesel's courage gave her the courage to visit Auschwitz. Wiesel kept his mouth shut and smiled. I wished more ninth graders went on to Primo Levi or Aharon Appelfeld, or historians like Raul Hilberg, or Wiesel's other writings on human rights. But Night's spareness gives it power. In terms of moral influence, it may be the most important book of the last 100 years.

The larger culture considered him a saint. He wasn't. One day, someone will write a good, non-hysterical book on the politics of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. On that day, we will have a better understanding of how much Wiesel defined the museum's mission. Did he really make sure the Romany would be mentioned as little as possible in the museum's exhibits?   I can understand why someone with his experience would be appalled by those who equated the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza with the suffering of Jews in Auschwitz, or at least those who would make those comparisons without any acknowledgement of the problems involved with those claims. But his politics on Israel were ugly. He lent moral credibility to a worldview that has left thousands dead and will probably kill thousands more. 

Many people who've read Night have gone on to defend the indefensible, indiscriminate bombings of civilians, torture, and alliances with monsters. The human race has not seen its last genocide and the Jews stand a good chance of being the victims of another one. So yes, Wiesel's life and work may have changed the world's conscience for the better...but not by much. 

On Obama, Man of Letters

If you are a journalist, there's a good chance that a part of you fancies yourself a man of letters. Despite the confines of your profession -- for most publications, the journalist must adhere to one specific prose style that may not be his "voice" and due to the exigencies of economy, the journalist doesn't have enough time to thoroughly analyze most subjects -- you like to think of yourself as a wide reader and careful thinker. The idea of retreating to your study for long hours, reading books, studying important documents, writing a little, but still remaining engaged with the larger society on some level, appeals to you. The drudgery of corporate law or the lack of intellectual stimulation of investment banking is not for you. You have given up material desires for a more rewarding life of the mind.

There are certain cultural markers for these contemporary, would-be man of letters. Today's man of letters watches television. In fact, television has become a kind of cultural currency. The masses watch Blue Bloods and Grey's Anatomy. The man of letters watches Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and, to be a little more prosaic, Game of Thrones. The man of letters reads contemporary literary fiction by writers who show up on Fresh Air. The man of letters likes sports. He's really into soccer, but hates football because of its brutality. The man of letters ignores the encroaching concussion crisis that will hit the soccer world within the next few years. The man of letters appreciates complexity when it comes to important political decisions. He's willing to hear arguments in favor of drone warfare, just as he was willing to read defenses of torture and the denial of civil liberties in Slate 15 years ago following the September 11 attacks. The man of letters thinks protesters are obnoxious and often stupid. He has no problem with college classes on Toni Morrison. But he wishes there were fewer classes on Beyonce and more classes on Marlowe, even though the man of letters hasn't read any Marlowe since college.

I, at best, dabble in journalism, but I have more than a little of this man of letters in me, and I don't think it's all bad. I value intelligence and complexity and I am suspicious of protesters. I think some of the best fiction of the last ten years can be found in long-form hour-long cable dramas, and I listen to NPR. I also struggle through difficult works of film theory, and I know that the difference between a good study of silent film and what the man of letters may discover in The New Yorker is vast and insurmountable.

This Times story about Barack Obama's nighttime working habits flatters the idea of the aspiring man of letters. It depicts a disciplined worker and thinker, someone who reads a stack of memos every night and makes detailed notes, not just out of a sense of personal responsibility but also intellectual curiosity. Obama likes sports and he reads novels. Oh, and he digs Breaking Bad. Any journalist can identify with this figure, certainly more so than with the president's two predecessors, one of whom was in bed by 10 and read books for quantity more than quality, and the other who enjoyed talking on the phone late at night, including with you-know-who.

Hillary Clinton doesn't watch Breaking Bad. According to the recent profile of her by Rebecca Traister, she digs NCIS, House of Cards -- which the man of letters recognizes is a terrible show -- and Grey's Anatomy. She admits that she's at a stage in life in which she's not interested in difficult novels. After a long day of campaigning, she just wants to hit her bed. She doesn't do introspection. If anything, her career suggests that she thinks very very hard about any particular problem before coming to one particular solution which often involves some acknowledgement of a middle way. At that point the time for compromise is over. It's time to fight for that particular solution. This is not necessarily a bad approach for a leader, but it's contrary to the aspiring man of letters's view of what it means to be a thinker.

Personality-wise, I prefer Obama to Clinton. I even prefer Obama to Sanders, a figure whose politics align better with my own. Obama is like an old interlocutor from college, a fellow aspiring man of letters, one who worked a lot harder than I worked and has plenty to show for it. But there's nothing in Clinton's way of being, in her personal tastes -- I'm assuming these actually are her personal tastes, and not a list of preferences one of her assistants prepared -- or how she wants to think through particular issues. I just wish we would acknowledge how much identity politics affects journalists. Are you more forgiving of Obama's policy on drone warfare than you would have been of such a policy during the George W. Bush administration or a hypothetical 2009-2017 Hillary Clinton presidency? Does hanging out in a study, quietly perusing and carefully analyzing important documents, all while writing thoughtful emails to your friends and reading the occasional novel, make you a better person? A better leader? A good president? Maybe. Maybe not.

Friday, July 1, 2016

On Judith Butler

Freddie deBoer has a poignant take on this New York magazine profile of Judith Butler. The profile's main thesis is that Butler is one of the few academics whose ideas have permeated the larger culture. If your kids, before they graduate high school, know words like "heteronormativity" and understand that gender is performance, you have Butler to thank. DeBoer doesn't necessarily condemn any of Butler's ideas, he just wonders at how mainstream culture comes to appropriate radical critiques that originate in academia, and he also sees that these appropriations have problems. It's fine if your kids want to debate you on the use of gender-neutral pronouns. It becomes a problem when that form of language-policing becomes the most contentious site of political debate. It becomes a problem when our understanding of the world is reduced to "Bad people are essentialists. Good people understand that gender is performance." DeBoer, a socialist, is a little disturbed that the children of the middle- and upper-classes care about Butler's ideas and are happy to see Goldman Sachs wave the Pride flag, but don't think so much about the devastating structures of late capitalism.

I wouldn't go so far as deBoer. A few years ago in a Whitman seminar, we read two competing essays on how to read "Calamus," the part of Leaves of Grass about male-male love. The verses of the poem had been rearranged and if put in a certain order, it was clear that they described the narrative of a romance. One critic argued that high schools should teach the poem as narrative, another that the original fractured piece was more accurate. Things got heated and the former accused the latter of helping to create an environment in which more gay kids would commit suicide. Of course, this was hilarious. But the truth is, it's not so crazy to think that Butler's language, however much I personally don't care much for it, has made the world a slightly better and happier place, a world in which gay kids feel slightly better about themselves.

I have always had a damn hard time reading Butler. She can be and mostly is a terrible writer, and the "Politics and the English Language"-side of me ascribes the problem to her inability to know what she's saying. But the profile did change my view of her, and I ended up drawing a distinction between her and many of her fans outside the academy as well as inside it.

The relevant passage:

"In an essay (that began as a talk she gave at Yale in 1989, at the Conference on Homosexuality), Butler puzzled through what it meant to perform her particular identity category — to 'theorize as a lesbian.' All such categories, 'lesbian' included, could be 'instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression.' It’s not that she rejected the label, she continued, but that she would like to remain 'permanently troubled by identity categories.' In fact, she added, 'if the category were to offer no trouble, it would cease to be interesting to me: It is precisely the pleasure produced by the instability of those categories which sustains the various erotic practices that make me a candidate for the category to begin with.'"

I'll ignore the fact that, unlike the many wonderful queer writers Butler has read, her writing lacks anything approximating a human voice. I'll ignore the fact that I had to reread the phrase "liberatory contestation" several times and still don't know what it means. I want to concentrate on this piece: "...if the category were to offer no trouble, it would cease to be interesting to me: It is precisely the pleasure produced by the instability of those categories which sustains the various erotic practices that make me a candidate for the category to begin with." I appreciate that she speaks of her work as an attempt to solve problems that need to be solved and that she celebrates the pleasure that comes with not knowing the answers to these problems.

When Butler quotes show up as silly memes on your Facebook feed, when someone decides to reduce the concept of privilege to self-important declarations, and when the attitudes of a generation have been reduced to "I talk! I talk! I'm talking about myself! And you listen!", something has gone wrong. Butler herself is interested in discoveries in regards to the transgendered that she believes would have augmented a lot of her earlier research. Her bad writing may very well be a byproduct of her struggle through these difficult questions. You can talk about yourself if you want and your problems with "heteronormativity," but you might want to ask yourself some harder questions while you go about it.

I don't know if Butler would go where I'm going, but many people, maybe all people, have interesting ideas about homosexuality and the transgendered, because everyone has interesting ideas about sex and sexuality. Hell, I've learned as much from bigots as I have from the woke. Butler is an interesting and important thinker, if not as important as many think she should be.

Oh, and while we're at it: A guaranteed living wage accompanied by a reduction in military spending sounds like a good, non-crazy idea. I am not an economist and would probably be speaking out of my ass if I tried to defend the policy. Still, let's look into that. It sounds like a good conversation to have with your parents over the dinner table.