Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Racism as personal sin vs. racism as systemic problem

Here is an article from a black Christian with a very astute analysis of racism as a sin that lives in people's hearts, and should be purged as a sin on a personal level.  The only problem I have with this is that it frames racism just at a personal level, which A) leads to dead-end discussions of whether a single given person happens to be or not be racist, B) maintains white racists at the center of attention, thus keeping the people of color as mere peripheral suffering objects instead of complex, complete human beings and subjects, and most importantly, C) distracts people from doing anything on a meaningful collective level to fight the effects of systemic racism.  If you read the virulent comments that this woman's rather innocuous article inspired, I think you'll see my point in action.  Most of the commenters are so stuck on whether they are or aren't personally racists that they are ignoring, or even coming down on the wrong side of, the question of how to improve our society by fighting the objectively verifiable problems created by our rampant inequality and systemically racist institutions.  These commenters are more set on placing blame for crime or poverty, as opposed to seeking common solutions to it.  In the process they of course confirm that they are indeed racists, but more importantly, they demonstrate the flaw of focusing too much on the question of who is or isn't a racist.

I want to focus on this last point.  At this moment in my life, I have kind of given up on inspiring a massive change of heart in any one person, much less an entire nation of largely racist white folk.  And even if we did change someone's heart so that they sincerely didn't harbor any ill will towards blacks, that wouldn't solve all the effects of centuries of oppression and racism.  People of color would still be disproportionately poor, disproportionately stuck in subpar schools, and possibly still disproportionately targeted by the justice system.  Inertia would maintain and amplify inequality even in the absence of malice per se.  In other words, even without active evil or ill will, those who are stuck at the bottom of our society will not easily leave that position.  Conversely, only with active measures to correct and counteract inequality and injustice can the lot of the most unfortunate be improved.

So rather than a massive appeal to people's hearts and sense of Christian decency, I would propose instead to work together as a nation to address the institutions that keep not just people of color down, but that in fact drag us all down as a nation.  If we created a more just society, if we reversed economic inequality and disparities in the quality of education, if we took active measures to integrate the spaces where we live, work, and take leisure, then life would be objectively better for everyone, especially for people of color.  And it wouldn't matter so much if individuals still harbored hatred or disdain in their hearts, because our institutions would be set up to prevent such people from taking advantage of or oppressing others.

Obviously it's not an either-or situation.  I recognize the importance of changing people's mindsets; indeed, no institutional or collective change would be lasting if people's ill will led them to undermine equality and reestablish oppressive institutions.  I think the author of this article recognizes this, as she does refer (albeit only once) to systemic racism.  And a black Baptist pastor quoted in this Atlantic article both recognizes the validity of the "personal sin" view of racism, even as he knows that blacks who suffer from racism are much more likely than their white counterparts to see the clear need for a systemic, not just a personal, answer to racism.

“Most of my white brothers and sisters place a great emphasis on individualism and meritocracy,” said Thabiti Anyabwile, a black pastor who heads a church in southeast D.C. “Most of my African American brothers and sisters, we've had a group experience. Our experience in this country has been defined first and foremost by this pigment that we share. So when we have these conversations about how to make progress, African Americans go to group experience pretty quickly. We speak in ‘we.’ And white Americans go pretty quickly to individual and speak of ‘I.’"

Monday, June 19, 2017

Eight feet in the Andes and Among the Believers

I've mentioned before that I'm on a real reading kick lately, so much so that I haven't posted blogs at my normal rate.  After a string of wonderful books, both fiction and nonfiction, I'm currently stuck with two kind of duds.  One is Eight Feet in the Andes, by Dervla Murphy, and the other is Among the Believers by VS Naipaul.  They're both really dragging, but of course I'm going to slog through them like the dutiful Midwesterner I am.  Maybe they'll pick up by the time I finish them!

So let's start with Eight Feet in the Andes, a travelogue of a woman's journey with her daughter and a mule over the path that Pizarro took from Cajamarca to Cuzco in Peru.  It sounds like a great premise, but it doesn't make for great reading.  The book gets very monotonous, since it's a day-by-day journal.  So it's day after day of stunning vistas, hard-to-follow paths and dead ends, good meals in towns or canned food getting low on the trail, more or less successful searches every afternoon for mule fodder.  It must have been an exhilarating experience to go on that hike.  But reading an account of every day's minutiae is not exhilarating.  Further dragging the book down is that the bit of human variety the author might have added is weighed down by her rather shallow characterizations of shifty mestizos, reticent Indians, educated local elites, etc.  Just a bunch of tropes, but they're being applied to real people.  The fact that the author seems not to have a firm grasp of Spanish, and speaks no Quechua, understandably limits how much she can communicate with anyone.  In anthropology there is a distinction between "emic" and "etic" approaches, the former in which the researcher lives within a community and experiences it almost as a normal member of the community, and the latter describing an approach in which the researcher intentionally maintains more distance in order to have a colder, outsider's view of the society.  Neither is viewed as superior, since both have special insights to offer.  However, Murphy's observations are all so"etic", so totally removed from and clueless about the things she's seeing, that we get no incisive insights.  It's just blind fumbling with little context, rather like the stereotypical Middel American tourist on a whirlwind package tour of Europe.

Surprisingly, VS Naipaul's book is somewhat similar.  It also has an interesting premise--he travels through four predominantly Muslim (but non-Arab) countries in 1980s, just on the heels of Iran's revolution and at the tail end of the immediate post-colonial euphoria of Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.  But Naipaul doesn't seem to have done much research beforehand, whether cultural, political, or historical (recent or ancient).  So he too stumbles about Iran, also like a clueless Midwestern spring breaker, annoyed as it were that he can't find a good Steak and Shake in the medieval religious bastion of Qom.  Naipaul admits repeatedly that he knows little and has never been motivated to learn much about Islam or any of Iran's history between the ancient kingdom of Darius and the Shah's 20th-century rule.  He seems to imply that this gives him an interesting vantage point, perhaps the fresh observations of the innocent.  But it just ends up offering shallow, trite observations, totally dependent on whatever translators or other interlocutors Naipaul happens to run into.  It's like "I met this guy who said XXXX", over and over again, so you come away with a very consciously incomplete picture of a place, which you don't know whether it is totally anecdotal and nonrepresentative, or if he might have hit gold and really captured the spirit of the place (which Naipaul would seem to imply that he has in fact done).  I understand if Charles Barkley, a bunch of empty-headed TV execs, and the public that watches them might think it's a great idea or a chance for grand insights to have Barkley bumble about the US asking white folks and extremists about race.  But I would have expected Naipaul to strive for a bit more insight and research and nuance and just professional rigor.

Naipaul is constantly bemused (in a rather acid, condescending way) at how Iranians use "Western" things (like suits, airplanes, and skyscrapers) while demonizing the West.  He faults them if they call a telephone "modern" instead of admitting that it is "Western" (which is ironic of him, as most of the phones either in Tehran or his beloved England in 1980 were already probably being manufactured in Japan or Taiwan), but also regards snarkily an Iranian author's denomination of modern architecture as "Western".  In short, Naipaul once again proves to be an overly zealous defender of all that is "Western", coming as he does from a provincial backwater that is at best on the margins of "the West" and at worst simply a hodgepodge of Native American, African, and South Asian cultures thrust into the Carribean.  His is the zeal of the colonial convert.  Naipaul sees the absurdity of Iranians' "rejecting" the West or modernity or generally the global world they are inextricably a part of, but he doesn't see that his own separation and rejection from Iran mirrors theirs, just from the "Western" point of view, and is just as absurd.  Here is a deft review of Among the Believers that really breaks down the incoherence of Naipaul's eagerness to point out the flaws and the ugly in the "non-Western" world, while regarding with uncritical awe a mythical "West".  I quote at length from this review:  
"It has been a Naipaulian assumption that only men who live in remote, dark places are 'denied a clear vision of the world.' This is the major theme of much of his work. And many men who have left the third world to settle in other places have a tendency to think this way as well. (My own country, Lebanon, for instance, is not unlike Naipaul's birthplace). Their intellectual vocations often allow them to look at their own countries and similar ones with a critical eye, and to feel that they have a right to judge and interpret the places they have broken with. But these same men usually approach the civilization of the West with awe and leave it unexamined."

I feel lucky to have met my wife and been exposed to a very different, less binary way of seeing "the West" and "the rest".  Colombians in general, and my wife most strongly, have shown me how to look honestly and critically at Western foibles, as well as their own indigenous flaws, and even at the Western critiques of the Third World, with a rather magnanimous view, for Colombians see themselves in both the West and the Third World, and they see the Third World and the West in themselves.  So they can make the incisive comments about the Third World that Naipaul does, without rejecting it all out of hand, and without supposing that the recognition of the flaws in the Third World must necessarily lead to an uncritical embrace of all things Western

I keep wanting to like Naipaul.  He is a Nobel laureate and considered one of the English language's finest authors.  But in the one book of fiction that I've read of his, and now in his account of a Muslim world that is totally strange to him and which he makes little effort to truly understand, he seems so scornful of everything that I have a hard time connecting to him, or seeing much brilliance at all.
Again to quote from the NYT book review,
"The shadows have been 'crowding upon' Naipaul, too, obscuring his vision. More and more the women and men in his fiction and political essays appear to be unsupported by anything of value, diminished and disfigured, vain, insincere, crazed, dishonest. Surely, as Conrad would tell us, this is too simple a view of things, for 'a man is much more like the sea whose movements are complicated to explain, and whose depths may bring up God only knows what at any moment.' Were Naipaul to meditate on places less haunted for him by old ghosts, he might come to realize some of the truths that Conrad learned; that darkness is not only there but here as well; that all men and societies are haunted by their own demons; that all of us are denied a clear vision of the world." 
Granted, he may have written Among the Believers in 1981, some 25 years before aggressive bafflement at the backwardness of the Muslim world become a cottage industry of books and Fox News daily programming.  So maybe Naipaul at least gets a prize for being ahead of his time, a Huntington-style Islamophobe when the rest of the Charlie-Wilson-era world was freaking out about the Soviets and was eagerly arming jihadists without a second thought.  But frankly Naipaul's tone isn't much different from the current Fox News stance of willful ignorance and resolute refusal to understand anything.  A review of the follow-up book to Among the Believers describes the two works as a "complacent diatribe", and "travel literature of the worst kind".

To summarize, Eight Feet in the Andes and Among the Believers are pretty dull and dismal and devoid of much merit.  In this they are totally different from Kaplan's treatment of Romania in In Europe's Shadow.  Granted, Kaplan had thirty years of travels in and reading about Romania to enrich his narrative, but even if you're going somewhere for the first time, it would surely help to read extensively beforehand (or intensively study the language so you can speak with people once you're there).

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Selma, Romania, and more breaking down democracy

I continue to think about the current realities so skillfully discussed in the Freedom House report entitle Breaking Down Democracy.  I keep finding unexpected connections back to the report's description of a new authoritarianism, based not on bald, crude repression but rather on skillful manipulation of modern, seemingly democratizing forces like the Internet, other media, the free market, and electoral institutions.

My wife and I finally watched the Ava DuVernay movie Selma, since it just now become available on Netflix in our country.  I was blown away by the movie, perhaps above all by its subtlety, by its lack of bombastic, dramatic artifice designed specifically to blow you away, to stir your emotions.  No, unlike the stirring song "Glory" that anchors the film's soundtrack, the movie itself is light on big speeches and tearjerker moments.  It's more about the day-to-day strategizing of Dr. King and the SCLC, how they chose issues to pursue and places to pursue them in.  Even more than this, the film is about Dr. King's doubts, about his very valid questions regarding the correct balance between the one-off dramatic protest events that the SCLC promoted to force political change, and the less glamorous, long-term community organizing work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  In this the film takes us well beyond the romantic version of Dr. King that we all learn about in school, beyond his lofty ideals and important speeches, and gives us instead an idea of a human being struggling with the questions we all ask ourselves about the best way to effect positive social change.

A random note--it's really funny to me that a large proportion of the leading actors in the movie, both black and white, are British.  They do a good job with the US accents and the representation of the characters.  I guess it just proves that we are in a globalized world, with a wide pool of people available to depict universal stories, beyond the homeland or context of a given actor.

The story of Selma had me thinking a lot about the white clergy that eventually joined Dr. King on the march.  They are a noble example of people going beyond their own narrow racial self-interest to advance what is morally right.  But at the same time, I wonder what this white clergy could have done or did do once back in their communities, in their Northern congregations.  It was surely dramatic and stirring, and certainly necessary, for them to come South and risk their lives in a one-off event.  But the more difficult, and surely even more necessary, work would be to convince their own people, in their own hometowns, to fight against the framework of oppression and hate that kept black folks down.  Even in the time of Dr. King, he claimed that racism and oppression in Chicago were as virulent as anywhere he'd seen.  But this situation existed in Northern cities where legalized, institutionalized racism was largely absent.  So what was that white clergy to do?  What are they to do today, when the problem may be even worse than before?  The film Selma hints at this dilemma, as Dr. King numerous times foresees that the legal and political gains he is fighting for will mean little if structural poverty is not tackled.

The Breaking Down Democracy report from Freedom House paints a pretty bleak picture; it describes the new tactics of authoritarianism that seem to make it much more solid, resistant to attack.  The problem is that, if repression becomes more subtle and less visible, and if an authoritarian regime manages to gain and maintain the support of the general public, then the possibility is reduced for dramatic moments that lay bare the tyranny of the regime and inspire people to rise up for human rights.  There will be fewer Selmas, fewer Berlin Walls, and more just grinding, invisible poverty and oppression that inspires neither sympathy nor organized resistance.  It's a lot more difficult to make a dramatic, impassioned case against the quiet unraveling of the Voting Rights Act that has occurred over the past few years, than it was to make the case for it, as Dr. King so dramatically did with his march from Selma.  Where Dr. King had success in getting the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts signed, he wasn't able to make a dent in de facto segregation in Chicago, and I think he began to sympathize with the lack of tangible results shown by his rival Malcolm X, who was dealing with a much less explicit, more ingrained system of injustice that was hard to lay bare.  There were no outside white observers who sympathized more with Malcolm's oppressed Northern blacks than with their Northern white coracialists, and who could thus overturn the system of structural racism in the North.  You couldn't bus people into New York or Chicago to fight the oppression there, as you could in Mississippi.

But amidst this seemingly bleak panorama, maybe black Americans can in fact offer lessons to the rest of the world if the world is indeed veering towards a new style of media-savvy, seemingly democratic authoritarianism.  Black Americans have at least 50 years of experience living in what on paper is an open democracy, but which all too often functions as a repressive, authoritarian state.  Blacks in the US today are targeted by laws designed to keep them away from the polls or the gerrymander them into insignificance, they are targeted by abusive law enforcement practices and high rates of incarceration.  And blacks suffer from seemingly "self-inflicted" violence in the high crime rates that afflict their neighborhoods, and which are often used as justification for the other abuse piled on them by the rest of society.  These are all the sticky problems that Malcolm tried to address, and that Dr. King increasingly realized were more challenging to defeat than the explicit Jim Crow laws of the South.

At the same time, I've been reading a booked called In Europe's Shadow.  It is a masterful review of Romanian culture and history, up to and including what the author (Robert Kaplan) regards as the new Cold War that has gelled after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine by Russia.  There is much discussion of the "soft" subversion through media and economic influence that Russia is visiting on its Eastern European neighbors, so it dovetails well with my recent reading of the Breaking Down Democracy report.  I also was struck by a few quotes regarding Romania's long infatuation with Fascism.  Said EM Cioran, a Romanian intellectual who flirted with Fascism in the 1930s;
"If there is something I like about Hitlerism, it is the cult of the irrational, the exultation of pure vitality, the virile expression of strength, without any critical spirit, restraint, or control."
This seems to describe well our current moment of post-modern, anti-intellectual nihilism, where people derive a palpable joy from stomping on what is good and logical and coherent.  If pre-modern man cared mainly about tribe and Volk and eventually the Nation, and modern man aspired to more coherent, universal ideals, post-modern man seems to have reverted to the pre-modern, doing away with any pretense of consistency, universality, or lofty ideals.  We're back to tribe, without even the potentially moderating, universalizing force of religion to temper some our destructive, dehumanizing urges.

I guess in the end the hopeful note I can close on is another quote from the book.  It at first sight seems to disparage liberal democracy, but is in fact an endorsement of it.  It is a quote from a liberal thinker of 20th-century Romania, Iuliu Maniu, with further commentary by Kaplan.  Here goes:
"One can only be a liberal out of exhaustion, and a democrat out of rational thought."  In other words, liberalism and democracy, with all of their limitaitons, are what remains after every utopia and extremist scheme based on blood and territory has been exposed and shattered by reality....Rather than defend something grand and remote, like the marching masses or the ethnic nation, Maniu ... represented the sanctity of the individual and his right to freedom and existence.
Would that all of us strove to be like Maniu, a "brave, decent, uncharismatic counterpart to the monsters he had to deal with."

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Breaking down democracy

This is a pretty amazing report from Freedom House called Breaking Down Democracy.  It details how authoritarian regimes are becoming stronger by harnessing the very trends and institutions (electoral democracy, internet and new media, and market economies) that everyone 20 years ago thought would sound the death knell for authoritarianism

I have thought about this a lot--that it seems like modern authoritarian regimes are able to stay in power by coopting the opinions and thus the will of the people, such that they are the "legitimate" representatives of a brainwashed, willing populace.  But until now I had no structured way of describing this, and didn't know if it was just my subjective, unfounded opinion.  It's scary to confirm my worst hunches, but heartening that others are thinking about this and hopefully finding ways of fighting such trends.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

That old rugged individualism

 I've written before about my family's various run-ins with people just being aggressively nasty on the street and in other public places, often but not always on account of my family's being Latino.  On some of these occasions I would answer aggressively, yelling or swearing at the aggressors.  But after a while I tried to be more constructive.  A few times I struck what I thought was a conciliatory tone; when a resident in our friends' apartment complex was making nasty looks and comments at our bevy of excited young Latino kids coming back from an afternoon at the pool, I started following him and said, "You know these are your kids too," meaning that we're all responsible for each other and should treat one another as neighbors and family, as opposed to usurpers or vermin.  Another time when a couple inexplicably blew up at us after cutting us in line at the airport, I said, "Hey, we're all in this together," and we were indeed in the same line, waiting for the same flight to the same place.  On both occasions, instead of a lowering of the tension in the spirit of camaraderie and bonhomie, the response was a vehement refusal.  "NO THEY'RE NOT [my kids]," "SHUT THE FUCK UP, WE'RE NOT IN THIS TOGETHER," both followed by more abuse, and eventually an implication that I was somehow being the aggressor for speaking back to them.

I've thought long and hard about these two occasions, and what they might say about the larger society.  I was really shocked at the palpable disgust, the total out-of-hand rejection of the very notion that I and mine might be in the same group as the other people.  I don't know if their tone was more strident because my family is Latino, or perhaps the people involved simply chafed at being considered part of any collective.  Maybe it offended their sense of specialness, of individuality or something like that.  I don't know if this is indicative of a larger sentiment; my fear is that it is, and that right now many people in the US have a sharp definition of who is or is not a part of their group, the group they consider worthy of respect and decency.

At any rate, encounters like these have actually helped me to reach greater clarity and simplicity in some of my own values.  I've written in a past post on our quickness to blame a victim, to "excuse nothing", to use the idea of meritocracy to disqualify vast swaths of people from even the most basic of human consideration.  I feel that many discussions, great and small, in the US boil down to people trying to determine whether or not a given person or a group of people is deserving of humane treatment or sympathy.  It's easy to get caught up in these arguments, which usually climax in a caricature whereby one or both interlocutors are arguing for heartlessly "just" punishment even for the slightest of infractions, while the other side (often engaged as an in absentia straw man) makes a politically correct plea for special consideration of an unreasonable cause.  Once you've sunk into that rut, there's no way the discussion can be productive.  But hereby is my epiphany, which serves to keep me from even getting to that point in the first place:

If we are debating whether certain people are more deserving than others of a dignified life, or that some are more deserving of suffering, then that is a premise I'm not willing to entertain.  There's no point even discussing it in that case.  I don't feel that this is a closing-off of myself, but rather a reasonable refusal to consider an argument that is patently untenable.  There exists no rational argument for cordoning off humanity into different segments, deserving of different rights and treatments.  I'm on pretty solid ground here.  And in fact, reframing many arguments in these terms can I think help all sides to consider more honestly and fairly the merits of each case.  That is, if they're willing to admit their membership in the human family.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Strict constructionism—beyond the chimera

I recently came across this article inthe New Yorker, which is ostensibly a book review but really servesto give a basic primer on the use of historical context in theinterpretation of law, specifically in the interpretation ofConstitutional law by the Supreme Court of the US. I had long had a vague idea that Scalia and Thomas were “strict constructionists”, but reading this article and subsequent dives into Wikipedia have nuanced my understanding better. It turns out that few real strict constructionists exist, since strict constructionism in its pure form would lead to absurd readings of law—even the late Scalia and Clarence Thomas disavow the chimera-like term, preferring instead things like “textualist” or “originalism” , which signifies something like strict constructionism but with some common-sense reference to context thrown in.

Ultimately though what this New Yorker article did for me was to move me beyond my very cursory and caricatural understanding to realize that all jurists can, should, and do use historical context to inform their decisions, and there are both advantages and pitfalls to such a historical approach, so it is a mistake to paint one group as sticking more truthfully to a text, and the other as wantonly twisting the law to suit their preexisting agenda. In fact, all legal interpretations rely on a mix of context, common sense, textual analysis, and yes, preexisting agendas. Lest my readers think this has led me to a more equanimous view of conservative legal decisions, it has not. In fact it has cemented my intuition that much of what is presented to the public as just an honest Justice viewing things dispassionately and objectively to arrive at the only logical conclusion, is in fact conservative judicial activism, which uses this claim to objectivity to paint itself as less activist and more legitimate than more progressive readings of the law.

Friday, June 2, 2017


A few weeks ago I unearthed a DVD a friend had given me of Michael Jackson's Dangerous: The Short Films. It's basically a compilation of all the videos from this album, with “making-of” and other material in between. Obviously MJ's videos are always impressive, and I was happy to share them with my boys, who were exclaiming, “Michael Jackson is the King of Pop!” by the end of the show. Watching those videos was also a walk down memory lane to the early 90s, which were simultaneously full of problems (the mounting AIDS epidemic, the conflict in the Balkans, racial tension and riots in the US, increasing awareness of global warming) but also full of hope that we might be making progress on these and other issues. I was surprised to see how Jackson used his pulpit at the height of the pop charts to unashamedly and unambiguously celebrate black culture (including, perhaps especially, reclaiming the beauty and community found in the blighted inner city), call attention to global problems, and protest injustice. It was bittersweet for me to reflect that many of these problems of the early 90s are still with us, and often without the naive hopefulness that a solution is in sight. What if the world had in fact begun to take definitive action on global warming in the early 90s?  I'd certainly have a much nicer, healthier planet to pass on to my kids.