The Failure of Respectability Politics

Ta-Nehisi CoatesAs we all brace for what is now and has always been the near certainty that there will be no indictment in Michael Brown’s death, it is a good time to consider black “irresponsibility” as a cause of their status as an underclass. This is the idea that whites have reasons for their racist behavior because of the “bad” blacks that are out there. The argument usually goes like this, “Sure, there is racism in America. And 95% of blacks are good, hard-working people. But there is 5% of the black community who ruin it for everyone!” It is a bizarre argument that admits white racism but then immediately minimizes it and blames blacks for all their problems.

Sadly, we hear this all the time from successful African Americans like Bill Cosby and President Obama. Most recently, we’ve heard this from Charles Barkley. That’s right: the basketball player, who really ought to be aware of his own luck. But of course, he isn’t. I’ve known for decades that he was a Republican. I guess being self-deluded goes along with being one — even if he has backed away from the party in the last few years. But this comment is very Republican, “We as black people are never going to be successful, not because of you white people, but because of other black people. When you are black, you have to deal with so much crap in your life from other black people… There are a lot of black people who are unintelligent, who don’t have success. It’s best to knock a successful black person down because they’re intelligent, they speak well, they do well in school, and they’re successful. It’s just typical BS that goes on when you’re black, man.”

Charles BarkleyTa-Nehisi Coates took on this issue late last month, Charles Barkley and the Plague of “Unintelligent” Blacks. He looks at the history of this, which he calls “respectability politics” — “the inability to look into the cold dark void of history.” And what I didn’t know is that this dates back to the postbellum era. And in fact, in a certain sense, it goes back to slavery, when many whites justified the practice on the basis of the supposed savagery of African Americans. But it was only in the postbellum era when blacks themselves made this argument.

Coates quotes the African American mathematician Kelly Miller in 1899 saying, “It is not sufficient to say that ninety-five out of every hundred Negroes are orderly and well behaved. The ninety-five must band themselves together to restrain or suppress the vicious five.” Get it?! Blacks weren’t being denied rights and opportunities because whites were oppressing them; blacks were being treated like this because they weren’t distinguishing the “good” negro from the “bad.”

So all this stuff about gangsta rape and low hanging pants is just the most recent manifestation of this. Barkley said, “For some reason we are brainwashed to think, if you’re not a thug or an idiot, you’re not black enough.” But a century ago, Mary Church Terrell said, “According to the testimony of eye-witnesses, as well as the reports of southern newspapers [!], the Negroes who are known to have been guilty of assault have, as a rule, been ignorant, repulsive in appearance, and as near the brute creation as it is possible for a human being to be.” Nothing changes, and remember: this is what African Americans were saying about themselves.

Now, in a way, I totally understand this and salute it. These are people who are looking for answers in something they think they control. So I understand someone like Charles Barkley looking at people who are considered part of his “race” and thinking, “If only black kids acted more like upper middle class white kids, everything would be great!” There are two problems with this. First, the way that people in an underclass behave (eg, dress) is primarily a function of them being an underclass, not the cause of it. And by focusing on it, people like Barkley just give the power elite reasons to do nothing to change the racist structure of our society.

The second problem is that this assumes a racist precept: that black people ought to be judged by other black people. If I were judged based upon the actions of other white people — especially white men — I would never leave the house. I could make an outstanding argument for sterilizing all white men. But I’m not judged based upon what other white men do. This is the very core of white privilege in this country. And the lack of appreciation for this is the basis of systemic racism here.

I’m with Coates, “For if black people are — as I maintain — no part of the problem, if the problem truly is 100 percent explained by white supremacy, then we are presented with a set of unfortunate facts about our home.” It is as simple as this: you can’t fight racism by rebranding racial groups. Racism is reverse engineered: first comes and hatred and fear, then comes the rationalizations. So we have to deal with the racism, and not perfecting the “race.”

Bill Watterson Is Back!

Bill WattersonIf you’ve heard that Bill Watterson has started a new comic strip, you have been misinformed. Bill Watterson has, instead, created a single multi-panel comic strip to promote the Angoulême International Comics Festival, which is happening in France at the end of January. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t very exciting.

The story of the 15-panel strip is pretty standard Mack Sennett material. What is most notable about it is what has always been notable about Watterson’s work: the extremes of the action and the subtlety of the characterizations. The main character goes from hope to shock to blind rage — and that is just in the first five panels. And it goes on from there, peaking in the penultimate panel with the character stark raving mad.

Bill Watterson 2014 15 panel

Of course, this isn’t the first thing that Watterson has done. Eight months ago, he did the poster for the documentary Stripped about the transition of comic strips from newspapers to the internet. Watterson gives one of his rare interviews in the film. It looks rather good:

As for the poster, well, it’s good, but more like Berke Breathed than something distinctly Watterson:

Stripped - Bill Watterson

I assume we will continue to see things trickle in from Watterson. He clearly loves doing it. And I certainly can’t blame him for not wanting to grind out a daily strip. Regardless, we will all take whatever we can get.

China Makes Cons Mint New Denial Excuse

China National EmblemEarlier this year, Marco Rubio said, “What I disagree with is the notion if we pass cap and trade, for example, this will stop this from happening, when in fact half of the new emissions on the planet are coming from developing countries and half of that is coming from one country, China, that isn’t going to follow whatever laws we pass.” Around the same time, Charles Krauthammer said pretty much the same thing, “In the absence of [an emissions pact], all that we’re doing is committing economic suicide in the name of do-goodism that will not do an iota of good.” So these guys must be thrilled to read The New York Times last night, US and China Reach Climate Accord After Months of Talks.

But of course, they’re not. Jonathan Chait presented the early responses this morning, China Tries to Save Earth; Republicans Furious. James Inhofe claims it is not credible — even though he would be against it even if he thought it was credible. I mean, as James Inhofe will tell you for $25.95, global warming is a hoax. Mitch McConnell thinks the deal is meaningless, “As I read the agreement, it requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years.” That’s would be an excellent point if it weren’t totally untrue.

Mitch McConnellAccording to The Times, the deal requires that China “stop its emissions from growing by 2030.” It also requires that green energy “would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production” by that year. That obviously does not mean that China doesn’t have to do anything for the next 16 years. McConnell is just being calculatedly stupid. But again, McConnell would be against this deal regardless, because his oil company backers are against it.

This all brings me back to my days in graduate school. We talked a lot about China and other developing countries and how it was wrong to expect them to simply stop their greenhouse emissions. There were a number of aspects of this. One was that we had used excessive emissions to build our country and power our industrial revolution. We are richer now and thus more able to switch to green technologies. The obvious solution to this is for the developed economies to pay for the developing countries to get green technologies. This, of course, is totally opposed by conservatives. But more important, China then and now doesn’t emit nearly as much carbon as we do per capita. The US emits about as much carbon as China does, but China has 4.3 times as many people. The fact that one fat America eats as much as ten starving Chinese does not mean that the Chinese need to go on a diet.

None of this matters to conservatives, of course. Any idea that implies that the United States is a country like almost 200 others makes them see red. And the idea that we would do anything that would help everyone — even when it includes ourselves — is anathema to them. The whole “What about China!” argument is part of the Global Warming Denial Stages. The point is conservatives refuse to do anything about global warming — not because they don’t believe it but because it involves collective action that doesn’t involve killing people. So literally everything they say on the issue is just a justification for doing nothing.

The first step of global warming denial is, “There is no global warming!” The final step is, “Humans are causing global warming, but there is nothing we can do about it!” What’s remarkable is just how many sub-steps there are in that last one. And you will notice conservatives commonly switch between steps. One will make a “Can’t do anything” argument, but then retreat into a “scientists disagree and I’m no scientist” as soon as actual policies that could fight global warming are proposed.

I was taking a political science course during the Iran-Contra hearings. I remember a student asking, “After Watergate and this, why don’t people stop trusting the Republicans.” My teacher — an old school Democrat — said, “People just see these things are being representative of individuals and not the party.” And that’s what will continue to happen here. Regardless of how badly this all goes, conservatives in the future will just say, “Of course the party was wrong about global warming!” And they’ll say that as they continue to fight every new threat we face. And the people will vote for them, because hell, it isn’t the ideology — it’s just those old conservatives! Anyway, by then, they will probably have managed to change the voting requirements to being over 65 years old and at least seven-eighths Caucasian.

ALEC and the Psychopathy of Corporations


According to Dustin Volz over at National Journal, AOL Becomes Latest Tech Giant to Flee From ALEC. AOL has not said why it is leaving the American Legislative Exchange Council, but it is part of a trend. “In the space of two weeks in September, Google, Yahoo, and Yelp announced they had already left or were in the process of leaving ALEC, an exodus that began when Google Chairman Eric Schmidt charged that the group was ‘just literally lying’ about climate change.” So good for those high tech films — always forward thinking! Or not.

For example, Occidental Petroleum is leaving the group. A lot of companies have left ALEC and a lot of them will continue to do it. That’s because ALEC is toxic. It has long been known just what a vile group ALEC is, but it got a lot of press after George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin. It turned out that ALEC had been pushing open carry and stand-your-ground laws. What the hell did that have to do with business interests? Well, nothing. And as soon as it became a political problem, the group stopped that. It’s two and a half years later and Google only just figured this out?

What’s really going on is that corporations are like psychopaths. ALEC pushed policies like “starve the poor and cut my taxes,” so Google and AOL didn’t care if the group was also calling for the genocide of all Americans less than seven-eighth Caucasian. Facebook is “not likely” to renew its membership — showing once again that it is a follower of followers. But these companies should get no credit for leaving this vile group years after its villainy was clear. (That’s years before Zimmerman started swaggering around Sanford, Florida.)

But the truth is that there is no reason for Google and company to not jettison support for ALEC. The group has done its job. America has been harmed. The economic playing field has tilted toward rich companies and away from start-ups. Many people all over the nation have gotten away with murder. And most of all: the companies themselves have been enriched. Now ALEC is a political liability. Google doesn’t need it. I’m sure they can find another group (They probably already have!) to do the same things, but with a less embarrassing name.

This sums up the current situation:

ALEC has witnessed a torrent of high-profile departures in the past. In 2012, a collection of major corporations, including Blue Cross Blue Shield, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Kraft left the organization following public outcry over the group’s then-sponsorship of controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws, which came under heavy scrutiny during the Trayvon Martin case.

Why does anyone support any of these companies? Why did these companies — Especially a healthcare company! — support ALEC? It is disgraceful, but fully expected. These companies hate us. If they could put the human race in The Matrix style pods and siphon off our energy, they would. I was being extremely accurate above when I described these companies as psychopaths. It is enshrined corporate law that they must act with the single focus of making money. And it has poisoned our entire society.

Have you always wanted to live inside a William Gibson novel? Good news: you already are! Except, of course, the cool parts.

H/T: Tom Sullivan

Roland Barthes and Hidden Myth

Roland BarthesOn this day in 1915, the great philosopher Roland Barthes was born. The truth is that I don’t know his work that well. I know one thing, Mythologies. It was an extremely powerful book to me when I was a young man. The broad idea is that things in our culture have meanings that go far beyond their concrete significance. No one would question that the Eucharist has symbolic content that far exceeds the simple act of eating a wafer. But that such symbolic content would be every bit as powerful in the purchase of laundry detergent was a revelation to by 17-year-old mind.

In the years since first reading Mythologies, it has come to dominate the way I look at sociology. At one time, we lived inside a mythical framework where gods created thunder and other things that we have since developed more general naturalistic theories to explain. But we still live inside a mythical framework. I often wonder about my own blindness, and I have a few ideas of where some of the more obvious elements of this exist. But there are many things I see in society as a whole that are entirely and nakedly mythical. Yet most people are wedded to them and react violently when they are pointed out.

The most obvious of these is the treatment of drug users. I must admit to having evolved so far on this issue that I don’t even understand many people. It is still quite common for people to think that there really is something dangerous about cannabis, even while they have no problem with alcohol. What is clear — and has been for hundreds of years — is that this is pure ethnocentrism. I’ve noted before how supposedly reasonable David Frum continues to be against cannabis legalization until he has some ultimate scientific proof that it doesn’t lead to other drugs. It is curious how he uses the language of science and argument to justify what is nothing more than cultural elitism.

Of course, this issue is slowly dying as more and more people have direct experience with cannabis. At the same time, this experience does not make the cannabis user any more open minded to other categories of drugs. We continue to see a shift from an alcohol-nicotine society to an alcohol-cannabis society. The other “harder” drugs are still seen as unacceptable. But they are unacceptable not because of their pharmacology but because of their cultural significance. “Crack” and heroin are unacceptable because of their associations with underclasses. And the move from “addiction” being a criminal justice problem to being a healthcare problem is meaningless, because they are both concerned with controlling “foreign” behavior.

A far biggest mythology that I think society is just on the edge of considering — and I am only beginning to understand — is our belief in meritocracy and the idea that one human deserves to live better than another. I understand that there may be practical limitations on how a society approaches this. But it is simply immoral that some people have more money than they could ever spend while children starve to death. Yet we have created elaborate systems of myth, which are increasingly implausible, to avoid seeing this. (See Scale, Profits, and Inequality for an economic overview of the problem.)

All of this comes directly from what I learned from Barthes. It doesn’t provide a way to find the truth. I’m afraid Plato was right on that issue — we will always be blinded by our delusions. But it does provide a way to cut through our most obvious myths. The key is to recognize that we have such a strong tendency to create such myths. And culturally, we doubtless need them. But they are often pernicious. And with greater advertising sophistication, it is easier and easier for the powerful to use our myths against us. So I will always be grateful to Barthes for showing me this.

In addition to everything else, Mythologies is great fun. Here it a bit from one of the essays in the book, The World of Wrestling:

What is thus displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks. The wrestler who suffers in a hold which is reputedly cruel (an arm- lock, a twisted leg) offers an excessive portrayal of Suffering; like a primitive Pieta, he exhibits for all to see his face, exaggeratedly contorted by an intolerable affliction. It is obvious, of course, that in wrestling reserve would be out of place, since it is opposed to the voluntary ostentation of the spectacle, to this Exhibition of Suffering which is the very aim of the fight. This is why all the actions which produce suffering are particularly spectacular, like the gesture of a conjurer who holds out his cards clearly to the public. Suffering which appeared without intelligible cause would not be understood; a concealed action that was actually cruel would transgress the unwritten rules of wrestling and would have no more sociological efficacy than a mad or parasitic gesture. On the contrary suffering appears as inflicted with emphasis and conviction, for everyone must not only see that the man suffers, but also and above all understand why he suffers. What wrestlers call a hold, that is, any figure which allows one to immobilize the adversary indefinitely and to have him at one’s mercy, has precisely the function of preparing in a conventional, therefore intelligible, fashion the spectacle of suffering, of methodically establishing the conditions of suffering. The inertia of the vanquished allows the (temporary) victor to settle in his cruelty and to convey to the public this terrifying slowness of the torturer who is certain about the outcome of his actions; to grind the face of one’s powerless adversary or to scrape his spine with one’s fist with a deep and regular movement, or at least to produce the superficial appearance of such gestures: wrestling is the only sport which gives such an externalized image of torture. But here again, only the image is involved in the game, and the spectator does not wish for the actual suffering of the contestant; he only enjoys the perfection of an iconography. It is not true that wrestling is a sadistic spectacle: it is only an intelligible spectacle.

Happy birthday Roland Barthes!