The first two rules of holes
Finally, award-winning Professor Ric Caric — who days ago deigned to drop by and discourse on how it is that I’m some kind of super-racist (given my sly proclivity for legitimizing the views of unreconstructed racists, if only by nature of the people my political policy recommendations attract) — responds to at least one of my challenges, offering the beginnings of an argument in support of the “color-blind racism” trope that Stanley Fish, among others, popularized a decade and a half ago.
I’m going to repost Caric’s response — he doesn’t respond here, naturally — along with my rejoinders.
Reply to That Really Cool Guy Jeff Goldstein, Part I
INTRODUCTION. I was hurtÃ¢â‚¬â€œhurtÃ¢â‚¬â€œby Jeff GoldsteinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reply to me last night. He seems to think that I believe him an unreconstructed racial bigot like the guys who murdered and mutilated Emmett Till or the white townspeople pictured celebrating the latest lynchings. Or maybe he believes that I think he follows Ann CoulterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s indulgence in racial stereotypes and anti-black cheerleading.
But thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not true at all. How can I think that after IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve seen all the testimonials to GoldsteinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s wit and really cool guyness? TonightÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hymn of praise was from John Cole of Balloon-juice.com: Ã¢â‚¬Å“. . . the best blog in the world is now back after a lengthy hiatus.Ã¢â‚¬Â And didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t somebody refer to Goldstein as the Ã¢â‚¬Å“funniest guy on the internetÃ¢â‚¬Â last night? Humble as well.
Who am I to disagree? GoldsteinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Protein Wisdom is funny, ironic, intellectual, and upscale all at the same timeÃ¢â‚¬â€œkind of like the internet version of FoxÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s big hit Ã¢â‚¬Å“Gutfeld and Friends.Ã¢â‚¬Â I sum all that up with the term Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Fluff RightÃ¢â‚¬Â which I of course mean as a term of endearment. Goldstein is such a Really Cool Guy he couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be a racist.
Three paragraphs, no substance — thought that doesn’t mean Caric isn’t working. Rhetorically, what he’s is trying to do, in his opening three paragraphs, is frame both the combatants and the debate. Unsurprisingly, Caric sets himself up as the bemused and slightly put upon professor-hero who has been compelled by circumstances (presented as nearly beyond his control) to answer criticisms by someone who affects a pretense of hipness, but who, Caric intimates, is rather an annoying lightweight, and not really worth much of his valuable time.
After all, intertextually, we now know that for Caric, blogging is but a “hobby,” and he likes to keep his academic writing separate from his activism.
I’d add that he appears to like keeping his thinking separate from his blogging, as well, but that would be ungracious of me.
And any rate, Caric’s framing — like so much else we’ve read from him — is not only disingenuous and self-serving, but it is also easily undercut by any quick look at our exchanges. Which, I suppose, is why Caric chose to create a separate space for the debate — one that he hopes will bracket out the actual history of our encounters, replacing it with this newly framed simulacrum of that history.
But let’s be honest: It was only after Caric leveled his accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., against me that I challenged him to argue his positions in more detail. Because from where I stood, all that Professor Caric had done was cobble together a list of stale assertions that he then whisked together with a huge dollop of self-righteousness and several cups of smug self-satisfaction to form the kind of rhetorical tar that fits perfectly onto an extra broad brush.
Quickly, Caric’s positions, made into a kind of handy ideological theorem: conservatives are a cancer on the body politic; everyone who supports a few key particular policy positions (the Iraq war; an end to race-based affirmative action; an opposition to same-sex “marriage” — though not to civil unions with state benefits) is a “conservative”; cancer is bad; conservatives, therefore, are bad.
Simple, really. But as you can see, really nothing more than several assertions that track backward from a central, unproven premise. Which is why I challenged Dr Caric to debate the merits of his positions, or to attack the merits of mine.
Back to the professor’s response:
And besides Protein Wisdom practically held a parade for me a couple of days ago. Even last night, my name and affiliation were featured at the top of GoldsteinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reply post. You just canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t buy publicity like that.
Another paragraph, still no substance. Just a further attempt to frame the debate: affecting ironic bemusement, Caric attempts to suggest that my having paid him some attention is, at once, favorable in terms of publicity (something I’d dispute, given his performance thus far; your mileage may vary, timmy), and all so much ado! He is but a humble professor with a hobby blog. Why, pray tell, should so much attention be paid him? Is it his prodigious intellect that attacks the conservative moths to his fiery brilliance? His ability to deftly fend off the strained advances of his “weenie boy” opponents — even as he takes in a fine Kurosawa double feature?
Why, Ric can’t quite sure — though we’re left with the impression he feels it’s some combination of all those things.
Humbly, of course.
But the truth is, Caric himself is useful only as an example of a type we’ve come across here rather too frequently — the progressive professor who, for reasons one can hardly begin to imagine, is eager to place on display his own bigotries, biases, and anti-intellectual posturings.
He is, for better or worse, an example of just how impervious to substantive criticism many academics feel, having surrounded themselves with like-minded ideological fellow-travelers, and then — once entrenched in their departments and protected by the self-selection of the hiring committees they form — have taken to systematically redefining the parameters for what comes to count as academic “thinking.”
The rest is just “hate speech” relegated to “free speech zones,” lacrosse parties, and Campus Republican meetings.
For my part, I find it instructive to point to such creatures — much like I once pointed to monkeys at the Baltimore Zoo and noted how, if you squinted just so, they almost seemed just like us. Having left the academy myself — and having become increasingly disappointed with its growing anti-intellectualism (particularly in the humanities and social sciences) — I feel like I have a responsibility to shine a light onto its substance, which is generally hidden behind slick marketing brochures, fine brick buildings, and the carefully staged “diversity” of the student body.
But enough of my reasoning for wanting to draw Caric out; after all, I explained why I wished to do so earlier, and if Caric was unwilling to acknowledge my express intentions then, I have no reason to think he’d do so even were I to explain it to him a thousand more times. Instead, he’ll simply repeat the same “re-imaginings” of my intentions — presented in hamfisted musings and faux-solicitousness — without ever letting the points of fact puncture his rhetorical bubble.
So. How about some meat, Dr Ric?
Of course, I guess one could think me ungrateful for referring to JeffÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“color-blindÃ¢â‚¬Â ideology as being worse than crude racism. But let me see if I can make my case again at much greater length and detail.
Really, the whole issue revolves around oppression. So, I want to discuss oppression at some length both during the civil rights era and today. My argument will be that Ã¢â‚¬Å“color-blindÃ¢â‚¬Â rhetoric functions as a rationalization for contemporary racial oppression and the refusal to develop remedies for racial oppression.
But, first, I want to discuss segregation at some length.
Oh. This must be the “context” we knuckledragging proles / sinister oppressors will need to understand Caric’s argument (which, as I noted in an earlier post, is an argument of such vintage that, had it knocked up another argument when if first became famous, it would today be proud papa to a teenaged argument readying itself for a driver’s license).
But please, do thrall us, professor:
SEGREGATION AND OPPRESSION. In Ã¢â‚¬Å“Letter from Birmingham Jail,Ã¢â‚¬Â MLK wrote in the context of his discussion of civil disobedience that Ã¢â‚¬Å“[w]e know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.Ã¢â‚¬Â For King, white people are Ã¢â‚¬Å“the oppressorÃ¢â‚¬Â and blacks are the Ã¢â‚¬Å“oppressedÃ¢â‚¬Â who are demanding freedom. He follows up with an detailed account of the ways whites oppressed blacksÃ¢â‚¬â€œthe lynching and drowning of black people, police beatings, the Ã¢â‚¬Å“airtight cage of povertyÃ¢â‚¬Â blacks lived in, the refusal of services at hotels, restaurants, the segregated drinking fountains and bathrooms, and the personal humilitations of never being addressed with a title of respect like Ã¢â‚¬Å“Mr.Ã¢â‚¬Â or Ã¢â‚¬Å“Mrs.Ã¢â‚¬Â Needless to say, such a recitation is far from doing justice to the poetry of KingÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s writing and the way that he brought the violence and moral sickness of segregation home to his readers in one of the great sentences of American writing.
True. It also doesn’t prognosticate: which is to say, what King wrote in his letter to fellow clergymen in advance of the the Civil Rights Act is a tremendously effective rhetorical broadside against the civil rights abuses Dr King was fighting in 1963. What it is not, however, is a carved tablet revealing how race relations will always be — particularly after 44 years of governmental attempts to ameliorate past injustices.
So while yes, the piece remains poignant — and while it in many ways serves as a constant reminder of what we, as a society need to guard against — acknowledging poignancy and social relevance is far different than pretending that Dr King’s decades-old letter is a revealed text to be taken as scripture by the Church of the Always Well-Meaning Liberal Democrat.
King also emphasized the enormous psychological and spiritual damage inflicted by segregation, lamenting the Ã¢â‚¬Å“ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in [his daughterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s] little mental sky,Ã¢â‚¬Â and the Ã¢â‚¬Å“inner fears and outer resentmentsÃ¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬Å“degenerating sense of nobodiness plaguing adults.Ã¢â‚¬Â If segregation was a moral sickness of white people (King referred to whites as living in Ã¢â‚¬Å“the dark depths of prejudice and racismÃ¢â‚¬Â), it worked to distort the personalities and maim the souls of blacks as well.
That’s an enormous and pivotal (though rather quietly introduced) “if.” I’m certain that a desire to see enforced governmental segregation was a moral sickness of some white people, but let’s not forget that there were whites who marched along with Dr King, whites who fought for the abolition of slavery, whites who protested Jim Crow, whites who refused to accept the moral sickness of enforced governmental segregation — and they did so, presumably, because they found it morally or legally problematic that a government would presume to separate people on the basis of skin color. Content of one’s character, not the color of one’s skin and all that nonsense, you see.
Or, to put it another way, both these whites, and the Blacks who followed Dr King, were appalled at the kind of state-sanctioned race consciousness (growing first from slavery, then from “one drop rule,” Jim Crow laws, and other racialist legislation) that, to borrow Dr Caric’s formulation, gave “cover” or lent legitimacy to segregation.
Of course, there are other complexities at work here, as well — from federalism to the right of free assembly — that, taken together, complicated certain legal questions regarding when and how the federal government could act in the role of social engineers, and when they instead were directed, constitutionally, to to lay back and allow cultural perceptions to change, and the marketplace of ideas (counted among which are the shames that attached themselves to racial intolerance) to affect a shift in cultural attitudes.
The professor’s summary of King’s position — “If segregation was a moral sickness of white people (King referred to whites as living in Ã¢â‚¬Å“the dark depths of prejudice and racismÃ¢â‚¬Â), it worked to distort the personalities and maim the souls of blacks as well” — is therefore a gross oversimplification, one that intentionally obscures King’s motives by misidentifying Kings allies and enemies. And it is an oversimplification that Caric and his ideological fellow-travelers use to to re-segregate whites and blacks on the basis of skin color — though they are careful to reframe that segregation as based on power-relations. Whereas, for Dr King, skin color was merely shorthand for the peculiar beliefs of the segregationists of his time. To wit, King used “Negroes” and “whites” because it spoke to the stark contrasts between the “races” King wished to see legally obliterated. Today, people like Caric use those designations to maintain stark contrasts and actually prevent the very obliteration of legal difference King was striving for.
Jeff Goldstein seems to believe that my reference to racial oppression is a matter of Ã¢â‚¬Å“white guilt.Ã¢â‚¬Â IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m surprised that a cool guy like Jeff wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think that sensitivity to oppression would be a matter of empathy, of reading materials like Ã¢â‚¬Å“Letter from Birmingham JailÃ¢â‚¬Â and thinking about what he would think or feel if he had been subject to the physical and psychological violence of American racial segregation. Or why he wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be disgusted, repulsed, or nauseated by what whites were doing. Or why he wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t deny that he was white and start thinking of himself strictly as an individual. Ã¢â‚¬Å“GuiltÃ¢â‚¬Â would seem to be a refuge for the over-wrought here.
Sensitivity to oppression is a matter of empathy. But the oppression has first to be shown to exist before I rush to empathize. All Caric does is show that such oppression once existed — a claim that no one here, least of all me, disputes. So yes, I can read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (in fact, I taught the essay for years in classes on rhetoric and persuasion) and imagine what I would think or feel had I been “subject to the physical and psychological violence of American racial segregation.” But my imagining it — and even empathizing with it — is not the same as experiencing it, and in fact, by claiming that I can practically feel that oppression through King’s words, I am cheapening the suffering of those who actually did experience it. At the end of the day, I can put the essay away and go on about my business. Whereas at the end of the day in 1963, some southern white Democratic sheriff might loose some dogs on me, or strike me repeatedly with a club after soaking me with a fire hose.
Caric — rather predictably — goes for the emotional appeal here, and from there attempts to claim a moral high ground. But there is nothing necessarily moral about being sensitive to imagined oppression — and in fact, I would argue that when sensitivity to a social phantom leads to agitating for policies that lead to actual discriminatory practices, then the sensitivity to which Caric clings like a medal is in fact wrong-headed and immoral.
Caric writes: “IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m surprised that a cool guy like Jeff wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t [...] be disgusted, repulsed, or nauseated by what whites were doing. Or why he wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t deny that he was white and start thinking of himself strictly as an individual.” To which the easy response is, I’m NOT surprised Caric would put forth such assertions with no evidence whatever to back them up, but then, that’s because I’m becoming increasingly familiar with his method of argumentation.
The fact is, I am of course repulsed by what some whites were doing. Similarly, I am heartened by what other whites were doing to combat the bigotry of those whites who remained committed to legalized segregation.
But note that we’re talking here about how I feel now about what happened in 1963. Does Dr Caric really expect us to believe we’re still living in that same racial climate? Someone should inform Dr Ric that just because you can buy “The Outer Limits” on DVD doesn’t mean that every time you watch an episode, you’re actually in 1963 all over again.
And of course, I don’t deny that I’m “white” by certain strained empirical standards and certain conventional descriptors. But so what? Acknowledging that racial categorizations exist and have existed is not the same thing as arguing that they should exist, or should be used to set certain social policies. And in fact, I have consistently argued that, inasmuch as they are based on bad science, they should have been relegated to usage for nothing other than bookkeeping years ago (this is, incidentally, one of the uses for race that Kennedy notes in his recent concurrence, the significance of which I’ve written about here).
I linked all these arguments in my last response to Caric. So at this point, I can only assume that his mis-characterizations of my positions are either intentional, or else he really is as dim as his arguments make him appear.
Bottom line: I simply deny that “what whites were doing” in 1963 has anything at all to do with what whites must necessarily be doing today, because “whites” is simply a convenient way to group disparate individuals who share nothing essential but a (lack of) pigmentation. Surely Caric’s obvious contraction — this ludicrous feint to the transitive property of equality — is not the kernel belief that drives his worldview. Because such utter simplicity — based around a view that skin color acts as a sort of decisive connective tissue between generations, when it comes to establishing individual identity — cannot possibly be a position held in earnest by a person who teaches “Comparative Racial Thought.” Unless, of course, Caric commits to bringing in guest speakers, I suppose.
His formulation, shorn of its emotional trappings, goes like this: sensitivity to oppression is a matter of empathy, and thus, a virtue; one can empathize with the oppressed, having vicariously experienced their oppression (in this case, through reading Dr King); having vicariously experienced that oppression, one is committed to feeling disgust; and because one happens to resemble — in pigmentation — those who at one point in time were the cause of that suffering and oppression, one must necessarily take responsibility for the actions of those who resembled him; only after one has embraced one’s “identity” can one lay claim to being an individual.
This last part is, of course, absurd: after all, why would Professor Caric have us take possession of the historical attitudes of “whites” who supported segregation and not of those who fought against it? Or were the whites who fought against segregation somehow “Black” for having identified with the oppressed group? The calculus, you have to admit, is quite tricky, if not completely arbitrary.
For Dr Caric, that is. For my part, I don’t run into those kinds of problems because I don’t subscribe to such magical, phenomenalogical leaps: I am not joined to southern white Democratic segregationalists of the 60s — or paleocon Republican white supremacists today — simply because I happen to look outwardly like I could belong to their group, and so could share their beliefs.
Call it “passing.”
For his part, Caric feels the need to turn his “empathy” into political activism because he identifies as white. He claims it is overwrought for me to point out that he seems to be acting out of guilt. And perhaps he’s right.
But you have to admit, when you watch someone engaging daily in acts of public contrition for sins that belong to others, it is fair to conclude that they either have a Jesus complex, or else they truly believe that they are guilty. The trick, for Caric, is to paint such a combination of hubris and faux-humility as a virtue worthy of emulation — and further, to condemn all those who fail to follow suit.
Of course, it might not be Ã¢â‚¬Å“funny, ironic, intellectual, and upscaleÃ¢â‚¬Â to be emphatic to those who are suffering oppression. If thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the case, I might not have any of those qualities because I can say in good conscience that I would have been so pissed off about segregation if I was a black guy that I probably would have done something to get myself killed. But who knows, maybe Jeff would have been happy with segregation if he had been a black guy and IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m sure he could find some black people who were pleased with their lives under segregation if he looked. King even refers to Ã¢â‚¬Å“Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of Ã¢â‚¬Å“somebodinessÃ¢â‚¬Â that they have adjusted to segregation.Ã¢â‚¬Â
In case Dr Ric has lost you on his rush to turn me into an Uncle Tom, rhetorically, he sets it up this way: having determined, with no evidence (and by mere assertion) that I am unsympathetic to the oppression of those who are oppressed (and let’s avoid, for the time being, any talk of the middle east and how that plays into this battle of empaths), Caric then strains to tie the tone of some of my blog posts to that same unsympathetic part of my nature that prevents me from feeling for the oppressed quite so strongly as does he. In short, my moral worth is determined and subsequently betrayed by the tone of some of my blog posts — whereas Ric? Well, he just blogs “as a hobby.” SO HOW DARE YOU JUDGE HIS WORDS!
From there, Caric takes wing on a bizarre flight of fancy, speculating that, had I been a Black man in, say, 1956, I’d be content with my oppression — that, while he would take his condition seriously and die fighting for his freedom, I’d go find a group of likeminded blacks and, with any luck, become their leader. Kind of an Al Sharpton type, say.
Because, you see, it is only those who are most ostentatious about their suffering who can truly be said to be suffering. The rest? They probably enjoy it.
A reminder: if you’re being raped, don’t forget to cry the entire time. No need for anyone to get the wrong idea in retrospect, you see.
Oh, and Mr Twain? Please turn in your moral bona fides. Huck Finn might have helped humanize blacks, but it also made me chuckle. So, you know, no soup for you.
The Issue with Color-Blindness. There are two questions that come up in relation to the current racial situation. Can the current situation be characterized as racial oppression and what role does color-blind rhetoric play in relation to contemporary race relations?
To the extent that there is racial oppression in contemporary American life, it is not the same as the racial oppression that prevailed under segregation. Thinking in KingÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s terms, lynching and other racial murders of blacks are relatively rare compared to the fifties; fewer blacks live in an airtight cage of poverty; services are not often outrightly refused at restaurants, hotels, and car dealerships; and blacks occupy prominent positions in politics, business, and entertainment that they would have been excluded from before. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve heard many African-Americans say that Ã¢â‚¬Å“nothing has changedÃ¢â‚¬Â and I have also heard some of my white students in Kentucky say that whites are as racist as they think they can get away with. Given the horrific conditions for African-Americans were in the 1950Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s, I would have to say the situation has improved for African-Americans in the United States.
Thanks for that. Had you done so during the first half of your silly argument, you would have saved me some trouble — but I appreciate the reprieve nevertheless…
However, the burden of racial oppression on African-Americans has been lightened and shifted rather than eliminated. African-Americans are still subject to arbitrary and capricious actions by police, judges, and the lawyers assigned to defend poor blacks. These include police shootings and beatings, Ã¢â‚¬Å“stop and friskÃ¢â‚¬Â campaigns targeted on young black men, racial profiling in traffic stops and arrests resulting from traffic stops, and differential sentencing. Even professional black males have to put up with a fair amount of police harassment as they drive to and from work, in their suburban neighborhoods and the like. Needless to say, blacks are also subject to relentless stereotyping in the news media and entertainment outlets. They often receive slow and negligent service at restaurants and hotels, find themselves followed by security in retail outlets, and have to pay higher interest rates on various kinds of loans. Blacks also have a difficult time getting their professional credentials recognized by white clienteles.
To be black is to be subject to arbitrary and capricious white authority, forced to pay a higher price for housing and other amenities to white owned institutions, and vulnerable to both big and small humiliations perpetrated by white people. It adds up to oppression and there are a large number of African-American writers who portray blacks as an oppressed or persecuted group.
And there is the gist — one that, in its own long-winded and studied way, completely ignores my argument, which concerns what is the best way to ameliorate any remaining racial discrepancies.
Even were we to accept Caric’s litany as adding up to oppression based on race (and I think there is plenty of ground to argue that in many of the instances he notes, race is not the determining factor, or — perhaps better put — bigotry based on race is not a determining factor), the professor’s next move is going to be to show that, by trying to “ignore” race, “color-blind racists” simply wish to keep this status quo.
Which, had he read any of my arguments, he’d know is not the case. In fact, it is precisely the status quo against which I find myself constantly fighting — and it is against Caric and people like him who set the policies and foreground the animus that sustains the current status quo that I continue to fight.
Caric, again, is relying on emotional appeals: the fact that disparaties exist, he suggests, must mean that they are the result of institutionalized racism. And in a way, he’s right — though the institutionalized racism that sustains such disparities has less to do with the kind of racism Caric imagines is harbored in the black hearts of conservatives, and is more properly tied to policies that continue to keep the country focused on an artificially sustained “racial divide” under which progressive policy makers and those committed to identity politics feel entitled to try to micromanage outcomes rather than allow that equality of opportunity, once finally divorced from an entrenched (and persistently reinforced) victim mentality, to prove the long-term answer to the demystification of race.
Or, to put it more simply, he is condemning himself.
How does the rhetoric of color-blindness relate to the contemporary situation of blacks? Have to link up and finish the rest tomorrow.
Sure. Or you can just go back and read the Stanley Fish article I linked to in my last response to Caric — to which I’ve already responded.