Friday, December 15, 2017

Alastair Roberts recent post about the politics of deference links to a John McWhorter interview about Coates, and along the way quotes Girard, which reminded me of a Jewish counter that Girardian scapegoats aren't what the Torah is getting at

This post is mainly going to end up being about Coates, because that's how it played out as I wrote it, but the inspiration for this post was something Alastair Roberts posted recently about headlines and op-eds to the effect that black women voted against Roy Moore.
If a person can tick off more boxes than you on the intersectional checklist, you must ‘just listen’ and morally defer to them. It seems to me that just this sort of thing is increasingly occurring in certain sections of Christianity and even evangelicalism, where people are elevated, deferred to, shielded from criticism, or otherwise treated as morally superior in no small measure because they belong to some historically oppressed class.

The politics of deference, by elevating victim classes beyond such things, and by constantly performing its ‘genuflections’ towards writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, can end up implicitly demeaning the agency and the thought of people of those classes. People and ideas emanating from that class are deemed morally superior and held to be immune to robust challenge, which patronizes members of those groups who want their agency to be taken seriously, rather than merely pandered to. John McWhorter discusses this dynamic in the clip below:

There's a forty-minute discussion between Glenn Loury and John McWhorter about Coates (you know the one) that is part of the larger post.  I won't quote much from that or the post itself.  As someone of mixed lineage, both white and Native American, I've found Coates' popularity and acclaim a bit puzzling.  He's a talented stylist and I frankly loved "The Insufferable Spider-man".  He's great fun to read on superheroes and pop culture.  His writings about racist seem, well, kinda racist, but racist in a kind of way that is venerated by those who believe that the only conversation we can have about race or should be having in the United States must be along the most literal as well as metaphorical black and white categories of thought. 

When I read "The Case for Reparations" I thought it was a powerfully worded emotional appeal but that I have enough of a Native American lineage that my first thought was, "Hey, if this kind of stunt was going to work at all could we do it for the American Indians first?"  Because in order to make room for whites who owned blacks as slaves some natives had to be displaced, or isn't that a fairly standard understanding of how the history of the United States gets presented?  While blacks were enslaved and slave owners resorted to enforced breeding efforts the aim with American Indians was to simply exterminate them.  There aren't as many Native Americans around as there are African Americans so why couldn't they be the first beneficiaries of Coates' proposed reparations case? 

Or does Coates even care about the plight of Native Americans at all?  I've read his stuff at The Atlantic but not his books, so I don't know if in any of his books Native Americans even matter enough to get mentioned in a single paragraph.  I got the impression that for a writer like Coates the subject of race is so literally as well as metaphorically black and white the racist narrative (depending on which race we're told to prefer) pretty much ignores the Native American populace as if there might as well have never been Native Americans living on this continent to encounter white people or to, say, own blacks as slaves, too.   While I like reading Coates essays from time to time I consider him more a master of emotionally charged rhetoric than a careful thinker.  Now if Coates has mentioned Native Americans someone can correct me if I have made an inaccurate guess.  I would think that at some point a case for reparations for blacks would have to consider the deals the United States made with Native American tribes.  Even if the federal government promises to do X for group Y how certain can you be that they will do it? 

The case for reparations, assuming there's a case to be made, has to be based not merely on an invocation of sins past but on the hope that the reparations will actually work.  If Coates regards the pervasiveness of white supremacist ideology as being as entrenched as he seems to think it is then there are two ways reparations, if ever even implemented, can boomerang.  On the one hand, if reparations don't work (and Obama, by Coates own account, seemed dubious that the kinds of reparations Coates has called for have ever worked anywhere in the history of humanity), Coates could say the reparations weren't good enough.  But if the reparations were effective to some degree couldn't a writer like Coates eventually conclude that if reparations by the United States under, say, a white president, worked that this somehow could be construed as a kind of blood money apologetic for the system?  Coates' case for reparations can contain within it the kind of double bind that is heads he wins tails you lose.  If the situation is as bereft of real hope as Coates sometimes seems to think it is then asking for reparations seems to depend on the kind of hope that Coates would seem to believe doesn't really exist, in which case why did he make a case for reparations to begin with?

To put it another way, why note make a case for reparations for the Native Americans first and get to the African American experience later?  There's a sense in which a person could say that Coates' plea for reparations would have been more potent and powerful if he had made it on behalf of a group of peoples whose skin color doesn't even correspond to his.  For as much as he has written about black bodies red bodies might be worth thinking about, too.  Depending on what statistics you consult, though African Americans are most likely to be shot by law enforcement the people most likely to be killed by law enforcement relative to the size of their respective populations can be Native Americans. 

If there's a case to be made for reparations based on sheer guilt about mistreatment the nearly massacred Native American population could deserve cuts in line for what Coates proposes even if we accept without any potential counterargument that the case for reparations is unassailable. As bad as things have been for people of color Coates' case seems narrow in its sight.  For instance, as bad as things often were for African Americans how old is jazz as a musical form?  To put it another way, let's look at Native Americans to see if they have anyone like the great writers and musicians in the African American tradition.  Who's the Stevie Wonder of Native Americans?  Who's the Native American Duke Ellington?  Who's the Native American Douglass, duBois, Ellison or King Jr?  Who is the Native American Langston Hughes?  Sherman Alexie?  Eh ... a fine storyteller but not the greatest poet.  There's never going to be a Spokane Renaissance the way there was a Harlem Renaissance to go by cultural activity over the last century. 

When my Native American relatives described the American Civil War to me they said the white racists assholes in the North fought the white racist assholes in the South about how to treat black people and once that was sorta settled everyone agreed it was time to kill off the Indians.  Technically Charley Patton is considered by blues historians to be black but also at least part Native American so, hey, if we abandon the notion of racial purity across black and white lines than American Indians played a role in bringing the blues tradition to life.  But the larger point still stands, a writer like Coates can look at the rich intellectual, cultural, literary and musical tradition of African Americans in the United States and by contrast, what exactly comes close to that legacy of achievement in the Native American scene?

If you grew up with a Native American account of the American Civil War that I summarized in the last paragraph, it raises a question that Coates' case for reparations didn't address in his published article.  It has to do with how seriously he really takes his idea about white supremacy defining American society.  If you grew up being taught there was no good guy team in the American Civil War then part of the foundation to which Coates must appeal for reparations dissolves.  If there's no good guy white team to appeal to in terms of white guilt because they were all guilty then why even make the case for reparations at all?  Either white America is so racist there's no point in even making the case for reparations to begin with,  or it's not so racist that an appeal for reparations cannot be made.  To go by what Coates has written and what people say about what he's written he's accused of having the former view despite the impossibility of avoiding the implication that his real view in practice has to be the latter since he went to the trouble of writing and publishing "The Case for Reparations."

Loury and McWhorter seem to stop just short of proposing that for a man like Coates to argue for reparations as he has while having the view of the white establishment that he does could only be made in bad faith, but it's simmering as a concept to consider in their differences with Coates and his ideas.  Everybody's in process and discovering things so, of course, Coates doesn't have to be thought of as having thought through this kind of stuff to the degree that he's going to just start writing about this kind of thing in The Atlantic next week, or maybe ever.  Who knows? 

Now I think that in a sense Roberts missed something about the recent election and Moore.  Yes, victimology is kind of a thing but I would suggest that the quest for representation seems more salient within the United States and I think it's possible, admittedly at an abstract level, that what is being sought in representation and intersectionality is a common goal, one in which the popularity of a writer like Coates may be relevant but first .... let's get to Girard and something Roberts wrote:

But, in fact, the real reason for this blog post has to do with Girard.

Alastair Roberts says:

Yes, the quotes are all from the latter part of that book. My thoughts on mimetic violence and Girardian theory have developed over the last decade. I might blog on it at some point, but I am increasingly ambivalent about his approach.

This post was written in just over an hour, so it didn’t take long (it helps that it is largely quotations). When I know what I want to write, I can write 2,000 words or more an hour.

As soon as I saw this I was reminded that over at The American Conservative Noah Millman stated that his difference with Girardian notions of the scapegoat had to do with how that conception of the scapegoat has little to do with Judaism. Millman's post gets literal about things in the very title "You Don't Kill the Scapegoat."

I haven’t read any RĂ©ne Girard since college, but I remember the experience, and so I was interested to hear that my colleague Rod Dreher has been reading him lately. Among other things, it provides me an opportunity to trot out an old hobby horse of mine: our common misunderstanding of the scapegoat ritual.

In common parlance, a “scapegoat” is an entity that takes the blame for problems that are not truly of their making. By giving the community a target on which to vent its rage and violence, the scapegoat unites the remainder of the community and makes it possible to endure through whatever problems the scapegoat was blamed for.

But as the name clearly implies, the scapegoat isn’t destroyed — it escapes. [bold emphasis added, italics original] And, indeed, in the original Israelite ritual from which we get the concept, there are two goats chosen: one for the Lord and one for Azazel. But it’s the Lord’s goat that is killed. The scapegoat is sent off into the wilderness.
Leviticus 16:7.         Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the LORD at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting;
16:8.         and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the LORD and the other marked for Azazel.
16:9.         Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the LORD, which he is to offer as a sin offering;
16:10.     while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the LORD, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.
16:11.     Aaron shall then offer his bull of sin offering, to make expiation for himself and his household. He shall slaughter his bull of sin offering,
16:12.     and he shall take a panful of glowing coals scooped from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of finely ground aromatic incense, and bring this behind the curtain.
16:13.     He shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, lest he die.
16:14.     He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger over the cover on the east side; and in front of the cover he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.
16:15.     He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood behind the curtain, and do with its blood as he has done with the blood of the bull: he shall sprinkle it over the cover and in front of the cover.
16:16.     Thus he shall purge the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness.
16:17.     When he goes in to make expiation in the Shrine, nobody else shall be in the Tent of Meeting until he comes out.
When he has made expiation for himself and his household, and for the whole congregation of Israel,
16:18.     he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and purge it: he shall take some of
the blood of the bull and of the goat and apply it to each of the horns of the altar;
16:19.     and the rest of the blood he shall sprinkle on it with his finger seven times. Thus he shall cleanse it of the uncleanness of the Israelites and consecrate it.
16:20.     When he has finished purging the Shrine, the Tent of Meeting, and the altar, the live goat shall be brought forward.
16:21.     Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man.
16:22.     Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.
The scapegoat is not the object of communal violence, so that violence cannot be providing a  kind of redemptive communal release of tension. [emphasis added]

Moreover, if sacrifice is about the release of these communal tensions, then how does one explain thanksgiving sacrifices, which are also blood offerings? The most extensive sacrifices outlined in the biblical text are those for Pentecost, a harvest festival of thanksgiving.
My read on the meaning of biblical blood sacrifice is different from Girard’s. Blood, as the carrier of life, is a powerful substance. That power can be harnessed — to transfer the residue of transgression from one entity to another, for example — but it needs to be treated with the proper respect, particularly respect for its origins: with God. This is explicitly laid out in Genesis 9:4-5.

In the earlier stages of Israelite religion, all killing of animals took the form of a sacrifice — without performing a sacrifice, you couldn’t eat meat. (This is the subtext of Saul’s transgression in 1 Samuel 13.) Sacrifice was a way of making the killing ok — because it meant returning the life to God. In other words, sacrifice wasn’t something you resorted to when the prohibitions failed — it was part of the system of prohibitions: a way of saying, you can only kill if you follow the prescribed rituals.

This is why, once ritual sacrifice was centralized, such that it was no longer practical to say that you can only eat meat after performing a sacrifice, the law had to change. In Deuteronomy, it says that if you slaughter an animal, you have to pour the blood on the ground and declare its return to God. Because you could no longer perform the sacrifice at home anymore, you couldn’t use the power of the blood. But you still needed to remove the blood in a ritualistic manner that made it clear that you respected the life that was being taken, and returned that life to its source.

Moreover, this prohibition was sufficiently strong that it even lasted into the early years of Christianity, vis Acts 15:20. The gentiles didn’t need to take on the bulk of the food-related prohibitions of Judaism when they converted — but they did need to abstain from blood.
So what’s the scapegoat about?

The scapegoat ritual is about cleaning the filter. The scapegoat is indeed removed from the community, but it doesn’t take the blame for transgressions — it takes the toxicity that  transgressions leave behind. This is not a ritual act of violence, any more than trash pickup is a ritual act of theft. It’s more comparable to cleansing the house of chametz during Passover than it is to “The Wicker Man.”
Next week maybe I’ll explain how everybody misunderstands Genesis 22:13.

Not too surprised Alastair had a comment early in the comment section for this one.   None of this is to suggest there's nothing useful or insightful about Girard, whose work I haven't read so I'm not going to claim there's something bad about his concept of the scapegoat just because an author points out that a Girardian conception of the scapegoat is not necessarily a Jewish one.  It might be possible for Christ to fulfill a scapegoat role by taking on our sins, for instance, despite the fact that Christ was crucified on the cross.  In a sense someone might propose, and this seems to be what people on the alt right have proposed, is that within the realm of intersectionality the white establishment is supposed to admit to the sin of being white and let those with intersectionally greater righteousness contribute and play roles in the foundations of power.  White nationalists don't want this to happen while advocates for intersectionality do want it to happen but what neither team seems particularly interested in debating or exploring is whether the power they all seem to want part in is actually all that legitimate.  This is perhaps most germane to Coates and his case for reparations because of the nature of the "ask" and the significance of what the reparations are supposed to be reparations for and ultimately "who" he wants the reparations to be made by. 

Whether Roberts blogs more about his ambivalence about Girardian categories in the future remains to be seen.  But since he mentioned Girard recently, it reminded me of something Millman blogged. 

Now, back to the matter of what representation, intersectionality and the popularity of a writer like Coates may be pointing to.

Intersectionality is not quite like the old political correctness from twenty years ago.  There's a new element in which variants of minority demographics have additive or multiplicative dynamics.  So if you're black you're not white and are not part of the hegemony of the white patriarchal cisgender establishment if only by dint of the not being white part.  But if you're a cisgender male who's a dudely dude, well, within intersectionality terms you're not "that" special.  You may be able to work out where the demographic "math" goes at this point. 

What this has to do with representation is an observation that in the priestcraft of academia and entertainment it would be better if more of these demographics who have historically not been given the power to get things done in those industries (let's just call academia an industry the way entertainment is an industry). 

Where this has the potential to go that I think someone like Roberts can appreciate, and certainly commenter cal here at this blog, is that all this adds up to a set of ideologies that implicitly or even explicitly propose that the establishment would be just fine as long as it had more diversity and representation of historically marginalized groups.

Anyone who actually thinks that is or will be or should be the case is a moron.  It gets to one of the reasons I find Coates' case for reparations weak sauce, the aforementioned double bind of either being not enough or being blood money.  Even if reparations were doled out and they "worked" (however anyone wants to define that) they would still be able to be dismissed as blood money on the general principle that what may get done in this century "could" have been done centuries earlier but wasn't because of racism.  Someone could take Coates' approach about white and black and point out that even if reparations worked that could still be the white establishment having bought off its own blood guilt with reparations.  You can't un-kill people, after all, and in that sense Coates' case for reparations might even have to assume that, at some level, that there's a price tag or a level of reparations to pay out that would somehow balance the scale.

Now Coates is an atheist so he's probably not going to agree with or follow that this doesn't exactly fit with what Christians have called sin.  The effects of a sin never end, even if the sin itself seems to be a small one.  It might really be a small one but a small failure at the level of one or two O-rings can lead to an exploding space shuttle, right?  Think of all the lives of the black men and women whose lives and bodies and hearts and minds were destroyed by the effects of institutional racism and slavery?  Has Coates stopped to think about how his case for reparations has to, in the end, argue that the United States government can really put a price tag on that?  If he has I'm not really sure how he could then proceed with a case for reparations and it's got nothing to do with the nature of the moral appeal based on how evil the treatment of black people was.   

This may seem like a tangent but it has a point. Christians understand that our sin and its effects are so ghastly in scope and eternal in never-ending consequences that Christ died for our sins; furthermore, in the age to come Christians believe there will be a new heaven and a new earth--too many arguments against Hell focus and fixate on objections to the eternal punishment part as if that was the primary message of Revelation for systematics, the promise is of a new heaven and earth, a whole new cosmos in which sin and sinners have no place and what is colloquially known as "Hell" or the lake of fire can be thought of as where those go who want no part of eternal life with Christ in the new Jerusalem.   But the key here is that in Revelation we are told that Christ returns and God in some sense reformats and reboots the entire cosmos. 

For someone like Coates life is precious because it isn't forever and because this life is the only one we have, but even so ... a case for reparations of the sort Coates has made at some point tacitly admits that there's a limit, and if there's a limit then a price can be put on something because it's not priceless.  Sure, Coates might deny this is an implication of his argumentation if directly pressed on the matter, but it seems impossible to evade.  The kind of price tag we would have to put on black bodies and souls for any reparations of the kind Coates wants to be made to get paid would seem to trivialize the horror of what was done to so many men, women and children over centuries.

By Coates' account, Obama told him that there's no evidence reparations would work and that whatever we do to remedy race relations in the United States has to set out on a different path and a different praxis.  Meanwhile the dead are still dead, and that Coates' appeal for reparations has to put a price tag on the souls of those who died (not that Coates necessarily believes in souls) might make it seem to those who believe that humans have dignity and bear the image of God that what Coates is making a case for is, in terms of human dignity, weirdly trivial.  The loss was terrible and in principle incalculable but a case for reparations has to concede that, well, there is nonetheless a measurable price tag. That seems to soft-pedal the magnitude of the sin committed against blacks by what I, as a Christian, regard as a literally eternal magnitude.  It's not that there's no case to be made for reparations, really, it's that Coates' particular formulation of his particular case seems sketchy if you start to think about it some more.  It has to do with a double bind that is imposed against his own case by his own reading of American history and the role of the white establishment as its understood power base.

If white racists destroyed black bodies through their actions and defended those actions by ideologies what does Coates' case for reparations have to appeal to?  Guilt, real guilt, but reparations as a solution become a hand-out based on established guilt about things done in the past given to people who are alive now.  If this is formulated in terms of an appeal to give to Americans what is promised in principle through the founding documents and the ideals of the Founding Fathers and the Framers of the Constitution then, fine, I could agree with that even if I have doubts that reparations will "work" in addressing that. 

But that's precisely where Coates' survey of white racism suggests that he can get stuck, because if the aforementioned is not the real idea of the Constitution or the Amendments and so on, then attempting to appeal for reparations comes back to making that appeal to a group Coates could seem to have described as predicated in racism.  If he really thinks white America is that racist why did he bother making a case for reparations to begin with?  The case only makes any sense even on its own terms if Coates can assume, at base, that white America and/or the power of the United States of America is both able and willing to make good on a case he's made for reparations, otherwise the whole stunt is made in bad faith or at least astonishingly sloppy thinking. Either he in some way agrees with Dr. King about the arc of history/the universe tending toward justice, however long, at least enough to bother making a case for reparations to begin with or he doesn't believe this and he can ultimately look like an idiot for, nonetheless, insisting on making a case for reparations anyway.

But Dr. King had some comments about the United States and Vietnam, didn't he?  That gets to something else that seems to be a fracture point in a Coates case for reparations.  Where's this wealth really coming from?  Consider how much our wealth has come from warfare, mineral extraction, resource exploitation and so many other things, too.  Coates' case for reparations has to assume that the United States is an empire that will be better if it just pays out reparations but where does this wealth come from?  Who in some other country may end up dead because the American empire decides to finally dole out reparations because Coates made a case for them? 

Just because the United States at some point may pay reparations wouldn't make it a more just empire just because Coates got what he wanted.  But that's a risk Coates has to take in the formulation of his case for reparations, that if the United States did this thing he wants done that that could be a significant step toward establishing that this current empire is okay, after all.  Someone who's read even a little of Augustine could say that this is just another iteration of the City of Man, a new iteration of Babylon the Great. 
As Loury and McWhorter put it in their clip, Coates is a gifted, talented writer but not a particularly deep or clear thinker.  I'd say I agree with that. 


chris e said...

I would agree that Coates tends to be much stronger when dealing descriptively with the past rather than writing prescriptively. However, I think he intends the question of reparations to function as a means of seeding the discussion rather than a stated end solution (he says as much in a couple of his columns).

In that sense he is trying to combat the ideas that either racism was something that happened in the past that is mostly now fixed on a material level or alternatively that any possible solution would be too complex to implement (the favored argument of centrists everywhere).

Cal of Chelcice said...

You didn't mention it, but I thought one of the most interesting points of the interview was Loury referencing Richard Spenser. According to him, Spenser is glad people fixate on intersectionality, identity-politics, and race. The reason is that when, and for Spenser it's inevitable, the minority coalition overplays its moral capital, when they simmer far too long, those whites who buy into race will back-peddle. And when they do, according to Loury, Spenser can and will flip them. Self-laceration and self-degradation only goes on as long as it doesn't punch you in the wallet, and white professionals are well-off enough for the moment.

Paul Gilroy writes about how race was always about whiteness, which was a false unity used to delimit social pressures and put the corollary, blackness, into a subordinate position. Originally it was slavery, but then there was Jim Crow. Gilroy advocates the use of race as a negative tactic; one embraces blackness to humiliate the establishment and unveil systems of oppression. But it can't build the future; race has to be destroyed if society is to progress. Blackness is only subversive of a racial ideology and nothing more. But buying into race as a reality is only to get trapped in the original ideological game. Whether it's David Duke or Coates, both live by the one-drop rule. It made me smile when a girl I was hanging out with called me a cracker and, in justification, said it's ok because she's half white.

And, again, I get the use of race as self-defensive technique. Redness emerged from within a series of defeated and disorganized tribes and nations which sought to unify and turn back the advancing American colonists and armies. It was a tactic of common interest, used to reverse the whiteness ideology over and against itself. Of course, Tecumseh and the Prophet did not win, and their coalition collapsed. It's also why the Cherokee played a losing game. They thought all they needed to do was to adapt Anglo-American forms of civilization, not knowing that as long as they existed as a separate political entity, they always stood as hurdle for the American government(s). And, to their credit, American political animals knew, from a long history, Indian nations could hedge their bets, play both sides, especially when the British and French, even the Spanish, still loomed as geo-political players.

At the end of the day, my problem with race is that it is a smokescreen. Yes, there are plenty of anecdotal stories of discrimination at an interpersonal level, and genuine racists who make a day tough if you're on the short-end of the stick. The joke about white cops pulling over black men is true enough. But it doesn't grasp larger social forces that drive racial ideology as a compelling, and useful, set of social controls.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

chris e, fair point. I admit I'm the sort of writer and thinker who believes that how you approach a topic is as important as what topic you approach. If Coates wants to combat the idea that racism is in the past rather than the present I'm on board with that. It's just that by catalyzing such a discussion about race with reparations Coates ends up seeming like someone who's hat trick is a more eloquent and historically informed variation of what Mark Driscoll did with Pussified Nation as William Wallace II, writing something provocative to address a problem and catalyze discussions of possible solutions about males who were not embracing social manhood. Now I hate to put it that way because Coates is a better writer than Driscoll has ever been, or will be, but I've seen first-hand how being deliberately provocative to "start a conversation" tends to play out. It created a cult of loyalist inspired by the eloquence of the expression who didn't think as deeply about the inherent content of the message.

Coates has written some readable arguments for how and why the Lost Cause version of the Civil War is a sham and that's been worth reading. But as I was writing earlier, the literally and metaphorically black and white way in which he addresses racism seems to spin the conversations he wants to start into too binary a direction, one that plays either to activists who want to shake things up or reactionaries who want to say that what we have now is just fine. I know you used the word "centrist", chris e, but I'd say that what Coates wrote in "Case", then, did was calculated to bring out either a sympathetic or a reactionary response. Because if the categories are those open to discussion that either racism is mostly in the past OR that a particular path such as reparations is impractical then Obama's sided with the "centrists", as has Sanders, and yet I'd venture to say neither of these guys would say that Senator Calhoun was right about slavery. The nature of the discourse invited has tended to go into either sympathetic praise or a reactionary stance and the trouble with that kind of provocation is that if Coates wants to do more he hasn't managed it just yet.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

cal, the comment about how a Spenser would benefit from the terms and nature of discourse that is promoted by the cult of Coates was interesting.

The black and white of the discourse has bothered me because it's not like there hasn't been racial animosity between blacks and Asians in the United States; or even from native Americans against Latin American people. That was something I saw on my Native American side of the family over the course of a decade or two. Then there's the millennia of European and Middle Eastern conflict where a lot of people ostensibly look the same in terms of skin color but have been at odds for generations.

Making things about race can make it easier to skate over class divides but I'm reminded of something Steven Wedgeworth wrote at his blog in response to something Coates wrote, actually, where he mentioned that if we look back at Senator Calhoun, he and others made a case in defense of white enslavement of blacks because 1) every wealthy society always had a slave caste of some kind, 2) he made a claim that blacks were better off under white rule anyway and 3) that there was always a battle between labor and capital in advanced stages of civilization.

Wedgeworth wrote:

This shows us that the issue was much more than “hate” or “prejudice.” Slavery was a key part in political and economic theory. It was the perceived solution to the problem of the unemployed and those who could not otherwise support themselves. It also helped to support workers’ rights in that it removed the most burdensome labor from free workers and placed it on slaves. The slaves were a sort of property, to be sure, but they also received a sort of full patronage (harsh and brutal as it was) from their masters. Calhoun believed this was an inescapable feature of economics and that slavery was preferable to laissez-faire capitalism.

So depending on how we parse the primary sources and the sum of the arguments made therein the white/black racist ideology was, as you put it, cal, a smokescreen for other economic and caste considerations.

The Cherokee are a sriking case because, as we were looking in a blog post earlier, the Cherokee even voluntarily abolished slavery in response to the Emancipation Proclamation. The Native American situation may be an instructive contrast to the African American situation because there isn't, even to this day, a sense of skin color cohesion. Even inside of one state there's no necessarily tight relationship between the tribes in any given state, let alone across states. It may be a side effect of ideas of tribal sovereignty where group identity and interests pretty literally can stop at the boundaries of the individual tribe.

chris e said...

"but I've seen first-hand how being deliberately provocative to "start a conversation" tends to play out."

I don't necessarily think that this is Coates aim. To me it's fairly clear that even a superficial reading of his columns would indicate that he is trying to 'beg the question' rather than being deliberately provocative. For instance - I didn't even have to look that hard to find the following:

"Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world."

Now I think the fact that he has been misinterpreted in the particular way he has been indicates that he has misjudged his audience. I feel his tactic is going to fail - for the reason that racism is actually much more prevalent than cal seems to think it is (we can see this more clearly if we look at other societies where the sub-altern class is racially stratified to such a degree). So strategically I'm with Adolph Reed even if I don't agree with the following:

"You didn't mention it, but I thought one of the most interesting points of the interview was Loury referencing Richard Spenser. According to him, Spenser is glad people fixate on intersectionality, identity-politics, and race. The reason is that when, and for Spenser it's inevitable, the minority coalition overplays its moral capital, when they simmer far too long, those whites who buy into race will back-peddle. And when they do, according to Loury, Spenser can and will flip them. "

.. which is a curious inversion of Spencer's rant on Muslims being actually violent despite claiming to be moderate. The uncharitable summary is that while whites are non-racist, they are only just so, and their prejudiced lies a few centimeters under the surface and will appear should you accuse them of being racist and prejudiced.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

chris e, think Coates probably doesn't go far enough, in a way, because the reason the idea of reparations threatens something much deeper about America's heritage, history and standing in the world is I regard the United States as a spent force in cultural and economic and ethical terms.

Fair point about what Coates may be aiming at as distinct from reception history. I think that racism is more likely to be omnidirectional and pervasive and Coates writing about black and white constrains the possibilities for conversation. One of my longtime friends is Chinese-American and he's visited the mainland a few times. There he discovered, as he told me, that mainline Chinese are easily some of the most racist people he's ever encountered in his life and that pretty much every monolithic culture tends toward racism. Some of my Native American relatives who shared the version of the Civil War in which neither the North nor South were the good guys could still express what seemed like pretty racist stereotypes about migrant Mexican workers that were assumed to be lying con artist rapists. That racism is pervasive seems hard to dispute. My understanding of where cal is going with his definition of racism is as a type of ideological tool employed by ruling castes to manipulate lower social strata in defense of the status quo. That may be an indirectly or even directly Marx-informed approach but Marxist thought tends to not be as direct in dealing with race as distinguishable from class. I don't know that cal is saying that other forms of racism don't exist so much as he's been writing about modes of racism that can be wielded within the context of ideological tools employed by ruling elites.

Cal of Chelcice said...

chris e,

you assert that racism is more prevalent and it gets it from a just-so story and a collection of empirical data and relations that don't press far enough. As WtH has pointed out, Antebellum defenders of slavery framed the discussion pretty blatantly in terms of race, but the perimeter was always socio-economic concerns. Africans solved the labor problems of the North without the seemingly vicious effects of an industrializing society (e.g. no safety nets, 10-14 hr work days, low wages, etc.) A standard, but undeveloped, reflection in antebellum historiography is that pro-slave defenders utilized the same critiques socialists used against industrial manufacturing capitalism. George Fitzhugh, who was a bit of a fringe thinker, called the slave South the actualized ideal of communism and considered enslaving inferior whites as a means to stabilize the master-slave class dynamics of society. To think that society is just racist doesn't make any sense.

I've seen someone describe race as a pathological social disease, but, again, social phenomena don't happen that way. They may replicate along those lines, but there still must be incentive. Deep ethnic hatreds tend to erupt over limited resources. The history of hatred between poor whites and poor blacks was over social access, potential to advance, limited capital (loans from banks, land, equipment) or limited jobs. That component shapes the entire debate, and I think it's fair to argue that the discontent among most people would dry up quickly if there was not such a perceived sense of lack. I can bet that WtH's family had beef with Mexicans because they were connected to a cheap labor phenomenon of migrant labor.

The point is: racial stratification is an ideological construct to build class divisions. It's not enough that random people have to live on in squalor with no hope of social mobility; there needs to be an explanation for it. It's not much different than Feudalism and the accompanying political theology about the three estates. It also maps up to the highly racialized language Victorian English elite used for the working poor. They considered them a different "race", and that's why Shaw's 'Pygmalia' (My Fair Lady) is about.

And that's not an inversion of Spenser's rant. Loury doesn't say that the whites are secretly racist, in the sense of hating non-whites, but because they buy into a race paradigm, that that's the logic driving them, they 'can' be flipped when they get tired of hating themselves. It's not the same as saying moderates are actually violent underneath.

However, there is a parallel that has been found in the crisis in Europe over Muslim immigration. There are plenty of political thinkers who've realized European nations have failed to integrate their immigrant populations sufficiently. When you're forced to either abandon your entire social matrix and faith to join European societies, and still then looked upon as a stranger, many Muslim immigrants enclaved. That's not because they necessarily wanted to, but because they had to and were put in an impossible situation. While most of these immigrants don't want any trouble, it's from in these ghettos that Wahabbist propaganda takes hold. It comprehends the poverty and shows a way out, namely waging war against the infidels. It's alienation and culture-shock repackaged towards terrorism, and thus young immigrants, maybe 2nd generation or so, flip.

Cal of Chelcice said...

Also, I know this doesn't fit this comment thread, but:

I just got around to watching Ghost in a Shell, and I'm going to spend some time digesting it. I think you're right to say that it's not that great of a film; it has to do a lot of explaining that it lacks in plot pacing and character interactions. I don't think it succeeds in its quasi-noir attempt to immerse you into the gritty world of Japanese tech.

But I was wondering: is the anti-Christian push of Oshii in that the desire for individuation, and even an eternal life as such, is a pathological immaturity? When the Major melds, giving up on the am-I-Human question, and becoming such in ceasing to exist and reproducing, is that the punch-line of Oshii's inversion of St. Paul? Eternal life is more the paganistic sense of the continuity of the species, parents living forever through their children, and so on?

Also, the weird tribal-esque chanting reminded me a lot of the score in Scorsese's 'Last Temptation of Christ'. I wonder if that was intentional, as that movie had a distinct gnostic flavor as well.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Oshii's Ghost in the Shell came on the heels of Patlabor 1 and Patlabor 2, which were critiques of the ways in which the real estate market and tech industries were displacing older, more traditional ways of living. Oshii's both a socialist and an atheist as best I can recall and his understanding of where Ghost in the Shell was going was to question rather than celebrate the trajectory of transhumanism.

It can be easy to underestimate the fact that Kusanagi died at the end of the film. The are several subversive levels of irony in the 1 Corinthians quote. The first is that the product of the fusion of the Major and the Puppeteer quotes the passage about becoming a man and putting childish things behind yet:
1) Major was a woman, not a man
2) the Major no longer exists post-fusion and what exists at the end of the film is a fusion rather than a real 'child' of either the Major or the Puppeteer
3) the new sentient being exists not in the body of an adult but of a child
4) given how regularly Major had to be maintained just to stay alive she died as/before the fusion was taking place
5) at NO POINT in the film did the Major ever even give her consent to participate in the fusion proposal

So given where Oshii and his screenwriter Ito went in the Patlabor 1 and 2 films I'd say that the subversive use of Scripture has to do with explicitly anti-Christian thoughts Oshii had because he was sympathetic to Zionism for a while and some Christian beliefs before rejecting them all (basically the subtext of his surrealist sprawl Angel's Egg). But at the same time Oshii has used biblical texts much the way American film makers invoke Easter religions, as a kind of fetish to demonstrate education and insights that their respective cultures ignore. Patlabor 1 ran with a very on-the-nose invocation of Japanese real estate expansion and tech veneration as a Tower of Bable project. Oshii may not believe in either Judeo-Christian beliefs or even in Gnosticism, given the kind of atheist he seems to be, but he finds the religious ideas useful as a critique of where he was worried Japanese society was going. The eternal life offered to the Major is a lie at every level because she doesn't survive the process and the internet is precisely the confinement the Puppeteer was trying to transcend.

I'm meaning to write about the film at some point eventually but I have been wondering why Ghost in the Shell is the cult classic it is when its end plot point reveal is EXACTLY the same as Star Trek: The Motion Picture and pretty much NOBODY treats THAT film like it's a classic! :)

Oshii's bitter about this fact but there are all kinds of reasons Miyazaki's films are better received and more popular than Oshii's films. I'd say Oshii has the actual flaws as a director and writer that Western film critics tend to impute to Christopher Nolan. Ghost in the Shell was the beginning of the end of Oshii making films I felt like actually sitting through, which has made me feel like the odd person out when so many other people praise the film as a classic. It's a CULT classic, but pretty severely overhyped.

chris e said...

"And that's not an inversion of Spenser's rant. Loury doesn't say that the whites are secretly racist, in the sense of hating non-whites, but because they buy into a race paradigm, that that's the logic driving them, they 'can' be flipped when they get tired of hating themselves. It's not the same as saying moderates are actually violent underneath. "

Actually I don't see much of a difference between being 'secretly racist' and '(possibly secretly) buying into a race paradigm', partly because I agree with a lot of the rest of your reasoning. 'Hate' is rarely completely irrational in that sense, it's usually in the service of some other ideology that is furthered by the process of 'othering'.

"The point is: racial stratification is an ideological construct to build class divisions. It's not enough that random people have to live on in squalor with no hope of social mobility; there needs to be an explanation for it. It's not much different than Feudalism and the accompanying political theology about the three estates."

So I'd agree with much of this (race isn't purely an ideological construct), and would thus say racism is 'more prevalent' primarily because the effects of the kinds of class divisions built up are so prevalent. And yes the solution lies at contending these things at the level of class and via associated economic structures. So in that sense Coates et al end up unintentionally promoting a set of identitarian remedies that are easier to accommodate under neoliberalism and thus mainly serve as a form of diversion. However people still have to live with their own present, so in that sense I can sympathise with what Coates is trying to articulate - even if I differ radically in where I thing the remedies are likely to lie.