Wednesday, January 28, 2015
I received this as a Christmas gift, which wasn’t a big surprise since I’d mentioned I wanted it. My new favorite cookbook. Straightforward, cheerful, just right. I want to make almost every recipe in it, and was happy to see that one of my favorite recipes - pizza with butternut squash, apples, spinach, caramelized onions and a garlic-white bean sauce (the sauce has also proved to be a big hit when I’ve made it alone as a dip for potato chips) – is hers. I can’t remember where I found it on the internet, but I hadn’t previously noticed the source.
I often think about the possibilities for a vegan show on Food Network or Bravo or the like. I’m sure someone at the networks must have given the possibility at least a moment’s thought – we’re a growing segment of the population, and therefore a growing market, which is what they care about - but they’re in kind of a fix. The problem, I believe, is that it’s not just another type of cuisine or niche like sandwiches or grilling. It fundamentally calls into question all of the nonvegan shows (like including representatives of atheism in nondenominational events). It could potentially draw people away from carnism and that fact could alienate the animal-products sponsors, who seem to be the majority.
So I’m not holding my breath. But if they did decide to go ahead with a vegan show, Chloe Coscarelli would be a good choice for the host. She’s photogenic, easy to understand, and according to the cookbook already “divides her time between New York City and Los Angeles.”
A couple of posts at Butterflies and Wheels called to mind one of my favorite sections in Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her
[CHARLES DARWIN, 1809-1882]
If Darwin’s ill health was not, as some seem to think, a pretext to isolate himself with his work, neither was it, as Darwin had right to fear, an insuperable obstacle to his work. One reason why it did not prove fatal to his ambitions was the devotion and sympathy of his wife.Beginning early in the day, after taking breakfast alone, and a walk, he worked in his study from eight until nine-thirty in the morning. Then he went into the drawing room with his family; he looked over the mail, and sometimes listened as a novel was read aloud, he resting on the sofa. (‘All that we can do’, he wrote, ‘is to keep steadily in mind that each organic being is striving to increase in a geometrical ratio…) He returned to his study at ten-thirty and emerged again at noon. (…that each at some period of its life, during some season of the year, during each generation, or at intervals, has to struggle for life or suffer great destruction…’) Then he took another walk, past the greenhouse, perhaps looking at an experimental plant, and then onto a gravel walk encircling an acre and a half of land, taking a specified number of turns, perhaps watching his children play, observing a bird, a flower. Or before he took too many spills, taking a canter on an old and gentle horse. (‘What a struggle must have gone on during long centuries’, he wrote, ‘between several kinds of trees each annually scattering its seeds by the thousands, what war between insect and insect – between insects, snails and other animals with bird and beasts of prey - ) After this, lunch was served to him. And then he read the newspapers and wrote letters. If they were lengthy he dictated them from rough drafts. At three o’clock, he went to rest in his bedroom, smoked a cigarette, lay on a sofa, and listened again to a novel read aloud to him by his wife. ( - all striving to increase, all feeding on each other, or on the trees, their seed and seedlings, or on the other plants which first clothed the ground and thus checked the growth of trees!’) This reading often put him to sleep so that he complained he had missed whole parts of books. His wife feared the cessation of her voice would wake him. (Of the Formica refescens, he wrote, ‘So utterly helpless are the masters, that when Huber shut up thirty of them without a slave…they did nothing; they could not even feed themselves and many perished of hunger’.)
GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution
At four he took another walk, and worked for one more hour. Then after another period of listening to a novel, he ate his dinner, played two games of backgammon with his wife, read some of a scientific book, and when tired finally, lay back again to listen while his wife read to him or played the piano. When he retired at ten or ten-thirty, he often lay awake for hours afterward in pain. On bad days, he could not work at all. (Of the process of selection he wrote: ‘…the struggle will almost invariably be most severe between individuals of the same species, for they frequent the same districts, require the same food and are exposed to the same dangers’.)
In a letter to Lyell he claimed that he was bitterly mortified to conclude that ‘the race is for the strong’, but that he would be able to do little more than admire the strides others would make in science. (‘…the swiftest and the slimmest wolves’, he wrote, ‘would have the best chance of surviving and so be preserved or selected’.) Because of his own ill health, and that of his grandfather and his brother, and mother-in-law and aunt (And he wrote: ‘…so profound is our ignorance and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being, and we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysms…’) and because of the sick headaches which his wife suffered (‘natural selection acts only by preservation and accumulation of small inherited modifications, each profitable to the preserved being…’ he wrote) he feared for the health of his children, of whom one died shortly after birth, one died in his childhood, and others suffered chronic illness.
In 1844, of his discovery of evolution, he recorded: ‘At last gleams of light have come and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that the species (it is like confessing a murder) are not immutable’. (145-6)
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Tonight’s All In with Chris Hayes (I’ll post the video when it’s available)
Updated - here's the video:
featured a report on the grotesquely deferential trip made by Barack and Michelle Obama and a twenty-hypocrite contingent from the US to honor the dead Saudi Arabian king. Hayes showed video of Michelle Obama, in reportedly a planned gesture, stepping back to allow her husband to walk in front of her and greet the new king [!] and his delegation first. It also shows them in a sort of receiving line where, in another planned move, Michelle Obama waited for each Saudi Arabian man to make a move to shake her hand first rather than reaching out her hand (too aggressively!) and expecting all of them to shake it as they had her husband’s. Several of the men passed by without shaking her hand.
Imagine, just imagine, if the US government had requested that some of its representatives defer to similar attitudes about black people, expecting them to walk behind white people and to accept that white people might not wish to shake their hands. All of this,* including the transparent rationalizations for obsequiousness toward this oppressive regime - a slap in the face to the women, LGBT people,…, and democratic activists in the country – reminds me of Reagan’s policy of so-called “constructive engagement” toward apartheid South Africa.
An informational 2011 interview with US foreign policy historian David Schmitz concludes with this exchange:
Would you argue that Reagan’s foreign policy extended the life of the regime in South Africa?This is especially relevant given that Obama has argued that it was his opposition to this very policy that drew him into politics. Speaking to students at the University of Cape Town in 2013, Noah Rothman reported,
Yes. It gave it life. It gave it hope that the United States would continue to stick with it. It gave it continued flow of aid as well as ideological support. It delayed the changes that were going to come. Then you had the big crackdowns in ’86 and ’87. So there was harm in the lengthening. There was harm in the violence that continued.
I think a lot of well-meaning people in the United States bought the Sullivan principles and constructive engagement, because it seems reasonable. Reagan would say, “If we’re willing to talk to the Russians, why aren’t we willing to talk to the South African government?” We’re going to encourage them to moderate and reform — it sounds reasonable. But there was no real pressure. It was all talk. And it was exposed as that.
Obama told the South African students that, when he was a teenager, he was moved to abandon cynicism and engage in the political process in order to oppose his university’s and the American government’s support for the Apartheid South African government.I wonder how it feels to return to that youthful cynicism.
* Hayes also reported on the Department of Defense plan to establish an essay contest in honor of Abdullah at the National Defense University. Yes, you read that right.
For the record once again, my reading of fiction is pretty minimal. I always have a long list of books to attend to, and sadly (because I would love to read more) fiction keeps getting bumped off. So talking about the best fiction I read in a given year is a bit like talking about the best white truffle dish I ate that year. And then there’s my idiosyncratic choosiness, which leaves my few recommendations useful to a fairly limited audience. That established, I’m only going to talk about one novel and a single short story.
These are the fictional complement to the historical works I discussed in my previous post. Like good political history, good political fiction reveals the effects of political events – in this case, World War II and the Cold War – on people and their relationships. The first is a 1955 novel by May Sarton, Faithful Are the Wounds:
It tells of leftwing Harvard scholar Edward Cavan, his suicide in the midst of Cold War persecution (the character was based on F. O. Matthiessen),* and the ways his colleagues, students, relatives, and friends attempt to make sense of his death and to cope in its aftermath. There are probably too many characters for all of them to be fleshed out as fully as I’d have liked, but Sarton manages to present each of them sympathetically despite real political differences amongst them. She showed a real tenderness towards her characters (and settings!).
The story I enjoyed most last year impressed me with its moral self-awareness and self-questioning: Leó Szilárd’s 1949 “My Trial as a War Criminal,” in his 1961 volume The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories.
Szilárd presents an alternate history in which the Soviet Union, having later defeated the US by resorting to biological weapons, tries physicists like Szilárd and political leaders for their participation in the atomic weapons program and the bombing of civilian targets in World War II. In this and the other stories in the volume (which are generally wry, playful, and humanistic, and often prescient) he offers a model of humility and questioning, qualities which often seem dangerously lacking in today’s champions of science.
This post provides a nice summary of “My Trial as a War Criminal,” and this comment a thoughtful analysis of Szilárd’s artistic choices that resonates this month in particular. The author of that comment, a man named Gene Dannen, published literally yesterday a new article about Szilárd, his first love, and how he was forever changed by their relationship: “A Physicist’s Lost Love: Leo Szilard and Gerda Philipsborn.” Announcing its future publication a few months ago, Dannen wrote: “I don’t think anyone who reads the article will ever forget it.” In a lifetime of reading, I can’t remember any such claim made by an author about their own work, much less one made on a personal website, that turned out to be correct. However, having now read “A Physicist’s Lost Love,” I’ll be darned if it wasn’t so. It’s terrifically moving and inspiring, so thank you, Gene Dannen.
*There is now an F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship of Gender and Sexuality at Harvard.
State violence and repression during World War II and the Cold War and its ideological rationales are of more than historical interest. The arguments and techniques developed in this era have persisted in today’s security state, shaping contemporary politics and affecting, sometimes destroying, lives and social movements. The best books in history and fiction that I read in 2014 deal explicitly with the mid-twentieth century but they’re relevant to today’s world.
The first book - Alice Kaplan’s The Collaborator - I’ve already discussed here, so I won’t say more about that one.
The second, also about intellectuals and politics, Frances Stonor Saunders’ (2000) The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters,
describes how the CIA, through the Congress for Cultural Freedom and other fronts, worked during the Cold War to move intellectuals on the Left in Europe and the US in the direction of US strategic interests and to promote the voices of those more friendly to the US. Some digression is necessary: I learned of it reading Sonia Kruks’ introduction to Beauvoir’s 1955 article “Right-Wing Thought Today” in Simone de Beauvoir: Political Writings. In this introduction, Kruks condenses the main arguments in Beauvoir’s article:
What above all characterizes right-wing thought in the twentieth century, Beauvoir claims, is that it has become no more than a ‘counter-thought’. The optimism of nineteenth-century bourgeois thought, that of a class that was still rising, had begun to wane already by the First World War. Since the advent of the Soviet Union, the main task of right-wing thought has been to oppose itself to communism. To do so effectively, it must justify the status quo and preach passivity and inaction to those who might otherwise challenge the class order. Right-wing thought thus lacks a positive content: it is no more than a range of disparate and often inconsistent reactions; a mishmash of counter-assertions. All that these share is their common opposition to the coherent and forward-looking theory and practice of communism. Because its main task is to legitimize the privilege of the few, both in their own eyes and in those of the many, right-wing thought is essentially inconsistent. For, Beauvoir argues, the proper endpoint of thought is to seek truths that are universal, and which thus apply to all. But since right-wing ‘thought’ instead aims only at the legitimation of particular interests, it denies this endpoint and is, as such, intrinsically irrational. This explains why it may take on so many and such contradictory forms. (108)Kruks points to some criticisms of Beauvoir’s article: Its uncritical celebration of communism (this was her and Sartre’s phase of closest relations with the Communist Party) was inconsistent with her warnings against Seriousness in The Ethics of Ambiguity.1 Also, it lumps together liberal and ostensibly leftwing thinkers (or those who considered themselves leftwing and were generally seen as such) with far-Right ideologues.
She concludes (somewhat oddly – I agree with Tove Pettersen’s review which can be found here) that Beauvoir’s essay might be of “mainly historical interest” (110). She notes, however, that “elements…remain of enduring relevance” and “[i]t continues to offer prescient insights that still bear on debates about inequality, elitism, and privilege today” (111). In particular, Beauvoir is “highly attuned, well ahead of most other Left social critics of her day, to the Eurocentric and masculinist tones of Western elite thought, describing it as a thought that ‘monopolizes the supreme category – the human’ for itself” (110).
I found Beauvoir’s analysis of rightwing thought in the article absolutely brilliant and topical. Its value becomes even more evident when it’s read alongside not only works like Sartre’s “What Is Literature?”2 but The Cultural Cold War. Kruk’s concerns are valid, and of course, as she notes, Beauvoir’s turn toward Communist politics looks even worse in light of the trajectory of that movement; the philosophical inconsistency of her position with her earlier insights about Seriousness also had to be evident to her. And it’s true that seeing liberals and leftists grouped with vicious fascists is more than a little disconcerting, and had to have been offensive to many at the time.
That said, in a strange way her Communism and the suspiciousness and hypercriticality it engendered do seem to have sharpened her analysis of political thought and heightened her awareness of the forces at work. Regarding everything not Communist as rightwing does appear to reflect “a striking Manichaeism” (109), as Kruks says. At the same time, it enabled Beauvoir to draw out the rightwing elements of what were commonly seen as Leftist positions and arguments.
This is especially important because, as Beauvoir discusses in the article itself and Kruks and Stonor Saunders both note, she had strong suspicions about who was behind these rightwing tendencies on the Left, even specifically mentioning publications that, we can now show, were funded by the CIA. Stonor Saunders’ book vividly describes how the CIA and their accomplices carried out their manipulations of intellectual life in Europe and the US, a political project which went well beyond a few prominent European journals and encompassed major cultural events, art, music, movies, literature,… (There are writers whose rightwing tendencies always registered with me somehow but without ever really taking shape; seeing their work and its publication and promotion in this context adds another, indispensable level of understanding.)
There are two major ways in which this project was elitist and reactionary – the actual content of the ideas so incisively captured by Beauvoir, and the method: the process of manipulation from ‘above’, which was itself based on an extremely elitist ideology (it’s no accident that many of those involved were wealthy men recruited from elite universities and institutions: they shared the belief – inculcated since birth - that they should have the power and the duty to push “the masses” in the correct direction).
There can be no doubt that similar programs exist today and are operating around the world. Some have been covered fairly extensively while others remain largely in the shadows. Writers and intellectuals today, especially those on the Left, should read books like Stonor Saunders’ to better understand the political context in which they work. It’s common (and necessary) for people to point to the public attacks and the more or less overt censorship of McCarthyism, the Loyalty Program, and the like; but manipulations of the sort described by Stonor Saunders are equally pernicious, intellectually and politically.
Another excellent historical work that challenges the self-congratulatory, self-serving narratives of “Western” freedoms and rights is Carol Anderson’s (2003) Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955.
Anderson describes how the NAACP, in an extraordinarily hostile political environment, lost its struggle3 to advance social and economic rights – the broad human rights of the UN declaration4 - and were ultimately pushed to narrow their goals to political rights, with tragic consequences especially for black USians. I’ll quote from the introduction and the epilogue:
How could all of the blood, all of the courage, and all of the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement still leave in its wake a nation where schools are more segregated than ever, where more than half of all black children live in poverty, and where the life expectancy of African Americans has actually declined? And how could a movement with so much promise still leave more than six million African Americans trapped and dying in the ‘underclass’? The answer lies, I believe, not so much in the well-documented struggle for civil rights, but in the little known, but infinitely more important, struggle for human rights. For too long, civil rights has been heralded as the ‘prize’ for black equality. Yet, those rights, no matter how bitterly fought for, could only speak to the overt legal and political discrimination that African Americans faced. Human rights, on the other hand, especially as articulated by the United Nations (UN) and influenced by the moral shock of the Holocaust, had the language and philosophical power to address not only the political and legal inequality that African Americans endured, but also the education, healthcare, housing, and employment needs that haunted the black community. (1-2)1 The Serious Person (or Man, as she describes him in the sexist noun/pronoun conventions of the twentieth century), is someone who has fled from freedom and responsibility by denying the openness of history and complexity of political action and identifying a cause, movement, or Party (Science, neoliberalism, “development,” the Greens,…) with progress toward the good and the just. Personal ethical responsibility for choices made and actions taken is thus relieved through identification with this progressive advance.
…The opportunity that World War II presented has long since passed. Nevertheless, it is important to remember what was lost and why so that when the Third Reconstruction begins, and it must, the unresolved work of the First and Second Reconstructions can finally be completed and a nation will arise with a true commitment to equality and human rights. That is the prize. (276)
2 A collection of or about the work of Beauvoir, Sartre, and Camus on the role and responsibility of the writer and intellectual would be interesting….
3 If I had any major criticism, it would be that I wished the global context and relations with movements in the colonized world had been given more emphasis.
4 And let’s be clear: after centuries of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, and genocide, and in the immediate wake of the rise of fascist European governments and a gargantuan conflict which claimed the lives of tens of millions of people through mass murder, war, starvation, and sickness and which followed closely on the heels of another horrific European war…a stated commitment to and declaration of universal human rights – even had it been meaningfully applied – would hardly be evidence of the higher development of human rights in the “West,” for pity’s sake.
Monday, January 26, 2015
It’s entirely possible that I’m one of the few people who didn’t know about this. Evidently, The Morning News has an annual book competition modeled after the NCAA basketball tournament, and this has been going on for 11 years.
The 16 competitors for 2015 were announced a few weeks ago; the brackets not yet. The tournament itself will be in March, of course. I like that they say that the selection and judging are arbitrary and capricious, that they have color commentators, and that a public discussion follows each of the judges’ decisions.
Amazingly, given my sparse reading of contemporary fiction, a book I posted about in December - Dear Committee Members: A Novel - made the long list. Of the 16 chosen for the tournament, a few interest me, and there’s one I might read soon, but only if I can (and want to) steel myself for it: Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State.
Sunday, January 25, 2015
The films I liked most this year – unlike my favorite books of 2014, most of them actually are 2014 films (the English release at least) – tended to fit with the books I liked and to fall into two major thematic categories: existentialism and the arrogant-vindictive personality.
My taste in movies is maybe even more idiosyncratic than my taste in books, which is why I typically have trouble recommending either.* But with that warning out there…
First, the three movies I’d broadly classify as “existentialist.” Ida
directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and for Achievement in Cinematography. I haven’t seen any of the other Foreign Picture nominees and so can’t speak to whether it deserves to win over them, but independent of the specific competition it certainly deserves the award. The cinematography is also outstanding. Beautiful film.
The documentary The Last of the Unjust
directed by Claude Lanzmann is also haunting and heartwrenching.
Both movies – one fictional and one about a real person – address the Holocaust and its aftermath. They pose the starkest existential questions about the impossible dilemmas of people who retain some freedom of choice even as they’re victimized by oppressive political systems. They both present situations (I’ve read several interviews with Pawlikowski about Ida, and don’t know that he’d necessarily agree with this fully, but it’s my interpretation) in which there’s no escape that isn’t a political decision and in some sense a contribution to injustice. They’re both compassionate toward their subjects.
My third favorite is also an existential film, but an unusual one. While Ida and The Last of the Unjust follow in the existentialist tradition of presenting people in moral limit situations (what Sartre called “the literature of great circumstance”), Éric Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale,
like his other works, is a refreshingly lighthearted exploration of existential themes – in this case, a study in bad faith. (I don’t think I’m reading too much into his work here: according to this obituary, Rohmer himself declared “I never talk about Sartre, but he was still my starting point.”**)
I recommend this movie to people who already know they like Rohmer’s films or who expect based on the preview that it would be to their taste. I don’t think they’re an acquired taste, but that people either love them or hate them based on very personal preferences. I generally find them both enjoyable and thought-provoking, but I like films with a lot of talking, especially those set at the beach. For some reason, I’ve also tended to see them in very pleasant circumstances (I saw this one on a cheery summer day in New York, left the theater and strolled along Central Park while some sunlight still remains,…), which probably also colors my opinion. But I’m certainly not alone in my fondness for them – he made popular movies for decades.
My other favorite films of 2014 looked at the arrogant-vindictive type described by Horney. One I’ve already discussed here: Alex Holmes’ Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story. The second is an HBO documentary - Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words. Even if you think you know the extent of Nixon’s viciousness, you’ll probably be surprised by this film. At the moment you can watch the whole thing here:
If that video is taken down for whatever reason, just look it up on YouTube. Even, again, taking into account what’s known about his vindictiveness, and even setting the man in his time, I’m still struck by the extent of his arrogance and meanness; the depth of his misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism; his projection (man, the projection!); and his utter contempt for democracy. I also think the film does a great job of presenting the central material – the audio recordings – in a clear manner that’s not too gimmicky or obtrusive; in other hands, that could have gone very wrong.
The Good Doctor
isn’t a 2014 film and I wouldn’t include it among the best I saw last year (nor would I necessarily want to see it again), but it’s an interesting fictional psychological character portrait.
* I will say that I finally watched The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire recently and enjoyed them both. I probably won’t ever get around to reading the books, but the movies were engrossing and I look forward to the next ones. So it’s not that I dislike mainstream or popular films reflexively or as a matter of principle. It’s just that those I do like tend to be few and far between.
** I’ve seen a few references to the quote but not the source, so I can’t confirm it.
Given the variety of philosophical books I read last year, it’s surprising that my favorites were written and edited by the same person and dealt with the same subject:
George Yancy, Look, A White!: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness
and George Yancy, ed., What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question
Both are edited volumes, and so have the typical redundancy and unevenness in quality, and some of the chapters in second volume are…weak. But when they’re good, they’re great. The best philosophy – like the best psychology or history - should help us to look critically at ourselves and our culture, and especially to understand how, often without realizing it, we can be participating in oppression and harming others as well as ourselves. These books are valuable contributions to that humanistic tradition.
To clarify - these aren’t the best books of 2014. In fact, precisely none of them were published in 2014, and some were published decades ago. They’re the best books, from whenever, that I read in 2014. Technically they span the fields of psychology-psychiatry, history, philosophy, and fiction. But they’re all relevant, in a variety of ways, to enduring questions and to our current troubles.
First, psychiatry and psychology.
For several years I’ve described the harmful pseudoscience of biopsychiatry, and I have every intention of continuing to do so. One frequent response that saddens me probably more than any other is the plaintive question, “If this is false, what’s the alternative?” This question has become increasingly troubling to me as I’ve learned more about this great humanist, feminist, antiracist, anticolonialist, antispeciesist, anticapitalist tradition of psychological-psychiatric writing and activism which draws connections between liberation and psychological well-being. Decades of work and insights have been shoved aside, misrepresented, and forgotten, a situation sadly exploited by psychiatry and pharma. So it’s important to me to continue to talk about these books – to reclaim this neglected tradition and to begin to suggest alternatives.
Karen Horney’s New Ways In Psychoanalysis
is a fair, measured, fruitful examination of Freudian ‘theory’.1 What lends this and other works by Horney their power and relevance is their solid grounding in humanism, humility, compassion, and genuine curiosity. Even the most theoretical sections, furthest removed from therapeutic concerns, never give the impression that Horney is engaging in criticism as an intellectual game or that her arguments are exercises in spite, oneupmanship, or territory-staking. (In fact, there’s no indication in her analysis of the personal costs of her dissent with Freudian orthodoxy; these struggles are described in Susan Quinn’s A Mind of Her Own, which is also an absolutely worthwhile book.)
In this as in all of her works Horney is intent on preserving what she sees as the most plausible and useful ideas of Freudianism while discarding those that are empirically unfounded and ideological – particularly those precursors of Evolutionary Psychology that claim culturally specific traits as biologically fixed and immutable. I think it would be most useful to read New Ways alongside Fromm’s Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought, Beyond the Chains of Illusion, and The Revision of Psychoanalysis. Horney and Erich Fromm lost – at least in the short term of several decades – the battle for academic inclusion and public recognition with the (other) Frankfurt theorists and orthodox Freudians, but it’s never too late for a renewed recognition of their contributions.
Alice Miller’s Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child
is an angrier book than Horney’s. It draws broadly from Freudian fundamentals in developing an argument about childhood abuse and its effects while condemning Freud for what Miller sees as his betrayal of children. I find some of Miller’s claims in this and other books wildly over the top and reject her suggestion that mothers should act as slaves to children (to be sure, developing a positive model of care and nurturing in a sociopolitical context in which care and nurturing are culturally and institutionally disempowered is complicated and difficult, but her demands on mothers are outrageous); but the book’s original insights outweigh these problems.
Like Fromm, Horney and Miller explicitly recognize the political and ethical implications of their psychological arguments. In the preface to the 1998 edition of Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, Lloyd deMause cites Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner’s 1988 The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe
as support for Miller’s arguments about the powerful personal and political effects of the treatment of children. The Altruistic Personality is an extremely insightful work and one which I’ve never seen cited in discussions of the roots of altruism or authoritarianism. It’s valuable as research in historical sociology, especially given that the window in which such a study could be conducted has since passed. And it’s valuable as a work of social psychology concerning the roots of morality and altruism and particularly the role of parenting in the development of the political personality.
The Oliners and their international team conducted extensive empirical research on the question of what led some non-Jews to rescue Jews (and others not to) during the Holocaust. Their concluding chapter, which I found most interesting, discusses the significance of their findings for understanding moral courage. They challenge the cultural script about the Moral Hero (a script which, not coincidentally, resembles the standard one about the Scientific Hero). This script holds that moral courage is a form or expression of autonomy and independence, born of parenting that instills noble principles and the toughness necessary to defend them. It’s a narrative that rests on sexist arguments (which can be found even amongst more humanistic writers like Fromm) about a mother’s role being purely nurturing and thus leading to egocentricity and moral laxness in the child if not complimented by a father’s inculcation of courage, independence, and dedication.
The near-exclusive emphasis on alleged “autonomy” and “independence” in beliefs about the foundations of moral courage is rooted in male supremacy – valued qualities like moral courage and rationality have long been seen as having their roots outside of the lesser-developed “feminine” sphere, dominated by impulsive and unreliable emotion and “animal” nurturing, and in fact are presented as the result of transcending this sphere and entering into complete autonomy and independence. The narrative, which unfortunately also pervades the animal liberation movement,2 claims the roots of morality in rational, abstract thought and “higher” principles. (It’s of course easy to see how such a narrative underlies the “civilizing” pretext of imperialism and colonialism.)
The Oliners’ findings lead them to very different conclusions about the roots of courageous altruism. “The importance of relationships in our analysis of what motivated altruistic rescue behavior during the Holocaust,” they describe, “contrasts with the emphasis on autonomy cited by numerous others as the basis for moral behavior generally and rescue behavior particularly.” In The Authoritarian Personality, for example, “Moral courage is…the conspicuous characteristic only of the independent, autonomous, ego-integrated liberal.” They suggest that
the emphasis on autonomous thought as the only real basis for morality continues to enjoy widespread acceptance. The lonely rugged individualist, forsaking home and comfort and charting new paths in pursuit of a personal vision, is our heroic fantasy – perhaps more embraced by men than women but nonetheless a cultural ideal. His spiritual equivalent is the moral hero, arriving at his own conclusions regarding right and wrong after internal struggle, guided primarily by intellect and rationality. It is this vision that underlies much of Western philosophy and psychology.Instead, they find the roots of the moral courage of rescuers in nurturing family and social environments. “Although no one developmental course inevitably produces an extensive person [one more likely to act with moral courage],” they suggest, “we can provide a composite portrait from the significant differences that distinguish rescuers from nonrescuers.” Basically,
…In a culture that values individualism and rational thought most highly, a morality rooted in autonomy is considered most praiseworthy. Those who behave correctly – ethically, in fact – but do so in compliance with social norms or standards set by individuals or groups close to them or because of empathic arousal are presumed to be in some way morally deficient. That few individuals behave virtuously because of autonomous contemplation of abstract principles – a finding that has been reiterated in numerous studies including Adorno’s and our own – has not deterred advocates of independent moral reasoning from advancing it as the most morally admirable style.
It begins in close family relationships in which parents model caring behavior and communicate caring values. Parental discipline tends toward leniency; children frequently experience it as almost imperceptible. It includes a heavy dose of reasoning – explanations of why behaviors are inappropriate, often with reference to their consequences for others. Physical punishment is rare; when used, it tends to be a singular event rather than routine. Gratuitous punishment - punishment that serves as a cathartic release of aggression for the parent or is unrelated to the child’s behavior – almost never occurs.A “benevolent cycle of warm parents, lenient with respect to discipline, and modeling caring behaviors” (similar, of course, to the parental ideal put forward by Horney) leads people to develop a basic trust in the world, ontological security, the ability to form healthy attachments, an openness to different people and experiences, a willingness to take risks, a sense of effectance, caring skills, and an experience of being an active part of the world. Altruism doesn’t result from a rational weighing of principles but rather forms a habitually ingrained way of being in and experiencing the world.3 And naturally, “A prototypical developmental course can also be outlined for those who are resistant to altruism, an orientation more typical of those whose lives have been characterized by constrictedness” - the childhood environment of nonrescuers in general was quite different from that of rescuers.
…Simultaneously, however, parents set high standards they expect their children to meet, particularly with regard to caring for others. They implicitly or explicitly communicate the obligation to help others in a spirit of generosity, without concern for external rewards or reciprocity. Parents themselves model such behaviors, not only in relation to their children but also toward other family members and neighbors.
…Because they are expected to care for and about others while simultaneously being cared for, children are encouraged to develop qualities associated with caring. Dependability, responsibility, and self-reliance are valued because they facilitate taking care of oneself as well as others. Failures are regarded as learning experiences, with the presumption of eventual mastery, rather than inherent deficiencies of character, intellect, or skill.
(A few important clarifications to limit the scope for misinterpretation: The Oliners, as mentioned above, don’t suggest that different forms of parenting automatically or inevitably produce different types of children, such that anyone who’s been raised in a “constricted” or abusive environment is destined to be a moral coward. They’re revealing patterns, not absolute cause-and-effect relationships. Further, they find that altruism-encouraging environments don’t vary by class. Finally, they note that when they speak of children’s developmental environments they aren’t talking narrowly about nuclear families, and that older people important in a child’s life who encourage and model caring and nurturing behavior aren’t necessarily parents, much less exclusively mothers.)
The political implications of the Oliners’ work are enormous. People are increasingly making connections between children’s development and political attitudes and identities. Although Oliner and Oliner don’t say much about how different parenting practices emerge from cultural and political ideologies, others (including, importantly, Alice Miller) have explored authoritarian parenting and pedagogical movements and their mutually reinforcing relationship with authoritarian politics.
The Oliners’ work fundamentally challenges the reactionary rationale for authoritarian parenting: that nonauthoritarian parenting produces “soft,” narcissistic children of weak moral fiber. In light of their findings, this has it exactly wrong.
1 I don’t use scare-quotes to indicate a categorical disdain for all Freudian ideas. I just prefer in such contexts to hold to stricter definitions of terms like “hypothesis” and “theory.”
2 I’ve referred to Brian Luke’s excellent chapter on this topic in Animals & Women; Luke expands on these arguments in his 2007 Brutal: Manhood and the Exploitation of Animals.
3 Oliner and Oliner don’t, it should be noted, claim that abstract thought and principles negatively influence morality, though they do suggest that this approach doesn’t necessarily lead to moral attitudes and acts toward others – indeed, “[i]deology, grand vision, or abstract principles may inure them to the suffering of real people” and “[t]hose who argue that principled people are less subject to the vagaries of circumstances have little empirical evidence to support this claim.” In general, they hope their research findings will help to introduce some balance to the standard narrative:
Just as there are multiple styles of cognition and affect, so there are multiple styles for arriving at moral decisions. The virtue that may arise out of attachments, care, and affiliations with other people is no less meritorious or reliable than that which arises out of autonomous abstract thought.
…Empathy and concern with social norms simply represent alternative but equally profound ways of apprehending moral claims… According to our study, they are the most common ways. Like principles, they too can inspire heroic moral courage.
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Ophelia has posted about a question asked by faitheist James Croft in a public Facebook post:
Interesting question which came up at this Clergy Care Summit: what is a Humanist version of “Know that God Loves you?”I’m quite glad he asked this, because it’s highly relevant to what I’m writing about at the moment, including the post I was writing when I read Ophelia’s, which is the first in a series about the best books I read last year. This one focuses on works in psychology and psychiatry, specifically Karen Horney’s New Ways in Psychoanalysis, Alice Miller’s Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, and Samuel P. and Pearl M. Oliners’ The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. They’re three very different books, but they share an emphasis on childhood experience, one that reveals how very tragic the Clergy Care Summit’s question is.
What lies beneath the question is a culture so distorted by theism that it’s produced people who find such a query intelligible. This is true in two senses. First, it’s a culture of alienation. Once Christianity has substituted an unreal and narcissistic relationship with an imaginary, abstract, all-loving being for our genuine, deep, wonderfully complicated connections to one another and the rest of the natural world, including our fellow animals, there’s nothing left when this being is revealed as a hoax. The felt need for such a being rests on a false understanding of reality, one to which some humanistic atheists and scientists have unfortunately contributed.
Second, as the works mentioned above discuss (as do those of Erich Fromm which I’ve analyzed in some depth), the question rests on a fundamentally tragic experience of the world. A key feature of good psychoanalytic work is its recognition that an essential element of a child’s development is her or his sense of ontological security. This involves helping children to develop a basic trust in the world and the sense that they’re a worthwhile, respected, and effective part of it. So many elements of parenting and culture not only fail to encourage this sort of security but are actively destructive to its formation, particularly for those who are oppressed in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, class, and species. Among those negative influences are some forms of Christian culture, which not only contribute to the sense of fundamental alienation described above but often encourage forms of parenting that interfere with the experience of ontological security in children and adults.
So my response as an anarchist-atheist-(antispeciesist) humanist to the question isn’t an empty slogan or phrase, but to encourage opposition to those conceptions of the cosmos that claim our alienation as well as those aspects of society and parenting* that deny ontological security to the young. In a context in which everything conspires to tell the young (and the old), not just at a conscious but an unconscious level, that they’re not worthwhile or safe and that their role is to serve the social order rather than the reverse, no platitude is the answer. It’s this environment that makes us cling to such specious claims, and this environment that has to radically change.
* Parenting here should not be understood to mean only biological parents, much less solely mothers, but all who play a role in the development of our fellow beings and all of us to the extent which we (can) influence and change the economic, political, and cultural contexts in which we all develop.
Sunday, January 18, 2015
The eighteenth-century compromise I complained about back in 2012 is still sticking in my craw (especially now). Since the 2012 post was detailed enough I’ll simply link to it rather than retell the story, which involves the controversy over Thomas Paine’s publishing The Age of Reason and the how people in the US came to think about and approach not just secular government but secularism more generally. Ultimately, a sort of compromise was reached that not only involved the separation of church and state but a cultural approach to faith-religion. In short, it would be understood that religion was a private affair and that, as long as it was institutionally separate from government, faith shouldn’t be subjected to public criticism or ridicule. Paine had “wounded the warm and tender feelings of more than a million of his real friends” with his book, as one commentator put it (Daniel, 248), and that wasn’t acceptable in polite society.*
My opposition was based on two general factors. First, Paine and others since, especially anarchists, have been hurt by this pseudo-civility requirement, for simply speaking the truth about religion. Even if we’re “granted” the right, always on a shaky foundation, to challenge or mock faiths, doing so is claimed to be unnecessary and cruel. Second, it rests on a false idea of how faith actually works in the world.
It would be ridiculous to suggest that the formal constitutional separation of church and state has led to a separation of religion from government. Today’s congress, for example, is 92% Christian; the majority Republicans, 301 of them, are all Christian but one. 300 out of 301. And these people, many of whom are extremists, are not leaving religion at the legislative door. It’s central to their rhetoric, their arguments, and their policies. Those policies are overwhelmingly contrary to the basic needs and rights of women, LGBT people, and nonhuman animals. They’re generally set in opposition to the protection of the environment and the teaching of science. It’s obscene to expect people actively harmed by bogus beliefs to treat those beliefs with respect.
But even if this weren’t the case, the idea that a barrier between “private” religion and “public” politics could ever really exist isn’t one we should take seriously. Religion involves people’s understanding of reality. How could that not affect their opinions on matters of public concern? It obviously does.
Further, as I’ve been arguing for several years, faith itself is a ludicrous, unethical, and highly dangerous way to approach knowledge and belief. It’s not a virtue, and should not be treated with respect, much less deference. Many of our most urgent problems involve learning and acting on the basis of the truth and challenging authorities. To respect faith, or call on others to respect faith, in this context is unconscionable moral negligence.
* It’s fascinating that those warm and tender feelings weren’t wounded by slavery, violence against indigenous people, or the oppression of women.
Yesterday, I posted about the Right’s opposition to free speech and its centrality to larger criminal projects. I can’t recall if I posted here or elsewhere about Tyrone Hayes after learning of his story via Democracy Now!
and an article in the New Yorker. I’ve just learned of a new article in Salon consisting of interviews with Hayes and with Jonathan Demme, who’s just made a short documentary about the scientist and his work.
Saturday, January 17, 2015
I’ve been taking forever to write up my list of the best books I read in 2014, so I think I’m going to break it up into topical sections spread over a few separate posts. But in the meantime one book from the list seems especially pertinent to current events and debates: Alice Kaplan’s 2000 The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach, an excellent study of the life, work, and trial of the far-Right anti-Semitic French intellectual and journalist.1
One of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that has been the subject of attention is this cover:
First presented by many, quite strangely and irresponsibly, as a straightforward illustration of CH’s racism, it’s since been recognized as an anti-racist image, calling out a far-Right publication and the Front National. This article describes some of the history of the racist imagery and gestures of the magazine Minute and others on the Right to which the CH cover was a response:2
Minute’s words “deny that I belong to the human race”, said [Christiane Taubira, French Justice Minister], who refused to prosecute the magazine.This episode reminded me immediately of one described in Kaplan’s book. In 1937, while Brasillach was calling for anti-Jewish legislation in the pages of Je Suis Partout, a law - the Loi Marchandeau – was proposed with the aim of prohibiting “the use of racial hate language in the French press” (Kaplan, 24). “The law,” Kaplan describes, “brought out the cruelest strain of Brasillach’s humor” (24). He penned an article, “The Monkey Question,” supporting anti-Jewish restrictions. Endorsing “a reasonable state anti-simietism,” “The Monkey Question” used “monkey” wherever Brasillach meant “Jew,” while making it obvious that he wanted the reader to know what he was doing. Kaplan offers:
Created by supporters of French colonisation in Algeria in 1962, Minute backed the Front National party in the 1970’s and has been struggling over the past years. Its publishing company went into administration last March and the magazine currently counts only three employees. For the magazine, the infamous front page has been a success: “We wanted free publicity. We got more than we could have dreamed of”, said one of their journalists. Hélène Valette, spokeperson for Minute added: “We take responsibility for this cover. It’s satirical. No one takes offense at the covers of Charlie Hebdo.”
Satirical publication Charlie Hebdo responded to this statement saying: “Some people have actually taken offense at the covers of Charlie Hebdo, among which the Catholic far-right which has sued us 12 times in 20 years (…) Minute does not defend the freedom of the press. It prepares the ground for future racist crimes.” [emphasis added]
This was the writer at his most obnoxious: hyped up by his own brilliance, using his taste for wordplay with a schoolboy glee. All the while…the message comes through clearly. Jews should not be citizens; they are animals, not men. (25)This is relevant today for a few reasons. We see here the attitude Sartre described: approaching public debate not as sincere, good-faith participants but as jesters and gameplayers devoted to undermining the seriousness of the discussion. The combination of terrible clarity and coyness with which the far-Right presents its racism allows them to claim to take responsibility for what they’re saying without really doing so. This is important to call attention to, as Charlie Hebdo tried to do with their cover.
But more important, the case of Brasillach illustrates the truth of the two assertions, emphasized above, made by Charlie Hebdo: the Right, as this case and others have repeatedly shown, hates free expression.3 They resent and resist constraints on their strategic hate speech, but will exploit any opportunity to silence critics of capitalism, Christianity, and white male heterosexual supremacy. With the toppling of the Republic, Brasillach and his fellow fascists wasted no time in putting the reactionary policies they proposed in the ‘30s into action: silencing and killing Jews, leftists, and anyone who spoke out against the regime or defended values opposed to it. It’s been the same for the Christian Right around the world, from Spain to Latin America to Russia to Uganda to the US.
The Right in Europe and the US has long worked to restrict the speech of blasphemers, critics of militarism and the surveillance state, journalists and activists exposing corporate assaults on human and animal rights and the environment, climate scientists, anticapitalist activists, human rights activists,... In the universities, the US Right “wants to drive a stake through the heart of academic life in order to protect capitalism and to defend conservative hegemony from the threat of critical thinking and an educated middle class.”4 In this context, it’s vital to remember that the Cold War witch hunts were not just about Communism, but targeted atheists, those who challenged the racial and sexual order, and numerous others seen as threatening to the existing hierarchy.
Acknowledging the Right’s hostility to free speech and the relationship between their censorious projects and reactionary crimes is essential in this moment. Far too many people are becoming distracted by ignorant (and racist) narratives in which Christianity and “the West” left behind theocratic, violent, and authoritarian ambitions and policies centuries ago. These narratives not only ignore the reality of recent and current reactionary politics in Europe, the Americas, and around the world but naïvely suggest that religiously inspired censorship and violence is the only, or even the most, significant form of reactionary political censorship and violence, further ignoring the ways in which the prohibition of disrespect for religions stands at the heart of all of the efforts to preserve the unjust order from challenge.
We have the opportunity at this moment to bring to light and contribute to the struggle around the globe between the forces of freedom and justice and their rightwing opponents, and especially to show our solidarity with the secularists, freethinkers, and social justice activists oppressed by violent theocratic regimes. But many people are losing sight of this struggle - being drawn toward (self-)censorship; shrinking away from blasphemy and its defense; shortsightedly accepting the simplistic equation of blasphemy and racism cynically encouraged by the Right when it suits them. And these people believe that in doing so they’re opposing racism. Just when we could be, in the tradition of Charlie Hebdo, challenging and mocking all religion and all authoritarian sacred cows and censorship attempts and continuing to push the authoritarians to show their true colors, people are instead backing off and allowing the Right to capitalize on the situation.
With that said, I give you one staunch defender of free expression quoting another:5
1 I don’t know if Brasillach was (alone or in combination with one or two others) the model for Sartre’s portrait of Lucien Fleurier in “The Childhood of a Leader,” but he could well have been.
2 I’ll discuss some of my concerns surrounding the typical responses to this sort of racist attack in my next post.
3 (It’s worth noting that the Civitas Institute mentioned in the Index on Censorship article linked to above is this outfit.)
4 Rik Scarce, “Introduction,” p. 61. In Academic Repression: Reflections from the Academic Industrial Complex. Anthony J. Nocella, Steven Best, and Peter McLaren, eds. 2010. Oakland: AK Press. (I can’t recommend this book. It’s far too long and has too many problems. But the introduction, which itself comes in at around 90 pages, is worth reading for a grounding in the history of rightwing academic repression in the US.)
5 “Oh, no! SC just praised Nazis! Her comment is indistinguishable from racist rhetoric!”
Thursday, January 15, 2015
In a footnote to a recent post I mentioned Algerian Chronicles, the collection of works by Albert Camus on Algeria and the Mediterranean region:
Since it seems timely, and since it’s looking like my blog this year, while it won’t become exclusively dedicated to the discussion of books, will be very book heavy, I thought I’d recommend two other collections of existentialist writings about colonialism in English translation.
Sartre’s Colonialism and Neocolonialism:
And Simone de Beauvoir: Political Writings:
I don’t agree with everything the three say (and of course they didn’t always agree with one another), but their writing about racism, colonialism and capitalism, torture, the Right, the role of the intellectual and the journalist in oppressive systems, and many other subjects overflows with relevant insights.
Here’s a short video of a talk by Caroline Fourest at the 2014 International Conference on the Religious Right, Secularism and Civil Rights.*
As I discuss here, she makes an important point about Christian theocratic movements, one which too often gets lost in the focus on the racism of the European (far) Right.
* My posting it should not be understood as an endorsement of every view of Fourest’s in this talk or in general, or with every view expressed at the conference or by the conference participants as a group.
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
I’ve been writing about the debate, such as it is, surrounding the alleged racism – of intent or neglect – of Charlie Hebdo.
I’ll repeat briefly the major point I’ve been making for the past several days: that I hate the approach that many people with basically good motives seem to be taking, which consists of a hostile-prosecutorial attitude that begins by assuming the worst, even on the basis of the most skeletal evidence and biased reports, and proceeds through various stages of half-listening to and then minimizing or dismissing evidence that contradicts or at least challenges the original impression.
Not the history of the publication and its political commitments or those of its staff, not the statements of the people who created and published the images, not their courage in defending blasphemy and going after the Right and numerous sacred cows, not the local context in which the images were created or viewed, not the history of French satire, not CH’s public reputation which would shape people’s interpretations, not films in which the artists describe their intent in producing particular images and the efforts to preclude their misuse,* not indications of the critic’s own ignorance – nothing, it seems, is enough for the self-appointed judges to pull back on their determination to smear Charlie Hebdo. The goalposts are moved again and again: from actively and openly racist to neglectfully employing racist tropes without concern for who might be hurt to insufficient efforts to make it impossible for others to misrepresent the images or use them in a harmful way. This last is simply an impossible standard, especially for a satirical magazine with a small circulation which works within local traditions and comments on current events.
I’m angry about this because it’s callous and disrespectful toward people who were killed for defending blasphemy and who stood for many of the same leftwing values as those attacking them – opposition to racism, challenging the powerful and the sacred, freedom of expression,… I’m also angry, and this is related, because it’s an epistemic affront. Any assessment of this sort should begin from a neutral position and rely on the totality of the evidence, evaluated fairly and reasonably. (I shouldn’t have to say, but annoyingly I’m sure I do, that this doesn’t mean approaching every situation as though we have no knowledge. In many cases, we have extensive knowledge of people’s motives and past actions and their context. But this is just my point: whether we have preexisting knowledge or have to discover it, our evaluations have to be based on evidence. This is equally true in cases in which we conclude that something is racist or sexist and those in which we conclude the opposite.)
We should always acknowledge our level of ignorance. If this is insufficient to form a conclusion, the answer isn’t to jump to one on the basis of the limited and probably biased information we do have, but to remain silent while we make an effort to get more, which we’ll also evaluate fairly. And we should be especially scrupulous when characterizing people who aren’t around to defend themselves. I think we’d all hope that this would be the approach taken to evaluating our own public statements.
It seems to me that I and some others are sort of caught between two camps, one which is trying to claim us or exploit our arguments and with which I want nothing to do, and one which I generally consider “my” camp but which is showing some confusion in this instance and responding to legitimate concerns in a counterproductive and disrespectful way. In the first camp are the people who not only claim to defend the right to free speech but view the debate as one between truth-speaking free-speech defenders and the forces of political correctness, the SJWs (that’s Social Justice Warriors, for those who don’t have their Bigot’s Guide to Pejoratives handy). These people don’t care particularly whether CH is racist in intent or effect, and are even happy if it is. They want to use the debate as a club to bash social-justice advocates and to push the point that all forms of speech anyone finds offensive, and therefore all objections to offensive speech – be they from feminists, anti-racists, far-Right Catholics, or Islamists - are basically the same.
They also have an interest in distracting from and pushing the discussion away from a reasoned analysis of the evidence. Indeed, in many cases, they are not arguing in good faith. As Sartre described “the anti-Semite” in “Portrait of the Antisemite”:
The antisemite has chosen hate because hate is a religion: he has originally chosen to devaluate words and reasons. Since he then feels at ease, since discussions about the right of the Jew appear futile and empty to him, he has at the outset placed himself on another level. If out of courtesy he consents momentarily to defend his point of view, he lends himself without giving himself; he simply tries to project his intuitive certainty onto the field of speech.This is an important issue, because we waste time and energy if we try to argue in good faith with people who are playing like this, and go awry when we allow their approach to determine our own. They’ll make claims they don’t believe if they think it will help them to score points. They’ll intentionally take the words of social-justice advocates out of context to misrepresent them. They’ll mockingly twist ideas like “intent isn’t magic” to smear people as racists, sexists, and so on. They’ll also argue that stated intent is absolutely true and all-important if that better suits their purpose.
…Do not think that antisemites are completely unaware of the absurdity of these answers. They know that their statements are empty and contestable; but it amuses them to make such statements: it is their adversary whose duty it is to choose his words seriously because he believes in words. They have a right to play. They even like to play with speech because while putting forth ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutor; they are enchanted with their unfairness because for them it is not a question of persuading by good argument but of intimidating or disorienting. If you insist too much, they close up, they point out with one superb word that the time to argue has passed. Not that they are afraid of being convinced: their only fear is that they will look ridiculous or that their embarrassment will make a bad impression on a third party whom they want to get on their side.
On the other side are the people who do actually care about bigotry and its effects. Unfortunately, I think this group has begun to take a path that distracts them and helps the bigots. There are probably a few reasons for this wrong turn: One is that social-justice advocates are generally the victims of bigotry or their defenders. Moreover, in many of these instances, bigots have publicly made false claims about their motives and these have been believed – and magnified in importance - by the ignorant and credulous. Third, arguments about limits on the significance of intent, dog whistles, collateral harm, social location and privilege have proved useful in helping people understand some of the dynamics of racism and other forms of bigotry. And finally, there is the correct recognition of the dangers posed by the group described above.
Being in this position in so many cases can, I believe, make it more difficult over time to see things from the point of view of someone facing accusations of bigotry. I’ve seen glib, callous, dismissive responses to attempts to show the people at Charlie Hebdo as thoughtful, complex human beings concerned about social justice, even if those pieces of information are relevant to the topic of discussion. Recent history has led people to assume a certain dishonesty and evasiveness among those accused of bigotry and their defenders, and often to read explanations of intent and context as defenses of bigotry. While this is often the case, it can’t be assumed, and should be avoided in those instances in which we either don’t know much about the people accused or have good evidence that they oppose bigotry.
It can also make people forget that such accusations are serious and can do real harm to real people (in this case to people’s legacy and to their colleagues and families). Even if you haven’t had the terrible experience of being falsely accused of something (as I have – and I still appreciate those who came to my defense not because we were on the same side but because they recognized the charges as empirically false), you can try to imagine how it might feel. At the absolute least, if you make an accusation which you later learn was false or greatly exaggerated, it’s just basic decency to acknowledge that fact, apologize, and try to stop reaching conclusions before you have enough evidence, rather than simply to change the subject. I think most of us would want that for ourselves.
With regard to the more general arguments, while useful in many cases, they aren’t always applicable or useful. Sometimes they’re downright strange. To present an image as racist and then immediately conjure up “intent isn’t magic” when it’s pointed out that the image was a criticism of racists is silly. To assume the point of view of a hypothetical person viewing an image without any knowledge of context or intent and assume that person would be harmed is seriously biased against any producers of satire or sarcastic writers. It reminds me of the accusations gnu atheists have been dealing with for years, and of the similarly excessive demands to demonstrate beyond a doubt the strong effectiveness and lack of negative effects of our efforts while faitheists aren’t held to the same standards, and the similar lack of recognition of the harm of what we’re contesting.
The danger, and thus the fear, in this and other cases is that our arguments will be turned against us and used to support bigotry. I think this is a real and not an imagined danger, especially given the history of the bigots. Political communication is vulnerable enough to misinterpretation, and cynical and unscrupulous people can and do exploit that vulnerability. CH’s humor has clearly been misunderstood and misrepresented, and it’s evident that people who produce words and images have the responsibility to try to obstruct the worst misreadings. And I’ve already seen people trying to appropriate my arguments for their anti-social-justice agenda, and heard people suggest that the concepts behind catchphrases like splash damage, intent isn’t magic, and so on are invalid. I believe that people who engage in these debates also need to try to avoid having our own arguments appropriated in this way.
Again, the fear of this appropriation and misrepresentation is reasonable. However, some of the attempts people have made to avoid it rest on a false impression of my approach. Neither I nor anyone else I’ve seen making similar good-faith arguments is suggesting that concerns about unintended effects or collateral harm are bogus or irrelevant; that the stated intent is always the real intent; that the author’s stated intent is the sole determining factor of the impact of a work of art; that no one should critically assess CH; that the people of CH are perfect beyond reproach; that everyone is required to reproduce the cartoons or to declare their solidarity; or that our solidarity indicates that we agree with every single thing every single person at CH has ever done.
What I am saying is that we owe the people at Charlie Hebdo an approach based on fairness and a genuine attempt to understand; to learn more about their work, their choices, and the images in context and to resist the tendency to jump to conclusions based on weak evidence. I think that’s what we’d all hope for ourselves.
In an important sense it’s a lot like the problem with “moderate” and social-justice-oriented religion. Superficially it seems a valuable approach even for nonbelievers. But a bad epistemic approach will always come back and bite you in the ass; in the long term such an approach never serves humanist goals. It might appear in any individual case that a biased and accusatorial approach protects you against credulousness and appropriation by bigots, but in the long run it will always work in their favor. And in this case it’s unkind.
* As has been described in several places for example, Cabu, in drawing the “It’s hard being loved by jerks” cover, intentionally bled the text “Mohammed, overwhelmed by Islamists” into his headwear so as to make it harder for people to cut out the text in order to misrepresent the cartoon. Of course, some people still did, and with full knowledge of what they were doing. There’s no way you can protect any satirical image from this sort of misuse, and these images have been vulnerable, as we’ve seen, both to Islamist provocateurs and rightwing racist provocateurs. Even in context some people will misunderstand or see what they want to see, and one of the more poignant moments in the film is when a text message arrives declaring “Kill the jerks.” But this is not evidence of negligent racism. The evidence is overwhelming that they weren’t negligent in this case, but very thoughtful and careful.
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Caroline Fourest has been saying that the decision of many US media organizations to blur out the new Charlie Hebdo cover is one of the saddest aspects of the response to the massacre, and she’s absolutely right.
There is nothing obscene, racist, or violent about this image. (I’m actually happy about the Guardian’s warning, since it nicely reveals the utter silliness of these notions.) This is in effect saying that blasphemy itself is offensive, too offensive even to show as part of reporting the news. How stupid our culture looks.