To the top of gravity

15 04 2014

Ta-Nehisi Coates wants to teach his students to write honestly.

I said, Well, yes, but. . . .

To which he replied, Sure, and. . . .

It’s marvelous to tell writers to write the naked truth, to get the courage to strip oneself naked by remembering that everyone else is naked, too.

Human condition: a talisman for bravery.

Except that, well, maybe not so much “Except that” as “In addition to” the call to honesty one must remind the student-writers to be brave, that honesty often requires bravery, because honesty is a hard good to handle.

To be honest requires bravery because you might get your teeth kicked in.

It is also the case that to be honest can be, as I put it, “giddifying”: you are loosed from yourself as helium bubbles pop through your skin and you can’t quite believe that the words you wrote and are about to send out are your words meant for everyone. You have broken the sound barrier and speed of light and are now stretching beyond time.

You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. I’m being honest, at least how I can feel after having written: discombobulated and disoriented and blinking and wondering just where the gravity went.

Not always, not most times. But sometimes, still.

Such a glorious sensation: I’d chase it forever if it weren’t so unreliable.

Or I, braver.





Better not look down

31 03 2014

It is apparently only okay to talk about how bad things used to be if you contrast it with how great things are now.

Things used to be overwhelmingly terrible and are now just ordinarily terrible! Progress!

And if it’s progress, then maybe it’s not so terrible, hmmm? So maybe you should just turn that frown upside down, Mr. Coates and go back to talking about stuff that makes us feel good.





Let it go and so to fade away

24 03 2014

I’ve been circling around and around this post by TNC; still not thinking in straight lines.

Scattered bits: the bad faith of American triumphalism, of progressivism (as Whig history); the shock of my students when I speak plainly about white supremacy; how it is harder for me to speak plainly of male supremacy (/patriarchy?); how white supremacy doesn’t just hurt black people; how male supremacy doesn’t just hurt female people.

And then the posts on waning Christendom in the US, on the erosion of religious structures, what it all means. More circling.

But this: to look to God is to look away, that religious belief seems to me a form of alienation, a scrim between oneself and the world.

Of course, to the believer, it is I who am alienated.

How any of this relates to kenosis, I don’t know.

And through a side door: we carry our troubles with us. If I have a morality, it is that we should carry our troubles with us. We have to learn how to carry them, so they trouble us less, and when memory is enough.

This is one way to find out who we are.

The troubles are ours; they can’t be given up to God without giving up ourselves.

But then, that might be the point. To some.

I’ll try to think better, to gather these flyaway threads.





Of flesh and blood I’m made

16 01 2014

What is human?

I got into it with commenter The Wet One at TNC’s joint, who chided me not to, in effect, complicate straightforward matters. I responded that straightforward matters often are quite complicated.

In any case, he issued a specific challenge to claims I made regarding the variability of the human across time and space. This request was in response to this statement:

At one level, there is the matter of what counts as “reasonably concrete realities”; I think this varies across time and place.

Related to this is my disagreement with the contention that those outside of the norm have fallen “within the realm of the ‘human’ for all intents and purposes’. They most assuredly have not and to the extent they do today is due to explicit efforts to change our understanding of the human.

Examples, he asked?

As one of the mods was getting ready to close the thread, I could only offer up the easiest one: questions over the status of embryos and fetuses.

Still, while I think that a reasonable response, it is also incomplete, insofar as it doesn’t get at what and who I was thinking of in writing that comment: people with disabilities.

“People with disabilities”: even that phrase isn’t enough, because “disability” itself isn’t necessarily the apt word.  I had referred in an earlier comment to those whose morphology varied from the statistical norm; not all variations are disabilities in even the strictest sense.

In any case, when I went to my bookshelf to try to pull out specific, referenced, examples, I was stopped by that basic question which set off the whole debate: what is human?

Now, in asking that here I mean: how maximal an understanding of the human? Is to be human to be accorded a certain status and protection (“human rights”)? or is it more minimal, in the sense that one sees the other as kin of some sort, tho’ not necessarily of an equal sort?

Arendt argued for a minimalist sense when she noted there was nothing sacred in the “naked” [of the protections of the law] human, meaning that such status granted no particular privilege. That I both do and do not agree with this is the source of my estoppel.

Kuper in Genocide notes that dehumanization often precedes assault—which suggests that before the one goes after the other, that a kinship is recognized which must then be erased. But maybe not. I don’t know.

Is the human in the recognition? If you are akin to us (and we know that we are human), then we will grant such status (for whatever it’s worth) to you. We might still make distinctions amongst us as to who is superior/inferior, but still grant than an inferior human is still human. There’s something to that—something which I perhaps should have emphasized a bit more than I did in my initial go-’round with TWO.

But I also think are cases in which the kinship might repulse rather than draw in: that disgust or horror (or some kind of uncanny valley) gets in the way of seeing the disgusting/horrid/uncanny one as human. I’m thinking of the work of William Ian Miller and Martha Nussbaum, on disgust, and, perhaps, to various histories of medicine,especially regarding the mentally ill. Perhaps I should dig out that old paper on lobotomy. . . .

Oh, and yet another wrinkle: Insofar as I consider the meaning of the human to vary, I don’t know that one can elide differences between the words used to refer to said humans. “Savage” means one thing, “human” another, and the relationship between the two, well, contestable.

I’m rambling, and still without specific, referenced examples for TWO. I can go the easy route, show the 19th century charts comparing Africans to the great apes, the discussion of so-called “primitive peoples” (with the unveiled implication that such peoples weren’t, perhaps, human people). Could I mention that “orangutan” means “person of the forest”, or is that too glib? Too glib, I think. Not glib is the recent decision to limit greatly the use of chimpanzees in federally-funded research—the extension of protections to our kin, because a kinship is recognized.

And back around again. I don’t know that one can meaningfully separated the identity of  a being from the treatment of the identified being; identification and treatment somersault over and over one another.

So if one protections are offered to one member of H. sapiens and it is withdrawn from another, then it seems to say something about the status of that other: that we don’t recognize you as being one of us. We don’t recognize you as human.

If things can be done to someone with schizophrenia (old term: dementia praecox) or psychosis—various sorts of water or electric shocks, say—that would not be done to someone without these afflictions, then one might wonder whether the schizophrenic or psychotic is, in fact, recognized as human, that as long as the affliction is seen to define the being, then that being is not-quite-human.

Ah, so yet another turn. I allowed for the possibility of superior/inferior humans [which might render moot my examples from eugenics and racism]; what of lesser or more human? Is someone who is less human still human? What does that even mean?

Back to biology. Those born with what we now recognize as chromosomal abnormalities have not and are not always taken in, recognized as being “one of us”. A child with cri-du-chat syndrome does not act like a child without; what are the chances such children have always been recognized as human?

Oh, and I’m not even getting into religion and folklore and demons and fairies and whatnot. Is this not already too long?

I can’t re-read this for sense; no, this has all already flown apart.





How low can you go

21 12 2013

I can be an idiot sometimes.

(Only sometimes? Oh hush, you.)

Yesterday TNC posted a piece on the Duck Patriarch‘s happy-darkie views of the pre-Civil Rights era South, and I, frustrated with another columnist’s views of the same avian papa, vented about that other columnist at TNC’s joint.

Not cool.

Now, had TNC’s piece been about that other columnist, my small steam-blow would have been fine, and given that he spoke generally about race, culture, and America, my vent wasn’t completely off-topic. But it was still low.

I don’t have a problem bitching about that other columnist (Rod Dreher, by the way) on this site: insofar as he offers his views publicly, I can publicly offer my views on his views. But taking to TNC’s site to side-swipe Dreher is low both because I mis-used TNC’s space and, indeed, side-swiped rather than taking Dreher on directly.

I’m like Dreher in at least one crucial respect: I am highly reactive, and given to going off at the hint of a possibility of a provocation. I don’t particularly like this about myself, and try to keep my rants down to once or twice a month, and/or trying (not always succeeding) in levitating the anger with humor.

Anyway, instead of disciplining myself into silence or taking Dreher full-on on my own site, I wandered over to someone else’s joint to spray my bile. Again, not cool, and low.

I may never be cool, but I can try not to be low.





I think I have to send you a reminder

30 11 2013

I learned something today.

That t-shirt that guy was wearing at the gym? The one that said WOMEN LIE on the front, NUMBERS DON’T on the back?

Apparently those are lyrics from a Jay-Z song—although the complete line is “Men lie women lie, numbers don’t.”

Which may get Mr. Carter off the hook, but not the stupid bastard who made the t-shirt, or the stupid bastard who was wearing it.

He was a big guy; I gave him the stink-eye.

But I’m sure it was just meant to be funny. So, so funny.

~~~

I was grumpy the other night reading TNC’s post on Alec Baldwin’s bigotry, noting that

We’re all condemning him for what he says about gay men, but not so much that large chunks of what he finds so awful about gay men is that they act like “little girls” and “bitches”.

Like females. How degrading for a man to be feminine. What a great insult to a man to be called woman.

Can we note the great insult to women? Can we call that bigotry, too?

TNC, to his credit, has written about sexism from any number of angles, noted it in the original post, and re-emphasized the connections between anti-gay and anti-women sentiment in response to my comment, so I’m not calling him out. He’s doing the work.

But it’s still worth noting that a) attacking someone for being gay is bigotry; b) attacking a gay man for acting like a woman is a bigoted thing to say about gay men; c) which makes women the worst thing for a man to be; d) which makes women what, exactly?

~~~

Unlike other forms of bigotry, anti-women bigotry can’t be divorced from intimacy.

Swedes might believe they can live in a better society without Danes and thus try to eliminate all Danes from their state (and the world); their genocide, as terrible as it would be, would not in fact make Swedish life and society impossible. I might argue that it would make Swedish society worse, much worse, but even so, it could continue.

Men who hate women can’t live without them (us), however. Get rid of all of the women and you will, eventually, get rid of all of the men, as well.

And, given that most men are straight, even those who don’t think much of women don’t want to get rid of us entirely: MRAs are not interested in celibacy. So they hate us and they fear us and they want us, and they hate and fear because they want.

Is it easier to confront bigotry which is, somehow, separable? I don’t know exactly how to say this—because I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say—but it seems as if the lack of choice (at a very basic, sexual, level) in the interaction between men and women makes it far harder to call out sexism as bigotry.

~~~

I’ve never particularly liked the “men-are-so-clueless” types of jokes, whether told by women or men. They strike me as lazy and demeaning, and, worst of all, unfunny.

Women lie/numbers don’t? Not funny.





Ball of confusion

27 10 2013

Imma going to steal from myself.

TNC put up a post late Friday on Tony Judt’s Postwar, during which he noted that

Judt is not wrong to focus on property. Theft is the essence of atrocity—if only the theft of dignity and life. Indeed, where I forced to to offer one word to sum up black people’s historical relationship to the American state, “theft” is the first that would come to mind. Theft of labor and theft of family in slavery. Theft of life through lynching and pogrom. Theft of franchise in half the country. . . .

To which I wrote the following (alas, too slowly: he closed the thread before I could post):

The importance of property has been a sticky issue for (some!) of us pinkos. On the one hand, an orthodox Marxist would recognize the necessity of the proletariat seizing control of the means of production during the (ever receding) revolution—which suggests that (productive) property is pretty goddamned important. Yet on the other hand, a concern for property ownership can be seen as “too bourgeois”.

The agrarian socialists have been better on this than those who focus on industrial workers, not least because in the countryside the productive property is land itself: arguing for land/squatter rights (against absentee/large landholders) can thus be seen as a kind of socialist demand for worker control.

Anyway, control of one’s property is tremendously important for those who don’t live in those gloriously liberated post-revolution societies (which is to say, all of us), and I know damned few leftists who say “Ooo, I want to live in a commune!” The puzzle for we skeptics of capitalism is to figure out how to make a place for the centrality of property in human life without having property itself decenter the human.

I went back and forth on this, writing and deleting, and then just deleting, before I ended up with this. There’s no great insight involved, but it is a useful reminder of the troubles of the late-capitalist anti-capitalist sometimes-thinker.

Of course, we anti-capitalists who like stuff are not the only ones fighting our demonic contradictions.

I refer, of course, to the Jesus Christ Capitalists, those who seek the glory of the Lord in the financialized marketplace.

To give credit to Rod Dreher (something I do rarely enough), he at least recognizes that there are tensions between those who hold both to tradition and to free trade: however creative is the destructiveness of capitalism, it does effectively pull the pins out from beneath traditional society.

If those of us on the anti-capitalist left have to figure out what to do with property, well, those on the traditional right have to figure out what to do with capitalism.

None of this to say that there aren’t people on both the right and the left who aren’t already thinking and doing something(s) about this.

I try not to mistake my lack of attention to for others’ lack of effort.





Just like everybody else does

2 06 2011

Were slaves humans to those who enslaved them? Were Jews and the Roma and Slavs human to Nazis?

Yes. And no.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s interests and mine once again intersect, this time on the question of who is human. TNC has posted a number of pieces in which he notes that the slaves-weren’t-human-to-slavemasters trope really doesn’t hold up; in his most recent post on the topic, he notes that

But throughout the South there were (poorly enforced) laws against the murder of slaves. Enslaved people were often encouraged to embrace Jesus, and ministered to by white preachers–treatment that mules and dogs were generally spared. Slave populations were filled with the progeny of white people who had sex with slaves–again treatment which most mules and dogs (as far as we know) were spared. It is surely true that blacks were seen as biologically inferior, but they were nevertheless generally recognized as human.

Frederick Douglass, as well, observed in What to a slave is the Fourth of July? that

Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which, if committed by a black man, (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgement that the slave is a moral, intellectual and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws, in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, their will I argue with you that the slave is a man!

The Nazis, too, did recognize that Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs were human, in their prohibitions and punishments, their sterilization campaigns, the theft of their goods, their enslavement, their use as experimental subjects, and, perhaps, above (or below) all, in their willingness to rape Jewish women, Roma women, Polish and Russian and Ukrainian and Serbian women.

Such practical recognition (one which is likely shared by all chauvinistic peoples) must be conceded: the superior knew the inferior to be human.

This concession does not, however, end the debate, for there is also the matter of the ideology of the slaver and the Nazi, one which also drove the practices of enslavement, brutalization, and extermination.

TNC admits to a kind of admiration for Cannibals All! author George Fitzhugh, largely due to Fitzhugh’s willingness to extend the logic of superiors/inferiors to all peoples, such that even many white people could justly be enslaved. Again, I’m not so sure that this consistency deserves any praise, but even more than that, I think a focus on such consistency itself obscures the practical reality of slavery, to wit, that those who were enslaved were both human and not human.

TNC, from the same post:

This posed a philosophical problem for the nascent Confederate intelligentsia. Thomas Jefferson’s notion that “all men are created equal,” particularly rankled. If black people were part of “man,” and all “men” were created equal, how could one justify slavery? Well, one could completely ignore the discrepancy, which is exactly what a lot of Confederates did.

He goes on to consider the “more radical position” that Jefferson was wrong, that the mere fact of humanity did not make one equal.

I happen to agree with this: the liberty and equality we grant to one another is just that, a grant in recognition, and one which could be either extended or withdrawn. (Arendt, too, noted that there was nothing particularly sacred about the “naked human”, and that acknowledgment of humanness is hardly sufficient to guarantee any sort of right.)

But TNC, having opened himself to this radical possibility, gives himself over to those who assert inequality  without also considering that they, too, were engaging in double-talk and legalistic bullshit, that is, that assertions of inequality or inferiority covered up their own discrepancies regarding humanness.

These discrepancies are, frankly, much easier to see in Nazi propaganda, what with their constant references to vermin and bacillus and disease and corruption (in the case of Jews) or weakness and stupidity and beastliness (in the case of Slavs): these people aren’t really people.

What you see, in other words, is that the Nazis had a kind of Platonic Form of humans, namely, the German* (with the asterisk indicating that to be truly German was to be not-Jewish, not leftist, not sick, not mentally ill, not handicapped, not Christian, etc.), and that those who were not-German—that is, those who deviated from the Form—were therefore less human. This dynamic could be seen as well in the belief that some Czechs and Ukrainians and Poles could, perhaps, be “Germanized”, that is, brought closer to  True Human Form.

In short, this is less about equality or inequality than about degrees of humanness: those who are closer to the Form are more human than those further away from it.

The question of the constitution of the form and the determination of relative distances to it is, of course, not a little caught up in questions of power, in particular, in the question of power over. This is where not a few of the discrepancies enter: are more human if you’re on top? if you win? If so, what does loss (as in, say, WWI) mean regarding your humanness? Et cetera. . . .

To bring the point closer to home: We Homo sapiens  use other species; norms and regulations over such use have both varied over time and space and from species to species, a variation dependent upon (among other things) utility and perceived nearness to us. In the US (as in many parts of the world), for example, the Great Apes—our nearest evolutionary relatives—are accorded rather different treatment than mice, rabbits, worms, and flies. And shall we discuss our agricultural and culinary uses of, say, chickens and cows and pigs. . . ?

This brings us back, then, to Fitzhugh, or at least, to the title of his work, Cannibals All! While cannibalism is not unknown among our species, it is an exceptional rather than normal practice—which itself indicates some widespread (if not quite global)  and basic acknowledgement of one another as being of the same kind.

That basic acknowledgement, however, is not quite enough: there is more to being human than, well, being human.





Brave companion of the road

28 05 2011

Is it better to be consistent than inconsistent? What about contradiction and hypocrisy: what is the merit or demerit of such concepts?

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been carrying on a long conversation with himself and the rest of us regarding the interpretation and understanding of the American Civil War; to that end, he tries to leave judgment behind and move into the experience—as much as is possible—of those living at the time. He reads historical accounts and letters and novels and requests that we “Talk to me like I’m stupid” regarding weaponry, battle tactics, wardrobe, John Locke, and hermeneutics.

He wants to understand.

I follow his wonderings in part because he often writes beautifully about these topics, in part because I learn something the Civil War, and in part because his attempt to shed enough of himself to enter into the mind of, say, a Confederate soldier, seems simultaneously brave, foolish, and in vain.

Brave: You do have to shed your armor, your clothes, sometimes even your skin to make yourself open to another.

Foolish: You have to shed your armor, your clothes, and sometimes even your skin to make yourself open to another.

In vain: As long as you can choose to come and go into another’s experience, you reinforce the separation between yourself and the other.

I am ambivalent about the limits and risks and possibilities and purposes of understanding, an ambivalence which tips sometimes more toward openness, sometimes more toward skepticism, but I am fascinated by the quest.This is not just philosophy; this is art.

And that’s where I return to the questions regarding consistency and contradiction. In  a recent post of George Fitzhugh’s Cannibals All!, TNC noted that he appreciated not only Fitzhugh’s straightforward defense of slavery, but his willingness to extend it as far as it could logically take him—in Fitzhugh’s case, into the enslavement of the majority of humankind:

There’s something attractive about his willingness to game out all of his maniacal theories. He has moral courage that his double-talking, bullshitting, slaveholding friends lack. It’s the opposite of that Jeffersonian view of slavery which cowers from the awful implications of one’s beliefs.

It’s Howell Cobb’s, “If slaves make soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong,” versus Jefferson Davis’s legalistic bullshit about black Confederates. There’s something about the sheer clarity of these guys, even though they speak evil, that’s a breath of fresh air. Half the problem is cutting through the deliberate lying about one’s own theories.

At which point I (metaphorically) raised my hand and said, Um, wait a minute: why is straight talk better, here? Is this really courageous as opposed to, say, crackers?  I drilled down further to argue that there is no necessary moral content either to consistency or to contradiction.

Consider, as well, “double-talking”, “bullshitting”, “deliberate lying”: these are all moral judgments on those who, unlike Fitzhugh, do not make their arguments one logical smooth piece, but who cramp and crinkle and perhaps tear at the fabric of their own arguments regarding the justness of slavery or the conditions of those enslaved.

These moral judgments, in other words, are, if not at root, then at least also, aesthetic judgments: better to make the argument straight than kinked, better to untie all knots and iron the whole cloth of the argument, better there be no seams.

But why is this so? Why let the aesthetic stand in for the moral? Can the aesthetic stand in for the moral? (This is a very old argument, by the way.)

No, no, I’m really not demanding a thesis from TNC; he’s doing quite enough already. But his musings in this particular piece have thrown into sharp relief how tenacious are our unexamined judgments, how much of one’s own world—one’s own ontology, as it were—one brings to that quest for understanding.

There’s no easy way out of this: judgments are our bearings, and to leave them behind in an attempt to make sense of another risks losing them altogether, to the point where we can’t make sense to ourselves.

I don’t know where I’m going with this; perhaps I’m losing my own bearings. But this whole understanding gig, tch, it’s a real kick in the head.





I’ll jar these mountains till they fall

15 08 2010

‘I am done.’

That was my response to a TNC post on his unwillingness to keep fighting battles he considers settled: I don’t want to die debating the humanity of the blacks, the gays, the browns and the poor.

Amen (or whatever the secular version of that would be), I said in response. I, too, am done defending my status as a human being, done even defending the notion that all of us are humans, and that that’s what, and all, that matters. That I am is settled, done.

But, alas, I am not done. After I said my pie/eace, I realized that there are some issues which are not settled and for which I cannot lay my hammer down.

There are the continued flare-ups, as with the issue of Islam in the US, and whether Muslims get to be as American, much less as human, as the rest of us.

And, of course, there’s abortion. A week or so ago I got sucked into another debate on abortion (also on TNC’s blog); against all better judgment, I couldn’t let the argument that abortion is an immoral and fundamentally selfish act.

Now, those making this argument stipulated that they believe abortion should remain legal, so I should have been able to let it be, right? After all, I do believe abortion is morally fraught, which means I ought to allow for those who agree with me on the legality of abortion to think whatever they want about women who do terminate their pregnancies.

But I couldn’t, because it seemed to me that even in their agreement on the law they diminished the status of those who would make use of the law. How dare a woman choose her life over that of the fetus? they argued. How dare she be so selfish?

How dare she choose herself.

So, yes, I am glad that these critics offer support, however tepid, for the legal right of a woman to make decisions about continuing or ending her pregnancy.

Too bad that support is not so much for the woman herself.

I am tired of this fight, too, am tired of defending a woman’s being, as a human being, and were it just pundits and blog commenters sneering about the decisions a woman may make, I might be able to walk away.

But as long as those with the power to threaten a woman’s ability to live as free human being continue to do so, I’ll keep my hammer handy.








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