Don’t tell me what to do

29 11 2016

A few I-define-you examples (leftover from yesterday because I couldn’t pull it together, man, so quit bothering me, all right?!):

*Consider the reaction to fat women who are unashamed that they’re fat, who have the temerity to insist that they are human beings who don’t need your approval, thankyouverymuch: it is unbelievably nasty.

*Remember when Obama said that if he’d have had a son, he might have looked like Trayvon Martin? That seemed to me a simple, poignant, observation, but holy shit, the number of (white) people who lost their shit in response to that—I couldn’t understand it.

But now, I think that (some white) people were pissed that Obama identified with a young black man, and in doing so, reminded them that he himself was, in fact a black man. And, too, maybe his empathic imagination was just too much for (some white) people, serving as a rebuke to their own, narrow judgements.

*Oh, and this is one I remembered as I was getting in bed: Famed anti-Semite and Viennese mayor Karl Lueger responded to those who complained he was too friendly with Jews by saying “I decide who is a Jew.”

As Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in his commentary on this (and other, similar, instances):

When I was young man, I studied history at Howard University. Much of my studies were focused on the black diaspora, and thus white racism. I wish I had understood that I was not, in fact, simply studying white racism, but the nature of power itself. I wish I had known that the rules that governed my world echoed out into the larger world. I wish I had known how unoriginal we really are.


What do we do with all of this? I don’t know. That you are bothered when I define myself does not mean that I shouldn’t define myself.

Is it enough to recognize that there will be bother, conflict, and so prepare for it? Is there a way through this conflict? I don’t know.

But as a matter of justice, as a matter of human being, each one of us gets to claim that humanness for ourselves.


Oh, don’t tell me what to say

29 11 2016

Tina Fey tells a story of Amy Poehler doing something vulgar and Jimmy Fallon squealing

“Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.”

Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit.

I like this story.

Now, I heard this after having read Ta-Nehisi Coates for some years and imbibing his ethic of I’m not going to let you question my humanity; of Hannah Arendt stating it was no good to say she was human in spite of being Jewish, that she had to choose one or the other; of Steven Biko and Malcolm X emphasizing that their blackness made them in no way lesser.

You would not define them; they would define themselves, as they pleased—and not to please you.

To name, to define, to determine the worth of something or someone, is so basic a power that we often only see it when someone says No.

And then we see how much it matters to those who would define: How dare you think you’re pretty? How dare you think you’re funny? How dare you think you’re equal? How dare you think for yourself? How dare you think you don’t have to think of me, in thinking of yourself?

It’s not just that the default-definers don’t like the words you choose to define yourself, but that you chose them for yourself. You took a power away from them, a right to decide who others are and how they should live.

This is elemental to any supremacist (sexual, racial, ethnic, religious) system: the power to define.

That power is a power to abuse, of course, but it’s also a power of mercy: Look how good I am, deciding you’re worthy; how can I be a supremacist when I recognize that you’re not inferior? How can I be bad when I let you live?

Avid supremacists may hate your declaration of independence, but those in the majority who think of themselves as egalitarians, who act without malice, may also decry your claims: why are you rejecting me?

And sure, some of the liberationists may reject that person, personally, or may offer their own counter-supremacism, but mostly, at the center of someone saying I don’t fucking care if you like it, is the asserted-I, not the you.

Really, nothing personal, but you are no longer at the center of the world.

And this displacement can be profoundly confounding. This is, of course, a psychological as well as a philosophical disorientation, but not only that: it is also a political one. It is not always recognized as a loss of power, but that’s precisely what it is—and there should be no  surprise that people fight to hang on to it.

Walk this way, talk this way

27 11 2016

White people are mad that black people want to talk about race. Men people are mad that women people want to talk about sex.

White men people would prefer that women people and black people and Latinx people and queer people stop talking about things that white men people don’t want to talk about.

Or so it would seem from the latest volleys in the never-ending Wars of Identity, aka Battles of Political Correctness, aka Liberal vs. Illiberal Liberalism. I have some sympathy for all sides, although the greater part is with those who speak in the language of justice. That there is overreach on the part of the insurgents is to be expected—you don’t always know how far to go until you’ve gone too far—and should be confronted directly, and with some good grace.

Condescension is neither direct nor graceful, yet condescension is what Kevin Drum and Mark Lilla have on offer.

Drum argues that the term “white supremacism” is “faddish” and counter-productive: how can we get non-liberal people to take racism seriously if we keep talking about racism? Lilla goes back to the well to pull up yet another impression of identity-siloed collegiates, unaware of anything or anyone other than their own selves.

Neither discusses justice.

They do, however, talk about how all this talk about supremacism and identity is damaging to those who don’t like it. Pointing out everyday racism, says Drum, is like crying wolf: what will you do when The Racism really comes? And Lilla cautions that invoking whiteness is like saying Bloody Mary three times in a mirror: the incantation itself will conjure white-identity politics.

As if white-identity politics doesn’t already exist, as if The Racism isn’t already here. Lilla himself remarks that the Klan was an early manifestation of white-identity politics, but acts as if that manifestation were a distant island rather than the land itself. He wants a post-identity politics, one which appeals to Americans-as-Americans—as if Americanness is itself somehow innocent of history.

Note, too, the tactic both Drum and Lilla deploy: they seek to define the rules of liberal-left political engagement by decrying the efforts of others to (re)define the rules of liberal-left political engagement.

It is unsurprising that those who hold themselves above it all are unhappy with those who point out that they are, in fact, not above it all.

I noted at the outset that white people and men people are upset with non-white people and non-men people asserting themselves—this is, of course, an exaggeration. There are many white people and men people who recognize and are trying to understand that whiteness and men-ness are partial identities and what that means, among all the many other partial identities, and how they have been used in the unjust construction of those other partial identities.

Lilla wants us to get beyond identity—a desire which a suspicious hermeneut like me shares. But we don’t get “beyond” without recognizing “here”, a place in which some people historically have claimed a universal identity so as to define the particular identities of others, a place in which those with the particular identities are now seeking to define themselves, and claim themselves, as their own kind of people.

It’s a rough town, and a rough time, but we don’t get beyond without going through.

My sweetest find

24 11 2016

The usual:

And the sweetest find? My grand-nephew, Henry.

He arrived a bit early, and urgently, but he and my niece are fine. I am grateful for modern medicine.

Not including a photo, here, because I don’t know my niece’s cyber-social policy regarding her new son, but he looks, as all babies do, like a stoned little old man.

He’s beautiful.

May you have beauty in your life.

So if you think we live in a modern world

22 11 2016

I’ve mentioned before my attempt to grasp modern ideologies, an attempt since grown into a project I’m calling Modernity’s Ideologies.

Here, in maximally-minimalist form, is my sketch of the argument:

Terri Peterson ©2016

Terri Peterson ©2016. Do not quote without permission.

It’s hard to see (click to, y’know, see it), but the basic outline is MODERNITY as historical moment; Liberalism, Totalitarianism, and Reaction as worldviews; the attendant ideologies to these worldviews; and, finally, the types of regimes most compatible to these worldviews & ideologies.

The ideologies in the chart proper are referred to as ‘governing ideologies’: these refer to ideologies which offer a more-complete view of government and politics, which take account of individuals, groups, society, culture, economics, and governmental institutions. ‘Adjunct ideologies’, listed below the chart, are so-called because they are incomplete: they may cover some aspect of politics, but are unable on their own to provide a full and practical understanding of politics.

These are, of course, highly contestable claims; libertarians and anarchists, in particular, are likely to assert the wholeness of their ideologies (and, shoot, I should probably add ‘communitarianism’ to the list of adjuncts). I am unconvinced, although I do recognized that I’ll need to make the case for their adjunct status. As it stands, I argue that adjuncts may be fitted (more and less easily) with the various governing ideologies, that you could find, say, black liberation or women’s liberation accompanying liberalism or reform socialism—just as you could find white supremacism and anti-Semitism accompanying the same.

Anyway, the basic argument is that modernity emerges in European history and in so doing provides opportunities for the development of new worldviews, which in turn give rise to various worldviews. Liberalism and Totalitarianism are included on the same line insofar as both worldviews (or Weltanschauungen—I think I should stick to ‘worldview’ but oh, I’d like to sneak in that bit of German) accept modernity and the forward movement of time; Reaction rejects modernity and looks to the past.

Note as well that I list no ideologies coming out of Reaction. This is because I accept the view of ideology as a modern phenomenon; insofar as Reactionaries reject modernity, so too do they fail to develop ideologies. Reactionary regimes, however, lasted centuries into modernity: arguably, they didn’t disappear until the end of WWI.

And, again, this chart arises from European history: I make no claims about the history of ideologies elsewhere. Given that ideas, like people, travel—see communism in Asia, for example—I’m not arguing for the geographic and cultural exclusivity of these ideologies; rather, I haven’t done the work to make any claims one way or the other. Scholars steeped in the histories of the rest of the world would almost certainly generate their own, distinct, genealogies.

I have a lot of work to do: define modernity, define Europe, and then, oh yes, the worldviews and the ideologies themselves. I also have to make decisions regarding the spread of these ideas as Europeans colonized other parts of the world: do I stick strictly to the continent, or look European ideologies in, say, the Americas, in India, across Africa?

Finally, I’ll have a last chapter, ‘Post-Modernities?’ in which I’ll take up the challenges of those who think we’re already beyond. I used to be in that group, but now think, no, we’re still in modernity, frayed though it may be.

Anyway, when I refer in the future to any kind of ideologies, this is how I’ll be making sense of them. Whether it makes sense to anyone else remains to be seen.

We blended in with the crowd

20 11 2016

Walt Whitman’s I contain multitudes gets its fair share of shares, and for good reason: it’s exuberant and ironic and sincere and boastful all at the same time, a declaration and excuse and an invitation to the tumult of life.

It’s easy to think of that tumult as a kind of playful churning, a shotgunning through rapids in which you are tossed and soaked but ultimately delivered, safely, to the sandy shore. It’s a ride, not a tsunami, not a hurricane; a volunteer thrill, not a crashing terror.

It is, of course, both.

I often forget this, that the multitude, the mix, the plural, contains not just joy but fear, that it’s not just a condition of freedom but the grounding of fear. I like to say about New York that we don’t all love one another, but we do, somehow, manage, mostly, to live with one another.

This is an accomplishment, albeit a fragile one.

Well, okay, not just fragile: there is a sturdiness to this and other places like this. There is a sturdiness to this country. But in taking for granted this sturdiness I have too often treated its fragility as a remnant, or mere theoretical possibility. I’d forgotten that if anything is possible, then anything is possible.

I don’t think we’re on the way to fascism, and do think that our many, varied, institutions, formal and informal, can serve as bulwarks against authoritarianism—emphasis on can. While inertia has its own force, there is nothing automatic in a defense of plural democracy: we have to act.

It’s hard, defending the tumult amidst the tumult. I don’t want everything to be political, everything to be are-you-with-us-or-against-us, even as I see the necessity of holding the line. I want to defend my side but since my side declares that everyone gets to pick their own side, do I end up defending those who would harm me?

I won’t hold to a principle which requires its own extinction, but neither will I abandon it for its practical difficulty.

This will take some doing, and some contradiction, too, probably. There is the theory, and the practice, and both will need some work.

You’re taking one down

17 11 2016

After an extended period of sparse posting, I spurted out a bunch of political posting because, well, it was going to be allllll right and then it allllll went very, very wrong.

But that ain’t the only reason.

My life has gone to shit, and writing about the country going to shit gave me something else to focus on. That there are concrete things that one can do to try to avoid being completely flushed away politically gave me a kind of steadiness.

My life, however, is still shit. I’ve love to blame this on Trump—I look forward every time I miss a train or stub my toe to screaming FUCK TRUMP!—but nope, even had Clinton taken the Electoral College, I’d still be navigating the doldrums.

This is not as bad as it gets, thank christ nowhere near as bad as it gets, but a shitty time is a shitty time. Yeah, I’m working, halfheartedly, on dragging myself up, but it’s tough to really get anything going on half a heart.

Still, I’ll do what I can.