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.

I’m only human, of flesh and blood I’m made

15 10 2014

I haven’t read the book, but do you really think that would stop me from commenting on it?

I have a PhD, y’know, which means I am more-than-well-qualified to talk about an argument on which I have not laid eyes. After all, who but PhDs would have come up with the whole I haven’t read it, but I’ve read of it gambit?

Anyway, Katha Pollitt has a new book out—Pro—in she argues that those of us in favor of abortion rights should stop apologizing about our support and “reclaim the lives and the rights of women and mothers.”

As you would expect from someone who has written on this issue ad nauseam, I can only respond Right on! Right the fuck on!

The other day I noted that stories are unlikely to work the same kind of magic in swaying people toward a pro-choice position that they did in gay marriage; perhaps the, or at least a, solution, then, is simply to drop the stories, assert the right, and not budge.

I like how Hanna Rosin handled this in her review of Pro:

I had an abortion. I was not in a libertine college-girl phase, although frankly it’s none of your business. [. . .]

I start the story this way because Katha Pollitt, author of Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, would want it this way. In fact any woman who’s reading this piece and has had an abortion, or any man who has supported one, should go in the comments section and do the same thing, until there are so many accounts that the statement loses its shock value. Because frankly, in 2014, it should be no big deal that in a movie a young woman has an abortion and it’s no big deal. We shouldn’t need a book explaining why abortion rights are important. We should be over that by now.

Yes: simply state, Yeah, I had an abortion, what of it?

I haven’t, by the way, had an abortion (although frankly it’s none of your business. . . ) and likely never will: I’ve never been pregnant, and, given my age, never will be. But had I gotten knocked up, I almost-certainly would have been clinic-bound.

In any case, being nice, being sorry, being afraid to make the political case of the necessity of abortion for women’s liberation has gotten us bupkes—no, worse, has gotten us fewer clinics, longer waiting times, and, unfuckingbelievably, a pushback against contraception.

Contraception! The “responsible” choice (as opposed to the irresponsible abortion) has now been hectored into the status of “controversial” among corporate owners and politicians alike.

Well, fuck that.

Ta-Nahisi Coates has been arguing of late that attempts to be “responsible Negroes” have black people little more than jail time, beat-downs, and death. He’s not arguing against responsibility per se, but against the double-bind that black people must be responsible in ways over-and-above the ways  any [white] human beings must be responsible and that, too often, such Negro-respectability offers no protection whatsoever.

Trying to be “respectable” or “responsible” on sex and birth control and abortion hasn’t done much to secure women’s rights, so maybe now it’s past time to try something new: the assertion—without apology, without permission—of our full humanity.

That’s no guarantee of success, of course, but it will make damn clear what the stakes are.


h/t Scott Lemieux, Lawyers, Guns & Money (click link for more reviews by people who actually read the book!)


2 09 2014

What a dick:


It should be noted that Dreher is adding this comment to a long post criticizing both Ta-Nehisi’s recent essay on learning French and on his “Blue Period” generally.

I think Dreher misreads TNC, badly, but in the post itself he at least tries to make some sense of TNC’s argument.

But this, this in effect repudiates that attempt wholly, dismissing any need for understanding, and effacing what Dreher wrote before.

Which, fine, he’s free to do.

It’s still a dick move.


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.