Monday, June 15, 2015

Race & the Left, part 2

Now "Political Correctness" is a term that, quite rightfully in most cases where it is used, has come to be mocked. Essentially an extremely vague and useful signifier for those on the right to throw out when they are losing an argument badly, a signifier that invokes our latent resentment of the "Ivory Tower" and those who inhabit it. Our resentment both of their detachment from reality and their ambition to dictate the terms in which we understand it.

I say "our resentment" because I am by no means immune, as is probably obvious. But just because irrational, inarticulate people resent something, we cannot conclude that there is nothing there to resent. There is (or at least was) cause to resent academia. The irrational part of this scenario is that that resentment can so easily be used to shut off thinking on a whole range of issues.

That's not what I'm about.

The term "political correctness" actually emerged in the writing of a person who was generally sympathetic to the causes usually thought to be advanced by the Politically Correct. In New Left circles and publications, the term was used as an offhand way to acknowledge that no one wanted things to go the way of factional orthodoxy. But it was also a tacit recognition that this tendency--the tendency toward an enforced orthodoxy that bore no doubt and no discussion--did, in fact, exist.

As it does in many organizations. But as the market position of the left (poor performance in elections--fewer positions in the state apparatus to occupy) and the leftist intellectual (fewer and fewer ways to make a living as a leftist thinker/writer) declined steeply in the 1980s, the venue for leftist thinking became increasingly dominated by academia. In academia leftist intellectuals spoke mostly to an audience that they had less need to convince and more power to compel (students).

And those students consisted largely of late adolescents who were indifferent to their suasions, anyhow . . . except for the few who longed for some officially sanctioned way to express their Oedipal angst. For these folks, it was easy to make them feel guilty for being like their parents, easy to get them to reject those values, easy to get them to adopt news ones, and easy to get them to strictly enforce the new orthodoxy (or attempt to) amongst their peers. What wasn't easy was to actually get them to think, but that was really superfluous. If not undesirable.

As union grassroots-group influence sank and as academy-trained leftists started becoming the leading new activist lights anyhow, the left more and more reflected the didactic origins of its activists. Important issues were no longer to be discussed. Orthodoxies were to be absorbed. Litanies to be repeated. Heretics to be condemned.

Twenty or so years on from the darkest days of academic exile for the left, where the public sphere and even public policy actually can be influenced by leftist thinking . . . the lack of real thinking in some parts of the leftist agenda and orthodoxy becomes painfully obvious. That's what we see now with the response to Rachel Dolezal.

Race is both a 100% social construction AND something essential to particular people, depending on the exigencies of the day. The same goes for sex and gender. There are plenty of other unresolved contradictions within the regurgitated orthodoxy which almost no one cared about when the left was essentially a political non-entity, but which now look . . . well, embarrassing.

When you need serious thinking about race and all you have on hand is people for whom mouthing the right things about black people is a vehicle for both expiating the guilt for and enjoying being white upper-middle-class people, like a modern-day papal indulgence . . . well, I'm afraid I'm just going to have to be embarrassed.

And when I wonder are black folk going to catch up to the fact that their so-compliant-with-the-line white friends are just condescending to them . . .

Unless they already know and just aren't telling me. Which is OK. Who can say which side I'm on?

Race & the Left

Being a (white) leftist myself, I am often embarrassed by my fellow travelers' attitudes toward African Americans. Not as embarrassed as I would be if I were a Republican, but embarrassed nonetheless.

I think the main thing one has to know about most middle- to upper-middle- class white people between, say, 20 and 60 today is that they grew up in a suburb. I don't have the statistics to prove this, but my experience bears it out. During their childhoods, suburbs were very segregated racially and economically. Through most of their school years they attended schools with a high proportion of people who looked like them and whose economic and social status were quite similar to their family's.

For those who grew up to watch Fox News, their background established a norm against which the rest of their life is judged. To be fair to those on the right, they probably don't explicitly think of their monochromatic childhoods as "the norm," but lots of different people, contexts dominated by different people, different people assuming unfamiliar and symbolically important roles--these things tend to set off their alarm bells, and they usually find other (cultural? technical? procedural?) pretexts to express their alarm. They know darn well that racism and xenophobia aren't nice. They don't like to think of themselves as racist or xenophobic. They honestly believe they aren't. It's just they don't pursue the matter with even the slightest rigor.

So far, so not-particularly interesting.

Those that grew up to love Rachel Maddow are a different, and altogether more complicated case. Or set of cases, I should say.

And I guess I should also say that I am both in and out of this category of white liberals. I am IN it insofar as I'm a white guy who has been afforded many of the privileges of white guys tend to take for granted in this world: a decent primary education; teachers who expected a lot of me, who assumed I'd be a leader and treated me that way; parents who had high expectations of me and who were willing to make considerable sacrifices betting on my future; and as I got older the ungrudging acceptance by those in authority that I would become one of them eventually. I am now older and more or less a part of the institutional power structure. And I am a liberal who is quite sensitive to the fact that not everyone gets the chances that I got, and not everyone is prepared as well as I was to exploit the opportunities that I got.

And I have a bit of distance from this category of white upper-middle class liberals because I didn't grow up in the suburbs. My family wasn't upper-middle-class. My schools weren't, on the whole, very good. (Every public school I attended (grades 3-8, 10-12) was ranked in the lowest quintile in the state on standardized tests.) And most of the opportunities I got were not given to me because I was a white boy. They were given to me grudgingly because my mother was the pain-in-the-ass from hell as far as teachers and school administrators were concerned. She was convinced I was the boy genius, that I was going to college, that I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer or something similar. And she damn well wasn't going to let me slip through the cracks of the school system like my four siblings did.

My father played right along--teaching me to read when I was barely much more than a toddler, responding to every bit of idle curiosity with piles of encyclopedia entries (he bought three sets), and passing along intellectual rigor as a way of life.

None of those four siblings received a high-school diploma. Several of them ended up in institutions at one or more points in their lives. My extended family has a long and interesting history with law enforcement and a rather spotty history with the educational system.

Thus I looked upon my privileges as gifts bestowed upon me by my parents, not privileges that were afforded to me merely because I was white. My siblings, after all, were also white. The big difference between me and them was a mother who had learned well from hard experience and a (different) father who brought a set of values and a level of dedication worlds away from theirs.

That's a rather different experience that most of my suburban-bred cohorts.

The schools and neighborhoods I grew up with also meant that I grew up amongst a great deal more diversity than they did. Where a lot of suburban schools had a very small number of blacks and Hispanics, and maybe a good representation from one Asian country, my classes at school were very diverse indeed. If you were white, native-born and English was spoken at home, you were in a minority in many of my classes. African Americans were a significant presence in my schools from 7th grade up and I had a chance to become acquainted with, befriend, play with and fight with black kids.

(Fighting: Where and when I come from, fights in and around school were commonplace, and ANY new boy or new group of boys had to be sorted into the pecking order. Thus when I was 8 I moved from one neighborhood to another in Philadelphia. I ended up in the office about 40 times that first year in my new school for fighting. Granted, I was somewhat unusual in my reluctance to back down from a fight, but this gives you a fair picture of the general atmosphere. There were MANY interracial fights in my schools, most of which were not primarily motivated by race (though, of course, it factored in heavily).)

So, by the time I got to college, dealing with black folk was relatively normal for me. NOT to say it was just the same a dealing with the Italian guys I knew. Racism was a huge factor and a huge rift between whites and blacks. Though my family was tolerant and, in fact, vocally anti-racist, the fact of the matter was that plenty of the white people around me were quite racist. And any black person dealing with a white person in my neighborhood would be stupid to assume that person wasn't racist. And you, as a white guy, had to know that any black person you dealt with probably assumed you were a racist and probably was more than ready to hate your guts. It made for some pretty tense dealings, but it could be overcome to a certain extent. That background never went away, though.

When I got to college and later went on to university I began to see what was to me a new phenomenon: white people who had NEVER really dealt with a black person from the city. Maybe there were a few black folk back in high school--the children of a black teacher hired in an affirmative action program, or maybe a stray doctor or business owner who had moved into the school district to give his kids a leg up or maybe, if they were lucky, some folks from an historic black suburban enclave. But for the most part these black folk were thoroughly assimilated into the upper-middle class world they inhabited. While they may not have had all the opportunities and may have put up with more hurtful bullshit than their white peers, they were a world away from their ghetto-rasied peers.

My undergraduate institution was quite different from my previous experience. First it was only about half the size of my high school (2500 vs. 5000). Second, hardly anyone there came from an urban public school. I think there were about 10 kids in my entering class who had grown up in a city and maybe 5 of those had gone to the regular public school in their city. Nearly everyone at the school came from very nice, very white suburban public or private schools from places in New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island and Massachusetts.

They were generally complacent, if not contented, and conservative. The faculty, who large came from the same background but who mostly came up in the 60s and early seventies, absolutely despised the student body and its politics. The usual stance assumed by the faculty was that they knew exactly where we came from, and knew precisely what our moral failings were. In vast majority of cases they were right, but for a city kid who, but for a sick Mom would have gone to Berkeley (in the laughably naive hope that it was still the Berkeley of Do It) their condescension was infuriating.

The typical faculty ploy during any discussion that touched on the big social and political issues of the day was to use the suffering of urban blacks and people of color worldwide as a way of eliciting guilt, and on this guilt they built a following. Because no one particularly *likes* feeling guilty. Guilt in most people creates a pretty strong motivation to somehow expiating that guilt. If the guilt is about something truly bad and something that one is to blame for and one is able to do something about, then the way to expiate it is to eliminate the cause of the guilt. This was where the white freedom riders came from: they saw an injustice in their land, they felt the pain of its being there and they acted stop it. They transformed their guilt into a sense of mission: to give black people the basic rights that they thought should be afforded to any person.

But that had been done. Blacks now voted in Alabama and ate at formerly whites only lunch counters in Mississippi. That didn't mean they were getting a fair chance at the "American Dream" of justly rewarded hard work.

And to make things rather more complicated, the people who were hectoring us about the plight of the African American and the privileges afforded to whites had all landed themselves pretty cozy positions in that world of privilege which they had absolutely no intention of giving up. Any reasonable accounting of who had undeserved privilege in 1986 would fairly soon come to the door of tenured liberal arts faculty. Besides, none of those guilty students actually felt guilty enough to give up anything serious. What was wanted was symbolic, rather than material expiation. Expiation through the forms of faith rather than through good acts. And those forms came to be known in the 1990s as "Political Correctness."

to be continued

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Rachel Dolezal and Race

Race is a pretty complex issue. Race in the United States is both complicated and contentious. Race in the United States today is complicated, contentious and tied up with deep running issues of personal identity.

The Rachel Dolezal case is more or less tailor-made to bring out the bitterness surrounding race in the United States. Coming so soon after all the righteous chest-beating on the left in the post Bruce>Caitlyn Jenner excitement, it was bound to get a lot of attention from those on the right eager to show how hypocritical those on the left can be.

And when it comes to morals and moralism, the left can indeed by quite hypocritical, self-righteous and self-contradictory. If Caitlyn Jenner MUST be accepted as a woman, the right asked, Why MUST Rachel Dolezal's claim to be black be mocked and condemned?

And it is not a bad question.

Mind, there are loads of differences in the two cases. For one thing, Dolezal has not been open at all about her "transition." Jenner has come out, announced his longstanding feelings about his gender identity and very publicly announced his transition to Caitlyn. All well and good, no one was deceived any more than Jenner was confused by his struggles with his gender identity.

Dolezal has hidden her true background, lied about it, actually. And she's been able to take advantage of the ignorance & confusion she's created.

So, there's a big difference between someone essentially hoodwinking everyone and someone struggling with their identity.

But let us imagine if Dolezal had, at some point long previous to 2015, come out and said she identified as black and intended to assume that as her racial/ethnic/cultural identity. It is clear from the comments of many on the left that they would be no more accepting of a straightforward Dolezal becoming black as they would of Dolezal the fraud. Why is this?

One notion that's been bouncing around, initially put forward by Dolezal's brother, is that Dolezal's personification is "blackface." Dolezal's adopted brother is black, and I'm sure he was under a lot of pressure to come up with some kind of reaction to Rachel's outing, but calling what Rachel has done "blackface" is dumb. Blackface performers were KNOWN TO BE WHITE by their audiences--that was the whole point. And they enacted a vision of blackness which was humiliating and degrading to blacks.

The whole point of Dolezal's performance is that no one should know who she really is. And rather than seeking to humiliate and degrade black people, she seems to honestly identify with them and has sought to advance their causes. Fraud is not nice, but it isn't anything remotely like blackface.

The whole Dolezal fiasco has many on the left, many far more experienced in the public sphere than young Ezra Dolezal, writhing about trying to square the circle of their contradictory positions on race and identity.

How is it, we must wonder, if race is a social construction that it is "absolutely impossible" for a white woman to assume the identity of a black woman? Or, if you've suddenly become a racial essentialist in the face of Dolezal, given that it is "absolutely impossible" for a white woman to assume the identity of a black woman, how come no one noticed Dolezal's ruse until her father outed her?

Her fraud aside, Dolezal has done us a service. She's thrown a light on to the fact that for all the self-righteousness, false displays of ritualized guilt, and venomous attacks on those who stray even a whisker from the orthodoxy, the left's identity politics is just a contradictory rag bag of ad-hoc theorizing to justify a large set of left-consensual knee-jerk reactions. All of that moral fulminating has little behind it aside from "because we say so, damn it! And we may have said the opposite thing a few days ago, but so fucking what!" Hannity couldn't have said it better himself.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Boingboing kindly covers our ears

Had a pretty interesting experience over at boingboing's bulletin board a couple of weeks ago. Full disclosure, the experience ends with me getting banned, but so it goes sometimes.

What I found interesting was the norms of the conversation. I am a longtimer on the Internets. I first tooled around on the Internet about the same time as the world wide web came into being. I distinctly remember the www as pretty much a text-based (not graphics-based) realm. I was there when Mosaic first came out. I saw the usenet rise and fall under a blizzard of spam.

Long before that I did a wee bit of coding (BASIC and Pascal, which, bizarrely, I still get to use) and floated around on the periphery of real hacker circles. But anyhow, I've been around the virtual block a time or two.

The Internet I am used to, and the one I thought boingboing was built up from, had free expression as a more-or-less central tenet. It was a dearly held belief that being able to say what you thought was, ultimately, a good thing for the conversation and a good thing for everyone involved, even if what you thought was wrong or misguided or looked down upon.

Now I know all about the controversies that have swirled around the notions of civility and anonymity and abuse on the internet. There have been and usually are some pretty bad abuses of free expression on the Internet. But those have not outweighed the upside of having freewheeling discussions where people are willing to argue for unpopular points of view.

Boingboing's bulletin board has taken a decided swing away from these values. The board is moderated with a pretty heavy hand, with many sorts of expression, such as insults, racism, sexism and "being annoying" being at least supposedly banned. Effectively this gives the moderators a great deal of latitude to pretty much ban anyone they don't like. And they exercise this power pretty freely.

In an ideal world this would lead to a more civil and more enlightening discussion. But at boingboing this is not the case.

For instance, compare any conversation on the boingboing bulletin board with, say, a controversial topic on scienceblogs. On scienceblogs commenters have a great deal more latitude. Does that make for a less enlightening and interesting discussion?

The answer is pretty clear--take a look at a pretty contentious conversation at scienceblogs versus the struggle to articulate an alternative to the consensus at boingboing. Granted, the race issue brings out people who really just want to express aggression and not think, but there is a complete failure on the part of the moderators to see that that tendency toward aggression exists on both the contrarian and the consensus sides.

In those boingboing comments, anyone who questions the merit of the cartoon that is the subject of the post, or who questions the terminology used is either outright called a racist or faces statements that are more or less "I'm not calling you a racist, but anyone who would say what you just said must be a racist."

Such statements are blithely ignored by the moderator. As are stock PC putdowns like "manslaining." But if you (redundantly) call the person who says these things a self-righteous jackass you pretty much immediately get banned.

Oddly, many of these folks seem to have completely forgotten where they first heard about things like "white privilege" and "manslaining." When I brought up the academic origins of these terms there were howls of denial . . . perhaps folks don't realize that many of these terms were coined & first propagated in academic papers, but I really find it difficult to believe that even people who have completely assimilated such notions don't remember that they first heard them and used them at school.

But what is most surprising is how boingboing, which I'd always thought of as as strong defender of the benefits of free expression, has embraced the tightly controlled model of classroom speech and has grown intolerant of anything like give-and-take on sensitive issues like this one. I don't think it benefits anyone. Not those who now don't have to be offended by someone who dares to disagree with what passes for consensus in their circles. Not those unprivileged who are supposedly being protected. Not those who might want to actually think about the issues surrounding race and how they might best be articualted. Not boingboing.

Sunday, March 08, 2015


I am reading an old book at the moment: Paul Krugman's Pop Internationalism. I often find that "in the moment" books like this one (Pop Internationalism's moment is probably 1994 or so) are really valuable reads later on if they're written by people who really know their stuff. Like reading Habermas on the socio-economic transition of the 1970s. It doesn't have the benefit of temporal perspective, but it does have a better connection to the lived experience, and folks like Krugman and Habermas provide a lot of interesting perspective just in how they contextualize an issue.

Krugman was in an interesting place in the early 1990s--he was respected, he had written some very good economics on trade, he was a good writer, and he was a liberal. But he found himself feeling like an outsider as the Clinton administration geared up in 92/93.
"My epiphany came at that famous economic summit in Little Rock in 1992," Krugman said. "A lot of stuff said there was clearly silly. I had been aware that pop economics writers had a much bigger audience than good economists. But I did not take that seriously because I thought that anyone who really mattered would know the difference. That turned out not to be the case."
Several of the major tenets of the economists pushing Clinton's domestic policy, were, according to Krugman, completely false. Demonstrably false. In fact, well known to be false among other economists.

What is surprising is how much traction the bullshit view (that trade was the major cause of America's economic dulldrums) could get in the face of the fact that it couldn't really justify itself to anyone with even a little skepticism. In fact, Krugman, who was representing mainstream economics against the champions of wishful thinking (Lester Thurow, among many others), gets labelled a "contrarian" in the supposedly sophisticated policy press.

Groupthink in action? I've seen it myself--executives who take a "facts don't matter, this is what we're doing" approach (though they don't have the honesty or courage to say that, of course), but it is interesting, and pretty scary, to see it taking place at the highest levels.

I am reminded of the ascendancy of Henry Kissinger, who rose as an academic as the hot young foreign policy realist, but when he started to make his way in Washington he started advocating and championing completely un-realistic foreign policies and pretending they were realistic by constantly making reference to "credibility" as a justification. It was kind of an intellectual black hole.

People who fear technocrats can be reassured--experts are only in Washington as window dressing. No one listens to actual expertise.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Phillies: What Happened?

Along with a thoughtful bent and a funny name, another legacy of mine is Phillies fandom.

Which, historically has been something like inheriting a proclivity for corns, but lately has been pretty sweet, actually. The Phillies had a decent run there: Win the division as the Mets(!) collapse in 2007, win it all in 2008, the pennant in 2009, then a series of win-now trades that didn't get them the win, the sudden decline of a few key players and . . . now we start over.

A lot of Phillies fans are more than a little disappointed with this run. Phillies fans have always had a soft spot for the Red Sox. Sox fans experienced a lot of the "close but no cigar" sort of frustration, whereas the Phillies fan spent the vast majority of the twentieth century watching a team that was more or less a mockery of a professional baseball organization. But they had the frustration in common. Along with the proud urban ethnic tradition. And the urban ethnic racism and teams that pandered to it. And the reddish caps (for a little while). And, most of all, the absolute, unyielding hatred of New York.

So Phillies fans today look at the Red Sox and see a team that is still on a run of competitiveness that started back in the 1990s (since 1998, they've had two losing seasons), with occasional years off to retool. Why can't the Phillies do this? Why are the Phillies now in the midst of a multi-year rebuild?

Part of it is probably just luck. the Red Sox made a couple of bets on their big slow slugger (David Ortiz) and won. In fact they won beyond even the sanguine hopes of Red Sox fans--Ortiz has aged better than anyone expected. The Phils made a similar bet on theirs (Ryan Howard) and about as spectacularly lost.

Part of it is also how the teams decided to proceed after their initial world series win. The Red Sox remained committed to a philosophy which dealt out long-term contracts very reluctantly and tried very hard to keep contracts in the realm where the player could conceivably return value by standard measurements of such things. Thus Ortiz has spent his prime making 13-15 million a year. Howard now makes $25 million.

Even for a rich team such a contract going toward a now unproductive player is a hit.

And the Red Sox philosophy had other effects other than not overpaying for David Ortiz. he is the only Red Sock to be on all three of their recent World Series teams. Only six others were on the first two. Only three others were on both the second two. And even Ortiz might well have gone had he insisted on being overpayed. He'd have found someone outside of Boston who'd have done it, and Boston probably would not have matched.

The Red Sox seldom seem to convince themselves that they need a particular player. They are willing to let anyone go, and they end up letting a lot of people walk or trading a lot of people. There's very little continuity on the team, but there's very little other than on-field return in their calculations.

The Phillies took a very different approach . . .

I am, as a fan, rooting for an organization whose philosophies are diametrically opposed to my own, not only as to the question of whether you succeed, but as to the question of how you succeed. I like to watch young players grow and develop into stars, as I watched Amos Otis and George Brett and Frank White and Dennis Leonard. I take pleasure in seeing what they can do one year that they couldn’t the year before; this is what, as a fan, I enjoy. --Bill James, 1985 Baseball Abstract

Philadelphia owner Ruly Carpenter, realizing that Pete Rose at thirty-eight is no longer a player who can decide a pennant race, originally refused to pay what Pete Rose was asking. But the TV station that carries the Phillies, concerned not with ability but with marketability, came up with the dough . . . Bill James, Esquire magazine, 1979 

I direct your attention to these two passages from Bill James to establish two points: 1) That fans can have interests that run counter to the best strategy for a team to win. Even Bill James, one of the godfathers of baseball analysis, watches the game, in part, to watch the play and development of personalities he's become familiar with and fond of. Even highly analytical fans like stability and the continuity of a story; 2) The business side of baseball is not just about statistical analysis of on-field performance. It's about what sells. Winning sells, yes, but other things sell as well.

When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, ownership made a decision to make it a priority to keep together the core--Rollins, Utley, Howard & Hamels--they had drafted and developed. Part of this was because they were a compelling group for the Philadelphia market. Unusually, there were two African-American stars amongst them. And there was a hard-nosed white guy (Utley). Ownership essentially decided that *this* Phillies team was not only a winner on the field, but a highly marketable group of personalities as well.

And Philadelphia is a town that loves its stories more than most. The 1993 Phillies are probably still the team the fans hold closest to their hearts. Not because they won it all (they didn't) but because their working-class fratboy demeanor and their seemingly never-ending series of come-from-behind runs--jibed precisely with the city's identity as overlooked, underappreciated and (frogive my French) declasse.

But dedicating yourself so strongly to keeping particular players often means overpaying for them--giving them longer, bigger contracts than their on-field performance really commands. So Ryan Howard's contract wasn't just a bit of insanity on the part of the General Manager. That contract was part of an ownership-level decision to make stability in core personnel a very high priority for the team.

This policy decision, combined with bad luck (Howard, Halliday), win-now trades that didn't entirely pan out (Lee, Halliday, Hunter Pence) and a couple of plain stupid trades (Hunter Pence II, Lee II) and you've got yourself a long rebuild.

On top of this, the Phillies, for some inexplicable reason, seemed to strongly believe that they could see something in or do something to athletic high-schoolers to make them pan out as major leaguers at an appreciably higher rate than usual. They were wrong about this as well, so they ended up taking a lot of long bets with draft choices they should have been expending on safer bets (successful college players).

Ruben Amaro certainly has to take some of the blame for all of this. His old-school mentality probably lent directly to the failed draft strategy of the past 5 years or so, and that old-school mentality really does have to be relegated to the dustbin. Explicitly and emphatically. A couple of Amaro's salary dump trades were just atrocious in terms of return. But MOST of the Phillies problem is down to bad luck and a policy of lineup stability that just didn't work.

But I have to say, in spite of its failure, I'm glad the Phillies did keep that core together for so long. Like Bill James, even if analysis teaches us that letting familiar faces go early and bringing in strangers probably would have made the team better and more resilient, it is a lesson I find hard to enjoy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Lena Dunham's Problem

I had no idea who Lena Dunham was until a few days ago. But I've read quite a bit about her. Apparently Dunham had already become something of a political football before the most recent controversy over the rape scene in her memoir. She's young, female, overtly leftist, outspoken about sex and apparently has often been nude or semi-nude in her film & TV work. And her body doesn't conform to mainstream notions of beauty.

So she's already a dartboard for a lot of folks on the right, and a saintly presence for many of the left.

Reading a lot of what has been written about this latest controversy, I am . . . appalled that some of the people writing these pieces actually seem to have jobs writing. I'd like to try to consider how we might learn a thing or two from this whole controversy.

But first, the story so far:

Dunham recently published a memoir called Not That Kind of Girl. In it she describes a sexual encounter with "Barry," "a mustachioed campus Republican." Actually, she describes it twice. Once as "the upsetting but educational choice of a girl who was new to sex" and once as rape. She is open and self-conscious about the contrast between the two accounts and clearly would have us believe that the second characterization--rape--is the true one, the first a sort of comforting lie that she told herself and relayed to us. After the Rolling Stone article about gang rape at the University of Virginia (the details of which have been called into serious question), there has been a great deal of interest in campus rape, and Dunham's account drew a lot of interest, including interest from those folks who have Dunham's picture in front of their dartboards.

There was quite a lot of detail about "Barry" in the book. For one thing there was nothing to indicate that Barry was anything but the perpetrator's real name (at least one other pseudonym in the book is clearly indicated as such). There's also his prominence on the conservative scene at Oberlin, where Dunham and "Barry" were undergraduates at the time of the incident. There's also details about his flamboyant mustache and clothing preferences and his date of graduation.

Oberlin is a small school. And Oberlin is about as notoriously liberal as, say, Pepperdine is notoriously conservative. While there was a campus conservative group active at Oberlin at the time Dunham was there, they complain in their published minutes that only 5 or so people actually attend meetings. One would guess there were probably less that 50 conservatives in the entire membership.

At a small school with a small conservative population within it, finding Barry should have been easy if the details were, as you'd expect in a memoir, true.

And there was indeed a prominent conservative student named Barry at Oberlin at the right time to be Dunham's Barry. But he claims never to have even met Dunham. And now, weeks after real-life Barry started complaining about the unwanted and damaging attention Dunham's memoir was getting him, Dunham and her publisher now acknowledge that real-life Barry isn't rapist Barry. In fact "Barry" is a "pseudonym" for the rapist. Dunham and publisher regret the "coincidence."

But even if "Barry" was a pseudonym, finding this guy should really be like shooting fish in a barrel. With so few conservatives on campus, how hard could it be to find a flamboyant, mustachioed conservative leader?

Impossible, apparently.

So it is becoming apparent that Barry's name probably is not the only fictionalized detail Dunham's story. And it is quickly becoming hard to tell where the fictionalization may end. Was this guy conservative? Did he have a flamboyant mustache or not? Did he graduate when Dunham said? Was Dunham really unaware of the existence of real-life Barry? or is this whole episode an expression of mischief or malice toward a prominent conservative at her old college? Was Dunham, in fact, raped?

In her recent apology/apologia, Dunham reasserts the basic claim that she was raped, defends telling about it and asks that we believe. The trouble is though, a) no reasonable voice is questioning the right of women to tell their rape stories, that's a red herring; and b) no one has done more to make it difficult to take Lena Dunham's words at face value than Dunham herself.

She may "have a right to her story," a right "take control" after the ultimate loss of control, but does that mean she has the right to surreptitiously make up important elements of that story, thereby drawing in and damaging innocent third parties? Does she have any reasonable expectation to be believed at this point?

This entire affair, to me, stems back to the rather cavalier attitude we seem to take these days toward some of the core values of journalism and writing. Like, say, truthfulness. Or what credibility is and how it maintained. Being an "unreliable narrator" of serious criminal accusations just doesn't cut it. Blithely admitting such unreliability is completely undermines your insistence that *some* of what you say should be believed implicitly. One doesn't get to be playful and creative (or manipulative and malicious) with the truth on one hand, and be taken at face value on the other.

I sympathize with Dunham, but I think she has played this very badly indeed. She needs to come out with a definitive and exhaustive statement as to what is true and what is not in her description of "Barry" and his actions, not a lecture on what rape survivors need.

What rape survivors need is for Lena Dunham to be straightforwardly honest. The truth doesn't belong to someone to control and remake. The truth is a transaction, and Dunham has violated the trust behind that transaction. She needs to restore it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Darwinian Literary Studies

Happened on the brief interview with Steven Pinker in the New York Times Book Review a few weekends ago and got set on a little research project on one of the authors he mentions as a particular favorite: Jonathan Gottschall. Gottschall is a literary scholar who is interested in bringing evolutionary theory to bear in his work.

So far so good. But Gottschall has a tendency to push things a bit. First, he seems unable to see what is good in literary studies without the benefit of evolutionary theory. He's big on making apocalyptic proclamations about the current state of literary theory and touting the salvation to be achieved only through subjugating literature to science.

To some degree I get this: I bet Gottschall had a tough time in grad school. He ended up having David Sloan Wilson, a biologist (and son of a novelist) as his dissertation director, and I bet he was damn lucky to have had the opportunity to take this sort of interdisciplinary route. English departments can be unkind to those who insist on certain standards of logical discourse and on the importance of other fields when they have no obvious revolutionary or liberationist allegiances. I had problems in the same direction when I was a English grad student in the 1990s.

But it is important to separate justified resentment at the internal politics of English departments from our analysis of the best work that gets done there.

Similarly, we cannot let our resentment drive our evaluation of alternatives to the status quo in literary studies.

Gottschall sees natural selection as the magic wand with which he can turn literary studies into something important again, and he tends to characterize anyone who objects as anti-science. But there are very good reasons to doubt that some kind of "evolutionary literary studies" is the way forward. And it's not because natural selection is racist or because we have to run from anything that seem "reductionist." It's because it just doesn't seem to produce much in the way of interesting, novel insights.

Why not? Well, in large part because from the standpoint of narrative structure, natural selection just isn't so different from the common sensical observations people were making about the nature of competition that had been made by important Darwinian inspirers like David Ricardo, Mandeville, Adam Smith, Machiavelli and loads of others.

The Darwinian theme had been pretty extensively worked for millennia before Darwin systematized it.  That's not to minimize Darwin's accomplishment: it was enormous. It just that the theme itself was not novel. What was novel was that Darwin systematically applied the idea of competition as an explanatory mechanism to account for biological diversity.

Too many biologists seem to believe that Darwin's great achievement was discovering competition as a central theme to life. This isn't so. Many people recognized this. And some people even saw and celebrated the constructive role competition could play in a system. Darwin's contribution was that he systematized these general, thematic observations and applied them systematically to a particular object whose development across vast expanses of history and geography he could trace.

Darwin's gift was NOT miraculous insight. His gift was that he was BOTH a steadfast stamp collector and a theoretician of a high order.

Darwin's gift was that he could take the insights of others and raise them to the level of systematic explanation.

But loads of more literary figures had had the basic insights Drawin built into a system.

The idea of subjugating the literary to the biological is wrongheaded for just this reason: it is our job to provide the non-systematic insights that will fuel productive inquiry of a more systematic nature. Just as Mandeville fed Darwin, so should present day literary studies and literary thinking feed future Darwins--not by slavishly applying Darwin's principles but in pushing current thinking along in one direction or another in a way that, to non-systematic but rigorous thinkers, seems like fruitful paths of inquiry . . .

For instance, on the Iliad . . .

While, in general Gottschall's writing on the Iliad can seem pretty maddeningly slavish, there can be no doubt that the general idea of returning the Iliad to its setting--the beginnings of civilization--is an inspiring idea. And I sincerely commend him for it.

Where he goes wrong, to my mind, is precisely where he plays from the Evolutionary Psychology playbook--in his use of twentieth-century work with hunter-gatherers as a sort of cultural benchmark to guide our understanding of the Iliad. This move carries a lot of baggage--first it assumes that the cultural characteristics of twentieth-century tribes pretty directly reflect innate drives that are more hidden by modern culture. Second it assumes that those tribal cultures are essentially part of the hidden "base" of modern culture over which the superstructure of most things we know and love and deal with every day. Third it assumes that this tribal culture also is the key to understanding the early civilized culture we see depicted in the Iliad. I'm not sure any of these assumptions is true in any simple sort of way. Of course, scholars like Gottschall are always careful to acknowledge what I'm writing now. But the acknowledgement is merely symbolic, for they then proceed as if the simple base-superstructure relationship is in fact the case.

The Yanomamo are not remnants of our own past--they are Yanomamo. They have their own history and customs. They have their own environment to deal with. They are first and foremost themselves.

And even our own Pleistocene ancestors are first and foremost themselves, not keys to understanding ourselves.

My own thought is that while our biological heritage is there, while it is important, it is simply not the skeleton key to understanding everything. In fact, I don't believe there is any skeleton key. At the time of the Iliad, it is not our heritage from the peacock that is most crucially important to our understanding of events--it is the conditions prevailing at the time of the Iliad. Achilles and Agamemnon were not Yanomamo, they were leaders in a culture that had far-flung trade networks and military alliances, and that carried out war over the course of years and over great expanses of territory. As with Darwin's work, this is the mark of systematization.

All of the civilized "superstructure" necessary to accomplish the war in Ilium is not merely incidental to what motivated the men who fought it. For in getting and keeping those biological goods--food, shelter, warmth, security, sex--that they no doubt sought, they had to use the levers made available by that superstructure. Not every man in Ithaca was a candidate to lead the hundreds to war seeking to secure more of those goods. Agamemnon was. And not due to his superiority as a biological specimen, but due to his position within that superstructure.

And so the key question is not "how are Agamemnon and Achilles just like the animals?" and in turn "How are we just like Achilles and Agamemnon?" The key question is how are they distinct?

By denigrating that difference, science-driven research is not motivated by some essential truth. It is motivated by a lust for power.

When I urge the importance of distinction, detail and difference in explaining human phenomena, I am ultimately setting myself up for a fall--I will (sooner rather than later when talking about things like the late-Bronze-Age) eventually reach a point where I have to say "I don't know" or "We don't know yet" or "We may never know that." This doesn't (God forbid) stop us from speculating and making guesses and filling in blanks as seems appropriate, but it does (or should) stop us from making strong claims.

Thus the cliche scientific horror at the non-systematic nature of the humanities and some social sciences. (For living instances of this cliche horror, see EO Wilson, or practically any Evolutionary Psychologist in the 1990s.)

Now, the non-systematic thing does indeed sometimes get out of hand (see, for instance, L'Affaire Sokal). But the solution to it is not science. The fact that the humanities is a non-systematic pursuit is based on two big difficulties: 1) as mentioned above the insufficiency of the existing evidence to give any real shape and direction to the discussion of it; and 2) the insufficiency of any "first principles" for interpreting all the evidence.

Problem 1 is one which, at least in some fields, might be conquered. Problem 2 isn't. Suppose we ask "Why isn't biology characterized, driven and shaped by a first principle from a more basic order of knowledge, as some biology fans now suggest that the humanities be structured? Why isn't Newton celebrated as the key to understanding the finer points of evolutionary theory or cell biology? Because the key to understanding cells is not understanding them as bodies in motion. Though Newton's laws apply to cells and cells wouldn't exist without those forces Newton explained being in play, Newton isn't the key to understanding cells. Observing cells and abstracting from those observations is the key to understanding cells. So again with people and their works. While we are of course beasts. While we are often driven by the same basic biological needs as animals, the complexities of society, culture, language, trade etc. are best understood by looking at those things themselves and abstracting from them, not by reducing them to epiphenomena of lower order processes.

Science-oriented critics are always, always, always bringing up human self-regard as their excuse for refusing to acknowledge the fact that humanity is a special phenomenon. The war on human self-regard has to know limits. Are we more important than everything else in the universe? No. Are we better than the animals? No. Are we no different than the animals? No, we are different. And it's the difference that is interesting. We won't explain much of that difference by fixating on our biology or by fixating on those who refuse to fully acknowledge it. Physics, chemistry, geology, geography and biology all enter into the explanation of the remains of Troy's walls. None of them, nor all of them together, explain them fully. Nor does Homer. But he's the only reason we're interested in an explanation.

So what would be a better application of context to this story? First, forget the Pleistocene for the moment. Forget the Yanomamo. Let's start with the most obvious facts of the story: the central conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon.  A conflict between a young, potent but unestablished male and an older, richer, more influential one.

“You wine sack, with a dog’s eyes, with a deer’s heart. Never
once have you taken courage in your heart to arm with your people
for battle.” (from Book I of Richard Lattimore's translation of the Iliad.)

So says Achilles to Agamemnon. And this is not just the cry of the fighter against the general. This is the cry of the young warrior against the old King.

As Gottschall points out, we shouldn't think of the kings of the Iliad as a bunch of rather rougher-hewn Louis XIVs. Their city-states were relatively small. They were more like warlords than kings. But we shouldn't fail to recognize either that they were civilized: they did live in substantial, fortified cities with allegiances to other fortified cities. They engaged in and enriched themselves through trade. They weren't merely tribal elders. And they used the mechanisms of civilization to extend their authority far beyond what their personal prowess would have commanded. Civilization created economies of organized violence, wealth and prestige which tended to give older men more power. And to deny social goods to younger men, like Achilles.

The relevant background to the prestige struggle between Achilles and Agamemnon is not who gets to reproduce with Briseis. Whether or not Achilles will be judged by the biologically minded on his "reproductive success," men have no direct biological impulse to have children. They have a drive to have sex. It so happens that procreation is often a consequence of sex, so the indirect drive to sex is sufficient for the purposes of natural selection. But the fact is, Achilles could easily have found someone else to have sex with, so why risk a potentially fatal conflict with a powerful warlord over a particular sex partner?

Because there are all kinds of experiential drivers (that is, impulses that we actually experience directly) that we can freely acknowledge are based on selective pressure. One of these is agon--competitiveness. Once we've taken a catalog of these more proximate drives--toward drunkenness, glory seeking, lust, etc.--we soon find ourselves in a position where knowing that all these drives, ultimately, were put in place to make it more likely that these men would reproduce really doesn't enrich the story at all. In fact it tends to flatten it out--all the interest is in the layers of indirection on top of the ultimate cause.

It's kind of like being asked to tell the story of the American Civil War and responding "Well, everyone involved died in the end." This is true. And it reflects a pretty fundamental truth about us all--we're all going to die. But it doesn't tell us anything about the Civil War. What matters about the Civil War is the how--who dies when, under what circumstances. Whose cause won the war? Whose lost? What was the legacy that was passed on to those who lived beyond the passing of the last Civil War contestant?

Similarly, reproductive success is a major determinant of much else that we concern ourselves with. But like our ultimate mortality, it is an ultimate, general truth with very little explanatory power or interest. To deny that such truths are interesting is not to deny their truth. It is to deny their applicability to the questions the text elicits.

And this struggle between old leaders and young warriors, coming as it does at a crucial early phase of human development as real institutions arise and struggle against the decidedly anti-institutional values of the warrior culture, is interesting.

Imaging how all this might reflect natural selection just isn't. Any more than wondering how the story of the Iliad reflects the fact that the characters are composed of atoms is interesting.

And this is not a case of moral exceptionalism. I am not saying people are too noble to be thought of as mere genetic reproducing machines. I'm saying my life is too short to read simplistic unenlightening explanations of complex phenomena. I am no more interested in this biological explanation for literature than a biologist would be interested in an explanation for mating ceremonies based on quantum theory. And I have no idea why anyone would feel otherwise.

Gottschall's work is not insensitive to the text of the Iliad, but it also isn't particularly original. Aside from the window dressing of new jargon to present it in, Gottschall's Iliad is very much the Iliad we've been discussing for hundreds of years. Basing his interpretation in biology doesn't make it more interesting, adds no no facets to the text itself, doesn't make his interpretation unassailable, and points the way to no glorious revolutions in literary criticism.

Much behind the theory of natural selection has been part of our common sense of our existence for quite a long time. The themes of agon, display, violence and even reproductive success have been with us for a long time; long before Darwin. And as the Iliad itself shows us, social structure brings whole new complications to these themes--the war in Troy may be dominated by the manly display of Achilles, but it wouldn't exist as a context for that display without the institutional connections of Agamemnon. It may (or may not) all boil down to sex in the end, but the interest isn't in what it boils down to. Who cares what gummy mess is left in a wineglass once you boil away all the fruit esters, water & alcohol? It may make a contribution to the glass, but that gummy mess is not a synecdoche for the original wine.