DEI Training At My School

DEI Training Session At My School

 

In the recent DEI training session, I asked a question about what was meant by the “myth of universality,” which was included as one if the mistakes to be overcome to progress beyond level one of something called the “cultural competence continuum.”  I felt cut off when session leader rapidly changed the subject and ended up feeling that it is possibly not safe for me to speak my mind in this place.  Had I been allowed to continue, here’s what I would have said:

I find your definition of universality, that every one is the same, inadequate.  For me, it is axiomatic that what is unique to the human species is the capacity for empathy, and that empathy gives each of us the ability to identify with an experience that we have not had.  This is what I wake up every morning affirming.  This is what makes it a joy for me to stand up in front of a classroom of students and talk about literature.  This is why I have dedicated my working life to the study of literature.  So, if progressing beyond level one on the cultural competence continuum means I must deny Spinoza and four hundred years of Humanist philosophy, I expect to be stuck at level one for some time to come.

In the “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” Marx argues that humankind is a “species being,” a foundational statement for his radical critique of capitalism.  So, I find the denial of universality, potentially, at least, quite reactionary and disturbing.  In the Guillermo del Toro film, Pan’s Labyrinth, I remember the fascist torturer sitting calmly at dinner, scoffing at the idea of the universality of humanity. 

I was also disturbed by the discussion of intersectionality and the tacit disapproval of any criticism.  It was presented as the only possible correct attitude.  Here again, it seemed not safe to speak my mind.  Whatever good intentions may have initiated the concept, the actual practice has been unfortunate.  It has come to mean dividing up the world into a false binary of victimized and victimizer categories and assigning moral superiority to the victimized categories and moral turpitude to the victimizers and denying them a legitimate political voice. 

I am remembering a previous faculty meeting on diversity in which the presenter showed a video in which a white man encountering an Asian woman on a running path, embarrasses himself by maladroitly mouthing racist commonplaces about Asian women.  Everyone thought the video very funny.  I felt there was a terrible irony here.  While the video made the obvious point that stereotyping minorities is foolish and hurtful, no one noticed that the video was indulging in the stereotype of the clueless white guy.  No one objected to this stereotype because straight white men are victimizer category and, therefore, fair game for ridicule. 

In a similar incident, I was talking with some colleagues some time ago about the Trump campaign, when someone opined, “Of course this is all happening because of white men.”  I asked her to please redefine that category into one that did not include me.  She was taken aback by my request and couldn’t understand why I might think it did, so casual and pervasive has this categorizing become.  In a recent school assembly, everyone thought it as very funny when Ava du Vernay made a joke out of the tag line, “Some of my best friends are white guys.”  I was not amused.

Perhaps the best example of how destructive this kind of categorizing has become comes from an article in The New Yorker about student activism at Oberlin College. 

In a campus discussion, a student objected to vague language in a sexual harassment statute because he felt that such vague language could lead to targeting ethnic groups.  He was accosted afterwards by another student: “A student came up to me several days later and started screaming at me, saying I’m not allowed to have this opinion, because I’m a white cisgender male.” 

Here is the downside of intersectionality.  The student who made the comment, unfortunately for him, inhabits the intersection of three victimizer categories.  As such, it was unthinkable and even maddening to the screamer that he might presume to have a legitimate political voice. So, if you are unfortunate enough to be in a victimizer category, you are automatically suspect until you prove yourself to be one of the good ones through some act of self-abnegation.  This is deeply wrong.

Having pointed out how destructive this categorizing can be, I must say that I am not overly concerned about the hurt feelings of those caught on the wrong side of this false binary.  My concern is about the Oberlin screamer and others like her who do not question this false binary creating a political and social movement that excludes and humiliates according to predefined categories, all the while patting themselves on their backs for their correct attitudes.  We have been down that road before.  It is not pretty.

As I read over these comments on the DEI training session, I am struck by the anger I seem to evince.  I think what has stimulated my pique is the presumption on the part of the partisans of intersectionality and identity politics that they define what it means to be left wing.  My sense of the left is that working-class unity is the springboard to justice.  The identity politics partisans care nothing about class unity.  If they talk about class at all, they see it as simply another item on the intersectionality checklist, not as defining feature of American life.  They are content to break up the working class into competing constituencies.  They have no idea of the damage they are causing.

O.J.

Marx said that everything in history happens twice, the first time as tragedy, the asecond time as farce.  The civil rights movement is no exception.  The death of Martin Luther King was the tragedy; the OJ trial was the farce.  It was a grotesque caricature of the issues that framed the civil rights movement. 

 

What a painful time that was!  The OJ trial was a terrific scar on the American psyche that only the Obama campaign has gone some measure to heal.  I think that the legal case was summed up by the last statement in the program, that the LAPD “framed a guilty man.”

 

Should a murderer go free because of questionable police conduct?  Mark Fuhrman certainly made that the important question.  I think the commentator was right who said that the prosecution made a significant mistake by focusing on the bloody glove.  They had enough physical evidence without it, and allowing the bloody glove allowed Fuhrman to become the focal point.  He was a disaster for the prosecution.

 

But I think focusing on the legal issues misses the point.  The legal drama played out in the context of a much larger social drama, which certainly affected the legal outcome and enlarged the passions on both sides.  It has always been my contention that the OJ trial was the death of the coalition forged by Martin Luther King.  It highlighted the contradictions inherent in the civil rights movement and became the focal point of white resentment of affirmative action, which played such a crucial role in the Obama campaign.

 

The genius of Martin Luther King was to forge a coalition of white and black that supported black issues out of a sense of justice.  Affirmative action threatened that coalition by turning justice into a zero sum game.  It is always the role of social policy to stop the progressive momentum of social movements, and affirmative action has played exactly that role.  Once affirmative action became the law of the land, the question became whether the civil rights movement was about justice or was it about racial self-interest. 

 

Martin Luther King was, himself, ambivalent about affirmative action, and never gave it his full-throated support.  At the time of his death, he was in Memphis in support of a strike by sanitation workers.  He clearly saw that the issue of justice, his primary concern, was moving from the racial to the economic sphere, which is why he was in Memphis supporting a strike.  Had he lived to make that bridge from the racial to the economic, he would have maintained the multi-racial nature of the movement, and, I think, the history of this country would have been very different.  The tragedy of his death meant that the contradictions of the civil rights movement would never be resolved.

 

The OJ trial focused those contradictions in the starkest possible terms: justice vs racial self-interest.  OJ’s obvious guilt heightened the tension.  The black community’s jubilation over the verdict destroyed the coalition forever.  Clearly, the black community had chosen racial self-interest over justice.  The fact that OJ was such an unworthy object of support made the conflict that much more bitter. 

 

The behavior of the LAPD was part of the syndrome.  Liberals had always attacked police misconduct to pursue justice.  So the prosecution, primarily liberal Jews, didn’t get it when the defense used that tactic to pursue other ends.  White liberals felt deeply betrayed.  The black-Jewish defense lawyers became a grotesque caricature of the black-Jewish coalition that characerized the civil rights movement.  The tragic legacy of Cheney, Schwerner, and Goodman was destroyed in this farce.

 

Social policy is almost always reactionary in its import.  I see the OJ verdict and the exultation that followed as the victory of the black petit-bourgeoisie called into being by reactionary social policy.  I find the self-righteousness of the black intellectuals defending the verdict particularly smarmy.  They declared victory for themselves at a time when the vast majority of the black community is still mired in poverty and hopelessness, untouched by the policies that distorted the energies of the civil rights movement into raising up mostly a black petit-bourgeoisie. 

 

 

Preface to Short Essays

Preface to Short Essays

Many of these shorter essays were written to my children when they were in college and afterwards.  I found it gratifying that they came to me with their important questions, and I felt an obligation to provide the best answer I could.  I didn’t fully understand the importance of what I was doing until one of my son’s friends was staying with us during a school break.  During an informal discussion, he quoted from an essay I had sent my son.  Only then did I learn that he had been circulating these essays among his friends who had been discussing them together.  Wow, I thought, they actually do listen!  At that point, I felt that sharing them more broadly might be a reasonable thing to do.

A Critique of the Made in LA Show at the Hammer, 2015

I was disappointed by the “Made in LA” show at the Hammer.  I’m sorry to say I found it arrogant, pretentious, and jejune.  Let me explain.

Much of the work we found uninteresting as stand-alone aesthetic artifacts, but was made somewhat comprehensible by the accompanying explanations.  Almost all the explanatory material about the artists pointed out that the artists’ intentions were to “confound expectations.”  They all made the assumption that the viewer had come to the exhibition with an inappropriate set of expectations and that it was their job to set the viewer right.  Who appointed these artists the confounders-in-chief?  What right do they have to make any assumptions about the viewer, especially that the viewer is a poor benighted soul who needs to be jolted out of his commonplace expectations?  This is arrogance. 

Art that intends to confound expectations ends up being about those expectations and cannot point in a genuinely new direction.  Great art is made out of a sense of humility and from a genuine search for meaning and significance.  These artists proceed from a sense of superiority and certainty, which can only lead to an irony that they do not intend.  Post-Modernist theorizing has a way of turning on itself with ironic consequences.  The expectations that most need confounding are the artists’ expectations about the viewers’ expectations and perhaps the whole set of expectations that form the milieu from which these artists create.  Most of this work does not arise from a sense of introspection and self-doubt. 

I found the art in this show pretentious because of the heightened importance of intentionality.  Many of the wall explanations quoted the artists talking about their intentions and their methods in a way that assumes that the intentions and methods are visible in the work, which is seldom the case, and that the methods and intentions justify the work, which is never the case.  Some of the work is overtly political in a way that reinforces commonplace political assumptions about the moral superiority of victimhood and claims justification by sentiment.  Claiming the superiority of intentions, the artists attempt to justify themselves instead of the work, and that is self-indulgence, perhaps the greatest of artistic sins.

The Hammer asks the viewers to vote for their favorite artist, and the winner would receive $25,000.  Naturally, we voted for Harsh in the hopes that he would get the money, but the fact is, despite the wall explanation’s obligatory remarks about “confounding expectations,” his work probably had more raw aesthetic content than most of what we saw there.

I found the show jejune because of the adolescent posturing.  Many of the artists complained that the expectations they wanted to confound were placed in the viewer by the previous generation of Abstract Expressionists and had to be destroyed if art were to progress.  They expressed a kind of rage at Abstract Expressionism and an eagerness to define themselves as not that.  This resentment of the supposed power of the elders seems rather silly and adolescent.  Ironically, the Modernists, too, railed against their forebears and developed new aesthetic criteria to justify themselves.  In their resentment, these LA artists seemed more like their Modernist predecessors than otherwise. 

These comments raise the question of what justifies an artistic statement.  The answer is that the work is justified by its aesthetic content.  I do not want to oversimplify this idea.  We can argue over the meaning of aesthetic content, and that could be a fruitful and significant discussion.  These artists, however, seem to claim that the work is justified by intentions, methods, and sentiment.  They seem to deny the importance of aesthetic content altogether, and that can only lead to the diminishing of these works and these artists.

If we were to go back in time and ask someone from 1815 Vienna who is the greatest living composer, he would give us a funny look for asking such a silly question and answer, “Why, everybody knows that!  It’s Luigi Cherubini!  Beethoven?  I’ve heard of him, but he’s no Cherubini.  Cherubini’s wonderful, and his music will last forever.”  Is the “Made in LA” show at the Hammer making the case for Cherubini?

Letters on Chomsky

Two short essays on Noam Chomsky

I have now read “The Manufacture of Consent.”  I hope you believe me when I tell you that I read it with an open mind because I was disappointed, not, however, because I could not agree with it.  I can respect an argument I disagree with if it is a strong argument, one that forces me to reconsider my own principles or to think deeply about how to reaffirm those principles.  Rather, I was disappointed in Chomsky because his argument is weak.  I expected better.

His argument is weak because it rests on an a priori assumption, something which can neither be proved nor disproved but which needs to be believed in order for his argument to work.  He states thisa priori assumption quite baldly as “Violence, deceit, and lawlessness are the natural functions of the state, any state”(p. 126).  Once you believe this, then it follows that liberal critics who complain about the lack of decency of those in power are simply providing cover for the state and deceiving people into believing that the state could be otherwise.  But Chomsky never actually defends this proposition.  He merely gives copious examples of states acting in this way and assumes his case is proven.  But it is not.  The fact that states do behave this way is not proof that this behavior is their “natural function.”  It is quite easy to look at events after the fact and claim them as evidence for your assumption.  It’s like claiming that Jews are bad people and then pointing to bad things done by Jews as proof.  I was disappointed to see Chomsky indulging in this kind of intellectual laziness.

Chomsky’s assumptions lead him down some other questionable paths.  He also asserts that the only function of educational institutions is “to serve power and privilege.”  I can agree that they do serve this purpose to some degree, but is that their only function?  Educational institutions also turn out people who are critical of power, and, indeed, the entire Western intellectual tradition is one of criticism.  But to Chomsky, all criticism merely reinforces the legitimacy of state power, so he can only imagine the one function for any educational institution.  This argument is circular as well as weak.  The one assumption depends on the other’s already being accepted.

There are moral problems with Chomsky’s position as well.  Since the state is necessarily evil in his view, all evil flows to the pole of state power, and all good flows to the pole of the powerless.  Nowhere is the weakness of this argument more apparent than in his discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The US and Israel are evil because they are states, while the Palestinians are virtuous because they have no state.  Chomsky can find nothing critical to say of the Palestinians and expresses a naïve faith in Yasser Arafat.  His argument makes him blind to the corruption of the powerless while he denies the possibility of any kind of political process within a state. 

Chomsky’s vision of state power leads to some peculiar imaginings.  He tells us:

"Since the state lacks the capacity to ensure obedience by force, thought can lead to action and therefore the threat to order must be excised at the source.  It is necessary to establish a framework for possible thought that is constrained within the principles of the state religion.  These need not be asserted; it is better that they be presupposed, as the unstated framework for thinkable thought."  (p.132)

Beware the passive voice and conspiratorial tones!  Who exactly is constraining our thought in this way?  Who is establishing these frameworks?  The state?  Is the state a self-conscious body capable of acting this way?  Are we really as incapable of independent thought as Chomsky asserts?  Anyone who disagrees with Chomsky, then, is simply the slave of state thought control.  This paradigm is straight out of The Matrix, with Chomsky as Neo.

Chomsky’s argument is a traditional Anarchist argument, no different from what was said by Proudhon and Bakunin in the 1870s.  There has been a lot of history since then that Chomsky has ignored.  Specifically, there is a well-defined Marxist critique of this position, which he needed to address if he were going to make it yet again.  In short, the Marxist critique is that class is the issue, not the state.  The state tends to support the dominant class, but not always.  It is capable of being transformed through class struggle, and is not, therefore, inherently evil.  If you are attracted to Chomsky’s argument, then I suggest you read some of the Marxist critiques of the Anarchist position before you make up your mind.

Chomsky says of liberal critics: 

"The great achievement of the critics is to prevent the realization that what is happening today is not some departure from our historical ideals and practice, to be attributed to the failings of this or that individual.  Rather, it is the systematic expression of the way our institutions function and will continue to function unless impeded by an aroused public . . ." (p. 126)

Here, then, is Chomsky’s vision of political activity: arouse the public to impede the functioning of institutions.  It sounds very much like the people who jump up and down, yelling and screaming at the meetings of the World Trade Organization whenever it meets.  No wonder Chomsky is the darling of what has been called the “infantile left,” those whose only program is to confront state power and who are blind to the real menace of the world around us.

 

This letter is on response to the Chomsky-Foucault debate which is available on multiple internet sites.

From my point of view, I say – a plague on both their houses.  I disagree with what they agree about and disagree on the points for which they take each other to task.  Both agree that institutions themselves are agents of oppression.  I agree that institutions do behave in this way.  But it doesn’t follow that oppression is their sole function as both Chomsky and Foucault allege.  Interestingly, Chomsky identifies himself as an anarcho-syndicalist.  I had seen in some other of his writings a straight anarcho-syndicalist line, deviating little from Bakunin, but I had not heard him identify himself so baldly with anarcho-syndicalism.  They believe that destroying institutions and state power will liberate the human spirit, leading to a world of peace and justice.  So political activity consists of attacking, whack-a-mole fashion, any manifestation of state power.  His belief in innate human qualities, which he declined to justify, is support for this belief.  Ultimately, he is guilty of sentimentality, which leads to his blind support for the powerless and the condition of powerlessness, however corrupt.

Foucault repeats his attack on psychiatry, which he deems purely an agent of social oppression.  The converse of which is his belief, stated many times, that mental illness is a form of social criticism.  What appalls me about Foucault is his insensitivity to the misery of mental illness.  He cannot see psychiatry, however flawed, as an attempt to relieve the real misery of real people.  There are many reasons for the normative diagnostics of psychiatry, having to do with the nature of the medical business and the flawed medical science which serves that business.  His elevation of this issue to a grand abstraction leads to the trivialization of mental illness and shows his lack of regard for human misery.  Does he consider misery merely an illusion?  I wonder how he would have welcomed the support of Tom Cruise. 

Their discussion of justice and innateness was revealing.  I was surprised that Chomsky didn’t throw out the justice system with other institutions and instead described it as groping towards “an innate human thirst for justice.”  His a priori belief in innateness is similar to his work in linguistics in which he posits an innate human capability for grammar and syntax, equally controversial.  Innateness is a discussion stopper since it can neither be confirmed nor denied.  I find his belief in innateness a species of sentimentality, the natural goodness of mankind to be liberated by jumping up and down at meetings of the World Trade Organization at Davos, Switzerland.

Foucault denies the existence of innate human qualities, an equally unarguable position, and claims that the concept of justice as we know it would disappear in a classless society.  Here again is the French oscillation between the meta-concept and its negation.  In his appeal to the classless society, he identifies himself with the vulgar Marxists who see the classless society as the culmination of human history, the apotheosis beyond which all will be revealed in its infinite purity: there will be no justice because there will be no injustice; all meta-concepts will be negated.  Marx, himself, saw the victory of the proletariat as the beginning of human history, as providing a context in which age-old conflicts could be resolved, although there’s no guarantee.  For Marx, I would say, justice is something we have learned about in the struggle with the bourgeoisie, which will be invaluable once that struggle is completed if it ever is.  For Foucault, justice is something that leads us to the Promised Land of the classless society but remains on Mt. Pisgah while the Israelites cross the Jordan. 

Ultimately, Foucault is right to challenge Chomsky’s appeal to the innate just as Chomsky is right to challenge Foucault’s appeal to the ineffable.  Both concepts are ahistorical and otherworldly.  There is another position which acknowledges the world and its history.  Humanity is a project under construction.  Human characteristics are real and have been formed and are being formed through struggle, but are not necessarily innate.  Those characteristics have a lot to do with the nature of the struggle.  Marx’s great contribution was to characterize that struggle as a political struggle of social classes as long as social classes exist, since social classes create false distinctions within the human species.  The conviction, for instance,that the profit motive is human natue, is merely an emanation of the bourgeois struggle against aristocracy.Chomsky’s innateness infers an ideal existence before history which history will reveal, a Christian concept very much like the fall from Grace.  Foucault infers a point beyond history when the struggle is over.  Both are illusory.

Greens

You asked me why I don’t care for the Greens, and I’d like to give you a fuller answer than I did over the phone.  There are a number of areas in which I object to the Greens

 

The Greens have brought the Republican principle of narrow self-interest into progressive politics.  Left wing politics, in this country, is always based on coalitions.  This is not an ideal situation, but it’s the best we can do in the absence of a revolutionary social movement.  The idea is to broaden the coalition by focusing on the issues that connect the disparate constituencies of the Left.  Howard Dean was absolutely correct when he suggested that rural Southern Whites need to be brought into the Democratic coalition.  Unfortunately, he was booed off the stage when he said that—not a good sign.  The question is can we focus on an issue that makes common cause for rural Southern whites and urban blacks?  The answer is yes we can and must, but don’t look to Jesse Jackson and the pro-affirmative action types to do it. 

 

The Greens have stood outside that coalition, insisting that their agenda is more urgent than the issues that might build a coalition.  The truth is that there are many urgent issues.  The Greens don’t have a monopoly on urgency, but their belief that they do has given us George Bush, the war in Iraq, and the greatest assault on the environment since Teddy Roosevelt identified conservation as a national priority.

 

The Greens support solutions that go against the interests of working people.  It’s not enough to oppose logging.  Lots of people sustain their families in the logging industry.  To stop the predations of the logging industry, you need those people on your side.  They need to see alternatives to logging which they find attractive.  This is difficult but not impossible.  But by framing the issue solely as a confrontation with corporate power and ignoring the social issues, the Greens have forced working people to make common cause with the logging companies—a very unnatural situation that could have been avoided and, ultimately, detrimental to the progressive cause.  It’s the same issue with the fishing industry, which the Greens have also opposed.

 

The Greens are guilty of unsystemic thinking.  If you really want to protect wilderness, the best way is to make cities more livable and affordable so that people have no need to push out and real estate speculators can’t exploit that need.  The Greens’ predilection for confrontation at the point of conflict may be satisfying to the frustrated, but it causes fuzzy thinking, bad ideology, and gives free reign to self-righteousness and moral superiority, the great debilitating disease of the Left.

Gender

Our discussion about gender last night prompted the following thoughts.

 

To say that gender is a social construct is not to say that it is false or illusory.  For that matter, a house is a social construct, what the Marxist critic, Georg Lukacs, would call “a reification of social relations.”  Its form is based on socially derived conceptions of how people live, move, work, and relate to one another, which may or may not be useful or accurate.  You can choose to sleep in the kitchen, but it is no less a kitchen for that.  The fact that the bathroom is the smallest room in the house is based on the socially derived idea that people prefer to defecate without social interaction.  Even though the house is a social construct, its walls and boundaries are real.  Ignore them at your peril.

 

You can choose to modify your house, but only within the basic forms that have already been established and not in ways that impinge too greatly upon the prerogatives of your neighbors.  You can reject the house and camp out in the street, but in doing so, you are rejecting the community you have been a part of unless that community has become tolerant of your desire to live in the street, but which tolerance will also have its limits, as shown by the attitudes towards those who have no choice but to live in the street.

 

The social construct, “house,” is based on the truth that people need shelter.  You cannot reject the house without preparing some alternate kind of shelter first.  Gender is no less a reality than the house even though it is intangible while the house is tangible.  Family is another intangible social construct like gender, but I doubt you would deny its reality.  Family relationships will remain among the strongest bonds you will have.  You cannot deny them or declare them irrelevant without leaving a sizable hole in your emotional fabric.  Parentage is the undeniable fact upon which the social construct, “family,” is built.  Every family deals with that fact in its own way, as Tolstoy points out, but can only do so using the socially defined structures that are available to them.

 

Gender is no different.  The truth upon which gender is built is the undeniable fact of innate sexual differences, the most obvious one being the body.  Other innate differences are open to speculation, discussion, and research.  To say that such differences exist does not necessarily make one an essentialist.  The belief that it does so is the trap Lawrence Summers walked into when he invited speculation about why there are fewer women in scientific fields than men.  The atmosphere is so politically charged that merely inviting speculation about innate differences got him labeled an essentialist pig and banned from the academy. 

 

Another undeniable fact is that roles exist and that the viability of a community depends on certain roles being played.  What are those roles, who plays them, and how are open questions as is the role of gender in answering those questions.  But the answers depend upon the nature of the community as much as anything else, and that nature will limit the answers we can come up with.  At best, those answers can be a consensus of the community, and changed by a consensus driven by a political process.  At worst, historically deficient roles can be coerced by fear or by authoritarian means. 

 

So innate sexual differences are real, and gender roles are going to arise from them willy-nilly.  The form of those roles, however, will depend upon the interplay of many complex forces, which we had better understand as deeply as possible if we expect to be successful at modifying gender roles.  Claiming that existing, socially constructed gender roles are purely the result of innate differences is an essentialist position.  The feminist who claims that a female CEO’s handing out pink slips to defend corporate profit is a social advance over a male CEO’s handing out pink slips is guilty of legitimizing a dysfunctional, socially constructed gender role and is an essentialist pig.

Jury Duty

I just got off jury duty yesterday, and it was an interesting, if difficult, experience.  It was a conservatorship case in Mental Health Court.  Because it involved someone’s freedom, it required a unanimous decision by a full jury of twelve.  A man named Elzie was involuntarily committed to an institution called, La Casa.  His sister, Helene, was his conservator, someone who was legally responsible for Elzie and who saw to his needs.  Helene is a supervisor in the Dept. of Corrections.  Elzie was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic with chronic alcoholism.  There was another sister, Cheryl, who lived nearby Helene with their 90 odd year old father, who seemed to be in a vegetative state.  Cheryl is diagnosed bipolar and has never had a job.  She has a fourteen-year old son, whom the court awarded to Helene because Cheryl could not care for him.  Helene supports everyone. Elzie was asking to be released into Cheryl’s care until he could get his own apartment.

A forensic psychiatrist testified about Elzie’s condition.  He had had two interviews with Elzie, made an extensive review of the record, and talked with the treating psychiatrist and staff.  He testified that La Casa has varying levels of care, depending on the patient’s response to treatment.  Someone who has just been admitted and is delusional and hallucinatory is a level 0 or 1.  A level 6 patient can come and go at will and is about to be released to a half-way house.  Level 5 can leave with a buddy pass.  Level four can leave if attended by staff.  Elzie was a level 3.  Furthermore, Elzie was receiving injections of medication because he had been refusing oral medication.  He had made it level 4, but then reverted to level 2. 

He went AWOL in December, and ended up passed out, drunk, and shoeless on the floor of his father’s house, and refused to go back to La Casa.  In her testimony, Helene said she called the police and told Elzie that if he didn’t let her take him back to La Casa, the police would take him back.  Elzie relented and allowed Helene to take him back.  Helene was very emotional in the witness box, claiming that Elzie was not ready to be on his own. 

Elzie had apparently made a number of 911 calls from La Casa with delusions about Helene, in one case, telling the police that she was hiding $15,000 worth of cocaine in her house.  But when Helene tried to talk about these incidents, Elzie’s lawyer made repeated objections about hearsay evidence because Helene was reporting things that others had said about Elzie, and Helene’s lawyer kept having to rephrase the questions.  Even reported comments from the police were inadmissible.  I was disappointed in Helene’s lawyer.  Hadn’t she foreseen the objections?  Why hadn’t she planned a strategy for getting that information into evidence?  Why didn’t she get the police reports?  It was a poor show.

The next morning, Cheryl took the stand.  She was wearing, I’m sure, the most dignified clothes she had, but still managed to come off rather sluttish.  She claimed to be an actress, but had never worked a day in her life.  She confessed that she had never once visited Elzie in the last six months, was ignorant of his diagnosis, had never once talked to his doctors or care-givers, and was unaware that he was on medication.  It would have been better if Elzie’s lawyer had not put her on the stand.

Elzie himself was a much better witness.  His responses were slow, and he sometimes rambled, but he was clearly not stupid.  He had been carefully prepped, and managed to adhere to the script for the most part.  He was completely impassive on the stand, except for one moment.  Helene’s lawyer asked him how he got out of La Casa in December.  He said he climbed over the fence and then flashed a triumphant grin as though that were his proudest moment of the past few years.  He told about going to the liquor store, buying some Southern Comfort, and then going to Gardena to see a girlfriend and going back to his father's  house when she wasn’t home.  So he was able to panhandle and negotiate the bus system. 

In his instructions, the judge said we were to decide only whether Elzie was gravely disabled at this moment, gravely disabled meaning unable to provide for himself food, shelter, and clothing.  For medical evidence, we were restricted to the credibility of the testifying psychiatrist.  The medical record was only pertinent as it contributed to his opinion; it could not be considered direct evidence. 

I volunteered to be the jury foreman, since I have had a lot of experience facilitating groups.  The jury itself was a very diverse group.  Most people had clerical type positions and less than a complete college education.  There was a Mexican grocery store manager whose English was heavily accented, a truck driver, a graduate student in screenwriting at USC, and a Chinese woman who was recently a citizen who was difficult to understand. 

An informal poll at the outset showed the jury to be evenly split.  I was one who felt Elzie should not be released because he just wasn’t ready.  Others felt that denying someone his freedom was a very serious affair, and they didn’t hear a compelling reason to deny Elzie his freedom.  I didn’t hear any opinions that I could not respect.

I asked people to talk about what each thought was the most compelling testimony.  We identified a number of themes to discuss separately and focused on where we could agree.  It was clear to everyone that Cheryl was not about to care for anyone; she had no credibility whatsoever.  It was also clear that Elzie was not stupid and could care for himself under some circumstances.  It all came down to one question: could Elzie stay on the medication by himself?  If he could stay medicated, he could negotiate food shelter and clothing; if he went off medication, he could not.  Even though the medication had bad side effects, without it, he would be having hallucinations and delusions and sink into a delusional universe.  Here, the evidence was not in Elzie’s favor.  He was receiving injections because he had refused oral medication, and outside La Casa, he would have to depend on oral medication.  If he had demonstrated an ability to stay on oral medication while in the institution, our decision would have been different.  We felt we had no choice but to conclude that Elzie was at this moment gravely disabled.

Even though it was a painful decision, for me, it was ultimately an affirming experience.  I was impressed with the ability of the jury to take everything into account before making a decision.  Everyone took the judge’s instructions very seriously.  Several times we referred to the instructions for guidance, and people were capable of making sophisticated interpretations.  Everyone was very concerned that we all agreed with the verdict and that no one felt pressured into a decision. I was most impressed, however, with people’s ability to empathize with Elzie and his desire for freedom, even though he was so different from any of us.

Lyndon Larouche

I’m sorry that A______’s friend is living in the La Rouche compound.  He is the leader of a dangerous cult based on all kinds of paranoid political fantasies.  La Rouche passes himself off as a conservative Democrat, but he is no such thing.  He is a fascist.

 

I knew him when I was in college.  He called himself Lyn Marcus back then, a conflation of Lenin and Marx, and was a revolutionary communist.  He was the head of a group called the Labor Committee, and, although I never joined them, I knew them very well.  He stood apart from the Stalinists (Communist Party) and Trotskyists of the old left and was contemptuous of the disdain for ideology and confrontational tactics of the new left.  For these reasons, I found him an attractive character, but I never cared for the high level of discipline in his organization.  The Labor Committee was strong at Swarthmore, so Lyn Marcus spent a lot of time there, and I got to know him pretty well

 

To understand Larouche, you need to know something about Mussolini, whom he resembles.  Mussolini also started out as a revolutionary communist and editor of the party newspaper, Avanti, before WWI.  The Second International split over the issue of whether the proletarian revolution could happen before the bourgeois revolution was complete, i.e., before the bourgeoisie had completely wiped out all vestiges of feudal privilege.  In the Russian Social Democratic Party, those who believed that the bourgeois revolution needed completion first were the Mensheviks, and those who felt that the proletarian revolution could seize power before that became known as the Bolsheviks, who left the Social Democratic Party under the leadership of Lenin, who founded the Third International.  The remnants of the Second International thought the bourgeoisie needed the support of proletarian parties to help complete the bourgeois revolution.  To their disgrace, they became nationalist parties who supported the war. 

 

Mussolini, was essentially a radical Menshevik who thought he was serving socialism by helping the bourgeoisie complete its revolution and started the Fascist party to accomplish that end.  He started attacking proletarian political parties and institutions like unions.  His “black shirts” would carry out “punitive expeditions” against left wing political opponents.  One of their favorite tactics was to force feed people large amounts of castor oil, a foul tasting, powerful laxative that would cause their victims days of terrible discomfort and humiliation.  Hitler modeled the SA on Mussolini’s black shirts.

 

It wasn’t long before Mussolini started attracting a lot of right-wing energy, but he, himself, did not understand that he had started a right-wing movement until much later.

 

Larouche is in the same mold as Mussolini.  The Labor Committee was a left wing revolutionary group with a blind spot.  They argued that all nationalist liberation movements were, by definition, petit bourgeois and should be opposed.  I argued that national liberation movements could be potentially revolutionary if they had a proletarian base, and those that had that potential deserved support.  The Panthers were a good example of a black movement that had a proletarian base and was potentially revolutionary.  They didn’t last long enough to develop a full-blown class analysis, but they were headed in that direction, as was Martin Luther King just before he was assassinated.  But the Labor Committee established itself in opposition to genuine proletarian groups, and I wanted nothing more to do with them.

 

A year or so later, after my own political group had disbanded, I heard a news report that the Labor Committee had attacked the Philadelphia offices of the YWLL, the Young Workers Liberation League, a Communist Party youth group.  The report mentioned that someone named, B_____ G____ had been arrested for assault because he had been kicking someone in the head.  I knew B______ G____ very well.  He was in my class at Swarthmore and had been in the Labor Committee.  I couldn’t imagine B______ behaving this way.  I knew then that a dangerous corner had been turned; the Labor Committee was mounting punitive expeditions against the left, like Mussolini.  They had become a fascist group.

 

The late sixties and early seventies was a pre-revolutionary moment in American politics.  That moment was squandered by the ideological naiveté of the leadership of the new left, who eschewed ideology and the slow, hard, work of political education in favor of confrontations with power, a foolish tactic.  We needed a Lenin, and, instead, we got Abby Hoffman who combined confrontation with clowning.  The energy of that moment was finally dissipated in the absurdist, self-destructive political theatre of the Weathermen and the Symbionese Liberation Army.  Had it been different; had that moment matured into a revolutionary phase marked by true proletarian political activity, there would have been a more concerted, serious, fascist reaction.  That fascist reaction could have been led by Lyndon Larouche.  He is that dangerous. 

 

Because that moment failed to mature, he is only the leader of a paranoid cult instead of a fascist movement, a danger to those around him, like A______’s friend, but not to the world at large.

Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman is no philosopher.  If you try to extract a definition of freedom from what he is saying, you will be very frustrated.  He gives several definitions of freedom, all of them inadequate and somewhat contradictory.  On the one hand, freedom is the ability to choose among what’s available. So I have the freedom to choose whether I want to buy a Swiss or a Japanese watch, and, according to Freidman, this is all the freedom I need.  Woe to the government if it tries to limit my ability to buy the kind of watch I want.  Freedom is my ability to realize my desire.  He lacks an understanding that an individual’s desire can be manipulated and is not an article of perfect freedom.

He has no concept that freedom could mean the ability to determine what’s available. I do not have the freedom to take a bullet train to San Francisco because there is no bullet train to San Francisco.  The decision to create such a thing would be a collective decision about how to use collective resources.  The idea of a collective freedom or that freedom could result from a collective decision lies outside the realm of Milton Friedman’s rather crabbed imagination. 

Freedom, for Friedman, has only to do with individual action.  That is the meaning of "My freedom to move my fist must be limited by the proximity of your chin."  For this reason, he claims that freedoms conflict, but he is wrong.  Desires conflict, not freedoms.  Absolute freedom is impossible only because individual desires conflict.  Apparently, collective freedom and collective will is not included in his concept of absolute freedom.  If unlimited scope of individual action is freedom, as Friedman believes, then everyone wants it, but not everyone has it.  My desire not to have my home foreclosed upon conflicts with the bank’s desire to foreclose upon it.  I cannot exercise my freedom because I do not have the resources to forestall the bank.  You cannot choose between a Swiss watch and a Japanese watch if you cannot afford a watch to begin with.  Freedom is only for those who have the resources necessary for making choices.  If you do not have resources, you are off the radar and need not be considered as a real agent in a real system. 

 

Since true freedom, for Friedman, is only about individual choice and requires individual resources, economic freedom is the only important consideration for Friedman.  The lack of freedom of those who lack resources is insignificant in his impoverished imagination.  So he makes the astounding statement that “anyone is free to set up an enterprise,” anyone who has the money, that is.  (Mitt Romney solved this problem in true Friedmanesque fashion by telling college students that if they didn’t have the money to start a business, they should simply borrow it from their parents.)  His main question becomes how to limit the scope of action of those who own enterprises.  Since competition is a natural limit on that scope of action, there is no need for government to limit or regulate enterprises, and any attempt to do so is an attack on freedom by the (gasp!) collective.  Similarly, since people without resources are irrelevant to his system, any attempt by government to help or protect such people is an inexcusable attack on economic freedom.

 

His idea that competitive capitalism “promotes political freedom because it separates economic power from political power” is a chimera, a delusion, because he has no conception that political power is a way of managing collective action and collective freedom.  For him, any collective action is an unnecessary and destructive limit on the economic freedom of those who control resources.  For Friedman, economic freedom means wielding economic power.  Similarly, political freedom means the ability to wield political power.  That political power tends to support those with economic power is, for Friedman, entirely accidental.  Those without resources are simply insignificant.  Their lack of political power is irrelevant to his system.  The great irony is that Milton Friedman, the apostle of economic freedom, was the favorite of any number of Latin American dictators who murdered thousands in the name of economic freedom.  They used their political power to render those without resources insignificant, i.e., dead, in the service of preserving the economic power of those with resources.

For more on Milton Friedman, see The Faith of Modernity in “Faith and Belief”

Multiculturalism

This paper seems hard to follow because your terminology is not clear.  Multiculturalism and colorblindness seem to be opposed to each other, while you want to see them as similar “frameworks.”  Multiculturalism doesn’t just tolerate differences, it celebrates them.  Colorblindness wants to suggest that differences are meaningless or inconsequential. 

Multiculturalism in the educational context has ironic consequences because it sends contradictory messages.  On the one hand, it purports to preach tolerance, while on the other hand it tells people that the most important thing about themselves is their membership in a group and that the most important thing about other people is exactly their otherness.  Once you hold up otherness as an ideal, you are reinforcing tribalism and pitting group identities against one another.  Tolerance cannot survive that. 

Multiculturalism in the corporate context has less to do with consumerism than with being an anti-Labor strategy.  Isn’t it kind of suspicious that corporations were so quick to adopt diversity as a goal?  I’m much more impressed by ideas that corporations find difficult, like full employment.  Diversity breaks up the working class into competing ethnicities that corporations play off one another to their own advantage.  Capitalists have always used race to set the working class against itself, and the corporate embrace of diversity is simply that same tactic warmed over in self-righteous, neo-liberal rhetoric.

Your essay tends to accept terminology from your sources without really investigating that terminology, so at times, you have to ask yourself what you are saying.  What do you mean by “pureness in culture?”  It seems important, but you don’t define it.  You seem to be including things because they sound right in the political rhetoric you are appropriating rather than thinking about what argument you are actually making.

Proponents of multiculturalism would have you believe that the converse of multiculturalism is intolerance, but they are wrong.  The opposite of multiculturalism is humanism.  Multiculturalism says that what’s important is our differences; humanism says that what’s important is what we share.  Humanism is not colorblindness; rather it says that the way to fight racism is to understand what we share.  My problem with the people you quote is that they seem to want to have it both ways.  They want to criticize multiculturalism, but stop short at embracing humanism.  For instance, what is “Eurocentric knowledge formation” and why should anyone oppose it?  The unthinking, unquestioned usage of “Eurocentric” as a pejorative is very bad, inept rhetoric.  Knowledge is knowledge, and the ways of acquiring or forming knowledge are determined by the nature of knowledge and not by any ethnocentric imperative.  If the methodology of intellectual inquiry developed as a consequence of European philosophy, it is necessary to understand why that happened, not to denigrate intellectual inquiry with an epithet.  Calling something bad because it is “Eurocentric knowledge formation” is a big steaming pile of neo-Anarchist, anti-intellectual horseshit.

Rap and the Commoditization of Attitude

RAP AND THE COMMODITIZATION OF ATTITUDE

 

The advent of the baby boomer generation saw a radical change in human history.  While there has always been generational conflict, the baby boomers added a significant intensifier to that conflict: for the first time in history, adolescents had become a market segment.  Never before had adolescents controlled enough disposable income to make them a target of marketers.

 

There were two salient features about this new adolescent market segment.  Music was the lead-in, and attitude was the hook.  A peculiarity of attitude, in this regard, is that once an attitude becomes acceptable through market overexposure, it can no longer serve as the hook into the market.  Over time, attitudes had to become increasingly outrageous to continue as an effective hook.  In the late 50’s, Elvis’ gyrating hips were sufficiently “in-your-face” to shock the adult world and serve as a hook into the new adolescent market segment.  Today, obscenity is hardly enough.

 

There has always been a tension in popular music since the 50’s between the music itself, and attitude.  With some notable exceptions in the 1960s, as attitude waxed, the music waned.  Rap represents an extreme step in this direction.  In rap, the music has been almost entirely emptied out, and all that remains is pure attitude.  In rap, attitude is no longer merely the hook; it is the commodity being sold.  The product itself is simply packaging, dark doggerel chanted to a backbeat with naïve rhymes and insistent rhythms, resembling nothing so much as a nightmare nursery rhyme.

 

There are three components to rap: 1) bad boy attitude, which, to remain a saleable commodity in its market, must always threaten to teeter over the edge into criminality; 2) the extreme objectification of women, which spills over into violent misogyny; and 3) the hyperconsumerism of bling.  In order to maintain his marketability, a rapper has to have “street cred,” which requires keeping his ties to a criminal element, or even an occasional murder.

 

Some might argue that there is an honesty to the edginess.  If so, it is an honesty minus content, as rap reduces even honesty to an attitude in the service of commodity fetishism.

Response to Zizek

This letter is in response to the following article:http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/01/egypt-tunisia-revolt

 

I thought the article in The Guardian you sent me was pretty weak.  Here, Zizek sets up a straw man to knock over:

The cynical wisdom of western liberals, according to which, in Arab countries, genuine democratic sense is limited to narrow liberal elites while the vast majority can only be mobilised through religious fundamentalism or nationalism, has been proven wrong.

Hunh?  Who is making this argument?  Certainly not me.  I never claimed that the demonstrators are being mobilized by religious fundamentalism, nor has anyone else who is talking about the possibility of an Islamist threat here.  The demonstrators are clearly motivated by some kind of yearning for a hazy democratic alternative to Mubarak’s autocracy, but sincerity is not enough.  But in the neo-Anarchist imagination, sincerity is everything.  Sincerity is a hell of thing to die for.  All of a sudden, in Zizek’s phrase, liberals, among whom I do not number myself, are an elite in cahoots with other elites.  Do we hear an echo of Chomsky here?

 

He has completely misunderstood what happened in Iran.  The democratic component of the Iranian revolution was only able to express itself fully after 35 years of brutal Islamist fascism, and even then was not organized enough to topple a weakened regime.  Again, sincerity is the only important thing for Zizek.  He misses his own point that sincerity can open the door for fascism.

 

His comments on the Taliban exactly supports my argument about neo-Anarchists not understanding that fascism always contains an anti-Capitalist component and that not all anti-Capitalism is progressive:

 

Even in the case of clearly fundamentalist movements, one should be careful not to miss the social component. The Taliban is regularly presented as a fundamentalist Islamist group enforcing its rule with terror. However, when, in the spring of 2009, they took over the Swat valley in Pakistan, The New York Times reported that they engineered "a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants". 

 

Great!  Let’s all support the Taliban.  Are they merely “presented” as ruling through terror?  How can this argument be effective against anyone who has been so bamboozled by liberal elites that they might believe that the Taliban actually rule through terror?  Zizek’s “However,” in that passage, shows that he doesn’t understand the false opposition he has created.  Is the Taliban really an ally in the struggle against elites?  Here is strong support for my argument that the neo-Anarchists see Islamists as allies in an international anti-Capitalist coalition and are blind to their fascism.  Zizek’s piece is exactly the Chomskyite nonsense I was arguing against.  I can’t help but notice that elsewhere on that web page, Chomsky himself is quoted approvingly.

Wikileaks

Although I an loath to give credit to Doyle McManus, he is correct that almost all the information contained in the Wikileaks documents was available from official sources, so the usual culprit, government secrecy, is not entirely to blame for this information being missing from the national debate on the war in Afghanistan.  If the media had gotten off their collective butt and done some research, they might have fulfilled their true role of informing the electorate.  The only service Wikileaks performed was to repackage the information in the shiny tinsel of controversy to attract the attention of the feckless media and to distract them from their preferred role as stenographers for the powerful.

On one level, it’s a tempest in a teapot.  There’s no real news here.  What!  The leaders of Afghanistan are corrupt?  My goodness – who knew that?  What!  Arab leaders say one thing to us and another thing to their own people?  Who would have guessed?  Pakistani leaders are untrustworthy?  Stop thepresses! You get the picture.  The Wikileaks revelations don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.  What’s interesting is the official outrage.  There, the feeling is: “How dare anyone know what we’re really thinking!”  Wikileaks reinforces the idea that official secrecy is never directed towards our adversaries and allies; they are smart people who know all this stuff anyway.  It is directed towards keeping the American people in the dark about what the people who speak in our name are actually doing since that is never in our interest but in the interest, ultimately, of some corporate crony or other. Wikileaks puts these people on notice that they cannot operate in the dark anymore.

On another level, Wikileaks is only newsworthy because the news is not.  The irony here is that all of the information Wikileaks revealed was easily obtained.  Any journalist could have found this information just as easily.  If the true job of journalism is to maintain an informed public, why didn’t journalists do their jobs?  The real impact of Wikileaks is to reveal the extent to which journalism has been corporatized, the coziness between official journalism and official power.  Real news is now the province of cowboys like Julian Assange.  He has threatened to reveal information about BP and Bank of America.  I hope these are not idle threats.  It is more important for that information to be known than any tomfoolery at the State Dept.

And speaking of Julian Assange—what an asshole!  He tried to pose as a working class hero to grab the spotlight.   Didn’t he understand what making himself a target would mean?  By making himself the news story, he has provided official journalism an enormous distraction from the real story.  He needed to stay in the background and be as anonymous as possible.  Sometimes, the anonymity of the internet can be a plus.  Too bad he didn’t understand that.

OJ

Marx said that everything in history happens twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.  The civil rights movement is no exception.  The death of Martin Luther King was the tragedy; the OJ trial was the farce.  It was a grotesque caricature of the issues that framed the civil rights movement. 

 

What a painful time that was!  The OJ trial was a terrific scar on the American psyche that only the Obama campaign has gone some measure to heal.  I think that the legal case was summed up by the last statement in the program, that the LAPD “framed a guilty man.”

 

Should a murderer go free because of questionable police conduct?  Mark Fuhrman certainly made that the important question.  I think the commentator was right who said that the prosecution made a significant mistake by focusing on the bloody glove.  They had enough physical evidence without it, and allowing the bloody glove allowed Fuhrman to become the focal point.  He was a disaster for the prosecution.

 

But I think focusing on the legal issues misses the point.  The legal drama played out in the context of a much larger social drama, which certainly affected the legal outcome and enlarged the passions on both sides.  It has always been my contention that the OJ trial was the death of the coalition forged by Martin Luther King.  It highlighted the contradictions inherent in the civil rights movement and became the focal point of white resentment of affirmative action, which played such a crucial role in the Obama campaign.

 

The genius of Martin Luther King was to forge a coalition of white and black that supported black issues out of a sense of justice.  Affirmative action threatened that coalition by turning justice into a zero sum game.  It is always the role of social policy to stop the progressive momentum of social movements, and affirmative action has played exactly that role.  Once affirmative action became the law of the land, the question became whether the civil rights movement was about justice or was it about racial self-interest. 

 

Martin Luther King was, himself, ambivalent about affirmative action, and never gave it his full-throated support.  At the time of his death, he was in Memphis in support of a strike by sanitation workers.  He clearly saw that the issue of justice, his primary concern, was moving from the racial to the economic sphere, which is why he was in Memphis supporting a strike.  Had he lived to make that bridge from the racial to the economic, he would have maintained the multi-racial nature of the movement, and, I think, the history of this country would have been very different.  The tragedy of his death meant that the contradictions of the civil rights movement would never be resolved.

 

The OJ trial focused those contradictions in the starkest possible terms: justice vs racial self-interest.  OJ’s obvious guilt heightened the tension.  The black community’s jubilation over the verdict destroyed the coalition forever.  Clearly, the black community had chosen racial self-interest over justice.  The fact that OJ was such an unworthy object of support made the conflict that much more bitter. 

 

The behavior of the LAPD was part of the syndrome.  Liberals had always attacked police misconduct to pursue justice.  So the prosecution, primarily liberal Jews, didn’t get it when the defense used that tactic to pursue other ends.  White liberals felt deeply betrayed.  The black-Jewish defense lawyers became a grotesque caricature of the black-Jewish coalition that characerized the civil rights movement.  The tragic legacy of Cheney, Schwerner, and Goodman was destroyed in this farce.

 

Social policy is almost always reactionary in its import.  I see the OJ verdict and the exultation that followed as the victory of the black petit-bourgeoisie called into being by reactionary social policy.  I find the self-righteousness of the black intellectuals defending the verdict particularly smarmy.  They declared victory for themselves at a time when the vast majority of the black community is still mired in poverty and hopelessness, untouched by the policies that distorted the energies of the civil rights movement into raising up only a black petit-bourgeoisie.