Why is racism so efficient?

In the past few years, between the high of Obama’s election and the terrible tragedy of Ferguson, Martin Trayvon, and proliferating Jim Crow-esque voter ID laws, race is back as an urgent issue in American society.

The most common phrase I hear comes from people who seemed shocked that racism is still around: ‘How is this still a thing?’ they seem to say. It is hard for me to think that there is a reason why so many Americans think that “racism” is over. There has been a concerted effort since the ’70s to make us believe that this issue was “solved”.

It only takes a few seconds of open minded, clear thinking to come to the conclusion that since biologically (DNA) we are all equal (all human, with the same amount of potential), all differences are due to ‘race’ are historical, cultural and economically manufactured differences. Yes, black people are better at dancing then white people (no, they don’t have music in their bones or something like that), but this indicates not genetics, but culture.

So why is racism still around? How does it survive, indeed, how is it literally thriving? Part of it is that “racist” is too strong; people do not recognise themselves as “racist” even when they are blatantly racist. We all have race ‘bias’. And I think that this is a big part of it. Nobody can deny a bit of intuitive, race ‘bias’. This is a softer, less hard-and-fast racism, then a subtle sub-set of assumptions which may technically not qualify as classically racist (i.e., that black people are inferior to white people).

I think that there is more to racism than simply ‘bias’ instead of racism, especially since ‘bias’ has always been at the root of outright, classical racism, which has always had an air about it of frantic emotional justification for massive social crimes. The classical racist is obviously wrong that such ideas can only survive in very specific time-and-places, backed by certain economic and political forces. Think Hitler or the Klu Klux Klan. Bias, then is the real culprit because it forms the approving and authorising background to the very real and active crimes that constitute racism.

Bias/Racism survive because of three basic motors: the power of simple and clear ideas which seemed to be confirmed in concrete reality, the complex yet subtle web of emotional incentives for such thinking, and the economic/power incentives for racism. In other words, racism is surprisingly efficient for something that is so incorrect. We all receive little emotional bonuses, even those most oppressed by racism, by being racist. The idea of a race hierarchy, especially applies here.

Here is my direct experience of the ‘efficiency’ of racism. Teaching skiing out in Colorado, I wound up for a solid week with a group of teenagers. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old, mostly from the East. New York City, etc. Typical places, Yankee places, not heavily associated with racism. We had a black kid in the group, of Jamaican-English background. And while he was not subjected to “racism”, I was fascinated by the role played by “bias” in many comments and jokes. His race was a constant subtext, and area of anxiety and resentment of that anxiety. His skin color was the subject of many jokes, not in a bad way, but obviously a subject of deep fascination for these kids.

Adolescent insecurity and weirdness aside, I saw the appeal of ‘bias’: it is simple. Complex things, savagely unjust things become somehow more palatable; less surreal. These adolescents, desperately trying to figure out the complex and paradoxical adult world, and find themselves and their place in it, grasp and cling to clear and easy rules. One loved speaking in stereotypical Mexican immigrant pidgin, an other played up a southern accent and southern racism, I felt, in order to make his other comments seem less outrageous. These adolescents also had a mania for ranking, for knowing where they stood, really. They where all band-wagoners: they liked, for example, only the most successful teams, regardless of sport.

I have never really identified with political correctness, seeing it as a weird form of thought police as well as a truly awful substitute for genuine compassion and understanding. But I found my self forced into the role of PC police: I had to either tacitly go along with the jokes which I felt were harmful, or play clunky PC/ naive liberal authority figure. I was baffled as to how to foil this mindset which I felt effectively authorised true racism.

Part of what offending me was the undeniable whiff of ignorance and insecurity in the face of the Other. An awful lack of compassion and empathy. I do not in the slightest bit identify with immigrants, or any of the other terms we might deploy to describe the untouchables in our society, but I can have compassion for them and understand their plight; understand that the true crime originates from a twisted and sociopathic economic system. Read American Psycho and you will see what I mean.

Racism slips past from generation to generation in the forms of these jokes, these terrible accents (harmless in and of themselves?). Even in movies where characters makes ridiculous jokes and comments, even these in some small way authorise and reaffirm racist attitudes.

Why is Jeremy Clarkson so popular, so funny? It is the appeal of false confidence. This is the realm of ignorance-is-bliss for sure.

So how do we change, how do we put racism or ‘bias’ to bed? It is part of a much bigger problem; it gathers its energy from forces beyond that of movies and jokes. I doubt that the tactical skirmishes of PC policing make the slightest difference in the long run; what we need instead is a way to subvert the economic, political and emotional basis for these ideas.

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Liebster Award!

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Thanks to Anne Murray at The Main Focus (https://annermurray.wordpress.com), who was kind enough to nominate my blog for this recognition. It’s actually quite refreshing and exciting to be nominated. So thanks!

Here are the official rules for the Liebster Award nomination:

• Each nominee must have under 200 followers
• Thank and link to the nominating blog
• Answer their 10 questions and propose 10 new ones for your nominees
• Nominate 10 blogs and tell them that they’ve been nominated
• Write a post containing the questions
• Include these rules in the post

Here are my assigned questions:

1. If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?

I would have mastered a foreign language by the end of my undergraduate days; either Spanish or German. 

2. What is your fondest memory? (Don’t be raunchy or offensive here).

Either hammocking in the Grand Tetons with a bottle of wine and my future wife, or the several days I dwelled in the monasteries at Mount Athos in Greece. 

3. What is the most important lesson you learned in life?

Do not worry: anxiety will not help you. If it is a bit too easy to quite something, than it is probably worth doing. Truly valuable things cannot be purchased at a store; they must be developed from within. Humour is the best response to anything. Fear and hate are twins and simply mark ignorance. I realize that this is more than one important lesson. 

4. What was the best advice you received?

Do one painful or hard thing everyday and learn or do something new every day. Also, keep your socks dry when hiking and camping. 

5. If you knew that tomorrow was your last day on earth, what would you do today?

In the back bone of the Rockies in Colorado, there is a deep valley that I occasionally pass by. Looking up this wooded valley, you can see, far in the distance, a high, angular snowy peak, whose name I have never quite been able to discover. The contrast between the woods and the hills, which is pleasant, and the snowy peak, which can only be described as Sublime. This peak has come to represent a true wilderness for me: the something that is really out there. So I would take a pair of cross country skies, and ski up the valley and climb that peak. 

6. What is the weirdest dream you have ever had?

I was trying to accomplish something at my high school. There was a problem, and I had to go talk to someone else or get something to accomplish this task. But this someone else or something else only led to another task, so I was stuck in a sort of Sisyphusean nightmare. Most of the dreams that I can recall have this element unfortunately.

7. If you could only take 3 things with you on a trip, what would they be?

I good book, the correct map, and wine. 

8. What holds the most value (person, thing, or place) to you here on earth? Why?

My wife and my parents. Mt. Rainier and the Grand Teton: mountains in general. But I also love my books and skis. Honourable mention to my tea and coffee making accoutrements. 

9. Who did you admire most as a child? Why?

Winston Churchill. I constantly read history books, and they unanimously praised the guy. It was hard not to feel like he was pretty great. He had style. He had guts. He had brains. 

10. What is your dream job? (Get creative here).

 Ah, so travel writer, wine connoisseur, and chocolate taster are out. Heli skiing guide then? Owner of a surprisingly successful small business, like a bookstore? Historian? Tea connoisseur? I got it: owner and operator of a tea house in the mountains. 

Here are my nominations:

 Wineesquire. https://wineesquire.wordpress.com

Aamil Syed.  https://aamilsyed.wordpress.com

Yeah, Whatever.  https://tameshewolf.wordpress.com

Timgeorgedesign. https://timgeorgedesign.wordpress.com

A Writer’s Outlook. https://awritersoutlook.wordpress.com

Bentley Hensel. http://bentleyhensel.com

History Chick in AZ. http://historychickinaz.com

Submitted For Your Perusal. http://submittedforyourperusal.com/about/

Went Looking. http://wentlooking.com

This Is My Chapter 30. https://thisismychapter30.wordpress.com

And here are my questions:

1. Do ends justify means? Why?

2. Who is your favourite historical figure and why?

3. If you could have a long lunch and conversation with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?

4. Favourite Book?

5. Favourite Movie?

6. If you knew that tomorrow was your last day on earth, what would you do today?

7. What is the most important lesson you learned in life?

8. If your where the Supreme Autocrat of Planet Earth, what would you do?

9. What is your bliss?

10. Do you think the universe is fundamentally orderly and meaningful or chaotic and absurd?

“A People’s History of the United States”

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What you learned in your high school history is class is wrong. Dangerously wrong. Obscenely wrong.

This book proves this. It is the anti-high school history class. This book is a rigorous catalogue of wrongs, rebellions, strikes, protest, war and repression. You feel like you have been added to a list kept by the FBI and NSA after you have read it. And that, ultimately, is why it is so important to read this book.

I will not be voting for the Republican or Democratic Party again. It’s that simple. I will vote for the Green Party, or for Mickey Mouse.

Here are the major points that I gleaned from this amassing of detail and instance: rebellion and protest is part of our shared American history (i.e. the Sixties are not an exception to a rule, they are a part of the pattern), that our government has recklessly been in the service of corporate profit from the very beginning, and that the Democratic and Republican parties are two sides of the same coin (Pepsi or Coke?), and lastly that war is purely a blind to shore up politicians popularity and promote profit.

Howard Zinn’s politics are, as you would expect from a title that uses the word “people’s”, far to the left. Based on some of his phraseology and philosophical assumptions, I can comfortably say he is a communist, with a small ‘c’. He is a refugee from the Modernist era, where there seemed to be some hope for a government project that would lead to a utopian future. It has the merit of righteous and justified anger, the expectation that things can be better (and that this can come from people and government).

You do not have to be a strict orthodox Marxist to agree or at least understand the importance and power of this book. Conservatives who whine about social spending and complain about the government, bureaucracy, and taxes will gain ammunition for their arguments, just not in the way they expect. Military spending – more than the rest of the world combined – is justified by an endless stream of boogeymen and hobgoblins. Welfare spending at least goes to human beings. For example: the Trident nuclear submarine, developed and deployed for billions of dollars serves no purpose; exactly how many nuclear weapon delivery systems to you need?

Even if you strongly disagree with Zinn and his book, you cannot ignore the mountain of evidence and examples. Here are some of my favourites. Herbert Hoover on the verge of the Great Depression: “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land”. Or on page 387: “Henry Ford, in March 1931, said the crisis [i.e. the Great Depression] was here because ‘the average man won’t really do a day’s work unless he is caught and cannot get out of it. There is plenty of work to do if people would do it.’ A few weeks later he laid of 75,000 workers.” It is examples like this which make a mockery out of this Horatio Alger mindset. We need more of this.

Then there is the chapter entitled “Carter-Reagan-Bush: the bipartisan consensus”. You cannot understand contemporary American politics, or the reality of our political system without reading this chapter. These very different presidents are shown through sheer factual evidence to have pursued fundamentally identical policies.

To my amusement, Zinn’s traditional Marxist approach to class and history fuel both his cold fury towards the forces of social injustice, and simultaneously provide an oversimplification of history and American society which forms the weakest part of the book. He retains this notion that we the people/the workers/producers can rise up and overthrow “the Establishment”, if only there was the awareness and organisation.

While I do not think it is a total waste of time to speak in terms of “the Establishment”, or even better: the 99%, such ideas can only be an oversimplification. Fans of Foucault out there will immediately recognise the huge flaws that Zinn has to take on board given his presuppositions. Society is much more of a web of “activating” and “suppressing” motivations, then a layer cake of economic classes. He has trouble explaining the efficacy of the rhetoric of nationalism and capitalism; he cannot suspect the myriad of subtle psychological motivations and bonuses.

This book is important because it tells the stories that you do not hear about. The protesters who are not violent. The dissent generated by wars. The shallowness of pro-war sentiment. The obsequiousness of the media towards the government and big business. The long list of crimes committed by our government; the hypocrisy of prisons in the face of a government that is essentially lawless.

A must read, no question.

“Play It as it Lays”

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This was my first time reading any of Didion’s work, and I confess to being blown away by the artistry, vision, and sense of possession that this book had.

The writing style is very sparse and tends to cluster around images; phrases, chance feelings. It is not descriptive, nor is it stream-of-counciousness in style, but somewhere in between.

As anyone can glean by reading the back cover, the tone is primarily one of despair and hopelessness. It’s a savage deconstruction of the ’60s. All that is true, but there is more to this book than what the back cover intimated. This book is a savagely vivid illustration of the phrase “money does not buy happiness”.

The main character, Maria, is a miserable young women, who grew up in an extremely small town in Nevada. The desolation of her past and her society is symbolized by how this area is now a nuclear testing ground. Due to her looks, she has becomes a minor starlet; the reality is that she has married a director in Hollywood, and has played some roles. In terms of a career, she circles the drain between obscurity and getting into pornography.

Her father was a failed gambler and entrepreneur, and her mother (who we detect was far more important to Maria) emotionally dies in a random car accident. The main characters are rich, beautiful, connected and utterly miserable. Nihilism, drugs and alcohol, casual sex, and mental illness lurks behind every encounter.

The essentially chaotic meaninglessness of the universe comes home in this book. There is very important passages on pregnancy, abortion, and love.

Read it.

“a conspiracy so immense…”

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This was an engrossing biography of Joseph McCarthy, the senator from Wisconsin who, during the early ’50’s led a crusade against communism in government, in society, and in the world. But McCarthyism is more than just a paranoia about communist conspiracy, it’s a word that speaks to demagoguery of the worse kind; a kind of un-democratic undermining of civil society and the rule of law. McCarthyism is mob rule, disguised as a hunt for “reds”.

As a read, this book is actually quite sad and depressing. Its necessary and highly relevant to today’s world of Islamaphobia and fear of terrorism, but sad. McCarthy – definitely not a proto-Hitler nor a vicious cynic riding a hot topic to prominence and power – did actually believe that a vast communist conspiracy was undermining American society and government. And while its obvious that McCarthy was an unscrupulous, lying hack and unthinking scumbag, one genuinely comes to feel sorry for the guy. HIs story ultimately reads as a tragedy both for McCarthy and for America. Really. Nobody wins here.

Something that I want to make abundantly clear is that Joe McCarthy never found a real communist in government. He never found a real soviet spy. And while he ruined hundreds of lives and careers (including at least one suicide), he never found one, single real Red Spy.

Certain people out there will be going: “A-ha! What about the Verona Papers?! They prove that there were soviet spies in the government!” I grant this. The thing to remember is that by the late ’40’s, the FBI had rooted all those out. So by time McCarthyism got started, all the real Red Spies where already gone. There is also a larger historical context here which explain both the number of communists in government in the ’30s and ’40s, as well as the basic engine behind McCarthyism.

So here’s the big picture: the Republicans fail to take action of any kind during the Great Depression, and FDR is elected along with his New Deal policies – effectively an Americanized brand of socialism. This is realistically the furthest to the left that this country has ever gone. FDR and the New Deal era was cosmopolitan, left leaning, and highly elite/east coast/academic/eurocentric. It has a  strong oder of New England paternalism about it. Communism was still understood largely as an academic, progressive thing; one could be a communist in the government and a loyal American. This was especially true during WWII when the Soviets were our allies.

So at the end of WWII the American political situation was this: the Republicans had been out of power for twenty years. In the meantime, the Democrats had taken strenuous efforts to save the American economy during the Great Depression, and had just brilliantly won the most destructive, most justified war in human history. Basically, the Republican Party of the 1940s was on the verge of becoming irrelevant; disappearing. How does one discredit a ruling political party when the economy is doing well and has just won the biggest war one can win?

You guessed it: the spectre; the fear of communism, global and domestic. So even though things were actually going quite well in America, there were a number of signs of Soviet ascendancy, combined with American set backs on the diplomatic/international affairs front. Continued Russian aggression and development of the atom bomb, the Korean War, the “loss” of China to communism mixed with the exposure of soviet spies at home (Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs) all contributed to a sense that communism was winning, or at the very least, undermining the American government.

McCarthy’s genius was to portray communism as a black-and-white, cops-and-robbers struggle that was both easy to understand, and played on existing anxieties and fears. He also was shameless enough to use them to the hilt; and he was a genius at political intrigue. He had an uncanny ability to smell out an opponent’s weakness, and he was a master at utilising the media to his own ends.

You may have heard of it: it’s called the “megaphone effect.” Journalism, especially major newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post strive hard to maintain neutrality or impartiality. They may pander or lean to the right or to the left, but by and large, they work very hard to remain “an honest broker” or “paper of record”. This means that I, as an US Senator, say that Mr. So-and-So is a communist, you, the journalist has to print this, even if you are very sure that my statement is bullshit. McCarthy was great with his timing and with his slinging of communist allegations against his political enemies.

It has been common, both when McCarthy was alive and beyond to see him a prototype American Dictator; a Hitler-in-the-Wings. And while I think that there are serious parallels between the appeal of Hitler and the appeal of McCarthy, these men are not analogous; it would be incorrect to insinuate that McCarthy was anything like Hitler. They are both eloquent examples of right-wing demagoguery that play upon fear: they offer a simple explanation or solution that emotionally satisfies. And it is scary to read as the mechanisms of American justice never quite catch up with McCarthy. Yes, he is censured by the Senate and you really have to be a bastard to be censured; think of all the crooks, frauds, and idiots in the Senate, and censure has only happened a handful of times. But McCarthy goes on a rampage that did lasting damage to American civil rights and civil society; I think our government is still paying the price for what he did to the State Department, and he never faced any sort of real punishment.

McCarthy was only stopped when he had crossed his own party, and was only censured for breaking the clubby, folklore ways of the Senate.

I would read it for its timeliness. It portrays the birth of the political parties as we know them now: the Republicans have nothing to offer and must rely on money and fear; the Democrats incapable of being a true party of the left (that sense constantly being on the defensive and having no back bone). It is also timely because it feels so modern and contemporary. What is happening in Europe and in America with Islam and terrorism, and the partisan political elements taking advantage of this fear is happening now.

“Dead Wake”: A Review

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By now we have all come to know and love Erik Larson.

We love his personal-interest stories set in a dramatic and glamorous past. In the Garden of Beasts recreated 1930’s Berlin and the early Nazi regime – a time when Hitler’s grip on power was shaky and some chance remained for sanity. Devil in the White City portrays the Chicago World Fair and the psychopath who stalked it. A world that was picking up speed and technology; yet despite the “progress” evil lurks in the shadows…

Dead Wake tells the story of the Lusitania and the German U-boat which sunk her. All the usual Erik Larson-isms are here: it’s a reconstruction of a past era, with all the glamour and romance that can be summoned stuffed in. And it works. We are introduced to the Edwardian World colliding with the cruel, industrial reality of WWI. An era of elegance, order and confidence is in the process of being shattered. Odd as that sounds, this was my aspect of the book.

There is the rich socialite, the play-boy millionaire, the ship’s captain, the scholar, and the usual assortment of early 20th century characters. All are doomed or miraculously saved. Hardly anyone seems to take the threat of being sunk too seriously. Neither the Cunard Line, nor the British Admiralty seem terribly concerned over the Lusitania. Doom, however, is in the air.

At least a quarter of the book follows the U-boat and its background and voyage to its fateful meeting with the Lusitania. It’s a totally different universe from the one on board the cruise liner; it portrays two different ways of seeing the world in collision. The story of the U-boats is fascinating: it was a new, unproven weapon of war, but one where there seemed to be no real defence. Anyone who has seen Das Boot knows what to expect.

The final big section is the actual sinking of the Lusitania, the struggle to survive by the passengers, and their eventual rescue. There is some disaster porn here: watch as the orderly Edwardian world onboard the liner turns into chaos and disorder. There are lifeboats, but the lifeboats require: 1. a trained crew willing to follow orders, 2. officers that know what they are doing, 3. a ship that is not listing in any way, 4. orderly passengers willing to follow orders. Of course, on a ship which has been torpedoed, this is impossible. You can pretty much guess from this how things went.

Those who survived, survived by chance.

All in all, this book is enjoyable, and if you like Erik Larson, this is just another instalment of what you have come to expect from him.

“Violence”: A Review

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Violence is work commissioned by Picador for their “Big Ideas//small books” series, all with titles like “Choice” or “Time” and so on.

The main reason we are interested in Violence is the author: Slavoj Žižek. Roughly, it’s pronounced “slav-oy shzee-shzek.”

Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher (a more contemporary phrase might be cultural theorist) who emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, he has become, at least by philosophy standards, a pop figure and celebrity.

There are a few reasons for this relative celebrity. Žižek manages to combine the most brilliant and cutting insights with often common examples drawn from personal experience or from movies. He is not afraid to be crude or glib, or to shatter your illusions. He is famous for his jokes during lectures, which often contain layers insight. Thus, he is a gust of fresh air from generations of densely academic philosophy.

Keeping in mind that Žižek is from the former Soviet bloc, and was thus a member of “actually existing socialism”. This necessarily has deep influence on his thought and perspective. He claims to be a Marxist today; indeed, he uses intellectual and academic methods directly descended from the works of Hegel, Marx, and Freud. Again speaking roughly, Žižek worked in the tradition of “continental” (as opposed to the very mathematical ‘analytic’) philosophy. So called “continental” philosophy places great importance on the idea of the “dialectic”.

A dialectic is basically the idea that things are deeply interconnected. A simple dialectic would be ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’. At first, these things are totally and irreconcilably opposed. But if we reflect deeply and seriously, we will find that the two are not so easy to separate or to define. They become merely poles in a much larger definition or series of actions (as we can see from phrases like “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure” or “The way to hell is paved with good intentions”. Good and Evil, then form a complex dialectic instead of just simple definitions. As such, what counts as truly good or truly evil actions on the part of individuals is not so easy to define.

Thus Žižek works at the intersection Dialectical Materialism (a focus on actually existing things instead of the metaphysical) and psychoanalysis by way of Lacan (a thinker who heavily updated and revised Freud). Needless to say, there is not much of tradition of this in the US, excepting some emigre thinkers from Germany (The Frankfurt School).

Violence itself is typical Žižek. And to be honest, I found many recycled examples and sections which it seems like he has copy-and-pasted from some of his other stuff. Not that this makes it any less absolutely brilliant and necessary, it just felt (a little too often) that I had read this paragraph before. Žižek makes a distinction between three types of violence: subjective (crime, terror), objective (racism, hate-speech), and systemic (political, economic and social systems; the crime of Wall Street foreclosing on millions of Americans and forcing them out of their homes compared to a simple strong-arm robbery. Legal crime). He finds the source of violence in the concept of the Neighbour: the Other, the one with which we must put up with but is yet irreconcilably different. He finds violence implicit in our very language; our words themselves betray us and force us into a mental frame where violence is acceptable, and right even.

Without running through Žižek’s whole philosophy, I can say that he has no illusions, and has no problem with shattering yours. He takes complex issues (which mainstream media do a terrible job of explaining) and quickly boils them down to harsh truths which spare no one, whether Islamic Fundamentalists, Western Liberals or Western Conservatives. No one is spared the lash. On the other hand, he has no political program and no easy answers. This only makes what he has to say even more important and relevant. He is no here to help Hillary Clinton win in 2016; he is not here to make Karl Marx win in 2016; nor is he here to help Jeb Bush win in 2016. He is not interested and would tell you that all of these candidates are a disaster in their own right.

As the cover says, Žižek is “erudite and incendiary”.

In Violence, he makes an excellent argument for the morality of atheism, probably the best and most concise that I have read. He makes mince meat of Islamic Fundamentalism (calling it a disgrace to fundamentalism (compared to the Amish, say), insecure, and all ready judging itself by western standards. He attacks globalisation and capitalism as the vortex destroying our cultures and ecosystem. He exposes the hypocrisy and violence behind the War on Terror, and makes no bones about ridiculing   politically correct liberals.

This is some of the best stuff you can read. It’s vibrant, edgy; beyond intelligent and insightful, this book is powerful. It rings true (if you are honest with yourself). Be warned, you must be well read, or at least prepared to heavily use the internet if you wish to follow along. Another Must Read. x1reb