Principle Over Idealization

I wrote recently about the need to avoid the “twin temptations of idealization and fear—naïve idealization of groups with whom we readily sympathize (e.g., immigrants, ethnic/religious minorities, police) and a sensationalized fear of those with whom we don’t (e.g., immigrants, ethnic/religious minorities, police).”

Constance Grady penned a piece in Vox a few days ago highlighting an example of the idealization of women. In that piece, Grady criticizes remarks by comedian Louis C.K., which can be seen in the video below:

Louis C.K. is supporting Hillary Clinton in next week’s presidential election, and it’s not just because she’s a woman. It’s because she’s a mom.

“A mother’s just got it,” C.K. told Conan O’Brien on Conan Tuesday night. “She feeds you and teaches you, she protects you, she takes care of shit.”

Mothers, C.K. says, make better presidents than fathers. We’ve had fathers as presidents for the past 240 years, but “a great father can give a kid 40 percent of his needs, tops. Tops out at 40 percent. Any mother, just a shitty mother, a not-even-trying mother? Two hundred percent.”

While Grady concedes that C.K. is well-intentioned, she finds his idealization of women ultimately misguided:

he’s playing into a very old and unpleasant narrative that’s become weirdly popular among liberal men this election cycle: the idea that we need women in government because they are intrinsically morally superior to men. Women should be represented in our government, this story goes, not because they are people, but because they are better than people: They are angelic; they are virtuous; they are pure.

Back in September, Quartz’s Annalisa Merelli interviewed Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek about his new book Refugees, Terror and other Troubles with the Neighbors. Merelli tells us that Žižek

looks at the current migrant and refugee crises in Europe, and identifies what he sees as its uncomfortable aspects: the contrasts between Western values and those of the thousands arriving in Europe from Africa and the Middle East; the threat of terrorism by migrants; and the inevitable tensions generated by the competition for jobs and resources.

“The left tries to ignore the problem—for example they try to underreport problems with immigrants,” Žižek told Quartz. “My book is simply a great, desperate call for not keeping silent about this.”

Sensationalized fear of immigrants or the recent flow of refugees is a real problem that must be confronted and corrected, but so too:

is a dangerous tendency to mythologize refugees as especially noble because of their suffering: “I don’t like this romantic false idea that suffering purifies you, that it makes you a noble person. It does not!” On the contrary, he says, “it makes you do anything to survive.”

This doesn’t mean Europe should be less committed to taking care of desperate people seeking shelter, he says—but Europeans should be more realistic about the kind of effort it takes to do so. “It’s easy to be humanitarian if your principle is that the others whom we are helping are good warm guys, friendly,” he says. “What if they are not? My point is that even in that case we should be helping them.”

How we advocate matters. As an African-American and a military veteran, I am often put off by attempts to advocate for African-Americans and military service members in ways that posit facile narratives about the superior virtue of these two groups. We are people. We deserve respect because we are people. We need not be especially great to be valued as people. Spinning grandiose narratives about people groups to elevate them is sloppy thinking, disingenuous as a form of public discourse, and patronizing to the group in question. We don’t need to idealize a disparaged or disadvantaged group in order to advocate for their equal treatment, political representation, or aid in a time of crisis.

It can also prove counterproductive. What happens when the narrative is belied by daily experience? When we find that African-Americans, military service members, women, immigrants, etc. are just as frail and error-prone as the rest of us? Specifically, in the case of refugees, what if we find that there are genuine differences, leading to social friction and discomfort? Do we then lose the conviction that they are to be valued as people? Do we turn our backs? The advocacy must be grounded in principle rather than unrealistic appraisals of the superior worth of the relevant group.

Likewise, C.K.’s advocacy on behalf of women in a culture where women have long been regarded as somehow less fit for leadership in general and public office in particular is laudable. However, the rights of women should be safeguarded because they are people. The contributions of women are valuable and speak for themselves. We need not substitute one narrow prejudice—that men are better—with its opposite. How hard is it to say women are equal–neither worse or better, but equal?

As Grady concluded: “We should not have a woman as president because women are pure and virtuous and angelic. We should have a woman as president because women are people who make up more than half of the US population, and because women deserve to see themselves represented in our representative government.” That is a compelling argument whether you like the particular woman on the ballot this year or not.


Ferguson and Political Symbolism

I am a black man. I am also a human being. I like to think of myself as a reasonable and humane human being. As such, I was deeply disturbed when I first learned of an incident involving the death of an unarmed teenager at the hands of a police officer. I was yet further disturbed upon hearing initial reports that the officer acted without apparent justification. Stories poured forth about a young black man who was a gentle giant, who could not possibly have done anything to warrant or provoke such an action from law enforcement. For the white officer, initially nameless, the implication was that this man was either a racist scoundrel with an itching trigger-finger or, at the very least, callously indifferent to the consequences of his unnecessary use of deadly force. The calls came immediately and insistently “What is the name of this monster who would so heartlessly snuff out the life of the gentle giant?” Darren Wilson. Darren Wilson was not just white, but a blank canvas against which a community could paint its historical grievances. Darren Wilson became a symbol, and Michael Brown, the gentle giant, was also a symbol.

I am not going to debate the facts or even give my interpretation of them. That would be easy. The point I want to make is broader. It is this: once the events of August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, MO took on transcendent significance, once the two chief actors became symbols—mere images to be invoked—the facts became irrelevant. The particulars became mere particulars—they could be shaped to suit the larger narrative into which they had been taken up. When a white cop shoots a black man in a black town with a white police force, the facts no longer matter—whatever truly happened that day in Ferguson is truly epiphenomenal. The players may change, there are countless insignificant variations of time and place, but the tragedy goes on…

The Problem With Little White Girls (and Boys)

A worthy read encompassing race, culture, humanitarianism, the efficient allocation of resources, and how not to take ourselves too seriously. I commend it to you.

Pippa Biddle

White people aren’t told that the color of their skin is a problem very often. We sail through police check points, don’t garner sideways glances in affluent neighborhoods, and are generally understood to be predispositioned for success based on a physical characteristic (the color of our skin) we have little control over beyond sunscreen and tanning oil.

After six years of working in and traveling through a number of different countries where white people are in the numerical minority, I’ve come to realize that there is one place being white is not only a hindrance, but negative –  most of the developing world.

Removing rocks from buckets of beans in Tanzania. Removing rocks from buckets of beans in Tanzania.

In high school, I travelled to Tanzania as part of a school trip. There were 14 white girls, 1 black girl who, to her frustration, was called white by almost everyone we met in Tanzania, and a few teachers/chaperones…

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Suited to Servitude?

As an addendum to my last post on race, I thought I’d share the following quote from a Civil War era political figure. Articulating what came to be known as the mudsill theory, James Henry Hammond made these remarks in the U.S. Senate in 1858:

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves. We found them slaves by the common “consent of mankind,” which, according to Cicero, “lex naturae est.” The highest proof of what is Nature’s law. We are old-fashioned at the South yet; slave is a word discarded now by “ears polite;” I will not characterize that class at the North by that term; but you have it; it is there; it is everywhere; it is eternal.

The Senator from New York said yesterday that the whole world had abolished slavery. Aye, the name, but not the thing; all the powers of the earth cannot abolish that. God only can do it when he repeals the fiat, “the poor ye always have with you;” for the man who lives by daily labor, and scarcely lives at that, and who has to put out his labor in the market, and take the best he can get for it; in short, your whole hireling class of manual laborers and “operatives,” as you call them, are essentially slaves. The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either. Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street in any of your large towns. Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South. We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity. Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves. None of that race on the whole face of the globe can be compared with the slaves of the South. They are happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations. Yours are white, of your own race; you are brothers of one blood. They are your equals in natural endowment of intellect, and they feel galled by their degradation. Our slaves do not vote. We give them no political power. Yours do vote, and, being the majority, they are the depositories of all your political power. If they knew the tremendous secret, that the ballot-box is stronger than “an army with banners,” and could combine, where would you be? Your society would be reconstructed, your government overthrown, your property divided, not as they have mistakenly attempted to initiate such proceedings by meeting in parks, with arms in their hands, but by the quiet process of the ballot-box. You have been making war upon us to our very hearthstones. How would you like for us to send lecturers and agitators North, to teach these people this, to aid in combining…

Of course, the most obvious flaw in this argument lay in the premise that blacks were fitted by nature to occupy an inferior social position in relation to whites. Rather, they were arbitrarily suited to this position by trans-generational conditioning as any group in this situation might have been. That was what was so powerful about the movie White Man’s Burden: it highlighted in a fictitious setting the interchangeability of the races qua races with respect to such subjugation and conditioning. This social relation is an anomalous artifact of history, not an immutable law of nature. Moreover, in the grand historical narrative, it was late arising and will ultimately prove short-lived. Indeed, its effects in our society are already eroding–though not so quickly as one might hope.