Pelosi, Maher, and Cosmopolitan Bigotry
March 18, 2012

In the above clip (via Ta-Nehisi Coates), Bill Maher says, “When I see the toothless guy, as a liberal, what I say is, I want to help you get teeth. Why does that make me an asshole?”

Of course, wanting dental care for the poor is not what makes Maher an asshole. What makes him an asshole is that he feels compelled to add a crude imitation of a Southerner saying, “You damn Yankee, trying to get me teeth!”

That moment perfectly crystallizes everything that’s wrong with the above clip, in which Maher and Alexandra Pelosi (documentarian and daughter of Nancy Pelosi) take aim at “both sides” by portraying both poor white rural Southerners and poor black city-dwelling Northerners as equally grotesque, stupid and lazy. Maher may support policies that would ease the suffering of the poor, but he’s also roundly contemptuous of the poor’s experiences. Those experiences aren’t real and meaningful in the sense that the white coastal elite’s experiences are real and meaningful — instead, they’re just a canvass onto which Maher can impress his own moral sophistication and enlightened sensibilities.

The irony is that Maher and Pelosi’s “enlightenment” corresponds to a total incuriosity regarding the lives of people who don’t reside on their lofty socioeconomic stratum. While Pelosi might pat herself on the back for having, “intelligent conversations with these people,” (these people being poor white Southerners), the clips she shows of those conversations don’t tell us anything about them beyond their willingness to reiterate certain right-wing shibboleths. “This is what they believe,” she says, but she never bothers to explore the nature of their belief, the why of it, nor anything of the world in which they live. By the same token, she thinks she can score a point against the “entitlement culture” by showing a clip of a young black man in New York who admits he can’t find work because he has a criminal record. But she never asks why a young black man in a city with notoriously racist policing policies has a criminal record, or why that record might disqualify him from finding work.

But perhaps the starkest moment of willful ignorance comes when Maher uses a permutation of the “some of our best friends are black” defense as a way of excusing Pelosi from charges of racism (Pelosi actually uses the expression “welfare queen” repeatedly, evidently without irony). “I mean, I, after all, just gave my imaginary child’s college fund to Barack Obama,” he says, “and your mother is Nancy Pelosi.” The charitable reading of that defense is that Maher has absolutely no understanding of how racism perpetuates itself, and no desire to learn.

Moments like that make Maher’s mockery of poor Southern ignorance especially pungent. “Maybe it’s you,” he says, addressing the camera. Of course, there’s no way it could ever, in a million years, be him.

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Huck Everlasting
January 5, 2011

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Sad to say, when it comes to recent misguided attempts to detoxify Huckleberry Finn, Kevin Drum misses the point entirely:

It’s simply no longer possible to assign a book to American high school kids that assaults them with the word nigger so relentlessly. As Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who led the bowdlerization effort, explained, “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.”

Given that choice, I guess I’d bowdlerize. After all, the original text will remain available, and teachers can explain the wording change to their classes if they want to. (Though even that’s probably difficult.) And frankly, I doubt that the power of the novel is compromised all that much for 17-year-olds by doing this. In fact, given the difference in the level of offensiveness of the word nigger in 2010 vs. 1884, it’s entirely possible that in 2010 the bowdlerized version more closely resembles the intended emotional impact of the book than the original version does. Twain may have meant to shock, but I don’t think he ever intended for the word to completely swamp the reader’s emotional reaction to the book. Today, though, that’s exactly what it does.

I left my psychic time machine at home, so I can’t really comment on Mark Twain’s original intent. But even if we exhumed and reanimated the bones of Samuel Clemens, and he insisted that he agreed with Alan Gribben entirely, I would still oppose bowdlerization. Original authorial intent is irrelevant. The text is the text is the text.

The fact that the text means wildly different things to different generations of readers is a feature, not a bug. More the point, it is completely unmanageable, unless we intend to rip the guts out of whatever classic literature we hand our children. Would Drum be willing to take the original Hamlet out of the classroom and replace it with a version that paraphrases all of Shakespeare’s poetry into modern idiom? Surely Shakespeare intended that his audience hear those words in whatever version of English to which they are most accustomed.

That hasn’t happened yet because we consider learning to grapple with Shakespearean language a valuable part of a child’s English education. Of course, you could argue that Huck Finn presents a different type of case: Shakespeare’s language is merely difficult, whereas Twain’s is ugly and hurtful. But that too is a feature, not a bug. As Jamelle Bouie says:

But erasing “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn—or ignoring our failures—doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t provide racial enlightenment, or justice, and it won’t shield anyone from the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. All it does is feed the American aversion to history and reflection. Which is a shame. If there’s anything great about this country, it’s in our ability to account for and overcome our mistakes. Peddling whitewashed ignorance diminishes America as much as it does our intellect.

Teachers who respect the integrity of literature and want to assign Huckleberry Finn have two choices: they can let their students wrestle with the constant thudding reminders of America’s racist past, or they can assign something else. I know Finn is part of the high school canon these days, but there are other books out there just as worthy. Hell, it’s not even the only worthy Mark Twain book out there.

But those who do teach the book should do both its beauty and ugliness justice. A nation that can’t find it within itself to do that is a nation of cowards.

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Nietzsche and the Jews
August 27, 2010

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It was inevitable that we were going to have to talk about Nietzsche’s supposed anti-Semitism at some point, so I’m happy to get it out of the way relatively early on. In aphorism 475 of Human, All-Too-Human, the philosopher describes his vision for the future of all the different European ethnic groups, including the Jews. By 19th-century standards, I’d call it fairly progressive, but there is no getting around the fact that it is, by modern standards, pretty damn racist.

The problem for modern readers is that Nietzsche uncritically accepts the notion that racial bloodlines play some huge deterministic role in character, intelligence, and moral fortitude. So after predicting that “as a consequence of continual intermarriage there must develop a mixed race, that of the European man,” he concludes that the best way to deal with this is by doing everything to ensure that the right mixture of ingredients go into the stew.

That’s where the Jews come in. Nietzsche says “unpleasant, even dangerous qualities can be found in every nation and every individual,” and concedes to anti-Semites the possibility that “these qualities may even be dangerous and revolting to an unusual degree” in the European Jew, but nonetheless insists that “the Jew is just as useful and desirable an ingredient as any other national remnant.” After all: “One owes to them the noblest man (Christ), the purest sage (Spinoza), the most powerful book, and the most effective moral law in the world.”

It’s possible to condemn Nietzsche’s proto-eugenics while also acknowledging that he is far from the “prophet of Nazism” some of his modern detractors claim him to be. If anything, his views on Asia are far more troubling than his attitude towards the Jews—in his view, one of the great accomplishments of Judaism has been its defense of European values against eastern influence.

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Nobody’s Saying Muslims Don’t Have the Right to Build a Mosque Near Ground Zero
August 19, 2010

Except, that is, for half of everybody.

There’s a lot to pick apart in this poll—for example, you could point out that whether or not Muslims have the legal right to build a Mosque near Ground Zero has nothing to do with current plans to build an Islamic Cultural Center. But I think the more salient point is regarding what this says about how a lot of Americans view constitutional issues.

There is no debate to be had over whether or not Imam Rauf and co. have a constitutional right to build Park51. They do. It is empirically, demonstrably true that they do.

It is not empirically true that they have a right in the moral or metaphysical sense to build Park51, because that is not the sort of thing that can be empirically verified. (Metaethical naturalists might argue that it can be empirically proven, to which I verified: Then do so.) That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily wrong to say that they have the right. I believe they do, and I would hope that the vast majority of people who live in a liberal democratic society and also believe that rights exist in the first place would agree with me. But giving a proof of that gets into some thorny, potentially unanswerable ethical questions, whereas a proof answering the constitutional question would be irrefutable and consist of one step, which reads: “Read the goddamn document.”

My point being that if you think that Park51 doesn’t have a constitutional right to exist, then you really have no idea what the constitutional angle is on this. In which case, the only way you can give an answer besides “I don’t know” is by substituting your own moral intuitions for the actual letter of the law.

This is the sort of widespread backwards thinking on legal issues that the Onion lampooned brilliantly awhile back. And if you want another example from today’s news, check out Laura Schlessinger complaining that private individuals and companies violate her first amendment rights when they aren’t sufficiently indulgent of her racist tirades.

(Aside: I know it’s way too easy to pick on Sarah Palin, but compare her full-throated defense of Schlessinger to her previous well-documented condemnations of the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Evidently when brown people construct benign outreach centers too close to the sites of national tragedies it shows an unfortunate lack of sensitivity, but when a white person spouts racial epithets on a popular radio program she’s just exercising her rights and anyone who takes issue with that needs to man up.)

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Racism is the New “Enhanced Interrogation”
July 31, 2010

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I take no joy in writing this, but if the latest column from the always-frustrating Charles Blow is an indication, then Glenn Beck, Andrew Breitbart and their comrades are winning the racism debate.

Well, that’s not exactly true. They’re winning insofar as there’s a debate in the first place, once which, predictably, plays out like so in Blow’s column:

Americans are engaged in a war over a word: racism.

Mature commentary on the subject has descended into tribal tirades, hypersensitive defenses and rapid-fire finger-pointing. The very definition of the word seems under assault, being bent and twisted back on itself and stretched and pulled beyond recognition.

Many on the left have taken an absolutist stance, that the anti-Obama sentiment reeks of racism and denial only served to confirm guilt. Many on the right feel as though they have been convicted without proof — that tossing “racism” their way is itself racist.

And so on. This is how it plays out, and will continue to play out, in every major newspaper and on every major television network: “Both sides are calling each other racist! What a crazy debate! And who am I, just a humble columnist for the most prestigious Op-Ed page on the planet, to evaluate their claims against one another? All I know is that they’re both being very, very indecorous.”

If that pungent aroma you smell is bringing back memories of the Bush era, it’s because the right has used this exact same tactic before—most famously when they successfully obfuscated the meaning of the word “torture,” and passive, compliant news agencies played along. Now they’re doing the same thing with “racism,” and even “lynching” (For those keeping score at home, “to lynch” now means “To criticize a white person on the Internet.”).

I have slightly more respect for the nihilists who at least admit their complete lack of moral principles. This is something different: Rather than ever admit to violating a moral principle, or even engaging in a debate over whether or not they violated a moral principle, they instead argue over the meaning of the words used to articulate that principle.

It’s pretty amazing how far they’ve taken it, but I think they could go further. If Breitbart were ever caught beating an unarmed homeless man to death, he could probably extend the trial by at least a few months by calling it, “enhanced robust preemptive self-defense,” and accusing liberal bloggers “high-tech murder” for condemning his actions. Then Charles Blow could write a column about how nobody can agree on the definition of the word “murder,” and we should just agree that no American is a murderer anymore, ever.


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One Quick Note On the Shirley Sherrod Fallout
July 24, 2010

The Shirley Sherrod fiasco (background here) is regrettable for a number of reasons, but one consequence that’s stood out in my mind is a particularly disingenuous new meme being promulgated by defenders of the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and other conservative factions and figureheads that feed off of racial resentment. Here’s a taste from Michael Moynihan:

But the unfair charge of racism, fascism, and Nazism, correctly denounced when spouted by Glenn Beck, seems something of a regular feature on Journolist.


But false (or flimsy) accusations of racism abound—they are everywhere one looks—though they rarely provoke the level of outrage seen in the Sherrod affair.


All of this will soon be forgotten, thankfully, and the charming and efficient pundits of Washington, D.C. will go back to observing the “racist” Tea Party movement and that stupid conservatives aren’t stupid but “neo-fascists.”

And so on and so forth. It’s actually pretty clever: you concede that Sherrod was unfairly maligned, and then say, “See? Both sides have to deal with unfair accusations of race-baiting.” It’s a pretty exemplary model of false equivalence done well.

Of course, the difference comes down not to the accusation itself, but to context. Sherrod’s remarks weren’t just taken out of context—they were deliberately manipulated in the most misleading way possible, and most of what has been said in her defense was all about simply stating the real context. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, just provided her full speech with minimal comment.

Moynihan and others, on the other hand, defend folks like Beck and Limbaugh by kvetching disingenuously that their remarks were “taken out of context” without actually explicating the context. And there’s a good reason for that: the context just makes them look even worse.

So a word to my conservative friends: I’d caution you think really hard about what you’re doing here. I’m sympathetic to reasonable conservatives upset with having their entire movement painted as racist; may I suggest that those same reasonable conservatives can do something about this by condemning and ostracizing overtly racist elements on the right. At the very least, refrain from circling the wagons around them. How hard could that be?

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