Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Seriously, Though, When Do We Get To Stop Coddling The South?

Not to get all Godwin's law on the subject, but I think contrasting the continued legacies of Nazi Germany and the antebellum American South is a useful exercise; both committed horrible travesties and have left future generations to figure out how to properly remember and learn from such atrocities. As I've pointed out a few times, it's pretty embarrassing (or least should be) how much our nation simply elides over the horrible things we've done. While the German response may not be perfect, at least they've more-or-less all agreed it was not a time to proud of.

But we in America have a hard time agreeing that slavery was a bad thing (because we're terrible people, I guess) and that maybe we shouldn't have memorials and whatnot to the people who launched a bloody war (bloodiest in our history, in fact) to defend their right to own human beings. Seems like a simple thing to condemn, but maybe that's just me.

This past weekend a friend and I hit up some WV historical sites, specifically Harper's Ferry (site of the famous John Brown raid) and Antietam, a place I'd never heard of before but that was apparently the site of an important civil war battle (also the bloodiest single day of fighting in the civil war, so...uh...there's that).

While I understand both of these places are technically below the Mason-Dixon line and therefore a whole different form of logic applies, I simply could not believe how much Confederate sympathizing and glorification went on there. In addition to multiple gift shops (even state-run museum gift shops!) selling "Live Free or Die" shirts emblazoned with the Stars and Bars, multiple historical markers made the war out to be one of simple disagreement over the role of the federal government, with little if any mention of the whole genocidal slavery thing.

One monument even read something to the effect of "Erected for those on both sides who were fighting for what they believed in." Except, again, I feel the need to point out what one side believed in was their right to own human beings as property. You can't really chalk that one up to "well, everyone has their views and beliefs! Who's to say which is right and which is wrong?"

Because the answer is "All human beings with a shred of decency agree one side was wrong."

Maybe it's just because I grew up secure in my little Yankee bubble, but I really had no idea how some folks still desperately cling to historical revisionist views of the civil war, and it's embarrassing as hell, both as an American and as, you know, a human being.

Simply put: can you imagine any Holocaust memorial selling swastika t-shirts and putting up monuments that say "Jews and Germans alike both fought for their beliefs" as if it were some sort of simple misunderstanding between the two?

No, because that would be fucking horrible. But I suppose "being fucking horrible" has rarely stopped America from anything...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Boston and White Privilege

On the heels of discussing how Boston reveals what we think about America exceptionalism, it also highlights the benefits of white privilege.

Tim Wise has, as always, a pretty awesome breakdown of how the two are related, but the simple and short version is that white privilege means if the person(s) who bombed the marathon is/are white, white people need fear no retaliatory attacks, have no need to go out of their way to condemn something they were in no way involved with, white students traveling around or in and out of our nation will not have to worry about being terror suspects, etc.

But because this is the internet and things only count if they're delivered in list form, here's a handy top 10 I've been saving the link to for a long time. Here's Juan Cole's Top 10 Differences Between White Terrorists and Others:

1. White terrorists are called “gunmen.” What does that even mean? A person with a gun? Wouldn’t that be, like, everyone in the US? Other terrorists are called, like, “terrorists.” 2. White terrorists are “troubled loners.” Other terrorists are always suspected of being part of a global plot, even when they are obviously troubled loners.
3. Doing a study on the danger of white terrorists at the Department of Homeland Security will get you sidelined by angry white Congressmen. Doing studies on other kinds of terrorists is a guaranteed promotion.
4. The family of a white terrorist is interviewed, weeping as they wonder where he went wrong. The families of other terrorists are almost never interviewed.
5. White terrorists are part of a “fringe.” Other terrorists are apparently mainstream.
6. White terrorists are random events, like tornadoes. Other terrorists are long-running conspiracies.
7. White terrorists are never called “white.” But other terrorists are given ethnic affiliations.
8. Nobody thinks white terrorists are typical of white people. But other terrorists are considered paragons of their societies.
9. White terrorists are alcoholics, addicts or mentally ill. Other terrorists are apparently clean-living and perfectly sane.
10. There is nothing you can do about white terrorists. Gun control won’t stop them. No policy you could make, no government program, could possibly have an impact on them. But hundreds of billions of dollars must be spent on police and on the Department of Defense, and on TSA, which must virtually strip search 60 million people a year, to deal with other terrorists.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston, Violence, and American Exceptionalism

So we've all had about a day to process the horrific explosions in Boston. Grisly pictures keep coming out, and last I saw an update, there are 3 dead and about 150 wounded, many of whom with missing limbs and other catastrophic injuries. This is a tragedy, no doubt, and of course many are already jumping to racist judgements about who is responsible (though we should all of course remember we have no idea right now who is responsible, not that it excuses such vile racism even if Islamic extremists or North Korean agents are responsible).

But that's not really what this post is about. Well, kind of. Really, this post is about American Exceptionalism, the absurd belief that America is somehow better than all other nations (even when it is demonstrably and empirically not superior) for reason largely unknown (though in most variants of the belief, it's because God has pre-ordained America for greatness). This ridiculous notion is what makes it not wrong to wage a genocidal campaign against the native population, what lets the world's largest stockpiler of, and still only user of, nuclear weapons to throw a hissy fit whenever another nation contemplates building them. And it's the kind of belief that us to ignore an untold number of violent acts committed by our government (though conveniently done so outside of our nation).

It sadly seems as if the exceptionalist ideal is damn hard to escape, even for those who recognize it to be the fallacy it is. For example, take this piece from Salon this morning by David Sirota. It's a fairly standard piece I've seen multiple variations on; essentially the point of the column is that now such random and violent attacks don't seen so unusual or out of the norm, and that's the scary thing -- that in a place like America we could come to accept the inevitability of random, potentially terroristic violence.

Now I'm pretty willing to bet most everything I have that Mr. Sirota does not subscribe to the notion of American exceptionalism, and would probably scoff at the idea that he does. But yet, even in a guy well known for his leftist writings, you still see the exceptionalist narrative pop up. Because if you take the time to read the article, the subtext is really "This kind of thing doesn't happen here." And such an argument only makes sense if there's somewhere where it does happen, where it's usual.

To take it one step further, the implicit comparison is to places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other "war torn" nations around the globe. That's where stuff like this is supposed to happen. That's why, say, a huge wave of bombings across Iraq leaving over 50 dead barely gets a mention in the news, while the Boston explosions, which while tragic, have claimed significantly fewer lives but are dominating every news outlet in this nation.

Sure, part of that is because this happened "here" as opposed to "over there" (although what's happening "over there" is directly attributable to the political decisions made "here"). But the bigger reason for the discrepancy is because things like this aren't supposed to happen here. They are supposed to happen over there, to those people. People who, by virtue of where they live, apparently have it coming and therefore are not nearly as worthy of our concern and sympathy as are the good people who did the correct thing by living in God's America.

Turns out violence exists in the world. And it unfortunately turns out that believing you're magically immune for some murky set of reasons about how you're better than everyone else doesn't insulate you from it. This should neither be a surprise nor a cause for hysteria.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Teaching Sociology: Privilege Is Often The Little Things (Part something in a never-ending pop-pedagogical series)

My closet, more-or-less
Privilege comes in many forms; there's male privilege, white privilege, straight privilege, the list could go on and on. As a straight, white, middle-class (finally!), Christian male in the United States of America, I benefit from most all of 'em (if it weren't for my giant Semitic nose, I think I'd have them all).

Yet for how ubiquitous it is, it's a tricky concept to teach. Actually, scratch that, because it's so ubiquitous, it's a tricky concept to teach. Mostly because people who have it don't want to acknowledge they have it, and people who don't have it don't want to make a big deal out of it because it makes things really awkward for them when those with privilege throw their privileged hissy fits (which almost inevitably happens).

Privilege operates in some pretty impactful ways in society -- women make 77 cents on the dollar for the same work as men, in an increasing number of states women can't control their own reproductive systems, etc. Those are very big and important issues, and many people much smarter and more eloquent than I have covered them in-depth elsewhere.

But one thing I've found that has helped get the concept across to the skeptical is to save the giant, society-shaping ways privilege operates for a later date and instead focus on the tiny, micro-level ways privilege affects our day-to-day existance.

I was thinking about it this morning as I got dressed to go to campus. Today is a teaching day for me (tuesday/thursday teaching schedule ftw!), so I put on a collared shirt to show students I'm a Serious Academic. But I really only have about 6 presentable shirts that make it look like I at least tried to put some effort into my appearance. Not wanting to wear the same one repeatedly, I've come up with a tried and true method for varying my dressy wardrobe: I keep all 6 shirts in order in my closet. Each day I need to wear one, I take it from the front of the line, and at the end of the day, put it at the back of the line, assuring I'll wear the other 5 shirts before I wear that one again.

It's an awesome system that both keeps me from looking like the weirdo who wears the same shirt every class and keeps me from having to put any through whatsoever into what I'm wearing.

It's also a system that is pretty much only possible because I'm a man.

It's hopefully no surprise to anyone reading this that women are held to a different and much more extensively proscribed appearance expectations than are their male counterparts. While women are excoriated for not putting enough effort into their appearance, men are criticized for putting too much thought into their appearance (well, not so much criticized as subjected to homophobic taunts, but sic of one, half-dozen of the other). While this is undoubtedly harmful to men who do take pride in the appearance, it works out quite well for the fellas like me.

Most women I know, even the crunchy hippies and angry punx and all other variety of kooky lefties I know, put in a fair amount of time on their appearance. Not necessarily because they want to, but because they know they'll be harshly judged for not doing so. Whereas I am not only not judged harshly for spending a total of 15 seconds getting ready for the day, if anything that makes me even more in line with the gendered expectations for men (not giving a fuck about anything is a high ideal for men).

So all-in-all, not a big, earth-shattering deal by any means, but the fact that I can spend no time on my appearance and rarely if ever get criticized for it (as opposed to being force to spend a great deal of time on my appearance and still likely being criticized for it) is a clear and measurable form of privilege...

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Some Famous Lady Died

Sorry for the long break in posts -- international travel, busy time of the semester, etc.

Anyway, as you're hopefully already aware, Margaret Thatcher died yesterday (to be honest, I was pretty surprised to learn that she hadn't died a decade ago). A lot of people have wasted a lot of ink discussing her death and her legacy. And a lot of people had street parties celebrating her death. In poor taste? Maybe, but few people's death inspire street parties that didn't deserve them.

I really don't have anything terribly erudite to add to the conversation. Anyone who's spent more than a minute reading this blog could pretty accurately predict how I feel about her politics, and though I subscribe to the notion that death doesn't make one immune from criticism (here's Gleen Greenwald explaining the point beautifully in regards to Christopher Hitchen's death), I don't have any particularly meaningful or witty put downs too add to the chorus.

Though I will repeat that there have been reports of dozens of street parties across Britain (and more scattered across Europe and the States), and again note that regardless of the particulars, you have to be a pretty shitty person for so many people to be so overjoyed at news of your death.

Really though, I think nothing sums up the wretchedness of Thatcher more than the fact that "Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead" shot up to number 27 on the UK iTunes chart within a day.

Again, maybe tasteless, but pretty damn telling...

Remember, she said Nelson Mandela was a terrorist.
You know, because he didn't agree with fucking Apartheid.
Anyway, here's her and Reagan with devil horns. Also, this is a kick-ass album.