Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What's The Confederate Flag All About, Anyway?

I've written before about how concepts like "state's rights" are obviously just coded dog whistles for racist ideals, but possibly the biggest (and most poorly disguised) dog whistle of them all is center stage in the current debate over whether or not to remove the confederate flag at the South Carolina state house (and more generally, to get it out of common public usage).

Predictably, those defending the continued use of a symbol representing people who staged a violent, treasonous uprising to defend their ability to own human beings try to downplay that part of it all, instead focusing on how it's just a symbol of Southern heritage (while of course, leaving out exactly what that heritage entails). So much like the leaders of the confederacy would have been surprised to learn their treason was not about slavery or racism, given how often they spoke about defending slavery and upholding the racist social order, it would probably surprise the folks who came up with the confederate flag to learn that it's apparently not about slavery or racism, either.

But how can we know what those folks were thinking? If only there were some sort of written record of their ideas. Oh, it turns out there is. Here's William Tappan Thompson, the designer of the confederate flag, on why he designed it:
As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause. ... As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism.
—William T. Thompson (1863), Daily Morning News (Savannah, Georgia)
It's funny; I've read that quote several times and don't see anything about Southern heritage. I do see a whole bunch of stuff about racism, though. But I thought that flag wasn't about racism! Someone should really inform the guy who designed it.

Of course, it's very important to remember that flag is just one small token of our nation's horrible history of racism and that removing it is, at best, a symbolic gesture. And furthermore that taking it down simply for pr reasons is missing the entire point. That being said, let's please have a national conversation about race and try to begin to heal the wounds and make reparations. But let's do that without the shadow of a confederate flag flying over us.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Why Don't We Have Public Intellectuals?

Recently I was reading this insightful piece by Michael Schwalbe, an academic I greatly admire. In it, he makes an argument for why we don't see nearly as many public intellectuals these days, at least not in the form of academic professors actually making an impact on public opinion or public policy. He does a great job of detailing how the many economic pressures currently facing universities makes such a position untenable for the great majority of academics. Between budget cuts, a relentless assault from anti-intellectual politicians, and the proletarianization of the academic work force, most academics are so busy trying to get enough publications and funding to keep their jobs that there's simply no time to insert themselves into public debates like they used to. It's a pretty compelling argument, and well worth your time to read.

But I think there's one factor that's missing from Schwalbe's analysis -- namely, that the position of public intellectual has been over taken by pseudo intellectuals who are not at all beholden to "research" or "basic facts" like academics are. Take one of my most hated people in the world, David Brooks. Brooks obviously fancies himself a public intellectual, and while he is indeed quite publicly visible, the "intellectual" tag can only be applied in the most generous of settings. Really, Brooks is best understood, to borrow a phrase from this great takedown of Malcolm Gladwell, as what a stupid person thinks a smart person sounds like.

When he's not using banal observations of single cases and pretending they explain large swaths of humanity (as in the comic above), he's often just outright making stuff up. Though often even his "observations" are also completely fabricated, such as his infamous claim that you can't spend $20 at a restaurant in "red America" even though a cursory glance of the menu at said restaurant proves the claim false.

But more to the point, to give himself the sheen of an intellectual, Brooks is fond of making up stuff that sounds right to those who want to believe it, but has no actual basis in reality. In essence, he's pretty much the living, breathing embodiment of truthiness. Take, for example, this man's bewildering account of attempting to find out where Brooks got one of his favorite academic-sounding anecdotes.

The anecdote in question, which Brooks regularly cites in speeches and in print, concerns a survey that found in 1950 only 12% of high school seniors thought they were a very important person, while by 2006, that number was up to 80%. Ha! Those millennials and their damned self-importance! It sure sounds right, doesn't it? What with all these think pieces on the kids today and their tweetbooks and facetubes. The problem is, it's completely fabricated. There exists no such survey. And while the linked piece eventually locates some surveys that are kind of talking about the subject, they're so far off from what Brooks claims them to say that it's obvious this isn't a simple case of reading it wrong or forgetting one or two important details. No, this is obviously yet another example of a case in which Brooks just flat out made something up to give his rote condemnation of the kids these days an intellectual veneer.

Which brings me back to the absence of public intellectuals. If an academic of any field made stuff up as regularly as Brooks, or used one small piece of factual information to represent large swaths of society, they would be laughed out of their job. Yet in the much more forgiving world of opinion journalism, Brooks somehow still has a regular column in what is supposedly our nation's premier newspaper. The problem is that actual research is never as clear cut nor as convenient a story as the kinds Brooks and his compatriots tell; after all, this is why he has to make shit up. But in the chaotic marketplace of public ideas, in which very few readers are fact-checking these arguments, it's pretty hard for the nuanced, ambiguous, and hesitant findings of actual intellectuals to hold court against the pat, decisive, and often demonstrably false proclamations of the faux intelligentsia. So while Schwalbe is no doubt correct about the corrosive effect of draining resources from our nation's universities, I'd argue another important factor in the decline of professors as public intellectuals has been the usurping of their place by people who have the free reign to simply make up a better sounding story when there are no facts to support what they want to say.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Teaching Sociology: South Carolina, Charlie Hebdo, Terrorism, and Folk Devils (Part Something in a Never-Ending Pop Pedagogical Series)

Although the President has weighed in, as he must, on the tragic shootings in South Carolina, you might have noticed there hasn't been much of a world-wide outpouring of grief and rage as there was after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. No sanctimonious cartoons about how white people just don't understand enlightened ideals of freedom, no denunciations of the act as not only bad in itself but as an attack on the very fabric of our society, no gathering of world leaders to express their solidarity for the victims and demand justice for them. Hell, we can't even seem to agree that this politically-motivated attack is an act of terrorism.

I choose to compare these two events quite consciously, because while the Western world quite quickly came to the agreement the Charlie Hebdo attacks were terrorism, it's quite easy to argue that the attacks at the Emmanuel AME church were actually worse. After all, the Charlie Hebdo attacks followed repeated insults from a group of people who quite specifically set out to provoke an angry reaction from people they viewed as moronic and beneath them. The Charleston attacks, on the other hand, were committed against people who had never intentionally done anything to anger the attacker, and even welcomed him into their church gladly. While both were obviously heinous crimes, would not most of us agree that being murdered simply for who you are is much more of a terrorist act that being murdered for deliberately enraging someone?

And yet, so many voices are cautioning us not to label what happened in Charleston as terrorism. As Glenn Greenwald so eloquently explains:
That’s why so many African-American and Muslim commentators and activists insisted that the term “terrorist” should be applied: because it looked, felt and smelled exactly like other acts that are instantly branded “terrorism” when the perpetrator is Muslim and the victims largely white. It was very hard – and still is – to escape the conclusion that the term “terrorism,” at least as it’s predominantly used in the post-9/11 west, is about the identity of those committing the violence and the identity of the targets. It manifestly has nothing to do with some neutral, objective assessment of the acts being labelled.
The last sentence there really gets to the heart of the matter. The idea that someone attacks innocent people to further a political agenda is a pretty textbook definition of terrorism. However, as the term is employed in the West post-911, it actually means "Brown people harming white people."

The term "folk devil" was first introduced by Stanley Cohen back in 1972 in his seminal book Folk Devils and Moral Panics. A folk devil, as the name implies, is a person or group onto whom we as a society project our fears and misgivings. They are seen as the literal embodiment of social problems, and through the control or elimination of them, we believe we can solve the issue at hand.

Importantly, the ascription of the status of folk devil to a group or person only works when that group or person has little to no social power. This is why Muslims serve a great folk devils in the post-911 world; it's not as if they were a particularly powerful or influential group previously, and they have little in the way of social resources to fight back against the label. As such, the actions of a few can be ascribed to the group as a whole, and ridiculously unjustified sanctions and restrictions can be placed upon them with little outcry.

This is what explains the difference in the reactions to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Charleston attacks: the former featured a suitable folk devil, while the later did not. While I'm sure people were genuinely upset by the Hebdo attacks, it also provided a very handy excuse to yet again condemn and ostracize the folk devil of the day.

The Charleston shootings, on the other hand, do not. It would be almost impossible to make a folk devil out of white men in America, seeing as they control the government, the judicial system, the media, and pretty much every other outlet and/or manifestation of power. Instead, the dominant story becomes one of figuring out why this one specific white person did something bad. This, of course, explains why the specter of mental illness is almost always immediately raised; after all, it just doesn't make sense. We all know scary, scary Muslims are irrational murder machines, so their crimes need no explanation. But White men are the epitome of ration and reason, so there has to be some sort of explanation for how one of them could have done something so wrong. Obviously, he had to be crazy. After all, he's acting like a Muslim!

The problem is, by all accounts the Charleston shooter was not crazy, just racist. But to actually grapple with that would mean having to deal with the very fabric of American society, which as Jon Stewart pointed out, just isn't going to happen.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Meat Tenderizer, Old Dogs, and Love

That face. It makes up for a lot.
This is my dog, Dog. She's pretty much the greatest thing ever. She's also a bulldog, which means, amongst many other things, she has some pretty bad allergies. While she's on several (expensive) medications that manage them pretty well, sometimes they're just bad. Bulldogs gonna bulldog. And when her allergies get really bad, she'll often scratch her face folds or chew her paws until they're bleeding. Not badly, but she'll definitely break the skin and get her face and/or paws all bloody. And when she's scratching herself bloody, she's usually also rolling around on the couch, or on my bed, or some other piece of furniture. Blood, of course, is often quite difficult to get out of most fabrics.

As you may have guessed, Dog has recently had a bad bout with the ol' allergies, and managed to get blood stains all over my sheets and comforter. Which happens fairly often, but usually in small amounts easy enough to hide, so I generally just ignore them, hoping they'll come out in the wash (they don't, but I'm lazy). But apparently this spring has been really tough on the allergies, so there's a lot of dog blood stains on my sheets. Which is pretty much as gross as it sounds. So I've been spending all afternoon today scrubbing my sheets and bedspread and whatnot with meat tenderizer, which is one of several methods I'm attempting to get the stains out. It's precisely as fun as you image repeatedly slowly scrubbing every stain on a set of sheets to be.

Dog is also, like all bulldogs, very much a shedder. As in, she sheds so much hair I quite literally can't understand how she still has hair on her body. And I'm not abusing the term there, I definitely mean I have no literal explanation for how much she can shed. Seriously; sweep the house on Saturday and every surface will be coated in dog hair by Sunday. If I could find a way to monetize it, I'd be rich. If I could find a way to turn it into an energy source, I could solve global warming.

So between the two, pretty much everything I own is coated in dog hair and often with a few healthy smears of dog blood as well. Or to put it more bluntly, I live like a disgusting animal. As I've been engaged in the twin futile endeavors of sweeping and scrubbing out dog related detritus all day today, it occurred to me that due to Dog's fairly advanced age (especially for her breed), there will be some point in the not-too-distant future in which everything I own will not coated in dog hair and dog blood. And that will make me sad. I will somehow be legitimately sad for a long time at the fact that everything I own is not coated in dog hair and blood.

I guess this about as good a definition of love that I've ever been able to come up with. That I would quite honestly rather have everything I own coated in dog hair and blood than be able to ever wear dark colors (can't because they show the dog hair so well) or have sheets in any sort of light color (can't because they show off the dog allergy blood) again. Because as long as everything I own is covered in disgusting old dog detritus, it means she's still around. And I'll take her being around over pretty much everything else available.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

NYC Government Afraid of Its Own Police Force

Official NYC housing authority posters?
All those working for the New York City housing authority will now be required to wear orange vests at all times when out on the job so they don't get murdered by "trigger happy" police officers. They're also required to wear their ID badges around their necks rather than keep them in their pockets, because reaching into one's pocket is yet another incredibly common action that could cause a police officer to murder someone. Given that it's not at all uncommon for the NYPD to shoot people for no reason inside of public housing complexes, this is probably a pretty sound policy from the perspective of the housing authority. Of course, from the perspective that police are supposed to be, oh I don't know, protecting and defending people, this seems pretty fucking crazy. I mean, we already live in a world in which we are apparently supposed to accept the fact that police will regularly kill innocent people for no reason. But it seems like an entirely new level of crazy that the very government which supposedly oversees and controls these people has taken to having to defend its other employees from its murderous employees. It seems like a simpler solution might be to just make the police stop murdering people for no reason, but failing that, I guess orange vests are an ok start...