Philosophistry and Diversity

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800px-nok_sculpture_louvre_70-1998-11-1There is a new article on Aeon by Peter Levine, an associate dean at the Jonathan M Tisch College of Civic Life and a research professor at the department of philosophy at Tufts University, in which he laments the lack of diversity in philosophy departments. Here are the stark stats he presents:

Philosophers in the United States typically choose a much higher percentage of their sources (often, 100 per cent) from Europe and countries settled by Europeans. Philosophy teachers, too, look homogeneous: 86 per cent of new PhD researchers in philosophy are white, and 72 per cent are male. In the whole country, only about 30 African-American women work as philosophy professors.

Now, having taken my share of philosophy courses in college (Yale), I can honestly say that I did not see, as it were, so much as a single African-American ass among the occupied (and all-too-many empty) seats, so unless things have changed radically since I graduated in 1997, this seems to me to be a matter of (lack of) interest in philosophy, first and foremost. The focus of African-American pop culture on “keepin’ it real” certainly doesn’t help muster up interest in a discipline where the student encounters idealism, phenomenology and abstraction in spades. I would also advance the supposition that the cultures of people who are disproportionately poor are going to be (wisely) oriented toward using a college education in pursuit of practical goals, such as the attainment of status or pecuniary remuneration. Philosophy in America brings neither. Philosophy is, sad to say, a luxury. With that in mind, I’d suspect we’ll be seeing more African-Americans interested in philosophy when one of two things happens: (1) more African-Americans have the luxury of spending their time on something so thoroughly useless; or (2) philosophy becomes a gateway to status and wealth in this country. I’d speculate — going out on a limb here — that option 2 is just a little bit unlikely, so we’ll have to wait for option 1. We can always force the issue — going out of our way to appoint African-American professors to give students’ role models (but where are we going to find a sufficient number of qualified African-American philosophy professors in the first place?) or engaging in various kinds of minority student outreach efforts (always of limited usefulness) — but the larger question is whether force-feeding minorities into the philosophy pipeline is a good idea in the first place.

Why does philosophy need to be racially diverse? Prof. Levine’s response to this is that “philosophy must become more diverse in order to make progress on its fundamental questions…. We broaden our store of such ideas by looking into the past and out to other parts of the world, and also by engaging people who haven’t had a voice in professional philosophy.” This is dubious at best. Philosophy has made extraordinary progress over the ages despite being largely confined (with some notable exceptions) to a few nations — Ancient Greece and, in the modern era, Germany, France and England. But perhaps Prof. Levine will want to say that this is Western philosophy, which ignores other philosophical traditions, such as Eastern philosophy, including Buddhist philosophy, and Classical Arabic philosophy. I am all for broadening the philosophical canon to include any argument that is interesting and adds to our consideration of subjects that are worth considering within the domain of philosophy, but, again, what does this have to do with racial diversity? Experts on non-Western philosophy can come in all shapes, sizes and skin pigments (but, for better or for worse, African-Americans are not commonly represented among such experts), and why should we care whether an expert in Classical Arabic philosophy is personally of Arabic origin?

The only response I can find in Prof. Levine’s article is his presupposition that “ideas about values are embedded in everyday life and informed by people’s local experiences. That means that in order to assess the truth of an idea, one must often understand its context…. [W]e cannot understand someone else’s philosophical argument without understanding its local climate, and our own arguments are narrow and naive unless we understand other people’s arguments.” If the truth or understanding of an idea is only available to us by understanding its local context, the argument might go, those raised in a particular culture and “embedded” in its “everyday life” and “local experiences” will be best positioned to understand, appreciate and evaluate philosophical ideas emanating from that culture. This view, viz., that ideas are embedded within a particular place and time and can only be assessed through an understanding of that place and time — which position Prof. Levine (who should know better and likely does know better) presents as though it were a transcendental truth — is, ironically, itself a historically time-bound and contestable philosophical position. It is a statement of what has often been referred to as “historicism,” a species of presently voguish Western philosophical relativism that sees historical context as largely determinative of both the content and truth value of ideas that emanate from any particular place and time. This is not the place and time to present arguments against this view — though there are many — but suffice it to say that this view, with which most philosophers throughout the ages would have disagreed, is something that needs to be argued for rather than flatly stated in the manner in which Prof. Levine has done. Even if we accepted that it has some truth to it, however, why should we make the further leap of believing that someone who comes from a particular racial or ethnic background is going to be better at understanding a particular philosophical view that emanates from their culture than someone who is a scholar of that culture, speaks the relevant language fluently and is otherwise deeply immersed in the relevant philosophical tradition? Does one have to be French to get Descartes or Greek to get Plato? Might not studying the relevant history and the relevant history of ideas be sufficient? And, for that matter, does a Caucasian born and raised in India bring anything less to the enterprise of studying Indian philosophy than someone who looks a bit more the part (i.e., an “actual” Indian), or, a fortiori, than an Indian born and raised in America? Is this really about race at all?

Broadening the point, I would like to see an iota of actual evidence that the kind of superficial diversity this article (and so many others) are talking about has actually helped the humanities, as opposed to made them contentious in a silly and superficial way, detracted from their credibility and caché among the general public, created an environment within which repressive groupthink flourishes and silences real, i.e., intellectual, diversity, and dumbed down curricula to substitute second- and third-rate texts and authors for great texts and authors because the latter didn’t check the right demographic boxes. Multiple perspectives are great, but if you want multiple perspectives, there’s no substitute for actually hiring people who have multiple perspectives, regardless of what they look like or where they come from. If someone brings a truly interesting philosophical worldview, who cares what race they belong to? I have not the slightest doubt that when we look back upon this period of history from the vantage point of a more enlightened future, we’re going to see our current obsession with judging people based on our assessment of how much melanin they have in their skin as akin to the way we now view the discredited science of craniology. That knowledge, however, doesn’t make it much easier to watch the endless spectacle of seemingly intelligent people such as Prof. Levine helping drag us down into these murky waters.

 

The Dumbest Article Ever?

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Really, I’d prefer to spend my time discussing things that are interesting, enlightening, insightful, informed or, if not, at least mildly amusing, but sometimes, I come across something that is so shockingly none of these things that it is difficult to let it go and move on. So, against my better judgment, but in the ever-more-quixotic hope of trying to point the finger at something bad in order to make things better, let me spend a few moments considering this article the Huffington Post recently ran on the subject of Plato’s Republic: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-witte/plato-on-the-dead-white-m_b_10633342.html. 

To save you the pain of reading this, allow me to summarize: someone with no apparent qualifications or background in philosophy (or certainly no background that he displays in this article) picks up what is perhaps the single greatest book of philosophy ever written — Plato’s Republic — identifies a few out-of-context passages that sound outlandish to us today (though our ideas about what makes for a good republic would probably sound outlandish to Plato and many of his compatriots, and who’s to say we’re any wiser than they were?), ignores every single one of the great contributions to philosophical thought The Republic made, concludes that Plato’s reputation is undeserved or on account of a tradition that favors dead white males and then ends by telling us to read Plato at our own risk. I mean, look, I’m not a mindless idolater of anything that is considered old or great, and I’d certainly be open to someone questioning The Republic‘s many controversial ideas, but it has to be done by someone who can discuss the ideas intelligently and discuss the relevant context. For instance, how about mentioning the allegory of the Cave that has been a powerful philosophical and literary metaphor that influenced everyone from the Gnostics to Kant? Or how about focusing a bit on the details of Socrates’ discussion about the nature of morality and justice with Thrasymachus and Callicles that then becomes critical for Nietzsche’s idea of “slave morality”? Or how about talking a little bit about why Plato proposed the radical move of kicking out the poets, which has everything to do with the fact that The Republic proposes the radical move of creating, for the first time, a government based on reason rather than tradition, while the poets merely reinforce and amplify tradition, thereby preserving people’s illusions and reinforcing their complacency in the face of the status quo? (I don’t agree that this is what poets always do, and I certainly don’t agree with the idea of banishing them from a good state, but to disagree with Plato, you have to first appreciate what he’s saying and why.) Or how about dealing with the serious challenge Plato poses to the way we tend in our traditional societies (as well as his) to deal with the upbringing of children, where children are raised in completely unequal environments and subjected to the whims and life circumstances of their (often idiotic) parents, whereas Plato proposes that they be raised in common, equally, in a rationally devised system of education? Or how about discussing Plato’s idea that a government should be based on reason rather than the pure exercise of power or majority rule? Or how about discussing how Plato’s views introduced the notion of moral realism, which some analytical philosophers now subscribe to in a different form (I think they’re crazy, but you have to take these arguments seriously and respond to them on the merits rather than ignore them)? Or how about discussing Plato’s relationship to the pre-Socratics and the Sophists and explaining how far he advanced philosophy as compared to where it was when he entered the picture. I mean, there’s a reason that, as Alfred North Whitehead famously said that all of the history of philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. He raised virtually every question that we’re still out there discussion and trying to resolve, and he did it in a form that was poetic and captivating.

My point here is not to defend The Republic, which needs no defense from the likes of me, or to pick on one particular uneducated rube who’s not worth our time, but rather, to ask the more important question of why an ostensibly well-established, mainstream, authoritative publication such as The Huffington Post would publish nonsense like this. How did this get by the editors? Have we really reached the point as a culture where challenging someone as a “dead, white male” is sufficient to get traction for an otherwise mindless rant that reads like a junior high school book report by someone who obviously knows nothing and doesn’t care to read carefully or thoughtfully? The answer, it seems, is yes.

I am doing my part in upholding the standards of civilization by pointing the attention of anyone who cares to the publication of this truly embarrassing piece. Please do your part by making sure The Huffington Post gets a loud and clear message that you don’t think the publication of these kinds of uninformed screeds is acceptable.

A Code of Public Conduct

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[People conducting themselves appropriately (I hope) in Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1884)]

People like lists, so here is a list. It’s my comprehensive list of how you should and shouldn’t be behaving in public. It was originally published in 2013 in New English Review, here, as part of a longer article in New English Review discussing Ford Madox Ford’s masterpiece, Parade’s End. But people — the same people who like lists — don’t like literature (for those few who do, I recommend reading the original article). So, below, I’ve cut right to the chase, my proposed code of public conduct in a society that is increasingly pushing every boundary of what it means to behave appropriately.

You will likely notice that the code seems, in multiple respects, somewhat more conservative than our present social practices. That is the whole point, after all. When people’s public behavior has gotten liberalized beyond all bounds so that it is rude, vulgar, uncivil and uncivilized, the goal is to change that, which, on many counts, involves attempting to turn back the clock in order to arrest the degeneration of our public sphere. But one need not necessarily see the results as reactionary. It is aspirational, an effort to inculcate a new tradition in a society liberated from the sometimes oppressive barriers and prejudices that came along with our old social classes, a new tradition in which everyone is invited — indeed, requested and expected — to participate on equal terms, in which only those who fail to abide by the rules will be held in low regard. So, without further ado, here we go.  Enjoy:

These are rules and standards for how you and everyone else might be expected to behave in public.  In reality, most of these rules are quite intuitive and can be reduced to this general principle (which is, in itself, already a quasi-redundant expression of what may be further reduced to this simple maxim: respect the existence of others in your midst): do not assault any of the five senses, do not make an undue spectacle of yourself, carry yourself with dignity and refinement, be considerate, be polite, be helpful and be mindful. The rest of these rules are really no more than applications and amplifications of this one.

  1. Shouting is useful when you need to call for help. Otherwise, speak at a volume no louder than necessary to communicate. Your conversation might be interesting, but someone else may, rightly or wrongly, not be interested.
  2. Your music is your music. It is not necessarily beloved by all. Keep it (and videos and video games) at a volume such that it is no more than barely audible (or, better yet, such that it is inaudible) to others.
  3. If you operate a business or other premises open to the public, the obligation to be considerate and not to assault the senses applies to you as well. You may, for instance, in your discretion, choose to play music audibly to create the kind of environment you are trying to cultivate, but please, unless you are a concert hall, club, bar or similar venue, do not make that environment one that leaves your customers with a throbbing headache or makes them have to raise their voices just to hear one another. The environment you are intentionally or unintentionally creating in the immediate vicinity of your premises is also your responsibility, so do what you must to avoid clogged sidewalks and loud or rowdy gatherings.
  4. Do not spit, belch, gurgle, pass gas, pick your nose, bite your nails, urinate, defecate, masturbate or perform any other unseemly bodily functions.
  5. Consensual, non-incestuous, PG-rated public displays of affection are okay. Public displays of pornographic groping and gross indecency are not. When you dance with someone, do not simulate sex in any way whatsoever. (If you’re not sure of the line, apply this standard: would you do if it your grandmother were watching you?)
  6. Do not curse, say vulgar things or engage in obscene gestural displays. Generally, discussions of and references to any of the prohibited acts in Items 4 and 5 above fall squarely in the forbidden zone.
  7. Do not bully, threaten, taunt, mock, incite, insult or aim to offend. If you do any of these things unintentionally, apologize.
  8. No hitting, no fighting, no biting. No breaking criminal laws (even if you doubt you’ll get caught or punished).
  9. Do not panhandle, manhandle, glad-hand or grandstand. Unless you are in a designated “solicitation zone,”1 do not ask for signatures, donations or contributions. This means, as a general rule, leave other people alone unless you’re asking for directions or communicating in a way that you have good reason to think is either necessary or might be welcomed.
  10. Do not intentionally touch, grope or fondle anyone unless you are greeting them with a handshake in a context in which such a greeting would be appropriate. Wedgies, noogies and similar practices are prohibited. Respectful flirting is okay in environments where it might be construed as appropriate. Being pushy in a way that is clearly violating someone else’s boundaries is not.
  11. Do not proselytize either for or against any religious viewpoint. Religion (or lack thereof) is between you and your God(s) (or lack thereof).
  12. Do not vandalize, deface or damage persons or property.
  13. Do not litter.
  14. Like your music, your germs are your germs. Do your best not to share them with others. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and do not cough, sneeze or blow your nose directly at other people. Wash your hands frequently. Take steps to avoid smearing your germs on surfaces, and, if you do so unintentionally, wipe them when you can.
  15. When you eat and drink, eat and drink mindfully. Mind your manners. Take your time. Wash your hands before eating. Use your utensils. A meal is not a contest to see who finishes first. Therefore, wait to eat and drink until everyone has been served, and then proceed at more or less the same pace as others around you; savor the taste of your food, do not stuff your face or guzzle down beverages like there’s no tomorrow. Offer to serve others, especially children or the elderly, and where appropriate, offer to share food with others, but don’t just poke your own utensils into their plates or shared plates; rather, use serving spoons, etc.(unless everyone in your company is clearly okay with a different arrangement). This is especially important when you are sick, in which case you should be the one primarily responsible for ensuring that you keep your germs to yourself. Do not talk with your mouth full, get food all over your face or make a mess of yourself or your eating area. Do not spit food out unless the alternative is vomiting, in which case, try to spit your food out as inconspicuously as you can, such as when no one is looking and/or into a napkin. Do not eat food that has fallen on the floor. If you make a big mess unintentionally, take steps to clean it immediately. When the meal is finished, even if you are not the one with primary responsibility for cleaning up afterwards (such as when you are at a restaurant), do your part to ease the burden for others by leaving your eating area reasonably neat and orderly or taking such other steps as may be appropriate to do your share. If you like your food, do not hesitate to convey your compliments to the chef.
  16. When you conduct conversations, be mindful and respectful of others. Do your best not to interrupt constantly or to talk over others. Do not monopolize the conversation. Defer to your elders or to those who tend to speak less often. Where people are in the midst of speaking about something, do not burst in with a different topic unless you are contributing something of immediate practical import or making a quick observation of some circumstance of interest in your environment that will be missed if you let the moment pass. Pay attention to what others are saying. Try to include everyone and make others feel comfortable. Do not deride them. As above, keep your voice down to the minimal level necessary to be audible to all participants but not conspicuous to strangers, and do not talk with your mouth full.
  17. Upon greeting or parting with someone who is not already a good friend, intimate acquaintance or family member, do not fist-pump, chest-bump, high-five, hug, headbutt, back-slap, butt-slap or do anything other than nodding your head, waving, speaking (respectfully), kissing on the cheek or shaking hands.
  18. The only acceptable forms of public address, other than names, are “sir” or “Mr.” for men and boys and “ma’am” or “Miss” for women and girls. As such, do not address people as “man,” “buddy,” “buster,” “bro(ther),” “boss,” “chief,” “big guy,” “nigger,” “dude,” “chum,” “pal,” “friend,” “son,” “kid,” “boy,” “papi,” “mami,” “lady,” “sweetie,” “girl,” “girlfriend,” “darling,” “doll,” “babe,” “toots,” “ho,” “bitch,” or any variants on such terms, including, of course, anything that even borders on being a curse or derogatory term of any sort.
  19. When you speak or write, do your utmost to speak and write grammatically and appropriately. Unless you have a medical condition that impairs your faculties of speech, do not speak in grunts or slur or apocopate words. Avoid street slang and clichés whenever possible. When someone else speaks or writes ungrammatically or inappropriately, do not be afraid to correct them when the situation and context permit you to do so respectfully. And if you are being corrected, do not take it personally; it is a learning opportunity, not a reprimand.2
  20. Do not loiter unless there’s no obvious reason it poses a problem. This means, do not dally in any manner that obstructs passageways, doorways, driveways, highways and byways.
  21. In crowded environments, be mindful of your surroundings. Be aware you are not alone, and be considerate of others. Try to move with the flow of traffic. Do not shove, scratch, push or pull.
  22. When you walk, do not make a spectacle of yourself. Unless you have a relevant medical condition, do not limp, lurch, strut, swagger or sway from side to side.
  23. When you drive, obey the rules of the road. Defer to other cars, pedestrians, cyclists, etc., both when they have the right of way and when doing otherwise would result in accidents. Do not make a nuisance of yourself. Keep your music or radio audible only to those in your own vehicle. The horn is a tool to be used in order to alert drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, etc. who may not be paying attention or, in rare cases, to reprimand them for disobeying the rules of the road. It is not a means of letting out your rage at the world. So use it sparingly and appropriately, and do not press it repeatedly or for longer than necessary.
  24. When you ride a bicycle, skateboard, roller skates or similar contraption, obey the rules of the road, and do not ride on sidewalks or against the flow of traffic. As when you are driving, defer to cars, pedestrians, other cyclists, etc., both when they have the right of way and when doing otherwise would result in accidents. And as when you are driving, do not make a nuisance of yourself.
  25. Dress in a manner that you reasonably believe to be consistent with any existent explicit or implicit code of dress on a particular occasion, and never dress in a manner that gratuitously exposes your undergarments (or your failure to wear any) or don anything calculated to annoy or offend. This includes all adornments and accoutrements, which should never be vulgar.
  26. Tattoos (or any other body art) and piercings (except ear piercings for women and girls) are, by their nature, vulgar. Avoid them. If you have them, remove them.3
  27. If you can help it, do not reek.
  28. Respect “no smoking” signs. And, remember, “no smoking” means no smoking anything whatsoever. Moreover, if there is no smoking inside a given residence, business or other venue, do not smoke outside in a manner that will result in the smoke being blown right back inside.
  29. Respect all other (remotely reasonable) house and venue rules and codes of etiquette. It is your prerogative to impose on people reasonable directives about how they are to behave in your home (such as, for instance, asking them to put slippers on instead of stomping around in their work boots, etc.), so when you enter another’s home or venue, they should be able to expect the same.
  30. Keep anyone in your charge — kids, pets and the like — under control. Do your best to keep them from violating these rules. Groom them, curb them and clean up after them; in the process of doing these things, however, do not violate these rules yourself: unless there is immediate danger that can only be avoided through such actions, do not shout, scream, grab, push, shove, scratch, slap, claw, hit or make a scene.
  31. Unless someone else forced or tricked you into such conditions or unless something happened to you involuntarily or that you had reason not to understand the consequences of, you are responsible for what you do when you are drunk, stoned, high or in any other state of lowered self-control or altered consciousness. Think ahead, and if it’s already too late for that, and if you, as a result, have reason to believe you might do something that violates any of these rules, do your best to get yourself rapidly out of the public eye.
  32. When you can, help people who need help. Be considerate to those who are elderly, sick, disabled, overburdened or otherwise infirm. Offer a seat. When you see an opportunity to do someone a simple favor, don’t hesitate.
  33. Take every opportunity to be courteous, chivalrous and gallant. Let people who are older pass first. Hold doors open for people. Let them exit before entering. Offer to press buttons for them in elevators. These are only examples. Feel free to extrapolate.
  34. When you have done something you realize you should probably not have done, apologize. Then do your best to repair whatever may still be reparable.
  35. If you see others violating any of the provisions of this code, say something if you think you can do so safely and respectfully. And, above all, do not encourage them.
  36. Set an example. Do unto others ….  You know the rest.

[1]  We will designate particular public squares or other appropriate public gathering places as “solicitation zones.” Yes, this and some of the other provisions of this code might be seen as taking away from the vibrancy of our public places, but given how far we’ve already gone, a long lurch the other way, i.e., in the direction of dullness, might be a welcome antidote. While much has been made of Plato’s notorious proposal in the Republic to exile the poets from the ideal State, far less discussed has been a proposal of his inThe Laws that is, in my view, far more salutary to the health of the State: to exile the professional beggars.

[2]  A few words lest the many enemies of prescriptive linguistics see an opportunity to rise up in arms: I am aware that language changes and has always changed over time, that the errors of one epoch are the standard accepted forms of the next and that what is considered linguistically appropriate or grammatical is not an objective gold standard, but rather, an ever-evolving consensus necessarily responsive to current usage. My reaction to all of these truths is a simple so what? This is one of those matters as to which it behooves us as a society to act as if there are rules and standards, even if there will always be disputed matters at the margins. Just as we would (I should hope) never cease to teach schoolchildren standard spelling, grammar and pronunciation, we do not, for lack of objective rigor, need to give up hope of “educating” the adults amongst us who have not attained sufficient mastery of the field. Or, as Matthew Arnold puts it in describing those who oppose prescriptivism, “They tend to spread the baneful notion that there is no such thing as a high, correct standard in intellectual matters; that every one may as well take his own way; they are at variance with the severe discipline necessary for all real culture; they confirm us in habits of wilfulness and eccentricity, which hurt our minds, and damage our credit with serious people.” For those who need more convincing, this essay by Steven Pinker does a reasonably good job illuminating the matter: See Slate magazine here.

[3]  This is obviously a pretty conservative approach to take with respect to tattoos and piercings, but leaving people to their own devices on this score will, if looking around is any guide, rapidly lead to a race to the bottom and result in unfettered vulgarity.

How You Too Can Help (the Media) Start a Race War: a Step-by-Step Guide.

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It is, by now, well known that Dylann Roof’s motivation in shooting a bunch of innocent people at a historical black church was to start a race war. But how exactly do you start a race war? If you’re a member of the media or just any old schmo using the Charleston massacre as an opportunity to write some incendiary articles, fire off a few inflammatory tweets or connect up with your personal network of race-baiting extremists, let me tell you what you need to do to help Roof succeed. Now, keep in mind I’m not suggesting you ought to help the race war along. In fact, I think (just one guy’s opinion, you know …) a race war isn’t such a great idea. But if, let’s say, you disagreed with me, as is your prerogative, and thought a race war is precisely what we needed right now (it’s been awhile since we had a good ol’ war like they used to have, after all), then here are five helpful tips you can use to fan the flames:

  1. Take the rantings of a hate-filled loon seriously. The first thing you definitely don’t want to do if you wanted to start a race war is ignore Dylann Roof’s message as being beneath serious consideration. See, when you just label him a single sick extremist, try him, convict him, punish him and be done with him, you risk sweeping him and what he did under the rug. If you want a race war, you don’t want to do that. You want to give him and his message a public platform. That means taking his message about race very seriously, repeating it ad nauseam and discussing it thoroughly. This way you can help divide the country by turning Roof into a martyr for a cause for some and public enemy #1 for others. In fact, what you might want to do is suggest that labeling him a deranged wacko is itself racist insofar as it ignores his connection with all those other racists and would-be-racists out there (and this way you point out the connection to them too, in case they missed it). Here are some excellent examples of articles that did a bang-up job following this strategy: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/torraine-walker/white-supremacist-america-hes-not-crazy-hes-your-creation_b_7618140.html;http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/06/18/1394297/-Why-we-must-call-Dylann-Roof-a-terrorist. Way to go, guys! Why don’t you provide a platform for a few more white supremacists while you’re at it? Oh, you’re way ahead of me on that one too, huh?: http://www.vice.com/read/what-white-supremacists-are-saying-online-about-the-south-carolina-church-shooting-618. In fact, even if you’re one of the same people who complain very vocally when Islamic terrorists get branded as exponents of the pernicious jihadist ideology within Islam rather than viewed as isolated nutcases with no connection to Islam, you can still go ahead and point out how Dylann Roof is part of a big pattern of white racism:http://www.salon.com/2015/06/18/its_not_about_mental_illness_the_big_lie_that_always_follows_mass_shootings_by_white_males (“There is no reasonable interpretation of his actions that don’t [sic] make this a textbook act of terrorism against black Americans as a community.”) Why worry about little matters like intellectual consistency when you have a race war to start, right? (Why even worry about basic subject-verb agreement, for that matter?)
  2. Connect the shooting up with larger political issues. This one follows straight from point 1, but the idea here is that if you want a race war, you really need to connect the dots for people. Lots of folks out there are kind of slowly simmering, and you need to bring them to a boil. Well-publicized research by Dan Kahan of Yale Law School, among others, suggests that if you want to have people’s views on an issue get entrenched and polarized, so that rational argumentation doesn’t even sway them any more (sort of like we did on climate change), what you need to do is connect that issue up with larger political commitments they already have. If Dylann Roof is just one guy who did a crazy, evil thing, then people have an easy time feeling he’s a solitary sicko who deserves what’s coming to him, and that’s the end of the story. But if he becomes a representative of the white race and the kind of white supremacist ideology shared by all or most white people, now we’re talking. Connect him up with the Confederate flag fluttering above the South Carolina State Capital and on the front porch of many Southern homes. Here you go; some helpful writers already gave you a roadmap:http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/22/us/politics/republicans-tread-carefully-in-criticism-of-confederate-flag.html?_r=0;https://medium.com/@thejohnprice/yes-you-re-a-racist-and-a-traitor-6c4bb12c5b63; http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/take-down-the-confederate-flag-now/396290/;http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2015/06/why-south-carolina-flies-confederate-flag;http://thinkprogress.org/culture/2015/06/19/3671684/charleston-shooting-confederate-flag/. Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic, the same guy who made a serious argument last year for race-based reparations to be paid by white America to black America (let’s wait till after the race war is done to dole those out, okay?), and always a reliable go-to guy if race wars are your thing, did a great job connecting the dots in the subtitle of his article … because some people never read past the subtitle, you know: “The flag that Dylann Roof embraced, which many South Carolinians embrace, endorses the violence he committed.” Great, that’s quite useful, Ta-Nehisi. Dylann Roof isn’t isolated. He’s just like you’all. You implicitly endorse him by waving the same flag he embraced.Thanks for pointing that out and making all those people feel like their basic loyalties and life choices are at stake in this. And don’t forget to demonize those race-war hatin’ Rebublican politicians trying to keep the dots unconnected: http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/19/politics/lindsey-graham-dylann-roof-confederate-flag-gun/;http://www.salon.com/2015/06/19/jeb_bushs_pathetic_charleston_dodge_i_dont_know_if_white_supremacist_suspect_was_motivated_by_racism/; http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/18/why-the-gop-hates-talking-about-hate-conservatives-don-t-want-to-confront-racism-in-charleston-shooting.html. This is actually a very important step because, as Kahan’s research demonstrates, there’s no better way to polarize us on an issue than to link it up our party preferences, since that immediately makes us feel like if we want to stay loyal to our political party of choice (which most people do), we’d better get on the right side of this issue as well. Democrats are for blacks, and Republicans are for whites. Okay, got it. I don’t have a political party myself yet, but I’ll do my best to try to pick one pronto so that I know which side of the race war I’m on.
  3. Antagonize those no good white people, and make black people feel their lives are in mortal danger. If you want to start a race war, you’re going to have to make the races angry at each other, right? For example, let’s say (this is hypothetical, folks) a white cop shoots an unarmed black man, and you know next to nothing about the incident except for the fact that the cop was white and the victim was black. Well, that’s enough for racism right there. You need to cry racism and do it fast! Do it before the facts come in, because, as Josef Stalin said, “facts are obstinate things,” and before their obstinacy mucks things up and gets in the way and shows that things were actually a lot more complicated than they looked at first glance, make sure to get that “first glance” out there so everyone can prejudge the issue (yeah, “prejudge,” as in “prejudice”). First impressions have a nice way of sticking in people’s minds. And once you cry “racism!” repeatedly and loudly enough to start some riots, it’ll be way too late to clear anything up. Well, it’s the same with this incident. You need to make those white people feel besieged. Tell them Dylann Roof is sort of, like, their hero, the exponent of their hate-filled ideology, and while you’re at it, make black people fear for their lives. Like this nice little run-down of the victims of white supremacism: http://www.salon.com/2015/06/19/this_is_american_terrorism_white_supremacys_brutal_centuries_long_campaign_of_violence/. Here’s a good quote from the article for both the whites and blacks out there: “Whether at swimming pools or churches, whether on suburban sidewalks or city streets, there is no place Black folk are safe from the police use of excessive force or guns of a white supremacist assassin. History has shown that white supremacist violence is grossly systemic and is an existential threat to Black people living in America.” And here’s a nice rundown of racial violence from Ferguson to Charleston (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/21/us/from-ferguson-to-charleston-and-beyond-anguish-about-race-keeps-building.html?rref=us&module=Ribbon&version=context&region=Header&action=click&contentCollection=U.S.&pgtype=Multimedia) to remind black people why they ought to feel this country’s got it out for them, while reminding white people of all these incidents on which their views diverge from those of black people. My favorite article, though, is this one (http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2015/06/white-fragility-silence-and-supremacy-why-all-of-your-hands-are-bloody/), with a title that gets right to the point: “ White Fragility, Silence, and Supremacy: Why All White Hands Are Bloody.” Are you white? Well, there you go — your hands are bloody. Take heed and take stock.
  4. Go after young people. They’re the ones who’ll be doing the fighting.We all know that when there’s a war on, the ones who do the fighting are usually the young, right? And they’re also the ones whose underdeveloped senses of judgment, reflection and self-restraint are likely to lead them to do the kinds of rash things that set wars in motion. So, if you really want a race war, you need to call white millennials racist, which is quite easy, since Dylann Roof was, well, a millennial, and they’re millennials, and since he’s a millennial and they’re also millennials, they’re the same … in that way … and maybe in other ways … like racism. Or something like that:http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/06/20/415878789/dylann-roof-and-the-stubborn-myth-of-the-colorblind-millennial;http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2015/06/18/charleston-racism-and-the-myth-of-tolerant-millennials/. Of course, if you want to start a race war, while it would be a good idea to keep encouraging us to talk more about race (since we haven’t been talking about race enough the past few years), it would definitely not be a good idea to ask, as part of that discussion, whyDylann Roof, only 21 years old, so strongly identified with his white race and felt so antagonized and besieged as a white person as to believe that he needed to start a race war … and whether his extreme polarization on the issue of race might’ve had anything at all to do with the fact that the race-baiting media has been talking about little other than race these last few years and shamelessly sensationalizing every incident to the point where people — whose polarization on race issues had reached an all-time low a decade or so ago — are now more polarized than ever, primed to consider race a defining feature of their identity and of American politics and to see everything around them in black and white. Again, to be clear, let’s not talk about that, because it’s too uncomfortable and complicated a topic to explore if you want a simple, solid race war. It’s not good for people to perceive complications and ambiguities if you’re mobilizing them for war. It’s not good for them to perceive that they’re being manipulated and polarized by the media. And it’s definitely not good for them to recognize that if they just stopped viewing everything in terms of black and white and started treating race more like the pernicious sociological fiction that, in fact, it is, they might then begin forming potent cross-racial alliances to deal with the real economic issues that are keeping poor blacks and poor whites (including Southern whites with a history of drug abuse like Dylann Roof) at each other’s throats while the 1% benefits from the political gridlock and, dare I say it, from the race war that’s around the corner.
  5. Call for provocative acts in reprisal. If you want a war, antagonizing people with mere ideas is never enough. You need to be thinking tirelessly about next steps. Ask yourself this important question: what concrete acts can we imagine and call for that will make people feel roused to violence? Hmm … well, how ‘bout some good, old-fashioned flag-burning? That’s always a dependable rabble-rouser. Why don’t we write articles calling for the burning of confederate flags? Gee, despite my best efforts, I again seem to have failed in coming up with an original idea here. Our insightful, forward-thinking journalists are, yet again,way ahead of me on this:http://www.freep.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/06/19/south-carolina-shootings/28982177/. As this article points out, “ Of course, burning the Confederate flag would be disrespectful. That is exactly the point.” The article eloquently concludes, “In honor of Dylann Roof, it’s time to burn, baby, burn.”

Yes, that’s right: we need to do things to honor Dylann Roof and the cause he stood for. Or actually we don’t. We’re already doing them. But maybe more of us need to contribute. When the race war comes — and at this rate, it’s only a matter of time — we’ll all want to be one of those who can say we were part of the vanguard instigating the conflict.

So there you go; keep up the good work, and keep on race-baiting. It’s for a good cause.

Public Intellectuals vs. the Public

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An intellectual disagreement, so to speak, has emerged between n+1 founder Mark Greif writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/Whats-Wrong-With-Public/189921/) and Noah Berlatsky responding in the new New Republic (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121086/death-public-intellectual-what-mark-greif-essays-gets-wrong/) on the subject of public intellectuals and their role. To summarize, as far as traditional public intellectuals go, Greif is in favor, while Berlatsky is against them, throwing around what is, in essence, the old charge of elitism, excluding minorities, etc.

It’s sad that the reconstituted New Republic has taken a turn toward this kind of anti-intellectualism, populism and race-baiting. Greif’s is a grand, aspirational piece, one worthy of a public intellectual and one that aims for an exalted vision of public intellectuals as those who challenge the public and its complacency instead of talking down to people or rabble-rousing. In his ill-conceived response, Berlatsky, whose main interest is, quite fittingly, comic books and comic book characters, conceives of a public intellectual — no longer to be known by that apparently too-exalted title — as sharing his own and the public’s arrested development. The public intellectual — now reduced to just one of many “writers, activists, Twitter users, and commenters” — is someone much like ourselves. He speaks to us at our level. He does not need to have a traditional academic background and might be a Ferguson activist using Twitter, a black racist feminist who created a trending hashtag or a current or former sex worker talking about issues in the trade through social media (all examples Berlatsky uses).

There are some obvious problems with this dispiriting vision. For one thing, while the kinds of public intellectuals Greif describes are people capable of escaping the confines of our cave and challenging our illusions, the people Berlatsky describes are far more superficial characters, just like the ones he’s used to seeing in comic books. They give the appearance of challenging us, but all they do is substitute a complacency of the left for a complacency of the right or center. Activism has its place, no doubt, but does screaming and yelling to us about Ferguson and the like really make us think about something we previously haven’t considered, make us go deeper or think more broadly than we are used to thinking in some fundamental way? The public intellectual, in other words, has — or should have — a unique social function that is not fungible with that of an activist or a blogging sex worker. The public intellectual should KNOW something we don’t, should be an EXPERT in a serious domain of intellectual endeavor and should be able to bring to bear the force of his or her wide-ranging interests and tremendous intellectual powers upon that topic in order to engage with us and transform us. Without this function being performed, our public culture will continue being dumbed down even more than it currently is. We will have people mirroring our own ideas back to us instead of challenging those ideas.

The other major problem with Berlatsky’s piece in which he suggests that, “[r]ather than calling on public intellectuals to elevate an aspiring public … or bringing big ideas to an eager public, what we need, perhaps, is a world in which the Partisan Review and its galaxy of intellectual brilliance brings its ideas out, and is greeted by a public that can talk back, and offer its own ideas, commentary, and theories, in terms just as scintillating” is that this lack of a sharp distinction between the public and public intellectuals makes all truth and light vanish in a sea of static. To quote my own piece from the Montreal Review which addresses some of these issues from a much broader — and, dare I say it, more intellectual — perspective (http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/The-Advent-of-Virtual-Realism.php/), “[w]e are now all potentially sources of information; all of us are speaking, and hardly anyone is listening.” When, in other words, you eliminate all distinctions of status, intellect, professionalism or learning between the speaker and the listener, you eviscerate the distinction between the speaker and the listener; the listener, then, no longer has any compelling reason to listen to the speaker. Everyone is chattering and twittering, but no one is paying much attention. Or, worse, as my Montreal Review piece describes, when we no longer have the veil of professionalism or intellect maintained between the public intellectual and the public, what happens is that the extent to which anyone is heard by anyone else is dictated through a sheer popularity contest, not by someone’s ability to command ideas and information, but rather, by their ability to command social media streams or, worse still, by political parties or corporate actors using their market power to utilize social media to send us disinformation. That is the logical outcome of Berlatsky’s argument. The system of public intellectuals, in other words, has many flaws, but I will take those flaws any day over the possibility that our public dialogue will merely mirror us back to ourselves or be controlled by the market and those who dominate it.

And in the category of “pop culture must die” …

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Here’s the latest masterpiece from Nicki Minaj: http://pitchfork.com/news/55482-nicki-minaj-shares-pills-n-potions-video/ The video itself is just a transparent excuse to show off her body, but the real gem is the song, featuring sparkling bits like this quartet: “Hey yo they could never make me hate you / Even though what you was doing wasn’t tasteful / Even though you out here looking so ungrateful / I’m a keep it moving, be classy and graceful.”  I really wonder who is listening to this stuff and why.  What do they get when they listen to it?  What, if anything, do they think or feel when they listen? This is the kind of thing that almost makes me crave government censorship of the arts.  Yeah, they’d clamp down on a lot of good experimental art, but at least they’d put the lid on crap like this in the process.

Will the Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up? – a Search for the Languishing Language Amidst the Vulgar Voodoo

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I recently saw Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney at the Public Theater in New York.  In truth, I hesitate to call this particular production Shakespeare’s, since he might well have refused any credit for this version.  Mr. McCraney, who, as a playwright, has his “signature theme, the cross-fertilization of African, Caribbean, and European cultures,” has brought this theme to this production.  See http://newyorktheatrereview.blogspot.com/2014/03/aaron-grunfeld-interviews-chukwudi.html.  (Now, what exactly was Shakespeare’s “signature theme”?)  So, the Egyptians become the noble, natural, authentic, winsomely earthy, brown-skinned Haitians, the Romans become their stiff, stuffy, sinister, pale-skinned French-colonial would-be-oppressors, and we get some Haitian music, some voodoo and some laughable dancing that looks like it would’ve felt perfectly at home in the Lion King.  Cleopatra, who is supposed to be the most alluring, beguiling, effortlessly regal and sophisticated woman in history, not to mention being surely the most complex female role Shakespeare ever conceived, and who should command any stage, whether theatrical or political, that she graces with her magnetic presence, instead, in the much-too-youthful and superficial treatment she is given by Joaquina Kalukango, turns into a coquettish neighborhood girl-next-door whose idea of being enticing is thrusting her bottom out at Antony, while he, in Jonathan Cake’s hands, is transformed from the flawed but heroic, Herculean man-among-boys that Shakespeare created into a boorish, self-indulgent fratboy, making us long for his ultimate undoing, which final moments on stage he (shockingly) plays for (both intentional and unintentional) laughs.  Octavius Caesar — who, as written by Shakespeare, is an interesting antagonist precisely because he is not a villainous would-be-tyrant in the vein of Shakespeare’s early Marlowe-inspired miscreants like the title character of Richard III, but rather, an ambitious nobleman born to rule whose every move, a contrast to Antony’s passionate humanity, is purely strategic and political — has to take on an unbecoming measure of conniving, weaselly snarkiness (despite Samuel Collings’ otherwise capable performance) in order to offset the two leads, who are so horrid and unsympathetic that a merely restrained and formal Octavius would have come off as pleasantly above their unseemly fray by comparison.  (Chukwudi Iwuji as Antony’s conflicted confidant Enobarbus, whose role is enlarged in this production, gives a refreshingly nuanced performance as he struggles between his loyalty to his long-time friend and leader and his distaste for Antony’s choice of his love for Cleopatra over his political duties (though, in this case, it is not clear whether Antony’s actions or Mr. Cake’s acting is the inspiration for the brunt of that distaste), but because I know the Mr. Iwuji personally, I will refrain from further comment on his performance.)

Surely, the fault for these on-stage atrocities lies largely with Mr. McCraney as the director of the piece.  Smearing Shakespeare in the familiar colors of your signature theme is simply not enough.  Though I see no particular reason to do so, you can, of course, if you wish, transplant Shakespeare to some other exotic setting or locale of your choosing.  Shakespeare is strong enough to survive the move.  But a mere transplantation does not an adaptation make.  You cannot effect a change of venue, add in a bit of local color (some theme-inspired song-and-dance), and stop there, saying, as it were, “There, I have enacted my brilliant re-imagining of Antony and Cleopatra for you the audience to marvel at my stroke of genius.”  You still actually have to direct; you have to give life to the play that was written, convey to the audience how it is that your scene change has enriched or illuminated the original material if, indeed, you think it was in any need of such enrichment or illumination.  This means, first and foremost, developing a nuanced understanding of what the play is about, what the words mean, what drives the characters to do what they do.  It is in these respects that Mr. McCraney has failed entirely (even if, for all his other numerous failings, he did manage to succeed in making the language his actors spoke sound natural enough on stage).  Antony and Cleopatra is, first and foremost, a play about the contrast, indeed, the incompatibility between the personal and the political, between a life driven by human passions and aspirations and the political life that demands the suppression of such humanity.  Caesar prevails over the title characters in the political arena not because he is some dastardly, conniving schemer but because he knows only one ruling passion:  the passion to rule.  He is single-minded.  His every thought is strategic.  It is for this reason that, unlike Antony, Caesar is able to resist Cleopatra’s substantial allure quite effortlessly, and when Antony and Cleopatra finally meet their demise, his final speech, the final words of the play (which Mr. McCraney unforgivably gives to Enobarbus, thereby signalling to one and all his total failure to grasp the import of the text), proposes to turn what is a highly personal tragedy of two flesh-and-blood human beings into “high order,” into formal political theater, that is:

Take up her bed;
And bear her women from the monument:
She shall be buried by her Antony:
No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous. High events as these
Strike those that make them; and their story is
No less in pity than his glory which
Brought them to be lamented. Our army shall
In solemn show attend this funeral;
And then to Rome. Come, Dolabella, see
High order in this great solemnity.

The role of Antony is a difficult one, because the human passions (love and the love of beauty) that make Antony refreshingly mortal in contrast to the soon-to-be first emperor of Rome are one and the same as the human weakness that is his undoing and that ultimately makes Antony distasteful even to his closest confidant, Enobarbus.  The actor charged with the role must be capable of striking this delicate balance, of making us feel for him … and feel emotions other than the pure disgust Mr. Cake manages to engender.  For Shakespeare, this theme of the deep incompatibility between the aesthetic impulse, the cultivation of the love of beauty (an attribute embodied by Cleopatra in the play, of course), and the political impulse was surely personal in light of his and his company’s repeated run-ins with the Elizabethan censors, which, on occasion, forced him to bowdlerize his works.

Ironically, we are the ones who now, all too often, do the bowdlerizing.  Closely paralleling the play’s central theme, there remains a profound incompatibility between the aesthetic imperative to trust the language and present Shakespeare pure and simple, as he might have envisioned it, and the more politically and economically driven temptations to alter the text drastically to appeal to a broad (but shrinking) ticket-buying public that has had its attention span sapped by non-stop multitasking and high-stimulation entertainments and is increasingly functionally illiterate (or, at best, possessed of a bare level of literacy sufficient to send and receive little more than routine business communications, Tweets, status updates and the like) (these are points I have elaborated upon at length elsewhere: http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/The-Advent-of-Virtual-Realism.php), and from whom Shakespeare’s language is, in any event, rendered essentially foreign by the passage of time.  This is why we get ham-handed, desperate transplantations of the plays such as Mr. McCraney’s, stagings that betray a profound failure to appreciate the text and aspire, instead, to plug it in to some ready-made timely theme-of-the-moment in the hopes of deploying Shakespeare in pursuit of a personal idea or agenda rather than deploying whatever ideas and agendas one may have in pursuit of Shakespeare’s text.  Mr. McCraney’s botch job is a particularly egregious case in this respect, but there are many contenders to the throne.

The only solution, in my view, is a new kind of Shakespearean theater that will almost entirely eliminate the temptation to dumb things down by making a compact with the audience:  for the theater’s part, it will promise to stage Shakespeare qua
Shakespeare (as a matter of fact, “Shakespeare qua Shakespeare” is not a bad moniker for the endeavor), and for your part, you promise to come prepared.  With your ticket purchase, you get a free PDF copy of the play.  Read it … or, better yet, open up your Riverside Shakespeare and read the version that has all those helpful notes at the bottom to explain the unfamiliar words and turns of phrase.  You won’t be tested on the material (though I’m tempted …), but if you don’t keep your end of the bargain, you might simply be lost or just not get as much out of it as you otherwise would have (though I would wager that when a skilled actor brings the language to life with a fine interpretative performance, you’ll still get enough of a sense to enjoy yourself a good deal more than you would have had you seen the vulgar voodoo version of Shakespeare that Mr. McCraney has concocted).

Not an economically sound proposition, you protest?  Well, why don’t we try it and see?  Quality sometimes (though not always, to be sure) has a way of earning its keep, getting itself a fine critical reputation, garnering plaudits and prestige, putting other Shakespeare productions to shame, attracting the best talent and, in the end, drawing the private support and government funding it needs to survive.  The risk, like Antony and Cleopatra’s own, in any event, is worth it, for only if we pursue the aesthetic imperative alone and let all else follow in its wake if it will or be damned if it won’t might we, as directors, actors and viewers, draw closer to that impassioned nothing-else-matters embrace between Antony and Cleopatra and, as we sit in the theater’s sacred space, in the throes of that embrace, enthralled, along with Antony, proclaim:

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space!
Kingdoms are clay! Our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus, and when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do’t, in which I bind,
On pain of punishment, the world to weet
We stand up peerless.