Look! A Monkey!

I am thinking about how to phrase/frame a certain issue when this post @ Girls read Comics caught my eye, expounding on the same issue:

The aftermath has included some excellent discussions […].

It has also included numerous fascinating examples of that amusing phenomena I like to call “Look! A monkey!” wherein someone will defend something they or someone else has said, not on the grounds that the thing itself is defensible, but because this person has done or said other things that were laudable. Or has acted in support of the group that they have now pissed off. Or in the most egregious examples, have a girlfriend/black friend/gay brother/transgender roommate/Jewish teacher, so it is totally unfair to call them out on the misogynistic/racist/heterosexist/transphobic/anti-Semitic thing that they have just said.

This is a good person and you are hurting their feelings! Stop taking this out of context of the rest of their lives! Can’t you concentrate on the positive? LOOK: A MONKEY.

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Common Sense (Blathery Rant)

I have talked to people recently who extolled the virtues of disagreeing with academic opinion, regardless of the soundness of yr arguments against the old position. They appeared to be entirely unfazed by the fact that the argument in these books seems to rely entirely on common sense, not on thinking or careful reasoning (for example this book).

Last night it occurred to me that the funny thing about most of these ‘rebellious’ attacks against the academic establishment is that they only work for a reader who is rather roughly or not at all acquainted with the ‘facts’. While it is true that many of these ‘facts’ are created by academia (and I would be the very last person to defend something like ‘objective historical facts’, indeed I think that to posit the existence of knowable objective historical facts means almost always a shoddy methodological framework) and that there is a strong intolerance against alternative theories, the carefully reasoned book that would actually have an impact on the generally accepted theory is rare. The only thing it actually does is stir up the uneducated masses without educating them first. It’s pure demagoguery, and not in a nice way.

This is anti-intellectualism at its worst. It may not look like this sometimes but take a closer look at the premises and you’ll see it. And Common Sense, as the instrument of such arguments, appears to me sometimes to be downright evil. I am not very firm on English etymology, but the German equivalent, “gesunder Menschenverstand”, which, roughly, awkwardly, translates as “healthy human reasoning”, shows how Common Sense works. It attacks things which are outside of a given societal norm, which, of course, reflects strongly the dominant anti-emancipatory ideas of a given society. Small wonder then that, say, in the realm of philosophy, books, nay, pamphlets abound which are bashing Feminism and any strain of postmodern/poststructuralist thought that is not in agreement with the dominant norm. The sick elements of society, if you will, channeling Agamben and Foucault here.

Thus, Common Sense often surfaces in the most evil of contexts. Antisemitic, racist literature is built on a foundation of ‘common sense’. The whole insidious concept of political correctness is built on ‘common sense’ as well, the idea being that, if we were really honest, we would admit that what is perceived as ‘pc speech’ is really only pc mumbo-jumbo. There is, as to modern antisemitism, an aspect of down-to-earth, almost agrarian, simplicity to the whole thing. Small wonder that both concepts can often be found in nationalistic ‘Blut und Boden’-contexts and in anti-cosmopolitanist arguments. It does not, though, usually make an appearance in islamophobic contexts, as the stereotypes directed at that particular minority are others. Debauchery, decadence, yes, but Islam is so strongly identified with a particular ethnic group that the particular nexus described above is never really activated. Islamophobia is, currently, a rather obvious affair, and so widely and fundamentally accepted, that it has had no need to hide behind a rhetorical veil yet.

The strangest aspect of this, though, is that even intellectuals, and those who are very much in favor of emancipatory movements, tend to view ‘common sense’ and the gesture of rebellion as an acceptable ally in the battle against orthodoxy and then proceed to attack nilly-willy those who work within orthodoxy, who urge others to try to read and understand what you are criticizing before you go off on a 200page commonsensical rant (or at least to be open to arguments from orthodox academia). Happened to me once here and several times in person. And no, this is not about left-wing antisemitism (think anticapitalism, think usury). And no, I have no answer to this, really. It baffles me, honestly. Did I mention that they are all really, really smart, some of them way, way smarter than this blog’s dim-witted excuse for an author? They are. You see me throwing my hands up. I have no answer. Do you have one? I’d love to hear it. A book you can direct me to?

Have a great week, btw., folks.

Alice Walker on Obama

Alice Walker offering her well-reasoned two cents on Obama, Clinton and Whiteness. I’m glad to’ve been able to read it.

I made my first white women friends in college; they were women who loved me and were loyal to our friendship, but I understood, as they did, that they were white women and that whiteness mattered. That, for instance, at Sarah Lawrence, where I was speedily inducted into the Board of Trustees practically as soon as I graduated, I made my way to the campus for meetings by train, subway and foot, while the other trustees, women and men, all white, made their way by limo. Because, in our country, with its painful history of unspeakable inequality, this is part of what whiteness means. I loved my school for trying to make me feel I mattered to it, but because of my relative poverty I knew I could not.

I am a supporter of Obama because I believe he is the right person to lead the country at this time. He offers a rare opportunity for the country and the world to start over, and to do better. It is a deep sadness to me that many of my feminist white women friends cannot see him. Cannot see what he carries in his being. Cannot hear the fresh choices toward Movement he offers. That they can believe that millions of Americans –black, white, yellow, red and brown – choose Obama over Clinton only because he is a man, and black, feels tragic to me.

When I have supported white people, men and women, it was because I thought them the best possible people to do whatever the job required. Nothing else would have occurred to me. If Obama were in any sense mediocre, he would be forgotten by now. He is, in fact, a remarkable human being, not perfect but humanly stunning, like King was and like Mandela is. We look at him, as we looked at them, and are glad to be of our species. He is the change America has been trying desperately and for centuries to hide, ignore, kill. The change America must have if we are to convince the rest of the world that we care about people other than our (white) selves. […]

But most of all I want someone with the self-confidence to talk to anyone, “enemy” or “friend,” and this Obama has shown he can do. It is difficult to understand how one could vote for a person who is afraid to sit and talk to another human being. When you vote you are making someone a proxy for yourself; they are to speak when, and in places, you cannot. But if they find talking to someone else, who looks just like them, human, impossible, then what good is your vote?

It is hard to relate what it feels like to see Mrs. Clinton (I wish she felt self-assured enough to use her own name) referred to as “a woman” while Barack Obama is always referred to as “a black man.” One would think she is just any woman, colorless, race-less, past-less, but she is not. She carries all the history of white womanhood in America in her person; it would be a miracle if we, and the world, did not react to this fact. How dishonest it is, to attempt to make her innocent of her racial inheritance.

I can easily imagine Obama sitting down and talking, person to person, with any leader, woman, man, child or common person, in the world, with no baggage of past servitude or race supremacy to mar their talks. I cannot see the same scenario with Mrs. Clinton who would drag into Twenty-First Century American leadership the same image of white privilege and distance from the reality of others’ lives that has so marred our country’s contacts with the rest of the world.

And yes, I would adore having a woman president of the United States. My choice would be Representative Barbara Lee, who alone voted in Congress five years ago not to make war on Iraq. That to me is leadership, morality, and courage; if she had been white I would have cheered just as hard. But she is not running for the highest office in the land, Mrs. Clinton is. And because Mrs. Clinton is a woman and because she may be very good at what she does, many people, including some younger women in my own family, originally favored her over Obama. I understand this, almost. It is because, in my own nieces’ case, there is little memory, apparently, of the foundational inequities that still plague people of color and poor whites in this country. Why, even though our family has been here longer than most North American families – and only partly due to the fact that we have Native American genes – we very recently, in my lifetime, secured the right to vote, and only after numbers of people suffered and died for it.

When I offered the word “Womanism” many years ago, it was to give us a tool to use, as feminist women of color, in times like these. These are the moments we can see clearly, and must honor devotedly, our singular path as women of color in the United States. We are not white women and this truth has been ground into us for centuries, often in brutal ways. But neither are we inclined to follow a black person, man or woman, unless they demonstrate considerable courage, intelligence, compassion and substance. I am delighted that so many women of color support Barack Obama -and genuinely proud of the many young and old white women and men who do.

Imagine, if he wins the presidency we will have not one but three black women in the White House; one tall, two somewhat shorter; none of them carrying the washing in and out of the back door. The bottom line for most of us is: With whom do we have a better chance of surviving the madness and fear we are presently enduring, and with whom do we wish to set off on a journey of new possibility?

On Racism and similar matters

Nicholas D. Kristof in a recent column pointed something out which should be pointed out time and again, but strangely enough isn’t:

Much of the time, blacks have a pretty good sense of what whites think, but whites are oblivious to common black perspectives.

This is applicable not only to blacks and ‘whites’ in America, it’s of course something that describes most majority/minority constellations in the West. An interesting area where this is applicable, as Archbishop Williams has pointed out in his thoughtful speech, is in Western discussions of Islam, terrorism, the Enlightenment etc. The sheer refusal to view an issue from the minorities’ point of view has taken on an aggressive shape when it comes to talking about Muslims.

The passive ‘not listening’ has slowly but surely turned into an aggressive droning on and on over increasingly loud voices of protest. This is not simply speaking: it’s preaching. It’s applying ideas such as ‘secularism’, freedom of the press, etc., which could be applied to many different disquieting events, to only this single religious group: Muslims. It appears as if something needs to be talked out of existence, something so alien that the usual rational discourse doesn’t appear to be appropriate any more.

The vehemence with which this version of ‘not listening’ is carried out is shocking sometimes to the humble writer of this blog. Yes, as a reasonably well read person, one is used to racist diatribes, but the fact that, these days, these diatribes, hateful in content and righteous in tone, are coming from educated, smart persons, sends shivers down my spine. These are the people who, for better or worse, make politics. If they are conquered by hate, where is this society headed? I’m worried.

Feminism & Language

A well reasoned mini-rant on the log attacking a common and tiresome position on feminism and how it destroys language.

[David Gelernter’s] claims are apocalyptic. Although English “used to belong to all its speakers and readers and writers” it has now been taken over by “arrogant ideologues” determined “to defend the borders of the New Feminist state.” A major “victory of propaganda over common sense” looms: “We have allowed ideologues to pocket a priceless property and walk away with it.” The language is on the brink of being lost, because although the “prime rule of writing is to keep it simple, concrete, concise”, today “virtually the whole educational establishment teaches the opposite”. This is the mild part. Soon he gets more seriously worked up, calling his opponents “style-smashers” and (I’m not kidding) “language rapists”, and claiming that “they were lying and knew it” when they did what they did.

What, then, is the terrible thing that the style-smashers have done? The following is (and I stress this) a complete list of all the facts about English usage he cites:

* Some writers now use either he or she, or singular they, or purportedly sex-neutral she, instead of purportedly sex-neutral he, to refer back to generic or quantified human antecedents that are not specifically marked as masculine.
* Some people recommend the words chairperson, humankind, and firefighter over chairman, mankind, and fireman.
* Some try to avoid using the phrases great man when speaking of a great person, or using brotherhood when making reference to fellow-feeling between human beings.

[…]

Gelernter insists on the beauty and clarity of “Shakespeare’s most perfect phrases”, calling them “miraculously simple and terse”; […]

Gelernter huffs and puffs a lot about the use of he or she, but this is only a prelude to something more serious: a furious condemnation of singular antecedents for they (“a student who lost their textbook”). In his telling of the story, the feminist language terrorists weren’t content with imposing he or she on us, a phrase that is merely clumsy; worse was to come when grammar itself “collapsed in a heap after agreement between subject and pronoun was declared to be optional”, i.e., they was permitted to have singular antecedents.

But his ignorance of the history of English literature on this point is breathtaking. It is quite clear that he has no idea Shakespeare used they with singular antecedents […]

Gelernter also specifically singles out Austen for praise: “The young Jane Austen is praised by her descendants for having written “pure simple English.” He obviously is not aware that Jane Austen is famous for her high frequency of use of of singular-anteceded they […].

Gelernter thinks singular they was invented by post-1970 feminist “ideologues”, rather than a use of pronouns having a continuous history going back as far as a thousand years. One might think it remarkable that someone this ignorant of the history and structure of English would nonetheless presume to pontificate, without having checked anything. But not if you read Language Log. We have noted many times the tendency to move straight to high dudgeon, skipping right over the stage where you check the reference books to make sure you have something to be in high dudgeon about. To take a random example, when Cullen Murphy accused three word-sense usages of being modern illiteratisms, Mark Liberman showed that in fact all three were the original meanings from long ago. And then a couple of months later Mark found John Powers had made an exactly analogous mistake with three other words. People just don’t look in reference books when it comes to language; they seem to think their status as writers combined with their emotion of anger gives them all the standing they need.

Al Gore + Thinking for himself = ? (Linguistics)

Yes, well. I may be one of the more ignorant people as far as climate change is concerned, and I am not happy about it. I tend to agree with the Pascalian wager as it is extended to environmental concerns nowadays, though. However, I firmly dislike Al Gore. Apart from several other reasons, I dislike him because he takes a topic that he and lots of others around the world, especially here in Europe, consider serious and presents it in a way that clearly presupposes that all who listen to him tell it are idiots. Very stupid idiots, too. Virtually no argument in that odious movie of his survives logical scrutiny. He’s bullshitting his audience to a degree that comes close to lying, except that I am not judging facts, and lying is, mostly, about facts, so technically…but that’s neither here nor there.
I found a nice post on language log last week, wherein Al Gore is disapprovingly quoted as saying

In the Kanji characters used in both Chinese and Japanese, “crisis” is written with two symbols, the first meaning “danger,” the second “opportunity.” By facing and removing the danger of the climate crisis, we have the opportunity to gain the moral authority and vision to vastly increase our own capacity to solve other crises that have been too long ignored.

Apparently he said that on many occasions. He might have said that in that crap movie as well, I don’t know, I tried to get it out of my head as quickly as possible. The point, and the reason for the log’s disapproval is that this, too, is wrong, as is explained at length at pinyin.info. I’ll quote the salient bit here:

Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. A wēijī indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits. In a crisis, one wants above all to save one’s skin and neck! Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his / her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis.

For those who have staked their hopes and careers on the CRISIS = DANGER + OPPORTUNITY formula and are loath to abandon their fervent belief in jī as signifying “opportunity,” it is essential to list some of the primary meanings of the graph in question. Aside from the notion of “incipient moment” or “crucial point” discussed above, the graph for jī by itself indicates “quick-witted(ness); resourceful(ness)” and “machine; device.” In combination with other graphs, however, jī can acquire hundreds of secondary meanings. It is absolutely crucial to observe that jī possesses these secondary meanings only in the multisyllabic terms into which it enters. To be specific in the matter under investigation, jī added to huì (“occasion”) creates the Mandarin word for “opportunity” (jīhuì), but by itself jī does not mean “opportunity.”

A wēijī in Chinese is every bit as fearsome as a crisis in English. A jīhuì in Chinese is just as welcome as an opportunity to most folks in America. To confuse a wēijī with a jīhuì is as foolish as to insist that a crisis is the best time to go looking for benefits.

There you go. And even though I can’t verify this, being no speaker or reader of mandarin (sad as this is), after hearing him talk and watching that movie, I am convinced they are right, because I believe that Al Gore doesn’t take too much time to think. He appears to be on some sort of autopilot since the 70s or 80s. Since those decades he’s just refining his rhetorical strategies, which did result in one really great TV moment (at that moment, for some minutes, I liked the man) at a MTV award show. He came onstage and said (and yes I wish I could provide a link for that clip but I could not find one): “I actually was not planning on being here tonight but then MTV explained to me that Justin Timberlake is bringing sexy back, so here I am.”

On Debating (I love Stephen Fry)

Here’s Stephen Fry’s blog entry on a debate he’s had on Global Warming and he starts it off with a reflection of the culture of debate in his country and the total lack of understanding for this way to lead a debate in the US. I felt, I don’t know, I love, admire and cherish Mr. Fry, and I guess I felt sort of vindicated, because I tend to get, er, similar reactions when I get into a heated debate, as some of you well know. People tend to carry a grudge for quite a while, as you can see by reading scrupeda’s rather unfair comment under my Open Letter Post. Here’s Fry’s complete opening paragraph

[W]hen I get into a debate I can get very, very hot under the collar, very impassioned, and I dare say, very maddening, for once the light of battle is in my eye I find it almost impossible to let go and calm down. I like to think I’m never vituperative or too ad hominem but I do know that I fall on ideas as hungry wolves fall on strayed lambs and the result isn’t always pretty. This is especially dangerous in America. I was warned many, many years ago by the great Jonathan Lynn, […] that Americans are not raised in a tradition of debate and that the adversarial ferocity common around a dinner table in Britain is more or less unheard of in America. When Jonathan first went to live in LA he couldn’t understand the terrible silences that would fall when he trashed an statement he disagreed with and said something like “yes, but that’s just arrant nonsense, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense. It’s self-contradictory.” To a Briton pointing out that something is nonsense, rubbish, tosh or logically impossible in its own terms is not an attack on the person saying it – it’s often no more than a salvo in what one hopes might become an enjoyable intellectual tussle.

But to be fair, we don’t get a snippet of Fry’s way of debating here. He may well sound far less arrogant or prickish than I do, or less ego jerk-off. I don’t know. However, as it is, I’m sitting here, getting ill (why OH why? got so much to do. go away, I tell ye, wicked cold!) and smiling. Thank you Stephen, once again.