Park MacDougald

Category: crazy campus shit

ID Politics and Empathy

Jonathan Zhou pointed out to me on Twitter, re: my last blog post, that despite the excessive hay that sometimes gets made of microaggressions, they are real and can be pretty wounding. I actually agree with this, although I admit I can be pretty flippant about the whole microaggression fad as it manifests on campus or certain parts of the Internet. I’m a white dude and so have never been made fun of or made to feel different for my skin color (or I have, because I’m extraterrestrially pale, but it’s not really the same thing), but I can remember circumstances in which someone’s comment (maybe innocent) about some or other aspect of myself has made me feel terrible. On the one hand, that’s part of life; on the other, I imagine this is a lot worse if what’s being made fun of isn’t, say, your shitty personality but the fact that your skin color is different or your parents have accents or the country you’re living in isn’t the one you are from.

My own little social bubble means that I’m exposed to more social justice activism than I have a taste for, which may, of course, also lead me to overrate its importance. But putting that question aside, I’ve been reading a lot of V.S. Naipaul recently and have found him appealing precisely because he’s such a contrast to a lot of the saccharine multiculti stuff you’re exposed to in a university these days. Naipaul writes a lot about what used to be called the Third World. He can be flippant, certainly, and even openly mocking and cruel, but one thing I appreciate about him is that even when he’s a complete asshole, he doesn’t attempt to force different sorts of people—their cultures, their beliefs, their struggles, etc.—into the terms of his own ideological spats, of which he had many. He lets them talk for themselves, and tries as best he can to report what he sees without prettying it up. As a result, I actually get an idea of who the people he is talking to are, instead of just reading about the author’s projections. He actually wrote a book about where I’m from, A Turn in the South, in which I see a more convincing portrait of the place I grew up than in almost any book written by an American. Unsurprisingly, this kind of approach leads to a lot more space for empathy, even if I find the beliefs or customs of the people I’m reading about a bit strange or disorienting.

The contrast comes, I think, from the way that a lot of official “multiculturalism” seems to work these days, which is by translating the world’s different cultures into proxy combatants in an ongoing American culture war. “The white race is the cancer of human history,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1967, and the terms haven’t changed much since then. Of course, “cancer of human history” is a bit silly—it’s the intellectual equivalent of fuck you, Dad, and is basically a sentiment of boomer revolt. Unfortunately, its also often the animating philosophy behind a lot of undergraduate humanities education. It’s telling, in my view at least, that people like Jared Diamond, who study comparative civilizations outside of the humanities, are generally ambivalent about the West’s (/”white people’s”) historical record. Yes, there are lots of atrocities (slavery, genocide), as well as lots of good things (penicillin, democracy). You can argue around the margins, or about where we need to go next, but the history of the United States or Europe or whatever is not a Manichean morality play; it’s ambiguous—a mix of civilization and barbarism—as are most human societies in most places.

To go back to Jonathan’s comment—one of the reasons why I think a lot of official multiculturalism (or “political correctness” or “identity politics” or whatever) is flawed is because it tends not to take the real lives of, say, immigrants seriously on their own terms, but instead is mostly interested in using them as a cudgel to bash the dominant cis-white-hetero-partrio-whatever, which of course is just an academic neologism for “Western culture before the 1960s”–the same apparently un-killable enemy that the American left has been fighting for 50+ years. This reaches the height of its absurdity in what I tried to describe in my last post, which was bringing some well-off kid from abroad, who presumably has their own universe of cultural experiences that don’t fit neatly into American terms, and drilling them in the catechism that their experience in America was best understood as a daily dehumanizing struggle against the slights of white men. I mean, maybe it was, and I’m the one projecting—I don’t know. But that is such a culturally- and historically-specific understanding of how the world or human experience works that I really doubt it was arrived at independently.

Now, I think the dynamic I described above is silly, but it’s not silly to ask white people to think about whether what they think is an innocent comment might not be hurtful or alienating. And this is something people of all types will increasingly have to think about and learn to navigate as the United States deals with the actual fact of diversity.

The problem is more that the framing of the question in terms of basic empathy tends to get overwhelmed by the wider logic of the raging and increasingly tribal culture war. This cuts both ways, and I don’t mean to let the right off the hook—I simply have more direct experience with the progressive end of this. But what I see in a lot of elite progressive institutions is a dynamic whereby one side insists that these problems of civility or acculturation or whatever, instead of relatively minor problems of cultural adjustment that can be worked out by reasonable people, are actually just further evidence of the irredeemable evil of America/the West/capitalism, which all get collapsed into the racialized shorthand “white people,” which is then rhetorically flogged to no end. This tends to, among other things, abolish the space for empathy from people who would be empathic on an individual level, encourage zero-sum us-vs.-them thinking, and to encourage an increasing subset of whites who aren’t here for the revolution toward a more tribal response.

This, in turn, is where the alt-right comes in, whose pitch to white people basically amounts to Gene Wilder’s from Young Frankenstein:

Hello handsome, you’re a good-looking fellow, do you know that? People laugh at you, people hate you, but why do they hate you? Because… they are jealous. Look at that boyish face. Look at that sweet smile. Do you wanna talk about physical strength? Do you want to talk about sheer muscle? Do you want to talk about the Olympian ideal? You are a God. And listen to me, you are not evil. You… are… good.

 This is only seductive once the conversation is already pretty dysfunctional.


Learning to Be an American

[I posted a version of this yesterday that a friend who attended the same event flagged for a few errors. I’ve fixed as best I could and edited.]

Since the incident in Chicago this past week, there’s been considerable back-and-forth on the internet about “reverse racism.” When video surfaced of four black kids beating up a mentally challenged white kid, a lot of conservatives worked themselves up over the expectation that the mainstream media would ignore the racial nature of the crime (the assailants shouted “fuck white people” and “fuck Donald Trump,” as did the attackers in a similar black-on-white beating in Chicago from November that got relatively less attention). Those fears were overblown—the media did report on it, and the assailants were charged with hate crimes—but some on the left took the bait anyway.

The reverse racism “debate” is not usually very productive or interesting. On the left, there is a reasonably well-entrenched idea that only whites can be racist, so the question is a non-question. This is (I think) a bogus thesis: plenty of non-whites are racist as hell, both against whites and against other ethnic groups, and, more broadly, tribalism is one of the basic problems of human social organization. On the other hand, a lot of my white, middle-aged relatives tend to focus on things like affirmative action and other racial preferences while discounting, say, intergenerational wealth transfers when they think about race and inequality. And then on the paranoid fringe, we have worries about “white genocide,” which, despite the best efforts of Dr. Ciaccerello-Maher (who normally has such good judgment), remains fringe paranoia.

That said, I think that those on the left tend to underestimate just how prevalent rhetorical violence against white people is in mainstream culture these days. This is especially noticeable, I think, among millenials, who, if they haven’t become a Twitter Marxist or a 4chan Nazi, often default to a sort of Manichean dualism in which white men (by which they typically mean Republicans) are the terrestrial embodiment of cosmic evil.

Cynically, this cosmology mirrors almost exactly the interests of a Democratic party that is fine with cultural radicalism but really doesn’t want major wealth redistribution. (It’s also in the self-interest of a lot of diversity consultants, academics, and students with otherwise unremunerative degrees.) More to my current point, lots of white people have gotten used to the “fuck white people” sentiments that are pretty commonly expressed in public these days. That is, they know, or at least assume, that this is a purely rhetorical violence, largely egged on by dumb kids and ethnic studies kooks. Or they believe that getting burned by Sam Bee is a reasonable price to pay for the other perks of being white in America. But if you take this stuff at face value, the rhetoric can be pretty jarring, and even if it’s not, it still seems curious why its Such a Thing.

I’ll illustrate with an example from the relatively cloistered world of Brown/RISD. Last spring, I attended a reading for a RISD poetry class that my girlfriend was in. Now, one of the things that you soon notice if you ever go to RISD is that there are a ton of Asians walking around. This is even more true at the art school than at Brown, which like the other Ivies enforces pretty strict informal quotas. The reason is that RISD has struck gold with wealthy Chinese and Korean international students (the school is 33% international) who can pay the $46,800 tuition without blinking. (This is in somewhat ironic contrast to the largely middle-class Asian-Americans at RISD, who often had to fight their immigrant parents tooth-and-nail to pay for art school.) For instance, there was a persistent jokey rumor when I was there about somebody’s friend of a friend making a killing writing RISD admissions essays for rich Koreans with poor English. Another, possibly apocryphal, story held that public buses in the wealthy neighborhoods of Seoul were plastered with Korean-language RISD advertisements. (There is apparently a RISD in Seoul program, which informs me that Seoul is “home to RISD’s largest group of international alumni.” So maybe the bus thing is true.)

Anyway, back to the poetry reading. The event was emceed by one of the aforementioned Asian students. I believe she was international, but I don’t actually know—just that she was a fourth year and had some South Korean background. But she went by a Korean first name and had a noticeable accent, although her English was otherwise fluent. Her clothes, makeup, and hair were all stylish (and quite expensive-looking) but subdued—no visible labels—which marked her off, in my mind at least, from the rich-but-less-assimilated foreign students who generally preferred bigger-name brands. But the lack of an Anglo name suggested “foreign born,” and her accent, which was either the type you got from a good English-language education in a foreign country or from immigrating as a teenager, meant that she had spent a solid proportion of her formative years (i.e. some decent chunk of ages 11–18) outside of the United States. On the other hand, she was acculturated enough that she could slide into the general student body instead of the social ghetto of the real foreigners.

The event included a reading of a few of her poems. I can’t remember the titles or much of the contents of most of them, except that one started off pretty before moving into a lengthy, graphic description of an abortion, and another one had “Donald Trump” in the title (I’m painting a bad picture, but she was actually a really good poet). The Trump poem was a series of imagined encounters with white men or a white man—addressed as such, “white man”—in places like the grocery store, in class, at the airport, et. cetera, where the narrator was subjected to microaggressions, on the level of “Asian girls are so pretty.” The last stanza of the poem began with something like (paraphrasing from memory), “you don’t know this, white man / but this Chink bitch carries a knife,” which was followed by a fantasy of cutting the white man’s throat and watching him bleed out on the pavement. This final stanza got the biggest crowd response of anything I saw during my time there—literal whoops and cheers and standing applause.

Now, I’m not actually sure how many years she had spent in the United States–four if she was international student, slightly longer if she had come over earlier. Its entirely possible that during that time, she’d had some bad experience—a local Providence yob yelling an ethnic slur at her, some dweeb making creepy comments on Tinder, a clueless store clerk using the term “Oriental,” whatever. But my guess would be that she—a wealthy, attractive, popular art student on one of the most liberal and diverse campus bubbles in America—had never experienced anything like oppression at the hands of white men, at least not in the sense of the structural/institutional discrimination that people normally mean when they talk about “white supremacy.” More likely, if she was anything like a lot of English-proficient Asians in an elite American social milieu, she was friends with white people and/or dated white men, and so I imagine that her actual personal experiences with them would be at least neutral if not positive.

That is to say, I don’t think she was racist or “reverse racist” against white men in any real sense, and I kind of doubt there was much of a connection between the explicit content of the poem and her interactions with actually-existing white men. But still, there she was on stage talking about stabbing them, in language that repeatedly drew attention to their whiteness, and not much else about them. What’s weird is that I think she may have just been picking up and repeating, in a somewhat half-digested form, the ambient noise of art school, probably from her professors and peers. Nothing happened to her to make her think she had been oppressed by white men; she learned from her environment that she was oppressed by white men as a sort of a priori principle.

Now, this is a bit striking to me. You take some smart, well-off bougie kid from Seoul—presumably with no real beef against Americans or white men or whatever—and stick them into an elite American institution for four years, and they come out at the end of it writing bloody fantasias about murdering white men, which their American peers and American professors praise to the skies as socially-conscious art. Maybe they are all just having horrible experiences, but I imagine if you looked at previous generations of international students (except for maybe Sayyid Qutb), you would not see a similar pattern. Put a little differently, it seemed that way that this girl assimilated into American culture was by learning to see herself, despite all the obvious advantages that she had, as the aggrieved victim of whites, against whom she was encouraged to nurture gruesome revenge fantasies (or at least to write poems suggesting she did).

This doesn’t constitute a major social crisis or reverse racism. But my gut instinct is that if part of getting an elite education in America is learning to feel fear and contempt toward the country’s majority racial group (even if, at the level of personal behavior, one doesn’t act on this), that doesn’t bode well for social peace going forward. And if you’re wondering why we are now seeing a drifting toward white identity politics, stuff like this is a place to start.

Speech and all that

Since I’ve been back in a university setting this year (I’m currently at Brown), I’ve been struck by the recent wave of campus activism; both the nature of the protests themselves and the media reactions they’ve provoked. They’ve received extensive coverage in the mainstream press, and some prominent journalists, such as the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, have made “campus protest” one of their regular beats. One should keep in mind that much of this protest has taken place at the elite colleges where so many prominent journalists went to school, but narcissism only goes so far as an explanation; it seems likely, rather, that many see in campus activism a microcosm of larger social dynamics in America.

The facts of the matter, of course, depend on your point of view, but the best attempt I can do at neutral summary goes something like this: a number of student activists, acting principally as spokespersons for marginal identity groups, have charged their colleges with failing to provide institutional spaces in which they feel respected and validated. The range of alleged crimes on the part of the colleges is vast, and includes institutional complicity with macro-scale historical injustices, such as racism, colonialism, slavery, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and cissexism, but the offenses most typically targeted for action are smaller-scale: institutional underrepresentation of minorities, hostile learning environments, implicit bias and discrimination on the part of professors, and frequent low-level insults endured from fellow classmates.

The students have demanded a number of major institutional reforms, including more money for scholarships, more resources for students, increased diversity in hiring, mandatory diversity training for students and faculty, and more effective punishments for those who deviate from universities’ communal norms of respect, diversity, and progress. The students were only partly successful, typically eliciting praise, symbolic gestures, and even large changes in spending and hiring priorities, but rarely getting the radical institutional reforms they demanded. Critics of the activists, both inside and outside of the academy, have accused them of violating important liberal norms such as freedom of speech and academic freedom, which in turn has provoked a wider, though generally unproductive, debate on the nature and limits of free speech.

On the left, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on weighing the demands of the protestors with liberal procedural norms; some deny there is any conflict, while others are openly contemptuous of “free speech” and other bourgeois legalisms; the question is not whether abstract speech should be protected, but of the content of particular speech. Speech by oppressors or which legitimizes or fails to interrogate oppression is itself a form of oppression and should not be tolerated. As Jonathan Chait noted to some controversy, this is essentially a Marxist-derived theory of political rights; that is, abstract individual rights are subordinated to the overriding goal of class, race, or gender justice. Abstract liberal protections for speech in this view can only ever be protections for speech of the oppressor, and serve to further reveal liberalism’s complicity with oppression, i.e. its moral and ideological bankruptcy. It should therefore not be considered a pejorative to term this worldview “illiberal.”

The rise of this relatively anti- or il-liberal radical left, supported by a lively far-left media presence perfectly captured by the prominence of Jacobin magazine, occurs within a larger national context in which, as we read every day, a right-wing demagogue is summoning the forces of reactionary populist darkness, promising strongman rule and a disregard for the law, scapegoating foreigners and domestic minorities, and pointing dangerously to a sort of incipient white ethno-nationalism. While the candidacy of Hillary Clinton suggests that liberalism is still a winning political platform (though perhaps an unenthusiastic one), it would seem that ideologically, American liberalism is threatened from both ends of the political spectrum. Its not surprising, then, that a few Cassandras are speaking of a Weimar America.

Crises tend to polarize, and that is what we are seeing: a nation that is increasingly split into two hostile, perhaps irreconcilable political tribes, each convinced that the other is evil, stupid, and bent on total victory. Liberalism doesn’t tend to fare well in these situations, because it is primarily an ideology of proceduralism that remains agnostic on values beyond those of “rights,” typically defined in the negative. Of course, as any good Marxist or Catholic knows, placing the rights of the individual metaphysically prior to the claims of the community or to an analysis of the social dynamics in which those rights were conceived and are embodied is not exactly an agnostic position when it comes to organizing a society. It obstructs revolutionary plans for social transformation, yet in the long run tends towards the progressive abolition of the claims of tradition. More fundamentally, when the enemy is conceived not as someone who disagrees with you, but someone who is simply wrong and whose errors can only be caused by stupidity or evil, there is little reason to grant them rights, except perhaps as a tactical concession until your side has sufficient power to annihilate them. So there’s no surprise, really, that young radicals are rejecting liberalism.

Within the context of the university, as long as one maintains that the purpose of the university is intellectual inquiry of some form or other (which may be naïve), it seems obvious that one cannot concede to the demands of activists on certain points, such as, notably, persistent demands that schools grant power to certain students and faculty to discipline or fire other students and faculty members for perceived ideological infractions. However noble the nominal goals, Chait rightly points out that the question of “who are the oppressed, and who the oppressor?” has typically been answered by leftists as “the Left is the oppressed, and whoever opposes the Left is the oppressor,” and once party unity breaks down, the question of “who is the authentic Left?” is generally resolved in favor of whoever has the power to assert their will. One doesn’t have to go back to the Stalinist purges to observe this dynamic – enough time spent on left-wing Twitter gives a sufficient example of radicals’ congenital inability to avoid self-destructive purges, witch hunts, and purity contests, with the role of General Secretary played by whoever has amassed the most social capital in the relevant milieu. It’s impossible to watch something like Jacobinghazi and think, “these people should hold power.” At a more basic level, this sort of politics is only really justifiable if you are convinced you have some sort of unmediated access to capital-t Truth, a claim that no university should accept.

However, I think that the concern about Whats Wrong With the Kids These Days speaks to a larger anxiety that we are slipping into some sort of low-level civil war in which the gloves are finally being thrown off, and we are generally unsure that our liberal foundations – in the broad sense that encompasses both the mainstream right and left – will hold. Paradoxically, however, it is exactly these conditions of intense conflict in which liberal procedures are most likely to be rejected and in which they are also the most important. Aside from somewhat tired pleas for humanity and civility, or invocation of free speech as if it is natural law, we might settle for that classic of the liberal canon, self-interest: insofar as you consider your enemy to be the worldly manifestation of evil, treat rights, norms, and procedures with the knowledge that at some point, your enemy will hold power.