Post by Category : Intersubjectivity

Thinking About “Race” pt. 5

The Borromean Knot


The takeaways thus far:

  • Much of our life is governed by “Reasonable” ideas that get us through our daily social life.
  • “Rational” ideas arise out of the rigors of scientific (or technical) discourse.
  • “Race” is not an idea that is supported by science yet it persists in our daily discourse.
  • One of the reasons it persists is that “race” is a notion that is bound up with our cultural mythology about kinship and identity.  “Race” encodes the belief that literally superficial aspects of our appearance act as markers for innate differences we can’t see.

“Race” is an active way of thinking that assists in the constitution of our individual identities as well as our social reality. In America, our “race” is a huge determinant or our economic, social and political fates. One of the consequences of 450 years of race thinking is that it has enslaved us all in a self-reinforcing feedback system:

The people who have been subordinated by race thinking…have for centuries employed the concepts and categories of their rulers, owners and persecutors to resist the destiny that “race” has allocated to them…..Under the most difficult of conditions and from imperfect materials that they surely would not have selected if they had been able to choose, these oppressed groups have built complex traditions of politics, ethics, identity and culture….When ideas of racial particularity are inverted in this defensive manner so that they provide sources of pride rather than shame and humiliation, they become difficult to relinquish. For many racialized populations, “race” and the hard won oppositional identities it supports are not to be lightly or prematurely given up.

Paul Gilroy, Against Race

“Race” in America may not be a scientific fact but is an embodied fact. It is only in recent years that the concept of “white privilege” has started to percolate in America. It has begun to dawn upon people of good conscience who think they are “white” that their social position is the result of the centuries-long exploitation of other phenotypes. “White” is not a neutral descriptive term (no human skin is actually white) but a social category larded with invisible values and properties.  The term “white trash” refers to people who are born “white” but who fail to live up to the invisible attributes encoded in the term “white”.

One’s self conception and one’s social identity is a hairball* of psychic, symbolic, social and economic factors. In this America of ours, “race” is a major constituent of this hairball.  Changing how we think about “race” will be necessary for us to begin the un-tangling but will not be sufficient to disgorge the hairball. The threads we follow will lead us directly to issues of power, trauma and myths of originary unity which will further challenge our political institutions and our collective self-awareness:

…where politics fails…it is replaced by enthusiasm for the cheapest pseudo-solidarities…forms of connection that are imagined to arise effortlessly from shared phenotypes, cultures and bio-nationalities.

Paul Gilroy, Against Race

*Or in Lacan’s more topologically elegant notion, a Borromean knot

Thinking About “Race” pt. 4

The Teeming Others

So, according to modern science, “race” is not a fact of nature or in Appiah’s terms a “rational” category. Why then does “race” persist in our discourse and our view of the human world? It persists because “race” is a cognitive activity.  The notion of  “race” allows us to believe that superficial aspects of our appearance are markers of innate differences that are invisible.  “Race” does not exist but racial thinking does.

Among the Asante, everybody agrees (indeed, it goes without saying) that the material world is affected by spirits. Spirits are forces in life just as much as “natural causes”. Unusual, inconvenient and bad things happen to people.  The “why” of how things happen and the way things happen can be attributed to agents or forces whose motives are as manifold as they are invisible. Why did I get sick? Why did my car break down when it did? Why are my tomatoes blighted? Somebody invoked the spirits against me.

Invisible causal forces are amazingly flexible and convenient explanations. What evidence can be mustered that says an event wasn’t the result of witchcraft? If I am informed that I overwatered my tomatoes, I may choose to conclude that the strange people down the street may not have put a curse on my tomatoes…this time anyway. The unseen workings of unseen forces have no problem accommodating disconfirming evidence….exceptions always prove the rule! As with the Inquisition, whether torture exonerated the accused or not, the validity of the witch hunt was always upheld. Among the Americans, everybody agrees (indeed, it goes without saying) that humanity is divided into “races”. Though there are some visual clues as to membership in a “race”, “race” is also a realm wherein invisible “natural” attributes and motives reside and thereby explain history and the current social world.  The race I identify with is kind of like my family writ large. Those other races are indolent, dull, miserly, profligate, hot headed, intemperate, crafty, greedy…fill in the blanks as you need.

Identity helps us comprehend the formation of that perilous pronoun “we” and to reckon with the patterns of inclusion and exclusion it cannot help creating.” The strange people down the street who might have cursed my tomatoes remind us that other “races” are groups of people who play roles in our social lives that we may view negatively.

Take the situation of the long term residents of Boise Idaho; they don’t like what is happening to their city. It is growing too fast. Traffic is bad. Rents and the prices of houses are skyrocketing. It is widely perceived that this is due to the influx of Californians. Recently a young man who has lived in Boise for years, who was a star on the venerated Boise State football team found a note on his car telling him to “go home”. Recruited to Boise State out of his California high school, he still had California license plates. It is inconvenient that these acquisitive invaders fouling Boise don’t have phenotypic differences to mark them; they only have license plates.

At one level, “race” is merely a category we employ to classify people so that we can make generalizations about them. Unlike license plates, racial markers are neither fungible nor elective. They are either indelible (i.e. skin tone) or they are invisible. In 1892 , Homer Plessy, who presented as “white” was arrested for riding in a “white” only rail car. In appealing his conviction, his counsel argued that since Plessy looked like a “white” man, he should not be convicted. For the Supreme Court, however, the fact that Plessy was an “octaroon” (a creature with some amount of black blood) meant that he was not of the “white” race and the Court did not want to enforce a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either”.   On the flip side, you can present yourself as “black” like Rachel Dolezal but to do so is shockingly fraudulent (not to mention unfathomable…why would you “trade down” from being “white” to being “black”?).

Though we might want to think of Californians as a teeming, acquisitive, insensitive horde we don’t view them as “related” to each other in any biological sense.

Thinking About “Race” Pt. 3

If “race” isn’t in the genes, where is it?

In 2016, thanks to the biological sciences, there were an estimated 15.5 million cancer survivors in the United States. When your pancreas turns on you, the science of biology and the doctors who implement the science may come to your rescue. For this modern biology “race” does not exist. Race is not a “natural” category. This is a fully “rational” conclusion based on modern genomics.

I am not a science writer so I am not going to summarize modern genomics. What I will do is leave you with a few little known facts courtesy of modern biology. What most of us think about “race” is a mash up of decades old Mendelian genetics and the mythology of “blood relatedness”.

Lets start with “blood”, the fluid.  There are antigens on red blood cells that determine how blood may be safely shared. There are 8 blood types, 36 human blood system types and 364 antigens that factor into the compatibility of blood for transfusions. Most people are aware that these “blood types” are inherited. But “inherited” does not mean that a person has the same blood type as either of their parents. A mother and child’s blood type can not only be different but incompatible. The 8 human blood types have a wide and varied distribution across populations of people. There is no correlation between blood types and “racial” classifications. Furthermore, blood types are not an immutable gift from one’s ancestors. Disease and medical interventions can change a person’s blood type.

Lets’s move on to genetic “relatedness:

  • Our notions of how we are related to people are not supported by science. A pair of siblings may share as much as 61.7% of their DNA, or as little as 37.4%. You may share more DNA with a cousin than with your sibling. You may share more DNA with a stranger on the bus with you than with someone you know to be a blood “relative”.
  • Some third cousins (“blood relatives”) share no DNA whatsoever.
  • As a living organism you have your own DNA. But you may also have within you the DNA of another organism. Fetal cells can get into a mother’s body and remain. The reverse is also true. This is microchimerism; a single organism harboring a small number of cells from another individual. Hence, you may have acquired an older sibling’s DNA as well as that of your parents.
  • Viruses move DNA back and forth between cells. Part of your DNA is actually viral DNA from retroviruses that originated outside your bodily envelope. This is called “horizontal inheritance”. As much as 8% of your personal genome is comprised of horizontally inherited DNA. No parents were involved.
  • A gene is a stretch of DNA that encodes information but genes are not destiny. How each gene is “expressed” can affect an organism’s environment thus allowing for the inter-generational transmission of trauma effects. Trauma experienced by your great grandparents may still be playing out in your and your offspring’s genomes. Dutch famine survivors being the most notable example.
  • Huge studies of people who trace their descent to one of the five continents have shown that there is less than 5% variability in the genetic inheritance between these groups …and NONE of that variability is associated with the superficial phenotypic indicators of “race”. There is more genetic variability between you and your sibling than there is between historic populations of humans.
  • There are no single “genes for” visible (phenotypic) characteristics. For example, not only is there no “gene for” height, but biologists have determined that nearly two million genetic variants are involved in a person’s height.
  • There is no denying biological inheritance but what we inherit is not a shared essence or an “identity” but rather a statistically complex and partially random distribution of genetic information.

“Race” is conjured by up by racial thinking…not the other way around. More on that in the next post.

Thinking About “Race” #2

Blood Works

Doesn’t it all start with “family”? We understand what a “family” is. We are thrust into one and, therein, we learn how we are “related” to other people.

Most North Americans understand that we have two different kinds of relatives. We have “blood relatives” and “in-laws”.  There is an unwritten expectation that all relatives should share if not love, then a “diffuse, enduring solidarity”. Ideally, relatives care for each other but the interaction of “relatives” is not a normatively prescribed sequence of behaviors. Rather like friendship it is a social relationship marked by the absence of specifications. *

“Blood” relations and “in-law” relations differ in a significant way. “In-law” relationships are voluntarily entered into and can be terminated. A marriage should be enduring but may be ended. “Blood” relations, on the other hand, are given and cannot be terminated because they are relations in “nature”. As the anthropologist David Schneider noted “there are no ex-mothers”.

“Blood” relatives share biogenetic material. Everyone understands the statement “my daughter is my flesh and blood”. “Blood” relations are the most valued and though we can withdraw our care (our diffuse enduring solidarity) from our “blood” kin, doing so ruptures a relationship of identity. We can see family resemblances among those who are related by “blood” (facial features, skin color, body proportions). We also like to think (reasonably) that people related by “blood” have similar personalities, dispositions or aptitudes. When we watch Rey Skywalker and Kylo Ren (Ben Solo) do battle with their own Palpatine “blood”, we understand the conflict and we feel it. There is an invisible inheritance flowing through them that links them to the evil Sith. Can they rupture that biological tie and free themselves from a biogenetic fate they reject? Is it Nature or Nurture that makes a family look like a family and act in familiar ways?

Our “reasonable” and abiding understanding of “blood” has very little to do with how scientists and doctors sitting at the top of the pyramid of biology understand blood as an organically complex fluid. More on that in the next post.

The takeaway is this: the bedrock of how we differentiate between “us” and “them” is a long lived metaphor that links identity with a biological essence.

Ask yourself, if a group of people resemble each other, do they share some biogenetic essence? Should we reasonably expect them to act in the same ways?

*This broadly characterizes our North American ideas about kinship. Some particular families and family traditions may have very specific normatively prescribed behaviors for different “relatives”.

Thinking About “Race” Pt.1

The Rational & the Reasonable

This is the first of a series of posts on “race”. These posts are a personal exercise because I feel a need to clearly articulate some of my own thoughts on this topic and I need to understand how “race” figures into my own thinking. My views are not original. I am primarily indebted to the following books:

“Race” is part of our thinking about how the world “is”. I want to begin by thinking about thinking.

In this hi-tech world, how much does any one of us really “know”? It is clearly within our ken to use cell phones but how many of us truly understand the technical workings of our phones? or the geo-synchronous satellites that give us our GPS bearings? How many of us truly understand how Einstein’s theories make TV’s, computers and lasers possible? How many of us understand modern genomics and how it has changed the treatment of cancer?

There is a cognitive division of labor in our specialized world that is bizarrely skewed. Tiny, tiny populations of experts sit atop manifold pyramids of specialized knowledge that are the source of technological magic. The rest of us (in our billions) know enough about some socially useful activity to stay alive and in so doing we use the magic devices we are provided. They are magic devices because we believe that someone somewhere knows how all this shit works. We don’t think stuff works because Valdemort is casting spells, but any other technical explanation we could muster would not be much more accurate.

While us-billions have little in-depth knowledge of anything, we have the Wiki-Library of Alexandria at our fingertips. We can skim the surface of a million topics. This Library comes to us courtesy of the same technological economy that inundates our kilobyte brains with terabytes of information. When we skim, the chances are that we simplify. The simpler a mental model we have of a particular complexity, the more likely we are to be confident in our “knowledge”. Psychologists label this cognitive bias as the “Dunning-Krueger Effect”. Simply stated, the ignorant don’t know they are ignorant and proceed with confidence. The truly knowledgable are more likely to be plagued by uncertainty.

So our challenge, awash as we are with information, is to make reasonable decisions about how to act or what to believe we know. Billions of us get through our days making reasonable decisions

Here, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah makes a distinction between a rational decision and a reasonable decision. If you are told by your crazy Uncle Frank that your cell phone has given you pancreatic cancer, it is reasonable to ignore him. If your doctor tells you that you have cancer, it is rational to take her seriously and it is rational to seek and take the advice of oncologists.

Rationality, in a critical sense, isn’t an individual attribute. Here I’ve sometimes found it convenient to distinguish between rationality and the individual trait of reasonableness. The distinction I have in mind is between cognitive and practical procedures that are likely to be successful, given the way the world is (which I’ve called “rational”); and procedures that a normal human being in a society has …(little) reason to doubt will be effective, whether or not, in fact, they are (which I’ve called “reasonable”).

Appiah, The Dialectics of Enlightenment

Appiah goes on to describe how his father like all Asante of his generation thought the world was populated by invisible spirits. Given a medical problem, his father’s generation would have consulted a fetish priest about which witch was at work. A reasonable decision then. Today, a blood sample would be sent to a lab.

On an individual level, my Asante ancestors, acting on the basis of trusted authority, weren’t less reasonable than we are. But the analysis of rationality must expand beyond the individual level. Where traditional belief practices and natural science differ is as institutions: the social organization of inquiry makes all the difference.

Appiah, The Dialectics of Enlightenment

If it takes a (scientific) village to create rationality, participation in that rational, socially organized inquiry is beyond most of us. Instead, our daily, socially reasonable inquiry is “organized” by the algorithms of profit seekers who present “knowledge” as bits and memes designed to trigger our consumer choice reflex. In our consumerist society it is “reasonable” to believe anything you choose to pick off the shelf… until you learn that your own pancreas is trying to kill you: suddenly, “rational” ideas and rational choices will have a new allure.

We all have a lot of “reasonable” ideas about the world. Most of the time these notions pose no immediate problems for us as we navigate our social worlds. Unfortunately, some of these “reasonable” ideas are not only not “rational”, they are pernicious and persistent.

The new motto of this blog is: Don’t believe everything you think.

Do you think you know what “race” is?

Stay tuned.

The Sands of Time

I was several blocks from home on my Sunday morning run when I realized that I had left my Fitbit at home. I did not turn around and go get it (though that option crossed my mind). Instead I tried to process the implications of its absence. I began to rumininate on self empiricism, magical thinking and the sands of time.

My friend Steve introduced me to the Fitbit. He is a music producer who works at home sitting at a console. The caveat du jour -“Sitting is the new smoking”- got under his skin and prompted his purchase of a wearable tracking device. He knew he was sedentary but when his Fitbit tallied a daily step total many thousands of steps fewer than recommended by the American Heart Association, he was truly shocked. Our psyche cannot be an objective observer or a reliable interpreter of bodily signals. These are the main reasons to contract with a third party to surveill your sorry ass. (n.b. Unlike Facebook, Fitbit is up front about the the fact that it is all about surveillance.) I am in my 7th decade and I jog in order to help me stay in shape to play squash. I do not love to run. As I pound the pavement, I am not filled with the joy of living and eagerly awaiting the rush of endorphins. When I am running my body/mind is always sending me signals to stop the madness. This is when I use my Fitbit. If my heartrate is above 140, I give myself permission to walk it down. If my heartrate is lower, that means I am simply feeling puny and I can accede to the puniness or push through it. Fitbit lets me calibrate my willpower.

To what end, you ask, do I attempt do direct my feckless will? My father lived most of his life feeling the precarity of an elevated heart rate. I have a resting heart rate that varies between 47 and 53 (according to Fitbit). Though I find this information soothing, I believe that only continued exercise will keep me soothed. I am not a cardiologist or an epidemiologist so I have no technical knowledge about any of this. My calculation is simple: the fewer beats per minute, the longer I will last. Magical thinking. I could die of a thousand different causes tomorrow, but today I get to feel like I have some agency in the determination of my life span.

Finally, there is the question of how we verify that a tree has fallen in the woods. My self and my self-conscious self have invited a third party to bear witness to our life. There is now an Other with awareness of my activity; interpreting my bodily signals, comparing them ceaselessly to abstract, objective standards and, finally, archiving them in the Cloud . When that witness is not in its usual observatory, I am no longer counted. I no longer count. There will be no record of my Sunday morning run in the digital Library of Alexandria. My version of Ratso Rizzo- “Hey, I was runnin’here!”- goes unobserved and unremarked. This Sunday’s run will not be immortalized.

Why, then, do it?

Reality Bares its Teeth, Postscript

During the post screening discussion of Grizzly Man, the anthropologist in the room asked “What kind of society produces a person like this?” Indeed…where is “self-invention” most valorized? Where is the mythology of the “rugged individual” still a folk notion with sway? Almost two hundred years ago, America’s radical individualism greatly concerned De Toqueville. He observed of Americans that:

Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine their whole destiny is in their own hands.

The atomism of American society that so bothered De Toqueville in 1735 has only grown more pronounced as industrialization eroded social bonds and lately neo-liberalism has conflated economic choices with “freedoms” (See my post here.) . Without communal resources to shape and limit self-determination, the American self coexists with a gnawing spiritual hunger the cure for which is often sought in bizarre self-invention, the blandishments of the charlatan or the fantastical pursuit of wealth or fame. Timothy Treadwell is a very American creation.

We have turned out a rich, a capitalist nation, a nation of worshipers of Mammon and hypocrites to all other Gods. . . . When our moneyed classes, especially during the Secession war and the great tidal wave of immigration of European laborers, found out that living and gathering riches on the half-paid toil of workers was a pleasant thing they had no further scruples. . . . They seemed as one man to adopt Vespasian’s famous maxim, “ill-gotten gains do not stink.” . . .

Even those of the disinherited class who gathered no capital, did not give up the hope that they might become capitalists… No one seemed to entertain for a moment the thought: who, is to furnish half-paid labor, if all are to be capitalists?… Our press, our pulpits, our popular orators are so utterly ignorant of real political economy that, whenever an Astor, Stewart, Vanderbilt or Stevens dies, they preach the gospel that every young man may, by following their shining examples, become a millionaire. This superstition dies hard, and this reason alone sufficiently accounts for the slow progress of our new scientific and practical efforts at organizing a labor party on just principles.

Source: “Facts to be Considered,” unsigned editorial, Labor Standard (New York) 16 June 1877.

Real Life Bares its Teeth

Recently, I watched Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man as part of the New School for Analytic Psychology’s Film series. Herzog tells the story of Timothy Treadwell who spent 13 summers camping in the backyard of Alaskan grizzly bears. At the end of his 13th summer, Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were eaten by a grizzly. Herzog’s documentary stitches together interviews with people who knew Treadwell, Treadwell’s own video selfies and readings from Treadwell’s journal. I saw the film weeks ago and I am still trying to psychically metabolize the dog’s breakfast of emotions it left in me.

Dog’s breakfast part one…
To be perfectly candid, I was mostly repelled by Treadwell. In his last summer in Alaska, I saw him as a vain 46 year old man with a blond Prince Valiant haircut. I watched him giving 1200 pound grizzly bears names (like “Rowdy” and “Mr. Chocolate”), and, from very few feet away, baby-talking to them as if they were skittish Schnauzers. Treadwell was not an autodidact naturalist (like Audobon or Darwin) trying to add his own field observations to the store of human knowledge about grizzlies. Though he filmed himself “living with the grizzlies” and cast himself as their friend and protector, he had no real interest in the bears except in so far as they related to him.

The bears tolerated him for 12 full summers. What I would view as indifference on their part, he took to be growing acceptance. He seemed to see himself as the producer, director and star of his own reality TV show (Timothy’s Love for Bears?). To hear him tell it, his was a grand enterprise. He returned every summer to “protect” the bears (in the protected enclave of Katmai National Park?). He details on camera the terrible damage a bear could do to him and goes on to make the claim to his audience that his campsite is the “most dangerous place in the world”; a secret place to which he alone has earned access. He preferred his summers with bears to life with people and was known to greet the odd human trespasser into his summer territory by huffing and bluff-charging like a bear.

He films a chilling fight between two male grizzlies over a female. Immediately afterward and only 20 yards away, he films himself reassuring “Mickey”(the losing bear), that he, Timothy Treadwell, was not going to try to take the female for himself …”yet”. To how many other creatures on the planet could such a thought occur? He so desired to be absorbed into Ursine Nature that he talked as if the timeless boundary between human and bear was a mere social convention subject to change.

Part two…
Though it is a struggle for me to excavate some more generous insights, I do have some. (more about that in part 3…).
Prior to his rebirth as grizzly man Treadwell had been another rootless American youth, fruitlessly seeking stardom in Hollywood. Painfully rejected on the cusp of stardom (he believed he just missed being cast on “Cheers”), drink and drugs almost killed him. He attributed his sobriety and recovery to his connection with the bears. He had found a higher purpose. Wouldn’t we all like a calling which is a union of our values, our passions and our action in the world? Treadwell found his calling. His affection for the bears, however bizarre by my lights, seemed genuine. He lived the way he wanted to live. Though he clearly desired recognition for his “work” (he appeared on David Letterman twice), he did not monetize his calling. There is something in all that to admire.

Though he left us over 100 hours of video footage, perhaps his major accomplishment was that he survived his own naivete for almost 13 summers. And for that, he earned a Wikipedia entry and was “immortalized” by Werner Herzog. One comes away from the film suspecting that Treadwell would have been satisfied by this legacy.

part three…

There is (and was) an undertow of shame to my reaction to this film. I am repelled by Treadwell’s delusive self-invention because it triggers a shameful memory of having lived a delusion of my own. As with Timothy, conversations with myself about the risks of my delusion went unheard. Such superficial rationality is swept aside by the overwhelming pull of one’s fantasies possibly coming true; the tug of life as you always imagined it. My delusion (All Grief Annealed in the Fountain of Youth?) did not put anyone’s life at risk but its shattering demise felt like a kind of death. As Timothy Treadwell found out, all delusions are death defying until they are not.

Simply put, “shame erupts because one is simultaneously “oneself” and something else”. We are beside ourselves and we don’t like what we see. We are not as smart as we think we are; we cannot control what will happen next; we are not as moral as we like to think we are. Though our consciousness is how we experience the Divine, our conscious self is both captious and credulous, determinate and inconclusive. We sidle away from the examination of our limits until Real Life bares its teeth and shreds our illusions. Part of me is sad for Timothy Treadwell. He was bereft of the communal resources needed to help him shape and find the limits of his self-determination. As a consequence, the death of his delusion was horrific. We are all profanely, shamefully mortal whether we cop to it or not.

Neoliberalism, Part 3, I’m gonna buy me a Mercedes Benz!

As Americans we are awash in the ‘freedom’ to choose; retail opportunities abound. We can select from a teeming cornucopia of entertainment options. We find it difficult to imagine life without the shallow but narcotic ‘liberty’ of channel surfing. We revel in the niche markets created for us because we have the ‘liberty’ to adopt the styles (of life, of clothes, of self expression) that we use to individuate ourselves; to create our personal brand. Thanks to an innovative, entrepreneurial ‘free’ enterprise system, we are deluged with what I will gloss as lower case ‘freedom’ (I will get to ‘Freedom’ later). As long as there are no barriers, we have ‘freedom’. We are free to buy cigarettes (if we are older than 18) and we are free to smoke them (in someplaces and not in others).

Because we have come more and more to define ourselves in terms of these narrow (and primarily commercial) ‘freedoms’, Americans are wont to object strenuously when we encounter any abridgement of our liberty. This very second, some Americans somewhere are outraged about a liberty denied or circumscribed: that they are required to purchase health insurance or can’t smoke in bars or can’t buy pot legally or can’t graze their cattle for free on public land or can’t take their AR-15 to the supermarket. Any political decision abridging a ‘freedom’ can be seen as an embarkation down the slippery slope to statism and slavery.*

The rhetoric of neoliberalism equates the freedom of shopping choice with political freedom; capitalism is talked about as economic democracy. Even a brief look at recent history and the world around us should disabuse of this naive view. The Bush administration and its avatar Paul Bremer were dumbfounded that the laissez faire “free enterprise zone” they created in Iraq failed to unleash Iraqi entrepreneurialism and provide the backbone for Iraqi democracy. A “free” market does not a polity make. The Chinese now have many of the economic ‘freedoms’ that Americans enjoy. No one is stopping the Chinese from buying a Biagio bag or a Mercedes Benz. But the Chinese people do not live in a democracy and do not have a soupcon of the political liberties that Americans or most Europeans enjoy. Capitalism does not a democracy make.

While I am “free” to buy a Meredes Benz, this freedom exists in a particular social, political and economic context. All Americans are ‘free’ to travel around the world; but how many Americans can afford this ‘freedom”? Much of the support that Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and the Brexiters mustered, comes from the dawning recognition that the government does not care that most of us live from paycheck to paycheck. Of what value is ‘freedom’ if your society has not fostered the kinds of social and economic conditions that allow “freedom” to be meaningful. If you are a poor American you are ‘free’ to stay that way and so are your children:

If you are born into a middle-class family in the United States, you have a roughly even chance of moving up or down the ladder by the time you are an adult. But the story for low-income Americans is quite different; going from rags to riches in a generation is rare. Instead, if you are born poor, you are likely to stay that way. Only 35 percent of children in a family in the bottom fifth of the income scale will achieve middle-class status or better by the time they are adults; in contrast, 76 percent of children from the top fifth will be middle-class or higher as adults.

To borrow a trope from Yeats, surely there is a greater “Freedom” at hand?

*This is a long lived American political meme that Richard Hofstadter dubbed the “paranoid style” of American politics and my Dad used to call “fluoride libertarianism”.

Dog Whistle, Part 2

These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.

Earlier this month, David Brooks wrote a column entitled “The Cost of Relativism”. Clearly, in his view, relativism is a dirty word. He accuses “relativism” of causing poverty but he only defines it as “nonjudgementalism”. Where does one find this “nonjudgementalism”? Who among us is non-judgemental? I would argue that all human beings who can function in their own society are judgmental. Each of us can function only when we can judge what behavior is “right” and what behavior is “wrong” for the kind of people “we” believe we are.

Let’s take for an example a stranger who appears at our front door. This situation calls for all kinds of “judgementalism”. Our visitor is a youngish, white male wearing a porkpie hat and pegged jeans. We have never seen him before, he is a perfect stranger.

First of all, we really don’t want to be surprised by the coming interaction, so we draw on the store of knowledge we have acquired directly about what “we” are like and what “they” (strangers) can be like. We then tap into our store of assumptions and feelings about strangers that we have learned from parents and peers. We need to judge whether our visitor is one of “us”. Based on what we can see, we judge that this stranger on our doorstep is probably American, probably talks like an American and probably will behave as most Americans do in this Seattle neighborhood of ours. We make some preliminary judgements based on gender and race. Because of his hat and garb, we sort through what we know and/or believe about “hipsters”. We whittle our general notion of potential male behavior down to this most specific example. We then begin to choose the “right” behavior that we judge this perfectly pegged stranger might be expecting from us.

New and even more complicated judgements are required if we are to enter into a closer relationship with this hipster. What if, for example, he is answering an ad we have placed for a business partner. Why is he is interested in our business? What are his motives? How might his motives be related to his own personal history, where he grew up and how he grew up? This perfect stranger could become the perfect business partner so perhaps we ought to suspend judgement on his slightly off-putting headdress. We don’t want to be hasty; we want to take his measure and figure out “where he is coming from”. Part of learning how to behave is learning how to juggle our judgements, when to suspend them, when to modify them and when to act on them.

This kind of mundane, daily behavior is simply the “cultural relativism” of anthropology writ small.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment celebrated the ability of human beings to think for themselves. Once unleashed, the power of critical thinking dissolved our devotion to a single “true” church and its pre-ordained world. The Enlightenment (in all its philosophical diversity) allowed us to harness hope to our own critical thinking. That is: If we can think, we can also imagine a better reality than the one we inhabit. Anthropology began as a quest to find out if an “other” might, in fact, inhabit a better world or at least give us some pointers about other ways to be human. Cultural relativism as a stance articulated by Western anthropologists suggests (simply) that in order to understand the “other” we need to suspend some of our judgements and try to understand another culture in its own terms. How do these “others” configure their environment? Order their social lives? What are their motives for why they act so differently? What does it mean to them to be “human”? Adopting this stance entails trying to experience human cultural diversity without (insofar as possible) jumping to conclusions based on our own parochial judgements. Why in hell is he wearing that porkpie hat?

This “relativism” I have described is a stance which allows us to hold our judgements lightly and to get over ourselves just enough to unleash the imaginative ability required to see strange people (the “others”) as fellow sufferers; as humans like us.

Ultimately, it is this basic imaginative ability that threatens David Brooks and the people to whom he is whistling. More to come.