See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Category Archives: Race

Courage in the Face of Charlottesville

So. How was your Saturday? Yeah. Me too. To recap: the political movement that we call the alt-right[1] scheduled a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville Saturday, ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Robert E. Lee. On Friday they held a pre-rally with what appears to be citronella Tiki torches to the mockery of most of the internet. It ended in a brawl with counter protesters and the police breaking up the fight. On Saturday, they started marching around noon but almost immediately clashed with police and counter protesters and were dispersed. At some point inside there, someone drove a car into a crowd, killing one person and injuring several others.

In sum: it was bad, but way less bad than it could have been. But one of the worst parts is how it has completely discombobulated everyone who isn’t an alt-righter. There is a war raging on my social media feed as my friends and loved ones fight over the best way to resistance the alt right presence. Mock them or take them deadly serious? Fight speech with speech or body with body? Behind these conflicts is a seemingly rational panic: they’re Nazis[2] the most evil and dangerous force history has ever known, we have to get it right, right? Maybe not.

It’s bad…

Something like Charlottlesville has been in my nightmares for a while now. In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, I was sincerely concerned someone would burn a cross on my lawn. My private estimate for this event was 6-9 months into Trump’s term. It would start somewhere around the inauguration: an emboldened force of racist lunatics would confuse Trump’s election as a sign they were a majority free to act as they please. They would cause incidents and either overwhelm or co-opt police resources. Left-wing activists would engage in counter-violence, leading to less radical right-wing racists to join the fight, who would in turn radicalize the left. A rising tide of racist violence and counter-violence would sweep the nation until it finally broke out into large scale armed conflict that we were destined to lose. That’s the nightmare scenario. But timing is everything.

…but it’s not that bad

We’re actually winning. It feels like we’re losing because of who is in the White House and the speed-of-Twitter pace we expect events to resolve at, but we’re winning. It took 7 something months of the Trump Presidency for the alt-right to gather enough power to put a whole 1,500 people for a jumped-up national Klan rally. While at that rally, the alt-right fused its public identity to those of Neo-Nazis and the KKK, robbing them of any patina of respectability. The established right in response, with one important exception, ran away from them as fast as they could. The one who didn’t is Trump. And while that matters, both Trump and the alt-right are rightfully being mocked for their pathetic nature and transparent teenage angst over the denied blowjobs they think they deserve. It’s rational to be afraid, even terrified, of what could happen. But if you were betting your money, would you bet on them? Look at how your feet are betting. We’re winning. Of course, the Union forces essentially won at Gettysburg, and it took two more years of military action to break their army and 15 decades and counting to put the Confederacy down for good.

Courage in the face of danger

Even the pathetic can be dangerous. In fact, that’s the great terror and power of firearms, automobiles, computers, and other deadly machines. They give power to the otherwise powerless and bridge the gap between idle hatred and murder yesterday. The means are everywhere and the opportunity is growing. And motive, well, they’ve obviously got plenty of that, right?

Maybe not. The alt-right, in addition to their psychological damage (the obsession with black men and the women that were never actually theirs, the front-row back-row kids angst, the toxic stew of pornography, frog memes, and ironic detachment) crave respect and power that they do not have within themselves. Our outrage is what gives it to them because deep inside they have less than nothing. In the seven some months it took them to get a whole fifteen hundred people to show up with citronella candles I’ve encountered them directly and indirectly. They’re pathetic. Genuinely totally and completely. They provoke with memes because they cannot stand being laughed at, know they cannot get your respect, so they soak up your outrage as their form of validation. They indulge in ironic detachment because a mere moment of sincerity could undo them. Laugh at them. Not merely to hurt them, but because you deny them motivation.

There is a continuity of people, men especially, that exist mostly on the far corners of our political spectrum, who are just waiting to prove themselves. Who want to prove that they have what it takes to fight the enemy. They want it so badly. It’s the anti-facists who dream of being the strong arm of a new civil rights movement. It’s the open-carry protestors dreaming of holding off sharia law. It’s the armchair revolutionaries talking about putting me against the wall when the reckoning comes and weekend warriors who will defend an America that doesn’t exist against the phantasmal threat of her own government.

They’ll never start the shooting on purpose. It won’t be a plan. Only by accident of circumstance. A guy screaming to his friends to hold him back who is unlucky enough to encounter another guy screaming the same thing when neither of their friends are bothering to hold them back. We shall resist them, but not with the opponent of their choice. And so we deny them opportunity.

We cannot take away every deadly machine. But we can do some more to restrict them and strip away their political power by making them toxic to every politician who contemplates utilizing their support and voting them out. By this we will deny them means.

Courage in the face of Charlottesville is not a passive acceptance of dangers to come, but a cultivated stillness in pursuit of victory.

Footnotes

[1] There are many, many, arguments about what we should call these people and why that are supposedly strategic in nature, but I’m going to call them the alt-right because 1.) that’s what they call themselves and 2.) it is in fact a mutant right-wing ideology whose particular components will be addressed later in the post.

[2] They are not Nazis. But given their ideological cocktail, plus their symbolism and possible organizational links, they’re Neo-Nazis.

Parallel Invaders, Post-Trump Redux

Much of my life has been a desperate chase for a particular feeling. It’s that moment where the ground shifts underneath me and everything becomes more clear than it was before. It’s as unsettling for me as anyone else, but I still love it. It’s my thrill seeking behavior, my only drug. I’m intellectually bungee-jumping and using this blog as my GoPro. Worse, I keep inflicting it on others, like these (fictional) cartographers did to C.J. Cregg:

I took my first bad trip late on November 8th, 2016. I’m still reeling from it. I’ve said it again and again today: the world has shifted underneath my feet. I have found myself in a place of fear and anxiety that exists entirely in the world instead of the recesses of my defective mind. My fear is bloodless and serious. It is measured, weighted and proportioned to the situation. I am afraid of a small but real subset of Trump supporters. True lunatics that I now estimate to be more frequent that previously supposed who gathered under a now victorious banner of repeatedly promised, repeatedly delivered bigotry.

I’m afraid of one of them burning a cross on my lawn.

That is probably not going to happen. I’m actually in pretty good shape. I’ve got a law degree and the self-protective powers that implies. While Michigan as a whole is probably going to end up in Trump’s column, my precinct is in Clinton’s. My neighborhood is getting browner, younger. It has long been wealthy and safe. The more likely result is that I face just a few more slurs, a few more but still blessedly rare moments of explicit bigotry as my son grows up through a momentarily wobble as the long arc of the universe bends towards justice. But that risk of actual racial violence, that low probability tail risk, involves an event so catastrophic the only rational choice is to take it seriously. My son is due to be born in the first 100 days of a Trump presidency. All existential risk has to be accounted for, and this risk is real.

The risk of being a direct victim of racial violence is real and is executed along a simple mechanism. There are some lunatic white people who hate people who look like me and want to start a race war.They have been partially held in check by strong signals that he rest of America, including the other white people, are not with them, that they do not have a permission slip from the powers that be to do what they want. That, no matter how much they didn’t think people who look like me belong in America, enough people who do think I belong in America were standing in the way. They are now receiving the opposite signal. It could very well be illusory (it isn’t) but that doesn’t matter nearly as much as what they perceive it as. So now I have to worry. Not just about my preferred direction of policy or American identity, but a more basic question of trust and safety. And I don’t know what these people look like. Well, actually I do, it’s telling them apart that’s the problem.

In this post I wrote about how many women reasonably perceive all men with great anxiety because the sexually dangerous men look exactly like the men who are not. Meanwhile, most men instead live in the parallel universe where sexual assault doesn’t happen – and predators use our ignorance to slip in between. I had no idea then I was writing a metaphor for my own sudden transition from a parallel universe where racial violence was mythical and rare to the reality that I am surrounded by the threat of it. I will look every at every new white face with apprehension. I will always be wondering if it is this one that will turn out to be the dangerous lunatic underneath a genteel surface. I don’t like it. I desperately want to go back to the moment before I fell into this awful world. But it’s real, the race warriors are real, and the unfairness to every decent white person I meet is also real.

This would have been true even if Clinton had squeaked out a win. Over fifty-nine million people sent or cosigned a signal that I’m not part of real America, that my job creating immigrant mother is a threat to their livelihoods, that my to be born an American son is a threat by his very existence to their children because of our skin.

I am faced with a choice of leaving my state, maybe my country or facing down the risk of racial violence every day. Of forcing my family to face that risk as I let my loud mouth attract unwelcome attention. If I have to leave America it isn’t because of disgust, but fear. I love my country. I love America. But the America that I’ve been standing in this whole time isn’t the America I thought it was, but instead the America with the shadows colored in, hiding predators. I have a duty to help bring the real America and transform it into the fantastical one, and I have a duty to keep my family safe.

I know I am not the only one who has to make that choice. And I know for many who do not have to make that choice, this sounds like the ravings of a bitter madman. But please, take our fears seriously. We’re not delusional – we just now stopped having our delusions.

The War on Racism May Not Be Won After All

I used to think that the war against racism had been won. That (with others) Martin Luther King Jr. had dealt the critical blow and won the decisive battle not so long ago. That his martyred spirit would guard the victory into eternity. That all that was left would be the decades long mopping-operation where we as a society moved on from racism to slowly dismantling the booby-trapped structures and systems that racism left behind. It is ugly, painstaking, divisive work, but it is planned along a schedule of inevitability. Alas, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

The forces of racism have counterattacked in force. They have tapped their reserves, they have recruited partisans, and they have struck with their guerrillas. And now, the bolstered forces of racism – ugly, no modifier, hunting for a race war racism – think they have not merely infiltrated but seized control of the party of Lincoln. They think they’re about to march on Washington to take it over.

They may be right.

We are too used to arguing about whether and how to dismantle each bit of structural racism. That is an important fight, especially now that we no longer are on the schedule of inevitability but upon the question of never. But it is not the most important fight. The enemy is at the gates. Racism is coming for us, and it would be well pleased if we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, all just to bludgeon each other. It’d be so easy.

Racism is an idea and thus immortal. But though it cannot be killed, it can be beaten. Racism can be captured from our hearts and left to rot alone in well-guarded closets when it cannot. Racism can be undermined, it can be weakened, it can and it must be routed.

But none of those things will happen unless we can first repel racism’s foot soldiers as they march upon our capital. None of those things will happen until we band together to do it. We do not have to abandon our struggles over whether and how to dismantle the structures of racism, but the when for continuing that argument must be in the future if it is to have a future. We will not dismantle the structures of racism when the enemy has taken control of the land.

So come, friends. Put down your pens for but a moment so you can take them up in service; by each other, with each other, and for each and every other.

A History of Saying “No Thank You” to Immigrants

Our country is engaged in two of her three sacred Thanksgiving traditions: gorging ourselves during a big family meal and ironically displaying unjustified fear of migrants as we remember the first harvest of early European migrants.[1] About this time last year President Obama made a big speech[2] announcing a now-stalled reform of our immigration system and people lost their damn minds about the rule of law and them coming to take our jobs. Two weeks ago, European-born Islamists made a series of terrorist attacks that Daesh[3] has claimed responsibility for. In response, 29 Republican governors and 1 Democratic governor, starting with my own state’s Governor Synder[4], announced their intent block Federal government attempts to settle Syrian refugees because a terrorist will sneak in or something through the 2 year process. You know, the victims fleeing the war wrecked misery caused in large part by Daesh. This is a profound moral failing. A moral failing deeply institutionalized into our law and culture. And it persists because there is a political benefit to stoking the predictable knee jerk fear of outsiders.

Our immigration system is badly flawed; not just in a technocratic sense, but as the result of malicious policy choices. It caters to racists, nativists, and cowards. It does so by throttling immigration by country of origin, “securing the border” and expelling “subversives. It doesn’t make you a racist, nativist, or coward if you support that system, but it does mean that if you support that system you end up helping racists, nativists and cowards. As an inevitable consequence we have massive permanent underclass of illegal immigrants.

Let me now state that I am the child of two immigrant parents. My wife’s parents were refugees who were in danger because of a failed American war. I’m not coming from a place of objectivity and I won’t pretend otherwise. So what follows (and preceded) is certainly editorialized, but it Is also as precise and accurate as I can manage. For convenience, I will also be referring to refugees, long term nonimmigrant visitors, and immigrants all as “immigrants” despite the legal and sociological differences between the groups. If they’re coming here for a better life than where they were, they’re immigrants enough for our discussion.

My parents and my wife’s parents were able to enter the United States legally through the front door, but they had very little to do with it. My parents are Chinese by way of Taiwan and the Philippines they had good grades and worked hard and applied to college, sure, but they were also politically approved by the Americans, because we liked Taiwan and the Philippines and we didn’t care much for Communist China. My wife’s family fought (via a CIA operation) on the American side of the Vietnam War in exchange for a land of their own when the Americans kicked the commies out of ‘Nam. It didn’t work out so great when America pulled out in defeat. It still took dedicated lobbying and the sponsorship of Christian missionaries to get America’s direct allies over, never mind their families. American politics had a whole lot more to do with our families making it over here than our families did, despite all of the things they did to earn the right to come over. The front door is illusory, crushed by the tight fist of nativist politics. Immigrants manage to slip in through the cracks by luck and pluck. And that’s all that’s left for them now, despite modern America being built on a massive spike in immigration.

The old system lasted between 1921 and 1965, starting with the appropriately named Immigration Act of 1921. The system worked like this: to preserve the American character of our society and secure our border from “homosexuals”, “idiots”, “feeble-minded persons”, “criminals”, “epileptics”, “insane persons”, alcoholics, “professional beggars”, all persons “mentally or physically defective”, polygamists, and anarchists, no more than 3% of the immigrant population could come from any single country of origin, which biased immigration significantly towards West and Northern Europe.[5] This formula was revised in 1924 to lower the rate to 2% and to eliminate citizenship by naturalization from certain places of origin. This had the not at all coincidental effect of keeping out the following Un-American troublemakers:

  • East Asians
  • Arabs
  • Indians
  • South East Asians
  • Africans
  • Southern Europeans
  • Eastern Europeans
  • Jews

Latin America got an unlimited pass because they provided cheap farm labor.

Under the 1924 Act, Asian immigrants were specially barred by classifying them as non-white. This referenced the Naturalization act of 1790, which restricted naturalization to so called free whites of good character.[6] That specific part of the 1924 Act was called Asian Exclusion Act. That passed less than a hundred years ago.

In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act finally abolished the racial restrictions of the 1790 Act, but kept the racial/ethnic preferences designed into the national origin caps while ratcheting up the paranoid barriers against suspected “subversives” with the wrong politics. Harry Truman vetoed the act over the political tests and quotas citing many “examples of the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of our 1924 law. In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.”

In a remarkable show of bipartisan can-do, the 82nd Congress, led by two Democrats, overrode Truman’s veto. Senator McCarran, one of the co-sponsors left us this gem of wisdom:

I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished. I take no issue with those who would praise the contributions which have been made to our society by people of many races, of varied creeds and colors. […] However, we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain.[7]

As a result our system went from explicit racism in preferring whites of “good character” to a slightly more-subtle xenophobia expressed by hand-wringing about all those who refuse to adapt to the American way of life.

In 1965, the national origin quota system was finally replaced with the precursor to our modern preference based system. The new system discarded national preferences in favor of selecting highly skilled migrants and those with family already present.[8] Except it applied the national origin quota system to our visas, which is the first step in coming over as a tourist, worker, or immigrant. There was a hard cap for 170,000 per year created for those originating in the Eastern Hemisphere. There was a hard cap of 120,000 for the Western Hemisphere, with unlimited access for a few favored nations. With some adjustments, we are still using this system today. The bill’s sponsors promised that very little would change as far as the demographic mix of the United States. They were wrong.

The 1965 act heralded a massive rush of immigration to the United States. It created the America we are living in now. My mother was one of the lucky 170,000 year to be allowed a student visa so she could attend school here, work hard, raise a family, and create jobs. My father was allowed to come here and work as a doctor, running the lab and helping surgeons hunt and destroy cancer.

Opponents of immigration defend their position as taking care of the people who are here already as their primary obligation. Well, it turns out immigrants lower prices, create jobs, and help keep you alive. My parents are just one example of many at the highly skilled end.[9] The deliberately cultivated importation of farm laborers from Latin America is another. Our immigration system doesn’t protect the people already here. It hurts them. It tries to deport them. It is in a real sense, the most unsuccessful wasteful and racially discriminatory affirmative action program yet conceived, rewarding legacy European immigrants and punishing poor Latinos who have the hustle necessary to work hard in the illegal immigrant underclass.

Even when the fear of nebulous and omnipresent undesirables, subversives, and now terrorists isn’t hopelessly tainted by politics and racism, it turns out throttling immigration and securing the border doesn’t help much anyway. If you shut out refugees, they come through as skilled workers. You shut out skilled workers, they pose as family members. You ban all new people from coming in, they sneak in. You button up the border, and they laugh and have someone on the inside kill you anyway. You have lost much and gained nothing but fear. Daesh is a malicious idea, not a diffuse people group. That idea can spread over the internet with deadly consequence without the bother of sending over a bomber across the border. We’ve created a cruel, complex, and punitive system and have gotten nothing of worth out of it.

Don’t believe me? Look up the details yourself. Try to follow the immigration process from start to finish and see if you can even comprehend it. Try to comprehend the difference between immigrant and nonimmigrant visas. Try to imagine marrying the person you met in college, and then being interrogated by overworked case officers under inhuman directives about whether your marriage is genuine. Imagine that marriage breaking up under economic strain and infidelity later and you being held up as an example of someone who married as fraud. and then have the failure of that marriage be used as proof of your fraud. Try to imagine coming over to visit family, only to find out you’ve broken the law when you stayed an extra day to help out with the new baby. Try to imagine laboring in America and trying to apply for legal presence, only to find out you have to find the money to fly back to your country of origin and apply there – a home you may never want to see again. And why? Because rules are rules my dear. It says so right on the notice the immigration officials – the ones who are supposed to deport you – send to your apartment.

Yeah, immigration enforcement is a bizarre bit of kabuki. I mean, so often they know where you are. And if you don’t show up to your deportation hearing it’s not like they’re going to send the border patrol after you. They’re busy. Unless you’re a violent offender, anyway. Oh, the consequences are pretty bad for your long term plans so it’s better to show up, but we care a whole lot less than we say we do. Then again, maybe you should be in the country. Maybe you’re not an illegal at all, but an undocumented refugee. So you show up at your immigration hearing, and in your accented English you try to explain to the immigration judge your situation. But the judge is a lawyer and has a legal checklist to follow and there is another government lawyer in the room talking to him. Her job is to make the case against you. If you’re lucky, a non-profit activist or lawyer noticed you on your way in. If not, you’re on your own. You don’t know how to make your case and you go to back to the hell you nearly bankrupted your family to escape from. Your children will never see you again.

Let me make this clear. In our immigration courts, where the consequences for failing to attend are not prioritized, there is a government lawyer whose job it is to try to kick out people who may be bona fide refugees and send them back to hell.

Right now Syria is hell, and Americans have no small part in it becoming that way. We have a bunch of Governors trying to block Federal policy because they’re concerned about the potential of someone sneaking in through a two-year process. It’s not just that it’s worth the risk. It’s that the risk reduction in eliminating or strengthening the system is so negligible as to be nonexistent. But it’s good politics. You get to sound tough. It’s easy to sound tough when all you’re hurting are voiceless and voteless immigrants.

Immigrants work for you and I and the tomorrow of our children. Immigrant soldiers bleed on our battlefields, immigrant laborers sweat in our farms and immigrant children dream the American dream when so many Americans are too cowardly to hope for a better tomorrow. Did your forefathers live and die to give you a better life in this country or do you think they lived and died so you can give other people a worse one? What kind of thankfulness is it to count your blessings to be American and free while shutting out new Americans?

Footnotes

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Martin Luther King Jr. and Max Weber

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a powerful and much criticized piece criticizing calls for non-violence in the wake of the Baltimore unrest. Once again, NPR has done some stellar reporting. Robert Siegal pushed back hard, as he should have, but he also gave Coates plenty of room to explain his thinking. It’s a good interview, go listen to it.

What struck me the most was Coates invocation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s rejection of the Vietnam War late into his life. If you’re going to advocate non-violence, Coates seems to be saying, then you can’t be OK with state violence. Not just abusive cops, but the violent decisions made in law to incarcerate black men.

Look, Coates almost certainly knows what King had to say better than I am. And I’m probably suspiciously similar to the white moderate King lamented. But I think Coates seems to have forgotten something important. King wasn’t just about non-violence. He was talking about non-violent resistance as a form of civil disobedience. The “civil” in civil disobedience is not about polite protest. Civil disobedience is noisy, disruptive and unsettling. But it also (if only implicitly) concedes the necessity and validity of civil order, of law and government.

From Martin Luther King Junior’s famed Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

King was comparing segregationist laws to an external standard of right and wrong, specifically that of God, but what’s important is that he is attacking a law or several laws, not the concept of law itself. The thing is, you can’t talk about earthly law without talking about violence, because all law comes from the power of violence.

If you sue someone (let’s presume they deserved it) under a right given to you by law you are using violence. How you ask? Well the court isn’t giving you money when you win, it gives you a judgement instead and the other guy is supposed to pay up. But if the other guy doesn’t? You go to a sheriff who seizes property from the other guy. Like their house or something. And if the guy doesn’t want to give it up? The sheriff takes it anyway. And if the guy resists, he gets thrown in jail. If the other guy resists violently, he gets shot.

“He gets shot” is the final step in every legal right you have against the world. The court dictates what is yours through law, which also dictates that the state may use violence to enforce that right, and none may use violence against the state’s agents to resist. The state not only is violent, it has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. If that legitimacy is lost, the state has failed.

This isn’t some outlandish theory by the way, its the modern definition of the state originally proffered by Max Weber, who among other things, is one of the three founders of sociology. Inexplicably, otherwise well educated young ideologues are unfamiliar with this concept. It’s certainly an idea that King would have tussled with in his time (influenced as he was by Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Christian Realist) and in some ways, Coates as well.

Coates

There are many problems with expecting people trained in crime-fighting to be social workers. In the black community, there is a problem of legitimacy. In his 1953 book The Quest For Community, conservative Robert Nisbet distinguishes between “power” and “authority.” Authority, claims Nisbet, is a matter of relationships, allegiances, and association and is “based ultimately upon the consent of those under it.” Power, on the other hand, is “external” and “based upon force.” Power exists where allegiances have decayed or never existed at all. “Power arises,” writes Nesbit, “only when authority breaks down.”

African Americans, for most of our history, have lived under the power of the criminal-justice system, not its authority. The dominant feature in the relationship between African Americans and their country is plunder, and plunder has made police authority an impossibility, and police power a necessity

No one can usefully deny Coates’s observation that police legitimacy has eroded or never existed within many, if not most black communities, but this notion that legitimacy is impossible is not merely depressing. It means that the eventual end to create a society that can treat African Americans justly is to eliminate “this country”. And Coates forgets or ignores that authority is the authority to use force, and in the use of force, one can create legitimacy. You shoot someone that’s a genuine and imminent threat to your neighbors and you will gain legitimacy as an authority.

But perhaps more to the point, I don’t think most black Americans actually agree with Coates that the state is illegitimate. Whatever their frustrations, it seems like most black folks don’t want the state destroyed or gone, they want it to work. I know of no other way to explain the veritable relief that seems to reverberate, live, on television, when it’s announced that the Federal government is intervening, a civil rights lawsuit is coming, a better cop has arrived.

We can’t and we don’t treat violence by cops and violence against cops the same, whatever the intelligentsia manage to slap together in an angry Sunday column or whatever a punk white kid slaps together on a sign denouncing “AmeriKKKa”. If they are morally equivalent, if cops just happen to be an incumbent gang of thugs with badges, then why bother being angry? No, the offense is that we sense that the cops have betrayed our trust, and threatened the legitimacy of the state’s hold on violence, on which our lives are all ordered. I mean, if you’re reading this, you have the internet and thereby a stake in functioning states. And we have a stake in America, not in AmeriKKKa. The rage is in people failing so badly to meet the standards of America. The rage is the satire of Jon Stewart, the comic who loves what America ought to be, and is at its core that he tore it to shreds four nights a week.

And that’s why I’m pushing back on Coates, and I think why Robert Siegal pushed back. I don’t know Coates, person from a hole in the ground, but I love Coates, writer and social critic. And I love this country. I think Coates does too. And disobedience in pursuit of justice is an action of love.

You Cannot But Choose a Side

Steven Inskeep did a radical act of reporting for NPR’s Morning Edition – he talked to people on the ground. Inskeep went to Baltimore and instead of fitting the situation into the narrative about black victims of white police power he asked the locals what they thought. The locals (or at least these locals) are not impressed with the rioters-cum-protesters and similarly unconvinced it’s about race. With a police force that is about 50% black, they finger something else: class. But the disagreement isn’t just about a root cause analysis, but about struggle for ownership of black identity and “the community”.

When we use “culture” or worse “the community” to signify a coherent group, we’re doing an act of violence, a bit of construction, a smoothing over of disagreements. Anyone part of a church knows there are disagreements. Or an industry group. Or a neighborhood. Or a potlock group. These groupings can have real power when people signify them as , say, the Christians and “Christian beliefs”, the industry, and “industry standards”, or the neighborhood and the “character of the neighborhood”. That smoothing over, the act of category construction is inevitable, necessary, and dangerous.

Factions are inevitable and healthy and ignored by outsiders to their peril. On some level, this is understandable because it is complicated. On the other, it is infuriating, because it is complicated and important. Within the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, you see that factional struggle in how black folks talk about it. Are they riots, or is it an uprising? Do they side with the mother berating her child for participating, or advocate for more violence in protection of the community? The struggle in and among and between blacks can be seen and felt in the newspaper columns and the Facebook timelines. And everyone else is going to end up picking the winner.

Something that every racial minority knows implicitly is that factional struggles within our race are won by convincing whites and our victories are enforced by co-opting whites. When whites talk about Asian values of hard work and discipline, they sided with my parents over the 5th generation Chinese in California. When whites wring their hands about cultural appropriation of minority cultures, they side with the isolationists within those minority cultures over the assimilationists and boundary pushers. When whites make yoga a fashion statement and daily exercise, they side with the physical focused Hindu traditions over the spiritually focused Hindu traditions. When whites complain about Christian bigotry, they empower traditionalists over liberal Christians. When whites call ISIS the Islamic State, they side with the violent extremists against the Muslims who curse and mock Daesh. These choices are almost never made to make one faction the victor. In fact, these choices are most often made ignorant of that dynamic. But you cannot help but choose. The moment you, as a culturally powerful outsider, essentialize another culture, you finger one faction as the true, authentic representative of that culture.

I am not black. I do not have a personal stake in the outcome of the factional struggles within black communities, social circles, and media outlets. But I am affected by the struggle, because the fight isn’t quarantined to black folk. We are all in this society together. However much we segregate ourselves and each other, whether maliciously or emergently, by class, or race, or any other marker, we cannot change the fact that our destinies are bound together.

For many things I (we) can and must remain neutral on. But often we have choice thrust upon us, factional allegiance hides itself inside image memes, complaints about media narratives and inspirational quotes. So when I must choose, I do not on harming my political rivals or supporting my ideology, or for or against the Powers. I choose instead based on who I want as part of my community, my neighborhood, and my potluck group at my dinner table. I choose the people I want in my schools, and the people who I want to have children so that my children can be friends with them. To choose another way would be to concede to the factions that favor undifferentiated rage and destruction. To condemn the city’s protesters as thugs is to empower those who would have black folk be nothing but a predatory animals. To excuse the violence as justified rage is to empower those who would have black folk be nothing but an abused animal.

You cannot but choose a side. Choose wisely.

Emergent Evil, Perspective, and Responsibility

In these last couple weeks, I’ve been circling around a recurring theme of the complexities of responsibility for evil. When we talk about particular evils that are in the world, the stakes and baggage tends to cloud up our discussions, so I’d like turn to the weightless world of video games as a venue to examine evil and who is responsible for it.

In video game design, there is a lot of talk about designing games with emergent gameplay instead of curated gameplay. Curated gameplay is what most people think of when they think of a video games: game designers provide a top to bottom engineered experience, scripted to suit the beginning, middle, and end of the game’s story. When you play, say, Mario Bros., you run through the same levels, interacting with the same enemies, entering the same castles where your princess is still not available for rescue. Emergent gameplay, on the other hand, occurs when designers create a set of game mechanics and rules, and player interaction with those rules and each other causes complex game systems to emerge.

A particularly interesting example of emergent gameplay occurs within EVE Online, a MMPORG best described as a nightmarish combination of multiplayer Sid Meier’s Pirates! in space! and Microsoft Excel. Within the EVE Online game space there have emerged complex societal and financial transactions, specialized roles, and factions made entirely of players creating their own norms and behaviors, without the benefit of the computerized game to enforce them.1 That’s pretty amazing, but it comes with an enormous amount of bad, anti-social behavior, even virtual crimes. Players will often find their in-game avatars killed for the amusement of other players, have their assets stolen by supposed friends, and a whole host of advanced predation. It isn’t just virtual reputation and blood, sweat, and tears at stake either, virtual in-game cash is sufficiently fungible to turn into out-of-game currency.

The game designers respond to all of this predation by smiling and disclaiming responsibility.2 Perhaps this is disingenuous. After all, the designers of EVE Online chose to create a mostly lawless environment, and then they encouraged players to take advantage of it. Surely then, they have some sort of responsibility for the predators they enable. But, wouldn’t there also be a special sort of responsibility, perhaps even an intervening one, for the predators who take advantage of that lawless environment? Aren’t the designers of EVE Online less responsible for the emergent predation that they could not have foreseen compared to the ones they foresaw or even encouraged?

When I criticized Ta-Neisi Coates’ Case for Reparations, I focused on his vague, even incoherent, description of the reparations themselves. This incoherence stemmed from his treatment of the different sorts of predation he cataloged. From slavery, to redlining by Federal Housing Administration (FHA), to contract sellers, to rogue grand juries to lynchings, Coates never paused to dwell on the diversity of bad actors, treating sovereigns and mob members alike. When the contract sellers preyed on Black families in North Lawndale, was the city of Chicago (or the FHA, or the realtors or…) curating that evil, or did it emerge?3 The Case for Reparations clearly demonstrated that the FHA directly and maliciously harmed Blacks with redlining, and redlining gave rise to an environment where predators thrived. It is not clear however, that contract sellers were cultivated or merely emerged as an unhappy accident.

Emergent evils were at work in a different way during Elliot Rodger’s lethal rampage on a UC Santa Barbara sorority. Rodger was apparently spurred on by his misogyny and frustration with his “involuntary celibacy”. Rodger’s evil was emergent, doubly so. There is little doubt in my mind that Rodger was mad, but his madness filtered through a cultural substrate, colored, glossed, and tweaked by the particular sorts of horrors our society produces at its fringes.4 Just as the paranoid take unconscious inspiration from the news and TV shows to imagine themselves the unwitting stars of reality television, Rodger’s rage was stewed in misogyny and a toxic sort of masculinity. In response to Rodger’s attack on women, many women went online to share their perspectives and experience using the hashtag #YesAllWomen 5 The common thread that emerged throughout the tweets was an overwhelming sense of fear of predation by men. Not all men, but not any particular man or group of men either.

The Rogers of the world are not the fault of Patriarchal video-game-of-life designers using the Rogers of the world as their victim-assailants on women.6 The appearance of such a design is illusory, the result of invisible strands of culture taking hold as they tug, shift, and channel ideas, even with the supposed puppet masters of our society. The commonality of experiences do not indicate a commonality of cause, a conspiracy of predation. To what degree are the Rodgers of the world and other threats to women emergent and what to degree are they curated? That is the sort of question that doesn’t get answered much by those advocating social justice, and while I have plenty of uncharitable guesses as to why, the fairest explanation seems to be that from the victim’s perspective, whether predators emerged or were curated is pretty unimportant. The victimization happens either way, and whether implicitly or explicitly, social justice advocates are advocating on behalf of victims.

It does matter whether the threats from men described in the #YesAllWomen tweets were emergent or curated, and it matters whether the contract sellers emerged or were curated. Not just because that will shed light on who the villain, if any, of the tale is. If social justice advocates speak for the victims, and lawyers speak on behalf of the accused, it leaves the rest of us as third parties. Paying attention to whether evils are emergent gives an accurate and precise description of the how and why of the problem at hand. If you’re in the business of making the world a better place, an accurate and precise description of a problem puts you a well designed and implemented machine away from solving that problem.

That problem has to be solved. Both #YesAllWomen and the Case for Reparations drove home experiences held in common that have infected the very warp and woof of the daily life of too many people. Emergent evil is not satisfying theory of those crimes, and it is not meant to be. To recognize emergence is to recognize that very few are actually guilty. In fact, emergence can produce good as well as evil, so it also denies us many heroes. But if a theory of emergent evil denies an illusory justice for victims, it does not deny that there are victims. Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that “[f]ew are guilty, but all are responsible.” Emergence denies guilt, but it does not absolve us of our responsibility.

Footnotes

Ta-Neisi Coates and the Wages of Supremacy

Ta-Neisi Coates has written a long and provocative deep-think piece entitled “The Case for Reparations”, his “take on the Atlantic as a Journal of ‘Big Ideas'” and it is a tour-de-force. Please, read the whole thing, summaries can’t do it justice. That goes double for those of you who are not interested in the underlying case, Coates tells a lot of important stories along the way, and his writing is an artistic treasure. Don’t miss it.

I was deeply moved upon reading The Case for Reparations. The article follows multiple threads, historical events as told by both experts and by those who survived them. I now have a deeper appreciation for the damage done to black America by America, in all the meaningful senses of the term, and I can begin to sense the hazy boundaries of how ignorant of it I really am. Much as I was informed, I was challenged; as I was challenged, I was compelled; but despite being compelled, I remain unconvinced. This is because that Coates’ argument is not valid, (in the formal logic sense, not the internet shouting match sense) but his assertions are true.1 He has proven a great deal, just not out what he set out to do. I worried that I was nitpicking – letting a mind shaped by years of formal argumentation training miss out on the substance of the article. The article reads like a documentary more than a brief after all. Coates is not just telling stories, he described his article as “an argument in support of reparations” in a blog posting, describing the evolution of his thinking.
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No Disclaimers

The internet is a wondrous non-place for folk like me. Take an insatiable sense of curiosity, add the attention span of that dog from Up 1 and unlimited fountain of free content, and you’ll find me bouncing from trying to write something more substantive on Don Sterling beyond the obvious,2 to doing my daily Serious Reading on The Dish to catching up on Facebook to watching some musicians absolutely kill the theme songs to Ducktales and Pokemon as 90’s R&B slow jams to thinking hard about some life choices I’ve made in regards to race and faith. We’re going to talk about the last one, but first, we gotta catch ’em all.

You’re welcome.

Anyway, whether because of her singing chops, looks, or the sheer ease of researching anybody on the internet, I went ahead and clicked my way around and discovered that Andromeda Turre has been having trouble with the New York singles scene:

I’m single. And I live in NYC. And I’m really busy just like everyone else here, so I decided to give Internet dating a try. In the midst of the flood of ever-creative messages simply reading “hi” or “let’s chat,” there were an overwhelming number of messages asking: “What are you?”

I’ve gotten that question a few times myself. My personal favorite variant is “where are you from?” which I face commonly enough that I’m no longer shocked, and rare enough that I don’t get upset about it, unless I get skeptical looks when I reply “Michigan.” 3 Before long I find myself saying “I’m Chinese. Well, an ABC – American Born Chinese.” Turre knows the score too:

I’m a woman. I’m a New Yorker (yes, I was born here). I’m American. I’m human.

If I was Borg, I’d be one of two. Because as far as I know, there are only two people in the world with my particular ethnic mix. Myself and my brother.

I’m a singer. I’m a songwriter. I’m a fashionista.

I’m a Christian, but I’m open-minded. I hate that I have to say that I’m a Christian that’s open-minded.

I’m the “other” check box.

Apparently, I’m exotic… good thing I like birds so I don’t mind this stupid saying so much.

I’m complicated.

Right there, there in the middle, in the midst of this good but harmless little piece on the complexities of race in America, Turre managed to offend and shame me simultaneously. Once more for those who missed it. – See infra>