A collaboration worth noting

Here it is. Worst nightmare for 1960s segregationists and 2020 woke progressives. A white southerner joining a black singer to do a song by a white British band who were mainly influenced by African-American music. The layers of cultural appropriation is dizzying. The white guys involved don’t seem to know they are supposed to self-identify as racists, and the black guys don’t seem to know they’re supposed to resent the white guys. They are all just digging the collaboration, celebrating each other’s input. May those who have taken a wrong turn to the left and those who have taken a wrong turn to the right find this spirit again someday! (Click image for link.)

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The content of their character

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
(Martin Luther King)

If only we could get this down. Some conservatives suggest that laws have been changed to make discrimination illegal and thus we are already there (in effect, we ARE judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin). Some woke progressives suggest, on the contrary, that the remark points to a distant future, so far removed from the present that it is a mistake to try to apply it today in our everyday lives.

I think each of these views is somewhat myopic. I think the best way to look at it is this: MLK’s rule is a starting point for the individual and an endpoint for society. If we each start now, with the people we meet on the street today, to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of the skin, if we each follow the well-known paraphrase of Gandhi to “be the change you want to see in the world,” we will be taking the necessary first step on the path that ultimately ends with the society Dr. King envisioned. So don’t make the mistake of thinking there is not much work left to be done on the road to racial equality and harmony, but don’t make the perhaps even larger mistake of not applying the MLK rule in your personal life today.

Those are my thoughts. Additional thoughts and comments welcome.

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Why I do and don’t fear (for) my progressive friends

Between the general disgust with Donald Trump and the specific outcry over the George Floyd killing, revolutionary momentum is building, and the possibility of social transformation seems more within grasp than at any time since the 1960s. This might be a good time to review the things that stoked the 1960s radicalism of Martin Luther King and the hippies for both inspiration and cautionary checks.

Of the various rhetorical angles one might bring, I’ll bring this one. Let’s say I’m a 1960s radical fired up about the 2020 movement but fearing that progressives have made some wrong turns. I’d express those fears as below, not to derail the movement but to prevent it from being derailed, not to push the movement back but to push the dialectic forward through counterpoints. Here are the wrong turns, as they might seem to a 1960s radical.

1. We were for chaotic free speech, rough and tumble, for wider freedom to think, speak, dress, and live in whatever unconventional arrangements you choose. Today’s woke progressives seem too much in favor of policing dissent and standardizing options to their own norms. We wanted to obliterate the cultural police; they want to BE the cultural police.
2. While acknowledging race, we struggled to remove race as the definitive marker of identity, to sort and judge people by values/character; today’s woke progressives seem to have restored race as the definitive marker of identity, sorting people into racial boxes and giving moral tags to the boxes. This may not be the intent, but beware lest you let the devil back in through the side door.
3. We saw a recognition of shared humanness (“they” love their kids, laugh, cry, like “we” do) as the antidote to distrust and bias across racial lines; today’s woke progressives seem to see “shared humanness” as a white supremacist conspiracy designed to elide black identity.
4. We worked to marginalize racists and racism; they seem to seek and magnify it everywhere. E.g., when I think of how over the years, I (white) have had black roommates in two different states, I believe by woke standards (parsing for white privilege and white fragility) I am racist because I look back and see only good friendship there, not insidious racial dynamics. I can think of no better way to reverse the gains in consciousness we’ve made since the 1960s than to re-read every instance of cross-racial love, friendship, and collaboration as an expression of insidious racism.
5. We sought to fix persistent racial inequality by identifying with each other across racial lines based on values, not skin color – with a rainbow coalition for justice and equality on one side and those clinging to an unjust status quo on the other. Today’s woke progressives seem to reinstall the battle lines between black and white, or blackness and whiteness. (There is nothing that old-school racists would like better than to peel off whites who would join the cause of racial justice by recasting that cause as a black vs. white battle.)
6. With regard to feminism, we sorted people into those (male and female) who were pushing for equality and those clinging to an unjust status quo. Today’s woke progressives seem to redraw the battle lines as female versus male. (There is nothing that old-school sexists would like better than to drive a wedge between women and progressive men by redrawing the battle line as female vs. male.)
7. With regard to gender and sexual preferences, our instinct was to obliterate all categories and let everyone enjoy whatever consensual arrangements they like, without sorting them into morally tagged boxes. Today’s woke progressives seem to continually generate more and more gender boxes for sorting people, tagging each box with a moral tag or victimhood level, and encouraging each group to defend the wall around its segregated turf.
8. We were (implicitly) in favor of all forms of “cultural appropriation” in every direction. Bust open the cultural lockboxes and play with each other’s stuff, continually wear the other’s shoes – black, white, female, male, every ethnicity and sexual orientation – incorporate, collaborate, and share a laugh when cultural cross-pollination becomes clumsy, as it often will. Woke progressives seem to prefer that each demographic circle the wagons and guard its turf against cultural appropriation. Applied to the arts, this wrong turn is especially devastating. When creatively identifying with people from other races and genders becomes the #1 cultural sin, we’ve pretty much lost everything the Civil Rights movement stood for. Whereas the “truism” today seems to be that whites cannot know the heart of blacks, Asians cannot know the heart of Hispanics, etc., 1960s radicals felt that we CAN and SHOULD see into each other’s hearts across those stupidly reified lines of race and gender, that we really ARE brothers and sisters under the skin, and that indeed all our future hopes lie in that very recognition that heart-to-heart human connection is not limited by race. I.e., we were radically integrationist in a way that must horrify today’s conservatives and woke progressives alike.
9. We were for extending the universal rights and truths of the Enlightenment, however belatedly, to all peoples. They seem to reject the universal rights and truths of the Enlightenment as features of white supremacy, and prefer tribal (“you can’t know my truth because you don’t look like me”) rights and truths. To us, tribal rights and truths are the causes of distrust and bias across groups, not the solution to distrust and bias across groups.

Why I don’t fear (for) my progressive friends

1. Our long-term vision is the same – a harmonious multicultural society, comfortable with diversity, free from shame and self-loathing on any side, in which we recognize that we are all on spaceship Earth together and are able to celebrate our differences as well as our shared humanness.
2. There is a growing sense that rather than clinging to the left in an old left-right paradigm, people are ready to break the whole paradigm. This means breaking the grip of leftwing Establishments as well as rightwing Establishments. The left still has a hold on the progressive movement, but there is something in the air to suggest that progressives may soon break that hold and cross a new horizon line.
3. There is a gap between the intelligentsia of woke progressivism (in academia) and the grass roots progressives on the street that warrants optimism. Many of my fears above are rooted in the formulations of critical race theory (and critical theory as applied to women and other identity groups). These think-tank products are almost invariably divisive and counterproductive, enforcing a sense of identity defined by race and gender, drawing ever sharper lines and fomenting animosity between them. The kids on the street seem already beyond – or very nearly beyond – the academics in their ivory towers.

Why, one might ask? Why the disconnect between the academic think tanks and the street? We can start with the cynical idea that the main mission of every academic department (at least in Humanities) is getting funding for next year (cynical, yes, but not for one who has seen some of these annual and highly competitive funding battles). If you are in newly formed Identity X Dept, you had best prove quickly (and build a sufficient body of literature to back it up) that X is the cornerstone of identity, and that the struggle of people X is defined by trait X above all else and is a struggle that will continue in perpetuity (hence our need for funding in perpetuity). “Shared humanness” or the idea that one’s value system and not skin color is the defining aspect of identity means your dept is on the defensive in next year’s battle for funding. Call it a conspiracy theory, but at least it is one aligned with the accepted principle that self-preservation is often an operative force behind the scenes of what one thinks and does. It also aligns nicely with Karl Marx’s insight that the economic base is the driver and the political/ideological superstructure evolves in a way that serves the economic base.

Luckily for us, the kids on the street are not invested in next year’s funding for Dept X. The toxic influence of those academic theories is wide across newsrooms and other institutions, but it is not deep. Even where kids on the street mouth the slogans they learned from the academic think tanks, my sense on the street is that deep down they are not at all invested the divisions those slogans are designed to perpetuate. Deep down, they are invested, on the contrary and perhaps to the dismay of the more self-aware of those theorists, in that long-term vision of a harmonious multicultural society, comfortable with diversity, free from shame and self-loathing on any side, in which we recognize that we are all on spaceship Earth together and are able to celebrate our differences as well as our shared humanness. They already intuit, on some level, that there is no retreat back to conservatism, but there is also no future in the divisiveness of academic theories or in the increasingly narrow speech and thought zones of too many of our media outlets. They already know. Turn off the news and love your neighbor. Talk out of turn. Never stay in your lane. Never trust anyone, left or right, who says we need to respect walls of separation.

The ever-prescient LSD guru of the 1960s, Timothy Leary, had the right solution after all: If you want to bring society over the next horizon line, “Drop out, turn on, tune in!”

Or, if you prefer Lennon/McCartney, “All You Need Is Love.” Get that part right and the rest will follow.

Get Together 

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How woke is woke (or, gimme that old progressive vision)

I sort of fell into my recent blog series on the cultural lead-up to Woodstock (1969), but now that I’m there, I’ll piggyback with a curious political look at those filthy hippie progressives.

This may come as a shock to my younger woke friends, but back then, progressives were the ones fighting AGAINST official restraints what to say, think, and do; fighting AGAINST sorting, judging, and voting for people based on skin color or sex organs; fighting AGAINST double standards based on demographic identity and AGAINST tribe-specific definitions of truth and justice. And conservatives were the ones fighting FOR all those things. In a word, that old progressive vision was to obliterate the cultural police, while conservatives wanted to BE the cultural police. So when you criticize an old-timer whose values were forged in the Civil Rights/hippie days for being too conservative, remember: To them, YOU may look a lot like the conservative they grew up fighting against 😊

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(Click covers for links)

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Gender Complications in Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”

Those of you who are not predisposed to read gender according to the preconceived ideas you learned in college might note that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are each a mixed bag from page one. The whole book is framed by their opening answers to little James’s request to go to the lighthouse tomorrow. Mrs. Ramsay’s “Yes” is supportive and kind, but factually false. Mr. Ramsay’s “No” (the weather won’t be fine) is factually correct but emotionally hollow. To his credit, his expressed intention is to teach the kids the value of “truth” and the “courage” to face “uncompromising facts.” But little James, not yet initiated into the world of cold, hard facts, only recognizes the generosity of “yes” and the tyranny of “no.”

So Mr. Ramsay is never quite likable, but he is drawn by Woolf with remarkable sensitivity and compassion. He rightly surmises that he would have written better philosophy books had he not married. And yet he loves his family and thinks he is a brute to even have that thought (69). His life, like all lives in Woolf, is a jumble of successes, sacrifices, and irretrievable losses. He thinks that Mrs. Ramsay, even at age 50, is the most beautiful woman in the world (123), and yet his excessive neediness prevents us from quite liking him for the sentiment. On one level Mrs. Ramsay finds comfort in his “truthfulness,” in “the admirable fabric of the masculine intelligence, which ran up and down, crossed this way and that, like iron girders spanning the swaying fabric, upholding the world, so that she could trust herself to it utterly” (106). And although his initial “no” showed no malice but a cold adherence to fact, it is poignant that years later when he finally takes James to the lighthouse, fulfilling the promise of Mrs. Ramsay and perhaps trying to atone for his own earlier failure, James responds with almost pure hatred of the old man.

Mrs. Ramsay is the archetypal mother, the Magna Mater, presiding over the domestic rituals that bind abstract individuals into community. Where Mr. Ramsay clings (perhaps desperately) to philosophy and Truth as an anchor of meaning (his lighthouse), Mrs. Ramsay clings (perhaps less desperately because less aware of the limitations of her world view) to domesticity and family feeling. She plays the role of Magna Mater magnificently, presiding over her intersubjective world with precision, as beautifully expressed in the scene with her family and dinner guests:

“At the moment her eyes were so clear that they seemed to go round the table unveiling each of these people, and their thoughts and feelings, without effort like a light stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the minnows balancing themselves, and the sudden silent trout are all lit up, hanging, trembling” (87).

Her role as Magna Mater, though, has problematic implications for her both as a person and as a social force. As a person, she has had to sacrifice her individuality. Between all her serving and doing, there are flickering moments where she asks, “What have I done with my life?” (82), or allows herself to linger on the thought for a full few seconds, as when she senses “something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband, a sort of transaction … in which she was on one side, and life was on the other, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her” (59).

Furthermore, Lily, a shrewd observer and perhaps the closest character to Woolf’s point of view, sees the dynamic of Mr. Ramsay’s neediness and Mrs. Ramsay’s giving him pity differently than Mrs. Ramsay sees it. To Mrs. Ramsay, he is needy and she doesn’t mind giving him pity because he is more important than her and it’s a generous thing for her to do even if she finds it draining at times. But Lily suspects “that all this desire of hers to give, to help, was vanity. For her own self-satisfaction … that people might … need her and send for her and admire her” (41). There is a little bit of Ayn Rand’s Ellsworth Toohey in Mrs. Ramsay. She exposes this in the first few pages in her vision of life at the lighthouse, as she fantasizes misery in order to pity it (5). Or a few pages later, why does she suddenly say of the sullen Tansley, “She liked him warmly, at the moment” (11)? It seems inexplicable but go back a few lines and you’ll see that he exposed himself as in need of pity. This is what made her suddenly warm up to him. And her need to pity men in general approaches delusions of grandeur: “She had the whole of the other sex under her protection” (6). This is certainly not the whole Mrs. Ramsay, but it is one onion skin in the fabric of her identity.

As a social force, Mrs. Ramsay is actively complicit in the traditional gender scheme. She pities men for their inability to “feel” things right but she admires and is grateful for their competence in public affairs. But everyone’s first duty is to get married and have a family. Paul and Minta must get married (they do and it turns to disaster). Lily and Mr. Bankes must get married (luckily they never do). But in Mrs. Ramsay’s vision, there is no other option: “People must marry; people must have children” (60). It is deliciously ironic that perhaps the most powerful and attractive character in all of Woolf’s corpus, the darling of so many feminists, is also a tremendous gravitational force pulling people back into traditional gender norms. This is expressed most succinctly in a scene at the dinner where Lily toys with the idea of violating the gender code but one knowing glance from Mrs. Ramsay and Lily “had to renounce the experiment” (92).

Lily, by contrast, plays a more “feminist” role. She is the artist who chooses not to marry. But her consciousness too is conflicted and multi-layered. She feels the full weight of what Mrs. Ramsay represents, the Great Mother towering over the ages, very powerful, very beautiful, very instrumental in human community. And she feels very insignificant by comparison. And yet she sees that marriage would be a trap for her and chooses artistic creation over procreation, almost as an absurd hero chooses moral action, knowing in advance the futility of doing so. In a nutshell, Mrs. Ramsay in the window is the very picture of the Beautiful Woman, the Great Mother, the cosmic procreative power, but she is also the picture of a woman trapped in, framed by, and complicit in the deadening Victorian gender norms of a dying age. This is why the first of the three books is called “The Window,” and this is why it takes Lily so long to get her painting of Mrs. Ramsay, and all that Mrs. Ramsay represents, just right.

Overall, one might see Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Ramsay both tangled up in the double-binds of Victorian gender norms. Mrs. Ramsay must be the great Magna Mater but must also be self-sacrificing, self-negating, insignificant relative to the Husband. To succeed at one task is to fail at the other. Mr. Ramsay has one foot in philosophy and one in family, unable to complete himself in either. The Victorian code enjoins the stoical, factual male of the public sphere but also glorifies the Family. Men and women are both trapped in these codes. I’d say that Mr. Ramsay is more aware of the trap than Mrs. Ramsay, but this frees Mrs. Ramsay to show that the age that is passing away is more than just a trap – it is also something archetypal, eternally beautiful, something with a transcendental as well as a material frame of reference. It is up to Lily’s painting (of Mrs. Ramsay in the window) to capture the full beauty, the shimmering transcendental glow of that age, so that we can let it go and move on.

(Click covers for links)

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Baby Boomers vs. Gen X vs. Millennials

You can find the arguments all over the Internet – baby boomers broke America, millennials are aimless and self-absorbed, etc. Let me try to put the competition to rest.

All of these arguments have one thing in common: They all rest upon the false premises that these imaginary generational constructs are (1) real and (2) monolithic. Sure, history goes on, and the youth vs. age theme is perennial, but calling Obama “Gen X by personal temperament” (as Ben White does in his generation-based commentary in Politico, 2019/10/26) is no better than astrology, which says those born in November have one temperament and those born in August another. Why should people born 1965-80 have a collective “temperament” but not people born 1975-90?

If anything, this habit of reifying and playing generations against each other is even more absurd than our habit of building walls around races and playing them against each other (a favorite theme on the Right during the Civil Rights era that has now become a favorite theme on the Left in the woke era*). Race, at least, is not as imaginary as the generational categories. Except in tightly localized areas, like elevated risk of certain diseases, race is virtually meaningless as a biological concept. But it is not as meaningless as the generational constructs. African-Americans, e.g., have suffered historical conditions as a group that leave them, not universally but in the aggregate, with a set of legitimate shared concerns in today’s body politic. But playing off the races against one another is no way forward. The idea of race as something that can be circumscribed with sharp lines and defended against all penetration by other groups is as imaginary as the generational constructs. Even “African-Americans,” despite the socially produced set of conditions that apply in the aggregate, is a porous term, genetically and culturally. Studies show that “58 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5% European ancestry (equivalent of one great-grandparent)” and “about 30% of self-identified White Americans have recent sub-Saharan African ancestry.” Even those without mixed blood have grown up with enormous cultural cross-fertilization, from music to movies to cooking and social life. Let’s celebrate the unique attributes of our different subcultures, but this pitting of one group against another is nonsense, and the game has to stop here. Things like wealth inequality and declining environmental resources are becoming too serious.

Bottom line: We have enough categories dividing us without inventing imaginary ones. Yes, let’s fight for a more equitable society and a more sustainable environment, but not by building walls around imaginary groups. We need to leave that way of thinking behind, whether it’s coming from Trump conservatives or woke progressives. Let’s rather bust all the walls and windows and open ourselves to the great multicultural carnival, all working together, celebrating each other across our demographic lines – that could be our future if we just turn the dial on how we think. And we can start with throwing out the stupid faux conflict between invented generational tags.

* Won’t get fooled again

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Men, Stoics, and the American Psychological Association

The recently released American Psychological Association’s (APA) Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men has caused quite a stir. Is it a welcome effort to better society and save men from their own worst traits? Or is it a politically trendy set of generalizations that emphasize the bad in traditional masculinity, obscure the good in men, and proffer an ill-advised attempt at social engineering?

It is an interesting question, and if we want to move forward from here, today’s customary response (“I have my preset answer, my side is 100% right, and the other side can have no good points because they are de facto 100% wrong”) is probably not going to get us very far.

Take the following oft-quoted passage: “Traditional masculinity – marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression – is, on the whole, harmful.”

There is no doubt that some men are over the top in these categories, resulting in harm to themselves and those around them, but are all four traits intrinsically negative or can they (or some of them) contribute to positive outcomes (in men and women) as well?

Let the debate continue on the other three, but my nerdish bookishness forces me to defend my brothers and sisters of the stoical persuasion. The APA may make some fine points, and they may not be all that different in tone from the 2007 Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Girls and Women (although a tone-test would be interesting), but for an organization of this stature, the disdain for stoicism reflects an astonishingly simplistic and anti-intellectual attitude toward that rich philosophical tradition.

Let me refer the curious reader to this very brief summary of stoicism, and he or she can weight the merits from there.

xxx

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