What you visualize daily, that you become. Look for the good in each other, not the bad. It makes it easier to join hands and fix a better world together.
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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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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.
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In today’s discourse on race, charged terms like “colorblind” typically elicit a knee-jerk reaction unmediated by critical thinking. Indeed, a call to critical thinking is itself often considered de facto allegiance to white supremacy. For the sake of those who would write me off in knee-jerk fashion, I intend to analyze the meaning and uses of “colorblind” with an eye open to both the good and bad implications, so — trigger warning — write me off now. For others, I recommend you read through, pick and choose what you agree or disagree with based on your own critical thinking and not on what your friends or teachers want you to think, and then feel free to chime in with a comment.
The term attained its modern relevance in the 1960s (Civil Rights and hippies) era, so I will stake out four viewpoints relative to that baseline (and thus relevant to pushing the dialectic forward):
Note: The two 1960s-based angles are not obsolete, as both still have some currency and both could experience future surges – although this is likelier for 1960s progressive ideas, which are more resilient than 1960s conservative ideas – but for our purposes the tags mean not obsolete but merely indicate a position grounded in ideas that reached critical mass in the 60s.
1960s conservatives on colorblindness
1960s conservatives on race rejected the colorblind approach. They were the segregationists fighting against Civil Rights. They thought whites and blacks were fundamentally different, and we need to recognize those fundamental differences. Thus, their slogan was “separate but equal” cultures, schools, neighborhoods, etc.
1960s progressives on colorblindness
1960s progressives from Civil Rights to hippies initiated the modern call for colorblindness. The idea was that legal structures should be immediately made colorblind (no legal segregation, colorblind enforcement of laws, of rights, etc.), and we should work toward (since social mores cannot be changed as immediately as written laws) colorblindness in other social formations, so people can date and marry and live with whom they want without limitations of color, etc. The push was to judge people always and everywhere not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Today’s conservatives on colorblindness
In the wake of the 1960s, racism, although still practiced, rapidly became ideologically taboo. No one, especially no one in public life, wanted to be tagged as a racist. Even supporters of racist policies would often begin with, “I’m not a racist, but….” Thus, it is no surprise that conservatives gradually came on board with Martin Luther King, who is now idolized across the political spectrum. Today’s conservatives by and large do not deny the founding truth that all are created equal, regardless of color, and do not deny racial equality as a valid goal. But they tend to assume that, since equal rights are codified in law, the goal has been reached. Thus, their colorblindness places them a step ahead of the 1960s conservatives, but it also leaves them refusing to acknowledge historical disparities based on race that are very much still with us.
Today’s progressives on colorblindness
Progressives today are most vociferous in rejecting colorblindness, and they include phrases like “I don’t see color when I meet people” as racist microaggressions in written standards at many universities. The advantage of this position is it highlights the continuing inequities experienced by blacks. A disadvantage is that it reifies race into a fixed category with solid walls around it. Race becomes the essential feature of identity. If you are black, you are different than non-blacks. Black culture and black identity are in effect hermetically sealed, one type of experience inside the bubble and another outside. Whites cannot know what it feels like to be black, and thus should not teach or create artworks about black history, adopt cultural trends that begin in black culture, etc.
Summary and recommendations
The 1960s conservative position I dismiss out of hand. I assume that none of my readers share the orientation of those segregationists fighting against Civil Rights.
Today’s conservatives score well in theory for advocating equality for all, but fare less well in practice, as their disregard for continuing disparities leaves their position untenable for me.
The dispute between 1960s and today’s progressives is more interesting to me. Today’s progressives have the advantage over either conservative group in that they acknowledge continuing disparities to be addressed. But they fare poorly in that they reify black and white experience, judge people accordingly, and leave no easy road toward harmony. If white and black experiences are fundamentally different, there is little hope of mutual empathy and heart-to-heart connection and the kind of integration that 1960s Civil Rights advocates had envisioned as the path to a more ideal society.
The 1960s progressive vision has some key advantages in this regard. First, they are more in line with the historical struggle for equality. From Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King and James Baldwin, the dominant post-Enlightenment theme of racial struggle has been shared humanness. We need to recognize that “they” love their children, they laugh and cry, they struggle with all the same things “we” struggle with. Although racial identity is a relevant layer of identity – sometimes an intensely relevant layer – it is the recognition of our shared humanness that is the best antidote to the toxins of prejudice and distrust across racial lines. The fallacy of today’s progressives is that they see racial identity not as a supplement to, but as a substitute for, shared humanness. In contrast, the shared humanness line of reasoning, with racial, gender, etc., layers of identity superadded, which was embraced by 1960s progressives as well as their antecessors, seems intuitively correct. The only risk is that an overemphasis on shared humanness might cause one to overlook persistent race-based inequities. I believe this is what drives today’s progressives’ distrust of shared humanness. But they throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, there is that risk, and per my sketch above, I find today’s conservatives in the aggregate succumb to that risk. But 1960s progressives had always recognized racial disparities and the unique experience brought to the table by different racial backgrounds. They just thought that the best way to combat inequities was not to put battle lines and walls between races (as today’s progressives arguably do) but to recognize our shared humanness and join together, black and white, male and female, gay and straight, to address continuing inequities, knowing that we CAN see into each other’s hearts across racial lines, we can join together as brothers and sisters.
The second advantage of the 1960s vision, then, is practical applicability. Joining together across racial lines, in a spirit of mutual celebration, and not in a spirit of shaming or leveraging against one another, will get you more cross-cultural alliance, more spirit, and more snowballing social power than the more divisive (indeed one could say the more segregationist) approach of drawing lines between races and having each guard its own turf against exploitation.
The third and final advantage is the endgame vision. I do believe three of my four groups (excluding the 1960s segregationists) would accept a long-term ideal of a society that is open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact. Of the four, though, the 1960s progressive vision is best poised to get us there. Today’s conservative vision has the impediment of failing to acknowledge continuing race-based inequity. Today’s progressive vision has the impediment of reifying (one might even say fetishizing) race, building walls instead of bridges between races, encouraging turf wars and blocking off porosity between races. The 1960s progressive, on the other hand, was unreservedly integrationist in a way that must horrify today’s conservatives and progressives alike. Indeed, the 1960s progressive might favor every form of cultural appropriation in every direction. Break down all the walls, everyone share everyone else’s stuff, willy-nilly, regardless of race or gender, in a frenzy of mutual celebration across all demographic lines. It is colorblind not because it ignores race-based cultural contributions or race-based disparities. It is colorblind because, in a concerted effort to address those disparities, it refuses to judge brother and sister allies based on race, it refuses to say that I cannot know your heart inside and out, and you know mine, because of our different skin color. It is a vision much more radical than any variant we see today coming out of the self-preserving corridors of Left/Right think tanks and university critical race theory departments – more radical than any of these and probably much better suited to grease the flow toward that shared long-term social ideal.
We need to make 1960s colorblindness cool again.
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Table: Strengths (+) and weaknesses (-) of colorblind orientation per ideological grouping
|Reject judgments or battle lines based on race||Acknowledge continuing racial disparity|
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When I see Facebook memes from my social justice oriented friends about how we should vote for, value the opinion of, or pronounce someone guilty or innocent based on skin color or sex organs, it reminds me of how things change and remain the same. Too many of my generation – black, white, male, female, gay, straight, and other – fought too long and hard against judging people based on generalizations about skin color or sex organs for us to start doing it now, even if those encouraging us to do so call themselves “progressives” instead of “conservatives” (as they were called in the 1960s).
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Be the change you want to happen. Never accept any ideology from the Left or the Right that says we need to respect walls of separation between races, genders, etc. Never accept any ideology from the Left or the Right that says we should vote for, value, or prejudge someone innocent or guilty based on skin color or sex organs.
We can celebrate our different cultures, but we do so best when we disregard the dividers on both Left and Right and invite all comers to celebrate with us. When crunch time comes, like it or not, we are all in this together with our shared humanness at stake.
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A variation of the “intentional fallacy” has found fertile soil in academia and the body politic.
W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published their treatise on the intentional fallacy in 1946, in the heyday of formalist literary criticism. The gist of the piece was that much criticism misses the point by considering the author’s intention as the standard of a poem’s meaning. It is nothing of the sort. The fallacy, as Wimsatt and Beardsley put it, is a “confusion between the poem and its origins.” When we study a poem, we have access to the poem but not to the private meaning that may have been inside the author’s head. Indeed, it is impossible to determine the intention of a poem, and authors themselves often have trouble identifying the intention of their own poem. Moreover, there is clearly more to any work than the author could have intended. We now have the tools to analyze, e.g., gender relations of power in Shakespeare that he could not have intended. No one can deny that transactions of power between genders take place in Shakespeare’s plays, and that studying them can yield fascinating results, but all of this takes place outside the scope of Shakespeare’s intention. One could even argue that the unintended meanings in a literary work often have more to tell us than the intended ones. The bottom line is that we have to look at the work closely and judge it on its own merits, not on some unverifiable (and invariably reductive) conjecture about the poet’s intention.
Apply that to today’s political discourse, especially on matters of cultural identity. With increasing frequency, it seems, arguments are judged not by their own objective merits but by whether they were proposed by a white, black, male, gay, trans, etc., person. In order to get a fair hearing, those who would opine on cultural identity seem endlessly compelled to open with, “As a gay/black/female/white/trans/etc.,” as if credibility lay more in the speaker’s birth traits than in the quality of the argument. And indeed they may be right, insofar as demographic traits of the speaker do seem to be where the onus of credibility lies for much of today’s academic and political audience. It is a version of “intentional fallacy” we might call the “identarian fallacy,” wherein we judge a work by the author’s demographic identity rather than by its standalone merits. One’s race or gender can preclude one, as a widespread mindset holds, from making valid claims. “You cannot understand this issue because you are male/white/straight/etc.”; “you cannot speak about this issue because you are not black/female/queer/etc.” In other words, “Stay in Your Lane.”
I can understand that some demographic groups may want a leg up in the public sphere from which they were long excluded, but perhaps proscribing access to certain discussions based on race and gender is not the way to go. Perhaps we need a recapitulation of Wimsatt and Beardsley. The validity of an argument, the quality of a work of art, should be judged on the merits of the artifact itself, not on some unverifiable (and invariably reductive) conjecture about the speaker’s race or gender. Everyone should be allowed to weigh in on every discussion and the product be judged on its logical or aesthetic soundness with no regard whatsoever to the identity of speaker. If someone proves that cigarettes cause cancer, and is later discovered to be a closet smoker, does that make her research less valid? No, the merits of the argument itself are what counts, as it should be with all manner of public discourse. Let us not fall back into the fallacy of confusing the validity of an argument with the origin of an argument.
The ultimate irony is that those who exalt the identarian fallacy and the correlative “stay in your lane” policy fancy themselves as progressives, indeed as leftist radicals. Probe even to minimal depth and it is easy to see that “stay in your lane” is the most anti-liberal, arch-conservative slogan ever produced by faux-progressives. A society where everyone stays in their inherited lanes is the epitome of a conservative society.
For a truly radical vision, one that would shake off the calcified build-up of the Establishment, you need to look back to the 1960s. Back then, people were being told to stay in their lane, but the preferred phrase was “separate but equal,” and it was the banner cry of Bull Connor segregationists. Martin Luther King and then the hippies combated this ideology with their own ideology, which basically said that you should never stay in your lane and never encourage others to do so. We are all sharing all the lanes from now on. We are all in this together. Never vilify anyone on the grounds of race or gender. Any us vs. them lines in the 1960s progressive vision were based on ideology, not on race or gender. “Stay in your lane” progressives today are no better than the “separate but equal” conservatives of the 60s. Shut the devil out at the front door (Bull Connor) and he comes in at the back (identity politics).
So, too, forget today’s meme about cultural appropriation, which, far from radical, reasserts the capitalist cornerstone of private property into the zone of cultural production. The 60s ideology was culturally socialist and radically integrationist in a way that must horrify today’s conservatives and progressives alike. The 60s ideology favored every form of cultural appropriation in every direction. Full steam ahead with every kind of cross-pollination in arts and ideas. Break the back of private property on the cultural level. Everybody play with everybody else’s stuff. Put yourself in everybody else’s shoes. Cross lines as often as you can. Tear down the walls and celebrate each other across those lines, no shaming, no judgment based on race or gender, just looking toward the future hand in hand. Never trust any ideology (Left or Right) that says we need to respect walls of separation. Today’s faux progressives, on the other hand, emphasize each demographic guarding its turf from appropriation. They emphasize the walls between us and are skeptical of the bridges. Which do you think is the truly radical vision that points into the future toward a harmonious multicultural society, comfortable with diversity, free from shame, in which we all work together and celebrate our differences as well as our shared humanness?
But here come Wimsatt and Beardsley for the final round of our competition: “Stay in your lane” vs. Wimsatt and Beardsley. On the one hand, “Team Stay in Your Lane” has some righteous outrage to express at being long excluded from power and seeks redress by reinforcing lanes for each demographic and setting demographic preconditions for exercising one’s voice. On the other hand, “Team Wimsatt and Beardsley,” with an assist from the hippies, suggest that you will get a better long-term result if you forget about reinforcing the walls around your identity and tear down all the walls in a festive frenzy and usher in the Age of Aquarius. There will still be arguments in that great age, but you will have to judge them on their own merits, not on any “lane” or identity markers assigned to the speaker. This means you will have to lay off the generalizations about, indeed the fetishization of, demographic groups, and judge people as individuals. Demographic backgrounds will still exist, but cultivate this mindset and the walls will slowly crumble, leaving us to celebrate each other across demographic lines where the walls once stood.
As in a previous entry in this fine blog, which pitted the ancients against the moderns in true Augustan style, the laurel wreath goes to the ancients, Wimsatt and Beardsley, for what their “intentional fallacy” can teach us today.
The long-established progressive magazine, The Nation, recently created a stir by publishing an Anders Carlson-Wee poem about homelessness, and then apologizing for doing so on the grounds that the poem contained inappropriate language (i.e., language that might be offensive to those demographic groups among the homeless that Carlson-Wee tries to identify with in the poem).
As a long-time liberal, it is demoralizing to see what liberalism has become. God forbid that a poet should use language deemed inappropriate by the cultural police. God forbid that artists should ever creatively identify with people of backgrounds other than themselves. God forbid that any one of us should ever try to put ourselves in the shoes of other races or demographics. Guard those boundaries between races and other demographic groups! Where Bull Connor conservatives failed, today’s liberals may yet succeed!
The whole event is a nice, tight summary of where liberals went wrong and gave up the moral high ground on matters of race. Or, as my grandmother used to say (my brackets added), “When you drive the devil from the front door [Bull Connor], he comes in the back [identity politics].”