Connected by a common thread

Because of the way in which the conversation has been traditionally framed and understood, we face a serious reluctance to identify all but the most egregious examples of racism in common parlance. To be sure, there are those of us who make a habit of exploring the racial component of every human interaction under the sun (and what exactly do you mean by ‘under the sun’?). To discuss racism properly is to be involved in a constantly-evolving conversation that explores all angles of an issue without falling too definitively hard on any one position (at least without acknowledging the other positions).

When racist behaviour carries with it the (apparently immense) threat of being labeled ‘a racist’, the emotional stakes are quite high before a claim will be accepted as having any merit at all. Absent a fMRI and sworn testimony by a panel of psychics, people are prone to deny the racist component of any behaviour they may have exhibited, and will jump to the immediate defense of any admired person who is thus accused. On comes the search for a loophole - any loophole – that provides enough cover to escape having to confront the harm that those behaviours have.

Most people don’t have time for the kind of near-constant scrutiny and encyclopaedic historical knowledge required to identify all instances of racism. Whereas those of us in visible minority positions are made more aware of racism by the mere fact that we are more likely to experience it, I would venture to guess that within any race-based story there is a subset of even the affected minority group that says “now you’re just overreacting”. Depending on how convoluted or specific the issue, this dissenting group may encompass all minority group members except a few dedicated academics. [Read more...]

Those poor Wall Street CEOs

One of the fascinating aspects of privilege is the way in which it totally skews your perception of what ‘average’ is. I would think, for example, that things like street harassment or sexual assault or other forms of misogynistic abuse are fantastically rare. After all, I’m a guy who spends a lot of time with and around women, and I almost never see street harassment or hear stories of people getting assaulted. It wasn’t until I actually asked the women in my life about their experiences that I saw just how widespread and pervasive these behaviours are – they just don’t happen when guys like me are around to see them. My male privilege makes the ‘norm’ of a safe and fair society seem plausible, when the lived experience of my friends and family is anything but.

So when one is confronted about their privilege, or when their privilege is even simply discussed openly, an interesting thing happens. From the perspective of the privileged, the critics are attacking what is right and normal! Why on Earth would someone criticize a just world? There’s certainly no rational reason to do that. Nobody without a particular axe to grind, or maybe even an outright hatred of a particular group would level such accusations against the norm, right? And when those criticisms continue unabated, there’s only one possible way to see it: as demonization: [Read more...]

Mayans, Moral Panic, and the Narrative of the Apocalypse

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A couple of years ago, Harold Camping rocketed to infamy when he predicted that the end of the world would come via divine Revelation on May 21st, 2011. When the day came and went without incident, Camping retreated from public view for a time before re-emerging and claiming that, actually, May 21st was merely an ‘invisible judgement’, and that the real end would come five months later, on October 21st. Again, the date came and to the surprise of almost no one, the world did not end.  Camping was hardly unique in his predictions: throughout the history of the human species, countless millions of us have held deep, unwavering convictions that the end of the world would come in our lifetimes; clearly every single one of us has been wrong… so far…

A little more than a decade ago, those who believed in the coming end-times set their sights on the dawn of the new millennium, conveniently forgetting that according to the Chinese calendar, the year was 4697, and if we all measured time by the Jewish calendar, January 1st, 2000 would have been marked as the 23rd of Tevet, 5760. Nevertheless, I remember the anxiety that surrounded Y2K, not only because of the supposed collapse of global banking and communications systems, but because of the heightened millenarian fervor that surrounded that particular date. One way or another, some people believed, the world was going to end, and we had all best get right with God/Allah/Thor/the Universe.

We humans are funny creatures; we design arbitrary systems of timekeeping, and then affix deep symbolic meaning to particular points on in those systems. We invent a system of counting based, say, on the fact that we have 10 fingers, and then decide that measurements that are divisible by ten have some sort of divine meaning. We have evolved, so we are told, brains that include hardwired pattern-recognition systems yet apparently lack any sort of evolutionary safeguard to tell us when the patterns we see are illusory. We are strange, strange animals.

These sorts of social phenomena are extremely interesting, from a sociological point of view, for a number of reasons. One of the top reasons for me is that they serve as a handy point of focus for those who study the concept of moral panic. The reason for this is simple: for those who believe – fervently – in a given end-times scenario (Mayan prophecies, Y2K, Revelations, etc.), the end is often coming for a reason. Of course a purposeful annihilation isn’t always the case, but let’s consider some of the more common ‘theories’ about what the Mayan ‘prophecies’ mean. The world will end because of environmental collapse (brought about by rampant consumerism, reliance on fossil fuels, etc), or because of global thermonuclear holocaust (in some version of “The United States versus Nation X”); or maybe the world will end because of some sort of spiritual crisis or event, or because Jesus is angry or because Shiva has had enough already.

Behind each of these possible examples of how we’re all going to die is some explanatory narrative or another, which tells us why the environment is collapsing, or why Shiva is on the warpath, or why the Mayans foresaw this time and place as being the site of Armageddon. In other words, beneath the trappings of almost any millenarian belief you will find a laundry-list of things the believer is afraid of or disgusted by. Jesus is coming back to judge the living and the dead? You can be that he’s going to judge all of the people whose lifestyles you hate. Is the world too sinful/corrupt/consumerist/complacent, in your view? Well good news! Catastrophe ‘X’ is coming to wash it all away and let you and the other survivors begin anew.

There can often be a touch of fantasizing on the part of the believer too; since it’s their end-times belief, they will most likely count themselves among the survivors (if they’ve not been raptured away, that is), due to some learned or innate property that makes them ‘worthy’ of survival. They can watch all those ‘weaker’ or ‘inferior’ people vanish, and then they can build their perfect society on the ashes of the old.

But none of this will happen – at least not right now. Today will come and go, and the world will remain. Civilization (by which we of course mean our civilization, the only one worth mentioning /sarcasm) will not have been destroyed; Christmas will come and go, then New Years after that. The people that believed in the Mayan end-times will continue to believe in a reckoning to come; only the date will change and maybe, if a cooler looking doomsday comes along, the form. Perhaps, once their disappointment or embarrassment over their end-time of choice failing to materialize abates, they’ll move on to embrace a new apocalypse; maybe they’ll start buying into Nibiru, or begin warning the world about the coming doom from the planet-killer asteroid Apophis. After all, Apophis is an Egyptian name, the name of a god – the god of dissolution, non-being, and the void; surely that means something, right?

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The accuracy of the elephant’s tail

If you want to make sense of a lot of what it happening in US national politics, I’ve found Chris Hayes’ show Up! to be a consistent source of diverse and thought-provoking analysis. As an avowed and unashamed ‘man of the left’, he manages to break issues out of the left/right divide and instead field panels with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, from a Wal-mart striker to the CEO of Bain Capital. I consider him to be an indispensable voice in political discourse, and his show is a regular watch for me (and when you consider how little time I have to watch TV these days, that’s saying a lot).

One of the things that I like most about his show is that, whether consciously or not, consistently puts people of colour at the table to discuss things that aren’t “the black perspective on” whatever issue is being discussed. It’s a refreshing change from how I am accustomed to seeing black folks being involved in discussions – as though their (our) race was the only relevant topic about which we could speak intelligently. In the face of this unfortunate trend, Chris (and, seemingly, the other producers at MSNBC) books his panels in such a way as to occasionally make white people a minority presence around the table, even when not discussing a race-specific issue.

It is with this in the background that I take issue with a recent segment in which he showered unreserved praise upon Tony Kushner, writer of the screenplay for the movie Lincoln. Chris was glowing in his praise for the script and the movie itself, and Mr. Kushner obviously did not object. The reason why this love-in was so disappointing is because I read a number of the critiques of the film from writers and historians of colour, and they consistently complained that the movie, in keeping with a long-standing Hollywood tradition, almost completely wrote out black people from the story. And so it was with more than a little joy that I saw Chris tweet a link to this article earlier today: [Read more...]

A textbook example of racial privilege

Those of you who have been reading for a while know that I am a big believer in the power of diversity. I’m not only referring to racial diversity, but I am of the belief that our racial identities inform our day-to-day experiences and the lens of how we see the world. A variety of experiences means a diversity of perspectives, which means in turn that any problem can be approached with a variety of solutions. It just makes sense – a group is smarter when it can rely on a variety of skills, even if the problem doesn’t have an explicitly racial component to it.

As a result, I am a supporter of affirmative action (AA) programs as a method of creating a more adaptable, agile, and smarter workforce. Whether that workforce is in academia or industry, we all benefit from being surrounded by people who are capable, but who also have life experience and perspectives that give us a better chance for a multi-faceted problem-solving approach. At the same time, I recognize (as do most supporters of AA programs) that it’s a non-perfect approach to the serious problem of racially supremacist systems. We have a history that has, at times explicitly, given the bulk of the benefit to some groups at the direct expense of another, resulting in a lopsided distribution of wealth, education, political power, and popular perception. There’s no way to re-balance the scales without someone feeling like they’ve had something taken from them.

Of course opponents of AA say that rebalancing the scales thusly is manifestly unfair. What we should do, they say, is just start treating everyone according to merit, thus ensuring that those who are “most qualified” will succeed. If we take race out of the equation entirely, we won’t be giving unfair advantages to one group, but nor will we be taking away opportunity from those who happen to be in a group that, once upon a time, had members that were wicked. By forcing race into the equation, affirmative action is being just as racist as those wicked ancestors were, just in the opposite direction!

Henry Yu explains the problem with that line of reasoning with a parable: [Read more...]

Two views of black masculinity

Circumstances have once again robbed me of the time and energy to dig too deep into blogging. Part of this is a massive paper that I have just finished – it looks at whether or not mandatory childhood vaccination is legally, ethically, and scientifically justified in a Canadian context. Part of it is prepping for my Eschaton2012 presentation that I will be giving in Ottawa this weekend. Part of it is prioritizing my personal relationships above blogging, given how much of a time suck these other two things have been. At any rate, no post for you today.

In lieu, I want to highlight two essays on a topic I’ve had some call to think about recently. The first is by Robert Reece, perhaps better known to some of you as PhuzzieSlippers, a former guest on the SERIOUSLY?! podcast*: [Read more...]

Because Abortion needs to be explained, apparently.

I am irate. Look, I realise that I am in a position of privilege, and I realise that I’m not angry about this all the time because I’m male and that this is something that I have the privilege of simply not-concerning-myself-about for the vast bulk of my life.

I rationalise this as that I pay attention only insofar as harm is brought to my attention. And Ireland has ever-so-slowly been moving towards legalising abortion since 1992. Oh, that’s right, you didn’t know that abortion was illegal in Ireland. My bad. Did you know that it was actually illegal for doctors to tell patients about their abortion options in other countries? And that it was illegal for people to travel to another country for an abortion? No? Well, anyway, we were focused on my privilege, so let’s keep on topic.

[Read more...]

Racism, elections, and national herpes

I don’t have herpes. This may come as a shock to those of you who think, for some reason, that I had herpes. But I don’t. I had chicken pox when I was a kid, though. I don’t remember it, but my dad says I didn’t particularly enjoy it at the time. I was rashy and irritable and generally miserable. But, like you do, I got better and didn’t have chicken pox anymore. A buddy of mine had chicken pox when he was a kid too. A few weeks ago he bailed on some plans we had. Annoyed, I asked why. He said he could barely move, he was in such pain. A trip to the doctor would reveal that my buddy had an outbreak of Shingles, which is caused by previous exposure to the chicken pox virus, a virus that never completely leaves the system.

There are a lot of theories about what causes Shingles – whether it’s just random inflammation, whether it’s the result of someone being immunocompromised due to competing surgery, or the result of the system becoming otherwise compromised by factors such as stress. What is clear though is that being infected with chicken pox means that there’s a chance that, years later, you will see a painful flareup. Other forms of herpes are like that too – all it takes is to get infected once and you’re at risk of outbreak for the rest of your life. At times of immunocompromise or great stress, you’re likely to see flareups. [Read more...]

A truly remarkable election, a truly remarkable story

So there was an election last night. Maybe you heard about it. I decided to take on a bottle of scotch and let the election results decide whether I was drinking in triumph or in bitter defeat. At it turned out, the lesser of two evils prevailed, which is good news for America and the rest of the world.

There was sincerely, non-cynically good news last night too, as Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Duckworth, and Tammy Baldwin all won elections against opponents who represented the ugliest aspects of the body politic. Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin and Richard “god’s will” Mourdock lost their races as well, as did Allen West and Joe Walsh. This is all suggestive of an America that is happy taking a step back from the precipice of insanity that is the once-fringe-now-mainstream of the Republican party. There are a lot of ugly things that happened around this election as well, but we can talk about those next week. Events have once again conspired to rob me of blogging time, but I do want to highlight an important thought.

Elections are viewed through a lens of Hollywood-style horse race struggles between two opposing ideas, where one side “wins” and the other side “loses”. The fact is that this election is, at least at an aggregate level, a preservation of the status quo of Washington politics. It is no exaggeration to point out how deeply corporatized both parties are, and we don’t have to look too far to see a laundry list of things that went almost entirely undiscussed in this election: secret and illegal wars, climate change, domestic spying, curtailment of civil liberties, housing, affirmative action programs, increasing economic inequality, deepening poverty, and the disproportionate effect the economic crisis has had and continues to have on Americans of colour are just a few examples that jump off the top of my head. [Read more...]

The fall of (giving) a damn

The Scene: An expansive penthouse office in heaven. YAHWEH sits at a desk, happily munching on a bowl of peanuts and playing The Sims.

YAHWEH: Oh I know the stove is on fire, little Sim dude. But somebody sold all the doors and windows out of the house, so now the fire department can’t get in! Not so cute to complain about your lack of entertainment now, is it, you fucker? (He laughs wickedly).

(An alarm goes off. After waiting for a few moments, irritated, YAHWEH finally storms to the door to his office, throws it open, and enters an anteroom where panicked angels and archangels are screaming into phones, waving around reams of paper, and generally not looking happy. Somberly, one angel wipes the number ’8′ from a whiteboard entitled ‘THIS PLANET HAS GONE __ DAYS WITHOUT A LOSS OF INNOCENCE’)

YAHWEH: Does someone want to tell me what the holy fuck is going on here?

(Gabriel, an archangel, quickly dismisses the person on the other end of the phone, hangs up, and approaches YAHWEH, clipboard in hand)

Gabriel: Bad news, boss. We’ve got a code black.

YAHWEH: A meteor is heading toward the planet?

Gabriel: No no, we haven’t scheduled that for (checks clipboard) another few thousand years or so. You said it would be funnier if we let the planet get populated with sentient creatures before we completely wiped it out.

YAHWEH: (Chuckles whimsically) Oh yeah. So what’s the problem? [Read more...]