Learned helplessness

I got hit by a ‘double whammy’ this weekend. First, I watched The Trotsky on the plane to Kelowna (well, part of it – it’s a 30-minute flight). The premise of the movie seems a bit silly – a teenager who believes that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky stages a coup in his high school in an attempt to organize the students into a union. It’s ostensibly a comedy, and is definitely a really funny film – the scenes where he woos a lawyer 10 years older than he are absolutely priceless. At the same time, the climactic scene (where the students charge up to the school with protest signs and righteous fury) fucks me every time I watch it, and my eyes start welling up like I’m a 6 year-old with a skinned knee.

Add to that a long conversation I had with Edwin Hodge about the heights of ridiculousness of post-modern thought (I more or less took Natalie Reed’s position – that post-modern thought can function alongside skepticism to help us critique the ways in which our own experiences and perspective affect truth claims), and whether or not political movements were undermined by the way in which postmodern perspectives can splinter populations that, from the outside, should share a single goal. The point I made to Edwin was that one doesn’t blame a CT scan for discovering problems we weren’t looking for. Postmodern ‘splintering’ is oftentimes simply the exposition of real divisions that exist, and provides a method by which groups who are not commonly represented in the majority group’s interests can keep their needs from being overlooked.

The problem of course is that the infighting that seems to happen – feminist atheists against anti-feminist; anti-racists against those who wish to ignore racism; trans skeptics against gender essentialists – all stem from a common route: the idea that the issues of the minority are not the real problem. Again, this is certainly an idea with easy appeal. After all, if we are a movement of atheists (for example), then our fight is with religion, not an esoteric crusade against systemic misogyny. The problem of course is that one cannot examine problems in isolation, and some issues cannot be extricated from larger, more diffuse problems. What ends up happening is that once the movement solves the “real” problem, the minority goes back to being ignored, having lost those who were allies of convenience. [Read more…]

Movie Friday: Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Talented Tenth

One of things I remember learning from my father at a young age is that I was going to have to work harder to achieve what others had because of my race. That my performance would be judged alongside a whole bunch of racist baggage over which I had no control. Now that I am in the professional realm, it’s hard for me to say whether or not he was right in my own case (if my race has been a serious impediment to my achievement, I’ve never noticed), but I do know that it is generally true.

W.E.B. Dubois, one of America’s first prominent black intellectuals, espoused a concept called the “talented tenth”. His conjecture was that in a population of black folks, there were an ‘elite’ group at the top that could succeed despite racist handicapping. Dubois suggested that this elite group had a duty to ensure that, as they succeeded, they brought the other 90% along with them. That the privileges and talents afforded those at the top should be used in the advancement of the entire race, rather than put to use to benefit the oppressor. Egotist that I am, I always imagined myself being among that elite group, and (in my own way) accepting the responsibility.

Of course the problem for me is that I am largely an outsider to black communities, since I didn’t grow up among other black kids or even family members (they all lived scattered far afield – I am closer to my Italian step-cousins than I am my blood relatives). I was therefore left with a conundrum: did I try to force integrate into a black community in order to arrogantly “elevate” them to my status? If not, how could I live up to a duty that I felt was fair and important?

Neil deGrasse Tyson tells of a similar problem: [Read more…]

“I don’t even CALL it rap music…”

I’ve been a hip-hop head since I was a little kid. I’m not sure what possessed my father to buy me my first album – Public Enemy’s Apocalypse ’91… the Enemy Strikes Black simply because I asked for it. I was 8 years old, and it took years of education for me to understand even half of the subject matter. Questionable parenting aside, I’ve always loved hip-hop. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I ‘rediscovered’ my love for the genre – an adolescence spent among friends who were almost exclusively rock fans limited my options a bit. As I’ve said elsewhere, I didn’t grow up surrounded by black folks, but listening to hip-hop was a way for me to connect to that part of my cultural heritage. Even though I didn’t fully ‘get’ all of the topics, I was able to glean an appreciation for issues that did not filter into the mainstream of discussion.

Now don’t get me wrong – there is a lot of awful hip-hop music out there. Even some of the stuff that gets lauded as ‘genius’ (I’m thinking specifically here of Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” – I’ve tried liking this album; it sucks) is pretty bad. Some of this can be chalked up to personal taste – I’ve never found anything worthwhile in the materialistic top 40 stuff for the same reason I don’t bother listening to dance music – I find it repetitive and entirely disposable. Much of it can be chalked up to talent – a lot of so-called emcees should stay the fuck out of the booth until they learn to rhyme. There’s an aspect of exploitative marketing at work – since young white men are the largest consumers of hip-hop, labels prefer rappers that appeal to that demographic at the expense of better, more meaningful music.

Hip-hop is no better and no worse than other forms of music – there is a lot of really great stuff out there if you know where to look, but the majority of the market is schlock designed to turn a profit. Such is the consequence of for-profit art. No big deal, right? Well… maybe not exactly: [Read more…]

Cognition, conservatism, and “common sense”

If there is one phrase I would like for people to stop using, at least in approving tones, it’s “common sense”. What I’m sure is meant by the term, when used to praise someone’s rationality, is that someone exercising good “common sense” is making a decision based on good, clear thinking as opposed to convoluted and self-contradictory premises. The problem is that the world is often a complicated place that requires convoluted, or at least non-obvious thinking. Too often, “common sense” simply means adherence to stereotypes and cultural memes in the place of evidence-based reasoning. As I’ve said before, the moment that someone makes an appeal to “common sense” is the moment that I stop listening to them.

One of the things I have noticed is how frequently arguments based in “common sense” are used to defend positions based in conservative ideology. I lived in Ontario during the back-to-back reign of premier Mike Harris – an era known by the political monicker “the Common Sense Revolution”. Of course the idea of a conservative revolution boggles the mind, but we’ll deal with counter-intuitive political branding another time. What I remember is that these supposedly revolutionary ideas involves crippling cuts to the public sector (particularly nurses and teachers), expansion of the private sector and a poisonous political climate.

Now, it is entirely possible that, because of my own unabashed liberalism and the very human tendency toward confirmation bias, my association between political conservatism and arguments from “common sense” is merely my brain selectively pairing things I think are stupid. After all, I have heard people from all walks of life, my own liberal father included, talk about “common sense”. A new study, however, suggests that there may be some evidence to support my broad-brush generalization: [Read more…]

The benefit of the doubt is racist

Part of my daily routine involves coming home from the office, getting changed into a t-shirt and gym shorts, jumping on my exercise bike, and (in order to distract myself from how much I fucking hate exercise) turning on The Daily Show. I usually cringe when Jon talks about race matters – for example, he accused Spike Lee of sending “a lynch mob” to the home of an elderly couple whose number Lee mistook for George Zimmerman’s. Pro tip for Jon: maybe when a black man is executed based on his race (especially in the South), you want to avoid making hyperbolic comments about lynching. Despite Jon’s tin ear for racial issues, his correspondents usually handle stories with strong racial components much more adroitly.

Which is why, with a few exceptions, I am always happy to see “Senior black correspondent” Larry Wilmore appear on the program. While he tends to ride the “middle of the road” more than I would, he usually does an adept job dropping knowledge on Jon Stewart’s faux-clueless straight man character*. In discussing the unbelievably stupid backlash against people’s reactions to Trayvon Martin’s killing (replete with the kind of fake outrage and false equivalence that characterizes the right’s desperate attempt to appear less than rabidly racist), Wilmore skewers the argument that people only get outraged when white people kill black people, and that black-on-black violence, while far more frequent, elicits almost no outrage. After pointing out a number of specific outrages about black-on-black violence, Larry says this: [Read more…]

Canada’s answer to Fox News actually gets something right!

So Cromrades from way back might remember when I kicked up a bit of a fuss over the impending launch of a right-wing corporate news network specifically designed to mimic the journalistic excellence that is the USA’s Fox News Channel. It wasn’t so much that it existed, which was bad enough, it’s that they were lobbying to force everyone to pay for it. CBC, which is our answer to NPR, does have a ‘must carry’ license, but CBC is non-partisan and actually has standards. Sun News Network (Fox News North’s real name) barely pretends to be anything other than a Republican North Party mouthpiece. To hear SNN describe it, the only things Canadians care about are oil jobs and lower tax rates (the second, BTW, is totally untrue).

But, much like the blind squirrel and the nut, the stopped clock that is the Sun News Network does occasionally get things right, and an opinion piece by Tom Brodbeck regarding the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Gladue manages somehow to get something absolutely correct. Well… the title anyway. Everything after the title is a big steamy load: [Read more…]

Hate the crimes, not the criminal?

I have a weird relationship with the concept of ‘hate crimes’. On the one hand, we ought to punish people for their behaviours, rather than their beliefs. The very idea of punishing behaviour a little extra because it was motivated by an idea we dislike seems to stand in stark contrast to the idea of freedom of conscience. Yes, once conscience moves beyond the boundaries of one’s head it is subject to the rule of law, but adding punishment for believing the wrong thing still seems at odds with that principle. On the other hand, sometimes things like this happen:

Two suspects arrested in a shooting spree that that left three people dead in Tulsa, Oklahoma have confessed, police documents filed in court said. An affidavit filed on Monday said 19-year-old Jake England confessed to shooting three people and 32-year-old Alvin Watts confessed to shooting two.


“There is a lot of media interest in this country about whether it was a hate crime and the police are very keen to play that down,” [Al Jazeera reporter John] Terrett said. Police have yet to describe the attacks, which took place on Friday morning, as racially motivated, although the suspects are white and all five victims were African Americans.

Police are also examining whether England was trying to avenge the death of his father, who was killed two years ago. “He [England] wrote what looks like a race hate rant on Friday, the day of the shootings, on his Facebook page, referring to the killing of his father at the hands of an African American man who wasn’t charged with murder or attempted murder,” Terrett said. [Read more…]

Rapidly approaching adventures in meatspace

This is a reminder that I will be traveling to Kelowna, BC this weekend to participate in a vaccine education event hosting by CFI Okanagan:

The poster for the 'All About Vaccines' event

I’m looking forward to returning to my childhood stomping grounds and finally getting to meet some of the friendly skeptics out Kelownie way.

I’ll be back in the interior next month for the Imagine No Religion 2 conference. Also in attendance will be FTB’s own Maryam Namazie, PZ Myers, and Matt Dillahunty, as well as many other fine speakers. So for any of you in the BC interior who have an itching desire to meet me in person, you have two chances this spring. Hope to see some of you there!

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But black people had slaves too!

Those of you who read this blog regularly will be familiar with its central thesis: slavery is the only thing that matters when discussing racism, because it allows me to demonize white people. After all, even though slavery ended a thousand years ago, exploiting that part of European/American history (which, when you think about it, wasn’t really all that bad) allows me to make white people feel guilty enough to give me what I want, whether that be reparations or reverse-racism jobs. It’s the reason that I never stop bringing up the Atlantic slave trade, and why all of my posts on the topic of anti-black racism explicitly reference the fact that black people used to be slaves, and therefore white people are evil.

Of course, anyone who’s actually read this blog knows that all of the above statements are complete blinkered bullshit. Slavery is a topic that very rarely makes it into any of my discussions of racism, except when it is relevant to explaining a historical (or, in much rarer cases, contemporary) phenomenon.  A quick review of my history reveals that less than 5% of my posts even use the word slavery – that number climbs to 16% if I restrict to only those stories tagged as ‘race’. The fact is that while an honest and comprehensive understanding of slavery is helpful in understanding contemporary race relations, it is most certainly not sufficient.

Which is why I am continually baffled by people who talk about the complicity of African leaders in the trafficking of slaves. One doesn’t have to dig too deeply in the muck of a comments thread before one finds someone protesting that black people weren’t completely innocent, and therefore… I dunno, anti-black racism is their (our) fault too? I sincerely do not understand the purpose that this taking point is meant to serve. Regardless of its uselessness as a counter to anything, it manages to worm its way into the conversation over and over again, like a dandelion of stupidity bursting through the asphalt of sensibility. [Read more…]

Throwing the book at it

So I was feeling punchy this morning and decided to mock two people I follow on Twitter: FTB’s own Natalie Reed, and April Gardner aka Slignot on the topic of electronic books vs. physical books:

A picture of a Twitter exchange between myself and Slignot

My point was simply to point out that there has been pushback against every new technology by those who cry that humanity will forever lose the specific charms of whatever is being made obsolete. There is nothing inherently wrong with digital distribution of knowledge (either as books or whatever else), and the world will mourn the loss of the book in the same way it mourned the loss of the rotary phone, the telegraph, and the horse-drawn carriage. Yes, there will always be techno-hipsters who insist that vinyl records are the best way of appreciating music, and I’m sure a niche market for books will persist after the rest of the world moves online, but I’ve always found such allegiance to obsolete technologies a very weird thing to insist on. Then again, I find listening to house music, wearing vests, and drinking bubble tea weird to the same extent, so there’s that. [Read more…]