June 09, 2009

Your Indignation and Outrage! Do Not Become You

I've been intending to offer a few thoughts concerning The Universe-Shattering Controversy about Wise Latinas. It would appear that this is The Most Important Issue Ever, or at least since the one the day before or the equally shattering debate that will erupt tomorrow about a matter of similarly momentous dimensions.

"Gosh, Arthur!" you might object. "You should be serious about these questions. After all, the Majesty of Objective Law and Perfect Judging is imperiled!" Huh. Well, I do understand the depths of the outrage that has been expressed, very often by white, privileged (straight) men. O the terrible pity of it! My heart breaks unto a million pieces. C'mon, it does. I'm not entirely unfeeling, you know. Fate can never be more cruel than when it turns on white (straight) men enjoying lives of immense comfort. After all, they earned their privilege and comfort. Being white and male (and straight) had absolutely nothing to do with it. Betcha you can't find any historical or cultural evidence to suggest otherwise, not even the teensiest eensiest bit! The fact that white, privileged (almost always straight) men have run every damned thing since, like, forever is due solely to the fact that they're better than everyone else. You know that, you just don't want to admit it. Phooey on you!

As to the shocking and unacceptable remarks from Ms. Sotomayor ... huh. Again. As is typical in such instances of Profound Outrage! issuing from the fount of Detached, Objective and Impartial Privilege (usually, although certainly not always, White, Straight Male Division), what Sotomayor said was primarily remarkable for not being in the least remarkable. What she said was common sense, as Kerry Howley discusses here. I'm not sufficiently familiar with Howley's writing to state the extent of my agreement (or lack thereof) with her views more generally, but she's entirely correct on this point. When the continuation of unchallenged privilege is the issue, common sense tends to be disfavored. I understate.

About the "wise Latina woman" remark, Howley writes: "This seems completely innocuous to me; being Hispanic in the United States means exposure to both a dominant and minority culture, and one might expect such exposure to favorably affect the process of deciding difficult, marginal cases." Howley later observes: "[T]his a good speech. She aspires to impartiality but isn't deluded enough to pretend that the totality of her life experience will have no bearing on the act of judging."

Revolution, sister! Yet for many white, privileged (straight) men it certainly seems like revolution, which tells you only how impossibly constricted their own views are. Do you think their insulated lives of privilege might have something to do with that? Could be!

Howley also refers to "pseudo-religious romanticism about objectivity." I recently discussed this question at some length, particularly as related to the nature and operation of the law; see "Concerning the State, the Law, and Show Trials" for the details. With regard to the law, my major argument was this:
I stress the man-made aspect of law, because it is so often neglected or emphasized too little. As I said in the earlier piece, laws are devised by particular people, in particular circumstances, with particular friends and interests. As we proceed through this discussion, we will see a few notable examples of this phenomenon. And those people who devise a system of law are members of the ruling class; that is why they are devising the laws, and not others. Thus, law is the specific means by which the ruling class utilizes the power of the State and directs that power to the ends they desire.
As a matter of historical record, the ruling class in the United States has been made up of white (straight) men almost exclusively. In the last decade or two, that has slowly begun to change, but it remains true for the most part even today. As others have noted, one of the primary mechanisms by which the ruling class (those same white, privileged, usually straight men, if your attention momentarily wandered) seeks to perpetuate its privilege is by maintaining that its own views, methods and goals are Objective, True and Good -- and, by inevitable implication, that the views, methods, and goals of everyone else (all those who are not white, privileged, male and straight) are inherently inferior. In other words, and as I noted above, you should docilely accept the rule of your betters because they are, in fact, better.

No wonder they're so upset.

Many of these same reactions found expression during the Great Outrage! just over a year ago concerning Jeremiah Wright. During that episode of ahistorical, largely ignorant protest against similarly common-sense observations offered by Wright -- observations which for the most part would not be regarded as controversial in the least, if only more people thought and acted as adults (and knew something of history, which a shocking number of people don't) -- almost everyone took part in Outrage! Fever. It was an Outrage! Festival (Carnival or Circus might be more to the point). I analyzed the major points of contention in "Obama's Whitewash."

The outrage prompted by Wright's statements was so widespread and nearly universal because it challenged most people's notions of privilege on a more fundamental and comprehensive level than will be found in the Sotomayor controversy. Wright challenged the basic precepts of the American mythology, the idea that the United States is "uniquely" Good in the world and, indeed, in all of history, and that Americans are uniquely virtuous and well-intentioned. You can see the similarity in the two examples: Sotomayor challenges the notion that the traditional ruling class is uniquely entitled to rule, while Wright called into question the idea that the United States is uniquely qualified to dictate events around the world, including those actions that are permitted to all other nations, and those that are not. If Sotomayor is correct, it is those who are part of the ruling class (or who aspire to be) who are most imperiled and challenged; if Wright is correct, the overwhelming majority of Americans feel similarly imperiled and challenged.

In "Obama's Whitewash," I excerpted a valuable article by Tim Wise: "Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama and the Unacceptability of Truth: Of National Lies and Racial America." The first passage from Wise that I included was the following one. You can alter the names and identities as required (and not that much alteration is needed), and these observations from Wise are equally applicable to the Sotomayor controversy:
For most white folks, indignation just doesn't wear well. Once affected or conjured up, it reminds one of a pudgy man, wearing a tie that may well have fit him when he was fifty pounds lighter, but which now cuts off somewhere above his navel and makes him look like an idiot.

Indignation doesn't work for most whites, because having remained sanguine about, silent during, indeed often supportive of so much injustice over the years in this country--the theft of native land and genocide of indigenous persons, and the enslavement of Africans being only two of the best examples--we are just a bit late to get into the game of moral rectitude. And once we enter it, our efforts at righteousness tend to fail the test of sincerity.

But here we are, in 2008, fuming at the words of Pastor Jeremiah Wright, of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago -- occasionally Barack Obama's pastor, and the man whom Obama credits with having brought him to Christianity -- for merely reminding us of those evils about which we have remained so quiet, so dismissive, so unconcerned. It is not the crime that bothers us, but the remembrance of it, the unwillingness to let it go -- these last words being the first ones uttered by most whites it seems whenever anyone, least of all an "angry black man" like Jeremiah Wright, foists upon us the bill of particulars for several centuries of white supremacy.

But our collective indignation, no matter how loudly we announce it, cannot drown out the truth. And as much as white America may not be able to hear it (and as much as politics may require Obama to condemn it) let us be clear, Jeremiah Wright fundamentally told the truth.
In the same way, Sonia Sotomayor "fundamentally told the truth." Many people don't want to hear it. Such denial is one the hallmarks of America today, as it has been throughout all of America's history -- that is, America's history as authorized by the ruling class.

With regard to Sotomayor's remarks that have caused so much Outrage!, let me add some further fuel to the fire. (I admit that I have a weakness for provoking Outrage! from privileged, pampered, straight white men. I surrender to temptation too often, for I am imperfect.) I wrote an essay on some of these themes over four years ago: "Living on the Inside ... and Living on the Outside." I haven't read that essay for a long time, and I just briefly skimmed it. I don't see any observations that I would disown today, but certainly my views have become much more radical in the intervening time. I haven't identified myself as a libertarian for several years; anarchy for me, baby! For some of the reasons, I again direct your attention to, "Concerning the State, the Law, and Show Trials," in particular for my views concerning the nature of any State.

As I also regularly note, I am well aware that anarchy is not coming to my neighborhood or yours any time soon, and I do not believe such a change would be desirable or advisable, until and unless a significant number of individuals alter their basic attitudes and modes of behavior. Nonetheless, I maintain that an appreciation of what is possible is necessary to a fuller understanding of many of the immense, frequently destructive problems and conflicts that harm so many lives. (And see "The Tale that Might Be Told," for an imagining of how such changes might occur. I caution the reader who assumes that every blog entry advocates a specific political program and course of action that "The Tale that Might Be Told" was never intended to be any of that. It's a story, perhaps with a lesson or two, but you will decide that for yourself.)

I mention "Living on the Inside ..." in this context because of a comment I had left to a post by someone else; it was that comment that I used to explore these questions in the full essay. My comment from early 2005 reads as follows (it was in response to a post concerning Lawrence Summers' deeply awful comments about the alleged differences between women and men), and I stand by this fully today:
[L]et me be very, very blunt (and undoubtedly ruffle more than a few feathers): unless they work very, very hard to capture a profoundly different perspective, one informed by a lifetime of experience in a culture which is largely hostile to them -- the kind of experience felt by women, blacks and gays for example -- white, heterosexual men simply do not get it. It's as simple as that. No, I am not endorsing subjectivism or saying that it is not possible to ascertain the truth. I am saying only what I did say: unless they try very hard, white, straight men just are unable to understand the perspectives and reactions often experienced by those who are not white, straight men. And that is absolutely true.
I developed these ideas in the essay that follows, as well as in many additional articles since then (including "We Are Not Freaks").

So to those who speak the truth in a culture which is largely hostile to it and seeks to deny it many times a day, I say: Rock on, sisters and brothers! And to those who are so indignant, so threatened, and so Outraged!, I say: You know what you can do with all that.