Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Words That We Wouldn't Say

There is nothing like a death in the family to bring out all of the things that have for years gone unsaid. Of course, such an emotional time is not always when they should be said, but it's also the time that some people really need to hear them. The fact that these are often things that they want to, but now never can, hear from the deceased themselves complicates matters.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

And Man Created God

Maybe they should simply all read "Obey." (Photo from al-Jazeera.)
I've written (and joked) about my confusion over the idea that with all of the things that have gone down in American history that God would decide that extending the institution of marriage to same-sex couples would be the thing that finally triggers him to snap, so I'm going to try and approach this from a different angle this time.

When I encounter the idea that the United States has done nothing worse in it's history than sanction same-sex relationships, the only workable explanation that I can come up with is that people don't keep their Bibles close at hand during History classes. It's difficult to think that a careful reading of history wouldn't turn up a never-ending series of things that God would take issue with.

In the end, I think, what's really at work is that people derive their understanding of morality less from religion than religion derives its understanding of morality from people. Whether or not deities are real, and are factors in human affairs, the religions that revere them are human institutions, and driven by the emotions and biases of their constituents. For a stone-age people living in a harsh desert where all hands were needed, sexual activity that didn't increase the size or health of the tribe was a luxury they couldn't afford. But even though the necessity of controlling people's sex lives has gone away, the virtue of a circumscribed sexuality hasn't. It's unlikely it ever will.

Friday, June 26, 2015


As for me, I’m sick and tired of people dividing Americans. And I’m done with all this talk about hyphenated Americans. We are not Indian-Americans, Irish – Americans, African– Americans, rich Americans, or poor Americans – we are all Americans.

While I’m at it, here’s another thing you aren’t allowed to say, but I’m going to say it anyway. We cannot allow people to immigrate to this country so that they can use our freedoms to undermine our freedoms. That’s exactly what has happened in Europe, where they have 2nd and 3rd generations of immigrants who refuse to embrace the values and culture of the countries they have moved into. We must not let that happen here.

It is not unreasonable to demand that if you immigrate to America, you must do so legally, and you must be ready and willing to embrace our values, learn English, and roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Wednesday, 24 June, 2015
For many Indian-Americans, Governor Jindal's statement was seen as a clear attempt to repudiate his Indian heritage - to deny that Indians were "his people," as it were. This sparked a number of tweets marked by the hashtag: #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite, initiated by Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu. I, for my part, am unsurprised. One of the legacies of the United States' racial history is that many whites and non-whites alike expect a certain loyalty to one's ethnic identity. At an extreme, this can mean that rather than a person owning their identity, their identity owns them.

Most of the tweets were somewhere between repurposed ethic jokes and open mockery of the Governor. But one, that I plucked from the BBC's story on the teapot tempest, is actually a stellar example of what political satire looks like at its best.
Excellently played, sir. Excellently played.
"#BobbyJindalIsSoWhite you can't see him in this selfie."

In 32 characters after the hashtag, including spaces, Prasanto Roy managed to place his finger exactly on so many of the issues that Governor Jindal stepped into. On one level, it's an obvious play on color - the White House is, after all, white. But it's once you go past that point that the tweet really shines. Although explaining a joke tends to be considered a sign that it isn't a very good one, I would like to unpack this.

The "core voter" of the Republican party is considered to be older, living in a rural area of the nation and white. They tend to consider themselves the "default" American, the standard against which everyone should be judged and from which others are considered to be "different." In order to win a Republican primary, one has to appeal to those voters, and Governor Jindal's announcement speech can be thought of as a direct overture to them, holding them and their way of life up as the language, values and culture that everyone wanting to enter the nation should emulate. While he doesn't specifically call out White rural culture in the way, ask yourself if you could see Governor Jindal telling a crowd of Hispanic-Americans, Native Americans or inner-city African-Americans, that anyone seeking entry to the United States must embrace their values.

From the standpoint of a contender in a Republican primary contest, his statements are more or less a requirement to be taken seriously. As are the ones about how President Obama has made a mess of things, how the "big government crowd" opposes what's right and good, how the modern United States is completely color-blind (to the degree that it is only "hyphenated-Americans" who care about race, not themselves) or how Christianity created the nation.

But when November comes around, those same statements would be liabilities. It's easy to tell a subset of the populace that there are millions more just like them, hidden away somewhere, just waiting for someone willing to impose their values on the remainder of the public to come along. It's a lot harder to run a national campaign as if all you needed to do was stake out an ideological position to make enough votes to win materialize. Especially when you're running state-to-state, rather than in the nation as a whole. And so the better job that Governor Jindal does projecting his own "whiteness" to rural white Republicans in an effort to say that he's one of them, the greater the chance that he alienates the remainder of the coalition that he would need to win. And the harder it becomes to see him in the White House. While advancing to the general election demands a certain amount of "whiteness," too white, and one can't win it.

Which is perfectly encapsulated in one brilliant tweet and accompanying picture.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Problem of Evil

It doesn't seem likely that the Mississippians who cherish their Confederate past are going to be quick to renounce it, however. As [Greg] Stewart[, executive director of the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential library] explains, to do so means turning their backs on their ancestors.

"Implicit in the argument that the flag represents evil is for me to have to say, yeah, you're right, my people were evil," he says. "And that's just not true."
Will Confederate flag backlash strike Mississippi next?
This goes back to the point that I was making a few days ago. As long as the Dixie flag represents beloved prior generations of the families of people who grew up in the South, it's going to be impossible to get them to be at peace with giving it up.

Another interesting piece of the issue is the general conservative aversion to moral relativity. So one's Confederate ancestors cannot have been good people by their standards, but bad people by our standards. (Although it is worth noting that this isn't universal - there are plenty of people who fall back on the argument that "It was a different time then.") The Confederates have to be righteous, upstanding, moral and tolerant people in 2015 as much as 1865. Which is where most of the rhetoric that slaves willingly fought under Confederate banners came from.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Making Meaning

One day I was walking towards the Howard Street El platform in Chicago, headed home, when a Black woman of about my own age approached me and offered me literature for a job training program. When I told her that I wasn't interested, she became insistent, and it wasn't until I showed her my company-issued ID card that she would leave me alone.

While annoying, the young recruiter's actions were not unexpected. I was a Black male in my twenties, walking along in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, dressed casually and not obviously a student. To her, this marked me as very likely unemployed, even though, as it turned out, I was on my way home from work. But what's important in this circumstance is that she wasn't acting on any sort of personal understanding, but a shared one. My appearance had entered the public lexicon as indicative of an unemployed young adult. And even though that wasn't the only reasonable assumption, it was likely one that would enter most people's minds.

Similarly, "the Dixie flag" (otherwise known as the battle standard of the Armies of Northern Virginia and Tennessee, or with slightly different shades of color as  the Confederate Navy Ensign), has entered the public lexicon as a symbol of white supremacy and racism. And while those are not the only reasonable definitions of that flag, they are effectively universally understood. While any given person can claim that white supremacy and racism are not parts of their personal definition of the flag, the fact remains that just about everyone who has even a passing familiarity with it knows that broader definition.

And while one can argue the appropriateness of being defined by the public lexicon in a way that one finds personally unflattering or inaccurate, it's harder to argue that a given definition is singularly inappropriate. The adult who wears a Dixie flag on their shirt may be expressing a desire to return to only the broadly acceptable parts of a bygone (and likely fictional) past, but unless they were raised under a rock by wolves, they also know that they are risking presenting themselves as a wannabe Confederate, white supremacist or other disreputable character. This isn't to say that they want people to make that particular inference - only that it's hard to argue ignorance of the fact that it comes with the territory and that there are other symbols that lack all of the same baggage.

Perhaps it's fitting that supporters of the Dixie flag have taken on another Lost Cause - that of convincing the populace at large that the public lexicon shouldn't apply to them in the same way that it applies to everyone else in the country. The fact that something has a particular meaning for us does not mean that everyone else is obligated to subscribe to that same meaning. But the fact that the public lexicon attaches a given meaning to something does obligate us, as individuals, to engage with that meaning, whether we wish it or not.