Thursday, November 17, 2016

Todd VanDerWerff on progressive politics and rural America

Todd VanDerWerff, writing about a communication gap between progressive urbanites and conservative ruralites:

I say “racism” and mean “a system, built up over centuries of American history, that privileges white people over everybody else.” Many rural whites hear “racism” and think it means, “You’re a bad person who hates black people,” when they believe they’re not actively discriminating against anyone because of race.
That single sentence jumped out: it’s the perfect characterization of a mindset that prevails in my immediate environs. “I treat everyone the same,” &c.

VanDerWeff is not apologizing for or excusing oppression or bigotry. But he is suggesting that people need to do a better job listening and speaking to one another across a political and cultural divide.

[In today’s local paper, a letter calls “liberals” “fat, lazy, slobs” who will now have to “get their fat little butts off the couch and get a job.”]

comments: 6

Daughter Number Three said...

My "big city" newspaper today had a commentary from a male suburban voter headlined "I voted for Trump" with this deck: "I do not want the United States to be another failed, semi-socialist, bankrupt nanny state."

I don't know how one goes about changing the definition most people have of a word, especially when it is not in their self-interest to see that their definition is incorrect.

Michael Leddy said...

If and when I get into a conversation along these lines (my daughter just did, and got the “I treat everyone the same” response), I plan to ask the other (white) person the question Jane Elliott (the blue eyes-brown eyes experiment) puts to audiences: Would you like to be treated as our culture generally treats people of color? (I’m not quoting exactly.)

Stefan said...

That's a great question, Michael, and it is the kind of thought experiment that Michelle Alexander invites readers to consider in The New Jim Crow. As you probably know, the book has much to do with the problems inherent in a "colorblind society." Here's how she relates the "I treat everyone the same" to mass incarceration: "What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don't. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color 'criminals' and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.... We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it."

President-elect Trump has certainly challenged the idea that explicit racial justifications are no longer permissible, but I came away from the book with a much clearer understanding of why "colorblindness" is probably not the right goal and some good tools--like your question--to use when the topic comes up.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for that, Stefan. I will have to read that book. Ralph Ellison’s description of what America could be — “Our fate is to become one, and yet many” — is still on the horizon.

Anonymous said...

What an odd quote. The nation is already one and yet many. So much of what passes for political insight seems something constructed in Ingsoc.

"Would you like to be treated as our culture generally treats people of color?" What? From Obama to Thomas, from Lynch to Scott, from Jackson to Sowell, "people of color" have been labeled both authentic and inauthentic all depending on only political affiliation. The one and yet many so often is obscured by the many being authenticated by some approved authority, with those outside being officially beyond the pale. The same holds true for gender and other forms of human identification. Only some are authenticate, just depending on....

Now revisiting Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience, the passage leapt out. "The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to — for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well — is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual."

This is the progress which so many today resent all the while self-congratulating as progressives. One may progress in many directions, but not all directions will end with progress of the sort Thoreau captures in his essay.

I look forward in my dotage to continue my progress away from parties and governments, progressing towards "a true respect for the individual." Many such individuals can make up the "one," but a "one" committed to enforced authentication cannot allow the "many."

Mr. VanDerWerff's article wobbles in its words. He addressed "...the language of my youth, and its hallmark is a sincere, aching tone that longs for salvation and worries everything is about to crumble. We talked a lot about the end of things when I was growing up, about the last trumpet and Armageddon."

Yet such words can speak in progressive tones as well, when "salvation" refers to environmentalism's many goals, and "everything is about to crumble" refers to a next federal administration. Certainly the Armageddon is in the news in ISIS' own Dabeq, and generic apocalypses of all sorts headline. All is in "a sincere, aching tone." One merely need choose an allegiance, and we're off to the argumentative races.

I have happily chosen an "already one and yet many" such that my dreams were not nightmares under one party's election and will not be nightmares under another's. Based on a reasonable example in clear prose, I will continue to look forward to "a progress toward a true respect for the individual."

Michael Leddy said...

If the quotation from Invisible Man seems odd, I’d suggest reading the novel, if you haven’t already. It’a a great brief for the integrity of the individual mind. Thoreau isn’t in there, but “Self-Reliance” is. If you watch Jane Elliott on YouTube, you’ll notice that no one in a room of white people raises a hand when she asks the kind of question I paraphrased. If you look back on recent American history, you will recall that Barack Obama’s identity has been questioned in many ways, in many quarters, one way being to ask whether he is “black enough” — a question that the anonymous narrator of Invisible Man also encounters.

I quoted two sentences from VDW’s essay that I found thought-provoking and true to my midwestern reality. I think the whole piece is thought-provoking. But I’m not going to argue about it here.