Sunday, February 01, 2015
TWO LEFTISTS ARE CRITICAL OF POLITICAL CORRECTNESS
But for different reasons. See the two articles below
Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say
How the language police are perverting liberalism
By Jonathan Chait
Around 2 a.m. on December 12, four students approached the apartment of Omar Mahmood, a Muslim student at the University of Michigan, who had recently published a column in a school newspaper about his perspective as a minority on campus. The students, who were recorded on a building surveillance camera wearing baggy hooded sweatshirts to hide their identity, littered Mahmood’s doorway with copies of his column, scrawled with messages like “You scum embarrass us,” “Shut the fuck up,” and “DO YOU EVEN GO HERE?! LEAVE!!” They posted a picture of a demon and splattered eggs.
This might appear to be the sort of episode that would stoke the moral conscience of students on a progressive campus like Ann Arbor, and it was quickly agreed that an act of biased intimidation had taken place. But Mahmood was widely seen as the perpetrator rather than the victim. His column, published in the school’s conservative newspaper, had spoofed the culture of taking offense that pervades the campus. Mahmood satirically pretended to denounce “a white cis-gendered hetero upper-class man” who offered to help him up when he slipped, leading him to denounce “our barbaric attitude toward people of left-handydnyss.” The gentle tone of his mockery was closer to Charlie Brown than to Charlie Hebdo.
The Michigan Daily, where Mahmood also worked as a columnist and film critic, objected to the placement of his column in the conservative paper but hardly wanted his satirical column in its own pages. Mahmood later said that he was told by the editor that his column had created a “hostile environment,” in which at least one Daily staffer felt threatened, and that he must write a letter of apology to the staff. When he refused, the Daily fired him, and the subsequent vandalism of his apartment served to confirm his status as thought-criminal.
The episode would not have shocked anybody familiar with the campus scene from two decades earlier. In 1992, an episode along somewhat analogous lines took place, also in Ann Arbor. In this case, the offending party was the feminist videographer Carol Jacobsen, who had produced an exhibition documenting the lives of sex workers. The exhibition’s subjects presented their profession as a form of self-empowerment, a position that ran headlong against the theories of Catharine MacKinnon, a law professor at the university who had gained national renown for her radical feminist critique of the First Amendment as a tool of male privilege. MacKinnon’s beliefs nestled closely with an academic movement that was then being described, by its advocates as well as its critics, as “political correctness.” Michigan had already responded to the demands of pro-p.c. activists by imposing a campuswide speech code purporting to restrict all manner of discriminatory speech, only for it to be struck down as a First Amendment violation in federal court.
In Ann Arbor, MacKinnon had attracted a loyal following of students, many of whom copied her method of argument. The pro-MacKinnon students, upset over the display of pornographic video clips, descended upon Jacobsen’s exhibit and confiscated a videotape. There were speakers visiting campus for a conference on prostitution, and the video posed “a threat to their safety,” the students insisted.
This was the same inversion of victim and victimizer at work last December. In both cases, the threat was deemed not the angry mobs out to crush opposing ideas, but the ideas themselves. The theory animating both attacks turns out to be a durable one, with deep roots in the political left.
The recent mass murder of the staff members of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was met with immediate and unreserved fury and grief across the full range of the American political system. But while outrage at the violent act briefly united our generally quarrelsome political culture, the quarreling quickly resumed over deeper fissures. Were the slain satirists martyrs at the hands of religious fanaticism, or bullying spokesmen of privilege? Can the offensiveness of an idea be determined objectively, or only by recourse to the identity of the person taking offense? On Twitter, “Je Suis Charlie,” a slogan heralding free speech, was briefly one of the most popular news hashtags in history. But soon came the reactions (“Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie”) from those on the left accusing the newspaper of racism and those on the right identifying the cartoons as hate speech. Many media companies, including the New York Times, have declined to publish the cartoons the terrorists deemed offensive, a stance that has attracted strident criticism from some readers. These sudden, dramatic expressions of anguish against insensitivity and oversensitivity come at a moment when large segments of American culture have convulsed into censoriousness.
After political correctness burst onto the academic scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it went into a long remission. Now it has returned. Some of its expressions have a familiar tint, like the protesting of even mildly controversial speakers on college campuses. You may remember when 6,000 people at the University of California–Berkeley signed a petition last year to stop a commencement address by Bill Maher, who has criticized Islam (along with nearly all the other major world religions). Or when protesters at Smith College demanded the cancellation of a commencement address by Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, blaming the organization for “imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Also last year, Rutgers protesters scared away Condoleezza Rice; others at Brandeis blocked Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women’s-rights champion who is also a staunch critic of Islam; and those at Haverford successfully protested former Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who was disqualified by an episode in which the school’s police used force against Occupy protesters.
At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach “trigger warnings” to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate “microaggressions,” or small social slights that might cause searing trauma. These newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first p.c. movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses. Stanford recently canceled a performance of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson after protests by Native American students. UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student’s decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase I — one example of many “perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies.” A theater group at Mount Holyoke College recently announced it would no longer put on The Vagina Monologues in part because the material excludes women without vaginas. These sorts of episodes now hardly even qualify as exceptional.
Trigger warnings aren’t much help in actually overcoming trauma — an analysis by the Institute of Medicine has found that the best approach is controlled exposure to it, and experts say avoidance can reinforce suffering. Indeed, one professor at a prestigious university told me that, just in the last few years, she has noticed a dramatic upsurge in her students’ sensitivity toward even the mildest social or ideological slights; she and her fellow faculty members are terrified of facing accusations of triggering trauma — or, more consequentially, violating her school’s new sexual-harassment policy — merely by carrying out the traditional academic work of intellectual exploration. “This is an environment of fear, believe it or not,” she told me by way of explaining her request for anonymity. It reminds her of the previous outbreak of political correctness — “Every other day I say to my friends, ‘How did we get back to 1991?’ ”
But it would be a mistake to categorize today’s p.c. culture as only an academic phenomenon. Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.
It also makes money. Every media company knows that stories about race and gender bias draw huge audiences, making identity politics a reliable profit center in a media industry beset by insecurity. A year ago, for instance, a photographer compiled images of Fordham students displaying signs recounting “an instance of racial microaggression they have faced.” The stories ranged from uncomfortable (“No, where are you really from?”) to relatively innocuous (“ ‘Can you read this?’ He showed me a Japanese character on his phone”). BuzzFeed published part of her project, and it has since received more than 2 million views. This is not an anomaly.
In a short period of time, the p.c. movement has assumed a towering presence in the psychic space of politically active people in general and the left in particular. “All over social media, there dwell armies of unpaid but widely read commentators, ready to launch hashtag campaigns and circulate Change.org petitions in response to the slightest of identity-politics missteps,” Rebecca Traister wrote recently in The New Republic.
Two and a half years ago, Hanna Rosin, a liberal journalist and longtime friend, wrote a book called The End of Men, which argued that a confluence of social and economic changes left women in a better position going forward than men, who were struggling to adapt to a new postindustrial order. Rosin, a self-identified feminist, has found herself unexpectedly assailed by feminist critics, who found her message of long-term female empowerment complacent and insufficiently concerned with the continuing reality of sexism. One Twitter hashtag, “#RIPpatriarchy,” became a label for critics to lampoon her thesis. Every new continuing demonstration of gender discrimination — a survey showing Americans still prefer male bosses; a person noticing a man on the subway occupying a seat and a half — would be tweeted out along with a mocking #RIPpatriarchy.
Her response since then has been to avoid committing a provocation, especially on Twitter. “If you tweet something straightforwardly feminist, you immediately get a wave of love and favorites, but if you tweet something in a cranky feminist mode then the opposite happens,” she told me. “The price is too high; you feel like there might be banishment waiting for you.” Social media, where swarms of jeering critics can materialize in an instant, paradoxically creates this feeling of isolation. “You do immediately get the sense that it’s one against millions, even though it’s not.” Subjects of these massed attacks often describe an impulse to withdraw.
Political correctness is a term whose meaning has been gradually diluted since it became a flashpoint 25 years ago. People use the phrase to describe politeness (perhaps to excess), or evasion of hard truths, or (as a term of abuse by conservatives) liberalism in general. The confusion has made it more attractive to liberals, who share the goal of combating race and gender bias.
But political correctness is not a rigorous commitment to social equality so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression. Not only is it not a form of liberalism; it is antithetical to liberalism. Indeed, its most frequent victims turn out to be liberals themselves.
I am white and male, a fact that is certainly worth bearing in mind. I was also a student at the University of Michigan during the Jacobsen incident, and was attacked for writing an article for the campus paper defending the exhibit. If you consider this background and demographic information the very essence of my point of view, then there’s not much point in reading any further. But this pointlessness is exactly the point: Political correctness makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible.
Under p.c. culture, the same idea can be expressed identically by two people but received differently depending on the race and sex of the individuals doing the expressing. This has led to elaborate norms and terminology within certain communities on the left. For instance, “mansplaining,” a concept popularized in 2008 by Rebecca Solnit, who described the tendency of men to patronizingly hold forth to women on subjects the woman knows better — in Solnit’s case, the man in question mansplained her own book to her. The fast popularization of the term speaks to how exasperating the phenomenon can be, and mansplaining has, at times, proved useful in identifying discrimination embedded in everyday rudeness. But it has now grown into an all-purpose term of abuse that can be used to discredit any argument by any man. (MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry once disdainfully called White House press secretary Jay Carney’s defense of the relative pay of men and women in the administration “mansplaining,” even though the question he responded to was posed by a male.) Mansplaining has since given rise to “whitesplaining” and “straightsplaining.” The phrase “solidarity is for white women,” used in a popular hashtag, broadly signifies any criticism of white feminists by nonwhite ones.
If a person who is accused of bias attempts to defend his intentions, he merely compounds his own guilt. (Here one might find oneself accused of man/white/straightsplaining.) It is likewise taboo to request that the accusation be rendered in a less hostile manner. This is called “tone policing.” If you are accused of bias, or “called out,” reflection and apology are the only acceptable response — to dispute a call-out only makes it worse. There is no allowance in p.c. culture for the possibility that the accusation may be erroneous. A white person or a man can achieve the status of “ally,” however, if he follows the rules of p.c. dialogue. A community, virtual or real, that adheres to the rules is deemed “safe.” The extensive terminology plays a crucial role, locking in shared ideological assumptions that make meaningful disagreement impossible.
Nearly every time I have mentioned the subject of p.c. to a female writer I know, she has told me about Binders Full of Women Writers, an invitation-only Facebook group started last year for women authors. The name came from Mitt Romney’s awkwardly phrased debate boast that as Massachusetts governor he had solicited names of female candidates for high-level posts, and became a form of viral mockery. Binders was created to give women writers a “laid-back” and “no-pressure” environment for conversation and professional networking. It was an attempt to alleviate the systemic underrepresentation of women in just about every aspect of American journalism and literature, and many members initially greeted the group as a welcome and even exhilarating source of social comfort and professional opportunity. “Suddenly you had the most powerful women in journalism and media all on the same page,” one former member, a liberal journalist in her 30s, recalls.
Binders, however, soon found itself frequently distracted by bitter identity-politics recriminations, endlessly litigating the fraught requirements of p.c. discourse. “This was the first time I had felt this new kind of militancy,” says the same member, who requested anonymity for fear that her opinions would make her employer uncomfortable. Another sent me excerpts of the types of discussions that can make the group a kind of virtual mental prison.
On July 10, for instance, one member in Los Angeles started a conversation urging all participants to practice higher levels of racial awareness. “Without calling anyone out specifically, I’m going to note that if you’re discussing a contentious thread, and shooting the breeze … take a look at the faces in the user icons in that discussion,” she wrote. “Binders is pretty diverse, but if you’re not seeing many WOC/non-binary POC in your discussion, it’s quite possible that there are problematic assumptions being stated without being challenged.” (“POC” stands for “people of color.” “WOC” means “women of color.” “Non-binary” describes people who are either transgender or identify as a gender other than traditionally male or female.)
Two members responded lightly, one suggesting that such “call-outs” be addressed in private conversation and another joking that she was a “gluten free Jewish WWC” — or Woman Without Color. This set off more jokes and a vicious backlash. “It seems appropriate to hijack my suggestion with jokes. I see,” the Los Angeles member replied. “Apparently whatever WOC have to say is good for snark and jokes,” wrote another. Others continued: “The level of belittling, derailing, crappy jokes, and all around insensitivity here is astounding and also makes me feel very unsafe in this Big Binder.” “It is literally fucking insane. I am appalled and embarrassed.”
The suggestion that a call-out be communicated privately met with even deeper rage. A poet in Texas: “I’m not about to private message folks who have problematic racist, transphobic, anti-immigrant, and/or sexist language.” The L.A. member: “Because when POC speak on these conversations with snark and upset, we get Tone Argumented at, and I don’t really want to deal with the potential harm to me and mine.” Another writer: “You see people suggesting that PMs are a better way to handle racism? That’s telling us we are too vocal and we should pipe down.” A white Toronto member, sensing the group had dramatically underreacted, moved to rectify the situation: “JESUS FUCK, LIKE SERIOUSLY FUCK, I SEE MORE WHITE BINDERS POLICING WOC AND DEMANDING TO BE EDUCATED/UNEDUCATED AS IF IT’S A FUCKING NOBLE MISSION RATHER THAN I DUNNO SPEND TIME SHUTTING DOWN AND SHITTING ON RACIST DOUCHE CANOE BEHAVIOUR; WHAT ARE YOU GAINING BY THIS? WHAT ARE YOU DETRACTING? YOU NEED SCREENCAPS OF BURNING CROSSES TO BELIEVE RACIST SHIT IS HAPPENING? THIS THREAD IS PAINFUL. HUGS TO ALL THE WOC DURING THIS THREAD”
Every free society, facing the challenge of balancing freedom of expression against other values such as societal cohesion and tolerance, creates its own imperfect solution. France’s is especially convoluted and difficult to parse: It allows for satire and even blasphemy (like cartoons that run in Charlie Hebdo) but not for speech that incites violence toward individuals (like provocative comments made by the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala). This may appear to Americans as a distinction without a difference, but our distinctions are also confused, as is our way of talking about free speech as it overlaps with our politics.
The right wing in the United States is unusually strong compared with other industrialized democracies, and it has spent two generations turning liberal into a feared buzzword with radical connotations. This long propaganda campaign has implanted the misperception — not only among conservatives but even many liberals — that liberals and “the left” stand for the same things.
It is true that liberals and leftists both want to make society more economically and socially egalitarian. But liberals still hold to the classic Enlightenment political tradition that cherishes individuals rights, freedom of expression, and the protection of a kind of free political marketplace. (So, for that matter, do most conservatives.)
The Marxist left has always dismissed liberalism’s commitment to protecting the rights of its political opponents — you know, the old line often misattributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” — as hopelessly naïve. If you maintain equal political rights for the oppressive capitalists and their proletarian victims, this will simply keep in place society’s unequal power relations. Why respect the rights of the class whose power you’re trying to smash? And so, according to Marxist thinking, your political rights depend entirely on what class you belong to.
The modern far left has borrowed the Marxist critique of liberalism and substituted race and gender identities for economic ones. “The liberal view,” wrote MacKinnon 30 years ago, “is that abstract categories — like speech or equality — define systems. Every time you strengthen free speech in one place, you strengthen it everywhere. Strengthening the free speech of the Klan strengthens the free speech of Blacks.” She deemed this nonsensical: “It equates substantive powerlessness with substantive power and calls treating these the same, ‘equality.’ ”
Political correctness appeals to liberals because it claims to represent a more authentic and strident opposition to their shared enemy of race and gender bias. And of course liberals are correct not only to oppose racism and sexism but to grasp (in a way conservatives generally do not) that these biases cast a nefarious and continuing shadow over nearly every facet of American life. Since race and gender biases are embedded in our social and familial habits, our economic patterns, and even our subconscious minds, they need to be fought with some level of consciousness. The mere absence of overt discrimination will not do.
Liberals believe (or ought to believe) that social progress can continue while we maintain our traditional ideal of a free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals. Political correctness challenges that bedrock liberal ideal. While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed.
Bettina Aptheker, a professor of feminist studies at the University of California–Santa Cruz, recently wrote an essay commemorating the Berkeley Free Speech movement, in which she participated as a student in 1964. She now expressed a newfound skepticism in the merits of free speech. “Freedom of speech is a constitutional guarantee, but who gets to exercise it without the chilling restraints of censure depends very much on one’s location in the political and social cartography,” she wrote. “We [Free Speech movement] veterans … were too young and inexperienced in 1964 to know this, but we do now, and we speak with a new awareness, a new consciousness, and a new urgency that the wisdom of a true freedom is inexorably tied to who exercises power and for what ends.”
These ideas have more than theoretical power. Last March at University of California–Santa Barbara, in, ironically, a “free-speech zone,” a 16-year-old anti-abortion protester named Thrin Short and her 21-year-old sister Joan displayed a sign arrayed with graphic images of aborted fetuses. They caught the attention of Mireille Miller-Young, a professor of feminist studies. Miller-Young, angered by the sign, demanded that they take it down. When they refused, Miller-Young snatched the sign, took it back to her office to destroy it, and shoved one of the Short sisters on the way.
Speaking to police after the altercation, Miller-Young told them that the images of the fetuses had “triggered” her and violated her “personal right to go to work and not be in harm.” A Facebook group called “UCSB Microaggressions” declared themselves “in solidarity” with Miller-Young and urged the campus “to provide as much support as possible.”
By the prevailing standards of the American criminal-justice system, Miller-Young had engaged in vandalism, battery, and robbery. By the logic of the p.c. movement, she was the victim of a trigger and had acted in the righteous cause of social justice. Her colleagues across the country wrote letters to the sentencing judge pleading for leniency. Jennifer Morgan, an NYU professor, blamed the anti-abortion protesters for instigating the confrontation through their exercise of free speech. “Miller-Young’s actions should be mitigated both by her history as an educator as well as by her conviction that the [anti-abortion] images were an assault on her students,” Morgan wrote. Again, the mere expression of opposing ideas, in the form of a poster, is presented as a threatening act.
The website The Feminist Wire mounted an even more rousing defense of Miller-Young’s behavior. The whole idea that the professor committed a crime by stealing a sign and shoving away its owner turns out to be an ideological construct. “The ease with which privileged white, and particularly young white gender and sexually normative appearing women, make claims to ‘victimhood’ and ‘violation of property,’ is not a neutral move,” its authors argued. It concluded, “We issue a radical call for accountability to questions of history, representation, and the racialized gendering of tropes of ‘culpability’ and ‘innocence’ when considering Dr. Miller-Young’s case.”
These are extreme ideas, but they are neither isolated nor marginal. A widely cited column by a Harvard Crimson editorial writer last year demanded an end to academic freedom if freedom extended to objectionable ideas. “If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism,” asked the author, “why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’?” After the Nation’s Michelle Goldberg denounced a “growing left-wing tendency toward censoriousness and hair-trigger offense,” Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper replied in Salon: “The demand to be reasonable is a disingenuous demand. Black folks have been reasoning with white people forever. Racism is unreasonable, and that means reason has limited currency in the fight against it.”
The most probable cause of death of the first political-correctness movement was the 1992 presidential election. That event mobilized left-of-center politics around national issues like health care and the economy, and away from the introspective suppression of dissent within the academy. Bill Clinton’s campaign frontally attacked left-wing racial politics, famously using inflammatory comments by Sister Souljah to distance him from Jesse Jackson. Barbara Jordan, the first black woman from a southern state elected to the House of Representatives, attacked political correctness in her keynote speech. (“We honor cultural identity. We always have; we always will. But separatism is not allowed. Separatism is not the American way. We must not allow ideas like political correctness to divide us and cause us to reverse hard-won achievements in human rights and civil rights.”)
Yet it is possible to imagine that, as the next Clinton presidential campaign gets under way, p.c. culture may not dissolve so easily. The internet has shrunk the distance between p.c. culture and mainstream liberal politics, and the two are now hopelessly entangled. During the 2008 primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the modern politics of grievance had already begun to play out, as each side’s supporters patrolled the other for any comment that might indicate gender or racial bias. It dissipated in the general election, but that was partly because Obama’s supporters worried about whether America really was ready to accept its first president who was not a white male. Clinton enters the 2016 race in a much stronger position than any other candidate, and her supporters may find it irresistible to amplify p.c. culture’s habit of interrogating the hidden gender biases in every word and gesture against their side.
Or maybe not. The p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting. Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America. The movement’s dour puritanism can move people to outrage, but it may prove ill suited to the hopeful mood required of mass politics. Nor does it bode well for the movement’s longevity that many of its allies are worn out. “It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing,” confessed the progressive writer Freddie deBoer. “There are so many ways to step on a land mine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks.” Goldberg wrote recently about people “who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in [online feminism] — not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists.” Former Feministing editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay told her, “Everyone is so scared to speak right now.”
That the new political correctness has bludgeoned even many of its own supporters into despondent silence is a triumph, but one of limited use. Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree. The historical record of political movements that sought to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies is dismal. The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.
I don’t know what to do, you guys
Fredrick De Boer
So, to state the obvious: Jon Chait is a jerk who somehow manages to be both condescending and wounded in his piece on political correctness. He gets the basic nature of language policing wrong, and his solutions are wrong, and he’s a centrist Democrat scold who is just as eager to shut people out of the debate as the people he criticizes. That’s true.
Here are some things that are also true.
I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 19 year old white woman — smart, well-meaning, passionate — literally run crying from a classroom because she was so ruthlessly brow-beaten for using the word “disabled.” Not repeatedly. Not with malice. Not because of privilege. She used the word once and was excoriated for it. She never came back. I watched that happen.
I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 20 year old black man, a track athlete who tried to fit organizing meetings around classes and his ridiculous practice schedule (for which he received a scholarship worth a quarter of tuition), be told not to return to those meetings because he said he thought there were such a thing as innate gender differences. He wasn’t a homophobe, or transphobic, or a misogynist. It turns out that 20 year olds from rural South Carolina aren’t born with an innate understanding of the intersectionality playbook. But those were the terms deployed against him, those and worse. So that was it; he was gone.
I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 33 year old Hispanic man, an Iraq war veteran who had served three tours and had become an outspoken critic of our presence there, be lectured about patriarchy by an affluent 22 year old white liberal arts college student, because he had said that other vets have to “man up” and speak out about the war. Because apparently we have to pretend that we don’t know how metaphorical language works or else we’re bad people. I watched his eyes glaze over as this woman with $300 shoes berated him. I saw that. Myself.
These things aren’t hypothetical. This isn’t some thought experiment. This is where I live, where I have lived. These and many, many more depressing stories of good people pushed out and marginalized in left-wing circles because they didn’t use the proper set of social and class signals to satisfy the world of intersectional politics. So you’ll forgive me when I roll my eyes at the army of media liberals, stuffed into their narrow enclaves, responding to Chait by insisting that there is no problem here and that anyone who says there is should be considered the enemy.
By the way: in these incidents, and dozens and dozens of more like it, which I have witnessed as a 30-hour-a-week antiwar activist for three years and as a blogger for the last seven and as a grad student for the past six, the culprits overwhelmingly were not women of color. That’s always how this conversation goes down: if you say, hey, we appear to have a real problem with how we talk to other people, we are losing potential allies left and right, then the response is always “stop lecturing women of color.” But these codes aren’t enforced by women of color, in the overwhelming majority of the time. They’re enforced by the children of privilege. I know. I live here. I am on campus. I have been in the activist meetings and the lefty coffee houses. My perspective goes beyond the same 200 people who write the entire Cool Kid Progressive Media.
Amanda Taub says political correctness “doesn’t exist.” To which I can only ask, how would you know? I don’t understand where she gets that certainty. Is Traub under the impression that the Vox offices represents the breadth of left-wing culture? I read dozens of tweets and hot take after hot take, insisting that there’s no problem here, and it’s coming overwhelmingly from people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
Well, listen, you guys: I don’t know what to do. I am out of ideas. I am willing to listen to suggestions. What do I do, when I see so many good, impressionable young people run screaming from left-wing politics because they are excoriated the first second they step mildly out of line? Megan Garber, you have any suggestions for me, when I meet some 20 year old who got caught in a Twitter storm and determined that she never wanted to set foot in that culture again? I’m all ears. If I’m not allowed to ever say, hey, you know, there’s more productive, more inclusive ways to argue here, then I don’t know what the fuck I am supposed to do or say. Hey, Alex Pareene. I get it. You can write this kind of piece in your sleep. You will always find work writing pieces like that. It’s easy and it’s fun and you can tell jokes and those same 200 media jerks will give you a thousand pats on the back for it. Do you have any advice for me, here, on campus? Do you know what I’m supposed to say to some shellshocked 19 year old from Terra Haute who, I’m very sorry to say, hasn’t had a decade to absorb bell hooks? Can you maybe do me a favor, and instead of writing a piece designed to get you yet-more retweets from Weird Twitter, [I changed my mind, Weird Twitter is cool and good] tell me how to reach these potential allies when I know that they’re going to get burned terribly for just being typical clumsy kids? Since you’re telling me that if I say a word against people who go nuclear at the slightest provocation, I’m just one of the Jon Chaits, please inform me how I can act as an educator and an ally and a friend. Because I am out of fucking ideas.
I know, writing these words, exactly how this will go down. I know Weird Twitter will hoot and the same pack of self-absorbed media liberals will herp de derp about it. I know I’ll get read the intersectionality riot act, even though everyone I’m criticizing here is white, educated, and privileged. I know nobody will bother to say, boy, maybe I don’t actually understand the entire world of left-wing politics because I went to Sarah Lawrence. I know that. But Christ, I wish people would think outside of their social circle for 5 minutes.
Jon Chait is an asshole. He’s wrong. I don’t want these kids to be more like Jon Chait. I sure as hell don’t want them to be less left-wing. I want them to be more left-wing. I want a left that can win, and there’s no way I can have that when the actually-existing left sheds potential allies at an impossible rate. But the prohibition against ever telling anyone to be friendlier and more forgiving is so powerful and calcified it’s a permanent feature of today’s progressivism. And I’m left as this sad old 33 year old teacher who no longer has the slightest fucking idea what to say to the many brilliant, passionate young people whose only crime is not already being perfect.
The evils of Britain's family courts again
A mother and her 11-year-old son were separated on the orders of a judge who refused to listen to their pleas to live together, an appeal ruling found today.
Three Appeal judges said the mother was wrongly denied the hope of getting her son back by the behaviour of Judge Robert Dodds in the family court in Liverpool.
Judge Dodds took the decision to break up the family forever on the basis of an out-of-date report by social workers. He refused to listen to crucial facts of the case - dismissing them as ‘Victorian detail’.
Instead he decided to make a final judgement about the mother and son’s future on the spot, at a court hearing that was only supposed to plot the future conduct of the case, the Appeal judges found.
Judge Dodds decided to break up the family ‘within a matter of minutes’, dismissing the 11-year-old’s hopes of living with his mother. He wished the boy ‘every good luck in the world but the Children Act and the court has nothing to do with it.’
The Appeal ruling published today contained severe condemnation of Judge Dodds’ conduct of the case by three Appeal judges: Lady Justice King, Lord Justice Lewison and the most senior family judge, President of the Family Division Sir James Munby.
Sir James said: ‘It is unhappily all too apparent that no dispassionate observer of the proceedings could think that justice was done, let alone that it was seen to be done. It was not.’
He added that ‘such a ruthlessly truncated process as the judge adopted here was fundamentally unprincipled and unfair.’
Lady Justice King said that Judge Dodds’ behaviour ‘was not only unfair to the mother but contrary to the interests of the children with whom he was concerned.’
Lord Justice Lewison added that justice could not be done ‘when a judge has apparently made up his mind before hearing argument or evidence. ‘A closed mind is incompatible with the administration of justice,’ Lord Justice Lewison said.
The family that came before Judge Dodds in the brief hearing in Liverpool last August were the mother and her three children who had been taken into state care at the end of 2012.
Lawyers, social workers and grandparents had agreed that two of the children, aged 14 and 10, would go to live with their grandparents. But the 11-year-old wanted desperately to live with his mother.
The Appeal judgement said that the boy was academically capable and ‘overachieving’ at school. But in less than two years he had gone through 14 different placements with foster parents and his life was one of ‘continued instability, distress and fervent desire to go home.’
At one stage social workers had sent him to live with his father, a drug dealer, where the boy complained of ill treatment. He was sent back to the father, who was later charged with assaulting the boy and was in prison awaiting trial at the time of the Appeal hearing last month.
Social workers had told the mother they would allow new drug tests to check her claims that she had turned her life around, and lawyers agreed the court should consider sending the boy back to her. But Judge Dodds took a different view.
The Appeal judges said that at the August case management hearing intended to plan future hearings, ‘within a matter of minutes the judge had made abundantly clear, in trenchant terms, his determination to conclude the case there and then by making final care orders.
‘All the parties crumbled under the judge’s caustically expressed views, and as a consequence were unable to explain to the judge that the situation was more complicated.’
They added that at one stage Judge Dodds said the mother looked ‘upset and bewildered’. The Appeal judges observed: ‘It is hard to see how she could have looked otherwise.’
Judge Dodds made care orders placing all three children under the care of Liverpool social workers despite the detailed and different plans that had been made for them.
The Appeal judges set the decision aside and ordered the case should be taken over by a different judge.
Sir James Munby said: ‘A parent facing the removal of their child must be allowed to put their case to the court, however seemingly forlorn. It is one of the oldest principles of our law – it goes back over 400 years – that no-one is to be condemned unheard.’
He added that the mother had a right to question social workers in court.
Sir James said that while requirements that family cases involving the fate of children should take no more than 26 weeks in court were important, ‘robustness cannot trump fairness.’
Australia: You can't makes whites out of blackfellas
Successive governments of all stripes have tried everything To get blackfellas to behave like whites -- but nothing works. Despite all efforts, blackfellas remain welfare dependent, violent towards their women and children, prone to alcoholism and in poor health. The only people who really had any effect on them were the missionaries -- but nobody in government wants to know about that. I knew some of the older generation of blackfellas who grew up under the missionaries and they had their limitations but were real gentlemen
Australia's native people mostly call themselves "blackfellas". Interesting that only the Latin term "Aborigines" is used below
ALMOST 1½ years into the initial term of Tony Abbott’s Coalition government and the latest drastic overhaul of indigenous affairs policies and programs, the great mystery overhanging remote Aboriginal Australia has only deepened.
It is the besetting question no one in the circles of administrative power wants to ask clearly, or answer squarely: Why aren’t the men and women of indigenous communities across the deserts and the north sending their children to school, seeking out jobs and training opportunities, engaging with the scores of programs under way in their midst? Why, given the vast social engineering efforts launched for their benefit, are the people of the remote bush townships and outstations failing to thrive? And what more, beyond the measures tried already in the past decade of large-scale interventions, can be done?
Among the architects of new policy initiatives, the standard assumption is that the legacy of passive welfare is to blame for this persistent failure of response in the target populations of the centre, the Kimberley, Cape York and the Top End. Simply design the right combination of constraints and incentives, they argue, and human nature being what it is, all will improve in time.
But the emerging picture of policy fiasco is disquietingly stark. Despite the blizzard of despairingly tweaked official statistics and assessments of progress, the “gap” persists; even though measures of indigenous wellbeing are routinely presented so as to blur the distinctions between the remote bush and the towns and more settled regions, the landscape is plain. Across the country, remote community schools are empty and ineffective, grog and drugs loom large, health is poor, preventable illnesses rampant, feud and family violence pervasive; even the make-work jobs for locals tend to go unfilled.
The dramatic change expected in the wake of the 2007 Northern Territory “Emergency Response” and allied programs around the remote bush has simply not materialised. For a range of expert observers, there is now a dark conclusion to be drawn. Remote Aboriginal Australia is more than merely indifferent or disengaged: it is pursuing a mingled strategy of noncompliance and resistance to outside authority — and from this diagnosis several consequences flow.
The way the commonwealth bureaucracy and successive governments have reached the present impasse is instructive. By 1999 the new native title system had been launched and bedded down. Attention turned to the worsening condition of the bush. Cape York reformer Noel Pearson put forward his argument that passive welfare was the chief factor behind remote community anomie, and that alcoholic drinking should be treated as a cause, rather than a symptom, of social collapse.
These views won converts in the government of prime minister John Howard, whose activist indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough based the Territory intervention on the three principles of enhanced child protection, alcohol bans and welfare income management. This was a stripped-down version of the reform recipe being tested in four Cape York communities in concert with the Queensland government, and it would be extended, retouched and widened in its geographic scope by Labor under minister Jenny Macklin between 2008 and 2013.
Pearson’s schema won the day not only because of its upscale presentation and strong media support but because it came with a prescription, a cluster of linked programs to change behaviour: if parents failed to send their children to school their welfare income would be quarantined after review by a local panel, the Family Responsibilities Commission. The logic was straightforward: welfare simply paid without reciprocal obligation was sapping the autonomy and judgment of remote communities. They needed the guidance of a penalty-and-incentive model.
This became the ruling paradigm, with bipartisan political support. Welfare quarantining and close surveillance were enshrined as the mainstays of remote community administration in the Territory: a network of outside overseers is still in place, backed by trainers, job skills instructors, community capacity builders and engagement officers. From Mount Isa to Kalgoorlie, public servants now report and assess all signs of community advancement. These are well advertised by governmental media: upbeat spin and announcements of transformative new schemes have become the order of the day.
So things stood when Abbott took the reins in September 2013. In his opposition years he had made a habit of sitting down with traditional leaders and working alongside community members, and all this was more than show, it was a statement of intent. The Prime Minister was also close to the Territory’s centrist chief minister Terry Mills, who had recently won office with the solid backing of Aboriginal bush voters and was just beginning a redesign of the Territory’s relations with its remote communities.
It felt like a new dawn in Canberra, at close to midnight. A good four decades had gone by since the welfare net came down on remote indigenous Australia, the “sit-down” money times began, the outback cattle industry was modernised and station life for Aborigines vanished in the dust; four decades since drinking in town camps first became entrenched. Two full generations, in indigenous life. The last chance had come to cut into welfare dependency while senior remote community members who remembered another system were still living.
Abbott had given undertakings that he would consult and listen to Aboriginal voices in crafting his approach. Of course, when the maelstrom of office hit he found he had no real time to give to such a marginal portfolio. How to proceed? He held one simple truth fast: education was the key. Bush children had no hope without schooling. Abbott selected as his minister Nigel Scullion, from the same party as his Territory ally, Mills. But within months Scullion’s faction had deposed the elected chief minister in Darwin, torn up his program of reforms and brought in a group keen to break the political power of the large Aboriginal land councils and gain easy access to indigenous land: it was a change of course felt in the bush as a shock betrayal.
As a check to Scullion, Abbott had singled out Alan Tudge, a former associate of Pearson. He also looked for some blue-sky thinking: philanthropist Andrew Forrest, abetted by Melbourne academic Marcia Langton, produced a report on training in the bush that recommended a steroid expansion of compulsory income management’s scope and the creation of a largely cashless remote area economy to fight the scourge of drink and drugs. Abbott brushed these draconian plans aside when they were first presented to him, but the bureaucracy in Canberra smiles on them and is keen to implement some of Forrest’s recommendations.
It is clear enough, by now, what happened to the Prime Minister’s indigenous affairs dream. When he came to office he had no seriously developed or fine-grained blueprint for transforming the bush, despite his feeling for its plight and the length of his waiting time as leader of the opposition. He swiftly brought the entire indigenous affairs bureaucracy into his own department and charged Scullion with prosecuting his one big idea, the compulsory school attendance agenda. And he adopted the cause of the constitutional referendum on Aboriginal recognition as his grand symbolic issue.
Only now, halfway into his initial term, is Abbott poised to commit the government to a new set of practical reform measures. What course will he choose? Advice comes to Abbott from a tight circle, including favoured members of the indigenous political class, but he has no real access to community-based voices, and his impulse to involve bush leaders has evaporated. His counsellors all believe in the primacy of economic signals as the most effective agents of social change. As a result, the commonwealth is now on the verge of adopting an intensification of approach — more stringent management of welfare income, more reciprocal obligation to work for transfer payments, more controls on substance abuse, more concerted action on parental neglect and domestic violence.
A milder version of this policy set has been in place in remote north Queensland, the Territory, parts of desert South Australia and much of the outback west for seven years. As a result, the impact of such top-down controls has been much studied and the outcomes tabulated.
The school attendance project being run by Abbott’s department provides the latest example. It covers 30 target schools in the Territory and a handful elsewhere, and has enlisted and paid some 300 community members to get children to go to school, at a cost of more than $30 million. An increase of 15 per cent in attendance has been claimed by the program managers, but this is a fiction: numbers have actually fallen in many schools, the reporting method is flawed, the numbers are grotesquely padded.
The record of the north Queensland “direct instruction” schools in boosting attendance has been more promising, yet the broader impact of Pearson’s long-running Cape York reform project in its four trial communities is much more ambiguous. The landscape there is one of stabilisation, at best, rather than revolutionary behaviour change. But the most telling research has been carried out in the Territory’s swath of intervention communities.
The largest of these evaluation reports, examining all aspects of the intervention, was released late last month, after long delay and with much reluctance, by the Department of Social Services. The study had been run over four years by an expert team; the sample was large, the range of data broad. For those who had put their faith in controls as triggers for behaviour shifts, its conclusions were startling. It found that compulsory welfare income management had not promoted “independence and the building of skills and capabilities”, nor had it changed patterns of spending on food, tobacco or alcohol. Rather, it had increased a sense of dependency on welfare and removed the burden of personal management from community people.
The take-out was pretty clear: the intervention’s flagship measure had been a costly waste of time. But government ministers promptly seized on the review’s findings as evidence of the need for much stricter income management. They argued that if remote area Aborigines were not responding to the sanctions placed on them, they had too much welfare cash on hand, and therefore 60 or 70 per cent of the welfare payment should be restricted to the “basics card”, rather than the present 50 per cent.
The idea was simple: disempower to empower; limit economic freedom to set free people’s minds. The parliamentary secretary assisting Abbott in the indigenous field, former management consultant and Cape York expert Tudge, gave the strong version of this thesis in The Australian last month, citing a Mornington Island study showing half of all welfare payments were spent on drink: a level that would defeat the present setting of the basics card.
This study, carried out in the 1990s and published in 2002, was the pioneering work of the profound and humane anthropologist David McKnight, whose constant focus was the colonial encounter. He saw no simple solution to the alcohol plague. He traced the despair and social breakdown on Mornington to the coming in the 70s of the local government shire, which stripped autonomy from the local Lardil people and gave them in its stead the welfare benefits that tore apart traditional ways of life.
Can the sharp remedy now being proposed by Tudge, Forrest and the government’s coterie of advisers make inroads, and reverse the long decline and fall of the Aboriginal bush? The commonwealth is the last authority willing to engage. The state government in South Australia has given up on social remediation projects in the Pitjantjatjara communities, and wants to adopt full-scale welfare income control. The West Australian government has canvassed a sharp reduction in remote support funds that would see a number of smaller communities and outstations shut down. And the Territory’s priorities are clear: it has just opened a $500m jail and launched a mandatory rehab scheme that has already recorded its first death in care; a new courthouse and new police stations are under way; it has assembled a crack team of lawyers for its bid to have the Aboriginal land rights act watered down in the coming year.
On the ground, signs of positive behaviour change are increasingly hard to find. Broome is flooded by remote community dwellers from the Kimberley and desert who gather there in camps to drink; in Alice Springs, there are 15 thriving sly-grog sale outlets unknown to the police, who pride themselves on their effective bottle-shop controls. The towns to the south of Cape York are fringed by seasonal drinking humpies, all currently occupied.
What is the group psychology underlying this pattern? Can it be that the remote population is not susceptible to economic pressure, or that intervention is proving counterproductive? What if the control programs are now generating defiance and sabotage?
In all the long official debate on the bush communities and their condition, there has been a blanket reluctance to take the harsh politics of the frontier seriously, or consider the impact when two distinct worlds and their perspectives meet. But close, committed observers free from governmental ties and consultancies and keenly aware of the indigenous thought-world have come to a contrarian position: one that demands attention as policy lines are hardened for the years ahead.
The most prominent exponent of this viewpoint is the Territory’s leading public intellectual, Rolf Gerritsen, a professor at Charles Darwin University’s Northern Institute. He knows the Roper Gulf region closely; he also knows the political economy of the centre and the north. He was for four years director of social and economic policy in the Chief Minister’s Department. After his resignation in 2006 he blew the whistle on the Territory’s large-scale diversion of commonwealth funds earmarked for remote areas to its own metropolitan priorities. Gerritsen believes that remote settlement Aboriginal men and women have adopted a strategy of covert resistance to the intervention and its associated programs.
At the heart of his analysis is an awareness of the persisting difference between the values of “our” mainstream society and the traditional Aboriginal world, with its emphasis on reciprocal responsibility and its strong belief in individual autonomy. Thus “we” are inevitably seeking to re-engineer “them”. For Gerritsen, bush Aborigines are not merely Australian citizens: they are also a dispossessed people, conscious their world is occupied by outsiders. They collaborate with the occupiers, and acquiesce, and also resist, and the strain of resistance strengthens when their limited free agency in life is infringed. They have two quite separate modes of expression: one for when white people are around, one for themselves.
Hence the school attendance puzzle, and scores of others like it. When asked, or “consulted” in public, Aboriginal parents all say they want their children to go to school, but that commitment may be insincere, or may waver, or be countermanded by dislike of the school, or the teachers, or the actions of the government and its local figureheads. Constraint is still the chief weapon of the state: Aborigines are being asked to adapt — “we are requiring them to become like us” — and they object, and fail to comply. This is what social policy observers then tend to describe as “dysfunction”.
There are several ways this pattern manifests itself in the bush. The resistance can be overtly political. Black votes were responsible for removing NT Labor in the 2012 election; when the conservative regime broke its promises to the bush, voters swung and gave Labor a rare good result in the Territory regional seat at the 2013 federal poll.
Individuals also act this disobedience out. Young Aboriginal men between the ages of 15 and 35 are the “zealot” resisters who engage in substance abuse, drive unregistered vehicles unlicensed, are fined repeatedly and then go to jail, thus “confirming the significance of their rebellion”. Their behaviour becomes “a resistance to what the white society has in mind for them”. Illegal card gambling is a form of rebellion. So is littering in communities, and in towns. Drinking, which the authorities prohibit or seek to limit, is itself a weapon — a deliberate gesture of “rejection of the conqueror and all he stands for”.
The rebel withdraws from the victor’s realm: and it is very striking how many well-trained community men and women refuse to work. Trained teachers don’t teach, builders don’t build, while more than 30,000 young Aboriginal men from remote areas have forgone their benefits and refused to submit themselves to the job search discipline of Centrelink.
This analysis of conflict between two cultures leads to a dark concluding point: self-neglect, poor health and social harm are also expressions of what Gerritsen sees as the veto Aborigines hold in their hands over Australian society and its representatives: “Governments think they have power over Aboriginal welfare recipients, but Aboriginal people, in their failure, in their covert resistance, can place pressure on government.”
This version of the remote community context is in diametrical opposition to the consensus position of the indigenous affairs establishment, which likes to present a map of constant slow progress in the bush as newer and more enlightened strategies are brought to bear on the hapless native population. The upturn in outcomes is always just ahead, or just beginning to be visible in the reports and statistics.
Can Gerritsen be right? The evidence is suggestive — and bush Aboriginal people tend to smile quietly when asked their view. Resistance shades into pure reserve, and into indifference. Damian McLean, president of the Ngaanyatjarra shire in the far western desert, places the weight in the seven ultra-remote communities he represents on withdrawal as much as on defiance. He has watched aghast over the past half-decade as official policy blow after blow has damaged the resilience and capacity of the indigenous bush: “Successive Australian governments have been increasingly dismissive of the collective and individual indigenous identity, and insistent on compliance with social norms: school attendance, transition to work, home ownership and economic participation.”
These norms coerce, but have little transformative impact. In fact the world of the far western desert is still very internal to itself, McLean contends: “Its people are aware that they have limited interest in the things that engage the white world and they know that the outside world would find the practices at the heart of desert life quite confronting. And the intimidating impact of welfare reform drives people further into their own world, and makes them less confident and safe to feel out the wider world.”
Such sketches of the attitudes in the remote bush fit precisely with the outcomes: it is hard to point to a single top-down social reform or employment or home ownership project in any part of the centre or the north that has taken off. This may well be because the intervention has never been “owned” by the communities it affects.
In the Cape, a mounting hostility towards the Family Responsibilities Commission is palpable in the four trial communities. Social and medical workers on the front line know that wellbeing in their host communities is on the decline and that agents of the outside world are increasingly viewed with suspicious eyes.
What might be done to change this picture, and enlist the support of remote Aboriginal Australia’s men and women in a journey towards a fuller, easier participation in the mainstream? An article in next week’s Inquirer will seek to outline a fresh approach.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS and DISSECTING LEFTISM. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here.