Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mean Time Before Failure

I went to my first demolition derby when my oldest daughter was queen of the county fair. She had to attend certain events, which meant I got in for free. The demolition derby is like the deep-fried Twinkie of live entertainment: I can't say it's good, but that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable.

Two things struck me. One was the sheer noise, from the PA announcer to the sound of crunching metal to the roar of the cars themselves, most of which just had straight pipes poked through the hood into the exhaust manifold. Mufflers are for sissies.

The other thing that struck me was how much some of these cars could take before they stopped running. They were getting smashed into by other drivers deliberately trying to take them out, and yet for all the damage they often managed to remain functional longer than I expected. 

Teams of backyard mechanics patched the cars back together between heats. You could see the sparks from the cutting and welding torches they used in their automotive meatball surgery. Parts were replaced -- or bypassed -- to get the cars ready for the next onslaught. One of the winning cars could only go in reverse by the time the tournament was over, but it won regardless.

Most of us experience our cars as more fragile than that. The difference between "functional" and "street legal" is salient here, as is the fact that most of us don't have crews patching us back together after every trip. We're not smashing our cars into each other on purpose, for the most part, but our damage threshold is (practically speaking) much lower.

As a power-commuter (I make a four-hour round trip twice a week for my main teaching gig), I am constantly aware of the things that might go wrong and render me unable to get to work or back -- or worse, stranded somewhere in between. In the past year I've been pretty lucky, but that's after replacing one car and spending $5,000 fixing another.

The simple fact is that things break. Hard drives and other products are given something called an MTBF rating, which stands for Mean Time Before Failure (or Mean Time Between Failures, depending on the kind of system). Failure is a given; the only variable is how long before it happens.

This is true of everything. Relationships die. Families disintegrate. Civilizations crumble. Climates destabilize. Stars go supernova. I used to joke with my more theologically-minded friends that my eschatology -- my vision of the end times -- is "everybody dies." 

The body-as-machine metaphor is problematic for a number of reasons, but the body is nevertheless a complex system that will eventually experience the catastrophic failure we call death. "On a long enough timeline," says the narrator of Fight Club, "the survival rate for everyone drops to zero." 

I think about this sometimes when I'm feeding Willy or giving him his pills. He's got a brain disorder; there is something profoundly wrong with one of the most vital of bodily organs. This has led to the failure or at least the compromise of other systems -- and yet he is still very much alive. Dawn was told he might not make it past two years old, and we just celebrated his eleventh birthday. 

Willy's situation is, at least statistically, more fragile than most of the rest of ours. The next seizure could be the one from which he doesn't recover. The next feeding could be the one that his body stops assimilating in the slow spiral of degeneration. The next virus that gets passed around could be the one that ends in a lethal bout of pneumonia, to which he is susceptible. 

But it's a difference of degree rather than kind. We're all fragile in this sense. I could die tomorrow of an accident or an aneurysm, and Willy would outlive me. Or I could have any number of things go wrong and live on in defiance of the odds, as Willy has. Bodies are weird and unpredictable.

St. Benedict adjured his monks to meditate upon their own death. That sounds morbid, but it's probably good perspective. Everybody dies. Of course we have preferences about the timing, but beyond the statistical advantages of staying healthy and minimizing risks, we don't really get much say. 

In my own nod to the Buddhist recognition of impermanence, I tend to expect that things will break, that plans will go wrong, that my attempts to budget will get wrecked. That everyone dies. This isn't pessimism. I'm not negative or morose. In those moments I have to confess that, deep down, I'm probably a nihilist, I always make sure to qualify it: "but I'm the happy kind."

This doesn't make me a pessimist any more than my expectation that good things will happen makes me an optimist. Of course good things will happen. They have. They do. Ditto bad things. I like it better when the former outweigh the latter but again, apart from statistical advantages I have no control over that. 

If the universe doesn't owe me anything, then I can't be disappointed when I don't get it and I can't afford to be triumphalistic when I do. The good things that happen are either the consequence of things I hope I'm smart enough to repeat or they're random happenstance. Bad things are either the consequence of things I hope I'm smart enough to avoid or they, too, are just happenstance.

I'd like to beat the odds, but I might not. Not everyone can or the odds would be different to begin with. I'm okay with that.

Everybody dies.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Share the Land

One of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it –  or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. To summarize: it is a well known fact, that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.
-The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I sometimes joke that I'm not smart enough to run a country and I'm suspicious of the whole enterprise. It speaks to my discomfort with dogmatic certainty as well as to my vaguely anarchistic inclinations. In fact, I'm suspicious of both democracy and capitalism, though I don't really have a viable alternative for either. I'm not smart enough to -- never mind, I already gave the punch line.

In college I was a libertarian. I wasn't exactly a Republican as such -- that would have been too passé, I guess -- but definitely on the right, and the religious right to boot. I was an evangelical Christian attending Bible college in the wake of a Reaganite hangover we still haven't slept off. I listened to Rush Limbaugh and read articles from the Cato Institute. 

I ate lunch regularly with a group of guys and we playfully called ourselves the Dead Horse Society because we covered a lot of the same material in our conversations. We fancied ourselves "radically conservative": conservative, but edgy. We joked that we were "intolerant by choice," lest some muddle-headed liberal have pity on us by thinking we couldn't help it. When Clinton was elected, we symbolically drank grape Kool-Aid. This was also a joke, of course, but I can still say we literally drank the Kool-Aid. 

There's a certain frat boy quality to this strand of right-wing populism. Limbaugh -- and I know he's not exactly  a libertarian, but there's some overlap -- is a blowhard but he's also an inveterate jokester. Some of it's a passive-aggressive schema in which the frat boy conservative can say outlandish things and then claim it was just a joke and we all need to lighten up.

Some of it, though, is a genuine sense that everyone really does need to lighten up. The answer, for the libertarian, is simple: limit  government to the protection of borders and property rights (make it small enough to be drowned in a bathtub, the saying goes), let the market do its thing, and everyone will be free, happy doing what they want to do -- because under libertarian governance, they can! Party on, Wayne.

There's also the attraction of a kind of ideological purity that can cut through the partisan bric-a-brac and clear out the cobwebs of complicated political thinking. Even better, it has the benefit of being really hard to falsify. No one's really going to try it, not even the Republicans, and to whatever extent it is tried libertarians can claim anything good as evidence that it works and anything bad as evidence that we didn't take it far enough.

I drifted away from this thinking and largely grew bored with politics, but my sympathies grew more and more liberal [while I often use that word in its broader sense in which the entire American political system is liberal or neoliberal, here I just mean "opposite of conservative"]. The problem is that I never really liked being a joiner, and as much as I was (and am) sympathetic to the issues, I don't care for liberalism as a discourse community.

For one, liberals seem to have a tendency to be preachy and sanctimonious. Conservatives like to think they have a more realistic grasp of the world and how it works, and can be dismissive and condescending about it. Liberals, for their part, seem to think they're better people, and they're no less condescending or dismissive.

I see the same things among liberals that turned me off from conservatism: the us-vs.-them mentality, the straw man fallacies and ad hominem attacks, the ideological entrenchment, the in-group posturing. Politics and religion seem particular fertile breeding grounds for these weaknesses in human thought, which is probably why we're not supposed to bring them up at dinner. 

This is not to say that there's no discernible difference between the major parties or that favoring one over the other is always reducible to mere in-group bias. While liberals and conservatives might resort to the same rhetorical shortcuts and Republicans and Democrats might be scrambling over one another to kiss corporate America's ass, there are significant differences in their respective agendas, and those differences matter. I sometimes joke that I can vote Democrat and be disappointed when they don't live up to the promises they made or I can vote Republican and be disappointed when they do. 

So I bristle at the temptation on one hand to narrate those differences in stark, apocalyptic terms and the temptation on the other hand to cynically dismiss them in "a pox on both their houses" fire-them-all-and-start-over fit of  hand-waving. The system is weird and dysfunctional and it doesn't seem to attract the kind of people we'd really like to see running the country, but, like family, it's what we've got to work with.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

By the time I got interested in politics again, it was Christian anarchism, which really is a thing. I've written about the theological side of that journey here, and about anarchism here, so I don't want to belabor those. The short version is that I ended up an anarchist by virtue of a pacifist ethics, and I glommed onto that ethics via a particular understanding of Jesus, an understanding that is predicated on a belief in the Resurrection that I no longer have.

Now, to be completely fair, there are ways of being an anarchist that don't involve being a pacifist, but I wasn't interest in those. And there are ways of being a pacifist without believing in the Resurrection, but I wasn't interested in those, either. For that matter, there are ways of being Christian don't involve being pacifist or necessarily believing literally in resurrection, but -- you guessed it -- I'm not really interested.

Like libertarianism, anarchism can useful for pushing away from the usual partisan divide and for its ideological clarity. It's somewhat common to think that the right and left meet at their extremes in these two political viewpoints but the economic divide between the two is too significant for that to hold. Anarchists share the libertarian disdain for the state but add to it an equal or even greater suspicion of capitalism.

In fact, the things that libertarians need the state for -- protecting borders and maintaining property rights -- are anathema to most anarchists, and many anarchists I know would give a passing nod to the usefulness of the state (especially if the capitalist milieu is not going anywhere soon) for providing a safety net and putting the Keynesian brakes on the market, which makes libertarians break out in a rash.

One way of describing the difference between liberals and conservatives, then, is that the latter embrace the neoliberal ideology without questioning its effects while the former seek to mitigate the effects without questioning the ideology. Push far enough to the right, and you get the libertarian goal of an unfettered market. Push far enough to the left and you're getting rid of capitalism entirely.

This push to the left doesn't have to be anarchism, as such, but after the "death of Marxism" it comes up more than, say, a push for state socialism. Regardless, this is not the extremes coming back around to meet again so much two radically different socioeconomic visions sharing certain superficial political contours.

To put it more colorfully, in my Christian anarchist days I'd be much more likely to compromise my pacifist ideals and punch a libertarian in the face than anyone else on the political spectrum. I'm just keeping it real here. I used to joke that libertarians were white guys who didn't have the money to be Republicans or the balls to be anarchists.

Bad Ted.

So what's the problem? The problem is that I'm really, really bad at believing in things. I have a history of finding something interesting to believe in, thinking it to be The Thing that I might be able to really dig into, and then believing it so hard that I break it, like Lenny mauling the puppy to death in Of Mice and Men. I don't mean to; it just happens.

Anymore I just don't bother. I really am a bit of a nihilist, epistemologically speaking. I'm the happy kind, though: more Nietzsche's "passive" than "active" nihilist, with some absurdism thrown in for good measure, which probably helps to explain my fondness for Hitchhiker's. 

It's not that I don't think meaning exists or can exist; it's just that none of it is inherent. We create it. We make shit up. We have to, of course, and we also try to hide that fact from ourselves, but we do it.

So I find anarchism interesting but I don't really believe in it, not enough to risk anything. But I can't say I believe in liberalism, either. I'm good at questioning and critiquing things but I don't have a comprehensive constructive vision. Voltaire ostensibly said "I may not believe in what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." I'm more like "I may not agree with what you have to say, but at least I won't kill you for it." That's as far as I'm willing to commit.

I can't say I believe in America, though I'm willing to admit that for an educated middle-class white guy like me, it's a pretty nice place to live. I'm not sure I believe in democracy or freedom, but they seem like nice ideas when we're not killing people and claiming them as the reason.

So, to recap: I'm skeptical of everything, but my sensibilities are liberal. This is fitting since I live in Ann Arbor, and it probably just makes me an example of Richard Rorty's "liberal ironist," and thus probably not as interesting as I thought I was. I can live with that.

In fact, the epistemological nihilism I'm willing to confess to should, by all rights, default to a kind of pragmatism, and Rorty himself is a good example of that. The problem with pragmatism, though, is that everyone thinks they're being pragmatic, and it's hard to get good data that's not ideologically pre-spun. I'm back to not being smart enough to run a country. Or maybe I'm just chronically prone to overthinking it.

At least I'm fun at parties.

Friday, November 14, 2014

That Smell

There's some significant internet buzz about semi-nude photos of Kim Kardashian, particularly one of her backside. I'd call it much ado about nothing, but judging by the photo it's much ado about quite a lot. The photo shoot's title, "Kim Kardashian Breaks the Internet," appears to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The buzz is, for the most part, not flattering to Ms. Kardashian, ranging from denunciations to parodies to "Why is this okay when _____ isn't?" pretensions of moral outrage to catty comments about Photoshopping (which may well be true). Kanye West is not spared, either: one meme has a picture -- almost a mug shot -- of West with the caption "Here's that picture of Kim Kardashian's ass everyone's been talking about."

Stay classy, Internet.

In one sense this comes with the territory. Kardashian, like Paris Hilton before her, is the quintessential person famous for being famous.

Life in the spotlight brings all kinds of attention, and while I suppose the old adage that there's no such thing as bad press rings true, not all of that attention is savory. Live by the photo-op, die by the photo-op, as Rush Limbaugh (himself no stranger to the pitfalls of celebrity status) used to say of Bill Clinton.

Some gawk, some mock, some take the opportunity to (perhaps a bit too) loudly proclaim their lack of interest and/or familiarity with all things Kardashian. The Kardashians and their ilk allow us the opportunity to perform our identity.

It's not exactly schadenfreude -- there's no real misfortune involved for us to take pleasure in -- but we do get to congratulate ourselves for not being that kind of person. They offer us what Robert Scholes calls cultural reinforcement: the opportunity to be confirmed in our ideological positions and reassured as to our membership in a collective cultural body.

The Kardashians, et al. wash up onto our cultural shores as the flotsam and jetsam of our own self-absorption, the detritus of our vanities, the lingering purple haze of our collective narcissism. They might be the family members we'd just as soon not have show up at the family reunion, but they're still us.

We look, and then we make a big show of looking away. We're like the kid who's too cool for fart jokes but is nevertheless fascinated by the smell of his own flatulence.

Every driver thinks they're making autonomous decisions and yet traffic constellates into mathematically predictable patterns. The most popular station in most metropolitan areas is the country station, but nobody likes country. Advertising must work on someone, because it certainly doesn't work on us. And Kim Kardashian is famous.

Because none of us cares.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Tell Me Something Good

[A talk presented at the 3rd annual English Studies Conference at Central Michigan Univerity. The theme was "Authority, Autonomy, Anarchy," and I was asked to give the keynote. The talk includes bits of my dissertation as well as things I've written on this blog.]

At the end of the first chapter of Ursula K. Leguine’s The Dispossessed, the protagonist, Shevak, travels from the inhabitable moon on which a group of breakaway anarchists had formed a collective to the home world to conduct academic research. His arrival is quite controversial due to the animosity between the two groups, and at the end of the first chapter he tells his hosts, “You have him. You have your anarchist. What are you going to do with him?”

I would begin my talk this afternoon the same way except that I am no more an anarchist than Barack Obama is a socialist. The truth is, I don’t have the guts for revolution, I don’t have a flair for the theater of protest, and I don’t have the fortitude for social experiments in anarchist polity. I have an academic interest in anarchism, and a philosophical sympathy for anarchism, but on a practical level I’m just another boring white middle class liberal.

I'm reluctant to call myself an anarchist partially because I don't want to be one of those people who co-opts a sexy sounding word because it supposedly has some kind of cachet. Partially, too, because it is a deeply misunderstood designation, owing not a little to all those people who like to co-opt sexy sounding words because they supposedly have some kind of cachet.

I'm not saying that people whose political thinking doesn't go much beyond Dead Kennedys T-shirts and a predilection for shouting and breaking things aren't anarchists, but they might be making things confusing for anarchists who construct their politics a little differently. I don't want to be that guy.

I say all of this not to distance myself from “those people” – many of whom I have a deep respect for – but to allay your fears that I’m going to indulge in anarchist proselytizing or peddle anarchist propaganda. “That’s good,” you might be thinking, “because isn’t anarchism a state of lawlessness and chaos in which everyone does what they want and the strong prey on the weak in a kind of Mad Max dystopia?” 

The answer is no: you’re thinking of Congress.

“Anarchy” does carry those connotations, however, and some make a distinction between “anarchy” in that sense and “anarchism,” which describes the political philosophy, whereas the purists want to wrest the word from those connotations entirely. Suffice it to say that while it would not be impossible to find people of a mind that lawlessness and chaos are underrated and should be given a chance, that really doesn’t describe anarchism either in the historical sense or in terms of present-day anarchist discourse.

Anarchism as we know it begins in the nineteenth century, though anarchists often claim a more august pedigree. Kropotkin saw an evolutionary case for anarchism, arguing that “mutual aid,” and not just competition for limited resources, shaped our evolutionary journey. Anarcho-primitivists similarly see hunter-gatherer societies as proto-anarchist, going so far as to call into question civilization itself. Christian anarchists – yes, that’s a thing – see the original Jesus communities as an analog to anarchist collectives and tend to read the Old Testament through something of an anarcho-primitivist lens.

Anarchism as such, though, is usually traced to Mikhail Bakunin, a contemporary of Marx who shared of a lot of Marx’s concerns and was part of the First International. He and Marx agreed that private ownership of the means of production led to oppression and that collective ownership would eliminate class stratification and thus poverty, but he disagreed with Marx’s assumption that such ownership would have to pass through the state apparatus on the way to a classless society. I’m glossing a lot here, but Bakunin didn’t buy the idea that the state would wither away on its own and thought it was probably going to need some motivation in that direction.

19th century anarchism was concerned with class, but didn’t see class as the only dangerous hierarchy; it saw the state in the same way,  especially since the presence of the state would almost certainly result in a defacto governing class. Bakunin wasn’t alone, either: Kropotkin, and Proudhon in Europe and Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker in the US had similar ideas, and women like Voltairine de Cleyre, Lucy Parsons, and Emma Goldman would add early critiques of patriarchy to the mix.

The basic is idea was that we were evolutionarily predisposed to egalitarianism, that this was in some real sense our destiny, and that a combination of education, worker discontent, and the inexorable forces of history would soon usher in a new age of true freedom and equality. What we might call “classical anarchism” is very much a product of the Enlightenment and 19th century humanism. They weren’t necessarily alone in their ideals; they were just very particular as to the telos or goal of those ideals as well as the means to get there.

History is not exactly kind to anarchism. The new age does not arrive as such. The Revolution never comes. The liberation of human subject is never fully realized. There are pockets of anarchist resistance and experiments in anarchist polity as well as an anarchist thread – what we might call a black thread after the anarchist black flag – that runs through leftist movements in general, from the Paris Commune to the American labor movement to the Spanish civil war to student movements on both sides of the Atlantic.

Anarchists were involved in the ultimately unsuccessful uprising in Paris in May of 1968, which is in some ways The Day the Music Died and the time when philosophy started to get really interesting. By this I mean the sense in which the events of 1968 marked a crisis in the left as we knew it and gave rise to shifts in Continental thought that we’ve come to know as postmodernism or poststructuralism. This is important because of where anarchist theory has been heading for the last fifteen years or so.

Since the 1999 “The Battle in Seattle,” anarchism has garnered attention from both the media and the academy. The WTO protests were part of what is sometimes called the “anti-globalization” movement. “Postanarchism” is the name attached to the attempt to theorize the relationship between this movement and emerging forms of anarchism that seem to characterize it.

This term does not mean to be done with anarchism, or that anarchism’s moment has definitively passed, but instead denotes the introduction of poststructuralist and postmodern critiques into to anarchist theory. It is often contrasted to the “classical” anarchism of Bakunin, Proudhon, Kropotkin, and others.

Whether this is a truly a break from these thinkers or a continuation of their thought is a topic of debate among postanarchist thinkers, as is the usefulness or accuracy of the term "postanarchism," but is enough for our purposes to note that postanarchism is critical of the humanism and essentialism of modernist anarchist discourse.

Postanarchism is also is markedly different in how it conceptualizes the state and its place in political theory. Todd May borrows language from Michel de Certeau, and calls this a difference between “strategic” and “tactical” thinking. In strategic thinking, May explains,
The variety of oppressions and injustices that pervade a society and the possibility of justice are located in a single problematic; if that problematic is properly analyzed and the right conclusions for intervention are drawn, then justice, inasmuch as it can be had, will be had….[This reduction] lies at the core of strategic political thinking. All problems can be reduced to the basic one; justice is a matter of solving the basic problem.
Whether that basic problem is seen to be ownership of the means of production as with Marxism or the state as with classical anarchism, postanarchism questions the strategic calculus by which a single site becomes the focus of resistance.

Tactical thinking, by way of contrast, assumes power to be multiple and fluid, requiring more creative responses. Saul Newman points out that contemporary radical politics is working more and more outside the state rather than strictly against it. Postanarchism sees the state as a problem, but not the problem; it rejects the logic that would make any single point of resistance primary or central.

One reason for this shift, besides the influence of poststructuralist thought, is the changing role of the state in contemporary politics. Both postanarchism and the anti-globalization movement have come about as a response to neoliberalism, in which the state is no longer the primary political actor. 

Wendy Brown argues that the designation “neoliberal” describes a repudiation of certain aspects of Keynesian economics in favor of a more radically free market – the Chicago School of economics run amok. But she points out that this is not merely economic. It has an ideological and political component as well: “Neo-liberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy; rather it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player,” she writes.

Responses to neoliberalism are mixed. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe neoliberalism as a global empire and call for an equally global multitude to rise up in resistance. Slavoj Žižek issues a new Marxist – even Leninist – call for socialist revolution. The response on the streets has been, as Graeber argues, largely anarchist.

Postanarchism tends to emphasize the ethical component of anarchist theory. It is not necessarily pacifist – at least not on the personal level – but it is to some extent predicated on an ethics of nonviolence. Newman argues that violence is “an authoritarian, sovereign relationship, something that violates the autonomy of the other” and that nonviolence should be the ethical horizon of an anarchist politics. 

In “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology,” Graeber points out that violence forecloses on dialog: if I hit you over the head hard enough, he explains, I don’t need to bother getting to know you or even having a conversation with you. I can get what I want from you without securing your consent. The postanarchist attempt to make this nonviolence comprehensive leads to a critique not only of neoliberalism or the state but also of other forms of radical resistance, including some elements of classical anarchism. To abolish the state outright, for instance, would be to foist upon millions of people an anarchism (or anarchy) that they did not choose and for which they are not prepared.

Richard Day’ speaks to this in Gramsci is Dead. After pointing out that “there is no single enemy against which the newest social movements are fighting," Day identifies neoliberalism with hegemony, which he defines as “a process through which various factions struggle over meaning, identity and political power." Neoliberalism, he claims, is seeking and achieving hegemony on an unprecedented scale. The significant question for Day is: how can we fight it? His answer is worth quoting at length:
The obvious answer is to try to establish a counter-hegemony, to shift the historical balance back, as much as possible, in favor of the oppressed. This might mean a defense of the welfare state in the global North, or a continuation of the battle to enjoy its benefits for the first time in the global South. Or it might mean attempting to establish a different kind of global hegemony, one that works from ‘below’ rather than from ‘above.’ [Here I think he has Hardt and Negri in mind.] To argue in this way, however, is to remain within the logic of neoliberalism; it is to accept what I call the hegemony of hegemony. By this I mean to refer to the assumption that effective social change can only be achieved simultaneously and en masse, across an entire national or supranational space. Marxist revolutionaries have followed the logic of hegemony in seeking state power, hoping to reverse the relationship between the dominated and the dominators. Liberal and postmarxist reformism display the same logic, although in a different mode—rather than seeking to take state power, they seek to influence its operation through processes of pluralistic co-operation and conflict. What is most interesting about contemporary radical activism is that some groups are breaking out of this trap by operating non-hegemonically rather than counter-hegemonically. They seek radical change, but not through taking or influencing state power, and in so doing they challenge the logic of hegemony at its very core.
It is not difficult to see here the similarity between Day’s “hegemony of hegemony” and May’s “strategic” thinking. Simon Critchley describes this non-hegemonic impulse as “neo-anarchism," and in terms that are similar to those of postanarchism. He offers a three-fold typology of political response. One he calls “military neo-liberalism,” which roughly corresponds to Day’s hegemonic, “neo-Leninism,” which is counter-hegemonic. [Here he is probably referring to Zizek.] The third response is neo-anarchism, which takes up what he calls an “interstitial distance within and against the state,” which is non-hegemonic. What makes it neo-anarchism, Critchley argues, is that it “does not hope to achieve the classical anarchist dream of society without the state.” It is an anarchism that functions more as critique than blueprint.

It’s this idea of anarchism as critique that I’m most interested in. Another reason I don't really embrace the moniker is that I don't think an anarchist society is practical. I don't mean to say that "anarchist society" is an oxymoron -- one of the horrible clichés people almost instantly reach for – but that a) there's no way we're ever going to get enough people behind the idea to make significant progress toward it; and b) it seems like the sort of thing that would be all too easy to fuck up if we did. In this I find myself siding with Jacques Ellul, who likewise distinguishes himself:
The true anarchist thinks that an anarchist society—with no state, no organization, no hierarchy, and no authorities—is possible, livable, and practicable. But I do not. In other words, I believe that the anarchist fight, the struggle for an anarchist society, is essential, but I also think that the realizing of such a society is impossible.
I'd quibble with Ellul that anarchism is really about no organization or no authorities, but the opportunity here is to recognize that anarchism and other forms of resistance to Empire are nevertheless parasitic upon Empire as the thing they need to kick against – which is the point of the Matrix trilogy if one can get past the first film. There is no pristine or primordial anarchist site that has been obfuscated by Empire; there is only the negative space that is always already defined by Empire. True anarchists may not agree with this, but I think they can nevertheless help us to see it.

What this suggests is that if anarchism isn't practical, in conventional terms, it is a least practicable, in small communities and small ways. In fleeting and furtive moments. In the refusal to wield power or the decision to use power outside of approved channels to help those with no access to power. Accepting the mantle of leadership can be a way to occupy the place of power, which might be seen as necessary, in order to give power away. It's a little like having an anarchist mayor in Reykjavik; it sounds oxymoronic, but it's not, necessarily.

Another illustration that comes to mind is an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In the story, an unfamiliar ship docks at the space station in need of repairs. The ship's lone operator, of a previously unknown species called a Tosk, manages to strike up a friendship with the station's chief engineer, O'Brien, but also gets in trouble for snooping around the weapons stores (for which he refuses to offer an explanation) and lands in the brig.

Eventually another unknown alien vessel comes looking for the Tosk. They are not the same species, and it turns out they are hunting the Tosk, not in a law enforcement or bounty hunter kind of way, but in an English-gentlemen-out-with-the-hounds kind of way: the Tosk is their prey. The Tosk are bred, in fact, to be exciting quarry and honored for their cunning in evasion. The captive Tosk is bound by social custom to be the hunted, and in getting caught alive (facilitated, of course, by his being held in the brig) he faces humiliation. The station is prepared to hand him over to his pursuers.

O'Brien is scandalized by this; he realizes that the Tosk was interested in the weapons as a possible hedge against his pursuers, and finds the idea of hunting a sentient race repugnant -- but the Prime Directive (which, in some ways, represents the logical outworking of liberal "tolerance") prevents him from interfering with the social customs of these other races. The Tosk could ask for asylum but he refuses; it would only be further indignity and a violation of his code. He would rather die with honor than evade his fate, even though the means for that evasion are available.

O'Brien takes things into his own hands and launches a plan to help the Tosk escape. The plan succeeds, and the Tosk is freed, in not in O'Brien's sense of what freedom would be, but to continue the hunt without further loss of honor. O'Brien, however, must be reprimanded for violating orders – for violating the Prime Directive, in fact. He is called into the station captains's office for a dressing-down. As he accepts his reprimand, he pauses to admit puzzlement over one aspect of the plan: at a crucial point at which he was certain it would fail, the force field system he thought would stop them was curiously slow to engage. The captain, Sisko, says suggestively, "I guess that one got past us," and the two exchange a knowing look.

The Tosk's escape is a violation of the law but not of the social code by which the Tosk lives. He cannot accept asylum but he can accept O'Brien's offer of outlaw justice. He is restored not to freedom as we might think of it but to the life for which he is bred and to which he seeks to return. Sisko is required by the law to reprimand O'Brien and does, but in the process it becomes clear that he not only secretly approved of O'Brien's actions but also played a role in making sure those actions were successful. He was occupying the place of power, and maintaining the pretense of power, but he was also giving it away.

Of course, there are ideologies and social constraints that are upheld, to a certain extent precisely through this violation of the law (Žižek would have a field day with this), and in no sense are O'Brien or Sisko enacting an anarchist society or articulating an anarchist theory. But they are working in the negative space of empire to offer aid to the oppressed on the terms of the oppressed. It is a fleeting anarchical moment. It critiques the present order at precisely the point where that order cannot account for the complexities of the sociopolitical situation at hand. And that’s the problem with massive – in this case galactic – social structures: they aren’t supple enough to deal with life as it is actually lived. 

This is related to anarchism’s critique of fixed hierarchies. Anarchism is not opposed to leadership or structure or even authority. What it’s critical of is any authority that isn’t contextually situated. Most of us reject hierarchies based on race or gender, even though we still live in a society in which white men disproportionately hold power, and we’re largely blind to hierarchies of class even though the white men in question are also ridiculously wealthy, probably because we’re suckers for the myth of equal opportunity.

Anarchism is critical of any authority that cannot justify itself. Just as we find unconscionable the idea that one race should rule over another, or that one gender should be head of the other, and give lip service to the idea that one class should be lord over another, anarchism would also question the idea that one might govern on the basis of being able to get elected, or manage on the basis of being able to impress the hiring committee.

There’s a sense in which we get this kind of critique from The Office. Michael Scott is hilariously inept, and yet the system keeps him in place. He almost magically manages to keep his job, and there’s an extent to which the employees go along with it because they’ve learned to manage him. There’s an element of sticking with the devil you know, but there’s also an element of a very tactical response to a dysfunctional power dynamic – the practice of everyday office life.

Anarchism is predicated not on the individualistic and often juvenile pronouncement that you are not the boss of me, but on the ethical conviction that I am not the boss of you, and I certainly shouldn’t expect to be in charge of something or be listened to simply because status, station, or privilege. Rather, I should expected to be listened when and if I have something worthwhile to contribute and I should expect to be followed on the basis of being able to take others somewhere they want or need to go.

This even has application in the classroom. David Sedaris tells a hilarious story about a gig teaching a writing workshop. As he tells the story, he was hilariously inept, and his challenge was to get through each class session without the students discovering he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Eventually, when asked who he thinks he is to tell the students how to write their stories, he has an epiphany: “I’m the only person in the room,” he tells them “who gets paid to be here.” He loses all credibility, however, when they ask just how much he was getting paid.

It’s a funny story and Sedaris is a great humorist. But he knows, and we know, that getting paid to be in the room is not a legitimate source of authority. At least we should know this. We can’t deny that our authority in the classroom comes from the system itself – that would be naïve. But it is equally naïve to think that it is enough. Our de jure structural authority becomes a legitimate de facto authority when we demonstrate that we are competent, that we have something useful to offer, that we are credible.

If it seems obvious that anarchism would critique authority, it seems less obvious that it would critique autonomy as well. Postanarchism is a response to the linguistic turn, the idea that we don’t have access to mental states but only to language. We only know what the words do. If our worlds are linguistically constructed and mediated, then the question of autonomy becomes problematic. Theorist Todd May takes this farther in The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism:
Poststructuralism dissolves the subject/structure dichotomy by substituting for both a concept that might be called “practices.” What is of interest to the poststructuralist is neither the constituting interiority of the subject nor the constituting exteriority of structures, but instead the interlocking network of contingent practices [like language] that produces both “subjects” and “structures.” Whether these practices are founded upon a metaphysics of forces, as is the case with Deleuze and the Lyotard of the 1970s, or rejects metaphysical grounding, as do Foucault and more recent Lyoyardian writings, they remain a multiple, diverse, and contingent network of events, effects, and influences that defies such dichotomies as above/below and inside/outside. Subjects and structures are sedimentations of practices whose source cannot be discovered in a privilege ontological domain but that must be sought, rather, among the specific practices in which they arise.
May goes on to connect this specifically to anarchism, suggesting that what was going on in poststructuralism was continuing the anarchist critique in the wake of he calls the failure of Marxism.

My point is that an anarchist critique cannot stop at a simple binary in which authority is oppressive and the human subject must be emancipated as an autonomous agent, but must question the individualism that undergirds our assumptions about autonomy. This, in a roundabout way, is also a critique of the liberal theories – meaning “liberal” in its broadest political sense – on which Western democracy and capitalism are based. If we are not, as it turns out, independent rational actors (and here even cognitive science suggests that we are not), then the very premise of Western society is called into question – it doesn't get much more anarchist than that.

It also keeps us from falling prey to simple libertarianism, which is predicated on the same faulty social ontology. One of the reasons I think contemporary anarchism, or postanarchism, is somewhat less strident in its anti-state rhetoric is that such rhetoric plays too easily into libertarian sentiments. Getting rid of the state is not the answer, especially if that means leaving us at the mercy of the vagaries of the free market. 

Capitalism is demonstrably not a viable meritocracy, and without regulation it offers no hedge against an owner class amassing wealth at the expense of a worker class making as little as the market will support and paying as much for goods as the market will support. It is a kind of divine command ethics in which the market is God. Today’s left, such as it is, wants to ameliorate the effects of neoliberalism without being willing to interrogate its ideological framework, whereas the right wholly accepts the ideology without interrogating its effects.

Instead of authority and autonomy, then, perhaps we can think in terms of agency – at least it begins with ‘A’, right? [The conference title was "Authority, Autonomy, Anarchy."] If there is no central locus of power that we can either abolish or take hold of, but rather a web of intersecting lines of power in which we’re always already caught up, and there is no static, essential human subject to be liberated but rather the product and intersection of practices, then perhaps we can see the task of anarchist critique as one of interrogating those lines of power and opening up new avenues for agency, new lines of flight, new forms of life. Not life forms – let’s not get that sci-fi just yet – but new ways of living and having agency.

So where does this leave us? First of all, as you might have noticed, we kind of already know this. We are already shifting away from teaching the canon or standard written English as fixed forms demanding our adherence and homage. That is to say, we teach them, but as responses to specific contexts. The conventions of academic writing are just that – conventions. I tell my students there are no rules of grammar; there are conventions, based on the way we’ve actually used the language, that vary from situation to situation and to which we might want to pay attention if we want to be taken seriously. We’ve already made the linguistic turn that anarchist discourse has just caught up to in the past fifteen years.

Second, in literature and cultural studies (and there’s a journal called Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies) we might look to anarchist theory as tool for exploration. Making the structures of power visible is the condition of possibility of interrogating those structures. We might look to anarchist theory as something of an umbrella term for the various investigations of power with which we are already familiar. Or we might not need to – the anarchists aren’t going to come after you if you don’t.

Third, we might let the anarchist critique question our own assumptions about and pretensions to authority. It might encourage us to recuse ourselves of presuming to be in charge of others, and to substantiate our claims to authority in those situations where we are in charge. We have authority precisely to the extent that we have credibility – ethos, if you will. 

In the classroom it means that our authority comes not from the fact that we get paid to be in the room, or that we have an advanced degree, or that we were able to pass our certification, but from our ability to help students learn the things they need to learn, to help them cultivate the practices that will allow them to contribute to their worlds. As authors, it means that our authority comes not from an ability to put words on a page or get them published, but from our capacity to say something worthwhile – to, in the words of Stevie Wonder (made famous by Chaka Khan): 

“Tell me something good.”

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Crazy Train

"You're not here to make a choice," the Oracle tells Neo in The Matrix Reloaded, "You're here to understand a choice you've already made."

I have, as far as I can tell, two great passions: music and writing. Added to these are what I take to be two lesser but nevertheless significant interests: teaching and theology (which includes an interest in atheism -- that's not as paradoxical as it seems).

These have long existed in a kind of tension. I don't have time to devote to all of them, vocationally or avocationally, and they can be complementary but they are not always compatible.

When I went to college I wanted to be a minister -- this would combine theology, writing, and teaching. But music called too loudly, and I didn't fit the ministerial profile, so I ended up a music major.

Music for me has almost always been church music. Whether it's the acoustic pop stylings of contemporary worship or the jangly piano of gospel hymns or a Mass written for my master's thesis, my musical language is that of the church.

Being a church musician does, to some extent, combine the theological and the musical. There's even a teaching element involved, and a writing element, insofar as I wrote some of my own songs.

Still, there's a tension. For one, I'm not very good at believing in things. When I graduated from Bible college, I put off going into ministry and worked in the pizza business instead. I still went to church and helped out with the music, but I wasn't ready to be vocationally Christian.

In fact, I harbored atheistic fantasies of an intellectual life without the theological furniture. I read Isaac Asimov. I lurked in atheist chatrooms on CompuServe (this was the 90s), fascinated by the world they narrated. I was envious of characters in books and movies and their utter unconcern, for the most part, with things religious.

I was still a Christian, still pretty much a believer, but I ventured out. I flirted with atheism the way you might flirt with the kind of person your parents don't want you to date.

The music called me, though, and when I got an offer to join the staff of a church full-time, I stuffed that atheist impulse and assumed God was trying to get my attention. But I was still restless, and it's possible that a choice had already been made that I wasn't fully aware of.

The other tension was that while there was a writing element to what I was doing, it wasn't really the writing life of which I was somewhat enamored. I had plenty of time to study and a budget for books, which was nice, but not much of an outlet. I signed up for a graduate degree, partially because I was bored.

Relief from this tension came in the form of another job offer. I had been in chatrooms again, this time not with atheists but with preterists -- people who believed that the prophecies of the Bible had already been fulfilled in what turns out to have been more whimper than bang.

The basic premise of preterism is that the parts of the Bible we usually take to be about the Second Coming, or Heaven and Hell, and so forth, were really ways of narrating more temporal events like the destruction of cities or major battles, and had more to do with a new covenant between God and humanity than with hellfire and brimstone.

The details aren't really important. What's important is that this theology assuaged my skepticism insofar as it re-contextualized some of the difficult bits. There was, in a sense (and this is horribly unfair to earnest preterists), less to believe. Moreover, I understood this theology really, really well and could explain it to others, which is what I ended up doing on the message board.

This attracted the attention of the group that hosted the board, and they offered me a job writing for a magazine they were starting up. Here was a theology I thought I could latch onto and a shot at the writing life.

This failed spectacularly on two levels. First, the magazine flopped and the organization folded, beset by massive internal problems. Second, the more time I spent with this theology the more it auto-deconstructed. Again, the details aren't important; the end result is that it collapsed for me along with the organization and led me again to atheism.

Granted, it could have led me other ways, like back to my evangelical roots or into a more robust postliberal faith. I had a thing for Episcopalians -- it could have led there. But it didn't. I think I went where I wanted to.

On Christmas Eve 2001, I wrote in my journal "Tomorrow may be my first Christmas as an unbeliever." I"m wondering now if that choice hadn't been made well before that.

My ticket out of this conundrum came in the form of yet another job offer, this time teaching music at a Christian college. I'd kept my atheism to myself, and could narrate my path as one of repenting of my suspect theological digression and coming back to the mainstream fold.

I didn't believe in God, but the turn of events still seemed providential. I needed the money, and I could play the part, and maybe I wasn't so much lying or playacting as I was trying to inhabit my true calling. At least that's what I told myself.

In the process I was introduced to another theological turn, this time a postliberal theology with an Anabaptist flavor rooted in a pacifist ethics. I would come to understand (and write a dissertation about) this theology as a kind of Christian anarchism.

Again, the details are unimportant; this was something I thought maybe I could believe. I still had trouble believing in God, but perhaps I could nonetheless live a life of faith, and this might mean that I really did believe after all. It's crazy, but it just might work.

It was a stark contrast from the evangelical world of contemporary worship music, and while these worlds aren't necessarily in conflict, they don't sit together easily. The megachurch paradigm is not one in which Christian anarchist principles obtain.

Another tension is that after I finished my master's in music, I soon discovered I didn't really want to continue with it. I did a year of doctoral work in composition but needed a change.

The American studies department looked attractive to me, and I pitched the idea of studying contemporary praise and worship music from the perspective of cultural studies.

They liked it, and I got into the program. Then I took a course on American radical thought and fell in love -- here was a connection to the theology I was so interested in -- so I changed my topic and left music behind as a field of study.

This was a little awkward since I was teaching music, but I eventually left the Christian college and began teaching writing at a state university. Music did not go quietly into that goodnight, however, and I got another offer to lead worship part-time at a fairly large church, and I took it. It seemed like the right thing to do, and in many ways it was a great experience.

In retrospect, it was a horrible place to be -- not the church, as such, but in the tension. I was intellectually an atheist, theologically a Christian anarchist, vocationally a secular academic, and quasi-vocationally an evangelical worship leader. It was, to say the least, a little crazy-making. I could be any two of those, maybe -- but not all four.

This quadrilateral tension tended to collapse into one between music and writing, with belief rather loosely tied up with music and unbelief with writing, simply because of the way they sat with me. They didn't exactly line up, because of the added theological tension between my anarchist interests and the evangelical world, but it mostly came down to music and the ecclesiastical world as an evangelical versus writing and the academic world as an atheist.

I was on both paths, and I had probably already made the choice but it was hard to give up the music. I loved it, even if there was an element of guilty pleasure to it. It's like flipping through the channels and stopping on a Three's Company rerun: it's fun, but you don't want to get caught.

I was good at it. I knew how to get the sound. I knew how to work the crowd. I liked the attention. I liked the idea that I could, for 20 minutes on a Sunday morning, make people feel good. I could help them have the "God moment" they were looking for, which they attributed to the Holy Spirit and I chalked up to the affective power of music.

It was ultimately dishonest, though I submit it wasn't as cynical as it sounds. I was not just fleecing the flock for a paycheck and a few minutes of glory; I was contributing to the life of the church in a positive way, and I wanted that to be earnest. It's just that I kind of suck at earnestness.

Irony is my spiritual gift.

Things came to a head when it came time to hire someone full-time to do what I had been doing part-time. They loved me there, and I had a shot at the full-time gig. But I couldn't do that and teach full-time as well, so I faced a choice that I knew I had already made.

I quit the big church and helped out for awhile at my home church, but when I moved to Ann Arbor, I left the evangelical world and music with it. I still hammer out pop covers on my guitar at home, and I'd entertain the idea of picking up a (non-church) gig if the opportunity presented itself, but I'm pretty much a hobbyist at this point and happy about it.

I'm an atheist, but I still love theology -- atheism is, after all, unavoidably theological. I don't wear it on my sleeve; it's less a point of identity for me than an artifact of a lazy, almost passive unbelief. I just can't be bothered. It's actually more nihilistic, but that word scares people. "Atheist" is bad enough.

I've toyed with "skeptic" or "unbeliever," since a lot of atheists I know still believe in more gods than I do (they just don't recognize them as gods), and epistemologically I suppose I'm technically agnostic, but "atheist" seems more accessible and more honest. It's a choice that's taken me twenty years to understand, and I don't want to get cute with the semantics.

And I teach. Mostly writing, but when I get the chance I teach a little cultural studies or literature. I write when I can, which is not often enough, but that's okay. I'm trying to get my dissertation published, and I have some ideas for followup projects. Or I might indulge myself and try to get published with some more personal writing or creative nonfiction.

Probably I've already made that choice -- I just have to understand it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Lucky Man

"No, wait ... I'll tell you something," said Zaphod. "I freewheel a lot. I get an idea to do something, and, hey, why not, I do it. I reckon I'll become President of the Galaxy, and it just happens, it's easy. I decide to steal this ship. I decide to look for Magrathea, and it all just happens. Yeah, I work out how it can best be done, right, but it always works out. It's like having a Galacticredit card which keeps on working though you never send off the cheques. And then whenever I stop and think -- why did I want to do something? How did I work out how to do it? -- I get a very strong desire just to stop thinking about it." -- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
It's just after 6am when I pull into the gas station about a mile from our apartment complex. It's a two-hour drive to where I'll be teaching for the day and it will take a tank of gas to get there and back. I don't mind the drive; seasoned road warriors know there's a serenity to the open highway, and I have podcasts to pass the time when that serenity eludes me.

It's the kids' first day back at school, and I've left Dawn with most of the morning routine, except for Willy's morning pills and whatever we were able to do the night before. It's still hectic, and I'm on the road before the real chaos starts.

We spent Labor Day getting everything ready -- school supplies, clothes, lunches. We made lists and charts and schedules. We drilled the kids on their routines and responsibilities until we couldn't stand any more eye-rolling. Everything went off without a hitch, except Dawn got to work and realized she didn't pack a lunch for herself. Such is a mom's life.

Dawn and her ex moved to the same apartment complex after they separated, which means there are three of us around for parental support (and supervision). They've remained friends and he pops over now and then for a beer or dinner or to pick up some leftovers we've saved back for his lunch on the night shift. I joke that it's a very postmodern arrangement, and I've thought about pitching the premise to Fox as a sitcom. We just need a couple of catchphrases and some canned laughter.

Because of the move, however, the kids are too far from school to walk and outside of the district to be bused -- except for Willy, who gets bused regardless. That translates into three kids needing to get to three schools at three different times via two different means of transportation around three different work/sleep schedules. I'll spare the details, but the logistics are such that even with the three of us on task we still have to enlist the help of one of our neighbors. It takes a damn village.

The truth is, though, that things are going remarkably well. Amazingly well. Almost uncannily well, as if orchestrated by cosmic forces. Things have fallen into place with refreshing regularity and we're grateful, even if we're a little fuzzy on where such gratitude should be directed. This is common, of course -- what couple doesn't feel their love to be fated in some way?

I'll take well-worn clichés for fifty, Alex.

On the one hand, it does feel like that, even in a more general sense: we've both lived lives that have pretty much just worked out, beyond our ability to orchestrate them. I have applied to and attended exactly four schools in my academic career -- I figured I'd go somewhere and I did. I can only think of one time where I was granted an interview but didn't get the job, and it's hard to shake the feeling that in most cases just the right job showed up at just the right time.

This feeling is not uncommon. Daniel Quinn called his memoir Providence, and it narrates what is for him the uncanny process by which he arrived at his life's work. Kelsey Grammar, in his memoir, describes his own sense that the universe was somehow making his path straight.

I recently heard an interview with David Sedaris in which he confesses his belief that the right thing will come along if we are but patient and hard-working, and it worked for him: he kept plugging along writing articles until one day a publisher called him to see if he had a book they could publish. "I've been waiting for your call my whole life," he said. "I have one in my drawer."

The Tao te Ching adjures us to wait until the muddy waters clear and the right action presents itself. The Taoist concept of wu-wei describes a kind of flow, rolling with life's changes in the way that a good surfer neither fights the waves nor succumbs to them.

It's not hard for me to see each life as having its own genius, one that we are to lean into and go where it takes us without regret or triumphalism.

On the other hand, neither of us really believes this. We'll say it was "meant to be" but we do so with the irony of those for whom "meant to be" isn't really a thing. It's too hard to reconcile with a world in which there are brain disorders, tsunamis, and only one season of Firefly. Providence, if that's what we're going to call it, might narrate our experience but I shy away from it as a way of making sense of the universe.

Maybe it's all a matter of perspective, and I simply have a better attitude than some people. It could be that I just stumbled independently upon the power of positive thinking. Metaphysical musings aside, it's become almost axiomatic that positive people tend to experience the world more positively, and negative people more negatively, with some fuzziness as to which way the causality arrows are pointing.

But what about all those people in situations where positive thinking isn't going to help them? There are millions of people in the world in situations that are simply and abjectly cruel if part of a cosmic plan, and putting a positive spin on that isn't going to do them any good. If I take any part of my own experience, make it normative, and extrapolate from it a path to success and happiness, I'm a tube of hair gel and a good dentist away from being Joel Osteen.

No thanks.

More likely, it's a matter of confirmation bias and selective memory. We humans have a predilection for pattern recognition, even when the patterns aren't really there. Add to that some dumb luck and some underacknowledged (or even subconscious) machinations on our part, and it's no wonder our lives seem charmed.

In the end, "meant to be" is an affirmation, a way of calling something good. It's a way of saying we believe -- not in fate or cosmic forces, but in us, in our own future.

I get home around nine and Dawn has saved some salmon for dinner. "How was the drive?" she asks.

"Uneventful," I say. "Just like I like it. How was your day?"

"Let me tell you," she says, her smile weary but content, "the morning was crazy..."

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Hey Joe

I love the beginning of the fall semester. I love the feeling of a fresh start. I love the excitement on campus. I love the lingering rays of summer sunlight as autumn approaches. As much as I enjoy the time away, by the end of the summer I'm ready to be back in the classroom, and to meet a new crop of students.

I started teaching in my early 30s but looked far younger, so I made a habit at the beginning of the semester of dressing up a bit. Not a tie or a jacket but khakis and a button-up shirt -- just something to establish a slightly more professorial air. 

By the end of the semester I'd be in jeans, and that button-up shirt would be unbuttoned over a colored T-shirt (hey, at least I coordinated the colors). These days I don't really bother with the pretense; I'm likely to show up on the first day wearing a hoodie. 

This business of classroom fashion came up one day in the faculty lounge. I don't know how we got on the topic of sartorial choices but in response to my dress habits one of my colleagues patiently explained to me that she didn't have the same luxury: as a woman of color, she felt she had to dress very professionally every single day in the hope of garnering a modicum of the respect that I, as a white man, had upon entering the room. 

This was my first object lesson in white privilege, which refers not only to the fact that I can pretty much wear whatever I want and not reap (or at least not notice) the consequences, but also to the fact that I never even had to think about it. It matters little if my colleague's perception is 100% accurate; even if it turned out that she could afford to be more casual without losing the respect of her class, the salient point here is that somewhere or another -- either through experience or the passing down of wisdom from the previous generation -- she learned to account for such things.

White privilege was brought to my attention recently with the death of John Crawford, who was shot by police at an Ohio Wal-Mart for brandishing an air rifle he picked up off the shelf. One of my friends asked "does this happen to white people, like, ever?" The story might not exactly fit the "unarmed black man shot by white cops" trope, but that sort of thing happens often enough to be a trope in the first place. More stories keep coming in as I've been working on this essay, most notably the situation in Ferguson, Missouri

Here again, what interests me is not so much the event itself, which may or may not turn out to be a tidy example of racially inflected brutality, but the comments from African-American men pointing out that when you grow up black you learn there are certain things you simply don't do -- waving anything remotely resembling a weapon around white people being one of them. (You also learn a certain deference to law enforcement, which you're statistically about three times more likely to have to deal with than your white counterparts.) They weren't blaming the victim; they were bearing witness to a piece of relevant cultural knowledge.

Even The Daily Show is hep to this, offering a satirical admonition to black men not to attempt open carry. Imagine, for instance, if people of color staged an armed rally such as the one held by Tea Partiers at the Alamo. Or if the NAACP endorsed open carry. African American boys grow up with constellation of things they're taught to do and not do in order to navigate a racially charged world to which I can remain oblivious if I choose to. 

My Facebook friend Brian Smith, who brought my attention to the Crawford piece as well as the sketch, commented, "We have to teach our sons this happens and how to improve the odds it doesn't happen to them."

I don't have to think about teaching my sons anything of the sort.

We need to be careful with this, however. Just as Slavoj Žižek can point to subjective violence (I hit you with a stick) versus structural violence (I benefit from a world in which you're more likely to get hit with sticks than I am through no fault of your own), I'd like to suggest a similar distinction between subjective and structural racism ("subjective" here simply meaning "pertaining to subjects").

To be subjectively racist is to actively and consciously bear ill will toward people of another race. Structural racism is that which is chronicled masterfully by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: it describes the way in which the cultural deck is stacked against people of color. The interesting thing is that once this obtains, once the structures are established and self-sustaining, no living white person needs to be subjectively racist in order for the system to nevertheless skew that way.

We might fill out this spectrum be adding latent racism, where I display behaviors or attitudes inflected by a racial prejudice I'm not aware of, and passive racism, which describes my unexamined complicity in structural racism. There's a lot of racism that happens, then, in a kind of middle register or passive voice.

With this taxonomy in mind, I'd like to take a look at Mo Brooks's comment that Democrats are waging a "war on whites" and what appears to be a growing interest in open carry. I think these are connected.

Brooks's comment is, of course, certifiably nutty. Even Laura Ingraham seems to have thought he was over the top. But it speaks to what I think is a perceived loss of white hegemony. The Democrats are not waging a "war on whites" -- that's stupid. But white people, particularly white males, are being unseated as the holders of uninterrogated cultural power, and this is uncomfortable for them. Brooks comes awfully damn close to admitting that straight up.

Political philosopher Robert Paul Wolff describes how we got here in a blog post exploring the right's reaction to the Affordable Care Act. For Wolff, the this reaction has gone well beyond the normal partisan bickering. It's not just that the right doesn't like the bill; they've been downright hysterical in their opposition to it. As Wolff explains,
There is now a sizeable fraction of the American public, and a considerable number of Representatives and Senators, who say that they consider Obamacare an assault on everything they hold dear, a fatal blow to the American Way, a Socialist plot to destroy life as we know it, an evil so great that it is worth bringing the government to a halt and threatening the world financial system to defund it or even slow marginally the pace at which its provisions go into effect. What on earth is going on? The answer, I think, is actually rather simple, although unpacking it will take me more time than I usually devote to a blog post. To put the answer in just four words, the real, underlying reason for the hysteria engendered by the ACA is: 
Because Obama is Black.
Wolff is not particularly careful in the way he couches this, but I will be: this does not necessarily mean that anyone opposed to the ACA is subjectively racist. It does not mean than any particular conservative legislator is racist as such (though of course some are). It has more to do with shifts in the cultural zeitgeist, and structural and latent racism. Let me quote Wolff at length:
During the slavery period, only well-to-do Whites owned slaves. An adult male slave in 1850 cost as much in the slave markets as a year's wages for a free white northern worker. There were millions of poor Whites, especially in the South, whose principal claim to self-esteem was the simple knowledge that they were not Black, not slaves. With the end of legal slavery, things changed dramatically. The same men and women whose presence, even physical closeness, posed no threat to Whites now became anathema. To sit in the same train carriage with a Black man, to use the same facilities as a Black woman, to walk on the same sidewalk as a Black child very quickly came to be experienced by Whites as a threat to their safety, security, very being. Black labor, needed by plantation owners to raise and bring in the cash crops, was beaten into submission by Black Codes and the renting out of convict gangs and the threats of lynch mobs.

Thus a new relationship emerged between free and bound, between White and Black, a relationship encapsulated in Jim Crow laws. Whereas previously, White women expected to be served in every way by Black women, now these same women, or their daughters, found it intolerable to be served in department stores by Black clerks, so that for a long time Black women could not find even low-paying service jobs that might bring them into direct contact with Whites. Residential segregation, which of course was impossible under slavery, when slaves had to live close to where they were required to serve Whites, produced a sorting out of the two populations and the creation of all-Black ghettoes. The segregation was officially enforced and written into Federal and State law by means of covenants restricting the sale of properties. During all of this time, it remained the case that poor Whites, exploited and oppressed by White capitalists, could tell themselves that they were free, White and twenty-one, that they were, at the very least, not black.

The Civil Rights Movement, launched by African-Americans half a century ago, threatened, and eventually began to break down even these legal, customary, residential, and employment barriers. It was at this time that the old familiar political rhetoric about "working men and women" also began to change. The new rhetoric spoke of "middle-class Americans," which, although no one acknowledged it, was a thinly veiled code for "not Black." As economic pressures mounted on those in the lower half of the income pyramid, Whites wrapped themselves in the oft-reiterated reassurance that at least they did not live in the Inner City [which is to say, Black neighborhoods], that they were "Middle Class." All of the political discourse came to be about the needs, the concerns, the prospects of the Middle Class, which to millions of Americans, whether they could even articulate it, meant "not Black."

All of this crumbled, frighteningly, calamitously, disastrously, when a Black man was elected president. "Free, white, and twenty-one" ceased to be the boast of the working-class White man. Statistics do not matter, trends do not matter, probabilities do not matter, income distribution differentials do not matter. If a Black man with a Black wife and two Black children is President of the United States, then a fundamental metaphysical break has occurred in the spiritual foundation on which White America has built its self-congratulatory self-image for three centuries and more.

Hysterical Whites tried every form of denial. Obama's election was theft. Obama is not an American. Obama is a Muslim. Obama is a socialist. Obama's election was a one-time proof that we are not racist, to be followed immediately by restoration of the status quo ante bellum. When Obama was reelected, vast numbers of Americans went into terminal denial. They seized upon the ACA simply because it was, as everyone knew, Obama's signature domestic accomplishment. To repeal it, to defund it, to make it as though it had never existed, would be in some measure to deny that he had ever been President. The actual details of the ACA matter not at all. Neither do the actual felt medical needs of those driven insane by the very fact of Obama's tenure in the White House. None of that has anything at all to do with the real cause of the hysteria. Why are millions of Americans driven beyond hysteria by the ACA?

Because Obama is Black.
Blogger Doug Muder has explored this more recently. In "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party," Muder painstakingly chronicles a history in which, as he sees it, the Confederacy eventually won insofar as Reconstruction, culminating in the Atlanta Compromise and the advent of Jim Crow, allowed them to restore significant parts of the social order they were trying to protect.

That seems a bit of a gloss to me, but Muder's point is that on some level, the South got what they wanted: a way of maintaining paternalistic control over black Americans because to the Confederate mind, they weren't ready for freedom.

But that hold has been slipping for over half a century, as Wolff points out, and one of the flash points is the election of the first African-American president. The fervor and furor over gun rights during Obama's tenure is, at least in part, a shoring up of white hegemony in ways both symbolic and actual. As Muder explains it,
Confederates need guns...Gun ownership is sometimes viewed as a part of Southern culture, but more than that, it plays a irreplaceable role in the Confederate worldview. Tea Partiers will tell you that the Second Amendment is our protection against “tyranny.” But in practice tyranny simply means a change in the established social order, even if that change happens — maybe especially if it happens — through the democratic processes defined in the Constitution. If the established social order cannot be defended by votes and laws, then it will be defended by intimidation and violence.
Again, my caveat: this does not make every (or any) white person with a gun a racist. It doesn't make you a racist if you apply for a carry permit (though I do think it would be interesting to see a demographic breakdown of permit applications). In fact, no one need be subjectively racist for most of this analysis to obtain, at least in theory.

I don't need to call anyone a racist; we live in a culture so fundamentally shaped by racism that no one has to be.