Thoughts on the whole Klinger Thing

When I heard that the president had announced a seemingly sudden and clearly insane plan to ban transgender people from the military, there were a lot of things I said and thought about saying. None of them involved Corporal Klinger from M*A*S*H.

When I realized that a lot of other people’s responses did involve Klinger, I was a little surprised and I could definitely see why it wasn’t the best idea–even though I wasn’t much more impressed to learn that the posts had been greeted with outrage and offendedness. I absolutely got why some transgender women objected on the grounds that they’ve basically been bludgeoned by the whole “man in a dress” thing during the interminable debates on the unjustifiable but indestructible pile of turds better known as “bathroom bills.” (Indeed, said “man in a dress” bludgeoning is why we started calling them bathroom bills in the first place–as if lampooning the stupidity of really dumb conservative ideas could kill them despite the impaired thinking exhibited by people who support them in the first place.)

The whole Klinger debate has been raging for days, and honestly, I’ve seen good points made on all sides (or at least, all the sides to which I’ve been exposed). I have no strong opinion about the use of Klinger photos in and of itself. But I do have a strong general belief that when members of an oppressed group object to what you are saying or doing in relation to them, you should stop doing it and not, say, explain from a position of relative privilege why their feelings are wrong and they should be quiet. So, no using Klinger photos to protest the latest presidential offense against decency.

But that doesn’t mean I think all the specific criticisms of Klinger going around are right. I felt strongly enough about one in particular to write a comment so long it ended up being this blog entry. And that criticism is that Klinger was just a mean-spirited joke about cross-dressing. (Those are not the words the friend to whom I was originally responding–or anyone else I’ve seen–used. But I’m paraphrasing liberally, because the context of the original conversations is missing here.)

Yes, Klinger was was a joke, early on. Early on,  Hawkeye was a sexist pig, Margaret was a rigid authoritarian, Trapper was basically just a philanderer with an otherwise good nature and a big heart, the nurses were treated like fluffy eye candy by the doctors, and Radar was a weird,creepy little perv who watched the nurses shower through a hole in the tent. Going back even further, the movie featured a black surgeon who was nicknamed “Spearchucker.”

Doctor Jones did not appear in the series. The series did more than one anti-racist episode–mostly later on, but at least one fairly early on. As the series went on, Hawkeye evolved so much that saying a man was like Alan Alda became a way to impugn his masculinity for “real men,” among whom he/Hawkeye was a standing joke. Margaret stopped being “Hot Lips” and grew into a strong, smart, capable woman whose suffering from the inherent sexism of the military and the times was portrayed sympathetically. Philandering Trapper was replaced by faithful husband BJ, whose outrage over injustice and deeply caring nature were easier to see and believe because they weren’t clouded by his treatment of his wife as someone who didn’t matter because she wasn’t right in front of his face. Radar became more innocent (and then more experienced but in a healthy way), more caring, and more capable. “The nurses” were recognized as competent professionals with brains and personalities and thoughts and feelings and names. Nearly everyone on the show grew and became deeper, less joke-y,  more human, more compassionate and worthy of compassion.

And that was true for Corporal Maxwell Klinger, as well. Yes, he started as a joke–but even then, the joke was more complex than I think is clear to people who didn’t watch the show in its historical context. A huge part of the joke was always that Klinger was absolutely sane–not least because he wanted out of the Army–which made the definition of cross-dressing as insanity look absurd. And, of course, it was. So as a joke, Klinger subverted norms by exposing their flaws rather than reinforcing them.

The show may have lacked depth of character early on, but it did have a deep understanding of how wrongness and craziness and inhumanity of authoritarian systems and authoritarian rules. Later seasons demonstrated that the people behind the show had learned–or perhaps just decided that audiences were ready to learn–that we all carry a lot of baggage because we live in such a system and with such rules; that that baggage all too often manifests as bigotry–which, after all, is just another wrong, crazy, inhumane, arbitrary set of rules about what it means to be human (or to be a human being of a particular race or gender); that bigotry is dehumanizing and damaging, for the target and the bigot; and that every one of us is a work in progress, which means both that we deserve to be treated decently and humanely and that we need to continuously examine our own behavior, beliefs, and treatment of other people.

Over the course of the show, Klinger became one of the kindest, most decent characters ever to grace the small screen. He worked hard and did a damn good job–and demanded that that be recognized. He pushed himself past the point of exhaustion in order to help people who needed help.  He was a Lebanese American who called out racism when he saw it, whether it was aimed at him or at black soldiers in the newly integrated army. Yes, he started wearing dresses because the military was crazy enough to think that was crazy–but he expected to be taken seriously, to be shown respect, to have his high level of competence AND his human dignity recognized–and woe betide anyone who tried to treat him as less-than because he was wearing a dress. He had the courage of his convictions.  He was always ready to subvert the system or undermine people in power when the system or the powerful were in the wrong. He recognized the worth and dignity of everyone, regardless of skin color, gender, nationality, profession, wealth/poverty, elevated rank/outsider status. He had no patience for anyone who didn’t.

And in one of the very first episodes with Col. Potter, the lesson that Klinger’s character had been teaching implicitly all along was made explicit: It’s absolutely fine not to conform with gender roles or fit a defined gender identity, and doing so has no bearing on a person’s ability, sanity, or worth. If the world can’t handle a man in a dress, then it is the world that needs to change.

I understand that that’s not apparent to many of the people who didn’t watch M*A*S*H when it originally aired. But I think it’s important to understand that it absolutely IS to many of the people who did. To us, Klinger isn’t a joke at the expense of people who cross-dress; he’s an exemplar of decency and compassion who will always be a joke at the expense of the intolerant.

The best canonical argument to be made against my view is that, towards the very end of the show, Klinger *stopped* wearing women’s clothes. I suspect the decision was made with good intentions and for reasons similar to the decision to have Hawkeye start wearing a uniform. I think the idea was probably to shed some of “surface” elements of the show’s anti-authoritarianism and go “deeper.” But I think it was an unfortunate decision that is easily read as an implication that it is better to try to seem “normal.” Unlike Hawkeye’s red bathrobe, which was a symbol of his defiance but nothing more, Klinger’s dresses weren’t a “surface element.” They had quickly lost whatever comedic or shock value they may have had and forced viewers to recognize that, having become acclimated to Klinger’s clothes, they had stopped paying attention to what he was wearing and started paying attention to who he was as a human being.

Klinger was the first gender non-conforming person that many people embraced. Like all truly memorable characters, he was flawed. Like all characters who are the first to make some version of the Other fully human for millions of people, he was partially defined by the stereotypes  of the time. That is probably both more and less true than usual, in various ways, because he was not originally conceived as “the cross-dressing character who is going to open everyone’s minds.” He was the character who evolved as a human being and, in the process, happened to open a lot of minds.

There are plenty of meaningful, valid criticisms that can be made of Klinger.  But that he was just some cheap, mean joke about cross-dressing isn’t a valid criticism*. If that’s what he seems like to younger people, then something important has been lost in the translation of the years.

*But again, that has no relevance to the issue of whether Klinger memes should be posted in response to the President Electoral’s ban. All that matters there is that transgender people have objected. I didn’t just spend all this time editing a long damn comment about the humanity of Klinger into a blog entry that may be read by as many as one or two people just to have it turned into a justification for discounting the humanity of transgender people by acting like their feelings don’t matter or aren’t “valid.”


Affluenza: It’s a real problem, but not just for the wealthy

I may be a little late to the discussion of “affluenza,” but some topics just demand to be discussed. For me, this is one, if only because my response differs somewhat from any of the other responses that I have seen.

You see, I think affluenza is all too real. Yes, the word is ridiculous. No, it should not be a valid defense in court. But does it exist? Hell, yes.

“Affluenza” is nothing but a word that pathologizes privilege.

It’s a misnomer, of course; you don’t have to be affluent to be privileged. The condition it names is only one kind of privilege, but the symptoms are the same, with slight variations, for all kind of privilege: The members of one group receive (in the aggregate) better treatment than members of one or more other groups, simply because of group membership; the people in the privileged group face fewer negative consequences than people in the other groups for certain kinds of actions; and the people in the privileged group by and large feel entitled to their privilege, which they do not recognize as privilege. If that’s not a pathology, I don’t know what is.

Recently, Texas teenager Ethan Crouch pled guilty after killing four people and leaving another paralyzed for life while driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. He was sentenced to probation and treatment after mounting an “affluenza” defense, which basically argued that, since his very wealthy parents never set limits, he did not really understand negative consequences. The case has received a lot of discussion, partly because—well, “affluenza.” Mostly, though, it got people’s attention because the argument that having been exceptionally privileged makes a person entitled to special consideration is morally repugnant.

But privilege has always been pathological, and the privileged have always enjoyed special treatment—because that is what privilege means in the first place. The pathological aspects of privilege are both visible and invisible, and they affect everyone, including the privileged.

The most obvious—and potentially the worst—is that privilege is largely invisible to the privileged. Without exposure to some precipitating event, conversation, or idea, most people who are born to privilege—whether by race, gender, orientation, gender identity, or some less inherent factor like wealth—do not see it.

And from that primary pathology a host of others are born. A person who does not recognize that he or she enjoys a privileged status naturally believes that he or she is entitled to the treatment he or she receives. That belief, in the wrong context, easily engenders the belief that people generally deserve whatever treatment they get. And that idea is a disaster for everyone.

It’s a disaster for the privileged because it is corrosive and soul-corrupting. To believe that you are entitled to be treated better than others is unhealthy and, to some degree, self-perpetuating. To believe that others deserve bad treatment is to destroy your conscience. Healthy guilt is a good thing; it gives us incentive not to repeat behavior that harms others. But unhealthy guilt is tremendously destructive. By “unhealthy guilt,” I mean guilt that is suppressed by justifications, the kind of guilt that is never addressed or acknowledged. If your self-esteem is wrapped up in deserving better treatment than others, then any feelings of guilt need to be suppressed. They threaten that self-esteem. If you and others deserve what they get, then why should you feel guilty?

Sadly, it’s only a small step from suppressed guilt to anger at “those people,” who are trying to make you feel guilty by asking for better treatment than they deserve.

The pathology of affluenza can easily lead white people to deny racism, men to deny sexism, straight people to deny homophobia, and so on, ad nauseam. Worse, it can contribute to internalized oppression, by weaving a cultural narrative that reinforces the idea that people get what they deserve. So it can also lead to people of color denying racism, women denying sexism, and on and on and on and ON.

Of course, the pathology of privilege also generates or contributes to external symptoms that ought to be unthinkable, they’re so bad. For instance, there’s that cultural narrative. A society that believes that people deserve whatever they get is not a society based on community or mutual support. It’s a society that fosters the belief that it’s perfectly fine to treat some people better than others. And at least in this society, many privileged people have a weird and willing blind spot about the fact that that means, by definition, that it’s perfectly okay to treat some people worse than others. And that “worse” can often mean “very badly, indeed.”

As a society that buys into that cultural myth of “deservedness,” we’re not terribly different from a society based on caste, except that it combines its justifications with denial. If some kinds of people deserve, basically, a good lot in life and others deserve a lousy one, you have a caste system. But if such a society can point to exceptions, it can also buy into the myth of social mobility. Privileged Americans have been pointing to the exception for longer than there have been Americans. It allows the privileged to deny their privilege by ignoring the fact that exceptions are, by definition, exceptional. “If that person can do it, then any of Those People could do it if  they chose to.”

Bullshit. That is one of the most pernicious symptoms of privilege’s pathology. If a few people can overcome the obstacles of starting with fewer advantages and of worse treatment than the privileged, that does not mean that everyone can.

In fact, possibly the only worse symptom of privilege is that the denial with which it so often protects itself leads to systematic unequal treatment and systemic inequality. A few exceptions serve to reinforce the denialism. But in order for the privileged to feel good about receiving special treatment—to feel like they deserve it—it’s necessary that things don’t change much. Once accept that Those People deserve to be treated badly and it becomes necessary to make sure they get it. At least, it does if your self-esteem is based on the idea that people get what they deserve and that you deserve to be treated better than many other people.

The fact is, you do deserve to be treated well—and so does everyone else. Every addict deserves treatment instead of incarceration. But one of the most pathological aspects of this society is that, by and large, we treat sick people like criminals—unless they’re privileged as well as sick.

The pathology of privilege leads the privileged to “treat” the condition by denying it, which only exacerbates every aspect of the problem and even creates new ones. But I’ll argue in my next entry that there is at least a partial cure.

But that cure does not involve spending time at a private rehab facility while other people go to jail–and that’s especially true if, like Ethan Crouch, that option is only available because your parents offered to pay for it. Crouch is unlikely to learn anything healthy, constructive, or remotely positive from the experience. And that’s part of the reason the argument that having it all makes you exempt from responsibility is so deeply offensive: In our society, it too often turns out to be true that having it all means just that, but having nothing means you face equally inappropriate negative consequences.

A few thoughts on voter suppression

A commenter suggested I re-post this entry, on the grounds that it’s even more relevant now than when I wrote it. I figured I’d have to do some heavy editing, that big parts of it would be outdated. Sadly, it IS all still relevant.

I do need to add that the Supreme Court ruling striking down the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act hasn’t made voter suppression legal, but it has made it easy. And very, very practical. Without the preclearance requirement, disenfranchised voters can’t get meaningful redress. Yes, they can fight a law and maybe get it overturned–but not until the relevant election is over.

And that still won’t guarantee anyone a chance to vote in the next election. Once a voter suppression law is overturned, it can be replaced by another, slightly different law that will have to be overturned in different grounds–which will take until after the next election.

This isn’t a new trick. It’s the reason preclearance was instituted in the first place.


This entry assumes that readers understand that the slew of new voter ID laws have been passed by Republicans, have the effect of disenfranchising black and Latin@ voters disproportionately, and are intended to lower the turnout of Democratic voters. If you are moved to comment on this entry but that is not your understanding, please explain what your understanding of the new voter ID laws is.

1. Yes, it IS racist to target people of color, even if your goal is “just” to reduce the number of opposition voters.

2. Doing a better job for more voters of more kinds is always an alternative to voter suppression.

3. It’s true that doing a better job for more voters of more kinds would mean alienating the bigots who are a big part of the Republican base. It would, however, mean the bigots would become irrelevant, because they couldn’t win an election…

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A few thoughts on voter suppression

This entry assumes that readers understand that the slew of new voter ID laws have been passed by Republicans, have the effect of disenfranchising black and Latin@ voters disproportionately, and are intended to lower the turnout of Democratic voters. If you are moved to comment on this entry but that is not your understanding, please explain what your understanding of the new voter ID laws is.

1. Yes, it IS racist to target people of color, even if your goal is “just” to reduce the number of opposition voters.

2. Doing a better job for more voters of more kinds is always an alternative to voter suppression.

3. It’s true that doing a better job for more voters of more kinds would mean alienating the bigots who are a big part of the Republican base. It would, however, mean the bigots would become irrelevant, because they couldn’t win an election without the GOP.

4. The GOP also currently can’t win without the bigots, but that means that the bigots have the GOP by the balls. They have hijacked the Republican party–and the only way for actual conservatives to get it back is to let them go. It may take losing a few elections for conservatives to reclaim their party and reinvent it so that it represents something other than hate and oppression. But if that doesn’t happen, the mainstream conservatives will have no party at all.

5. It’s not possible simultaneously to cater to the most extreme parts of the base and expand the base. That’s especially true when the base is prejudiced against the demographic groups of voters that are growing the fastest. As long as winning this election, right now, is the focus, voter suppression will seem like a good option to the GOP’s leaders.

6. Voters don’t stay down forever. Unless the country changes drastically, the GOP is on a long-term course of self-destruction. It will be too late for Republicans  to court the people they’ve disenfranchised when they regain the ability to vote.

7. That gives the GOP a great motive to try to win this election, right now–and then change the country drastically. They can pursue a short-term strategy of winning this election (or the next) and then rigging the system to guarantee them future wins OR they can pursue a strategy of turning themselves into a party that can win honestly. Not both. And they’ve chosen to suppress the vote in an effort to win elections NOW.

8. Ultimately, politicians and the people they employ to get them elected are highly unlikely to ask themselves the tough questions about what price is too high to pay for a victory. It’s up to ordinary voters, so it’s too bad that many of them won’t be able to vote at all.

Talking about Aurora, part one

This entry will be the first part of a series about various aspects of the conversation(s) we are having in this country at this time and how we are having them.

Discussions about gun control tend to be reductive, as do discussions about cultures. They tend to be even more reductive in the wake of terrible events like the recent shootings in Aurora, Colorado. Does the cause lie with the individual or the culture? Are violent movies, videogames, and song lyrics to blame, or is the problem the ways in which we deal with mental health issues? Would restrictions on gun ownership prevent such things from happening? Would more guns be an effective way to bring them to an abrupt end?

None of it is that simple. There are no simple solutions to complex problems, and we can’t deal piecemeal with one, or even a few, aspects of a problem.

The desire to do so is one of many human tendencies that exacerbate the perennial problem of  not listening to what people with other views are saying. Even at the best of times, that problem undermines the conversation about difficult issues. The questions listed above are all examples of how that works. Not one of those questions accurately represents the positions of people who are examining causes and proposing solutions. They are reductive, straw-man questions. It’s easy to say “no” or “neither” to every one of them, but doing so is meaningless. To say that

  • troubled individuals are not the only problem;
  • people have personal responsibility and are not just products of their societies;
  • millions of people consume violent entertainment and don’t shoot dozens of strangers;
  • better awareness and treatment of mental health problems won’t eradicate violence;
  • restricting gun ownership won’t prevent murders or even ownership of banned guns; or
  • a society of armed vigilantes is not a good way to reduce violence

may be to say something true, but that hardly matters. Refuting what no one has said does no good. It’s nothing more than a cheap rhetorical attempt at self-gratification.

When people who favor unrestricted gun ownership point out that mass shootings happen in countries with heavy restrictions on gun ownership, they are not “putting paid” to calls for tougher gun restriction. They’re not even making the best form of that argument. The best form of that argument would point out that people intent on killing a lot of other people don’t need guns. The world is full of readily accessible chemicals that can be combined in deadly and easily to disseminate ways. A truly intelligent, careful, and determined murderer could block or seal the exits from a building prior to fire-bombing it. And, since restrictions on gun ownership do not (as people who oppose them are fond of pointing out) prevent people from obtaining guns illegally, the best version of the “it won’t prevent mass killings” argument would point out that people can obtain not only guns but deadlier weapons illegally. So it’s true, then: Restricting gun ownership will not prevent mass killings.

The problem with making that argument is that absolutely no one is saying that it would.

A little full disclosure before I go on: I favor increased restrictions on gun ownership. If what I am saying is worth consideration, it won’t be because I am free from bias or good at concealing my bias; it will be because it is worth considering in light of my freely acknowledged bias.

But, in common with pretty much everyone else who favors increased restrictions, I am not saying and I do not think that such restrictions would put an end to gun crimes of any kind. I am saying that the ready availability of assault rifles, high-capacity magazines, and multiple guns designed only for killing people contributes to the problem. I am saying that the ease of obtaining such weapons and so many guns means that anyone who wants to kill a lot of people can prepare to do so with relative ease and do so with horrifying efficiency. Even that, though, is only a small part of what I’m saying, only one of many reasons I favor restricting gun ownership. Most people who hold some version of my position do so for more than one reason, none of which are simplistic as “if people couldn’t buy assault rifles legally, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen.”

Most people who favor unrestricted access to guns do for multiple reasons, too, and most of those reasons are more complex than they are sometimes portrayed as being. And people on all sides (there are seldom only two sides) fail to make their best cases. In the interests of not appearing to make a false equivalency, I need to say that, in my experience, the problem of treating opposing arguments both reductively and dismissively is more common among people who oppose gun restrictions. It isn’t universal among opponents of gun control, nor is it exclusive to them, but I do believe it is more prevalent.

Regardless, though, of who fails to listen, it’s always a problem. To take an example of my own failure to listen, I’m going to talk about the response I have often made to the argument that we need to have access to serious numbers of serious guns because an armed populace should serve to prevent tyrant. And if it doesn’t, then we may someday have to take arms to oppose a tyrannical government.

My response has always been that we have zero chance of beating the government in an armed conflict. We simply cannot match the military might of our own government. Most other governments can’t match the military might of our government. Private citizens do not, for the most part, have access to nearly as much money as the Pentagon. We cannot legally own operational tanks, surface-to-air missiles, and predator drones, and those things are not easy to buy illegally, certainly in the numbers in which they would be needed to win a civil war. Just today, I said, “Personally, I think [the resisting-tyranny argument is] a little like saying I need to have $100,000 because, someday, I may need to buy an election. Or that I need access to rubbing alcohol and a scalpel, because someday, I may need to perform life-saving thoracic surgery in my living room.”

And I do. I’m not saying that my analogies are bad or that my argument is faulty. It’s absolutely correct. If the U.S. government decides to crush an armed uprising of U.S. citizens, it will do so. We cannot defeat our government in an armed conflict. And it is a little ridiculous to justify opposition to gun control by suggesting that we can.

But the argument I (tend to think I) have so handily defeated is more complex than just the idea that assault rifles can either prevent tyranny or overthrow tyrants. It is based on the Constitutional right to bear arms. The wording of the Second Amendment is notoriously problematical, and I do not agree that “well regulated militia” means “private citizens in general.” Arguably, “the security of a free state” may refer to what we now more commonly call “national security,” not to armed insurrection against the government in order to guarantee the security of individual freedom. But, in one sense, differences in Second Amendment interpretation don’t matter; the point that matters is that the argument I’ve been refuting by pointing to the government’s greater military strength is not just about winning a civil war. It is about the right to take up arms in an attempt to overthrow the government. It is a matter of principle for some people, and you cannot defeat a principle-based by bringing up practical considerations.

I have heard people say that we have the right to overthrow the government, as if it were a foregone conclusion that doing so is possible. But in truth, I have never heard anyone say outright that we could do so. The argument that we cannot do so and that the idea that we can is an absurd reason to oppose gun restrictions is certainly sound as far as it goes. It might persuade people who are on the fence, but it is no answer at all to people who believe that gun ownership is part of the right to oppose tyranny and protect our other rights and freedoms. The chances of exercising a right successfully have nothing to do with whether it is a right. There is a reason that, when eligible voters prevented from voting, we do not say that they have lost the right to do so. Rather, we say that they are being denied the right to vote.

The discussion in which someone refers to the right to bear arms in order to prevent tyranny and I reply that doing so is impossible is not a conversation at all. It’s a failure on the part of the person making the argument to articulate it fully and clearly, but it is also a failure on my part to listen attentively and address the argument’s unstated warrant.

Once I have acknowledged that warrant and drawn the comparison with voting rights, I can begin to address the full argument, in principled as well as practical terms. And perhaps I will do so, in another part of this series. Right now, my point is that most of us spend too much time talking around and past each other, not truly listening. Often, we also fail to state our positions fully, because we all take for granted assumptions that other people not only do not share but do not see. It is not possible to make a convincing counterargument if you don’t understand the argument you’re countering. Hell, it’s not even possible to be sure of your position without understanding the arguments against it.

No, increased restrictions on gun ownership will not put an end to gun deaths. They will not, by themselves, solve any problem. Nor will easy access to assault rifles guarantee freedom. But no one ever said they would. We need to speak clearly and listen carefully, not because doing is considerate or warm or human or compassionate (though those are all good things) but because doing so is the only way to create even the possibility of change.

Dog whistles: A primer for oblivious white voters

Today, we saw a classic application of the racially divisive device known as the dog whistle. Like all classic dog whistles, it came in two parts, an initial “dog whistle” comment, intended to appeal to white bigots, and a walkback, intended to create deniability and establish credibility with other (primarily white) voters.

The initial comment

Speaking as a surrogate for Mitt Romney, John Sununu said today, “I wish this president would learn how to be an American.”

The subtext is that President Obama is Not One of Us. The comment is a clear nod to birtherism, because people who are Americans don’t need to learn how to be Americans. It’s our birthright. Like birtherism, Sununu’s appeals to the Otherizing tendency of white racism. Of course, he didn’t say that the president isn’t American because he’s black. He didn’t have to; for people who equate being black with being Other, that’s a given. Not saying overtly that that black man doesn’t belong in the White House allows people who want to remain in denial to do so. It creates room for people who would be offended by that message to agree that President Obama is somehow un-American because he disagrees with them, unlike “real” Americans.

As with all dog whistles, Sununu’s comment is effective *because* the racial component is unspoken, which allows people who think that anyone who differs from them is less than–or less American than–to climb on board. Some can’t see the bigotry because it’s covert, and some can’t see it because they refuse to. Some people will rationalize it away by refusing to believe that Sununu is a bigot (and, for all I know, he’s not) and also refusing to believe that politicians who are not themselves bigots would ever seek to play on the bigotry of others for their own ends. In other words, they will refuse to believe in the Southern strategy, despite overwhelming evidence, or they will refuse to believe that it’s a strategy still in play.

The walkback

Asked about the comment, Sununu back-pedaled, saying, “”What I thought I said, but I guess I didn’t say, is that the president has to learn the American formula for creating business. If I didn’t give all that detail, I apologize.”As a clarification, Sununu’s walkback leaves much to be desired. Of course he didn’t give all that detail in his original comment, because he didn’t intend all of that detail. He didn’t think he said it and realize later that he had forgotten it. The nature of dog whistles is that they are covert but very, very clear to the people to whom (and against whom) they are addressed but less obvious to everyone else. In order to be so clear, they cannot be complex. Sununu is not an idiot; if he had intended to make a more complex point, he would have done so.

The “intended” complexity of a dog-whistle comment is always added in the walkback, and it is intended for a different audience. No one who heard the dog whistle in the first place thinks that the speaker intended to say what the “clarification” says. The clarification may, in fact, be the speaker’s overt point, but it cannot be made as part of the original comment or the covert content may be too covert for its intended audience. Let’s face it: “Black people suck” isn’t a complex position that requires a lot of intellectual heavy lifting.

Some explanation and analysis

What makes Sununu’s comments truly classic, though, is the fact that the walkback itself is actually a more subtle, more deeply occulted, dog whistle. The clarification says that there is only one American way of doing things (implication: Anyone doing things any other way is less than American), and President Obama does not understand that way of doing things (implication: He is less than American).  Sununu’s walkback creates credibility by piling on details that are specific to business creation. That highly specific contextualization of his comment creates the illusory impression that his comment was also specific. In fact, it was not.Nor, on examination, is his walkback. It begins with a specific, contextualized idea (business creation) but uses that idea as a point of departure for a much more general criticism (the president does not understand how to do things the way Americans do them). The starting point of the comments is also the ending point, but in order to reach it, it is necessary to blur the lines between fact (the president favors a different approach to business creation than Sununu does) and opinion (the president’s approach is wrong), between that opinion and hyperbole (Sununu’s favored approach is the “American” one), and finally, between hyperbole and wild, extrapolated hyperbole (the president doesn’t understand how to be American). As with all dog whistles, the logic of Sununu’s comments is tortured, because the “logic” is cheap intellectual sleight-of-hand designed to obscure a much uglier, much simpler underlying “logic”: That black man is Not One of Us.

If Sununu had wanted to make an intellectually honest point, he would have said that President Obama’s approach to job creation is the wrong one and then supported that assertion with facts, theory, and considered opinion. Instead, Sununu says, in so many words, that the duly elected president of the United States does not understand how to be an American. The clear implication: The president is not an American. (Who doesn’t understand how to be American? Someone who is not American.) He then walks that original comment by “clarifying” what he “really” meant. On the surface, he appears to have meant that the president is not good at business creation, but again, what he literally says is that the president needs to learn “the American formula”; that is, he needs to learn the American way of doing things. He needs to learn how Americans do things, how to be American.

In other words, Sununu’s walkback subtly reinforces his original point: President Obama is not an American.

He’s not a real American, anyway. He’s black. Hell, maybe he’s even Kenyan. He’s definitely Not One of Us.

Although everything I’ve said here is a obvious to the intended audience and intended targets of Sununu’s dog whistle, it takes some thought for other people to uncover it. We’re a nation of busy people who have many, many problems of our own. Those problems frequently require so much from us, take so much out of us, that we don’t have the time or the energy (or even the inclination) to analyze every statement by every politician and every surrogate. Dog whistles rely on our preoccupation as well as on our ignorance. And they rely on the insulation and privilege of white voters, who often have little personal experience to help them  identify the subtler uglinesses of racial bigotry and the ways in which that bigotry is too often exploited.

Lacking the time, the ability, the inclination, the knowledge, the experience–lacking any one of the things that would lead us to analyze any one comment, many white voters are even less likely to notice the single most overwhelming fact about racial dog whistles–their prevalence, the pattern created by the frequent repetition of such messages. We take each comment at face value rather than situating it in the greater context of similar comments. Today’s “unfortunate” utterance is far from being Sununu’s first racial dog whistle, but how many people–and especially, how many of the white people at whom the walkback is aimed–can remember others without prompting? And that’s just Sununu, just one speaker who relies heavily on this ugly rhetorical device that demeans all of us, those who don’t hear as well as those who do. Once learn to recognize the specific pattern–the initial comment followed by a walkback that usually fails to explain the original comment (and often, in fact, actually reinforces it), and the larger pattern becomes apparent. Hence, the primer.

And the warning: If you think that racial dog whistles are a figment of “those people’s” imagination, or more simply, that they’re someone else’s problems–after all, they don’t affect *you*, do they–you’re missing the point. Or maybe you think that being deceived, over and over and over, isn’t a problem. Maybe you think that being on the outside of an “in joke” that is deadly serious speech which both creates and culturethe society in which you live, isn’t a problem.

Thinking that is what we call being complicit in your own oppression.

Spam, spam, spam, spam…

Spam, wonderful spam.

Or not so wonderful, as the case may be.

I want to be clear about why I will delete (and have deleted) certain kinds of comments rather than approving them. That way, if someone has a legitimate comment to make, my policy will be clear. It’s easy enough to avoid deletion.

If you post a comment that includes a link to, URL for, name of, or email address for some kind of business, opportunity, or sales site and your comment is not specific to what I’ve written, I will assume you are making a generic comment for the purpose of getting your sales/company information out there.

Comments that I would consider generic and would delete as spam if they came with sales pitches, links, URLs, etc:

I dispute what you’re saying, but we all have different opinions.


I think you are right.

Comments that I would consider specific:

I think your definition of spam is unfair. I don’t always have time to comment in great detail, but that doesn’t mean I’m not reading. Maybe you should consider approving general comments.


No kidding. I’m interested in comments, not filler that’s just there so people can post links.

See the difference? The generic comments appear to have been copied and pasted, could be made on any post, and give the reader zero reason to think that the person making the comment actually read the blog entry in question.

I’m not blogging to help people make sales.


The Spirit of Christmas Uncompassionate?

I know I said in my last entry that I’m sick of listening to privileged people whine about being privileged. And yet, here I am, to say a few words in defense of whining.

Okay, maybe not whining. And certainly not whining about the burdens of privilege. But, sometimes, it’s all right to complain a little about the things that suck. Sometimes, what may look superficially about whining is a scream for a little love, a little respect, a little compassion.

This afternoon, I read and commented on a  status message in which a young woman talked about her gratitude that her significant other is in her life and they’re celebrating their first Christmas together and their first Christmas sober. She went on to lament the fact that, in spite of hard work, they couldn’t afford a tree or any decorations. That was a hard post to reply to, and I spent some time on what I said.

It’s easy to reply to people’s pain with glib platitudes and formulaic prescriptions. But the truth is that what doesn’t kill you can still cripple you or break your spirit. And when you feel like you’re giving and trying and working, always struggling and still doing without even the smallest things, it can be damned hard to feel a “proper gratitude” for the big things.

But this person did not fail to be grateful for the big things. She just found herself unable, in that moment, to be consoled by them for all the little things she must do without.

That didn’t stop the first commenter after me from telling her that Christmas is about more and that, regardless of difficulties, they have each other. That, the commenter said, would make their holiday special. The comment concluded “Have a Merry Christmas!”

In that context, the wish almost sounds like a command: You will have a merry Christmas because you are together. Or else.

It is easy and convenient and creates gratifying feelings of smugness to say that money and objects aren’t what matter. It’s especially easy and pleasing to say that if you have plenty of both. As Somerset Maugham wrote in Of Human Bondage, “He had heard people speak contemptuously of money: he wondered if they had ever tried to do without it.”

In the same book, he also wrote:

“There is nothing so degrading as the constant anxiety about one’s means of livelihood…Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five.”

One of the things that makes poverty and deprivation degrading is the contempt expressed for them by people who have never experienced them. Or worse, by people who have but who credit themselves alone with the fact that they no longer do.

It is tempting to write a lot about the attitudes of–yes, the privileged–toward those who have less, whatever “less” means in the context of their lives. And I’m sure I will at some point. But when it comes to comforting other people by suggesting that their feelings are invalid, money isn’t always the topic at hand. Understand, I have no objection to people reading others the riot act about how privileged, how lucky, how undeservedly lucky, they are and how little they appreciate it when that’s true. But when it comes to telling yourself that you’re offering comfort by dismissing, minimizing, and demeaning people’s feelings, I just can’t get on board.

People who talk about feeling discouraged in spite of sustained and difficult efforts are asking, in part, to hear that someone understands. They are asking for some compassion. When they begin by talking about the things for which they are grateful in spite of difficult circumstances, credulity isn’t stretched too thin by the inference that they think they “ought” to feel differently.

Who doesn’t know that we are “supposed” to be grateful for the people in our lives? For love? That we are “supposed” to care about those things rather than material ones? (We are supposed to do so in spite of a society that celebrates the material constantly and with near-universal fervor.) Who doesn’t know what her or his priorities “should” be?

And who can adhere perfectly to that ideal?

When people wring their hands because they can’t afford every video game on the wish list or didn’t find new cars in their driveway on Christmas morning–or any other occasion–it can be hard to muster much sympathy. But the young woman who posted that status message was not lamenting the lack of gifts in her life; indeed, she expressed gratitude for the gifts of love and sobriety. She was asking for a little sympathy and understanding, a little compassion, because in a life of hard work, there is nothing in her home that distinguishes this holiday season  from any other season of work and struggle. She was wishing for something external, not just something internal, to make this season a little different.

Most of the year, she has only internal resources to help her cope and lend a glow to the mundane. And in this season that we are told is and should be special, in which we are also confronted nearly everywhere with physical symbols of warmth, love, comfort, and merriment (as well as of greed and materialism), she feels like she on the outside looking in at comfort,  merriment and warmth denied her. Is it so wrong and so selfish to want a little physical cheer, a few holiday decorations, to help spark her internal cheer? Are her feelings that this season in her life is just another season of hard work and deprivation so reprehensible that she really needs to be told to stop having them?

It is in no way comforting to offer someone an indictment of his or her feelings.

There is nothing compassionate about telling someone to focus even more on what you think ought to be important.

It is even less compassionate to do so if that person agrees with you and feels shame about her or his feelings.

What that kind of “comfort” does offer is a feeling of self-satisfaction. “I reminded Suzy Q about what is important today. I was there for her. I’m a caring person, I have my priorities straight, and I share the comfort of good priorities with other people.”

I’m sorry, but no. You are a smug, self-righteous jackass who prefers the cheap grace of dismissing other people’s feelings to entering into them, the cold comfort of correction to the more genuine and difficult comfort of presence and participation. You have traded your compassion for self-satisfaction and are so far removed from any real empathy or even sympathy that you don’t even recognize the difference.

It takes a lot of nerve to tell someone what Christmas (or any other holiday or anything else to which we attach meaning) is “about” when doing so is just a way to feel good, without putting yourself out, about how much you care. Maybe Christmas is “about” being mindfully present with the people you purport to care about, whether or not their feelings meet with your approval. Maybe it’s about telling them (and yourself, if you need the reminder) that they are worthy even when their feelings are not suitable for greeting cards.

In other words, maybe the holidays aren’t really different from any other time of the year; maybe they require just as much compassion.

Or maybe the difference is that more people need more compassion around the holidays, but the season presents an extra temptation to ignore those needs in order to preserve our own holly jollies.

About that comment… (Education, inequality, and whiny privileged people)

In my last (and first) entry, I mentioned a pressing need to speak my mind about a comment. Sometimes, I said, it’s about the outrage.

The particular sense of outrage that inspired me to find a new blog home was inspired, as I said, by a comment–a comment made by a caring and concerned mother, who also happens to be privileged in ways that she doesn’t begin to understand. Maybe I can help her understand that, just as people help me understand things I don’t see about myself or can’t see on my own. But the side of me that is sick to death of privileged people whining about how tough it is to be them needs an outlet, too.

This particular privileged woman and caring mother lives and sends her child to high school in an affluent community. Her complaint was that her kid has to read too many books in high school. Not textbooks, literature. Why, she wants to know, should people have to read novels in school? Why should high school be so hard?

The affluent community in which her kid goes to school isn’t too many miles from very different communities where the people with whom I work attend school. I work with people who have graduated from high school without being taught to read or write well enough to go to college. Some of them graduate without having learned to read or write well enough to function in society. They graduate without having been taught to read and write well enough to sign contracts, understand credit card agreements, or follow simple instructions.

They are not stupid. Some of them lack interest in learning and school, but who can blame someone for not being interested in spending hours and hours of every day in a place where no one cares enough about you to teach you or to fail you if, adequately taught, you nevertheless not ready to move on? Many of them, miraculously, are interested in school. They see it as their ticket to a decent living. Some of them, even more miraculously, are interested in learning. I recently worked with a grown man who is intelligent and articulate but was never taught to read or write well–and never told that, if he could make a brilliant oral argument, he could make a brilliant written one. He told me that he didn’t care whether he passed my class, because he had learned something in it that had changed his life.

“Here’s what I told my wife about you,” he said. “Everyone else just gave me a fish. But you taught me how to fish.”

I told him that I thought the real difference was that he was interested in learning how to fish, that all I had really done was show him that he could be good at it, that the same mind that helped him win debates with friends could help him write persuasively.

His face was dubious until I got to the part where I pointed out to him that he was capable, and then it lit up. “Exactly!” he said. “That’s what you did.”

It troubles me that a man can grow to have graying temples without anyone–without any educator–ever telling him that he can do what every single student in an affluent high school does. I appreciate his recognition that I give a damn, but I can’t take credit for doing what should have been done all along, for saying what should have been said years ago.

I also worked with a young woman with enough brains to conquer the world who didn’t pay attention in class, didn’t work, and made the decision early in the semester to plagiarize. After all, school was just a terrible joke played on students by teachers, who are the enemy. She was embarrassed when I confronted her, and I think she became a little ashamed when she realized that I was going to give her another chance but that I wouldn’t tolerate cheating because I give a damn. She ended up with an A in my class. And she earned a perfect score on the standardized test that is one of the determiners of whether students can move on from remedial classes. At the end of the semester, she thanked me.

Then there are the stories that don’t have happy endings: The young man I encouraged who still wasn’t able to pass–not because of lack of ability but because his knowledge deficits are just too great to balance in one term. The woman who plagiarized and became angry at me because I caught her and never did understand that you don’t pass a class by sitting in the classroom for a semester. The students who could succeed if they only believed it but who, after thirteen years in schools that make simple neglect look benign, cannot believe in themselves. The students who could succeed if they hadn’t learned to think of getting over on the system and their teachers as their best (maybe only) strategy for success. The students who might succeed if they would believe that, this time, the person standing at the front of the room and saying that they will not pass if they don’t do the work really means it.

That’s a pretty big thing to ask someone to believe after thirteen years of experience with people who stand at the front of the room and say such things and pass everyone, anyway. I don’t know that I could believe it without some serious testing. I think I might have to fail my class once before I took it seriously if I were one of my students. I like to think I would eventually be one of the ones who understand that, this time, the standards are being enforced because, this time, someone cares about my long-term success instead of their own apparent success in the short term.

I’m not pointing the finger at the teachers who pass these students. I understand that they would lose their jobs if they didn’t. That doesn’t excuse them, but it doesn’t make the problem their fault. They’re complicit in a system that is in the business of throwing human beings away. It’s rotten all the way up to the top–and by the top, I mean the politicians who talk about education and make educational policy without understanding the first thing about learning or about the individual importance of the poor students they’re fucking over.

It goes without saying that most of my students aren’t white, doesn’t it?

And doesn’t it equally go without saying that the mother who is concerned about her kid’s workload, who is annoyed because her child has to read novels in schools, is white?

It may not go without saying that her insensitivity makes me angry, but it does. Her kid is goddamned lucky to “have” to read great books. Other people have kids the same age–kids who are just as precious and just worthy, just as loved and just as full of potential, just as human and every bit as smart as her kid–who cannot get through a “chapter book” for “young readers.”

Every parent who complains that kids have to work too hard in good school should shut the fuck up and think about what’s it like for kids who don’t “have to”–who don’t have the chance to–work so hard.

And I wouldn’t complain if, having thought, those parents decided they didn’t want to be complicit in a system that throws away other people’s kids, even if their own are privileged enough to be asked to read, understand, analyze, and discuss great literature in school.

My space and what it’s for

I need a space where not everyone who knows me, online or off, can find me. I need a space where I can say whatever the hell I want, at whatever length I want, and not have to worry about who might be offended.

What made me realize that I needed this space was a pressing need to say what I thought about a comment made by someone I know, without having to be mindful to couch it in a way that wouldn’t offend her. Sometimes, it’s not about being helpful and kind. Sometimes, it’s about the outrage.

We all need people who can be gentle with us, and it’s good to be gentle–but we all need a place in which to be ungentle now and then, too.

Welcome to my place of ungentle musings.