Saturday, December 21, 2002

I began this post after reading the debate Nathan Newman was involved in on the logic behind affirmative action. It has transformed over the last exhausting week into the post I'm putting up, still very rough in passages, and badly organized, but which now both makes clear the ambiguity of the situation as I see it and manages to describe my interests in a way I haven't before been able to.
If you've read it twice already, please read it again.

ps. Max Sawicky wants to nominate my site as The Angriest Blog, if such a category ever appears in the awards of Blogistan. I think he means angriest readable blog, according to his criteria, so I guess I'm honored.

Racism against blacks still exists in this country. It is stronger than most whites will ever admit, and most dangerous where it exists in secret. Nothing about the current Trent Lott fiasco surprises me - It was never a secret to anyone who paid attention. But I think it is time we begin to understand and take political account -for once in this country- of our, meaning humanity's, ridiculous fragility.

I don't have many links to fellow bloggers. The ones I do have are to policy blogs such as by N. Newman and Max, or more recently, Sam Heldman. There are many blogs where I can pick up news from the street, so why link to them all? But even reading the people I link to I miss something. And that is an awareness of a certain absurdity that anyone needs to face who is caught up in politics, and specifically when dealing with 'reform.'

The wonder and beauty of people, and I mean beauty on the sense that one must learn to love what one can never escape, is that we are so incredibly stupid, and so driven by fears and phobias.
The problem with liberal technocracy, and in fact with socialism which comes out of it, is in a sense the problem of all political philosophy: the need to assume definitions, standards of consciousness and awareness, for various groups in society. In republican political organization, of course, that means the same category for all, regardless of class and more recently race, gender, and sexual orientation as well. But at some point, regardless of who designs the categories, with what politics in mind, this sort of identification becomes a straitjacket.
Experience always outflanks design. Destabilizing events are the basis of almost every novel or play ever written. At some point emotion or desire, illogic or simple chance takes control of the action. And at the end, order is restored, or changed, or gone seemingly forever. The inevitability of this is something that neither conservatives nor reformers -those who define themselves as such rather than simply having some opinions on a subject- seem to understand. And so it can come down to someone making the sort of charge that Chomsky seems occasionally to be capable of making: that because Freud thought we were all a litle nuts he was attacking our ability to run our own lives; that he was attacking democracy.

But declaring our own inevitable failures is not the same as declaring someone else's inevitable success. Chomsky is an honest news hound who can see clearly through a haze of doublespeak, but as a political philosopher he is as useful as a coffee shop chatterbox who argues that everything would be fine we would only be nice to each other. And as sick as I am of Foucault et al. there is a sensibility in him that is still foreign to this country, and especially to those who involve themselves in reformist debates, if in fact never foreign to politicians themselves, who are all cynical enough to understand. I don't know where I picked this up but I love it: Late in life Andre Malraux asked an old priest he had met what life had taught him about people. His answer: "There are no grown-ups"

The problem I have always had with some reformers, of whom Chomsky is the most famous recent example, is that by assuming that everyone must be capable of behaving as an adult, they can be so anti Freudian that their politics mirrors right wing economic theory in its reliance on static rationalism.
It is a cliché to say that blacks are still affected by the legacy of slavery. But it is true. And it is not yet somehow a cliché to say that Southern culture is still affected by the bloody and barbaric history of Scotland and Ireland. What can we say about South Boston? What is the reason for the extremely high drop-out rate of Italian American high school students in New York City? Why are so many prisoners the products of violent homes?
It may seem odd to think that something that happened 300 years ago is still of psychological importance to a group of people. Or that more than 100 years after emancipation the effects linger. Do you think American mythology does not affect the lives and behavior of white Americans? Does the mythology of pre Castro Cuba not affect the ridiculous posturing of a large part of the exile population in Miami? Can anyone describe how a whiny nebbish like Woody Allen could possibly come to be seen as personifying an entire people? Or, to be less comic in reference to my father's tribe: Is it possible that the disgusting behavior of Israelis towards the Palestinians has no relation to their own attempted destruction 50 years before?

I'll put this even another way. Do you think that I'm listening to the rap cd I bought on the street six months ago -one that you can't buy in a record store- because I want to sympathize with alienated black youth? No I'm listening to music by thugs from the street, because they can describe the street better than anyone else. I don't defend the right to free speech of a 20 year old with a Mac10 because I like guns, but because it's better to know what's on the street then not to. Besides, I admit, I like the sound. Would it be better if the streets were not what they are? Of course. But the streets are what they are. And growing up under some circumstances can produce a certain kind of person. What kind of person is that? Maybe the son of the man who washes the floors at your office. Maybe the kid scares the shit out of me. But if that kid chooses to tell me a story, with all that he's seen, and if I'm moved by it, how easy can it be for me to moralize?

Another story. I've spent the last three weeks working on the house of an extremely wealthy woman. We were in a hurry yesterday to finish up for Christmas: she had guests in from Europe and company coming for a cocktail party. At 2 o'clock we installed a stunningly beautiful Italian art deco chandelier that is worth more than I made last year. At 5 I finished rehanging the drawings from her collection in the hallway. After that I went to the bathroom, washed my face and hands, and went into the living room, which she had had done a few years ago in the most beautiful stucco Veneziano that I have ever seen in this country. Until two hours before I had thought that she was a very nice woman, with a nicely personal taste, in her collection and in her choice of lighting fixtures. But still I was annoyed because of the circumstances: last minute cleaning before a party makes my job less one of a tradesman than a servant, and I felt awkward having to ask the house guests to move while I swept the floor. But that was before I was told the only people attending the party were the house guests, a retired foreign service officer, his wife and daughters, and the men who had been working on her house for the last month. I don't have much more to say. It would have been one thing if we were all college boys, but not all of us were. She was a gracious hostess, I had a great time. Do I begrudge her her wealth? Of course. Do I begrudge her her taste? I've never in my life seen so much money spent so casually or so well. Part of me begrudges her nothing: she an intelligent woman involved in a lot of activities of which I would otherwise approve, and who enjoys the pleasures of wealth in a deeply unjust world. And she enjoys them with real style. So if I can't moralize about one end of the spectrum how can I moralize about the other? And if I can't moralize about a kind woman who has always had everything, how can I do it about an angry thug who has lived most of his life with nothing? Answer: I can't.

Really, I want everyone to grow up, but they won't. I won't. Some want to profit from that assumption, claiming it gives them license to do what they wish. Some want to condemn the absurdity of others who do not live up to their standards.

One more story: A Taiwanese friend's family lost everything when they had to abandon their factories in Haiti after Duvalier fell. They lost millions. He has never understood why his anger when he tells the story bothered me, and in fact, for that and other reasons, we are no longer friends. If I had been born in Haiti while his family was there, and my parents held the same beliefs they held here, instead of having an FBI file I would be an orphan. This is something he apparently could not, or did not want, to understand. But I know that he was working in sweatshops at the age of 13. Even if they were run by his father, they were run on borrowed money, and he still had to work the machines. Why did his parents work so hard? Why did they have to be so cheap so as to need what was nearly slave labor? I have no idea. Why does Confucianism demand that his mother receive $500 a month from each of her three sons? And the parents drive a new mercedes

Reformers will always have a problem with the way people behave. And with reason. And I will always have a problem with reformers. But that is not the same as having a problem with democracy, or trying to make a moral justification for greed. There is none. Nor, for that matter, is there one for wealth. But sometimes, often, the easiest solutions to our troubles run smack into the brick wall of what it means to be human. I am less interested in writing even or especially political writing that does not take this into account.