Writing on the Double Yellow Line

Militant moderate, unwilling to concede any longer the terms of debate to the strident ideologues on the fringe. If you are a Democrat or a Republican, you're an ideologue. If you're a "moderate" who votes a nearly straight party-ticket, you're still an ideologue, but you at least have the decency to be ashamed of your ideology. ...and you're lying in the meantime.

Location: Illinois, United States

Saturday, August 15, 2009

If it Quacks Like a Mutt

If it Quacks Like a Mutt…
© 2009 Ross Williams

The first thing needed before getting too deep into this subject is a very precise understanding of the semantics involved. Far too often people use terms – or hear terms used in front of them – and they translate in their heads, make assumptions about what others meant in using them or what others will understand you to mean in hearing them, and what ends up happening is that everyone talks past each other, no one understand anyone, and people end up leaving in a huff to go pout.

So let’s just start by saying Barack Obama is not an African-American.

Oh, he’s definitely of African descent: his father was Kenyan. And he’s definitely American: he was born here[1] and mostly raised here.

But the meaning of the term African-American, as it has been used academically for decades, signifies someone who is a black descendant of America’s past slave-class. And President Barama does not qualify. If we were to use the term African-American in its literal sense rather than in its academic shortcutting sense, then we might be able to suggest that President Barama is among the only true African-Americans in the country. But…

Gay literally means “happy”. The term, though, has been co-opted for so long to mean “homosexual” that finding any reference to its former meaning requires scouring the book shelves for items written at the turn of last century. Same with African-American. Whatever its literal meaning may be said to be, it has been confiscated to mean a black American descended from antebellum slaves. Therefore he doesn’t qualify.

President Barama is also not black. And this is where I will diverge from academic usage, for the academic usage here is fundamentally dishonest. Academia has a legitimate purpose in describing those descended from a slave-holding past, and African-American is as good as any term for that purpose; the purpose may have been beaten to death, run into the ground, and become otherwise trite, but it is necessary for certain discussions. However, the academic use of black – to the degree it is differentiable from African-American – is a term used for demographic purposes.

Demography is the scientific [sic] study of what types of people makes up a given population. The population of the United States is made up of many, many, many types of people; far more discreet types of people, with far more relative parity, than any other Western democracy, in fact. And it becomes anti-intellectual, anti-academic dishonesty to ignorantly or deliberately falsify or otherwise fail to distinguish between one person and another during the exercise of that field of study devoted to properly classifying and distinguishing people.

For decades, black has been inappropriately used to describe anyone who is, in any part, descended from native, melanin-rich Africans. And when the person is descended only from blacks it is fine. When it becomes dishonest is when the person so described is also descended from native, melanin-deficient Europeans. … or others, for that matter. President Barama is black and white; he is a mutt.

For that matter, Tiger Woods isn’t black, either. He is black and oriental. …and once again, it is properly oriental, not Asian. There is a distinct difference between a Han Chinese and a Syrian Arab that are important to understand; both are Asian, only the Han Chinese is oriental. Tiger is another type of mutt.[2]

Indeed, for demographers to fail to distinguish between the shades of ethnic mixture described in the two paragraphs immediately preceding means that those demographers are not merely failing in the job they claim to be doing, but they are also not internally consistent in how they do that job. They are doubly dishonest.

How can I say that? Because they differentiate between Hispanic and Amerind.

To a modern American – indeed, western – demographer, an Amerind is anyone descended from any of the many American Indian tribes. These are variously called “First Peoples” – a mincing term which apparently presupposes they fell off the turtle’s back before Adam and Eve split an order of ribs. It could not possibly be that the term “First Peoples” is suggesting that Amerinds are simply the first to explore and conquer a land, because that’s what “First Peoples” often complain about the Europeans having done: explored and conquered. It would be ironic[3] of them or their supporters to do so. And “First People” having done it first only means that might makes right – once. Which is how many times both the “First Peoples” and the Europeans conquered the New World. So no one would seem to have a moral leg up on the other.

Other terms sometimes used are one form or other of the word “Aboriginal” which is acceptable in the US but disreputable in Australia; also, some term involving “Native” or “Indigenous”, which has been rendered indistinguishing by double-digit generations of European-descended peoples also being native and indigenous. I prefer Amerind; it is differentiating even if it causes others ideological heartburn[4], and it doesn’t require reams of rationalization to explain away its inherent equivocations and other inconsistencies.

Amerind is disingenuously – like black – anyone who is, in any part, descended from the First Indigenous Aboriginoid Peoples. …except when the part of them which is not so descended is Spanish or black African. If a person is Amerind and English he is, to a demographer, all Amerind. Likewise, if a person is black African and French he is, to that demographer, all black. However, if a person is Amerind and Spanish or black African and Spanish … he is Hispanic. This means that demography accepts the concept of Mutt. And this means that demography is dishonest when it, later and when appropriate, does not.

…when it serves the purposes of the people who call themselves demographers.

Which is, after all, the reason they fail to distinguish between the various mixtures of ethnicity they currently fail to acknowledge, such as the ones given above: they have a vested interest in not distinguishing certain Mutts from other people.

This academic dishonesty may be perfectly understandable. Had the science [sic] of demography grown up in the middle of the 19th century instead of the middle of the 20th as it did, we might have seen similar failures to distinguish between those of mixed Irish lineage – once a mick, always a mick – whereas we would have had countless Mutt subcategories of semi-black, including mulatto, quadroon, and the ever-useful octoroon[5].

Demography is simply displaying the biases and prejudices native to the time of its own inception, while it searches for excuses to lambaste those who have different ones. Different biases are wrong biases whether those biases predate the orthodoxy of modern demographers – such as No Irish Need Apply – or biases which post-date the orthodoxy – such as those which strive to discern multiple forms of Mutt-ness.

Black, to put an end to this digression, is not an honest description for President Barama.

Racism also needs to be defined. And racist along with it, although a racist is simply one who displays racism. Here, though, I will revert to the academic understanding. Racism is the use of perceived racial differences, from the position of structural power and influence, to perpetuate those perceived differences, or perpetuate the benefits derived of those perceived differences. For decades we have been told that whites are racist when they insult blacks because only whites have the power to turn those insults into actual harm. For decades we have been told that blacks cannot be racists even though they frequently insult whites, not to mention causing harm to whites, because blacks do not act from a position of structural power – they aren’t in charge of anything.

Even when the power structure specifically directs benefits to blacks at the detriment of whites it is not considered racism because blacks were not in charge of the structure which directed the blacks’ benefits – whites were. Further, we are told these benefits are only a just compensation for being kept out of their proper share of power in the first place. Blacks can’t be racists because they have no power.

Make that had no power, for this is the issue in question:

Many believe that a black, an African-American, is now the President of the United States. It is that same president, Barack Obama, who is accused of being a racist[6].

Naturally, President Barama has many supporters who bristle as this description. Barama can’t be a racist, they have said, because he’s black. Blacks can’t be racists – it’s impossible.

No, no. It is only impossible for blacks and African-Americans to be racists so long as they don’t hold power. Remember?

The measure of blacks not holding power was originally in their exclusion from owning and operating their own businesses. …until blacks started owning and operating their own businesses. And then the measure of blacks not holding power became their not being allowed in white colleges and universities. … until blacks started going to white colleges en masse. At that point the measure of blacks not holding power became their not being hired for decent “white” jobs. … until they were. Then the measure of blacks not holding power became their not being in the government – lawyers, judges, legislators, governors. But they’ve been there for decades, at the will of the people.

The only thing left was President.

And this President, Barack Obama, used his power and influence to get charges of disorderly conduct [trivial small-potatoes] dropped against a legitimately black, African-American Harvard professor friend of his after the friend’s arrest in his own home on a mistaken identity issue. It was also, very likely, a bully-use of police power issue as well. But the charges were dropped after President Barama declared that the “cops acted stupidly” by targeting blacks for arrest rather than just generally acting like bullies to everyone -- which is the way cops actually operate. Which means that President Barama used racial differences to gain a black a benefit he wouldn’t otherwise have received. And he did it from a position of power and authority – the only position of power and authority in the country not filled, at some point, by blacks or African-Americans previously.

Which means that if I am right and others are wrong, and President Barama is neither black nor African-American but instead is a Mutt, he is not a racist; and it means that if others are right and I am wrong and President Barama is a black and an African-American … he is a racist.

I normally hold fast to my semantics, for semantics is what separates us from trained chimps. But I’m willing to dispense with semantics for the sake of getting along. So, is President Barama black? Is he African-American? Or is he, as I suggest, a Mutt?

Is racism the use of power and authority to perpetuate perceived racial differences and to derive benefits based on those perceived differences? Or is racism simply a means of pseudo-pious denunciation of certain people out of self-loathing and race-based group-guilt?

If President Barama is black or African-American, and racism is the unfair use of power based on race – both concepts consistent with how they’ve been used for decades or their appropriate and honest usage – then Barama is a racist, and the rest of America’s blacks are also fully capable of it themselves. They have become vested.

Some of the country’s best people have been racists; some of the worst, too, but this is essentially an audaciously hopeful essay, and I wish to stress the positive. Even more of the country’s best have simply been called racists. It should be considered, if not exactly a badge of honor, at least not a huge deal.


[1] YES, people, he was born in the US. Quit trying to find loopholes to justify why you don’t like the guy; I get it. There’s enough legitimate reasons for disliking him and his policies – just as there was with Dubya – that you don’t have to go making up new ones. AWOL … foreign-born … get over it.
[2] I was going to say “A mutt of a different color” but the folks who I am bawling out for their dishonest lack of intellectual vigor are notoriously humorless and would probably soil two Depends® each at my use of the phrase for pun-making.
[3] I.e., hypocritical
[4] That’s just an added benefit.
[5] Hexideciroon, anyone?
[6] http://www.swamppolitics.com/news/politics/blog/2009/07/glenn_beck_obama_racist_beer_t.html

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Reacting Locally

Reacting Locally, Thinking Globally
© 2009 Ross Williams

There was a reorganization at work a few months ago. I won’t bore anyone with the details, but another layer of management was added into the organization, and the guy who makes up this new layer is more or less generally despised. His preferred method of management is by spreadsheet. Unless you can quantify what you do in ways that spreadsheets allow you to quantify, you didn’t do it.

…which leads to the modern existential ontology: if an analyst’s analysis doesn’t exist in Excel, did the analyst still think?

This new manager took over with a flourish last winter, and threatened everyone’s job within a week. Not content to endear himself to his new staff in that way, he also scheduled two all-day meetings for those of us not considered his star pupils so that we could learn everyone else’s job – presumably for when positions started opening up – and then publicly criticized the staff for being a few days behind on their own work … which may lead to job losses.

He has the knack of generating artificial sincerity, and playing favorites while insisting he does no such thing. As I mentioned, he is generally despised.

Earlier this week, his mother in law died.

And it’s not exactly like anyone wanted granny to kick the bucket – none of us even know her – it’s just that the measure of extended sympathy was somewhat subdued. The most common response I heard was, “Oh … so he’ll be out of the office the whole week? What a shame! We didn’t actually wish ill, but since it showed up anyway … we’ll take whatever benefit we can derive from it. Our silver lining to his black cloud, as it were.

This morning, a sympathy card was circulated and lo! and behold! all the folks who dislike the guy and did the little happy-dance at him being out of the office have signed it. And next week, if the social pattern holds, most of us will engage him in superficial sympathies in the hall.

There’s some amount of hypocrisy in all this – and I would say this whether I signed the card or not [I didn’t] – though it’s not so much hypocrisy as to create a huge ethical dilemma. We can easily feel sympathy for the guy without actually having to like him afterwards. No one is compelled to be his best bud just because we signed a sympathy card for him.

And no one will be. He’s still pretty much despised. His style of leadership is still officious, hands-off micromanagement by proxy. He still gives off unctuous fake sincerity in great greasy dollops.

In short, nothing will change in the individual relationships any of his underlings will have with the guy because they’ve signed his sympathy card or muttered a “sorry for your loss” at the coffee maker. It’s just a social nicety and it means next to nothing.

I’ve gotten birthday cards at work signed by folks I don’t know, that I don’t work with, and sometimes by folks I wouldn’t [and don’t] give the time of day to and who return that favor with gusto. It’s just part of the social dance of the workplace. I know better than to think, “Oh, gosh, Betty Jones[1], who I despise and who despises me, signed my birthday card. She must like me after all; she wants to kiss and make up. We can probably get married next week…”.

When next week comes and goes and Betty Jones and I are back at each others’ throats, I also know better than to think to myself, “Oh dear, I’ve squandered all that good will she extended by signing my birthday card; I’m such a cad. It’s all my fault.”

These social dances occur all over the place, on stages large and small. Each and every one of us who has ever had any meaningful interaction with others has done this, or had this done to him. Fake sympathy and false friendliness in the interest of being polite. And I’d imagine that not many of us mistook the insincerity as genuine. We know better. We’re not stupid.

Yet how many of us didn’t know better and became genuinely stupid about 8 years ago? The platform was different, the stage [and the audience that went with it] was definitely larger, but the phenomenon was identical.

There are many, many nations which despise the United States. They don’t often pretend to be polite about it, either.

Still other nations merely dislike us and are secretly – or not-so secretly – pleased when the US slips on a banana peel and falls flat. As we do from time to time.

Nations which do not like us, just like the people in our office which don’t, will probably sympathize when something bad happens to us, like a Katrina. This does not mean that these nations suddenly like us, or that we are now Best Friends Forever, or anything of the sort. It simply means that someone started a sympathy card and they all signed it.

September 10th, 2001: many nations despised us and many more simply didn’t like us.

September 11th, 2001: some international delinquents knocked down a few of our buildings with a couple commandeered airplanes, and a sympathy card was passed around to be signed by all, including the nations which despised and disliked us.

September 12th, 2001: those nations which despised or disliked us went right back to despising and disliking us – because they’d never stopped.

September 13th, 2001: huge gobs of American self-loathers and other geopolitical neophytes claimed that the US, because of the president, “squandered all the good will” extended towards us, and otherwise advertised that they’ve got almost no familiarity with this planet or the human species dominating it.

November 2008: these neophytes used their voting rights to get themselves a different president who would not irk all those foreign countries which either despise or dislike us.

Currently: those nations which despise or dislike us still despise or dislike us, and the new president hasn’t changed anything. Nor will he. Nor can he. In some cases, those nations despise or dislike us even more.

I feel bad about this. I’ve started a sympathy card for the neophytes on the death of their innocence.


[1] Her name is not Betty Jones, by the way.