Temporarily stranded in the last warehouse of my closed business, itself scoured almost clean save a few odds and ends and the massive teak bed I lusted after for so long, since 2002, bought in 2010, enjoyed…well, I don’t know that I enjoyed it quite, as I spent too many uninterrupted months in 2012 laying there looking at the mountainous terrain of sheets, and the violent tropical foliage visible above my half-shuttered windows, and the pink Christmas tree with its tin-winged angel, left up too long, and the local 1960s vanity with the mirrors all découpaged with photos from abandoned HDB flats and pictures from old HK movie magazines—filled to overflowing as always with unguents and near identical shades of fuchsia YSL lipsticks, and jewelry, and my grandmother’s monogrammed silver-topped powder container in cut crystal, from her girlhood in sober 30s font with the initials of Miss Henrietta Drewry Callaway. But the bed was lovely, minimalist with tapered uprights, with a rail for a mosquito net, and it was mildly unfortunate that when we moved from a big house to a condo that it would not fit. I am going to sell it at Expat Auction. In any case, I was sitting on the screed floor of the double-height space, one wall of windows shining, and so I wrote this blog post long-hand with my new favorite pencil the Palomino Blackwing 602. “Half the pressure, twice the speed!” It says that on the side. It may simply be a 3B with an, replaceable eraser. It will take longer to see. We only got them last week. John thinks I should scan it and post the scan, which has a certain justness, as I do have excellent handwriting, but I think it would be precious.
So, I promised you a response to Freddie deBoer’s response to Jonathan Chait’s anti-P.C. cry in the wilderness of having an extraordinary platform to write whatever you want. Why did I not do this immediately? Both my children have been ill since then, and I had Japanese homework, and I have a new art project which I will tell you about
later [I am making my own tarot deck as I have dreamed of since childhood, but with Great-Aunt Nora Cloud’s (well, Violet Bramble’s, I suppose, really) Least Trumps from Little, Big.] And I am very sick and you should all feel super-guilty. No, OK really, also I am bone-lazy and a fundamentally unserious person as has been established.
Freddie’s post is very convincing! But it runs, I must note, athwart, if not actually orthogonal to, Chait’s essay, which thing Freddie himself regards skeptically. Chait’s whiner’s petting zoo proffers feeble, dirty things that any honest person would be embarrassed to employ as examples for a contentious thesis. “Someone who looked in the mirror with a towel on as a cape dubbed herself an Official Feminist 4Eva come whatsoever might. Then she pitched the #slatiest book ever to fly right over home #splatepitch, declaring that the sexism war is over and the patriarchy…DUN DUN DUN…lost!1 [shocka!] And then people made fun of her on Twitter! Let us never lose sight of the root and branch and wasp-blown fruit rottenness of Chait’s essay. I’m quite unabashed in saying that it was a bunch of bullshit.
That aside, could Jonathan Chait be a stopped clock and Freddie deBoer a Swiss-made testament to his immobile accuracy? Yes, possibly. Does deBoer know more than I about actual on-campus political organizing right now? Yes, certainly. Could things now be a million times worse than when I was myself a college student who was politically active? Again, sure, although I thought it was a truth universally acknowledged that political organizations in need of feeling embarrassed need only be provided with copies of their posters from the ‘90s.
In deBoer’s post he tells of well-meaning young people being driven—hounded, even—away from political advocacy because of a single lapse into unapproved wrongthink.
I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 20 year old black man, a track athlete who tried to fit organizing meetings around classes and his ridiculous practice schedule (for which he received a scholarship worth a quarter of tuition), be told not to return to those meetings because he said he thought there were such a thing as innate gender differences. He wasn’t a homophobe, or transphobic, or a misogynist. It turns out that 20 year olds from rural South Carolina aren’t born with an innate understanding of the intersectionality playbook. But those were the terms deployed against him, those and worse. So that was it; he was gone.
Each of these examples is morally wrong in multiple ways: they are unfair to the person being driven out; they are counter-productive to the goals of the groups in question, and so on. I’m not surprised that it should be rich students chastising poor ones for imperfect knowledge of the language of oppression. I wrote about an adjacently similar situation long ago (remember when John and Belle Had a Blog?). In this case, my rich fellow grad students in Classics treated my friend as something of a pariah because he was a Libertarian, and thus an oppressive evil-doer. In fact, he had come from a difficult home with a single mother, and they depended on the state at times. He signed up to be a Marine for the tuition payment benefits (among other things), went to UCB, and, having learned Arabic in the Marines, was then getting a PhD in Classics, the first person in his family ever to aim so high, academically. He read to himself, carefully and slowly, The Laches (Plato’s dialogue on courage) while he was on his troop ship on his way to the Gulf for Iraq I, and this won my heart. It made me angry when Harvard legacies disrespected him: he was the embodiment of what a functioning welfare state could achieve for a ferociously hard worker who would take risks. Sure, in an ideal world he would also appreciate the privilege he had as a white man in our society—but, dude, these were just not the people to be lecturing other people about privilege.
DeBoer takes care in the post to note that the wrongdoers in the cases he talks about are not women of color. (And he makes a more general point reiterating it later, the gist of which is, ‘don’t draft imaginary W.O.C. as foot-soldiers in your arguments about political correctness, or feminism, or whatever. Also, stop being a dick just for the sake of it.’ (This last seems totally solid, I must say.)) Fair enough. But who are the villains of the piece? Women with $300 shoes. Because ‘women with their shoes amirite? Bitches. Be. Shopping for shoes, and then they pay $300, because they are straight cray!’ Oh goddamnit. What do bored MRAs do with their time, if they’re not the type of total psychopath who is a MGTOW? If they’re like this ‘normal’ MRA dude interviewed by Vox, they hang out on /r/TumblrInAction and spend their day mocking feminists on Tumblr. It’s better than the kotakuinaction people I guess? but.
“I mean it’s ridiculous that these people go on about how I have so much power because I’m a white dude,” Max continues, “like, Americans would rather elect a gay Muslim philanderer President than an atheist. Libertarians are treated like a joke. If you think people are mean to feminists on Twitter, you should see the stuff people say about MRAs. Or just like, you know, die white-cis-scum die.”
Yeah. That is a serious social problem, right? Now look, it’s not deBoer’s fault that assholes agree that vicious Tumblr-buzzword-based feminism is devouring society and then, ouroboros-like, its own tail. It’s not even genuinely the case that this is deBoer’s contention, rather, it bothers me that somehow feminists end up being the boogeyman most of these discussions of the tragedies of P.C. (I do realize that Freddie himself is likely innocent of this charge.)
DeBoer links elsewhere to outright calls for censorship. This is obviously stupid and wrong. But politically active people wanting to shut up white supremacists are a hardy perennial. They spring up every year; S.H.A.R.P is like Queen Anne’s Lace. Would deBoer would argue that the A.C.L.U.’s decision to protect the rights of Nazis to march in Skokie was a popular one among leftists at the time? It was the correct one, sure. But popular? Everybody hates Nazis. The article deBoer links to is decidedly not evidence for some rising tide of Nazi-hating.
Because that’s the thing: a core claim of the anti-P.C. argument, broadly conceived, argument is that P.C. culture is is powerful, pervasive, more prevalent than in the past, and growing in strength. I realize that it’s hard to provide evidence for this, but at the same time…I’d like to see some evidence. People are more likely to learn more about radical movements, and more quickly, than before the internet existed. They can get in deep quick. But do they go more overboard than campus communists in the 1970s? Anti-racists five years ago? Ten years ago? We’ve had the internet for a while now.
I’m willing to grant there are problems on college campuses that I don’t see, because I’m not there. I don’t think problems at universities don’t count; they are real even if they affect few people. (DeBoer complains that people try to dismiss problems on those grounds: “The more sophisticated version then became ‘that only happens in academia.’”) But it would seem the thing to do would be to make a very different type of argument from any that has been advanced so far.
Just now my older daughter asked what I was writing about. I explained using the example of the word “tranny.” I said that while some younger activists might think even using this word should result in banishment, some older trans people identified as “trannies.” We also talked about reclaiming slurs, and she independently remembered the “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” slogan I had told her about from the 90s. 80s?. I know the ‘out of the mouths of babes’ schtick can be annoying, but this is genuinely what she said (paraphrased). ‘No one should tell older trans people what to call themselves, that would be rude and ridiculous. And if you were friends with that person and they told you they wanted to be called that [i.e. “a tranny”], then you should. But otherwise you should just stick with trans. And if people decided they preferred something else you could always change because it’s not like it’s hard to do?’ DeBoer complains repeatedly that no one is offering ‘concrete solutions’ or ‘hard and fast rules’ about when to say (or believe) someone should shut up because he’s mansplaining and when to say hey, chill out, I want to listen to what he’s got to say. Right. There aren’t hard and fast rules, or strips on which ph can be measured. “That insult was too base; you have to leave the commune now.” People should try to be polite to one another, and kind to one another, and generous to one another, and to muddle through as best they can.
Here is a real article someone could write about P.C. culture if this was actually what worried them. It would address young political activists, but also people on the internet. To these latter people it would say, ‘this isn’t a game. Your desire to feel righteous fury is outweighed by the need for justice.’ To the former it would say, ‘hey, something bad is coming out of a good place! Your economic privilege is blinding you to the ease with which you accessed the tools and language of activism. Other people with good intentions who would strengthen our movement with diversity weren’t so lucky. Feeling right isn’t as important as making allies. We need to reflect on how P.O.C. have been shut out of activist communities in the past and learn from that hard lesson. It isn’t one wrong word that makes someone an enemy. It is acts of hate.’ If Jonathan Chait had written that article I think we’d all have said
where’s all that activism you’ve been doing? ‘cool move, dude.’