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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

That Alabama law and that Illinois law

You may have heard that Alabama has passed a statute that would almost categorically outlaw abortion. You may have heard that Illinois has passed a law that affirms the right to abortion. The passage of both laws and the very real possibility that Roe v. Wade may be overturned, remind me why I'm pro-choice and why being pro-choice disturbs me greatly.

When I say I'm pro-choice, I mean that I support women's access to legal abortion at the very least in the first two trimesters. While I believe it may be wise for a doctor to weigh in on the decision, especially after the first trimester, I would not require a doctor's permission [see note #1 below]. I support providing state funds to provide financial assistance to women who may wish to have an abortion but cannot afford it.

Two frames

When I think of why I'm pro-choice, I usually frame the reasons in two ways.

Frame #1: Policy

I would not trust the state to get it right. Maybe I would trust it if I wanted to outlaw all abortion, but I think, and most people seem to think, there should be at least some exceptions, and I don't trust the state to draw the appropriate distinctions. I also fear what type of punishments the state might exact and how inequitably the state will likely mete out such punishments. I'll add to that the reality that outlawing abortion will result in a good number of people seeking abortions anyway, but in much less safe circumstances [see note #2 below].

Frame #2: A woman's prerogative

I believe that a woman has a special prerogative to terminate the life of the unborn person inside her. The unborn has an immediate and direct claim on her body, and as long as that life has such a claim, the woman can do what she wants with it and neither I nor the state has any legitimate authority to interfere.

That's as close as I can get to a "moral" (as opposed to merely "policy") stance in favor of the pro-choice position. I say "terminate the life of" because I just can't shake the belief that the unborn is alive and a person with its own self interests. I'm not the only pro-choicer to believe that. Em Carpenter, an author at Ordinary Times who also has a solo blog, has adopted a substantially similar position (and please read the whole thing if you have time): the time at which the earliest abortions are usually performed, there is a heartbeat. It is alive, at that point. No, it cannot survive unsupported, but this is a poor criteria for what constitutes “alive”. People on ventilators are alive. People who require medication, equipment, or assistance in feeding in order to live are alive. This tiny thing is alive. An abortion ends this life. It is homicide.

“My body, my choice” is a popular argument. I agree with this statement, but it is a poor argument for abortion rights. Yes, a person has the right to make decisions about his or her own body. His or her OWN body. The dishonesty here is in the pretense that only one body is being affected by an abortion. This other body is using the woman’s body to live, but it is its own body, nonetheless. An abortion is a decision affecting two bodies. Be honest about that, and then we can discuss why it is still a legitimate choice. (Consider this: in no other situation is a person required to sacrifice his or her body or bodily autonomy for the good of another....)
Em's point is mostly my own. I'll also add that I suspect most pro-choice people deep down do agree with Em's (and my) premise that the unborn is alive. They don't approach the choice for abortion flippantly or in disregard for ethical concerns. For most of them, I suspect it's either a conflicted choice or at least a somber choice, not a "no apology, no regrets" choice. I say "suspect" in this paragraph because I don't know. I am operating under my impressions and a few anecdotes and nothing more. But if you, my reader, are pro-choice, I ask that you be honest with yourself (not with me: you don't have to justify your views to me) about whether you really disagree. [see note #3 below]

Frames, not arguments

I call the above points "frames" and not arguments. I don't offer them in the hope that they will convince someone who doesn't already agree with my conclusion. They're more like intuitions that help explain why I adopt the pro-choice position. These frames don't consider potential counterpoints. For example, I'm ignoring the question of viability.

One "frame" I don't mention (because I'm not sure it counts as a "frame") is my own perceived self-interest as someone who doesn't wish to have children. Of course, I'm a guy, so the stakes are different and lower for me, and as a guy, the choice definitely isn't mine to make. But I mention this self-interest because I want to recognize how closely my pro-choice position matches with my own convenience. I also need to acknowledge my uncomfortable suspicion that the two "frames" I mention above might to some indeterminate degree be rationalizations for what is essentially a selfish position.

The Alabama law and a new frame

The Alabama law brings to light a new frame. According to the AP News account,
The law will make performing an abortion at any stage of pregnancy a felony punishable by 10 to 99 years or life in prison.

The bill contains an exception for when the pregnancy creates a serious health risk for the woman, but not an exception for rape or incest.
In some ways, the law is almost a caricature of what pro-choicers fear, or it would be a caricature if it weren't a real thing. (It's worth noting that the AP News article also notes televangelist Pat Robertson, no friend of abortion rights, believes the law goes too far.)

For me, the law is notable for what it suggests about the prospects for overturning Roe v. Wade and for how it reminds me of the issues at stake in the abortion debate. It seems clear that an anti-Roe majority is forming on the Supreme Court. Whether the Court will overturn the decision is less clear. It will less likely do so when faced with a law like Alabama's than when faced by a less draconian law.

But the Alabama law does make one thing clear. I'm not going to tell a woman she must carry a child to term when she doesn't want to. I'm also not going to endorse the state telling a woman she must carry a child to term, either. I have the image in my mind of someone who's uncertain about her prospects for the future, whose life will be uprooted or perhaps put in danger by an unplanned pregnancy, and it just doesn't seem like my place to interfere.

That is framing, not an argument. In a sense, it's a doubling down on the position I've had for quite a while. It's different, though, because the stakes seem more immediate than before. And if I'm also honest, I'm bringing some ageist, condescending assumptions to the fore. The woman I have in mind when I say "I'm not going to tell a woman she must...." is usually a very young woman who may have made some poor or less-than-informed decisions and not one, say, in her 30s. In other words, my own assumptions here are a bit paternalistic and not necessarily praiseworthy.

The Illinois law and necessary fictions

Given my "frames," my overall position on abortion, and the real possibility that Roe v. Wade may be overturned, an obvious move is to endorse state laws that ensure abortion's legality. But that "obvious move" comes at a disturbing cost. Illinois, for example, has very recently enacted a law to reaffirm a woman's right to choose abortion. Given everything I've written in this post, I should support the law--and I do support it. But the law contains the following language that I find jarring:
A fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus does not have independent rights under the laws of this State.

That language is probably necessary. If you want to create a law that ensures access to legal abortion, it's a good idea (even if not 100% absolutely necessary) to stipulate that what is terminated by an abortion does not have any legal claim ("independent rights") against that procedure. I also realize that in order to govern, a state has to adopt certain fictions, and those fictions aren't illegitimate just because they're fictions. [see note #4]

And yet I do find that language jarring. It's a declaration that something I believe to be morally entitled to a claim on this earth nonetheless has no such claim and in fact cannot have such a claim. It's a denial of something I believe in my heart to be true. It bears a relationship to other instances in the history of this country and world in which the dignity of persons have been written off. While I won't insist that relationship is analogous in all morally relevant respects, the relationship is more than superficial.

Of course, the language I find so problematic is the logical restatement of the position I have advanced earlier in this blog post. I still stand where I stand, and I believe I am probably right in my stance. But I can't claim any moral high ground.


Note #1: The "abortion is best left as a decision between a woman and her doctor" may work as a slogan, but in my view it's main function is to flatter health care professionals by offering them a theoretical veto into their patients' most personal decisions. It doesn't matter that (as I assume, but don't know for sure) most doctors would automatically sign off on an abortion if the patient wants one. I suspect there would be a lot fewer of the "socially conservative physicians who nonetheless support the right to abortion" if the pro-choice movement focused more on the right of choice than on an alliance with medical doctors.

Note #2: That said, the claim "people will have abortions anyway so we might as well keep it legal" is at best only half true. Outlawing abortion will almost definitely decrease the number of people who seek abortion.

Note #3: Here I'm doing what I criticize some pro-choice advocates for doing. I'm referring to the argument I'll sometimes hear (some of) them make, to the effect that pro-lifers don't really believe the unborn is alive. Those who advance that argument seem to be claiming that pro-lifers have misaligned priorities. Under that claim, pro-lifers should be more concerned about helping people once they are born and helping their mothers, or more concerned about the rate of spontaneous abortion and other problems that develop during pregnancy, than they are about abortion itself. That claim is good as far as it goes, and I do believe pro-lifers should rearrange their priorities. (And for what it's worth, many do. I've known at least a few of pro-lifers who walk the walk). But the same charge can be lodged pretty much at anyone. For example, the number of people who really care about Muslim fundamentalists' treatment of women in Saudi Arabia and who actually act as if it's a pressing concern are pretty small, but I don't think it's fair to say they don't really care about the problem. Mutatis mutandis for pretty much any moral concern that doesn't directly and immediately affect the person who has that concern.

Note #4: One of the most annoying things about some liberals' commentary is the "ohmygawd, that judge said corporations are PERSONS!!!!!" It's especially annoying when the commentator is a lawyer who should realize that basic idea of a corporation is to create something that for some legal purposes is a "person." The pattern of thinking is not only a "liberal" thing, but the liberal version is the one I personally encounter the most often. None of that is to say that fictive personhood is the only way to understand corporations or that the courts and the law haven't assigned too many prerogatives to corporate personhood.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Sympathy for the activist

I have in the past criticized, and probably shall criticize in the future, activists. (Click here for a recent example.) But I should point out they have a hard task, they usually believe in what they're advocating for, and even if one disagrees with them, they are usually raising a good point or confronting an issue that needs to be confronted.

"Usually" isn't always. There are some causes that are so morally reprehensible that the activist deserves to be ignored or even counter-demonstrated against. Or if the causes aren't necessarily morally reprehensible, sometimes the means advocated are. I do suggest, though, that just because we disagree strongly with someone doesn't make them morally reprehensible.

Activists' may not have super pure motives. Some really are on a power trip and care more about being an activist about their cause. Some are being paid and some of those (though probably many fewer) are being paid handily, either in money or in prestige or power or ego stroking. Some may come across as unsufferably self-righteous. (Pro-tip to activists: when you say, "I could be making a lot more money doing something else," you should at the very least expect to receive some eye rolls, even if what you say is true. One, it's probably less true than you think it is. Two, even if it is true, the people you are talking to may not have the same options and may find your nobility condescending.)

But none of us has pure motives. Most of us, almost all of us, do the right thing at least occasionally. I submit that none of us does so out of purely altruistic or self-sacrificing motivations. Even if I'm wrong about "none of us," I'm on more solid ground to say "most of us" or "almost all of us." At any rate, we (I) should think twice before judging.

My own brief forays into activism were exhausting. I once participated in a boycott campaign against a bank I believed was underwriting unfair labor practices. I once canvassed voters. I attended a couple rallies against the Iraq war. And I participated in an ill-advised strike my colleagues called a few years ago. None of these events was fun. I did meet some people who actually seemed to enjoy them. But for the most part, those actions were drudgery for me, and I found them in some ways to be morally compromising. However, with the exception of the strike at my workplace, I believed in the cause at the time. (I have a different view on most of those issues now, or at least on whether I should have done what I did.)

It's easy to criticize activists. We should criticize activists. They're voluntarily engaging in an activity that puts them out there. But we should remember what they're doing is hard.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Apologia pro ioco meo....The Post

I want to revisit, explain, and justify* a drive-by joke/statement I made in my post on "The myth of the heroic journalist." I was talking about films that celebrate hat I considered to be the myth of the heroic journalist. One film I mentioned was "The Post," starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep:
"The Post," the 2017 movie about Mr. Trump's refusal to give the Washington Post the respect it deserves by denying its reporters access the controversy over the Pentagon Papers case
For the uninitiated, the "strikeout" feature of blogs often (usually?) has the function of saying something without saying it, or of hinting at something while disavowing that one is seriously hinting at it. So when I wrote that the film was "about Mr. Trump's refusal to give the Washington Post the respect it deserves by denying its reporters access" and then struck it out and followed it with "the controversy over the Pentagon Papers," I was suggesting that even though the movie ostensibly was a retelling of the story of the Pentagon Papers controversy, it had something to do with the perceived disrespect Mr. Trump has shown the Washington Post and other putatively legitimate news outlets. I was also alluding to what I perceive as a not wholly deserved sense of entitlement among some of the mainstream media outlets or among those who bemoan the decline of their privileges. I was further suggesting that those who complain about Mr. Trump's treatment of mainstream news outlets might not be communicating their message as effectively as they might. In fact, I was suggesting news outlets sometimes (or more than sometimes) take their value, their legitimacy, and most important the prerogatives they have traditionally enjoyed for granted. Those who claim to defend them and a "free press" don't recognize how much the system pre-Trump rested on special access and sometimes special privileges denied to others.

That's quite a lot to pack into a drive-by "strikeout" joke. That's the problem with drive-by comments in general. They hint at a lot without really saying it, so that the drive-by'er (in that case, me) can get away with making a claim but not really having to take responsibility for that claim. And further, others who have read the drive-by statement and can be excused for taking a different interpretation from the one I meant. (Finally, I have at times criticized others for making drive-by comments.)

So, I'm saying the movie "The Post" was in some sense about Mr. Trump's treatment of the press and that it functioned as a complaint about that treatment. It also functioned as a wistful hope that the press would step up to the plate and hold Mr. Trump and his administration accountable the way the "The Post" and other news media held Mr. Johnson's and Mr. Nixon's administrations accountable during Vietnam and, later, Watergate. I'm suggesting that the news media might never have been quite as deserving of praise as that film, and the two other films I mention, seem to suggest. And I'm suggesting that those films elide (but don't neglect entirely) the problems inherent in their use of anonymous sources and their attempts to gain access to the administrations whose power they are ostensibly there to check.

Am I right? I think I'm right enough that it's a live question we must always keep in mind. The "golden age of journalism" might not have been so golden. Viewpoints that probably should have been explored were probably shunted aside or not discussed. If you were the Washington Post or the New York Times or the Boston Globe, you may have had some privileged access to power and maybe even a little more leeway to write and say what you want, as well as a bully pulpit or at least a bullhorn from which to write and say it. People are right to criticize Fox News for attempts at "fair and balanced" reporting which is accused of assuming that just because there's a controversy, both sides of the controversy are equally legitimate.** But we should be wary before assuming that all previously excluded viewpoints were by definition illegitimate.

In addition to not being so golden, the "golden age" might never really have been an age. Ever since President John Adams, if not before, high-level government officials have tried to managed and corral news media to their purposes. Sometimes they had more success than others. Things change over time. Depending on how one draws the line, the "age" might very well have been as short lived as the three years between the publishing of the Pentagon Papers (1971) and the resignation of Mr. Nixon.

In three other senses, however, I'm wrong. First, I don't have all my facts. Note my hedge words "probably" and "might" and "depending on how one draws the line."

Second, while the movie came out in 2017, it's possible it was conceived and initiated before Mr. Trump even won the election, perhaps even  before it was clear he would win the nomination. While I still believe the time in which the film was released made it inevitably "about" Mr. Trump's treatment of the press, that may not have been the intention of the films creators at the time they conceived of it.

Third, while all presidents, especially since FDR, if not prior to him, have used access to manipulate the press, Mr. Trump seems to be doing so brazenly, by denying certain established outlets access even to press conferences and granting access to racist "alt right" outlets (or at least that's the accusation I'm familiar with....I don't have all the facts). If he is only carrying prior presidents' practices and assumptions to a logical extreme, it's an extreme we don't want to abide and an extreme unchecked by other considerations for the greater good.

While I stand by my joke/statement in that post, I do admit that it's not quite as justified or supported or as clear as it could have or should have been.

*Note, that "apologia" from the title of my post is meant in the sense "defense of," as in "the apology of Socrates," not in the modern-day English sense of "express regret for."

**I find that criticism of "fair and balanced" unnerving. If a president or a cabinet-level official, for example, says that torture should be a legitimate policy, it's a controversy for which the "pro-torture" side has to be heard, even though torture is reprehensible. Are news outlets therefore expected to interview only the anti-torture position even as the most powerful people in the country implement that policy? Or maybe the news anchor is supposed to interview the secretary of defense and then look at the camera and say, "I, for one, think this is an outrage!"?

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Thoughts on Austin Channing Brown and history

Austin Channing Brown, in her I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (New York: Convergent, 2018), has a chapter on history (chapter 8: "The story we tell"). In that chapter, Brown points out that slavery and racism were conscious decisions [p. 113]:

Slavery was no accident.

We didn't trip and fall into black subjugation.

Racism wasn't a bad joke that just never went away.

It was all on purpose.

Every bit of it was on purpose.

Racial injustices, like slavery and our system of mass incarceration, were purposeful inventions, but instead of seeking to understand how we got here, the national narrative remains filled with comforting myths, patchwork time lines, and colonial ideals.... 

Brown goes on to discuss how we (the royal "we") have been complicit in racism and how our expressed memory of and the way we talk about race and racism obfuscate the systematic nature of oppression.

I have some disagreements with Brown's take on history. But first, I should point out that Brown's book is a memoir. Her goal is to discuss her personal encounters with racism and her experiences concerning how racism works and is perpetuated. My criticisms don't undermine the value of her book, which I think deserves a close read by anyone interested in the issue.

Professional history has long addressed the issue

I'll start with a pedantic quibble. Professionally trained historians have long documented exactly what Brown says is commonly denied. At least since the "new" histories of the 1960s and 1970s, professionally trained historians have investigated the many policies and decisions that have created and enabled racism. When they've disagreed, it's almost always been over issues like whether racism is sui generis (that is, it's own thing) or epiphenomenal (that is, ultimately caused by something else, like class oppression).

That's not to say all professionally trained historians are onboard. Some schools of professional history, like diplomatic history, are latecomers. And we might occasionally identify a small number of professionally trained historians who reject that racism is a thing or who do in fact claim that it's something that "just happened" without any decisions being made. Even more professionally trained historians are like me. We recognize the importance of race and racism in understanding U.S. history. We believe it needs to be studied. But we individually choose to study something else. For example, my dissertation focuses on a group of people who were almost all male and all white. Race sometimes explicitly entered the statements of theirs that have come to the public record and was implicit in many more ways. I, however, focused on different things, mostly on their relation to the state and certain policies. Even those features had some relation to race and racism, but I chose not to focus on them.

My criticism is a little unfair because Brown isn't talking about "professionally trained historians." She's talking about national and local narratives and about how we as a society treat the history of race and racism. She's also presumably talking about how history is taught in primary and secondary school, although I don't recall if she makes that explicit.

Choices are always constrained

My second criticism more directly challenges Brown's argument that "[e]very bit of [racism] was on purpose." I'd say it was and it wasn't. All of us play a role in crafting what our society is like, none of us crafts it completely. Some have a big say, and others have little or almost no say. Those who have the greatest say still must work with the world as they find it. They don't encounter it anew.

Positive choice

Brown's argument is strongest when it comes to positive choice. By "positive," I mean the decision to do something instead of the decision not to do something. When it comes to the positive decisions people have mad, it is clear that much of racism and the antecedents of racism (slavery and Jim Crow, for example) weren't accidents at all.

People chose to import slaves to the Americas. People chose to enact laws that made slavery heritable and that defined it closely with race. People chose to take positive measures to perpetuate slavery as it faced numerous challenges. People chose to join vigilante groups like the KKK and that people chose to enact Jim Crow legislation. ,People chose to protest and violently attack others who protested against racism. People chose to bomb black churches.

Negative choice

Most of the examples above were explicit choices to do certain things that didn't have to be done. But there's another type of choice. That is the decision not to do something.

We can say that few people chose to lodge a meaningful challenge to slavery throughout most of its existence in the U.S. and its predecessor colonies. "Meaningful" is a work of art, of course, and at an everyday level many, many people, perhaps a majority, challenged slavery. Sometimes, as with Thomas Jefferson, all they did was give lip service to the idea that slavery was wrong. Sometimes, as with most of the emancipation schemes in the north during and after the Revolutionary War, the decision to end slavery was so gradual that some people were legally enslaved as late as the 1830s or 1840s. Sometimes, as with the "good" slaveholders, a paternalistic attitude toward slaves was predicated on recognizing slaves' humanity in a way that undermined the justification for slavery even as it perpetuated the continuation of slavery. Sometimes, as with those who proposed gradual emancipation, the efforts were more substantive. And sometimes, as with the thousands of slaves who resisted fully buying into their masters' paternalistic pretensions, the challenge to slavery was greater.

But more often, we see accommodation to slavery. That accommodation ranged from reluctant to eager and was strongly linked to the constraints under which the accommodaters acted. A slaveholder might have had a hard time emancipating his slaves even if he wanted to. The southern economy was based on a credit system which involved a series of interlocking claims, obligations, and debts. Even if we disregard laws that forbade manumission, this credit system often meant a slaveholder couldn't simply free his slaves. A "lien" of sorts was on his property and simply freeing his property would have been very difficult. Add to that the reality that a person who lives in a slave society would be freeing his slaves into that society. The slaves would still have to find a way to survive, to work, and while there were free communities of color in the slave south, survival was precarious. Moving to the north or elsewhere was not always an option. Some states forbade freed slaves to enter, and even where such prohibitions did not apply, it's hard to move to a different area where one has few connections.

Slaves, too, chose often not to challenge slavery. In the short and medium term, it would have been hard for them to predict slavery's end, and so they had to manage within the system. As Eugene Genovese documents in Roll, Jordan, Roll, slaves asserted their everyday "rights" in a way that ultimately affirmed the hegemony of the planer class. One needn't sign on to Genovese's Marxist argument in its entirety, and in my opinion, Genovese suffers from the reductionism characteristic of most Marxist scholars. But the problem he is addressing is real. Slaves, like anyone, have had to work with what they got. Slaves had to survive somehow in a system which probably seemed more or less permanent, where revolt was never a plausible possibility, and where escape was difficult and involved tremendous risks.

I've emphasized slavery, but the same dynamic could be applied to the Jim Crow era and to today. While people chose to attack civil rights protestors, many, many others chose not to get involved. It wasn't only a question of apathy. It was also a fear of violence. For some business owners, challenging Jim Crow and treating customers equally might have led to prosecution for violating segregation statutes. (I realize it's possible to overemphasize that last point and claim that white business owners were "the real victims" of Jim Crow. It's also possible that the threat of prosecution for a white business owner violating segregation laws may have been more theoretical than actual (i.e., I'm not an expert in that area). But the fact remains that if such business owners wanted to be racially progressive, the laws were on the books and in theory could be used against them.)

The positive-negative spectrum

Of course, I've presented the issue too starkly. The distinction between "positive choice" and "negative choice" is not a bright line. It's a spectrum. Negative choice is still a choice. And as the song says, if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. Negative choice is almost always the safest and easiest thing to do, especially in the short term.

We should remember that "negative choice" often obfuscates the actual positive choices people make.A slaveholder on a large plantation may have inherited a set of property of which he couldn't easily divest himself and lived in a society that constrained his actions, but he could have written a letter to the legislature urging more liberal emancipation laws. Or if he wrote one, he could have written two. He could have shared some of his "profits," when he had profits, with his slaves. Or if he already did, he could have done it more often or less grudgingly. There are usually good choices that can be made along some margin. The frog may never actually get a chance to jump off the cliff, but it can get closer and closer.

Sometimes, however, the best we can do is to choose not to participate in evil, or as Dr. Rieux said in The Plague, do the least amount of evil possible.


I haven't really disproven Brown's claim, quoted above. I have qualified it, however. It's worth remembering that even when we discern others' actions to be evil and when we discern certain structures of society to be evil, it behooves us to remember that we all exist in a context and within constraints that channel the options available to us and sort them into what is relatively easy and what is relatively difficult. I do want to stress that my qualifications aside, I believe Brown's claim about choice is fundamentally correct, and it's worthwhile to learn and interrogate the choices historical actors have made, just like it's worthwhile to learn from and interrogate the choices each of us makes.

It's also worthwhile to read her book, and I recommend it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The myth of the heroic journalist

I just saw the film "All the President's Men" (1976) for the first time. In case you don't know, it's a retelling of the first months of the investigation by the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into the Watergate scandal that ultimately led to President Nixon's resignation.

I didn't like it, but I'm not sure if it's the movie I didn't like or if I didn't like the story. If the movie is overall accurate in how it portrays what Woodward and Bernstein did and how they did it, it raises serious questions about what journalists do (or used to do). We see them using anonymous sources and doing what seems to amount to tricking some people into making statements they don't want to make. The reporters don't seem to care whose lives are ruined as long as they get there story.

The movie does acknowledges these difficulties. In one scene, the reporters talk to the wife of a potential informant and they say something like (I forget the exact wording), "we're just here to help you." The woman says, "no, you're not." Woodward admits it, saying, "no, we're." They seem to agree that the woman's husband is only a means to an end. The reporters are using him. The movie wants us to believe they're using him for a greater TRUTH what for to save the republic. Someone can be excused for thinking they're using him to advance their professional notoriety.

The movie also acknowledges problems with the type of anonymous sourcing Woodward and Bernstein engage in. Sometimes the reporters' questionable tactics backfire on them. At one point, the reporters' sources seem to troll them into prematurely making a claim about the involvement of H. R. Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff, in coordinating the break in.

Of course, the grizzled editor, played by Jason Robards, stands by the story anyway. Something something first amendment and democracy something. And what do you know, the reporters are eventually proven right.

But I left the film thinking the Watergate story might have been a Hail Mary touchdown pass. If a hundred reporting teams make up just any story once a week, no matter how wild, one or two of the stories are bound to be true eventually.

That's probably not the real tale of what Woodward and Bernstein accomplished. They probably were and are legitimate professionals who sincerely sought and seek the truth. But their tactics, at least as the movie portrayed them, seemed questionable.

In our current moment in 2019, we're supposed to admire "intrepid" (a word you see quite a lot) journalists. Look at "Spotlight," the 2015 film about the Boston Globe's expose of the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal, or "The Post," the 2017 movie about Mr. Trump's refusal to give the Washington Post the respect it deserves by denying its reporters access the controversy over the Pentagon Papers case. Both movies have their instances of introspection about their profession. In the first, we find that the Globe had access to the story much earlier but didn't pursue it. In the second, Meryl Streep's character recalls the cozy relationship she and her reporters had with the Kennedy's, the implication being that perhaps the closeness of that relationship ma have influenced the Post's editorial decisions.

But both films seem to settle on a nostalgia for "journalism as it used to be," where the pro's, like the reporters in "All the President's Men," know what they're doing and shouldn't let much get in the way of truth. Maybe we do in fact need more of that. Maybe the Beck-Hannity-Olberman-Maddow approach to "journalism" serves us poorly. Maybe FOX's "fair and balanced" approach gives a little too much legitimacy to certain viewpoints by assuming that every story has at least two sides that need equal air time.

Maybe. But the golden age of journalism wasn't so golden. No golden age was.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Remembeing the Yale graduate student strike of 1995

Corey Robin at Crooked Timber offers his memory of the Yale graduate student strike of 1995 and the role of historian David Brion Davis in opposing the strike. Other than suspecting that Davis wasn't quite the ogre he's portrayed as, I don't have any quarrel with Robin's account because I don't know the specifics.

I do, however, have a memory of the strike. I was an undergraduate student at a state university in Cibolia. It was a good university and I got a good education there, but it had many of the faults and challenges that most mid-tier research universities with more than 20,000 students have. I was privileged to be in college, but it was clear that a large number of schools were much better, at least in terms of their reputation and in terms of how affluent their student body was. The ivies, including Yale, were among them.

So, I heard about the Yale strike while walking in the history department. Some professor had placed a newspaper account of the strike on his or her office door. I forget what the account actually said, other than that the students were striking, but I remember thinking, "these people already have their BA's and are now getting a GRADUATE DEGREE in one of the most prestigious schools in the country.....and they have their tuition and fees paid for while I have to work to pay for my own tuition."

In other words, I was less than sympathetic. I still am, although I realize it might very well be a closer call than I had thought when I was an undergrad. Having been to grad school, I realize how grad students are sometimes either mistreated or not as well compensated for the value they bring to their department. Sometimes there is abuse, either egregious abuse (like sexual harassment or racial discrimination) or everyday abuse, like one of my professors who every semester seemed to cancel two to three weeks of lectures and expected their grad student TA's to fill in, which was outside their job duties. I also realize that tuition and fee waivers are not always exactly what they're cracked up to be. And even if we take abuses and misleading promises out of the equation and even if "fairness" doesn't enter into the picture, it's not presumptively wrong for people to seek a larger piece of the pie.

Even so, "sometimes" and "not always" and "exactly" and "presumptively" are key words in that preceding paragraph.. Graduate student employment is still usually in most ways a good deal. That's a problem for graduate student workers when they try to unionize. No matter how justified their cause or how careful they are to make their case to the public, people are going to react. And the unionizers need to realize that and accept that theirs is a hard sell and not all will be onboard.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Musings on "white fragility"

You may be aware of the notion of "white fragility." I believe it's a potentially valuable way of looking at white racism, especially if we look at how its original proponent defined it. But I also fear that people will use it in counterproductive ways.

White fragility defined

Sociologist Robin DiAngelo coined "white fragility." The term refers to "a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable [to white people], triggering a range of defensive moves." Those moves, she adds, "function to reinstate white racial equilibrium." According to DiAngelo, white fragility exists because

[w]hite people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.

The behaviors that mark white fragility "function to reinstate white racial equilibrium." They close off necessary conversations about racist practices and attitudes and about structural racism. [All quotes in this paragraph come from DiAngelo 2011, p. 54.]

Before I go further, I'll note that DiAngelo has published a book recently (in 2018) where she expands on her ideas about "white fragility." I have not read that book, and this blog posts speaks only about her article.

What DiAngelo gets right

Essentially, DiAngelo gets it right. White people in North America are insulated from what she (and most anyone) can call "race-based stress." Or more precisely, as a group, white people in North America tend to be much more insulated than non-whites.

DiAngelo also is very careful in her language. She doesn't say that all "racial stress" is the same. In the article, she focuses specifically on instances where "merely talking about racism" causes the putative racial stress that evokes the white fragility. [DiAngelo 2011, p. 61, emphasis in original] DiAngelo is also careful to focus on function rather than intention. White fragility doesn't necessarily reflect an intent to maintain racial hierarchy. But it's function is to do so. DiAngelo also acknowledges that not all whites are equally fragile or equally insulated from "race-based stress." [See footnote 1 in DiAngelo 2011, p. 55]

Finally, while I'm going to be critical in much of the rest of this post, I acknowledge that "white fragility" describes something that is both real and hard to put into words. I may criticize others' terminology, but sometimes we need a new set of words to describe things that happen but are hard to isolate.

Limitations of DiAngelo's thesis

Solutions are elusive

DiAngelo's thesis identifies a problem but not a solution. That doesn't mean she's wrong. Just because a problem doesn't have an obvious solution doesn't mean it's not a problem. Even so, to note that white fragility exists doesn't tell us what to do about it. It's also not clear to me how white fragility functions to preserve racial hierarchies. DiAngelo seems to agree [DiAngelo 2011, p. 66]:

While anti-racist efforts ultimately seek to transform institutionalized racism, anti-racist education may be most effective by starting at the micro level. The goal is to generate the development of perspectives and skills that enable all people, regardless of racial location, to be active initiators of change.

Workplace seminars have limits

DiAngelo takes her examples of white fragility from workplace racial sensitivity seminars. She formerly, along with others, has had the mostly thankless and unenviable task of leading these seminars, often in environments where the participants are all or mostly white and not disposed to discuss racism.

In one seminar, she notes that

A white man is pounding his fist on the table. His face is red and he is furious. As he pounds he yells, "White people have been discriminated against for 25 years! A white person can't get a job anymore!" I [DiAngelo] look around the room and see 40 employed people, all white. There are no people of color in the workplace." [DiAngelo 2011, p. 54-5]

In a different seminar, DiAngelo recalls that a white participant exhibited symptoms of a heart attack after hearing "sensitive and diplomatic feedback on how some of her [the participant's] statements had impacted several persons of color in the room." This feedback led the white person to become so upset that she begins to exhibit symptoms of a heart attack. [DiAngelo 2011, p. 64-5]

What's insufficiently explored in both these examples is the compulsory context of such seminars. Most workplace seminars of that sort are required by management. The reasons for those seminars may be for the less than laudatory goals of staving off a lawsuit or buttressing the prerogatives of management without addressing concerns about low salaries or onerous supervisors.

Those seminars likely come off as preachy or scolding, no matter how necessary and well-managed they might be. It's not only a "haters are gonna hate" thing. It's also a "workers put in their time and go home" thing. Most of the workers obligated to attend will sit through the seminar and do the exercises. They'll see it as one more thing they have to do on the clock. Some will buy into it. Some won't.

And the two examples from DiAngelo's essay are not equivalent. Take the angry man who pounds the table and makes the ridiculous claim about white people not getting jobs anymore. That's an instance of someone refusing to take responsibility for handling his own feelings. (Even in that case, though, we need always remember that we don't know that man's story.)

In the second example, however, the person has much less choice. Even if she's not really having a heart attack and is having "only" a panic attack, she nevertheless appears to be suffering from real symptoms, such as hyperventilation or heart palpitations. Someone can choose to learn skills that help them remain calm in the face of benign and well-meaning criticism. But that kind of "choice" is a far cry from choosing panic attack symptoms.

Ruti Regan, who blogs about disability rights, brings up a comparable point. In a blog post addressed to people who lead what she calls "social justice workshops," she warns against ordering people to feel safe:

Feeling unsafe isn’t always privilege talking. It’s always a possibility, but it’s never the only possibility. Sometimes, presenters aren’t actually as knowledgable and perceptive as they think they are. Sometimes, presenters get things wrong in ways that make the space unsafe for the most marginalized participants in the room.


We have power as teachers and presenters, and it is possible to abuse that power. Even when the people we’re teaching are more privileged than we are in every relevant way, it matters how we treat them. Being privileged in society is not the same thing as being safe in a classroom. We are all capable of making mistakes that hurt people, and when we make those mistakes, it matters.
(Regan might disagree with the overall point I'm making in this post and the uses to which I put her statements. I recommend anyone interested to read her post in full and other posts from her very thoughtful blog to understand where she's coming from.)

"[M]erely talking about racism" is an ideal type

As I note above, DiAngelo limits her discussions of race-based stress to those scenarios where we're "merely talking about racism. As she knows, however, we're very rarely, if ever, "merely" talking about racism. When it comes to racism, talking is never merely talking. As DiAngelo notes in her essay, whites often use racially coded language. They might speak of "good schools" or "good neighborhoods" when they mean "white schools" and "white neighborhoods." Or they might liken anti-racist activists to bullies or worse. They're not, I would say and she would say, "merely talking."

None of that invalidates what DiAngelo is saying. In fact, she would likely counter that whatever the whites in those examples are talking about, it's not "about" racism. Having to go to a seminar may not be "merely" talking. But the resultant racial stress is nothing compared to the types of racial stress people encounter in less controlled environments. Persons of color have to encounter racial stress every day and in modes less safe than a conversation about the nature of those very encounters. White people, too, encounter racial stress that's not merely "conversation" based, even though as a whole, they may encounter encounter it less often or may have more opportunities to limit their exposure.

Good conversations on race are very hard

White persons new to discussions on race may be confused. The format of those discussions may seem to encourage honest self-reflection and revelation. "Honest" reflections, though, may involve "honestly" repeating racial stereotypes, which in turn evokes criticism. Further, if they regret racism in the wrong way, they might be accused of "white tears." If they don't immediately dedicate themselves to fighting racism, they might be accused of denialism. If they do dedicate themselves to fighting racism, but do so in the wrong way or speak too earnestly, they might be accused of "white knighting" or trying to be a "white savior." If they ask for advice, they may be met with "I'm not here to educate you!."

While I believe that those behaviors arise from an understandable "confusion," I don't condemn the criticisms. Persons of color will understandably resent having to listen to white people repeat stereotypes and work out their personal demons. "White tears" and "white knighting," like "white fragility," describe real things. They are false pieties, easy to proclaim and even easier to cast aside once it's convenient to do so. And while I have little sympathy for the activist who assumes a "let me educate you" role and yet insists "I'm not here to educate you" (something which, to be honest, I don't think I've personally encountered), I have a lot of sympathy for non-activists who resent being drafted against their will into giving lessons on racial etiquette and speaking for all similarly situated persons.

Counterproductive uses of "white fragility"

I identify here two counterproductive uses of "white fragility." These are potential uses. I don't mean to say DiAngelo or anyone else necessarily endorses them.

#1: Ad hominem argument

One counterproductive use of "white fragility" is as an ad hominem argument. If a white person raises an objection to what an activist says, and if that activist responds by stating that that white person suffers from "white fragility" without otherwise addressing the objection, that activist is attacking the person, not addressing the objection.If the objection has no merit in the first place, it should be easily refuted. If it has some merit, maybe it is best to acknowledge what merit the objection has. But if the objection is not answered or addressed at all, the objector and everyone else will know it. Paradoxically, these ad hominems do what DiAngelo accuses "white fragility" of doing. They make the discussion about the white person and not about racism.

I do need to concede something. A person, in their frustration, may think to themselves or vent to their friends that another person is expressing "white fragility." While venting isn't always appropriate or useful, it sometimes is. Even when it isn't, it's often understandable. And it's probably exasperating to hear, for the umpteenth time, a white person react as if they're "hurt" by being exposed to the fact of white racism. Again, "white fragility" describes a real thing.

 #2: The might makes right reductio

Another potential counterproductive use--one I believe few if any anti-racists actually intend--is to feed  the notion that only the strong deserve respect.

Part of DiAngelo's argument is that persons of color have to experience a lot more racial stress than white people typically do. As a result, persons of color develop coping mechanisms and something like "emotional callouses" (I think this is my term, not DiAngelo's) that strengthen them for living in a society in which they're repeatedly reminded of where they fall on the racial hierarchy.

I offer no criticism of that as a descriptive argument. I accept that it holds true most of the time. But by implication a normative argument lurks beneath the surface. That normative argument suggests that white people should be criticized for being fragile--not for the choices they make in the face of their fragility, but for the fact of fragility itself. If we take that normative argument to its logical conclusion, it leads us to a point where we criticize others for being weak at all.That's not far from saying only the strong deserve respect.

I say this normative argument comes "by implication" because I don't think DiAngelo or most people who use "white fragility" really intend to endorse it. They would deny it and would do so sincerely. I am suggesting, though, that if they rely too much on the "white fragility" concept, or invoke it too often or in inappropriate circumstances, they risk validating the "might makes right" claims I see as implicit in the concept.

We are all fragile. Every person I have met and have gotten to know has proved in some way weak or vulnerable, has sometimes reacted too emotionally or defensively to thoughtful and apt criticisms, no matter how "diplomatic and sensitive." In that sense, "white fragility" is reminder of something we all have in common.

To say that is not to deny that other people are differently situated. It's not to insist that "therefore, racism affects us all equally." There is an important difference between someone using their fragility to silence others and the fact of fragility itself.

Parting thoughts

To anti-racist activists:

I'm in the cheap seats. I'm much more likely to be a target or passive observer of your activism than I am to take the lead myself. It's easy for me to criticize your tactics and your language for framing those tactics. Yours is a hard job.

I offer this blog post to remind you that your tactics, however necessary and however serviceable to a good cause, have their disadvantages. Those disadvantages don't mean you oughtn't use them. But if people react to those tactics, the reaction is not always, or not only, due to bad faith.

To my white friends:

If you've read this far, you know that I agree with the essentials of what DiAngelo and others are saying. I am convinced that race and racism have been central features of American history and that our society and polity work systematically to empower white persons over persons of color. Speaking for myself, I harbor and choose to indulge some racist attitudes, and I often make racist choices, even sometimes when it would be easy for me to choose otherwise.

You might not be on board. You might take other lessons from history. You might believe other concerns, like economic class, are more pressing. You also may be personally less racist than I am. If I took the time to listen to you, I might learn something or we might find we agree on more than we thought.

And I understand the discussions on race are hard. The people who initiate these discussions, either in formal settings like workplace seminars or in less formal settings, sometimes seem preachy or self-righteous. They often present their points of view in a contrived environment in which the "right" answers are more debatable than the (usually unspoken) rules of the discussion permit. It might feel as if some participants are waiting for you to make a mistake they can pounce on.

And frankly, sometimes the best approach is to grin and bear it, to go through the motions. Most people do that in other circumstances. When I worked customer service, I sometimes had to stand with a smile on my face while an angry customer yelled at me. In other jobs, I've had to sit and listen quietly and politely to supervisors speak in the mode of "we talk, you listen." I've had to stand silent and felt the need to laugh along when I'm around people who make fun of evangelical Christians even though I was raised (partly) in that tradition and find much of those jokes to be based on misinformed stereotypes. I believe it's not always wrong to act similarly in discussions on race, to withdraw politely to avoid saying something that will get you in trouble, make waves, or hurt others' feelings.

I do urge you--and I try to remind myself--to consider three points, though.

Point #1:

You and I are responsible for our actions, and our actions have consequences. If I pound the table and yell, I should expect people to feel defensive. If I "go through the motions" by staring stony faced at a speaker with my arms crossed, I should expect people to assume that I'm hostile and I just don't get it.

Point #2:

Remember that others go through the motions, too. In fact, they may be so good at it that you're misled each time. Every time something is said about "good neighborhoods" or "good schools" when what is (probably) meant is "white neighborhoods" or "white schools," someone may feel uncomfortable or may silently object. But that person may very well choose to go along to get along. Maybe their objection isn't that strong. Maybe they even see where the speaker is coming from. But maybe they just don't want to get into it or be "that guy" or "that gal."

In other words, what you're doing is what other people choose to do all the time. That's one of the reasons going through the motions isn't always wrong. But it's also one of the reasons that you and I aren't not particularly special. As the poet said, you also are laid aside.

Point #3:

These discussions on race might sting a little, but they rarely produce lasting harm. When someone points out ways in which what I do is hurtful to them, I'll feel a little defensive. But at the end of the day I'll survive the experience.

The people who initiate and lead these discussions and the persons of color who share their stories are almost always acting in good faith. Even when someone seems to be more on a power trip than anything else, that person is still usually raising concerns others sincerely have. These are real concerns, and they don't become fake just because someone else may be a jerk or because we see the situation differently.

Because you're human, you know what it's like to have something to say and no one listen to you. You know what it's like to feel something deeply and yet have only imperfect words to express that feeling. You're not the only one who has felt that way. If you choose to listen to others, you may find yourself becoming less resentful. You may eventually find others extending the same courtesy and listening to you. You may find it easier to interact with others. You may be happier.

I can't guarantee any of that will happen. Some of it probably won't. And again, I personally believe it's at least sometimes okay to withdraw from these discussions and grin and bear it. But few things come with guarantees and in the meantime it helps to consider taking risks for understanding.

Works consulted

DiAngelo, Robin. 2006. "My Class Didn't Trump My Race: Using Oppression to Face Privilege." Multicultural Perspectives, v. 8, n. 3: 51-56.

DiAngelo, Robin. 2011. "White Fragility." International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, v. 3, n. 3: 55-70