Sunday, July 8, 2018

Where Do You Draw The Line?

I want to return to the culture-wars, civility, etc. topic from what I think is a slightly different angle.

What I have in mind is a story that recently spread, about Jimmy Latulipe, the white co-owner of a bar in South Carolina who reassured a white hipster musician who might perform there that "he shouldn't worry about playing there because [the owner] is going to keep the 'nigs' out of his place."
“I was dumbstruck and thought I must have misheard him. I incredulously asked him to repeat himself. I believe my exact words were ‘What the F- did you just say??’” [Don] Merckle continued. “And [bandmate] Brian, sure of what he heard, immediately told him that was NOT ok. Jimmy, sensing his error, immediately tried to back pedal. He apologized then added ‘…but you know what I mean.’”
I think that everyone interested in the issue should ask the civility purists they know what Merckle should have done.  Was it uncivil for Merckle and his bandmate to tell the guy that his racism was "NOT ok"?  Should they have simply swallowed their virtue-signaling Social Justice Warrior heresy-hunting, let the guy retract his words, and agreed to play at the Main Street Public House anyway?  With or without the black member of the band. Should they have gotten all snippy and uptight and Politically Correct and insisted on bringing him along for the performance, or should they have chilled out and let Latulipe have his traditional Southern business values?  But noooo, Merckle spread the incident on Facebook.  (Sarcasm alert, please note.)

I'm laying it on pretty thick here, despite my efforts to be restrained, but this is the issue: just how civil am I expected to be to racists and other bigots? Do I have to do business with them, lest I be uncivil?  Must I let them come to a party I give in my home, ignoring the discomfort they may cause to my other guests -- let alone to me?  (Back in the days when I gave regular parties, I sometimes had to tell friends not to bring with them individuals I knew to be bigots.)  Must I vote for them, lest I be a New McCarthyist, punishing them for disagreeing with me?

There's already too damn much of this kind of "civility" around, both in private and public life.  We're taught not to challenge our bigoted older relatives, no matter how foul the opinions they express.  We're not supposed to Make Trouble, not supposed to Upset Anyone at family gatherings -- a consideration that doesn't apply for some reason to the bigots.  (For some time now I've been pointing out that many of the white people who are supposedly too old to have heard that racism is bad in fact grew up during the Civil Rights era, and must have been aware of it.  If they are still racist after the past fifty or sixty years, it's because they like being racist.  Let them see if they can go on liking it when they get in trouble for it.  And what about those, like me but also many many others, who are the same age, lived through the same era and rejected racism?  Age is not an excuse.)  We're taught that religion, sex, and politics are improper topics at genteel gatherings, and never mind that bigots are mysteriously exempt from that prohibition: just shut up, swallow your objections, and hope that they'll either doze off or pass out before long.

In the public sphere, for example, it's extremely bad form to call a racist a racist, a bigot a bigot.  It's not how they see themselves, it's truly hurtful, it's just not who they are, the accusation of racism is one of the worst things anyone can call you in public life so even if it's true it's completely unfair to say it and only a bad person would do so.  Or: so a distinguished surgeon equated homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia, why not just laugh it off because he's really quite a nice bigot, they don't make homophobes like they used to?  Or: in the eyes of  many decent people, same-sex marriage is a religious issue not a civil-rights issue, so they should be allowed to demand that everyone else see it as they do, it stings them to be considered bigots.  Or: so a nice liberal gets mad and spews out a bunch of antigay swill, am I defending the indefensible if someone attacks those who call him a homophobe?  Or: it's tolerable if a reality-TV star indulges in antigay rants because a lot of people believe as he does, but it's not tolerable if the same guy indulges in nostalgia for the days when the Colored were contented in their subordination.

One noteworthy thing here is the way that civility fetishists equivocate, with dazzling facility really, between denying that a bigot is a bigot on the one hand, and conceding on the other that the subject is a bigot but why make a big deal about it?  And if you're going to make excuses for bigots, why not be even-handed and make the corresponding excuses for people who are mad at bigots? But no, our social norms are set up to protect bigots, and to inhibit anyone from expressing disagreement with them, confronting them, opposing them.  I've mentioned before the gay-bashers who, when blocked from beating up their victim by a self-defense group, and unable to get to their car, protested, "Look -- we don't want no trouble."  Ganging up on a solitary faggot wasn't "trouble," but stopping them from doing it, and stopping them from escaping, was.

Yet these distracting tactics have surprising viability even in liberal discourse.  I just reread Molly Ivins's Nothin' But Good Times Ahead (Random House, 1993), and it includes this: "To understand the fears of fundamentalists is to understand their foolishness. But they get precious little understanding, not to mention empathy or sympathy, from those who pride themselves on their compassion" (213f).  There is a tiny point here; I've often noted that the gay and liberal Christians who denounce the supposed "preaching hate" are big haters themselves.  In the rest of that article Ivins engages in some sloppy and ill-founded stereotyping of "fundamentalists" herself; maybe I should devote a post to that.

The issue here is "the fears of fundamentalists."  I do understand their fears.  I also know, as Ivins does, that not all fundamentalists are bigots, and that many non-fundamentalists are bigots.  So I don't equate fundamentalism and bigotry.  I criticize fundamentalism when it's relevant to do so, when religion itself is the issue, but I attack bigotry when bigotry is the issue.  And that's considered unfair.  When religious bigots are criticized for their bigotry, they tend to defend themselves by claiming that they're being criticized for being Christians.  Antigay bigots claim that they're being criticized for being heterosexual, racists claim that they're being criticized for being white, male supremacists claim that they're being criticized for having a penis, warmongers claim that they're being attacked for being Americans.  This tactic often works, if only by distracting the critic for a while.  We need not to fall for it.

Yes, bigots do have fears.  Corey Robin wrote in The Reactionary Mind (Oxford, 2011), "Loss—real social loss, of power and position, privilege and prestige—is the mustard seed of conservative innovation" (location 3585 of the Kindle edition)  Their targets also have fears.  Why are the bigots' fears privileged in mainstream discussion?  Because the bigots represent the status quo. Of course opposition to them is upsetting, not just to the Right but to much of the Center, which is why liberals are as hostile to "political correctness" as conservatives are.  It's okay to silence antiracist activists, feminists, gay liberationists, labor activists, etc. -- because they're troublemakers, upsetting the apple cart; it's not okay to silence bigots, because they're the norm.

The trouble is, we also need norms.  Almost nobody wants a totally unstable society, though some pretend they do. What I believe most people want is stability that lets them earn a living, raise  a family, and plan for the future.  This is a stability that has always been denied to large numbers of people, and it's always under attack.  I've always believed (though I could well be wrong) that there is enough wealth in the world to allow that stability to everybody, not just to some; some might end up with more than others, but nobody would or should have less than they need to thrive.  (That belief is what was always touted as the American Dream, right?)  If I am wrong about this, then we need to figure out some way to arrange things so that no one has to go without the necessities, because allowing large numbers of people to live in misery is not a recipe for stability for those who have enough.

So the next question is, how should people of good will and determination counter bigots and celebrants of injustice generally?  It should be clear by now that countering them will distress and infuriate them.  They will deny that they are racists, even as they confirm it in their next sentence, and there are many other people who will defend their right not to be distressed.  This will require a good deal of careful thought and organization, but one of the starting points is certainly that we must reject the claim that we are behaving illegitimately when we speak up against them.  We must continue to challenge them firmly, and organize to constrain them from hurting others.

After that we have to use good judgment, and be ready to discuss options, accepting some, rejecting others.  For many people all over the political spectrum, this takes all the fun out of being woke.  Identifying someone as the opponent is a license to go hogwild.  In this they're the mirror image of the people they're attacking, and they use the same distractive tactics the bigots use: What, you're telling me I shouldn't call those reichtards up and make death threats?  You're saying I shouldn't burn their house down and drive them back in when they try to run out?  You must be secretly on their side; you must think they should just be left alone to spread their hate.  You want them to take over!  I don't hate anybody, I am full of love!

For example, under the article which reported that the Main Street Public House has closed temporarily while things are getting sorted out, someone commented:
Tangent to this incident: There is a Divine Street Publick House located in the same city and it’s catching Hell online for what the Main Street Public House did. They are not affiliated at all. The Red Hen in DC is still catching shit for what the Red Hen in Virginia did to Huckabee.  I just want people to @ the right places to troll.  
Oh well, too bad, but let's partayyyyy, right?  Does anyone else remember how, right after the murder of Trayvon Martin and the arrest of George Zimmerman, Spike Lee posted the phone number of Zimmerman's parents online?  Even if you believe it's okay to take out the terrorists' families, there was a little glitch: Lee posted the wrong number, so somebody else got all the abuse and death threats.  And get this: Lee "got in hot water" and was "cast as a villain" in his elderly victims' lawsuit against him!  Oh, the humanity!  Even though he apologized and paid for the costs of their having to leave their home, he was still made out to be the bad guy, for an honest mistake that anybody could have made!

Lee told Oprah (who else?):
"I don't know what my intention was," Lee told Winfrey. "But angry is not a justification for stupidity.

"There's nothing I can say that can defend what I did. It was stupid."
That was at least better than the usual bogus apologies made by public figures when they've fucked up seriously.  But First, do no harm remains a valid principle, not only for doctors but for activists who want to build a better world.  Lee would have been stupid even if he'd posted accurate contact information for Zimmerman's family.  I think that what the commenter above called trolling -- anonymous attacks by phone, letter, or electronic media -- is cowardly and despicable, as most people realize when they are the target.  Confronting bigots face to face, especially bigots we know personally and/or are related to, is harder, scarier, but it's how change gets made.

The same goes for the people who play the "Why don't we kill fascists now, like we did in World War II?" card.  Leaving aside the fact that Our Boys killed fascists overseas, not here, at home we put innocent citizens in concentration camps because of their ancestry.  It wasn't that the government or many American citizens hated fascism, it was that Japan and Germany had the poor judgment to declare war on us.  I suspect that if that hadn't happened, we and our business community could have continued to co-exist with the Axis for a good long time.  But I don't see how starting an internal war now would solve our problems.  We know how well that worked out a century and a half ago, with no long term resentments and hatreds afterward.

So I hesitate to make specific recommendations about how to stop bigots now.  The Civil Rights movement used large-scale nonviolent means in the fifties and the sixties, with some backup from armed defenders, and were demonized as Communist troublemakers.  They made some gains, which are now being rolled back.  The various Black Nationalist groups took up arms, and ended up largely dead or in jail.  Their long-term effectiveness is still being debated.

Still, I feel pretty confident that people confronting people -- friends and families and co-workers -- which made some progress for gay people in the 70s and after, is a viable approach.  By coming out to those around us (as well as publicly in media) we changed the way Americans and others saw and treated us.  That struggle is far from completed, let alone won, but then no struggle is ever completely won.  As Don Merckle decided, though, white people have to stop letting racism slide.  Everyone needs to stop letting bigotry slide.  Merckle says he was stunned to find that Jimmy Latulipe took for granted he was a fellow racist, simply because he was white.  I find this tremendously naive, and I'm not alone in that (see the comments under the first article).  But the important thing is that he decided to let Latulipe know he'd made the wrong assumption.  Everybody needs to do that when we can, and not let ourselves be intimidated into continuing the collaborative silence that protects and perpetuates bigotry.