02 July 2015

North and South, white and black

Jelani Cobb made an obvious yet noteworthy observation in a New Yorker piece this week on the lastest Confederate flag controversy: "Americans, both in the South and beyond, attach a particular brand of exceptionalism to the region. This is the reason that there is a Southern Historical Association but not a Northern one; a genre known as Southern literature but no Northern corollary; and a concept of Southern politics as something distinct from the national variety."

Unintentionally, since  his piece is a critique of Southern "denialism" regarding the Confederate flag's embodiment of racism. Cobb reminded me of past comments on the purported double standard by which colleges have, for instance, Black Studies departments but not White Studies departments. The facetious way to link the two observations together would be to say that "Southern" studies are "White" studies, but as someone experienced a little in academia I know better than that. There is a valid analogy, I think, between the absence of "Northern studies" and the absence of "White studies" (as opposed to "whiteness" studies, which are deconstructive in a way our theoretical White Studies wouldn't be). More so even than whites do, Northerners unselfconsciously identify themselves with (or as) the default American culture, while the South, by virtue of losing the Civil War, may always have a quality of Otherness outside the erstwhile Confederacy. If Northerners think about it at all, they most likely differentiate themselves from Southerners by thinking of themselves as the Union, not as a irreducibly or irreconcilably distinctive part of it.Victory in 1865 allowed this.

Before the Civil War, it was probably less clear whether any group in any part of the country could assume they were the American people in a way people in other sections weren't. If the Southerner was distinct from the outside perspective, back in antebellum times the Northerner -- or to be more specific, the "Yankee" -- was perceived just as distinctly as one type of many from both South and West. Southerners, seeing Virginia as something like the American heartland, saw the Yankee as something parochial and often obnoxious, something that may well have become the subject of academic study had the Confederacy won the war. Instead, many of the Yankee's reputed obnoxious qualities are no longer identified with geography, but identified with ideology that crosses sectional lines yet, admittedly, seems to find the South persistently hostile ground. Northern reactionaries may hate "liberals" and "progressives" in their midst, and may resent the stigmatization of the Confederate flag as a bow to "political correctness," but they are unlikely to identify either themselves or their ideological antagonists as Yankees. Nor are the liberals, the progressives, or the supposedly politically correct likely to think of themselves as Yankees. Hence there is no demand for "Northern Studies" programs or calls for "Northern Pride" like those you hear from self-conscious whites who are resentful toward or envious of Black Studies or black pride.

We have four different things, two actual, two theoretical, but only one of these things is not like the others. Black Studies exists, at least in part, because blacks need to explain themselves to themselves and others, and others need them explained. Southern Studies exists, at least in part, for the same reasons. If there is a demand for White Studies, it is to some extent similarly motivated. But few feel a need to explain the North, and self-conscious Northern identity, as opposed to American identity, hardly exists. If there's any problem with this, it may be that in the absence of strong regional identification with a distinct culture or heritage, white Northerners are often tempted to identify with a Whiteness that is defined by the South and the Confederate heritage in adversarial relationship not just with blacks or other minorities but also with a national government presumed hostile to liberty as the old South understood it. It may be that the most offensive symbols of the Confederacy need to be seen rather than purged from national memory, if not necessarily flaunted on public land, to remind people outside the South that it didn't just rebel for the hell of it, or because Lincoln was acting like Big Brother, or because tariffs were too damn high. We don't necessarily need "Northern Pride" to recognize that the Confederacy -- as opposed to the geographic South -- was not just the enemy in the Civil War, but also, in some way, our enemy for all time. But whatever helps us recognize that will be a good thing.

30 June 2015

'They're not actually supposed to be voted on.' A word on Rights and Democracy

MSNBC is running ads in some magazines -- I saw it in The New Republic, -- featuring a photo of and comment by prime-time talker Rachel Maddow: "The thing about rights is they're not actually supposed to be voted on. That's why they're called rights." Is Maddow a believer in natural rights? It would seem so, for only on such an assumption does her comment make sense. The timing of the ad, if not the person in the picture, makes the context obvious; the implication is that gay rights are natural rights -- that sexual-preference equality is not to be voted on. There may be other ways to describe her opinion, but "undemocratic" is the one that comes to mind. Of course, as conservatives love to remind us, we are not a democracy under the Constitution and the document does place certain rights beyond the reach of votes short of amending the document itself. But the Constitution itself was ratified; it was put to a vote -- many votes, in fact. The amendments to the Constitution were ratified, including the Fourteenth, upon which the Supreme Court majority in the Obergefell case depended to strike down laws banning same-sex marriage. Rights are not merely discovered and accepted as law, as Maddow may believe or wish; they must be enacted and ratified. This is not an argument against Obergefell, since the authority exists in the Fourteenth Amendment and I see no reason to assume, as the minority did, that the amendment covers only marriage in the "traditional" sense. But the fact remains that the right affirmed in Obergefell was neither an invention of the majority nor an eternal principle. It existed because the states, through their representatives, voted to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. There are no rights in this country without voting. By Maddow's logic we never needed to ratify an amendment abolishing slavery, since people always had a right not to be enslaved, even though the necessity of an amendment seemed obvious enough to Lincoln and his allies. The populist opposition to Obergefell may be wrong to demand a popular vote on same-sex marriage, but the progressives are just as wrong to argue, as Maddow appears to, that rights have nothing to do with democracy. Would she prefer a rule of philosopher kings and queens, exclusively qualified to intuit natural rights from who knows what? Remarks like hers only fuel the conservative argument against all forms of progressivism, hypocritical as it may be, which is that progressives distrust democracy because they distrust people less learned (or "sensitive") than themselves. But Maddow may simply harken back to a pre-Constitutional notion of rights theory. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, was an assertion of rights that didn't throw itself on the mercy of voters. Instead, the Founders ratified it by force of arms. I've often described the 21st century gay-rights movement as "revolutionary," but I didn't think the movement meant it that literally. Maybe they don't -- they seem pretty pacifist much of the time -- but when Maddow says things like this you wonder a little.

Let them eat cake

One of the silliest stories of the month involves a man who tried to make a point after Walmart turned down his request for a specialty cake with Confederate flag frosting. Thus rebuffed, the Louisiana man requested an alternate design, black with Arabic lettering, apparently without informing the store rep that the design was based on a battle flag of the self-styled Islamic State (i.e. ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, etc.). The cake was duly baked and delivered and the customer made a YouTube video to point out the apparent double standard: a much-beloved symbol of regional heritage was unacceptable to Walmart, itself a product of the South, yet a terrorist banner representing killers of Americans was OK. Walmart has since explained that no one at the local store realized what the customer was asking for, and that they'll bake no such cakes in the future. Well, the man has had his little joke, but what's the moral of the story? I suppose we can agree that Walmart has gone slightly too far in refusing to handle any more Confederate-themed merchandise. We can want the rebel battle flag purged from our public squares, but if people want to identify themselves to passers-by and partygoers as parochial bigots, why should we make it more difficult for the rest of us to recognize them? I think Walmart should feel free to make Confederate cakes on request, and Islamic State cakes as well. In either case, of course, it might be a good idea to keep track of who's ordering them and let the government know.

For all I know, genuine IS sympathizers might find a battle-flag cake blasphemous -- they may even find decorated cakes in general blasphemous -- but screw 'em.

29 June 2015

The shame of it

The current Time magazine has a little piece about an alarming trend of parents creating videos to shame their children. This trend came to many people's attention after a 13 year old girl in Washington state committed suicide after her father filmed her with her hair shorn for "sending a boy a racy photo." That father didn't post his video for the public to see, but the daughter apparently started sharing it -- who knows why? -- until it spread beyond her control. Some parents are posting shaming videos, however, and kids seem to have enough problems with shaming from their peers. Kids today can't take shame, it seems. Old-timers will complain that people have no sense of shame today. They think of shame as a necessary tool of social discipline. Whether that was ever true or not, the formula is complicated in our time by the fact that, as one expert says in the article, "The Internet is forever." A recorded shaming could literally haunt a person for his or her entire life. But how bad should shame haunt us? The real problem may be that in our time shame has become something more severe and scarring than it once was. Another expert says, "The reaction to shame is an inherent sense that you're no good, that you're damaged as a person. And if you're no good, what hope do you have of correcting what's going on?" Yet I assume that in the past people were shamed with the idea of improving them. While in some cases, as with cowards in wartime, shame was meant as a permanent stigma, on other occasions we must assume that shaming was meant to teach people, young or old, a lesson they were presumed capable of learning. What seems more certain is that people were thicker-skinned then, whether they learned from shame or not. I wonder whether our different attitude today has something to do with a belief that each of us has an immutable self, one that never really changes drastically over our lives and should not be expected to change much. We still presume ourselves capable of learning facts from books or from the Internet, but perhaps we think there's a limit to how much, on other levels, we can improve, or simply change, and yet remain ourselves. For what other reason would anyone assume that he or she will always be the contemptible loser that irresponsible peers or parents sometimes portray? Shaming is irresponsible if it doesn't point the way toward improvement. Peer shaming is probably the worst form since it often follows the logic of alpha animals thinning out a herd and isn't interested in whether you can someday redeem yourself. Parents ought to know better but some of today's parents were yesterday's students, presumably going through the same ordeals if not inflicting them on others. There's a lot in American life for many if not all of us to be ashamed of. but what's the point of shame if it doesn't spur us to change our lives? The reason a person should feel ashamed is not because she isn't fit to live, but because it should be obvious, to her as an individual just as it should be to whole communities and nations, that she can and must do better. The shame that comes from a sense that you can't do better, or that no one should ask you to, is an unhealthy form of shame, but it can't be the only shame, or else our whole civilization is in trouble.

26 June 2015

John Roberts, centrist

One day after "saving" the Affordable Care Act for a second time by deferring to the original intent of its drafters against the hostile nitpicking of Republicans, Chief Justice Roberts issues a vehement dissent against the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case whose resolution strikes down the remaining state laws against same-sex marriage. Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee and possibly that President's most interesting legacy, is clearly something different from the Court's three more ideological conservatives, who predictably join him in dissent today. Because Roberts isn't as predictable as Scalia, Thomas or Alito, we should pay some attention to his dissent. The majority, guided by Justice Kennedy, the main swing-voter on the panel, recognizes a right to marriage for any consenting adult in the language of the Fourteenth Amendment. Because the right to marriage is in the Constitution, it isn't subject to legislation limiting which consenting adults may marry. Homosexual couples are as entitled to marriage under the Constitution as interracial couples are. In dissent, Roberts is careful not to pass judgment on the idea of gay marriage. He claims that the majority has gone further than their predecessors did in Loving v. Virginia, the case that struck down laws against interracial marriage, and further than the Fourteenth Amendment permits. In Loving, Roberts writes, "the Court held that racial restrictions on the right to marry lacked a compelling justification." It "did not change what a marriage was any more than integrating schools changed what a school was." Obergefell overreaches, in the Chief Justice's opinion, because it does change what marriage is and does so undemocratically. We're still in a transitional moment in which some say the Court majority is bowing to public opinion today, while others believe the majority is defying public opinion. Either way, Roberts and the other dissenters disclaim their right as the Supreme Court to define what marriage is. Their implicit argument is that, given how long tradition has defined marriage as one man, one woman, that definition should not be changed by judiciary fiat. The deeper assumption is that the Fourteenth Amendment neither itself changes the definition nor empowers the Court to compel the states to change their several definitions. To Roberts, Obergefell is no more than an act of political will, with a majority of justices imposing their policy preferences on the minority and the states. Interestingly, he repeatedly compares Obergefell with Lochner v. New York, the infamous case in which the 1905 Court struck down a ten-hour day labor law for violating a "liberty of contract" implicit in the Fourteenth Amendment. That decision was criticized by its minority as reading  policy preferences (for business, against organized labor) into the Constitution, and Roberts believes the Obergefell majority is doing the same thing. To him, gay marriage, whatever its moral or social value, remains a policy preference rather than a fundamental right.

Roberts's fundamental question is a fair one: who gets to define what marriage is? His answer is: the states, through their elected legislators. The Obergefell majority says, in effect, that marriage falls under "due process," and that the Fourteenth Amendment defines due process in a way that forbids the states from denying marriage rights to same-sex couples. The tiebreaker question is whether anyone is entitled to read the "traditional" definition of marriage into the language of the Fourteenth Amendment. Roberts believes that any "due process" right to marriage defaults to traditional man-woman marriage, and argues implicitly that changing the definition of marriage itself requires the due processes of elections and legislation. That's a conservative argument in a time of moral revolution aimed at purging all social and cultural disapproval of homosexuality. Roberts doesn't choose to dispute whether that revolution has a laudable goal, but he seeks to impose a limit on it. Revolutions are notoriously disrespectful of due process, but in this case is anyone entitled to enact the revolution by fiat? Does the Court itself have an implicit power either to define what marriage is or to deny that power to the state and federal governments? If there should be one rule for all the states, should we make it more explicit through a constitutional amendment or a federal law, or do we accept the Obergefell assumption that the Fourteenth Amendment has already decided the issue? On gay rights my position is that no one has the moral right anymore to say, or legislate on the assumption, that homosexuality is "wrong." But do I or five justices of the Supreme Court have the constitutional authority to back that up, or should we get the true opinion of the American people, if not on the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality then on whether our government should recognize homosexual pairs as married couples? Since we know that the consensus once opposed the idea, must we formally overrule the old consensus, or can we interpret existing law, as the majority has, to say the consensus was wrong all along? The simple answer is that the majority is the Supreme Court, and their word goes. Court opinions often raise questions revealing the tension between democracy and constitutionalism. Controversial decisions like Obergefell don't merely beg the question of what marriage is. They compel us to clarify for ourselves what the rule of law is, and on occasions like these controversy is a good thing.

25 June 2015

What is the Confederate flag?

A lot of people seem unsure, because they don't seem to understand why there's another movement to eliminate the battle flag from public life. This really seems more problematic for a lot of people than it should be. In a local paper a columnist (he's behind a paywall online) worried, despite agreeing that the Confederate flag stood for nothing good, that any symbol that may have been implicated in slavery might be targeted for purging. His worry is that taking down the flag will set us on a slippery slope. A coarser view also perceives a slippery slope but fears a kind of "political correctness" that seeks to take down the rebel flag and other symbols for no better reason than that certain people don't like them. For such people, the reductio ad absurdam is that if you take down the Confederate flag because black people object, we'll soon have to take down Christian symbols because Muslims object, or else memorials to civil-rights leaders will have to go because they offend certain white people, or else anytime someone doesn't like a thing, it'll have to be taken down. This is the fear of a tyranny of hurt feelings, and it misses the point of the moment. The Confederate flag is not merely unlikeable. No matter what its apologists claim, it represents something that should be unacceptable in American life. It is the chosen flag of the Charleston killer, who had himself photographed burning an American flag. Since the 1950s it has stood pretty plainly for white supremacy and racial segregation. There are reasons to dislike these things that will stand up in objective discussion. Our nation has an obligation to make clear that these beliefs are wrong and should not be endorsed, even if only on inference, in our public squares. Those who see the current movement as just another case of black folks throwing a fit until they get their way, and are indifferent to the offense the flag causes, are racists whether they realize it or not. I don't know whether they agree that Black Lives Matter, but they clearly think that black opinions, and more importantly black history don't matter. Perhaps they should be made to wear the flag they seem to care about so much like a scarlet letter. The flag might actually be useful then.

24 June 2015

The wisdom of the serpent

The predictable Republican criticisms of Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si are starting to come in. Since Republicans must affect piety and dare not criticize so popular a Christian leader, they can't simply dismiss Bergoglio's criticisms of capitalism and materialism by saying there's no God or that the Pope is an idolater. Instead, they must attempt to draw some line dividing the topics on which the Pope is competent to comment from those to which his opinions are irrelevant. Many may do this not long after or not long before denying a "separation of church and state" in their country. In the New York Times, David Brooks seems disappointed that the Pope is unworldly. To him, Bergoglio's condemnations of competition and acquisitiveness indicate a lack of "moral realism." For Brooks, "moral realism" generates "practical strategies for a fallen world" while recognizing "the obvious truth that the qualities that do harm can often, when carefully directed, do enormous good." Where the Pope sees egotism and selfishness, Brooks sees enlightened self-interest. "Within a regulated market, greed can lead to entrepreneurship and economic innovation. Within a constitution, the desire for fame can lead to political greatness." At the core, Brooks is repeating an old argument against the so-called "social gospel." Since the 19th century, preachers of a social gospel have argued that Christianity is concerned with the poor above all. Brooks doesn't attempt to say otherwise, but while social-gospel Christians typically call for redistribution of wealth, Brooks argues, like many critics of the social gospel before him, that if you want wealth to redistribute, you have to welcome (if not practice) capitalism. He has a typically Anglo-American faith -- one part the digest version of Adam Smith's "invisible hand," another part James Madison's checks and balances -- that self-interest can be "channeled" to serve the common good. He has a 21st century faith that wealth can solve our current environmental problems by fueling further technological innovation, but he doubts whether the Pope would permit the kind of competitive creativity that alone, in Brooks's mind, can bring about the desired results. Brooks rightly credits many advances in global standards of living to competitive entrepreneurship, but if he's right to argue that the Pope is blind to these facts, he seems equally blind, if not simply dismissive, of the dangers the Pope perceives, preferring to treat Bergoglio as if he were some crazy hippie out of the 1970s: uninformed if not misinformed, resentful and above all naive. The Pope may be "a wonderful example of how to be a truly good person," but in this world, Brooks argues, "The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent." I don't know if that last metaphor is intentionally provocative or simply clueless; in any event it's a false dichotomy. The "wisdom" Brooks compares to Francis's "innocence" is really just another form of faith. Brooks's faith is that capitalism is a perpetually self-correcting machine that alone is capable of solving whatever problems it creates while improving our lives as no other economic system can. The Pope may believe a lot of odd things himself, but I suspect that he would find Brooks's particularly faith misplaced. Whether he'd call it "innocent" or not is another matter. Who, then, is the wiser man?

23 June 2015

Is this the end of the Confederate battle flag?

Given the instant backlash the moment someone suggested that the Charleston massacre should spur us to do something about guns, it's not surprising that politicians have turned to an easier target: the Confederate battle flag that still flies over the South Carolina state capital and other provocative locations. It was symbolically infuriating to learn that the flag at the capitol could not even be lowered to half-mast following the massacre, while the state and federal flags were lowered. Now Republicans are among the political leaders in South Carolina trying to get the offending banner removed. Yet even in New York State I still hear people defend that flag against "political correctness." Such people, I suspect, are more interested in denying the Other a win than anything else, but where it counts it looks like the tide is turning. But if anyone wavers, try this cynical analogy: letting the Confederate flag fly over South Carolina is like building a mosque at Ground Zero in New York City. The analogy is unfair to Muslims, of course, but sometimes it's just pragmatic to defer to mass outrage, especially -- from the perspective of the right --  if the left claims victory over the flag and goes home instead of probing deeper into enduring bigotry against blacks. Victory will be symbolic and hollow if taking down the flag distracts us from making every reactionary answer for molding the mindset behind the massacre. We know that Americans abhor forbidding thoughts -- they couldn't even ban communism at the height of the Cold War -- but if anything in this country ought to be banned, at least from the public square, it should be the symbolism of the Confederacy. Can we agree now, in 2015, that it stands for nothing but the subjugation of black people? That secession was all about slavery? If you think not, recall that the South had a chance to fight a civil war over the dreaded tariff that neo-Confederates today make so much of when Andrew Jackson signed the Force Bill against South Carolina's nullification of the tariff, and South Carolina backed down. Nobody but a handful of fire-eaters was going to secede, much less risk their lives, over the tariff. Many more were ready to secede, fight and die rather than see the western territories closed to slavery. Nothing else could have motivated them, just as nothing but Negrophobia could pull the trigger in the Charleston killer's momentarily uncertain mind at the prayer meeting. Across the country, the Confederate flag remains a rallying point for all those who feel that black people demand too much, or get away with too much, or are simply too many for comfort. If I've suggested that the flag may be too easy a target now, I should add that this is still a fight worth waging simply because it'll further expose many of the haters among us, North as well as South, whose disclaimers about "heritage" and "history" won't conceal that hate for which that flag stands.