Friday, October 5, 2007

Friday Race Blogging: Schräge Musik*

If it's Friday, it must be time for McArdle to muse on race in America. It's fitting that today's posts should come after a week of postings on Richard Wagner. From McArdle's "What Is Racism?:"

Part of the problem with talking about race and gender in America is the definition of racism and sexism. Most of us use a working definition of racism and sexism that is something like "Holding (bad) false beliefs about racial minorities and women". But if that is our definition, everyone is going to fail a racism/sexism self-check: no one believes that their own beliefs are false.

Maintaining erroneous beliefs about races or genders not our own is part of the racist/sexist pathology, but to argue that ignorance is racism (or sexism) is just silly, a strawman woven with a single narrow reed. I don't know who the "most of us" McArdle refers to might be, but I can speak for myself, and my definitions of racism and sexism are built around a core enmity towards "the other" and a well-oiled sense of relative superiority. Racists aren't simply ignorant, they actively dislike the other, and believe their own race to be superior. McArdle is smart and sophisticated enough to know these things, which makes their glaring omision from her formula all the more troubling. Perhaps she simply liked her strawman too much. On the other hand, an economics writer who believes that The Atlantic Monthly is a perfectly appropriate place to solicit online dating advice (for a friend!) must have a healthy sense of entitlement; that a sense of superiority can be corrosive might be a foreign concept to her.

And "no one believes that their own beliefs are false?" What of doubt, agnosticism and crises of faith? What of rank hypocrisy? Sometimes I think that McArdle's project takes as its goal the eradication of the potential for human growth. At other times, I think she took the wrong lessons from Derrida and Foucault:

I'm sure that Tom Metzger's disciples mostly believe that their views about blacks are absolutely true, and therefore not racist.

This is why many feminists prefer to focus on institutional outcomes rather than how you, a successful member of the patriarchy, feel about things. The problem is, institutional outcomes have many possible determinants; even if there were no institutional discrimination at all, pregnancy would make outcomes different, in ways that are harder to make justice claims for remedy than cases of straight bigotry. But the other extreme doesn't work either.

Oh well, nothing works. At least, neither discrete approach to combating racism and sexism works. The possibility that both personal appeals and structural reforms might work well together, not as a binary but as complementary ideas, never occurs, or is quickly suppressed for the sake of argument. Or does McArdle scoff at comprehensive redress because it might effect a cure of what ails her? Whenever McArdle writes about race, two things happen. First, McArdle disputes what is knowable and certain but finds a way to get in at least one dig. "I'm not sure what happened in Jena, as the facts are in dispute, but I'm certain those six black kids belong in jail." "I don't know why black patrons are sparse at my Starbucks, but I know they don't frequent the bike trails." "I don't know why The New York Times focused on the dating travails of affluent, professional white women, but I'm sure that minority women go unmarried because their men don't have jobs." Second, her readers speak approvingly of The Bell Curve. They're out in force today.

Which brings me back to Wagner. McArdle put up two posts about the composer this week, one an appreciation of a downloaded Der Ring des Nibelungen (great because she got it from Amazon "ridiculously cheap"), and the other an anecodote about a Berlin organ-grinder who leveraged a street encounter with the composer to advertise himself as Wagner's pupil. In life, Wagner was a thoughtful kind of racist and bigot, capable of maintaining close friendships with Jews while scolding their pernicious cultural influence and calling for their assimilation. In death, Wagner was appropriated by thuggish racists and bigots, to the lasting detriment of his personal (and artistic) reputation. I don't know if Megan McArdle qualifies as a racist or bigot, but she certainly has blind spots big as a barn. It would be unfair to judge McArdle solely by her audience's prejudices, but they're responding to something, and regularly seize upon her convoluted, opaque meanderings as proofs of their own racial and sexual enmities. McArdle could stop feeding them, but hasn't done so. I wonder, why not?

*Literally "slanting music," German slang for Jazz, also the name given to the installation of oblique firing cannon in WWII Luftwaffe night fighters.


brad said...

Geez, I missed this before going off on my own rants. Ah well, at least you focused on race n I focused on sex.

secksy secksy

Adam Eli Clem said...

I started (and saved) it this morning but didn't post until much later, hence the illusion of placing first. Stupid blogspot.