Friday, April 25, 2008

The Virtuous Paying Tribute to Vice

Reading Peter Singer's short piece in Project Syndicate, the news appears somewhat heartening regarding the question of race and racism. Singer cites a series of global polls that suggest racism and sexism have diminished and very strongly suggest - across the board - that very strong majorities of people around the world believe in racial, ethnic, and gender equality. Of course, despite what people believe to be the case, we also have reality. Singer ends the piece on this important note:

This may mean that the surveys I have quoted indicate not widespread equality, but widespread hypocrisy. Nevertheless, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, and the fact that racists and sexists must pay this tribute is an indication of some moral progress.

Words do have consequences, and what one generation says but does not really believe, the next generation may believe, and even act upon. Public acceptance of ideas is itself progress of a kind, but what really matters is that it provides leverage that can be used to bring about more concrete progress. For that reason, we should greet the poll results positively, and resolve to close the gaps that still exist between rhetoric and reality.

The gaps between rhetoric and reality, however, constitute a complex eddy in which the movement involved in circling the vortex is confused with progress towards the demise of the scourge. Yes, hypocrisy is the vice that pays tribute to virtue, and a strong case can be made that, despite its philosophical vagaries, the human rights discourse has had significant influence in reshaping global norms even if ongoing practices - in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in Colombia, in Zimbabwe and Rwanda, in East Timor and Sri Lanka, in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, in networks of slave labor and prostitution - belie most fundamentally the norm.

Yet, such norms seem simply to chase racism, ethnicism, and sexism underground, not eliminate them. And when considering their stubborn resistance, we ought to look first at ourselves. In the US, our own Democratic primary campaign distortedly reflects our faces in the eddy. Latent racism and sexism can be as powerful as overt forms, coming not only from the fumbling stupid racism and sexism of the usual redneck suspects but just as much from the NPR class. Race is a social construction, after all, in which all members of a society are implicated.

Consider this comment at The Field:

The Party allows its Black frontrunner to essentially fend for himself while the campaign of a white “Democrat” (who sometimes acts like a Republican), obviously gliding around on white privilege, continually moves the goalposts of what he has to “prove” to show himself *worthy* of being the nominee. Because in the underlying logics of white supremacy, she is automatically by default worthy in her whiteness, and he is by default suspect and less-than and unworthy, and he has to prove otherwise by insane standards.

And of course Clinton’s campaign and its supporters are supporting and encouraging systemic racism/white supremacy in various ways, including but not limited to when they push the line that white working class voters are more important than Black voters (because even though they don’t say the second part out loud, it is obvious in its implications).

All these efforts to make Senator Obama show that he is not foreign, not dangerous, not angry …. all these efforts to tie him to scary dangerous symbolically shadow figures (in addition to the demonization of Dr. Wright, it’s ooooh Weatherguy scary, “do we really know Obama,” etc)– systemic racism/white supremacy in action. And of course the more obvious stuff that everyone has also heard about. Bill Clinton and Geraldine Ferraro and all that.

When it comes to the primary election, I really do think this is precisely the difference between the so-called "establishment," no matter how liberal they say they are, and obviously the establishment right wing, and the young people I teach and work with. The former are institutionally conservative across the board; the latter are the ones looking for a renegotiated, promising society. The latter are sick to death that the sublimated racism of this campaign could decide its outcome. And, if that's how it turns out, I guarantee you that we'll have another generation of people alienated from the political process. All the while the political class, the pundits, and the NPR class - swirling in the eddy while they believe they're making linear progress - will continue to tell us how "bad" racism is, undoubtedly with proud sincerity about their own virtue.


On the other hand, Andrew Sullivan gives a much-needed pep talk.

Or... if you want more cynicism, there's always the heinous Charles Krauthammer, still plugging the guilt-by-association theme, or the dishonest Geoff Garin.

...And then back again to the comforting Andrew Sullivan.

The truth is: the boomer media class is fighting the last war and misreading the current one. As Ambinder reminds us:

It doesn't really matter if Barack Obama isn't doing as well among white working class Dems as Hillary Clinton is. He doesn't need their votes to win.

This election will be decided by white independents, African-Americans, new Hispanic voters, and a vast influx of younger Americans. Those are the people Obama has brought into the process; and they are the people who will change the face of American politics.

In fact, they already have. But the boomer elites have yet to notice.


MT said...

Where are the surveys showing how people have changed in how they respond to being surveyed?

helmut said...

Dude! A hall of mirrors, that one.