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Rankine's Citizen

February 8, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“I feel like one of our American peculiarities which is not serving us is our amnesia around trauma.” - Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine has a long list of accolades: bestselling poet, essayist, playwright, MacArthur Fellow, and the list goes on. Recently, I read Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric (which won the 2015 PEN book award). According to Merriam-Webster, a lyric can be just a song or musical composition, or it can express “direct usually intense personal emotion especially in a manner suggestive of song.” Two things strike me as important: first that lyrics carry intense emotion, and second, that they are musical, but not necessarily music. I think the latter is important to me because of the expressive voice throughout the book. Rankine’s voice has a musical quality of the chorus which repeats the main point again and again and again until we finally get it. This technique left me feeling weary, and because of it, I began to glimpse what it must be like to have experienced oppression. Moreover the lyric aims to fight back at one of the most frustrating aspects of racism: language.

Rankine writes about everyday life in this book. She writes about moments with trusted friends and also moments with complete strangers. Both scenarios often arrive at similar points: that she is seen within a particular frame of reference. Or more clearly, that she is who she is because other people have defined her and see her in a certain way. In this book, she felt the need to address both minor injustices along with blatant injustices. As she says, “Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word.” This after a series of frames which demonstrate two soccer players insulting each other. Some insults strike too close to home, or have been lived with for too long. In the clips, the soccer player’s response is physical, because a single hateful phrase cut too close to the quick.

Rankine’s book investigates responses to hatred, but it also expresses anguish in moments of intimacy. Rankine writes, “Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx….Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget.” In a recent interview, she claimed that these were the hardest lines to write in the book because they criticized a close friend, but they demonstrate the pervasive nature of difference. Again and again, she depicts moments in which people refuse to speak to someone who is different, who feel fear based solely on visual cues. In these moments, people forget decency, transparency, curiosity, or whatever it is that makes us human beings.

These everyday examples: the housekeeper, or dinner conversation, the bus seats and sports games add up. Repeated lashings give the reader a sense of what it must feel like to walk around wearing a visible stereotyped identity. However, the title of the book is what hits home the most to me. Discussions that I run often end up on topics such as what it means to be a citizen, a member of any community, what does it mean to have a home and how do you identify it. After reading these perfectly banal moments with the grainy subtext of oppression (or at the very least, disinterest), I have been continually pondering the idea of citizen. What does it mean to belong. How many people belong? Who is in my community? Do I know my community and if so, how do I recognize them?

Rankine began this project after September 11th, when she witnessed the elevation of a very real fear. She noticed fear and hate creeping into rhetoric. I suppose this book was always in the making, but perhaps that event spurred her onward. Near the end of Citizen, she writes:

“I they he she we you were too concluded yesterday to know whatever was done could also be done, was also done, was never done –

The worst injury is feeling you don’t belong so much

to you--”

I would benefit from a discussion of this work as I am sure there are many subtleties that I have yet to see. I suggest pairing Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric with her short films titled “Situations” found on her website. http://claudiarankine.com/

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The Double Consciousness of Noir

April 20, 2018

Thanks to Matt Phillips, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

There is a persistent paradigm in the American experiment: There are those among us who insist on closing their eyes to the truth, those who deny—in lieu of their discomfort—a dedicated hold on reality. More than sixty years ago, in Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster” (148). To fully understand and upend this persistent American paradigm, we must examine the too often ignored disparity between perception and reality. And we must outline and describe this disparity as a physical thing—it is a concept and/or idea, yes, but it is also an object. Noir—as a genre and practice—provides an effective palette for drawing, defining, and collapsing contrasts. And contrast, on its face, is what disparity is—an ill-drawn, and often evil, contrast.

In her noir novel The Expendable Man, Dorothy B. Hughes constructs this disparity—that is to say she gives it physical form—by manipulating character and plot. In the book, a young doctor named Hugh Densmore is driving to Phoenix for a wedding. In the middle of the desert he picks up a young woman, a teenaged hitchhiker. The doctor immediately regrets his decision and begins to feel anxious. Hughes writes, “A chill sense of apprehension came on him and he wished to hell he hadn’t stopped. This could be the initial step in some kind of shakedown, although how, with nothing or no one in sight for unlimited miles, he couldn’t figure” (5). As readers, we may not necessarily understand this apprehension—for some fifty pages we are left wondering for certain why (and how) the doctor can be anxious about a simple act of courtesy. This foreboding anxiety and tension persist until Densmore drops the teen at a bus station (her alias is revealed as Iris Croom). It’s not long before Iris appears again; she bangs on the door at Densmore’s motel and insists he help her. Her problem, as she describes it, is this: “‘I thought my boyfriend would marry me. But he’s already married’” (35). When Densmore insists he can’t help Iris, she says, “‘Yes you can … You’re a doctor’” (36). Of course, Densmore slams the door and sends the girl away, rage and fear now running through him like hot oil. But still, it’s an oddity for some readers when Densmore thinks, “There’d always be a residue of suspicion that the girl’s inventions weren’t all false. How could he prove otherwise? They had traveled together” (36). In what reality does a doctor fear the he-said-she-said machinations of a teenaged girl? And a girl who, she admits herself, is in trouble?

Not long after this episode, Densmore reads a story in the local paper: A teenager has been found dead and, reading between the lines, Densmore knows the woman is the victim of an abortion gone wrong—it turns out the dead girl is Iris Croom. In the subsequent passage, Dorothy Hughes describes the dilemma of an innocent man who knows—who is absolutely certain—that he will be accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Hughes writes, “[T]o flee in panic was not the answer. It was construed always as the act of a man bloodied with guilt, although in fact the innocent man involved beyond his depth might have more reason to run” (44). It’s clear at this juncture that Densmore knows his guilt will be assumed, that he will be called on to prove his innocence. How does one prove innocence? Must one acquire and present evidence? Must one, in the event of proximity to a crime, always be gathering evidence and formulating arguments of innocence?

When two detectives show up to question Densmore, he is immediately intimidated. His anxiety seems to burst out of him; his first question is whether or not the detectives are there to arrest him. During the ensuing interrogation, one of the detectives reveals that a witness saw a black doctor (he does not use so kind a term as ‘black’) driving the teenager into town in his “big white Cadillac” (55). And now we know that Dr. Hugh Densmore is a black man. We also know that the detectives, whether they open their eyes to it or not, are racists. Densmore’s anxiety and apprehension, his fear of the police, and his general doubt in controlling his own narrative become not only understandable, but also inevitable. In the first third of The Expendable Man, Dorothy B. Hughes depicts race as if it were a tablespoon of salt in a glass of ice water—it is present, yet undetectable. Until, of course, one is thirsty and must swig from the glass. For Densmore, this means he understands that racial bias exists within law enforcement, but he has not yet tasted the bitterness of that bias. Once he is connected by a witness to the dead woman, Densmore takes a long swig of that salty water. With his new legal trouble, race is the primary issue. If Densmore does not prove his innocence, race will be the decisive issue. Whatever your race, on page 55 of the book, with one character’s brief comment and description, the disparity that exists between perception and reality is clearly outlined—we all see it, whether black, white, or brown…the disparity between perception and reality is now a plot device. It has become a tool of craftsmanship.

The young doctor’s understanding of his situation is described, in part, by what W.E.B. Du Bois termed double consciousness. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois writes: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of the measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." (2) The young doctor knows the truth of himself, that he simply gave a ride to a young woman who needed one. He also knows the truth of white public perception—he is a black man taking a pretty, young, white woman for a ride. And she ends up dead after enduring a secretive abortion. At the heart of the Densmore’s presumed guilt is the assumption of power and its location. Power, in the society Hughes sketches, resides in the white body, and—by extension—in the white body politic. Of course, The Expendable Man was published in 1963, and is clearly a noir of stunning realism. In a piece about the book for The New Yorker, Christine Smallwood writes, “Difference is defined by oppositions of power, after all—black, white; accuser, accused. Noir provides a language and rhythm for such differences.” Difference, however, has a cousin: disparity. And while it is not so visible as the blatancy of difference, disparity still carries within it myriad oppositions of power. In Densmore, Hughes creates a character at the perceived height of society—a doctor intent on researching cancer—and still he is subject to the basest and most treacherous of assumptions cast by men. As Smallwood puts it, “Densmore is exemplary, but he is still expendable. His guilt precedes him…”

I’d argue further that Dorothy B. Hughes, in her use of double consciousness as a tool of craftsmanship, gives physical form to the unspoken. The Expendable Man is a work about the monstrosity, the depravity, the utter insolvency of ignorance. There can be no true progress in human rights without a shared agreement—between all of us—about what is real. We are here. We exist. Our perceptions vary, and yet the effects of those perceptions do not waver. Perhaps the effects we see (and experience) on a daily basis—we might all agree—are reality. These effects then, as manifested in our daily interactions, are the truth. Our ways of seeing (or not seeing) not only make our world, but can also dismantle and reassemble our world. James Baldwin writes, “[T]ruth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted” (10-11). In The Expendable Man, Hugh Densmore escapes his accusations and takes to the highway with his future wife. His life is uncharted beyond the long road from Phoenix to Los Angeles, but it is a life still under observation and accusation by the tired eyes of monsters.

It is now the year 2018 and I wonder whether, to some degree, Dr. Hugh Densmore would still be The Expendable Man?

 

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. Print.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Dover Thrift Editions, 1994. Print.

Hughes, Dorothy B. The Expendable Man. New York: Hudson Review of Books, 2012. Print.

Smallwood, Christine. “The Crime of Blackness: Dorothy B. Hughes’s Forgotten Noir.” www.newyorker.com 15 August 2012. Web.

Right to Be Forgotten, or Right to Evolve?

April 6, 2018

Thanks to Carter Vance, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

When the European Union first gave legal force the notion of “right to be forgotten”, in a 2014 court ruling against Google, I was amongst those who were both confused at the practical impacts and fearful of what its long-term effects might be. Confused, because it has become an almost axiomatic truth for those of us who grew up with access to online spaces that the Internet does not forget. Anything, once posted online, regardless of how much effort is spent trying to scrub it out later on, is there forever, for anyone dedicated enough to seek it out. How, in concrete terms, was this “right” going to function, and to the advantage of whom? Though pitched as a device through which individuals could protect their reputations from false, misleading or outdated information, the potential dangers of such a “right” being active were obvious. Corporate CEOs could remove information about financial improprieties, abusers could remove information about their legal convictions, and so on. It is always worth remembering that attempts to use the public force of law to restrict informational flows have an inherent bias towards the well-resourced, as they are able to afford to bring forward the court cases which enforce such provisions. In other words, the danger is that it would become less a general “right to be forgotten”, and more a specific right to evade accountability for the powerful.

It is true that, under EU law and the various similar rights proposals that have been made in other countries, there is not an obligation for a piece of information to be completely scrubbed out of digital existence. Rather, individuals can request that particular information having to do with them be delisted from the search results of Google and other such companies that serve as primary traffic directors of the web. In this way, we are not talking about a true right for information to be completely eliminated, but rather to be made much more difficult to locate, and not be the first thing that an online searcher sees when looking for a particular person’s name. A dedicated researcher would still be able to locate something a person did not want to be known about themselves, but the casual reader would not. It is worth noting in this regard that, according to leaked internal reports from Google (which is by far the largest recipient of “right to be forgotten” requests), that 95% of the requests it receives are from private individuals trying to remove personal information from the internet, not the public or corporate figures some feared would abuse the system. Was, then, the concern over the EU’s decision entirely overblown, and should other countries embrace such a system as well? In my opinion, the answer is deeply complicated, and involves just as much a failure of social norms to evolve in response to technological change as it does a gap in the legal frameworks around information and privacy.

In terms of privacy, a couple of obvious initial points should be made. Insofar as the “right to be forgotten” is used to remove personal information or other intimate details that were posted about an individual but not by them, it is perfectly in line with existing privacy and anti-harassment laws in most countries. The system which Google uses to process requests is much more accessible than the often-obscure and inaccessible legal miasma which surrounds practically applying anti-harassment laws in online spaces. If information about an individual, which is not in the public interest, is online without the permission of that individual, it seems only natural to allow them an accessible option to have it removed. The same is true of outright false information about a person, or claims which reach the legal standard of libel. There is, of course, always going to be debate about where the lines of “public interest” and “libel” ought to be drawn (for instance, opinions differ on whether a politician cheating on his or her spouse is within the public purview), and different states have come up with different answers to this question, which have evolved over time. There may never be a legal standard in respect to public interest which satisfies everyone, but it is at least an area of both legal and political theory with a substantial background where the broad parameters of the debate are well known.

The more novel question at play concerns information or posts that one consciously chooses to put online, but then later wants removed. I came into this consideration myself recently when a comment I had made when still in high school (about a decade old at this point), resurfaced as it sometimes does. In it, in the course of making a joke about the film Silence of the Lambs, I used some language about trans persons that struck me as gobsmackingly retrograde in the light of 2018. I don’t judge it to be bigoted (though of course I cannot definitively speak to that), but it definitely is not language I would use today. I thought, however, if this had been found by someone else and I was asked to account for it, how would I do so? Would the passage of time, my intent in making the comment and the changing consciousness around those issues be explanation enough?

From this, I thought too about the recent semi-scandal of the British MP Jared O’Mara, who was found to have posted similarly crude and offensive comments about gay men on online forums in the early 2000s and subsequently faced disciplinary action as a result. He, whilst apologizing for the comments, did attempt to contextualize them within the language often used by young men at the time of their writing (O’Mara was in his late teens and early twenties), as well as his own social difficulties at the time due to his cerebral palsy, to a mixed social response. He did, however, stress that it is not language he would use in the present day and that his understanding of homophobia had progressed due to a general change in social climate around gay issues in the subsequent years. But, again, it can be asked, is his apology accountability enough, or should it go beyond that? Does O’Mara, assuming that he is sincere in his comments about having changed, have the right to no longer wear his old comments as reflective of who he is now? Would it have been right for him to ask that they be removed from the internet before his election, such that the whole controversy would have been avoided?

Though it may seem obvious to simply say that actions have consequences that should be considered before doing them, the reality when it comes to online speech is not so clear. What if, for instance, a comment is taken out of context and used to actively misrepresent the character of the person who posted it? Does this meet the standard of false information or libel, and who makes that determination? Is there a statute of limitations after which a person can reasonably say they no longer think in the way they did when the comments were made? Does this apply to people at all ages equally, or is it especially active for younger individuals? What about allowance for changing norms of speech? All of these are hard questions to answer, often embedded in the particular context of what, exactly, was said and who, exactly, was saying it. The issue is that a trial in the court of public opinion does not have even the limited guard rails for fairness we expect in the legal system, even if it is understandable that many turn to it when that legal system itself fails to provide justice.

A notional, if not often truly implemented, pillar of that justice system is of rehabilitation for all but the most egregious crimes. The idea that accountability involves a finite, rather than indefinitely ongoing, punishment is still not fully realized in the formal legal system. This is why, for instance, many organizations involved in criminal justice reform efforts have pushed for so-called “ban the box” legislation to prevent employers from inquiring about the criminal records of applicants. The problem is that, as we move to a world where more and more of our social lives and internal thoughts are expected to be put out into the world for all to see, and more importantly, archived to be looked back through, more punishment is being delivered through systems which are outside of the formal legal realm. For instance, “doxing” campaigns often attempt to get individuals fired from their jobs by connecting them to either questionable or outright hateful posts. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, as it could be reasonably stated that employers have an interest in not hiring, for instance, white supremacist activists, as do that person’s co-workers in not working with them (of course, this leads into a much more involved discussion on employment law, which there is not space for here). But, much like the drawing of the “public interest” line spoken about above, there is far from a clear social consensus on what kinds of attitudes or statements online constitute grounds for this kind of action to be taken, and there is not even a political system through which this line can be debated effectively. Instead, there are many different standards depending almost entirely on the social norms prevalent within the milieu of the individual who gets caught in a social media storm. A middle-aged white male insurance salesman from Alabama, for instance, is probably less likely to lose his job over insensitive tweets about the NFL kneeling controversy, than is a young copy editor at a magazine in New York. The latter, then, is going to be far more likely to want to access a way to make those tweets, and their attendant controversy, at least less accessible, if not disappear entirely.

In a time before the internet, if one made remarks 10 years ago which no longer reflected one’s beliefs and attitudes today, it is unlikely, unless you were a public figure at the time, that they would be held against you. There was a certain understanding that attitudes and beliefs should be allowed to naturally evolve and change over time and that being constantly confronted with one’s old statements would represent an impediment to that growth. Now, at least those expressions that are posted online have the potential to haunt us long after we have rethought them. One possibility of resolution on this front that keeps us from spiraling into ever-greater recrimination is that, eventually, those in positions of social and cultural power will all have grown up on social media, and thus a dynamic of mutually-assured reputational destruction sets in. Of course, the problem this may end up facilitating is that, as in the past, too many genuinely troubling or destructive behaviours are simply written off as follies of youth and thus allowed to fester unchecked. This use of the past as a cloak of secrecy can often also write off present behaviour by making it seem exceptional rather than as part of a pattern, and a return to a totally opaque world is also not desirable. Perhaps, then, the “right to be forgotten” is a somewhat crude and imperfect legal tool that needed to be developed in order to resist, or at least minimize, the trend towards the totality of one’s online presence being eternal and inescapable. Its inherent failure, though, is that it attempts to correct with a legal mechanism what is ultimately a social problem of a lack of allowance for personal growth and proportion of punishment.

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Wise Words of Du Bois

February 23, 2018


Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Since Du Bois began each chapter of The Souls of Black Folk with a hymn or song, it may also be appropriate to preface this post with Mahalia Jackson's “How I Got Over”.

As we approach the end of Black History Month, it is worth our time to investigate the voice of W. E. B. Du Bois. He was a writer and activist as well as one of the founders of the NAACP. Born in 1868 in Massachusetts, Du Bois always found success in the classroom. After graduating as his high school's valedictorian, he attended Fisk University, Harvard and the University of Berlin. His introduction to southern life, while he attended Fisk University in Tennessee, served to open his eyes to the differences in black life between the north and south. His keen observation skills and cautious approach allowed Du Bois to understand and describe a complexity of issues affecting this split. He eloquently explains some of the reasons for the differences in his book The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. The quotations below, taken from that text, demonstrate his keen observations, talented writing skills and desire for equality. Texts like this helped to explain the black experience to those who grew up white, with privilege or in other countries. In other words, these chapters identified problems that weaken and destroy society. Though they relate to slavery and its effects, he applies his keen observation to a society in the midst of any deep divide. His ability to translate such complex narratives led to understanding, civil discourse and progress. Many thanks to W. E. B. Du Bois for the eloquence and vision of these words.

All citations that follow are taken from his 1903 text: The Souls of Black Folk.

“So wofully unorganized is sociological knowledge that the meaning of progress, the meaning of 'swift' and 'slow' in human doing, and the limits of human perfectability, are veiled, unanswered sphinxes on the shores of science. Why should Aeschylus have sung two thousand years before Shakespeare was born?”

“And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, - all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, - who is good? Not that men are ignorant, - what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”

“The white man, as well as the Negro, is bound and barred by the color-line, and many a scheme of friendliness between the two has dropped still-born because some busybody has forced the color-question to the front and brought the tremendous force of unwritten law against the innovators.... It is not enough for the Negroes to declare that color-prejudice is the sole cause of their social condition, nor for the white South to reply that their social condition is the main cause of prejudice. They both act as reciprocal cause and effect, and a change in neither alone will bring the desired effect. Both must change, or neither can improve to any great extent.”

“I freely acknowledge that it is possible, and sometimes best, that a partially undeveloped people should be ruled by the best of their stronger and better neighbors for their own good, until such time as they can start and fight the world's battles alone. I have already pointed out how sorely in need of such economic and spiritual guidance the emancipated Negro was, and I am quite willing to admit that if the representatives of the best white Southern public opinion were the ruling and guiding power in the South to-day the conditions indicated would be fairly well fulfilled. But the point I have insisted upon, and now emphasize it again, is that the best opinion of the South to-day is not the ruling opinion. That to leave the Negro helpless and without a ballot to-day is to leave him, not to the guidance of the best, but rather to the exploitation and debauchment of the worst; that this is no truer of the South than of the North, - of the North than of Europe: in any land, in any country under modern free competition, to lay any class of weak and despised people, be they white, black, or blue, at the political mercy of their stronger, richer, and more resourceful fellows, is a temptation which human nature seldom has withstood and seldom will withstand.”

“It is, then, the strife of all honorable men of the twentieth century to see that in the future competition of races the survival of the fittest shall mean the triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true; that we may be able to preserve for future civilization all that is really fine and noble and strong, and not continue to put a premium on greed and impudence and cruelty.”

“The function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.... Patience, Humility, Manners and Taste, common schools and kindergartens, industrial and technical schools, literature and tolerance, - all these spring from knowledge and culture, the children of the university. So must men and nations build, not otherwise, not upside down.”

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