Friday, January 31, 2014

Unpacking “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack"

(Note: I've revised this post, so some of the older comments on it may no longer apply.)

When I began unpacking “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, I thought I would be unpacking whiteness theory. To my surprise, I also began unpacking middle-class niceness. I found a clip on Youtube where Peggy McIntosh talks about writing “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. As soon as I saw her, I thought, “That’s a nice middle-class white woman.” Almost as soon as I thought it, I heard her use the word “nice” to explain why she wrote.

McIntosh said,
In 1980, I had read two essays by black women who had lined it out just like a given: white women are oppressive to work with. And I remembered reading those essays with astonishment. They were so factual about it. White women are oppressive to work with. And I had two thoughts in 1980, and I still remember them. One was, I don’t see how they can say that about us. I think we’re nice. And the second, which is outright racist, but this is where I was in 1980, I especially think we’re nice if we work with them. Then I thought, did we fill the reading list and the programs and women’s studies with white people’s stuff? And at first I said maybe, and then I said yes. And I asked myself, if I have anything I didn’t earn by contrast with my African-American friends in this building, show me. And I had to pray on it. And I asked my unconscious mind to answer my questions. And after three months, forty-six examples had swarmed up, most of them in the middle of the night. And if I didn’t flick on a light and write them down, they would be gone by morning, because I didn’t want to know them. They were messing up my view of myself as a person who had earned everything I had.
Two things struck me: McIntosh created her list through prayer and sleep like a prophet, not a scientist, and what drove her was a need to reconcile her belief that she was nice with her awareness that it was not nice to think she was nice because she worked with black people.

Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing made me think more about niceness and whiteness when she wrote that McIntosh’s essay “completely changed the way I thought about what racism is, and the privileges I experience as an upper-middle class white person.” Koerth-Baker and I live in a state that values niceness so much that Wikipedia has an entry for “Minnesota nice.” A great many nice middle-class white people share Koerth-Baker’s reaction to “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”.

I don’t. Since I’m talking about niceness and class, and because whiteness theorists love personal stories, here’s a little about me: My mother was the epitome of white middle-class niceness, a druggist’s daughter from northern Minnesota. My father grew up on a small farm, and while I’ve heard many people speak of him with respect, I’ve never heard anyone call him middle-class or nice. My earliest awareness of whiteness is tangled up in the civil rights conflict, when our family couldn’t get fire insurance because the Ku Klux Klan had threatened to burn down our home and I was bullied in school for being a "niggerlover". So far as I was concerned, people who put any stock in whiteness were the enemy. I don’t mean I concluded black people were better than white people. I only mean that for decades, my experiences with black people were good and my experiences with white people were mixed.

But when I began to argue that class matters more than race or gender in a capitalist country, I learned the limit of middle-class niceness. First came suggestions to read “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. When I said I’d read it and agreed with some of its examples but not with its assumptions, niceness ended. I was called obtuse, then a racist. McIntosh’s fans insisted I was denying the existence of racism, which baffled me—if criticizing an ideology about race is denying the existence of racism, then when Malcolm X criticized the Nation of Islam, he was denying the existence of racism.

So I began researching. At the time, there was little analysis of “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” online—people loved it or rejected it.  Adolph Reed Jr. helped me see why. In “The Limits of Anti-racism,” he wrote,
Yes, racism exists, as a conceptual condensation of practices and ideas that reproduce, or seek to reproduce, hierarchy along lines defined by race. Apostles of antiracism frequently can’t hear this sort of statement, because in their exceedingly simplistic version of the nexus of race and injustice there can be only the Manichean dichotomy of those who admit racism’s existence and those who deny it.
Reed’s comparison of anti-racism to a dualistic religion was reinforced by the Reverend Thandeka’s “Why Anti-Racism Will Fail”. Writing about anti-racism training in Unitarian-Universalist congregations, she said the “belief that all whites are racists is based explicitly on the Christian doctrine of original sin…” Thandeka's “explicitly” refers to one antiracism's trainer’s writing. There are anti-racists of all beliefs, including atheists, but they all divide white people into the saved who confess their racism and the heretics who do not.

Peggy McIntosh speaks most persuasively to the privileged white graduates of expensive private schools because she’s one of them—she’s the associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, one of the private women’s schools that have been educating the daughters of America’s elite since the 19th century. Wellesley’s graduates include two secretaries of state. It’s among the US’s most expensive schools—in 2013, a year there costs $57,042. It touts its diversity because less than half of its students are white and nearly a quarter are Asian, but that diversity doesn’t translate into class diversity—as a group, Asian Americans are richer than white Americans.

McIntosh effectively describes Critical Race Theory when she says,
I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.
Whether she’s playing a rhetorical game when she says she asked in “an untutored way” or was so immersed in Critical Race Theory that she did not realize she had been tutored by her black friends “in the building” and her reading, I don’t know. Though she never names CRT in her essay, she mentions “institutional racism”, a core belief of CRT.

Critical Race Theory gave her a way to reconcile her belief that she was nice with her recognition of her not-nice racist thoughts. Just as Saul the persecutor of Christians became Paul the evangelist, Peggy McIntosh the racist became Peggy McIntosh the anti-racist. When she prayed to see the things she didn’t earn by contrast with her African-American friends, she was not looking for things she and those black friends did not earn by contrast with working class people of any hue—her concern was with the forms of injustice that affected her middle-class black peers.

McIntosh's 1989 revision of “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” begins,
Through work to bring materials from women's studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men's unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged.
She starts with the belief that privilege theory explains problems between the sexes. She sees all men as overprivileged and all women as disadvantaged, even though when she wrote, Queen Elizabeth was the fourth richest person in the world, Maggie Thatcher had been Prime Minister of Britain for nearly a decade, and Ronald Reagan’s cuts in social services had made over a million Americans of all races homeless, the majority of whom were men.

McIntosh says,
As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage. Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in women's studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege must ask, "having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?”
It’s an excellent question. For her, acknowledging privilege is the answer. Once acknowledged, that privilege may be enjoyed—she never considers giving up her job so a less-privileged black woman might have it.

Believing all white people are racist may comfort recovering white racists, but tests for racism say they’re wrong. They get the most support from Project Implicit’s test for race—its researchers found that only 30% of white people have no racial preference or, like me, a preference for blacks. But even if Project Implicit’s findings are right, their researchers stress that an implicit preference may not indicate meaningful racism, especially in people who’re aware of their preferences. Being human calls for balancing preferences. During the 2008 primaries, the differences between Obama and John Edwards were minuscule, yet white Democrats preferred Obama, and in the general election, Obama won a larger percentage of the white vote than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter. If Project Implicit is right that most white people have an implicit preference for whites, their preference does not translate into meaningful racism when they act in the voting booth and may not be meaningful elsewhere.

But suppose McIntosh is right and all white people need to acknowledge their white privilege. What will that do? Adolph Reed Jr. wrote,
In the logic of antiracism, exposure of the racial element of an instance of wrongdoing will lead to recognition of injustice, which in turn will lead to remedial action—though not much attention seems ever given to how this part is supposed to work. I suspect this is because the exposure part, which feels so righteously yet undemandingly good, is the real focus.
The internet calls McIntosh's approach Underpants Gnomes logic. In an episode of South Park, gnomes were stealing underpants. When asked why, they showed their three-phase business plan:
1. Collect Underpants
2.  ?
3. Profit!
They had stolen an enormous number of underpants. All they needed to do was figure out step two, and they would be rich. The privilege theory plan looks like this:
1. Make men/whites admit they are overprivileged.
2.  ?
3. The end of prejudice and the beginning of meritocracy.
McIntosh says,
My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow "them" to be more like "us.”
Elizabeth Minnich is another white academic who works at exclusive schools. She’s very right when she says, “when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow "them" to be more like "us.”” Her “them” must refer to working class black people, not the black middle or upper class. Neither Minnich nor McIntosh notice that working class white people also see middle-class do-gooders doing “work that will allow "them" to be more like "us””. McIntosh and Minnich’s focus on people of color either makes “overprivileged” working class whites invisible to them, or they cannot imagine that what they see as “morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal” is not whiteness, but middle-class niceness.

At the end of her introduction to her list, McIntosh says,
I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined.
Her mention of class should be significant, but you’ll find no class considerations in what she wrote after she began praying. Most of her points boil down to a simple truth that may be implied in item #36 on her list:
If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
If she’s saying she never has to wonder whether a white person treated her badly because of her race, I agree. But if she thinks white people never have to wonder if an unpleasant encounter had racial overtones, she should notice that people of color commit hate crimes too.


From “McIntosh as Synecdoche: How Teacher Education’s Focus on White Privilege Undermines Antiracism” by the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective (Timothy J. Lensmire, Shannon K. McManimon, Jessica Dockter Tierney, Mary E. Lee-Nichols, Zachary A. Casey, Audrey Lensmire, and Bryan M. Davis):
“McIntosh suggests that the privileges might be divided into different categories, but she does not tell us how to categorize them. There is little about the order of the list to help us make sense of the key aspects or contours of white privilege.
“Further, our confusion was also grounded in how McIntosh describes privilege. First, she seems to assume that lessening privilege for white people would also, in some direct way, lessen oppression for people of color. We found this especially puzzling since a number of privileges on McIntosh’s list seem better characterized as human rights, to which she refers as “what one would want for everyone in a just society”. In the case of such privileges, it seems that the struggle should be to guarantee them for everyone rather than lessen them for some.
“Second, even as McIntosh gestures toward systemic oppression, her text focuses overwhelmingly on conceptualizing privilege as individual and seems to equate individual white people coming to understand their white privilege with overcoming systems of racial oppression. Stated differently, while reading and working with McIntosh’s piece might be a consciousness-raising exercise for individual white people, her text provides limited help with understanding and undermining systemic white supremacy. There is no call to activism, unless activism is conceived of as individual white people somehow lessening their own white privilege.”
In my first draft of this attempt to unpack McIntosh’s unpacking, I embraced the subjectivity that Critical Race Theorists advocate and arranged them like this:
1. Items that have some objective truth
2. Items that do not apply to the white working class
3. Items that were no longer true when McIntosh wrote
4. Items that are purely subjective
I tried discussing them all, but McIntosh's list is remarkably redundant, so I’ll only include a few examples of the first two:

* Items with some objective truth

“1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”

There’s an old joke realtors tell: “What are the three most important things when selling a property? Location, location, location.” McIntosh’s black colleagues at Wellesley would’ve had trouble avoiding white people—the 2007 Census Bureau estimated the town’s racial makeup was 84.6% white, 10% Asian, and only 2.2% black. If unequal racial distribution is a sign of racism, Wellesley, Massachusetts is one of America’s most racist communities.

But the privilege of being in the company of people of your race most of the time depends entirely on where you are. Wikipedia’s list of U.S. communities with African-American majority populations includes two large cities, three small ones, and over 100 towns.

Whether McIntosh thinks voluntary segregation is a privilege that should be eliminated or a right everyone should have is, like most items on her list, unclear.

“3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.”

A 2013 HUD study found “African-American home buyers learned about the existence of 17 percent fewer homes and were shown 18 percent fewer properties. On the renters’ side, 11 percent fewer units were “advertised as available” while they were shown 4 percent less units than Whites. Hispanic testers faced less discrimination, with renters learning about 12 percent less of available units, although they were shown 7 percent fewer available rental properties.”

Though McIntosh said she was considering class in her list, she overlooks a simple fact: middle class black people will still have an easier time finding a place in an area they can afford and would want to live than any poor white person.

“6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”

White people are disproportionately represented because the media’s run by the rich, and the rich continue to be disproportionately white because the US has little class mobility. The people who can afford the most prestigious drama, film, and journalism schools will be disproportionately white until there is, to use Martin Luther King’s term, “a radical redistribution of economic power”.

* Items that do not apply to the white working class

“5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.”

I’ve been a clerk, so trust me on this: Good clerks try to watch everyone to be helpful and to reduce theft. Even the most racist clerks know they should watch shoppers of their own race. White people do not get a shoplifting pass—believing in one might explain why people like Lindsay Lohan and Winona Ryder get caught, but I suspect they thought they had a wealth and fame pass.

Mcintosh’s “most of the time” means she thinks being harassed is the most common experience for black shoppers. I suspect another form of privilege applies: Middle-class white people like McIntosh have the privilege of not noticing what the people who serve them are doing. Working-class white people know clerks watch them.

“9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.”

She seems to have forgotten the published essays by the black academics who helped her see her racism. Anyone working at Wellesley could be pretty sure of publishing an essay, because credits, not race, matter most in publishing. A white teacher at a less-prestigious school would have a far more difficult time than any of McIntosh’s colleagues.

“25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race.”

If she thinks working class whites don’t get harassed by cops, I’ll happily tell her about cops harassing me when I was young and drove a used car. I haven’t been able to verify her claim that the IRS was auditing a disproportionate number of black people, but if the IRS was targeting people based on income, the disproportionate number of poor blacks would make a class injustice look like a race injustice to people who think primarily in terms of social identity.


After McIntosh lists 50 white privileges, she says,
Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.
In the 20th century, the people who were not free to criticize our culture were pacifists arrested in wartime and socialists denied employment during the Cold War. The most famous of those—Eugene Debs, the Hollywood Ten—were white men. The US has had black critics since Frederick Douglas. Which of them were not free to criticize?

She says,
…the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say, should not be seen as privilege for a few. Ideally it is an unearned entitlement. At present, since only a few have it, it is an unearned advantage for them.
If you accept her premise, it’s not “the few” who have the “feeling that one belongs within the human circle”—it’s the white majority. The language of privilege theory seems to have confused her here. She writes as if the US at the end of the 1980s had a white minority like South Africa under apartheid.

She says,
Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the United States think that racism doesn't affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see "whiteness" as a racial identity.
I’ve never met a white person who did not know their racial identity was white. White racists value that; the rest do not. Privilege theorists want to teach whiteness to white people to make them admit they’re “overprivileged”, but that only reinforces the social construct of race. Like all bad ideas, race will die when people let it die, but no one clings harder to the importance of race than privilege theorists.

She says,
Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.
Again, she can’t decide if she’s talking about a majority or a minority. White people in the US are hardly “just a small number of people”. Had she been talking about capitalists, she would be perfectly accurate. In “Why Anti-racism Will Fail”, Thandeka notes,
First, 80 percent of the wealth in this country is owned by 20 percent of the population. The top 1 percent owns 47% of this wealth. These facts describe an American oligarchy that rules not as a right of race but as a right of class. One historical counterpart to this contemporary story of extreme economic imbalance is found in the fact that at the beginning of the Civil War, seven per cent of the total white population in the South owned almost three quarters (three million) of all the slaves in this country. In other words, in 1860, an oligarchy of 8,000 persons actually ruled the South. This small planter class ruled over the slaves and controlled the five million whites too poor to own slaves. To make sense of this class fact, we must remember that the core motivation for slavery was not race but economics, which is why at its inception, both blacks and whites were enslaved.
McIntosh says,
Although systemic change takes many decades, there are pressing questions for me and, I imagine, for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.
What we know from watching men is that when they understand inequality in terms of rights, they extend those rights—black people and women got the vote when white men realized participating in democracy is a human right. Building a world of equal opportunity can’t be done by talking about privileges being taken away. Who wanted the right to vote taken from white men? Who wanted the right to marry taken from straight people? It’s nice to think that everyone could be equally privileged someday, just as it’s nice to think of everyone being above average and everyone giving 110%. But the problem of injustice calls for more than being nice. It calls for being fair.

ETA: Amber A'Lee Frost has a good short takedown: The Sad Song of Privilege | The Baffler

McIntosh talks about her work:

Thursday, January 30, 2014

walking to the Y on a cold winter night

Our car is dying, which is fine. We chose our neighborhood partly because we wanted to be able to go carless sometime soon. But I confess I had hoped it would die with the winter, not now.

Last weekend, Emma and I took the bus and the lightrail to see the Rollergirls in St. Paul, and that was nice, cheaper than driving and almost as fast. I've been bicycling during the winter, and that's generally fine when there's neither a lot of snow on the ground or a lot of ice.

Today, we got serious snow, so I decided to walk the mile to the Y for the evening zumba class. Bundling up for Minnesota winters is a skill all Minnesotans learn quickly, so I was comfortable. A lot of sidewalks had not been shoveled yet, so the walking varied, sometimes from house to house, but the snow wasn't terribly deep anywhere.

None of which is why I'm writing this.

A few blocks from home, I came on a car that couldn't get traction. Two men were standing by it, so I asked if they wanted a hand pushing, and the car moved along just fine. It was my good deed for the day. I think one of the reasons Minnesotans tend to be nice, regardless of their politics, is we're reminded every winter that we depend on the kindness of strangers.

Then, a block or two later, I noticed someone coming up behind me. I walk briskly, so this always triggers my street smarts. I don't know if he was walking even faster or if he'd come out of a building as I passed, but I thought the best thing to do was to step aside and see if he passed.

Instead, we got into a conversation for the next couple of blocks. He was a young guy from Somalia whose family was all in the US now, in San Diego and Denver and here. He had a bit of an accent still, but he'd been in the states for a while, originally in Denver, then here. I wish I had a better memory for dialogue, because he talked briefly about the trees in Colorado in the winter, and I admired it then, and thought later he had whatever poets should have, the ability to see beauty and describe it simply.

We parted, he to the train, me to the Y. Dancing was nice. The walk back was a little easier because more people had come home from work and shoveled their walks. But there was no one to talk to until I got home, and, solitary soul that I am, I had not thought I would miss a stranger's company.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Frederick Engels on equality

"... the real content of the proletarian demand for equality is the demand for the abolition of classes. Any demand for equality which goes beyond that, of necessity passes into absurdity." —Frederick Engels, Anti-Duhring

Monday, January 27, 2014

bourgeois ideology defined by Katrine Pilcher Keuneman

"Bourgeois ideology is an ideology which refuses to allow itself to be identified as an ideology by presenting itself as neutral, impartial, universal, objective and value-free." —Katrine Pilcher Keuneman, in the preface to Roland Barthes' Criticism and Truth

Friday, January 24, 2014

Dora Montefiore, a socialist writing in 1901, on feminism

"I cannot help regretting that the word “feminism” has crept into the debate. It is a word of which we have no need in England, and which we might very well have left in its native land, France, where it was coined by men to express the contemptuous lack of understanding of the Boulevard for a phase of strenuous belief on the part of some French men and women, that woman possessed other functions and aspirations outside those of sex; in a word, was a human being as well as a female. It is a lop-sided expression, and leads to lop-sided thinking, just as the term “masculinism” might do, if used in a similar connection. Where education, professions, political rights and public duties are concerned, there is no necessity to emphasise sex; we all meet on the common ground of human beings, having common human interests. In 1897, when speaking at the Women’s Congress in Brussels, I made a similar protest against the word “feminism,” suggesting that we should substitute for it “humanism,” as the advancement of humanity, and not of one sex over another, was the aim and object of the women at that time assembled in conference. The late Madame Potonié Pierre, one of the most large-minded among the French workers in the cause of equal rights for women, felt the justice of my plea, and wrote several articles in the same spirit; but the word “feminism” proved too attractive to the esprit gaulois, and it still reigns supreme in French bourgeois circles, and threatens to invade England." -Dora Montefiore

Monday, January 20, 2014

inverting outing: the politics of reporting the suicide of a transgender scam artist / #JusticeForDrV

My take on trans folk is they're people just like cis folk: some are great, some are awful, and most are great or awful depending on the circumstances of your interaction with them.

But I'm fascinated by the way trans folk fit the identitarian model, something I first noticed when I saw an article about trans-inclusive feminism: do trans women and cis women share the same social identity? The logic of identitarianism usually says you are what society thinks you are, but trans folk want to be seen the way they see themselves and reject the identity they were born into.

The controversy over Caleb Hannan's Dr. V’s Magical Putter (twitter tag: #JusticeForDrV) brings out a second contradiction: The traditional goal for identitarians is to be proud of their identity, but some trans people do not want to be known as trans. So identitarians are outraged that Hannan said anything about Essay Anne Vanderbilt having been Stephen Krol, even though Hannan refers to Dr. V. as female throughout the article.

Some people who insist Hannan should not have mentioned that Dr. V was trans have used an analogy that seems especially unfortunate: they cite news outlets that conceal the identity of rape victims because of the shame attached. Do they think it's shameful to be transgender?

So far as I know, Dr. V did not try to hide the fact that she was trans. She tried to hide the fact that she was a scam artist who invented her credentials. Scammers know a good lie makes people think a product is better than it is. Hannan wrote:
...social scientists have actually studied how using “professional” gear affects amateurs’ performance. In 2011, researchers at the University of Virginia laid out a putting mat, a ball, and a putter, and invited 41 undergraduates to take part in an experiment. The students were asked to do two things: Take 10 test putts and then try to draw the hole to scale. Half were told nothing about the putter’s origins. The rest were told it once belonged to a PGA Tour player. You already know what happened next. The students who thought they were using a pro’s club sank more putts and drew the hole larger than the control group. The social scientists running the experiment must have known that what they were witnessing was pure superstition. How else to describe the process by which years of practice and skill can be transmitted from an expert to an amateur through the simple transfer of an object? But because they’re academics, they use a different term — positive contagion. It’s like the placebo effect for sports.
Nothing I've seen suggests Dr. V was worried about being exposed as trans. It is possible she was worried about being known by her previous name, because at least one person who knew her as Stephen Krol called her a "con man", but that has nothing to do with gender. That has to do with being someone who profits from lies.

Like claiming to be an aeronautical physicist from MIT when you're not.

A journalist has to say more than "This person lied. Trust me." If Dr. V had not lied about the parts of her life that had nothing to do with being trans, the article could have been written without mentioning she was trans. But to prove Essay Anne Vanderbilt was not who she claimed, Hannan had to say who Stephen Krol was.

That said, there is a line in the article that made me wonder if Hannan was transphobic or naive. When he was given the first hint that Dr. V had been male, he says, "Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine." Does Hannan have something against trans folk? Or did he mean he was surprised to learn that the story had another dimension? We don't know from the text. But we do know that if he had not been given that hint, he never would have been able to prove that Essay Anne Vanderbilt had scammed investors and customers alike.

Update: The Dr. V Story: A Letter From the Editor

Saturday, January 18, 2014

on "author privilege" and the hierarchists of skiffydom

Yesterday, as I took a break from revising The Problem with Privilege Theory, I read Renay's You Got Your Industry in my Fanwork and Hal Duncan's brilliant response, You Got Your Privilege in My Face. If you'd rather read those without preconceptions, follow the links now, but I'll warn you that Duncan's will call for both time and thought.

First off, two of my beliefs:

1. Artists have no privileges and damn few rights, and that's how it should be. The audience always makes what it will of the work.

2. All artists learn by doing fan art. We imitate work we admire to acquire the skill to make work others might admire.

Which is to say that fanfic and author's rights are issues that don't interest me. I've seen fanfic that I thought was brilliant, and I'm flattered when I hear someone's done fanfic based on something of mine, but I don't seek out fanfic.

However, theories of privilege have fascinated me all my life.

Renay says two things relevant to Duncan's response and what I'll rant about:

1. "Once I read a work, that work is mine. I'm going to interpret it my way, disregard authorial intention, embrace alternate readings of the canonical facts, and probably consider writing explicit fanfic about characters an author likely never intended to be together."

2. "Over the last few years, we've been watching creators slip into our communities and our social circles; sometimes we invite them in and sometimes we don't, but as some book blogs, born from fannish beginnings and with fannish goals, become industry blogs, we'll continue to see incidents where creators step in and find themselves the target of severe discomfort that takes form as anger and hostility."

Duncan says early in his post:
Privilege? The article is asserting it: "Because once I read a work, that work is mine. I'm going to interpret it my way, disregard authorial intention, embrace alternate readings of the canonical facts, and probably consider writing explicit fanfic about characters an author likely never intended to be together." (My italics.) The article lacks the bold-faced audacity to forego the weasel words of "probably" and "consider," and just say, "I'll damn well slash your characters if I wanna and chuck it on the interwebs for all to see," but that's just the angst of repercussions that it's hard not to see as the "discomfort" in question. Maybe that's not the "discomfort" intended, but authorial intent can hardly be a defence here. And my reading is not born of a defence of authorial intent; it's born of the fact that "severe discomfort that takes form as anger and hostility" is typical of entitlement's response to challenge. The privilege of authors is in play here. It's just that the authors in question are the article's author, the author of the Aaronovitch review she references, and those who write their work from that same stance of entitlement, whether it's fiction or non-fiction.
He concludes:
What's really more damning to me is to see a professional magazine with a strong progressive ethos publishing an article like Renay's that springs out of that outburst of entitlement, spilling out its own entitled advocacy of entitlement, and with the same posturing of victimhood. That article: asserts a privilege of appropriation over any artist; rejects not just authorial intent but authorial ownership, asserting as a right the "non-author's" capacity to fetishize/demonize/straightiron a gay author's gay characters; justifies prejudice as a response to challenges to that privilege; rewrites the history whereby that privilege became so entrenched that privacy is no longer even required; laments the discomfort where the extended privilege of no legal challenge doesn't extend to a privilege of no challenge at all; suggests we salve that discomfort via more privilege by establishing a principle that everything from a specific book blog to Tumblr as a whole is basically a bastion of authorial privilege.
Because, yes, the solution to the angst of privileged authors of appropriative work and bad faith critique that distorts its subject in the lens of privileged appropriation... when those entitled boors can't even deal with an author diffidently requesting they rethink... the solution is to deny response rights to a class of authors who respect the rigours of discourse so as to cosset this other class of authors claiming exemption from such rigours. 
I love the way Duncan takes the language of privilege theory to answer someone whose assumptions grow from it. I'll happily go further. Renay's attitude toward living writers is that of colonialists, imperialists, and cultural appropriators: she says she'll take what she wants because she wants it, regardless of the intent or the love of its creators.

Now, I think appropriation is how cultures and artists grow, so that doesn't bother me at all.

But hypocrisy does.

She doesn't just want to take. She wants to silence the people she's taking from. She objects to their objections. She doesn't just want to take. She wants to be respected for taking. It's a social justice warrior thang—they demand respect while refusing to give it.

If you respect a living artist, respect that artist's attitude toward their art. Here's an analogy that's probably not as good as I would like it to be. For decades, my writing group has used the phrase "you can go out in that shirt." It means a story's ready to be submitted to an editor or to be published. If I went into someone's closet, took a shirt that person had made with love, wrapped it around a monkey like a diaper, took a photo, washed the shirt, and replaced it without the original person knowing what I had done, I would not be surprised if the person happened upon the photo later and did not think it was as amusing or as inventive as I did. It wouldn't matter if I loved both the monkey and the shirt and didn't intend any mockery. The person who made the shirt did not intend for it to be a monkey's diaper, and really shouldn't be faulted for responding to what I'd done.

This reminds me of Piss Christ and Victoria's Secret's use of American Indian headdresses.



I have no objection to Piss Christ or repurposing headdresses. Piss Christ seemed like Andres Serrano just wanted to offend someone, and the world of high fashion is so artificial that everything it references is either demeaned or effectively untouched—I favor the latter, because, like the novels that are not ruined by Hollywood because the books are still safe on the shelves of book lovers, sacred symbols are not weakened when they're treated without the reverence given them by the people who love them.

But the people who love those symbols as part of their identity still have a right to complain.

Fanfictionists who demand silence from creators are no different than Serrano or the designer behind the Victoria's Secret show. What they do is new, but it takes from others, and they should not be surprised when creators object.

An aside: I just showed the picture of the Victoria's Secret model to Emma, who rolled her eyes and laughed and pointed out something I'd missed: The mishmash of appropriation, a Plains headdress with Southwestern jewelry, is even greater than it looks. That silver work? Appropriated by the Navajo from the Spanish, who appropriated it from the Moors.


In the comments on her post, Renay tells Ben Aaronovitch that creators should simply stay out of public conversations of their work: "There is no need for creators to do sophisticated traffic analysis to know whether or not they should comment on a fan discussion. All it requires is empathy. Were you invited explicitly to the discussion? No? Then don't comment."

Charlie Stross responds,
This is my sad face at being told I'm not allowed in the fan suite :-(
Like many pros, I was a con-going fanzine-publishing fan before I sold any fiction, much less began publishing books on a regular basis. (Back in the mid-eighties.) My reading of this piece is that it's rather hostile to fans like me -- it attempts to redefine us as not-fans, as fiction-producing-alien-entities who should get the hell out of fandom.
I don't know whether that was Renay's intention in writing it, but I receive it as a harsh cold-shoulder treatment.
(As for how you should read my output -- shrug. I don't care how you read it. I'll happily answer questions about my intentions in writing, but I can't dictate how you should interpret my work because human minds are not perfectly spherical frictionless objects of uniform density. Your interpretation of my words creates a new mental object, in your mind. It may or may not accurately reflect my conscious intentions -- but that doesn't invalidate your interpretation. And I've learned interesting new things about my own mind by listening to readers' interpretations. About the only thing I will take exception to is being told what my own interior state must be, on the basis of deductions from my public writing. It's psychoanalysis by proxy, and when the proxy has a weakness for writing deliberately unreliable narrators it's probably going to result in a bogus diagnosis.)
Big ditto to all that.
It's probably impossible for younger fans to understand fandom before the internet, partly because of the internet itself and partly because of privilege theory. Pros and fans hung out with each other with no concern over who had sold anything. The social hierarchy was based on accomplishment, but accomplishment was not based on sales. A BNF ("Big Name Fan") and a pro were both valued for their contributions to the community—there's a reason the 1953 Hugo Awards included "#1 Fan Personality".
I suspect three developments set the precedent for social hierarchy in fandom. Green rooms made it easier for panelists to find each other. SFWA parties made it easier for SFWA members to meet each other. The third doesn't seem relevant in this context, but I'll mention it for anyone else who wants to explore hierarchy in fandom: in the '80s, panelists only had name cards on the table to identify them. No one showed book covers to promote themselves. We weren't there to promote ourselves. We were on panels because we loved sharing our love of our genre. The general attitude among pros in fandom was that we were fans first and pros second, just as we had been fans originally and became pros later. We were simply a community, with all the good and bad that entails.
This does not mean it was a golden age of love. Fandom has always had feuds. Writers have always had different concerns. There were many things to divide us. But we knew we were a community of outcasts. We wanted to be inclusive—to the point of including a tiny number of fans who were more concerned with status than accomplishment. Though some of us quibbled with the notion that science fiction was the literature of ideas—all literature is about ideas—we valued ideas above all. People of all social identities had a home in fandom because what united us was what we loved, not what people saw when they looked at us.
The commitment to egalitarianism created tensions as students of Critical Race Theory and bourgeois feminism entered fandom. People who craved influence saw influential people as privileged rather than accomplished. Discussions had less to do with what they were about than who was speaking. The binary logic of identitarianism meant fans and pros were seen as separate social identities—perhaps pros could be seen as fannish allies, but pros and fans were distinct in this worldview, and authors now had "author privilege".
In the comments on Renay's post, Mely, aka Coffeeandink, said, "I think there are social justice issues that are affecting the opinions offered and how they're received. For one, it's notable that the vast majority of bloggers and reviewers who are being criticized or challenges for attempting to control their own spaces are women. The imperatives to "be nice", "be welcoming", and "listen to authority" are enforced by people of all genders, but they are applied much more stringently to women than to men."

Mely's both a Critical Race Theorist and a bourgeois feminist, so you should trust her analysis of how they see the conflict. They want to speak where their unexamined assumptions will stay unexamined. This may be clearest when she said, "The assumptions behind who is allowed to speak where are not politically neutral." She's very right. Some of us assume everyone may speak; her community assumes people who have "privilege" are not allowed to speak without permission.

Sabrina Vourvoulias rejected that notion, saying, “I'm not defending the author in this drama (he exasperated me to no end), but in SFF, as in real life, I abhor what I see as the justification for (and fortification of) a wall between those who share interests. It would be a disgrace to turn the border zone -- that liminal space we SFF writers and readers like to say we understand and are fond of -- into a war zone.”

If Vourvoulias were a man, Mely could’ve settled for ad hominem. Without that option, she tried saying, “"Newspaper" is one analogy for a blog. So are "salon," "living room," and "publication platform." A platform is not required to publish every letter of comment it receives, and a moderator is not required to allow.”

Vourvoulias answered, “Thinking of blogs as salons and living rooms probably does change the character of what content gets posted, but unless it is password-protected, it is still a salon or living room set out in the middle of Times Square. You get traffic ... and fumes.”

Though I have never met Vourvoulias and know nothing about her, I have a bit of a brain-crush on her now. Since she didn't address Mely’s analogy of “publication platform”, I'll add that no one has said bloggers shouldn’t be able to ban who they please. If they want to ban people with author privilege, they're free to use their blogger privilege.

Christopher Caldwell commented, "The assumption that writers need to be explicitly invited to a conversation as if a public blog were a house and a writer were a vampire is oddly entitled."

I now have a bit of a brain-crush on him, too. And I've long had one for Robert N. Lee, who said, "Pardon me, but how do I get to this alternate Earth where writers have lots of power and much greater "privilege" than fans with the disposable income to amass giant media collections and all the spare time in the world to blog about them? It sounds lovely."

Enough. I'm off to exercise the only author privilege that exists, the privilege of writing a little more on a story.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Nine reasons to reject capitalism

I came on a simple-minded rightwing post, Ten reasons to reject socialism, and decided to respond with a simple-minded socialist list that addresses each point. Some of the points really have nothing to do with capitalism or socialism, but since the other writer thought they were relevant, I'm including them. I'm only doing nine because the other list includes religion twice.

1. Capitalism, fascism, and nazism are the same ideology.

Fascism and nazism are only extreme forms of capitalism. Mussolini said, "Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power." (Don't be confused by "Nazi" meaning "national socialist"—the Nazis were as socialist as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is democratic. The first thing the Nazis did when they came to power was to put the communists in camps.)

2. Capitalism violates personal freedom.

Capitalism gives the rich more power than the rest of us.

3. Capitalism violates human nature.

Capitalism goes against the human impulse to share.

4. Capitalism violates public property.

Capitalism calls for "redistributing the wealth" by taking from the people to give to the rich in bailouts, privatization, cheap leases on public land, lower tax rates....

5. Capitalism opposes the individual's ability to form consensual relationships.

This is one of the points that's really irrelevant—the Log Cabin Republicans are devout capitalists, but they supported gay marriage and deserve the credit for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. However, it's true that socialists tend to think your personal life is your business, and it's very true that many loveless marriages are created or are forced to continue thanks to the economic desperation that capitalists encourage to ensure cheap labor.

6. Capitalism opposes children's rights.

Again, irrelevant. There are capitalists who want to protect children from abuse. But it's true that socialists believe society should be able to keep parents from treating their children as slaves or clones.

7. Capitalism promotes radical inequality.

I won't elaborate because capitalists don't deny this. Sane capitalists, the moderates and liberals, want benevolent inequality rather than the radical sort practiced during the Gilded Age, but their goal is still economic inequality.

8. Capitalism promotes state religions.

Again, irrelevant—you can find theistic and atheistic capitalists and communists. But historically, capitalism has supported religions that rationalize economic hierarchies. There's a reason the first Christians, who shared everything, were persecuted, and Constantinian Christianity, with its emphasis on obedience to rulers, has been pushed by kings and tycoons.

9. Capitalism promotes black-and-white narratives of the world.

The point of capitalism is profit, so anything that helps capitalists profit is presented as good, and anything that hurts profit is bad.

May God protect America from capitalism.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

in defense of Alan Moore (as if he needed anyone to speak up for him)

The Last Alan Moore Interview? and The Strange Case of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, As Told By Grant Morrison have created quite the kerfuffle between Moore's fans and Morrison's. The quick version: Morrison has a 30-year history of being influenced by Moore while insulting him. The final straw for Moore was a Rolling Stone interview, Grant Morrison on the Death of Comics, in which Morrison said Moore was obsessed with rape.

Now, one could read Morrison's comics and easily accuse him of being obsessed with violence and "erasing" the reality of rape. If I had a hate on for Morrison, I would go through his work obsessively and cast the ugliest light on his themes that I possibly could. But I don't hate Morrison. I've enjoyed some of his work. If Moore is the Beatles of comics, Morrison is the Bee Gees. Which, I grant, is a bad analogy. I don't think the Bee Gees have ever badmouthed the artists who inspired them.

Here's the question to ask about Moore and rape: Does his work glorify sexual violence? I haven't read everything he's written, but I've read a lot. In the work I've read, consensual sex is presented as a glorious thing, and rape is presented as one of the most horrible acts a person can commit.

And that is all that a responsible artist should be asked to do when writing about sex and violence.

One of Morrison's fans, a comics writer named Gerard Way, tweeted this:


For me, the most revealing part is "chosen industry". Way sees comics as a business; Moore sees them as an art. The second odd bit is the use of "comic book" to denigrate Moore's art—does Way think comics have to be inferior to fiction? I assure you, there are a great many comics out there that are better than a great many novels, and if comics are currently behind, it's because they haven't been around for as long.

And if they ever catch up, it'll be because writers like Alan Moore take the art seriously.

Recommended: Fussin’ and Feudin’ Bun Toons! YAY! | Ty Templeton's ART LAND!!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Alan Moore on identitarianism, class, and the depiction of rape in art

Last Alan Moore Interview? | Pádraig Ó Méalóid AKA Slovobooks: "I understand that it may not be considered good form to suggest that class issues are as important as issues of race, gender or sexuality, despite the fact that from my own perspective they seem perhaps even more fundamental and crucially relevant. After all, while in the West after many years of arduous struggle we are now allowed to elect women, non-white people and even, surely at least in theory, people of openly alternative sexualities, I am relatively certain that we will never be allowed to elect a man or woman of any race or persuasion who is poor."

On art and rape: "I am not attempting to be disingenuous here, but I genuinely cannot see any reason why lethal non-sexual violence should be privileged over sexual violence, other than a residual middle class discomfort or squeamishness over all matters pertaining to sex, which in this instance has taken on the protective colouration of a fairly spurious appeal to contemporary sexual politics."

Friday, January 3, 2014

Adolph Reed on bell hooks, Cornell West, and other public black intellectuals

In "What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?: The Curious Role of the Black Public Intellectual" (pdf), Adolph Reed Jr. offers a critique of Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Gloria Watkins (bell hooks), Michael Dyson, and Robin Kelley, but much of what he says naturally applies to their heirs. The title refers to old jungle movies in which white adventurers would turn to their trusted native guides and ask, "What are the drums saying?" The "Booker" refers to Booker T. Washington.

A few snippets:

“Where Baldwin and Ellison bristled at the Black Voice designation, today’s public intellectuals accept it gladly. And they have to, because maintaining credibility with their real, white audience requires that they be authentically black, that their reports on the heart of darkness ring with verisimilitude (“Drums say nihilism, moral breakdown. Need politics of conversion, love ethic.”) This underscores the extent to which—beneath all the over-heated academic trendiness—the black public intellectual stance merely updates Booker T. Washington’s role…”

“West, Dyson, et al., use the public intellectual pose to claim authority both as certified, world-class elite academics and as links to an extra-academic blackness, thus splitting the differences between being insiders and outsiders. In the process, they are able to skirt the practical requirements of either role—to avoid both rigorous, careful intellectual work and protracted, committed political action.”

“Dyson and Watkins/hooks are little more than hustlers, blending bombast, clichés, psychobabble, and lame guilt tripping in service to the “pay me” principle.”

“In rejecting all considerations of standards of evidence and argument as expressions of naive positivism, the cultural politicians get to make the story up as they go along.”

“Political conservatism is fundamental to the Black Voice business now no less than in 1895.”

That last statement may seem odd to Obama's apologists who think Democratic neoliberalism is greatly different than the Republican model, but Reed, a socialist, takes the broader view of capitalism. (For those who still think Obama represents a progressive vision, a little googling will bring you to articles like Reality Check: Obama Cuts Social Security and Medicare by Much More Than the GOP.)

Scott Sherman's article provides both context and follow-up: "Fighting Words: Adolph Reed's Crusade Against the New Black Intellectuals" (pdf)

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A new year's greeting, and my resolutions

Apologies to people who've already seen these on my social media sites, but I thought I should record them on my blog, too.

A greeting:
Happy New Years! Also, if you're having a birthday next year, Happy Birthday! And that cool thing involving you? Congratulations!
And my resolutions:
Given my usual success with New Year's resolutions, I vow to:

1. Destroy the earth.
2. Slack off more.
3. Eat a lot of crap.

Not in that order, of course.