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Wednesday, July 3, 2013


A long plane trip is an oasis of enforced guilt-free idleness.  During much of our flight from London to Raleigh-Durham, I simply sat and thought.  I reflected sadly on the striking ugliness of contemporary American public discourse -- the hateful things said about Obama, the nakedly hysterical and despicable remarks about gay men and women, the vicious, unrelenting assault on the reproductive rights of women, the astonishingly ignorant, juvenile statements about rape, abortion, contraception, the emergence into the light of appalling beliefs and attitudes to which the catchall term "racist" hardly does justice.

I found my musings merging with the reaction I have been having to the doctoral dissertation being written by Megan Kelly Mitchell, a very promising young doctoral student at UNC Chapel Hill who has worked for me on several book projects as a research assistant.  Seven weeks ago, I suggested that Ms. Mitchell start writing her dissertation with page 1, and that each day she send me one page, which I would read immediately and to which I would reply by return email.  I have just read page 46, and we are nearing the end of chapter one.  [This method -- "a page a day" -- is one I have used with other students over the past ten years or so as a way of helping them to complete their graduate studies and avoid the doldrums of the endless ABD.]  Megan plans to ramp up to two pages a day shortly, and by the end of September, she should have a complete first draft.

Megan's topic is "institutional racism," a subject much discussed these days and about which I have myself written [in my little book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.]   Intellectuals like the concept of institutional racism [or structural this and that] because we make our living from complexity.  It is really not interesting, not challenging, to explain what goes on in the world as the result of the sheer hatefulness of so many people.  So we talk endlessly about "socially constructed categories," or explain with great sophistication that the increasing impoverishment of workers is the result of objective features of capitalism rather than a consequence of the greedy amorality of the bosses.

But from time to time, it is useful to take notice of the fact that a very large proportion of the people in this country [and others, heaven knows] are just hateful.  What is interesting, and worth reflecting on, is why all those hateful people feel so much less constrained about expressing views and attitudes that they know will be judged offensive.  The saga of Paula Deen is a case in point.  I had never heard of Paula Deen until she found herself in serious trouble for girlishly giving voice to her unreconstructed views about Black people.  Deen was apparently the star of the Cooking Network, on which, until the world fell in on her, she was the host of a very popular show about Southern cooking. 

I know, I know, I must try to understand that they feel threatened by the loss of the world they grew up in, a world in which they felt comfortable and at home.  But that was a world in which people sneered about niggers and queers and spics and took as their birthright the deference that their servants were forced to pretend they felt for them.

Perhaps I am simply suffering from moral exhaustion as I grow ever closer to my eightieth birthday, but as I read Megan's really very well done discussion of the concept of Institutional Racism, I find myself just wanting to say, "No, they are flat out bigots, structure or no structure.  They have just been keeping their mouths shut for a while."


David Auerbach said...

Yes, well, your journey home probably spared you immediate knowledge of our (NC) legislature's latest depravity. Suffice it say we went to lend to our bodies in protest. (Monday, I lent my bread and such to feed the released detainees from Moral Monday-- caterer to revolution.) BUT, I find myself, like you, thinking more about the allocation of meanness, stupidity and ignorance within and among the Repugnicans. With Art Pope, not so much stupidity but a lot of viciousness. With some of the more brain-dead Rep. legislators (but I repeat myself, as MT better quipped) just average meaness but a thick layer of stupid. But, so what. The point is to beat them not shame them. They have no shame. The good news is that (via Facebook!) hundreds of people were mobilized overnight to show up today.
And,BTW, welcome back to soddenness. Records have been set.

formerly a wage slave said...

I feel something similar when I hear Richard D. Wolff explain that there is a "system" and that punishing individual capitalists or bankers would be pointless. It's not because I want retribution; I don't. Rather, it seems to me that Wolff is refusing to enter a legitimate domain of individual psychology, where something specific is going on.
Put differently, an individual may feel he simply must worry about profits, but, I cannot believe that he is, at the same time, completely ignorant of the damage caused by business as usual. Not so very long ago there was an article in the New York Times in which the late Steve Jobs was saying that the factories in China were not so bad, and even gushing with phrases along the lines of "gee" or "gosh" (I have forgotten exactly what he said.)--a sure sign, IMHO, that something less than fully honest is being said....(along the lines of: gee, but they are n i c e factories; they even have swimming pools.) ---Could anyone seriously believe that? Accept it as an excuse?
I've no solution and no answer, but I am dissatisfied with appeals to "the system" as the universal explanation.
What's more, were someone,(speaking now very much contrary to fact) to engage the likes of Steve Jobs in a Socratic conversation, I've no doubt that that Jobs or any other similar Capitalist hero would prove to be incoherent and confused every bit as much as any interlocutor in a Platonic dialogue. But, it's a feature of our socieities that such a thing will never happen.....

PS Here's the quote: "“I mean, you go to this place, and, it’s a factory, but, my gosh, I mean, they’ve got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools, and I mean, for a factory, it’s a pretty nice factory.” And the link:

Chris said...

RDW acknowledges that many of the CEOs and wall-streeters he talks to are fully aware that in the long term their practices are dangerous, and harmful. And he claims that they know this and many feel awful about it. But they have to pay the mortgage too, hence he doesn't think individual punishment is ideal, when these people recognize that what they are doing is morally wrong, but practically they have to do it to reproduce themselves and their family everyday.

Grung_e_Gene said...

What you reflected upon during your fligth is living in a time of an Ultra-Reactionary push back on all fronts against the gains made by the Working Classes, Minorities and Women.

This is the Fight Back of the Patriarchy so invested in maintaining it's power and privilege.

And yes they feel now is their time to let loose with all the hateful bigotry which they've bottled up.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Exactly so. If we can mount a steady resistance to this revanchism, I think we can beat them back. Time is against them on all ther cultural issues, but alas not against them on the econoimic front, where they seem to have successfuly returned to The Gilded Age.

formerly a wage slave said...

Well, Chris, the thing is as much as I've learned from RD Wolff, and I accept your summary--I am not convinced that this makes sense. Especially, I find it bizarre (to say the least) to say: "I know it's morally wrong, but I've got to continue my life..." (I think that's what you imagine businessmen to be saying.) I am sure that RPW has something to say about this, but I'm no scholar of his thoughts.

However, I don't think RD Wolff has actually thought in detail about the area I was calling individual psychology---hasn't worked out a detailed account--- and I have never heard a convincing account from anyone. When RPW says they are just bigots, or whatever, he is merely pointing in the right direction.

I'm not Kantian, but the claim that people simply "must" (you said "have to") reproduce themselves is also bizarre.

Roughly, my only new thought here is that we are talking about a lack of imagination, or even cowardice.

That's not adequate either, but I find your summary of RDW accurate as a summary, but a total non-starter as any kind of solution or explanation or theory to deal with the problems here.

I know an answer from the history of philosophy which is mostly thought a non-starter: Socrates' claim that wrong-doers are always ignorant.

Obviously you just denied that when you said the businessmen know what they are doing. And equally obviously, if Socrates actually had any sort of interesting thought, then there's something going on here with the word 'knowledge', like maybe he has a different theory than we do

But, to be honest, I am very much inclined to think that most of us, most of the time, simply don't know what we are doing. I know that's paradoxical, but when I hear RPW talking about how powerful ideology is, and how hard it was for Marx to fight for a place where he could see clearly, I think that my thought might not be completely wrong.

And, just as a quick prod in the direction of my Socratic claim: I think that anyone who tells a story as much depends upon our real ignorance as anything else. I mean once we start to act, we don't know what's going to happen. We are always suprised whether the consequences are good or bad. When we chose a good thing, the consequences overwhelm us with happiness. When we choose a bad thing, the consequences equally overwhelm us. But in both cases, we didn't fully know the outcomes in advance. And it's not just modesty to feel that the goodness of a good outcome was in some way luck.

But I know that I haven't got the right to say QED.

And here's a final provocation: I suppose that there could be a novel written about how people experience their lives within the unjust social system that exists today--a big novel. Sometimes I think of it as the equivalent of Alfred Doeblin's novels about the failed German revolution.....(And sorry for saying the obvious: RDWolff's brief, honest remarks about the businessmen he has met does not fit that description.) Another way to put it: There might be (but so far as I know is not) a book equivalent to "Capital" but treating psychology and emotion, perhaps in the style of a novel.....

formerly a wage slave said...

Sorry, but I cannot resist a quick remark for Chris: Do the businessmen who RPW meets actually understand capitalism? Do they realize it is not necessary or inevitable? And if they don't know that, in what sense do they know what they are doing?

Chris said...

Wolff’s recent post addresses a lot of what I would have said in my response, i.e., capitalism necessarily rest on exploitation, and I would add, alienation and environmental destruction. This is not Loyd Blankfein’s fault, nor Greenspan’s fault, albeit both are jackasses. If we fired them, or replaced them with more “ethical” entrepreneurs, capitalism would keep on alienation, exploitation, and polluting. So the trick to ending the three moral crimes just stated to eliminate capitalism wholesale, even if in the short term momentary imprisonment of people like Blankfein and/or Greenspan would feel good.

Marx and most Marxist recognize that capitalism is a contradictory system. We all in a sense have to face contradictions between who we are as people, who we want to be, and the world (or mode of production) we live in. Yes it’s true capitalist could take the moral high ground, but again, that doesn’t address a systemic problem, and it also puts more responsibility on their shoulders then they deserve, no matter how much they suck.

But it’s also the case that many people don’t know what they are doing when they enter the workforce, regardless of their class position. They just think they need a paycheck, and to provide for themselves and their family. But there’s no contradiction here. Same may know what they are doing is wrong, yet aren’t responsible for the totality of wrongs in the system, nor the system itself, and others may be clueless that what they are doing is reproducing a vile system. In either case, let’s put our energies into eradicating the system, and not the individuals.