Friday, August 26, 2011

THE TEST

 This is a follow-up or sequel to my last post, a list of classic logical fallacies committed by nearly everyone: students, politicians, racial "spokespersons," advertisers, artists and writers, and the general public. It was a handout that I sometimes gave to my students during my 33 years of teaching at the University of Washington. Take at look at these logical fallacies. Ask yourself which ones you committed today in your speech or writing. Ask yourself how many of these fallacies are regularly committed by our elected officials in Congress. None of these fallacies would be accepted in a court of law, or they shouldn't be. Everyone who takes an "Introduction to Logic" class is tested on these fallacies. (But, sadly, such a course is seldom required today for graduation from our universities and colleges). Share the list with friends.

42 Logical Fallacies
  
   1. Hasty Generalization (arguing from some to all).

   2. Composition (arguing from each to an organized whole; two

great tennis players do not necessarily make a great tennis

team).

    3. Division (assuming the parts are the same as the whole).

    4. Post hoc (abbreviation of post hoc ergo prompter hoc, “after

this, therefore because of this.” Assumptions about cause and

effect).

    5.  Special pleading (presenting one’s case without offering its

drawbacks, faults, limitations or problems).

   6.   Oversimplification.

    7.   Black-or-White fallacy (the false either—or-dilemma).

    8.   Argument of the Beard (reverse of #7, where one argues “One more drink won’t make me a drunk,” i.e., how many hairs make up a beard?)

    9.    Diversion (“the red herring") or wandering away from the subject under discussion.

    10.   Extension (exaggerating an opponent’s argument to make it vulnerable, or to make him defend your misrepresentation of his position).

    11.  Misuse of Humor (to get the audience laughing and therefore forget your opponent’s argument and its seriousness).

    12.  Argumentum ad Ignorantium (lack of evidence to prove your opponent’s position does not prove your own).


    l3. Argumentum ad Baculum (the club; threatening the opponent).

    14. Argumentum ad Hominem (discrediting the man on a personal level to destroy his argument).

    15.     Pettifogging (making an issue of some trivial aspect of an argument, quibbling or evading the point of an argument by unfairly using words of double meaning; arguing over the meaning of a word when there is no reasonable doubt about its meaning; making unreasonably fine distinctions; and wrangling about trivial points in such a way as to obscure the real issue or the important evidence, Applied Logic, p. 22).

    16.     Counterfeit Evidence

1.  Meaning from Association (Ads that juxtaposition cars with roses or prestige objects)

2.  Prestige of Great Names (linking oneself to the great).

3.  Misuse of Authority (citing someone who is competent in one field but not an authority in the one under discussion).

4.  Testimonials.

   17. Repeated Assertion.

   18.     Use of Prestige Jargon (technical or foreign languages simply

to impress the audience).

   19.     Use of a Confident Manner (to make the argument look strong).

    20.     Cliche Thinking.

    21.     Rationalizing (coming up with a good excuse for doing

something which was not the real reason it was done).

    22.     Decision by Indecision (Doing nothing when one must make a

choice, then when no choice can be made claiming it was chosen).

    23.     Misuse of Emotional Words.

24.   Argumentum ad Misericordiam (appeal to pity or sympathy).

25.   Attitude Fitting (shifting the argument to appeal to

different audiences).

  26.     Argumentum ad Populum (appeal to popular sentiment).

  27.     Misuse of the Mean (avoiding an extreme decision by saying we

must always try to compromise. Opposite of  #7.).

28.   Contradictory Assumptions (“If elected, I promise to treat all

citizens alike and work for an increased pension for the aged.’).
 29. Misuse of Analogy.

30.   Begging the Question:

1.   Defining an expression in terms of itself.

2.  Hiding the assumptions of one’s premise.

3.   Reasoning in a Circle.

31.   Poisoning the Well. (If the source of evidence is discounted,

then the evidence from that source becomes impaired in argument.

A variation on ad Hominem).

32.   Hypothesis Contrary to Fact (“If Germany had won World War 1,

we would not have had World War 2.” “If I had not been ill during

the semester, I would have passed all my courses.” The error here

is in the assumption that one can know with certainty what would

have happened.).

33.   Equivocation (using two meanings for the same word).

34.   Obfuscation (lots of talk to say nothing substantial about

the subject; is often combined with ad populum and diversion).

35.   Leading Questions (questions that prejudice the answer).

36.   Lifting Out of Context.

37.   False Obversion (misuse of contrasts or opposites; e.g., “The

young learn fast" doesn’t mean the old learn slow).

38.   False Conversion (pivoting a statement at the verb and 
swinging the subject to predicate position and vice versa).
            1. “All art is entertaining” does not mean that all entertainment is art. (This one is Charles Johnson’s contribution to the field of applied logic and esthetic theory;  I call it the Fallacy of the Hack.)
            2.  Fallacy of the Pharisee (All pious men engage in religious practices).
            3. Fallacy of the Patriot (All patriots proclaim their loyalty).
            4. Fallacy of the Bohemian (All artists lead odd lives).
  
   39. Fallacy of Accent (Distortion of an opponent’s words by slurring them, or by using a certain negative tone to prejudice a listener hearing the opponent’s argument).
  
   40. Tu Quoque (“You do this yourself so you can’t argue against me.”)
  
   41. The General Rule (rigorism: disregard of special circumstances).
  
   42. The Special Case (“From the one man know them all.”) 
               



Thursday, August 25, 2011

JOHNSON ON AVOIDING THE SPOKESPERSON BOX. NO GUILT HERE.

"Nothing historical ever has just one meaning; meaning is ambiguous and is seen from an infinity of viewpoints. Everything is always becoming meaningful, and the task of the philosopher is to practice Socratic 'doubt' and 'irony,' to probe, to test, to challenge the meanings which have been given to history in order that what it means may become clear." From the preface to In Praise of Philosophy.
 
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "How does a successful black writer like yourself avoid becoming a spokesperson? When might your personal silence turn to guilt?" 


 A day or so after Middle Passage won the National Book Award 21 years ago, I was interviewed by a reporter who asked me if I was now going to become a "spokesman" for black America. She did not define what she meant by spokesman. Nor did she indicate which positions taken by black Americans I might be a spokesman for. In a vague, and typically uncritical way, she was assuming that---well, naturally a suddenly highly visible black person had to be a racial spokesperson, as so many writers had been during the era of segregation.
 
 
Black American writers today have to patiently (or maybe not so patiently) disabuse people of these antique assumptions and presuppositions. For example, I am a fiction writer and essayist, yes. But I'm a trained philosopher, too, one who finds inspiration as well as a bit of humor in Maurice Merleau-Ponty's beautiful lecture, In Praise of Philosophy, which was translated by John Wild and James M. Edie (Northwestern University Press, 1963). This address was delivered by Merleau-Ponty as his Inaugural Lecture at the Coll├Ęge de France on January 15, 1953. In it he said:
 
 
"For it is useless to deny that philosophy limps...The serious man, if he exists, is the man of one thing only, to which he assents. But the most resolute philosophers always wish the contrary---to realize, but in destroying; to suppress, but also to conserve. Always, they have an afterthought...He does not take sides like the others, and in his assent something massive and carnal is lacking. He is not altogether a real being...There is much that is artificial in the portrait of the man of action whom we oppose to the philosopher. This man of action is himself not all of one piece. Hate is a virtue from behind. To obey with one's eyes closed is the beginning of panic...One must be able to withdraw and gain distance in order to become truly engaged, which is, also, an engagement in the truth."
 
 
In their preface to this lecture, Wild and Edie expand upon Merleau-Ponty's meaning when they write, "The philosopher is a 'man of action' of a special kind; he joins movements, he writes manifestoes, he engages in political activity but only in so far as he remains 'free,' not only to subject his action to critical reflection but even to reject it altogether at the moment when it begins to go beyond its original intention...This is why the philosopher, in spite of his engagement, is always alone, never completely of a party or movement or an orthodoxy of any kind, though he may be for it while remaining outside it...For 'men of action' this kind of philosopher is an insupportable burden and a dangerous ally; they are rightly suspicious of him because he is never fully with them. For any orthodoxy the very fact that a man will think through its commands for himself, even though he obeys them, is a source of uneasiness; he always could rebel."
 
 
Obviously, during the course of my writing career I have taken stands of one kind or another, particularly in those areas where I have some expertise and feel I have earned the right to express an opinion. (On many, many subjects I do not feel I have  earned that right.) But I've never seen black America in the post-Civil Rights period as being monolithic. I've never believed we are that simple. It's difficult for me to imagine speaking for so many millions of people. And besides, I believe individual black Americans are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves and do so all the time.
 
 
Also, I'm not someone who enjoys engaging in name-calling; or Argumentum ad Hominen (discrediting someone on a personal level to discredit his argument); or Special Pleading (presenting one's case without offering its drawbacks, faults, limitations or problems); or the Black-or-White Fallacy (the false either-or-dilemma); or Extension (exaggerating an opponent's argument to make it vulnerable); or Pettifogging; or Misuse of Authority (citing someone who is competent in one field but not an authority in the one under discussion); or Misuse of Emotional Words; or Argumentum ad Misericordiam (appeal to pity or sympathy); or Argumentum ad Populum (appeal to popular sentiment); or Misuse of the Mean (avoiding an extreme position by saying we must always compromise); or Begging the Question; or Poisoning the Well (If the source of evidence is discounted, then the evidence from that source becomes impaired in argument; a variation on ad Hominem); or Hypotheses Contrary to Fact; or Obfuscation; or Oversimplification; or Leading Questions; or Tu Quoque ("You do this yourself so you can't argue against me"); or The General Rule (rigorism; disregard of special circumstances) or any of the other fallacies that freshmen are supposed to learn in "Introduction to Logic 101."
 
 
 So the philosopher/writer is a "man of action" of a peculiar kind, one who probably infuriates and frustrates others who never have "an afterthought" (as Socrates did) and are always certain that their interpretations of the world and positions are right and the only acceptable interpretations and positions---and will do violence to and/or insult those who do not accept their way of seeing things. (I rather suspect this is why we have gridlock in our government right now and some Tea Party supporters who will not modify their positions.) I guess I think too dialectically to "get with" that way of doing things. I think such people need a dose of epistemological humility. And as a follower of the Buddhist Dharma, I always feel it is imperative that I "think through...commands" for myself and confirm them in the depths of my own experience.
 
 
Since I'm not silent (as today's question erroneously assumes) and do take positions and support the causes that make sense to me with time and energy and money, the question of "guilt" as it is raised here is simply unintelligible. And also a bit insulting. It is an accusation disguised as a question. And a very transparent, easily recognized and refuted accusation at that. This is not to imply that the interviewer, my dear friend E. Ethelbert Miller, intended accusation or insult. Oh, no. His spirit is too large for such pettiness. As large as all out doors. His questions are best described as "probes"---like his regular E-Notes---honestly delivered in the spirit of inquiry. But would I answer this question from anyone other than Ethelbert?  
 
     
Probably not.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

THE FUTURE WE FACE: INTEGRATION AND MULTICULTURALISM



 "He who reveals to us the meaning of our mysterious inner pilgrimage must be a stranger of another belief and another race." Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries.  
     
 E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "In an interview with Geffrey Michael Davis you mentioned that you were an integrationist. What does this term mean in 2011?
What are the challenges of integration and multiculturalism?  How might these terms (concepts) differ?  Some European leaders believe multiculturalism has failed?  Do you agree with this?  Might America fail too?"

There are several reasons why I have always been an opponent of separatism and a supporter of integration, and these reasons share in common the same kernel of truth: namely, our lives are all already integrated.
First, on the individual level, I believe Guy Murchie when he writes in The Seven Mysteries of Life: An Exploration in Science and Philosophy, that "There is no such thing as a pure race, nor any race of men on Earth that is unrelated to other races...In fact, no human being (of any race) can be less closely related to any other human than approximately fiftieth cousin, and most of us (no matter what color our neighbors) are a lot closer...The world's children are your children and mine, and not only spiritually but genetically as well...Your own ancestors, whoever you are, include not only some blacks, some Chinese and some Arabs, but all the blacks, Chinese, Arabs, Malays, Latins, Eskimos, and every other possible ancestor who lived on Earth around A.D. 700...It is virtually certain therefore that you are a direct descendent of Muhammad and every fertile predecessor of his, including Krishna, Confucius, Abraham, Buddha, Caesar, Ishmael and Judas Iscariot...And as cells metabolize and circulate in the body, so do bodies and their genes circulate throughout humankind, joining everyone to everyone else at least once in fifty generations, so that not only does the ancestry of each of us include all fertile humanity of fifty generations ago, but our descendents fifty years hence in turn will include every living being."
Finally, Murchie says, "It is a great absurdity of the so-called race problem in the United States, for instance, that anyone who admits having any African or Hebrew ancestry is classed as a black or a Jew regardless of his or her appearance...When it gets to be realized someday that there is no absolute criterion of race, that all of us literally have some white, some black, some yellow and some other kinds of heredity, the race issue may well fade away into the notebooks of anthropologists where it belongs."
Secondly, on the level of culture I believe that down through human history, the 100 million years we have existed as a humanoid species, our cultures have interpenetrated, borrowing from and enriching one another. As Murchie writes, "Even this book, written by an American, is made of paper invented by the Chinese and printed with ink evolved out of India and made from type developed largely by Germans using Roman symbols modified from Greeks who got their letter concepts from Phoenicians who had adapted them partly from Egyptian hieroglyphs."
 And, thirdly, as a Buddhist, I believe in pratitya samutpada or "dependent origination," (expressed in the formulation, "this coming to be, that is; in the absence of this, that does not exist"), which tells us that nothing can arise independently, a condition of interconnectedness that Thich Nhat Hahn refers to as "inter-being."
 As a concept, "multiculturalism" as I understand it (and I have lectured on this subject in Germany, Portugal and Indonesia) differs from the rendition of integration that I've offered in the preceding paragraphs. To be honest, when people generally use the term multiculturalism, it is in such a way that this concept is only vaguely defined and has soft and blurry edges. What people mean to say (I think) is that each culture has its integrity and in a democratic society different cultures should be able to exist together. Ideally, the aim of a multicultural educational curriculum would be to give students (or citizens) an appreciation for different cultural orientations.
 In an informative post on The Moderate Voice (TMV) dated January 12, 2010, columnist Jerry K. Remmers addressed French President Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to start a national dialogue on French identity. Remmers quotes Sarkozy as saying, "Nothing would be worse than denial" that the French and Europeans "feel that they are losing their identity." In France, Remmers points out, there are "three million Muslims who are essentially segregated in isolated conclaves and discouraged by the unions and a caste system to assimilate into the culture" after moving legally "to France from former French colonies after the arrival of Turks, Italians, Spaniards and eastern Europeans who were brought in after World War II to rebuild the nation."
  "Sarkozy's government also banned girls from wearing burkas and head scarfs in schools," wrote Remmers. "The purpose was a direct charge at Muslims to do more to blend into French society." On the subject of immigration, the columnist quotes his brother Lee, who has lived for 30 years in a small town outside Paris, and observed that, "Many Muslims are making a statement. Their appearance labels them as different, not of the same culture of their hosts. It would be unfair to put all in the same pot, but I think a fairly large number, especially the young, are showing these external signs as a  form of f---all of you. The Muslims do have cause for being angry since they are discriminated against. They tend to live in poor neighborhoods, many only 1 generation away from the boondocks of Algeria or Morocco, primitive customs, poorly educated, and high levels of unemployment. It is something of a vicious circle...Some of the older generation practice old country customs like slitting the throat of a goat or a lamb for their big religious meals (Muslim equivalent of Thanksgiving or Christmas). Butchering an animal in an apartment or in the communal garden does not endear them to the non-Muslims in the neighborhood."
 Recently, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that multiculturalism had "failed" in Germany. Perhaps in response to this conclusion that stirred up such controversy and discussion, an August 21, 2011 post appeared on a site named "Facts about Germany." This post, which seems to be on a promotional site created or sanctioned by the German government, states that "Lots of immigrants work as unskilled laborers, as Germany recruited workers in particular for simple activities. Studies have revealed that immigrant families in Germany have difficulty climbing the social ladder or improving their economic situation. Nonetheless, over the past two decades progress has been made with regard to integration...Since 2006, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel has held an Integration Summit, which representatives of all social groups impacting on integration, including immigrant organizations, attend...It contains concrete goals as well as over 400 measures for government, business, and social players. This way a network of 'education patrons' is being built up; so far more than 5,000 have become involved, supporting children and young people from immigrant families in their education and vocational training. More than 500 companies and public institutions with over four million employees have joined 'Charter of Diversity'."
 I leave it to the leaders and people of European countries to decide if multiculturalism has failed in their societies. I do not see evidence that efforts in support of cultural diversity have failed in America, despite the fact that we have the occasional lunatic (and rather isolated) "Christian" preacher burning the Koran as a publicity stunt, and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wrongheadedly signing a bill that targeted for criticism the Tucson school district's Mexican-American studies program. Clearly,  there are numerous ways that we, as Americans, can improve in being more tolerant of difference and the cultural "Other" who, as Mircea Eliade stated, can assist us in better fathoming our inner as well as outer pilgrimage through this life.
(With thanks to educator/writer Sharyn Skeeter for her help with some of the research in this post.)
        

Sunday, August 21, 2011

THE TEACHER CHARLES JOHNSON


 E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "You taught for over 30 years at the University of Washington. How did you change as a teacher during those years? What did you learn from teaching?  What did you learn from your students?  Was it difficult balancing teaching with the writing life?"
 
 
When I'm writing (or drawing), immersed in a fictional world that is unfolding before my eyes, I have to withdraw from the social world. The latter more or less ceases to exist for me. I become solitary. I go underground. The phone or doorbell ringing, the headlines of the day, stock market news, the weather and enveloping world of others and objects---all that recedes to the periphery of my consciousness. None of it moves from background to foreground unless it directly relates in some way to the story I'm trying to imagine with detail and precision. I can't "punch in" and write for just a few hours a day, then "punch out" as I did when I was a young journalist. I have to live and breathe the work all day long. When writing, I get silent. I don't want to talk because all my language is going onto the page. I don't shave. I forget to eat and live on coffee, walk around the house in a sweatshirt and sweat pants, unmindful of the passage of time, making notes to myself for dialogue I suddenly hear in my head. I sometimes sacrifice my daily workouts. Personal hygiene suffers. (I have no idea how my family tolerates me during times I'm intensely at work.) I deliberately get sloppy and embrace chaos so that whatever I'm working on can have all the order I'm capable of mustering. I'm slow to return phone calls or answer email or even look at the day's snail mail---and have to apologize to others when I finally complete the work and break radio silence. I just work quietly, steadily, sleep when my brain needs rebooting (and sometimes find the work entering into my dreams), then go right back to work as soon as I wake up. I lose sense of time's passage. In effect, I leave the real world behind because all my thought is directed toward the characters, their speech and actions and emotions; all my mental energy goes into writing and rewriting sentences in my head. All of it is devoted to problem solving. I'm living only for the "Aha!" moments of discovery and surprise as the story pushes ahead, one paragraph at a time.
 
 
I'm not the best person to be around when I'm working. I even doubt that I'm a "nice" person. For the sake of the characters, I have to sometimes let myself become emotionally raw and tender, irascible and "tetchy" and capable of saying and doing things (in my imagination) that I would never do or say in the real world. During these bouts of work I am not very attentive to others, what they are doing or their needs. Intellectually and imaginatively, I have to put myself at risk, be ready to throw out everything I think I know or believe about what writing should be for the sake of discovery; I have to drop all the masks we use in the social world, be vulnerable if a character is vulnerable, rude if a character is rude, intolerant if a character is intolerant, wicked if that character is wicked, and let the story lead me where it wants to go as I prayerfully move from one page to the next. To be frank, I love these periods of total immersion in work when I almost completely forget the external world and live entirely in one conjured from the imagination. When these periods are done, I usually treat myself to a good meal.
 
 
But in order to teach for 33 years I had to be exactly the opposite of what I've just described above. I had to make a 180-degree shift. From Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll. From Dionysus to Apollo.  From Cain to Abel. Because students and their needs always come first, they and they alone---their desires, needs, etc.---were at the center of my consciousness during class time and when I was on campus. As a teacher, I learned how to talk in other people's sleep (as the old joke goes), to fill an hour with speech if the students themselves were laconic, and (sigh) to wear a suit if an occasion demanded that (and I've always hated wearing a suit and tying a little noose---oh, those are called ties---around my neck.) To know which books and authors to point an individual student toward to help him or her with their own writing and research. 
 
 
 I learned how to exist completely as a public self, by which I mean that I left my personal life and needs outside the classroom door. (I never stepped on campus unless I first practiced meditation or mantra. Usually mantra.) For an artist or writer teaching is an invaluable experience (at least for the first five years or so), because one has to learn how to explain to others matters that remain on the level of the intuitive and instinctive when one is creating. (And when creating one has to trust the intuition, the unconscious, the mysteries of the creative process itself.) You must learn how to explain what you and other writers do, how we do it, and make that doing something portable, i.e., understandable to both the tortoises and the hares in the classroom. Teaching makes you learn patience. And how to explain the same thing in several different ways. And over and over again, if necessary. If a student sent me an email, I'd answer it immediately. I was greatly amused by a remark that my friend Nicholas Delbanco made when I visited his writing program at the University of Michigan. He said, "Ask him a twenty second question and you get a twenty minute answer." That's what three decades of teaching conditions an otherwise quiet and sometimes shy person to do. (But when I'm creating, my speech is spare, telegraphic, brief.)
 
 
 Teaching required complete concentration on a roomful of others who were at first strangers then like new friends by the end of the second week, and an awareness of time so that a class would be well-paced, giving each student exactly the right amount of room or freedom to express himself or herself, knowing when to steer them back to the subject at hand if they started to wander, and provide structure that did not feel to the students to be in any way a constraint on their creativity. In other words, the classes I created had to have a clear form yet also be flexible based on individual student needs. Every student needed to feel respected, valued for his or her presence in the room. Don't let anyone tell you differently: Teaching was work. For me and my students. See my essay, "A Boot Camp For Creative Writing." I built my classes so that students couldn't hide; they had to work and be responsible to their professor and their peers in class. A teacher needs to be relaxed and at the same time as focused as a dog gnawing a bone. As writer Jonathan Baumbach once said to me, it can be "emotionally exhausting."
 
 
 After a class---especially one that ran for three hours---I never fooled myself into thinking I could easily go back to my own creative work, slipping effortlessly from such an outer-directed consciousness to an inner-directed one. The class, the students, thoughts of what I'd said or should have said (which I promised myself to say during the next class), ideas for how to make the next class even better, new handouts I wanted to photo-copy and distribute to the class, would swirl through my head for the rest of the evening. (Now that I think about it, some of the same creative energy that went into a story had to go also into teaching ten weeks of classes.) A nap that night might reboot my brain so that I could resume my own work during the wee hours before dawn. Or sometimes it would have to wait until the next day after a good night's sleep.
 
 
So that's how I'd whimsically answer today's question. And don't be fooled by the dualism I used with comparisons to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Cain and Abel, and Dionysus and Apollo. Every Buddhist knows those opposites are really "one."

Thursday, August 18, 2011

NOTHING BUT A PRESIDENT: BARACK OBAMA AND THE MYTHOLOGY OF BLACK MEN

 E. Ethelbert Miller rolls a grenade into the room with this question: "I'm helping an editor of a magazine develop an issue that is going to look at President Obama and Black Masculinity. How important do you think doing something like this is?  Did the election of Obama force us as Americans to look at blackness in new ways?  Do White men have a problem with a black man with power?  How do we explain the rudeness shown Obama on a number of occasions. Is this simply politics or is race a factor? Is the attempt to define Obama as an alien linked to his blackness or the "sound" of his name?  Would black women embrace Obama the same way if his wife was white? If Obama is defeated next year, how might this alter the American narrative? Will we jump to the conclusion that "Reconstruction" failed again?"
            
 Many years ago, back in the 1980s, my friend Dr. Joseph Scott, then the director of Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, and I crossed paths in the parking lot behind the building where his department and mine were located. We started talking, and Joe expressed to me his belief that black women had done a very good job of publicly defining themselves since the 1970s, i.e., creating an image (or meaning) for themselves and their lives that was positive and widespread in popular culture. And then he said, "When it comes to black men, people don't know who we are." In that same decade, writer John McCluskey Jr. and I published Black Men Speaking, which begins with Joe's powerful and moving memoir of his life growing up in Detroit in the 1930s, entitled, "Making a Way Out of No Way."



  I've never forgotten Joe's observation. People don't know who we are. A library of books could be devoted to examining that remark. In fact, for a time I was on the editorial board for the  Journal of African American Men, an academic publication devoted to studies of the situation of black males. Naturally, when McCluskey and I worked on Black Men Speaking, we discussed this matter---who are black men in America?---and he, like Joe, made a remark that was memorable. What he said was this: since the beginning of this republic, and probably starting during the time of the colonies, black men have always been a "problem" for white men. In just Darwinian terms, the black man was the white man's competitor---for power, the means of survival,  prestige and, of course, women. The power white men enjoyed during slavery meant, to put this bluntly, that they could pass their genetic information along to white women and rape black women with impunity.


 Black males had to be prevented from any and all sexual dealings with white women. One of the most powerful tropes or mythologies in American pop culture is that of the black man during either the eras of segregation or slavery being hunted, killed, lynched or burned for making overtures that were interpreted to be of a sexual nature toward a white female. (Ah, yes, remember Bigger Thomas's roof-top run across a building in Chicago after he kills Mary Dalton in Native Son?) The ground-breaking, classic film Birth of a Nation was popular for a reason---it depicted black men (actually white men in blackface) during Reconstruction rampaging and raping across the South until the "knights" of the KKK suppressed their "bestial," uncivilized behavior.  Black women, then as now, obviously did not pose the same threat to white male power, and perhaps this is one reason why they have done so much better than black males in terms of integrating into American mainstream society---that is, gaining advanced academic degrees and jobs in greater numbers than black males, many of whom feel (or so August Wilson once told me) that passage through the white man's institutions is basically a form of cultural (and racial) indoctrination, and this is something August said young black males rejected. Indeed, many literary works by black women since the 1970s reinforced the popular---and I would add, dominant---image of black males being violent, animal-like, stupid, and dangerous.
Whole libraries have been written about the American practice of emasculating the black male. We remember how sexually neutered the film roles were in the 1950s for Sidney Poitier prior to his appearing in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" (and during the Black Exploitation film period of the 1970s that sexual neutering was reversed with a vengeance that did little to improve the imagery associated with black men). In the iconography of black men in America, we notice several carefully reiterated images. Black men are often granted by whites the status of being physically superior, as animals are. That meaning is dwelled upon in sports (football, basketball, boxing), and such a meaning leaves undisturbed and in place the racial propaganda of the intellectual as well as creative superiority of white men (except in an area like jazz or black music, where excellence is reluctantly acknowledged). That is a territory the majority of white males categorically refuse to relinquish. That of the mind. (By the way, I seldom talk about being a life-long martial artist because back in the 1990s, I noticed that white interviewers seemed way too interested in that dimension of my life---because it suggests violence---and not at all interested in my equally life-long passion for philosophy; I've always noticed with equal amusement how in the book world my Ph.D. in philosophy, represented by "Dr." before my name, is frequently dropped, as if the work required to earn a doctorate in a field dominated by white males for 2500 years never took place.)

I was recently conversing via email with film-maker Brian McDonald about how in popular culture we simply never see a black man who is a visual artist, who can draw, who has that natural talent (there are many such images of white males). Similarly, we seldom if ever see portrayed in the popular imagination black men who are geniuses---scientists, inventors, authoritative scholars. After six decades of living, and studying American culture, I understand full well that the very idea of a black man who is intellectually or artistically superior brings tremendous discomfort to the white racist mind, even to the liberal white mind. (Ishmael Reed once called this "liberal racism.") For fifteen years, August Wilson and I discussed this matter long into the night. He was a two-time Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, a man who dominated the American stage for two decades, but the incidents of disrespect he received and told me about were---well, endless. (He always noted each year how many plays by white playwrights became motion pictures while his ten plays, year after year for two decades, remained unadapted for that medium.) And I, of course, had countless examples of my own since childhood to share with him.

This is what we live with, as black American males. (Just for the record, let me add that black females in the popular imagination today are granted moral superiority and professional competence, but, like black males, not unquestioned intellectual or artistic excellence.) We have lived with being demonized, and our talents and gifts ignored or denied, since the time of slavery. The evidence for this in the historical record is overwhelming so I don't need to repeat any of that in this post. And it is what Barack Obama must live with, too. He has an I.Q. of 147. (There are white people who will say that is because he had a white mother). For some white Americans, his very existence is threatening. And they feel they must try to understand and interpret him in terms of a 300-year-old mythology about black men. That's blunted a bit because he chose a black wife rather than a white one (i.e., he chose not to compete with white men for their women). But---and this is quite amusing to me---columnist Peggy Noonan, who writes for The Wall Street Journal, has since Obama's election been returning again and again to her feeling that Americans don't "know" Obama, that he doesn't fit any previous cultural molds for a president.  She's right. He doesn't. And lately, she and others have been chipping away (after the debt ceiling deal) at both his intelligence and competence. Americans don't know or understand a black man like Barack Obama. What he culturally represents---a black male who is brilliant, not bestial; eloquent not inarticulate; confident, comfortable in his own skin and even at times arrogant, not humble; cool and rational, not emotional or "angry"---is the annihilation of every cherished, bigoted notion about what black men are or should be in a Eurocentric culture. That image is well understood to be a threat to white supremacy. Many white Americans want him to fail so that the mythology of black male inferiority can be maintained.

 Ethelbert, my friend, long ago I came to believe that this situation as I've described it for black American males will not change in our lifetimes. We can only do, one day at a time, what the ancestors we revere did, and what Obama seems to try to do: take care of business---the duties and responsibilities given to us in this life---step over racism as if it was a puddle at his feet, strive for personal and professional excellence, and take some small comfort in the fact that we, like the predecessors who inspire us, fought the good fight.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

IN DEFENSE OF OUR LANGUAGE

E. Ethelbert Miller asks an important question: "How has language changed for you as a writer?  What is your opinion of how modern technology (especially texting) has changed writing?  Many writers as well as journalists now use more vulgar words in their work. This seems to be the new norm. What are the moral implications of this?  Is language "neutral" when it comes to conveying values and shaping human thought?"


Whenever I start reading something, the first thing I look for is a high level of language performance. It doesn't matter whether the work is fiction or non-fiction, if the prose is as pedestrian as the language we read in newspapers or overhear at the supermarket or DMV, merely utilitarian, then I will be disappointed and feel that work is de-totalized and minimalistic. (And what passes for political discourse in this country ---as well as the jargon of the Academy---is offensive enough to the ear and mind to make a lover of language run screaming from the room.) A literary work is, first and foremost, a performance of language. For that reason, I expect the instruments of expression---sentences and paragraphs---to be music and poetry. I expect them to be polished, and the writer to have at his or her command a mastery of the English tongue so complete and sophisticated that, as I read, I learn more about the possibilities of language performance. I want to be surprised by the prose, ambushed by its beauty. Words are the flesh of thought. And that means the language is my portal into the consciousness of the writer who, on the page, is singing an interpretation of being that transforms and refines my reflections.

          (And, by the way, these 140 E-Channel posts so far are not an example of what I mean because they have to be written too quickly---on the run, as it were---and lack the weeks I typically invest in revising fiction and essays; these posts, at best, can only be utilitarian and journalistic; they are as close as I ever get to releasing first-draft material.)

Language is sound and, therefore, is never "neutral." The sounds we make in speech are guttural, palatal, cerebral, dental or labial. In The Anatomy of Poetry (1968), Marjorie Boulton makes it evident that on the level of what Aristotle once called melos, even the most microscopic datum of speech carries an affective quality or tone, and is sedimented with feeling or sense (and therefore not "neutral"). B and p sounds feel explosive; m, n and ng we experience as humming and musical; l as liquescent, holding within itself something of streams, water, rest; k, g, st, ts and ch are experienced as harsh; t and d are best suited for short actions; and th tends to be soothing. Emotion has become sound. (For more discussion of this topic, language and being, see chapter two, "Being and Form" in my book Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970).

I've read that the English language contains over a million words (and is still growing, of course), that the average speaker uses about 20,000 words in his or her everyday speech, though we know and recognize far more words than that. Our humanness, and especially our ability to achieve an inter-subjective relationship with others in the social world, is based on the possibilities of language. To a degree, then, I believe the health of a culture can be measured by the performance of those who speak and write its language. If that thesis is credible, then perhaps we should be worried by the coarseness, vulgarity and at times obscenity that we encounter so often today in American speech. In one of the many pages of writing instruction that John Gardner gave to his students in the 1976, he observed that, "You live in a world in which it is possible to buy flavored, edible panties (strawberry, lemon-lime---), a world where the word 'asshole' passes for elevated diction. Think about it."

 As a much younger writer, I did think about that. And today, more than thirty years later, I brood daily about the debasement of American speech. (In the last few decades we have not only turned the word "asshole" into proper diction, but we have moved on to mainstream many four-letter words in our fiction, stand-up comedy routines, and daily speech). In his posthumously published book, The Art of Fiction (1983), Gardner also said this: "Pettiness, vulgarity, bad taste fall away from him (the serious writer) automatically, and when he reads bad writers he notices their lapses of taste at once. He sees that they dwell on things Shakespeare would not have dwelled on, at his best, not because Shakespeare failed to notice them but because he saw their triviality. (Except to examine new techniques, or because of personal friendship, no serious apprentice should ever study second-rate writers.)"

In a world that offers us the truncated language we find on Twitter, the anonymity of the Internet, and the triumph of Hip Hop and gangster rap, does anyone ever talk anymore about taste? Is that old-fashioned now and "corny"? Have we become, as American men and women, too liberated and progressive for good taste in our daily and literary use of language? Do we now have so little respect for those who listen to us and for ourselves? As Gardner said, long ago:

       Think about it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

IN SEARCH OF CHRISTIAN SOCIALISM


 E. Ethelbert Miller says: "No one talks about Christian Socialism today. You claim this was King's third and final stage of development. Is it something we should still seek to achieve? Is the Beloved Community defined by Christian Socialism?"

             
In my writing about Martin Luther King Jr., I do say that his political orientation at the end of his life can be called "Christian Socialism." As early as 1951, King wrote a note to himself, saying, "It is a well-known fact that no social institution can survive when it has outlived its usefulness. This capitalism has done. It has failed to meet the needs of the masses."

Before he was assassinated, King told members of his staff not to be afraid of the word socialism. He was exposed to European socialism when he traveled to Norway to receive his Nobel Peace Prize, and I believe he felt that economic system might work in America, though from what I've read his father, Daddy King, remained at the time a believer in capitalism. But for King, "Christian" must precede "Socialism," because, as a Baptist minister, he simply couldn't embrace the atheism of Karl Marx, and many other communists and socialists.

 Ethelbert is right, I think, when he says no one talks about Christian Socialism much today (except maybe Cornel West, if I understand the contours of his thought and public positions correctly). Nor is there much discussion of the kind of "liberation theology" James H. Cone is known for. I suspect the reason for this, in part, is because activist black churches today, like that of King in the 1960s and the one Rev. Jeremiah Wright led in Chicago, are frequently overshadowed by other churches---some of them "megachurches"---that offer a religious orientation called "the Prosperity Gospel."

 My first exposure to the Prosperity Gospel was in the 1970s when I saw (in a state of complete bafflement) Reverend Ike, "the Success and Prosperity Preacher," on television ("You can't lose with the stuff I use," he said over and over again). Since that time, other black ministers have successfully used his approach, among them Bishop Eddie Long at his megachurch in Atlanta. When the multiple allegations of sexual abuse emerged recently about Bishop Long, DeForest B. Soaries Jr., senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, N.J., published an article entitled "Black Churches and the Prosperity Gospel" in The Wall Street Journal.

Soaries Jr. wrote that, "To their credit some prosperity ministers, like Bishop T.D. Jakes of the Potters House in Dallas and Dr. I.V. Hilliard of the New Light Christian Center in Houston, have motivated many people to avoid the traps of thinking of themselves as permanent victims and to defy conventional stereotypes. The prosperity gospel says that everyone can succeed financially, regardless of race or gender or class. The prosperity movement has effectively changed life expectations for millions of people. However when leaders of this movement assert that God wants everyone to be wealthy and that riches are the automatic outcome for all faithful believers, we should be suspicious...Teaching that desire for more material possessions is a sign of one's religious piety is simply offering a justification for crass consumerism. Prosperity theology elevates greed to a virtue instead of leaving it as one of the seven deadly sins."

Continuing his critique, Soaries Jr., added that:
 "Traditionally, black churches have emphasized spiritual renewal, social justice, educational uplift, community improvement and civic engagement in addition to individual achievement. The fact that the church was the locus for community and personal advancement was what made it such a powerful force for hope and survival...In light of today's weak economy, perhaps the prosperity movement should consider focusing on financial literacy, personal discipline and saving for the long term, rather than emphasizing supernatural possibilities."

He concluded his piece by observing that, "Reasonable people know that faith in God must be accompanied by responsible actions to achieve lasting prosperity. Education, hard work and discipline are key components to any authentic prosperity plan."

 I agree with DeForest B. Soaries Jr's critique. But in light of his assessment, and in acknowledgement of the current popularity of the prosperity gospel, I would tentatively say that anyone who hopes to return our discourse to Christian Socialism as envisioned by M.L. King will probably have to wean parishioners away from the approach to theology offered by the "prosperity movement."