Friday, October 10, 2008

The Meaning of Life

Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.

--Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions pp. 208-9.

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Paranoia of Political Correctness

Most people (e.g. me) whose parents weren't active in the KKK grew up thinking, rather naively, that racism is the belief that one's own race is superior and other races are inferior. By contemporary standards, this is not exactly true--the inner logic of political correctness is more convoluted than that. For example, a positive opinion of another group expressed for the wrong reasons is still racist (e.g. "orientalism," "white guilt"), while a sweepingly negative statement denigrating all members of a particular group is not necessarily racist: if the target group has more members and/or a higher average socioeconomic status than that of the person uttering the statement, it's "reverse racist." It can also be tricky to tell "ironic" racism from the real thing, especially in our present cultural climate, wherein edginess is valued over intelligence, and low quality satire often reinforces the very ideas it's intended to critique.

I imagine that people who are members of minority groups (most of whom actually belong to majority groups, in an extra-American context) feel just as frustrated, if not more so. They could probably describe the same sensation of walking on eggshells, the same feeling slightly guilty awkwardness whenever the issue of "race" comes up, and the additional fear that just maybe a group of 5 resentful crackers are going to be waiting in the alley with sticks in their hands and pillowcases over their heads.

Maybe the way we're all looking at the issue of "race" right now seldom makes anyone feel happy or secure. Maybe identity politics isn't a zero sum power game, and "race" (whatever that actually means--minor statistical variation in a single actively communicating global gene pool, maybe?) is less of a big deal than people seem to think. Perhaps racism isn't necessarily a hideous social cancer or a deeply entrenched, self-perpetuating "regime of power and knowledge" but rather a lazy and complacent in-group superstition that most people would happily give up upon learning that it's intelligent and profitable to do so. I suspect our current efforts to combat racism usually only make it worse, and the sooner we figure that out, the better off we'll all be.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

$70 Worth of Five Dollar Words

I ran across this charming passage on a section of the ACLA website titled Diasporan Ecofeminisms: Towards a Nomadology of Eco-Ethical Resistance:

As contemporary ecofeminist scholarship asserts, the trajectory of globalization is predicated on an inherently patriarchal ethos that creates environmentally racist and misogynistic geopolitical spaces, spaces that systematically divide the population according to racial and gendered hierarchies. Consequently, it is essential we expose the corporate geopolitical hegemonies that are causal to the worldwide spread of human suffering and environmental destruction.

This isn't just bad writing, it's also untrue. The global emergence of free markets is probably the most efficacious antiracist, antimisogynist phenomenon on the planet right now. If "contemporary ecofeminists" did any serious, competent field work, they would find that the vast majority of indigenous populations have the same kinds of racial and gendered hierarchies as the rest of us. Environmental pollution and destruction of biodiversity are indeed worrisome, but history has shown that non-market systems (e.g. Chinese and European socialism) tend to be even worse for the environment--at least in market economies efficiency is profitable. Regardless, such a opaque, jargon-heavy style virtually guarantees that no one but "contemporary ecofeminist scholar[s]" will take this gobbledygook seriously.

John Brockman, in short piece titled Edge: The Third Culture, predicts that the traditional literary intellectual will soon become marginalized to the point of irrelevancy. Given the current state of affairs in literary theory and criticism, it's not hard to see why.

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The Onion: Humor in Shackles

This week The Onion is experimenting with an 18th century period theme. This is quite tedious to begin with, but the hateful and spectacularly unfunny "Humor in Shackles," which features mock jokes about the torture and killing of black slaves, is in the worst possible taste. Mark Twain's classic anti-slavery novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses the word "nigger" over 200 times, yet still manages to depict its black and white characters as deeply human. "Humor in Shackles," despite its PC language, merely exploits horrific imagery in order to turn the knee-jerk mechanism of dehumanization back onto the white slave owners, committing itself to the same mentality of tribalist hatred and oppression that permits atrocities like slavery in the first place. Shitty satire* merely perpetuates the kind of thinking it purports to criticize, and this week's issue of The Onion is a case in point. Boo-urns.

*Also see Stuff White People Like, Wonder Showzen, etc.

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