Monday, February 1, 2016

Donald Trump and the Course of American Conservatism

Donald Trump may win Iowa tonight. It remains to be seen whether he can win the nomination. But he has already emerged as a far greater political force than anyone imagined when he announced his candidacy last summer. In the process, he has unleashed passions that profoundly unsettle me and nearly everyone I know, conservative and liberal alike. We ask ourselves, do we really know our own country? Is bigotry and mean-spiritedness really so popular? Could an authoritarian demagogue really rise to the presidency? Here, in the United States? Time will tell.

I've read dozens of conservative writers make their case against Trump. They are horrified by him. So I can't help but ask, where have they been for the past two decades while the conservative movement has accepted or excused all manner of bigotry and falsehood? When did they confront the proud racism, misogyny, and homophobia of Rush Limbaugh, the apocalyptic paranoia of Glen Beck, and the lies of pseudo-historian David Barton? Where were they when a cable channel full of ignorant pundits stoking racial resentment became conservatism's premier news source? Oh, I guess many of them were too busy making sure they had a seat at the table.

The very same publications that have attacked Trump have also run articles accusing President Obama of purposely destroying America. Marco Rubio has now started saying this! It's no longer enough to say that you disagree with the President. Conspiracy theory has become common sense, and basic facts have become liberal bias. What's the message here? Trump is bad, but Trump-lite is ok?

People are wringing their hands about Trump's bigotry, constant falsehoods, and outlandish rhetoric, as if it's in any way different from what you can hear on talk radio every single day. It's not different. Is it really so surprising that a political figure has emerged to provide conservative voters a choice that echoes the views of their most popular news sources? After conservative elites have refused to say in clear terms that bigotry will not be tolerated, that figures like Rush Limbaugh are not welcome in the party, they are shocked--shocked!--that a candidate is so powerfully channeling the cultural resentment that is Limbaugh's bread and butter.

Many conservative pundits and politicians are acting as though they are not complicit in Trump's rise. But the party has been playing with fire for years. Look at the last two presidential election cycles. The jovial ignorance of Herman Cain. The routinized lying of Michele Bachmann. The cultural resentment and white identity politics of Sarah Palin. All of these unqualified figures were beloved by evangelicals in their moment, and tolerated by party elites. Trump launches a campaign of their greatest hits, and now the party suddenly realizes the downside?

Though Trump is a dangerous man, there is still time for good to come from his rise. It will start with this realization: if you don't like Trump, you actually don't like much of modern American conservatism. This doesn't mean you're not a conservative. It doesn't mean conservatism isn't valuable and absolutely needed. In many ways, I am deeply conservative. I hear the word revolution and I run the other way. Because to be a conservative is to understand that, actually, it could be worse, and change must be implemented carefully because there are always unintended consequences. In many ways--believe me, I'm not trolling, and I don't yet know who I am supporting this year--Hillary Clinton offers a more philosophically conservative vision than do many of the Republican candidates.

I believe Trump's demagoguery will pass and there will be a better and more responsible conservatism in the nation's future. But that might not begin until we face the fact that Trump is not a weed in the garden of contemporary conservatism. He is its fruit.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Comprehensive Exams Update

I'm doing my comprehensive exams this semester. That means procrastination is my familiar friend in these months. Somehow, writing a few thoughts down and clicking publish is easier than opening up my books this morning. Besides, this way I can share a few thoughts on what I'm reading to make it sink deeper into my mind, and still feel like I'm not working. Win win!

But first, what are comps?

I find that the farther along one goes in academic studies, the more confused family and friends are about what is happening. Everyone more or less understands going to college and getting an undergraduate degree. The Masters degree is a little more confusing but it's still basically just a matter of going to classes and writing an extra-long paper. By the time you get to the Phd level, however, people aren't familiar with the process. I'm done with classes, for example, but I'm not even half-way to my Phd. This confuses people. Most of my remaining time will be taken with teaching classes to undergraduates and writing a dissertation (essentially a book, but invariably unpublishable in its dissertation form). But before I can do that, I need to pass my comprehensive exams in May. Basically, this just means that between now and then I will read a bunch of books, and then sit down in a room with three professors to be raked over the coals. Fun!

I have concluded that I can't study for an exam for four months, especially since this isn't anything like what one normally thinks of as an exam. No, my secret sauce for succeeding at comps is to do it for me. I don't mean that in a selfish sense. I just think that if I am to stay sane, it will be because I am reading these books for the love and excitement of learning rather than in hopes of answering a difficult questions months from now. Doing it for the joy of it means letting myself linger over books that I want to linger on, and thinking about connections that have nothing to do with comps: teaching ideas, dissertation possibilities, intersections with articles I'm trying to publish. That's my theory. It'll keep you sane.

Now, my method. I have three book lists (racial identities and ideologies in the twentieth-century U.S., religion in the twentieth-century U.S., and settler colonialism and decolonization). I'm alternating back and forth, doing one book list each week. I'm hoping that will give a sense of coherence to each week, and then the intervening two weeks before I come back to a given list allow ideas to germinate (or lie dormant, as the case may be). I'm using evernote, writing a less than one-page summary of each book, which I find to be extremely helpful. I can print those and read over them in relatively short order, so I have (perhaps naive) hopes of actually remembering the gist of all the books. I figure if I read 10 books a week ("read" in the graduate school sense) I will not fall too far behind and will be in a position to ramp up for a more intense sprint in April. So far, when I think about what I'm learning I really enjoy it. When I think about it being comps, I don't enjoy it. So again, do it for yourself.

So, this week is my first settler colonialism week. I can now say I've read some Frantz Fanon. I haven't finished The Wretched of the Earth, and I may well be misinterpreting him, but I can't accept his ideas about violence and religion. Colonialism, he writes, "is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with greater violence." Part of what violence accomplishes, of course, is the liberation of the mind of the colonized. But I don't think such liberation requires violence. I'm struck by the similar terms in which Dr. King described the psychological liberation he believed African Americans achieved through non-violent action. And I am interested to see if Fanon addresses the case of India. I don't know anything about decolonization there, but I'm not sure how it would be interpreted as a case of the colonized meeting violence with greater violence. Still, I understand the appeal of violence and I've written before about the real costs of non-violence.

As for religion, I don't know enough about Fanon to know if he was attacking the liberatory potential of religion as such, or if he was attacking its actual practice in colonial Algeria. I would dispute the more general attack but not the specific one. For example, this seems perceptive and necessary:
The Church in the colonies is a white man's Church, a foreigners' Church. It does not call the colonized to the ways of God, but to the ways of the white man, to the ways of the master, the ways of the oppressor. And as we know, in this story many are called but few are chosen.
Brilliant. But elsewhere, he seems to imply that religion as a rule aides colonial oppression without exception. He talks about the colonized subject taking his (It's always a male subject for Fanon) tensions and frustrations out on his fellows rather than on the oppressor and contends that religion supports this misdirected aggression:
The colonized subject also manages to lose sight of the colonist through religion. Fatalism relieved the oppressor of all responsibility sine the cause of wrong-doing, poverty, and the inevitable can be attributed to God. The individual thus accepts the devastation decreed by God, grovels in front of the colonist, bows to the hand of fate, and mentally readjusts to acquire the serenity of stone.
It's not that this is universally wrong, but it's naive to suggest that this is the way religion functions in the world. Again, from India to the United States, religion during Fanon's life also mobilized "the wretched of the earth" to resist their oppression. Like most everything, humans have found ways to use religion for both good and ill. In other respects, the book is remarkably relevant. It's remarkable how much Fanon's discussion of the colonist and colonized calls to mind the American context of White supremacy, especially if we think of the creation of American ghettos as analogous to colonial rule.

While we're talking about Algeria, another fascinating book this week is Todd Shepard's The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France. Shepard argues that at the moment of Algerian independence French leaders quite suddenly rewrote history so as to make decolonization appear natural and progressive, a vindication of French universalist ideals. In doing so, they obscured the rupture that had actually occurred in the French nation (Algeria was France) and repudiated a colorblind political ideal of French citizenship. To put this more simply, "The Algerian Revolution," Shepard writes, "was at the same time a French revolution," or, even better, a "counterrevolution" in which French identity narrowed and protection of civil liberties declined. Instead of acknowledging this wrenching revolution, the French "invented decolonization." 

This is fascinating. It's probably old-hat to people in the field, but it's new to me. I need to think more about the implications of framing decolonization in this way. Decolonization as revolution or nation-rupturing in the metropole means discarding the idea of decolonization as something that takes place only on the periphery, only among so-called developing peoples. I need to think about how this is all entangled.

Speaking of so-called developing peoples, I also waded through the introduction to Dipesh Chakrabarty's Provincializing Europe.  My understanding is that Chakrabarty believes the language and categories we have for thinking about modernity are embedded in the European past and are in fact inadequate for thinking about modernity in South Asia (and the whole global south for that matter). In short, Europe's present is not the globe's future; there are multiple ways of being modern, and we must cast off the historicist conceit that history is moving from stage to stage toward a certain destination, one that Europe happily arrives at first. Part of what this means, I think, is that our entire popular language about "development" is really messed up. Developed nations, developing nations, or modernizing nations. This kind of talk imports European categories to innacurately describe global realities. I think. Who knows? This book is confuing!

Nonetheless, Chakrabarty said something really fascinating about religion that I think is important. In keeping with the theme of his book, it calls into question European ideas about what is modern, but it also rebukes a lot of historian's conception of what religion is. Here's Chakrabarty:
The second assumption running through modern European political thought and the social science is that the human is ontologically singular, that gods and spirits are in the end "social facts," that the social somehow exists prior to them. I try, on the other hand, to think without the assumption of even a logical priority of the social. One empirically knows of no society in which humans have existed without gods and spirits accompanying them...
I take gods and spirits to be existentially coeval with the human, and think from the assumption that the question of being human involves the question of being with gods and spirits.
I need to read the rest of his book to more clearly see what this means for him in practice, but this seems like a radical rebuke to any kind of Marxist-influenced view of religion.  Now, I completely agree with this, but I agree with it because of my theological beliefs rather than historical training. I'm not sure what it means for historical work. Doesn't it take religion outside the sphere of historical scholarship altogether? I think I'm missing something and need to read the rest of the book to see how he applies this idea.

Let's see...what else? I also read Margaret D. Jacobs' Bancroft Prize-winning book, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940. Utterly fascinating and devastating. Jacobs argues the removal of indigenous children as part of "protection" and "assimilation" policies in late nineteenth and early twentieth century were not more benign practices representing a break from earlier brutal forms of colonization. Instead, they were nation-building policies with the same fundamental goals of earlier policies: the taking of land and the erasure of indigenous identities. 

She pushes hard on the idea that the very presence of indigenous groups represented a threat to the construction the American and Australian nations, and thus historians who have seen a sharp break between earlier overt violence and these ostensibly more humane policies are missing the forest for the trees. And she cleverly shows how women took center-stage in the process of child-removal. Instead of military invasions of land, now white women invaded the intimate indigenous spaces of the home, policing and pathologizing the indigenous body, sexual practices, and child-rearing norms. She makes a convincing case that you can't understand the settler colonial project without understanding how Europeans undermined the gender conventions of indigenous peoples and asserted their own in the name of civilizing, advancing, uplifting. Beneath the rhetoric of saving and civilizing and "making useful" through child removal lay "a bedrock of concerns about defining and building the nation--as white, Christian, and modern."

A possibly more problematic book is Hermann Giliomee's The Afrikaners: Biography of a People.  This is a sprawling book, but for my purposes Giliomee's apartheid arguments are most important. He contends that the decisive turning point in twentieth century South African history was not the National Party's 1948 victory on an apartheid platform, but S. Africa's divisive entry into World War Two as it divided whites along lines of language. He discards the claim that apartheid was driven by Afrikaner populism in the north. Instead, he claims, it was a product of the western Cape. Further, he contends that the ideological roots of apartheid were found not in Nazism but in already established segregation (especially in schools), the white supremacy of the Dutch Reformed Church, American Jim Crow (fascinating! When American hyper-nationalists talk about our grand influence on the world they usually don't acknowledge these kinds of influences), and emerging ideas about indirect rule and social conflict in plural societies. That Afrikaners pursued apartheid even beyond their economic self-interest was due, he contends, not to simple racism but a concern for ethnic and national survival. This sounds reasonable but it also treads some uncomfortable lines. I worry that there is a romanticism to this that is unwarranted, but I don't have the expertise to know. For instance, he frames the Afrikaners as fighters of "the twentieth century's first anti-colonial war" which, in the first place, seems a quirk of timing, and in the second place, not even true. Was the Philippine Republic not fighting an anti-colonial war against the United States at the same time? On the other hand, it is simply true that Afrikaners were both colonized and colonizers, as he puts it, and that tension can be uncomfortable to explore.

But wait! What is settler colonialism? I should have mentioned this book first: Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century: Projects, Practices, Legacies is a collection of essays edited by Caroline Elkins and Susan Pederson. In the introduction they introduce a typology for twentieth century settler colonialism, setting it apart from earlier forms and from settler projects and settler states. Their argument: twentieth century settler colonialism was defined by a four-way negotiation for power, and the institutionalization of settler privilege. The four groups contesting the governance of the settler colony were the metropole, local administration, indigenous population, and the settler community. The typology distinguishes between settler colonies with high and low institutionalization of settler privilege, and high and low levels of settler incorporation into governance, thus creating four quadrants. Rhodesia, for example, was high in both variables, while Korea was low in both dimensions. This typology allows for easily understanding comparison of similarities and differences across settler colonies around the world.

They're also careful to distinguish twentieth-century settler colonialism from earlier forms. Elkins and Pederson urge us to consider pre-twentieth century settler colonialism in countries like Australia and the United States not as a stage of historical development but as an organizing principle of the states founded by it. Drawing here on Patrick Wolfe, they write, "Settler colonialism, then, is not the past--a violent but thankfully brief period of conquest and domination--but rather the foundational governing ethic of this 'new world' state." Yet the twentieth century cases discussed in the book are quite different from those earlier and extremely successful forms of settler colonialism. In every twentieth century case, the indigenous population was larger, and the influence of the metropole stronger. Twentieth century settler colonial societies were more fragile, and only in the case of Israel did they produce a successful nation-building project.

Ok, I think I'm ready to get to work now. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Few Things for Christians to Keep in Mind When We Vote

Little-known fact: Jesus would make a horrible president.
Presidential primary season is upon us. Around this time every four years, Christians on both the left and the right engage in a lot of motivated reasoning to explain why their political ideology is the most appropriate expression of Christian values in our American democracy. Perhaps this post isn't so different from all the others, but I'd like to think it is at least a little bit. I have three simple thoughts that it seems to me ought to help inform our vote. You might come up with a different list, but I'm increasingly struck by the extent to which our political system runs on the values of self-interest, nationalism, and incumbent wealth. I emphasize these three factors not for their comprehensiveness, but for the dearth of attention paid to them. Because these issues cut across partisan boundaries and structure the very terms of political debate, they are often overlooked. Too often, we rush into partisan debate without realizing that the mainstream positions of both parties are troubling.

Each party in its own way appeals to the following values that are, at best, irrelevant to the life Jesus invites Christians to discover. 

1) Self-interest. This is the most basic form of political appeal. Candidate A says her policies will benefit you more than those of candidate B. This kind of appeal should not move Christians in the least. It is not enough to start from self-interest and then produce rationalizations explaining that the interests of others mysteriously align with yours.

2) Nationalism. Both parties, the Democrats in their diplomatic way and the Republicans in their more militaristic tone, assure voters that they will do whatever it takes to protect the national interest. But Christianity has nothing to do with nationalism. Imagined solidarities based on the modern nation-state have no bearing on the valuation of human beings in the kingdom of God. Any hint that, say, an Iranian life is less valuable than an American one is heretical to Christians. It is not enough to start from nationalism and then produce rationalizations that what is best for the U.S. happens to be best for the world.

3) Incumbent wealth. Both parties go out of their way to emphasize their determination to protect and promote the interests of those who are already successful. Whether it is the Democrats talking incessantly about the middle class or the Republicans praising job creators, both parties try to avoid talking too much about the social and economic groups about which Christianity is most concerned: the poor and marginalized. It is not enough to start from middle-classness and only then come up with rationalizations for why what's best for the wealthy will somehow be best for the poor.

Some will read this as vulgar emotionalism. Don't I know that democracy, though it thrives on self-interest, is the best form of government we've managed to find in this broken world? Don't I know that the nation-state is a bulwark of protection in dangerous times? Don't I know that middle-class success really is crucial for the alleviation of poverty?

These are complicated issues. But I emphasize what we Christians don't seem to know well enough: that the entire ethic of the Kingdom of God challenges the most taken-for-granted allegiances and structures of the modern world. So when--or, indeed, if--we walk into the voting both, my hope is that we will do so with a substantially more subversive frame of mind than we have thus far imagined.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

People Are Right to Boycott the Oscars

Some Black artists have chosen to boycott the Oscars after the major award categories featured all-White nomination slates. It is not as though there was a deficit of great Black performances this year, and their exclusion from the awards stage is part of a broader decades-long pattern of discrimination. So the decision to boycott the event is entirely appropriate. But talk of a boycott is producing predictable hand-wringing and questions about the supposed threat to the integrity of the Oscars and of film artistry in general.

"What are the Oscars to do?
 Lower standards?
 Set an artificial quota for films featuring people of color?
 Are we to have affirmative action in movie awards now!!??
 Political correctness!!!!"

Implicit in these questions and complaints is the confident but completely unfounded belief that the Oscars reflect meritocratic achievement. The controversy brings into sharp focus the extent to which White success is coded in our society as earned and natural, even if there is little evidence to support these claims. It is hard to imagine that the people loudly insisting race has nothing to do with this would be so sanguine in a world where Oscar Voters were 94% Black. But here in our real world where they are 94% White, it is obviously inconsequential. By the way, there's nothing sinister or mysterious about this kind of discrimination. The notion that your identity will affect how you experience a film and identify with its characters is too obvious to be seriously denied. But this is, in effect, exactly what defenders of the Oscars do deny.

It is telling that so many people see a challenge to White dominance and Black exclusion as an attack on a meritocracy. Instead of appealing for inclusion of people of color using the language of individual achievement and hard-earned merit, we must expose how the fiction of meritocracy hides the reality of unearned White advantage.

Let's zoom out from movies and think about what we know of the broader structures of opportunity in American society: we know that Whites have race-based unearned advantages in getting jobs and promotions and benefit from network effects. We know that people of color, particularly African Americans, are widely discriminated against in the job market. We also know that discrimination and inequality in education, health, policing, and housing leave many young people of color less prepared for the job market in the first place. We know that these dynamics of unearned advantage and discrimination overwhelm the effects of affirmative action policies. Thus we know that, in the aggregate, successful White individuals are more likely to owe their success to their racial identities than are successful Black individuals. We know this. There's nothing mysterious about it. If we allow ourselves to linger on this point, we will see how dramatically the meritocratic screen distorts our perceptions.

Think about it: though successful Whites are the most likely to experience unearned advantaged based on race, their achievements are most associated with merit, hard work, and earned success. In contrast, achievements of people of color are associated with affirmative action and political correctness. The point is not that people of color never benefit from affirmative action; it is that whites continue to gain far more from our racialized society even as their success is coded as raceless. The idea of meritocracy is deployed in defense of the very group that least exemplifies it.

To be clear, I think it is uncharitable to view any person's success in cynical terms of earned or unearned. On an individual level, few people find great success without putting in a lot of hard work. But the suspicion that attaches itself to Black success ("he's only there because of affirmative action"), would, if applied with any consistency, render White success even more suspicious.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

What is White Supremacy?

White supremacy in the popular imagination
I think it is fair to say that most White Americans scoff at the notion that this is a White supremacist country. And it is easy enough to see why they would do so. After all, we all know what White supremacy is, right? It's that discredited world of white hoods and burning crosses, racial epithets and crude violence. The popular understanding of White supremacy is captured in's definition of the phrase:
the belief, theory, or doctrine that white people are inherently superior to people from all other racial groups, especially black people, and are therefore rightfully the dominant group in any society.
Put another way, the popular understanding of White supremacy is exclusively ideological. According to this perspective, white supremacy is discredited and marginal in American life because there are very few people who subscribe to the ideology that Whites have a racial right to rule. This is true, as far as it goes. The ideology of White supremacy, if expressed in an explicit form, has few supporters. But is ideology the only possible dimension of White supremacy? What about White supremacy as a material condition?

Scholars are increasingly discussing White supremacy as a fact, a condition, a set of systems that structure our lives. Take for example N.D.B. Connolly's recent book, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida. He writes,
As a system--or set of historical relationships--white supremacy was and is far more than the overtly and occasionally racist act. It includes laws and the setting of commercial and institutional priorities. White supremacy also includes the everyday deals that political operators and common people strike in observance of white privilege or, more accurately, white power...

White supremacy required political, cultural, and business transactions, especially as it related to the meaning and value of real estate in twentieth-century America. The culture driving growth politics in segregated US cities and suburbs, for nearly a century, could not have worked through a simple imposition of so-called white people pressing down on colored people. It required repeated buy-in from people across the class and color spectrums, trade-off after trade-off, year upon year. 
White supremacy in the scholarly imagination
In this scholarly usage, notice that White supremacy is not only a system and set of measurable facts on the ground, it is a system in which people of color participate. In popular usage, the idea that people of color could buy in to White supremacy seems a contradiction in terms. But if White supremacy has a concrete existence beyond ideology, the participation of people of all backgrounds is not only unsurprising, it is historically verifiable.

In the United States in 2016, people identified as White have large and disproportionate shares of wealth, opportunity, and political power, and they live in safer and richer neighborhoods with better access to quality schools, jobs, and public services. This is a statement of fact. You can call it something other than White supremacy if you prefer, but our desire to describe this state of affairs in non-racial terms has nothing to do with clarity or accuracy. Whether we refer to the racial ordering of our society as White supremacy or some other more clunky phrase (systemic White advantage? Disproportionate White power?), it is appropriate and productive to describe it with as much clarity and explicitness as we can.

Yet in popular media and public discourse, it is normal to employ deliberately vague terms that allude to facts but do not actually state or describe them. This is how White supremacy gets translated into terms such as "America's race problem," which can mean whatever you want it to mean, and to many people implies that people of color are the problem! There are two primary reasons for this confusion. First, the traditional ideological understanding of White supremacy remains the default popular usage of the term, and scholars and activists have not yet been able to make their more practical use of the term widely understood, nor have we found a suitable replacement for it. But the second and larger reason for the confusion is that most White Americans do not want to discuss racial conditions in clear and concrete terms regardless of the language we employ. This is a pessimistic take, but it implies that White Americans are not offended by the use of term White supremacy as such, but by the underlying reality to which it calls attention. If your group is at the top of an unjust racial hierarchy, why would you want to draw attention to it?

There is a remarkable inversion at work here. Most Americans understand White supremacy only as an ideology, even as it functions concretely and measurably in fact. Meanwhile, many Americans wishfully interpret colorblindness as a functioning fact, even as it operates primarily on an ideological level. The ideology of colorblindness prevents Americans from seeing the fact of White supremacy. The ideology is rendered as fact and the fact is rendered as ideology.

I welcome any insights and ideas for creative ways to resolve these misunderstandings. Clarity in our language will not in itself fix many Americans' underlying resistance to acknowledging racial inequality and discrimination. Still, it is helpful to understand that when you and I hear the phrase White supremacy, we may be imagining two very different things.