Tag Archives: Feminism

The Metaphysics of “American Freedom”

In keeping with the vivisection metaphor, let’s think of this essay as an exploratory surgery.  Rather than making a specific argument that I believe is true, I want to entertain a notion that I believe might be true and follow it.  The notion in question is that contemporary American political discourse is structured around a historically unique metaphysical notion of ‘Freedom’.

In The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard famously identified postmodernity as the lack of a ‘metanarrative’, or overarching worldview.  This would seem to be backed up by the heterogenous superfluity of philosophies and schools of philosophy that defines the contemporary moment, where the disparity between something like Slavoj Žižek and Richard Dawkins–two people I have heard described as philosophers at the forefront of culture–seems unbridgeable, even if they do have a certain degree of common ground.  But when we look at the people afflicted with this postmodern ennui through the lens of contemporary American pop-political discourse (which for the sake of convenience I will refer to as American politics/culture, well aware of the problems this entails–but from its own point of view, as we shall see, it is the totality of America–and I hesitate to say ‘right-wing’ because I see this discourse on the left as well) we see that those afflicted by it are uniformly rejected as elitist, effete, socialist, or in some other way ‘not American.’  Perhaps this is because America is not struggling with a loss of meaning, even among the contingents that proudly call themselves atheist.  America has a God, and that God is Freedom.

Freedom-with-a-capital-F is a radical departure from the historically or lexically accepted meanings of the word.  It eludes definition, because to define it would be to limit its use or nature.  It is for some distinct from and contiguous with God and Country, the new WASP holy trilogy, or with Free Market and Country.  It is transcendent, an ideal like Heaven that is infinitely sublime–it is to be fought for, to kill for and die for, to cheat, lie, steal for–and yet like the Heavenly afterlife it is incredibly precarious, constantly at threat of collapse or being lost forever.  The threat does not ever come from within, this is one cardinal rule–one never gives up one’s Freedom.  To give up one’s freedom for one’s country (this being, of course, America) is considered acceptable as long as by doing so one is preserving Freedom.  It is, like salvation, composed of sacrifice.  One of the founding myths of Freedom is the appropriation of the (American only) war dead.  Many people have died for your Freedom.  It is guaranteed in sacred documents: the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights.  It has a new pantheon of deities, the Founding Fathers, who may be lauded or attacked but must always be understood as the key and vital catalyst for Freedom.

Most importantly, Freedom is defined by its lack.

Freedom is defined by the people who do not have it and the people who will take it away from you.  Freedom is the opposite of socialism, of fascism, of Islam, of Stalinism, of Maoism–of any other conceivable government system, all of which are defined by their lack of Freedom (this may seem a tautology–Freedom is what they don’t have, they are what doesn’t have Freedom–but a bootstrapping metaphysics like this is built on tautology).  The logical end of this is either to see the US government as uniquely capable of bestowing freedom, or of being itself an enemy of Freedom and therefore of America (we will talk about the shift from one to the other in a moment).  Freedom being lacking in all other countries, it is therefore uniquely, explicitly American.  Interestingly, it is wedded to the populace, not the soil–when the American goes abroad, they expect their Freedom to follow.

And yet “American” here is only a self-defining term again–it means those who have Freedom.  How do you lose your Freedom?  Someone attacks it.  But who?  How?

Let’s say A and B both possess Freedom and are therefore Americans.  Now let’s say A makes a sexist joke and B tells them it is not okay.  Within this metaphysical system, this constitutes an attack on A’s Freedom, which makes B un-American and therefore lacking Freedom.  Which is to say, one loses one’s Freedom by ‘attacking’ another’s, but only discursively.  One does not actually lose Freedom by losing real freedoms.  Take as example, the USA PATRIOT Act, which pretty definitively took freedoms away from the US citizenry but which was lauded as a defense of Freedom.

Now let’s look at how this mechanism plays out.  (Since this is an exploration rather than an argument: anecdotal and unsourced evidence ahead.)  A man fired for referring to basketball players as “nappy-headed hoes”: an attack on Freedom.  Marxist professors allowed to continue teaching at universities: an attack on Freedom.  Silencing the son of a 9/11 victim by cutting his mic when he talks in opposition to the Afghanistan war: a defense of Freedom.  Banning gay marriage: a defense of Freedom.  Banning assault rifles: an attack on Freedom.  A renowned law professor claiming police treated him roughly because of his race: an attack on Freedom.  A white man being criticized for shooting an unarmed black kid: an attack on Freedom.  Mandatory ‘nondenominational’ prayer and ‘teach the controversy’ in schools: a defense of Freedom.  Openly admitting oneself to be a Marxist: such an attack on Freedom that even among ‘left-wing’ Americans it can silence a conversation.

A familiar, unpleasant pattern begins to emerge.  When we look at definitions, Freedom appears founded on a tautology; when we look at experience, it is nothing but the mystification of racist, sexist, and otherwise bigoted processes we’ve been long familiar with.  Am I saying that American Freedom is bigotry?  Not quite–look at some of the smaller examples, like the defense of the two guys Adria Richards drew attention to for sexist comments at a tech conference.  More than anything, Freedom seems to be the right to be bigoted.

This explains its peculiar character.  When someone appeals to the American’s conscience, they are trying to undercut the right to bigotry.  They themselves are therefore not bigoted–which is to say, un-American.  This is also how one’s Freedom can be genuinely threatened: an appeal to conscience may succeed.

Bigotry is founded in the kyriarchy, the network of power structures in our society that includes sexism, racism, classism, and plenty of other forms of abuse.  It is institutional and also socially amorphous.  As I pointed out in previous posts, everyone participates in it, both from a place of privilege and from a place of marginalization.  This is stressful–to be marginalized means to be in a state of discomfort, among other things.  Thus Freedom, which will solidify the boundaries of one privileged group, the Americans, and the rest.  However, Freedom is both something people are unfortunate to lack and something they are responsible for lacking.  As such, one need not feel compassion for those lacking Freedom, since they must have reached that point out of some perverse desire of their own.  Alternatively, if one does feel compassion, rather than examining the systemic abuses that create the ‘lack of Freedom’, one must bring Freedom.

There are a lot of ways to bring Freedom, but they are almost all figured as invasion, and they are all nearly impossible ventures.

Because Freedom is inherently bigoted, someone cannot have it without accepting this bigotry.  With a few unpleasant exceptions, few people are willing to openly accept bigotry directed at them in such a way as to not make one being bigoted feel uncomfortable.  Certainly this cannot occur on a national level; hence the inevitable failure of any effort to bring Freedom abroad.  If a nation like Canada or Mexico is not Free (as, of course, they are not), then how could Iraq ever be?  Freedom is again a drive to root out whatever may challenge Freedom, i.e. whatever challenges the conditions of bigotry.  The greatest exception to this is of course on the level of class: we see Americans who equate wealth with hard work while having none of the former.

I believe this mechanism has not yet been particularly understood because for a long time the Freedom-worship seemed like another simple form of authoritarianism.  This is due to the degree to which the authority participated in Freedom culture.  If you look at pop culture criticisms of the situation during the W Bush presidency, most of them adopt the language of George Orwell’s 1984 or of response to Hitlerian Fascism.  This was because the notion of Freedom was wedded to the federal government.  Country was made of land, government, military might, Founding Fathers . . . the whole package was in sync.  However, something happened to severely disrupt this synchronism: a black man was elected president.

Obama created a paradox within the Freedom system: a president against whom one should be bigoted by the rules of the system.  If one could be bigoted against the man, how could he be president?  (Remember the quasi-religious nature with which the office of president was received circa 2007.)  If one could not be bigoted against him . . . then he is attacking the American’s Freedom . . . and therefore not Free.

All told, it was not particularly difficult for Freedom culture to jettison the federal government and jump into the arms of one of the sects that had been waiting around for a while: right-wing libertarianism.  Although built on principles of Atheism, that was not fundamental to its core; an obsession with Freedom was.  Thus the Tea Party, which among other things organized a number of bigoted attacks against Obama.  If he is not Free, he is not American–let’s check his birth certificate!  It must be a fake!  I’ve been trying very hard to skate free of Godwin’s Law throughout this article, but if I may be permitted one slip-up, it’s hard not to see how the conflation of Muslim and Socialist in the attacks leveled against Obama mirror the conflation of Jew and Bolshevik in the attacks Hitler leveled at his enemies.

All of which is not by way of defending Obama for the atrocities he has committed–but only recently has Freedom culture begun to take advantage of these as a leverage point.  And who knows, perhaps that leverage will have a real positive effect in the world, as bigotry is used to help prevent massacres.  I don’t have much faith in such a thing.

What I do have more faith in is the limitations that arise from the structure of Freedom culture.  In short, it lies in the degree to which bigotry can no longer occur in a cultural echo chamber.  More and more people are speaking out–again, after a decade of decreasing discourse.  The information age puts the American in accidental contact with the un-American in such a way that superstitions about those lacking Freedom may be unintentionally challenged.  Most of all, those excluded from the America of Freedom culture are making their voices heard in the US.  As I pointed out before, Obama was reelected on the basis of the marginalized vote.  Women are becoming a political force.  People of color (half of which, of course, are women as well) are becoming a political force, even in the face of a country that is seeking dozens of ways to criminalize them.  Even queers are beginning to have some political draw, although generally only the wealthier white ones.  Freedom culture may be the last gasp of the long historical moment of liberal (meant in the tradition philosophic-historical sense) oppression, brought down by the the very notion of universal enfranchisement that it birthed.

Or we may be witnessing a temporary lapse before another rise to power.  Even if this depiction of the political situation in the US is accurate, it doesn’t yet answer the question that I find most pressing: where to go from here.  But from the angle of personal ethics, the answer seems clear: renouncing Freedom to begin working toward freedom.

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You Are Privileged

Let’s get something straight, because I’m tired of hearing a lot of people talking a lot of bullshit about the issue of privilege.

You are privileged.

I don’t care who you are, you are privileged in some way.  Not all privilege is equal, not all privilege is the same.  You may be privileged for age, body type, physical ability, location of birth, race, gender, gender expression, sexuality, sex, political beliefs, class, religion, or a host of other things, but I can pretty much guarantee that there is no one on this planet who does not benefit from some type of privilege, however small.

Corollary to that, you are also, in some ways, probably losing out to privilege.  There is something that others have over you.  You may be a rich, white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, Methodist, male graduate of Yale and Harvard who just happens to have been president for two terms, but people are always going to make certain presumptions about you on the basis of that accent and your speech difficulties.

But just because George W Bush is himself lacking in a couple privileges does not make his situation equivalent to that of a poor, black, transgender lesbian Muslim.  There are different degrees of privilege, and it’s important to recognize, when you’re discussing privilege, that the obstacles you face may not be nearly as difficult as the obstacles others face.

You may say: “But I just don’t get it.  Isn’t bringing up all this stuff creating more division when we should be working together as a community for human rights of all sorts?”

No.  I know that thought is tempting, because to you it seems like there was a unified community, and then it was broken up when half the members started raising complaints.  But you were just living under the misconception that the community was unified.  The community was already divided, and half the members knew this and were experiencing the negativity of this, but you were expecting them to carry extra weight without realizing it.  And the ability to not realize is a major part of privilege.  In fact, we could almost define privilege as all the benefits you get and give without realizing that’s what you’re doing (unless you’re just a straight-up bigoted asshole).  This is what the phrase, “check your privilege,” means.  It’s not saying that you need to shut up, as I’ve heard white cis males saying.  It’s just meant as a reminder that you don’t know what’s going on here, that the person talking to you is coming from an experience you’ve never had and you need to stop before you continue making presumptions about their life.  Why is it, a lot of people ask, that marginalized figures are so sensitive?  It must be because they’re all whiny, right?  Or is it because they come from a place that you don’t know?  Is it because you’ve never experienced year after year of cumulative putdowns and limitations, of little things that can ruin a perfectly good day because they all just serve as a constant reminder of how much the world that now exists is set against you?  Perhaps you think that you can imagine what it’s like, but you’re probably wrong, especially if you’re trying to calculate from your own experiences rather than letting them tell you what it’s like.

And that’s the final, most obnoxious element of privilege: the insistence that the privileged person gets it.  If someone confronts you, saying that you’re talking from privilege, the best thing you can do is let them explain.  You probably don’t know what they’re going to say, and chances are they know what you’re going to say.  They’ve probably heard it a lot.

For some extra context, here’s some examples.  The purpose of a privilege checklist is to bring to your attention all the things you benefit from without knowing, since privilege is so often steeped in an ignorance of one’s own advantages.  Corollary to that is the fact the the moral obligation is on the privileged folks–not the marginalized folks–to spread awareness of these things, even though the marginalized folks often end up having to take up the task.
White Privilege Checklist
Straight Privilege Checklist
Male Privilege Checklist
Able-Bodied Privilege Checklist (this one switches to being a checklist of lack of privilege halfway through but it’s still just as useful)
Cis Privilege Checklist
Thin Privilege Checklist
Class Privilege
Christian Privilege (looks like it’s pretty much in America / predominantly Christian countries, but it can also give you an idea of what sorts of privilege any dominant religious group gets)
Black Male Privilege Checklist
Muslim Male Privilege Checklist
“Gamer” Privilege Checklist (it actually seems to be more about defining gamers as a privileged group, i.e. only the privileged are gamers, but that’s a discussion for another day)
Male Programmer Checklist

I would say all of these lists are worth your time to read.

So, from these lists there’s a couple things we can see. First of all, intersectionality (meaning the multiple power networks affecting a single person) is particularly apparent in some of these, and must be kept into account at all time, since most people are laboring under several categories of marginalization–the ability to avoid which is in itself, as the Black Male Privilege Checklist points out, a privilege.

Another thing I noticed is that most forms of privilege tend to fall into a few specific categories:
-the world is made for you
-there are positive media representations of you
-people generally know about the characteristics of your identity
-you don’t have to worry about your identity in conversations/business/relationships
-you can get the things you need
-you are subject to less violence
-you are unaware of some or all of this

I’ve probably missed a bunch, but it seems to me that a lot of the privileges are predicated on being unaware of or unwilling to respond to them.  We have to remember that every time we benefit from a privilege, we do so at the expense of marginalized folks.  As a white American living in a pretty ‘liberal’ but vanillocentric town, I’m used to seeing people aware that their world is founded on violence, but these same people do not as much acknowledge that they are perpetuating that violence, and will continue to as long as they fail to respond to and attempt to ameliorate their privileges.  Awareness of your own privilege should not be the end of the conversation, it should be the starting point of a new conversation about what you can do to make things better.

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Are You Responsible for Your Offensive Movie?

This is part of what will hopefully be an ongoing series I’m going to call The Ethics of Immanent Creation, focusing on the issue of creative work within the world–the productive process that gives rise to those things we analyze.  Rather than an analysis or opinion piece, this is meant to be more a rumination, an effort to help outline the problematic I encounter.

This is a conversation I’ve been having a lot lately, so I figured it was worth mentioning on here.  It goes something like this:
Other:  I really like “Independence Day.”
Me:  Yeah, it’s pretty good, but for me it’s a guilty pleasure.
O:  Why?  What’s wrong with it?  I mean, sure, there are some plot holes but…
M:  It’s more the political stuff.
O:  Like what?
M:  Well, how about the ridiculous number of Jewish stereotypes–or general racial stereotypes?  Economic stereotypes, such as with Randy Quaid’s character?  Or the whole ending sequence where we see the little montage of the world’s cliche’s, and of course no one knows what to do until–“It’s the Americans!  They want to organize a counter-offensive!”  “Well it’s about bloody time!”  “True, because we are literally helpless without the big American hyperpower to hold our hand, even in an apparently apocalyptic post-globalization scenario.”  Or how about the fate of the President’s wife, a textbook case of Women in Refrigerators if I’ve ever seen one?  Or the patronizing treatment of Jasmine’s strip-dancing, or structuring the film as a defense of heroic president-icons against conspiracy theories, or–  Well, as you can see, I could go on about this forever.
O:  I mean, I can kinda see what you’re saying, but what, do you think they intentionally put that there?  It’s just a fun action movie, I don’t think they were thinking about the political side of it.
M:  True.  I’m almost certain that Roland Emmerich, who seems to be a very well-meaning idealist sort of fellow, did not go into this project intending to perpetuate racist, sexist, and classist ideology.  Likewise with everyone else involved.  But nonetheless, the movie does this.  The key word here is ‘perpetuate’.  When this was put together, people didn’t think about the implications of what they were saying, in terms of race, because they were putting together a story based out of cultural myths–cliches and tropes, basically.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  Most everything either contains or reacts to cliches and tropes; that’s the fundamental basis of a number of theories of cultural transmission, from Roland Barthes to Richard Dawkins.  But nonetheless it resulted in a movie that is all these things: sexist, etc.
O:  But how can you expect them to be responsible for that?  Are they really responsible for the sorts of messages that get put into the story if they’re not even aware of them, if they’re not done intentionally?
M:  I don’t know.  This is why it becomes useful to talk about that idea of ‘originality’, which often means taking a critical look at the cultural myths we rely on.  Sure, by now the idea of another revision of traditional fairy tales or something might seem outdated and overplayed–except that Disney and company are still churning out replications of the unfortunate elements of these myths, and people are so used to it that they actually regard something like “Brave” as being feminist!  When someone is making a work, they are either replicated myths–and this can, generally, be called lazy storytelling–or they are critiquing those myths, even if their critique is just the refusal to use them.  So when I’m picking on Roland Emmerich, what I’m really doing is accusing him of lazy storytelling, but also pointing out that this laziness has political consequences.
O:  So, this is about political correctness?  Haven’t we been dealing with that for decades now–and isn’t it pretty universally loathed?
M:  Except that the term political correctness assumes some absolute, which is one of the reasons that critiques of what the right calls ‘liberals’ love to use the term: it implies that offended defenders of minority groups see themselves as imposing some new absolute rule.  While this may be true of a few, most of us are cultural relativists living instead with the issue of experienced ethics.  So perhaps the term ‘political responsibility’ would better convey what I’m trying to say: these people are responsible for their political content.  By saying that something is just a fun action movie, you can try to excuse that political responsibility, but it’s still there.
O:  But how is their responsibility?  It’s not like people are going to get their morals from watching “Independence Day”…
M:  Would that it were so.  But think back to your own childhood, assuming you grew up in some sort of normative United States-style experience: you were exposed to a lot of movies like “Independence Day”, songs like “Ignition (Remix)”, books like “Harry Potter”, games like “Duke Nukem” and you probably watched, listened to, read, or played these things repeatedly.  If you were anything like me you ran around the playground shouting, “Welcome to Earth!” and punching imaginary aliens.  In doing these things, you were re-enacting, you were learning how to perform cultural positions.  A lot of kids learned what it meant to be American from movies like “Independence Day”; is it any wonder, then, that they grow up believing in some myth of American exceptionalism?
O:  But you can’t just blame the films and music and whatnot; the children have to be responsible for what they end up learning as well.  Besides, don’t you like cheesy horror movies, which have traditionally been vilified for their influence on children?  How is this any different from those “Marilyn Manson and Doom caused Columbine” arguments?
M:  I absolutely agree: people are responsible for their individual actions.  What we have to understand is that these actions are overdetermined; they are both entirely the fault of the individuals who enact sexism, etc, and the fault of those who culturally imbue them with these ideas–although that’s a much more diffuse blame.  The classic metaphor is the man who is executed by a firing squad: each shooter would have been sufficient to kill him, yet they all shot him, so the blame is diffuse but the responsibility rests on the shoulders of each shooter.  The difference between these sorts of cultural ideas and something like the Manson-Columbine argument is in presentation.  No one with any vague amount of critical thinking approaches Manson thinking he is dead serious if he says, “Kill!”–it’s clear he’s being transgressive, and his performance carries transgressiveness almost to the point of parody.  I point you to Lukacs and simply say that the act of transgression is in itself a re-affirmation of the law; this is why the sort of ‘political correctness’ that goes after any discussion of drugs, sexuality, race, etc, is not only ineffective but actually harmful.  What is insidious about the sexism, etc, in the films of Roland Emmerich (and just about every other cultural product we enjoy; I don’t want to make too much of a scapegoat of Emmerich) is that it is not framed as a problem; rather, it is hardly framed at all, appearing as the basis and background for what is ostensibly a discussion of mankind uniting in the appearance of a new Other (Godzilla, aliens, ice age, Mayan apocalypse).  It is the way that cliches neither true to current reality nor an ideal reality are mindlessly replicated that I rebel against.  It is unrealistic and harmful.  Is it fair to ask the creators of a fun action film to be responsible for this?  Maybe not, in certain traditional conceptions of fairness.  But someone has to be responsible, and the only figures standing there are the creators.  By creating something, you need to be aware of not only what you do, but what you perpetuate, what you pass on.

Well, this is clearly not exactly 100% accurate to life, but it is indeed patched together out of various conversations I’ve had.  Is it the final word on the topic?  I don’t think so.  I specifically framed this as a dialogue to open myself up to refutation, and if anyone would like to continue the discussion I would be happy to.  But it does seem to me that there’s a good degree of excusing of bad messages that goes on–not the subversive messages that we associate with Eminem and Pussy Riot; the insidious, friendly, destructive messages contained in Meg Ryan movies and the show 24 and “Call Me Maybe”.  This isn’t a matter of  being too ‘politically correct’, it’s a matter of asking people creating cultural products that will be shown to hundreds of millions of people to take accountability for what they put out there.  Perhaps the most egregious violators are advertisers, who naturally have no advantage in telling us anything but exactly what we want to hear–in other words, reinforcing stereotypes, and in doing so defining cultural positions that vastly limit the ability of most people to understand anything apart from the normative message they’ve been spoon-fed for generations.  And we wonder why political change is so hard to achieve.


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