Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Death Penalty

This in the New York Times is perplexing. Race clearly matters in the criminal justice system, but I was surprised at the way the problem gets hashed out - it's the victims race that matters more than the alleged murderer?

Most disturbing of all:

"Twenty-one years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that even solid statistical evidence of racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty did not offend the Constitution. The vote was 5 to 4, and the case was McCleskey v. Kemp."

One NYU prof called it the new Dred Scott . . .

"An affaire of civilization, not biology"

Since our blog was bound to hit the big race subject, I might as well take the opportunity to recall Aimé Césaire's position, which is that "négritude" or "nègre" had always been about culture and civilization instead of "race." Césaire was a black intellectual who was consistently appalled by biological arguments. Therefore, from the point of view of Martiniquan intellectuals of the 1930s, the Martiniquan bourgeoisie was essentially "white" - black skin, white masks, since they rejected indigenous culture, oppressed the under-privileged blacks, and worse of all, identified with the French bourgeoisie. At the same time, the "white" Surrealists were considered more "nègre" than the black bourgeoisie, because they condemned colonialism and believed in the value of the "l'âme primitive" or the "primitive soul," which translates into the valorization of poetic, imagistic form of thinking and a kind of spontaneous defiance against all forms of instrumental thinking. (After the sixth or seventh time of reading André Breton's homage to Césaire and Césaire's memory of Breton, I still cannot help being moved at the thought that when, once in a blue moon, a great white poet meets a great black poet and they recognize each other as great poets, all the skin colors of the world explode into a million stars.)

As a student of "primitivism" and the avant-garde, I almost want to say that the terms "primitive" and "soul" as understood by Césaire and his friends in the 1930s and 1940s do much to clarify our accursed discourse about race and skin color these days. Césaire was very explicit about the non-equivalence between "primitive" and "Africa," because primitive actually meant a certain phase in a civilization. For this reason, primitive Greece - as opposed to Hellenistic Greece - was more interesting to Césaire. Of course, this might sound like a very European/Caribbean discourse, but my homework in this domain has suggested that the Harlem Renaissance intellectuals did not think much differently. The "soul" of the black folk had to be valorized and articulated: this was the message of DuBois and someone whom I admire deeply, that is to say the philosopher Alain Locke. (Gale, can you add from the point of view of the Americanist?)

I was just reading Simone Weil's diatribe against the moral decadence of the Roman Empire and how (she argues) it corrupted the entire western civilization by co-opting Christianity, stamping out the "primitive" cultures of the Mediterranean as well as the Celtic lands, and left imperial vestiges to feed future totalitarian inspirations. Obviously, I am not qualified enough in the antiquities to dispute with her as to whether ancient Rome was truly the first Hitlerian regime that oppressed all peoples for the sake of grandeur and let innocent human blood flow for mere pleasure (the gladiators). However, the Christian in me has to recognize that there is something morally equivocal with empires (including China), and, historically, we cannot dispute the fact that fascism both in Italy and Germany dreamed of resuscitating the grandeur of the empire whose summit in the European part of the world was achieved by no other than ancient Rome. (By the way, Rome just went to the neo-fascists after 65 years of left-wing dominion. Reason to worry?)

Where am I going with this? I believe that the meaning of the terms "black" and "white" are (hopefully) changing in America so that they could again embody the moral connotations that they had in the 1930s. The most important thing about the humorous blog "Stuff White People Like" is that it reveals unmistakably that "white" is, as Césaire says, "une affaire de civilisation, pas de race." "White" does not mean having pale skin; instead, it refers to a certain bourgeois mediocrity. This mediocrity consists of materialist complacency, thirst for consumption, a false morality that consists ultimately of putting themselves above others ("pretty" social causes such as universal health care and global warming to be discussed over organic dinners), emotional stinginess, incapacity to understand spirituality other than what can give immediate pleasures (decor, massage, therapy). This kind of moral laziness is understood to be "white," in which case we can easily imagine persons of any skin color turning "white" simply by virtue of being alienated from the essential matters of human life: birth, old age, illness, death.

All this means that whether Obama is white or black is and has to be more complicated than how we used to judge white and black in my very multi-ethnic high school. (Asians who listened to "Offspring" were considered white, Indians who played basketball and listened to hip-hop were "black," and so forth.) We have to start asking the questions: What does it mean to be "white" in America? What does it mean to be "black" in America? As a relatively new American whose people happened to not have shared the history of slavery and colonialism, I consider it far from evident that all aspects of "white" culture are to be rejected, just as no one would dream (I hope) of denying the African-American heritage in this wonderful country called the United States of America. The Anglo/Germanic-American form of Christianity might be drab at times, but I am not sure that it does not contain elements capable of rivaling the grandeur of African-American hymnals (represented by the incomparable "Were You There?"). After all, can we imagine calling J.S. Bach's Kantatas "white"?

All in all, I believe that as Americans, we are in the extraordinary position of transcending white racism as well as black nationalism. If we cannot aspire for the kind of universality that Christianity has achieved (same doctrines, same creed, different tunes, different beats), let us at least dream of achieving a kind of "same nationality, different skin colors, different historical experiences" that the word "America"still rings for me.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Speaking of Race

This Opus cartoon raises the best question no one is asking.

How about this guys? Do we still subscribe to the "one drop of blood" doctrine of what makes someone "Black"? Apparently we do.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Today's column by Matt Bai begs the same question I asked in my previous post about McCain and race. But with a different spin: are the Democrats misconstruing the electoral map? I wonder if the prolonged Democratic primary is going to ruin the candidates - not because of insults and attack ads, but because Clinton and Obama are trying to out-Democrat each other and consequently lose more centrist votes by the minute.

Yet, as Ann said the other day, I also wish that elections didn't turn on the "Reagan Democrat" vote. The US isn't going back to being an industrial powerhouse like it was in 1950 (John Edwards), so maybe we need to let go . . .

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

In Memory of Aimé Césaire

A grand poet of color,
who makes tremble with anger
the hollow belly of the white moon.
Shoot, chutez, pale petite planets
from heaven. New stars are birthing
from the cries of ancient islands.

Joyce Cheng
23 April 2008
Paris, France

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

My first true posting on the blog

This is my first posting to our still very infrequently visited blog, "A common fire." It is indeed a very peculiar form of publication, and I feel two opposing forces. On the one hand, I feel that all opinions I voice here should be fair, balanced, informed, "footnoted," so to speak, since it is open to the public (the meaning of publication). On the other hand, the facility with which this text can be instantaneously composed and posted makes it tempting to write without much hesitation or deliberation, as if I am just writing an e-mail.

What makes me participate for the first time in this blog phenomenon - which, I admit, I have long looked upon with some incomprehension mixed with tempered contempt - is the notion and experience of friendship. I like the idea that, two hundred years after romanticism and one hundred year after the first avant-gardes, there is a surviving ethos of the ideal community in a small circle of friends (as opposed to the utopian society). Since everyday, more people of our generation have more "friendsters" than friends, have more understanding of "hanging out" than of conversing, I find this blog-experiment very interesting, because it uses new technology for what is essentially an old and perhaps endangered practice: having conversations that have content, with people for whom the content is actually meaningful.

I suggested to Gale that "A common fire" as a name for the blog sounds suspiciously like the Christian Left. She said, "Well, that's sort of what we are." I like to emphasize the "sort of," because it seems to me the most determining element of these conversations.

Sharing a blog with a doctor, a lawyer, a historian, I feel like my contributions to these urgent matters of politics and society will be inadequately informed. My postings will probably be on the side of philosophy, culture and the arts - those things on which no life depends.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Making Bread

A new bread recipe for all of you intrepid bakers.

Race and the GOP

I know that I shouldn't think John McCain's current tour of Alabama is strange. I know I shouldn't.

The skeptic in me says that McCain is gearing up for a fight with Obama, and in his spare time before the general electioneering starts, he's collecting his "I'm not a racist" credentials since the GOP has such an awesome track record when it comes to campaigning against black and Latino Democrats. This is, after all, the same man who voted against making King's birthday a national holiday, and the man who asserted repeatedly that he was the true heir to Reagan, the foot-soldier in the Reagan revolution and all that. Remember Reagan? Remember the time he went to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to announce his candidacy in the same county where three civil-rights workers were brutally slain? And gave a speech about states' rights?

This new post-primary version of McCain echoes back to the man who was race-baited himself in the South Carolina primary in 2000, not the "foot soldier" of this past primary season. A shred of hope that McCain might douse the GOP's fondness for overt and covert racism?

At the very least, he is clearly setting a different tone - perhaps because McCain would be battling for centrist voters for support if Obama is to be the Democratic nominee. Maybe going on the civil-rights tour of Alabama is less about getting the black vote and more a PR opportunity to appeal to (white) centrist Democrats. All of which reminds me of polls at the beginning of primary season - when many people were deciding between McCain and Obama. If McCain wants their vote, he can't play with the usual GOP playbook.

Predictions about what a general election between McCain and Obama would look like?

Luck to Jeremy

Good luck on your two-day ordeal of taking the Boards, Jeremy!

Saturday, April 19, 2008


Just a quick post since, with all of this talk about foster care and child abuse, I can't not bring up the mess in Eldorado, Texas.  If you haven't been following the removal of over 400 children after a raid on a "ranch" (compound) owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), my favorite criminal justice blog, Grits for Breakfast, has a good round-up of coverage.

You'd think this would be a moot issue at this point, since the call that provoked the raid - allegedly made by a 16-year-old girl reporting abuse by her 49-year-old husband - has turned out to be a fake.  But, yesterday, a Texas judge ruled that all 416 children will stay with the state, and their parents will have to submit to DNA testing, undergo psychiatric evaluations, and agree to some sort of safety plan before the State will considering returning the children. 

ABC News reported earlier this week that CPS planned to argue that the ranch is one household, presumably so that the finding of one instance of abuse would allow the removal of all 416 children.  I don't know whether that happened, but it seems likely given the speed with which the court ruled on the custody of so many children.

True, I don't like the idea of polygamy or the thought of 16-year-old girls marrying men who could be their fathers.  And reports of the "lost boys" of FLDS are not too savory either.  Still, it's far from clear to me, in my admittedly extremely limited knowledge, that the "best interests" of these children mandate wholesale removal and placement in a Child Protective Services system that doesn't have a great track record even when it's not scrambling to deal with the sudden influx of over 400 children.


Laura sent this video of a new baby polar bear in Stuttgart.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Frontal Cortex

A brief post, to point you all to one of my new favorite blogs I've recently come upon. "The Frontal Cortex" by Jonah Lehrer (author of Proust was a Neuroscientist, which I have not yet read) tends to link neuroscience all sorts of things interesting and artistic and social and political. Here are two recent posts that I really wanted to share:

Neuroaesthetics and Post-structuralism - I had no idea such a thing exists, but it's so far outside my realm of expertise these days. Reductio ad absurdum? The question of how aesthetics works on the brain is interesting, but less so the question of how "neuroasthetics" makes art. Or is it?

Child Abuse - This sort of acts as a follow-up to my first post about foster care. I guess one of the fundamental problems of, well, everything regarding how our government cares for children is that there is no real follow-up. We intervene on the front end, but without any system to speak of to deal with the sequelae. What do you do with a child that doesn't know empathy, or can't express it? As I'm sure you can imagine, Martin and Kate from the vignettes are likely to end up disenfranchised and/or in prison because while we can remove abused children from their abusers, we have a lot of difficulty providing long-term mental health care they may need (or they will be excluded because they're not yet at a crisis point in need of immediate intervention) in order to remove the abuse from the child. And we know how we can prevent a lot of child abuse: intense wraparound services for families at risk from before birth for a the first few years of life, to help with material needs, job-finding, food, parenting skills.... but why would our government fund anything like that?

Thursday, April 17, 2008


So, instead of emailing articles during my break between classes, I'm posting them all! This, by Matt Bai, who is always very perceptive, is interesting.

It resonates with the idea that is in the Times op/ed today - that it's Democrats and urbanites who care more about social issues than rural conservatives. In other words, being a pro-life Democrat can be more politically damaging than one might think.

Personally, this whole "bitter" and "clinging to guns and religion" business has made it difficult for me to write lectures this week. In explaining the rise of the New Right in the late '70s and early '80s, how do you NOT say that urban Catholics, blue-collar folk, and white southerners are turning right because they are bitter? It's more acceptable, I think, to talk about this during the 1950s Cold War. People were afraid and felt like they had little control over their destiny because it could all be erased with one bomb. In response, defending traditional gender roles and a certain social hierarchy becomes central to Americans' lives.

It seems a problem of social construction versus authenticity of belief. In other words, does using context to explain why certain beliefs wax and wane diminish the inherent validity of those beliefs? If you turn to faith because you've lost your job and feel like the Iraq War is a mess, does that make your faith less authentic? I don't think so. For example, I don't think of myself as a fickle Christian who uses church as an opiate, even if sometimes I'm more into church (usually because of external events) than at other times. Although I understand how some people might not interpret themselves in this way.

What if we switched it? Democrats cling to their pro-choice stance because they feel X. What do we put in for X?


A Chinese student caught in the crossfire. Talk about nationalism and the internet . . . a dangerous combination. See the article here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


My favorite headline du jour:
The New York Times website had a picture of the pope and President Bush in the center, with the caption, "Americans 'need your message that all life is sacred."

To the immediate left of the picture, the top headline reads "Supreme Court Allows Lethal Injection for Execution" - "By 7 to 2, justices upheld Kentucky's method of putting criminals to death by lethal injection, clearing the way for other states to resume executions as well."

All life is sacred indeed.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Lawsuits and foster care

Related to Jeremy's post (that I'm still thinking about, especially after having lectured on welfare reform and the Personal Responsibility Act today), I saw this article, scheduled to run in tomorrow's Times. It seems that foster care is so horribly awry in Oklahoma that a major lawsuit is underway on behalf of the system's children.

Aside from the use of lawsuits to remedy a clearly broken system (Laura?), it's also interesting to me the comment on who serves as social workers:

"Caseworkers, who are supposed to monitor foster homes regularly and connect children with services, often have more than 50 clients, compared with the 12 to 15 recommended by professional groups.

Because the work is stressful and the pay is low, starting at $26,000, turnover is high and many case workers are young and inexperienced."

Remember those people in college who want to "help people?" How prepared are they when they get thrown into these situations?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Vicious Cycles

Gale encouraged me to post this piece from All Things Considered for your consideration. Warning: it's not a happy one. The narrator is a young woman who was essentially orphaned by domestic violence in childhood and who is now aging out of the foster care system. It touches on many themes I see in my work on a fairly regular basis, themes not unique to foster children: alienated adolescents seeking belonging and affection, the emotional logic of teen pregnancy, the effects of poor modeling of self-sufficiency, hopelessness. She is open and honest in a way that is both startling and refreshing, in the way that only adolescents with all their ego-centrism can be - the way that makes working with them so exasperating and rewarding. (For some reason, also, the occasional chirp of what I assume to be a smoke detector with a dying battery which is heard in part of the piece is one of the more affecting parts of it. And perhaps one of the most illustrative.)

We, all of us, are/were raised in an environment which lays out for us the path which we are to take. We mobilize our parents' capital, social and material, to forge this path for ourselves. This is the cycle of that mythical "American Dream" - that we will be better off than our parents. The assumption that underlies our system of government, our economy, our society as a whole, is that this cycle is intact. Even the welfare system, such as it is, assumes that both the impetus and the tools to become self-reliant, to "succeed in life," have been provided.

Unfortunately, for many of us (now speaking broadly), the cycle is broken and replaced by a new one. The cycle of generations of welfare ("victims of welfare," as Kanye West puts it), of people who eke by on whatever is provided by the government or nonprofits. The cycle of crime and incarceration in our minority communities. The cycle of children left emotionally wanting and starting their own families to fill that void. The cycle of undereducation and school segregation. These are broad strokes, of course, and many many people don't fit this description, but the theme is the lack of capital, in any or all senses of the word. Generations of people who, for whatever complex convergence of history, politics, and personal circumstance, were not provided with the same tools for "success." The consequences: violence, suffering. But don't we all start from the same starting line? Isn't one's failure to achieve solely one's own doing?

This is America. See what she has wrought, basing her domestic policy on the twin myths of a classless society and radical self-reliance.

Caveat: Remember that this piece was not solely recorded and produced (or even conceived) by she whose voice it depicts. That work was done by the NPR editors, who are likely not so different from us. Even the lack of editing (say, removal of the sound of a chirping smoke detector) is an editorial decision made by those whose voices you don't hear. The 'authenticity,' if such a thing exists, is therefore somewhat limited.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


I hate this, because you know that the Clintons would say the same thing about guns, Jesus and fear. It's things like this - the Clinton's bringing attention to one statement of Obama's - that make me wonder if the "Tanya Harding" strategy is actually in play. HRC in 2012?

An addendum:
And it gets worse.

Why are Democrats so excited to tell the Republicans exactly how they can defeat either of the nominees? Jeremy brought up the good point that Obama's comments reflect Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, in that they imply that religion is the opiate of the masses. It was recently pointed out to me that Frank's book is actually much more critical of the Democratic party than Democratic voters, and that the centrist turn of the Clintons and their Democratic Leadership Council is actually the target of his criticism.

Falling Down a Rabbit Hole

Historian Tony Judt's article in this week's New York Review of Books is quite good. It's about the problem of historical memory at present, particularly relating to the twentieth century, and particularly relating to the United States.

He argues that while we remember certain groups through memorialization and museums, we lack a more generalized narrative of continuity to the twentieth century and the post-9/11 world.

Judt has an excellent analysis of the linguistic and historical problems of the terms "Islamofascism" and "terrorism," the problem of torture, and our practice of memorializing . . . he concludes:

"We are slipping down a slope. The sophistic distinctions we draw today in our war on terror—between the rule of law and 'exceptional' circumstances, between citizens (who have rights and legal protections) and noncitizens to whom anything can be done, between normal people and 'terrorists,' between 'us' and 'them' —are not new. The twentieth century saw them all invoked. They are the selfsame distinctions that licensed the worst horrors of the recent past: internment camps, deportation, torture, and murder—those very crimes that prompt us to murmur 'never again.' So what exactly is it that we think we have learned from the past? Of what possible use is our self-righteous cult of memory and memorials if the United States can build its very own internment camp and torture people there?"

I also think that the point he makes that winners and losers alike, during war, suffer consequences. This is the reporting done by the assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya concerning Russian soldiers in Chechnya. This is what pushes Fanon to write that the colonizer is as psychologically disturbed as the colonized. Reading about the My Lai massacre in Vietnam this past week, my students sympathized enormously with the American soldiers put into the situation and told to "search and destroy." How our our current wars affecting us now?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Check this out . . . an article on the "counter counterculture," also known as young conservatives, from the New York Times in 1995. Lots of familiar faces, in their raucous youth.

I might have to integrate this into my last day of class next week.


This is a place to hold discussions with far-flung friends; rather than forwarding e-mails, rehashing conversations, we can have some of them here and engage in them together.