Monday, September 04, 2006

When the Ku Klux Klowns Bring Their Circus to Town

Being a philosopher in Gettysburg is interesting. It is a place that is by nature introspective. The past lives here and the questions of life and death, of race and politics, of symbol and meaning that come from our past remain palpable. If there were any attempt to remove oneself from the past here, one is aided by a constant flow of re-enactors in period costumes to remind you of where you are. We are used to throwbacks and we are used to being forced to think about hatred and freedom. The Confederate battle flag flies all over this town. It is no surprise that this would be a desirable site for the Ku Klux Klan to hold a rally.

Like the re-enactors, the Klan is a throwback, old school racism. They come in and create a circus, but what does it really mean? I think the true meaning is something rather complex in the current situation because racism is not as simple as it once was. The Klan march, in fact, complicates our understanding and our ability to face down contemporary approaches to putting forward bias because it now comes in five different flavors:

(1) Say it loud, I'm a bigot and I'm proud
The old days of Archie Bunker, out in the open racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism... are mostly gone. Sure there are pockets. Not far from Gettysburg are areas where if you go in to buy sheets, they don't come in full, queen or king, but 42 medium. This sort of white pride nonsense still exists in largely white areas – a lot of it working class although recent studies by sociologists find thriving pockets in upper middle class areas. But the even to hard core conservatives who may favor the rolling back of legislation that forged the civil rights movement, this sort of thing is an embarrassment. One of the great successes of the liberation movements is to have removed these folks from the mainstream. This brand of hate is open in word and deed.

(2) Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge, Say No More
No one thinks that bigotry is gone from the hearts of Americans. But what we've seen is a sort of political correctness emerge around hate. Those whose politics are guided by bigotry have resorted to dog-whistle politics. Following Reagan, the use of dual meaning phrases would be used to disguise bigoted sentiments, wrapping them in language cleansed of overt reference to any specific group, but clear to those who hear it what the actual intended reference is. We don't say "blacks" or "African Americans," we say "welfare queens," but, of course, everyone knows what color said royalty really is. In this brand, hate is about the word, not the belief or deed. It's ok to say it, just be oblique about it. Some saw Senator George "Macaca" Allen's gaff as having said it, not having thought it.

(3) Tokens as Bullet-Proof Vests
The result of the second sort has given rise to a fascinating new brand that moves to a new level of subtlety. I can tell a joke making fun of Jews, if I am one. I can tell blonde jokes and get away with it if I am blonde. We can oppose everything that would contribute to civil rights advancement if we have a diverse group around us supporting the policy. Tokens provide cover. This is why the GOP LOVES Michael Steele, Condaleeza Rice, Clarence Thomas, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilzad, Ken Mehlman,... If he has put African Americans, women, Arab Americans, and Jews in prominent positions, he couldn't be racist, sexist,... The move here is to exploit the identity politics that the left largely clung to for two decades. Progressives would try to make claims of bias stick by pointing to the lack of a given group in positions of power. Now we have those pushing the exact same lines, only they have found representatives of all of those groups to back the policies. Now, those policies, regardless of how they actually affect different groups, cannot be opposed on the grounds that they are exclusionary or intentionally harmful to selected groups. One can put forward policies that clearly harm a specific group, but because that group is represented in the defense of the policy, its bias becomes rhetorically irrelevant.

(4) Them-ism
Psychologists speak of a phenomenon called the general attribution error. If someone in a group to which you belong or aspire commits a problematic act, the flaw in his or her character is attributed to the individual; but if the errant agent is of a different group to which one does not aspire, the character flaw is considered a property inherited from being part of the group. "Typical for one of them." We see this sort of move frequently whenever some group is part of an oppressive relationship. Suddenly in the eyes of those who are harmed or offended by the injustice, members of the oppressive group become the target of derision. This is often the type of bigotry we see on the left. The sort of schadenfreude that results from a conservative Christian minister arrested on charges of some sexual impropriety or the death of Israeli civilians that you find in quarters of the progressive conversation illustrate this sort of bigotry.

(5) Who D'Man? No, I Mean, Who Is "The Man"?
One of the differences between right and left leaning thought is the role of sociological factors. One of the moves of both libertarians and conservatives is to limit the explanatory power of large scale social influences on behavior, looking only at individual agency. People are rational agents who are free to choose what they want to do at any given time. All blame for any improper choice belongs squarely and completely on the shoulders of the person. The left, on the other hand, is deeply committed to considering how large scale social factors play into people's decisions. We know that poverty, wealth, amount of education, social expectations,... all play important parts in why people act the way they do. There are important parts of the explanation for why someone does something in the structure of society. As such, bias and bigotry may be embedded in that structure without having to be the result of a single person with an intention to harm those rotten (insert slur). Much of contemporary racism, sexism, homophobia,...doesn't require some Snidely Whiplash twisting his moustache. Institutional racism, sexism,....does exist. Yet, since there is no individual to point to as the evil discriminator, it is often portrayed as not existing. When the old model of bigotry, (1) above, is taken as the sole model of immoral bias, then he more complex forms, especially this one can be written off.

This is why the Klan march is devious. Not because the Klan are a real threat. Their day is gone. The Klan demanded extra protection because they were afraid for their safety. The Klan is no more likely to roll back civil rights legislation than Hezbollah is to eliminate Israel from the map. That's not to say they shouldn't be opposed, but they are not a force that could be decisive. But what the Klan does do is create cover for those using the other more subtle approaches to bigotry. By coming out and condemning the Klan march, they can now claim the high ground and quote Dr. King in defense of their own approach to hate. What the Klan does in bringing their circus to town is district us from the real problems, allowing those who would oppose justice and equality to claim to support it. The Klan is dangerous, but not because they themselves pose a threat, rather because they are clowns and allow the real threat to remain hidden where it is much more dangerous.