Monday, July 27, 2015

Journey to the West

I recently picked up my translation of Journey to the West and started reading it again. For those of you who haven't been exposed to it, it is one of those books that I think anyone who is interested in Daoism should read. People sometimes take issue with this, as on the surface it is a story about a Buddhist monk's travels to the West to get scriptures from India. This is a superficial understanding. 

The first thing to understand is that there is no definitive "Journey to the West" document. It is based on the travels of Xuanzang, a monk who traveled to India in search of Buddhist scriptures in the
seventh century. The historical account of his travels is a fascinating story that gives us some vision of what the India was like before Islam destroyed the Buddhist cultures of Afganistan and Northern India.

Xuanzang's story became a part of the popular culture of China and entered into an "oral tradition" plus a process of copying and modifying until we ended up with the story that includes the comical figures of Monkey, Pigsy, Sandy, and so on. What many people do not understand, however, is that when the story became "codified" in the 16th century, there were several versions that got printed. So there really isn't one "official version".

One thing that many don't understand is that Daoism was often taught in popular literature instead of esoteric, hard-to-understand texts. It is true that there are lots of books like The Secret of the Golden Flower , but when the teacher in my school was asked about what would be a good work to translate from Chinese to English, he suggested the popular novel Seven Taoist Masters.  People have this assumption that wisdom can only be expressed using ponderous language and old-fashioned words, but the fact is that wisdom is often best expressed by a sly story-teller who knows how to hid wisdom in a rollicking good tale.

Entrance to White Cloud Monastery
And, indeed, in the early Qing dynasty (if you spent your adolescence watching cheesy kungfu movies like I did---these are the "evil Manchus") a woodblock edition of Journey to the West came out:  A Newly Engraved Illustrated Taoist Interpretation of the Journey to the West.  This version had an introduction that claimed that this version was written by a Daoist named Qiu Changchun.  This guy was one of the seven Daoist masters in the novel I mentioned above. He was also supposed to be the founder of the Dragon Gate school and was given land by Genghis Khan (Mongol conqueror of China and official founder of the Yuan dynasty) that became the famous (and still existing) White Cloud Monastery.  I am not an expert, but I suspect that this fellow really didn't write the book this blog post is about, but obviously whomever did wanted the book to have serious "Daoist cred".

There are several translations of this Journey out there, but the only one I would recommend is the W. J. F. Jenner version. I got a four volume paperback edition from the Foreign Languages Press several years ago and I love it. What's great about it beyond the sheer ease of reading, is that unlike other abridged versions, Jenner didn't get rid of the poetry. The book is filled with snippets of poetry that I can only imagine come from various traditional sources, and I find that some of the images and ideas presented thought provoking. Look at this one that opens the book

Before Chaos was divided, Heaven and Earth were one;
All was a shapeless blur, and no men had appeared.
Once Pan Gu destroyed the Enormous Vagueness
The separation of clear and impure began.
Living things have always tended towards humanity;
From their creation all beings improve.
If you want to know about Creation and Time,
Read Difficulties Resolved on the Journey to the West.
Think about that last stanza. "Living things have always tended towards humanity". Of course, Journey to the West is filled with animals that have "evolved" from lower orders to the higher. There are deer demons, tiger demons, alligator demons, and so on. The two main guides for Xuanzang, of course, are a monkey and a pig that have human attributes.  But this is a theme all through Chinese popular literature. For example, if you read The Three Kingdoms, which is not really a book that contains many supernatural elements, there is the incident towards the end where Cao Cao wants to build a palace and is told that he needs to have a special type of beam as the center piece of the building. His men find an ancient pear tree that is so tremendously old that it fits the bill. When his men start to chop at the tree, it starts to bleed human blood and screams in agony. Later it's ghost haunts Cao Cao and hastens his death.

I would suggest that the idea that "from their creation all beings improve" is a tremendously optimistic and humanistic idea. I think that it has a lot in common with the Socratic idea that evil is not much more than ignorance. Contrast that with the Abrahamic view that there is such a thing as "evil", that people know exactly what it is, and, people freely choose to be bad. And if they do, they need to be killed by other people and then tortured for all eternity by an angry God who doesn't believe that people can learn from their mistakes. In contrast, the idea expressed in the stories of Journey to the West is that people have to "grow a bit" before they gain the insight and wisdom necessary to understand the true impact of their actions. If they get a chance to learn from their mistakes and get some good correction, then they can move on and become worthwhile members of society.

I often meet folks who read some version of the Dao De Jing become something like a "libertarian Daoist". For these folks everything becomes permissible and life is not much more than a big joke. I would suspect that these folks would probably say that the ideas expressed in Journey to the West aren't really Daoist, but rather Buddhist. (Actually, I'd think they are more Confucian, that is another story.) But I would draw people's attention to another of the key themes in the Journey:  all religions are one.  This is a point that the head of my school totally supported, it is something that is repeatedly stated in the book Seven Daoist Masters, and is repeatedly emphasized in Journey to the West.

It is also something that is visualized by one of the most famous traditional Chinese paintings, "Three laughs at Tiger Brook".  This painting purports to show three very close friends, a Confucian, a Daoist and a Buddhist, who enjoyed each other's company that they totally lost track

Three Laughs at Tiger Brook
 of the time and where they were when a host was walking two friends out the door of his hermitage. He walked them all the way to "Tiger Brook", where a friendly tiger helped the hermit by roaring every time he came to the edge of his hermitage property. Once they realized how far he had walked just to continue their conversation, the three of them burst out laughing. 

This isn't to say that there are not any differences between the three religions. This is suggested by another famous painting, "the vinegar tasters".  This purports to be an image of a Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist tasting some vinegar, where it stands for the disappointing elements of life. The Buddhist suggests that the sensation of sourness is an illusion, the Confucian that it is something

Vinegar Tasters
that must be accepted for the greater good, and, the Daoist that vinegar can actually taste pleasant if you bring the right attitude. Of course, this could be interpreted as meaning that Daoism is in some sense superior to both Confucianism and Buddhism. But I think that this is superficial. Instead, I would suggest that it is talking about a subtle psychological difference between the three religions. After all, the story is about "vinegar" tasting, not "shit" or "poison" tasting.

The value of a book like Journey to the West is that it gives readers, and an entire society, images and examples that they can draw upon to explain subtle and complex ideas. This is the same thing that I have been doing in this blog post by referring to the two paintings "Three Laughs at Tiber Brook" and "The Vinegar Tasters". Once something becomes famous enough, it ends up becoming the bedrock of a civilization. What would Western civilization been like if there were famous paintings that showed a Jew, Christian and Muslim laughing together or tasting vinegar?  

Friday, July 17, 2015

Types of Racism: Opportunistic Racism

In my last post I talked about how someone born into a civilization that promotes a specific idea can only gradually work themselves out of that idea by making a lot of tiny decisions to be careful and thoughtful at any given moment. I posited my view that life is a succession of experiences of cognitive dissonance where one has the opportunity to suffer the pain of expanding her consciousness or lull herself into deeper delusion through the narcotic of willful ignorance.  In this post, I'm going to talk about yet another type of racism, the sort that is manifest in someone who knows better, yet freely chooses to adopt it as a means of gaining power over others.


George Wallace

There was a time in my youth when it was OK for politicians to not only be racist, but to be totally open and unapologetic about their racism. One of the most visibly successful of these "in your face" racists was George Wallace. He was governor of Alabama for four terms: the first beginning in 1963 and the last ending in 1987. (He wasn't governor through that entire period. In fact, Alabama had a law saying that no governor could be elected to two consecutive terms---so Wallace's wife ran and won for one term.) He also ran several significant campaigns for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Though he never had any hope of getting the nomination, he was able to garner a lot of support with the racist elements of the party.

The interesting thing about him was that he was originally considered quite a moderate on race issues. So much so that in his first campaign for governor (1958) he spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan and got the endorsement of the NAACP. He lost to a fellow by the name of John Malcolm Patterson, primarily because he played the race card:  Patterson was endorsed by the KKK, Wallace by the NAACP.  As Wallace himself said to an aide: "--you know why I lost that governor's race? ... I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I'll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again."

He ran for the nomination and governorship again, and won that election. Here's a very famous part of the speech he gave at his swearing-in ceremony.

I won't oversimplify and suggest that George Wallace was a Richard the Third who consciously chose to "make evil his good, and good his evil" in order to ride racism into the Governor's mansion. I suspect that the process also involved a lot of small decisions to take the blue pill instead of the red one. (I wish that America hadn't inverted the color scheme that rest of the world uses---outside of the US red means "progressive" and blue means "conservative". The pill metaphor works much better if you understand that.) But he obviously didn't start out in his career as a knuckle-dragging racist, it was something he seems to have freely adopted in order to get elected.

It is extremely rare to get a glimpse into the mind of how a politician actually thinks. This is because the very nature of the job entails selecting for people who have very highly developed antennas that allow them to figure out where a person's beliefs lie, and then shoot them back at them. Also, they never really have the luxury of running for office based on their own beliefs. Instead, they have to develop a grab bag of ideas will attract enough voters to get into office.  And getting into office is the absolute minimum that a politician has to achieve in order to do anything at all that they set out to achieve.

The path to real power is so long and it entails so many compromises that in the end I suspect a great many career politicians no longer remember why they wanted to rule in the first place. It might be that late in Governor Wallace's life he had time to rethink his path in life, because he ended up publicly recanting his racism and even seems to have been regarded with some affection by elements of the Alabama black community. If so, then I think that there is something to the idea that no one is beyond redemption.


To move the clock forward, we have a chance to learn a little bit more about opportunistic racism in the Republican party. Before the US Civil War the political party system split on the line of slavery:  the Democrats were pro-slavery and the Republicans anti.  After the war, this meant that for a very long time only Democrats had any chance of getting elected in Southern states. This was because most whites still resented the Republicans and because of Jim Crow most blacks weren't allowed to vote. This was the "Solid South", where the saying was "I'd vote for a yellow dog before I'd vote Republican".

This all changed after the Second World War when "New Deal Democrats" (ie supporters of the progressive policies championed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt) pushed through civil rights
Lee Atwater
legislation that unraveled Jim Crow. This enraged the "yellow dog" Democrats to the point where they would consider switching their allegiance to the Republican Party. An important strategist who worked to do this was a fellow by the name of Lee Atwater.

His key point was to avoid using crude language about blacks (ie; what Wallace called "out niggering your opponent"), but instead to create coded messages that racists can use to "fill in the blanks".

Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry S. Dent, Sr. and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [the new Southern Strategy of Ronald Reagan] doesn't have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he's campaigned on since 1964 and that's fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.
Questioner: But the fact is, isn't it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?
Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

This strategic messaging doctrine is called "dog whistling". It has several advantages.  First of all, it appeals to the racist subculture but doesn't antagonize or mobilize ordinary voter's opposition in the way that using less polite language does. The Civil Rights movement was able to mobilize non-racists in the North because they were totally disgusted by the violence and obvious hate manifested by segregationists.  The dog whistle approach avoids doing this.

Secondly, it lulls lazy thinkers into assuming that what is being discussed is exactly what it seems to be. A person who takes things at face value and doesn't think things through will assume that blacks use social services like food stamps in a disproportionate amount (actually, I suspect that this isn't even true) because they are "lazy". But if this "fact" is true, it might be because they can't get jobs that pay enough to actually give a living wage and end up working very hard for very little. The problem with lazy thinkers is that they assume that their personal experience can be projected onto everyone else's.  If you are a white person in a pervasively racist society this sort of reasoning simply doesn't work.

Third, it can be used to appeal to people who are consciously liberal but who are dominated by "fear racism" on a subconscious level.  This tactic was used very well by the Republicans. Check out this YouTube video discussing a series of campaign ads that were considered very important in recent success of the Republican Party.

(Incidentally, this campaign to whip up fear against black people had a secondary effect of whipping up hatred against criminals in general. The result has been catastrophic for the USA, which now overwhelmingly incarcerates far too many people.  This has gotten to the point where even Republican leaders admit that the criminal justice system needs to be dramatically reformed.)


Roger Ailes
Lee Atwater's dog-whistle campaign messaging has been remarkably successful for the Republican party. But another element of opportunistic racism comes from another operative that came from the same milieu:  Roger Ailes. He had been a television producer for the "Mike Douglas Show" in the early 1960s until he met Richard Nixon who was a guest. After a long conversation with Nixon, Ailes got a job working on television issues for the Nixon campaign. He then went on to a significant career in the Republican Party.  (He wrote the script and produced the "revolving door" ad in the above YouTube clip.) Ailes is important because in 2005 he became chairman of the Fox Television Stations Group, and began to set the tone for all of Fox news. His project was quite openly to create a news vehicle for Conservative propaganda.

The thing about Ailes is that he has a profoundly cynical vision of the average television news watcher.  He sums this up with his "Orchestra Pit" theory of news coverage:
 "If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, 'I have a solution to the Middle East problem,' and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?" 
This explains the YouTube clip I showed from Fox News featuring Bill O'Reilly. There is no interest at Fox News to explain a complex issue---instead, the job of the journalist is to accentuate people's emotional reaction to shocking displays (ie the man falling into the orchestra pit.) Fox News is popular with a certain segment of the population for the very reason why it infuriates most people. It panders to the most mentally-lazy part of the citizenry by handing out nothing but the bluest of blue pills. This isn't by happenstance. This policy was deliberately created by people who set out to use racism to further both their careers and their politics.


It's important to understand that the four types of racism that I've identified, hate, fear, mental laziness, and, opportunism, bleed into each other. You cannot separate them easily and say "this person is a fear racist" and "that person is a hate racist", while that person over there is a "mental laziness racist".  A fear racist could use their rationality to work their way beyond their debilitating fear. The cynicism of an opportunist racist could also be understood as the product of mental laziness. You could also say that even an opportunistic racist is motivated to bend the facts because of some sort of fear or hatred. But I do believe that the different categories are useful because they allow people to parse out the different elements of our minds and how to address one specific manifestation of racism when we see it before our faces.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Types of Racism: Mental Laziness

In my last post I wrote about what I called "fear racism". Mainly, I wanted to point out that even a person with the best of intentions can act in a racist manner if they are under the grip of an irrational fear. One other point I wanted to point out is that it can be fostered by a type of very sloppy thinking process. I used the example of the terribly unprofessional journalism used by Fox News to justify it's panic over the so-called "knockout game". The terrible reporting that Bill O'Reilly used to justify his description of a "disproportionate percentage" of young black men as out of control points to something else I wanted to focus upon.


The "ur philosophy" (unconscious worldview) of our society is partially based on the idea that each individual citizen is an atomic individual who is capable of looking at each particular situation that confronts her in an objective, rational manner. Our society believes that on the basis of a thoughtful calculus an individual makes a "free" choice to take one as opposed to other possible actions. This assumption is the basis of our legal system, which punishes individuals for the choices they make, partially as simple retribution, and, partially as an example to deter others from doing the same thing. In other words, when someone does something we assume that they "freely" chose to do it as opposed to something else.

I totally reject this understanding of human nature. Instead, I would argue that human beings are creatures with hormonal drives, past history, and cultural conditioning that predisposes them to act in specific ways in given situations. A person who, for example, has PTSD as a result of massive childhood abuse has a much harder time controlling their temper than someone who was raised in a nurturing environment. This is not even remotely controversial in modern psychology, yet our criminal justice system does not take this fact into account in any of its deliberations.

I would argue that human beings have very little control over the "macro" elements of their lives----that is, the "big choices" that confront them. Instead, I would argue that what choice we have comes from our "micro" choices. Those are the myriad of little choices we have every day to be a little more diligent, a little more thoughtful, a little more disciplined---a little more aware. This is the Ideal of "kung fu", or, "yoga". Both are ideas that disciplined effort over an extended period of time is necessary to gain any sort of insight into what it is to be a human being.

The idea of kung fu and yoga is that each and every moment of our life we have a choice to "do the right thing" or not. That choice can be to take that extra rep when we are exercising, try a little harder to do your job right, make a little more effort to understand what the person in front of you is trying to say, find a little bit better way of flavoring the soup you are making, and so on. It is not, however, trying to be a perfectionist, because perfectionism involves doing "too much" or "more than the context would warrant". People performing kung fu understand that the "larger context" is also an important part of whatever they are doing.

Just to illustrate what kung fu is about, I would draw readers attention to the fact that I attempt to do this blog as an act of "kung fu". I do try my utmost to be clear and precise in my language and the ideas behind it. I realize that I only have a limited amount of time to devote to it, but within that framework, I try to make sure that I never consciously "bend the facts", use rhetoric, or, fallacious reasoning in order to make a point. This is because I understand the idea that "you play the way you train". That is, the way I think in this blog trains my mind in how it acts when I am confronted with a specific situation in the rest of my life. If I "cut corners" in this blog, I will have a greater tendency to "cut corners" when I deal with people at work or with family and friends. If I do that, I will do more things that are damaging to my life, my community and Mother Nature.


Now with regard to the issue of racism, I have drawn the reader's attention to various sloppy things that Fox News did when it reported on the "knockout game". First, it used hearsay evidence in the opening part of the YouTube clip of Bill O'Reilly. Secondly, it repeated showed clips of someone being beaten without making any attempt to explain who was involved or the context of the beating. Instead, they just assumed that the incident in question was an example of a totally random event done simply for "kicks". They also assumed that this was not an isolated incident but instead indicative of a much larger phenomenon and went on from there. From there they constructed an entire narrative explaining its cause (single parent homes) and why only they are reporting on it (politically correct "liberal media" being cowed by "race-baiting" civil rights leaders.)

The problem is that this elaborate story falls to pieces if you look at the YouTube videos with something like an objective, skeptical eye. First, the videos are clearly not the result of gangs taking videos and posting them for "cred"---simply because many of them were obviously taken by security cameras. Second, there is not "huge number" of videos in YouTube, just the same ones repeated over and over again. Third, even the videos that are shown over and over don't all seem to be random attacks but rather some appear to be as the result of some sort of interaction between the victim and assailant. Moreover, if someone reflects for more than a moment, they have to realize from reading the 'police blotter' in their local newspaper that a certain amount of random and random-looking violence happens at any given day in a country as large as the USA. Statements about a "trend" like the "knockout game" have to make an effort to separate incidents that relate to that trend from the "random noise" of routine violence.

I would argue, therefore, that the sort of racism that the "knockout" game is based on is the result of a lot of very sloppy thinking on the part of reporters and the consumers that just accept what they are told. This sort of crappy thought process extends to other issues. Consider the following editorial cartoon (just click on it and a new window will pop up that will allow you to read the balloons):

The basis of the cartoon is that someone really does have to be quite dense to not realize what the confederate battle flag was all about. If you read the declarations of secession from the United States by the Confederate states, it was very clear that the "states rights" that the South wanted to protect were pretty much all about preserving slavery. So the war was about Slavery. And the Confederate flag was used to rally troops to the cause of preserving slavery. Moreover, the flag was pretty much moribund all over the South until the early 1960s when it was resurrected by various states to show their opposition and defiance to civil rights legislation that was imposed upon them by the North as a result of non-violent resistance by blacks. Finally, it was promoted heavily by overtly racist organizations like the White Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan. A person has to be pretty dense to not understand the connotations. Indeed, a podcaster I follow has interviewed people who live in Arkansas who have made the point that it serves a useful purpose in identifying anyone who displays it as being "mean and stupid".


Having written the above, I want to bring in the issue of "kung fu" again. When I say that a person has to be "pretty dense" to not understand what the Confederate flag really means, I was not being fair. In fact, all they have to be is someone who has not put a lot of thought into it. And for someone to not put a lot of thought into it, all they need to be is someone who plays along with the dominant narrative in their society. Children are not taught to be skeptical or to practice kung fu or yoga in their daily life. Adults are not encouraged to think for themselves. And the educational systems that they come through do not, as a rule, put a lot of effort into a: teaching the actual history of the Confederate battle flag, or, b: encouraging students to do their own research and think critically about what they are exposed to.

But having said that, lots of people do develop a critical understanding of the world around them. This comes about because of situations where someone experiences "cognitive dissonance". This is the sense of discomfort that someone experiences when they are exposed to information that contradicts a key narrative that they have built their life around. At that point, the person has a decision to make. They can accept the new information and change their worldview, or, they can reject the new information and ignore it.

This rejection can take many different forms. One behavior that I've often seen is bullying behavior. That happens when someone makes a threat to the other. This can often be unconscious and be in the form of anger. It is a way of telling the other person "keep raising this point and I will do something to you that you won't like". Another is to simply act as if the information was never mentioned at all. This sort of like the apocryphal story of Galileo asking the Pope to look through his telescope and see the moons of Jupiter for himself and the Pope refusing to do so.

The moment of cognitive dissonance is one of those important moments in life where people can choose to either embrace their fear and move on, or, back away from it and remain stuck in their rut. Probably the best example from literature of this choice comes from the movie "The Matrix", with one important point that needs emphasizing.

When Neo takes the red pill, it is portrayed as being an irreversible step. In real life this isn't the case at all. Every single moment of our life we have to choose between the red and the blue pill. And, the future choices that are presented to us are conditioned by the previous one. Once we take a red pill, we have an opportunity to peel away an even deeper layer of illusion. But if we take a blue pill, we pile another layer on top. Every moment of our life we are confronted with the choice. And the little choices progressively "paint us into a corner" when it comes to the big choices. The big choices are heavily influenced by our culture, but the little choices allow us more freedom and independence.

This is why I have a tendency to ignore the big choices that people make in their lives, but get angry about the little ones that they make. Every time someone takes the "easy way out" of not thinking things through, not being a little more curious, not reaching out to try and see things from the other person's perspective, they are taking the blue pill and rejecting the wonderful gift of cognitive dissonance. Most religions have a metaphor for taking on the "red pill". In Daoist literature you will sometimes find stories where students are forced to eat foul substances, or who are boiled alive in cauldrons, etc. All of these are metaphors for the personal pain that a person feels from the cognitive dissonance they feel when something contradicts the internal narrative that they have built their lives around.

And if someone refuses to accept the pain of cognitive dissonance and use it to stretch their worldview, and, this leads to racist behavior, then they are being racists. Not because they freely choose to do the racist act of denying a job to a black person because of their skin color, or because they call someone the "N" word, or anything else. But because many times in their life they were confronted with the small choice of either ignoring or embracing an instance of cognitive dissonance and they took the blue pill instead of the red.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Types of Racism: Fear

In my last post I talked about people being whipped into a frenzy of hate and violence towards blacks through orchestrated propaganda campaigns.  But in the process, I glossed over a subtlety involved in the process. That is, the process of demonizing another person and getting them hated usually involves another key element: fear. And if you look at the the clips I showed from the seminal movie "Birth of a Nation", you can see this process at play. Whites were afraid that if blacks held onto the vote they'd destroy the state through bad government, if they were allowed to bear arms, they'd act like savages towards the general public, and, if they weren't kept "under thumb", they'd rape white women.  And, in the clip supporting "White Girl Bleed A Lot", the modern fear is that black "thugs" will create mayhem through random acts of violence.

Fear can lead to hate. Mind you, this isn't to say that fear and hate are the same things. We can fear wolves, grizzly bears, heights, water, clowns, spiders, etc, but that doesn't mean that we necessarily hate them.  This distinction is tremendously important, as many people that I believe are manifesting racist behavior would be shocked to be so identified. The point is that different people are using different definitions of the term.  For some people "racist" simply means "hatred of other races", whereas for me it can also include "irrational fear of other races". The important issue isn't what particular type of emotion is being felt, but whether or not it changes our behavior in ways that causes problems for one particular group of people who are identified by their skin color.

I had an elderly relative who in her youth was quite militant about race issues. She volunteered and took part in "sit ins" to encourage racial integration. When she was a young mother, she insisted on moving to a integrated area of a city that was profoundly segregated.  She sent her two white daughters to schools that were majority black. She was a girl scout leader who took her mixed race troupe into rural areas where people overtly and nastily racist, and forced them to accept it. In short, she was very liberal on race issues. But later on in life she became someone who was terrified of crime and made a big deal about the so-called "knockout game". An analysis of this urban myth will go a long way to explaining what I am talking about.

This "phenomenon" supposedly involves a wide-spread game among black teens who go around choosing non-blacks at random and then beating the crap out of them (ideally, knocking the person out with one punch.) In support of this idea, there are very many video tapes posted on YouTube.  Check out this one:

Listen to how the commentator characterizes the videos he plays in the background.  The first thing to notice is that he says that people are recording video images of these events and then comparing them, "like Pokemon". Looking at the video images, however, I notice a couple things.

First of all, some of the events do not look like they are totally random. A couple of the people who get punched out seem to be engaged in verbal arguments with the people who hit them. This isn't a "totally at random" attack, but rather yet another example of the sort of violence that happens on any given day. What if the person who got punched out made a racial slur against the person who punched them out? Would that count as an example of the "knockout game"?

Secondly, if you look at the camera angle it is obvious that many of the videos were taken from above head height. This means that the attack wasn't recorded by a cell phone, but rather a security camera. This means that the video wasn't recorded to upload to YouTube where it could be compared "like Pokemon" for street cred.  Instead, it probably was broadcast by the police in order to try and apprehend the person who performed the assault.

And, if you look at the YouTube posts of these sorts of videos, it looks obvious to me that the majority of them have been posted by either the news media or right-wing groups that are pushing the agenda that there is some sort of epidemic of random black on white crime.  Moreover, even though there are a great many YouTube postings, what they seem to consist of are are small number of specific incidents that have been posted over and over again.

A key point to remember about this issue is that the USA is a huge nation, with something like 300 million citizens. This means that at any given time there are a large number of incidents involving young men doing violent things.  Here's a totally random one from my local area that I quickly found with Google:
Man thrown off tricycle in random assault
A Hamilton man is facing an assault charge after allegedly knocking a stranger off his adult tricycle and yelling at the injured man lying on the ground.The incident happened Friday around 8:30 p.m. in the area of King Street East and John Street North. Concerned bystanders called police and members of the ACTION team responded. The accused was arrested without incident.The 58-year-old victim was treated in hospital for serious, but non life-threatening injuries. Ross Roberts is charged with assault and failing to comply with probation.

We also hear about this stuff from friends. For example, a friend of my ex was at a stop sign and she saw a young man doing something that he shouldn't have been doing and she complained about it. The next thing she remembered was waking up in a hospital with her jaw wired shut. This was in the the safest city in Canada, which is universally considered one of the safest countries in the world.

Another example. My ex's daughter, who is obviously mixed race and could be viewed as "Arab Muslim" by some idiot (even though her mother is a Catholic from India), was punched by a complete stranger after 9/11.

At any given time there are young men in our society who barely have any control over their emotions and who are liable to explode in violence at any given moment.  There are also a very small number of people suffering from psychiatric disorders who have voices and hallucinations that drive them towards committing random acts of violence. We also need to remember that in some cases the "random" act of violence could be a potential robbery where the criminal lost his nerve before taking anything, or, a situation where the victim was not as random as he says, but doesn't want the police to know why he was targeted by his assailant. The issue at hand is whether a specific example is part of a new, larger trend that is evidence of a specific problem within a given racial sub-community, or, whether it is just the "same old, same old" problem that involves all racial groups. Everything hinges on the narrative that we choose to frame the specific event.

Where racism comes in is when our irrational fears of a specific group blinds our ability to think critically and objectively about the issue. Consider the following clip from a major television "news" show:

The first thing to realize about this clip is how much it is dominated by "hearsay" evidence. In a legal trial "hearsay evidence" is not allowed because it is evidence that doesn't allow anyone ask the witness pertinent questions to find out exactly what happened. So the voice over commentator who talks about the clips says things like "videos have exploded over the internet" (even though all they show are only three clips that have been repeated over and over again in other YouTube videos) without making any effort to identify the specific incidents, individuals or contexts of the videos. Moreover, in the interview with the woman the reporter seems to have made no effort to interview the police to see if there were more incidents involved, but instead just takes what the woman says that the police said at face value. Moreover, the news cast seems to just take at face value the "friend"'s characterization of the incident as the "knockout game" in action. This is tremendously sloppy, unprofessional reporting.

Now lets concentrate on what Bill O'Reilly and Bernie Goldberg are saying and how they say it. They just assume from the get go that this is an unprecedented epidemic of violence, that it is overwhelmingly done by black teens, and, that is totally done at random for no other reason than to get "kicks".  There is absolutely no evidence presented for this point of view.  Instead, they show the same three violent clips over, and over, and over, again.  It's no mystery why they are doing this. It is an attempt to bypass the faculty of reason in the minds of viewers and go straight to the most primitive elements of the mind. It is very much the same sort of thing that D. W. Griffith was doing in "Birth of a Nation" when he showed black-face actors running amok.

Once these two morons get the bit between their teeth, they start to run with it. They then go on to say that the reason why the so-called "liberal media" aren't reporting this "trend" isn't because competent reporters (i.e. who actually do some research) have concluded there there is no such thing as the "knockout game", but rather because they are afraid to report it because of "political correctness".  In effect, they turn the question "why aren't any other news agencies reporting on this thing?" onto it's head.  The journalist integrity issue comes down not to "why is Fox not following proper reporting techniques?" but rather "why is the lame-stream media not reporting about this major problem?".

What follows after this attempt to disassociate itself from the "paternalistic liberal media" that simply don't believe that there is a real problem, Goldberg and O'Reilly raise the fig leaf that says "we know most black teens don't do this----but a disproportionate number do".  This allows them to say "but I'm not a racist, because I didn't say all blacks do so and so, just a large minority".  Which assumes that racism is only possible when someone says that every single member of a minority is bad.  (By this logic Hitler wasn't anti-Jewish because he ordered a visa and free passage out of the country for his childhood family doctor---who was a "good Jew" in his eyes.)

After this point, the door has been opened and then several other racist statements begin to parade themselves.  Goldberg goes on from saying that "knockout game" exists to making a totally gratuitous statement about young blacks routinely looting stores, then starts comparing the behavior of blacks to "the Lord of the Flies". Then O'Reilly starts to opine psychologically about young black males being angry because they didn't have a proper family background in their childhood because their fathers were absent. Then the attack moves to the civil rights leadership who "blame all problems on white society".

Really?  Really?  A major television "news" cast in the USA is allowed to do this sort of thing?  How much progress has America really made since the days of "Birth of a Nation"?  

Friday, July 3, 2015

Types of Racism: Hate

I feel a little like I shouldn't wade into the whole issue of racism on this blog.  After all, I'm not terribly well-schooled in the whole thing.  But this seems to be the summer when both Canada and the USA have to deal with racism, because of the shootings in South Carolina and the report on the Residential School system. But one particular element has occurred to me that none of the coverage I've seen of these events. And it is such an important issue that I think it needs to be carefully isolated and spelled out in clear language for all to see.

Some folks might wonder what this has to do with Daoism.  Well, not much, per ce. But I follow Daoism as a school of practical philosophy, not as a revealed religion. The difference is that I see the teachings of books like the Laozi, the Zhuangzi, the Liezi, and so on as important "rules of thumb" in how to live our lives. And, I think that they ground their understanding on the basis of both reason and experience, which connects them to the broader tradition of philosophy as-a-whole. And as someone who has been trained in that tradition, I feel free to use my training to understand the world around me. This blog is an attempt to share that process with the general public.  These thoughts have been in my mind recently, so I am sharing them with the World Wide Web.


We need to remember that there are different types of racism.  As near as I can tell, there is racism based on hate, racism based on fear, racism based on indifference and mental laziness, and, racism based on opportunism. It's important to understand the difference between them, because if we mash them all together we miss the opportunity to understand exactly what is fueling a specific behavior. And if we raise a fuss about one particular type of racism when what we are facing is another, we run the risk of discrediting the whole exercise of opposing it. This raises the credibility of those who are pushing the racist narrative and sets back the project of changing society.

The first type of racism is based on what seems to be a crazed, blind hatred of people who have a different skin color, etc.  It manifests itself in weird, collective behavior.  Check out this short video from the BBC.

There are a few things that I'd like to point out from this short video.  First of all, this wasn't the act of a small group of individuals like the KKK or Skin Heads, done in a dark alley.  Instead, it was done in broad daylight in front of all the authorities and thousands of citizens. What this means is that the police, judges, the Mayor and Council, the Congressman, etc, all knew what had happened and who participated in the event. This was a collective act by the white citizens of that community. Nor was it a brief act of collective insanity which people felt guilty about after the fact. If that had been the case, why were people selling postcards and saving pictures in scrap books for future generations to ponder over?

So the first thing to understand and ponder is the fact that lynchings were not the act of a small group of ignorant, back country rednecks who got all "liquored-up" and then went out to murder someone. Instead, it was a conspiracy that involved a very large number of citizens and involved the leading lights of the community who if they didn't actively conspire to commit murder were willing to sit passively by and let it happen.

It's important to understand that this took place in a specific context, which is the "Jim Crow" South.  The phrase "Jim Crow" is a code word for black people which means that the "Jim Crow laws" were, in effect, the "anti-negro laws".  Take a look at this clip from the movie "Dumbo". It works on the trope that black people are "crows".  Remember that at the time that this movie was made, the only way that a person of color could be in show business is if they played up to the stereotype.  So, that meant that in an animated film with characters who were animals, the crows had to be black.

(Incidentally, there is a caption under this clip that says "PLZ NO COMMENTS ABOUT RACISM CUZ ITS NOT!!"  Alas, I beg to differ. But why I disagree is the subject of this post.)

The point of Jim Crow was to deny people of color any influence in society and to ensure that they remained a compliant work force. This was necessary because in a post-civil war era it was impossible to use simple brute force to get them to work as poorly paid field hands. And the rural South's economy was based on exploiting this labor to produce cotton. This second class status was enforced by a broad range of laws that constantly reminded blacks that they were second class people.

Who were only allowed to work at certain jobs

And who were considered dirty and "unclean". These laws conspired to force blacks to only work at a very small number of very menial jobs---primarily agricultural in nature.  Basically, blacks were only fit for planting, weeding, and picking cotton, tobacco, and so on.

The history of cotton production is interesting because it seems to have been the foundation of the development of both world wide capitalism and the industrial revolution.  Take a look at this quote from an "Atlantic" excerpt of the book "Empire of Cotton".

Slavery stood at the center of the most dynamic and far-reaching production complex in human history. Too often, we prefer to erase the realities of slavery, expropriation, and colonialism from the history of capitalism, craving a nobler, cleaner capitalism. Nineteenth-century observers, in contrast, were cognizant of cotton's role in reshaping the world. Herman Merivale, British colonial bureaucrat, noted that Manchester’s and Liverpool’s “opulence is as really owing to the toil and suffering of the negro, as if his hands had excavated their docks and fabricated their steam-engines.” Capital accumulation in peripheral commodity production, according to Merivale, was necessary for metropolitan economic expansion, and access to labor, if necessary by coercion, was a precondition for turning abundant lands into productive suppliers of raw materials.

Now one big problem with attempts to keep black people compliant workers is that this only serves a very small percentage of the white population.  If you own a large cotton plantation, it is a good thing.  But if you are a poor white trying to make a living on your own small plot or as a working man, it is a terrible thing to have a huge population of officially designated "subhumans" who are willing to do the same work as you for starvation wages. Blacks and poor whites have real, objective interests in common. So the big task of the white ownership class was to get poor whites to think that it was in their best interests to keep the black population "in their place", even though a moment's reflection will show that it clearly isn't.

The solution was to create stereotypes that could whip the whites into frenzies of hate. The way this was done through a massive campaign created by wealthy whites to convince poor whites that blacks were subhuman brutes that were inherently stupid, over-sexed, and incapable of managing their own affairs. This propaganda effort manifested itself in a large number of ways and continues to this day. One element that was tremendously successful was the 1915 silent film Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the creation of the Ku Klux Klan as a popular revolt against the excesses of negro emancipation after the Civil War.  Take a look at a few of the following scenes from that film that show blacks as being subhumans.

Blacks are incapable of participating in a democratic society.

They are dangerously over-sexed.

When given weapons and authority, they act like total brutes.

Jesus himself supports the Southern cause.  (Please note that heaven has no blacks present, but there are lots and lots of Confederate officers on hand---. Also note that there are no real blacks in the movie, every black part is played by a white in "black-face" makeup.)

One of the insidious things about propaganda is that if is successful enough, it becomes self-replicating. People believe it to the point where they start furthering the ideas without even understanding that they are creating propaganda at all. This makes it tremendously difficult to begin to find out where it began and who was behind it. I won't try to identify where this river of racist crap began, but stopping it once it takes on a life of its own is a tremendously difficult task. And the racist tropes that a century of propaganda in the form of books, plays, (the movie "birth of a nation" was based on a tremendously popular novel titled The Klansman, which had been made in plays and toured the South for years) created a wave of hate aimed against blacks that fueled the sorts of lynch mob mentality that resulted in the events mentioned in the first clip I posted.

This is exactly the sort of thing that seems to have fueled Dylann Roof, the person who killed the nine people in the church in South Carolina, only instead of being whipped into a frenzy by a silent film, he seems to have been goaded into action through what he'd read on the Internet.  In particular, people are pointing towards a group called the "Council of Conservative Citizens", which grew out of the old Citizen Councils of America, which in turn was an attempt to create a more sophisticated face of Southern Racism to replace the "uncouth" KKK.  (The acronym of the Council is the "CCC", replaces the "KKK"----hmmm.)
So we start with the Ku Klux Klan 

Which morphs into the Citizens Councils of America

Which becomes the Council of Conservative Citizens

And just as the movie, "Birth of a Nation" was based on a book titled The Klansman, which was propaganda that resulted in the lynchings mentioned in the first part of this blog post, so the Council of Conservative Citizens has been promoting a book titled White Girl Bleed a Lot.  It promotes the idea that black on white crime is totally out of control.  And like the clips that I showed from "Birth of a Nation" that showed how the tropes of black inhumanity to our grandparents generation, so YouTube clips are being used nowadays to whip people into a frenzy.

Dylann Roof---the latest in a line of racist killers
And the result is a pretty screwed-up young white guy walking into a church and killing nine people that he knows absolutely nothing at all about.  

Please note, that there has been progress.  Dylann Roof was an individual who acted on his own. The nine people killed were murdered in secret and the police hunted Roof down and arrested him. In the old South they would have been lynched in the town square, watched by thousands of people, the local police and elected officials would have been there as either active participants or passive observers. And, people would have felt totally at ease to take photographic evidence which they could sell as souvenirs. It is hard to feel that progress has been made, but it has.


I plan on my next post dealing with fear racism.