Monday, June 24, 2019

Some Books on Racism

I will be  posting about pair of books that center upon racism in America. Because the books involve hot button social issues, and the stories behind me reading seem noteworthy, I wanted to put up an introductory post so as not to distract from commentary on the actual books. 

For the last couple of months, I had been planning on reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. The reason that I chose to read this book is that the work has influenced many people that I encounter on social media as well as articles, blogs and other commentary that I read. I will add that I usually find myself in disagreement with these folks. Obviously, this book gets to the heart of various contentious issues. It is at the center of the so - called culture war. From what I understood about this book, it strongly espoused what myself and others have been calling postmodernism or some variation on the term.  This particular set of principles, though not really new, seems to be gaining in popularity as of late. This is beside the fact that its principles are in direct conflict with a host of other belief systems. 

Though it did not really start out as such, what I am calling postmodernism, at least in terms of current social debates, involve classifying every single individual into one of two categories. Those categories are “privileged” or “marginalized”. According to what is coming from this belief system, almost everything in the world is based on power relationships with the privileged holding all of the power. When a group is considered privileged the basic rules of avoiding stereotypes, hearing diverging viewpoints, freedom of speech are turned off for them. "Whiteness studies” is now something that some academics are studying. "Whiteness" is viewed as a societal ill. I believe that whiteness studies is covered in DiAngelo’s book. Many postmodernists will argue that privileged people should not even have an opinion about issues that affect the marginalized. Therefore, certain groups should not even comment upon oppression, even in the developing world.  Furthermore, privileged people should not create art that depicts marginalized people. For instance, several writers have recently come under heavy criticism for depicting so called marginalized people in their books. The initial group that was most known for its privilege was white men. However, one can now find opinion pieces in major publicans arguing that white women, Jews, gay white men, light skinned African Americans, non – Transgender gay people, among other groups, are privileged. Many, but not all, postmodernists have also called for censorship of ideas and speakers.  Postmodernism also calls into questions the basic principles of science and reason itself. In all fairness I did not know for certain which, if any, of these arguments that D’Angelo supports. This is one reason why I decided to read her book. 

I have read arguments that the current crop of postmodernists have completely misinterpreted and distorted the belief system. I will be eventually reading Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida who helped to found postmodernism at which time I will have more to say about this. Either way, I think that I have described what is coming from the postmodernists at this time. Of course, it is difficult to talk about this without generalizing.   There are many people who agree with certain postmodernist principles without being dedicated postmodernists. A good example is the very popular term “white privilege”. Lots of people use and accept it while rejecting many other tenets of postmodernism. Also, it is important to remember that not everyone who does hold many postmodernist beliefs holds all of them. For instance, I think that many people who adhere to many of these views are against the censorship part. I have also only provided the barest hodgepodge summery above. It is based on what is coming out of late. This belief system also seems to be changing relatively quickly.

In general terms I identify with what I call the humanistic left. I am a liberal in the traditional American sense of the term. I also agree with the tenants of liberalism in the broad and more general sense of the term. Many of my beliefs are in direct  conflict with postmodernism. I believe that both racism and sexism are problems that need to be fought. In fact, combatting these ills is a great and noble endeavor.   However, classifying everyone as "privileged" or "oppressed" is simplistic and often distorts truth. I also believe in freedom of speech, the scientific method, the importance of not stereotyping individuals, that violence and oppression are harmful no matter who perpetuates them, etc. It is vital that we treat individuals equally. The  last trends in postmodernism are in conflict with these values.  “Humanistic left” may sound a bit fancy, but I have found that most people including classical liberals, moderate conservatives, moderate religious folks, people who do not like labels, etc. share similar values.

I will refrain from posting more detailed arguments in this post. I recently posted about several books whose subject involved postcolonialism. At least in part, postcolonialism is a postmodernist belief system (the conglomeration of postmodernist ideologies, such as postcolonialism, intersectionalism, queer theory, critical race studies, etc. is sometimes referred to as "Critical Theory" or “Theory”.)  I expressed my views in those posts. I also posted commentary on Russell Blackford’s The Tyranny of Opinion here. That book delved into some of the excesses of the postmodernist movement in some detail.  I will of course share more opinions when I read DiAngelo’s book and another book that I will mention below. 

On a very related topic, the other book that I will posting about, before DiAngelo’s work, is Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. I had a disagreement with Jodi Picoult on Twitter over her use of the term “white privilege”. As I hinted above I do not agree the premise of the term or the ways that it is commonly used. She responded to a Tweet that I sent disagreeing with her. We had a Twitter conversation about the issue. I found her to be very polite and she attempted to make her points using reason. While we still did not agree on the use of the term, I found that we agreed on a lot of related topics and I found her to be very moderate. She suggested that I read her Small Great Things to better understand her views.  Thus, I decided to give it a go. 

I try to read everything with an open mind, however,  I went into the reading expecting to mostly disagree with DiAngelo’s book. I expected to find it very interesting. I think that it is important to read things that we disagree with. Though Jodi Picoult’s book is a novel, I suspected that it contained lots of underlying ideas concerning race and similar topics.  From what I had heard, and based on my impression of Jodi Piccoult herself, I expected that I would mostly agree with the direction that she has taken in this book, but I would find that I disagreed with some of her ideas. 

More to come on both of these books and on these issues. 

My Blog editing and posting is a little behind. I wrote the above before I started reading these books but have since delved into both works. Except for spelling and grammar corrections and changes from future tense to past tense I have not changed anything above since I started reading. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby is the story of the title character. This is a novel that in some ways is very much typical of Dickens but varies in other ways from many of his other works.  I found it to be a funny, entertaining and brilliant novel.

Nicholas is a young man of about twenty-one years old.  Early on, when his father dies, Nicholas, his sister Kate, and his mother are torn from their middle-class lifestyle and thrown to the mercies of Nicholas’s uncle, Ralph. This uncle is miserly, cold and vindictive. Disliking Nicholas, he sends him away from London to work as a teacher. Though Ralph finds nearby employment for Kate, he tries to set her up for romantic entanglements with his lecherous and immoral business associates. 

Throughout the book, Nicholas alternates his time between various employments that he finds both inside and outside of London.  Along the way, he works at a boarding school for boys that is horribly abusive and neglectful of its charges. There, he befriends Smike, a mentally handicapped and horribly abused boy who becomes Nicholas’s loyal ally throughout the story. Unfortunately, the pair are also pursued by the evil and cruel headmaster, Wackford Squeers, who is trying to regain custody of Smike.  Later, Nicholas and Smike join a company of stage performers and meet all sorts of colorful and amusing characters.  Later still, Nicholas settles in working for the kindly Cheeryble brothers. Throughout the narrative arc, Nicholas’s fortunes gradually rise. The protagonist eventually falls in love with a young woman named Madeline Bray. Madeline is ensnared in a moneymaking plot involving Ralph and the girl’s father, aimed at marrying her to the wretched and immoral Arthur Gride. Of course, Nicholas devotes his efforts to derail the scheme. Newman Noggs, a former gentleman with odd habits, who is now impoverished, attempts to aid Nicholas and his family throughout the book. 

I have read a lot of Dickens over the years. This book was the most Dickensian of them all. What I mean by that is that this novel had the common features that characterize the author’s work in the greatest abundance. The malicious characters were the most over the top. They represent high levels of both villainy and hilarity.  The good characters were almost ridiculously virtuous. The oversentimentality flowed in torrents. The implausible coincidences seemed more abundant than usual, even for Dickens. I do not consider these attributes to be flaws. Reading Dickens over the years, I have come to appreciate these apparent excesses as elements of a surrealistic and brilliant universe that Dickens paints in his novels. The author builds these strange worlds like no other writer has ever done. The book is also filled with Dickens’s marvelous, at times surrealistic descriptions. There are fabulous portraits of people, cityscapes, country scenes, etc. 

Nicholas, and to some extent his sister Kate, are a little different from many other Dickens protagonists. In modern language, they would be called “effective.” The siblings are very assertive. Nicholas in particular uses both physical force and the power of language without hesitation to counter the malevolent acts of others.  The physical force that he employs is often justified and is often used to stop violence that is directed at weaker people. It all starts when he saves Smike from a brutal beating being administered by Squeers. As he does this, he administers a thorough thrashing of Squeers himself. As a young man in his prime, he is able to effectively and decisively apply this force. Furthermore, Nicholas usually articulates his positions and his reasoning with great effectiveness.  The assertiveness is not surprising. His ability to apply force is not surprising. His tendency to act virtuously and stand up for those weaker then himself is not surprising. However, I found that sometimes Nicholas is too good of an orator for a young man of his age. For instance, in the below passage Nicholas is trying to convince Madeline not to enter into what will clearly be a disastrous marriage with Gride.

‘I speak of this marriage,’ returned Nicholas, ‘of this marriage, fixed for tomorrow, by one who never faltered in a bad purpose, or lent his aid to any good design; of this marriage, the history of which is known to me, better, far better, than it is to you. I know what web is wound about you. I know what men they are from whom these schemes have come. You are betrayed and sold for money; for gold, whose every coin is rusted with tears, if not red with the blood of ruined men, who have fallen desperately by their own mad hands.’

As noted above, I find this level of speechmaking a little implausible for someone of Nicholas’s age. On the other hand, the loquaciousness is entertaining and adds drama to the story. 

Despite Nicholas’s positive attributes, I think that Dickens was trying to show that Nicholas can be a bit too overbearing and aggressive at times. At one point in the book, he takes it upon himself to lecture his own mother on virtue. Later, he nearly provokes an unnecessary fight with a playwright whom he dislikes. 

At one stage of the story, Nicholas and Smike are journeying through the countryside. Here, Dickens’s picturesque descriptions and Nicholas’s strong character both come into play,

The ground seemed elastic under their feet; the sheep-bells were music to their ears; and exhilarated by exercise, and stimulated by hope, they pushed onward with the strength of lions.

Onward they kept, with steady purpose, and entered at length upon a wide and spacious tract of downs, with every variety of little hill and plain to change their verdant surface. Here, there shot up, almost perpendicularly, into the sky, a height so steep, as to be hardly accessible to any but the sheep and goats that fed upon its sides, and there, stood a mound of green, sloping and tapering off so delicately, and merging so gently into the level ground, that you could scarce define its limits. Hills swelling above each other; and undulations shapely and uncouth, smooth and rugged, graceful and grotesque, thrown negligently side by side, bounded the view in each direction; while frequently, with unexpected noise, there uprose from the ground a flight of crows, who, cawing and wheeling round the nearest hills, as if uncertain of their course, suddenly poised themselves upon the wing and skimmed down the long vista of some opening valley, with the speed of light itself.

I find the above passage particularly interesting. It seems to embody much that is typically Dickens, but also the uniqueness of Nicholas’s character.  It is bursting with Dickens’s usual powerful descriptions as the Hills swelling above each other; and undulations shapely and uncouth, smooth and rugged, graceful and grotesque, thrown negligently side by side. I find that prose here to be sublime. 

But Nicholas and Smike are also compared to lions with a steady purpose. One gets a sense of Nicholas’s young strength in this passage. As noted above, Nicholas does embody many aspects of a lion with a steady purpose in his character. This does not seem like typical Dickens to me. His protagonists usually do the right thing, but few, if any, embody the strength and decisiveness of the lion like Nicholas does. One can make an argument that Samuel Pickwick in the Pickwick Paperswas equally strong and assertive in his own way. However, Pickwick was a much older man who had previously lived a life filled with both financial and social successes. 

Like most Dickens books, this work was published in installments. This fact seemed more apparent here than in other Dickens novels that I have read. The work feels episodic. At several points, long before the end, it feels like the story has wrapped up and is heading for its conclusion. I think that a tighter structure would have made this a stronger novel. 

In the end, this is another brilliant portrait by Dickens. As I have written before, I do not read this author for a realistic portrait of the world. Instead, I look at his works as an exaggerated but brilliant reflection of reality. Along the way, there is much for a reader to absorb and to enjoy. Though perhaps not up to the level of Bleak Houseor David Copperfield, this book is very much worth the read for Dickens fans. 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity by Chandra Mohanty

Those who have followed my previous posts know that I have decided to read a series of books on the subject of colonialism. As part of that, I wanted to include some books that fall under the category of postcolonial theory. Chandra Mohanty’s Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity is on almost every postcolonial reading list and is often cited as an important source. I wanted to also read one take that was dedicated to the women within the belief system known as postcolonialism. This is the fourth nonfiction book that I have read that can be considered a postcolonial source. I am also interested in feminist thought and theory, so the book is of interest to me in several ways. It will probably be the last book that I read, at least for awhile, that centers on the belief system known as postcolonialism.  I will likely move on to more moderate and conservative writers who write about colonialism.  

 Mohanty is a Professor of women's and gender studies, sociology, and the cultural foundations of education and humanities at Syracuse University. She originally hails from Mumbai, India. In this book, she talks a lot about her background. She has written numerous essays and books on the subject of colonialism, feminism and the developing world. She is often cited as an important postcolonial thinker.

This book is actually a series of essays that Mohanty has written over the years. The essays were originally penned between 1986 and 2003. Her most famous piece, Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses, is included. The essays have been assembled here in an attempt to present a coherent picture of Mohanty’s philosophy as it pertains to colonialism and feminism. 

Several factors make writing about his book tricky. First, Mohanty delves into numerous issues that are in and of themselves enormous and are the subject of large scale and complex controversy and debate. The issues include Capitalism, Marxism, Postmodernism, identity politics, intersectionality, humanism and, of course, feminism and colonialism. I could devote numerous blog posts to any one of these issues.  In fact, I have already written a lot about colonialism and feminism several times.  With all these hot button and complex issues addressed in this book, I cannot “boil the ocean” in this post. Instead, I will try to really focus upon just what the author has written with a few references to these larger issues. 

Second, Mohanty can be maddingly unspecific. She tends to wade in halfway on an issue and does not provide specific examples, commentary or possible solutions. This makes it really difficult to discuss her arguments in depth. Complicating all of this further, some schools of thought, such as postmodernism and intersectionality, have been somewhat dominated or at least infused by extreme views in the past few years. Mohanty’s tendency to not dig too deeply makes it difficult to know if she advocates for these extreme views or not.  I will give an example of what I mean by this below. 

This book is essentially a philosophy book. The author lays out her view of the state of women in the developing world as well as women of color in the developed world. She labels all these women, even those who live in the United States and Europe, as Third World women. She goes on to state what she believes are the primary problems that women face worldwide and ways to raise them out of what she identifies as oppression. 
Mohanty describes herself as an anticolonial, antiracist, anti-capitalist feminist. She espouses several main points in her various essays. One of the main themes of this book is Mohanty’s criticism of what she calls western feminism or white feminism. She argues that such feminism is actually a manifestation of colonialism and that it is an attempt to impose harmful values, such as economic empowerment of women.  The  author labels the economic empowerment of women as Western value that does not apply in the developing world. Through this criticism, the author brings many concepts such as capitalism and universalism in dealing with human issues under scrutiny.  She further argues that western feminism, as well as the western world in general, has developed a false representation of women in the developing world that is inaccurately uniform and based upon stereotypes. This line of reasoning is similar to and partially derived from the writings of Edward Said. My commentary on his book Orientalismis here.

Another major theme is what the author calls anticapitalism. Mohanty contends that capitalism, as well as globalism, is harmful to women all over the world. She ties capitalism to racism and misogyny. Mohanty views Marxism as a preferential system. She calls capitalism and globalism the results of colonization and what she labels recolonization that occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union. Thus, she refers to the changes that she advocates as decolonization. 

She writes, 

The critique and resistance to global capitalism, and uncovering of the naturalization of its masculinist and racist values, begin to build a transnational feminist practice.

Here, Mohanty displays the frustrating vagueness that I refer to above. She gives a few seemingly obscure examples of why she believes that capitalism is harming third world women, but that is all. She also never really explains what she advocates as her version of Marxism. 

Another important theme here is the author’s argument for a change in the higher educational system in developed nations. Once again, her lack of specificity is an obstacle to understanding and analyzing her writings. She advocates for including more ethnic diversity in college staff and reading material. She is clear about that point. She also seems to be advocating something of a revaluation of the methods used to ascertain truth. Thus, she calls for the decolonization of the educational process.  

 Mohanty writes,

a public culture of dissent entails creating spaces for epistemological standpoints that are grounded in the interests of people and that recognize the materiality of conflict, of privilege, and of domination.

The above quotation may seem a little obscure, but I have run into similar language in postmodernist readings and have even run into it with people who advocate for postmodernist or postcolonial belief systems. If I am reading this correctly, spaces for epistemological standpoints seems to call for different ways of finding truths beyond what is often cited as reason, logic and science. Recognizing the materiality of conflict, of privilege, and of domination seems to be calling for the use of different methods based upon the background of the truth seeker. 

A further clue to what the author is talking about comes when she refers to 

The contrast between Western scientific systems and indigenous epistemologies and systems 

 This all seems to be indicative of the postmodern belief that absolute methods of finding the truth, such as logic and science, are not entirely valid or at least not the only ways to find the truth.   Thus, the call to decolonize education.  I should note that in one essay, the author does state that she does not consider herself a postmodernist but that she is sympathetic to many postmodernist ideas. 

The author also advocates intersectionality, that is, the belief that all oppressions, such as sexism, racism and other forms of bigotry, overlap and are related. When an individual is looked at, all the various oppressions must be examined. In addition, power structures that are responsible for oppression are also related. Some branches of intersectionality contend that almost every interaction and action can be viewed within the framework of power and oppression. 

I disagree with the anti-capitalism, anti-globalism and Marxism here. As I have written elsewhere, I agree with criticism of a lot of capitalistic practices. I agree with the author when she advocates for worker’s rights and the need to organize labor movements in the developing world. I am well aware that capitalism, especially in unregulated forms, has led to, and continues to lead to, misery. However, I think that capitalism, with sensible regulation accompanied with government support of economic and social fairness, is the best way to get to a more prosperous and just society. In the long run, it is in capitalist societies where women and minority groups have made the most gains. 

I also disagree with Mohanty’s call to decolonize education. The tenants of reason, logic and science are some of the things that have driven human progress and that have alleviated suffering and injustice. I also do not believe that these methods and values are exclusively Western. Once again, societies in all corners of the world that have embraced these values have seen the greatest gains for women and minority groups.

Though, as I wrote above, I cannot delve into every controversial issue that this book raised, I want to mention intersectionality. As noted above Mohanty advocates intersectionality. This belief system has somewhat evolved in recent years. It is a big topic, and I cannot really examine it thoroughly in this post other than to make one point about Mohanty’s views. Recently a branch of intersectionality has become extremely preoccupied with white men and the supposed oppression meted out by white men. This extreme branch has gone further and has been accused of, I believe rightly so, of minimizing, excusing and sometimes even justifying violence and oppression committed by non-whites. As mentioned above, this is too big of a topic to address comprehensively in this post. However, in regards to this book, I should note that Mohanty does not make excuses for oppression and violence committed by non-whites.  She is highly critical of oppression in the developing world (Mohanty explains how she prefers the term “Third World”). She rightly condemns both racist and violent Hindu Nationalism, of which she writes that some of her family members advocate, as well as the theocracies in Saudi Arabia and Iran. As I have observed in some advocates of intersectionality, she does not place blame on developed nations or upon white men for the ills perpetuated by these movements and governments. With all of that, it seems clear that Mohanty finds capitalism and globalism to be much bigger problems. 

The fact that this book is so esteemed within both the postcolonial thought system and some branches of feminist thought make it important. Many people that I discuss these issues with adhere to postcolonial and /or intersectional beliefs that seem to have originated or at least were developed by Mohanty. I disagree with many of the author’s conclusions, but I also think that it is vital to read writers who have diverse opinions, even if we disagree with them. Thus, I am glad that I have read this book.