Thursday, August 13, 2009

Shame On You, Joyce Joyce!

I had just started reading an article by literary scholar Joyce Ann Joyce in a recent issue of the journal Callaloo when I came across her severe critique of my latest book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness.

Joyce is probably most famous in some academic circles for having been tapped to replace Molefi Asante as head of African American Studies at Temple University in the late 1990s. Asante wasn't pleased with that selection, and he made his displeasure very public. He even went so far as to claim that she would destroy his Afrocentric project/curriculum. Many scholars dismissed his attacks as sexist bigmanism, but having been subjected to so many vicious attacks during her stint at the helm, Joyce ended up stepping down a little ahead of schedule.

Anyway, that's just a too-short recap of the Joyce-Asante dispute. Here's the passage from her new article that discusses my book:

In his book Professor John Jackson, Jr. makes his contribution to the devaluation of racial issues in the quality of Black lives. In the chapter “Racial Paranoia’s Canonical Texts,” he uses John A. Williams’s The Man Who Cried I Am and many other invaluable historical studies, such as Carter G. Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro as examples of a long line of conspiracy theories that imbue Black paranoia and that retard healthy relations between Blacks and Whites. Johnson’s use of Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro contains a humorous ironic element. Carter G. Woodson not only details how a Euro-American education influences the thinking—and thus the methodology—of the Black intellectual, but his work and especially his success at forging the institutionalization of Black History Week, which is now Black History Month, precedes and makes the way for the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power Movement, Black Arts Movement, and thus the institutionalization of the first Black Studies Program at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) in 1968. This initial program provoked universities to add Black Studies to their curriculum and to focus on the hiring of Black faculty. Thus were it not for what Johnson refers to as paranoia and an obsession with unfounded conspiracy theories, it is quite possible that he would not be securely ensconced behind the walls of the University of Pennsylvania. Fortunately, Black intellectual history counters Johnson’s paranoia with legal facts (though I am fully aware that some intellectuals no longer believe in the concept of facts). Yet, I hope that we still believe in what we can see. One of the things we can see is the overwhelming number of Blacks, Latinos, and poor Whites in the American prison system. Gloria J. Browne-Marshall’s Race, Law, and American Society presents a documented history of laws that affected Black survival from the early seventeenth century to the twenty-first century. Her detailed summaries of legal and Supreme Court decisions over a four-hundred-year period suggest that Blacks have substantial reason to be paranoid.

First of all, a relatively minor point. My name is Jackson, not Johnson. She calls me the latter three times in this paragraph. Three big red flags.

Second, I quote the books/authors she mentions because they are important and canonical . Not because they are somehow responsible for "retard(ing) healthy relations between Blacks and Whites." That isn't even close to the book's argument about social causality vis-a-vis race/racism.

I don't blame Carter G. Woodson or John Williams for "racial paranoia" at all. In fact, I don't even use those two texts in the same way. I invoke one portion of Williams's marketing strategy for The Man Who Cried I Am to illustrate the ingenuous way he tried to increase general interest in his 1967 novel by playing off of urban legends and conspiracy theories. I invoke Woodson, Kunjufu, Diop, Cress-Welsing, and others to demonstrate that African-American skepticism toward White America's espoused commitments to full racial equality has a substantial reading list. Is that really a controversial claim?

Joyce writes that "were it not for what Johnson refers to as paranoia and an obsession with unfounded conspiracy theories, it is quite possible that he would not be securely ensconced behind the walls of the University of Pennsylvania." I am far from arguing that African Americans have an "obsession with unfounded conspiracy theories." And we certainly don't corner the market on such proclivities. I do contend that legitimate racial skepticism pivots on some of the very same terrain as seemingly "unfounded conspiracy theories." And the anthropologist in me wants people to take such theories seriously as "social facts" instead of dismissing them out of hand. That's my point. I must not make it clearly enough.

I deploy "paranoia" quite purposefully, pointedly, and NOT as a way to disparage/ridicule Black skepticism.

My use of "paranoia" is hardly a concession to reactionary dismissals of Black skepticism (as misplaced and dysfunctional). Rather, it is a reclamation of the term as a potentially reasonable response the surreal cultural logic of our contemporary racial moment. Moreover, I want to argue that Blacks who invoke racism to describe anything short of Black people being lynched from trees are already labeled paranoid. Given that context, I maintain that being called "paranoid" for invoking subtler forms of race/racism isn't something to be feared.

Joyce ends her criticism of my book by referencing Gloria J. Browne-Marshall's Race, Law, and American Society and arguing that "Blacks have substantial reason to be paranoid." Again, that is one major summary of my book's very point, especially in a politically correct environment wherein racial wolves (formerly dressed in white sheets) know that they have to pass themselves off as sheep to be taken seriously in the public sphere. (Obama's election may signal the beginning of the end of "political correctness" in its current form as a function of the re-politicization of "whiteness" as a "marked" category in newly urgent need of defense against threats like "reverse discrimination." Indeed, much of the Sotomayor hearing seemed to frame the conversation about contemporary race relations in just those terms.)

Joyce maintains that my book contributes "to the devaluation of racial issues in the quality of Black lives." Devaluation in what sense? I'm not taking racial issues seriously by taking even the most cynical and skeptical ones seriously? Maybe she (or others) can accuse me of placing too much value on racial issue, but too little?

Joyce doesn't even disagree with my argument: that there is a powerful (and historically grounded) reason for Black paranoia/skepticism today. So, why is she misreading my book? Or reading it so ungenerously? Or maybe not reading it at all and just assuming my endgame based on the book's title?

One answer, I'd argue, is that some Black academics have already gone post-racial.

Post-raciality could never really be about completely eliminating race. That's a fantasy. Instead, it tends to mean finding ways to evoke race when helpful, using it for protective cover as necessary and disqualifying any opponent's equivalent gesture. It means, for some people, claiming not to see racism almost anywhere except when it is purportedly "reverse racism" to be spied. It is a convenient and self-serving form of racial reasoning, and there's an equally self-serving organizing principle around race/racism at work in certain sections of the academy. And some Black academics have their own variation on that theme.

I don't know Joyce Ann Joyce. I've never met her. And that might be the beginning of the problem.

Some Black academics seem to think that a racially inflected nepotism/cronyism is equivalent to progressive racial politics writ large. The Black folks they know and love are family, fictive kin. Supporting their own social network is supposed to mean supporting "the race." Anyone else can go to hell--Yellow, Brown, White, or Black.

Joyce doesn't know me, but she assumes that she's seen my kind before.

Maybe she thinks that I am a reactionary Black neo-con who lines his pockets by dismissing Black angst and struggle. Or maybe she just maligns my book (after an insultingly cursory glance) because she doesn't actually know me. I hope her sense of racial community (her investment in the "quality of black lives") doesn't simply begin and end with her own social capital. That would be a form of post-racialism masquerading as a racial agenda. If so, shame on you, Joyce Joyce.

Shame on me, perhaps, for calling out an "elder" in public, but I wanted to correct what I consider a blatant (and unjustifiable) misinterpretation of my work.

Joyce knows the danger of such wholesale dismissals. She is also someone who should care enough about the book's topic/theme to read it carefully, even if she would still ultimately disagree with its actual arguments.

Obamaphobia 2009

"He's a socialist." "He's a communist." "He's anti-American." "Heck, he wasn't even born in the United States."

By most accounts, Obama has been taking a public pounding lately. His poll numbers are falling. His attempt to revamp our health care system appears decidedly stalled.

Of course, that very same health care agenda has even been blitzed by angry protesters at town hall meetings all around the country, protesters accused (by those on the Left) of either being extremist zealots or disingenuous provocateurs/plants.

These same indignant protesters claim to read between the lines of Obama's public statements about health care, accusing him of trying to nationalize it. Or worse.

Over the last few days, there has even been talk (media-covered talk) about an Obama-led Democratic conspiracy to create "death panels" charged with determining which sick Americans will be given the privilege of government-dispensed health care.

There are also rumors about secret FEMA "concentration camps" being built by an Obama regime with a specifically Totalitarian and Fascist endgame. Conservative commentator Glenn Beck went on FOX News to announce that after "several days of research" to debunk such claims about secret camps, "I can't debunk them."

FEMA is one "usual suspect" in conspiracy theories about evil government plots. In my book Racial Paranoia, I discuss similar theories from the 1950s and 60s about secret concentration camps being built for troublesome Americans. In that earlier version of things, those on the Left were prime candidates for such ideologically driven gulags. Today, far Right conservatives are the ones imaginings themselves most vulnerable to the possibility of political imprisonment. And pundits such as Lou Dobbs (for his straight-faced coverage of the "birthers") and the aforementioned Glenn Beck have been consistently criticized for fomenting such outlandishness.

Of course, Beck already didn't like Obama. "This president has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep-seated hatred for white people," Beck claimed (on another FOX News program). "This guy is, I believe, a racist." (Some of Beck's show's advertisers have dropped his program as a function of such statements.)

But Beck isn't alone in this game of high-profile Obama-bashing. Michelle Malkin's bestselling book Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks and Cronies is a manifesto of Obamaphobia.

In many ways, this is simply how politics gets done. And it probably always has been. Many of the attacks on George W. Bush were brutal and merciless, and they still hardly hold a candle to some of the partisan rhetorical assaults of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In some ways, we've mellowed as a nation, even as the non-mellow among us gain increasing access to far-flung members of their "fringe" with advances in global media. A relatively small group of like-minded people can have a disproportionate impact on our collective public stage, especially if they make effective use of new media technologies. They can almost create Movements, and seemingly overnight. Indeed, we might be living in an era of the incessant and media-spawned Mini Social Movement. (Again, think of the "Birthers Movement" and its claim about Obama not really being an American citizen.) We could call such things social movements du jour, maybe pseudo social movements. But with a little media coverage, even pseudo social movements become "real" in ways that can have substantive consequences for all of us.

Americans' current "run on guns" isn't just about a potential change in national policy around gun control and the right to bear arms. Some of it also seems to be predicated on an uptick in right-wing militias and their renewed calls for a "race war." Part of it is about a kind of "racial paranoia" linked to economic insecurities, a racial paranoia that pivots on a growing social movement around reactionary racial politicking. (The way "race" functioned in the Sotomayor confirmation hearings was one example of what this reactionary racial rhetoric sounds like today. The fallout from the Gates-Crowley Affair was another.)

Mark Potok, editor the the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report sees "a resurgence of right-wing hate groups and radical ideas" linked to the ascendence of America's first Black President. Recent reports put out by the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms seem to corroborate that claim. With unemployment and deficit spending on the rise and Americans full of fear about their own economic futures, we should be careful not to fall into the same old trap of racial scapegoating. It is easy. We've mastered it. It might even allow some of us to sleep more soundly at night. But it is utterly and ultimately the most self-dstructive response we can have to our present predicament.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Birth Certificates to Beer Summits: It's a Baudrillard World!

Nobody talks about Baudrillard anymore, but this has been a summer replete with political absurdities of Baudrillardian proportions.

Budrillard is most famous for his use of the concept simulacra, the idea of a copy passing itself off as "the real McCoy" without anything original or genuine actually vouchsafing it. This was his post-Marxian and post-Freudian attempt to talk about the newfangled nature of late 20th century culture, especially as funneled through--and even concocted out of wholecloth--by mass mediation itself.

There was that delicious reference to his book, Simulacra and Simulation, in the first installment of the Matrix trilogy, but Baudrillard is often dismissed as too ridiculously hyperbolic to take seriously (for instance, his 1995 claim that "the Gulf War did not take place"). His critics describe him as even more theoretically vacuous than other fetishized, French-imported social critics. But after watching the bizarre wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Jackson's death for the last month or so, I am starting to think that Baudrillard has become more useful (to think with) than ever before.

Who else but Baudrillard can make sense of the nonsensicial mainstream ratcheting up of absurdist (and seemingly unfalsifiable) claims about Obama's supposed foreignness? What better justifies globally covered "beer summit" over race-relations proffered as a technique for innoculating ourselves against future racial misunderstandings? How else can we wrap our heads around Sarah Palin's decision to open herself up to new attacks on her political preparedness (just as she is wont to fend them off)?

Is the Baudrillardian moment upon us? Have we moved unabashedly from "real" politics to mere simulacra? I think so. This has been the summer of simulacra.

Indeed, the only folks who might have a more productive handle on the contemporary political moment might be the early 20th century surrealists. Although, truth be told, it seems to me that we might have already collectively "jumped the shark" (as a global public) so much that we could be experiencing something closer to a simulacra of the surreal, its artificially manufactured, cynically pre-fabbed, and hyper-produced Reality-TVesque carbon copy.

And if even our contemporary surreality is a sham, we are in real big trouble.

Think about it. Imagine a world where a Boston police officer calls Skip Gates a "banana-eating jungle monkey" and declares that he would have actually used pepperspray on the professor. And then the officer seems dumbfounded that people think he sounds like an unreconstruced racist. And this, even after the media's hyper-scrutiny of Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comments. Is this all too stupid to really be surreal?