Famine as Governmental Policy Tool

April 22, 2019 § Leave a comment

Last week, I was teaching the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Great Chinese Famine in my Modern China course.  One thing that struck my students was that this wasn’t really a famine, it was a manufactured crisis.  The granaries of the People’s Republic of China were full, and yet, Mao and his underlings refused to open them up.  Rather, this was an attempt by Mao Zedong to remake the Chinese countryside and peasantry, to increase industrial output, and to modernize the nation.  This came in the wake of a purification campaign in the country in the early 1950s, as the Communists attempted to stamp their imprint on the nation.

As we discussed the  manufactured nature of this famine, and we discussed Mao’s insistence on ideological reform of China, something struck me.  Famines are rarely just that, famines.  They are often manufactured crisis.  One of my students is a interested in the Soviet Union and Russian history in general, and he noted that the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 was a man-made one, too.

This led to a discussion about ideology, reform, and the costs of absolutism, though both of our examples were communist.  But then I thought of the Irish Famine.  Like China and the Ukraine, the Great Hunger was a manufactured crisis.  And, of course, the United Kingdom was, in the mid-19th century, the most powerful nation the world had ever seen.

In both China and the Ukraine, famine was the result of collectivization, but this was not the case in Ireland.  There, famine came because the potato crop failed for several years, beginning in 1845, due to a fungal infection.  But the failure of the crop became a humanitarian crisis due to the policies of the British government.

Charles Trevelyan, the assistant Secretary of the Treasury, was very clear in his response to the Famine  He termed the Famine an ‘effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.’  But he wasn’t done, he also stated that ‘[t]he real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.’

And thus, as a devotee of laissez-faire liberalism, Trevelyan was slow to respond to the Irish crisis, seeing it as a gift from the Almighty.  And while he was only a civil servant, ultimately, he was backed by his political bosses.  That this was so was acknowledged by Tony Blair when he was the British Prime Minister in the late 90s.  On the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Famine, he issued an apology for the role of the British government in the Famine.

The Great Hunger of Ireland was a manufactured crisis, and as Irish food continued to be exported to Great Britain, the Irish starved.  The United Kingdom, thus, is no different than Mao’s China or Stalin’s Soviet Union.

And so, famine is often used as a political tool, as a means of forcing reform on a recalcitrant population.

And Sir Charles Trevelyan, knighted for his ‘services’ to Ireland, along with the leadership of the UK at the time, most notably Lord John Russell and even Queen Victoria, fit right in there with Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin.

The Globalization of Nationalism and Conservatism

April 18, 2019 § 2 Comments

The current issue of Foreign Affairs is about nationalism, and its resurgence around the world.  The base assumption of all the authors in this edition is that nationalism is a conservative movement, tied to white supremacy, racism, and strongmen like Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin.  The basic argument is that the resurgence of nationalism, and all it entails, is a response to globalism and the rise of a class of cosmopolitans who, the argument alleges, feel at home anywhere.  Thus, everyone else, the ‘somewheres’, who have a sense of connection to place are mad.

First, this is a ridiculous dichotomy.  The actual real cosmopolitans, the ones who are at home in Istabul, Mumbai, and Tokyo, are the 1% of the world.  The bulk of people who are alleged cosmopolitans actually tend to have deep connections to place as well.  They are connected to where they live, their neighbourhoods, their towns and so on.

But this discussion of cosmopolitans vs. the non-cosmopolitans actually obscures more than it clarifies.   Like all theories that attempt to put human behaviour into neat little boxes, it fails.

And this is because the basic assumption of this argument is that the non-cosmopolitan nationalist is not connected to a wider community, one beyond the borders of her nation.  And it also assumes that the leaders of these movements are not in constant contact with each other.  That Donald Trump and Nigel Farage don’t have a connection, that Steven Bannon isn’t globe-trotting, trying to convince Italian conservatives that the biggest evil in the world is Pope Francis.

Of course men like Trump, Farage and Bannon have international communities.  One is the president of the most powerful nation in the world, one is the former leader of a major British political party, and the last is the man who stands behind their ilk, helping them get elected.

But the argument presumes that Trump’s supporters, Farage’s voters, and Viktor Orbán’s fans are not also connected in a globalist sense.  The internet and social media have seen to this.  There are linkages across international boundaries between nationalist and conservative movements in Europe and North America.

In other words, these reactionary movements are just as internationalist as the liberal world order they’re attempting to take down.  They can’t not be, this is a co-ordinated attack on what these nationalists and conservatives (because they are often the same thing) distrust, dislike, and fear in the liberal internationalist order.

Whether we like it or not, we live in a globalized era, and even if we wrap ourselves up in the Union Jack and talk about bringing jobs back to Bristol, or we prefer our government to open our border for more refugees, we live in this world.  The ideological struggle for the soul of the world reflects this as much as it did during the Cold War.

During that era, from 1945-91, two opposing, internationalist, camps fought for global supremacy.  We all know that American-backed liberalism won.  And despite Francis Fukuyama’s embarrassing claim that this saw the end of history, the conservative backlash was in motion by the mid-90s, though its articulation took longer to develop, into the 2010s, our current decade.

And so now, the two opposing, internationalist camps fight for a world that is either liberal, cosmopolitan, and internationalist in nature, or one that is illiberal, nationalist, and just as internationalist in nature.

Aristotle Was Right

April 13, 2019 § 4 Comments

I was reading a sports column (the link is to The Athletic, which is behind a pay wall) about the soap opera that has been the Green Bay Packers’ offseason.  The author, Jay Glazer, was commenting on the drama and relationship breakdown between now former coach Mike McCarthy and star quarterback Aaron Rodgers.  The subtext was that Rodgers is at fault here, but that’s not what struck me.  What struck me was Glazer then went on to state that McCarthy has ‘absolutely zero politics to him.’

Quite simply, I call bullshit.  It is simply not possible to be a human being and have ‘zero politics’ to them.  Politics, at its most base form, is concerned with power and status.  We all negotiate power in human relations on a daily basis, we are all members of larger groups which are themselves engaged in power relations with other groups.

And McCarthy, as the long-time coach of the Packers, one of the oldest, most storied franchises in North American professional sports, had to engage in politics on a daily basis.  It is impossible that McCarthy had ‘zero politics to him.’  Every single day, he had to negotiate his relationship with Ted Thompson, his general manager; his assistant coaches; his players; the media; Packers’ fans.  And in his drama with Rodgers, McCarthy was the boss, the coach of the team.  But given Rodgers’ stature, it wasn’t cut and dried.

In short, all relationships are power.  All relationships are about status.  To declare that someone has ‘zero politics to him’ is flat out stupid.  Aristotle was right.  Glazer is wrong.

Black and white

February 11, 2019 § Leave a comment

Last week, in writing this piece on white privilege, or white hegemony, I cited David Roediger’s excellent book, The Wages of Whiteness, and in so doing, I linked to the book on Amazon.  I spent some time reading the reviews of the book, especially the 1-star ones.

Most of the 1-star reviews are predictable, complaining about how to point out how whiteness was created in the United States is racist against white people, or claim (clearly without actually reading the book) that the book demonizes white people or the working classes.  It is hard not to call such responses racist at worst, or ignorant at best.

But one stuck out to me, because the author took a slightly different tack.  It is worth quoting the review at length here:

A small but very significant difference in terminology prevented me from getting far with this book. Roediger refers to black persons as “Black” (capitalized) and to white persons as “white” (lowercase) throughout his entire book. This rather meaningful difference in terms is utilized in every single instance that a cursory glance through the text revealed these words appearing either as nouns or adjectives. Thus the white person is consistently devalued in contrast to the black individual, solely by the word used to designate him or her. Since this racial devaluation of the white indiviudal is the premise upon all of what follows is based, why bother to read further? Almost before the introductory sentence, we already have a good sense of the bias inherent in the whole book, a bias which puts the author’s fair reporting of facts or interpretation thereof into serious question. Is it just a stupid joke, or an example of white self-hatred, or both, that Roedinger would write nearly 200 pages making a case about how whites advanced themselves in the workplace by collectively devaluing blacks, while himself using language which consistently devalues whites?

First, I feel sorry for this reviewer for giving up so early into the book, but I suppose had s/he actually read it, it would’ve led to a different review, one much more predictable.  But, ultimately, it is the same kind of review as the more predictable ones.  It is just dressed up in fancier language.  The fact that the reviewer argues that to capitalize black and not capitalize white devalues white people is an interesting one.

I have also had this question in the classroom, from students of various backgrounds, on the occasions I’ve either assigned the book or excerpts therefrom.

I think, ultimately, while I would be inclined to either capitalize nor, more likely, not capitalize, both, I can see a pretty simple argument for capitalizing black but not white.  Black is generally a racial category in the United States.  This is both done from the outside, but also from the inside. I don’t really see how, due to white privilege, an African American in the United States could not notice both this hegemony and their own difference from that hegemonic culture and, due to racism, be confronted with the fact that they might not be fully welcome to enjoy the benefits of a cultural hegemony due to the simple fact of skin colour.

On the other hand, because we live in a hegemonically white culture, most white people don’t think about these kinds of things.  Those that do are either people like me, working from a place of anti-racism, or racists.  But to the vast majority of white people, the colour of their skin doesn’t matter because it’s never mattered, because of their hegemonic place in our culture and society.

Hegemony vs. White Privilege

February 8, 2019 § 4 Comments

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about Jordan Peterson, who I dismissed as a professional bore.  A friend of mine shared it on his wall on Facebook and holy hell ensued.  One commentator took great exception to my point that ‘frankly, you cannot claim there is no such thing as white privilege and not be racist’ and, oh-so-wittily demanded a citation.

I come at this question after spending most of my adult life working from a place of anti-racism, of insisting that we recognize our diversity and that we work to a world where none of this even matters anymore because it’s the de facto response to all things.

The very term ‘white privilege is heavily loaded.  It does two things.  First, it points a finger at white people.  Second, it suggests to white people who have a difficult time due to class or gender or sexuality that they have something they generally consider themselves to lack: privilege.

White people get defensive when the finger is pointed at them.  I know, I am a white person.  The general defensive response from a white person is to claim that they have nothing to do with slavery, genocide of the indigenous, etc.  And, moreover, this all happened in the past.  But racism isn’t an historical exhibit in a museum, it’s still very real and prevalent.

And then there’s the question of class.  Poor white people do not generally have privilege, that’s part of the problem of being poor.  I grew up poor, and it marked me in certain ways, including a distrust of power and authority.  And then there’s people like me who worked to escape that poverty.  To say we have had privilege our whole lives sounds like a denial of our own hard work to get to where we are.

But calling out white privilege is none of this.  For one, privilege (whether in terms of race, gender, or sexuality) is not a one-size-fits-all hat.  It is relative.  I always think of the Italian communist theorist Antonio Gramsci, and his concept of ‘hegemony.’  Cultural hegemony, as Gramsci conceived of it, explained how and why the ruling class maintained power and why the working classes did not revolt.  This means that the ruling class imposed its own world view, its own cultural mores, and so on on culture and society and normalized them.  Thus, ruling class ideals were the normal, anything else was deviant.  And thus, the union movement of the late 19th/early 20th centuries in North America was about accessing some of that hegemonic power for the skilled working classes.  The union movement of that era was not about the overthrow of capitalism, but the amelioration of it, allowing these skilled working class men and their families to access some of the benefits of hegemony.  But it was still a relative slice of the hegemony pie.

Privilege, as the term is used today, is pretty much the same as Gramscian hegemony.  As I argued in this piece, we live in a culture created and dominated by white people.  White people, in other words, are hegemonic.  And, as David Roediger argues in his excellent The Wages of Whiteness, the process of racial solidarity was forged in the United States in the 19th century, the colour line was created through a process of essentially convincing the white working classes that while their lives may be difficult, at least they weren’t black.  That is obviously a simplification of Roediger’s argument, but it is also the basics.

And so now, in the early 21st century in the United States (and Canada) we live in an increasingly multicultural, diverse world.  Two of Canada’s three largest cities (Toronto and Vancouver) have minority white populations.  Around 35% of Canada’s population is comprised of people of colour.  South of the border, 44% of the American population is comprised of visible minorities.  More than that, 50% of the children in the US under the age of 5 are people of colour.  So the times are changing, but not quick enough, really.  The fact we still use terms like ‘people of colour’ or ‘visible minorities’ reflects that.

So we still live in a white world.  To me, this is blatantly obvious looking at the world around me.  In Canada, indigenous men and women are continually assaulted by the police and private citizens.  In the United States, it is African Americans who find themselves looking down the barrel of a gun with police and private citizens on the other end.  More subtle forms of racism exist, like crossing the road to avoid black men.  Or calling the police because an African American person is walking down the street.  But racism also exists in other forms, against other groups.  And all non-white ethnic groups are forced to live in a white world in the US and Canada.

To use another loaded term, this is white supremacy. For me, white supremacy isn’t the Ku Klux Klan or Richard Spencer (that’s just outright racist idiocy), it is simply the fact we live in a white world.

To return to my original point that to deny white privilege is itself a racist conclusion.  Ta-Nehisi Coates summarizes white privilege very well in a 2012 Atlantic article, where he writes

But I generally find it [white privilege] most powerful and most illuminating when linked to an actual specific privilege–not fearing sexual violence, not weighing one’s death against the labor of birthing, living in a neighborhood bracketed off by housing covenants, not having to compete for certain jobs etc.

In the other words, because I don’t fear being shot by the police due to my skin colour (amongst other things), I have privilege based on race.  That neither I nor Coates fear being sexually assaulted on our walk home from work is privilege based on gender.  And so on.

Thus, to wilfully deny that white people enjoy a certain hegemony in our culture is racist, because it denies an entire cultural framework.  That cultural framework means I am far less likely to get harassed by the police if I wear my hood up walking down the street.  It also means that white people are sentenced far more leniently for crimes than black people.  It means that poor white people don’t get red-lined like poor black people by financial institutions when seeking a mortgage.  And to deny that is not only wilfully ignorant, it is a product of that privilege, and therefore, racist.

But at the end of all of this, the very terms ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white privilege’ are, as noted, loaded.  Spring-loaded, really.  Thus, perhaps we should re-frame the discussion to centre around hegemony.  That is far less likely to put people’s hackles up, to make people defensive from the start.  And if we don’t start from a position of defensiveness, we’d be far more likely to get somewhere.

Jordan Peterson: Professional Bore

February 5, 2019 § Leave a comment

Jordan Peterson is a bore.  He appeals to the basest instincts of masculinity, believing that men are under attack in this world.  He also believes, fundamentally, that order is a masculine trait and chaos is a feminine one.  This reflects the age-old misogyny of Christian thought in the West that said that reason was masculine and nature feminine.  One is ordered and disciplined, one is chaotic.

Peterson stepped off the deep end a long time ago. Peterson rose to fame in Canada a few years back in opposition to Bill C-16, which gives legal protection to transgender people.  As the CBC notes, it added the term ‘gender identity or expression’ to three parts of Canadian law: 1) The Charter of Rights and Freedoms; 2) The Criminal Code, in those parts that deal with hate crimes; 3) that part of the Criminal Code that deals with sentencing for hate crimes.  Peterson was appalled, arguing wrongly that this would criminalize the failure to use an individual’s preferred pronouns.  He himselfrejects the idea of non-binary gender identity (indeed, this became the rallying cry of the right in both Canada and the US, where Peterson warned Americans that this was coming for them in an article in The Hill).  But he went further, as he is wont do, claiming that Bill C-16 was an attack on freedom of speech in Canada, the greatest such attack, as a matter of fact.  And so he joined the conservative hysteria that we were all going to be jailed for not using the proper pronouns.  He also received a letter of warning from the University of Toronto, where he teaches, informing him that he must accord to people’s wishes wth their preferred pronouns.

Coupled with this misogyny is a subtle form of racism.  Peterson thinks that white privilege simply doesn’t exist.  He has, to be fair, clearly and loudly rejected white supremacy and prefers his followers to do so as well.  But, frankly, you cannot claim there is no such thing as white privilege and not be racist.  The idea of white privilege is meant to point out that we live in a culture dominated by white people and those who are not white have a more difficult time in getting ahead (I wrote about this here).

But back to the misogyny.  Beyond Peterson’s claim that order is masculine and chaos feminine, Peterson has concluded the problem is feminism, as it seeks to level inequalities, which he argues are simply the way things have always been.

Peterson favours what he calls ‘enforced monogamy.’  In the wake of the terrorist attack in Toronto last spring, in which an ‘incel’ drove his truck into a crowd, killing at least 10, Peterson told the New York Times that male violence toward women happens because they are involuntarily celibate (hence the term ‘incel’).  He said of the killer, “He was angry at God because women were rejecting him.  The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.”  He goes on:

“Half the men fail,” he says, meaning that they don’t procreate. “And no one cares about the men who fail.”

I laugh, because it is absurd.

“You’re laughing about them,” he says, giving me a disappointed look. “That’s because you’re female.”

That, my friends, is sexist.  Plain and simple.  Peterson’s idea of ‘enforced monogamy’ is meant to help men, and therefore it would be coercive to women.

He goes on.  He read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and concluded that:

it’s so whiny, it’s just enough to drive a modern person mad to listen to these suburban housewives from the late ’50s ensconced in their comfortable secure lives complaining about the fact that they’re bored because they don’t have enough opportunity. It’s like, Jesus get a hobby. For Christ’s sake.

In his book, 12 Rules for Life, he argues that ‘healthy women’ want men who are better than them, men who are smarter than they are, who will dominate them, and control them through status.  ‘Healthy women’ want to be dominated.

Peterson’s ultimate problem is he believes that there is such a thing as a natural hierarchy in the social world and he believes that these hierarchies are essentially god-given and therefore right and natural.  He thinks gender equality overthrows this natural order, as Kate Manne makes clear in a discussion of 12 Rules. Manne defines misogyny as a desire to control women (which she differentiates from a hatred or fear of women in the heart of men).  And, to return to Peterson’s argument about ‘healthy women’ wanting to be dominated, well, that is misogyny.

At any rate, Peterson was in Canada’s lesser-known and read national newspaper, The National Post, last week ranting about the American Psychological Association’s new guidelines for treating men and boys.  This is the first time the APA has issued guidelines for treating men and, of course, you’re noting right now that psychology cut its teeth normalizing the behaviour of (white) men.  But these guidelines are focused on the pratfalls of masculinity in the early 21st century and, to a degree, toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity is the form of masculinity that is vicious, violent, and generally dangerous for all, including its practitioners.  I grew up in a milieu of toxic masculinity.  It means alcoholism, drug addiction and violence directed towards those weaker.  This is not what masculinity is supposed to be, it is not how men are supposed to act in society.

So back to Peterson’s fit in The National Post.  Peterson argues that the APA’s guidelines are ‘an all-out assault on masculinity — or, to put it even more bluntly, on men.’  Indeed, men, gather your guns, we’re under attack!!!

He then goes on a rant denying scientific consensus about masculinity and gender roles.  And then complains about what he sees as a war on traditional masculine roles and behaviours.  Except, the thing is? No one really questions that part of masculinity.  We question the assoholic behaviour of men and Peterson denies that being an asshole is damaging to men.  The evidence, which he ignores, suggests otherwise, of course.

Next, he postulates about violence and notes that boys are indeed more likely to be violent than girls.  He then does what he accuses the authors of the APA guidelines of doing: citing himself to prove his point.  His point appears to be that violence is not a learned behaviour, but an innate one.  But then he also notes that the boys who grow up to be violent come from fatherless families.  He also claims that the experts have all agreed on this.  I’m not a psychologist, but even a cursory glance at the literature suggests otherwise.  But why would Peterson let facts get in the way of a good argument?

But all of this is just a precursor to another of his favourite flogging horses: the idea that there is a war on Western society, that Western civilization is apparently seen ‘as an oppressive patriarchy: unfairly male-dominated, violent, racist, sexist, homo-, Islamo- and trans-phobic — and as uniquely reprehensible in all those regards.’ Oh brother.  Here we go again.  (This, of course, is why he denies white privilege exists, which, of course, is easy for a white, heterosexual, tenured male university professor at one of Canada’s élite universities).

This is lazy scholarship and rhetoric. In fact, his rhetoric crosses the line into hysteria and paranoia.  Bill C-16 was the ‘greatest attack’ on freedom of speech in Canadian history.  The APA has declared war on men.

This allows Peterson to claim that anything that he doesn’t like about the modern world is because we’re cannibalistic in the West, we like to eat our own.  It means that it is easy for him to blame the feminists and their fellow travellers.  He’s the intellectual equivalent of those pseudo-Christians in the US who complain about the ‘war on Christmas’ each each year and attack Starbucks for its holiday cups.

Peterson long ago stopped being an academic or even and intellectual or a thinker.  Instead, he is just an ideologue.  And a rather boring and predictable one at that.  But he’s made all the more dangerous because he is well-dressed and is a university professor and uses the instant credibility that brings to go on ideological rants, rather than engage in discussions about ideas.  And ultimately, that’s because Peterson has no more ideas.  And they are built on slippery and false logic.

This makes him boring and a bore.

Louis CK is Still a Jackass

January 2, 2019 § 4 Comments

Eighteen months ago, Louis CK was one of the most famous comedians in the world, almost universally loved, devastatingly funny, and, apparently, a decent human being.  And then came the scandal, which involved him being an incredible douchecanoe with women, intimidating them and performing sexual acts in front of them.  And so, he disappeared from the public eye after apologizing for his behaviour.  This was the right card to play and the appropriate response for his behaviour.

But now he’s back.  And somehow, getting booked for shows.  Last month at a comedy club on Long Island, CK attacked the survivors of the Parkland massacre.  That in and of itself makes him an asshole, but comedy has long been the purview of assholes.  That’s part of what makes comedians funny.  But this was crossing a line, and he knew it.  He had to.  He’s a smart guy.

But then he went onto whine about his own ‘bad year.’  He complained that the sex scandal cost him $35 million.  And he complained about finding out who his ‘real friends’ were, whining that:

People say that like it’s a good thing. That’s not a good thing. That’s a horrible experience. Who the fuck wants to know who your real friends are? I liked having a bunch of fake friends and not knowing who was who.

And then he went onto attack the ‘younger generation’ for essentially having no sense of humour about such things.

And so there we go.  Yet another white dude caught being a morally reprehensible character who isn’t sorry for his behaviour.  His apology means absolutely sweet fuck all now.  Because he obviously didn’t mean it and he doesn’t care that his behaviour was boorish.  He has become another Justice Brett Kavanaugh, attacking his accuser(s).  And Kavanaugh is just another Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey.  This is apparently what you do when you’re a white guy accused of being a dickhead, you mumble something about recognizing your behaviour was uncouth and then attack your accusers.

Fuck that.  We deserve better.

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