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January 27, 2008

Art and the "N Word"

In the winter 2008 issue of Dissent Darryl Lorenzo Wellington reviews two books on the “N word” by prominent black intellectuals Jabari Asim and Randall Kennedy. What strikes Wellington are the moral implications of the different attitudes toward the word each writer takes.

Whereas Asim’s approach is historical, Kennedy’s is legalistic. Asim is a syndicated columnist, a former editor at the Washington Post Book World, and currently the editor in chief of the NAACP’s Crisis magazine. Kennedy is a well-known legal scholar and a law professor at Harvard. Two black intellectuals, both middle-aged, both, one assumes, having considerable experience with racism in their personal and professional lives, have come to wildly divergent conclusions.

Kennedy’s book traces the same history, briefly, less emphatically. For him, the big lesson—its use by whites against blacks, blacks among other blacks, and occasionally by blacks against whites—is, “The N word itself is not self-defining. Its actual meaning in any circumstance always depends on its surrounding circumstances.” He lingers over the N word’s place in arguments over jurisprudence, citing discrimination lawsuits in which “nigger” was offered by the plaintiffs as evidence. Kennedy then opines on the merits of the case and whether the language on trial was derogatory, nonderogatory, or relevant at all. He usually sympathizes with the plaintiffs, but hurriedly adds the caveat that “nigger can mean many different things, depending upon, among other variables, intonation, the location of the interaction and the relationship between the speaker and those to whom he is speaking.” Kennedy also mentions LBJ’s notoriously coarse language, but doesn’t necessarily sanction him. His harshest judgment is, “In condemning public officials who use derogatory language, we would do well to remember how complex people can be.” And then he moves on. He is particularly enamored of a quote from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged . . . [instead] the skin of a living thought that may vary in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.”

Kennedy nods approvingly to a section of today’s young population, fans of Quentin Tarantino, rough-edged urban humor, and what’s known as “gangsta rap” that has made the N word a staple of its lexicon, purportedly reflecting (some would say exploiting and encouraging) authentic ghetto talk. Positioning himself as a free-speech advocate, Kennedy mocks people he calls “regulationists and eradicationists,” who, he says, “contend that nigger has no proper place in American culture and thus desire to erase the N word totally” (for example, parents who object to Huckleberry Finn).

Wellington caps his gloss on Kennedy with a judgment of his own:

Kennedy oversimplifies. One can support freedom of speech in private and, particularly, in artistic expression, but still hope to see the public uphold certain standards of appropriate speech—less as a principle of law than of civics.

At one point in his discussion Wellington apologizes for the sophomoric quality of the debate—and he’s right. It’s a debate between the presumed necessity of censorship and the virtues of free speech. And most of the people I know who are conflicted by it happen to be sophomores. For those with a little intellectual maturity (sophomore or otherwise) there is no conflict here. Kennedy’s problem is that he is grounding a poorly conceived position on artistic creativity on an unimaginative rationale for political liberty. He assumes that because art should be protected against censorship (which is right), it must also be insulated from the self-censorship engendered by criticism. In other words, he assumes that political censorship and political criticism are the same—that somehow art is antithetical to criticism. Not so. Art depends on criticism. Art is choice-making; and choice-making is a function of criticism. For example, of all the defenses would could mount for Huckleberry Finn, I should think the least impressive one would be constitutional. It is a profoundly moral work, and its use of the N word is integral to that quality. To defend its continuing publication (and use in the classroom) on the basis of constitutional privilege would certainly miss that point. Likewise, “gangsta rap” should certainly be protected from the scissors and pens of government nannies—not because its violence and sexism is too stylized to be disturbing, but because what is disturbing needs to be discussed, criticized, and occasionally condemned.

Posted by stevemack at 02:53 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 30, 2007

Gays and Lesbians Going Mainstream

Today’s New York Times reports that gay enclaves in cities like San Francisco are melting away as gay and lesbian couples increasingly take up residence in more integrated middle class neighborhoods. The money quote:

These are wrenching times for San Francisco’s historic gay village, with population shifts, booming development, and a waning sense of belonging that is also being felt in gay enclaves across the nation, from Key West, Fla., to West Hollywood, as they struggle to maintain cultural relevance in the face of gentrification.

There has been a notable shift of gravity from the Castro, with young gay men and lesbians fanning out into less-expensive neighborhoods like Mission Dolores and the Outer Sunset, and farther away to Marin and Alameda Counties, “mirroring national trends where you are seeing same-sex couples becoming less urban, even as the population become slightly more urban,” said Gary J. Gates, a demographer and senior research fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles.

At the same time, cities not widely considered gay meccas have seen a sharp increase in same-sex couples. Among them: Fort Worth; El Paso; Albuquerque; Louisville, Ky.; and Virginia Beach, according to census figures and extrapolations by Dr. Gates for The New York Times. “Twenty years ago, if you were gay and lived in rural Kansas, you went to San Francisco or New York,” he said. “Now you can just go to Kansas City.”

I don’t doubt that this trend is experienced by gays and lesbians as something disconcerting, even, perhaps, traumatic. It is, after all, the erosion of a community. But I think it underscores the reality that communities are formed out of necessity—whether the need is food and shelter, or a safe harbor from bigotry and oppression. So this trend provides at least a little hope that American culture is growing up.

Posted by stevemack at 06:37 AM | Comments (48) | TrackBack

June 12, 2007

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty died last week at the age of seventy-five.

He was a favorite of mine; in the introduction to The Pragmatic Whitman I essentially parrot the argument he made in Achieving Our Country to launch my own reinterpretation of Whitman’s democratic and pragmatic vision. Of that reinterpretation, Whitman biographer Jerome Loving chided that it was arguable, though not particularly faithful to the poet’s true transcendental impulses.

Different Rorty anecdotes in two obituaries remind me of just how much I was working in the “Rorty spirit.” Writing in the L. A. Times, Crispin Sartwell recounts how Rorty angered nearly everyone by his shameless appropriation and reinterpretation of other philosophers.

The Dewey scholars hated him, as did the Wittgenstein scholars, the Davidson scholars, the Nietzsche scholars, the Derrida scholars and so on. Every one of them thought they could prove that Rorty was wrong about their particular boy, and that he'd have to listen and take back all the things he had said. In this, they didn't understand him at all.
Rorty was my dissertation supervisor at the University of Virginia in the 1980s (although he was teaching at Stanford when he died). One semester, he taught a course that focused on the classic book "Truth and Method" by Hans-Georg Gadamer. Late in the semester, Gadamer appeared in our seminar. Rorty introduced him with an interpretation of "Truth and Method."
As Rorty spoke, Gadamer just shook his big, eminent, bereted head. When it was over, Gadamer said, in German-accented English: "But Dick, you've got me all wrong." Rorty gave the grin and the shrug and said: "Yes, Hans. But that's what you should have said."

I imagine Rorty would have laid a little stress on that should. Rorty’s informed misreadings (though that word exaggerates a bit) didn’t just serve his own academic agenda, but a moral one. And if “agenda” puts it a little too programmatically, it is at least an attitude. Jurgen Habermas gives us a glimpse of it in his remembrance: “Nothing is sacred to Rorty the ironist,” he writes.

Asked at the end of his life about the "holy", the strict atheist answered with words reminiscent of the young Hegel: "My sense of the holy is bound up with the hope that some day my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law."

Posted by stevemack at 03:18 PM | Comments (551) | TrackBack

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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