Thursday, August 30, 2018

Actually, It's About Ethics in Doctor Who Journalism.

or
Why I am no longer talking to Doctor Who fans about race
                 

Not racist. John Bennett as Li H'sen Chang
Tom Baker is my favourite Doctor; Philip Hinchcliffe is my favourite producer; Talons of Weng-Chiang my favourite story. That would have been my position this time last week; and it would be hypocritical to pretend it has changed. It's not a controversial stance. A fortnight ago it would have been about as edgy as saying that Sgt. Pepper was my favourite album or Citizen Kane my favourite movie.

Not racist. John Bennett as Li H'sen Chang
Talons of Weng-Chiang was the final story of the fourteenth season of Doctor Who, first shown in 1977. It's a pastiche of Victorian pulp horror, weaving elements of Frankenstein, Dracula, Jack the Ripper, Phantom of the Opera and Sherlock Holmes into a single story. Tom Baker forgoes his floppy hat in favour of a deerstalker: even the giant rat of Sumatra puts in an appearance.

The BBC are very good at historical costume drama, and Robert Holmes is the best script writer that Doctor Who ever had. The story is full of beautiful little period moments. We all remember when Litefoot the police doctor tried to explain the niceties of English tea to Leela:

-- Oh no, only one lump for ladies!
-- Then why ask me how many I wanted?

And the scene in which he and the theater owner try to remain stiff upper lipped in the face of certain death is so good it very nearly spawned a spin-off series.

--I'm not so bally brave when it comes to it.
--When it comes to it I don't suppose anybody is.

At the exact center of the story is a stage magician called Le H'sen Chang, who is the pawn of the evil Chinese god Weng Chaing, who (as is the way with these things) turns out to be a war criminal with a time machine. Chang's appearance and demeanor is based obviously and unapologetically on Fu Manchu, and the story draws heavily on pulp cliches about sinister Limehouse Chinamen. Naturally, Chang is played by a white British actor in yellow make up. 

Not racist. Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu
Doctor Who Magazine has, for a number of years, carried a feature called Time Team in which a group of younger fans give their first impressions of older episodes. The original feature ran for over a decade, and reviewed every episode of the classic series from Unearthly Child to Survival. The magazine recently relaunched the column with a panel of twelve viewers under the age of 22: people who grew up with the post-2005 version of the show. In the new feature, the panel comment on a selection of thematically linked episodes from different eras. In the most recent issue, they looked at three pseudo-historical stories: The Time Warrior (Jon Pertwee in medieval England), Thin Ice (Peter Capaldi in 19th century London) and the first episode of Talons of Weng-Chiang.

Time Team isn't about in-depth criticism: it's about first reactions. "OMG Linx looks like a potato!" and all that that entails. But it's intelligent and nuanced: they are neither saying "har-har wasn't old days TV awful" nor are they annotating sacred texts. When they look at the Time Warrior, they really like the character of Sarah-Jane but feel she is reduced too quickly to a damsel in distress. Some of them feel that the Third Doctor is sexist towards her, but some of them feel that he doesn't really mean it.

Their response to the first episode of Talons of Weng-Chiang is about as uncontroversial as anything can possibly be. They think that it is a really good story, but that it is ever so slightly incredibly racist. They say things like: "I was really engaged. It felt exciting like a detective story. It's just the racist stuff that's like, no." and "The music, the atmosphere, every shot is just beautiful" and  "...It portrays a race of people from the real world as villains...based on derogatory stereotypes... Yeah, not good."

So. Millennials watch Old Who and come to pretty much the same conclusion that Grumpy Old Fans reached decades ago. Great story, shame about the racism. Nothing more to say.

But Marcus Hearn, editor of Doctor Who Magazine has a great deal more to say. He uses his editorial to set the young folks straight. This strikes me as a curious editorial procedure—hiring a young, diverse panel to offer a fresh take on Doctor Who and then warning the readers not to pay too much attention to them. But it's none of my business how Hearn runs his magazine.

Hearn thinks that the panelists were wrong to find a TV show in which a white man yellows up to play Fu Manchu a teeny weeny bit racist.

His reasons are as follows:

1: Talons of Weng-Chiang is not racist because it was made a long time ago.

2: Talons of Weng-Chiang is not racist because it was not intended to be racist.

3: Talons of Weng-Chiang is not racist because the director, producer and writer were not racists.

4: Talons of Weng-Chiang was not racist because it was a pastiche of the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu Movies.

5: Talons of Weng-Chiang was not racist because it was made a long time ago. Again.

Not racist. Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu

Is Talons of Weng-Chiang racist?

This is the wrong question to be asking. Of course Talons of Weng-Chiang is racist: any idiot can see that. You might as well ask "Was the Aztecs filmed in black and white?" or "Did Nicholas Parsons appear in the Curse of Fenric."

The right question to be asking is "Was racism the only thing about it? Does racism obliterate everything else in the story? Is there anything to talk about apart from the most obvious thing?"

I have watched Talons of Weng-Chiang five times at the very least, and enjoyed it every time. I remember watching it (many years ago now) with a college science fiction society, and overhearing people who were not fans saying that they could hardly believe just how good it was...much too good to be a Doctor Who story. (And also the rat.)

What was going on? I can only think of three possibilities.

1: We enjoyed Talons of Weng-Chiang because it was racist. We were like the man who claims to like fine art but really goes to galleries because it gives him a pretext to look at ladies boobies. We may have said "Ha-ha what a tellingly droll piece of dialogue" but what we were really thinking was "Hurrah! At last we can all get together and have a jolly good laugh at the Chinks!"

2: We enjoyed it despite its being racist. We were prepared to forgive or overlook the racist caricatures because the story was so overwhelmingly fun and well made. In some jurisdictions "redeeming artistic importance" can be a defense against a criminal charge of indecency.

3: We didn't notice that it was racist. We just took it for granted that melodramas contain evil men with yellow faces and long mustaches who can't say their Rs, in much the same way that we took it for granted that space operas included mad scientists with Russio/German accents who say "Nuzzink in ze vurld can stop me now!"

We liked it because it was racist; we liked it despite it being racist; and we didn't notice it was racist. There are, logically, no other options.

And all three positions are, quite obviously, racist. It is racist to not care that something racist is racist; and it is certainly racist to not notice that something racist is racist. If anything, option 3 "It didn't occur to us that there was anything racist about it" is rather less forgivable than "Hooray! We get to dis the Ching-Chongs".  

There is a fourth position, which probably no-one reading this blog would take but which people have taken with me in the past: that Weng-Chiang belongs to a special category of art that has to be experienced in a state of mystical passivity.  You must not think about it and you certainly must not articulate your thoughts. You must merely let it wash over you. "Get over yourself, Andrew. This is just a TV programme, a bit of popular entertainment. Stop analyzing it." The more fanatical a Doctor Who fan a person is the more likely they are to invoke the "this is just a bit of ephemeral rubbish" defense.

Obviously not racist at all. 

Yes, as a matter of fact, I did have a Golly-Wog when I was a child.

And two things are true. I loved my Golly, and I never particularly associated him with the black children in my class, of whom there weren't any. I never gave him de funny Camp Town races doo dah voice when I role played with him. Well, hardly ever. My parents were card carrying liberal Guardian reading CND badge wearing lefties. They would have been mortified if anyone had suggested that buying a Golly-Wog for their little boy was in the least bit racist.

And there is the whole problem. 

We are too willing to limit the definition of "racism" to "being personally bigoted", "being directly horrible to individual people of colour." I have struggled with this myself, particularly over gender issues. I have been far too willing to say "It's true he doesn't think you should be allowed to get married, but he himself is not homophobic."

The least bigoted family you can imagine go to the least bigoted toy shop you can imagine and buy a doll that their child plays with in an entirely non bigoted way. No-one sees themselves as being racist. 

No-one is being racist.

And yet the doll is a fucking grinning blackface caricature.

I loved my Golly. I still have him somewhere.

Obviously not racist when you know the context.

Let us have a look at the Editor's Defense of the Indefensible.

"If you were making Talons of Weng-Chiang today you'd certainly do it differently."

If you were making Marco Polo today, you'd certainly do it differently. You wouldn't cast an English actor (Martin Miller) as Kubla Kahn, and you certainly wouldn't use elastoplast to give him slitty eyes. But there is nothing particularly wrong with the portrayal of Kahn: it's the whole idea of casting white actors in Asian roles we have trouble with. Fix that and you've fixed the story.

If you were making Tomb of the Cybermen today you'd certainly do it differently. You wouldn't make Toberman such a dreadful stereotype. There is really no need for the person who nobly lays down his life in the final episode to be a strong, loyal mute. And even if there is, he could just as well have been a strong, loyal, Caucasian mute.

If you were making Talons of Weng-Chiang today, you'd certainly cast a Chinese actor as Le H'sen Chang. But if the yellow face make-up was the only problem, we wouldn't be having this conversation. We could all just say "Yes, I know! It was a theatrical convention in those days!! What ever were we thinking!!!" and move on.  

But it isn't just the make-up. The sinophobia -- Limehouse opium dens, martial arts, the Tong, sinister laundries, kidnapped white women, funny voices, exotic temples -- run through the story like the word "racist" through a stick of racist rock. It is a major part of the aesthetic. It is -- whisper it softly -- one of the things we like about the story. The cod Chinese aesthetic is one of the things we are talking about when we talk about how superlatively well done it all is. And that isn't something that can be fixed. No one imagines we could say "Oh, let's remake Weng-Chiang, but this time make him, I don't know, Swiss."  In Marco Polo and Tomb of the Cybermen, the racism is a bug. In Weng-Chiang it is very much a feature.

"1976, when this serial began production, was a very long time ago."

This is the only thing in the editorial which I wholeheartedly agree with.

"And you can't judge the past by the standards of the present."

Yes you can.

Really, you can.  

Watch me.

"In 1952, Alan Turing was tried in a criminal court and given libido suppressing drugs as a punishment for being gay. This was wrong."

"In 1900 in the UK, women were not allowed to vote in elections. This was wrong."

"Until 1954 black children were not allowed to go to the same schools as white children in some parts of America. This was wrong."

That wasn't so difficult, was it?

Image result for anthony hopkins as othello
Anthony Hopkins as Othello. It can't be racist it's high culture

"I'm sure that nobody involved with the production of Talons intended to cause offence to any viewers or the ethnic minority represented by the characters in the serial. And the intention behind the work is to me a crucial factor."

Talking about the "intention" of a work is incredibly problematic. It locates the work's meaning outside of the text, in the subjectivity of a person called "the author" who may not even be alive. Talons of Weng-Chiang is a thing; it exists; anyone who can be bothered to put a DVD in the toaster can watch it; and anyone who has watched it may have an opinion about it. The "intentions" of the writer and the producer are a matter of conjecture.

Marcus Hearne is sure that Robert Holmes, Philip Hinchcliffe and David Maloney were not racists. I am sure he is right.  But in 1977 they consciously and freely decided to make a Fu Manchu pastiche.

The poisonous content of the story doesn't magically go away because "some of my best friends are Chinese". The poisonous content of the story doesn't magically go away because Robert Holmes sat at his typewriter in 1976 and intended really really hard for his story not to offend anyone. If you don't think the content is poisonous, then by all means show us how we are mistaken. Show us that you've looked at the episode more carefully than we have and spotted stuff that we've missed. Be the better critic. But don't appeal to some nebulous idea about what may or may not have been in a dead writer's mind forty years ago.


Not racist: Kubla Kahn from the Season 1 story Marco Polo.
"In many key respects Talons was inspired by the penny-dreadful booklets that caused a sensation in Victorian England. The spirit of these lurid stories endured in Sax Rohmer's Dr Fu Manchu and elsewhere. Robert Holmes would almost certainly have been familiar with the films based on that criminal master-mind... He was banking on the fact that his audience were too... Quite understandably, many of these films have been locked in a section of the archive marked 'problematic' making it harder for a young, modern audience to appreciate what Holmes pastiche was attempting to subvert..."

This, on the other hand, is an actual concrete argument. Let's not worry about the scare quotes around "problematic" or ask whether Sax Rohmer's pulps really had anything to do with the penny dreadfuls of fifty years earlier. Let's see if the argument stands up.  If it does, then I am wrong, the time team are wrong, Elisabeth Sandifer is wrong and we can all watch our favourite story with a clear conscience.  

Here is Talons of Weng-Chiang, the Case for the Defence

1: Robert Holmes based the sinophobic tropes in Talons of Weng-Chiang on the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movies.

2: The BBC had shown The Vengeance of Fu Manchu, The Face of Fu Manchu and the Brides of Fu Manchu (in that order) over three consecutive Wednesdays in 1975.

3: The audience who watched Talons of Weng-Chiang in 1977 can therefore be assumed to have recognized the source of Holmes' tropes.

4: Modern audiences are unlikely to have seen the Fu Manchu movies, so they can be assumed to be unfamiliar with these tropes.

5: You have to be familiar with the Fu Manchu tropes in order to access the true meaning of Talons of Weng-Chiang. 

6: Therefore modern audiences cannot access the original meaning of the story.

7: Those with knowledge of the Fu Manchu movies would have been able to perceive that Robert Holmes was subverting racist tropes, rather than presenting them uncritically. Those without that knowledge are unable to perceive that element of subversion.  

I agree that context makes a difference. I agree that lack of context can lead to misunderstanding. I remember seeing An Unearthly Child for the very first time at Panopticon 2 in 1978 and being Totally Blown Away by it. Jeremy Bentham introduced it, asking us to pretend that we had no idea who Susan Foreman was or why her grandfather was so reclusive, and that Police Boxes were so common that we walked past one every day without noticing it. And that's a perfectly useful piece of context-setting. As useful as your GCSE teacher gently explaining that, yes, when Pygmalion was written "bloody" was regarded as a really dirty word. If someone were stupid enough to say "An Unearthly Child is a waste of space because everyone knows the mysterious Police Box is really a TARDIS from the planet Gallifrey" I would certainly write an editorial in my magazine setting them straight.

On the other hand, the original context is never recoverable. You can't watch An Unearthly Child in ignorance of the fact that the Police Box is bigger-on-the-inside; and you do, in fact know whose daddy Darth Vader is. I myself have said that modern audiences can't possibly understand the impact that Star Wars had when it first came out -- how strange and different it was -- and that's true. But if the only authentic experience is that of the first night audience, then the true meaning of most books and movies and TV shows is lost forever and there is no point talking about them.

I suppose that when you say that a movie is racist, or sexist or dirty it is fair to compare it with the background levels of racism, sexism and smut in the culture around it. The original Star Trek is much more racist than the background levels of racism in our present day culture and certainly today's TV. There is only one black character, and all she does is answer the phone! But as we all know, the original Star Trek was much less racist then the background levels of racism in the 1960s: most TV shows didn't have any people of colour in them at all.  

But is that really the best we can do? Talons is more racist than anything which would be shown on TV today but it was less racist than the background levels of racism on TV in the 1970s? (The Fu Manchu films continued to be shown until 1983; and notoriously the BBC only dropped it's black-face minstrel show in 1978) The Young People are wrong to say "Whoah! A white dude playing an incredibly racist caricature of a Chinese guy! Not cool!" What they ought to have said was "Gosh! A white chappie playing an incredibly racist caricature of a Chinese fellow! But it's obviously based on those movies I watched on BBC 2 last year! And the white chappie in those films played an even more incredibly racist caricature of a Chinese fellow! So that's all right then!"

I am not convinced. Are you convinced?

This leaves us with one more possibility. The people who knew the mystical code-tropes would have understood that Robert Holmes was not merely copying the racist imagery from the Christopher Lee movies. He was subverting it.

Fine word, "subverting". Taking an idea and turning it on its head. Making a film where the Sheriff of Nottingham was an honest policeman and Robin Hood was a terrorist; producing a panto where Cinderella leaves the prince and runs away with Dandini. Trying to read Hamlet on the assumption that the prince is really bonkers and the ghost only exists in his head.

So there is the defense, and its a good one. Talons of Weng-Chiang subverts the racist cliches of Fu Manchu. We start out with racist ideas about devil doctors who kidnap white women, but only in order to show how silly those ideas are. It turns out that everyone has been very silly and unfair and jumped to the wrong conclusions about the Chinese community and everyone comes to a better understanding of the difference between European and Asian culture and sits down to fish and chips and chop suey together....

Er... No. It is perfectly true that Chang becomes slightly less two dimensional as the story moves on; and that he is allowed a sympathetic death scene. (Did I mention that Robert Holmes is a very good writer?) But the whole cod-Chinese aesthetic of the story is never remotely challenged or repudiated and sympathetic characters say some pretty racist stuff without the Doctor challenging them. (This is all covered in great and good-natured detail in Kate Orman's essay.) One villain turns out not to be quite so villainous after all -- you don't need any esoteric knowledge of  old Christopher Lee movies to understand that. But one repentant bad guy doesn't wipe out a story full of anti-Chinese cliches.

Not racist, but quite well drawn.
I was going to conclude with a brief survey of the twitter storm which has blown up around this issue, but I don't really have the heart. It was utterly, utterly predictable. Abuse towards the Time Team panel for being young; accusations of insincerity -- oh, they didn't really care about race or diversity but were just virtue signalling. All the usual whataboutery, oh, but if only yellow people can play yellow roles then we'll have to censure the Time Warrior because Kevin Lindsay isn't really a Sontaran. People who experience the claim "this is racist" as a personal attack on them and jolly well swear to go away and watch some Charlie Chan films just to show us. And unbelievably nasty, attacks on people who defended the original article and took exception to the editorial. Actually, I think that Elisabeth Sandifer possibly maybe sort of overstepped the mark in saying that Marcus Hearn should resign or be fired. But nothing justifies the kind of abuse she was subjected to. Fandom is an all or nothing world. Once someone is on the wrong side of a particular issue, they are sad, failing writers who have never done or said anything worth while in their lives. (It's a very Trumpian tactic.) It wasn't orchestrated; it was people blurting because they felt that a TV show they once liked was being taken away from them. We are still several months from a DoctorWhoGate. But it has the same effect. It drives people off social media. I don't know how I would write a review of Season 11 in the present climate. I wouldn't be talking about whether I liked a TV show or not. I'd be aligning myself with one or other side in a surrogate culture war. And I'd be at risk of people shouting at me. Which ever side I took. It's not fun any more.

Image result for laurence olivier othello
Sir Laurence Olivier as Othello. Dear god in heaven. 
Talons of Weng-Chiang is incredibly racist. Talons of Weng-Chiang is my favourite Doctor Who story. I loved my Gollywog. Why are we still even talking about this?

138 comments:

Nick Mazonowicz said...

Isn’t there a scene in which Chang sarcastically comments to a policeman ‘I understand we all look alike to you?’

Which shows that Holmes was at least aware of the issue even if he didn’t do much about it.

Andrew Stevens said...

I thought it was funny that you mentioned the Charlie Chan films. I went back and watched a few of the very old ones that still survive (with Swedish actor Warner Oland in the lead). So, yes, northern European actor in makeup playing a Chinese-American. So far, so problematic. But it isn't really problematic in that way. Charlie Chan is the hero. He is smarter and better than the white people around him and, in a very Colombo fashion, uses their low expectations of him against them. The author of the original books had read Honolulu newspapers (though he himself was a New Yorker) about a real Chinese-American detective named Chang Apana and based Chan on that. Charlie Chan absolutely was a deliberate subversion of Fu Manchu tropes.

But it turns out that the films aren't non-problematic at all, even though their portrayal of the Chinese or Chinese-Americans is almost completely unobjectionable. But at least two of them that I watched had just breathtakingly offensive African-American stereotypes in them. And I mean super-duper way beyond Talons levels of offensiveness (not evil, but incredibly ignorant and lazy). Those scenes are comic relief and can be excised from the movies without doing them very much harm at all. If that were done and somebody wrote some decent scores (they were made before films had original scores and very much suffer from the lack) for them, they'd be fairly watchable entertainment even today.

Andrew Stevens said...

If anybody objects to my idea of putting the films under the knife because of messing with something classic or whatever, I would respond, "Excising those scenes is actually more true to the authors' intent. Those scenes are intended to be funny and almost no member of a modern audience would find them funny." In general, I do tend to frown on messing too much with authorial intent. E.g. when I first read about Riverdale, a show I have never seen, and how it was going to turn the Archie comics into a dark sexy teenage soap opera, I couldn't help but think, "Even if you're hugely successful at that and write a great show, couldn't you just have written an original dark sexy teenage soap opera which maybe uses the Archie characters as inspiration for your own? Because, and I know some Archie comic readers may be shocked to hear this, the Archie comics weren't really a dark sexy teenage soap opera."

Andrew Stevens said...

Apparently, the National Asian American Telecommunications Association has called Charlie Chan “one of the most offensive Asian caricatures of America’s cinematic past.” Well, I disagree and so did Asians at the time who flocked to the cinemas to watch the films. And Chan's children always were played by actors of actual Asian descent.

Andrew Stevens said...

I am, by the way, going to embrace the "I love it because it is racist" option. I am not thrilled that Yellow Peril writers like Sax Rohmer took an actual existing culture and turned it into an evil parody of that culture. Unlike Charlie Chan, who has become thought to be a racist stereotype only fairly recently, Fu Manchu was always pushed back against by Asians at the time and rightly so. I like to think (perhaps wrongly) that, if I were in that time, I would have been in complete agreement with them.

But now nobody is in danger of confusing it with reality and the fictional culture (and Fu Manchu himself) that was created by those writers, racist parody though it was, is incredibly cool and atmospheric. I like to think I would think this even if I were of Chinese descent myself, but obviously I can't know that for sure. Perhaps the historical baggage would render impossible any aesthetic affinity.

SK said...

As someone with no dog in this fight (I think Tom Baker was one of the worst three of the seven real Doctors Who [okay worst three at a push], and I refuse to ever consider myself part of 'fandom') the unfolding of the saga has been amusing to watch. But really I think it's a battle between the Germ Theory of Racism and the Miasma Theory of Racism.

the Germ Theory of Racism says that racism something done by people: it is being prejudiced against someone for their perceived race. Every act of racism by definition, involves someone, an actual concrete actor, being prejudiced, whether that's a police constable stopping someone because of their race and no other evidence, someone shouting a rude word to someone of another race, or someone choosing one job candidate to interview over another because their name sounds more likely to be of the person's own race.

Basically, every act of racism has a villain in it. If there's no villain — no one being prejudiced — then there's no racism.

Whereas the Miasma Theory of Racism says that racism is everywhere, all around and through us, all the time, suffusing everyone. It's the mystic energy force which holds the world together, no wait, maybe that bit isn't right. But anyway, under this theory, racism can occur without any actual villain. It just is.

So when Miasma theory proponents say that something is racist, Germ Theory proponents hear them as saying that there must be a villain somewhere in the story. And sometimes, maybe, they suspect that the Miasma Theory proponents are locating the source of the villainy in them (saying things like 'If this is your favourite story then you are a racist' makes this leap less unintelligible than it might otherwise be). So they object that (by the Germ Theory definition) there isn't any racism: no one involved was being prejudiced (I suppose this is what is being dismissed as 'appeal to intent').

Of course them sometimes Miasma Theory proponents respond by saying that if you're willing to defend something that's racist then you are racist. Which goes down about as well as you might expect with someone who interprets that in line with Germ Theory.

But really, the whole thing is just Germ Theory versus Miasma theory. When the two sides use the word 'racism' they simply aren't talking about the same thing. The two definitions are so different that it is quite possible for something to be racist by one definition, and not racist at all by the other.

But people insist, for some reason, on using the same word for both and such, chaos ensues.

Hilarious chaos.

Gavin Burrows said...

Dear Andrew R,

Yes, just what you say, and well put.

Dear Andrew S,

Charlie Chan is usually considered an example of “racist love”, an absurdly positive stereotype which becomes the other side of the same coin to absurdly negative stereotypes. So, along with the savage Indian brave, you have the dutiful Tonto, and so on. One doesn’t undermine the other, it supports it. It may be slightly more involved in Chan’s case, as unlike Tonto he’s the protagonist rather than the sidekick. But there’s still the issue of contrasting one racial stereotype with another.

Dear everyone else,

SK, credit where it’s due, may have a point with the Germ theory of racism. Indeed, it might not even go far enough. Some people seem to assume that racism must be the conscious, wilful act of an individual. And this is popular because it’s handy. If I never purposefully decided to be bad, I can’t possibly be racist, can I?

All of which gets exacerbated when people gain an emotional attachment to something that tips over into identification. Something like… oh, I don’t know, a cheaply produced yet popular old TV show, something like that. When you say “that was a well done storyline, but it’s a shame about the racist depictions in it” they hear “you are saying this show is bad”, which quickly morphs into “you are saying I am a bad person.”

The proper response to that is “stop thinking everything is about you”.

But not with the Miasma theory. The miasma theory is well summed up with “it just is”. Which is precisely why it was abandoned, quite a long time ago. The point is that racism doesn’t have an individual but social and institutional causes. The individuals within those institutions may even be oblivious to the racism, but that’s beside the point.

Fu Manchu films had been popular in Hollywood in the Thirties. But when the war started, Japan became the enemy and China the ally and production of them soon stopped. And it’s normally like that. Racism isn’t some sourceless bad smell, lurking in the background. It has ebbs and flows, which are related to political events.

Some people have suggested making a distinction between prejudice, where a cop stops a black person on the street, and racism, where a whole police force seems to be stopping black people on the street in alarmingly high numbers. Personally, I suspect that wouldn’t make things any clearer, as the problem’s more to do with emotional investment than formal definition, and anyway the two can overlap in practice.

Dear SK,

Of course you said something quite different and much, much cleverer than the thing everyone else thinks you said. There’s no need to repeat that again. We’ll just assume it.

SK said...

I'm not here to argue the merits of one side or the other, just to point out that they clearly mean totally different things by the word 'racism' and that that is the core of the disagreement.

JWH said...

Great blogpost. It made me change my mind on some stuff, I ended up agreeing with it a lot more than I thought I was going to. I liked the linked Kate Orman essay too.

JAn said...

I think these kinds of essays, which discuss the intersection between the material, the real world, and the fandom, are your best and I would encourage you to do more. I like the pieces where you discuss one or two of those aspects, but when discussing all three you exhibit an eye that's second to none.

Unknown said...

Fabulous essay. I particularly liked, "Watch me."

You've helped clarify uncertainty in how I think about some other television shows from that time. I'd heard Manuel in Fawlty Towers was deliberately not a Latino actor because they didn't want the racist characters to behave poorly toward an actual person of color. They were aware of the racism and meant to ridicule it. The problem, of course, is that you can't announce that for the audience, and there's still racism in the show. There are clear moments when racism is being mocked: the senile Major mentions describing his racist categories to a companion; Basil's behavior is constantly contrasted with non-racist characters. But it's rare for Manuel to step outside his caricatured role.

And yet, some of the tightest, best-crafted writing for television is in Fawlty Towers. "Communication Problems" is brilliant, and if you didn't include the language communication problems between Manuel and Basil, it would be incomplete in unfolding its theme. How do you hold racism up for mockery without being racist?

My husband wonders what a Fawlty Towers in which Manuel was not a caricature would have looked like; in which he was unable to be picked up and bashed against a non-existent door, or struck on a regular basis. (It's telling that even Manuel's one objection to being hit by Basil is not really an objection - it's a deception aimed at Basil, and another, white character tells him he's overdoing it.)

So, Fawlty Towers is racist, and foolishly I used to think it wasn't because they were trying to fight racism (that road to hell is going to be under construction quite some time, given all the paving materials available). And "Communication Problems" is brilliant. And I'm going to watch it every so often, out of nostalgia and admiration of the craft - but I'm going to laugh in fewer places.

Andrew Stevens said...

Charlie Chan isn't an absurdly positive stereotype though any more than, say, Colombo or any other detective is. Plus, that whole theory has always seemed awfully contrived to me. (I.e. it seems to be based on a theory that everything must be racist somehow.)

I think the usual complaints are about the pidgin English and the fortune cookie phrases. But his sons don't speak like he does so those appear to be part of his character rather than simple stereotypes (even if the idea for those character quirks probably does stem from stereotypes more than reality). But certainly Charlie Chan was written by a writer who probably didn't know much of anything about Chinese culture and this certainly hurts Chan as a realistic Chinese-American character.

Nick Mazonowicz said...

"So, Fawlty Towers is racist, and foolishly I used to think it wasn't because they were trying to fight racism (that road to hell is going to be under construction quite some time, given all the paving materials available). And "Communication Problems" is brilliant. And I'm going to watch it every so often, out of nostalgia and admiration of the craft - but I'm going to laugh in fewer places."

In an interview, John Cleese said that Manuel was not intended as an attack on any nationality but as an attack on English hoteliers who decide to run things on the cheap by hiring unqualified staff. The joke is that Basil Fawlty thinks he is running a high class establishment but absolutely refuses to spend any money at all on doing so - thus leading to the spectacle of hiring someone who can't even speak English purely because he is cheap - the humour in Communication Problems works because a very tricky bit of deception relies on someone who can't even pick up the basics of language, let alone subtleties. The joke doesn't depend on Manuel being Spanish, he could easily have been French, German, Austrian or any other European nationality and we could have exactly the same joke. Equally, I understand that Fawlty Towers has been remade in other countries including Spain where Manuel becomes Portuguese. Also, I think the fact that Manuel is Spanish helps, after all there's never been any real long term discrimination against the Spanish in the UK (making Manuel an immigrant from Jamaica or Pakistan on the other hand...).

That's not to say there isn't some problems with the character...there's a point where Polly, one of the sanest and most decent member of the cast uses a derogatory epithet towards Manuel that sounds totally out of place but on the whole. I don't think Manuel is that problematic.

Or am I making excuses because Fawlty Towers is so hilarious and well written?

Andrew Stevens said...

Thinking about the matter a little more, I do admire The Crucible despite its incredibly offensive stereotypes about my own ancestors, the Puritans. I do realize that's not quite the same thing though.

Kate Orman said...

I read this in a cafe and laughed out loud in public at lines like "a stick of racist rock", the idea of a Swiss Li H'Sen Chang, etc.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew S, to go back to the example par excellence, what do you think about Tonto? There’s nothing negative about him formally coded within the story. Does that make any issues with him “a theory that everything must be racist somehow”?

Many of Columbo’s traits aren’t racially or nationally based. And the American stereotype is very different from the British one, if Italians are supposed to be shabby in appearance. Plus the context makes the comparison weak. While Italian migrants did undoubtedly suffer prejudice in America, it’s not on the same scale as the Chinese did. For much of modern American history, they were as segregated as black people did.

To borrow one of the illos Andrew used, Shang-Chi from ‘Master of Kung Fu’ could also be argued as an example of racist love. From previous correspondence, you’re not much of a comics reader? If you are, you can skip this next couple of paras…

The premise was that Shang-Chi was Fu Machu’s son, but had turned against his wicked ways and now worked with Nayland Smith. Who, older than in the Christopher Lee films, became a kind of surrogate father. Shang-Chi was the Good Chinese, trying hard to be American, against Fu Manchu’s Bad Chinese.

This is admittedly complicated. Unusually for a superhero comic, it had one scriptwriter for almost it’s entire run, Doug Moench. Who used the elbow room to develop the character, so he shouldn’t be seen as one-dimensional. On the other hand, when the issue of racism was raised, as it sometimes was in the comic’s lettercol, Moench would concede the critics were probably right. There was racism hardwired into the concept he couldn’t write out.

Another example, I don’t know if you’ve been following the Corbyn and anti-semitism manufacturoversy. But one of it’s features is that it can switch with alacrity from “Corbyn is anti-semitic” to “Corbyn has been associating with those Bad Jews” and back again. Of course, this is partly sheer audacity. But it’s also assimilationist rhetoric, where the good migrants who are trying to fit in should be protected from racism, while the bad migrants are seen to have just brought it on themselves. And the point is that to have the one concept you also need the other.

Andrew Stevens said...

Native Americans are a uniquely situated ethnic group though. They were here first. It simply was never the case until quite recently in U.S. history that Native Americans were allowed to assimilate (just as African-Americans were not). See the Trail of Tears which forcibly removed perfectly assimilated Native Americans, surely one of the worst sins in U.S. history. So it's perfectly all right to sympathize with the savage Indian braves. They have a very real argument in their favor. (And I don't really believe that Tonto was intended as an assimilationist character. By the time of his invention or really the invention of the Westerns in general, there just weren't any significant number of Native Americans left to assimilate. With the possible exception of a couple of mostly empty places in the West, nobody was very worried about Native Americans.)

But in the context of the Chinese and other immigrants, the "two sides of the coin" in this case seem to boil down to "If you are evil criminals, then we don't want you. But if you integrate yourself into our community, you're more than welcome." Well, hell, that message seems to be perfectly applicable to all the people who are already here. I realize that we're all supposed to be against assimilation nowadays and praise minority groups who are actively hostile to the majority culture (though this only applies to countries of European descent - other cultures are allowed to be as assimilationist and exclusionary as they please as near as I can tell), but I simply don't agree. Particularly in an American context where we have always allowed (if not without difficulty) foreigners and immigrants to assimilate by giving their assent to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (even if we haven't upheld those ideals perfectly or even close to perfectly).

"Don't create murder gangs" seems like a fairly minimal assimilationist message and, indeed, that sort of art is common in the white American context as well. Deliverance may be one of the most culturally offensive movies I've ever seen (it's still great though). Again, I stress that the Yellow Peril stuff was obviously awful since it wasn't just saying "don't create murder gangs," but saying that the Chinese (in London, anyway) were creating murder gangs. Anybody who is deliberately stoking racial tensions should be presumed to be acting from extremely dubious motives and condemned in the strongest possible terms. This obviously applies to Sax Rohmer, even if he was well above average creatively.

Charlie Chan seems to me to be obviously acceptable. As the great Chinese-American actor Keye Luke said, "How can it be demeaning to the Chinese when the Oriental character was the hero? People respected him, police departments consulted with him and called him in to help them." That you think there might have been an underlying message to Chinese people of "Hey, be a good person and fit in and we'll all be cool" doesn't seem to override that. Similarly, I would have no problem today with a TV show which featured a Muslim-American hero. In fact, I'd like to see more of those (granted, preferably written by people with at least familiarity with Muslim culture if not Muslims themselves).

Andrew Stevens said...

To answer a potential objection to my view: no, I do not believe that Martin Luther King was deliberately stoking racial tensions. Like the creator of Charlie Chan, he was obviously one of the good guys who was trying to lower them. The message that has always worked in America is "The United States is a great country with great ideals. The Declaration of Independence says 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' We agree with those ideals and hold the Declaration to be a promissory note. You have not been treating a portion of your population as equals or giving them equal opportunities at the great prosperity of this great land and we want you to pay the bill you have promised." This message has historically always worked and it worked for King. (Again, not perfectly. I certainly believe we still have some serious inequities in our criminal justice system, for example.) What has never worked is saying "America sucks! Down with America!" and burning the flag.

Andrew Stevens said...

But, like Mr. Rilstone, I am not cut out for the modern debate which seems to mostly revolve around trying to figure out how to kill each other rather than how to get along.

Andrew Stevens said...

Oh, and to answer your question, my objection to Tonto is purely that he was just a sidekick and not even a very important one. His sterotyped character is basically no character at all. I do not object to a Native American helping a white man fight crime and corruption among white people.

Andrew Rilstone said...

It no true Tonto have no character. Tonto main character is him no speak English. Also, him have magic tracking powers. As sure as buffalo with two horns spikier than bald cactus him sure speak quaint native wisdom.

Andrew Stevens said...

I am not well enough versed in the Western genre to know whether that manner of speaking was already a stereotype before Tonto or if Tonto created the stereotype. Regardless, it's fairly obnoxious. Charlie Chan's broken English was both more articulate and less fixated on the objective case for pronouns.

The tracking ability doesn't bother me (it irritates the hell out of me in a 20th century or later Native American character and I can name more than a few of those). The Lone Ranger was no slouch as a tracker himself so it doesn't seem like much of a problem for Tonto to be better at it. After all, Tonto probably would have had access to a more thorough tracking lore than the Lone Ranger did. It would have been even better if they occasionally showed Tonto teaching the Lone Ranger. (Which, for all I know, they did. I never listened to/watched the Lone Ranger much.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Sudden insight.

Speaks funny. Close to the land. Knows proverbs. Faithful.

Tonto is in fact Sam Gamgee.

Or, more worryingly, vice versa.

JWH said...

I don't know if this makes a difference to how people feel about Tonto, but there were lots of actual native American trackers employed by the US Army in the C19. It doesn't seem particularly insulting to imagine that a native American in the West in the 1850s-60s wouldn't be particularly great at speaking English; after all, he is obviously better at English than the Lone Ranger is in Potawatomi or Comanche. But I defer to those with greater knowledge of the character.

Alex O'Neal said...

Nick M, I've heard Cleese and Sachs interviewed on this. Sachs begged to let Manuel be a German character, because he wasn't sure he could do a Spanish accent. But Cleese choose to go with Manuel, because he wanted to showcase two things: xenophobia and poor service. As the Daily Mail described it: "Cleese was convinced there would never be sufficient comic material in a German waiter — Heinrich from Munich would be efficient, competent, confident, all the things Manuel could not be."

Think about that. Couldn't Manuel have been confident? Couldn't they have written funny scenes in which Basil is the incompetent idiot and Manuel has to work around his boss's cluelessness to make things work? Couldn't he have been competent but simply language-challenged? If the goal is to show how awful Basil is, let Basil be awful and others have to work around that. Think of the hilarity of everyone having to work around Inspector Clouseau. Now imagine Basil as filling that role, and tell me that Manuel couldn't have been less of a stereotype.

Don't get me wrong, I love love love the writing. This is some of the wittiest TV ever written. I am just bummed they couldn't think of a better way to show people behaving badly than a caricature for British audiences. The fact that they had to change his nationality shows the problem up quite clearly. Again, we see that intentions are not enough.

Alex O'Neal said...

Note: wish I knew why I showed up as "Unknown" in one comment, and myself in the next. I was logged in both times. But I wrote the first "Unknown" Fawlty Towers comment.

Gavin Burrows said...

”Tonto is in fact Sam Gamgee.”

And is Silver also Gollum?

”…in this case seem to boil down to "If you are evil criminals, then we don't want you. But if you integrate yourself into our community, you're more than welcome." Well, hell, that message seems to be perfectly applicable to all the people who are already here.”

This seems to stray perilously close to all that “all lives matter”. There’s a lot of talk about flags and Declarations, at the expense of life as people actually experience it. The message is not “perfectly applicable to all the people who are already here” because the thing immigrants were expected to integrate into was white-dominated society. White hands wrote the message, and they wrote a message that suited them. It’s always easier to say “can’t we all just get along” when the status quo suits you. As already mentioned, up to the Civil Rights era there was effective segregation for Chinese people. To “integrate” meant to accept your lot as a second-class citizen.

In ‘Master of Kung Fu’, Shang-Chi’s tension between following Fu Manchu or Nayland Smith is explicitly stated as being analogous to choosing between Chinese and American. I really can’t see how things can be any clearer than that.

Dr. King did indeed wave the Declaration in the face of his political enemies, as a means of hoisting them by their own petard. But he didn’t just rely on the Declaration. He saw Civil Rights as being won by robust political lobbying, mass marches, direct action and strikes. He didn’t see segregation as some strange anomaly in the land of the free. He saw it as business as usual, a usual which had to be disrupted if things were going to change.

I don’t think I see what pointing this out has to do with people figuring out how to kill each other.
 

Andrew Stevens said...

This seems to stray perilously close to all that “all lives matter”

That bad people pervert good ideas to suit their own agenda does not surprise me in the slightest.

White hands wrote the message, and they wrote a message that suited them.

Jefferson knew what he was doing. He may not have lived up to his ideals, or even come close to doing so, but he wrote the message he intended to. John Adams then wrote a paraphrase of those same words into the Massachusetts Constitution and the Massachusetts Supreme Court took those words a few years later and ruled slavery unconstitutional (by the Massachusetts Constitution), arguing that the institution of slavery was incompatible with the words "all men are created equal," etc. Obviously it took a lot longer to abolish in the slave-heavy states, particularly after the invention of the cotton gin, when slavery became profitable again. But Lincoln and Douglass and King would then use those words themselves to finally do what some part of Jefferson always wanted to be done with them. ("I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.")

Andrew Stevens said...

George Washington was one of the greatest men who ever lived. The American Revolution is nearly unique in that it did not lead to dictatorship, tyranny, and misery as virtually every other revolution in history has done. George Washington did that; he was the indispensable man. He could have made himself King of America or President for Life and chose not to do so.

But Washington was a man of his time. He inherited his first slaves when he was eleven years old. All his neighbors and friends owned slaves. He could look back into history and see slavery stretching as far as the eye could see in every civilization (i.e. agricultural) known to man. The Greek and Roman literature he was educated on had numerous references to slavery. Slavery must have seemed completely natural to him (in the same way, meat-eating and abortion, two highly questionable moral practices seem to us). He first started questioning slavery during the American Revolution for obvious reasons - how could he fight for his own liberty while denying it to those he himself held in bondage? This was a very common sentiment during the Revolution and is why the North (where slavery had never obtained a big foothold anyway) had almost universally abolished slavery within a couple of decades after. Washington was in the heart of Slave Country. At the end of his life, he lamented that he could not manage to do more, but consoled himself by saying that at least he had made the lives of his older slaves as comfortable as possible and prepared his younger slaves for a different life. (He freed his slaves upon his death. Jefferson did not for economic reasons as he was not as wealthy as Washington.)

None of them were perfect people - Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, or John Jay. But they were smarter than us, just as King was greater and wiser than we are.

Andrew Stevens said...

In the Constitution, there is no reference to race until the 15th Amendment (which held that nobody could be denied the right to vote on account of race). This was intentional. There is no reference to sex until the 19th Amendment (which held that nobody could be denied the right to vote on account of sex). This was intentional. There is no reference to slavery until the 13th Amendment (which made it illegal). Instead, they used circumlocutions ("person held to service or labour") to avoid referring to it. That too was intentional.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don’t think I see what pointing this out has to do with people figuring out how to kill each other.

That was not meant to be a reference to present interlocutors necessarily, just the current suicidal mood of our times.

Andrew Stevens said...

The problem with trying to convince people that the Declaration and the Constitution are white documents meant only for white people is that you just might convince the white people who agree with those documents of that. Judge Taney thought that too. He was wrong.

Andrew Stevens said...

Since this is an English site, I should probably clarify. Judge Taney wrote the execrable Dred Scott decision which stated that the Constitution was written by white people solely for the benefit of white people and that "the Negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect."

Andrew Stevens said...

Also, it may well be the case that the status quo suits me. Indeed, I absolutely believe it does. I also think it suits every other member of my country (though I do not favor it in every single respect) more than virtually any actually realistic alternative. Yes, I am fully aware that you can imagine a utopia. I can respond by pointing to very real dystopias which began with wholly noble intentions. I believe that simultaneously believing that the problem with human affairs is that they have always been conducted irrationally is inconsistent with the belief that the solution is just to start conducting affairs rationally. People are what they are. That you can point out that my self-interest is aligned with the status quo doesn't make me wrong.

Andrew Stevens said...

I can respond by pointing to very real dystopias which began with wholly noble intentions.

Amusingly, it occurred to me that anyone who thinks the U.S. is a dystopia can actually point to one more than I can.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The actor who created the role of Tonto, John Todd, was born two months after the battle of Little Big Horn. But he was British and probably not that well versed in Native American language and culture. The more famous Jay Silverheels was an actual Mohawk and presumably didn't find the part too offensive.

Excuses can probably be made for 15 minute children's radio serials brought to you by the makes of Silvercup Bread (I looked it up). All the characters were broadly drawn, and the voice-actors had to say "To be sure, to be sure" and "Is dis de place mistah?" so we could easily tell our policemen from or taxi-drivers. But is anyone seriously claiming that Tonto was anything other than a hoary old stereotype?

(My particular problem is with Herbert Wadsworth Longfellow, incidentally. Hiawatha was the first grown up poem I ever loved. I understand that it's depiction of native American history and culture is not entirely beyond reproach.)

Stereotypes don't stop being stereotypes just because the character in question is sympathetic or a goodie. (Jim Davidson used to preface his jokes by saying "Chalkie White is my good friend...I like old Chalkie..." It didn't help.) And exaggeratedly positive stereotypes can certainly be just as harmful as negative ones: if you aren't an endless repository of fortune cookie wisdom and native common sense, then you are probably a mustachioed devil doctor who is apt to fire nuclear missiles into the sun.

Master of Kung Fu is something of a perfect storm of regrettable attitudes. Marvel had acquired the rights to Sax Rohmer and wanted to use Fu Manchu; and they had also wanted to get the rights to the David Carridine "Kung Fu" TV series. (So far as I remember "Kung Fu" was Not Racist At All: the Chinese characters are all Goodies. That didn't stop English school children rolling their eyes and saying "Glasshopper!" if the word "Chinese" was ever mentioned -- or was that just our school? [See also "Mammy!"]) So not only was the main baddie forever longing for the glorious days of Old China, but the main goodie is perpetually bewildered by Western culture. ("Why is it called a penny arcade; since none of the brightly coloured machines will operate for less then twenty five cents.") It came out at a time when Marvel was trying to be Realistic and Relevant for the first time, so you have a black and Asian American characters who speak in that funny street level language that probably owes more to the "Blaxploitation" movies than anything any New Yorker ever actually said. And when the action shifts to England it's full of gor blimey chirpy cockneys who live in thatches cottages on London Bridge. (It's open to question if anyone involved knew anything about Kung Fu beyond the fact that you were allowed to kick.)

But of course, it ran for about a 100 issues; and when you've spent ten years and 2000 pages with a character, it's rather hard to perceive him as "a rather silly and quite racist caricature." He's just Shang Chi and that's how Shang Chi talks. His name means "the rising and advancing of the spirit", apparently.

Andrew Rilstone said...

An Englishman is visiting a native American reservation. An old shaman claims to have a perfect memory; and is challenging visitors to prove him wrong by asking him any question they like. After he is correctly named all the players in the 1922 world series baseball team and the exact dates of the last six elections, the Englishman loses patience and says "All right, if you are so damn clever, what did you have breakfast on the 25th of March 1964?" "Eggs" replies the shaman. Having no way to disprove this, the Englishman storms off in a huff.

Eighteen years later, a now very elderly shaman comes to give a talk at Cambridge University, where the Englishman works. "Right" he thinks. "If he has such a damn great memory, let's see if he remembers me after all this time."

He walks up to the shaman, and without introduces himself, raises his right hand and says "How!"

"Fried" he replies.



Just thought I'd lighten the tone.

Gaius said...

People are what they are. That you can point out that my self-interest is aligned with the status quo doesn't make me wrong.

I believe CS Lewis' essay on Bulverism might be of relevance here.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew S’s comments induced a strange mix of “but this is more of the same” and “this is all going off on a bit of a tangent”. It seems to jump from an original quite generalised use of lower-case “message” into upper-case Declarations and Constitutions. It also seems to divide America up into a North which was full of high ideals and a South devoted to practical considerations.

If you want to say “denying black Americans the vote is un-Constitutional”, I’m not going to stop you. But beware those who say “un-Constitutional, therefore it can’t be happening, therefore nothing to see here.” Because it very often is. A Constitution can be a sheath rather than a guarantor. To the best of my knowledge, no segregationist politician ever argued against it.

My general attitude to such questions is “who at any given point in history was most opposed to slavery? The slaves.” Similarly, Dr King did not say “we’re bound to be alright in the long run, see what’s written in the Constitution”. He said “if we want to see Civil Rights we’re going to have to go out and get Civil Rights”. He was a political agitator and knew it, however much the official history’s been rewritten after his death.

”I believe CS Lewis' essay on Bulverism might be of relevance here.”

Does CS Lewis’ essay on Bulverism go as follows?

“Well everything seems fine to me.”

“But we’re talking about racism. And you are white in a white-dominated society. It doesn’t prove there isn’t racism because you’re not experiencing it. You wouldn’t be the one experiencing it.”

“Ah, so you are saying that white people are automatically wrong about things!”

“Yes, I suppose I am. You really have me there. Cor bleedin’ blimey Guvnor.”

”Just thought I'd lighten the tone.”

Well that’s all very well, but that giant rat wasn’t terribly convincing, you know.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Lewis's essay on "Bulverism" is a light-hearted attack on people who lazily use ad hominen arguments. In particular, it's a riposte to a sort of vulgar-Freudianism which starts out by assuming that the speaker is wrong and then comes up with psychological explanations as to why he is wrong. You know the kind of thing: "He supports stop-and-search because he had defective potty-training"; "She is against the single European Market because she was sent away to boarding school when she was very young." His fictional Mrs Bulver is supposed to have said "You only think that the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees because you are a man." The point is that the biographical or psychological explanations are irrelevant to the argument at hand. And if the person's beliefs do happen to be wrong, the psychological explanation for that wrongness is not very interesting.

But it doesn't follow that Lewis thought that psychological or biographical factors were never relevant to arguments. He clearly did.

In the essay on pacifism, he claims that psychological factors might make it hard for some people to assess the case for and against Just War fairly. If pacifism is right, then you get to stay at home with your family; if pacifism is wrong, then you have to go off to war and get shot: so it is very likely that some people perceive the arguments for pacifism to be stronger than they really are.

Part of his very involved argument about miracles (which, thankfully, we don't need to go into this evening) is that a belief or argument can only be true if all the stages which led up to it were rational. If a belief has non-rational causes then it is a category mistake to talk about whether it is true or not. The two examples he gives, if memory serves are "He believes in capitalism because he is rich" and "He approves of caning because he is a sadist." He underlines that accusations of this kind are often made unfairly: but when they are fair, they completely invalidate the proposition under discussion.

"You are a conservative because the present system gives you wealth and privilege, and radical change would probably make you poorer and less privileged" is clearly a claim in the second category. It may not be true but it can't be thrown out in the same way that "You believe that the world is round because you a French" could be.

Nick Mazonowicz said...

"Think about that. Couldn't Manuel have been confident? Couldn't they have written funny scenes in which Basil is the incompetent idiot and Manuel has to work around his boss's cluelessness to make things work? Couldn't he have been competent but simply language-challenged? If the goal is to show how awful Basil is, let Basil be awful and others have to work around that. Think of the hilarity of everyone having to work around Inspector Clouseau. Now imagine Basil as filling that role, and tell me that Manuel couldn't have been less of a stereotype."

Well Basil is, in fact, an incompetent idiot. He is in fact the world's worst person to be running a hotel, he wants to be running a high class establishment but refuses to spend out, he either ridiculously fawns over or treats with contempt all the guests and in any situation, he choses exactly the wrong way to handle each situation

I don't think it makes Manuel any less of a stereotype though agreed.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Fawlty Towers is farce, and one of the things we laugh at is cruelty, and Basil's treatment of Manuel is cruel. Basil is the bigger idiot, in a way: we can imagine that Manuel might have been a perfectly decent little waiter in his street cafe in Barcelona. Of course, we are cruelly laughing at the foreigner who can't understand English, but we are also laughing at the idiot Englishman who thinks that "slow and loud" makes him intelligible. I agree that in the context of farce, there would have been a temptation to make a German waiter comically efficient, and that would be a different joke. But I question if Manuel's Spanishness is particularly important to the gag. (In jokes, the Spanish are lazy, which Manuel isn't, particularly.) I suppose Germans don't have pet rats.

Gaius said...

“But we’re talking about racism. And you are white in a white-dominated society. It doesn’t prove there isn’t racism because you’re not experiencing it. You wouldn’t be the one experiencing it.”

You might reasonably expect to observe it, though, particularly if western society is really so crushingly racist as some of the more excitable anti-racism campaigners claim. Of course, you could just take it on trust, but then you open yourself up to being manipulated by any disingenuous chancer who sees the opportunity to guilt you into giving him some special treatment.

If a belief has non-rational causes then it is a category mistake to talk about whether it is true or not.

That seems dubious to me. A belief can be true or false regardless of how it comes about. Maybe I only believe that caning helps keep discipline in the classroom because I'm a sadist who likes hitting small children, but the proposition "caning helps keep discipline in the classroom" is still either true or false.

Plus, these sorts of arguments can be thrown around against anyone. "You only believe that you're oppressed because doing so lets you feel self-righteously persecuted," "You only think that this country is racist so that you can feel enlightened and superior compared to other white people," etc. I suppose the ultimate end-point is a sort of logical mutually-assured destruction, in which it's impossible for people to meaningfully discuss things or evaluate arguments and we all just rely on brute force or emotional manipulation instead. Which, sadly, seems to be where the country as a whole is heading.

Andrew Stevens said...

Andrew S’s comments induced a strange mix of “but this is more of the same” and “this is all going off on a bit of a tangent”.

You're probably correct. Sadly I fear I have just gotten too old for these kinds of debates. Lately, I can't even tell if the world has gone mad or if I have.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Gaius: This (as I rather suspect you know) exactly the point which Lewis clashed with G.E.M Anscombe over. Lewis thought that a proposition arrived at through a purely non rational process (drawing letters out of a scrabble bag, say) couldn't possibly have a quality called "truth"; Anscombe thought a proposition could be true or false regardless of where it came from. But we don't need to get into the whole question of whether or not our brain is composed of atoms at this point. I only insist upon "Lewis poked fun at people who used irrelevant ad hominen arguments" and "Lewis thought that people sometimes had unconscious biases" are both (as a matter of fact) true and not logically incompatible.

Gaius said...

I'm afraid it's been a very long time since I read anything about Lewis' Miracles, so about the only thing I remember in connection with it is the analogy about putting pennies in a drawer. From what you've said, it sounds like Anscombe had the more plausible position here.

I only insist upon "Lewis poked fun at people who used irrelevant ad hominen arguments" and "Lewis thought that people sometimes had unconscious biases" are both (as a matter of fact) true and not logically incompatible.

Just to be clear, I'm not disputing that people have unconscious biases or that these can affect the way the approach people of other races. My only problem is when people use the existence of such biases to pre-emptively dismiss what other people are saying, or to insulate their own claims from scrutiny.

Andrew Stevens said...

I'll give it a try, I suppose.

It also seems to divide America up into a North which was full of high ideals and a South devoted to practical considerations.

I'm not sure why you think I said this. Most of my above comments were defending the Virginians. I am more on the side of Adams, Jay, and Hamilton than Jefferson and Madison, but Jefferson and Madison were both absolutely crucial (each was far more important actually than any of the first three). The Virginians had the high ideals as well, but felt themselves forced to bend to the practical considerations.

To the best of my knowledge, no segregationist politician ever argued against it.

Orval Faubus knew he was acting contrary to the Constitution. He wasn't stupid enough to put that into his rhetoric, but he knew he didn't have a Constitutional leg to stand on when he defied the U.S. Supreme Court and President Eisenhower.

My general attitude to such questions is “who at any given point in history was most opposed to slavery? The slaves.”

Obviously.

My general attitude to such questions is “who at any given point in history was most opposed to slavery? The slaves.”

This has been rewritten? The important difference between King and the modern anti-racist movement is that King had a plan and good leadership. He wasn't just protesting to hear his own voice. He negotiated with the governments and protested when they abrogated their agreements. He trained his protestors in non-violence because he knew America could be shamed into doing the right thing, but not bullied and intimidated into doing it. I realize there seem to be a lot of people on both sides practically openly fantasizing about full-on racial war in America (the Russians in particular!), but it's still the case that it's very obvious who would win such a war and who would suffer the most from such a war. And that's not white people, no matter which side they're on.

“Ah, so you are saying that white people are automatically wrong about things!”

I honestly have no idea where you got this from. I can't even figure out what I said which could even very remotely be construed as saying this.

Andrew Stevens said...

Damn it. The second "My general attitude..." should be replaced by

He was a political agitator and knew it, however much the official history’s been rewritten after his death.

Andrew Stevens said...

To clarify further, since there appears to be some confusion, my sympathies are all with the Black Lives Matter movement. I just wish they had better leadership so maybe they would actually accomplish something.

Andrew Stevens said...

So I was inspired to reread Letter from Birmingham Jail (which should be required reading for Americans of all races at least). I was struck that King explicitly used a pincer very similar to the one Mr. Burrows describes. (It's inaccurate in the case of Charlie Chan at least. When Chan was created, Chinese immigration had been excluded by law for 50 years and wasn't repealed until 1943 after China became our ally in WWII. Nobody was worried about Chinese assimilation. This is why Charlie Chan was in Hawaii, not yet a state.)

King states that white people can choose between accepting his demands or causing black Americans to "seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare." I agree with him that this was the choice and it is why I strongly believe that King was one of the good guys. He knew that his demands would lower racial tensions, not raise them. He wasn't rabble rousing; he knew the oppressed were already roused and rightly so. What Black Lives Matter needs is a leader as wise as King - who has a plan (I would suggest improved training of police forces so the police are no longer taught to be in constant fear for their lives and are trained in de-escalation techniques) and is willing to negotiate with local police forces and the federal government to get that plan enacted and organize non-violent protests if their requests are refused or ignored.

Andrew Stevens said...

I am also of the opinion that what King was asking for was assimilation, something which white Americans had denied to blacks for 350 years up to that point.

Andrew Stevens said...

From what you've said, it sounds like Anscombe had the more plausible position here.

Lewis acknowledged that Anscombe was correct and he had been mistaken.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Lewis acknowledged that he had overstated his case, and changed "Materialism is Self-Refuting" to "Materialism Contains a Cardinal Difficulty." His friends thought he had been slaughtered in the debate, but Anscombe thought it was a good philosophical debate and Lewis had gone away and made his book better as a result of it. It was the theory that a purely mechanistic view of the brain couldn't account for rationality which he decided he had overstated. Not the idea that arguments are undermined by biases on the part of the speaker, which he took for granted and used to illustrate Haldane's paradox.

I don't know quite how we got here.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Does "assimilation" mean "You are not black-British or asian-British: everyone is just British, despite difference in clothes, religion, headgear, language, etc"

Or does it mean "We will only regard you as British if you join the Church of England, take off that silly hat and wear a proper British monocle and stop putting spice in your food?"

(Enoch Powell, when he wasn't wittering about Virgil and excrement, literally believed the latter: to be British #meant# to identify with the British institutions -- flag, church, parliament, monarchy. Norman Tebbit, who had presumably never read Virgil, or anything else, reduce "British institutions" to "cricket".)

Gaius said...

Does "assimilation" mean "You are not black-British or asian-British: everyone is just British, despite difference in clothes, religion, headgear, language, etc"

Or does it mean "We will only regard you as British if you join the Church of England, take off that silly hat and wear a proper British monocle and stop putting spice in your food?"


The second. If people are still keeping their ancestral customs, languages, etc., I don't see how they can be considered "assimilated" in any meaningful sense, regardless of what you call them.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Ah.

Next.....

SK said...

Does "assimilation" mean […]

Or does it mean[…]


I would have thought it mean neither of two obviously-contrived extremes, but rather something in between.

Could take a while, of course. It took a long time for the Normans to assimilate.

Gavin Burrows said...

”You might reasonably expect to observe it, though”

Yes, and so we can. Examples have already been given in these two runs of comments, though it’s always possible that more excitable racism apologists will try to handwave them away. Even Doctor Who could be racist at times, from what I hear.

Except while that answers the point, it’s inadequate as a description of racism. Most actual instances of racism are at a micro level, where even the instigator may be unaware of what they’re doing. These may be less extreme than being shot by a cop, but they’re a lot more widespread. Racism isn’t confined to individual, malevolent acts undertaken by nasty people.

I think we have separate terms for ‘assimilate’ and ‘integrate’ for a reason. And had the Borg gone around saying “you will be integrated” they might not be considered such a great SF villain.

My turn to be old and uncomprehending. Does SK actually think the Normans assimilated themselves, or is that a gag?

Gavin Burrows said...

”Lately, I can't even tell if the world has gone mad or if I have.”

The first one. Increasing swathes of society seem convinced we should give fascism another try. Myself, I’m not sure that worked terribly well the last time.

”I honestly have no idea where you got this from.”

That was a hypothetical (and perhaps mildly facetious) dialogue in response to Gaius, rather than yourself. I don’t think that’s what you’re saying. This time I’ve separated responses to you from all else, in an attempt to sew less confusion.

I agree thus far, King wasn’t just good at speechifying but was a shrewd political operator who thought strategically. Johnson’s plan was to agree officially to Civil Rights, but continually defer any actual implementation. King went out to make deferment impossible, and largely succeeded.

But what a political movement needs most of all is grassroots activism. Without that, you really are left just with feelgood oratory.  In the South, where Civil Rights were largely fought, this was provided by SNCC, who were already based in the towns King came to and worked in a very decentralised, community-based fashion. Yet in, for example, the recent film ‘Selma’ they were presented as effectively an extremist group. This seems based on the idea they weren’t always willing to let King show up in town and start handing out orders, which doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. BLM may well be more a successor to SNCC than King. But that’s not a disadvantage. If anything, it’s the opposite.

It’s also often forgotten that before he died King moved on from challenging formal segregation to a more widespread Poor People’s Campaign. And he found this more challenging because… well, it was a more challenging thing to do. It’s this sort of terrain BLM are struggling over now.

Which is an age-old problem. Trotsky wrote of ‘transitional demands’, demands which would seem reasonable to any reasonable person but which the system as it exists is incapable of providing. ‘End police racism’ would be a good example. This, he said, made them good demands to press for. And from a depersonalised sense that might be true. But what if you have an immediate need for that transitional demand to be met right now?

”I would suggest improved training of police forces so the police are no longer taught to be in constant fear for their lives and are trained in de-escalation techniques”

This is the classic error. If you don’t mind me saying such a thing. It puts the racism onto individual acts by individual cops, rather than seeing it as a systemic problem with the police force. The other thing people tend to say is “hire more black cops”. Yet cities with a higher proportion of black cops don’t seem to have any less of a problem with police racism.

Any profoundly unequal society will need some way to keep the poor divided. Give America’s history, the standard model of doing this has been race. King himself said this frequently. Many modern Republicans baulk at Trump’s overt, grandstanding racism. But it remains de facto Republican policy over black voters to stop them voting wherever possible. They just don’t like loud racism.

SK said...

Does SK actually think the Normans assimilated themselves, or is that a gag?

It's not a gag. It took a while (centuries) but the Normans did eventually come around to the pre-conquest ways of doing things, mostly.

That's why we (well, apart from the Scots) use the pre-conquest common law system, for example, rather than the inferior civil law system which the Normans tried to import from France (and which is still used there).

Alex O'Neal said...

"Fawlty Towers is farce, and one of the things we laugh at is cruelty, and Basil's treatment of Manuel is cruel. Basil is the bigger idiot, in a way: we can imagine that Manuel might have been a perfectly decent little waiter in his street cafe in Barcelona. Of course, we are cruelly laughing at the foreigner who can't understand English, but we are also laughing at the idiot Englishman who thinks that "slow and loud" makes him intelligible."

So, is the argument here that it's not racist because it's cruel? Or that it's not racist because it's a farce? Or both? And since when was cruelty ok when it was set up as a joke? Cruelty's never been acceptable in my home, nor is it a requirement of farce. Cruelty shows us that Basil is bad. Is it necessary to make his targets caricatures?

Of course we're laughing at Basil - the over-the-top bad hotel owner is the driving force of the show - but we're also laughing at the brown-faced white actor playing an incompetent Spaniard in a society learning to assimilate other ethnicities as equal. (Of course, there's racism in Pink Panther films, too.) Cleese deliberately didn't pick a Spanish actor because he didn't want Basil's bigoted abuse thrown at a Spaniard - and then made the mistake of making Manuel stereotypically less competent anyway. He did the same thing with the Irish O'Reilly.

You can see how Cleese and Booth could have avoided this by the German episode's example, in which Basil is bigoted toward Germans, but the German characters are entirely sympathetic.

Speaking of Basil the Rat, is Polly being shown as bigoted when she counsels Manuel that complaining about being struck is "too much?" Or is she simply showing that Manuel is overplaying his part, thus showing the deception, and the setup is saying that the only reason Manuel would complain about being repeatedly struck is to hide his pet from Basil?

Alex O'Neal said...

I accidentally pasted over a line about Basil as Clouseau, which makes more sense out of the Pink Panther comment. Sorry!

Also, having thought through this thoroughly, I don't think I can enjoy Fawlty Towers anymore. Pity. Maybe it's ripe for a reboot.

SK said...

Cruelty's never been acceptable in my home, nor is it a requirement of farce

Oh, I think you'll find it is definitely a requirement of farce.

Remember what comedy is: comedy is when you fall down an open manhole and die (as opposed to tragedy, which is when I cut my finger).

The whole point of any good situation comedy (like, for example, Fawlty Towers, but also for instance Porridge, Only Fools and Horses, Steptoe and Son, and so on and on and on) is that all the characters are stuck together in a miserable Hell from which they can never escape. Even if they aren't cruel to each other (though it's funnier if they are) there is cruelty on the part of the creators for putting them there, and cruelty on the part of the viewers, for watching their misery.

So yeah. If there's no cruelty, there's no comedy.

Gaius said...

Yes, and so we can. Examples have already been given in these two runs of comments, though it’s always possible that more excitable racism apologists will try to handwave them away. Even Doctor Who could be racist at times, from what I hear.

Yes, and I think most people are generally more willing to accept "Look, here's an example of racism, and it's racist for this reason" than "You're white so you wouldn't understand, now shut up and stop questioning me".

Anyway, I did have a long comment planned about the uses and misuses of the term "racism" in modern society, but in the end I decided that this blog does a much better job of putting it across than I ever could, so I'll just put a link here instead: http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/07/social-justice-and-words-words-words/

Gaius said...

Enoch Powell, when he wasn't wittering about Virgil and excrement, literally believed the latter: to be British #meant# to identify with the British institutions -- flag, church, parliament, monarchy.

Not really surprising, given that he was a Classicist by education, and this is pretty much the exact same attitude which the Romans adopted: if you spoke Latin, wore a toga, and made the requisite sacrifices to the state gods, you were a Roman, regardless of your ethnic origin. So successful were they, that people continued to identify as Roman centuries after the last emperor was deposed.

Gavin Burrows said...

”It's not a gag”

Okay then, it’s a switch. Certainly, the Saxons assimilated to the Normans. At least the ones who weren’t killed did. And the Normans probably did integrate to some degree, and over time. But two words for two things.

There does seem a general trend in history for conquerors to subjugate the conquered, but then later integrate with them. Which is perhaps interesting in itself. Perhaps cultures have a tendency to integrate, rather than remain hermetic.

Anyway, wasn’t the French legal system based on the Napoleonic Code?

"You're white so you wouldn't understand, now shut up and stop questioning me”

Gaius, in an average month how often would you say those words are used to you?

Following that link, it became quickly obvious that it wasn’t saying anything that the term ‘false equivalence’ didn’t answer. So I decided to concentrate on the part which made me laugh the loudest. Which was probably “the power of the social justice movement”. As if we’re living through some sort of Cultural Revolution, where the Politically Correct Police keep showing up and dragging people away for watching old Doctor Who episodes. Do these people ever look out of the window?

If we’re on to posting links, taking things back to ‘Talons’ (and it’s been a while) here’s Jack Graham at Eruditorum Press. This would seem the salient quote for here:

”…it is not necessary to find yourself incapable of enjoying something because it is racist. This is not a moralistic issue of policing response. You don’t have to have your enjoyment spoiled in order to not be a monster. On the other hand, the idea of your reaction to the racism in ‘Talons’ stopping at spoiled enjoyment is rather worrying.  I’m not saying a viewing of ‘Talons’ should make any decent person vomit in disgust, or immediately dedicate their lives to anti-racist activism. I am saying that the questions raised in your mind by it ought to be more than “Hmm, this makes me vaguely uncomfortable. I don’t like being vaguely uncomfortable.  I must find a way to make this feeling go away.”

Gaius said...

Gaius, in an average month how often would you say those words are used to you?

I have the good sense not to bother debating with people who think that my skin colour invalidates any opinion I offer, so I personally don't find myself on the receiving end of them very often. I see the sentiment itself expressed plenty often, though.

Following that link, it became quickly obvious that it wasn’t saying anything that the term ‘false equivalence’ didn’t answer. So I decided to concentrate on the part which made me laugh the loudest. Which was probably “the power of the social justice movement”. As if we’re living through some sort of Cultural Revolution, where the Politically Correct Police keep showing up and dragging people away for watching old Doctor Who episodes. Do these people ever look out of the window?

Oh, I don't think anybody's talking about a politically correct police. Just people getting driven out of work for having the wrong beliefs, angry mobs disrupting events they don't like, and open anti-white racists getting appointed to the editorial boards of major newspapers.

Andrew Stevens said...

This is the classic error. If you don’t mind me saying such a thing. It puts the racism onto individual acts by individual cops, rather than seeing it as a systemic problem with the police force. The other thing people tend to say is “hire more black cops”. Yet cities with a higher proportion of black cops don’t seem to have any less of a problem with police racism.

No, no, no. I'm saying it's systemic (although I believe racism plays a fairly small part actually, though blacks are disproportionately affected). The problem, in my view, is what some people call The First Law of Policing which is actually more or less taught to the police. It is "no matter what, make sure you get home at the end of the day." This is an appallingly dangerous attitude for police to have and means they are putting at risk not just criminals/suspects but innocent bystanders as well. I believe police need to be trained as a service profession where they know, and are proud of, voluntarily risking their lives for the good of the public. Right now, many of them have the pride, but are not actually doing it. U.S. police forces are currently riddled with people, including at the very top, who will openly joke that "it's better to be judged by twelve than carried by six."

The reason I think racism plays a small role is because most people the police shoot are white. Those cases get far less attention, but they happen all the time. Yes, blacks are disproportionately affected, but it's in line with the same level as their incarceration rates, their proportion in witness statements, etc. Certainly I believe racism plays into that, but the central problem is not individual racism or systemic racism or individual training, but systemic training. In general, when a cop shoots someone in fear or panic, I am not in favor of criminal prosecution precisely because this is a systemic problem. The individual problem of the cop in question is resolved by firing since he has proven he cannot handle the stress under pressure that a policeman has to be able to handle. I'm not sure there is a lot of need for punishment unless it is a clear case of malice aforethought. For example, if you watch the video of the appallingly unjustified shooting of Philando Castile, you will see that as soon as Mr. Castile mentioned that he had a gun, the police officer immediately went into a completely blind panic and shot him. I don't know what is gained by incarcerating the officer, whose life is already probably close to ruined due to his mistake. (The guilt alone must be nearly unbearable.)

Andrew Stevens said...

As for assimilation, Irish-Americans are obviously assimilated, but they still keep Catholicism and St. Patrick's Day. African-Americans are mostly assimilated, but not entirely so due to my country's long struggle with racism and oppression towards them. To be clear, it is obviously white people's fault that they haven't assimilated. I have never actually met a black American, no matter how militant, who didn't just want to be accepted by the majority culture and not judged by them based on his skin color.

But in the American system, it does mean accepting the political system, though you can advocate for Constitutional Amendments. If you accept the ideals of my country, I am proud to consider you an American even if you were born in Hungary and have never set foot in my country. (See Lincoln's Electric Cord speech.) The real difficulty for my view is what to do with those Americans who were born here who reject assimilation - the fascists and the communists, for example. According to our system, they are obviously still citizens and absolutely have a right to speak their minds and say what they believe. But they are also deeply destabilizing, deeply wrong, very illiberal, and extremely dangerous. This has always been a problem for liberal/open societies because it's always easiest and very tempting to just shut those people down (which is what they would do to us if they had the chance), but that goes against our principles. If you were wondering, no, I don't have a solution.

Andrew Stevens said...

I.e. one of the problems with BLM is that they have racialized the problem to too great a degree. So, for example, when I speak to many white people about the problems with police training, they don't care, reasoning that it's not their problem because they are neither black nor criminals. Now that might be an appalling attitude to have, but it is a fact. And I try to explain to them that police shoot lots of white non-criminals every year and they flat out don't believe me even though I'm right and they're wrong.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, Mr. Burrows, I know you might consider yourself a communist, but I exempt you from my view as particularly dangerous because I don't think you really mean it. If you ever actually implemented your ideal political system, I have confidence enough in your basic decency and morality that you would be one of the first people to be imprisoned by it for protesting it once it started doing the things it would inevitably do.

Andrew Stevens said...

I.e. liquidating the kulaks or whatever.

Andrew Stevens said...

So I decided to concentrate on the part which made me laugh the loudest. Which was probably “the power of the social justice movement”. As if we’re living through some sort of Cultural Revolution, where the Politically Correct Police keep showing up and dragging people away for watching old Doctor Who episodes. Do these people ever look out of the window?

This is true. One thing that keeps me from complete despair at the rise of both the illiberal left and the illiberal right is that neither side has managed to attain power anywhere yet. (Yes, yes, Donald Trump is obviously illiberal himself, but our Madisonian system has completely hemmed him in which is why the papers are full of criticism of him instead of the jails being full of newspeople as Trump so obviously would prefer.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Hell, even more amusingly, his Twitter feed is constantly full of criticisms of his own damn Administration. My fellow citizens, in their wisdom, elected a man to bring maximal political entertainment and I don't think anybody can deny that he's done that.

SK said...

Okay then, it’s a switch. Certainly, the Saxons assimilated to the Normans. At least the ones who weren’t killed did.

Eh, not really. Below the national level, in the hundreds and the shires, the old ways of doing things continued pretty mucy unchanged. The Saxon nobility was killed and replaced by Normans, but Norman impositions never really reached most of the actual people, and the nobility gradually took on the customs of the land where they had settled — assimilated, in a word.

Anyway, wasn’t the French legal system based on the Napoleonic Code?

And the Napoleonic Code was based on the Roman civil law. That's why in French courts you don't generally have juries, they are inqusitional rather than adversarial, etc etc.

Gavin Burrows said...

” I see the sentiment itself expressed plenty often”

I especially didn’t like it when that Asian Muslim woman used her prominent newspaper column to pass comment on how posh white ex-public school boys should dress.

No hang on, wait…

’The Saxon nobility was killed and replaced by Normans, but Norman impositions never really reached most of the actual people”

Lumme, SK, what are you on about this time? I commend, of course, your somewhat belated realisation that societies are often divided by class. But are you suggesting Harold took no Saxon commoners with him to fight at Hastings? That was very noble of that particular Noble. And was the Harrying of the North a hoax, like Sputnik was?

Gavin Burrows said...

”most people the police shoot are white”

Well, most people in America are white. However, the pedant in me does think the full name of BLM should be Black and Latino Lives Matter, As Do White Folk Who Happen To Live In Poor Areas Come To That. But that might lose something in snappiness. I believe there has been times where BLM have protested the shootings of white folks.

”I am not in favor of criminal prosecution precisely because this is a systemic problem.”

But part of the reason why these shootings occur in such numbers is because there’s no risk of sanction. People have been shot while running away, because that was easier than chasing after them. In the case of Philandro Castile, as I’m sure you know, the cop was neither prosecuted nor fired. He’s probably carrying a gun around on the streets today.

The point is that the shootings are the tip of an iceberg of institutionalised racism. (As you semi-allude to over incarceration rates.) Black people get stopped, beaten, shot and - yes - incarcerated at a much higher rate. It’s well-known that not only is enforced prison labour often carried out for the profit of private corporations, but the prisons are sometimes built on old slave plantations. That’s largely what the recent prison strike was about.

Also, some American towns decided money gained by fines should go straight to the police budget. In other words, the more fines the police issue the better off they are. I suppose there may be cases where they have focused on white middle class areas to raise revenue. Yet strangely I’ve not heard of any to date. In Ferguson for example, where BLM effectively started, things young black people tended to do were made fineable. Wearing your baseball cap backwards, your jeans baggy and so on.

In short, racism is institutionalised and that institutionalisation is necessary for the status quo. So why not make it pay? And, while I don’t subscribe to knee-jerk anti-Americanism, this does seem quite unique. There is of course institutionalised racism, including police racism, here in the UK. But there’s not the same monetisation of racism.

” By the way, Mr. Burrows, I know you might consider yourself a communist, but I exempt you from my view as particularly dangerous because I don't think you really mean it.”

I assure you I do mean it! I’ve already said I think Martin Luther King’s style of leadership could be too autocratic, so I don’t suppose I would have got on with Stalin terribly well. But the story of the Russian Revolution isn’t some prescriptive script for communism forevermore. I suppose we could go into the particularities of that situation, but it might be tricky to tie into ‘Talons of Weng-Chiang’. If anyone was interested in some provisional thoughts of mine on this sort of thing, they could check out the final section of this link. (Remember, I said if.)
 

Andrew Stevens said...

You see, part of the problem with discussing this issue is simply that so many people know a whole lot of things which just ain't so.

In the case of Philandro Castile, as I’m sure you know, the cop was neither prosecuted nor fired. He’s probably carrying a gun around on the streets today.

I actually know that he was prosecuted, found not guilty, and then immediately fired. I have no idea why you think he wasn't prosecuted or fired, when both occurred. But that's the sort of fog that occurs on this issue.

It’s well-known that not only is enforced prison labour often carried out for the profit of private corporations, but the prisons are sometimes built on old slave plantations. That’s largely what the recent prison strike was about.

It's "well known." It's just not true. Nobody is profiting from prison labor because prison labor isn't profitable or particularly common. That should certainly be common knowledge, but people will say any old thing if it fits their narrative.

Also, some American towns decided money gained by fines should go straight to the police budget. In other words, the more fines the police issue the better off they are.

I agree that this is a very real problem.

But there’s not the same monetisation of racism.

There really isn't, you know. I know that Ta-Nehisi Coates likes to imply that there is, but it isn't true (and, frankly, he knows it because he always stops just short of actually saying it). Indeed, I think the racism will decrease once we figure out just how expensive it is. Sadly we're not at that point yet.

Andrew Stevens said...

Note that when I said he was immediately fired, I meant immediately after his acquittal (the same day, IIRC). He wasn't fired until the trial was over.

Andrew Stevens said...

and that institutionalisation is necessary for the status quo

Nah. It's superfluous, unnecessary, and harmful to the status quo.

Andrew Stevens said...

Once communism fails and everybody is reduced to poverty and immiseration, the liquidation of the kulaks will always begin. A scapegoat will always be needed to justify why the system failed yet again.

This was predicted by Thomas Malthus centuries ago when he pointed out that you can either have a system where a small number of people are rich and everybody else is relatively poor or you can have a system where everybody is absolutely poor. Those are your choices. He worked this out just via theory, but history since has only proven him correct.

Andrew Stevens said...

Don't get me wrong, by the way. I get the appeal. My family is communist - "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." It even works very well. But when you try to scale it up, you run out of grown-ups willing to do it. It's easier, after all, to be a child and just be taken care of. And, for some reason, once that happens, Big Daddy Stalin or Big Daddy Trump just never can seem to bring home enough bacon for everyone.

Andrew Stevens said...

On the racism and the status quo front, I used to work for a corporation in the heart of a mostly black city. They expensively imported Asians to do the jobs that they would vastly prefer locals to do. They had programs in the nearby schools to try to develop talent for their future workforce (you know what I mean, tutoring and big brother type programs). It would obviously have been better for them if the local pipeline was already good enough, but it wasn't. Why? Institutional racism is why. This isn't a rare story; it is commonplace.

Gavin Burrows said...

"I have no idea why you think he wasn't prosecuted or fired, when both occurred.”

Okay, my error. Read a couple of things on-line which seemed to make no reference to the cop getting fired. Now it seems they suddenly do! I suppose my two options now are to shout “fake news!” at the screen, or point out you’re not the only one getting old. And I probably should have said convinced rather than prosecuted, which would have been clearer.

Just being fired is of course an absurdly inadequate response, but I assume we’re not arguing about that.

"Nobody is profiting from prison labor”

Apart from the military, Amazon, Walmart, Starbucks and McDonalds (to name four) profit from prison labour. While this report says: “At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of U.S. corporate society.”

(It’s a similar story here, though the individual names would vary.)

Now we come to the strange part. You say a society divided into rich and poor is inevitable, due to some immutable natural law. Let’s just for a second assume that’s true, even if “Malthus says so” seems less than a compelling case. You also say racism is “harmful to the status quo”.

I’ve been trying to think of some way those two can be squared. All I can come up with is - there are many ways to keep the poor divided, guys, we don’t really need the racism any more. But then your argument would really be with America, saying it needs to change course. It seems obvious enough that, as things stand, racism is sued to benefit the status quo in America. And I don’t see any evidence of a course change anytime soon.

In some ways, the Trump presidency is so egregiously racist that it’s most insidious effect is to obscure this. Trump’s pitch is so blatantly to the white poor, and so hostile to anyone from any other racial group, the tendency is to assume this is a new thing. But only the blatency is new.

As we were discussing Martin Luther King:

”To this day the white poor also suffer deprivation and the humiliation of poverty if not of color. They are chained by the weight of discrimination, though its badge of degradation does not mark them. It corrupts their lives, frustrates their opportunities and withers their education . . . It has confused so many by prejudice that they have supported their own oppressors”

Andrew Stevens said...

Half of all prisoners have no jobs at all. Most of the jobs that prisoners do are within the prison - cleaning, cooking, etc. There is a small amount of prison labor contracted by corporations (federal law requires that they pay minimum wage though the state may garnish those wages to cover costs of incarceration). Due to modern corporations' need for just-in-time production, prison labor is terribly inefficient. (For example, if you tried an assembly line, there would be far too much downtime for security reasons.) So the only things which are contracted to prisoners are unimportant menial jobs where time is not an issue. (The defense industry might or might not see actual returns.) I think it's safe to say that there is not a single prisoner in the country whose labor actually has enough value to pay for his own incarceration. So the system as a whole loses very large amounts of money on prisoners.

You will often see prison labor referred to as a billion dollar industry. And so it is. That's billion, singular. It hasn't cracked $2 billion yet. For context, the U.S. economy is 18 1/2 trillion and WalMart alone grosses over $400 billion.

Let’s just for a second assume that’s true, even if “Malthus says so” seems less than a compelling case.

You could read what Malthus had to say for yourself. But honestly it's the empirical evidence, of which there is an absolute wealth, which is what is actually convincing.

I’ve been trying to think of some way those two can be squared.

This is just because you assume that we have to keep the poor down and divided or else they will inevitably want to eat the rich and immiserate themselves. It's not true. For one thing, the relatively poor today aren't actually poor any more and benefit massively from the status quo. The masses knocked off toiling a long time ago where we live, you know.

Trump’s pitch is so blatantly to the white poor, and so hostile to anyone from any other racial group, the tendency is to assume this is a new thing.

I think he greatly benefited from leftist rhetoric about "white privilege." Talk about dividing the poor along racial lines! I'm sure that wasn't the intent, but it was unquestionably the effect.

Andrew Stevens said...

The case used to be made that the non-rich in the West were so rich (globally speaking) because they benefited from the absolute poverty in the rest of the world. This was always obviously false (even the ancient Pharaohs lived miserable lives compared to ours), but it has certainly been exploded in the last thirty years as billions of Asians have lifted themselves out of absolute poverty. (Africa is next.)

Andrew Stevens said...

I've always found the prison labor rhetoric very odd actually. Most people are very vested in the status quo. If you convince them (falsely) that incarceration is helpful to that status quo, aren't you going to convince them to favor more incarceration, in exactly the same way that slaveholders hung onto slavery?

Andrew Stevens said...

Similarly with racism. If I believed it was absolutely vital to maintain racism in America in order to maintain the status quo (although I do believe that it quite clearly isn't), I think I would do everything I could never to say that out loud.

Gavin Burrows said...

I’m not sure what I can do to provide evidence of prison labour apart from provide evidence of it. Save perhaps to say there was a prison labour strike literally a week ago, which might suggest there is something to be on strike from.

”if you tried an assembly line, there would be far too much downtime for security reasons.”

At this point I have to say I’m not entirely sure you’ve ever worked in a factory, Andrew.

’You could read what Malthus had to say for yourself”

It’s a funny old world. If I went round saying effectively “Marx says it, that proves it” I would be dismissed as a fanatic obsessed with dry texts at the expense of real life.

”This is just because you assume that we have to keep the poor down and divided or else they will inevitably want to eat the rich and immiserate themselves. It's not true.”

This seems a familiar impasse, and I doubt running into it again will achieve much. Save to say that (as already quoted) King made an equal assumption to me but he was “greater and wiser than we are” while I’m just plain blinkered. (To be clear, King demanded urgent reform to alleviate poverty to prevent unrest. I’m not sure how achievable those reforms are within the current system. But we’re both seeing the same problem and variants of the same solution - end racism by ending poverty.

Moreover, if you’re right and black lives could be made to matter through police retraining, if the solution is that straightforward and do-able, how come nobody’s done it yet? You’d think that at least some places would have tried it and achieved results. Either everybody involved with policing across America is Trump-level stupid or there’s something else going on.

”If I believed it was absolutely vital to maintain racism in America in order to maintain the status quo… I think I would do everything I could never to say that out loud.”

And then you’d be a Republican.

”I think he greatly benefited from leftist rhetoric about "white privilege." Talk about dividing the poor along racial lines!”

But that’s tricky. Because white people do have white privilege. Just as working class black men have male privilege. It’s not combined with other forms of privilege, but it’s still there. The internet has exported a lot of American customs, some are slightly exotic spellings and another is that you never talk directly about class. So race is sometimes used as a euphemism for class, the way my parents’ generation would talk about “the smallest room”. Like all euphemisms this just causes confusion and we should go back to plain speaking. The chief point about Trump, the main reason he is privileged to the point where he’s lauded for things other people would go to jail for, is that he was born rich.

Gaius said...

I especially didn’t like it when that Asian Muslim woman used her prominent newspaper column to pass comment on how posh white ex-public school boys should dress.

No hang on, wait…


So what are you suggesting? Boris Johnson wrote a column arguing against banning the burqa, therefore all the people I've seen saying that white people shouldn't express an opinion on racial issues don't exist?

Andrew Stevens said...

I’m not sure what I can do to provide evidence of prison labour apart from provide evidence of it. Save perhaps to say there was a prison labour strike literally a week ago, which might suggest there is something to be on strike from.

I'm not sure what I can say other than point out that the amount of money we're talking about is completely trivial compared to the costs of incarceration (which is over $1 trillion). The Guardian wrote a whole piece on the prison strike where the reporter clearly understood that the labor prisoners do is almost entirely maintenance of their own prisons, not slaving away for corporations. Opening paragraphs: "The first part of the prisons likely to be hit will be the kitchens, where stoves will remain unlit, ready-meals unheated and thousands of breakfasts uncooked. From there the impact will fan out. The laundry will be left unwashed, prison corridors un-mopped, and the lawns on the external grounds ring-fenced with barbed wire will go uncut." Honestly, everyone knows this, including the people who write about how nefarious corporations are getting rich off prison labor.

At this point I have to say I’m not entirely sure you’ve ever worked in a factory, Andrew.

I have. I was line leader on Procter and Gamble's main shampoo line for about a year. There was indeed a decent amount of downtime, but nothing like what you would get in a prison. Moreover the lines went down one at a time. A security stoppage in a prison would shut them all down at once.

It’s a funny old world. If I went round saying effectively “Marx says it, that proves it” I would be dismissed as a fanatic obsessed with dry texts at the expense of real life.

Marx has been empirically falsified; Malthus has not. That difference is all the difference. To paraphrase you, "Increasing swathes of society seem convinced we should give [communism] another try. Myself, I’m not sure that worked terribly well the last [hundred] time[s]."

Andrew Stevens said...

Moreover, if you’re right and black lives could be made to matter through police retraining, if the solution is that straightforward and do-able, how come nobody’s done it yet? You’d think that at least some places would have tried it and achieved results. Either everybody involved with policing across America is Trump-level stupid or there’s something else going on.

Well, fads tend to be nation-wide. However, it happens to be the case that places have done it. The U.K. for one. I am certain I could find you local police departments in the U.S. where the police haven't shot anybody at all for years and years and years. Or, if they have, they were obviously justified. The quality of policing in the U.S. is very uneven. Interestingly the worst places are not the big cities statistically. They're rural areas, particularly in the old states of the Wild West (Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, etc.). New York City actually has, over the last thirty years, developed one of the better police departments in the country, Eric Garner notwithstanding. (It's a big city. It's hard for them to avoid having any tragedies at all.) Meanwhile, Baltimore and L.A. are awful.

Keep in mind though that the incentives are all wrong. Police in the U.S. are currently trained to believe that their own lives are much, much more important than the lives of the public they serve. Police chiefs have every incentive to do this and not much incentive to change without public pressure.

And then you’d be a Republican.

I am, in fact, a Republican. Or at least I was until mid-2016. (I still am registered as one.)

The chief point about Trump, the main reason he is privileged to the point where he’s lauded for things other people would go to jail for, is that he was born rich.

This is absolutely true. The corruption of the wealthy/elites is a real problem and always has been. It doesn't surprise me because that's just human nature. But I am appalled at how many people will give it a pass. E.g. I have heard many, many people defend Alex Jones by saying, "Well, he makes a lot of money at it so who can blame him?" I can. Pushing conspiracy theories and obvious falsities from any side of the political spectrum is dangerous and wrong. Making a lot of money off it doesn't make it better; it makes it worse. The system we have requires a virtuous and (preferably) educated population to police it and we are rapidly losing that.

By the way, I actually favor King's Universal Basic Income. He was mistaken on one particular though - he believed this would make all Americans "middle class." This is wrong for two reasons. 1) Class is always relative - the poor we will always have with us even if they live in mansions. 2) It won't be nearly the panacea he believed. The poor in America have a lot of problems, but money isn't actually one of the big ones.

Andrew Stevens said...

I think also that, like most people, you have the problem of all conspiracy theorizing - the idea that because X exists, somebody must have planned X. In fact, this is almost never true.

For example, every single economist frowns on tariffs. All of them. This has always been true. John Maynard Keynes is the only economist of any note who ever favored tariffs. He favored them because he didn't think the U.K. could leave the gold standard and he wanted to devalue the currency. A few years later the U.K. left the gold standard and Keynes stopped favoring tariffs. And yet every nation on earth has tariffs. Why?

I think the logic of it often goes something like this - China keeps selling us cheap stuff and, in exchange, they lend us money at really cheap interest rates. If that's good for China, it must be bad for the U.S. But China is not run by economic geniuses any more than we are. They subsidize exports in order to create full employment and (they hope) political stability. Who are the primary beneficiaries of this? Us. China is essentially stealing from its own populace in order to send us cheap stuff. Europe does the same thing when it subsidizes agricultural products for export to Africa. So what should we do? Take the cheap stuff. This might even create unemployment in our own economy, but it is not the purpose of an economy to create jobs. We could create full employment tomorrow simply by passing a regulation requiring ditches to be dug with tablespoons. Should we? The answer is to spread the benefits of free trade around and use the government to transfer to the people economically harmed by China's policies. But it is lunacy and wealth-destroying to impose tariffs instead. And yet people always want tariffs even though the argument against them was won 150 years ago with the Corn Laws and has been won repeatedly ever since by anybody who bothers to analyze the evidence.

But then that's all just human nature. Arguments don't really matter and people aren't going to suddenly start acting rationally any time soon.

Andrew Stevens said...

Although, by the way, it doesn't matter if you were born to wealth and status. Bill Clinton wasn't and he benefited from his wealth and status in exactly the same way that Trump has. Both of them should die in prison and I certainly understand the temptation to radical politics when I note that neither of them will. It wouldn't be the worst thing to see them both guillotined on the White House lawn.

Andrew Stevens said...

One probably could have told at the time though. Marx was obviously engaging in a lot of wishful thinking. He never explained how his utopian future system would work, just assuming that "History" would take care of those details for him. By the way, his analysis of how economic systems had succeeded one another historically is actually very good. Marx was not an idiot.

Meanwhile, Malthus was a product of the Enlightenment. He was all for eliminating poverty and inequality and all of that. He hated many of his conclusions, but his thinking and the evidence led him where it led him.

Gavin Burrows said...

”There was indeed a decent amount of downtime, but nothing like what you would get in a prison.”

The point here is that downtime has a strange tendency to get pushed onto the employee’s own time. I once worked in a factory which had the most elaborate security measures, where all we were doing was packaging giveaway CDs to get stuffed through people’s doors. There was a farrago here in the UK not so long ago where factory employees were being paid below the minimum wage, once security searches were factored in.

’However, it happens to be the case that places have done it. The U.K. for one.”

Less people get shot by cops in Britain because cops carry guns less. (Though it’s increasing.) Plenty other factors are similar here, such as racially disproportionate stop and search. (Think it’s called stop ’n’ frisk your way.) Also, when cops kill people through means other than bullets they normally get away with it.

Besides, my argument is that the monetisation of racism is an American phenomenon. It may exist other places, I don’t know, but I don’t think it does in the UK. So there are ways in which the UK can be different to America.

”By the way, I actually favor King's Universal Basic Income.”

Not sure this really answers my question. King’s argument was that ultimately the key to end racism was to end poverty. Are you agreeing with him here, or disagreeing?

”Marx has been empirically falsified; Malthus has not.”
”his analysis of how economic systems had succeeded one another historically is actually very good”

I’d imagine the second point’s intended to qualify the first. But really it overrides it. The majority of Marx’s writing covers just what you say here, so you’re really saying his work has been falsified except for almost all of it.

Also, currently, across most of the Western world the birth rate is falling quite steadily, yet so is most people’s standard of living. Just sayin’.

”I think also that, like most people, you have the problem of all conspiracy theorizing - the idea that because X exists, somebody must have planned X. In fact, this is almost never true.”

Not conspiracy theorising at all. In fact there’s clearly a double bind here where you say “Marx didn’t have enough of a plan, epic fail!” and “plans never really go to plan anyway”. The time you’re right is the second time.

To reiterate, my argument is that systemic racism is necessary to maintain American society as it currently stands. ‘Systemic’ is very different to ‘conscious plot’. (Of course some people think capitalism itself is a conspiracy. All that means is there’s no helping some people.)

Given this, there’s the temptation to make it pay. You acknowledge elements of this, such as the ‘black tax’ through fines, even if you try to explain away others. The second does come about through conscious action. Someone has to pass that by-law making backwards baseball caps fineable. But it’s set by the parameters of the first. I assume you don’t think all bylaws are passed by conspiracy.

Guys, I’ve been thinking. Is it possible ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ is also a bit racist?

Gavin Burrows said...

And just one more thing, sir. (That's my Columbo impression.) Suppose you are right and less people die from British cops due to their better training. Surely then the problem could be easily solved by just borrowing some British trainers for a while?

Andrew Rilstone said...

1: "For example, if you watch the video of the appallingly unjustified shooting of Philando Castile, you will see that as soon as Mr. Castile mentioned that he had a gun, the police officer immediately went into a completely blind panic and shot him. I don't know what is gained by incarcerating the officer, whose life is already probably close to ruined due to his mistake. (The guilt alone must be nearly unbearable.)"

Is it a general principal if American law that massive and sincere remorse mitigates the crime? So that a black person who panicked and killed a white person and then felt absolutely terrible about it; or a civilian who panicked and killed a police officer and then felt equally terrible, could expect to get off without even a prison sentence?

Andrew Rilstone said...

2: I.e. liquidating the kulaks or whatever.

This is an example of the McDawkins fallacy -- where the critic gets to define his opponents beliefs, and then either blame him for holding those beliefs, or call him a hypocrite for not holding them.

As in "Let me explain to you, Cardinal, why it is impossible for a horse to fly. No, I am sorry, if you are a Catholic you DO believe in flying horses. No, I am telling you do, that is part of the definition of Catholic. What? You deny believe in flying horses? So even a Cardinal admits that he is not a Roman Catholic."

(Or more simply "Some theists believe in violence to further their cause. The Archbishop of Canterbury does not believe in violence. Therefore the Archbishop of Canterbury is not a theist.")

I suppose it might be possible to argue "It would be logically impossible to spread the wealth around a little more fairly without exiling thousands of people to Siberia; therefore anyone who says that they want to spread the wealth around a little more fairly implicitly believes in exiling people to Siberia whether they say so or not"; but that's a point you'd need to argue, not one that can be taken for granted.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Just as a point. One individual readers has so far attached 48 separate posts, running to about 7.5k words to my 3.5k word essay. I couldn't possibly respond to this volume of comment and still generate new material; and while I'm certainly not going to accuse anyone of engaging in the technique known as the "gish gallop" I sometimes think that some people are engaging in the technique known as the "gish gallop".

I think that the point was "Not all blackface is necessarily racist; Charlie Chan was a white guy in make up, and he was a very positive image of Chinese Americans" vs "Positive stereotypes can be racist as well". I am more inclined to support the second position, while allowing comedy more licence than drama.

Gavin Burrows said...

Let us say a thing. I posted a link to something from my blog a bit earlier. Should anyone from those herein assembled wish to discuss the liquidation of the Kulaks, that might be argued to make a more appropriate place for it than here. I am willing to take the risk of my server crashing from the ensuing rush.

I shall then try to explain how they had it coming because they were on the wrong side of history, comrade. (That being my position, of course.)

In addition you get a Brownie point if you can tie it in to 'Talons of Weng Chiang', but no actual cash prize. Half a point for 'Tomb of the Cybermen'.

Andrew Stevens said...

Fair enough. I will subside. I can't after all even convince Mr. Burrows that the U.S. does not profit from incarceration where my argument amounts to $1 billion < $1 trillion. So what hope is there?

Andrew Stevens said...

I will quickly answer Mr. Rilstone's most unfair critique however.

A) I was extremely explicit that I do not believe for one second that Mr. Burrows would favor liquidating the kulaks. I have always granted Mr. Burrows's basic decency and morality and that his heart is in the right place.

B) I was not referring to welfare state capitalism. I have always maintained a distinction between welfare state capitalism and communism in this discussion. You might have noticed that I approved of certain welfare state capitalism policies.

C) My evidence that communism always leads to either disintegration (in the case of communes) or violent destruction of scapegoats for its failure is that it always has. Yes, I know that there is not a single true Scotsman among Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, the Kim dynasty, Ho Chi Minh, Hugo Chavez, Pol Pot, Tito, etc., etc., but there certainly seems to be a pattern, doesn't there? Even if we're just talking about phony Scotsmen.

Andrew Stevens said...

Oh, and to correct a misapprehension: without meaning any disrespect, Mr. Rilstone, I don't really care if you yourself respond to me or even read my comments at all. Your commenters are themselves a draw for this site.

Mike Taylor said...

Andrew Stevens writes:

"If anybody objects to my idea of putting the films under the knife because of messing with something classic or whatever, I would respond, "Excising those scenes is actually more true to the authors' intent."

I'm sympathetic to this argument, subject to an important qualification. The danger here is that, after we modify the original text in a way that better reflects in 2018 the author's intent in 1926, someone else modifies our 2018 text in 2028 in a way that they feel better reflects then the author's intent; and within a generation or two, a sequence of rewrites results in a Chinese-whispers version (ha!) that bears no resemblance to the original. So my qualification is that all future modifications should be based on the original rather than on whatever rewrite we in 2018 happen to favour.

Mike Taylor said...

Alex O'Neal writes:

"Couldn't Manuel have been confident? Couldn't they have written funny scenes in which Basil is the incompetent idiot and Manuel has to work around his boss's cluelessness to make things work?"

Much more rational, my dear Alex, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like Fawlty Towers.

Mike Taylor said...

Gavin Burrows writes:

"It’s always easier to say “can’t we all just get along” when the status quo suits you."

That's rather an extraordinary quote to use to make this point. Gavin, do you really think the status quo suited Rodney King?

Mike Taylor said...

Andrew Rilstone writes:

"Part of [C. S. Lewis's] very involved argument about miracles (which, thankfully, we don't need to go into this evening) is that a belief or argument can only be true if all the stages which led up to it were rational."

That can't be right. A proposition is not invalidated because an argument for it is invalid. I might say "God exists because the variety of the natural world could not have come about except by the will of an intelligent creator", and Richard Dawkins might quite rightly say "Ah, but what about evolution?". But in doing so, all he's done is shown that my specific argument in support of the existence of God is invalid. He's said nothing at all about the proposition itself.

It's been a while since I read MIracles, but even that early in his career, Lewis must have understood this. I can only think you must be (probably inadvertently, or carelessly) misrepresenting him here.

Mike Taylor said...

Alex O'Neal writes:

"Also, having thought through this thoroughly, I don't think I can enjoy Fawlty Towers anymore."

No line of argument that concludes with " I can't enjoy Fawlty Towers" can be correct. That's a classic reductio ad absurdum.

Andrew Rilstone said...

From “the cardinal difficulty of naturalism “

“But unfortunately the two systems are wholly distinct. To be caused is not to be proved. Wishful thinkings, prejudices, and the delusions of madness, are all caused, but they are ungrounded. Indeed to be caused is so different from being proved that we behave in disputation as if they were mutually exclusive. The mere existence of causes for a belief is popularly treated as raising a presumption that it is groundless, and the most popular way of discrediting a person's opinions is to explain them causally--'You say that because (Cause and Effect) you are a capitalist, or a hypochondriac, or a mere man, or only a woman'. The implication is that if causes fully account for a belief, then, since causes work inevitably, the belief would have had to arise whether it had grounds or not. We need not, it is felt, consider grounds for something which can be fully explained without them.“

Mike Taylor said...

Gavin Burrows asks:

"Moreover, if you’re right and black lives could be made to matter through police retraining, if the solution is that straightforward and do-able, how come nobody’s done it yet?"

Are we sure they haven't? Couldn't it be that many or most, or even nearly all, police forces are strenuously working to avoid such incidents, but they never make the news because "Police do not shoot innocent black man" is not newsworthy?

Do we know anything about the trend in the stats?

Mike Taylor said...

Andrew Stevens inexplicably postulates:

"The poor in America have a lot of problems, but money isn't actually one of the big ones."

I beg to differ; and I imagine so would poor people.

So would economists: a substantial body of evidence now shows that the most effective way to combat poverty is to give poor people money.

Mike Taylor said...

The "Cardinal Difficulty" passage says two rather separate things. First, Lewis briefly notes that there are other causes for some beliefs than that those beliefs have been proved. Second, at rather more length, he says that this is "popularly treated" -- implicitly, by people arguing in bad faith -- as though the existence of such non-proof causes for a belief shows that the belief itself is wrong. Lewis himself is certainly not saying that this is the case; only that people sometimes argue as though it were.

To make it concrete. I might believe in God because I wish Heaven to be real. That wish does not constitute proof, so my reason for believing in God is not sound. This is "popularly treated" as showing that in face God does not exist. But of course it shows no such thing. And Lewis well understood this, as he shows by the dismissive tone with which he discusses those who make such leaps.

So the passage you quoted does not at all support your earlier assertion that "Lewis thought that a proposition arrived at through a purely non rational process (drawing letters out of a scrabble bag, say) couldn't possibly have a quality called "truth"."

Andrew Rilstone said...

What Lewis SAYS is that is my thoughts have non rational causes then I have no reason to think that my reasoning is valid

That if my thoughts are produced my physical, chemical, atomic and subatomic processes in my brain than I have no reason to trust anything my thoughts tell me and therefore no reason to think that my brain is composed of atoms

In fact he was a strict enough rationalist to think that the existence of the empirical world is something we infer, and that if onference is not valid, we have no reason to believe the empirical world exists

This is, obviously a version of the Cogito, and I think also bound up with Berkeley and idealism Who Lewis rated highly but I have never really understood.

Ansconbe’s complaint was that he confused “irrational” with “non rational” but thought he fixed this in the second edition.

I think the problem is that he deliberately uses a tendentious definition of supernatural so he can claim that the mind is “supernatural” and that if you accept the existence of the mind of can’t deny the existence of miracles (from first principles)

I don’t think that all orthodox theologians, including Lewis on some days of the week, would think that Christ walking on the water was . supernatural according to this definition

Someone who believes something because they are biased or because they are insane are examples Lewis uses of an argument having a non rational cause. IF you thought that someone’s belief in aliens was completely caused by a traumatic experience with a Dan Dare comic or an over indulgence in certain chemicals, you wouldn’t consider his claim rational and therefore you wouldn’t try to refute it.

The point at stake was that some people use Lewis’s squib about Obadiah Bulver as an excuse to reject all references to authorial biography and prejudice whatsoever. And in fact Lewis, not being completely insane, quite often referred to unconscious biases and biographical tendencies in his interlocutors. See the essay on Pacifism, for one example.

Tommorrow I shall summarize The Problem of Pain, first in my evening suit and then in my bathing costume.

Gaius said...

The point at stake was that some people use Lewis’s squib about Obadiah Bulver as an excuse to reject all references to authorial biography and prejudice whatsoever. And in fact Lewis, not being completely insane, quite often referred to unconscious biases and biographical tendencies in his interlocutors. See the essay on Pacifism, for one example.

As I recall, Lewis' "On Bulverism" says that questions about an interlocuter's prejudices can be legitimately brought up, but only if you already have grounds to reject his conclusion. And in "Why I am not a Pacifist", the potential bias is only one of several arguments brought up; it's not like Lewis is relying on "Of course you'd be a pacifist, going to war is very uncomfortable" to make his case for him.

Gaius said...

What Lewis SAYS is that is my thoughts have non rational causes then I have no reason to think that my reasoning is valid

That's true, but it's also not the same as "a belief can only be true if all the stages which led up to it were rational".

Andrew Rilstone said...

yes

indeed

the essay on bulverism

is a silly joke

because no-one would actually respond to a

question of

geometry

with a comment about the speaker's state of mind

"the square on the hypotonouse is equal to sum of the square on the other two sides"
"ah, but you only think that because you hated your prep school"

ha ha

but boring people stroke their beards and say mmm, mmm, bulverism, at the slightest intrusion of biography into arguments

"Enoch Powell defined conservatism as belief in the Virtuous Institutions"
"He would naturally think that, given his classical background"
"Har-har, bulverism, I win"

I HEREBY BAN THE WORD BULVERISM FROM THIS BLOG

anyone who wants to accuse someone of arguing ad hominem must accuse someone of arguing ad hominem

there was a point to this but etc etc etc

Andrew Rilstone said...

One day, when I have caught up with Watchmen, Spider-Man, Peter Capaldi, Boris Johnson and the Wombles, I really am going to write the piece on C.S Lewis and geometry. He always uses geometry as an example of really sound, logic based, philosophically certain argument. His autobiography contains a lurid description of a teacher beating a little boy for making a mistake in a geometry test. The only good thing he can think of to say about the teacher (who is the only person apart from Hitler he definitely thinks went to Hell) is that he taught geometry really well. (And of course, having talked about all the violence and the tedium of his prep school, he adds "some of the worst his unsaid" and never elaborates further.)

Mike Taylor said...

Andrew Rilstone wrote:

"What Lewis SAYS is that is my thoughts have non rational causes then I have no reason to think that my reasoning is valid."

Yes indeed. Which is completely different from "... then I have no reason to think my conclusion is valid". Because you may well and probably have other thoughts in support of the same conclusion. That's all I'm saying.

"I think the problem is that he deliberately uses a tendentious definition of supernatural so he can claim that the mind is “supernatural” and that if you accept the existence of the mind of can’t deny the existence of miracles (from first principles)"

I'm not seeing the problem here.

"IF you thought that someone’s belief in aliens was completely caused by a traumatic experience with a Dan Dare comic or an over indulgence in certain chemicals, you wouldn’t consider his claim rational."

That is true -- provided I thought his belief was completely caused by this experience, and that he didn't also have other lines of evidence. But if he happened to have a mummified alien corpse in his basement, I would accept his belief irrespective of whatever Dan Dare-related trauma he might also have gone through.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think on the specific rhetorical point, he is saying that IF a cause fully accounted for a belief THEN (since causes are non-rational) we would correctly not need to consider the (rational) grounds for it. Certainly the "popular" and "it is felt" parts suggest that people are far too willing to invoke this when the cause does not in fact fully account for a belief.

Not going to try to cover the the pros and cons of the whole nature vs supernature thang this evening. I'll put it on my little list.

Lawrence Burton said...

"And you can't judge the past by the standards of the present."

Yes you can.

- Ha! So nice to see someone actually bothered to say it. Personally, I'm not so keen on Talons regardless of the racism. Last time I tried to watch it, which was admittedly more than a decade ago, the animosity between Baker and Jameson, as expressed by the former seemingly refusing to even look at her whilst doing his important and lovable (national treasure blah blah) acting, became too annoying and I gave up after about ten minutes.

But yes, this is a tiresome defence, although I'm more familiar with it being trotted out in service of authors such as H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Rice Burroughs. Whilst both had undeniable qualities in their favour, being of their time just doesn't cut it for me. There were plenty of others writing in the same period who never came out with anything quite so of its time as 'On the Creation of N*gg*rs' or smuggled chucklesome shout outs to the KKK (an organisation of freedom fighters, apparently) into their pulpy little novels.

If something requires a debate in order to deduce whether or not it's racist, then it usually is, in my experience.

Gavin Burrows said...

”Gavin, do you really think the status quo suited Rodney King?”

Brief answer, right then, yes. I wonder what would have happened to him had he said “yeah, get them racist cops, bro”. Except we wouldn’t know anything about it because he wouldn’t have been invited on TV to say it. There’s a reason the phrase came to represent triteness and insincerity.

”Are we sure they haven't?”

Brief answer, it is hard to be sure of a negative. Police killings do vary quite a bit from city to city. But if that was down to something as simple as getting everyone in for a one-day training course, how come the ‘bad’ cities haven’t started copying the ‘good’ ones yet? We should also remember that the killings sit atop an iceberg of oppressive, and often racially oppressive, police practices. We’d need to be sure the ‘good’ cities weren’t just removing the more blatant symptoms to avoid protest.

Gaius said...

yes/ indeed/ the essay on bulverism/ is a silly joke/ because no-one would actually respond to a/ question of/ geometry/ with a comment about the speaker's state of mind

I've just gone back and re-read Lewis' article on the b-word. Whilst the triangle example is clearly a silly joke, the concept itself isn't; indeed, Lewis explicitly tells us that people employ the fallacy all the time: "In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it... I find the fruits of [Mr. Bulver's] discovery almost everywhere... I see Bulverism at work in every political argument."

but boring people stroke their beards and say mmm, mmm, bulverism, at the slightest intrusion of biography into arguments

Lewis, of course, was fortunate enough to be alive long before modern identity politics came on the scene, but from his essay it's pretty clear that he considers trying to discredit an opponent by pointing out their self-interest to be fallacious:

"And the Marxist will tell you to go and examine the economic interests of the hundred; you will find that they all think freedom a good thing because they are all members of the bourgeoisie whose prosperity is increased by a policy of laissez-faire. Their thoughts are “ideologically tainted” at the source."

"It is no earthly use saying that those are tainted which agree with the secret wishes of the thinker. Some of the things I should like to believe must in fact be true; it is impossible to arrange a universe which contradicts everyone’s wishes, in every respect, at every moment... If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error."

"I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning - never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology."

Gaius said...

But if that was down to something as simple as getting everyone in for a one-day training course, how come the ‘bad’ cities haven’t started copying the ‘good’ ones yet?

I don't think anybody's suggested that a *one-day* training course would be enough.

We should also remember that the killings sit atop an iceberg of oppressive, and often racially oppressive, police practices.

That claim is, at best, not nearly as well-established as you're suggesting, and at worst totally false: http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/25/race-and-justice-much-more-than-you-wanted-to-know/

Andrew Rilstone said...

I've just gone back and re-read Lewis' article on the b-word. Whilst the triangle example is clearly a silly joke, the concept itself isn't; indeed, Lewis explicitly tells us that people employ the fallacy all the time:

Gad sir, you are right.

And that is just the missing piece I needed for my “geometry” theory.

Hah!

Andrew Stevens said...

Mike Taylor writes:

"I beg to differ; and I imagine so would poor people."

Eh. I grew up poor. There were a lot of problems - crime, drugs, growing up fatherless, etc. But we were relatively quite poor in the U.S. We were far wealthier than virtually every human being who had ever walked the planet prior to 100 years before. Sure, my mother had to avail herself of our church's food pantry, used food stamps, and free school lunches to feed us, but we didn't actually lack for food. My clothes may have been hand-me-downs, but I was clothed.

I realize that most people think poverty causes crime, drugs, etc., but I think that's just a slander on poor people. My grandparents grew up even poorer than I did and did not become alcoholics, drug addicts, or criminals. So I am strongly of the opinion that the arrow of causation goes the other way. Obviously, I am also strongly of the opinion that not all poor people are criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, etc. Many people are poor from bad luck or because they have been denied opportunities due to race. And obviously poor children are always poor due to bad luck.

As I said earlier in this thread, I am for a Universal Basic Income. I far prefer just giving poor people cash instead of our current inefficient paternalistic bureaucratic methods. And I think it would be enough to lift many people out of poverty though the primary benefit of that would be to allow them to relocate out of poorer neighborhoods. I think that it would still not cure poverty. It seems obvious to me that there are people who, if you just give them money, would simply waste that money to live indolent, drug-besotted, miserable lives. Take the Kennedys, for example.

Mike Taylor said...

Andrew Stevens, your anecdotes are interesting but I'm going to stick with the data.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I grew up in a cardboard box in the middle of the motorway. I had to get up three hours before I went to bed in order to work 28 hours a day in the factory, and pay the factory owner for the privilege . And every night my father would come home and kill me. But I was happy, despite being poor. Because Iwas poor.

Gavin Burrows said...

”That claim is, at best, not nearly as well-established as you're suggesting, and at worst totally false”

Let’s see now… Do black Americans get fined disproportionately highly compared to white folks? Yes.
 
https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2017/07/27/a-study-suggests-that-black-americans-are-unfairly-fined-by-police
 
Are black Americans incarcerated at a higher rate than white Americans? Are they more likely to be incarcerated, and for longer, for the same offences? Yes and Yes.
 
https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/
 
In other news, the moon landings weren’t faked, Elvis is actually dead and ‘Doctor Who’ was sometimes racist.
 
PS NB The link Gaius used ends up quoting, seemingly approvingly, “recent punishment policies have replaced the urban ghetto, Jim Crow laws, and slavery as a mechanism for maintaining white dominance over blacks in the United States”. In other words his own link ends up largely backing what I’m saying.
 

Gaius said...

Let’s see now… Do black Americans get fined disproportionately highly compared to white folks? Yes.

https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2017/07/27/a-study-suggests-that-black-americans-are-unfairly-fined-by-police

Are black Americans incarcerated at a higher rate than white Americans? Are they more likely to be incarcerated, and for longer, for the same offences? Yes and Yes.

https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/


The first link finds that cities with more black residents tend to gather more money in fines. It doesn't say anything about whether or not black residents commit more fineable offences, or even whether the civic authorities target blacks disproportionately (the cities which collect more in fines might go after white residents just as much). The second says that blacks are more likely to be arrested, but says nothing about whether or not they're more likely to commit crimes. So the utility of both these sites is limited for determining whether or not the US police force is racist.

(And even if they did mention these things, one study and an uncited page from a pressure group's website are hardly enough to warrant Moon landing comparisons.)

PS NB The link Gaius used ends up quoting, seemingly approvingly, “recent punishment policies have replaced the urban ghetto, Jim Crow laws, and slavery as a mechanism for maintaining white dominance over blacks in the United States”. In other words his own link ends up largely backing what I’m saying.

A quote from a book which the author says he never read. The evidence he has read, and which he spends however many thousand words summarising, suggests that: "The actual level of bias is limited and detectable only through statistical aggregation of hundreds or thousands of cases, is only unambiguously present in sentencing, and there only at a level of 10-20%, and that only if you believe the most damning studies."

Do you think that the evidence for police racism is ambiguous and uncertain, and that black defendants are sentenced only moderately more harshly than white defendants? I wouldn't have guessed so, based on the tenor of your previous posts, but since you say the link backs up what you say I suppose you must do.

Nick Mazonowicz said...

Yeah, but you had it easy

Gavin Burrows said...

So he approving quotes a link to which he actually disagrees? And this is the blogger you want us to rate above statistical studies? Confused of Brighton.

Gaius said...

So he approving quotes a link to which he actually disagrees?

More like, the author hasn't read the book, so his opinion about its argument is of less value than the conclusions he comes to based on the studies he has actually read.

And this is the blogger you want us to rate above statistical studies? Confused of Brighton.

Wait, now I'm confused -- I link to an article which spends over 4,000 words discussing statistical studies, and you think that I'm somehow against using statistical studies?

Gavin Burrows said...

So, let me get this straight... The guy spends over 4,000 words of what you describe as close statistical studies. Then goes right at the end, "hey I'll just chuck in a quote from a book I haven't read which goes against my whole argument up till now, what the hell?" Gaius, do you even sound convincing to yourself, right now?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I even have a title.

"The Cardinal Difficulty of Bulverism".

Andrew Rilstone said...

Comment won't fit in box. Put in new article. Not charging anyone for it.

Gaius said...

So, let me get this straight... The guy spends over 4,000 words of what you describe as close statistical studies. Then goes right at the end, "hey I'll just chuck in a quote from a book I haven't read which goes against my whole argument up till now, what the hell?" Gaius, do you even sound convincing to yourself, right now?

Actually, it's quite easy to follow the chain of thought. (1) The author looks at statistical studies which show that the police don't treat blacks with disproportionate severity. (2) Then he says that, even if that's the case, it's still possible that blacks get the worse end of the legal deal, because (a) many crimes disproportionately committed by black people have harsher penalties attached, and (b) black people are on average poorer, and it's harder for poor people to defend themselves when charged. (3) The quotation from the book follows on from this.

Now, point (1) is backed up by a lengthy statistical analysis, which I note you haven't attempted to contradict. Points (2a) and (2b) aren't argued for in this post, but are just assumed, so I suppose one can take them on leave them as one chooses. Personally I don't know whether (2a) is true or not, and (2b) strikes me as dubious; most black criminals in the US tend to victimise fellow black people, so throwing the book at them ought to make life easier for law-abiding blacks. Regardless, though, assuming that the author is correct and that the laws of the US are skewed against black people, the blame for this clearly falls on the legislature, not the police. It follows that statements such as "the killings sit atop an iceberg of... racially oppressive police practices" are false; which is why I'm so confused that you claim the link supports your position, when it actually does no such thing.

Gavin Burrows said...

Amusing though this episode has been, it may be time to bring it to a close. As anyone who can be bothered to trudge through that link will soon discover, it employs an old rhetorical trick called the appeal to moderation. In this, you stake out two straw men at the furthest extremes you can conceive. Previously, everyone either believed cops were marauding death squads who earn air miles for each person they killed, or thought the black population needed culling to keep order. Happily, our author then pops up to resume us from this dichotomy and tell us the truth is somewhere between the two. The only problem for him is - pretty much everybody alive in the world today already knew that.

A human lifespan is finite so I will give just one example. He states “I also disagree with the people who say things like “Every part of America’s criminal justice is systemically racist by design.” Did he really manage to find people (in the plural) who said such a thing? (Note we’re back on the “not racist by intent” quasi-defence here. Andrew R once wrote a blog post explaining how this is false in the context of ‘Doctor Who’. I forget when he did it now, I think it was some time ago.)

He jumps on that quote because by this point he’s been imbibing his own snake oil. Without directly quoting he first refers to a section where he says that they say “the system mostly avoids direct racist bias against black people” but racism occurs nonetheless. Formally, this invokes the same neither-this-nor-that structure he’s attempting, so he assumes they must be in alignment. (I’m wondering if they actually used a term such as “overt” or “deliberate”.)

But on the other hand there’s a graph pasted in the middle of it, so “discussing statistical studies”, right.

Fortunately for those minded not to spend their time on several thousand words devoted to a simple rhetorical trick, you don’t have to. Because to defend all this Gaius ends up having to use the same trick. Remember earlier “totally false” had been on his spectrum of possibility. No racism at all. No black American had been shot or even stopped by police under dodgy circumstances. Fake news. Now it seems there has been a problem all along, but…

”…the laws of the US are skewed against black people, the blame for this clearly falls on the legislature, not the police.”

Here the middle ground is shifting, as it always ends up doing in the appeal to moderation. Because you’re already claiming 99.9% of the turf as yours, so you’re not really stepping off your own property.

Amusingly, to make this shift Gaius has to imply there is no point where the police and the legislature intersect. I confess I am not quite sure how this works. Do black American break racist laws but still voluntarily hand themselves in to courts to get fined and imprisoned, because of course they have no beef with the hardworking police force? All the shootings and beatings we’ve heard of, were they carried out by public prosecutors merely disguised as policemen?

Perhaps the most absurd thing about this is that BLM is about the worst instance for trotting out the old appeal to moderation. Because it’s a debate over whether the lives of black people matter. You kind of end up having to either say they do or they don’t. Claiming it’s okay for cops to shoot every other black person they come across would be the logical end-point. But that isn’t really going to win very many converts.