Saturday, May 1, 2010

Competing Purities

Via the ever-thoughtful coffeeandink, I find that Neil Gaiman's worshippers are angry at American Indians in Children's Literature (a blog by Debbie Reese, not an actual association of fictional people) for having criticized a remark Gaiman made in a 2008 interview. Some of the usual racefailer arguments popped up, including "Anyone who knows me will see how perverse it is to suggest I did anything insensitive" and "She didn't even read the book NG was being interviewed about." Also "No one complains when this is done to [name your not-oppressed-in-the-present-day group]."

Now, it's no news that Neil Gaiman, writing in the realm of myths and fairy-tales, is often swept up in the momentum of reactionary tropes. Recall Delany on A Game of You: " . . . it is a fantasy world where the natural forces, stated and unstated, enforce the dominant ideology we've got around us today, no matter what." Gaiman, as I recall, didn't see how the fact that the trans woman and the poor black woman were killed by the forces of nature as part of the straight white heroine's story militated in favor of Delany's account. But at this point, when it seems that Gaiman is trying to clean up some of the messes his impatience with Reese and his other critics created, the response of his reverent fans to those critics is what's interesting.

Again, in part because his thought is not easily dismissable as "politically correct" or "identity politics," let me invoke Delany. In 1977, SRD wrote a positive review of the first Star Wars movie that expressed a wish to have seen some black faces among the characters. The piece received more mail than anything else he has written, the vast majority of it from white kids under seventeen who deeply resented the suggestion, on the grounds that non-whites in movies were signs of "social problems" which they wanted no part of in "their" film. And this sentiment is not a thing of the past: about two years ago, I saw a series of comments on youtube expressing outrage that the video of "Handlebars" acknowledged that the world contains black people.

Somebody feels their transcendent yearning to be under attack in those situations. More distressingly, somebody's yearning is for some kind of comforting purity: a warm bathtub with no "politics" in it. And because that desire is itself utterly political, it does not admit of fulfillment. But boy can it encourage anger and discourage insight. Ever see how outraged some young people get at the observation that there's sexism in Disney movies? What about a nice liberal who loses his temper at the suggestion that Huck Finn, although a great and humane novel, is, like anything written by an 1880s white American, um, not bereft of racism. Or, more inexplicably, James Agee's denial that there was any racism in Birth of a Nation.

Now, I'm not equating people who oppose this or that anti-racist argument with people who want to wish the "social problem" away. Obviously, there are anti-racists who have their own "comforting purity" issues and who will condemn a book just because it contains racist characters or someone in it uses racist epithets. And although the ideal of anti-racist purity has not damaged and destroyed the lives of millions, it can really muddy the waters in an argument about books and movies: some people seem to dismiss all anti-racist criticism of Huck Finn or Little House because they've seem some obviously foolish critiques of those novels.

The Arizona Oaf who behaved badly in RaceFail '09 showed up in Reese's comments and linked to an interesting speech about the perils of a different brand of anti-racist purity, one which focuses on the self rather than on books. Evidently, at the time the speech was made, the Unitarian Church was treating racism like the Communist Party treats disloyalty: you're assumed guilty and you're required to confess and do some self-examination (Some college orientations have tried similar tactics). The author of the interesting speech seems to think that there's a Christian foundation to this approach; I would suggest that it could have a Gandhian basis too. And one sees it in all kinds of progressive movements: people whose anti-racism or environmentalism or pro-labor stance gets framed as militating for the benefit of their souls, such that even the smallest disavowal of racism/pollution/corporate power feeds their egos. Of course, one can feel how s/he likes about one's social engagement, but that's not a standard you can impose on others. I mean, no one was made to undergo a self-criticism before marching in Selma; and many impure souls undoubtedly showed up there.

Still, the kind of purity that shows up in these online quarrels is rarely the kind demanded by the Unitarian Inquisition. Most often, it's the "How dare you suggest I/my idol has/have said/done written something racially clueless? I/he/she haven't/hasn't a racist cell in my/his/her body!" I think it's important, then, to distinguish between: 1) Racism as it occurs in interpersonal transactions, more or less unintentionally, particularly when neither party has power over the body or livelihood of the other party and 2) Racism as system/institution/tool of material oppression. Problem 1), I'd say, is one outgrowth of, and one of many phenomena that help sustain, problem 2); so that someone who's insouciant about problem 1) is gonna be perceived as an element of problem 2), and someone who's accused of having problem 1) will wonder if s/he's being perceived as knowingly contributing to problem 2).

Two RaceFail '09 contributions that have a lot to say about the confusions I'm describing are Timmi's and Mary Anne's. Both assert that everyone is racially prejudiced: you can'
t transcend the racist discourse that's all around us. In other words, an individual cannot escape or be purged of problem 2). So suggesting that someone's told a racist story, for example (again, under conditions where their livelihood is not threatened by an accusation of racism), is not calling for their exile from the human community or for their immersion in a morass of guilt. The accused party could respond with an "Ouch, you're right" or a "Why so?" or a "Given the context, I'm not sure that's a valid charge" or an "I'm sorry: I guess I made my point badly: here's what I really meant--does that work for you?" or all manner of things that could keep a conversation going.

The question arises, then, as to why it's so hard to get that across to people who are not, say, making racist statements on the Jesse Helms level. Some of the problem boils down to racist myths: the "race card" or the "implacably angry minority person." But sometimes the "I am pure and you are claiming that I'm tainted!" (again, often made on behalf of an author by the fans) response is just based on a kind of American individualism. Here's Michael Bérubé in one of his best essays, discussing Jonathan Arac's book on the critical reception of Huck Finn:
Arac concludes that Twain deliberately refrained from allowing Huck access to the alternative discourses that might have helped him to conceive of Jim as a human fully entitled to human rights.

The effect, of course, is quite powerful: it leaves us with a Huck who comes to the right decision all on his lonesome, without the aid of any wandering counter-hegemonic theorists who might disrupt his understanding of the naturalness of slavery . . . the corollary point is obvious: Huck is so powerful a figure for liberal white Americans precisely because of his ignorance, because he has no idea how to frame a compelling argument in Jim's favor. All of us white folks, your humble reviewer included, would love to believe that our innate goodness, or our obvious capacity for enlightenment, would have led us to do the right thing had we been born in 1830; and the less help Huck gets, the better his decision looks to us, because it looks more plausibly as if it could have been ours as well. Summing up his book's best chapter, then, Arac balances the claims of art and the claims of history with some élan:

[passage elided-Josh] Yet in wholly omitting from his representation of Huck's America any of the rhetorical, political, or more broadly social resources that supported resistance to the slave power in Huck's time and to Bourbon restoration in Twain's own time, Huckleberry Finn defines no place that citizens can work together in resistance. This is not the worst possible compromise, but it is a great diminishment for the possibilities of freedom, and it has rarely been acknowledged as one of the costs of Twain's achievement. (60-61)

Surely some of Arac's less sympathetic readers will find this passage tendentious; after all, is it not too much to ask of a mere novel that it enlarge the possibilities of freedom, that it define a place where citizens can work together in resistance? Perhaps so, but here Arac is only doing the book's defenders the honor of taking them seriously, since Huckleberry Finn's place in contemporary debate rests precisely on claims for its antiracism and its essential Americanness.

In life, the novelistic convention of "innate goodness" rarely applies. Most often, we develop our counterhegemonic values in conversation, collaboration, and contention with others, those in direct contact with us and those made available to us through writing and other modes of communication through time and space. Purity, either as a virtue one claims to have or wants to see in one's milieu or aspires to impose on others, doesn't play a part in that development.

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