22 July 2021

Question from Russia: Are white American men oppressed?


"Is it true that white American men are being oppressed?"

I'm pretty sure that the Russian friend who asked me this question had no ideological agenda; it seems more likely that, out of the chaotic mix of slogans churning through social networks and mass media in this historical moment, that assertion caught his attention.

It reminded me of the Soviet-era whataboutism that I mentioned in this post following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Some of the emphases may have shifted, but today there's still a certain amount of smugness and even glee in Russian media coverage of American political and racial clashes. (To be honest, we sometimes see the same phenomenon in the opposite direction.)

To risk another generalization about Russians, many of my friends claim that, in contrast with Americans, they are free of political inhibitions or sentimentality, are ruled by common sense alone, and are ready to name things by their true names. (Hence the constant mocking of "political correctness.") So, for example, one of my Russian friends told me that poor people are responsible for their own poverty because they "breed like bunnies, don't they?" Proud of their capacity for brutal honesty, they may not pay attention to the reality that all political and social interpretations, yours and mine alike, rest on a complex fabric of mostly unexamined assumptions.

The raw truth behind my friend's question about American white males may be this: for some of us at least, our vast range of unquestioned freedoms has shrunk.

  • The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements may have been the beginning of the end of the Important Man variety of impunity. Predators still exist, of course, but at least the tacit license they had from tradition and conventional wisdom is in the process of being revoked. Question: is the greater expectation of common decency really a form of oppression, or simply the imposition of boundaries that others already have to follow, or choose to follow as part of their membership in community?
  • White men may now be less able to make unilateral summary declarations of our own virtue. Before, when the Important Man declared "I'm color-blind," that was supposed to be the end of the discussion. Now we are learning to have the important conversations about how embedded racism distorts even our own choices and self-understanding, and that, after all, racism is as racism does. We are learning that our own personal virtue, and our consequent defensiveness, are usually not the central issue. Question: Is this greater accountability for our participation in objectively racist structures a form of oppression? Can we really find genuine freedom in remaining oblivious?
  • It can actually be hard work to distinguish the white male default worldview from all the other ways of examining and interpreting the world around us -- and history, for that matter. It might make us long for the good old days when this supposedly extra effort wasn't required.

    Nearly 30 years ago, the Economist published an article that described some of the stresses around the loss of this noxious white innocence:
    Etho-consciousness has this to be said for it: not before time, it has confronted the idea that there is only one, white, experience of America. It has fed through into a kind of general sensitivity (so that people do not say the so-called “n-word”, and so that school textbooks now give as much weight to black experiences of history as to white). But it has also underlined a strong disruptive tendency in America: the elevation of group and race rights over the interests of either the individual or the whole. What is presumed to be equality has turned into balkanisation, one camp against another....
    I'm not sure the Economist article describes the causes correctly, but this so-called balkanization is real, and may be a factor behind the dramas of alleged performative victimhood and performative repentance that sometimes frustrate our searches for genuine reconciliation and unity. We don't know how to talk about the possibility that claiming one's rightful equality and equity may not automatically make someone an angel, nor prevent them from exploiting the oppressor's shame. On the other hand, benefitting from generations of privilege has certainly not made white American males into angels!

    Question: does the hard work required of us -- that we learn to distinguish habitual white-male-centeredness from alternate views and from a genuinely shared perspective -- constitute a form of oppression? Or to put it another way, isn't this work worthwhile? Aren't we just now learning a form of curiosity that should have always been part of the mutual accountability of the human family?

(Note: for better or for worse, the PDF version of the Economist article linked above was used for years by one of my colleagues in her English classes at the New Humanities Institute in Elektrostal. It has some typos, probably from the scanning process.)

I just finished reading Francis Spufford's amazing novel Light Perpetual. If you don't have it yet, read Laura Miller's review and be tempted.

Speaking of worthwhile books, Jesus and John Wayne became a surprise bestseller.

The Friends Committee on National Legislation is searching for its next general secretary. Review of applications will begin on August 4.

Is Ben & Jerry's decision really a "shameful capitulation to antisemitism"?

Of course, it not only Ben & Jerry’s who think the occupation is “inconsistent with our values”. It’s inconsistent with most people’s values. It’s certainly inconsistent with Judaism. Or at least it used to be. But somewhere along the line, Jewish nationalism drowned out what had become inconvenient themes previously dominating Jewish thought and Jewish identity.

Hound Dog Taylor, Little Walter, Koko Taylor on German television, 1967.

No comments: