30 June 2008

On Violence

“I don’t think it’s out of the question that I would commit physical violence in order to defend my rightful ownership of that console,” Aunt Nina says, suddenly reverting to a kind of dead-voiced frigid calm.
“But that’s not necessary, Nina, because we have created this whole setup here just so that you can give your feelings the full expression they deserve!” Stephenson, Neal. (1999). Cryptonomicon. NY: Harper Perennial. 626)
This passage conjures a few thoughts, none of which are about the suspect nature of an inheritance (the console in question is a piece of furniture Nina’s recently deceased mother owned) as owned property. Instead this passage makes me think of violence and its nature. Nina clearly thinks violence is justified in some, particularly this, instances. Nina’s brother may also share that belief, which is why he created a system to divide the deceased’s possessions as a way to settle disputes without violence. The problem with Nina’s justifications, akin to so many treatises of violence, is their ethics exist in a vacuum. It is easy to say X deserves a violent response but that justification fails to account for other methods of conflict resolution and many times the presence or availability makes the very justification fall short.

This alternative, however, seems to be a double-edged sword. Many times people feel secure and safe because there is a system, even though the system may be seen as bankrupt or ineffective by the soon-to-be-violent. I am not talking here about a revolution, when the alternative is already and clearly indicted by the violent. I am speaking instead about other inter-personal day to day encounters. For example, a friend of a friend, I will call him Pedro, was riding his bicycle home over the bridge by the UMN law school. There were some drunk guys in front of him and these drunkards saw Pedro coming. The bike path on this bridge is narrow, with a concrete wall between it and the car lanes so Pedro had no ability to avoid the drunkards, short of postponing the trip home. One of the drunk men kept moving in front of Pedro chanting “what you gonna do?”

This drunk man clearly thought the system was protecting him, allowing him to be an asshole without consequence – after all, who will respond violently when it is clearly illegal and not worth the assault charge. Pedro asked numerous times for him to move and the man only replied with a slurred, “What you gonna do?” So Pedro punched him; he moved. Pedro rode home.

Was this justified? I contend it was. The alternative (legal system) was absent, in fact it was the potential presence of the alternative which allowed the drunk man to feel secure enough to be an asshole. Pedro was not initially violent, allowing the man opportunities to escape it. All of these circumstances leave me little hesitation in pronouncing his innocence. Would the law find him innocent? Probably not.

29 June 2008

Am I racist?

Am I racist? It seems it would be an easy question to answer. I wish it was. Here is why I wonder: I have an RA working for me this summer that is black and he is lazy. Lazy is such an easy stereotype to (inaccurately) ascribe to a black person – it’s common knowledge, n’est pas? Whenever I think it about him I cringe and wonder if I am being fair. Here is the record:

  • This morning I told him that if any of the campers that had their ID Cards taken from them – punishment for being late to curfew – he should give them their cards, tell them to come down tomorrow morning at 8 AM as they were supposed to do this morning, and then to record their names so I knew whom to expect tomorrow morning. One of the campers came down and he gave the ID card but did neither of the other things.
  • Yesterday a door to the dorm was propped open. This is a huge issue and is to be done only in extreme circumstances. I had only recently propped the door and I knew that he had no knowledge of why it was an extreme circumstance. He walked through the open doorway without any effort being spent to find out if it should have been.
  • He moves so slowly when being waited on. The other day I opened the door for arriving staff – they did not yet have ID cards that granted them access to the dorm – and I saw him so I held the door for him. He definitely saw me and did nothing to accelerate his pace.
  • There are other events from last year which I do not remember specifics of, but I reached the same conclusion last year.

Some may read the above list as proof of a bias and some read it as enough evidence to adequately attach the label – I do have a problem with the notion of lazy, but I will assume here that it is a measurable trait. As to the door issue I can say I saw another RA not long after the black RA make the same error. I do not consider her lazy, not yet anyways, because I have only worked with her a few days now and have not seen a pattern of laziness. Yet, it is the pattern where racism precisely exists.

When is it a pattern? The threshold of discriminating the lazy from the non-lazy is in the measurement of the pattern, with blacks usually being given a lower qualification threshold. This is why I cringe. The above issues are clearly lazy, but is that enough for me to consider him lazy?

25 June 2008


The Girl told me a story a few months ago that on one of the first days of Criminal Law there was a discussion of what constitutes rape. The professor grew frustrated because the students were not as talkative as he had hoped. How is this a surprise? Even a volunteer offering a definition of rape is bound to not be inclusive enough for everyone and hence be potentially seen as a misogynist. Zizek offers the lesson to be drawn on page of 50 of In Defense of Lost Causes:

[T]he sign of progress in our societies is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is “dogmatically” clear to everyone that rape is wrong, and we all feel that even arguing against it is too much. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, it would be a sad sign if one had to argue against him – he should simply appear ridiculous. And the same should hold for torture.

For Zizek the torture comment was not a non-sequitor, you can thank my politics for its inclusion. Anywhoo, I think there is a sophisticated criticism of the way the law applies rape. Rape is not about the relationship of two people compared to a standard rather rape is about the relationship of the two people involved (I recognize that rape can sometimes involve more than two people). William Volmann provides an example of this notion: if on a public bus in Riyadh a man approaches a woman and removes her hijab then that is a form of violence and public humiliation which should be considered a form of rape. Even if it happens in Detroit it ought to be considered a form of rape. Our law, however, is invested with a blind spot. In its efforts to prosecute the worst forms of rape it allows other forms which are deemed by society to be less reprehensible. I am not illusioned to think this is a failure of our legal system, rather it is a problem with law as it is administered by bureaucracies.

The ridiculousness of arguing against rape seems to be almost on par with an event that happened during the Republican Primary debates. Arianna Huffington is correct to say that when five of the candidates raised their hands to say they did not believe in evolution they should have been escorted from the stage and consideration as President. Evolution is not an atheist belief, it is entirely consistent with religion. And there is a wealth of scientific proof of it as a theory to explain variation among species. It is akin to not believing in gravity. I do not want to be all doom and gloom but I find it sad that someone who si so fundamentalist can even gain enough constituents to make a run for the nomination of the incumbent party. My lachrymose mood should not be read as a Democratic rant, rather it should be read as a bipartisan rant about where we are as Americans. Being raised in Texas by a family proud of its country-folk status I am saddened by the theme most unifying of rednecks, a disavowal of education and “high falootin nonsense”. Not that I believe higher education is devoid of nonsense, there is plenty to go around, but an altogether denigration of education seems to be a growing trend. And these are the same people that tend to have the largest families.

24 June 2008

The Reveal

I have always been a proponent of MTV. People mock it, like pop music, but I think there is value to watching it, or at least keeping abreast of it. Not only because I think it is important to be culturally relevant but also because there are important concepts to be gleaned. It may take more work than listening to NPR does, but there is value in there.

I remember a few seasons of The Real World ago there was a marathon with commentary by Coral, a fixture among the franchise. She was commenting on an episode where one of the cast members cheated on a significant other that was back home. Corals’ comment was “and here comes the reveal.” I thought this was particularly insightful since the only thing that was happening was a conversation between the cast member and the significant other, but the name of the other was mentioned. Here is how it usually happens:

Significant other: “What did you do last night?”
Cast member: “Oh, not much. Just hung out with Thomas/Tammy. It was a pretty boring night.”

I thought it was insightful because not only did Coral demonstrate the name dropping was a hint, but that it was an intentional hint – what I guess the kids these days call fishing for a reaction. Zizek (2008) makes the same observation in his latest tome: “the question to be raised is: what more is there hiding in this statement that made the speaker enunciate it?” (49) Zizek and Coral have the same lesson for us: if it was no big deal then why was the name of an-other mentioned? The Real World teaches us that the motivation is to get a reaction. The cast member wants to feel important and the best measure is if you can make another person feel badly by behaving badly.

Zizek’s illustration in In Defense of Lost Causes is eerily similar to the above, a husband and wife in an unspoken open relationship except the husband one day mentions the affair. The wife now responds hysterically because the affair(s) are now spoken therefore something has changed in the relationship.

05 June 2008

James Taylor and melancholy

Here is how I know things are getting better. I am at home, alone watching basketball and reading and not out drinking. The paragon of sadness just came on to sing The National Anthem and my reaction was the once normal grimace. Before this year, and the unfortunate circumstances that befell me I was a happy-go-lucky person. But the past few months were tough and I reveled in those things that are morose, sad and melancholic. Two weeks ago my reaction would not have been a grimace but instead an odd delight.

In case you did not watch the opening ceremonies to-night or have not thought much about classic American singers and sadness then I need to spell it out: James Taylor is the voice of sadness. Nobody is lifted up by his songs. Even if he sings about happy material, it is all sadness. I used to turn him off, but since I turned into a sad person I would listen to his music. But now I cringe. That is a mark of progress.

A few weeks ago I was trying to describe the difference between sadness and melancholy to a friend. James Taylor is an apt example. His music makes me sad. If I turn it off, I do not want to be sad, then that is the opposite of melancholy. If I were melancholy I would instead listen to his music because I want to be sad. Think of Melancholy as the tent where the pity party is held.

So, here we have a legend, admittedly so, of American music that makes people sad. Singing about a war. And this is supposed to be uplifting? I suspect the Celtics’ front office has been paying too much attention to the predictions of a Lakers' championship. And I am still not a basketball fan. But there is so little else on now that Lost has finished.