Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Counting, Counting. Always Counting

Cartoon (c)The Atlantic, May 2012

The French philosopher and polymath Descartes summed existence in saying, "cogito ergo sum." (I think; and thus, I am).  Presuming that one accepts this definition of humanity, it seems naturally to follow that one would ask, "OK; I am.  But what, exactly, am I?"

There has been an enormous amount of noise recently about exactly how people see and sort themselves.  I've been living in France for a couple of years, but I am not French.  I have crossed from young adulthood into middle age.  I was once a sports fan, but I don't pay much attention any more.  I've been a student and single.  I'm now a married and the parent of a little boy.

What I am changes.  What you are does as well.

But if I look in the mirror, there is a couple of things that do not: I am undeniably "white" and male.  And whether I define myself this way, the world around me apparently does.  Reductive or not, those are the little boxes I reside in.

Recently, here in California there has been an awful lot of shouting about 'micro-aggressions' and 'privilege,' two terms that were not in the vernacular 10 years ago; at least not in the way that they are used now.  At Stanford, one of the schools from which I was graduated, and before that, UCLA, much of the yelling is in part driven by what is being called the B-D-S movement (boycott, divest, sanction) against Israel for imagined and actual transgressions.  And it's revealing fault lines that I suspect have existed for some time, but have been ignored or papered-over.

Jewish students at the two universities, vying to be members of their respective student governments, have been asked if they could be objective judges on so prickly a topic.  Unsurprisingly, the subjects of the interrogations take great offense, and there are increasing cries of anti-semitism.  

I suspect that, hidden behind much of the aggressive questioning, and indeed, the anti-Israel sentiments on campus and more broadly are motivated by anti-semitism.  Anti-semitism is not a particularly new virus.

But what's different this time is those engaging are not right-wing nuts, but people along the same ideological spectrum as those they attack.  Stanford and UCLA are not particularly conservative institutions.

From the debate at Stanford, comes the core issue here:

Jews are not treated like other minority groups. The New York Times recently published an article titled “Campus Debates on Israel Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities”. Though I did not know Jews were no longer a minority, this distinction contains a certain logic. Jews sometimes claim to be a marginalized minority, expecting the support of the Left, but often find themselves spurned, even though 70% of American Jews vote Democrat. Instead, the Right, which often lambastes other minority groups’ claims of victimhood, embraces our cause. 
The Left vitriolically defends female, black, and Latino college students from the smallest microaggressions, ensuring that no one feels appropriated, excluded, or unsafe, but Jews are not given the same benefit of the doubt in similar circumstances. When allegations involve ‘anti-semitism’ instead of ‘racism,’ the Left suddenly rejects students’ subjective experiences. Maybe the Left, like the New York Times reporter, subconsciously does not identify Jews as minorities but instead as paragons of privilege who do not need protection. In the eyes of the Left, Jews became a part of the dominant power structure, and thus forfeited their status as a victimized class.
It seems the classic "who, whom" conundrum posited by Karl Marx.

In California, there is no longer a single, majority ethnic group, so what defines a "minority" is very much in flux.  And with the spoils associated with being in the right status, and with the march of complaints descending further into an argument about fractals, each group is trying to solidify its position as, in the words of the Stanford writer above, Elliot Kaufmann, a "victimized class," the endgame is a sort of turf war of grievances, 

No one wants to be "white" these days.

It's in a sense reached it sort of logical apogee where Apple CEO Tim Cook seeks to carve out a space for himself as a put-upon, bullied victim despite millions (billions?) in wealth, fame, and power associated with running perhaps the world's most well-known company.

It hits a sort of personal sore spot for me.  No; I accept that I am a white, cisgendered (whatever that means) man, and am in a position of 'power' (unlike Tim Cook, Barak Obama, or Sheryl Sandberg, I guess).  I swear, I will use my powers as a middle-manager in a small company most of you have never heard of for good. 

No; the issue is, as we divide further into ever smaller affinity groups, I am curious where that will leave my son, who doesn't really "fit" into the boxes society defines.

My nine year old is of mixed ancestry.  

I read today an article in New York magazine about an ultra-liberal private school in New York City that has for decades been ahead of the social justice curve, and its attempts to combat racism in the face of micro and macroagressions (discussions of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and the Baltimore riots are sprinkled, well, liberally in the piece) by creating groups for the students, and then forcing each kid into one of them for segregated discussions about 'difference.'  'Privilege' also gets tossed in, with no apparent sense of irony in a school- Fieldston - whose tuition is north of $40,000 per year.

There is a telling comment from one of the school's Asian students:
“It’s so fricking boring,” said a fifth-grader in the Asian group. “We do the same thing every week. The conversations we have are mostly about the tensions between whites and blacks, and never about Asians or Hispanic people. It annoys me sometimes that people are like, ‘Oh my God, people are so segregated.’ But we are never mentioned. It’s just frustrating, I would say.”
For better or for worse, in America, ca 2015, 'diversity' almost universally boils down to black and white.  If you stretch, "hispanic" might get mixed in, particularly here in California.

The comedy of another Jewish parent arguing with a black woman that Jewish people aren't really "white" adds to the melange of political correctness that is rapidly approaching parody.

One of the families in the article profiled is of mixed ancestry - the father is half Jewish and half Irish (is he "white?"  In 1910 he would not have been), and the mother is from Colombia, and hence Latino (itself an ad-mixture of European and native American ancestry).  The two children discuss their discomfort at being forced to choose which peg to be hammered into.

When I was a little child, the discussions were of a hopeful future where these sorts of exercises would vanish away as we became more integrated and aware/accepting of others.  "E pluribus unum" meant something, even if Al Gore botched the Latin.

How did we get here?  Where we are unwinding in the other direction?

For those of us who have families that do not fit the mold, it's a source of some anxiety.  If my own son were asked, "What are you," or worse, through these sorts of machinations forced to ask himself "What am I," I'm not sure what the answer would ultimately be.

For him, and for us, that's a painful discussion.

But for the society as a whole, the question itself is a tragedy.

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