The Redefinition of “Reading”

I was going to title this “The Assault on ‘Reading.'” but that sounded to curmudgeonly. Here’s an example of what I mean by the redefinition of reading:

I go to a site online to read a brief article–a blog post. The site could be CNN or ESPN or a newspaper. I find my way to the piece. As I’m attempting to read it from top to bottom, as I have been taught, according to the old Gutenberg-print method, advertisements pop up in boxes, or maybe the piece is encased on all sides by advertisements, like an artifact packed in cotton. Anyway, these things distract my reading, at least according to the way I read. But maybe the common form of reading now is to be able to “read” (see, hear) many texts at once, or at least to place them in your reader’s field of vision.

What’s more common every day is the presences of videos, so going back to my example, above or below the article will be a small “screen” (box). I may have choice of clicking on an arrow–or I may not. The video might just start. Then, in another, smaller box elsewhere on my screen, another video will be cued and will probably start on its own. So before I start reading the article, I have to take note of and deal with one or two videos (and their noise).

The conservative in me–not politically conservative but, well, old fashioned–is tempted to say that the technological culture is doing away with conventional reading, which I’ll define simply as reading one thing at a time. The culture needs to hurry and harry us because it seeks attention, which–in theory–means more money coming in, for every distraction comes with another “opportunity” (temptation, baiting) to be confronted with a visual, textual, or aural pitch for a product or a service.

Obviously, the old way of reading is just that: a relic. At least online this is the case. I still read novels (printed on paper or “printed” on Kindle) the old way–more or less one word, phrase, clause, sentence, line, paragraph, page (etc.) at a time, although of course I have different speeds and techniques, including speed-reading ones (in the event I’m getting bored–but if I get too bored, I simply stop and go to another book).

I wonder what the effects of the new reading will have on people’s brains, their argument- or narrative-processing equipment, so to speak. What effect will the new reading have on logical analysis? On genre? That is, will a typical article/essay/piece/story become shorter and shorter, and more hastily slapped together to keep up with the speed of multiple virtual conveyor-belts?

At any rate, the new reading has to have multiple consequences related to Orwell’s classic essay, for Orwell focused in part on the extent to which we are lulled or distracted by bullshit. Orwell was over the top in concentrating on jargon, euphemism, and “long words,” but his overall point about being dulled, lulled, and distracted obtains.  I think online we’re meant not to think with some degree of patience and discernment about units of expression–an article, a line of argument, a narrative unit, , etc.

Wither “close reading”?  Wither concentration? (Wither words like “wither”?!) It all rather seems like a vast, ceaseless magic trick, with multiple levels of misdirection. Good luck to us.

George Carlin on “Soft Language”

In the following Youtube clip from a stand-up routine, George Carlin goes after “soft language,” and his critique mirrors Orwell’s, right down to the preference for short words over long words:

George Carlin, “soft language”

So, to recap, the American (and British?) name for the affliction whereby soldiers’ minds and nervous systems break down because of being in or near battle goes from “shell shock” (WWI) to “battle fatigue” (WWII) to “operational exhaustion” (Korean War) to “post-traumatic stress syndrome [PTSD]” (Viet Nam War and, so far, thereafter).

A more extensive review of the terms for the conditions–going back to early Greek civilization–may be bound on gizmodo.com:

Gizmodo

Note that in the 17th century, a German doctor called the condition “nostalgia,” which seems bizarre until we learn that he was focusing on such symptoms as listlessness, apparent longing, sighing, and moaning. Still: nostalgia?

It’s difficult to disagree with Carlin about the softening of language. However, it’s easier to disagree with him on his final point, which is that if the language had not been softened, Viet Nam War veterans would have received more care for their condition, for the cynicism cites as one source of deliberate softening arguably obtains no matter what the condition is known as. States don’t treat returning soldiers as well as they should. States would rather “invest” the money in preparation for “the next war” (or the perpetual war for perpetual peace, which is what Gore Vidal called America’s military-industrial obsession) than in taking care of those who barely survived previous wars and who still suffer.

Of course, the treatment of African American veterans has tended to be even worse. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote an essay, “Returning Soldiers,” in which he noted that African American soldiers returning from WWI were being lynched, in uniform, in the South; that Black soldiers who had fought “for freedom” in Europe were being denied the right to vote (among other rights) in the South; and that, all over the country, employment and educational opportunities for Blacks, compared those for Whites, were still awful.

Another way to complicate the Orwell/Carlin critique of soft language and euphemism is to note that, in spite of the changing terminology, the medical understanding and treatment of PTSD has improved, even if the resources for treating remain insufficient. But Orwell and Carlin choose to focus entirely on the virtues of blunt talk (and writing) and vice of “making murder sound respectable” (Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”).

The False Dichotomy Between “Progressives” and “Centrists”

Those left of Right in the U.S. seem to possess an unerring ability to divide and defeat themselves, and in addition to Jim Crow voter suppression and gerrymandering, this flaw helps keep the White Supremacist Republican Party in power.

For example, I was treated recently to the ghastly spectacle of Intercept comments regarding AG Barr’s declaration that there was no collusion between Trump’s campaign and malevolent Russians.  Glenn Greenwald and his enthusiasts trumpeted the “destroyed credibility” of Rachel Maddow and “corporate media.”  They barked and meowed ad nauseam about “accountability”–without ever having read the Mueller report. They equated Rachel Maddow’s “delusion” to the propaganda that led to the Iraq invasion, an imbalanced comparison, as Colin Powell, a cabinet official, lied about weapons of mass destruction, and Rachel Maddow is merely a conversationalist; also note that implicitly, we are instructed to disbelieve Powell and believe Barr. Many comments attempted to push back, creating further spectacle and making me lose what hope I had that those left of Right might embrace solidarity, common ground, and (wait for it) a relentless determination to excise Trump from power. To read some Intercept comments, you would think Maddow was a graver threat than Trump, and I’m not exaggerating.  Why bother to advance a liberal-progressive-centrist agenda when, as with 2016, you are doing more to elect Trump than the GOP is?  The Supreme Court went full White Supremacist because McConnell pulled his Jim Crow stunt but also because Hillary Clinton lost.  If you thought/think Clinton is the same as Trump, then you haven’t considered evidence and outcomes.

The dichotomy between centrists and progressive is largely false, and even where it isn’t, it can be bridged.  Both C’s and P’s accept the scientific consensus about climate change. Both favor civil rights, voting rights, and immigrant rights. Both want to make voting easier. Both want much broader access to healthcare. Both support women’s rights. And so on.

How can those left of Right best insure winning at the polls? To me this is a far more pertinent question than whether MSNBC is a deluded corporate medium. How can those who label themselves progressive and those who label themselves centrists [does anyone label themselves that?] find common ground so as to (wait for it) get stuff done? I’m all for speaking truth to power, but I’m more interested in those left of Right taking power.

The most recent Democratic presidents were Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  They did not run against the center because they wanted to win. For some reason, they viewed the McGovern example as a bad one. Go figure. Clinton did odious things and pursued some odious policies, and Obama continued some policies that were less than optimal.  But they got elected, and they advanced a progressive agenda in many areas.  They were an obvious improvement over George Bush I, Robert Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.

Who is actually getting elected–White Supremacist lunatics or those left of Right? Once elected, who is actually getting stuff done, sometimes by means of bridging gaps and reaching some temporary compromises for tactical reasons while pursuing long-game strategies? Inflaming, indeed largely inventing,  the progressive/centrist is not responsible because it helps Trump and his thugs.

 

Book on Orwell Goes Full Kindle

Not that you asked, but the book my co-blogger and I wrote, Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in the Age of Pseudocracy  is  available on Kindle now.

 

Image result for ostrom haltom

Ted Cruz Encounters Data and Loses

In a debate with a retired admiral about climate change, Ted Cruz first labeled adherents to climate-change data “alarmists,” attempting to distract with the old straw-person/begging the question combo, and then cherry-picks the data. Unfortunately he was arguing with someone who knew the climate-change data and about all of the cherries, not just some. A link to a video snippet of the debate:

Cruz vs. Data

Christopher Hitchens on Reparations for Slavery

In a debate at Boston College about reparations for slavery, Christopher Hitchens supported them and also gave an excellent lesson in rhetoric that he labeled “don’t let the best be the enemy of the good.”  A link to a video of his remarks (and, if you like, contrast Hitchen’s discourse with Trump’s rhetorical vomit):

Hitchens on reparations

Analyzing the Rhetoric of Cornel West’s Critique of TaNehisi Coates

In the Guardian [Dec. 17, 2017] Cornel West, academic and civil rights leader, recently published a harsh critique of TaNehisi Coates, writer for the Atlantic, labeling the latter the “neo-liberal face” of Black struggle.

The critique interests me because it perpetuates yet another fissure in the coalition required to resist Trump, because it recapitulates debates among Black leaders during the Harlem Renaissance (an era I have published in and taught courses on), and because it also reminds me of the position James Baldwin took in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s; that position was of a writer first, although if you know about Baldwin, have read him, and have seen videos of him, you know he didn’t use that position to back away from struggles, attacks, and controversies.

There’s no getting around the fact (nor would I want to) that West has been a speaker and writer of titanic stature over the past three decades, and I agree with many of his positions.  That said–caveat lector--I’m very sympathetic to Coates and Baldwin.

The West piece isn’t that long, so I thought I’d reprint it and take up some of its points as we move through it.

“Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power, a book about Barack Obama’s presidency and the tenacity of white supremacy, has captured the attention of many of us. One crucial question is why now in this moment has his apolitical pessimism gained such wide acceptance?

  1. I think West begs the question here.  That Coates isn’t political in the way West would like doesn’t mean he is apolitical. That he is pessimistic about matters of race seems rationally grounded in his experience and what America looks like today, with Trump at the top.

Coates and I come from a great tradition of the black freedom struggle. He represents the neoliberal wing that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fightback invisible. This wing reaps the benefits of the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people.

2. I think it would be more helpful for West to explore what concrete differences exist between Coates and him, rather than merely labeling Coates “neo-liberal.”  Further, until very recently, Coates had had a tough time making a living.  Then he got hired by the Atlantic and published two successful books. Making a living as a writer isn’t the same as “reaping rewards from the neoliberal establishment.” Further, writing about his own experience, writing “to” his son with the reader “looking on” (as Baldwin wrote to his nephew in The Fire Next Time), and focusing on White Supremacy does not equate with “silence” about these other issues; rather it suggests that Coates is writing about what he knows.

The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading. So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ worldview.

3. The disagreement is one West has invented. To my knowledge, Coates has not attacked (or even disagreed with) West in print or on video.  And after this piece by West was published, igniting a Twitter storm, Coates simply left Twitter, viewing the spectacle as a distraction.  I would speculate that Baldwin would have done the same, except Baldwin would never have joined Twitter.  His carefully wrought, enduring nonfiction simply wasn’t in that 140 (or more) character genre. –Not to mention all the silliness and propaganda (some of it Russian) that saturates the land of Twitts. 

Coates rightly highlights the vicious legacy of white supremacy – past and present. He sees it everywhere and ever reminds us of its plundering effects. Unfortunately, he hardly keeps track of our fightback, and never connects this ugly legacy to the predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty, patriarchy or transphobia.

4. Again, Coates’s focusing on a few things, including White Supremacy, isn’t the same as ignoring the other issues; indeed, Coates has made it plain that, in his view, one can’t understand American without understanding White Supremacy, thereby suggesting that it (White Supremacy) vitiates all institutions and informs most irrational, hateful prejudices.  West’s logic reminds me of the New Left’s logic: everything must be about class, therefore don’t bring up race, and therefore if you don’t always concentrate on class, I can’t support you. 

In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable. What concerns me is his narrative of “defiance”. For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic – a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action. It generates crocodile tears of neoliberals who have no intention of sharing power or giving up privilege.

5. Coates does perceive White Supremacy to be implacably powerful (if not “almighty”), and, like Derrick Bell (as West notes later), doesn’t see that situation changing soon if ever.  It is hard to gainsay Coates’s realism.  Further, Coates sees his calling to be that of a nonfiction writer, a witness in prose to racism and White Supremacy.  He prefers not to be a leader, and he seems to know and respect his own limits. West wants him to be West, Jr., it seems, and Coates wants to be Coates. 

When he honestly asks: “How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you?”, the answer should be clear: they claim you because you are silent on what is a threat to their order (especially Wall Street and war). You defy them when you threaten that order.

6. For me, this comes way too close to blaming the victim.  White Supremacy’s effect on Coates, his family, his home city and neighborhood, and so on, does not spring from his being silent, nor has he been silent; he just doesn’t write what West wants him to.  Calling out White Supremacy is as much a threat to the “order” as calling out Wall Street. 

Coates tries to justify his “defiance” by an appeal to “black atheism, to a disbelief in dreams and moral appeal”. He not only has “no expectations of white people at all”, but for him, if freedom means anything at all it is “this defiance”.

7. Given American history then and now, Coates’s position of expecting nothing of white people (except more of the same) seems rational.  It occurred to be that West, for all his anti-neoliberal writing and preaching, may be caught up in the American narrative of progress: in American, things must and will get better.  In fact, things “must” do nothing, and they are getting worse, suggest the data.  For me, Coates’s position, like that of Derrick Bell, is refreshingly contrarian and honest. 

Note that his perception of white people is tribal and his conception of freedom is neoliberal. Racial groups are homogeneous and freedom is individualistic in his world. Classes don’t exist and empires are nonexistent.

8. I need to be persuaded that Coates’s view of white people is tribal.  Based on his experience, Coates simply doesn’t trust white people to change themselves or the country fundamentally, and he didn’t invent the white homogeneity that has forged American history and that informed Trump’s election. Neither is he a Black Nationalist. I wouldn’t presume, nor should West, to say what Coates’s view of freedom springs from, although Coates himself has made it clear that he’s interested primarily in making a living to support his family.  First things first isn’t “neoliberal.”

This presidency, he writes, “opened a market” for a new wave of black pundits, intellectuals, writers and journalists – one that Coates himself has benefited from. And his own literary “dreams” of success were facilitated by a black neoliberal president who ruled for eight years – an example of “Black respectability, good Negro government.”

9.  President Obama tried to change things within the “neoliberal” system.  West has chosen a different way, and Coates yet another one.  If anyone expected any president, let alone the first Black one (whom the GOP tried to “break,” even using that loaded language), then that person was delusional.  President Obama probably could have done more in some areas and done things differently in others so as to satisfy West and others.  He also came very close to doing all that was possible, given the circumstances. And if he had presented himself in the radical way West seems to have desired, he would not have been elected. Period.  He could have been radical, or he could have been president, but not both.  As things stood, the GOP effectively turned him into a radical in the eyes of the rabid, racist base. 

There is no doubt that the marketing of Coates – like the marketing of anyone – warrants suspicion. Does the profiteering of fatalism about white supremacy and pessimism of black freedom fit well in an age of Trump – an age of neo-fascism, US style?

11. I don’t want to get into an ad hominem attack, but the way West and his booking agents have marketed him and the way he has created a Cornel West “brand” (going so far as to appear on Fox News with Bill O’Reilly, contributing, one might argue, to a fascist spectacle) suggests he may want to tread lightly with regard to Coates’s moderate success.  Coates’s first book sold 1.5 million copies.  Why not be happy for him?  Further, even a cursory reading of Coates’s essays and books shows that they oppose the worldview of Trump and his followers.  

Coates wisely invokes the bleak worldview of the late great Derrick Bell. But Bell reveled in black fightback, rejoiced in black resistance and risked his life and career based on his love for black people and justice. Needless to say, the greatest truth-teller about white supremacy in the 20th century – Malcolm X – was also deeply pessimistic about America. Yet his pessimism was neither cheap nor abstract – it was earned, soaked in blood and tears of love for black people and justice.

12. So now Coates’s bleak worldview is wise, not neoliberal?  Further Coates’s pessimism has been earned: chiefly by growing up in a very hard neighborhood in the very hard city of Baltimore. Also, his writing is the opposite of cheap and abstract: it is deliberate, serious, and above all concrete.  There is a reason Toni Morrison, who knows a thing or two about writing, compared Coates to Baldwin.  It’s fine with me if West wants to critique the comparison between Malcolm X and Barack Obama, but that comparison was a one-off, and it is in no way central to Coates’s writing.  Obama inspired him: is that so horrible?

Unfortunately, Coates’ allegiance to Obama has produced an impoverished understanding of black history. He reveals this when he writes: “Ossie Davis famously eulogized Malcolm X as ‘our living, Black manhood’ and ‘our own Black shining prince.’ Only one man today could bear those twin honorifics: Barack Obama.”

This gross misunderstanding of who Malcolm X was – the greatest prophetic voice against the American Empire – and who Barack Obama is – the first black head of the American Empire – speaks volumes about Coates’ neoliberal view of the world.

13.  I’m getting close to thinking West hasn’t read Coates, whose writing reveals that he has an expansive, patiently developed view of American and black history.  In fact, he credits his time at Howard University with disrupting and correcting his facile view of history. Moreover, his father, a former Black Panther, literally forced Coates to read books.  That Coates’s worldview may differ from West’s does not mean that Coates understands American history less than West does. 

Coates praises Obama as a “deeply moral human being” while remaining silent on the 563 drone strikes, the assassination of US citizens with no trial, the 26,171 bombs dropped on five Muslim-majority countries in 2016 and the 550 Palestinian children killed with US supported planes in 51 days, etc. He calls Obama “one of the greatest presidents in American history,” who for “eight years … walked on ice and never fell.”

14. I agree with both West and Coates on this one.  True, there’s not all that much competition (and no competition from Trump), but Obama will likely be known as one of the better presidents, especially given the stiff headwind into which he had to sail.  That said, Obama no doubt approved immoral tactics.  

It is clear that his narrow racial tribalism and myopic political neoliberalism has no place for keeping track of Wall Street greed, US imperial crimes or black elite indifference to poverty. For example, there is no serious attention to the plight of the most vulnerable in our community, the LGBT people who are disproportionately affected by violence, poverty, neglect and disrespect.

15. West has made no attempt to back up the charges of “tribalism” and “neoliberalism.”  He just keeps trying to apply the labels, hoping they’ll stick.  And concentrating on White Supremacy doesn’t imply indifference to the most vulnerable or those affected by violence, poverty, neglect, and disrespect.  Coates grew up among the most vulnerable and has written about that. 

The disagreements between Coates and I are substantive and serious. It would be wrong to construe my quest for truth and justice as motivated by pettiness. Must every serious critique be reduced to a vicious takedown or an ugly act of hatred? Can we not acknowledge that there are deep disagreements among us with our very lives and destinies at stake? Is it even possible to downplay career moves and personal insecurities in order to highlight our clashing and conflicting ways of viewing the cold and cruel world we inhabit?

16.  Maybe others have attacked West’s “career moves,” but Coates hasn’t, so I’m not sure what he’s getting at.  If anything, West seems to have gotten a bit personal with Coates, slapping labels on him with a certain amount of  glee and a glaring absence of evidence.  As to insecurities–well, in this particular piece and in his dust-up with Michael Eric Dyson, West sometimes reminds me of academics who attain a certain stature in their field, and as in West’s case, who attain celebrity.  They often view another’s success as an implicit  threat to their fame and influence. West has earned his stature.  I just wish he could thank Coates for his contributions and congratulate him for his modest success.  I think, too, that it would be more productive for West to view an array of critiques of white (or “neoliberal,” if you will) as necessary and, we hope, effective. Instead he seems to want all Black intellectuals to get in line, his line. 

I stand with those like Robin DG Kelley, Gerald Horne, Imani Perry and Barbara Ransby who represent the radical wing of the black freedom struggle. We refuse to disconnect white supremacy from the realities of class, empire, and other forms of domination – be it ecological, sexual, or others.

The same cannot be said for Ta-Nehisi Coates.

17. True enough. Coates decided to go his own way, but by focusing on white supremacy, he hasn’t ignored class.  He writes a lot about his own struggles in and with class. Further, concentrating on white supremacy seems crucial in America’s current predicament, and as Coates pursues that line, others can, should, and will pursue the others that West mentions. A productive division of labor. 

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