30 October 2021

The hardest battle

The hardest battle is always the one that you face alone. Or, rather, seemingly so.

Being a political pugilist or a culture-warrior on the left or on the right can seem exhausting work when viewed from outside. But in terms of the internal effort, it’s very easy to orient yourself toward an ideology, and then judge your own moral standing in the light of that ideology. It’s easy to take on public battles, to defend political positions, because these demand nothing of you but a relatively simple sort of intellectual consent. It is in fact far, far harder to face the world within than the world without. Doing battle with the darkest and ugliest parts of myself, the Pauline ‘old man’ within me, has been the hardest I have ever faced, and I’m still trying to do it honestly.

For a long time, the demand that the Orthodox Liturgics place on me that I consider myself the chief of sinners, the only sinner, seemed to me to be an imposition, even a kind of arrogance. And indeed, if approached on a purely intellectual level, it can become that way. There is a certain ‘style’ of convertodox or hyperdox feigned-humility which is grating – even if, generously speaking, it can be kind of a necessary ‘baby step’, if one doesn’t grow out of it, it can harden into a kind of delusion or a pose.

This pose often goes hand-in-hand with an idea, or may be seen to lead to a temptation, often implicit or half-articulated, that somehow things would be better if I was ‘over there’ rather than here. But that’s the thing: Orthodoxy is not ‘over there’ (a point which Mr Padusniak makes quite effectively in regard to a certain type of Orthodox convert), it is instead right here. And in my own case I literally do mean right here. (As an Orthodox Christian in Minneapolis I cannot at all ignore the threats to the safety of my neighbours or the quality of our drinking water, for example. But I digress from my main point.)

The main point of this insistence on seeing myself as the sinner, the chief of sinners, is to make me recognise, not that my sins are in degree or in number worse than those of other people, or that my nature is somehow more thoroughly base or corrupted than others’. The human being is an icon of God, after all, and I too am a human being. This insistence on myself as ‘chief of sinners’ is instead to make me understand that my own sin is what, with God’s help, I can begin to fix. As St Andrew of Crete said in his Lenten Penitential Canon, each one sins ‘like no other man’. Who else is fragmented in the same way? So when I say ‘of whom I am first’ or ‘of whom I am chief’ in reference to myself-as-sinner, it is an acknowledgement, fundamental to any spiritual progress, that I cannot hope to fix anyone else before Christ helps me to fix myself. My job is not to pull the speck out of my neighbour’s eye, but to pull the log out of my own.

And with that acknowledgement vanishes any illusion that fleeing somewhere else, moving to a country that I believe better aligns with my values, altering my environment or my social life without changing my own orientation to it, is going to fix my problems. I carry all my own sins upon my back and they are leaking out behind me wherever I go, so that I cannot see them. So, always, the best place to fix them is always here. In my own house, in my own family circle, in my own neighbourhood – and in the darkness that is the tomb of my own heart. As Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk put it in his own Canon of Repentance, in a paraphrase of Jeremiah 17 as read through Saint Maximos the Confessor’s texts on love: ‘The heart is deep beyond all things, and it is man, and who can know him?’

But although the battle is one that is mine and only mine, and although it often seems like a hopeless battle: I am not without help, not without an ally. Partaking of Christ in the Eucharist means – in a material way, not in the semiotic-idealist or sentimental way meant by most Protestants when they say this – that Christ lives in me, and that Christ works on me from within. This doesn’t mean that Christ imposes Himself upon me without my consent, or that He forces me to take a particular path. It also doesn’t mean that He takes away my troubles, my hardships, my arena. It means only that if I call upon Him for help in my struggles – as I inevitably need – He will help and heal me as I ask, and then more.

In focussing here on the existential-psychological aspect of Christian praxis, I am emphatically not engaging in a call for political quiescence or apathy. Both the vertical bar of the Cross ascending from earth to heaven, and the horizontal bar of the Cross embracing all of humanity with love, are needed. You cannot have only one; or else the other will be merely a false gesture. As I said above: caring about my neighbour’s physical safety, health, clean air, clean drinking water, social circumstances and dignified existence are all indispensable elements of the truth taught by Christ when He walked the earth. Any Christianity which ignores or downplays or dismisses these things is not a Christianity worthy of the name. But it is equally impossible to focus only on the social-activist or culture-warrior dimension of the faith, without doing the much more difficult work of prayer, fasting, reflection and repentance.

13 October 2021

Critical race theory: brought to you by the killers of Eric Garner

So-called ‘critical race theory’ is merely a tool in a ruling-class toolbox meant to divide working-class people from each other. If you have doubts about this, consider that it is being promoted (avidly, as seen here, here, here and here) by Bloomberg.

That’s right: the news outlet owned and run by Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York. Avid proponent of stop-and-frisk, who not only supported but expanded the practice. If there was any one person whose policies may be held responsible for the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD, it’s Michael Bloomberg. And yet he is the one whose news outlet is most active out there in promoting and defending this theory against its Republican attackers, and preaching to Americans about the evils of racial injustice.

But let’s go back and take a look at the context for a clearer picture here. Bloomberg only ever started apologising for ‘Stop and Frisk’ in 2020, just as he was starting his campaign for president. Bloomberg’s run for the presidency was aimed at one thing and one thing only: denying Bernie Sanders the nomination. What’s more: he knew he couldn’t do that without rebranding himself as an anti-racist, and appearing to outflank Bernie Sanders from the left on race issues by pointing to the supposed ‘Bernie Bro’ phenomenon. Michael Bloomberg only began burnishing his non-existent or barely-existent credentials as an anti-racist, only when the Bernie Sanders phenomenon became a threat to be repulsed. That is to say: he began embracing a capitalist mode of ‘anti-racism’ in the form of critical race theory, in order to undermine a movement based on class solidarity.

This should stick in people’s crenshaws, so to speak (although Crenshaw herself did not support Michael Bloomberg, but rather Elizabeth Warren). The fact that a vulgar form of ‘critical race theory’ was already, in the public forum being weaponised against Bernie Sanders, who was protesting for black people’s civil rights back in the 1960s, by the man whose racist policies killed Eric Garner, really takes the biscuit. As it is, ‘if this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction!

But this is precisely the problem. Critical race theory subsists solely within the superstructure. It is a language developed by academics, for academics – not for the vast majority of non-white folks! – precisely to serve the material interests of academics (guarding tenured positions, carving out intellectual niches, preserving credentialed authority to speak on certain issues, et cetera). The standpoint-epistemology and post-structuralist focus on narrative emphasised by the critical race theorists, in particular, point to a material interest in maintaining small specialised fiefs within academia. This works out nicely for them, clearly.

But when critical race theory is translated to realms outside academia, usually in a vulgarised form, it is quickly leapt on by capitalists as a marketing and public relations strategy to appeal to particular demographics and ward off close scrutiny of corporate practices. Michael Bloomberg has clearly found it useful as a ready weapon to hand against any movement for real œconomic justice that has any broad-based appeal across race, sex and language lines. In addition, it allows grifters and corporate consultants like Robin DiAngelo and Howard Ross to make tidy profits out of selling white guilt to hapless low-level employees of corporations like Raytheon. Raytheon, in turn, makes tidy profits bombing Palestinian children in Gaza, innocent civilians in Syria and busses full of Yemeni schoolchildren on the other side of the globe.

But even if critical race theory stayed inside academia, even if it wasn’t used to railroad candidates genuinely interested in issues of œconomic justice, even if the vulgarised forms of it were not used to whitewash odious corporate actors like Raytheon with a veneer of ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’, even if it wasn’t used by the likes of Michael Bloomberg (the man responsible for Erik Garner’s death) to save face – it would still be a terrible organising principle for any movement or community. Why? Because it undermines the basic epistemological premises needed for any such movement or communicate to undertake a common action. The idea of ‘standpoint epistemology’ – that is to say, the idea that one aspect of your oppression gives you a particular gnōsis unavailable to and incomprehensible by those who do not share the experience of that aspect of your oppression – is a non-starter when it comes to building any sort of common good. A true politics of the common good will invariably include people from multiple ‘standpoints’, not all of whom share the same experiences of oppression.

The primary critics of standpoint theory in its modern form were the original critical theorists. The Marxists of the Frankfurt School – Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse – correctly saw this idea as relativistic and atomising, and a turn back to the idealism of the Young Hegelians whom Marx criticised in ‘The German Ideology’. Yet, in a rather bleakly ironic twist, many of the Republican lawmakers and talking-heads who are opposing the teaching of critical race theory – actually vulgarised ideas selected from critical race theory – in schools, insist that critical race theory is a form of Marxism derived from the Frankfurters. Oy vey.

In short, then: don’t be suckered. The fact that Mr Stop-and-Frisk, Michael Bloomberg himself, can use vulgarised concepts from critical race theory to bash ‘Bernie bros’ and railroad a campaign that would genuinely help everybody – including women and people of colour – should give its supporters pause. It should also be a warning sign that the critical race theorists tend to be Jean Jaurès ‘radicals’, who are more concerned with protecting their academic fiefs and maintaining their relevance and marketability within particular niches of academic output and corporate consulting, than they are with matters of substantive justice. It’s a ‘theory’ that appears radical, but it is in fact deeply alienating, and when put into practice its results tend to be deeply regressive.

06 October 2021

A Closer look at Dave Chappelle’s recent work

Is it possible that a gay person can be racist?’ asks Dave Chappelle.

This is perhaps the driving central question that Dave Chappelle is struggling through, meditating on and trying to iron out with his final instalment of Netflix stand-up specials, The Closer. For even asking this question, for posing it – and for trying to work out in his usual button-pushing, boundary-smashing, politically-incorrect way some of its necessary ramifications – the woke Tumblr-liberal Twitter outrage machine for which Dave Chappelle can do no right since Sticks and Stones, along with its establishment legacy-media accoutrements from NPR to the Daily Beast, are dragging him behind the truck. Even GLAAD put out a statement condemning his routine.

Personal note here: I was a huge Chappelle’s Show fan when it first aired in my college years. Those sketches – Tyrone Biggins, Clayton Bigsby, his impressions of Prince and Lil Jon – are all still ridiculously funny. I’m Wayne Brady, bitch! is never not going to be funny. It’s true, though, that in some ways he is treading on old ground, thematically speaking. At its best, Chappelle’s Show explored the really uncomfortable areas where racial violence, injustices, power imbalances and stereotypes interact with sexual expression and insecurities. People who were outraged about Chappelle making jokes about Leaving Neverland, or who say things like ‘too bad Dave died in ‘05’ as though 2005 Chappelle and 2021 Chappelle are irrevocably discontinuous, need to remember that he was making fun of the OJ Simpson trial, the R Kelly trial and the accusations about Michael Jackson, fifteen years before that. Moreover, he explains fairly clearly in the Chappelle’s Show sketch why he has such a sceptical attitude toward public treatment of black celebrities: he believes black men are held to an unjust racial standard, both socially and legally, based on racialised fears of black male physical prowess and sexuality. And here again we see this in his treatment of the recent ‘cancelling’ of rapper DaBaby over his alleged homophobia, while, Chappelle notes, his career suffered no such scrutiny when he shot and killed another black man in a Walmart.

That same theme, unsurprisingly, pops up repeatedly in The Closer. He recounts his various run-ins with fans and haters of his stand-up – one with an older white woman in a parking lot, one with a mother and transgender daughter in his hometown, one with a lesbian and her partner in a nightclub, and one with a gay man recording him on his phone while his friend tried to pester him who then called the police on him. True to form, his anecdotes are liberally sprinkled with ‘bitch’ and ‘nigga’, and they often depend on him exaggerating the antagonism that each of these fans or critics showed him at first. Occasionally they descend into deliberate self-mockery. But they do have a serious point to them. The point that Chappelle makes – directly and circuitously – is that human suffering is universal. Certain ‘tribes’ are not specially chosen by their suffering – not even black people. Chappelle remarks with a tinge of sadness the scenes of anti-Asian violence that he saw, much of it coming from black people, that he felt couldn’t be papered over. ‘Empathy is not gay. Empathy is not black. Empathy is bisexual – it must go both ways,’ Chappelle quips.

Here’s the thing. I suspect – I don’t know it to be the case, but I suspect – that I was the cause of Dave Chappelle’s long departure from comedy. That’s right, me.

Not me alone, of course. I wasn’t the only immature, thoughtless white kid in 2005 laughing along at Dave Chappelle doing impressions of famous black people, or portraying black stereotypes if only to make fun of those who hold them. But how much of a difference is there, really, if a white person laughs at a black person making fun of black people, and if a white person laughs at a white person making fun of black people? I genuinely believe Dave felt really bad about that: the fact that his blackness shielded him from criticism that he would otherwise get from his own ‘tribe’, when his jokes went too far against them. He wasn’t being a diva at all. You listen to him talk about how random white guys would come up to him on the street with his son and say: ‘I’m Rick James, bitch!’; or the heckling white kids screaming ‘White Power!’ at him when he performed in Hartford in 2013, and there’s genuine sadness there when he talks about it. Here’s the thing: I think those experiences, in his extended leave from comedy, informed and enriched his perspective. So when he appeared on SNL after Biden’s electoral victory last year, he was able to say this:
All these white people out there that feel that anguish, that pain, they’re mad ‘cause they think nobody cares—and maybe they don’t—let me tell you something. I know how that feels. I promise you, I know how that feels… Everyone knows how that feels. But here’s the difference between me and you: you guys hate each other for that. And I don’t hate anybody, I just hate that feeling. That’s what I fight through; that’s what I suggest you fight through. You’ve got to find a way to live your life; find a way to forgive each other.
So, no. He’s not being a bigot. He’s not trying to ‘punch down’ on gay people or trans people. Even when he’s defending Jo Rowling or DaBaby or Kevin Hart, or putting himself on ‘Team TERF’, he’s not ‘punching down’. He’s not trying to play a ‘zero-sum game’ with his humour. He’s still trying to get through to the people who go around wearing their pain and anguish like a chip on their shoulder, and ask them to use a bit of real empathy. This was the point of his lengthy bit about the sadly-passed trans comedian Daphne Dorman at the end of his set. If you listen carefully, he wasn’t using her memory as a human shield to deflect criticism – he doesn’t need to do that because he knows he’s gonna get criticised no matter what. He was trying to demonstrate what real empathy can and should look like.

My take on The Closer is that it aligns with, and is of a piece with, what Chappelle has been trying to do all along. Dave clearly believes that there is a purpose in his art, a purpose that he himself acknowledges openly that he doesn’t always succeed in attaining. He’s using his deliberately button-pushing humour, getting into those uncomfortable places where race and sexuality butt heads, and to a certain extent he is doing it to provoke. But the purpose of that provocation is to try and get black men to empathise with how Asians suffer. To try and get gays, lesbians and heterosexual women to empathise with how black men have historically suffered and continue to suffer. To try and get trans folks to empathise with how cis women suffered and suffer. And to remind people that, however much ‘failure’ hurts, even ‘success’ doesn’t make you happy or fulfilled. In a way, Chappelle has intuitively understood the ‘woke’, seen through the poststructuralist Tumblr charade of ‘intersectionality’… and is trying to show us the difference between ‘allyship’ (which brooks no laughter or criticism) and real solidarity.