06 August 2018

Sarah Jeong: A New York Times Own Goal.

Imagine you read the following hashtag, #cancelbrownpeople. Would you have any trouble categorizing such a phrase, or the sentiments behind it as racist? Imagine the following tweet, was issued by a white person, “Black people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants.” Classical racism no? No one would have any trouble identifying that sentence for what was. Or, try this: “Oh man, its kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old jewish men.” Imagine our tweeting racist let loose a barrage of this kind of thing. Further examples may not be necessary, but here we go:

“Black men are such bullshit."
“...it must be so boring to be black.”
"Are Jews genetically disposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins.”
“Fuck black women, lol”  

If these kinds of tweets came steaming off the phones of the Richard Spencers of US (and of the world) we would hardly be surprised, and we would all call them, without apology, racist. However when such sentiments are uttered by people of color, the left has a serious problem of consistency. The examples above are all real by the way. I’ve only swapped out the races, and people in the examples to highlight the double standards at play on the left when it comes to speaking honestly about racism. The target of the tweet's racial anger was actually white people, and the tweeter in question is new tech writer for the New York Times, Sarah Jeong. Liberals, thanks broadly to a suite of bad ideas in modern sociology that have moved from academia into too many minds on the left, has convinced itself that people of color cannot be racist because, the argument goes, only the socially dominant race can be racist. There is a long argument here, not well supported by anything like evidence that is used to excuse the racist attitudes exhibited by some people of color against other races. Racism, many on the left will say, is about systems of power, that benefit the socially dominant group. I’m generously generalizing their framing here. The sweeping statements made by the left on matters of race are almost comically parochial. They are also, sadly, condescending. People of color, in this view are permanently relegated the status of victims, they have little to no autonomy and they are denied even the ability to behave as normal humans.  They aren’t even capable of the basic, and ugly tribalism exhibited by the rest of the human race in this liberal view of race. They don’t even get to be racist. Increasingly in the liberal world view, only white people (whatever that might mean) can be racist. But look at the following sentence. 

“Act your age, not your skin color.” I heard that said to a little girl, who was white, by my Wing Chun instructor, who was black. he wasn’t joking. What is that if not racism?

I think I would not be as bothered by this argument of my fellow liberals were they bit more consistent in the deployment of their ideas about racism. They are not. And this is something our political opponents do pick up on, and with which they then go on to make political hay. Intellectually, I’m also bothered by inconsistency. 

The word racism, according to Wolfram Alpha seems to have been coined sometime in second half of the twentieth century, and its usage rises sharply there after. For most of that time, we have all operated under a fairly simple definition of racism. 

1. noun the prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races.
2. noun discriminatory, or abusive behavior towards members of another race. 

For probably more than fifty years, we have understood racism, and racist in this way. This definition has been incredibly robust, and useful. There were racists. Racist groups, racist ideologies, racist policies.  Racism, and racist was simple and by attaching it to another concept, or person you could enable everyone to know exactly what was wrong with that concept or person. Jeong’s tweets certainly seem to fit within the definitional umbrella described above. 

Academics on the left have, probably with the good intentions, sought to definitionally exempt minorities in the US from the charge of racism by trying to suggest that racism, despite the historic use of the term, is about structures of power that systematically and negatively affect minorities. In so doing these academics could exempt minorities, and probably some prominent leaders of various identity movements from charges of racism. By the definitional manipulations of the sociologists it seems that, if applied consistently, individual people actually can’t be racist, only systems can. There are those who benefit from these systems and those who don’t. Donald Trump can’t be racist. because racism is a system of power. It isn’t about individual behavior or attitudes. We have to abandon the word racism, and the label racist for individual people, and resort to bigotry and prejudice. That seems to be the broad implication of modern sociology’s ideas about race. Again, if left leaning race theorists were consistent in the manner in which they used these labels it would be okay. They don’t and okay it isn’t. The left deploys the classical definition of racism and racist all the time. And why not, its quite useful. However in continuing to do so, the left confuses issues by special pleading on behalf of minorities when they display obviously, classically racist attitudes, as occasionally they do. 

When Roseanne Barr tweeted of Valerie Jarret, “Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes had a baby= vj,” no one on the left had any problem identifying the racism, or calling Roseanne a racist. When ever Richard Spencer speaks, his race based generalizations and attitudes are quickly identified as racism, and he is regularly called a racist. Mel Gibson’s drunken rant about Jews, or his famously unpleasant prediction for his soon to be ex-wife, that she would be “raped by a pack of niggers,” clearly was, and was clearly labeled, racist by everyone. The left deploys the historical usage of racist and racism regularly. There is no logical reason people of color should be hand waved out of being able to be racist in that classical sense of racism. Doing so looks both like special pleading and condescension. If we on the left are going to use the historic well understood definition of racism as often as we do, we should be consistent, and admit that non-white people are as capable of such attitudes as anyone else, and not dehumanize people of color by condescendingly exempting them from being assholes. 

Sarah Jeong’s tweets are obviously racist. Her deflections about her trolls and the massive harassment she received can’t really excuse her from that fact. I certainly do sympathize with her and would happily make common cause with her in limiting on-line harassment. However, she doesn’t attack her trolls specifically, she attacks a group and in sometimes awful terms. 

“have you ever tried to figure out all the things that white people are allowed to do that aren’t cultural appropriation. there’s literally nothing. like skiing, maybe, and also golf. white people aren’t even allowed to have polo. did you know that. like don’t you just feel bad? why can’t we give white people a break. lacrosse isn’t for white people either. it must be so boring to be white.” 
"basically i’m just imagining waking up white every morning with a terrible existential dread that i have no culture.”
"White people have stopped breeding. you’ll all go extinct soon. that was my plan all along.”
"Are white people genetically disposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins.”

Sarah Jeong could have gone after her trolls directly. She could have deconstructed the idea of race generally, and pointed out that idea of "white people” as a unified block is sort of preposterous. She could have clearly pointed out that “whiteness” didn’t equal culture. Instead her tweets demonstrated the exact same kind of lazy generalizing characteristic of all racist ideas, while at the same time exhibiting a lot of contempt for those unfortunate enough to be carrying the qualifying marker she decided to denigrate. There is nothing particularly difficult to parse out in “fuck white women, lol.” It implies a dislike, or hatred of, and utter disregard for “white women.” The Washington post allows Nolan L Cabrera to excuse Jeong’s tweets by putting them in context. He assumes that the outrage at Jeong’s tweets was created by the fact that Jeaong’s tweets were, “decontextualized, and ahistorified." This is giving her tweets more intellectual cover, by the way, than even Jeong did. How does the awfulness of US history, and it is indeed awful, justify, ‘fuck white women, lol.” What political power did they have for most of US, or even world history? Also which white women in particular were responsible for US immigration policy during the periods in which it was most hard on East Asian immigrants? Is Jeong referring primarily to white women of British decent? Were the white women in her mind’s eye, simply generalized Western European? Jeong’s not-pology specifically states she was primarily lashing out her trolls and harassers. She was not, according to her own reasoning, dwelling on historical grievances, or trying to draw attention to US history. She was counter trolling. Even if we did contextualize Jeong’s tweets, how does that justify her current racism? 

A lot of ink is being spilt on the left, and indeed by the generally laudable New York Times trying to explain away the racism of Jeong’s tweets. As noted above, Jeong herself has blamed her tweets on her trolls in her not-pology. Her defenders have said she was trying to use humor to combat the racism of her trolls. The NYT seems to be blaming conservatives for the controversy because they pointed out Sarah Jeaong’s racist tweets and because they noted the double standard on racism the Times, and more broadly the left, seems to have on matters of racism. It is (sad) funny that conservative media pundtrity is up in arms about Jeong’s racism given the current climate within the GOP itself. But the liberal double standard on racism does allow some intellectual cover behind which the right can hide and point an accusatory finger and say, “ you libs are racist too, just in a different way.” 

As a counter point to their behavior with Jeong, consider the following. The NYT, had absolutely no problem identifying the bigotry and potential racism of Quinn Norton, and let her go once the news of her offensive speech surfaced. She had made some homophobic tweets and insisted she was friends with white supremacist. She hadn’t even tweeted anything so bad as “ group X is logically only fit to live underground like goblins.” Why the double standard? If you are an organization with aspirations to be “the paper of record” the appearance of a double standard should be anathema. Double standards are intellectually lazy things to have (in addition to being impossible to justify), and damage credibility. 

I don’t know if the Times should let Sarah Jeong go. I dislike catering to a mob, and she is probably a deft tech writer. I’m not particularly offended by her. Her ideas on race are clearly daffy and racist, but they don’t really affect me. If her apology had been more honest, less self-serving, and blame shifting, I would be a lot more comfortable with her presence at a paper I quite enjoy (and will continue to subscribe to). A more honest apology would imply some more intellectual honesty and integrity on her part.  I’m much more bothered by my fellow liberals' attempt to defend Sarah Jeong’s racism. We liberals need to become a lot more consistent in the ways we use terms like racism. Obvious double standards weaken arguments, and they make it possible for people to dismiss even good points. Having sound arguments that avoid special pleading, and obvious double standards will never win over ideologically committed people. But why hurt your chances with honest intellectual opponents though? The New York Times has hurt its credibility by hiring and defending Sarah Jeong in the way it has. People in the middle, or on the fence may now be a little (or a lot) more inclined to dismiss reporting by the New York Times that is injurious to their issues, or to people they admire. “Well,” a center-right conservative might say, “they probably don’t report on the dems when they do the same thing.” A paper lives or dies by its credibility.  Special pleading, and blame shifting apologies weaken credibility.  Hiring Jeong was an own goal by the Times in favor of its ideological critics.  Tucker Carlson, intellectual huckster, GOP double standard bearer now gets to make a good point about leftist double standards on race.  He gets to deflect from the GOP’s appeal to serious racists by pretending the left is as bad, or nearly as bad on questions of race. Judging by the response of the right, and alt-right, he isn’t alone. 

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At 2:10 PM , Anonymous Kenneth Dunlap said...

I suspect this Sarah Jeong is a very unpleasant person. You are right inasmuch as by the classical definition of racist, she is definitely a racist. On the other hand, she has absolutely no power to affect my life whatsoever. None. When Richard Spencer tweets hatred towards minorities, *he has the president's ear, a sheaf of policy wish lists, and the means to get it done. This disparity of 'power to affect' is what the redefinition of 'racist' coming from academia is trying to address. I don't think that anyone using either definition of 'racist' would deny that she is a hate-filled bigot.

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