Monday, March 23, 2015

The Universe of Power is Lumpy, and Identity Is Complex (4 Feb. 2014)

 In academic jargon from the late 20th century, I can put the Basic point here fairly succinctly: Outside of the simplest societies, and in ways highly sensitive to context, human beings are multiply and complexly situated, with different status- and power-positions in a number of hierarchies of class, caste, age, profession, etc. — in modern times (say 1500 CE-present) often including race.
            Coming down out of high abstraction, this means that if you're Oprah Winfried, you could be refused a close look at a $38,000 purse at the Trois Pommes boutique in Zurich, Switzerland, because you are Black; and it may've taken you longer to become a billionaire than if you were a man — but you can find yourself at a boutique for the upper .01% in Zurich, and you can conceive of a handbag running $38,000. It means that if you're Carlos Estavez visiting Oxnard, California, from the Santa Barbara Film Festival, you're less likely to be shot or beaten by our local cops than if you weren't also Charlie Sheen.
            Putting the matter in terms of my personal experience, this —
            One winter holiday season a couple decades back, I was happily surprised to find a card in my mailbox from my editor at Miami University student newspaper, The Miami Student. "Happy Holidays!" the card company wished me, and my editor added a few lines of her own. "Hope all goes well, blah blah. So happy to have had your column for The Student. I'm dropping your column." And then she ended with a sentence or two that I shouldn't worry about the newspaper because she'd found another member of the faculty to replace me, and he was, as I well knew, just a great guy, an incredibly popular teacher in my department, and, she was sure, a most excellent writer.
            Over the next couple of days, I showed the card around, and one of my colleagues joked that she'd probably ask me for a letter of recommendation, and I said I just might write one for her since she showed the tact and sensitivity I'd come to associate with editors. (Like many authors, I saved and occasionally savored the more notable of the rejection letters I'd received. The most memorable is still the one I got at the very start of my scholarly career: the editor of PMLA was kind enough to include some comments from the first, and only, reader of a long essay I submitted, a comment that began, "Very interesting opening paragraph, before the whole thing falls flat.")
            As you've probably anticipated, I soon received another letter from the editor of The Miami Student — a note, anyway — requesting a letter of recommendation.
            I was at my office typewriter, I think (it may've been a computer keyboard), composing my response to her, when she stopped at my door, put her head in, and asked me in person for the letter; and I told her to come all the way in and repeated to her what had been the joke that I just might write the letter.
            She was somewhat taken aback, and we get to the point of this story for my point here. "Oh," she replied. "It didn't occur to me I could hurt the feelings of a" (White male?) "professor."
            So I explained to her, in nonfigurative terms, how rejection hurts coming from just about anyone, but that "The universe of power is lumpy" and in this context she was the editor, I was — had been — a staff writer, and she the person with power.
            The upshot, if you're interested, is that I think I did write a brief "RecLet" and (I'm almost positive) she got whatever the RecLet recommended her for. The colleague whose column replaced mine was indeed a hotshot, and sufficiently one that he soon stopped submitting columns to The Student and then moved on to a better job.
            In a similar line, as English Department Student Mediator — i.e., the guy who handled complaints from students — I had to deal with a couple of young women teaching assistants brought up feminist in the era stressing the all-pervasive power of patriarchy. And they couldn't believe that they could hurt, or mess over, a male student. Whether or not they had done so is something I wouldn't reveal if I remembered, and I certainly don't remember. And it's irrelevant. "The universe of power is lumpy," and in their classrooms, most immediately embedded in the student/teacher relationship — most especially as in grades — they held the upper hand.
            Furthermore, at that place and time if their students had threatened them outside the classroom, relying upon the students' status as Whites and males and large and (in one case) a jock, the full police powers of the University and State would have enforced the power of the TA's. However much the cops and coaches might have held them in contempt as women and "civilians," academics and intellectuals, their status in the classroom would have trumped other concerns: the Establishment protects the Establishment, and as Miami U teachers they were part of the local Establishment.
            Centrally, though, were the grades, which were assigned by "The Instructor of Record," which — short of some very fancy and difficult-to-execute bureaucratic footwork — even a lowly Teaching Assistant was. And, once assigned, the grade was the grade, and only the instructor of record or a court order could change it.
            While explaining that they were the power-holders here, I could identify with these young women. I hadn't believed it my first couple semesters as a TA: it took me a while to realize The Power of the Grade.
            As a new teacher in my twenties, my previous experience dealing with freshman had been in my fraternity, where we kept the pledges somewhat uninformed on just who could do what to them — and most of them suspected that I, as a chapter officer, could have them "racked out": with a "rack-out" an extended periods of late-night strenuous Physical Training of the sort Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket would immortally formalize as, "I will PT you all until you fucking die! I'll PT you until your assholes are sucking buttermilk!" Additionally, some suspected — as I learned from a really drunken pledge who pleaded with me not to — some thought we might paddle them. Actually, we didn't paddle pledges, and I personally lacked authority to order a rackout, although I probably could have arranged one if I worked at it, and I certainly could have had a pledge put on one of our nastier work assignments. ("There is more than one way to skin a cat; none of which are pleasant for the cat" — and the grease trap in a large kitchen often needs cleaning.)
            My previous experience dealing with frosh was with guys who thought I could punish them, possibly significantly, and that is what counts: they showed me respect, or at least took care to be deferential outside of ritualized "Saturnalian" pledge entertainments, where they were invited to insult actives. What I had never encountered from pledges in the fraternity was servility, and when I encountered servility in the classroom, it disturbed me.
            I finally said to a class, "Look, I'm maybe five, six years older than most of you; I look younger than half of you; I'm 5'2" tall and 135 pounds, and most of you can beat me up — why the servility?!?" And they reminded me about my giving them grades.
            And I told them that I was an ethical person and really wanted them to argue with me and did actually grade "blind," not looking at the names of the students who'd written the essays and I respected integrity … and, yeah, I gave the grades.
            "The universe of power is lumpy" and a little Jew who got asked to show multiple ID's in bars that sold my students beer without question — I had to work to keep a fair number of students from high-power, hydraulic sucking up.
            Later on in my career, when linguistic "morÄ“s" loosened, I had my students consider the implications of expressions like "to brown-nose" and "suck up to" and consider the fact that if they prostituted their ideas for a grade that made me (figuratively) a professorial "john." But that was later, about the time of my "mediation" service at Miami U and having to explain to a new generation of teachers, especially young women, the variation on the theme by Stan Lee that even with a little bit of power comes responsibility, starting with the responsibility of admitting that in some contexts even members of otherwise oppressed groups can have power.
            Larger issues are involved, though, with that lumpy universe of power, some of them depressing.
            At my fraternity, some wise-ass (who might've been me) illustrated the principle of seniority and hierarchy with a posted drawing of a multi-storey outhouse, imaging the bureaucratic and more generally sociological meaning of the adage "Shit flows down hill."
            That principle can move into the horrific in contexts like the Jewish Police and community councils in too many cases during the Hitlerian Holocaust, or the problems slave women would have found looking for sisterly solidarity from the wives of their masters or even their widowed mistresses. Or with gang leaders in ghettos and barrios having tremendous local power, even if they might have trouble hailing a cab (if their armored Humvee is in the shop) and probably won't apply for membership in "The City Club" — although their children or grandchildren might well be asked to join.
            And here I will stop on that line of thought since it leads back to European ghettos and those Jewish police, death camp Kapos, and tales of survival and complicity I can only think about briefly. So I'm going to tone down the emotional stress and put things a bit more positively —

            If not all, then at least most effective politics is coalition politics, and in an era of "identity" politics effective coalition building is helped by reminding people that their identities are complex and that identity itself is malleable and contextual.
            My personal personal story here is a quick one, from a time I had been about a week in Tokyo and caught myself looking for Black people. Why was I looking for Black people? Well, as an American in Tokyo, I was definitely gaijin, a foreigner, and I found myself feeling like a foreigner and looking for other gaijin, and for sure a Black person would (1) stand out in a crowd, (2) be gaijin, and (3) likely be American. I wasn't the only one feeling that way. A South Korean businessman sort of picked me up and bought me dinner. He was interesting to talk to, but I wondered what the agenda here might be. It was simple; he'd been in Japan for several months was not just gaijin but Korean gaijin, and he just wanted to talk to a fellow foreigner and someone who wouldn't view him with just a touch of something hard to pin down. The people he'd dealt with hadn't been racists, exactly, nor xenophobes nor jingoistic; it was just that for them there were Japanese and gaijin, and Koreans were definitely gaijin, and that was that. Random Blacks on the street, this South Korean businessman, and I were in the same group.
            Another story is less personal, but still low-key and small-scale.
            There was a radio interview I can't cite but recall well in which a young feminist scholar studied a Black church where young women were trying to change things and were running into resistance from their elders, women as well as men. Why would the older women side with the men and oppose an attempt to democratize the church in ways that would give women an equal voice in running the church? Why would the old women reject a voice in hiring ministers and establishing the liturgy and, well, moving the church into the future?
            Why wouldn't these old women join with the young ones to gain power to innovate, or just to do things?
            If you've ever dealt with a group of organized old women, you have guessed by now that they knew exactly what they were doing.
            The reforms that would've given church-women in general more power would have given the old ladies of the "amen corner" less, more exactly, less where it mattered to them. They liked the church the way it was, thank you, and didn't want changes. They lacked the power to innovate, but they had the power to block: a near-absolute power to veto. They couldn't hire the minister — or get a female one — but they sure as hell could get a minister fired, and the one after him and the one after him until they got a leadership that knew not to cross them.
            Increased democratic power for women in that church generally would've meant less of the power for the old women particularly.
            On the other hand, moving from a memory of a sociological story to a memory of a fictional one — there's a minor but important theme in Suzy McKee Charnas's searing feminist dystopia Walk to the End of the World (1974). The book shows a world ruled by men in which women are enslaved. That's literally enslaved and brutally enslaved. Still, Walk reminds us that patriarchy isn't rule by men, as such, but rule by some men, the patriarchs: older men with power. It's inferable in the world of Walk that the majority of men would find it in their interest to ally with the enslaved women to depose the patriarchs and democratize their world.
            That ain't gonna happen in Walk to the End of the World. Even as poor Whites and poor Blacks in the real-world USA rarely allied to resist the plantation owners and other power elites, the oppressed young men and the women we see in Walk aren't going to ally. "The universe of power is lumpy" implies that those with power who stay in power keep themselves united and keep opponents or just serious competitors from getting together: divide et impera as they used to say in Latin, "Divide and rule"; if you're already ruling, break up every threatening concentration of power as it forms, preventing competing "lumps."
            More exactly, if you are ruling and wish to continue doing so, you prevent concentration of power that might compete with you. The ideal is to maintain your big lump of power while those below you form groups that you get competing with each other: slashing up and grinding down each other.
            And powerful groups will continue to divide, conquer, and rule so long as so many people, even highly educated and politicized teaching assistants, are unconscious of most of the game.
            So, MORAL to all this: power clumps in weird ways and anyone sufficiently privileged to be literate and reading an essay belongs to some groups who have power and other groups that don't. Ethical political behavior is largely using one's positions of power to help get power and the goodies it brings distributed more equitably. The beginning of such ethical behavior is understanding that the universe of power is lumpy and figuring out where in it one is privileged to be in an empowered lump.

            Next comes a "Basic" not worth an essay, but the one thing I ever said liked by an ethicist colleague of mine: "A lot of morality is learning to direct your aggression up the hierarchy, not down it" — with, I'll add, occasional angled and lateral shots going for appropriate "lumps."

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