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
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
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.
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
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."