The contextualization fairy

Recently, John Holbo posted two items (here and here) on Crooked Timber about something odd in American politics.  Right-wing politicians in the USA quite often make public statements that would, if taken at face value, suggest that they are far more extreme in their views than they in fact are.  So, Professor Holbo finds remarks from Texas governor Rick Perry which, taken literally, would imply that Mr Perry thought that Texas should secede from the USA, that all federal programs established since 1900 should be abolished, indeed that there should be no government at all.  Mr Perry obviously does not believe any of those things, so obviously that only his committed opponents try to take him to task for making such extreme remarks.  This is not unique to Mr Perry, but is a usual pattern for right-wing US politicians.

What makes this so odd is that, while it is common for right-wing American politicians to exaggerate the radicalism of their views and for the public to realize that this is what they are doing, Professor Holbo can find no examples of their left-leaning counterparts doing the same thing.  A Democratic or leftist candidate who makes a radical-sounding statement likely means that statement to be taken at face value, and it certainly will be taken at face value by most observers.

Many commentators on American politics explain the right-wingers’ habit of making extreme sounding statements for which they do not expect to be held responsible as an effort to move the “Overton Window.”  The Overton Window, named for the late Joseph P. Overton, is the range of ideas that the people who hold sway in a given political culture hold to be acceptable at a particular time.  Only ideas within the window are likely to be put into effect.  The window shifts back and forth, as some ideas that had once seemed outlandish begin to seem mainstream, while other ideas that had once seemed mainstream begin to seem outlandish.

Key to the Overton Window is the idea of contextualization.  The idea of devolving Medicare, the program that ensures that most Americans over the age of 65 will be able to pay for health care, to the states may seem outlandish to many in the USA, but compared to the idea of large states seceding from the Union it is quite moderate.  The idea of shifting the revenues of Social Security, the program that provides a guaranteed income to  most Americans over the age of 65, from current benefits to private savings accounts may seem outlandish to many in the USA, but compared with the idea of abolishing the entire welfare state it is quite moderate.  Other policies favored by powerful interests on the right end of the political spectrum may also seem outlandish, but compared with anarchism they too are quite moderate.  So, within the context of the extreme remarks for which they are not called to account, rightists can gain a hearing for policies which they do seriously advocate.

Contextualization has also been on the mind of cartoonist Zach Weiner lately.  Here’s a recent installment of his strip, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

Both Professor Holbo and Mr Weiner brought one of my daily reads to mind.  Blogger Steve Sailer made a very interesting observation about contextualization the other day, in a post called “White Triumphalism in Gentrifying DC“:

Ethnic change in Washington D.C. has gone so far that white hipsters are getting cocky about rubbing the noses of poor blacks in the new white dominance. The Washington Post reports:

While I sat for the better part of an hour — okay, perhaps longer than that — outside H Street Country Club on Saturday enjoying a few libations as the Northeast corridor’s fabulous festival unfolded around me, I watched club owner and impresario extraordinaire Joe Englert [a white guy] and his compatriots do a rather brisk business in a repurposed piece of D.C. political memorabilia.

His navy-blue T-shirts bearing the legend “Mayor Barry: Making a great city even greater” were going gangbusters.

That would be the official logo of Marion Barry’s 1986 re-election campaign. An original sign, incidentally, hangs above the stairs down into the basement of Englert’s Capitol Lounge on Pennsylvania Avenue SE.

Most of the folks I watched buy the tees were, shall we say, not in Barry’s base demographic.

While Englert acknowledged the shirts’ appeal to master ironists, he insisted he printed up the shirts out of appreciation for Barry, not to mock him.

”I think people, even newcomers, sort have a fond view of him,” he said. “He’s a folk hero. He’s as close to Johnny Appleseed as you’re going to get here.”

This doesn’t strike me as polite or prudent. Considering what happened to Matthew Yglesias in May just for being a white man walking down the street in D.C. at night, being a white man walking down the street wearing an intentionally racially insulting T-shirt, apparently thinking that poor blacks are too stupid to realize you are mocking their demographic defeat, sounds like a really bad idea.On the second thought, a lot of these hipsters might not even get that they are racially gloating over the upcoming economic cleansing to Baltimore of the remainder of D.C.’s poor blacks. They possess elaborate conceptual vocabularies for thinking well of themselves, so they might even believe that they believe that “folk hero” nonsense.

People who weren’t living in the USA in the early 1990s may not see why a Marion Barry T-Shirt is an insult to African American residents of the District of Columbia.  Mr Barry was elected to a third term as Washington, DC’s mayor in 1986, then in January 1990 videotaped in a hotel room with an ex-girlfriend smoking crack cocaine.  When the police burst in to the room and arrested him, the mayor muttered “Bitch set me up!”  After his release from prison in 1992, Mr Barry was elected to the DC city council, and in 1994 he was once more elected mayor.  Many people were appalled by that 1994 reelection; I for one suggested that if the District of Columbia were ever to become a state, its Latin motto should be “Illa Canis Me Implicavit.”  In 1997, the US Congress stripped the mayor of his powers, leaving Mr Barry little choice but to stand down in the 1998 election.  Despite a 2002 incident in which police found traces of cocaine and marijuana in Mr Barry’s car, he was in 2004 again elected to the DC city council; despite his 2005 guilty plea in a tax evasion case, he was reelected to the council in 2008, and he still sits there.  Mr Barry is a paradox.   At one and the same time, he is a popular figure among African American voters in the District of Columbia, and an embarrassment to them.

Mr Sailer is well positioned to understand this paradox.  He spends a great deal of time trying to promote a definition of “race” as “a partly inbred extended family.”  How many people do not have family members whom they love, support, and find embarrassing?  And how many would support the police if they saw a relative being arrested, however justly?  One night when I was a little kid, the police came to our house and hauled my brother away in handcuffs because of unpaid traffic fines.  My mother, a deeply conservative, pro-authority sort of person, found herself screaming at the arresting officers that they were no better than the Gestapo.  Fortunately my father had the presence of mind to hold her back, or she would likely have gone to jail as well.  If my brother had subsequently run for office on an anti-police platform, we would have been sorely tempted to vote for him, for all that we knew that the whole thing really was his fault for not having paid those fines.  Within the context of a family under assault, whether by police dragging its members off to jail or by relatively wealthy, privileged people taking possession of territory that once was theirs, it is easy to understand why the “ironic” T-Shirts could only be read as a deliberate provocation.

Mr Sailer speculates that the “hipsters” may have made use of their “elaborate conceptual vocabularies for thinking well of themselves” to tell themselves that they are doing something other than taunting the people who used to live in the neighborhoods where they now predominate.  That makes a great deal of sense to me.  One of the great films of the 1990s was Crumb,  Terry Zwigoff’s documentary about underground cartoonist R. Crumb.  Watching that film, I laughed out loud when a commentator, pointing to some cartoons of Mr Crumb’s in which crudely drawn black characters gorged themselves on watermelons and were treated as potential meals for cannibals, said “This is actually an attack on black people.”  What made me laugh was that word “actually,” implying as it did a contrast with something else that it apparently was.  Obviously it was an attack on black people, only Mr Crumb’s “hipster” fans putting their “elaborate conceptual vocabularies for thinking well of themselves” into overdrive could have seen it as anything else.

The last paragraph of Mr Sailer’s post puts an unexpected spin on what went before.  He writes:

By the way, in 25 years, will the next generation of white hipsters ironically wear vintage 2008 “Obama: Hope and Change” t-shirts? They might not be worth much right now, but you should stock up on them because they could be an ironic gold mine someday.

Mr O doesn’t seem like the sort of fellow who would be caught in a hotel room smoking crack and muttering “Bitch set me up,” so bracketing him with Mr Barry strikes me as rather odd.  In fact, just about the only things I can think of that the president has in common with Mr Barry are party affiliation and skin color.

This brings us to Mr Sailer’s own self-presentation, and his rhetorical project.  I value his blog greatly; he seems to have a very fertile imagination, and almost every day he posts some or other interesting, novel-sounding idea for consideration.  It’s the sort of thing that sometimes goes on in the common areas of a well-functioning graduate program.  Lots of the ideas are less novel than they sound, lots of others are wrong, and all of them are shot through with the author’s biases, but that’s all right- the common purpose of research, debate, and the scientific method is to sift through proposals, eliminate the dead ends, and refine the promising ones.  I wish there were many bloggers as creative and as uninhibited as Mr Sailer, and that they all had commenters who would bring real knowledge to bear in helping to move from the “interesting idea” stage to the “might be worth looking into” stage.  When Mr Sailer started allowing comments, he did have some commenters who would respond to his posts with citations of academic journal articles and other publications that had already explored his ideas, and some who weren’t afraid to write “I call bullshit on all of this.”  As time has passed, though, those commenters have disappeared.  Most of those who remain seem committed to the idea that they have joined Mr Sailer as part of a plucky band of truth-tellers who have innocently made observations of the plain facts before them, only to be set upon by an unreasoning horde enforcing an absurd orthodoxy.

Making matters much worse is the particular nature of the preconceptions this crowd is so eager to reinforce.  Mr Sailer is interested in the differences among groups of people, most definitely including differences that can be accounted for by genetic inheritance.  So, some of the biases that a well-worked out scholarly version of one of his ideas would drain away, but that the first proposal stage includes very prominently, are biases that bear on questions of race and ethnicity.  It is not unusual for Mr Sailer to write posts in which he expresses sympathy for beleaguered African American communities, as he does in the post quoted above.  However, he very often seems to court the charge of racism.

For example, in a recent post he discussed a table comparing the fifty United States to each other by the percentage of each state’s African American population that was dependent on public benefit.  There are any number of public policy discussions in which such a table would be of vital importance, and Mr Sailer’s discussion includes some interesting speculation about the differences among the states and some useful criticism of the statistical methods used in the compilation.  Indeed, when the author of the table revised it in accord with Mr Sailer’s criticism, his attempt to explain why Texas was at one extreme collapsed as the corrected table showed that Texas actually belonged in the middle.  In his updated version of the post, Mr Sailer leaves in the discredited speculation, then adds “Now, Texas blacks falls out of the better reaches and right into the middle of the pack. Oh, well … My  explanation above sounded highly persuasive while I wrote it.”  So, he makes legitimate contributions on an important topic, and promptly acknowledges an error with good humor.  What’s wrong with that?  Well, for one thing, the title of the post is “Which state has the best blacks?”  And he labels partial tables showing the states with the biggest and those with the smallest racial disparity in rates of dependency as “Best blacks relative to local whites” and “Worst blacks relative to local whites.”  So he’s contextualizing his discussion as a verdict on the African American populations of the various states.  In view of the awareness he showed in the Marion Barry T-Shirt post, it’s hard to believe that Mr Sailer did not know that he would give offense by posing as the judge of black America.

I suspect that Mr Sailer’s habit of framing his writing in a way that is likely to provoke charges of racism goes back to the idea of the plucky band of truth-tellers who have innocently made observations of the plain facts before them, only to be set upon by an unreasoning horde enforcing an absurd orthodoxy.  This idea is, I suspect, Mr Sailer’s business model.  To leverage it into an income adequate to support himself and his family in Los Angeles, Mr Sailer must strike his readers as a reasonable person, behaving innocently, and he must have opponents who accuse him of being a sinister person, propagating hate.

It’s entirely up to him to seem reasonable, and he promotes that impression not only by saying reasonable things at regular intervals but also by describing his own innocent, harmless nature.  In one recent post, he describes himself thus: “I’m very good at verbal logic, and have a certain gift for insights that other people wouldn’t come up with, but I’m not a meticulous thinker. I make lots of mistakes. I’m more of a let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes thinker. In contrast, say, Charles Murray’s brain works like a BMW V-12: powerful and precise. Mine’s a jalopy that might surprise you and win the race or might break down on the starting line and go nowhere.”  The self-deprecating tone of this helps to make Mr Sailer seem harmless, while the nod to racial theorist Charles Murray invites suspicion.  In another recent post, he characterized himself even more modestly, as one who is “the perpetual extremely nice eighth grader” in person, though his writing often rubs people the wrong way.

As for the second half of Mr Sailer’s plan, one can’t actually count on one’s opponents to accuse one of being a sinister, hateful person.  It’s true that groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center need to brand people as racist in order to raise funds, and so they lend him a helping hand from time to time.  And there’s nothing to stop someone from setting up a blog devoted to denunciation of Mr Sailer; I’m not entirely sure that the site I’ve linked to there is not maintained by Mr Sailer himself, in an effort to keep his fans thinking that they are under siege.  But to attract the sort of hostile attention that he needs, Mr Sailer must bait his potential adversaries regularly.  It’s frustrating for those of us who find value in his substantive contributions.

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