Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Yes, you are a woman.

Thank you for this passionate, intelligent reply, Sister Zora.

I will respond to a few of your most relevant points, but I will address the bulk of them in the next installments of the Victimology Blues posts.

First, I never suggested that Civil Rights injustices be fought primarily with positive images. WAOD’s explicit goal is to combat negative media depictions of black women. If McCauley and her supporters believe that media and popular culture are the main battlegrounds, then their chief strategy should be publicizing as many stories of positive black women as possible, not publicizing crimes in which black women are victimized.

Moreover, I don’t think that McCauley is really framing these crimes and their handling as Civil Rights issues, which is surprising given that she’s a lawyer. If McCauley and co. had decided to highlight the policing and legal ramifications of these crimes, I might feel differently about WAOD. McCauley makes clear, though, that WAOD is mainly a matter of cleaning up a poisonous culture.

Some lip service notwithstanding, the thrust of the site is not, “Let’s do everything we can to 1) help the police locate and arrest the perpetrators, 2) support these black women victims financially and legally, and 3) mobilize political change to our corrupt law enforcement and judicial systems.” It’s “see, black women are victims too!” WAOD is treating the crimes themselves, not the surrounding legal issues, as newsworthy. Without question, these crimes are significant to the victims and the communities where they occur; however, I don’t see how they are significant beyond their local contexts, and it’s not because the victims are black women. Frankly, I don’t think that any such cases deserve attention from national media. For instance, why spend airtime on stories about JonBenet Ramsey and Natalie Hollaway, who have been dead for years? And what about the current media fixation on Stacy Peterson? The mainstream media is disingenuously stating that their coverage might bring Peterson home, but that’s nonsense: they are assuming that she’s already dead. I’m sorry, I just don’t see why this case has merit as a national news story.

You are right to note the importance of publicizing injustice, and yes, I think that all symbolic victim-based activism is exploitative in a sense. But some forms of exploitation are more defensible than others: it all comes down to the wider implications. In the iconic Civil Rights era crimes you mention, law enforcement and the state was supportive of (and often involved in) the crimes and the legal cover ups. That state governments engaged in total disenfranchisement and the federal government looked the other way meant that black residents had no legal way to remedy the systemic injustices. The entire political, social, legal, economic, system was rotten. Wells, King, etc. worked to fight systemic collective injustice. These missing or brutalized woman cases are matters of personal, localized injustice. The notion that these crimes occur because our popular culture devalues black women is nonsense. Allow me to revert back to Social Science mode for a moment: correlation does not = causation.

Violence has been a fundamental reality throughout recorded human history. Rape and physical abuse were around long before the advent of mass media. I don’t deny that negative images have an adverse affect on the perception of certain groups, but removing these images from public and commercial spaces will not get at the heart of the problem. Entertainment isn’t really the relevant battleground. The problem is that consumer-citizens are treating songs, movies, and TV shows as a valid source of information about groups of people. That has almost nothing to do with the “negative” content; that has to do with short-circuits in peoples’ social interaction and perhaps in their cognitive ability. Don’t those of us interested in progressive social and political change always say that we need to attack the roots of problems? It’s easy to point a finger at the big corporations for spreading trash; it’s not as satisfying to shift responsibility toward families and other social institutions that should prevent and/or correct these short-circuits.

It’s true that I defend people’s right to disrespect black women, but that’s somewhat misleading. I defend people’s right to disrespect anyone—that’s the very essence of freedom of speech. Still, I’m less concerned with defending bigots than I am with fighting the effects of censorship. Black people from previous generations endured far worse in terms of public vilification and were stronger for it. I believe that we’re breeding a society of psychological weaklings whose first impulse is not to engage and defeat offending voices, but to silence them. Just to clear up any confusion, this is a problem throughout societies, not one limited to any specific identity group.

I’m glad you mentioned “Girls, Girls, Girls” because it not only highlights our disagreements, it also recalls my issue with TAN. In the song, Jay-Z frequently conflates Indian (from India) and Native American stereotypes; he attributes french braids, french kissing, and french fries to France; the part about the African woman is lifted directly from Ed Murph’s stand-up comedy special Raw, which is, I’ll admit, one of the most misogynistic screeds from a man who clearly has issues with women …unless they have penises.

I don’t take from the song that Jay-Z disparages black women in comparison to other women across the world; I take from it that Jay-Z works with dominant cultural stereotypes to reveal their inherent ridiculousness. As such, “Girls, Girls, Girls” is one of Jay-Z’s most clever songs. But it wasn’t popular because people understood its satirical bent; it was popular because listeners like to revel in stereotypes and the beat was catchy as hell. The problems with the song’s reception are the same problems that led to Chappelle’s crisis: people don’t like to acknowledge that popular cultural texts can mean different things to different audiences, and the base meaning normally overshadows every other meaning. I don’t think Jay-Z cares; after all, no one outside of Dyson-types really considered him a social critic. Chappelle definitely cares, though, which is why he was never meant for long-term stratospheric popularity.

Sister Zora, yes, you are a woman, but I think black women’s desire to be treated like white women is unhealthy. Sojourner Truth was speaking in the middle of the 19th Century. Much has changed since then. Your call for black men to defend black women’s honor and your wish for black women victims to receive the kind of national media attention reserved for (usually young, blonde, middle-to-upper class, and relatively attractive) white women shows a surprising attachment to gender orthodoxy. It’s accepted wisdom in our line of work that when men talk about defending female honor, they are usually providing a justification for controlling not only women’s bodies but also ideas about gender roles in society. The history of the rhetoric surrounding lynching and war is all the evidence one needs to confirm this.

I understand that black women don’t even have the luxury of being “overprotected” and that the concern about having ones honor exploited underscores the privilege of upper class white feminists. But let’s say that you get your wish and black women are afforded the same victim value that white women receive. Better to be a victim than a ho, right? Well, yeah, of course, but you’re still a victim. You’re still an abstraction. You’re still an archetype. You’ll never be a woman, a human being with inherent worth and agency, as long as you’re only important as a victim, a caretaker, or a Jezebel (all in the service of men).

Finally, you can say that this isn’t about hurt feelings, but that’s hard to believe. How else do you explain the popularity of the tired “Why don’t black men love us?” topic cluttering magazine racks, bookshelves, TV, and the net?


LaJane Galt said...

But some forms of exploitation are more defensible than others: it all comes down to the wider implications. In the iconic Civil Rights era crimes you mention, law enforcement and the state was supportive of (and often involved in) the crimes and the legal cover ups. That state governments engaged in total disenfranchisement and the federal government looked the other way meant that black residents had no legal way to remedy the systemic injustices. The entire political, social, legal, economic, system was rotten. Wells, King, etc. worked to fight systemic collective injustice. These missing or brutalized woman cases are matters of personal, localized injustice

Check out all of Gina's posts on Dunbar. Note her (and others)contact w/ and indifference by the (1) Mayor & City Council, (2)Housing Authority, (3) HUD ($$$ contingent on performance which includes safety) and (4) police regarding PRIOR violence (and the instant issue) at Dunbar Village. This is systemic injustice. It just focuses on systemic injustice to a Haitian woman, a boy and committed by black boys and men.

Also, when you allude to the wider implications and the collective you are not being "inclusive" but shifting the focus away from black women's concerns and onto the Community (to wit, men). Think, "I'm colorblind" or the "race card". That is how black women experience this shift.

Violence has been a fundamental reality throughout recorded human history. Rape and physical abuse were around long before the advent of mass media.

So has police brutality, but we always seem to have time, energy and resources for that.

For the record, rape is a very, very real fear for every woman. Please don't ever underestimate that. Short of prison (which I'm quite sure you'll avoid) it is something that you don't have to worry about. Nor would you ever have to worry about someone sweeping such violence to you under the rug and minimizing its occurrence by saying it's nothing new.

I think black women’s desire to be treated like white women is unhealthy.

We don't want to be treated "like white women" (This smacks of the either/or dichotomy we are not black or women). We want to be treated like full complex humans with all strengths and weaknesses neither hos nor solely victims.

I agree that Jay-Z's song was vile and lame all around (the beat was catchy though). Typical.

Raw, which is, I’ll admit, one of the most misogynistic screeds from a man who clearly has issues with women …unless they have penises.

*DEAD* Why do you have to take a brotha down...he was just giving her a "ride"....

elle said...

great piece, Mr. Gordon Gatrelle,I always enjoy reading your peace

gordon gartrelle said...

Hello again, Lajane.

1.) Again, WAOD makes hints toward wider political and legal implications, but that's not the main thrust. The main thrust is "Black women catch hell. Please feel sorry for us."

2.) I am fully aware of the ever-present fear of rape that women have to endure. I wasn't minimizing it at all. The point was that this horror has nothing to do with BET and rap music; it's embedded in some aspect of human society that probably predates culture...period.

3.) If these women do not want to be treated like white women, that is, if they do not want access to the same privileges of victimhood, why do they use the following argument: "Lacy Peterson, Natalie Hollaway, Chandra Levy, Stacy Peterson, etc. can become national news stories, why can't black women?"

4.) Actually, I don't agree that "Girls Girls Girls" is vile and lame; I think it's brilliant and subversive in addition to being catchy. It's too bad people refuse to look beyond the surface.

Zora said...

Gordon & Chauncey,
I'm really surprised at your responses. Can you really not see that rape and molestation are about power? Can you not see that the failure of our larger society and own black community to acknowledge and be outraged by these "individual" crimes reflects a degree of the general powerlessness of black people in America? How long did it take for us to acknowledge lynching as symbolic violence and not just the problem of some individual, uppity nigger who was foolish enough to forget his place? The lack of response to black women reflects a view of black people as a whole. This is true for for the larger society and for us as a group.
There is a lack of self-value here -- this is at the core of most of our recent issues. The images and lyrics in hip-hop reflect not just how these performers think about black women, but also how they think about themselves (in what other culture are the women so pervasively degraded? -- South Africa maybe, but that would make sense).

Further, I really don't understand why you are so reductionist in your views. Do you really think that I am asking to be viewed as a victim? that black women want to be victims? I think that we are all praying that we won't ever be. But, God forbid I am one day raped, I do want the right to call on the media and public services to make sure justice is served. Isn't this just as much my right as that of any other woman? As my friends, would you not be outraged if my case were buried and the rapist was not pursued? As strong and independent as I would like to be, I know that I can't control everything that happens to me. Bad shit does happen. People -- men & women, black & white -- are victimized. None of us want this, but it happens. Where does your false dichotomy come from? Are my choices really confined to being either a victim or a ho?

LaJane Galt said...

Actually, I don't agree that "Girls Girls Girls" is vile and lame; I think it's brilliant and subversive in addition to being catchy. It's too bad people refuse to look beyond the surface.

wow!! I guess by focusing on gender, I am being superficial. Allright now, when some white person comes out w/ the usual, try to get the "meta" and understand the irony.

Aren't you the guy who picked TAN apart over his "they can't get the satire"??????

I'm stunned, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised. This is why Gina is so hardcore - we have no allies amongst our "own".

gordon gartrelle said...

I think that a number of people "get" the satire; they're just concerned that the literal meaning gives off the wrong public image. The focus on gender has nothing to do with it. Again, I don't go for the black women should subordinate their issues as women to "the black cause." I'm not that negro.

And I don't get this stuff about black men not being your allies. Unlike the self-proclaimed "strong black women" that Chauncey highlights, I don't view black women and men as enemies.

deva said...

It is very clever to deploy a feminist argument at the end of this post, which seems to have little sympathy with the complexities of black female experience. In this context, the argument, which has arguable merit on it's own, is used to give credence to the -- 'don't make a big deal about being abused, or undervalued as humans, or shafted by "your" men. All that hardship's just gonna make you stronger. Chin up' -- argument that you lead with.

This sentiment, which seems to underlie and animate both your posts seems to be the heart of what your interlocutors are reacting to and, I would submit, with good reason. First, it is cruel on it's face. Second, it is politically indefensible on the grounds of justice, community empowerment, inclusion or equality. Instead, what it is, is a recommendation that the most marginalized keep silent in the pursuit of a fictitious, more practical and, of course, universal greater good.

What is true is that in movement, people must prioritize -- no group can pursue all claims all the time. Resources whether material or personal are not endless. But if this is a conversation about triaging the concerns of black people, then let it avowedly be so.

Pretending that the brutalization of women of color, and perhaps especially black women, is "personal and localized" and has nothing to do with a history of use and degradation is naive at best and a deliberately malicious mis-characterization at worst.

I'm all for dignity in the face of challenge and grace under fire, it improves the conditions that encourage perseverance, as well as the chances for success, and has the added benefit of making one a more credible ally and a more formidable opponent. But, I must disagree that bringing to light the popular degradation and/or abuse of a group that has always been assumed or indeed, as is the case in this very post, is encouraged to 'shut up and take it cause you're tough' amounts to reveling in victimization.

I have no wish to argue about the quality of WAOD because I agree with you that the voices of black women are not put to their best use in that forum -- nor are the voices of any minority ever put to their best use in moaning and wailing about the entertainment industry. Far more effective is to do what they suggest and stop buying what they find offensive and even more importantly support (and create) what they find worthy.

(Aside: Like any tactic though, such concerted effort would require an accompanying rhetoric, and the one that is dominant on that site is as you say, rather tired and ineffective. What they ought to do is stop saying, "Why do they talk so bad about us, waaahhh?!" to "We will not tolerate such lies any longer and we're here to reveal the truths of black womanhood as we experience it. That means we challenge the lies told about us whomever speaks them." But I digress.)

I also take your point about the importance of engaging with and challenging those who disrespect and demean black women (or any other group) instead of merely banning or gagging them -- not only because this is, as you have said, the essence of free speech, but because practically speaking it is better to vanquish an enemy, destroy their credibility and esteem by tearing apart their logic and revealing disingenuous motives, than to merely gag them. The last is a temporary solution that's bound to backfire. And isn't nearly as satisfying besides.

I would even agree with you that the obsession with Ramsey, Halloway, Peterson, and that little blond toddler from Briton should not be subjects of sustained national attention. They are representations of personal and localized crime. Not examples of injustice at all, really. Not because they're white or blond or women, but because the reporting of those stories almost never includes a social context. They are not about rescuing the missing or pointing attention toward violence against women. Instead, they encourage vouyerism plain and simple.

However, I would suggest that the identities of the girls/women that the country takes the time to obsess about is not only not accidental, but is also highly significant to our understanding of what is at stake in the wider socio-cultural struggle for equality. They represent what mainstream America considers valuable in the abstract. The newscaster implies as they report these crimes, 'you needn't know these girls/women to be interested in their fate. You needn't love them to know they are precious.'

This is screwed up on a number of levels. I don't defend or desire that the many missing and brutalized black women and other women of color should take the places of these blond poppets as the poster-people for victimhood. However, and this is the however that is really important, the fact of the obsession with these girls/women is still a telling symptom.

The inability of this nation to embrace the suffering of a black woman in the abstract -- the inability of the nation, which clearly has the capacity for distant sympathy based on shallow knowledge that amounts to little more than a picture and the circumstances of abduction/death -- connotes a difference in the basic valuation of the worth of black women. You acknowledge this, but as though it has no bearing on the rest of your argument. I would argue that it's right at the center of the claims you're examining (and disparaging).

That the basis of the national capacity for obsession is patriarchal is a valid observation, but nevertheless misses the point. The point is: black women are not valued as a group -- not that they don't feel as valued, but that they aren't -- this has quite negative implications for the availability and accessibility of structures to combat the crimes of abuse that you reference as the cite of truly significant disenfranchisement. If the popular notion is that it's alright to use and demean black women as a class and that notion is born out in disproportionate effects, then you have yourself a general social problem.

What these women have been saying is that given this general problem, they have not even the paltry and screwy recourse of seeking protection for their imagined fragility. Black women have no such imagined vulnerability. Not in the dominant conceptions and not, as you so clearly point out, in the black male psyche either.

So then, on what basis should black women appeal their portrayals, their mis-recognition, their absence, their abuse? On the grounds of injustice? But that is an avenue that is also foreclosed by your argument because the concerns of black womanhood, of black female personhood and dignity do not qualify for redress under that rubric, since they are so very preoccupied with an emotionally cathartic lust for self-esteem instead of the practical or the political. Right?

While some may go so far as to claim that portrayals of black women as objects of sex or care and little else *cause* the abuse, brutalization and neglect of individual black women, I would agree with you that that's not the case. Instead, you have the perpetuation of a culture which thinks it's okay to use black women for whatever they're said to be good for and either assuming they will have nothing to say about it (Don Imus), or that in the interest of saving face they'll be guilted into shutting up about it.

There's the wider struggle to consider, after all. The struggle that is not personal or localized, the one that is instead about justice. This is what the American government told black soldiers during World War II; it is what Liberal, well-meaning whites told Martin Luther King about his rabble rousing; it's what white women said to black women as they maintained segregation in the struggle for female enfranchisement. It's an old argument that has a long and undistinguished history.

As a previous commentator has pointed out, this kind of argument sounds just as disingenuous coming out of the mouth of a black man as a "colorblind" argument does coming out of the mouth of a white one.

The overriding message of the women who have challenged your initial post -- a point that you have avoided in your response while making many other fine ones, is that black women's suffering as humans, as women, as victims, as soldiers for the cause of black liberation/equality, as mothers of sons and daughters who will continue to face the peculiar alchemy of African American psychology, internal interaction, and external experience, is fundamentally a community concern. The most concerning part of which, at least in this kind of forum, is how on earth to get black men to stop dismissing our negative evaluations of our positionality vis a vie not only the wider white society, but also black men, as carping or nagging -- on the same order of concern as say 'why do i always have to pick your socks up off the floor' or ' when are you going to help me out with the dishes.'

The point of WAOD, however poorly executed, as well as the passionate and articulate women who have challenged your assertions here, is that the implications of black women's experience as black women is, contrary to your implication, of quite wide enough implication to pass the litmus test of collective struggle, community impact, and most profound of all, inclusion in the struggle for a more just society.

I am certain you are familiar with what King said about injustice anywhere being a threat to justice everywhere. Well, the caution goes treble when the injustice in question is taking place in your own metaphorical house. Take heed.

gordon gartrelle said...

I never thought that I would have to defend my commitment to black women’s collective physical and social well-being. I admit that part of it has to do with the tone of my posts. I can see how it comes off as callous and dismissive, but that’s not really my intention. After I flesh out the rest of the posts in this series, I hope that everyone will have a better understanding of why I find WAOD’s approach so problematic.

Zora, you and LaJane did a wonderful job of articulating your problems with my criticism of WAOD, but Deva's excellent comment gives me the perfect opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about my position and highlight our differences (I agree with the vast majority of the claims the three of you make):

1.) I am not among those who think that black women have undermined black progress and black men by embracing feminism and “airing dirty laundry.” Moreover, I have long been conflicted about the usefulness of “linked fate” as a normative concept with respect to modern black progress. This will be the subject of a future post.

2.) I never suggested that black women should shut up and “take their abuse like (wo)men.” I don’t believe in silencing anyone, and abuse is serious business that should not be swept under the rug. Publicizing such cases can be useful in that they might make a difference in the kind of legal support and medical care the victims receive. Sometimes media spectacle and exploitation are necessary evils.

3.) I share the chief concern of the women who have responded, namely, the shameful reality that black women are dehumanized in our society. Here’s my point, though: not only is victim promotion as an end in itself an ineffective social-political strategy, it’s counter-productive and even potentially harmful (as I will try to explain in parts 2 and 3).

4a.) I believe that black women’s devaluation is a community (indeed, a society-wide) issue, but what is the effect of making black woman victim cases the focus of activism? Will it force people to extend “white women privileges” to black women? Will it sway the black men who dehumanize black women? Doubtful. That leaves those of us who already know that black women are human beings worthy of respect. Are WAOD’s efforts simply a matter of raising awareness? How exactly will WAOD’s focus rally us? I think that WAOD may build self-esteem for some black women, but these efforts are practically meaningless in political terms. Though I find symbolic politics fascinating as a Social Scientist, I find them utterly useless as a proponent of social and political progress.

4b.) I also want to clarify my point about these cases amounting to “personal and localized” injustice. While I don’t believe the systemic breakdown and fraud associated with black women victim cases is comparable to that of lynching and Jim Crow, one can certainly make the case that black women victims face systematic legal and political discrimination. McCauley and co. could easily focus on the broader formal implications, and that would make WAOD a different, much better site. Again, that’s not their primary concern. I imagine that McCauley would respond to this suggestion the way she always responds whenever someone offers a valid criticism of WAOD’s emphasis: “Why don’t you start a site with a different emphasis?” McCauley and her people want easy boogeymen and quick results (they might ocasionally get some stupid TV show or song removed from the air).

5.) My appeal to what Deva terms the feminist argument is not a “clever” rhetorical trick; it’s what I truly believe. Though it privileges white women a great deal, “defending women’s honor” still exploits and dehumanizes them. Of course, this particular form of dehumanization has nothing on the dehumanization that black women endure, but I still don’t think it’s healthy for black women to aspire toward another form of dehumanization, even if it is advantageous for the women to whom it applies.

6.) I am not trying to close off black women’s channels to remedy their oppression; I’m just extremely pessimistic about macro-level strategies to change perceptions. In my opinion, neither a completely affirming popular culture, nor formal education would make a dent in black women’s dehumanization. Then what can those interested in black women’s well-being do? 1) foster an environment of improved child-rearing, 2) mentor like crazy: black women and men who have their shit together even to a small degree need extended interaction with black boys and girls, and 3) use practical strategies to combat legal and political disparities and double standards that disadvantage black women. But when people deemphasize these things to boycott Imus and Nelly and to treat publicizing victims as activism, they waste all kinds of social and political capital.

7.) I thought that my language might be considered gendered--that I might appear to favor “masculine” reason over “feminine” emotion--but all I’m saying is that these women, using these strategies, are overly concerned with self-esteem. This has nothing to do with women in general or “feminine” modes of communication.

**Deva, would you mind reposting your comment to this post here? I can email it to you if you don't have a copy**

gordon gartrelle said...

Deva wrote:

I appreciate this clarification and I think that your attempts to seriously engage with the concerns of the women who have called your attention to some problems in your original post demonstrates your sincerity and concern about wrestling with these issues out of concern for and in partnership with black women.

However, I wanted to ask a question about a theoretical point. Why the hard line between "symbolic" and "practical" politics? Symbolic politics are practical. All tactics come part and parcel with symbols and rhetorics because that's how language works and language is the engine that makes politics go (with money, unfortunately, being the grease).

Of course, not all symbolic politics are high quality or effective, but that should not invalidate the whole field of activity, especially since it is always already embedded in tactical political activities any way you slice them.

I absolutely agree with your point that getting a song or commercial removed from a single outlet is usually not effective politics -- but I'm not sure that's really what's meant by symbolic politics. Indeed, I would say that's an example of poor instrumental politics. It is focused on a practical outcome (the absence of the 'offensive' content) more than altering the interpretations, meaning, and context of the subject matter at hand. To me, this seems to be the most profound failing of approaches like that of WAOD -- they use bad instrumental politics, with very little understanding of how symbolic politics works and how this form of political activity might be used to achieve practical ends. This is absolutely a result of the desire for "easy boogeymen and quick results" even when they are practically useless. But this truth ought not besmirch symbolic politics which can be highly effective, especially for those who have few resources in terms of money and connections.

I hate to keep bringing up the Civil Rights movement, but there we have many easily accessible examples of symbolic politics par excellence. The images of lynching festivals, the fire hoses turned on children, the marches, the sit ins at dime store counters -- these are the things that come easily to mind when thinking about that movement and for some people, it's all they know of the era. These images are what gives the movement easily understandable and translatable meaning, not the minutia of the voting rights acts or the practical wrangling that took place between movement leaders, their allies and opponents and local and national institutions.

The point is not that the multitude and richness of symbols is more important than the practical wrangling, because that is certainly not the case. They are of equal importance -- the effectiveness of symbols creates opportunities for practical negotiation and good practical negotiation with an awareness of the power of symbolism can result in policies that can acquire the numinous status of the politically sacred -- the inviolable creed. Think the Declaration of Independence, the notion of Free Enterprise, Brown v. Board, even, I would argue, Roe v Wade (even Alito and Roberts don't want to touch it). Of course all creeds are practically violable, but the ones that carry symbolic weight require many more material and rhetorical resources to challenge and that's all the armor democratic politics can provide for any policy.

The Civil Rights examples, such as the shots of the fire hoses mowing down black children in Alabama, are not merely about publicizing victimization as you have rightly pointed out, but instead imparting new meanings to old activities that had been previously unknown, thought to be limited in their effects, or unalterable.

The political currency that those pictures trade on -- of water hoses being turned on children, or of school integration in Little Rock -- is not primarily that of victimization, but of innocence and bravery, persistence and perseverance in the face of profound and undeserved unfairness. Americans freaking love that narrative. It's the story we tell ourselves about the Revolutionary War, after all. Freedom from tyranny is a line that has big rhetorical juice for us and images that pluck that political string tend to have sticking power -- whether or not they actually change opponents hearts and minds about particular practical policy issues on the spot. What they do allow for on the spot is a platform for political challengers to speak and the creation of a political context in which their claims makes sense. Changing mass perceptions is very hard, as you pointed out, and I think it's a business that only takes place over generations, if at all, but when it does take place it's because some group of people have been successful at altering the meaning of material events, not only because they've been tactically successful.

Anyway, this is a general point about recognizing the practical importance of politics as praxis and really has nothing to do with WAOD. I just think we ought to be careful about drawing a hard line between 'practical' and 'symbolic' politics. I think that good practical politics always includes a resonant symbolic element -- that's a major component of what can make challenger politics effective.

By the by, I think this is a good forum. I'm glad you guys put it together and look forward to reading more.


No arguments here. I did, in fact, overstate the distinction between symbolic and practical politics, but I wouldn’t say that symbolic politics are practical politics; I’d say that symbolic politics are sometimes also practical or perhaps that symbolic politics can complement practical politics under the right set of circumstances. As you write, the Civil Rights movement examples are so resonant precisely because they exemplify the perfect convergence of the symbolic and the practical. Appeals for reparations are another great example. Reparations obviously represent practical politics, but the appeals are also symbolic. The reparations movement is not just about holding the country and its citizens accountable in material terms; it’s about asserting the desire to have the country at large appreciate our contributions and formally recognize our suffering and loyalty (aside: it’s never gonna happen, black people).

But consider the efforts to petition govts. to issue formal apologies for slavery. For some, these symbolic politics have a practical goal: to pave the way for reparations by getting govts. to admit complicity and liability. For others, however, securing these formal apologies is itself an end. This latter case is what I mean by symbolic politics being useless, and it’s because they make no discernible nods to the practical.

As I argue in the initial post, I believe that WAOD's true impetus is expressive and symbolic, but you're right that my main problem is with their superficial "practical" ends and their ineffective strategies, not really with the symbolic nature of their politics.