Weekend Reading

Readings on racism, policing, incarceration, and other forms of violence.

To view someone as a political equal is an act of respect and empathy. The decades-long growth in black incarceration rates represents a failure of empathy. How could rational people committed to liberal ideals allow such an obvious violation of those ideals to persist? How can such manifest social contradictions be so easily tolerated? Those questions have the characteristic feel of philosophical problems.

To understand what’s happened with incarceration in America, you must examine the concepts of propaganda and ideology, especially the kind of propaganda that is most prevalent in liberal democratic societies, which I call undermining propaganda. Undermining propaganda consists of arguments that employ a cherished political ideal in the service of a goal that undermines that very ideal. When it works, we do not even notice the contradiction. Ideology conceals the contradictions of propaganda….

Battles about the putative link between crime and race stretch back more than a century in the sociological literature, to Ida B. Wells and Du Bois. The story is masterfully told in Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s 2010 book, The Condemnation of Blackness (Harvard University Press), in which he shows how white social scientists used race to explain problems among blacks, while appealing to socioeconomic causes to explain the very same problems among whites. Mass incarceration yields many other instances of manipulative expertise.

Readings on higher education, tenure, and student-teacher dynamics.

My students’ discomfort with me is especially clear when I teach “general” courses — courses that are not explicitly about people of color. It is not uncommon for students to accuse me of diminishing the quality of their education when I teach classes like this. For example, when I taught an honors writing class, I included two — just two! — reading assignments by nonwhite authors. At the end of the term, a significant percentage of student evaluations complained that the class was skewed because it unjustifiably prioritized African-American authors.

All of my students, regardless of the identity categories they embraced, had been taught their entire lives that real literature is written by white people. Naturally, they felt they were being cheated by this strange professor’s “agenda.”

Readings on everything else.

More troubling, however, are Kaplan’s claims about supposedly artificial borders and the “order” brought by colonial rule. The artificial bordersargument is a common myth that sadly continues to pervade policy discussions of the Middle East. Kaplan simply regurgitates the claim that theSykes-Picot Agreement was arbitrarily drawn, and did not conform to sectarian or national realities on the ground, implying that the “artificial” borders drawn by the agreement have contributed to the sectarian strife we see today.

Complaints about artificial states imply that borders can ever be natural. While nationalist elites may like to portray borders as natural to their kin groups, around the world, states were formed through social processes involving conflict and negotiation to create the borders we see today. That’s true whether those borders have expanded, contracted, or been drawn by outsiders or insiders, but in all cases they are socially constructed and no more artificial than any other borders. To hold up some imperial divisions (like Ottoman borders) as “natural” while calling more recent colonial borders “artificial” greatly confuses the extent to which all borders are drawn through social processes, politics and violence.

Moreover, supra-national entities, like the United Arab Republic in the Middle East and the Mali Federation in West Africa, fell apart under local and national political constraints. This suggests that, counter to Kaplan’s claims, national distinctions matter, even when colonial powers drew the borders of what became postcolonial states. And Marc Lynch and others have recently demonstrated the ways in which national identity remains highly salient in the Middle East. Kaplan’s “artificial” nations can in fact show a high degree of coherence and nationalist sentiment, even in the face of ongoing political, social and economic turmoil.


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