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The Illogic of Oppositional Politics

You can acknowledge the (often only partial) reality of racial, religious, and other cultural stereotypes without capitulating to them.

This past week has seen incendiary responses from Muslim protestors in Benghazi, Cairo, Sanaa, Khartoum, and other cities in the MENA in response to a poorly-produced, hyperbolic film called “Innocence of Muslims”. Allegedly produced by American Coptic Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, trailers and clips were uploaded to Youtube, and were later shown on an Arabic-language television station in Egypt.

The result has been several days of rioting, particularly at or near American embassies, with coordinated attacks in Benghazi resulting in several deaths. Of particular interest to me, however, has been the complete disconnect in responses on social media and in person by Americans of differing political affiliations.

On the one hand, the somewhat-caricatured response is “but of course: Muslims are necessarily violent in ways that other religions are not”. The Onion hits on this theme with an anything-but-subtle article titled No One Murdered Because Of This Image, depicting an orgy scene with Ganesh, Buddha, Jesus and Yahweh, with Mohammed/Allah notably absent. This depiction isn’t without it’s truth: Muslim protests over perceived blasphemy are in general less bound to a particular locale and are more likely to result in actual violence, with fatwas pronouncing death sentences on artists and writers that fall afoul of extreme religious sensibilities.

But, on the other hand, there are distinct problems with this thinking. Muslims aren’t the only religion to enact violence, they’re merely deemed more newsworthy than some of the alternatives, largely due to the American presence in the region and the international nature of the protests. The same sort of violence occurs in India with extremist Hindus, or in Nigeria between Christians and Muslims. Additionally, the percentage of Muslims engaged in this sort of behaviour relative to the number of Muslims worldwide is a fraction of a percent. The overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide do not engage in such behaviour or rhetoric, and to portray them as if they were extremist both endangers Muslims in areas in which they are a minority, and serves the ends of extremist Muslim groups who wish to recruit disaffected Muslims.

There is a pattern here, and it fits a number of issues related to various sorts of identity politics; I’m calling it oppositional politics. The pattern is that as people are faced with rhetoric, beliefs or actions they find abhorrent, they react and will often react reflexively and without reflection, with the result being a differently wrong position on the other side of the political boundary.

A friend posted an article on Facebook to expose it to ridicule, and as I followed the links back, I ended up on the the John Derbyshire article that ended his career at the National Review: it was called The Talk: Nonblack Version, and it’s presented as a no-bullshit, Machiavelli style insider’s guide into black/white relations in America, and the implications for whites. I took my time with it, as I really wanted to understand what he was (and was not) saying, and because I find the black/white racial divide in America uniquely bizarre in the space of bizarre racial dynamics worldwide.

And I found I could empathize. Not with the specific words of advice, or with the overall objective, but I was able to see that given his assumptions why he would recommend the things he does. It was skewed in precisely the opposite way that my progressive friends tend to misrepresent facts that seem to “favour” racist interpretations; for instance, by assuming certain combinations of facts to be true with the Trayvon Martin case before anyone could know either way.

One night while driving through Kuwait on New Year’s Eve with a group of friends, one of my friends realized that he did not have his paperwork/civil ID on his person. The police had set up stop-points all throughout the city, and this became a point of some concern for my friend who, while Canadian, was ethnically Nigerian. We ended up rearranging ourselves to explicitly play (positively) to the Kuwaiti police officer’s racial stereotypes in order to avoid questioning at stop points. My buff Ugandan friend with a Mr. T-style mohawk drove, and I rode shotgun as the only Caucasian in the mix. The driver’s brother and his friend, a clean-cut and articulate Indian, sat in the middle, and in the way back sat an Indian friend who looked like a mullah and the friend sans paperwork. The plan worked like a charm, despite a road blockade due to a bomb threat at the mall; our best guess is that the officers assumed we were American military.

That was making do within the system. But the more necessary act is transforming the system. In Kuwait, that meant standing in solidarity with abused workers, whether in desert work camps with their visas withheld, or taking shelter in embassies after experiencing physical, verbal or sexual assault. I’m still learning what it means in the U.S., but Occupy Homes MN appears to be one of many promising vectors.

We live in the discontinuous space between the post-racial land of equality that we aim for in our speech, our thoughts, our actions, and the actual world in which huge disparities in power relationships, gross historical injustices, systemic disadvantages or advantages and other such phenomena dominate the social sphere. This means that equal efforts are not met by equal results; historically disadvantaged groups may require assistance that others may not. This may mean that a corporate board makes explicit a policy to interview women for executive positions, as a way of countertraining the ingrained tendencies to only examine male candidates. It may mean additional expenditures are necessary for schools in neighborhoods blighted by social decay.

I find so-called “conservative” responses to many of these issues (women aren’t fit for leadership, blacks are inherently less intelligent/more violent, Muslims are inherently violent, etc) disturbing and, frankly, abhorrent less because they’re wrong, but because of the lack of imagination and the capitulation to despair that such a worldview offers. Of course, if you deny women education, you’ll have a hard time finding well-educated female leaders. Of course, if American blacks were targeted for subprime mortgages after being structurally prevented from home ownership, you’re going to see a disproportionate number of them in foreclosure. Of course, if extremist Muslim groups are able to recruit (something that is aided rather than hampered by American foreign policy and rampant prejudice against Muslims) they’ll be able to produce followers that literally cannot understand that a film or a cartoon created by a citizen of a foreign nation does not reflect the official stance of the nation in question.

The correct response isn’t to pretend that these distasteful or frustrating situations aren’t real, but to strategically fight to change the incentive structures, repair the historical injustices, and build structures that stop the vicious cycles from continuing.

This is a costly endeavour. I’m struggling to find the source, now, but I read a blog several years ago written by a member of a Christian intentional community. These were middle-class, predominantly white Christians moving into a rough neighborhood to embody the grace that they believed in. The blog post was describing the events that lead to the dissolution of the group, and what stood out to me in particular was how he described the several women in the group who had been raped or sexually assaulted, purely due to the location of their communal home, and the crime rate of the neighborhood. The author of the blog post wrote frankly about the costliness of the endeavour not in order to dissuade others from making the attempt, but rather to ensure that those who did, did so in full knowledge of the costs they might incur.

Dreaming of a society made whole will not occur without sacrifice. I hope to leave my place of employment, my neighborhood, and my region more humane than I found it. Part of that means learning to accept some of the costs. Given the choice between the Machiavellian cultural “realpolitick” embodied by Derbyshire and others, and an ideologically blinded optimism, I reject the choice but recommend the latter posture; amended, however, to remove the ideological blinders and accept the costs of the gap between where hope bids us go and the ground we set our foot upon in pursuit.