Friday, June 18, 2021

It's Big, It's Bad, and It's a Wolf


De Golyer Library, Southern Methodist University, via Texas State Historical Association.

Happy Juneteenth! And if anybody tells you that's not a real thing, please inform them that it's been a paid state holiday in Texas since 1980, and celebrated there much longer than that, ever since the very first anniversary in 1866 of the day Major General Gordon Granger arrived with the Union army in Galveston, 19 June 1865, to tell the state's population and most particularly its 250,000 enslaved persons, in the words of General Order no. 3,

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages.

Because they hadn't officially been informed earlier, though all the enslaved persons in Confederate-held territory had in fact been freed in the Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862; it couldn't be implemented, obviously, until the Union had won the war. (And slavery remained legal in Maryland, and parts of Virginia and Louisiana that the Union already held in 1862, because the Proclamation was in principle a military move against the rebels, intended to encourage their slaves to throw off their chains and hurt the Confederate war effort, not an attempt at abolition.)

A fixture everywhere in the African American community in the South by the end of the 19th century, and going northward with the Great Migration in the 20th, it has become an observed holiday in all sorts of states and municipalities (can't give an exhaustive list and I'm finding some contradictory or flat-out wrong assertions at Wikipedia, I'm sorry to say), and recognized by Congress in a bipartisan bill of 1997, and by presidents beginning with the Bush administration with a proclamation in 2002—of course Trump chose to celebrate it in 2020 with a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, site of the 1921 race massacre that destroyed the city's "Black Wall Street" district. It was a very good idea to make it a national holiday at last.

Juneteenth 1900, in Austin. Texas State Historical Association.

On the subject of Critical Race Theory, my old lady came up with an interesting alternative thought: that while a lot of individual Republicans are no doubt as dumb and ignorant as Nebraska governor Pete Rickett, the party as an institution knows very clearly, if not in much detail, what CRT is, and that's why they're so committed to denouncing it so loudly and consistently, because it serves their purposes very well.

Namely, they understand 

  • it can be used with a much broader application than just that thing smartasses like Professor Kruse like to surprise you with (the rarefied discussion inside legal studies pioneered by people like Professor Bell);
  • it's "critical" in both the ordinary language sense of judgmental and negative and in the philosophical sense with its "Marxist" associations; 
  • it involves "theorizing", which means finding things to say that aren't obvious and might be untrue; and
  • it involves "theorizing" about race in particular.

All or which is fairly correct, and exactly what it says it is. But if you're a white person whose own feeling about race is primarily that you wish it would leave you alone, that sounds like it's big, it's bad, and it's a wolf. It's going to be everywhere, aimed at making people like you feel bad about themselves, it's probably a Communist plot, and it must be wrong anyway, so anybody trying to make you think about it is just doing you harm and ought to be stopped. It's a perfect bogeyman for the rightwing authorities, legislators and pundits, to use on their marks: they themselves don't need to learn any more about it than that, and the rage they need to fly into can be unfeigned (unlike with the rage at sexual licentiousness, say, or "elitism"), because they all feel that way already.

I would personally love to go on forever about the meaning of the "critical" in critical theory and its relation to Marxism: that it's the work of disillusioned Marxists, in the first place, the scholars at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt who fled to New York early in the Nazi period and went back after the end of the war: shocked by the failure of the 1919 German Revolution and subsequent reactionary trend, they lost faith in the limitlessly forward direction of the dialectic (Horkheimer and Adorno invented the term "negative dialectics" to characterize the real world in which progress couldn't be guaranteed at all). They were repelled by the inflexibility of communism, and its relentless philosophical positivism (the position that all knowledge arises by inductive logic from material experience, as in Mao's later apothegm: "Where do correct ideas come from? Do they fall from the sky? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and social practice alone."). 

What they wanted to retain from Marx was his analysis of what was wrong with Victorian society as something that was in fact wrong, not just a phenomenon but an injustice, his critique of political economy, and the idea of criticality itself as what made the analysis worth doing, a basis for political action, summed up in the Theses on Feuerbach: "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is to change it." 

"Critical race theory" in the broadest sense is just extending the concept of critical theory (not so much the particular practice of some thinker, Horkheimer or Fromm or Habermas or whoever, as the goal of changing the situation) to the issue of race as institution. What I want in my heart to do with the rightwing campaign against "CRT" is just admit it—say, "Hell, yes. You think there's nothing to criticize?" But I don't know what a more productive approach would look like. 

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

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