#4 Orientalism vs. the Old Jim Crow

When I first started writing about African Americans who participated in orientalism, a professor of mine said that orientalism was a discourse of colonizers; African Americans were colonized; and so therefore African Americans could not be orientalists. Would that life were so cut and dried, or that movements for social justice were so pure. In fact, African Americans were orientalists, but they very often used orientalism against racism. In the hands of blacks in the US and abroad, orientalism became a form of antiracist racism, you could say.

This might seem contradictory, but in fact it is more often than not the way the world works; oppressive ideologies are so total that we swim in them like fish in water, and when the fish need to organize another path they redirect a stream of the dominant discourse for their own purposes rather than reject it wholesale. Ok, maybe there are a few flying fish who can catch brief glimpses above water, but even they invariably slip back into familiar tropes when they are trying to get the schools of fish below water to follow them.

Now this may sound fishy, but in fact it was right there at the start when Michel Foucault theorized discourse and wrote that discourses contain counter-discourses that threaten to grow into challenges to the main discourse itself. Edward Said omitted that part when he wrote Orientalism in 1979, but admitted as much a few years later: even orientalism could have romantic and emancipatory streams, and shifted valences when used by the colonized as opposed to the colonizers.

There are countless examples of people using discourses to double back and counter those very discourses; Black Christians may have been taught a milquetoast form of Christianity during slavery, but they soon figured out how to use Christianity to make claims for more humane treatment and emancipation. When Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois wanted to protest lynching at the turn of the twentieth century, they did not reject the discourse of civilization, which was a deeply racist discourse, but rather they used that racist discourse against the most grotesque form of racism, when they condemned lynching as uncivilized and barbaric. And so on.

By embracing the Islamic Orient then, even in essentialist ways, African Americans could implicitly  critique what we now might call the Old Jim Crow. For Black Americans, the Orient could represent a subversive heterogeneity and stood as a rebuke to the sterile segregation of the American Jim Crow system.

Under the heading, “All Races Found in Cairo City: Great Metropolis on River Nile is Now Very Cultured,” the Defender reported:

"Cairo is a living kaleidoscope; its colored fragments are tumbled into place not merely from east and west, but from north and south as well. White-robed Bedouin, ill-called fellah, shiny-black Soudanese and Central African Negro, swarthy Turk, Persian, Hindu, Mongolian, dusky Moor, Italian, Greek, Armenian and the white folk from Europe, America and their antipodes—all are jumbled together in Cairo, their various tongues making a babel that can hardly be duplicated at any other spot on earth.”

By asserting that Cairo was “cultured” in addition to being racially heterogeneous, the Chicago Defender was implicitly rebuking racist American ideas of civilization that asserted that racial mixing were a symptom of a society not having attained an advanced level of civilization. Implicitly, the Orient’s heterodoxy stood as a wonderful reminder for Black Americans of how bizarre, juvenile, rude, and uncultured the Jim Crow segregation system truly was. Images of the Orient suggested not simply the marvelously strange, but hinted at the potential for radically different ways of ordering society.

Black Americans who attended the circus with its numerous orientalist displays of "the Mystic East" would have seen Africans denigrated and degraded while Arabs, Muslims, and sub-continental Indians were stereotyped and celebrated. Given that P.T. Barnum's “missing link” was obviously specious, a melancholy spectacle of a "Negro" man in a monkey suit, the notion that Black Americans could have been descended from noble, romantic, dashing, and dangerous dark-skinned African Muslim Moors was far less insulting and indeed far more plausible than many of the other ethnographic ideas circulating in the popular culture at the turn of the twentieth century.

#3 Study Less, Learn More

[March 3, 2017]   1270 words/4.2 minute read

I wrote most of what will someday become my third book as an honors thesis when I was a senior at Stanford between December of 1995 and May of 1996. In fact, I stopped out of Stanford my last two quarters to save money and write full time. I did so by starting to write after dinner and then writing for eight or ten hours most nights. I would go to sleep at four, wake up at noon, and start the process all over again.

I could do this because I was young, dumb, and had no internet in the small house where I lived, just off campus. I had no car either, like most Stanford students in the mid-nineties. The ancient original Apple Macintosh I bought to write the thesis had no working floppy drive, so I had to borrow a housemate’s laptop and do an elaborate transferring ritual with a cable every time I wanted to take a file off the machine for printing. I certainly did not have a cell phone—no one I knew did. So if I wanted to use the internet, or a printer, I had to get on my bicycle and bike fifteen minutes to campus—uphill, both ways.

There just was not very much that was very interesting or time consuming on the internet anyway in 1996, and what was there you could only find through human-curated catalogues such as Yahoo, which was really just an online card catalogue like the one that still existed on manila cards at the campus library. I did use an early online telephone directory to find the people I interviewed for my thesis, and when I located them that way some of them were astonished and more than a little freaked out that the internet now contained telephone numbers. I don’t even think internet porn existed. If it did, I never heard of it. I did not even use a color monitor until my first job after graduation, and it was one of those CRT ones with a big vacuum tube that couldn’t really display photographs well. It was a Jeffrey Lebowski world: manual.

If you think that this is meant to make me sound impressive, it is not. In those very months in another room at Stanford, Larry Page was inventing Google, which has justly been called the most important invention since Gutenberg’s printing press, and has earned him a fortune of 40 billion dollars or so. But who’s counting?

When I was a freshman I had tried out for a singing group at Stanford called Everyday People. I wasn’t a very good singer and I didn’t get in. When Larry Page came to Stanford my senior year as a graduate student (Page is one year older than me), the Stanford alumni network thinks he joined Everyday People (though his foundation officers find that hard to believe. No confirmation available as of yet). If I had worked harder on my singing in my teens perhaps I would have become one of the first Google millionaires, or at least harmonized with the most important inventor of the last few millennia. But I never met Larry Page.

I never met most people at Stanford. I lived in small dorms or houses my whole time there, dated one woman for three years, and spent a lot of time studying by myself. I bonded with two other guys and the three of us best friends spent a lot of very deep time together, including on river trips or in our cooperative house with small groups of people. At graduation the three of us sat in a sea of graduates in our matching robes and were astounded that not only did we not see anyone else we recognized, we had never even seen our fellow graduates before. It was like graduating in a sea of strangers.

Meanwhile, Larry Page’s invention made the internet actually widely useful, and actually distracting for the first time. It also without exaggeration transformed life on planet Earth. It is not as if my time at Stanford was wasted, exactly. My honors thesis did punch my ticket to graduate school and then to a tenure track job as a professor that became a tenured and a fulfilling career teaching, researching, and writing, with long vacations and lots of freedom.

But looking back, I approached college precisely backwards. It turns out that the chief value of college is to bring together a collection of students who will go on to do amazing things after college. It is not to bring you in touch with world-class teachers, or to learn chemistry, history, or computer science. You do learn valuable skills in the process, like how to think deeply and work hard, but you could learn those skills by doing almost anything—river rafting, baking, computer coding, singing—and a lot of the things you might choose might be both a lot more fun and result in more tangible results, appreciated by far more people than if you spent one hundred percent of your time cramming for classes.

It used to be the case that students went to selective colleges primarily to meet other students; to meet future friends and business partners, perhaps to meet a husband or wife (often in neighboring, sex-segregated institutions). Very intelligent people like Al Gore earned “Gentlemen’s C’s at Harvard. Sure, part of it was that professors were much harder graders back then. That’s true. Today everyone is above average.

But today, everyone is above average, comparatively, because they have access to so much more information at earlier ages. Larry Page and the other internet inventors have transformed the landscape of knowledge so fundamentally that innovation, creativity, and social networks are now far more important than mastery of a canon of received wisdom.

It turns out that the most value you get out of college comes from the people you know while you are there. Knowing people shallowly is better than not knowing them at all; knowing them well is even better. Best of all is doing something together, harmonizing together in a singing group, a river raft, or some other fun project that makes you feel alive and expands your appreciation of the world. You will learn more that way than if you study all the time because the most efficient way to learn is by talking to people and learning about their lives. Not surprisingly, humans are social creatures who evolved to appreciate story telling, humor, and direct personal experience of one another.

And when it comes time to choose a career path you will have many more points of reference to choose from and people to call on for advice and connections along the way. You might not end up in graduate school, but you will likely do something even more meaningful with even greater financial and emotional rewards.

Today’s students can no longer study the way I did, without online distractions, nor should they. Thanks to the internet, today we suffer from the opposite problem that I experienced at Stanford: not too little but too much shallow social connection: not too much monastic studying by oneself without any distractions whatsoever, but a world that is brimming with information, interactivity, and input thanks to the invention that made the world’s knowledge accessible, truly accessible, for the very first time.

Maybe if dedicate yourself to learning from and with your fellow students, along with your professors, you will actually get out and meet the next Larry Page in his or her room a few minutes away, inventing the next best thing since the printing press, and having fun at the same time.

#2 Good vs. Bad Racists

Good vs. Bad Racists

A never-pitched pitch by Jacob Dorman, September 26, 2016

I propose a historical essay on the theme of racism that hooks readers with the question “can black people be racists?” and develops the argument that almost all of us, of all races, are increasingly becoming “bad racists” even as we are unable to extricate ourselves from the structures of racism.

The very question “can black people be racists?” ignores an oceanic swath of history underneath the falsely innocent five island-like words, with their partially submerged and highly politicized archipelago of meaning. Racism is more than racial bias; racism is racial bias conjoined with oppressive power. The short answer is yes; black people can be racists, but not very good ones, since today as in the past black people have neither the inclination nor the power to oppress non-blacks very much, if at all. Whites, for our part, are increasingly becoming “bad” racists as well, leaving the hardcore remnant of “good” racists in the sinking ship that flies the Confederate flag and is presently helmed by one Donald J. Trump. Yet the structures of racism are so omnipresent, and so persistent, that even whites who reject racism find ourselves entangled in its giant squid-like tentacles.

Racism has a direction, just like time itself; in America, it flows and has always flowed from white to black, from Europe to everywhere else, from Christian to Muslim and Jew, from white American Jews and Muslim Arabs, whether as merchants, landlords, judges, or planners, to black customers, tenants, and citizens. But stopping here, at this low point of the story, does almost as much harm as ignoring the history of white racism altogether. African Americans time and time again have met the stiffest challenges with resolve, perseverance, and even triumph.

Yet economic attainment does not fully shield blacks from the insults of racism. Whites know that we can help our case by dressing well or speaking articulately to cops, but the very same behaviors from a black person to the wrong cop, that is, a racist cop, could be seen as impudence and could actually trigger the very aggressive and even lethal behaviors that the citizen is trying to avoid.

It is not that black racists do not exist, it is that they are extremely, extremely rare. Most blacks simply do not have the will to be racist against white people; the very concept contradicts black identity itself—not to mention the history of racial prejudice. Very few black people are actually in position to discriminate against whites in any capacity, and the ones who are, almost by virtue of the fact that they hold such power, are also extremely unlikely to use it. Most whites are bad racists because they no longer hate African Americans or other people of color, or think of themselves as intrinsically superior. Some do, for sure, and those are, perhaps counterintuitively, “good” racists.

While the U.S.S. Racism takes on water and lists to the right, the rest of us “bad” racists and anti-racists who have abandoned ship look for some flotsam to cling to and hope the nation changes course soon, before we all go down and join the sharks, squid, and narwhals with the swirling suction of that sinking ship.

#1 Why I don't blog

Why I don't blog

I write too long. I write too much. I don't want to have to update it all the time. I don't want to spend energy curating the comments section. I have too many random interests and my blog would have no coherence. I feel like I should get paid for writing, as a professional scholar and writer. I hate the idea of self-marketing. I loath the idea of building a "platform." I detest the idea of personal "branding." I don't want to spend time promoting my blog on other blogs. No one reads anymore anyway; it's all about short videos these days. After resisting the siren song so long, I don't want my streak to end.

Why I might blog

I love to write. I have lots of opinions to share. People are always like "you should blog." No one is really interested in paying me for my random opinions, anyway. If I can connect a few opinions with a few others it might be worth it. I have thousands and thousands and thousands of words of writing sitting around on various hard drives anyway that will probably not find a home elsewhere, so, what the heck?