Saturday, February 21, 2009

Testing The Limits of Civility by Anthony McCarthy

I’m glad to see the announcement that civility is catching on in the internet. I hope it’s more than a temporary fashion and that it gets a serious consideration. All that childish invective gets tedious and depressing. It’s an odd phenomenon how as the most putrid and puerile levels of put down were considered a birth right, objecting to it came to be treated as an offense against freedom. As has been pointed out, that in itself was an offense against freedom of speech. Objecting to someone being offensive isn’t any less an expression of liberty than telling someone to “shut the fuck up”, in those or other words.

But incivility isn’t all the same thing. Not all of it is an expression of bigotry against a beleaguered group without resources. Sometimes its targets are those with enormous power and wealth engaged in actively harming other people and the environment. I think that makes all the difference.

Last week in a blog discussion of the infamously racist NY Post cartoon someone who I generally like brought up those who called George W. Bush “Chimpy”. First, count me as among those who never or rarely made the comparison. I have more respect for chimpanzees than that. But was calling Bush “Chimpy” equivalent to identifying President Obama with the mad chimpanzee who was shot last week? I don’t think the two incidents were anything alike. The cartoon was clearly in the long line of racist imagery equating black people with apes, it has that history. I’ve never seen a rich, White Anglo-Saxon compared with an ape in that way, if it was ever done it was rare and clearly had no lasting political or social impact*. That history alone makes the two comparisons entirely different acts in their clear intent and in the possible results they could have. Dehumanization on the basis of race or ethnicity is different than comparing one of our least intellectually accomplished presidents, unfavorably, with Curious George.

The clear invitation to consider violence against President Obama in the cartoon also set the two comparisons apart. I hope the Secret Service has talked with the cartoonist, the editor and publisher of the scummy tabloid. The possibility that this was a widely published encouragement to consider the assassination of President Obama is too clear to let pass. I can’t watch him addressing the public without anxiety. It has been said that he is the recipient of more death threats than any of his predecessors. We’ve lost too many of our leaders to assassins to just let this imagery pass under the lazily applied motto of “freedom of the press”. As an aside, if another progressive leader is murdered, it will be civil war. And that’s not ironic hyperbole.

I generally try to avoid using incivility, both because it makes me feel cheap when I do and it isn’t always helpful. I do use it sometimes in response to incivility. I’m not going to go into a brawl disarmed. But, in itself, it’s never useful to accomplish something worth the price. But sometimes, as in the opposition to a homicidal tyrant, incivility is hardly an unmitigated evil. The worst that can be said is that it can be used to distract the discussion from the crimes of the tyrant. But that’s sometimes a risk worth taking. The assertion that it is always counterproductive isn’t true. Ridicule was used against the civility of Jimmy Carter and George McGovern, it was used against Al Gore, depriving him of the presidency he’d won. Ridicule has worked for the corporate right, it is going to be used against President Obama.. We don’t set the rules that the Republican’s kept media play by, we can’t fight them by disarming. We do have one advantage, they give us enough material to work with without having to distort reality. Truth and accuracy, productive use of ridicule as opposed to stupid snark, those should be the issue for us, not the tender feelings of powerful, homicidal crooks and their lackies.

Using incivility to enforce conformity on the blogs of the left, enforcing the limits of the allowable POV among leftists, using it against people who aren’t engaged in rotten behavior or advocating bigotry. That should be totally out.

* Some of you will be glad to know that I decided against posting the 2,500 word piece written for Darwin Day. I tried to avoid the silly event, though I did get into one blog fight over some absurdly hagiographic assertions made about him.

Someone in the discussion of the NY Post bigotry pointed out that in the 19th Century the Irish were targeted with identical apish images by nativist bigots. In the Darwin Day argument one of my opponents felt no hesitation to echo them in defense of the Great Man. As one of the points I made in the piece, and in the argument is relevant to this, here are two excerpts.

I’ve concentrated mostly on the political impact of Darwinism, which has included some pretty awful stuff. Ignoring the effect of that legacy in the opposition to the fact of evolution is one of the stupider aspects today’s back and forth. One of the things I read this week asserted that his great secret inspiration was the struggle for the abolition of slavery. I’m sure that as a Wedgewood cousin he would have voiced opposition to slavery, he may have felt some sympathy for slaves. But as you congratulate him on that stand, hardly unique to him or his family, I don’t know how you can honestly ignore this:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked (18. 'Anthropological Review,' April 1867, p. 236.), will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla. The Descent of Man.

How this differs from the most putrid contemporary advocacy of Jim Crow in the United States in anything but the refinement of the language, I’d like an explanation. As I noted here last year, the uber-Darwinist, Thomas Huxley, stated pretty much the same idea in even cruder terms.

As an example: A most important obstacle in civilised countries to an increase in the number of men of a superior class has been strongly insisted on by Mr. Greg and Mr. Galton (19. 'Fraser's Magazine,' Sept. 1868, p. 353. 'Macmillan's Magazine,' Aug. 1865, p. 318. The Rev. F.W. Farrar ('Fraser's Magazine,' Aug. 1870, p. 264) takes a different view.), namely, the fact that the very poor and reckless, who are often degraded by vice, almost invariably marry early, whilst the careful and frugal, who are generally otherwise virtuous, marry late in life, so that they may be able to support themselves and their children in comfort. Those who marry early produce within a given period not only a greater number of generations, but, as shewn by Dr. Duncan (20. 'On the Laws of the Fertility of Women,' in 'Transactions of the Royal Society,' Edinburgh, vol. xxiv. p. 287; now published separately under the title of 'Fecundity, Fertility, and Sterility,' 1871. See, also, Mr. Galton, 'Hereditary Genius,' pp. 352-357, for observations to the above effect.), they produce many more children. The children, moreover, that are borne by mothers during the prime of life are heavier and larger, and therefore probably more vigorous, than those born at other periods. Thus the reckless, degraded, and often vicious members of society, tend to increase at a quicker rate than the provident and generally virtuous members. Or as Mr. Greg puts the case: "The careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits: the frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious Scot, stern in his morality, spiritual in his faith, sagacious and disciplined in his intelligence, passes his best years in struggle and in celibacy, marries late, and leaves few behind him. Given a land originally peopled by a thousand Saxons and a thousand Celts--and in a
dozen generations five-sixths of the population would be Celts, but five- sixths of the property, of the power, of the intellect, would belong to the one-sixth of Saxons that remained. In the eternal 'struggle for existence,' it would be the inferior and LESS favoured race that had prevailed--and prevailed by virtue not of its good qualities but of its faults."

There are, however, some checks to this downward tendency. We have seen that the intemperate suffer from a high rate of mortality, and the extremely profligate leave few offspring. The poorest classes crowd into towns, and it has been proved by Dr. Stark from the statistics of ten years in Scotland (21. 'Tenth Annual Report of Births, Deaths, etc., in Scotland,' 1867, p. xxix.), that at all ages the death-rate is higher in towns than in rural districts, "and during the first five years of life the town death-rate is almost exactly double that of the rural districts." As these returns include both the rich and the poor, no doubt more than twice the number of births would be requisite to keep up the number of the very poor inhabitants in the towns, relatively to those in the country. With women, marriage at too early an age is highly injurious; for it has been found in France that, "Twice as many wives under twenty die in the year, as died out of the same number of the unmarried." The mortality, also, of husbands under twenty is "excessively high" (22. These quotations are taken from our highest authority on such questions, namely, Dr. Farr, in his paper 'On the Influence of Marriage on the Mortality of the French People,' read before the Nat. Assoc. for the Promotion of Social Science, 1858.), but what the cause of this may be, seems doubtful. Lastly, if the men who prudently delay marrying until they can bring up their families in comfort, were to select, as they often do, women in the prime of life, the rate of increase in the better class would be only slightly lessened. The Descent of Man

Notice that Darwin’s comforting assertions about the brake on reproduction by such as the degenerate Irish involves the actual deaths of a very large number of people, many explicitly stated to be children. Which anyone who isn’t in denial would admit he sees as beneficial due to its being a “check on downward” tendencies in the human species. Notice also, many of them are women.

These “careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman”, Darwin’s choice to represent the “ reckless, degraded, and often vicious members of society”, would include most of my great-great grandparents who were raising families as he wrote the book. Most of them had recently come through the test of natural selection in the form of the potato famine around Skibbereen, often considered the epicenter of the famine, within Darwin’s life time. You wonder why he didn’t conclude that the survivors of that brutal cull might constitute “superior stock”.

Why shouldn’t it offend me anymore than bigotry against Africans or Jews offends us? Because it’s Darwin who wrote it? Because it’s the Irish he targeted for some stunningly brutal bigotry? But, as seen above, he hardly stopped at we, the degenerate Irish. You might want to find out what the great man may have asserted in regard to your family.