Umbrage taken

I’ve been meaning to take umbrage for some time, a sort of general umbrage derived from poor thinking, usually other people’s.

How about that Charles Murray? He was taken quite seriously by conservatives who wanted you to “look at the controversy” when there was none. For over fifty years, scientists had been saying that the so-called “races” did not exist in the first place and when you did divide people into these categories there still were no significant differences in behavior. But, as a political scientist, Murray apparently noticed that many countries occupied by brown and black people were poor and had problems associated with poverty and so decided it must be the color thing that caused their problems. So he made a bold statement: White people are smarter than Black people overall and Asians (Yellow people?) are smarter than Whites overall.

On the face of it, anyone would take umbrage at that statement. Europeans aka White people had pushed out into the wider world via amazing inventions both mechanical and intellectual, viz. the sailing ship and the Enlightenment. They even dominated a lot of Asian countries. Black people in the U.S. were a major focus because they took lots of these tests. And I have a sneaking suspicion that Murray may not like them very much. At any rate, he used lots of data from tests which allowed him to plot curves and so on and make correlations between IQ scores and socioeconomic conditions like poverty and jail time.

Murray is no different from most people so maybe taking umbrage with him is silly, but wait! Murray is a scholar, a political scientist. Why did he not pay attention to what other scientists were finding? Even though he was not a scientist in the fields he was dabbling in, genetics and psychology, he also seems not to have read much history, a field closely related to his own. He did have a psychologist partner in writing the book but he died. Whether he could have added heft or not to the ensuing ferocious debate over the book is not known to me but it would depend on how much of a specialist in psych testing he was.

Recall that Murray attributed behavior along the “moral” dimension to IQ. Voting, marriage, crime, religion, all sorts of social behaviors were partly determined by one’s IQ, or, most accurately, by the group IQ. More subtle thinking like what sort of crime, violent or White-collar, is lost in the masses of data. The problem with mere data is that it must be massaged into information; as our schools, beset by “data-based” procedures, have learned, data without an underlying theory of learning or a look at the effects of a whole range of conditions is kind of useless. Maybe if people just looked at the data and said, “Look at that, ” we could proceed carefully from there. But no, they do the same thing naive thinkers do, children for example: they notice that most of the Mexican-Americans they see seem to be poor and so come to the conclusion that there is something wrong with them. Just so, Murray slides by one hundred years of segregation and more than two hundred years of slavery and looks at rates of social pathology among Blacks and among German-Americans and decides, based on the data, that there must be something wrong with the Blacks, just like a child would decide. But he is a highly respected academic, at least as a political scientist.

If I cared that much and if Murray had not been long ago cast aside as a serious thinker on social issues even as his work in poly-sci is respected, I would read his political science books and see if he can attribute problems in various countries to their racial make-up.

One other thing I take umbrage at in Murray’s thinking: forgetting that most African-Americans are part White. So which part is stupid?

And one more: Murray concentrates on the U.S. because so much testing is done here. The amount of testing done in other countries is, except for Europe, negligible. A few countries with a White/Black divide in the population come to mind: South Africa, Jamaica, The Bahamas, etc. and some in other, non-English-speaking places. It is hard for anyone familiar with South Africa in the 90s, when Murray wrote his book basing it on testing done earlier, to imagine taking seriously results from an Apartheid regime. The regime was weakened in 1989 and then dismantled in 1991. Murray wrote The Bell Curve in 1994. The tenacity of a racist interpretation of society is shown by a theme perpetuated this year, 2019, by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson that White farmers in South Africa were being systematically murdered by Blacks. They never give up.

Here’s another one to take umbrage at: presentism. Why people believe they can divine the thoughts of people in earlier times is beyond me. Reading diaries, letters, newspapers, and so forth from a period can give some insight, but how can anyone think that fifty years, a hundred, three centuries, a millenium or two and their effects on minds can be erased as we project our own values and assumptions back onto others is, indeed, beyond me. Pursuing my usual focus on African and African-American history and culture, how can one surmise what a slave-owning planter might have been thinking in 1790, or a slave of the same period. An obvious fault appears among high school students who cannot understand why slaves just didn’t run away. In a very pernicious manner this is followed up by the surmise that they must have been happy being slaves or two fearful and lazy to run. On the other end of those baseless assumptions is an out-sized focus on the few successful escapes, dramatic but few. Most of the so-called escapes were nothing more than a brief run into the woods to avoid punishment or an onerous chore. There were heroic attempts to establish maroon colonies and those deserve major attention. The truth is slaves had nowhere to run for the most part and patrollers and militia were not a pack of fools but trackers paid to locate runaways. Penalties were severe and successful escapes left loved-ones behind and unknown dangers loomed ahead. When the original cowboys, slaves from cattle raising regions of African, were sent out to the range in the back country for months at a time, that would have been ideal for running away but they did not. Think why.

Here’s one: languages die when people don’t follow the grammar book rules and over time people cease being able to understand one another. First principle: data. No such community has ever been recorded or found. Languages do change and change drastically, but everyone keeps up. Most interesting is when two different speech communities come together as when the Viking Norsemen invaded and settled in England; a good deal of our English speech is derived from that mixing of languages, although English came to dominate even though changed somewhat. The other side of that is when deaf children in Nicaragua who had developed very rudimentary sign language in their own homes and communities, isolated from other deaf people, were suddenly gathered together in a newly founded school for the deaf under the Sandinista regime. Mostly young people, they began working out common signs among themselves, developing a sign language peculiar to Nicaragua because it was a pariah regime that could not get advisers for the deaf at that time. Once a new generation of deaf children moved into the school, the first stage language was elaborated into a full-fledged sign language typical of those around the world. (Steven Pinker describes this linguistic event in The Language Instinct)

This one really bugs me: the conspiracy theorists who would have us believe that thousands of civil servants and soldiers dedicating their careers if not their very lives to serving the United States would hop on board a plan to subvert the country in some way. My favorite example is Jade Helm 15, troop maneuvers in Texas wherein the 1200 troops participating were to confiscate the weapons (hunting rifles, shotguns, target-shooting pistols, etc.) from innocent citizens (all White rural people from what I could tell) without a single soldier being alarmed enough to report the sacrilegious act against the Second and Fourth Amendments to the press or their congressperson. But wait! We now have 53 U.S. Senators supporting Trump’s selling out of their country. So maybe we do need to look into that Jade Helm 15 thing before there is a Jade Helm 16.

Basic concept: tabu or taboo. You go to throw a coconut into the surf just for fun and someone stops you, frantically saying it’s taboo. Why? It’s taboo. But why is it taboo? Not the point. It’s taboo. Don’t do it. Cultures are full of such things. So I noted today that Diahann Carroll died. Carroll goes down in history for her ground-breaking television program. What was ground-breaking about it? It broke a taboo. What taboo? She was Black and she played a professional, a nurse, with a kid she was raising. What was taboo? She was Black while doing that. A Black nurse raising a child – THAT was the show? THAT was taboo? OK, OK, let me take you back. Please take me back. You see, back then television networks were leery of putting any Black person on television. Why? Because Southern stations would boycott the show and they might lose sponsors. Why? Because she was Black. OK, take me back again. Why was this a problem? It was taboo. Only in the South? Lots of complaints would come in from everywhere. Why? Because she was Black. Why was that a problem? Because that was taboo.

Yes, it would be difficult to explain to the aliens why it was taboo but, unlike the coconut in the surf, it does have a foundation. The reason it was OK to deprive African-Americans of the vote was that they were easily corrupted; the reason they could not be hired in decent jobs was because they were lazy; the reason they couldn’t testify against a White man in court is that they were dishonest; the reason they could not be served in restaurants is because they were dirty; the reason they could not use the restroom with Whites is because their poop stank; the reason they could not go to school with Whites or even have decent schools was because they were stupid; the reason it was OK to treat them as non-human was because they were not human. To maintain that obvious absurdity, nothing could be allowed to penetrate the veil of racist bullshit. Thus, a TV show showing a competent, pretty, nice Black woman would undermine the White narrative that all Black women were either serving Whites or were whores.

I think the only way our contemporaries too young to have lived in that society can understand it a little is to undertake the herculean task of reading through mounds of newspaper articles, magazine articles, books, watching movies and TV shows and listening to radio shows, and on and on to hear the casual racism pop up continuously. Then they might get an inkling of why studio executives who had no personal animosity toward Blacks would quake at the idea of putting one on television. One Chevrolet executive cancelled a Dinah Shore show when she had Harry Belafonte, a Caribbean light-skinned man beloved by millions of White Americans, on her show and at one point he touched her arm.

You can dismiss incidents like these and dismiss my comments as overheated rhetoric, and that is why you will never understand the courage of Carroll and the executives who put on her “ground-breaking show.” Somewhere out there back in the late 60s a little Black girl decided she could be a nurse and a little White kid decided a Black person could be a nurse and a mommy. Taboo!

Oct. 6, 2019 Because so much of my reading revolves around African-American issues, a lot of these examples of poor thinking over which I take umbrage come from that area. Just now I randomly scrolled through some NPR stories and found one measuring the responses of White Liberals, White Moderates, and White Conservatives to the two questions: are African-Americans having difficulty progressing due to racial discrimination or is it their own failures. The responses were recorded in the 90s and every 5 years thereafter. Basically it shows most White people of all stripes believe Blacks’ problems in this society are the Blacks’ fault. That does not surprise me, and while I might take umbrage at someone’s not seeing how society’s treatment of Blacks has affected their upward mobility, what really bothers me to the point to umbrage is that I know from personal conversations, engaged in and overheard over the years, that when asked why they think Black people are at fault for halting progress, they will respond with an anecdote about some dumb thing a “Black guy” they knew did to lose a job or get arrested. So when people in the majority think like this, they can ignore the practices of the Ferguson P.D. and city hall and their effect on that “Black guy” and defend the cop who murdered Brown on the basis that he was just doing his job…. after shooting Brown in the back several times and then, when Brown turned around to, oh, I don’t know, beg for his life? protest? ask why? shoot him in the head. Nothing to see here, folks.

Here’s another one. You bring up an issue. Let’s say it’s corruption in big city politics in the U.S. “Like what?” you interlocutor asks. You mention a current on-going case. His response is, “Oh, so you’re concerned about City X.” No, you’re concerned about big city political corruption in general, not in just one city, but that is his way of dismissing the whole notion, by picking the one example you came up with apart, and thereby dismissing your concern. Medical people sometimes do the same thing when you bring in several symptoms or problems; they take the first one you mention and decide that is your chief complaint. They deal with that and then when you go back to several others you mention they tell you they’ve dealt with the major problem so go home and return if something else comes up. My wife currently is paying out a lot of money to her PCP and her treatment by her is entirely different. All of her issues are dealt with. It’s worth the cost. What if the police got reports of thieves hitting several stores and they only went to the first one reported and then washed their hands of the rest? First mentioned is not necessarily the chief problem and ignoring the range of complaints is not smart. Once you have heard them all, triage the range. Make the patient feel heard or the concerned citizen feel they’re being paid attention to.

More umbrage here on Oct. 17, 2019

When conservatives deny that racism underlies the way they view the world and its peoples. What books have been popular among conservatives? The aforementioned Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, and, of great portent, Patai’s The Arab Mind. I’ve read all of them and the racism sticks out. Of course, only Murray goes so far as to invoke 19th century scientific racism, contending that academics in genetics and psychology just won’t touch the topic because it is now taboo. Conservatives explain those taboos by claiming that it is because politicians want votes from people who are just plain inferior but still manage to vote. (Can you think why a mentally and morally dull person would want to vote? If you flunk an IQ test and still vote, do you get a cookie or a beer? Do all those Mexicans flow across our border just to vote in our elections, shout Ajua! and then go back home?)

Anyway, the other two books give us a picture of people without real agency outside their religion and culture, trapped in centuries of hide-bound thinking. This view was promulgated long ago by someone (Clemenceau?) on seeing the grand works of India, just said they will make great ruins. What else will they do with those works? This thinking is what led us to think invading Iraq would be a cakewalk, we’d be welcome as liberators (who isn’t happy to see an American?), and any holdouts could only throw rocks at us. Four thousand dead Americans later, a few Americans have changed their minds about the Iraqis.



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