As a white man who’s easily mistaken for Native American, Latino, and Arab, to name a few, I’ve had a curious experience with my whiteness. Due to being raised by an unambiguously white family in a mostly middle-class environment, I’ve benefited as much as most Caucasians from white privilege. The instances of racism I’ve encountered have been few and haven’t seemed impactful, an experience I think of as sharply distinct from that of most non-white people .
I grew up in the early 90s. Blue-collar republican politics and small town Catholicism laid the foundations of my world view. I grew up with the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Magic Johnson on the Wheaties box. A white culture that espoused a post-racial society decades before the term was coined.
Even as I developed a leftist, “counterculture” identity, I developed it within the yolk of whiteness. American television was my country. That was my language. As a socially awkward introvert in a small town, most of the racial insults spit at me from other white kids went over my head. Moving to suburban Virginia Beach when I was 11, it may as well have been Miami. For the first time I was interacting with Blacks, Asians, Latinos, all with their own narratives of race and history that conflicted with or disregarded my own. Hearing many of them extol racist and homophobic views was a shock. Eventually, it dawned on me how much I had seen other races as less than people, as victims or objects.
I developed the kind of racism a lot of white men do. Looking back, it seems obvious how much of it was the burgeoning aggression that accrues among any group of adolescents. We create irrational beliefs and convictions based on events governed by hormones. Why do so many of us carry them into adulthood? Certainly more white guys messed with me than black guys, but internally, I use those memories of confrontation with Blacks as a pretext to profile. To this day, a black person my age or younger will put me on edge sooner than a white person in the same clothes. It doesn’t matter that I know this is a prejudice, there’s a gut reaction I still live with that leaves my perception flawed. Of course I do this with all races. But this perception is constantly reinforced by the American propaganda of black inferiority.
White people often ask: “what can we do to fight racism?”
Black people have always said, “talk to your people,”
to which we’ve replied, “is there anything else?.”
No one wants to call up the folks and start a conversation about race. No one wants to roll over in bed and say, “honey, let’s talk about you saying ‘nigger’ all the time.” But conversations about race will inevitably come up. What is required of us is a greater will to take those opportunities instead of letting it pass because we don’t want to appear confrontational or naive, or we don’t want to lose our cool and sound off. And of course, we don’t want to deal with the typical reaction that merely asking why a white friend said something related to race will illicit. “I’m no racist!” As if the only reason to talk about race could be to shame someone. But that’s one of the main things race relations in America actually need, more honest conversations.
The activism in Ferguson and across the country since Michael Brown’s death have put police brutality, and the institutional racism that enables it, front and center in the mainstream media. And kept it there, forcing us to examine how power and abuse is perpetuated every day, often by white people simply “not being racist.” Emily Pothast expounds on this theme in her article, True Confessions of a White Supremacist.
What is especially insidious about racism is that it’s so easy to argue that it’s natural, a necessary evil. That it can’t be remedied, only ignored or apologized for. To be sure, we all develop persistent prejudices and reflexes, but to pretend that they are unchangeable or innate is fatalistic and lazy. In Race Matters, Professor Cornel West artfully challenged much of the prevailing notions about blackness and progress in America.
“Hence, any claim to black authenticity- beyond that of being a potential object of racial abuse and an heir to a grand tradition of black struggle- is contingent on one’s political definition of black interest and one’s ethical understanding of how this interest relates to individuals and communities in and outside black America. In short, blackness is a political and ethical construct. Appeals to black authenticity ignore this fact; such appeals hide and conceal the political and ethical dimension of blackness.”
In 2016 it remains an open question if we as white people will show the same rigor in examining the political and ethical dimensions of whiteness.
Thursday, I attended a reading by Juan Thompson, son of journalist Hunter S. Thompson, at Powell’s City of Books. His memoir, Stories I Tell Myself, spans his life growing up in Aspen, Colorado, up to his father’s suicide in 2005. While not a biography, it is very much the story of the elder Thompson told through the life of his son, a proposition the author admits is wildly subjective, steeped in the fog of memory.
He read a series of letters between him and his father, who he has always called Hunter, from
1982, when he traveled to Boston for college. Juan was soft spoken and reserved. He looked like a well dressed professor (he works in IT in Denver). He began writing the book soon after the death of his father. Why? To complexify the myth of the renegade drug addict journalist chasing the wildest true stories, adrenaline, and his own weird sense of justice. To tell the story of a man of extremes beyond the cartoonish specter that delights and horrifies our American psyche. A major theme, of course, is relationships between fathers and sons, how they move and change from childhood, through adolescence, into the Fall of middle age. He writes about attempts to relate closely in adulthood, the brief successes, the resignation to gaps unbridged.
It is also the story of a man suffering the results of a lifetime of excess, a story he believes his father would want him to tell as honestly as possible, but only now that he’s gone. Deterioration into immobility, dependence, and most painful of all, the loss of the ability to write.
Afterward, he took questions from the small audience.
“From the letter, it sounded like he really believed in your ability to write. You said you resisted that. Did you feel like you bonded with him in some way by writing this book?”
He described gaining new insight into his father’s life by writing. How he could finally understand the way he would procrastinate for days, weeks, before finally setting down to write, and how seriously he would take it. This was Hunter’s purpose, Juan maintains. More than being a father or a journalist, or a an object of fame, he wanted to be a great writer.
“Did you use an editor?”
“I was surprised to discover what editors have become. A combination of recruiter and project manager. The just don’t have the time anymore, to edit. I hired someone myself to do that because at a certain point, I couldn’t quite see it clearly.”
“Did he ever meet Garry Trudeau?”
“No. Not to my knowledge. It would not have been good. Hunter hated him, he tried to sue him, and sent many very threatening letters.”
Those familiar with HST’s letters, collected in The Gonzo Papers and other books, will recall the venomous invective he was prone to hurl at enemies who’d never spoken his name, much less caricatured him. Along these lines, Juan recommended his father’s obituary of Richard Nixon, He Was a Crook. Nixon features heavily in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, along with Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and George Wallace. A stark and readable book if you’ve got election fever.
I have been a fan of HST’s writing since I was 17 in the late 90s, and remember where I was when I heard that he had shot himself. I remember thinking “what will things be like now?”
His last book, Hey Rube, a collection of columns by the same name for ESPN, excoriated the Bush Administration and the rabid public that voted for him twice in between literary reverie and old school sports writing . It will hopefully gain more mainstream credibility with age as time catches up with his reportage.
“Have you forgiven your father for killing himself?”
“So many people have written to me and in the press that they felt angry. I can understand, but I didn’t and haven’t felt that way. I would have liked for him to have been around for a few more years for my son’s sake, so that they could have had that time.” He again mentioned the gloom of Hunter’s final days as he lost more and more control of his body.
“It just made sense if you knew him.” 3:19:16
I was initially nonplussed when my girlfriend suggested we drive from Portland to North Dakota to attend a lecture series put on by the North Dakota Humanities Council.
She wanted to see journalist Jon Ronson speak about his recently published book “So You’ve been Publicly Shamed”, an insightful investigation into the culture of social media and the growing consequence of digital reputation. It mirrored the theme of the Humanities Council’s Gamechanger event- How is Technology Changing Humanity?
Ronson is a consummate reporter who’s published several books exploring a number of fringe communities. His voice concisely documents the “destruction” of several individuals carried out in the 21st century pillory of the world wide web. I eventually read it and had to concur that it was superior writing. Ronson doesn’t just recount the stories of victims, pressing his subjects for their interpretation of the phenomenon as it replicates itself hour after hour on the web. He interviews judges, politicians, and academics, producing a brief history of shame and punishment.
At the moment, I was in the middle of “Who Owns the Future”, whose author’s name I was shocked to see below Ronson’s- Jaron Lanier.
The book is a surprisingly readable analysis about the effect of the modern web on our society, principally the many industries digital networks have disrupted and in some cases eviscerated– music, journalism, and publishing. Lanier warns of near future targets such as health care and customer service, not to stoke fears, but to urge engagement and recognition that nothing about the internet and technology is accidental, but the result of design- design that end users should be demanding place humans at center stage. Don’t take it for a luddite manifesto; Lanier has worked in computer science since the 70s, engineering some of the most groundbreaking virtual reality technologies in the world.
What were the odds of the authors of books we were both currently engrossed in speaking at a conference within driving distance? What else would we do but rent a car and plan a road trip to the middle of one of the most desolate states in the country?
Though he spoke in the middle of the roster, Richard Van Eck seemed make the most proximate delivery of the night given the venue and audience. His talk was billed The Power of Video Games to Reshape Learning.
His closing word to the wise? That, concerning education, we must decide the outcome we want students to have and work backward from this goal to create a structure that can produce it, because if we simply try to incorporate video games and other emerging technologies into our existing school systems, the result will likely be refurbished mediocrity at best.
I wondered what the audience really made of his presentation. It seemed comprised mostly of educators, many, one of the event’s hosts informed us, were sent on scholarships from their respective schools and colleges in efforts to keep them relevant to modern student bodies.
Van Eck’s stories of out-of-class computer obsession as a youth in the early 80s brought to mind some comments by Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian Literature Professor and author of several famous books from the 60s and 70s dealing with the effects of different mediums on human behavior and perception on a mass scale. He claimed that television had created a new environment for all young people in the mass media societies. For the first time in centuries for anglo-americans wherein information, the substance of education, was more available and efficiently consumed outside of schools than in, creating historic shifts in cultures, industries, and social relationships. He reiterated his premise in The Medium is the Massage, War and Peace in the Global Village, and Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man”, as well as countless interviews, that electricity and mass media had retribalized western society, eliminating an ironclad foundation of the printed word, giving us “an ear for an eye”, with myriad destabilizing effects on our very psyches.
The crowd at Gamechanger was far from some of the myopic embittered conference scenes I’ve been privy to, but I couldn’t help but think that many were politely balking at the idea that their institutions were fundamentally unsuited to adopting the mediums most likely to engage their students, and may indeed require replacement rather than reform. Time will tell.
Bioethicest and biotechnology expert Lori Andrews illustrated many of the real world consequences of the modern love affair with social media in her presentation I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy. Produced a jaw dropping laundry list of Americans fired over dubious quotes on Twitter, indicted by police from contextless photos on Facebook, and students spied on in their homes by school funded devices. Besides the stories that could be shrugged off as salacious outliers of a mostly benign digital landscape, Andrews went on to detail the new normal of internet recon major employers use to determine who is hired in the post-privacy world order. She also recounted her Social Network Constitution, available for perusal online.
Transhumanism, singularities, and the parameters of personhood were analyzed by religious scholar and computer scientist Noreen Herzfeld, who argued persuasively against the notion that uploading a human brain, no matter how sophisticated a procedure we may one day design, will genuinely achieve immortality, at least as most imagine the concept. A mind in a program run on a computer is not the same as a living person. Is it even still a real intelligence, exorcised from a body subject to chemical reactions and encounters with other beings in physical space? Immortality has throughout history been portrayed in all human cultures as a Faustian proposition. Herzfeld is dismayed at the credence many currently pay to the prospect of digitally procured life extension and eagerness to anthropomorphize emerging technologies.
It seemed oddly fitting that the closing speaker of a conference fraught with cautionary tales and invocations of insidious threats to come would be an advocate of virtual reality who claimed to use zero social media.
Jaron Lanier is a unique speaker, jumping from past to present seamlessly, interrupting himself on a regular basis without losing momentum, elucidating dense scientific theories without excessive jargon through stories of personal friends from Silicon Valley and intellectual ancestors from the near and distant past. One such was Alan Turing, the subject of several recent biographies and films, claimed by many to have put forth the scientific basis for artificial intelligence. Turing was a brilliant British mathematician who cracked an historic German code during World War 2 that some say was crucial to the Allies winning the war. He was also a gay man forced to live in denial and later hounded into quack medical treatments for his “mental illness” that likely led to his suicide. Lanier deftly connected some of the ideas Turing put forward near the end of his life concerning artificial intelligence to some of the bright new tropes of the day such as web 2.0, big data, and predictive algorithms. To be sure, there are innovations to be found in these ideas, but most are double-edged swords, equally capable of propelling us backwards into neurotic spirals of narcissism and self-fulfilling prophecy. Are the new platforms we pour our personal data into really superintelligent or are we retarding our expectations and perceptions to make them seem that way? Lanier remains optimistic, positing that technology can indeed save us, but only if we make conscious efforts to design it to do so. Not a given in our current race to the future.
When greeted with near silence at his question of who in the audience has experienced a virtual reality program such as Occulus Rift, Lanier marveled that this would probably be one of the last audiences he’d speak in front of that would answer as such. During the closing discussion when all the speakers returned to the stage, Lori Andrews expressed great trepidation at the effects mass virtual reality would have on people, and he conceded that it may be the worst thing that could happen, as well as the best. But far from being an escape from the pains and struggles of real life, Lanier says the most accurate description of VR working properly is a “consciousness-recognizing machine”. There is a moment, he claims, in every users’ experience exploring a computer generated environment when the brain “believes” in the virtual world and the human being experiences their own perception in a radically new light. 11:8:15
After 9/11 we snapped into paralysis. Americans from all walks of life acquiesced to a jingoist state of obedience with shocking speed. The journalists who were supposed to inform us did not. The leaders we elected to lead us looked to war profiteers for guidance. It was a dull, hard, pitiful 6 years to live through before people, much less the media, would tentatively return to openly criticizing the administration.
The worst part? I knew that history wouldn’t remember them as poachers and repo-men of liberty, but as its champions. Unlucky everymen who, in the face of terror, made some forgivable mistakes in the fight to defend us. Bush would be remembered as a foolish, but brave man who ushered America out of its cold dark night, instead of further into the void.
Our failure to restrain the war machine, and confront the exploitation of weaker states that is the true cause of terror, slyly excised from the record.
Only in the past few years have I begun to think that this won’t be the last word. I hear my friends scoffing, but it’s true. It won’t bring anyone back, or secure the future, but they will be remembered as failed imperialists and looters of the public. That’s not much, but I haven’t looked forward to that much in years. 7:31:15