Unwanted Opinions

Apr 27, 2018

TAA 0017 – C. Travis Webb and Seph Rodney discuss whether or not its fair to ostracize intellectuals that have unfashionable opinions. Athletes and entertainers are often given a pass for unpopular opinions, why not intellectuals too?

C.T. WEBB 00:16 Good afternoon, good morning, or good evening, whenever you happen to be listening. And welcome to The American Age podcast. Today I’m talking with Seph Rodney. Seph, how’re you doing?
S. RODNEY 00:24 I’m actually really good, even though I got up this morning and I thought I was going to be too tired to do my workout and all that. I actually found extra reserves of energy. So as the British would say, “I’m quite chuffed about that [laughter].”
C.T. WEBB 00:40 That’s great. I had the exact opposite experience yesterday. I have an Apple watch, and I was trying close my rings, which it just reinforces that I’m essentially a drone [laughter]. But I kept waiting, yesterday, because you have to burn a certain number of calories. I kept waiting to find second or third gear. And I just never did. It was just first gear the whole way, all the way to the finish line [laughter]. It was definitely not encouraged by my performance.
S. RODNEY 01:10 I like to say– I don’t really actually say this out loud, but I say it to myself when I’m– it’s that similar sort of analogy, first gear, second gear, third gear. I like to say, especially when I’m caught on the street in New York City, walking behind very slow-moving people [laughter], I like to say that I feel like I’m moving under impulse power [laughter]. You know?
C.T. WEBB 01:36 Yeah.
S. RODNEY 01:37 God. Damn. I want to go to warp speed. Come on.
C.T. WEBB 01:40 Not even full impulse power. One-quarter impulse power [laughter].
S. RODNEY 01:45 Exactly.
C.T. WEBB 01:47 So today, I had proposed a topic that I was hoping might be a little bit more contentious, between Seph and I. A little more controversial. And that is, I sent Seph a little audio memo. I was in the middle of doing something and I had a thought that occurred to me. It was around reading some opinion by an athlete. I don’t remember who it was. But the opinion was pretty ill-informed. And it was also transparently racist. Let me rephrase that if we want to be sort of responsible with our terms. Transparently prejudiced, right? So if we want to contain racism to its sociological definition of having access to the means of oppression, right, which is what it means in that context, I started thinking, “Well, okay. We often give certain types of public figures a pass for medieval attitudes about social groups, whether it be gender, race, heteronormativity.” Although we probably give them less of a pass now, in 2018, than we did even a few years ago. But I still think, for the most part, we tend to give certain social groups a pass. So I was starting to think, “Well, what about intellectuals?” Right? I mean, we toss out intellectuals, lock, stock and barrel, if they reveal what we perceive to be racist attitudes, homophobic attitudes, sexist attitudes–
S. RODNEY 03:20 Kevin Williamson.
C.T. WEBB 03:21 Kevin Williamson, right. So the writer that was hired by the Atlantic, and then is now– he got axed, as far as I understand. Now, I don’t know much about the Williamson thing, other than trying to get caught up with it in the news. So you might be able to educate me a little bit about that. So I wanted to propose that maybe we’re a little too quick on the draw. That maybe there is room for legitimate critique. Maybe there’s room for some ignorance around race and gender and still have informed critique, and still have that person be a valuable public voice. So Seph, why don’t you–?
S. RODNEY 04:06 So actually–
C.T. WEBB 04:06 –disabuse me of that [laughter].
S. RODNEY 04:10 Disabuse is such a great word. It’s such a $10 word [laughter]. Actually, given your rather gentle introduction. Part of me has started to shift as I was listening to you. Part of me started to think, maybe I don’t disagree as vociferously [laughter] as I thought I did, initially. But no, there’s a kind of hard kernel of me that disagrees with that position, and here’s why. And this might actually be taking you and the audience a bit of the long way around the barn, but the analogy is just occurring to me, now. Someone posed a question, rhetorically, on some video site or in some publication, why is it that conservative comedians– why aren’t conservative comedians considered funny? And part of the reason I came up with– I don’t think the writer actually made a good case for his or her positions. But the reasons I came up with, and I think I may have come up with them even before reading the article, is that there is a degree of self-awareness with comedians that are really funny. There’s a way in which they are willing– no, they are able to see the world in this sort of interstices, or like the in-between places, the places where– Jerry Seinfeld goes like, “Why is someone else pushing the button? The button is already pressed [laughter].” That kind of thing. It’s the observational humor. Not everybody finds that funny. But he does–
C.T. WEBB 05:54 That was not a bad impersonation, by the way [laughter]. I was a little bit caught off-guard by that, so [laughter].
S. RODNEY 05:59 But what he’s doing is he’s calling out something that we sort of see, but none of us have the sort of self-awareness to actually bring it to the surface and say like, “Why? Isn’t this crazy? Why would you push a button a second time? It’s already lit up. The elevator’s clearly not going to come any faster.” That kind of thing. There’s a degree of self-awareness, and enough self-awareness to actually be willing to say it, right? To say it out loud. To say, “Oh, here’s this ridiculous thing that we do.” And I think that conservative comedians, in my humble opinion, tend to lack the kind of self-awareness necessary to bring those things to the surface. To be able to laugh at them, laugh at themselves, and laugh at this kind of silly group behavior. And part and parcel of that inability to do that, I think that blind spot that prevents them from being self-aware, is their politics. I think, if you cannot see that the history of the United States is intimately tied up with the fate of people of color, that our entire concept of the social world, of it being a place of– I mean in the white settler ideology, it being a place of contest, of conquering or being conquered, that if you cannot see how that relates to your own conservatism and how it relates to the ways that black people have been understood in this country, not even treated, but just seen, just how they’ve been perceived, that seems to me to be the fundamental flaw, right? So my argument is that if you are prejudiced, and yeah, let’s parse it that way, prejudiced, racist, sexist, homophobic, la, la, la, right? If you have those burdens, I suspect, and it may not be always true, but I think it’s more true than not, that if you have these burdens, these inability to see another person whole, or see how they slot into your conception of the world, that is part and parcel of your inability to be self-aware. That is part and parcel of your intellect, part and parcel with your intellectual limitations. So I feel that those people, yes, people like Kevin Williamson, are blinkered. Kevin Williamson is clearly smart. He’s a smart man. He’s clearly a gifted writer, but he is, in fundamental ways, willfully not aware of the world around him.
C.T. WEBB 08:47 So I thought a whole bunch of things when you were going through that.
S. RODNEY 08:51 Extemporizing [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 08:52 Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, actually your critique of conservative comedians and our tribe not finding them funny, so let me try and localize it a little bit. I actually think it’s exact– I don’t want to specify it to disagree. I actually think you’re exactly right. I think this touches on a topic that we probably can’t get into today, but it’s something that you and I have talked about in other contexts, which is clearly conservative ideology is not, in its nadir, in the political, or economic realms, but in the cultural realm, I do feel like it is an ideology that is beleaguered. And there is not a great deal of room for flexibility there because I do think that people that have conservative ideologies feel very much on the out. So to have that kind of comfort in self-awareness, that self-deprecation, takes a kind of comfort in your own skin in order to be able to own that. Now, I mean, a lot of times that does come from people on the margins, right? I mean, so the fact that you get that kind of self-awareness is why marginalized communities, obviously I don’t have any numbers on this, but if I had to lay money on it, more sort of progressive, interesting, edgy art and intellectual work comes out of marginalized communities that into mainstream communities because you don’t have a reason to question yourself. So–
S. RODNEY 10:29 Which is why you get the brilliance of Richard Pryor, right? Or Chris Rock?
C.T. WEBB 10:32 Yeah. Sure, absolutely, yeah. Absolutely, yeah. And why Dave Chappelle can still be pretty edgy, actually. Even later in his life, with his most recent stand-up.
S. RODNEY 10:43 He’s incredibly insightful. He is incredibly, amazingly insightful.
C.T. WEBB 10:46 Yeah. So that’s one thing. And I want to comment on that because I think it’s a fair critique on your part. And for the people that are listening I want to also clarify something, because I actually think it’s problematic, which is the use of the term racism, and racist. A lot of people that are not academically trained or are not in tune with certain identity politics will say things, off the cuff, like, “Well, you know, black people can’t be racist. Mexicans can’t be racist. Only white people can be racist.” And what they’re referencing, whether they know it or not, is this idea that racism is tying run-of-the-mill prejudice bias to the institutional means to enact that bias. That’s the sociological definition of racism. So–
S. RODNEY 11:37 That you actually have the power to affect people’s lives. Yes.
C.T. WEBB 11:40 Yes. Yeah, so in 1950 Alabama, by this definition, you could literally not be racist as a black man or woman. That does not–
S. RODNEY 11:48 Right. Right. Didn’t have the power. Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 11:51 That’s right. That does not mean that a black man or woman could not be prejudiced, jingoistic, biased, whatever, right? Fill in the blank. So I do think in our contemporary context, it’s a very loaded word. It comes with a lot of baggage. I’m not saying that it should never be used, but I think that people that aren’t directly plugged in to academic vocabulary, it trips things that are not always productive. So to qualify those two things, to get to the meat of what you were saying, I wonder though, once we remove ourselves from our immediate sort of disgust at reprehensible opinions like that, and we step back 50 years, 100 years, to people that maybe we take inspiration from, writers that we take inspiration from, thinkers that we draw on, you probably couldn’t throw a stone and find one of them that was not anti-Semitic, racist, sexist. I mean, these were unquestioned attitudes towards the world.
S. RODNEY 13:05 And assumptions.
C.T. WEBB 13:06 Yeah. Assumptions about. And I’m not saying– and there were plenty that weren’t, right? You had a number of French thinkers in the Enlightenment, Denis Diderot for example. You and I have talked about him a bit. He knew that shit was crazy. He knew the idea that somehow there was a difference between white men and black men, or white women and black women, it was nonsense. It was just that colonial people liked tobacco and sugar. And so, they invented this whole ideology around it. So I don’t–
S. RODNEY 13:31 They invented a “nigger”. Yes.
C.T. WEBB 13:33 That’s exactly right. So I’m not saying there’s no-one. I’m not saying we shouldn’t hold them to account. I’m not saying none of that. But I am saying that I wonder if our inclination as intellectuals is to totalize and to narrativize something that is actually far more complicated and nuanced. And that in fact someone like Kevin Williamson, who might have, from what I can tell, just some crazy ideas about– I mean, I read the tweets around, “a woman should be hanged for an abortion,” is that– did I read? [crosstalk] to be correctly?
S. RODNEY 14:12 Yes. Yes. That’s the gist of it. And the excuse that the Atlantic editor-in-chief made about hiring him was that he didn’t realize that– he thought that that opinion was relegated, or rather, only expressed in a tweet. And he thought, well– or he articulated the qualification that, sometimes we tweet stuff in anger. So blah, blah, blah, let it go. But then a recording of Williamson saying this during a podcast surfaced, and he then upon made the decision to fire him.
C.T. WEBB 14:52 Did he have any– because I’m kind of soft on this idea that– so there’s this area that calls Twitter and Facebook, it’s like secondary orality, right? So let me, super quick. So orality is kind of a stage of development for human beings, right? We invented language, we could speak, we could– you could remember things in your head that weren’t in my head. And then we developed literacy which meant that we had an external mnemonic. So we had a way of storing information that we could get access to across time and space. Secondary orality is the idea that we have now taken literacy and mapped it onto speech. And so, speech utterances which are, by their very nature, messy and problematic, and not always 100% truthful or considered, now gets written on Twitter and Facebook because it’s so fast and so quick, and literacy has spread so rapidly that we sometimes just write some dumb shit that we might otherwise, prior to this, have just said dumb shit in person, and like, “Oh, yeah. That was really stupid.” So my question is a long preface to, did he disavow this opinion? Did he say like, “Oh, no. Wait. I don’t actually mean that?”
S. RODNEY 16:09 As far as I know, no. I mean, I think he’s pretty much– well, let me be clear. I do not know. I haven’t followed it that closely. But I think what we’re talking about in– and we can, I think, kind of pull the camera back and go more general right now, is we’re talking about opinions and like Williamson’s, right? So we’re talking about–
C.T. WEBB 16:26 Yeah, of course. Absolutely.
S. RODNEY 16:27 –we’re talking about genderist, sexist, homophobic, prejudiced, racist in some cases, ways of, as J. Alfred– rather as T. S. Elliot said in the Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, “When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, and how should I begin.” They’re pinning people to the wall with their constructions of women as people who are essentially murder– women who’ve had abortions as people who are essentially murderers and should be hanged. They’re pinning black people to the wall as people who gripe all the time and have no reason for this whininess and they should shut up and just put their shoulders to the wheel. That kind of thing. It’s those attitudes that we’re talking about. And I partly agree with you that there are people out there who are very capable intellectuals that have blind-spots. They do. But I think to some extent what we’re disagreeing on is my contention is that the blind-spot is so big that it actually gets in the way of growing as an intellectual. Whereas, I think you’re arguing that the blind-spot is just limited to that particular place.
C.T. WEBB 17:56 So I think I probably– so let us go then, you and I, to a place where– to world in which Kanye West gets to say dumb shit stuff that is just like–
S. RODNEY 18:08 That’s true. And it’s bonkers. It’s bonkers.
C.T. WEBB 18:11 –I mean, and no-one– and now, he’s an artist, so maybe you want to throw him into the category of people that are kind of allowed to say really stupid shit, but I mean, he’s one of the largest, most influential pop figures of the last decade, decade-and-a-half, maybe? And ellipses. I don’t know what to say. I just, I mean– so I don’t want to push–
S. RODNEY 18:36 Oh, that’s a good point. No, but you’re actually– you’re heading in the right direction. You’re right. Because that doesn’t dent his musical genius. You’re right about that.
C.T. WEBB 18:46 No. Yeah. No one’s taking that away from him. And no one does. I mean, I don’t see anyone taking that away from him.
S. RODNEY 18:53 You’re right. Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 18:54 I mean there’s the Twitter– his most recent thing, he endorsed some conservative figure. I don’t even–
S. RODNEY 19:00 Yes. Candace Owens. I actually responded to that on Twitter. I did. I responded to her.
C.T. WEBB 19:03 Oh, okay. And so, who is– so who is Candace Owens? I actually don’t know.
S. RODNEY 19:08 So I looked this up. She doesn’t have– I’m saying this, and I’m not saying this in any sort of mean-spirited way. She doesn’t have a great deal of intellectual bonafide. She is, I think, graduated from Rhode Island– not RISD, not Rhode Island School of Design, but some school in Rhode Island. I think she has an undergraduate on– or a Master’s Degree. I forget which one. She started out in some sort of important online platform. Sorry, I’m fudging this because I literally just read it yesterday and I don’t remember that much. But she then wanted to start this service that would sort of keep track of people who were accused of online bullying. And it’s essentially [inaudible] to create this register of people who were caught up in online bullying crises. And she got a lot of pushback from people who were bullied, including a woman that was involved in Gamergate, and basically abandoned it. And then she was tapped to be the outreach– the point person for outreach for, I think, something associated with the Trump campaign. So she’s kind of all over the place, and I’m not sure that she actually knows what she is doing, yet. But the tweet that she published, essentially said, and I’m looking for it here on my Twitter feed because, right, here we go. So she had tweeted out in response to Perez Hilton, Tom Arnold, and Shaun King, apparently attacking her, so she says. Part of her tweet is, I think just juvenile. She says, “Three white men.” Perez Hilton, as far as I know, is not white. And Shaun King is not white. But people like to call them that because they’re whatever. “Three white men rush to viciously attack the freedom of two black people who refuse to be pawns to a leftist ideology, it should ring as a wake-up call to the world about who the real racists are. None of you white men own my blackness.” And Kanye West has apparently replied to that saying, “I like the way that Candace Owens thinks.” I responded to her by saying, “It’s not a leftist ideology to argue that the lives of black people are valuable, have not been held in collective esteem, have been cavalierly ended by the state, and deserve to be defended. It’s simply being a moral thinking human being.” And that’s where that was left.
S. RODNEY 21:45 So she is someone who– and I really, it feels like her, if we can call it a political philosophy, it’s a nascent one if it is one, it’s really simplistic. I did catch a part of a video. She was somewhere making a public talk, which is when she got into it with BLM activists and this whole thing started. She said it’s victor versus victim mentality. And if you have a victim mentality you blah, blah, blah. And you end up going down this dark road to hell, blah, blah, blah. But if you have a victor mentality then it’s golden [inaudible] and you’re achievement, and you’re a star. It’s that kind of– it’s like who thinks like this? Come on.
C.T. WEBB 22:34 So a lot of people think like that. I wouldn’t want to apply it in that context. But I mean, that’s just a cliché for something that’s basically true. Right? I mean, it’s basically true that you’re– when I used to compete in martial arts many years ago, and probably no one cares about that, but I know you know that, and there was this– I forget the guy’s name but he always wore this t-shirt at every tournament, that your attitude determines your altitude. Which is, of course, incredibly cliched, and was probably on a Hallmark card [laughter] 10 years before that. And you know what? That shit is kind of true. If you reach a certain level of security, of material security, what you do with your life, and how your life looks to you is largely determined by your point of view. Now, on the other side of that bell curve, or not even that bell– I’m sorry. In the majority of that bell curve– because you’re talking about people that are at a very tail-end of the curve, right? So most people don’t have that luxury to have their attitude determine shit, because they’re working too hard, they don’t have the educational resources, they don’t have the emotional support. That is most human beings in human history, and perhaps even most human beings currently existent in the world today. But for the people that we are talking about, that are spending time on Twitter, where I am also, so I’m not judging it. But I’m saying we are very much in the canary seat in human social evolution, and even in contemporary history. And so, it’s not entirely wrong for someone to point out that your point of view and your feeling about your own life determines how your life looks to you. I don’t think that that’s totally misplaced. I think it’s tone-deaf when it’s not very carefully contextualized, as I just tried to do, because I think for most people, again, most people don’t get that luxury to have a point of view on their life in that way, right, for a variety of reasons.
C.T. WEBB 24:56 And so, I actually– to come back to the issue of, so Kanye West doesn’t get judged. His musical genius doesn’t get judged. Intellectual opinions or whatever. I’m not entirely on the side that I’m arguing for because I do think that it is a little bit more precarious when you are dealing with the kind of ugliness that still persists in the United States. So it’s one thing to have conservative ideas, or very liberal ideas about whatever the topic is, but to be in a position to shape public opinion, and to say something as callous as, “a woman should be hanged for having an abortion,” to be that zealous about something that there is such a fully articulated position on the other side, strikes me as pretty irresponsible. In just the same way that I would condemn someone on the left that has very knee-jerk opinions about conservatives, or something like that.
S. RODNEY 26:10 Right. And I just want to point out, and perhaps this is putting too fine a point on it, and this is not to take away from the kind of careful parsing that you’re doing, but I would not use the word irresponsible. I would use the word stupid [laughter]. And I say that wholeheartedly. Kevin Williamson, on some level, is stupid in saying something like that. I get it. He’s taking a moral, in his eyes, a moral stance [inaudible] that abortion constitutes murder therefor a murderer should be subject to capital punishment, punishment by the state for committing this unforgivable crime. But to say it exactly in the context that you just described, where this fully articulated argument on the other side, women should not be essentially farm animals to just produce children on demand, la, la, la, or should not be considered such, strikes me, if you’re doing that, if you’re making that argument in the face of this, in this context, that is a kind of stupidity, or it’s a kind of arrogance that is commensurate with stupidity [laughter] [crosstalk].
C.T. WEBB 27:22 Right. It looks so much like stupidity like they’re interchangeable.
S. RODNEY 27:25 Right [laughter]. It’s like, really? Who do you think you are? And yes, I’m not going to argue that it isn’t irresponsible, but the way I would–
C.T. WEBB 27:38 No, I understand. You’re putting it more forcefully. I appreciate that. And especially, coming from you, who I know to be completely willing to call things stupid on the other side as well [crosstalk] on the level side, I mean–
S. RODNEY 27:54 Exactly.
C.T. WEBB 27:54 –you have no problem with that, which I’ve always appreciated about you. And yeah, I mean if we’re putting it in those terms, yeah, it’s pretty dumb. I mean, it’s stupid. And so, we stuck with Williamson, which I think was a fair thing to do actually, because he was just in the news. I mean he really was just in the news. And–
S. RODNEY 28:20 And Candace Owen’s opinion about BLM I think is also rather– I mean, I don’t know. I’m not sure if I’m willing to go as far as to say stupid, but it is super blinkered. I mean to say that BLM activists are that white men are trying to shut up and define– sorry, shut her up and define her blackness. That’s just kind of dumb. It is. It’s just kind of– it’s not an intellectual position. It’s not.
C.T. WEBB 28:44 Yeah. Yeah. I mean, we’ve only got a couple of minutes left, but I do– so I agree that that also is stupid. I don’t have a problem using the word stupid. I don’t know why I’m hesitating. Here’s why I’m hesitating. I worry a little bit about the monochromatic brushstroke that BLM uses to paint American police practices. I mean there are a– I think it is very likely that in most major metropolitan areas that the people that do the most amount of good in high crime communities are the police. That community policing has shifted dramatically since the Rodney King beating. I mean there’s story upon story upon story about this. I mean, the LAPD went through a radical overhaul of their police practices after the Rodney King beating. Does that mean that I think that there aren’t cops out there that do some dumb shit? Does that mean that I don’t think that institutional racism clearly is alive and well in the United States? Nope. Don’t think that at all. It absolutely is. But to vilify an entire profession in that way, it strikes me as a pretty stupid social strategy, because all–
S. RODNEY 30:12 I don’t disagree with you. I do not disagree with you. I mean we’re parsing language here, so I would hesitate to use that word myself in relation to BLM, especially because I just think they’re so roundly vilified by lots of other people. But–
C.T. WEBB 30:27 Of course, they are. Of course. Yeah.
S. RODNEY 30:27 Right. But I do think it is really unwise to take the positions that they have and articulate them in the way that they have, because honestly– right, okay. So part of the problem that we’re always talking about, right, is a kind of myopia, in that people who we recognize as failing to fully see what’s in front of them, right? Candace, I’m blanking on her last name, now. Candace, what? Wilson? Candace? I’m think–
C.T. WEBB 31:07 Candace Candace.
S. RODNEY 31:08 Yeah. That’s funny [laughter]. Kevin Williamson, BLM, they suffer from a kind of myopia, that they are so angry, they are so full of piss and vinegar, that they can really only see their morals, or their world view, or their picture, their struggle, right? And they have a hard time seeing how that image, that passion, that cause has to connect to other people in ways that are moral, in ways that are logical, or rational. It can connect with them emotionally too, but okay. But it has to fire on several cylinders in order for the thing to actually work. And in order for the thing to be a viable cause. And it feels like when it comes down to it, what we’re getting at when we’re saying the word stupid, is we’re saying you cannot see past your own naval. That’s what you’re struggling with, right? That’s the lack of– in some ways it’s a kind of opposite of what I was saying earlier in that you’re so self-aware that you’re unaware of people who are outside the circle of yourself.
C.T. WEBB 32:25 Mm-hmm. Yeah, yeah. There’s just this really– when I think of the traits that I sort of would put, what I would sort of map alongside commensurate with stupidity, it would be that lack of nuance. That lack of sort of taking yourself out of that position, because if we’re talking about institutional racism, I tell you what, we’re talking about something way more fucking difficult than just the policing. I mean, institution– this is where the things like the kind of the intellectual underpinnings of the ideas of institutional racism or institutions shaping our thinking isn’t uniform-wearing cops. It’s the entire top to bottom culture and educational system that structures our thinking in ways that produce these blind-spots. That is a much more difficult beast than cops in riot gear. It’s just way harder to deal with.
S. RODNEY 33:23 Yeah. So I guess we’ve come to the point where we just–
C.T. WEBB 33:27 All of you all are stupid [laughter]. Seph and I are the smart ones. Just put us in charge of all of your social movements. I think that’s where we’re at [laughter].
S. RODNEY 33:37 That’s funny. Yeah. I think you should have the last word on this one, Travis.
C.T. WEBB 33:44 I think I just had it. I think that’s good. I think that we’ll actually end on kind of an absurd note. So [laughter]–
S. RODNEY 33:48 All right. Sounds good.
C.T. WEBB 33:49 Seph, I appreciate the conversation, and I’ll talk to you soon.
S. RODNEY 33:52 Okay. Take care.
C.T. WEBB 33:53 You too.


First referenced at 13:06

Denis Diderot

First referenced at 08:20

T.S. Eliot


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