Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A moderately interesting internet dust-up...

If you’d be so kind, please read this post at Sadly, No, one of my favorite left-leaning humor sites. Now, I realize you might not have the time, so allow me to give you an executive summary: the author of the post discusses an awesomely horrid article he found on a rightist website run by professional foaming lunatic and neo-red-baiter David Horowitz. The article in question is about the recent rape controversy at Duke University, and the author of the appalling piece (who’s hairline, by the way, seems to be interrupted by what must be some kind of lobotomy scar) takes the position that the victim of the crime is probably falsely accusing the lacrosse team and, moreover, exploiting her status as an African-American woman for social and material gain. Brad R. at Sadly, No points out that this is “deranged lunacy” and gives us several examples of the awful rape-justifying dumb-person “logic” this cretin drools onto the internet. In the course of this, Brad refers to David Horowitz as “D-Ho” and describes his website as “D-Ho’s Crack Den”.

Apparently, that caught the attention of, Ann Bartow, a writer at this blog, and she posted a comment saying that calling the right-wing website “D-Ho’s Crack Den” is “a little racist and sexist in its own right”. This seems to have touched off a small controversy. While the bloggers at Sadly, No have remained reasonably polite in their responses to her criticism (while at the same time not taking her terribly seriously), several of the commenters on their site have made nasty cracks at Ms. Bartow. This has led her to a long post of her own describing her ordeal on the Sadly, No comment thread, which you can read here. As you can see (and is made clear on her later post on the topic), it seems that Ms. Bartow has had a rough day. Because I’m afraid she seems quite angry and humorless. She also strikes me as rigidly defensive and unable to understand that many, if not most, people on the left don’t consider calling a right-winger and his stupid propaganda site “D-Ho’s Crack Den” to be racist and sexist at all.

This is interesting to me because it points out some of the festering disputes that affect those of us on the left. If I may be permitted to make crude dichotomies, it often seems as if the active, self-identified “left” has two separate and occasionally hostile camps. For lack of better terms, lets call them the academic-activist and unaffiliated lefts. The latter, which I belong to, is so dispersed and broad that it barely has any characteristics at all. Some of us are politically-active, some of us aren’t; some of us are cynical and ironic while others among us are hopeful and idealistic–the unifying theme, however, is a preference for progressive thought and an impatience with doctrines and organized advocacy. The academic-activist left, on the other hand, tends to be more classically vanguardist. They commit to their causes and their organizations and, as a result, often become more than a little hung up on their own ideological purity. So, while these people and groups often drive social change, they also run the risk of becoming brittle and insulated from the world they want to save.

A lot of the trouble, I think, comes from the fact that these have been hard years for progressives. As a result, they have become entrenched in the few spheres they haven’t been chased out of. This dovetails with recently-favored deconstructionist theories and results in many academic and advocacy-related people placing an excessive priority on language. So then we have Ms. Bartow showing up on a satirical website to say that, yes, this article blaming the victim is atrocious and inexcusable, but shouldn’t you watch your own language a little more? This is a mistake, a common and depressing mistake. By policing the language in this way, people like Ms. Bartow only enforce an empty and shallow sensitivity. They fail to encourage dialogue and they do nothing to advance the causes they care for. To my way of thinking, language is not where racism and sexism ought to be fought. That’s too easy. It’s easy to tell a progressive that they’ve slipped up and indulged in the vileness of those things because their language doesn’t agree with you. It is far more challenging and worthy to stand up against racist and sexist attitudes (such as the right-wing ravings Sadly, No was attacking in the first place) and behaviors (such as those of the Duke lacrosse team, if the accusations prove true). There’s a difference between being a scold and being an opponent, after all.

(I should say, at least parenthetically, that I don’t want to come down too hard on Ms. Bartow. I am not familiar with her work or her writing and I imagine it’s probably not very pleasant to be made fun of by a passel of comments-page dwelling reprobates. We probably agree on a great many things, if not on what’s funny and what’s offensive...)