Sunday, May 14, 2017

Stop quoting Havel and behaving like Brezhnev

East German Trabant, photo by By Adam Jones, Ph.D.
East German Trabant
About a year and a half ago, Yale University sent out an email in advance of the Halloween season, asking students to choose their costumes with some cultural sensitivity. One of the senior residents charged with supervising residence life, Erika Christakis, took exception to this email and distributed her own rejoinder. Student activists in turn protested the email and accused both Dr Christakis and her husband failing to properly supervise residence life. In the end, both Dr. Christakis and her husband left the residence program, an outcome regretted by the libertarian conservative writer Conor Friedersdorf, and even more strongly deplored by Rod Dreher.

In his argument, Rod Dreher quotes, as he frequently does, Valclav Havel's essay The Power of the Powerless. In common with many conservatives who quote Havel, he seems to think power means the ability to say distressing things on "woke twitter", and consider professors who give into "political correctness" the modern equivalent of the Havel's metaphorical green grocer, who puts a "workers of the world unite" sign in the window. I disagree. I think Dreher's argument fundamentally distorts the question of where the real power lies in his society, and where the implied analogy to the Soviet block of Leonid Brezhnev applies.
The defining characteristics of the Soviet state included the brutality and reach of its enforcement and penal institutions. Havel does not refer to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipeligo in his essay because his readers, in the East or the West, knew about it all too well. The moral cowardice and emotional dishonesty Havel's essay targeted existed in a larger context of repression and state violence.

Today the American carceral state imprisons a greater proportion of the population than Brezhnev's Soviet state ever did.

An architect of the policies leading to the American carceral state has admitted he and his colleagues designed the policies to facilitate political and racial repression.

The Christakises offended some of the students in the residences they supervised. Those residents expressed their offence and explained why they felt offended. Some of them explained their feelings with such intensity they left no place for courtesy. Some of them expressed their displeasure by showing they did not accept the authority of the Christakises as mentors; by refusing to accept their diplomas at graduation, for example. Nothing anyone has yet reported any student saying or doing approaches the routine brutalities of the American carceral system.

In the section of her email that provoked some of the heaviest criticism, Erica Christakis wrote:
...if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.
The people directly affected by the kind of stereotypical and degrading Halloween costumes at issue here have not experienced the "free and open society" Dr. Christakis recalls, and which, apparently, she thinks all Americans enjoy. They are descended from generations of trauma, from slavery and genocide and displacement. They come to Yale having dodged the school to prison pipeline feeding the carceral system. Their families may have cousins, brothers, fathers, aunts, mothers swept up by that carceral system, and returned, if they returned, to curtailed opportunity and political disenfranchisment.

Imagine some idealistic person suggested Havel's greengrocer should "talk to" his local political officer and explain why he doubted to solidarity of workers Marx aspired to. Mr. Friedersdorf might, and from my reading Rod Dreher certainly would, find the suggestion offensive, reflecting a misunderstanding of the dynamics of the Soviet power structure. Yet somehow, neither Conor Friedersdorf nor Rod Dreher connect the American carceral culture with the ability of a racialized Yale student to "talk to" a white fellow student, steeped in privilege, about their offensive costume. Neither writer, nor for that matter Erica Christakis, connects the brutal reach of the American carceral culture to their notion of a free and open society. They do not lament the manner in which the tendrils of the American reach from Riker's Island to the quad at Yale; instead, they write as though the carceral system did not exist, or at least as though the carceral system and the educational system existed in two separate planes of existence.

I consider it quite reasonable to lament the effects of the carceral culture and the culture of white supremacy in American institutions of learning. I consider it irrational, if common, to deplore "political correctness" while ignoring the oppressions fueling the intensity of feeling behind the social justice movement. But I consider it highly inconsistent to use Valclav Havel's signature essay to defend the current American order, and by implication its carceral culture, even as it sweeps in a higher proportion of Americans than Brezhnev's Gulag incarcerated Soviet citizens.

No comments: