Monday, March 27, 2006

The Dionysian Trap and the Promise of Philosophy.

The image accompanying this post will probably been blocked. It may be found at: or

Orlando Patterson, "A Poverty of the Mind," in The New York Times, March 26, 2006, at p. 13.
Nicholas Kristoff, "A Woman Without Importance," in The New York Times, March 26, 2006, at p. 13.

I noticed an Op-Ed in the Times by Orlando Patterson focusing on young African-American males. Professor Patterson questions the accuracy of social scientific approaches -- when they are regarded as exclusively valuable and important -- in understanding educational failure among young minority men and their frequent turn to crime. The attractiveness of street culture ("The Dionysian Trap") may be more helpful on this issue.

Joblessness, poor housing and other "factors" that can be weighed and analyzed "statistically" are preferred by scholars seeking to avoid cultural (or, indeed, profoundly political) explanations of such phenomena. I think this is because such explanations are not considered sufficiently "rigorous" and are not the kind of "theories" or "studies" respected in academia, since they are hardly the concerns of serious scholarship in a scientific age. After all, the important thing for university professors is tenure and promotion, the social benefits and cognitive value of their works are deemed secondary. Politics, especially an engament with thinkers like Marx and Freud, may be a bad move, career-wise.

I agree that culture is probably as important as economics in explaining the tragedy of young urban males. African-Americans provide the model emulated by all other subcultures. Similarly, culture explains the curious mating rituals and behaviors among tenured faculty at Yale University. Culture is not something to ignore -- and yes, it is necessary to say this -- in seeking to understand human social behavior.

Young African-Americans or Latinos do not receive validation or respect (in Hegelian terms "recognition"), by knowing Elizabethan poetry. Such a curious interest -- if it is discovered -- is more likely to result in a "guy" getting his head bashed in. It is "uncool" to be bookish. Much more so today than in the past. Professor Patterson writes:

... a cultural explanation of black male self-destructiveness addresses not simply the immediate connection between their attitudes and behavior and the undesired outcomes, but explores the origins and changing natures of these attitudes, perhaps over generations, in their brutalized past. It is impossible to understand the predatory sexuality and irresponsible fathering behavior of those young men without going back deep into their collective past.

In a culture that identifies worth and merit, granting respect and status, solely on the basis of wealth or power (things which most of those young men do not have and are not likely to have) the only way to get the respect given to their white counterparts is through violence. Those white rivals are seen at the mall, with very attractive young women, purchasing all of the things that young minority men would also like to have. In the thinking of those young minority men, the only way to get respect is through violence and money. Money is acquired through violence. So is recognition from the very people who are, otherwise, contemptuous of those young men.

I have experienced that look of disdain and insulting disregard for one's opinions and status on the part of some affluent people in this society, long after I was young and indistinguishable from other urban males. Even (or especially) in upper middle class settings, there are humiliations for urban men. Minority men, no matter how accomplished, are in for some insults for the rest of their lives in American society, sometimes much worse.

When the same asshole who needed your help to survive a law school course is hired by the law firm that will not look at your resume and then treats you like shit when he sees you at the courthouse, pretending that he does not know you, you realize that this person is already an excellent candidate for the judicial position that he will occupy soon enough. Such a person will not be targeted for destruction by criminal conspiracies or experience the destruction of his writings by protected hackers. He will be deemed a "safe" player in the system, a guy who "goes along to get along." John?

As a young minority male, your parents will be lucky to pay the rent this month, so they can't help. The media "models" crime for you and your cultural heros solve all problems by kicking ass. What you have to be and do is not difficult to figure out under such circumstances. Hence, the attractiveness of a "gangster" life, which is intended by the culture to be attractive for young African-American and most poor young men. (Only one new "error" discovered so far.) Probably for the same reason that an Internet image of an African-American actor playing "God" in a movie is offensive enough to be obstructed when I try to post it in this blog. (See "New Jersey's KKK Police Shocker.")

No one is going to make you C.E.O. of Time/Warner at 16 (and the person who holds that job, incidentally, happens to be an African-American!), but you are convinced that in order to get that cheerleader to notice you, it is necessary to step out of a Benz' in an Armani suit, wearing a gold Rolex and your toughest expression, like Denzel Washington or Wesley Snipes, or like Andy Garcia in The Godfather III, or Al Pacino in Scarface. So what is the answer? How do you get those things?

You may decide to develop an elaborate plot in order to become what, you assume, she wishes you to be. You may get good grades, go to grad school, get a job in accounting, dress conservatively, work sixteen hours a day for twenty years and become Vice President in Charge of Marketing. However, the Machiavellian "payoff" (as it were) will not arrive until some point in your mid-fifties, if at all. This is "unsatisfactory," as they say in the therapeutic community.

Alternatively, you can go out and commit crimes and get money and recognition right away, except that you will probably be dead or in jail by the time you are twenty-five. McDonald's is not an option. Values at home do not come from "Dad," who not only does not know best, but is never around, because he is in jail, or dead.

Your mother works all day and half the night, but is lucky to be able to pay the rent and feed you. Sometimes the electricity gets shut off because it has not been paid for a few months. You may not have cable. Your clothes look like shit. There are no books in your home and it is always noisy, crowded, dirty. On Saturday nights the police show up to arrest one of the neighbors or maybe somebody in your home who "got a little rowdy."

You see your mother and other family members treated disrespectfully all the time. You are the subject of patronizing, insulting condescension on the part of persons of both genders who are morons, but are white, wear suits every day to work, live in the suburbs and drive a nice car. Everyone tells you that "politics is bullshit," America is "a lie," there is no "God," morality is about "getting yours because the other guy is going to get his," women are "all about the money and that's it," and you only get "respect and attention when you've got money."

I wonder why kids have trouble learning the right values these days?

The results are not difficult to predict or anticipate. Mysteriously, that young man will probably not do well on the SAT. Perhaps he will not go on to study cosmology at Princeton. I wonder why? That young man was me, to some degree. My solution years ago continues to be the solution of many others. "Splitting" or dividing the self into a persona that reads for four or five hours a day -- usually nothing related to the boring stuff at school -- goes to museums or films, writes or paints; and another persona that spends time with friends, in the old days doing idiotic, "young male" stuff, while trying to avoid serious trouble.

I actually believed in America's promise, in the reality of the legal process and in politics. My experiences have tempered my enthusiasm for the legal system, but (foolishly) I am still hopeful about America's promise. I say this after experiencing hacking, obstructions of my cable signal, insertions or "errors" and removal of letters from my essays, dozens of annoying phone calls from computerized telemarketers at all hours, including early Saturday morning phone calls from the "Hispanic Bar Association." I doubt it.

Many young men today will not make it to forty-six and standard disillusionment. Nihilism and apathy, crass materialism and violence, sexism (which makes both young men and women into victims), and persistent, insidious racism will destroy them, some more quickly than others. Yet this plague, this Holocaust afflicting young men and women of color will be ignored, for the most part, by society. It will be ignored by judges and courts contributing to the problem. It will be ignored by politicians, hoping to cut a deal to bring public expeditures to their districts, where they have many friends who are "contractors" of one sort or another, contractors who will find a way to show their appreciation. Right, Senator Bob?

Two million of our young men and women, overwhelmingly African-American and Latino, are in prisons. Corporations that are building and running those prisons -- usually hiring minority people as "frontpersons" -- will make a fortune, paid for with your tax dollars, for doing so. It is cheaper to send those young men and women to Harvard than to keep them locked up. Yet it is preferable to many in our society to incarcerate young minority males than to educate them. This is probably because of all the money that can be scammed by crooks profitting from the prison industry. Don't let them fool you about that. They -- afluent whites mostly -- want those scary kids in jail. Cops are there to protect them, they secretly believe, and not you in blue collar land. They have a point.

On the same page of the newspaper is an article about a young woman in Pakistan, kidnapped on her way home from school, forced into a brothel, beaten, raped, reduced to her sexual function, deprived of all self-esteem, kept naked in a bare room. She miraculously escaped her confinement, but is now a victim of social stigma in her society, nevertheless, because of this sexual assault on her.

She is now the target of litigation to restore her to the control of the loathsome brothel keeper, who will receive the assistance of police (who are paid off, just like in some American communities, for example, in many sections of New Jersey), and the help of courts, lawyers, judges in continuing to torture that young woman. Her sexual acts -- which were forced upon her -- are deemed to make her "unclean" and "sinful." Her sexuality is both her only source of identity and a category of guilt for this young Pakistani woman. Some things are universal, sadly, since women are even more disadvantaged than men in both the richest and poorest societies. They are demonized for the very sexuality that is, often, their only measure of worth or importance.

Much the same reduction to sexual function is true for young women in the United States, especially poor and minority girls. Those young women see, on a daily basis, women wearing highly revealing attire in nose-bleed heels, reduced by the media to their physical attractiveness. They see smiling mannequin-like "models" on red carpets, magazine covers, television. The women that girls are taught to admire are, essentially, sexual objects. Whatever their other achievements may be, they will be trivialized by comparison with issues of appearance.

The message is that your worth, as a young woman, depends on your sexual attractiveness and nothing else matters much about you. This is to make a young woman's dignity a function of the way mostly men regard her, of her physical attributes, and to turn physical appearance into the only meaningful source of self-esteem. This is also to make young women "obsolete" by age twenty-five. It goes a long way, in my mind, towards explaining bulimia and other eating disorders, together with related forms of self-destructiveness. As a father, this is a subject of some concern to me. At fifteen, my daughter has suddenly become a "vegan" and I worry about whether she eats well enough.

In Hollywood, a woman (regardless of how fine an artist she may be), is essentially finished as a leading actor or actress, whatever the preferred term is, by age thirty-five, forty tops. Exceptions are quite rare. The energy and work that is required to maintain physical attractiveness, sexuality that is agressive and yet not to appear as anything but innocent and "virginal," is all-consuming. The result is self-destructive behavior, promiscuity, and a mysterious lack of interest in studying Continetal philosophy at Duke.

When combined with the same nihilistic messages received by young men or the well-meaning relativism and empty, idiotic anti-male ideology of many so-called "radical feminists," or the "politically correct" thought police, it is unlikely that those young women will fare much better than their male counterparts. Bring Christian fundamentalists (with their tenth century solutions to contemporary social troubles) into the picture and the situation seems hopeless. All of these groups have agendas that have nothing to do with the wellfare of those young people, male or female, suffering from discrimination and sexism, alienation and confusion about values.

Violence for young men; sex for young women; that is what our society offers minority and poor kids. If they live in Scarsdale, Connecticut, of course, then these things will be taken up in middle age -- as they should be -- along with "art appreciation" courses at a local college.

Only one conclusion is possible: things are pretty fucked up. We need to think. We need to talk to one another. What is a good or truly human life? How are the values of love and beauty essential to such a life? How are we required to treat one another in order to live such a life? How can we think about these things today and about changing the culture, so as to allow young people to develop into healthy men and women? How can I be worthy or deserving of love? How should I love others? What do my answers to these questions have to do with being a "person"? Who do I trust, as a teacher, on these issues? What do I really want in life?

The greatest challenge is finding a way for that conversation to take place today, in a language that will make it accessible to those same young men and women. Hollywood's contribution to this discussion and assistance in meeting this challenge is essential. Cultural factors must become a component in any governmental or community project aimed at coping with these social ills. Aesthetic theory must be invoked too. Unfortunately, a documentary with Nancy Reagan advising kids to "just say no" is unlikely to solve the problem.

These areas of inquiry, like philosophy, are the playground of a lot of highly privileged people, mostly white men, who attend Harvard University and now wear bow ties to demonstrate their hipness. We must do better than this. We must rethink these issues, inviting everyone to a national, non-traditional conversation on these cultural and philosophical troubles that we face.

Maybe we should give a call to the Wachowski brothers ("let's do lunch!"), Harvey Weinstein, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee and other film makers and shoot the breeze with them about developing films addressing these matters in new, philosophically aware and sophisticated ways, that are accessible to all, while still being financially successful. I know, I know ... film producers have kids too. A film about the life of James Baldwin is long overdue.

Now there is a subject worth thinking about. To quote the One: "Whoa ..."



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