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Cycles of Confusion

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After considering the whole situation from every angle I could think of, I decided it was about time to take a couple of days off.

This does not make me very happy. There is a deadline involved here, and it’s getting very, very close. 

But writing huge swaths of stuff and tossing it at the end of the day, or the week, isn’t getting me very much farther along, either. 

So, this morning, instead of charging in to do my customary Good Day’s Work (or even a bad one), I put on Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata and futzed around a little.

For those of you who don’t know, there are two things in the world called “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

One of them is the Beethoven piece I listened to this morning. The other is the short story Tolstoy named after the Beethoven piece.

The Tolstoy is one of the most cynical, slimiest, mysoginist things I’ve ever read.

Or I think it is.

I’ve only read it once.  I picked it up because I liked the Beethoven, and I was so repelled by it, I never picked it up again. 

I feel more than a little guilty about this.  I will admit that Tolstoy really, really, really isn’t my kind of writer, and I’ve never been able to force myself through War and Peace.

With Russian writers, I invariably prefer Dostoyevski.  And when I tell people this–especially people whose first language is Russian–they invariably tell me I’m wrong.

There may be something that is not coming across in the translations.   I keep telling myself that I’m going to go back and give it another try, just to see if I can see what the fuss about Tolstoy is about, but I can never quite manage to make myself do it.

At any rate, I figure a day or two off won’t kill my schedule, and I like the Beethoven.

To answer a question from yesterday, though, yes, this book has to be a Gregor. 

It has to be because it was contracted for nearly two years ago, and if I turned in something else my publisher wouldn’t just be miffed, he’d be well within his rights to sue me.

In this case, however, it would have to be a Gregor no matter what, because it takes place on Cavanaugh Street and in Philadelphia and it concerns the people on Cavanaugh Street as much as it does anybody else.

It’s been over a decade since I did a Gregor that actually concentrated on Gregor, and I think it’s just about due.

Still–day off.

And one of the nice things about days off is that I have a chance to pay attention to the news, and I have been paying attention today.

The big news is about Syria, and what we will or will not do about Syria. 

JD sent me a delightful link to an op ed piece by Maureen Dowd in the NYTimes pretty much blaming the entire Syria mess (or the mess of our possible involvement in it) on Bush.

But that’s Maureen Dowd and the NY Times and it’s hard to know what else you could expect.

What I found a lot more interesting was the story of a lawsuit that’s been going on over the last few weeks in New York City, in which a woman named Brandi Anderson sued an employment agency called STRIVE and one of its managers, Ron Carmona, after Carmona delivered a 4-minute-long rant about her alledged inappropriate behavior that used the n-word several times.

This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy. Somebody screaming at a black client using the n-word is something we could see a lawsuit resulting from without needing to go into a discussion of whether somebody is being oversensitive.

What makes this case interesting is that virtually everybody involved in it–including Brandi Anderson’s lawyer, Carmona, and the staff of STRIVE–is black, and the defense essentially amounted to “it’s okay when black people use the n-word, that’s our culture.”

Anyway, you can go here


and see a fairly good summary of what happened.

Because what happened was that the jury rejected the idea that using the n-word is okay when black people use it, or that it’s ever nondiscriminatory, or that it ever means anything but an insult.

And that’s interesting on a number of levels because:

1) Carmona’s explanation of the way in which the n-word is used in African American communities is, in fact, true.

It is a continual problem in mixed race classrooms during the first semester or so of college, especially if the mixed race classrooms are very mixed. 

And it’s especially, especially true of the African American students are the products of inner city schools where “racial diversity” is practically nonexistent.

It can require quite a bit of work to get across the idea that no, you really can’t use that word in college even if you’re talking about yourself.

I’ve often toyed with the idea of bringing in Richard Pryor’s bit about why he gave up using the n word and why he thinks other black people should give up using it, too.

But the fact remains that it is a word commonly used in black communities, where it is not always–or even usually–an insult.  And the fact remains that it has been so used in those communities for a couple of centuries.

This in no way excuses Mr. Carmona’s behavior, which from reports seems to have been abusive in more ways than just by use of the n-word,

But it does highlight an issue that isn’t usually examined, and the verdict highlights it even more.

2) Because, in rejecting Carmona’s contention that the n word can be used as other than an insult, ever, the jury was essentially saying: we don’t care what you’re culture is, the norm is otherwise, and you have to follow it.

I think the term for this, in circles more progressive than the ones I inhabit, is “cultural imperialism.”

Let’s face it.  I am not now, nor have I ever been, a cultural or moral relativist.

I do think that there are norms of behavior that should be culture-wide, even world-wide.

I think, for instance–just to side reference the book I’m reading–that a culture in which schoolgirls burn to death because they are “improperly” dressed to appear in public and therefore must not be allowed to evacuate a burning building is both morally and culturally inferior to the one I inhabit.

Inferior to. Not just different from.

I also think that the n-word has a history in this country, and it is not a nice history.   And I think that history has to be acknowledged when we make decisions about using that word in public.

My problem is that that word actually has two histories, and not one, and what seems to be going on here is the unstated but unmistakable decision to acknowledge only one of those histories as legitimate.

The article gave no indication that I could see of the racial composition of the jury, but I’d really like to know.

Because I know something else from my students.  My middle class and upper middle class African Americans–and especially the women–hate that word just as much as this jury hated it.

I’d like to know what’s actually going on.

Written by janeh

September 4th, 2013 at 8:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Cycles of Confusion'

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  1. Syria. Pelosi’s expedition to Damascus during the Shrub administration in which she explained what a nice guy Assad was and how Shrub was picking on him seems to have gone down the memory hole. I do find intriguing the notion that we should kill the conscripts who carried out the orders but be careful not to endanger the commander who gave the orders–and that somehow it’s a selling point that the killing will not end the war.

    Language. Yes, “cultural imperialism” is the right term. Once we were concerned with formal courtesy–flag ettiquet, saying “please” and “thank you” tipping one’s hat to ladies and dressing formally for church. Now our masters swear like cavalry troopers but have a new list of forbidden words to impose on everyone else. The use of racial epithets is one thing, but they’ll wait a long time for me to say “gender” when I mean “sex.”


    4 Sep 13 at 1:46 pm

  2. Syria and the NY Times. I have this mental picture of a thousand years from now when the colony on Mars is at war with Earth and the liberals of the times are saying “Its all the fault of George W Bush”.

    On taking a day off. I’ve never tried to write a novel but I did spend 40 years programming computers. There are days when nothing works and the best thing you can do is leave work and do something completely different.


    4 Sep 13 at 5:17 pm

  3. jd

    4 Sep 13 at 8:42 pm

  4. Clearly the Anglosphere is going stark staring mad in their attempts to sterilise the language and to force a uniformity of behaviour on widely diverse sub-cultures. I’m with Robert in resisting to the death the use of “gender” in lieu of “sex”, something that was itself probably the result of a prissy bowdlerisation of the description of natural functions. Yet, at the same time we find nearly every communications medium awash with language so disgustingly foul that people find it hard to locate something fit for their young children to view or read. (Yes, Jane, I appreciate that your father had very libertarian views on that issue, but in that he was a very rare individual indeed, particularly for that era. Even today, I think most parents would disagree with him.)

    So, I think it is ridiculous to use the law to enforce standards that exist in the minds of one section of society but that have no relevance to others. I’ll take these do-gooders seriously when they start to prosecute blacks for using racial pejoratives against whites or other “races”.


    4 Sep 13 at 9:51 pm

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