Our own philosophers speak: Two weeks ago, Professor Yancy conducted a rather abstruse discussion with Professor Sheth for the New York Times.
Their web discussion appeared on The Stone, “a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.”
Professor Sheth hails from Hampshire College; she does a monthly post for Salon. Over at the New York Times, Professor Yancy (Duquesne) has conducted interviews about race with a series of self-identifying philosophers.
His discussion with Professor Sheth was the seventh in this series. It carried a headline which many commenters didn’t seem to understand:
“How Liberalism and Racism Are Wed”
If anything, that headline seems a bit soft as an account of Professor Sheth’s views. In the discussion’s first exchange, she seemed to offer a harsh assessment of something, although we're not quite sure of what.
She seemed to say that “systemic racism” is “essential to liberalism.” Many commenters seemed puzzled by that claim in this, the first Q-and-A:
PROFESSOR YANCY (2/27/15): Can you discuss your own view of your “racial” identity and how that identity is linked to your critical explorations into the philosophical and political significance of race?Is “systemic racism” really “necessary to liberalism?” While we're at it, what does that claim even mean?
PROFESSOR SHETH: Until 2001, I thought of my identity in terms of ethnicity rather than race. I was an immigrant, and in the American imaginary, immigrants were rarely discussed in terms of race. After September 11, 2001, I tried to reconcile what I saw as the profound racist treatment of people (often Arabs and South Asians) who were perceived as Muslim, with a politically neutral understanding of “racial identity,” but it didn’t work. That’s when I began to explore race as a critical category of political philosophy, and as a product of political institutions. The biggest surprise was my coming to understand that “liberalism” and systematic racism were not antithetical, but inherently compatible, and that systemic racism was even necessary to liberalism. Soon after, I read Charles Mills’s “The Racial Contract,” which supported that view.
We ourselves have had a hard time puzzling out an answer to that second question. All too often, such confusion occurs when our own progressive professors talk about gender or race.
What the heck did Professor Sheth mean when she said that “systemic racism” is “necessary to liberalism?” You’re asking a very good question!
This is the kind of challenging statement which frequently gives our progressive professors their air of frisson and danger. That said, you will see, all through the comments, that many readers weren’t real clear about the meaning of that dramatic claim.
What was Professor Sheth actually saying? Commenters seemed confused.
In our view, there was a good reason for their confusion. In our view, Professor Sheth never really explained what she meant by that statement. For his part, Professor Yancy never really seemed to see how much confusion might surround his guest’s principal claim.
On and on the professors went. They pleased and thrilled the true believers, frustrated and angered pretty much everyone else. To us, that doesn't seem helpful.
Do you understand what Professor Sheth meant? For our money, she never really explained what she meant. But then, so it often seems to go with our own progressive professors.
What the heck was Professor Sheth claiming? More specifically, was she talking about modern-day political “liberalism,” as opposed to modern-day “conservatism?” Or was she talking about something else? Did she have something else in mind when she made her fiery statement?
Commenters seemed to have different ideas about what the professor meant. In part, that’s because she never explained what she meant, and because Professor Yancy never required her to.
Alas! Continuing from that first Q-and-A, Professor Yancy asked his second question, as shown below. To us, it seems like a slightly soft paraphrase of what Professor Sheth had just excitingly said:
PROFESSOR YANCY (continuing directly): In what ways do you see liberalism and systemic racism as complementary?In this paraphrase, systemic racism and liberalism were now said to be “complementary.” At any rate, this question triggered a bit of a ramble by Professor Sheth, in which she described many of her experiences as a younger person.
Eventually, we found ourselves deep in the weeds. Why not take The Our Own Professors Challenge? Read Professor Sheth's full answer and see if this personal anecdote makes any sense in context:
PROFESSOR SHETH: When I was finally granted an interview for U.S. citizenship in December 2000, I asked a relative to accompany me in the event that there was trouble. The interview was demanded by the government during the American Philosophical Association meetings in December 2000 (it was virtually impossible to renegotiate the appointment without a long, punishing, delay). Despite a heavy snowfall, we arrived an hour early. The I.N.S. interviewer was over an hour late in opening up the office, and cheerfully told me that I was lucky he had decided to show up. Conversationally and with a broad smile, he told me a series of stories about the various applicants he had had deported, even if they—like myself—had been in the United States since they were toddlers or infants, even if they knew no one from their countries of birth, and even if they stood to be in danger there. He emphasized how few protections immigrants had, and his message was: The United States will deport without a second thought, and hey, it’s the immigrant’s problem, not theirs.Is that what actually happened? In asking that, we'll also say this:
As Freud himself once noted, sometimes a late arrival during a snowstorm is just a late arrival. Beyond that, we’ll assume that the appointment at the heart of this story wasn’t deliberately scheduled to deprive the professor of the chance to attend the APA meetings, though that’s almost the way she makes it sound.
At any rate, Professor Sheth paints an unattractive portrait of this INS official. If her portrait is accurate—and of course, there’s no way to know—the official seems to have behaved in an imperious manner.
That would be unattractive. But even assuming this occurred, how would that mean that systemic racism was “necessary to liberalism?” In his fourth question, Professor Yancy actually seemed to ask:
PROFESSOR YANCY: Given the continuing racial tensions across the nation, how do you see these events as deep problems endemic to liberalism? Or, are such events just a “misapplication” of liberal theory?Go ahead! See if you think that Professor Sheth ever explains what she means by “liberalism.” See if you think she ever explains why systemic racism would be “endemic” or “necessary” to such a system, rather than a mere “misapplication of liberal theory.”
For our money, these basic questions never come clear. This touched off a lot of turmoil among the many commenters. This type of turmoil is often triggered by the fiery if often murky statements emitted by our current stock of progressive professors.
At several points in this discussion, you see the professors lapsing into the unfamiliar language which is often used as part of so-called “critical theory,” whether of race or gender. Such specialized language often seems to turn progressives into a separate tribe—a separate tribe which seems to be speaking its own private language.
On balance, we find it hard to believe that that constitutes a winning political approach—unless the goal is to establish a new and separate, more glorious tribe.
What kind of language are we talking about? This is part of Professor Yancy’s official bio at Duquesne:
YANCY BIO: His current work has focused on the theme of whiteness and how it constitutes a site of embedded social reality and a site of opacity. He links these two foci to such themes as white subject formation, white epistemic ways of knowing/not knowing, privilege and hegemony, and forms of white spatial bonding as processes of white solidarity and interpellation.Few people will have any idea what those sentences mean.
He is also interested in how such forms of white epistemic bonding constitute sites of white intelligibility formation.
Yancy also explores the theme of racial embodiment, particularly in terms of how white bodies live their whiteness unreflectively vis-a-vis the interpellation and deformation of the black body and other bodies of color. Within this context, his work also explores Black Erlebnis or the lived experience of black people, which raises important questions regarding Black subjectivity, modes of Black spatial mobility, and embodied resistance.
With that in mind, let us advance an unpleasant thought. Let us suggest the possibility that all that unfamiliar language actually means nothing at all.
Could such a thing be possible? Is it possible that a philosophy professor employed by our most brilliant newspaper is speaking a version of gobbledygook—is making statements that even he couldn’t paraphrase or explain?
To many liberals, that will seem implausible, counterintuitive. For better or worse, we liberals will often find ourselves inclined to defer to academic authority.
On balance, we think that instinct is misguided. We think it’s entirely possible that Professor Yancy would have a very hard time translating those sentences into recognizable English.
This type of problem dogs so-called critical theory, but it hardly started there. Are we sure that the start to Kierkegaard’s opus, The Sickness Unto Death, could actually be parsed, translated, explained?
This is perhaps the current standard translation, by Hong and Hong, for the Princeton University Press. Believe it or not, this is the actual start of Part One, Section A by the tortured Dane:
KIERKEGAARD: A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way, a human being is still not a self.Who knows? Maybe Hong and Hong are at fault, but that's a standard translation. Do you feel sure that any person could ever explain what that passage means? Are you sure it means anything at all, even in the original Danish?
In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.
Final point—after reading the Yancy bio, we looked up “interpellation” to see if it’s really a word. Normally, we’d call Vanna White, but she was on sabbatical.
Using Nexis, we then checked to see how often the word has ever been used in the New York Times.
Dating to 1969, the word has appeared in the hard-copy Times four times. In 1969 and 1974, the word was used in reference to specific legislative acts. Its most recent usage occurred in 2005. Christopher Hitchens quoted a passage from an academic text in order to ridicule the text for its high pomposity.
In our view, you probably shouldn’t put your faith in our own philosophy professors. We tend to think they’re doing some harm with their love of private language. And no, we don’t feel sure that they could explain what they’re talking about.
We’re inclined to blame this on Foucault, a point we may explain further tomorrow. As Steve Martin once thoughtfully said, “Those French! They have a different word for everything!”
Did Professor Sheth explain herself in that discussion in the New York Times, our nation’s most brilliant newspaper?
We can’t say that she ever did. Did Professor Yancy notice?