July 21, 2004
The title to this post, of course, is from a classic Seinfeld episode, but my real dilemma isn't so humorous.
I live in a city with a fairly sizeable black population, especially in the area between my home and office. I walk to work, so it's not at all uncommon for me to pass several black people in those few blocks. My office is on a different street than my home, so at some point in my walk I have to cross the street. Also, I use a canvas briefcase-style bag with a shoulder strap. Depending on the material of what I'm wearing, and what I've packed in the bag, and how slumped I am that day, sometimes it slips down my shoulder and requires an occasional hoist. Oh, and by the way, I'm white.
This situation happens to me quite a bit: I'm walking to work, and either (1) the street lights change in a way that makes this a convenient point to cross the street, (2) the bag starts to slip a little, or (3) both. But I notice a black person walking down the block towards me. So, I consciously avoid either crossing the street or hiking my bag up so as not to appear like I'm acting out of fear of the black person. I especially find myself doing this (or rather, not doing it) when the other person is a youngish black man. Maybe I should also point out that I'm male (I think a woman clutching her purse closer to her looks different than a man doing the same with a briefcase), and I don't appear nervous or skittish when encountered by strangers on the street.
So, my question is, Am I racist for not wanting to seem racist? That is, Is it racist to assume that this person might misinterpret my actions and be offended? I generally think it's racist to make assumptions about someone based on his or her race, and isn't that what I'm doing? Of course, maybe I'm too PC-indoctrinated and I'm nuts to be thinking about this. And maybe it's too paternalistic to worry so much about how sensitive others are. (I should note that "so much" might overstate it. I don't lose sleep over this; I just ponder it on my walks, and then usually forget it.)
Now, if this was a post on my regular blog, I would probably punt and not try to answer, leaving it for the commenters to haggle over. But as that's not an option here, I'll tackle it myself. (I'll simul-post this at BTQ if you want to comment there.)
I'm no etiquette expert, but my parents did a pretty good job raising me, and I have a dash of common sense. For me, that's a fair proxy for most etiquette rules. My parents and my common sense would tell me that one should avoid causing offense to another when reasonably possible. Since I can't read another's mind, I have to fall back on the "reasonable person" standard. I should ask myself, Would a reasonable black person, seeing me cross the street or pull my bag closer to my body, assume I am acting out of racist fear or animus and be offended?
I think the answer to that is no, for several reasons. First, I (virtually) always cross at the crosswalk and with the light, so it would never appear that I am jaywalking into traffic to avoid someone. Second, hiking my bag on my shoulder has become so semi-reflexive that I hardly notice it, and I do it naturally. It's like pushing up my glasses when they slip down my nose. I don't make a big production of it, or freeze in place and then grip the bag across my chest. Third, I tend to be lost in my thoughts and not paying much attention to others when I walk; I don't think it would seem like I am reacting to their presence one way or the other (although the point of this post is that sometimes, when I'm snapping out of my daze long enough to decide whether to cross at this light or whether my bag is about to slip off, I notice a black person and wonder what he or she is thinking).
However, we wouldn't have a lot of problems in life if all we had to deal with were reasonable people. It's the unreasonable person I have to worry about. And the fact is that I think the chances are high enough that someone will react unreasonably to me that I try to avoid creating that unreasonable response. Obviously, I'm not going to let my bag slip all the way off, or walk around the block instead of going right home, to avoid giving potential offense. This is where that "reasonably possible" caveat above comes in. But when it's easy for me to avoid the risk of offending someone, I will. Even when I think that he or she might be offended solely because of his or her race.
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This recent City Journal piece on memorizing poetry has prompted the always-wonderful Our Girl in Chicago to her own musings on the subject. I found the City Journal piece too boring to finish, but OGIC's musings are fascinating, and generally (I think) right.
Of course, this topic has been Crescatted before. I wrote about it here, in response to a post here by Kathleen Moriarty. And since the City Journal piece seems to pine for the days, I'd like to reiterate part of what I wrote before:
(F)orced memorization... can be a terrible, terrible thing. Students should never... be forced to memorize a specific work of the teacher's choosing. That destroys the charm of memorization, the strange metaphysical resemblence it bears to possession and love.
...(I)f I were a high school english teacher (and you never know) all of my students would be required to memorize something, whether the opening passage to a book that had captured them, lines from a meaningful poem, or the Gettysburg Address. But part of the experience that makes memorization so valuable is the act of choosing what to memorize.
Like OGIC, I occasionally make gestures towards self-improvement by poetry-memorization, but they rarely takes off. However, I do sometimes end up memorizing poems I love. It's not precisely by design; the process of reading and re-reading One Art lead me to get half of it stuck in my head, and as with a damnably addictive pop song, the only way to scratch the itch of partial-memory was to complete it, learning the whole thing.
That's the way I've come to learn To His Coy Mistress, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, Somewhere I Have Never Travelled, If, Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries (and reply), and most recently, in my addiction to the haunting villanelle, One Art and If I Could Tell You. But imagine my misery if I had been forced to replace Marvell with Shelley, Bishop with Browning, Auden with Whitman. Like others, I think the canon should be kept fast and loose. More trees, fewer forests.
A final note. According to OGIC and Teachout, "when Nabokov taught in America, he gave his students extra credit on their final exams for disgorging accurately memorized excerpts from the works under discussion." Fabulous. I can only hope some eccentric law professor will do the same, as I already find lines-- both clunky and brilliant-- echoing in my head.
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My friend and co-Koch Fellow John Coleman has an article at National Review Online attacking the NAACP's partisanship and championing (John also has a blog, Ex Nihilo)
Herbert Herman Cain in the Republican Primary. Alas, Cain lost the primary yesterday, so I suppose the second half of the piece is now moot.
Also, I have a piece up at TNR Online, on how "(t)he weeks of frenetic activity that have followed the Supreme Court's ruling in Blakely show why circuit court appointments matter more than most people think."
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Libertarian Will Murray (not to be confused with libertarian Will Wilkinson or libertarian Will Baude) has a post up asking whether a Federal ban on all state corporate subsidies would be consistent with libertarian principles.
He takes for granted that subsidies are inherently un-libertarian, (They need not be, but it's a reasonable assumption) so his essay mostly focuses on whether opposition to federal rather than state power is a particularly libertarian value, and he concludes not.
I'm reminded of something Josh Barro said last summer (though I've heard it elsewhere): States don't have rights. People have rights. Sometimes states are better able to protect those rights. Sometimes the federal government is. That seems about right. There are plenty of good uses for federal power (like lowering barriers to commerce between states, ensuring that all citizens have equal access to courts of law, are treated equally by the state regardless of their race, that no state enacts its own international tariffs, and so on).
I'm not convinced that the federal elimination of all corporate subsidies at any level-- holding all else constant-- would be an improvement to the current situation, but it seems like the proper libertarian objection is much more contingent than just, "federal power over commerce, bad!"
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Hello, folks. I'm Milbarge, and as promised (or threatened, depending on one's perspective), I'll be guest-blogging here for a few days. I appreciate the invitation, which surprised me a little bit, seeing as I'm a "whine[r]" who "shot Bambi." I would have settled for a "20 Questions" interview.
The thumbnail bio on me: I finished law school two years ago, and since then I've been working as a staff attorney for one of the federal courts of appeals. It's kind of like a clerkship, except we do more cases, they're not as interesting, and the job's not as prestigious. In about a month, I'll see how the other half lives, because I'll be moving to an in-chambers clerkship for a judge on a different court of appeals. Around Thanksgiving 2003, my co-blogger Fitz-Hume and I launched Begging the Question. We took our blogonyms from the 1985 spoof Spies Like Us.
My primary goal as a blogger is to somehow use the blog to get a date. Because I'm spending a few days in the upper crust here at Crescat, I'll describe that quest as "quixotic." That may be the only literary reference I'm able to pull out while I'm here. Will may boot me when he learns I've never read any Nabokov.
Finally, I'm not going to spark a rumble over comments, and I won't try to import them like Volokh's guest-bloggers occasionally do. So, I'll be simul-posting all my Crescat posts at my usual perch if you care to respond that way. Email is fine too.
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Yesterday, I served as the judge for a De Novo Survivor: Blogosphere challenge, evaluating two posts, one by Milbarge and one by Wings & Vodka. As I explained there, I lacked the power to eliminate anybody, so my ruling that Milbarge's post was the better one lacked any force.
In an effort to put our blog where my mouth was, I've now invited Milbarge, who normally blogs at Begging the Question, to guest-blog here at Crescat for the rest of the week. Whether he continues in the decaying Survivor: Blogosphere contest is up to him, but we'll be glad to have him visiting for a few days. I'll leave other introductions to him.
[Is this the summer of guest-bloggers, guest-bloggers everywhere? I think it is.]
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A quick reflection on Neil Whitman's post (where he notes that simply because you are better at X than you are at anything else, it doesn't mean that you're better at X than anybody else is):
Corollary: Just because the Ace and Jack of spades are the best cards you've held all night, it doesn't follow that they're the best hand at the table right then. And it especially doesn't follow that you should bet eight dollars on them when you can't even manage a pair.
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