Race: August 2008 Archives


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In the Mutants and Race piece that I'm trying to get into its final form, I'm trying to figure out a good way to avoid using a certain word. Philosophers sometimes use the word 'categorical' to refer to terms that denote categories of various sorts. But there's also the meaning of the word that Kant means when he talks about the categorical imperative, which is opposed to hypothetical imperatives. A categorical imperative is universal (applying to everyone) and absolute (applying in every case). A hypothetical imperative applies only in certain cases, given certain hypotheticals that may not always apply. So the term can mean "absolute/universal" or "having to do with categories".

I explain some problems with thinking of mutants as a race, even if there are analogous features. It really is an analogy, which means it can be pushed too far if you assume the category mutant is an actual example of the kinds of categories that we call races. Yet characters in the various X-Media regularly speak of mutants with racial language? I then try to capture how sometimes this sort of thing can be perfectly fine as long as we don't take the language too strictly. Here's the sentence as most recently returned to me by the editors (with the following sentence for a little context):

On the other hand, we often speak loosely and use certain categorical terms in an extended or even metaphorical sense. For example, people sometimes refer to co-workers as family.

The word 'categorical' was inserted by an editor, and I removed it in my next draft. I'm not entirely sure whether it's supposed to mean that some terms that are normally absolute are sometimes used in an extended sense, i.e. not absolutely, or whether it means that some terms for categories can be used to include things not technically in those categories. Either one is consistent with what I meant. But it's ambiguous, and good philosophical writing removes ambiguities. Also, it's a technical term, and this is a popular-level work that's supposed to explain technical terms. I thought it best to avoid it, so I rewrote several sentences to say what I meant without needing it. A later draft then came back with the word inserted once again. So I'm not sure what I want to do to avoid the word and yet also express what I mean and whatever the editors thought was unclear without that word.

One thought is just to replace 'categorical' with 'category', but I suspect whichever editor keeps inserting this term doesn't approve of that word as an adjective. They obviously didn't like it the way I had it without adjectives, though. I haven't been able to think of a good word instead of 'categorical' if I don't change it much. I'll put the two paragraphs discussing this issue below the fold. I've love any suggestions.

NYT Libels McCain

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Remember that ad used against Harold Ford that portrayed him as a philanderer in the 2006 Senate elections? Since Ford is black and the woman in the ad was white, a lot of people concluded that Tennessee voters were intended to draw the connection that this black boy was fooling around with their white womenfolk. I don't think there's any way to prove it in that case, but it sure was a lot more plausible as a possible play on racist sentiment than this current one.

So the McCain campaign comes along and compares Barack Obama to the substanceless Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Criticize the McCain all you want for its insinuation that Obama is like them, but please don't pretend that it's like the Harold Ford ad, as the New York Times editorial board does. The comparison is revealing, about those making it anyway, but it's logically invalid. I knew some people were touting it about, because someone on NPR mentioned it only to give a pretty decisive argument against it. Nevertheless, I'm a bit surprised to see it being endorsed by the NYT editors on their blog. That's pretty prominent for what I had thought was a position on the extremes.

There was no insinuation whatsoever in the ad that Obama is getting it on with these women. There was no suggestion at all that he's after white women. The ad compared Obama with these women, suggesting that he himself is like them, not that he's doing something with them. Even granting the premise that the anti-Ford ad is playing on racist fears of intermarriage, there simply is no argument that the McCain ad is remotely in the same ballpark. The ad criticizes Obama, but being black should not make remove someone from the possibility of criticism, even unfair criticism, especially in politics at this level. Criticism, even unfair criticism, is not the same thing as racism, and it's not the same thing as attempts to make use of others' racism. This is, in effect, the NYT editors' argument:

1. The anti-Ford ad had a black man and a hot white woman in it, and that was playing on racist fears of intermarriage.
2. The anti-Obama ad has a black man and hot white women in it.
3. Therefore, the anti-Obama ad is playing on racist fears of intermarriage.

It's not hard to see that the argument is logically invalid. There are any number of explanations for why an ad can have a black man and hot white women. The one offered in premise 1, even if it's true, is not the only one or even a remotely plausible one in this case. The ad portrays these white women as moronic celebrities, not as potential lovers for Obama. The point is absolutely clear to anyone with any political sense, and many pundits have criticized the ad in a way that recognizes its point without adding nonsense to it.

So why is the New York Times editorial board making it out to be racism? I have two theories. Either may be false, but I can't think of another, so I'm assuming one is true. Either (a) they're really, really stupid and can't see how fallacious this comparison is or (b) really, really immoral and want to make McCain look like a racist when they know there's no evidence in this ad that he or anyone in his campaign is. The first is uncharitable about their intelligence, and the second is uncharitable about their motivations, so the principle of charity can't help us out. There is no charitable explanation of their behavior.

If it's the latter explanation, then we have good reason to think this constitutes criminal defamation of character. If they know full well that they're lying to make him look like a racist, then it's legally prosecutable as libel. Perhaps they're not directly motivated by wanting him to look bad so much as to defend Obama's recent claims that the McCain campaign would use racist attacks by pointing out just such an attack, but I don't think that matters legally. They know they're lying about something that they know will defame his character. As I understand the law, that's sufficient for criminal defamation, and Wikipedia seems to confirm that judgment. On the other hand, they could believe the above argument is actually a good one, but then they'd be much dumber than you'd expect for people as highly educated as they are.


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