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Of Whitewash and Race-Swap

4 April 2014

Cross-posted from The Molinist. Come read The Molinist at its new home.
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Last Wednesday, the latest entreé into the big-budget, special effects-drive, historically/mythologically/religiously-inspired spectacle blockbuster genre, Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt, began filming. The movie will star Gerard Butler as Set, god of violence, discord, and foreigners; Geoffrey Rush as the sun god Ra; Game of Throne’s Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the war god Horus; and Brendon Thwaite as a ‘common theif’ who joins the gods on their generic magical quest. Assuming you don’t have to google Brendon Thwaite (I know I did), you may have noticed that this movie about the gods and people of a North African civilisation has a white cast. Now, while the ‘race,’ in the modern sense, of the Kemeyu (that would be the people of ‘Ancient Egypt,’ which was called Kemet in its own language, Kemetic) is far from certain (Copts, the modern ethnic group most closely related to the Kemeyu, are fairly closely related to Berbers, but my understanding is that the Kemeyu were likely darker skinned than the copts, their penchant for light skin in art notwithstanding), I think we can all agree that they did not look like Jaimer Lannister.

This is what we call whitewashing, (in this context) when mainstream media replaces the non-white people(s) of some historical context or source material with white actors…

Light through the blindfold: How privilege obscures and entitles, typified by a twitter conversation

28 March 2014

The latest on The Molinist is a Storify and commentary about #cancelcolbert, privilege, and structural racism. Unfortunately, WordPress does not allow for embedding Storifies, so I invite you check the post and comment on The Molinist’s new homepage:

Light through the blindfold: How privilege obscures and entitles, typified by a twitter conversation

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Voluntary Slavery: A Liberal Problematic

23 March 2014

Cross-posted from The Molinist. Come read The Molinist at its new home.
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The years following 1551 presented Castilian (part of modern day Spain) and Portugese intellectuals with a crisis. The Valladolid Controversy, a debate in Valladolid, Castile, between Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda over the ensalvement of the ‘Indians,’ indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, was won by the anti-slavery side. Though de las Cases did not achieve his ultimate goal, the end of Castilian military conquest in the ‘New World,’ he did win an intellectual and moral victory over the encomienda system, the precurssor of the plantion in which many thousands were enslaved, even in territories where this was theoretically illegal (Peru and New Spain).

De las Casas’ victory over Sepúlveda was part of the disenthronement of the concept of natural slavery, the idea, inherited from Aristotle, that certain persons are naturally unable to govern themselves for their own good (in Aristotelian teleology, toward their own end, or telos) and are thus better off in enslavement to someone who can. In it’s original context, natural slavery served to justify both the enslavement by Greeks of European ‘barbarians,’ who were seen as both culturally inferior and temperamentally predisposed toward physicality over intellect, and the ‘political slavery’ of ‘Asiatics’ or Persians, who were seen as naturally servile and predisposed to intellect over physicaly. In an early modern context, natural slavery, which regained its intellectual currency, despite the Roman Catholic Church’s unequivocal condemnation of slavery, through its Aristotelian pedigree, was the justification employed for the enslavement of the indigenous populations of the Americas. Casting these populations as barbarous, cannibals, and pagans in need of both saving and civilising, European colonial powers like Castile cast themselves as benefactors to their enslaved labourers. Natural slavery’s most erudite opponent was likely Francisco de Vitoria, founder of the School of Salamanca. In his De indis, his influential work on the colonisation and conversion of the New World, Vitoria addressed the encomienda system. Though he did not challenge Aristotle’s fundamental proposition that some classes of humans would be better served by enslavement than by freedom (heaving forfend that he should disagree with Aristotle) he argued that the indigenous populations of the Americas were not such humans. He even questioned whether people who fell into this theoretically valid category existed in the real world. In so doing he posed a challenge to the burgeoning, slave-dependent colonial empires of Europe.

This challenge would be answered by Jesuit theologians and philosophers Luis de Molina and Francisco Suárez. Unlike Vitoria, Molina and Suárez adopted the Gersonian, rather than the Thomistic, model of right, and this gave them leave to propose a different justification for slavery. The Thomistic model which informed Vitoria’s thought was an entirely objective theory of right. Right was an objective category of the universe, no distinct from ‘just.’ In this model an individual cannot have a right to a thing but it can be right that the individual have that thing. In the Gersonian model, rights are more subjective; they possesses their rights just as they possess their physical property. For Molina and Suárez, voluntary slavery was the natural consequence of the Gersonian theory of right. If an individual possessed their freedom in the same manner as any physical property, then surely that individual was at liberty to alienate that liberty in trade or sale. This theory was and is known as voluntary slavery…

Golden Calves & Good Excuses: On Macklemore and the Cult of the Ally

7 March 2014

Cross-posted from The Molinist. Follow The Molinist at its new home!
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The recent Grammy success of Macklemore and his producer Ryan Lewis stirred up a moderate storm of internet controversy, particularly in race issues and general social justice circles. Much ink has been spilled over Macklemore, Same Love, and his relationships to the black and queer communities and I don’t intend to add to that literature. If you’re looking for a good piece analysing and critiquing Macklemore, I recommend reading Ivie’s piece on Black Culture and (not or, their perspectives are different and each has unique points) Joseph Guthrie’s piece on Media Diversified. While I’m in profound agreement with the opinion that Macklemore and his status as hip-hop’s champion of the LGBT [1] community is highly problematic, it’s not Macklemore as such that I wish to discuss today, it’s the social structures that form the context which makes Macklemore so problematic (though I will be taking Macklemore as my text for this deconstruction).

Macklemore is a straight, white, cisgender [2] man. Still with me? Good. Now, this means that he enjoys an immense amount of privilege. Am I losing you? Well, try to hang in there and I’ll try to keep the critical theory speak to a minimum. White straight cisgender male privilege is going to be sort of your cost of entry into what I’m saying here, though.

We often talk about privilege as though it were a single thing, a quality or object of the universe which attaches itself to people and can be readily identified and defined. That’s not really the case, though. Privilege is a fungible, nebulous assortment of social constructs as well as personal and interpersonal realities. It plays out across every field of our interior, social, political, and economic realities. It cuts across the manifold ways of being human to form an irreducible complexity of effects. As a black man, I enjoy male privilege at the same time as I endure racialised oppression. When I walk down my quiet street at night, I see fear in the eyes of white women I pass, and I know that they are perfectly justified in worrying about a passing man on an ill-lit street and that my blackness makes me more threatening.

I have previously defended Macklemore against the charge of cultural appropriation. Yes, he is a white man working in a genre and generally associating himself with a culture that is coded black and which is largely the product of black peoples. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, though, being white and doing black doesn’t immediately equal appropriation. The difference, I’ve argued, is that Macklemore participates in the culture, he does not merely perform it . [3] But that participation in the culture does not erase the racial dynamics of privilege. As a white rapper Macklemore is desirable to white audiences in a way that black rappers are not. This is a reality you might call the palatability of normativity: the aesthetic preference for exposure to individuals who as closely as possible fit the straight, white, cisgender male ideal. His whiteness also gives him a contradictory status as both outsider to ‘black’ hip hop and ideal exemplar of hip hop, writ large, which status he parlays into the image of an intellectual artist who engages critically with the tropes and shortcomings of the genre. His video Thrift Shop was generally seen in this light: a critical appraisal of hip hop’s crass consumer culture, as typified by images of black men wearing excessive amounts of gold or diamond jewelry. Same Love, as both single and video, was seen in a very similar light: a daring, provocative subversion of a homophobic genre (Macklemore out and declares his genre homophobic in the opening lines of the song itself, an absurdly self-serving act and one swallowed uncritically by a fanbase otherwise largely unengaged with the genre) and a brave call for LGBT equality. Macklemore’s entire public persona is built upon a foundation of erroenous stereotypes about his genre which his whiteness gives him leave to critique.

Macklemore’s status as ally par excellence to the queer community derives not only from his straightness and whiteness but also his redemption narrative: Macklemore is a self-described ‘reformed homophobe.’ As befits a society steeped in cultural Christianity, the narrative of death to the life of bigotry and rebirth in the light of egalitarianism is as moving to us as popular stories of redemption found in Christ were to our forebears. Following his public baptism into the Church of Equality, Macklemore became a public spokesman for queer issues, widely lauded as the only voice of LGBT equality in hip hop (seriously, has no one heard of Le1f?). Somehow Mary Lambert, the only queer person credited on Same Love, went unnoticed. [4] As an interesting aside, Macklemore’s redemption narrative is often read as racialised even in the absence of specific details to that effect. It is seen as natural that someone who grew up in hip hop culture would imbibe the supposedly endemic homophobia associated with black-coded cultures.

Macklemore’s privileged ally status over the LGBT community coalesces with his privileged whiteness-amongst-blackness to make a more palatable representative of pro-queer hip-hop for straight and/or white audiences than any queer person of colour could ever be. In Macklemore, straight white audiences see themselves: a white person who likes gay people. In Mary Lambert, they see an Other: a lesbian with a non-normative body who speaks openly about her bi-polar disorder. In Le1f, they see an even more profound Other: a gender non-conforming black man, more likely to wear a dress than a basketball jersey and ice. So they choose not to see Lambert, they don’t engage with queer hip hop enough to even learn of Le1f’s existence, and they settle comfortably with an agreeably familiar face with an agreeably familiar message.

As an appointed and recognised voice of the queer community, his non-membership notwithstanding, Macklemore’s queer politics are given priority over those of actual LGBT persons. What are Macklemore’s queer politics? Assimilation. The clear message of Same Love and Macklemore’s public statements is that LGBT (I’d actually be surprised if he were thinking at all about the T) persons wish to be assimilated into the cisgendered, heterosexual norm. Before you start registering with Disqus so you can explain to me that ‘Macklemore isn’t trying to make gay people be straight,’ let me be clear: the discourse of equality is not inherently assimilationist, it just usually is. Equality is, fundamentally, the right (for everyone’s sake I will not get into my issues with the language of rights here) to be the same. When talking about legal equalities, such as equal access to certain legal institutions, like marriage, assimilationism isn’t necessarily at play: queers should, after all, have access to the same legal recognitions as straights. Mainstream marriage equality discourse of the type espoused by Macklemore is highly assimilationist, however, as it assumes that the end goal of queerness is to be subsumed under the heteronormative ideal of two-partner families with children (a model of queerness called homonormativity [5]). To many straight allies this is an unproblematic reality but many queers value queerness itself and do not not wish to sacrifice it, rather seeking for queerness to be celebrated for its own virtues, not merely its proximity to straightness.

By listening to Macklemore and his queer politics, straight and white audiences can absolve themselves of the responsibility to listen to blacks, to queers, to (heaven forefend) black queers (who exist, by the way), and thus risk encountering queer politics which challenge their homonormative, assimilationist assumptions about acceptable queerness or black perspectives which challenge their infantilising narratives about blacks. Thus Macklemore, both in his popularity as a hip hop artist and his status as hip hop’s champion of LGBT issues, is an expression of structural marginalisation of queers and blacks, seeking to speak for one and silence the other entirely.

Notes

[1] I’m going to be using the terms ‘queer’ and ‘LGBT’ broadly interchangeably as umbrellas for a broad spectrum of peoples, communities, and indeed spectrums. Both will cover, in my usage, lesbian women, gay men, the bisexual community/spectrum (including pansexual, polysexual, and other non-monosexuals), and the trans community/spectrum (including non-gender binary persons and straight trans persons). Gender identity being distinct from sexuality, trans individuals do and I mean for them to fall under the three sexuality headings, as well as none of them. I intend to refer to all individuals whose gender and sexual identities are classed as non-heteronormative and I may have missed some individuals or groups or included some who would rather be left out. I know such usage is contestable and controversial (especially describing straight trans persons as queer) but I need a consistent and not overlong nomenclature. Feel free to disagree with my choice.

[2] ‘Cis’ means ‘not trans.’ It’s a fairly recent coinage derived from the Latin antonym of the prefix ‘trans-,’ which means ‘across’ or ‘beyond;’ in Latin it means roughly ‘on this side of.’ Confer the Roman provinces of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, which were on the Italian and French sides of the Alps, respectively. Some will tell you that cis is derived from a Latin root meaning ‘to cut’ but they are incorrect and simply wish to slur trans persons with a false etymology making ‘their word for us’ sound violent.

[3] This is my take on the nature of cultural appropriation. Other members of marginalised communities may disagree. A self-perception of meeting the criteria I’ve described for participation, rather than appropriation, shouldn’t be taken to defeat a critique from another marginalised person.

[4] In case you’re wondering, Lambert performed the ‘featured vocals’ (I have no idea what that means). Do the words “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to. My love, my love, my love, my love she keeps me warm…” ring any bells? You should check Lambert’s She Keeps Me Warm, which is what Macklemore wanted to say but better.

[5] Homonormativity is a massively complex construct that no one wants me to go into here. A future post may expand on and/or deconstruct it further but for now I shall suffice with ‘it’s bad.’

Thinking about historical geography

3 March 2014

Cross-posted from www.themolinist.com. Follow The Molinist at its new home!
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Ever since last year’s post on historical placenames the topic has been sitting at the back of my mind. The post itself was spurred by the technical note to my MLitt dissertation, which explained the problematics of using the modern placenames ‘Spain’ and ‘the Netherlands’ to describe the places of origin of Luis de Molina and Hugo Grotius, the subjects of my dissertation. In as few words as I could manage, I explained that there was no such thing as ‘Spain’ as we understand it today and that ‘the Netherlands’ meant something a little different (it took more words in my dissertation but I was including a few more details). Because I cannot seem to completely excise the topic from my mind, I present you here with another set of disconnected ponderings on the subject of historical geography.

While those lines on the map might look stable and unmoving, they are as fluid and transient as the big, adjacent blue bit with fewer subdivisions. In my own short lifetime (25 years), no fewer than 23 countries have come into being (that I can think of) and, I think, 2 or 3 have declared independence but not yet been formally recognised by many or any other states. More states and empires have come and gone than any one individual could possibly know (heard of Strathclyde, Axum, or the Kushan Empire?). Across time territorial boundaries, and all the important human experiences and identities that go with them, shift radically (influencing and being influenced by those human experiences and indentities). While today The Netherlands is a coherent socio-cultural unit (within the larger polity that is The Kingdom of the Netherlands), in the 17th century (when I study it) it was a loose federation of Dutch-speaking territories, each (particularly Holland) jealous of its independence and historic privileges. Hugo Grotius had a sense of being at once a Hollander and a citizen of the United Provinces of the Netherlands but not, as we would understand it today, as being Dutch, even though the polity of which he was a citizen was a direct antecedent of the modern Netherlands. Had he been from Flanders, which today is part of the Netherlands but in his day was one of those United Provinces, would we today call him a Dutch jurist or a Belgian one?

I’m often driven to ponder the question of historical geography and the general meaningful/less-ness of geography when I am asked about the geographical boundaries of my research interests. This is a totally reasonable question. It makes eminent sense to restrict your research into a specific region, ethno-cultural grouping, or nation-state (not an exhaustive list) because it forms a coherent boundary to work within that is stable (in a sense) across time. This question also drives me nuts, because it just so happens that geography _as such_ is not a relevant restriction on my research interests or activities and when I attempt to define those interests in geographical terms (which means Iberia, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands, with a brief detour to Germany) the impression given is that my research is unfocused, overbroad, not yet narrowed down. This is demonstrably not the case (I’m currently researching Hugo Grotius’ appropriation and application of the consent theory of a loose group of thinkers from the Iberian peninsula, the Scandinavian part is my desire to study the reception of Grotius’ work [and his interpreter Samuel von Pufendorf's] in Denmark-Norway and the Swedish Empire). Rather, though geography is a part of my actual research, that is, the content of my research, it does not meaningfully delimit my research. Now, I’m not going to make some trite claim about how my work ‘transcends geography’ or something equally pompous and meaningless but I am going to suggest that work like mine cannot meaningfully be delimited by human geography. In fact, I would suggest that the work that I do problematises some of our traditional thinking about early modern Europe’s ideological geography. Though it would be a major diversion to go into it in much detail, sufficed to say that Europe’s ideological borders were highly porous in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the transmission of ideas across confessional and political lines was the norm, rather than the exception.

One of the more fascinating, to me, questions about historical geography is the shifting landscape of core-periphery regions within and across coherent geographical areas. Castilian and Portuguese colonisation of what is today Latin American transformed the Iberian peninsula from a peripheral appendage of Europe, home to warring petty kingdoms and the receding Aragonese empire in the Mediterranean, literally a piece of the inheritance of an otherwise powerful European house, into the seat of arguably the greatest state in Europe, the very center of European politics and power. And this core-periphery shift within Europe required the creation of an entirely new core-periphery axis across the breadth of the Atlantic, through the subjugation of Central American peoples to Castilian imperial rule. This was one of opening movements in a centuries-long process of creating new core-periphery axes with once-peripheral European states establishing Europe as the global economic and political core (by virtue of the very same geographic trait, their location on Europe’s western edge, which was once responsible for peripheral status) which is only today being undone.

It’s also worth noting that, in the age of state centralisation, precursor to the rise of absolutism, regional identity was in a state of considerable flux. The Aragonese, who spoke Catalan, rather than the Castilian of Madrid, and jealously defended their own laws and political system (the Cortes), certainly did not identify with anything their academic counterparts in Castille might have thought of as ‘Hispania,’ despite the best efforts of the Spanish Habsburgs.

For the inexplicably interested, here is the relevant text from the technical note that started this whole line of thinking:

The political geography of Molina’s and Grotius’ homelands have shifted considerably since the 17th century. At the time of his writing, Molina’s native Castile was one of three nominally independent polities occupying the Iberian peninsula, the Crown of Castile, the Crown of Aragon, and the Kingdom of Portugal, united in a state of personal union under the Spanish Habsburg dynasty and therefore governed only semi-independently. The entire Iberian peninsula was commonly referred to by the Latin ‘Hispania,’ from which the modern English ‘Spain’ is derived. The country now known as ‘Spain’ came into being no earlier than 1715, with the union of the Crowns of Castile and Aragon under the new Bourbon dynasty at the close of the War of the Spanish Succession which followed the failure of the Habsburg line on the peninsula, by which time Portugal had long since won independence under the leadership of João IV of the new Braganza dynasty in the Restoration War of 1640. Though the modern term ‘Spain’ is frequently, and inconsistently, applied to the early modern Iberian polities, particularly to Aragon and Castile following the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1469, the term is anachronistic and potentially confusing, since contemporaries used it as a term of geographic and cultural convenience which may or may not have included Portugal. To avoid confusion, each polity will be referred to individually and the geographic region will be referred to as ‘Iberia.’ ‘Spain’ will not be used.

Though Hugo Grotius is commonly referred to as ‘Dutch,’ the polity of which he was a citizen was not the same as the modern holder of the demonym: the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Grotius was a citizen of the republican United Provinces of the Netherlands, which included the modern-day Netherlands (the region, not the transatlantic polity) and modern Belgium. ‘Dutch’ was, however, a contemporary term and Grotius was native to the region of the United Provinces which today is part of the Netherlands. The demonym ‘Dutch’ will be used but should be understood to refer to the United Provinces, which proper name will be used throughout.

The Molinist has Moved

27 February 2014
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As promised, The Molinist has moved to a new blogging platform and a new url: www.themolinist.com! I’m presenting a fresh face to the world with a shiny new url, slick new interface, and trendy new blogging platform (Ghost)! This site will remain active, in the form of cross-posts, for some time, as well as playing host to the post and comment archive until I can sort out importing.

Of course the new site has a shiny new rss feed. I encourage RSS subscribers to change their subscription, both so that you receive new posts immediately and because cross-posting will not continue indefinitely. Sadly, the eventual falling of this WordPress blog into disuse will mean that WordPress Reader subscribers are left out on the cold. I hope that they will all follow me to the new site and consider either reading on-site or subscribing via rss.

I hope you’ll like the new blog and follow me there!

The Molinist is Moving

20 February 2014

It is with great (well, not really) fanfare that I announce that The Molinist is moving! Having pondered it over for some time I am jumping ship from WordPress to Ghost, a new-on-the-scene open source blogging platform. There are a lot of reasons for this, from Ghost’s streamlined interface to the ability to write in Markdown. Also, not that I wish to cast aspersions, but the direction WordPress has been taking as a platform recently just doesn’t suit me, whether their increasingly unappealing interface of their furious intent on being tumblr (I have a tumblr, it’s already tumblr much better than WordPress can be tumblr).

What does this mean for you? Well, the new Ghost blog will be receiving the majority of my attention, though I’ll be cross-posting at this address for the foreseeable future. Cross-posts will include gentle reminders to check out the new site. I will be importing the contents of this blog, so the complete archive should be available at the new address, as well as the current content of my Medium page. If you subscribe to this blog via WordPress Reader or RSS, cross-posting should more of less take care of you for the foreseeable future. RSS will also be available from the new blog. Content-wise, I will continue writing about early modern history and historiography, law, philosophy, theology, contemporary race and social justice issues, and generally whatever takes my fancy.

I hope you’ll follow The Molinist to its new home and continue to enjoy it. Look for another update here once the new blog is up and running (for up-to-the-minute updates, feel free to follow my twitter page) and an inaugural post on the new blog, hopefully, around the end of next week (cross-posted here, of course).

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