Tag Archives: stereotyping

Study, mourn, and respond

TW: abortion, sexism, racism, islamophobia, police violence, gun violence

It seems like there’s violence and intimidation cropping up in almost every corner of public life in the United States. This past week, most media coverage and most of my writing on here has focused on the parsing Donald Trump’s language and politics. Today, let me link you to a few examinations and responses to that that were all too easy to overlook this past week.

Anti-abortion violence has crept across the US

UltraViolet came out with a new graphic showing the steady background noise that violence against abortion providers has become in this country. It ticks through the attacks on clinics that have happened in the past ten years, which reveal them to be periodic occurrences, a part of normal life for those working at them.


The image was created within a broader push for greater security at those and related locations, given a sense of urgency after the recent attack in Colorado Springs.

Japan: not quite your islamophobic ally

Originally posted by an NRA administrator but quickly picked up by a variety of conservative media figures, a graphic praising Japanese restrictions on Muslims’ freedom of movement and economic activities has gone viral overnight.

GlobalVoices has a great rundown of how critics from vloggers to Japanese public officials have debunked basically every bullet point it lists, but I suspect that’s not really the point. It’s something of a perfect collision of an overwhelming paranoia of Muslims and an exotifying and isolating view of parts of Asia (chiefly Japan) – the legal, social, and economic realities built by and for members of either of those groups aren’t really relevant to the racist revulsion and fascination now on full display.

The public memorial

In the wake of the many recent violent incidents and prominent calls for more violence, something like a memorial, a place for people to gather in mourning and to commit themselves to peace instead, has a lot of appeal.

A group of organizations, most of them multi-issue but growing out labor organization, have created something like an online version of that. It opens asking “Is this America?” before criticizing the violence against abortion providers, police violence towards Black people, and islamophobic and racist rhetoric. It ends with an affirmation that “We are better than this.”

If that fails to move you, you can continue scrolling, past the organizations and leaders who wrote this statement and into the thicket of average citizen signatories. You are not alone in wanting something better.

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The apotheosis of straight allyship

TW: sexism, heterosexism

Freddie DeBoer has become a problem.

His most recent post which caught the blogosphere ablaze with contentious argument, was about the saccharine but ultimately irrelevant depiction of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie as a same-gender couple having a moment after the announcement of the US Supreme Court’s decisions in Hollingsworth v Perry and United States v Windsor (which overturned California’s Proposition 8 and section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, respectively).

(A comic originally published here, about how many queer activist spaces like pride have become increasingly inhabited by only certain types of queer people and straight people.)

DeBoer’s argument should be immediately suspect since he is speaking on the issue of how queer people should be national represented while being straight (and cisgender) himself. He has a track record for actually silencing marginalized and oppressed groups of which he’s not a member as a means of actually proclaiming himself to be the only true advocate for the rights of the people he’s speaking over.

The form that often takes is one in which he declares someone or something else to not be serious, and consequently unable to represent a group or issue effectively, and while that’s not central to this argument, there’s an implication of it. He charges that the presentation of Bert and Ernie as a (closeted?) queer couple works with “liberal” stereotypes of queer people as (among other things) “childish” and “silly”. I’ll admit that I’m sympathetic to this view point, but DeBoer’s argument here seems to be that presentations of queer people as either of those attributes are to be struggled against.

His problem isn’t the pigeonholing of queer people – it’s pigeonholing them “wrongly”. As he argues, “I don’t think that a group that has for decades labored against a brutally oppressive regime that humiliated them, assaulted them, and systematically denied them equal rights should be analogized to imaginary characters that have been built out of felt for the edutainment of children”. This is, of course, deeply ironic coming from someone who until recently wasn’t very interested in the whole “marriage” thing since that’s assimilationist, but of course, DeBoer might be willing to talk out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. One side will be fallacious arguments about “assimilation” while another centers the struggles of queer people exclusively around marriage rights. That’s another issue, but that he can so easily switch between these supposedly antagonistic perspectives says something both about DeBoer’s queer-positive activism and the nature of those positions.

In any case, DeBoer’s whole argument seems very much like a straight guy trying to speak to queer issues like queer people do without acknowledging his own ignorance on them. The New Yorker was making a flawed statement, sure, but it was one that treated the “triviality” of a fan interpretation of Bert and Ernie’s relationship as a serious issue. Granting marriage reforms the status of “important” is something even queer individuals often have trouble doing, declaring it irrelevant compared to either other queer issues or other systemic discrimination or patterns of violence. If we want DeBoer’s support we have to remain “serious”.

Similarly frustrating, the major thrust of DeBoer’s argument was that Bert and Ernie are sexless in a way that real queer people aren’t. Sure, but the presentation of queer people (by both queer and straight people) as defined through their sex lives is something many queer people find upsetting, damaging, and even triggering. There is a discussion to be had about how popular acceptance of queer people often corresponds to the perception of them as sexual, but arguing that every presentation of queer people should push those limits polices the representation of queer people too. That’s beyond fighting fire with fire, but an example of another straight person privileging his opinions about how we should be represented in the media, just with slightly unusual opinions.

In effect, this isn’t being an ally, but co-opting a liberation movement. This isn’t about modifying the public representations of queer people so that queer people decide how they want to be viewed, but fitting the depictions of queer people to DeBoer’s (non-standard) expectations. This isn’t a thoughtful evaluation of queer people’s issues that avoids clichés of “assimilation” or “marriage before all”, but rather the mixing and matching of those two tired and inadequate perspectives.

Freddie DeBoer isn’t calling out the problem – he is the problem.

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Their motives

TW: racism, nativism, heterosexism

Alex Pareene over at Salon has an interesting piece up about why precisely the Republicans in the US Senate are egging on Democrats to choose between getting immigration reform done without provisions for queer families or making no progress on the issue at all. His take seems to be that the Republicans are opposed on the basis of three major, distinct issues: their contempt for their Democratic colleagues, their contempt for queer and genderqueer people, and their racism towards the undocumented specifically and immigrants generally.

While, I’ll grant Pareene that all of those forces can and often do operate individually, the last two seem uniquely capable of interacting in harmful ways that the Republicans would be particularly interested in exploiting. Yes, exploiting – as I mentioned above, this is very effectively dividing progressive organizers as an issue, with MoveOn putting out videos about why this and other issues need to be ironed out of the bill before its passage while America’s Voice is calling for people to thank Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) for guiding the bill through the editorial process as he did (while allowing the inclusive language he added himself to be stripped from it).

This has actually been an explicit goal of many overtly heterosexist groups for years now: to divide the modern progressive coalition into groups motivated by opposing the patriarchy (in this case, queer people) and those motivated by opposing White supremacy (in this case, predominantly Latin@s and other people of color). An inevitable outcome of that, of course, is that queer people of color and women of color are made uniquely vulnerable, as the political process is forced to choose between protecting them from racism or shielding them from patriarchal oppression. In this case, that’s the space many queer Latin@s find themselves in – as “burdens” for the at times gender normative reform movement to consider and tokens for the heavily White-dominated queer and genderqueer advocates to potentially extend a hand (maybe).

(A declaration of existence, from here.)

Beyond that gross game of divide-and-conquer that the Republicans seem to be playing, there’s also the simple question of why they’re permitting immigration reform to go through in the first place. As often mentioned here, immigrants are repeatedly asked to prove their usefulness or be worth the cost, which seems to tie into the current exploitative conditions many undocumented immigrants currently work within. Reform needs to have a proven benefit to non-immigrants to justify the loss of a “below the law” labor pool. But that labor pool has certain defining features – frequently they provide hard physical labor, which doesn’t mix very easily with frankly flamboyant stereotypes of queer and genderqueer people.

It could be a simple as Republicans thinking that there are no queer and genderqueer people within the labor pools they’re negotiating with.

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We’re all a little scary

TW: Sandy Hook shooting, gun violence, abilism, racism

Since the shooting of Gabby Giffords and assorted others nearly two years ago by a clinically-diagnosed schizophrenic, public discussion of the prevalent gun violence in the United States and the widespread failure to address the needs of the mentally ill have entangled themselves together. In the wake of the much more recent Sandy Hook shooting, it seems that fear of the psychologically “unwell” as eclipsed all other parts of that discussion, especially among Republicans.

Look no further than yesterday’s This Week, where Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers made it quite clear, that the only people who could ever be using guns towards violent ends are those who are “crazy” so additional laws, particularly those aimed at the “sane” are irrelevancies. Through the ensuing roundtable fellow Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz made it clear that the discussion he thought the only real problem was policing the mentally unstable.

Event recent stories that were reported widely about the violence faced by those deemed mentally ill disappeared down the memory hole, once it became clear that the main options policy makers faced were tighter gun control for everyone or tighter gun control for, in Rodgers’ words, the  “crazies”. This was hardly another narrative floated by the powerful, hoping to hedge a direct assault from the NRA come reelection, as Liza Long’s similarly framed piece, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother”, showed.

It’s important, in the face of this to become familiar with the perspective of some of those told that they may need to face new and unique restrictions. This goes double as Connecticut schools were shut down in response to some one seeming “threatening” earlier today. Unmentioned, of course, was what caused the person to be so labeled and how were they deemed safe? Did they seem mentally impaired? Did they look Black? Were they searched? Was it at gunpoint?

Who’s safety is actually going to be enforced by new policies or attitudes created after this shooting?

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Obama’s our first LGBT* president?

TW: trans erasure, female LGBT* erasure

Since Toni Morrison’s introspective musing in 1998 that Bill Clinton could be considered something akin to the United States’ first “Black” president, it seems every Democratic President until the end of time will now be seen as setting the stage for another disenfranchised social group that they don’t belong to. With one of the bigger political blogs out there already affectionately joking that Barack Obama was a “metrosexual black Abe Lincoln,” the logical next step is Andrew Sullivan writing a lengthy article claiming that Barack Obama is the first “gay” President.

I think in the end Sullivan’s efforts tell us more about him than Barack Obama. In comparison to his, Morrison’s criticism of the late Clinton era’s unique contempt for the President pointed to a multitude of individual events:

After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: ‘No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.’

In less than a paragraph, Morrison conjures up several cultural articles and life experiences important to many Black Americans which are also connected to Clinton. From there she branches out into the hostility to him, and the certainty and inevitability of his guilt, and how that mirrors so many of the experiences of Black people in the United States. Clinton at once springs from a social context similar in many ways to that of many Black Americans and suffers in a way parallel to many of them. In contrast, Andrew Sullivan seemed to bring the weak tea, just citing Obama’s childhood of social displacement and distinction even from his care-givers:

The core gay experience throughout history has been displacement, a sense of belonging and yet not belonging. Gays are born mostly into heterosexual families and discover as they grow up that, for some reason, they will never be able to have a marriage like their parents’ or their siblings’. They know this before they can tell anyone else, even their parents. This sense of subtle alienation—of loving your own family while feeling excluded from it—is something all gay children learn. […] Barack Obama had to come out of a different closet. He had to discover his black identity and then reconcile it with his white family, just as gays discover their homosexual identity and then have to reconcile it with their heterosexual family. The America he grew up in had no space for a boy like him: black yet enveloped by loving whiteness, estranged from a father he longed for (another common gay experience), hurtling between being a Barry and a Barack, needing an American racial identity as he grew older but chafing also against it and over-embracing it at times.

But moreover his entire approach seems painfully shaped by his own experiences – he sees Obama as the first “gay” President, rather than the first “LGBT*” President. His narrative is erasive, as it connects portions of Obama’s life and work to portions of his own, while ignoring a larger context. If you read through the article, you’ll find Sullivan cites three major policy decisions that reveal Obama as the first “gay” President: completed the Bush-era efforts to rescind the ban on immigration of international travel to the United States by HIV+ individuals, dismantled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) as military policy, and stated his support for same-sex marriage.

To individuals unfamiliar with the LGBT rights movements  this may look like a balanced list – but in reality it focuses near exclusively on issues that impact cisgender men who identify as gay or bisexual, to the exclusion of the policy concerns of lesbians, female bisexual, transgender, and genderqueer individuals. While the above policy changes are obviously beneficial to all Americans, the clearest beneficiaries are cisgender and gay or bisexual men. They are unfortunately at the greatest risk of HIV infection and therefore most clearly benefit from the new travel policies regarding HIV+ individuals, while transgender and genderqueer individuals remain sadly barred from military service as they are labeled as mentally unwell. Expanded marriage rights benefit lesbians or other couples of women, but they mean little in the absence of challenges to wage discrimination against women – on whom such a household depends for all of its income.

Amanda Simpson was the first openly transgender or genderqueer political appointee in United States history. She was appointed in 2009 by President Obama.

This isn’t to suggest that Obama has led in a way that’s prioritized the needs of cisgender, gay and bisexual men over the needs of other segments of the LGBT* community – he’s been the first to appointed openly trans women and men to public and official political positions, insisted on interpreting federal statutes barring gender discrimination to include transgender and genderqueer individuals, and been a strong advocate for equal pay regardless of gender. In clear, tangible ways, President Obama has changed political policies to reflect the needs of the entire LGBT* community (among other groups), not just a small portion of it.

To be brutally honest, Sullivan’s piece seems to work within his own experiences and stereotypes. He talks about it being a “common gay experience” to be “estranged from a father he [the gay person] longed for” – repeating one of the worst stereotypes about gay and bisexual men. Sullivan speaks of how people and gay men “are born mostly into heterosexual families,” sweeping aside queerspawn people as an omissible peculiarity. His language itself is erasive – as he speaks exclusive of gay people and the “gay” Obama – speaking of the experience of not only gay but also lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and many others with “separateness from their peers, a subtle estrangement from their families, the first sharp pangs of shame” as something that is “gay”. Needless to say, he uses epicene ‘he’. Ironically enough, in the very act of discussing solidarity between the straight (“gay”) President and gay (LGBT*?) constituents, Sullivan has perpetuated hostility towards less enfranchised LGBT* people.

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Knowing misinformation is false is a privilege

TW: islamophobia, hostilities at US embassies and consulates, censorship, mass surveillance

The protests in Libya and Egypt against the blasphemous anti-Muslim film, Innocence of Muslims, have spread across much of the world in the past week. Primarily targeting US consulates and embassies for at times violent demonstrations, many reporters have tried to answer the question of why the United States is being collectively held responsible for a sketchy indie film produced here. In segments like one aired on Rachel Maddow’s show last week, many have pointed towards anti-American and anti-Western conspiracy theories as having motivated the protests. It’s obvious though that that’s an incomplete answer – it answers where the protests came with by pointing to misinformation, which the segment has just labeled as such for the entire world. Once that’s broadcast once, surely, people will be informed of how they were misled and stop protesting, right? Why hasn’t that happened, but instead the protests have spread?

I think the major issue ignored by the segment on Maddow’s show and others like it is how to contextualize Middle Eastern governments’ capacity and means of pushing anti-American misinformation on their populace. Failing to depict how access to information is radically different in many parts of the Middle East and for large numbers of other people in what’s been called the “Global South” sets up American and other Western audiences to anticipate an easy fix for this problem (“watch our news!”). After that sort of solution fails, we’ve effectively been given permission to criticize the protests as willfully misinformed, because we haven’t examined how difficult accessing good information from multiple sources can be in other parts of the world.

That’s partly where racist depictions of Muslims as “savage” or “violent” come from – the only explanation is that Muslims want to be misinformed as an excuse for violence. Failing to contextualize and fully explain this issue can obscure the privileges of Westerners in having dependable access by multiple means to a variety of media sources. As some of the earliest protests were in Libya, I’ll focus on its unique history. While an extreme case, its particularly pronounced examples of problems in media are common throughout much of North Africa and the Middle East (and many other “non-Western” regions).

What needs to be considered along with how many people misunderstand the relationship between the United States’ government and this film’s production is that for many Muslims, the United States has long ago discredited any claim to respect Islam. Decades of incidents of Koran desecration by service members or other state representatives do reflect problems with the US military I’ve previously discussed, but the inability to adequately police service members’ behavior is now perceived as a deliberate policy. This purportedly extends into willful tolerance and even surreptitious promotion of Koran desecration or blasphemous references to the Prophet Mohammed.

This belief in an extremely powerful state (especially in terms of meddling with the media) seems quite reasonable in places like Libya when you realize that major televised media is almost exclusively state-run. The few local exceptions to that in Libya had typically quite small market shares and were rather careful to toe the line, given that between 10 and 20 percent of the assisted the government in mass surveillance of the population. State-run radio and television are naturally state-subsidized so those were among the most widely available media during the decades of rule under Gaddafi. The alternative to those overtly state-controlled media, various internet outlets, only reached 17 percent of the population prior to the revolution. Although it reached fewer than one in five Libyans, the government saw fit to monitor and control it, even if not as completely as most other media. The lighter controls are still fairly strict, as the state blacked it out almost entirely when the protests last year turned into a full-fledged civil war.

There were of course gaps in this propaganda juggernaut, namely the allowance of Al-Jazeera and CNN on the air. But those were lonely voices of mild dissent from the ruling regime, marked as foreign news sources which undoubtedly couldn’t cover domestic issues in Libya very well, and faced their own struggles for legitimacy. Their information frankly couldn’t compete with the near-monopoly on information that the Libyan state had. For misinformation to be labeled misinformation it needs to be nearly universally denounced as such – and in the media environment of Libya for the past decades, those conditions couldn’t be met. Verifying that inaccuracies exist requires actually separate, credible sources to contest the issue, which has been sorely lacking in Libya for quite some time.

The misinformed anti-American protesters in Libya (and many other countries) have been shaped by a social context – where protesting against all Americans for the action of one is not only a just interpretation of the decades of legally codified collective punishment, but a sensible one given the information at their disposal. They have only known governments as disturbingly powerful entities, and those regimes have used their power to locally shrink the realm of the observable options to only absurdly domineering states.

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They don’t trust you or anything you say

TW: sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, sexual harassment, victim blaming, stereotypes of women as “hysterical” or deceitful

It’s pretty much inevitable that you’ve heard something over the past two years (no really, three years of this) about how the Tea Party Republicans and their assorted political allies do not trust women to make any decisions about their bodies. There’s honestly way too many specific examples to list here. Clearly many modern Republicans want to reinstitute absolute male control over female fertility and sexuality.

But what’s often overlooked is one astounding detail in how they’re going about that, especially with the current controversy over Todd Akin’s deplorable statements. Asked about his firm belief that “legitmate” sexual assaults do not produce children, everyone on the political spectrum from Barack Obama to Paul Ryan has used the same response – that “rape is rape.” This refrain treats Akin’s reference to “legitimate” rape as dissecting forms of sexual assault, classifying ways of being brutally attacked that will receive different legal aid and social treatment. Even with Obama’s eventual mentioning of the need for women to make decisions about their reproductive biology rather than (typically male) politicians, he focuses on the political power being used to police women’s actions, rather than the political power being used to cast doubt on the concept of women as rational, truthful human beings with the word “legitimate”.

As Rebecca Solnit wrote in 2008 (and recently republished), “[c]redibility is a basic survival tool.” Her essay dove into an honestly global pattern of assuming the illegitimacy of statements by women – from certain nations requiring corroborating testimony from men to accept a woman’s legal case to a harrowing anecdote about a woman being categorically dismissed as in danger of domestic violence. With the discussion of certain rapes being “legitimate” and the implication that others are not, the idea of women as valid reporters of what they’ve bodily experienced is in peril. Looking back at what’s been called the War on Women, that’s what’s just as much under attack for women as their right to access an abortion, birth control, or other medical necessities for exercise their reproductive freedoms.

Before this war was even officially declared, when the Tea Party was just a twinkle in the Koch Brothers’ eyes, John McCain explained his opposition to health exemptions to the Bush era bans on third trimester abortions as a result of disbelieving women’s claims about their health. In the third presidential debate between him and Barack Obama, he said, that exemptions for abortion bans based on the health of the mother have “been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything”. In short, McCain insisted that women seeking third trimester abortions because of a health complication that developed during their pregnancy are lying or at the very least exaggerating to gain access to an abortion.

Slightly more than two years later, as the 112 Congress debating creating a new legal category of “forcible rape”, Bobby Franklin, a local representative in Georgia, proposed instituting new judicial procedures for cases of sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence, and certain forms of sexual harassment in that state. Unlike other crimes, which would remain the same, the plaintiff or victim would become an “accuser”. Obviously this would equally affect all victims of the reclassified crimes, regardless of gender. As those crimes are notoriously disproportionately committed against women, however, unlike many of the crimes unaffected by this change, it’s hard to see this as something other than casting doubt on female victims’ accounts. Representative Franklin clearly implied that female judicial testimony specifically in cases of sexual violence should be understood as a separate, less trustworthy class of testimony.

Lastly, earlier this year Arizona state representative Kimberlee Yee sponsored a bill which governor Jan Brewer signed into law that essentially added two weeks to the count of how long a given woman has been pregnant, which is used to determine when Arizona’s later-term abortion restrictions come into play. Clearly having internalized the misogynistic distrust of women’s own reports on their bodily health or processes, Yee’s bill redefined the legally-recognized beginning of a given woman’s pregnancy to being “calculated from the first day of the last menstrual period of the pregnant woman” typically adding approximately two weeks to records. The purpose of this change is quite clear: to prevent women from claiming (perhaps to their own knowledge) to be twenty weeks pregnant to receive an abortion when they are actually as much as twenty-two weeks pregnant. The refusal to trust women to self-report the exact date of conception reflects the same deep mistrust of women as truthful reporters of information relating to their sexuality and fertility.

Todd Akin’s comments join the company of these and other efforts to treat women as unreliable witnesses to their own bodily experiences, whether of sexual assault, pregnancy, or both. Unfortunately the full damage of his discussion of “legitimate” rape seems to have been lost on most observers, excepting the Gawker article mentioned earlier and one rape apologist Politico reporter (for whom it was basically a dog whistle). This is somewhat understandable, as Akin’s comments reflect not only an extreme doubt of women’s statements’ validity but a fundamental and willful misunderstanding of biology. But lost in the analysis of how empirically wrong his statement was, I fear, is analysis of how openly hostile his statement not just to women having power but women daring to contradict external authorities. This was not only, in the words of President Obama, “parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we’re talking about”. This was actively challenging the idea of women, like men, to be presumed to be honest individuals unless evidence otherwise exists, particularly on the issue of women’s reproductive health and freedoms. What’s at risk here, among other rights, is the right of every woman to be presumed non-“hysterical” and non-deceitful.

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Romney’s racism isn’t even original

TW: racism, stereotypes of laziness, coerced and forced assimilation

You’ve probably already heard about Mitt Romney’s huge gaffes during his quick international tour in late July. Perhaps you’ve heard about one in particular – concerning the work ethics of Palestinians and Israelis. While at a fundraiser with several wealthy Israelis, Romney stated what’s since been widely circulated:

“Culture makes all the difference […] you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and compare that with the G.D.P. per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality. And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other: Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.”

Obviously this line of thought which connects failed economies to cultural values is some new idiocy, a new previously unthinkable extreme for the Republican Party. This claim was something Romney had to walk back the next day, only to reiterate the same point to the National Review one day later, as if he’s again attempting to pander to the far right without losing the center. It’s a frivolous new idea that the more extreme Republicans have gotten into their heads – like tax cuts reducing the federal deficit. You only have to read Talking Points Memo (TPM) to get the low down on this new argument and how the more radical Republicans even developed it:

“That is reflective of a very deep-seated American can-do attitude, one we identified not so long ago [as] the ‘Protestant work ethic.’ But it has morphed from a shared recognition that hard work and initiative are inherently good, noble character traits into a sense that financial success is a proxy for them — where a high net worth is in and of itself a testament to one’s good character. See, e.g., prosperity gospel. […] And yet when Romney leaves the country [he] applies the same basic conception to larger groups of peoples in nations — Israelis and Palestinians, Americans and Mexicans, Chileans and Peruvians”

Clearly the Republicans are at it again. They’ve taken some basic American belief (“having a strong work ethic is good”) and distorted and perverted it. They did the same thing, Al Gore warns us, turning a scientific level of skepticism on global climate change into denial of proven facts. They are doing this, Rachel Maddow warns us, turning traditional “pro-life” concerns into denial of historical exceptions provided to victims of rape or incest. It certainly seems like this is another instance of this.

Only, unfortunately for TPM, this narrative doesn’t really apply here, since the idea of entire ethnic groups having a consistent work ethic is pretty old, at the least having arisen at the same time as the fabled Protestant work ethic.

19th century illustration of a Black man20th century figurine of a Native American child21st century political cartoon of Barack Obama
(Spanning the centuries – 19th century illustrations, 20th century figurines, and 21st century political cartoons have all depicted people of color as innately lazy.)

The rather interesting Bad Samaritans by Ha-Joon Chang, in fact, has an entire chapter devoted to now outdated beliefs along these lines, featuring the following choice quotes:

“[The Japanese] give an impression . . . of being lazy and utterly indifferent to the passage of time”
-Sidney Gulick (an American missionary), 1903

“[The Korean people are] 12 millions of dirty, degraded, sullen, lazy and religionless savages who slouch about in dirty white garments of the most inept kind and who live in filthy mudhuts”
-Beatrice Webb (a British socialist), 1912

Obviously the stereotypes of the “lazy” Japanese and Koreans did not stand the test of time, after both Japan and South Korea underwent rapid economic development making such statements seem embarrassingly out of touch. Even if you discount those quotes as examples of the Protestant work ethic previously run amok elsewhere in the world, there’s still the historical practice of enrolling Native Americans in vocational schools. The founder of the original school in fact famously explained that the industrial training was intended to reproduce in a hothouse fashion the allegedly “civilizing” effects of enslavement, writing (here on page 17)

“Inscrutable are the ways of Providence. Horrible as were the experiences of its introduction, and of slavery itself, there was concealed in them the greatest blessing that ever came to the Negro race—seven millions of blacks from cannibalism in darkest Africa to citizenship in free and enlightened America; not full, not complete citizenship, but possible—probable—citizenship, and on the highway and near to it. There is a great lesson in this. The schools did not make them citizens, the schools did not teach them the language, nor make them industrious and self-supporting. Denied the right of schools, they became English-speaking and industrious through the influences of association.” (emphasis added)
            -Richard Pratt, 1892

An essential ingredient, allegedly, to the forced assimilation of Native Americans was that they become “industrious and self-supporting,” just as slavery supposedly made people of African descent more “industrious and self-supporting”. The White Man’s Burden at least in the early United States apparently had a central component of moral instruction on the value of labor for nearly every other ethnic group on the planet.

Thanks to colonialism’s lengthy efforts to instill the correct values in subjected peoples, these sorts of negative evaluations of entire races’ work ethics are now present among the Westernized elites of former colonies. For instance, the idea of a “Hindu rate of growth” originated from an Anglicized Indian economist who has relocated to London. The term was intended to suggest that nations with larger Hindu populations experience slower economic growth because of the fatalism and other character defects allegedly caused by that religion.

So more than a century after Native Americans were forced to become “industrious” by assimilating into Western civilization, assimilated citizens of at least one former British colony see vestiges of local culture as barriers to economic growth. Whatever conclusions you draw on these narratives about entire racial groups being lazy or culturally inferior, it’s certainly neither a new idea nor any longer one unique to Protestant cultures. It’s been an essential part of the mental framework of British and American colonialism for at least a century, and since then has been exported worldwide long before Romney’s international tour.

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