Top Posts of 2015

By Doctor Comrade

After one year of Handsy Comprehensive Exam, we have published 59 articles and 20 podcast episodes. We have been fortunate enough to garner increased traffic every month since we launched, and I'm incredibly grateful for our audience, our contributors, and our podcast guests. I figured that the end of 2015 would be an excellent opportunity to compile a short list of our most popular content from the past year. Here are the top ten HCE posts of 2015:

Syrian refugees cross into Hungary from Serbia, August 2015.

Syrian refugees cross into Hungary from Serbia, August 2015.

1. Problematic Thoughts 06 - A Criticism of Sam Harris and the New Atheist's Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Presidential candidates like JEB Bush and Ted Cruz have both said that the US should only allow Christian refugees into the country because of security concerns. And they won themselves a strange, liberal ally.

Author, neuroscientist, and anti-religion advocate Sam Harris declared: “Is it crazy to express, as Ted Cruz did, a preference for Christians over Muslims in this process? Of course not. What percentage of Christians will be jihadists or want to live under Sharia law? Zero. And this is a massive, in fact the only, concern when talking about security. We know that some percentage of Muslims will be jihadists inevitably… So it is not mere bigotry or mere xenophobia to express that preference.” First of all, the United States is home to numerous Christian terrorist organizations that carry out acts of violence in the name of Christianity: the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations, Rescue America, the Army of God, and others. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a dedicated list of 21 “Christian Identity Hate Groups” which are “fundamentally racist and anti-Semitic,” several of which have committed acts of domestic terrorism. Are we supposed to pretend that these groups would not impose some version of Christian Sharia law if given the opportunity? This just shows that Harris’s premise is myopic, ahistorical, shortsighted, xenophobic, and racist.

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2. The Fetishization of Democracy Stops on the Clock

The Cold War rhetoric about the supremacy of democracy remains a central tenet of contemporary American political babble. Politicians from both major political parties are quick to cite the will of the people, the demands of their constituents, and the requirements of a democratic country whenever they propose something. From claims about the Moral Majority from Republicans or civic equality from Democrats, democracy and its attendant discourses endure as our guiding motif.

But what about those leaders who are not democratically elected, yet whose decisions affect our daily lives? Why are CEOs, regents, trustees, shareholders, and every kind of boss free from the strictures of democracy in the putative world’s greatest democracy? And why, if democracy is such a central value to American society, do some of its most steadfast rhetorical apologists repudiate democracy in the workplace (examples: TrumpWalkerPaulCarsonFiorina)? American culture fetishizes democracy, but purposefully limits its application when it undermines free-market capitalism. Anti-union policies, stretching as far back as the mid-nineteenth century, have sought to limit the strength of unions by either dismantling them or limiting their ability to bargain collectively.

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3. Book Review: Peggy Pascoe's "What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America"

Historian Peggy Pascoe's What Comes Naturally deftly analyzes and criticizes the socio-legal frameworks that designed, propagated, and enforced anti-miscegenation laws in the United States from the colonial period until the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision that ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. Pascoe identifies both the social discourses and juridical decrees that legitimized and reinforced white supremacy through a dual system of racial categorization and social constructions of gender and race. Pascoe argues that miscegenation laws and their enduring power relied on three fictions: miscegenation laws were not discriminatory because they applied equally to all races; racial purity could and should be protected; and race exists objectively and can be measured. Holding to these three themes, Pascoe illustrates how miscegenation laws were the foundation of larger racial projects of white supremacy and racial purity.

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4. Handsy Comprehensive Exam Podcast 04 - Stephen Bohigian on Historical Movies

Film and television fulfill a culturally significant role in helping form the public's views of history. But because these forms of media dramatize history, they often misinform the public about historical events. Film adaptations of history distort the roles of historical actors, obscure or omit documented occurrences, limit perspectives of agents, exaggerate the roles of prominent figures (particularly white men), and marginalize or silence the narratives of oppressed peoples. As a result, the information the public receives is often a complete misrepresentation of history and historical people. In this episode of the podcast, Lindsay and Hannah talked about problematic movies with history PhD student and cinephile Stephen Bohigian.

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Harlem riots in 1964.

Harlem riots in 1964.

5. The Pathology of Blackness: Colonizing Harlem in Collective Memory, 1964-1995

In a four-part series on collective memory, the power of place, and the pathologization of blackness in American history, I analyzed how anthropological and sociological studies of Harlem, New York and other American urban centers had created a gross mischaracterization of black culture as broken and diseased. Liberal and well-meaning social scientists had inadvertently constructed "blackness" by blaming black motherhood and black violence on black culture without analyzing the broader social effects of segregation, poverty, slavery, and racism.

I argue that the African-American people of Harlem were treated like a colonized population because Harlem came to represent the quintessential American ghetto based on the belief that black poverty is a pathological condition. Intellectuals and the media (both black and white) have been complicit in institutionalizing a collective memory of Harlem that renders it the center of black pathology as well as a metonym for other American ghettos. Relying on discourses justified by the patina of scientific legitimacy, social scientists have constructed African Americans as inferior Others, reminiscent of the British treatment of Indians and Arabs in the previous decades. Blackness went from something to be eliminated, suppressed, and conquered to being something to be treated, remedied, and civilized. Like Indians and Arabs under the British Empire, blacks in American cities were seen as inherently diseased and uncivilized, adhering to a dying and dysfunctional culture. Their inability to rescue themselves from poverty had been the result of the disease of unhealthy culture that not only destroys their ontological wellbeing but also their physical health. In particular, the culture of black families has been keenly studied, and the idea that black fathers fail to impart traditional values to their children has had immense staying power in academic discourses. The absence of black fathers and the disintegration of the “traditional” family in black neighborhoods, particularly in Harlem, became the centerpiece of theories that attempted to explain racial inequality.

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6. Impostor Syndrome and Self-Criticism

In 2012, I got a tattoo on my chest that reads simply, "Searching Seeking." And like all my other tattoos, it holds several different meanings for me, all of which have emerged and evolved over time. I was inspired by We Came As Romans' song "Searching, Seeking, Reaching, Always." The lyric is "I'm searching, seeking, reaching for something more / I'll be better than before." And even taking into account my ever-increasing skepticism towards normative concepts like "better" or even the 21st-century fascination with self-improvement, something about the idea of continuing to improve has stayed with me. I think it's because I have what many grad students have: "Impostor Syndrome."

Impostor syndrome was described in 1978 as a term "used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phonies" for high-achieving women, which "[d]espite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persists [sic] in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise." Subsequent studies have shown that impostor syndrome has been reported in grad students, scientists, and people in corporate jobs, both male and female in approximately equal numbers. People who think they are impostors often fear failure; attribute success to luck, error, or charm; desire to stand out; feel that they have deceived others; and discount recognition from others.

I'm not a psychologist, I can't speak to the veracity of this phenomenon in others, and I have no interest in treating it or understanding its genesis. Rather, I have ruminated extensively on this subject, and maybe some other people will find my explorations helpful or explanatory. The more I read about it, the more I feel like I have it.

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7. Transcendent Empathy: Veganism, Slavery, and the Ethics of Androids in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Philip K. Dick was one of the most prolific science-fiction novelists of the twentieth century. In his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the inspiration for the film Blade Runner, Dick presents a dystopian vision of Earth that is crumbling in the aftermath of an atomic war. To incentivize colonization of other planets in the solar system, the two dominant Earth governments, the United States and the Soviet Union, offer androids to any able-bodied person who emigrated from Earth. As the androids became increasingly sophisticated, in both speech and their startlingly similar appearance to humans, their existence on Earth was banned. Any androids that fled from the colonies back to Earth were pursued by bounty hunters, whose only tools to identify androids came in the form of personality tests. Rick Deckard, a second-rate bounty hunter, is the main protagonist of the book, and is given the task of hunting six escaped androids in San Francisco. By cleverly administering these personality tests, or inferring from the androids’ reactions to otherwise normal interactions, Deckard detects that the androids lack the capacity to feel empathy, which is the telltale sign of an android’s identity. When he identifies an android, he “retires” it by shooting it with a laser gun. Dick’s relatively straightforward premise calls to mind the equally philosophical work of Isaac Asimov, another famous sci-fi writer, who authored books such as I, Robot, and who also explored the nature of sentience, emotion, and artificial intelligence. A constant theme in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the omnipresent question about the morality of retiring androids, the essence of empathy, and the power to destroy life. Dick presents three arguments I found that support veganism: the argument from empathy, the argument from survivability, and the argument from slavery. 

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8. Gangsta Rap and the Media

In this four-part series on rap, Black Nationalism, and representations of political discourse, I explore how media outlets reacted to the popularity of gangsta rap in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the late 1980s, following the increased popularity of “gangsta rap,” a sub-genre of hardcore hip hop music, prominent news media outlets demonized its performers as violent, misogynistic, homophobic thugs. Gangsta rap certainly contained violent and sexually explicit lyrics, but its central themes also included nuanced and highly-developed critiques of racism and police brutality. Packaged in an increasingly fashionable medium, gangsta rap was not only dangerous in terms of its expression of black liberation, but also because it was becoming popular with teenagers of all ethnic groups. The predominantly-white and elite media reaction exemplified wide-ranging efforts on the part of white elites to silence and marginalize the political messages of gangsta rap. The first pattern to develop was the disparagement of rap as a violent genre that was indicative of deviant thug culture. The second pattern delegitimized the political statements of gangsta rap because supposedly legitimate political discourse did not contain the violent imagery of rap music. And the third pattern was comparisons between gangsta rap and alternative rap, another hip hop sub-genre that was lauded by media outlets because it promoted non-violence. This paper also analyzes how these trends echoed the glamorization of Martin Luther King Jr. and the non-violent Civil Rights Movement and the denigration of Black Nationalist figures like Malcolm X who believed violence had legitimate political uses. This paper seeks to explicate how violence and non-violence came to be valued differently based on experiences with the African-American liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s through parallels between alternative rap and Martin Luther King and gangsta rap and Malcolm X.

Essentially, the media focused on gangsta rap’s themes of violence and misogyny to marginalize and discredit rap’s underlying political critiques and revolutionary rhetoric. I argue that gangsta rap contained thorough critiques of white supremacy and structural racism, while the media focused on the culturally-constructed “negative” aspects of gangsta rap rather than the critical subject matter, and they privileged non-violence in both music and politics. Newspaper reports attempted to discredit the political discourse of gangsta rap in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which I see as part of a trend of conveniently relying on the rhetoric of non-violence to undermine Black Nationalism. National and regional newspapers provide an overabundance of sources because they were written by white writers for principally white and upper-class audiences, and they help encapsulate the white backlash to young black men attempting to assert their own political power.

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Attempts to map and administer the land are inherently colonialist and disregard local practices and customs.

Attempts to map and administer the land are inherently colonialist and disregard local practices and customs.

9. Colonialism and Geopolitical Opportunism: "North Sudan" and the Dispossession of Bir Tawil

In 2014, an American man named Jeremiah Heaton claimed an area on the Egypt-Sudan border called Bir Tawil and established the kingdom of North Sudan under the auspices of making his then 6-year-old daughter a genuine princess. He planted a flag designed by his daughter and declared the new country as his own. When news of his journey became public, Disney decided to option the story as a feature film. The resultant backlash criticized Disney and Heaton for glorifying whites marching into African territory and staking claims to the land. One of the most common criticisms, and perhaps my favorite, was that Disney’s first movie about an African princess would be about a white girl. 

What Heaton has evidently stumbled into is a highly contested history of European colonialism. He has said “Bir Tawil was not a country nor does it have a population… My actions do not fit the definition of colonialism in any way. The term for what I have done is establishment of a new nation, something that has not been seen using terra nullius land in hundreds of years.” Heaton has also stated, “I’m the visionary. I’m at the tip of the spear who will lead the charge and get beat up.” What I would like to show is that these claims are—whether unwittingly, unconsciously, ignorantly, or purposefully—firmly embedded in a colonialist discourse of European territorial conquest, imperial domination, and racial subjugation.

Even the notion that land can be cordoned off, bartered, sold, mapped, and administered is a colonialist discourse about the nature of property. Bir Tawil is noted as having a population of zero inhabitants, which is a European ideal of land usage. In actuality, Bir Tawil is part of the territory of the Ababda tribe of nomads. Despite not having permanent and sedentary residents, Bir Tawil is clearly land that is occupied by the cultural, agricultural, political, and economic interests of indigenous peoples, and therefore any attempts to administrate it as a territory or country encapsulate efforts by colonialists to bring the land under their control. By demarcating and delimiting the land, the British administrators, like in North America or Kashmir or Israel, have not only caused the present conflict but violated the sanctity of indigenous land use.

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10. New York Times Editorial "Why You Hate Work" is a Perfect Example of Capitalist Pacification

An opinion piece in the NYT entitled "Why You Hate Work" outlines several strategies for increasing employee engagement and productivity. I thought it was a perfect example of how companies treat their employees as human resources. Like other resources, employees are used and exploited, and discourse about how to maximize production and improve employee satisfaction serves only to reinforce the capitalist teleology that workers exist for production of profit.

"Why You Hate Work" details why workers and managers become disengaged with work. To remedy these problems, the authors identified four core needs: physical energy, emotional value, mental focus, and spiritual connections to their work. The authors claim that the "more effectively leaders and organizations support employees in meeting these core needs, the more likely the employees are to experience engagement, loyalty, job satisfaction and positive energy at work, and... all of their performance variables improve." Moreover, "Engagement... has now been widely correlated with higher corporate performance," including higher profitability, less theft, and fewer accidents. Exactly.

This editorial, with its pithy second-person title "Why You Hate Work," advertises itself as reading material for workers to improve their lives. What becomes obvious throughout the piece is that it's actually a list of strategies employers can use to maximize their profit margins and improve loyalty. The authors are encouraging employers to re-evaluate their workplace environments to encourage breaks, prioritization of tasks, and imbue a sense of meaning to production. Yet what these authors demonstrate is a complete unwillingness to share the fruits of labor with the workers who produce them. In effect, the editorial points to how employers can maximize surplus value by tweaking the means of production. This editorial is not about why you hate work; it's about why your employer hates that you don't work hard enough.

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Thank you to our audience and all our subscribers. I hope to continue to improve the website over another great year at HCE.