Woody Allen: Issues and Principles

This is the sort of post that costs me vast numbers of Twitter followers, so if that’s going to happen, I want to at least see if I can express my position clearly.  I’m not going to review the case; if you want to know what it’s about, google “Woody Allen  Hachette Book Group.”

1) Presumption of innocence in the courts is the legal reflection of the principle that we need to be certain someone is guilty before inflicting punishment, that, “it is better 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man be punished.” The principle pre-dates its legal reflection, which, in Western society, we can find in sixth Century Rome, as well as both Talmudic and Islamic law. The principle has always been fought for by the oppressed, and for good reason: it is the oppressed who are most vulnerable, and most likely to be abused both by the legal system and bourgeois public opinion. Those who want to chuck the presumption of innocence, whether in law or in the public arena,* are doing the work of the oppressors.

2. In this case, it goes beyond presumption of innocence, however, because the innocence has been demonstrated. Two separate investigations into Mr. Allen have determined there are no grounds for the accusation.

3. Those who triumphantly cry that this isn’t a legal matter never take the next obvious step: no, it is a matter of media. In other words, the case is being tried in The New York Times and The Washington Post, who are under no legal obligation to fairness. If you accept that an individual should face punishment for what appears in the Times, are you prepared to face punishment for what appears on Fox News? Maybe it would be better if we just didn’t go there.

4. One of the problems we face today is the immense power of corporate finance to determine access to information. Exerting pressure on a major capitalist institution to exercise more control—whether by demanding Facebook give itself the job of determining what is true, or by demanding publishers respond to political pressure in what they publish—is pushing in exactly the wrong direction, and the odds that this will be turned against the most easily silenced groups approach 100%. Please, think things through.

5. Even were we to presume guilty until proven innocent, and even if we ignore that the investigation showed no grounds for the accusation, by denying the individual a public platform after trying that individual by public media, you are denying the individual the opportunity to prove innocence.  If you support that, the word “justice” ought to stick in your craw.

6. And even aside from all of that, it is always the right-wing who says, “I don’t like your opinion, or what you’ve done, so I will target your career or livelihood.” On the left**, we believe every human being has the right to a career. To work to harm someone’s livelihood is both morally repugnant and tactically foolhardy, as we are a million times more vulnerable to such attacks than our enemies.   I’m sure Mr. Allen is well-to-do, and this will not damage him financially; will this be true of the next person who, after this precedent, is denied publication because of a scurrilous accusation? Will this be true of you if someone goes on the internet and claims you have done something repugnant?


*I should add that, given the media’s profound effect on jury pools (see the history of racism in the US), these are not as completely separate as I’m making them sound.

** This has caused some confusion. To clarify, I’m talking about what is traditional on the left, not the current crop of pseudo-left posers, who I have a lot of trouble considering leftists.

History Politics

Selections from an Historian’s Diary

Nov 22: Talked to Bob today, and, wouldn’t you know it, he brought up that goddamn 1619 thing again. It’s all anyone wants to talk about. No, I will NOT commit career suicide. Let the rest of them fight it out.

Nov 30: Christmas party at Christine’s. Guess what EVERYONE WANTS ME TO WRITE ABOUT????  Maybe I’ll move to Tibet and become a monk.

Dec 2: Talked to my mother today. Guess what SHE had on her mind? Et Tu, mater? You’d think she, at least, would understand. If I attack the 1619 Project, the internet falls on my head, we probably lose funding, and the University puts me on the Volleyball Recruitment Committee forever.  If I defend the project, I lose all credibility as an historian.

Dec 5: Okay, no, I can do this. I’m the editor of a renowned historical journal. I’ve got mad skills.  I just need a kind of flippant, “what’s all the fuss about?” attitude, shade a few things, make a few implications.  I mean, it isn’t ignoring history, right? It’s emphasizing other things in history. Like, I’m not denying the Abolition movement existed, I just don’t happen to be talking about it in this case. Yeah.  And, oh!  I’ll make it all about me.  I’ll talk about my feelings!  The neolibs love it when people talk about their feelings, and the Trotskyists are going to hate me anyway.

Dec 8: I need to hit just the right tone on the title.  It has to be dismissive, like, “Oh, here’s this big kerfuffle about nothing,” but I can’t actually, you know, say that.

Dec 10: Started on the editorial, and it’s going all right. I gotta kinda pat myself on the back for the New York memorial bit. The neolibs will take it as saying, “see, no one in the North cared about slavery!” and people who know history can’t argue, because, hey, all I’m doing is stating what’s on the memorial. Damn I’m good.

Dec 13: Back to the editorial again. Ugh. I wonder if I can get away with pretending that the Project is saying things everyone already knew? Can I count on no one examining that too closely? Because that would make everything easier. Gonna take a shot at it.  Worst case, well, hey, I got tenure.

Jan 3: Brainstorm! If I just ignore Reed, I can say the WSWS only interviewed white people!  Now if that isn’t scoring points, what is? I just need to find a respected black historian—a black woman would be best—who they haven’t interviewed, and I can imply they didn’t ask her.  Fields will work.

Jan 4: This business of sounding like you’re saying something without actually saying anything isn’t easy at first, but it’s coming along.  Phrases like, “central to the experience of” are really useful, because what does that actually mean, right?

Jan 5: Trying to the do the summary of the WSWS position, and it’s a pain the you-know-what. If I get it wrong, I discredit myself, but if I don’t hit the right condescending tone, I’ll piss off the neolibs. And all the world knows what happens to an academic who pisses off the neolibs.

Jan 6: I have to admit I feel kinda bad about taking that cheap shot at Wood. But omelet, eggs.

Jan 7: OH! I’m going to say I’m befuddled.  Wait,  baffled?  Something like that.  Anyway, gonna say I don’t understand why there’s all the hostility to the Project! Ha ha! That way I can say it’s reasonable history without actually lying! Well, only lying a little bit.

Jan 8: Almost done.  All I need is a quote from Fredrick Douglass that implies Lincoln was a racist, and I’m there. Should be easy enough to find.

Jan 9: Dammit.

Jan 10: Dammit.

Jan 11:Well God DAMMIT.

Jan 12: What the?

Jan 13: Jesus, Fred. Help a guy out, will you?

Jan 14: BINGO.  Snip away the context, and I’ve got it! Ready for press!

Jan 16: Dammit, they interviewed another black historian. Why are they doing this to me? Well, never mind.  What’s done is done.

Jan 23: Welp, here we go.

Jan 31: WSWS responded. Currently, tickets to Tibet are running around around $1200.  I can do that.

Art Politics

Criticizing the Critics

Back in the early 50s, when fear of Communism was becoming pathological among broad layers of the middle class intelligentsia, science fiction was flooded with stories about the evils of group minds, or hive minds.  Theodore Sturgeon had a response to this: it is called More Than Human and it is a brilliant work that is a delight as a story, fascinating in its examination of what it means to be human, and insightful in its response to the then-present paranoia.

Art exists for many purposes, and does many things. At the simplest level, it can give us a brain relaxation, the way a few minutes of rest can relax our bodies. At its most profound level, it can reveal to us important aspects of how life works, of what it means to be human.  It can do none of those things when social pressure or puritanical moral outrage is permitted to decide who can say what.

Anyone who reads any story is free to express an opinion about it, and its moral or political aspect is at least as important and worth discussing as its craft.  Where I have a problem is with the deep, profound sense of entitlement that accompanies certain forms and subjects of criticism, that carry the implication, “you must hear me.”

Let us be clear: If you are saying, “You shouldn’t create art that hurts me,” you are, for all practical purposes, saying, “you shouldn’t create art that might hurt me” which is but to say, “you shouldn’t create art that might hurt someone who is vulnerable,” which, given that nearly everyone is vulnerable in some way, becomes, “you shouldn’t create art that might hurt someone,” which in turn, reduces itself to, “You shouldn’t create art that deals with more than trivialities.”

No, I am not exaggerating.   Based on five years of teaching at Viable Paradise writers workshop, and considerably more years helping to run craft-oriented conventions, I can testify that we live in an era in which a great deal of what defines writers—especially new writers—is fear.  “What if someone says I shouldn’t have written about that kind of character?  What if someone says I should have written about that kind of character?  What if someone says I wrote about that sort of character in an objectionable way?”  We have learned—we have had it amply demonstrated—that anyone who is determined enough to take offense can claim the moral high ground and generate enough internet outrage to crush the spirit of new writers, and in the process keep many in a state of terror lest they be the next victim.  It should be obvious that the newer and more insecure the writer is, the greater effect this fear will have.

Even state-sponsored censorship by overt tyrannies rarely creates the sort of terror that the threat of the Internet Outrage Machine does.  It is utterly toxic and destructive to art.

So, then, what is the answer?  One cannot say, “You have no right to express your opinion of someone’s work if it might hurt the writers’ feelings.”  In the long run, that is also destructive; criticism is a part of how we struggle to find our way from craft to art.

I don’t have an answer, I can only make a few points: first, when the Internet Outrage Machine is gearing up, stay out; if you’re part of the mob, you’re helping to make things worse.  Second, insist on, demand the right of the artist to create freely, and without fear, especially if the creation is something you object to. Third, remember that criticizing a work of fiction based on its failures of technique, or on what you consider its moral or political failings, are identical in the sense that under no circumstances, whoever you are, do you have a special right to insist your voice be heard, especially by the author.  Last, if the substance if your criticism is, “A story shouldn’t say such things,” then we will all be better served by you working to write something that enters into a dialog with it; “a story shouldn’t say such things” should sound a warning tocsin in your head.


On Due Process

Re-posted here from Facebook, by request.

I would love to see Dick Cheney arrested. I would love to see him put on trial for war crimes. And Bush, and Obama, and Trump. And Kissinger, for a thousand reasons. And, yeah, Hillary Clinton for what she did to the Libyans (not to mention the Haitian women, though I don’t think that was illegal by international law). And let’s not forget the Wall Street bankers who caused the 2008 crash, and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of innocent people. I’d love to see them all arrested.

But if there is one individual who, to me, represents all that is most foul and revolting and who deserves to face judgement for his actions, it’s Dick Cheney. Like Trump, but with intelligence and self-control. Yeah, I would love to see him put on trial.

But here’s the thing: if I had the power, I would want him to have a fair trial, with due process, the right to confront witnesses, the right to counsel, the rules of evidence, and, as much as humanly possible, without a poisoned jury pool.

Because if you take the most loathsome human being in the world (and Cheney is at least a good candidate), and demand, and insist, that he get a fair trial and due process, you are doing the best you can to insure that, should it ever come up, YOU will get a fair trial. Remember that trial by jury, presumption of innocence, and all the rest were not gifts of a magnanimous ruling class, they were fought for, and won, by the most oppressed layers of society, and with good reason.

If we let the courts get away with–if, god help us, we encourage–anything less in the case of someone we despise, it is not ultimately the powerful who will suffer.

Philosophy Politics

Who Gets To Say?

I’ve been thinking about this one for a while now, trying to come up with an approach that won’t instantly shut down the ears of those it’s directed to. I’m pretty sure I’ve failed.

But a while ago I saw, again, the bald statement, “if you aren’t a Jew, you don’t get to say something isn’t antisemitic.” Of course, I’ve seen the same thing countless times regarding racism, sexism, &c.

There are a few problems with this approach. Here are the two biggest.

First is that, for anything worth paying attention to, it makes understanding impossible. One Jew says Ilhan Omar’s criticism of Israel is antisemitic, another says it isn’t (because, news flash, there’s going to be disagreement on anything but the most obvious cases) and who do you believe? If our only way of deciding is to listen to the unsupported pronouncement of various individuals, we cannot understand. If we cannot understand, we cannot act.

But more important is that, like so very much, like almost everything in this sort of middle class ideology, it denies any objective content and builds everything around personal feelings.

Making people feel bad is never desirable; but when you build your entire political ideology around how people feel, you’re maybe missing a few things.  For example, we are facing a climate crisis; that is objectively the case.  We feel worried about it because the polar ice caps are melting; the polar ice caps are not melting because we’re worried about it, and if someone isn’t worried about it, or if hearing about it makes someone feel bad, that will not slow down the rate of thaw.

The fundamental issues around antisemitism are not how it makes someone feel, but when it is used to whip up hatred that puts people in actual physical danger. The fundamental issue with migrants is that they are being killed, that children are being actively harmed, and, in a broader sense, that nationalism is being used to attempt to convince native-born workers that migrants or foreign workers are their enemy, not the capitalist who is exploiting both. What a migrant happens to feel about this at any given moment is pretty far down the list of concerns.

In our effort to understand, and fight, antisemitism, racial and sexual oppression, and the other forms of backwardness, we must, in my opinion, concentrate on changing the objective conditions that use and produce them. This requires understanding the objective conditions, which means for one thing, thinking things through (just how are accusations of antisemitism used to stifle opposition to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians?), and, for another, fighting to grasp the real-world forces, the class interests, that are in play.

Because when it comes down to it, our feelings, our emotions, are the product of our interactions with the world, the sum total of all we’ve experienced. And what we’ve experienced is living in a class society. One may be conscious of this, or unconscious of this; one may draw correct conclusions, or incorrect conclusions; but in the last analysis, class interests are the source of our feelings on antisemitism, racism, open borders, and everything else.

1. Objective conditions can explain subjective feelings; the reverse is not true.
2. Identifying actual cases of bigotry is everyone’s responsibility, which means that if you disagree with my stand on whether something expresses antisemitism, one thing I am not going to do is ask your religion.