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Monday, October 25, 2010

Class lines on the front lines, part 3: Why facts can't kill prejudice

[A note from Jackrabbit:  after spending the morning counting <span> tags and <div> separators, I finally managed to find the problem which made half my post disappear.  You can now read the whole thing!]

In my last post, we looked at how a couple of really outraged west Laramie residents schooled the AP reporters who portrayed the community as a poverty-class wasteland of despair.  Both wrote letters to the editor of the Boomerang to counteract both the poverty narrative of West Laramie and the notion that Matt's murderers were typical of the people who lived there.  

While I had that little thrill from seeing ordinary Laramie citizens taking on "the man," so to speak, something didn't seem right-- and the more I thought about the AP article and the local response it just didn't feel right.  But after these letters rattled about in my head for a couple months, I finally realized what was bugging me: what's the point of attacking the reporters anyhow?  They aren't the ones who made this story up

 In the month following Shepard's death, locals and former residents attacked that article as everything from "a putdown" to "asinine." My personal favorite was the person who told them to "lose the finger paints."  But none of that changes the fact that the form of that story wasn't an AP construction.  It's ours.  Sure, those AP hacks should be held accountable for their lazy reporting and filling in details which weren't true, but the narrative driving that portrayal is a local product.  It's like slapping that little kid who points out that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes so you can keep pretending that there's no parade going on. 

In short, all these reporters did was to link two firebomb narratives already present in Laramie-- the Shepard beating and the West Laramie class divide-- and do a really lousy job of it.  So when the outrage started, sure, it gave people an opportunity to stick up for the home crowd, but it goes no farther.  They can't exorcise this story from Laramie because it would also mean confronting it head-on.

I guess what I'm saying is that you can never really succeed in attacking a false narrative about power-- whether it's between classes, between races, or genders-- by proving it's not true; you can only attack a powerful narrative by exposing why it exists, what fears it elicits, and who needs that story to be true.  I'd like to spend a little bit of time thinking about that disconnect in the West Laramie story, and why it's still floating around.  But that also means I'm going to go all Marxist/Lacanian analytical on you and pull out some Slavoj Žižek.  You've been duly warned!

I'd like to illustrate what I mean by looking at one more letter to the editor, from Oct. 27th of 1998. Two former Laramie residents wrote in to defend the reputation of West Laramie and its residents: 
We were fortunate to live on the "good," "rich" side of town, not the "poor" "west". We had and still have some of our dearest friends who live on the "poor" side of town.  Many of these people are professional people that take pride in their homes and contribute to Laramie's community.  Mr.  Lewan and Mr. Paulson horribly distort the perception of those who do not live on the rich, good side of town.  (par. 4) 
This is the paragraph that made me think.  In their attempt to defend West Laramie from an unfair portrayal, they really just end up reinforcing the idea.  I love how they point out that they have West Laramie friends.  I understand the intent, but it sounds way too much like "hey, we're not bigots!  We have lots of gay friends."  The next sentence only makes it worse.  By pointing out that many people in the west "contribute to Laramie's community," they are implicitly saying that the accusation is true in fact but false in degree.  What about all those people which don't contribute?  By the time we finish the paragraph, our two authors end up endorsing the they very poverty narrative they hate by defending "those who do not live on the rich, good side of town."  In essence, they implicitly accept that the rich-poor divide between east and west is real.  Dropping the sarcasm quotes around "rich" here only adds to that perception.

As I look back over their full letter, it seems clear to me that this was not a failure of rhetoric.   They mention some great points, like how the AP reporters never mention what side of town Henderson's grandmother daycare is in, but unfortunately, the moment you stand up in indignation and shout, "West Laramie isn't like that at all!" you have to unconsciously agree that being poor, living in a trailer home, flipping burgers, or building bonfires in your backyard for entertainment is somehow vile nonetheless.  What if the AP reporters hadn't screwed up the factual details so much?  Would we then be justified on looking down on West Laramie as a social failure?  Of course not.  But what about the AP article?   These reporters were actually trying to evoke a feeling of pity for Laramie's poor, but they just ended up furthering the poverty stereotype, and that's what started this whole mess. 

So how does one take on the West Laramie stigma without making things worse?  Okay, so brace yourselves... here's where I bring in the theory!  I think that the philosophy of Slavoj Žižek might give us a hint about how one must pull this off.  He's a philosopher from the old Soviet Union, and his philosophy might be Slovenia's most valuable export.  Trust me, it's cool stuff.  I just wish I understood it.   

Anyhow, Žižek makes a very interesting point about the nature of intolerance in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology.  The book is about exploring the power and elusiveness of ideology by using the idea of the "sublime" as a lens.  The basic point is this:  The true nature of ideology, like the sublime, is unknowable.  Ideology, like the sublime, isn't produced in in the unconscious or conscious mind so much as that's where we can see its effects or its symptoms. (Feel free to bail me out at any time, here, Marty...)

In the passage below, Žižek ends a long discussion about ideology and human thought to a very significant kind of destructive ideology-- anti-Semitism-- to show what his analysis ultimately means:

Let us examine Anti-Semitism.  It is not enough to say that we must liberate ourselves of so-called 'anti-Semitic prejudices' and learn to see Jews as they really are-- in this way we will certainly remain victims of those so-called prejudices.  We must confront ourselves with how the ideological figure of the 'Jew' is invested with our unconscious desire, with how we have constructed this figure to escape a certain deadlock of our desire...
Let us ask ourselves a simple question: In the Germany of the late 1930's, what would be the result of such a non-ideological, objective approach?  Probably something like: 'The Nazis are condemning the Jews too hastily, without proper argument, so let us take a cool, sober look of the accusations against them.'  Is it really necessary to add that such an approach would merely confirm our so-called 'unconscious prejudices' with additional rationalizations?  The proper answer to anti-Semitism is therefore not 'Jews are really not like that but 'the anti-Semitic idea of Jew has nothing to do with Jews; the ideological figure of a Jew is a way to stitch up the inconsistency of our own ideological system.'  (48, emphasis mine)

Please don't ask me to explain the ten pages of theory that led up to this point, but I'm sure you can see how Žižek's argument applies regardless.  For him, things like anti-Semitism cannot be challenged based on their content because it's their form that makes them powerful. Anti-Semitism existed in Germany, and for centuries before, because the anxiety caused by living with an inconsistent or contradictory worldview meant that they had to find a place to project that anxiety.  So, they latched onto an idea they they called the "Jew" and projected onto the Jewish people.  That's why things like racist stereotypes and reality never seem to add up: they were never really connected in the first place.

Laramie was therefore right to recognize that the idea of "West Laramie" and the real place didn't add up.  They were also right to point out how unjust that narrative was. And yet, that's not going far enough; until you stop to think about how that narrative is a symptom of a larger, more elusive issue, the idea of "West Laramie" will remain.  And so will its problems with class and poverty.  

Let's take Žižek's argument seriously and apply it to the west Laramie problem.  A better approach would be to figure why there's an urge to confine Laramie's problems with class difference and poverty to a location in the first place.   Perhaps projecting Laramie's poverty and class angst onto a restricted space allows people to see poverty as an issue of "community values" and a lack of community character, or even allow them to maintain that class difference is still somehow based on merit.

Perhaps it allows us to exorcise poverty from our own neighborhoods, where we'd have to confront it, and psychologically project it onto a space where it can be ignored. And once we start asking these questions, we then have to go further: what, then, is the origin of poverty?  Is there something essential to our ideology that exacerbates class difference and poverty, and we're terrified that we can't fix that problem without giving up something essential about the way we see the world? 

But when you get right down to it, Laramie is not alone in needing a "West Laramie."  Casper has Mills.  Even a tiny town like Thermopolis, the home of the couple who wrote that letter, has East Thermopolis.  And if we broaden our gaze to the rest of the nation, the "wrong side of the tracks" motif exists everywhere.  It's really a symptom of our culture as a whole, about the way we need to conceptualize poverty and class difference in order to make it safe-- or absolve responsibility.

Once you jump that rabbit-hole, however, the way we see the world unravels fairly quickly: why did so many of the reporters need to frame Shepard's story with the idea of a "wild West" Laramie?  Why does my home culture hang on so stubbornly to the image of the "queer" male?  Why does Laramie need a robbery narrative of Shepard's murder?  And more interestingly, why does Tectonic Theater need it?  What beliefs about the origins of homophobia do they feel like they need to keep intact as they try to understand Shepard's murder?

Today's descent into postmodernist theory was brought to you by the letters AP, the state of Wyoming, and Slavoj Žižek.


Letters to the Editor.  The Laramie Daily Boomerang 27 Oct 1998: 5.  Print.

Žižek, Slavoj.  The Sublime Object of Ideology.  London: Verso, 1989.  Print.
(This is in a 2nd edition now!)


1)  That's a lecture poster from Leeds, shamelessly, shamelessly punk'd by yours truly a few years ago as an inside joke.  (I am a bad person.  Please forgive me, Slavoj Žižek.)  

2)  Slavoj Zizek speaking in Liverpool, from Andy Miah's Flickr photostream.  Available under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

3)  Memes-- I love them. This one is basically a riff of of the Meme Generator...

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