Monday, February 06, 2006

Who Knows If Bill Cosby Is Right?

I'm currently working my way through Is Bill Cosby Right? by Michael Eric Dyson; so far I'm fairly disappointed with the book's overall quality. Item the first: I'm having a hard time evaluating his arguments; for a book which is ostensibly expository the meaning of his prose is problematically slippery. Consider the following which was proffered during discussion of Ebonics and Black English (p. 73 in my copy):
Thus, complex linguistic rules emerged from the existential and political exigencies that shaped black destiny: speaking about white folk in their face without doing so in a way that resulted in punishment or perhaps death, leading to verbal hiccups, grammatical hesitations and linguistic lapses; articulating the moral certainties of black worldviews without compromising the ability to transmit them in the linguistic forms that best suited their expression, while adapting them to the religious passions of the white world; capturing in sound the seismic shifts in being and meaning of New World blacks that came in staccato phrases or elongated syllables; unleashing through the palette a percussive sense of time peculiar to the negotiation of an ever-evolving identity with grace and humor...; and situating the absurdity of modern blackness through the constantly modulating forms of diction that lent a protective veneer of spontaneous rationality to rapidly evolving patterns of speech.
Huh, excuse me? That particular quote starts out specifically enough, but then veers of into, well, I don't know what. Will someone please explain to me what exactly is meant by "protective veneer of spontaneous rationality"? And why is it engendered by "constantly modulating forms of diction"? The quote above is a particularly egregious example, but writing like that is to be found throughout the book. How to engage an argument when the argument is couched in such non-deterministic language? More importantly, Mr. Dyson doesn't directly engage Cosby's claims. In his infamous speech, quoted at length throughout the book, Cosby makes specific, normative claims regarding the behavior of what he refers to as the "lower economic people". Rather than addressing these assertions directly Dyson engages in rhetorical distraction or resorts to common logical fallacies. Consider the following:
  • Mr. Dyson provides a number of well-researched mini-histories regarding the evolution of various aspects of African-American culture. But he seems to miss the point that showing the evolution of a particular aspect of that culture is not equivalent to defending it. For example, Dyson talks about the evolution of dress in the black youth subculture, noting that black youth are "able to express antiestablishment attitudes through 'garments that are unclean, unkempt and disordered'" (p.113). This is probably true (I'm not in any position to refute it), but not germane to the argument at hand since I suspect that Cosby would argue that unclean and unkempt clothing is bad, regardless of its cultural pedigree.
  • Dyson also ascribes incredible theoretical literacy to the masses in such areas as the selection of childrens' names. Let me stop for a second and go on record as saying that I think the names discussion is largely pointless; questioning the method that someone uses to pick their child's name is a baseless exercise. However, both Cosby and Dyson have engaged the issue so I'm ok with using it in an illustrative context. Dyson notes that the use of newly-synthesized names (what he terms "unique names") can be interpreted as a liberating attempt to avoid the use of non-unique names, since many non-unique names are tainted by all sorts of historical baggage (p.123). But really, are the parents who name their child "Moet" or "Versace" (I shit you not, p.134) worried about the implications of using a non-unique name, or are they just naming their kid after a coveted brand? Again, I suspect that Cosby believes the latter, and that the latter is no way to name a child. To engage such a claim Dyson must either a) defend the practice of naming your kids after a brand name or b) demonstrate that parents who choose such a name are motivated to do so from theoretical concerns about the use of traditional names. Dyson does neither.
  • When he does come out to defend a practice he often dismisses criticisms by noting that other people are just as bad or worse. Again, in many of the cases he cites he's undoubtedly correct, but that has no bearing of the correctness of the practice he's seeking to defend. Taking the subject of names (again, sorry), he notes that a there are various negative attributes such as behavior problems and increased criminality associated with unique names. He could have argued a correlation between unique names and lower socio-economic status, which would have explained such negative attributes without implicating unique names. Instead he says the following:
    For a moment it appears as if Cosby's disgust with unique black names may be justified, especially his aside that those with such names "are all in jail." But then, when we recall that some of the worst crimes in history have been committed by folk with perfectly normal names like Charles Manson or Ted Bundy, there's a bit of relief. Moreover, many of the white supremacists who committed untold atrocities against black folk in the South had regular names like Sam and Billy, and segregationist politicians who justified those heinous acts as occupants of the highest office in state like Alabama and Georgia had old-fashioned names like George Wallace and Lest Maddox. To be sure, Pookie might steal your car, which is bad enough, but he isn't likely to participate in acts of racial genocide.
    Ahem... allow me to paraphrase: "Lot's of white people who did horrible things had normal names, so there's no need to consider how unique names affect criminal behavior. Look! Over there! Genocide!". Bonus points for the person who can name, in Latin, all the logical fallacies in that particular statement.
Most disturbing is a tendency to conflate the message with the messenger; Dyson discounts Cosby's criticisms in those cases where Cosby can (rightly) be accused of not practicing what he preaches. This is a common enough mistake and doesn't require one to ascribe any special malice to the one who commits the error. But Dyson takes it a step (or two) further, dragging out all of Cosby's family problems in the first 25 pages of Chapter Four. Cosby's problems aren't all that relevant to the argument at hand, and they certainly don't merit the detailed recitation provided by Dyson. The only plausible reason I can come up with for such treatment is personal animus on the part of Dyson. He spends a lot of the book taking Cosby to task for various aspects of his public life (such as his race-blind comedy and refusal to become an advocate for African-Americans), but that discussion is germane to the overall theme of the book. Airing Cosby's dirty laundry, on the other hand, looks like nothing more than a hatchet job. Since pointing out hypocrisy seems to be OK by Dyson I'd like to remind him about the parable of stones and glass houses. He berates the upper classes for their cultural blinders, but is clearly guilty of those same views himself. Consider, if you will, his allegation that Martha Stewart's insider trading is more harmful than a man who sticks up a candy store (p.90-91). Sure it is, especially if you consider the economic implications of a crime first and other considerations second, just like every other whitebread corporate Wallstreet type. However, if you consider the broader picture you'll realize that the gentleman who robbed the store was most likely able to accomplish said feat by threatening the physical wellbeing of the person tending the register. We can't be secure in our property until we are first secure in our persons, so clearly the worse offense is the one which involved the threat of force against the person minding the till. And that's just the tip of the iceberg; his contention that tattooing/piercing are rebellious and "other" is particularly laughable. Soccer moms get tattoos all the time, and my suburban-living, McMansion-dwelling boss at my last job had an earring. Body modification (with the exception of scarification and implants) has been totally co-opted by mainstream culture. So, in conclusion, I'd like to recommend to Mr. Dyson that he reconsider his approach. Cosby is undoubtedly wrong in many of his assertions, but you'd never know it reading the book. Maybe, instead of engaging in rhetorical games he could instead actually engage Cosby's comments.

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