Mabee on Sojourner Truth and Frances Gage 2/2

If friends and students of Truth wish to reassess their views, they might stop depending on Gage’s report as if it were reliable, and depend instead on the reports of the speech that were published at the time, especially the fullest one, in the Bugle. If not as dramatic as Gage’s report, the Bugle report is terse, portrays Truth as speaking in a folksy style that rings true, attributes to her some of the provocative ideas that Gage’s report attributed to her, and is much more likely to be authentic:

One of the most unique and interesting speeches of the Convention was made by Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave. It is impossible to transfer to paper, or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience. Those only can appreciate it who saw her powerful form, her whole-souled, earnest gesture, and listened to her strong and truthful tones. She came forward to the platform and addressing the President said with great simplicity:

May I say a few words? Receiving an affirmative answer, she proceeded; I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights [sic]. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now.

As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint and a man a quart — why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much — for we won’t take more than our pint’ll hold.

The poor men seem to be all in confusion and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have women’s rights give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble.

I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept — and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part?

But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.

Mabee, Carleton. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York University Press, 1993. p. 81–82. “[sic]” in original.

Mabee on Sojourner Truth and Frances Gage 1/2

[Frances] Gage‘s report, gradually becoming well known, wove myths about [Sojourner] Truth, myths that helped build up Truth into a heroic figure. Nevertheless, we must ask whether the frequent uncritical use of Gage’s report in recent years has led to misleading interpretations not only about Truth and her place in history, but also about early black-white relations at large.

When we compare Gage’s 1863 report of Truth’s speech with available records written in 1851 soon after the event, the comparison suggests that we should heed Gage’s own warning that she had “given but a faint sketch” of Truth’s speech. The comparison suggests that, unless evidence to the contrary shows up, important parts Gage’s report regarding the atmosphere of the convention, the contents of Truth’s speech, and the effect of the speech on the convention should be considered false. The comparison suggests that Gage, the poet, intended to present the symbolic truth of Truth’s words more than the literal truth; that Gage, the novelist, imagining that Harriet Beecher Stowe was looking over her shoulder, felt pressed to make Truth’s story more compelling than it was; that Gage, the passionate advocate of blacks’ and women’s rights, embellished her report to strengthen the causes she favored, imposing her own ideas and expression on what Truth said. Disappointing as it may be, the comparison makes it unlikely that Truth asked the thrilling question, “Ar’n’t I a woman?“, the principal words by which Truth is known today.

If we depend on contemporary accounts as more likely than Gage’s to be reliable, then we perceive that when Sojourner Truth began to speak, there were no signs of panic, no hissing, no mobbish opponents whom she could overcome. Then we find that Truth’s words, unadorned, if less dramatic and smooth than Gage wanted them to be, did not make her the one star of the convention, as Gage indicates, but nevertheless made her impressive.

When Truth’s biographers, following Gage, say that she turned the convention around from opposing to favouring women’s rights, we have to suspect that they may be telling us more what Gage wanted us to believe than what really happened. When recent writers on women’s and blacks’ history claim that white women advocating women’s rights were hostile to black women’s participation in the women’s movement, and they base their claims especially on Gage’s account of the supposed hostility to Truth at Akron, we have to wonder whether they are distorting history. Unless evidence to the contrary turns up, we have to regard Gage’s account of Truth’s asking the “Ar’n’t I a woman?” question as folklore, like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. It may be suitable for telling to children, but not for serious understanding of Sojourner Truth and her times.

Mabee, Carleton. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York University Press, 1993. p. 80–81

genre experiments

For two years I have been working on an art project.

I’m not sure whether the concept predated when I first heard James Allard’s lecture on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but the lecture is a great demonstration of how labeling does interpretive work when it comes to art.

Presented with a digital file, we may struggle to decide what it is in both a technical and artistic sense.

Perhaps it’s an HTML file with embedded image files being displayed in a web browser, or the raw data from the sensor of a digital camera. In either case, it’s also an object within a software and operating system-defined architecture and also bits physically written to some data storage medium.

From an artistic perspective, it may be a line from a play quoted in a piece of art which has been photographed and posted online (or a screenshot of a cell phone app displaying a tweet of a digital photo posted online of a print of a photograph taken illicitly in an art gallery, on display in that art gallery).

The multiple presentations of the same data are the idea of interest: like all the exposure and white balance modifications that can be applied to a raw file from a digital camera, meaning that every photograph arising from that process is an interpretation.

These experiments are also intriguing insofar as they concern cybernetic relationships between individuals, organizations that archive data (like search engines), algorithms nobody fully understands, and governments. The location of a data file on the internet does everything to establish its visibility and significance.

The idea of the project is that every distinct work within it is presented to the viewer with multiple possible modes of interpretation, whether they are based on data architecture, metadata, or the cultural and political content of the human-readable image.

Pullman on authoritarianism and eroded democracy

Along with The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Phillip Pullman’s essay “Malevolent voices that despise our freedoms” must be one of his most radical pieces of writing. It corresponds to his general concern about lack of oversight over powerful institutions and speaks out powerfully against the authoritarianism that can arise in parallel with public fear:

And the new laws whisper:

We do not want to hear you talking about truth

Truth is a friend of yours, not a friend of ours

We have a better friend called hearsay, who is a witness we can always rely on

We do not want to hear you talking about innocence

Innocent means guilty of things not yet done

We do not want to hear you talking about the right to silence

You need to be told what silence means: it means guilt

We do not want to hear you talking about justice

Justice is whatever we want to do to you

And nothing else

One early passage in his new novel La Belle Sauvage evokes a similar theme:

She tried to keep a steady pace. She had nothing to fear from the police, or from any other agency, except like every other citizen she had everything to fear. They could lock her up with no warrant and keep her there with no charge; the old act of habeus corpus had been set aside, with little protest from those in Parliament who were supposed to look after English liberty, and now one heard tales of secret arrests and imprisonment without trial, and there was no way of finding out whether the rumors were true. (p. 153–4)

Authors like Pullman and Margaret Atwood play a valuable societal role in drawing attention to such dangers: that fear will drive us to hand over control to unaccountable entities and that a drift toward dystopia is possible. Among all the dangers we face, we mustn’t forget the nightmares the state is capable of imposing.

Related:

Ethics protocol going for full review

On October 10th I submitted the proposed research ethics protocol for my PhD research to the University of Toronto’s Office of Research Ethics.

My committee thought that the subject protection risks were minimal enough to make a delegated review adequate, but I learned today that the protocol has been escalated to the full-REB meeting on November 15th. I should expect comments a couple of weeks after that, and will almost certainly then need to modify the proposal and ethics protocol in response.

In the meantime I am continuing with reviewing key texts and developing the cross-Canada census on the basis of public documents. I also have both my sets of tutorials to lead next week, and will be receiving this year’s first batch of essays to grade on Monday.

The Chiron and humanity at its worst

I’ve written elsewhere about how The Economist doesn’t understand climate change. In their science section and the occasional editorial they stress the need for massive and urgent action, but their thinking is not joined up. Their general editorial stance remains that economic growth is the greatest good, every new fossil fuel discovery is a boon, and that largely business-as-usual politics is either desirable or inevitable.

One passage from a recent special report on France demonstrates the chasm between their enthusiasms and what is necessary for a sustainable world:

The word “factory” does not do justice to Bugatti’s state-of-the-art production site in the shadow of the forest-clad Vosges mountains in eastern France. There is no grease or grime around the assembly line. The floor is a shimmering white gloss. The airy space feels more like a museum of modern art, gleaming eight-litre engines displayed like so many design exhibits. Workers wear white gloves, as if handling treasures. In fact, they are building the world’s fastest supercar.

A Milanese engineer, Ettore Bugatti, founded a car factory in this corner of France in 1909. Germany’s Volkswagen, which later bought the brand, chose Bugatti’s historic French site to develop the Veyron, a car designed to combine elegance and speed. The French factory turned out every one of these luxury record-breaking cars after their launch in 2005. This year Bugatti unveiled a successor, the Chiron, which pushes the limits of physics and sleek design further still. The car reaches 100km (62 miles) an hour in two-and-a-half seconds and has a starting price of €2.4m. Christophe Piochon, head of the French plant, compares the exquisite craftsmanship that goes into the construction of a Bugatti car to haute couture.

This schoolboy hard-on for a product that embodies everything that is putting humanity in peril is both telling and depressing. There’s a pretty strong case that nobody should be allowed to be rich enough to own a €2.4m car. Most people in that position are probably corporate executives, and there is little reason to believe they deserve it. It does not seem that the people who are given such lavish compensation produce that level of value for their employers, and even if they did it doesn’t necessarily follow that they should get to keep it for themselves.

Beyond the issues of economic inequality, there is the fundamental inappropriateness of the technology itself. Car racing is spectacularly pointless in itself, but a race track is essentially the only suitable venue for such a vehicle. Having people driving them around city streets as status symbols demonstrates much about what’s sick in our culture.

Open thread: Chinese censorship

One mechanism of control used by the Chinese government is censorship of the media and the internet. Reportedly, this has been so comprehensive and successful that young people in China are unlikely to know about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

This is an important example of how governments are often the biggest threat to internet users.

The Economist recently reported on government manipulation of Chinese television, as well as on academic publishing.

All this is relevant in part because of how China is a rising power but not a free society, as well as because of what it reveals about how the Chinese Communist Party maintains popular legitimacy and control.

Freedom and living expenses

George Monbiot’s career advice for aspiring journalists may apply at least as much to civil servants and academics:

You want to be free? Then first you must learn to be captive.

The advisers say that a career path like this is essential if you don’t want to fall into the “trap” of specialisation: that is to say, if you want to be flexible enough to respond to the changing demands of the employment market. But the truth is that by following the path they suggest, you are becoming a specialist: a specialist in the moronic recycling of what the rich and powerful deem to be news. And after a few years of that, you are good for little else.

This career path, in other words, is counter-educational. It teaches you to do what you don’t want to do, to be what you don’t want to be. It is an exceptional person who emerges from this process with her aims and ideals intact.

Even intelligent, purposeful people almost immediately lose their way in such worlds. They become so busy meeting the needs of their employers and surviving in the hostile world into which they have been thrust that they have no time or energy left to develop the career path they really wanted to follow. And you have to develop it: it will not happen by itself.

Summary: go right toward what you think is important, and learn to live cheaply.

Contentious politics scholars can be inconsistent with their definitions

For analyzing climate change activism, the contentious politics theoretical framework associated with Doug McAdam (a sociology professor at Stanford), Sidney Tarrow (a professor of government and sociology at Cornell), and Charles Tilly (formerly a social science professor at Columbia) has much to recommend it. In particular, it incorporates many explanatory factors used in the related social movements literature (like the construction of meaning through frames, seeing protests as performances, and the importance of political opportunities and mobilizing structures) while also looking at phenomena broader than social movements, including revolutions.

One just criticism of the literature is that terms are not rigorously defined and consistently used. Ideas like “cycles of contention” are central to the literature, but every author seems to think of them a bit differently, and the same person even uses the idea differently in one text as opposed to another.

I’m only partway through, but so far McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s book Dynamics of Contention seems to demonstrate a lot of the problematically obscure language use within the literature. Generally, I find that this literature is best when it sticks closely to empirical cases, rather than wandering out into broad theorizing. Long discussions of abstract nouns like “mechanisms” versus “processes” versus “episodes” can be especially hard to draw useful inspiration from.

I have a stack of other contentious politics books picked up from the library today, with the aim of further fleshing out the theoretical framework for my proposal and finding additional examples of methodologically similar research.