Moral Responsibility in Corporate America

Feb 8, 2018

TAA 0007 – C. Travis Webb and Seph Rodney discuss corporate responsibility. What does it mean when corporations become the guardians of democracy?

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C.T. WEBB 00:17 Good evening, good afternoon, or good morning. Welcome to The American Age Podcast. I’m talking today with Seph Rodney and today we’re going to be discussing corporate responsibility and how we make sense of it in the world that we currently occupy in relation to government responsibility, in relation to individual responsibility. Seph, how are you?
S. RODNEY 00:43 Not bad, I’m operating on about four hours of sleep but for someone who’s doing that, I’m pretty hale and hardy.
C.T. WEBB 00:51 You seem very healthy [laughter].
S. RODNEY 00:55 I wish I could say it was good living, but it’s not [laughter]. It’s really not. So we wanted to start off talking about– I mean, the way you mentioned it to me in an email or the question you posed to me was what does it mean when mega-corporations are the lodestones for ethical behavior in our society? And I, because I’m such a persnickety person, wanted to use the word watchdogs instead. But I think they both work. I think I wanted to say watchdog because I had the sense of someone sort of keeping us honest. And in some ways Unilever threatening to pull its advertising which amounts to about 2.4 billion–
C.T. WEBB 01:48 Which we should contextualize because I didn’t do a very good job on the lead into that. The specifics of the issue are that Unilever this week or late last week– I guess the story leaked over the weekend. It was part of comments that were going to be released at some big ad conference or something like that. And it was essentially Unilever which is a massive corporation, multi, multi billion dollars, spends like 2 or 3 billion dollars a year in advertising 25% of which is online advertising.
S. RODNEY 02:26 Sorry, Travis, let me just interrupt you to correct you on that.
C.T. WEBB 02:29 Please.
S. RODNEY 02:30 It actually spends about 9.8 billion and I’m not sure if it’s dollars or pounds because I read this during several news outlets. Actually, a quarter of that budget which is about 2.4 billion is solely on digital advertising.
C.T. WEBB 02:45 That’s what I must have been mixing up. Thank you for the correction.
S. RODNEY 02:49 No worries, no worries.
C.T. WEBB 02:49 And essentially said that Facebook and Google need to clean up their act and do a better job of regulating and monitoring their digital platforms or Unilever was going to pull its ad dollars.
S. RODNEY 03:06 Right, and they specifically wanted them to limit propaganda, hate speech, and “disturbing content.”
C.T. WEBB 03:13 That’s right. And they were talking about the damage it does to democracy and to civil culture. And I have to say, when I first saw the story and proposed it to you as a topic of conversation, I was a little bit floored because when I think of moral compasses, or watchdogs, or lodestones, or whatever fill-in-the-blank you want to use to indicate someone that has a consistent moral orientation, advertising companies and mega-corporations do not jump to mind.
S. RODNEY 03:48 Except that there’s this thing that happened, right? There’s this shift that’s happened in our culture and we saw it come– I mean, this is not the first time we’ve seen this kind of phenomenon occur, particularly in the last year when Agent Orange who is our acting President had constituted an American Manufacturing Council and a Strategy and Policy Forum. And he had to dissolve them because after he made those remarks post the debacle in Charlottesville, where white supremacists marched, and protesters gathered, and a woman was killed by one of those supremacists who drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians, Merck & Company’s Kenneth Frazier was, I think, the first person– actually from my sources, he was the first person to resign from the Manufacturing Council. And then there were essentially reverberations. So the BlackRock, Incorporated CEO Larry Fink I think in the next day or two indicated to the person – I think his name is Stephen Schwarzman – who was heading up the Strategy and Policy Forum, indicated to him that he would resign. So they started to fall like dominos. And of course, to save face, Mr. Trump dissolved the councils. So there’s a moment where corporations actually did take the ethical lead. They actually did act as a kind of moral check really. Now I want to say conscience, but no, it’s a check on the kind of amoral, unprincipled, rapacious character of the current government. And so we’ve seen this begin to happen. And I think it’s strange. I think that for people our age, it’s odd to actually have corporations behaving ethically.
C.T. WEBB 06:06 Yeah, I mean, the thing that I– when I was sort of coming to ethical awareness and a little bit more sophisticated in my thinking about the world when I was quite a bit younger, my early 20s, late teens, the story that always stuck with me in relation to corporations was the Bhopal chemical disaster in which some subsidiary that’s now gone, I thin Dow owns them now. But essentially, there was a leak of toxic fumes–
S. RODNEY 06:37 I remember.
C.T. WEBB 06:37 –in Bhopal, India, and it killed thousands of people, thousands. And the corporation sued the causes of action– the people that brought causes of action against them in order to protect their interest. And so, not that this is an indication of what all corporations do or anything remotely like that, not that there aren’t corporations that are still bad actors and– but that sort of shaped my early thinking about the amorality of corporations. Corporations were deeply involved in the slave trade. I mean, it just–
S. RODNEY 07:21 It goes on and on.
C.T. WEBB 07:22 Yeah, there’s a long history there. And when I saw this, as you said, it’s not the first instance of corporations behaving ethically. I mean, absolutely not, the examples you brought up are valid. I’m sure there are countless others that we’re unaware of. And I think there’s something fundamentally different about a corporation taking a particular kind of action than like an ethical individual, like okay, I’m kind of drawing a line in the sand, I’m not going to do this. I mean this is a company, Unilever sort of staking its strategic future on a principle. And you had brought up kind of the ethical vacuum at the top of the country in the current administration, which I make a pretty studied effort at avoiding direct engagement with the current administration mostly because I don’t find it to be– there are just other outlets doing it, more vociferously and better informed than I’m going to do it. So but that being said, we’re kind of venturing into territory where I would feel a little bit more comfortable talking about it and you brought it up. And I do think that the absence of coherent moral leadership, or what at least a large section of the country would recognize as moral leadership, the fact that it is missing, absent, persona non grata in the White House, and just they’re not interested in taking principled ethical positions that doesn’t seem to be– I mean, this latest issue with Porter and you have hitting his wife or his two wives or whatever. The thing that in spite of all of that, right? So I mean, it’s a laundry list of awful things that we could talk about. The action by Unilever actually made me somewhat optimistic about the contemporary world and the West and America and kind of the liberal democratic project. And you and I had a little bit of a back and forth around that, but I mean, I don’t know. Why don’t you jump in there?
S. RODNEY 09:53 Well I don’t know that I felt hopeful. I do think that we should talk about what we think this means in terms of the way the world is changing. Yeah, I think the right word is warned by a friend that sometimes our conversations can get too theoretical, so I want to make sure that I kind of keep this grounded in real-world experience. Part of what I think is happening and this comes from what I’ve read in the last few years working on the PhD and working on what’s happening in the museum from a kind of sociological angle. I do think that you can make the case that there’s a shift in the kind of centers– no, not the centers of power. That’s what I want to say, but in ways, in the fundamental institutions by which we understand who we are, I think. And Colin Campbell makes this argument in the book, The Romantic Ethic and the– I think it’s the Birth of Modern Consumerism. He argues that at one point the church was the main institution that told us who we are, that gave us meaning to our lives and that that began to shift towards national government back in, say, 19th century, 20th century. And that actually makes sense to me. And people like the historical sociologists Zygmunt Bauman, who’s now passed, away I think has argued, if I read him correctly, has argued that what–
C.T. WEBB 11:43 You’re talking about liquid modernity, that guy?
S. RODNEY 11:46 Yes, precisely. And the book that he wrote that was really particularly important to me was legislators and interpreters talking about cultural shifts that are tied to economic shifts. His argument, I think, if I read him correctly is that we’re moving away from that paradigm of social organization where the government essentially kind of tells us where we belong, right, or has a great deal to say about where we sort of place ourselves in society. Institutions like the church are also fading in their power, and what’s coming up, what’s taking their place is the individual. And the individual particularly is understood as a kind of consumer, as endowed with the power to make choices. So let’s talk about real-world experiences, right? So what this looks like–
C.T. WEBB 12:46 Yeah, I was going to say was that our stab at not being theoretical.
S. RODNEY 12:49 Right, right, right, because that was super eggheaded. What that means is I think when people start to define themselves, and this happened like– this probably happened when we were both living in Long Beach which is back, what, more than 10 years ago. And I remember someone coming on the news and describing herself to someone who was asking here a question about– I don’t remember what it was. But it was one of those people on the street kind of interviews, 30 seconds, quick question, in and out.
C.T. WEBB 13:24 Who was George Washington, that kind of thing.
S. RODNEY 13:26 Right, and her response was, “I’m a consumer, so I blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” This is what she identified as. She didn’t identify as a Christian. She didn’t identify as an American. She identified as a consumer.
C.T. WEBB 13:42 So I– please, finish your topic.
S. RODNEY 13:46 So all that means is that what’s happening I think in the big picture, bird’s eye view, is that we are moving towards a culture in which we understand each other as consumers of one sort or another. And if that is true and it seems to be born out but what corporations are doing because they’re interested in keeping consumers. They’re interested in keeping relationships with consumers. I mean, Unilever’s not doing this because they are altruistic. They’re doing this to–
C.T. WEBB 14:18 So we don’t know what their motivation is.
S. RODNEY 14:21 No, no, no, that’s right. No, that’s right. I am assuming this, right? Based on–
C.T. WEBB 14:26 I mean, I wouldn’t wager any money on altruism. But I wouldn’t want to go too far with sort of a bunch of actuaries in a room going, “Okay, if democracy comes unraveled, we’re going to lose $20 a share or something like that.”
S. RODNEY 14:45 No, no, I don’t think that happened, but what I think do think happens is they recognize that people, consumers need to have faith in them. If they have the products and platforms that are fundamentally not believable, that reflects on them. They want to have– I mean, this is the marketing revolution. You learn that you’re not just selling people things. You need to now sell people a relationship. You need to hold their hands.
C.T. WEBB 15:20 So I know you know this, but I don’t– I mean, the Bauman argument which I appreciate you specifying is kind of part in parcel of a larger argument around sort of what happened to the world post-enlightenment, sort of post what is sometimes called the de-enchantment of the world. So Max Weber talks about this like, well now we know that the world is not suffused with divine energy and kings and queens aren’t–
S. RODNEY 15:54 Human beings.
C.T. WEBB 15:54 Yeah, they’re not aglow with divine powers and stuff. I don’t buy it. I don’t buy that argument, I just I have too much faith in people. Like you’re telling me that you think the chambermaid of Queen Elizabeth thought that she was divinely shitting on the pot? Like I don’t think so. So here’s the thing. I think that the awareness of one’s self as having moral agency, or economic agency, national agency, whatever you want to– just having agency. I think that that’s something that has accelerated and spread under the industrial revolution and people have more leisure and they have more time to curate themselves and think about themselves and sort of cultivate who they are. But not a one of them is an individual. I mean, there are so few– the number of individuals in the world is so vanishingly small that you could probably hold them in a thimble. It is so contrary to our nature to be individuals.
S. RODNEY 17:12 Okay, so when you say individual, what you mean is that there’s no one really in the world that gets counted as individual by a corporation, or by a church, or by anybody, or any other institution, or any other really person. Like we’re all kind of constituted within families, within friendships–
C.T. WEBB 17:29 Yes.
S. RODNEY 17:30 –within organizations, within. Yes.
C.T. WEBB 17:31 I mean, I was being slightly hyperbolic. I do believe that there are people that move through their lives as individuals for significant portions of the time. I think that just about everyone has moments of individuality, sort of those kind of moments of poetic inspiration when they– and I don’t mean to attach that to a rhetorical scheme, but just maybe they figure out how to work on the line differently or how to cast a mold differently or a new route to work or something like that.
S. RODNEY 18:10 Or they’re those people who I read about who are because of some, I don’t know, some fundamental inherent need to be alone, literally go off, find a cave by themselves, and live off the grid and away from human contact for a long time. No, no there are those people. But I think then, so where we are now in the conversation is we’re heading towards ideology, right? We’re heading towards the beliefs that bind us together because clearly a lot of us are members of a community. And I think that one of the ideologies that binds us, that brings us together is this notion that there’s a corporation– no, not even a corporation, let’s not call it that. There’s a concern– there’s somebody, some entity out there that cares about what happens to us. I think maybe, and I’m just making up this argument as I go along frankly [laughter] because it just– it kind of–
C.T. WEBB 19:12 As opposed to my perfectly prepared one.
S. RODNEY 19:15 Right, well and I’m saying it sounds right because we have a tendency to outsource responsibility for ourselves, right? So we outsource it to God. We outsource it to the country. We outsource it to the husband or the wife. We might just be outsourcing our responsibility for having a kind of moral compass to corporations now. Because we don’t have to do that. I mean, in a case of Unilever and in the case of the forums that were convened in the White House, yeah, regular people, people in the street don’t have much to do with that. But the ways that we accept that as sort of normal is telling, I think.
C.T. WEBB 20:11 Yeah, as far as ascribing– I was kind of pushing back against ascribing too much agency, identifying– sort of the 21st Century being the age of the individual. I think all you need to do is look at the Blue Lives Matter or Me Too or Black Lives Matter, fill in the blank. We are rabidly pursuing group identities right now. And under the pretense of expressing individuality which I’m fine with. I don’t mean to take a broadside against that. I happen to think that our cooperative nature is one of the best things about human beings. It’s also potentially dangerous in a lot of historical circumstances. But in general, I think it serves us pretty well. And so I was pushing back against that idea of the individual, but I would also want to further push back against the idea of consumerism somehow being a more retrograde version of having some kind of social identity.
S. RODNEY 21:30 What do you mean by retrograde.
C.T. WEBB 21:34 Meaning that if you were to scroll in an average Facebook feed right now, like just grab a Facebook feed and scroll through, I bet you would have no trouble finding some video of people ranting against people loving their iPhones too much, or loving their cars too much, or loving their clothes too much, or blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. As if the social identities, the social clothes that we adorned ourselves with 200 years ago were somehow more authentic, more sort of honest. I just don’t buy any of it. I don’t buy any of it. I don’t think that people in the world today are any more venal or lost than people were 300 years ago.
S. RODNEY 22:25 And I say this with love. You are one skeptical motherfucker [laughter]. You really don’t buy much. Okay, so where does this leave us? I think where I am right now is I feel that there has to be some reason that more so than we’ve known in our lifetime, corporations are taking a kind of lead in the sort of moral vacuum, right, that’s been generated by government or administration. Corporations seem to be taking the lead in etching out a kind of common moral set of concerns for the rest of us. And I want to add this anecdote because this occurred to me when you sent me the outline for this talk. I flashed back on this moment when I was watching something on Youtube and Steve Harvey was talking about dealing with atheists. And he said that whenever atheists approach him, he just walks away [laughter] because he’s like, “Well, I don’t even want to talk to you. What’s the point of talking to you because you have no moral compass.” And the way he said it– he said it like he’d heard it in a sermon on Sunday and he didn’t really understand what moral compass means, but he took it to heart and it sounded really good to him and it sounded like a kind of sword that he could flail about and cut people’s heads off with. So I want to say, well why do you think corporations have a moral compass? Like I’m really asking, like why would they?
C.T. WEBB 24:23 You’re asking me that question?
S. RODNEY 24:24 Yes, I’m asking you.
C.T. WEBB 24:26 So I would want to sort of have a parenthetical note that at least I don’t have enough knowledge of the history of corporate governance in the United States to say whether they’re taking more of a lead on moral issues than they ever have.
S. RODNEY 24:45 Neither do I.
C.T. WEBB 24:46 I’m going to guess that it’s been pretty messy all along and Unilever is probably an outlier today and would have been an outlier in 1945 or something like that. Here’s another example. Is it Coke or Pepsis that was super progressive in Atlanta with the Black community–
S. RODNEY 25:09 I have no idea.
C.T. WEBB 25:10 –in the 1930s and ’40s? Yeah. So they got involved in advertising and started African American campaigns to sell their products and stuff like that. I mean, of course, there is a crass sort of straight-up way to read that as self-interest which is fine. I’m all for people pursuing self-interest though over puritanism. The thing that people disdain about politicians is the thing that I think is the best thing about politics which is that they’re willing to horse trade. I don’t want to deal with a puritan, right? I want to deal with someone who has some skin in the game, that doesn’t want to lose their homestead, that doesn’t want to lose whatever their vested interest in. Someone that’s willing to burn it all down, I don’t think you and I can be friends. And I feel like especially us as I was educated on in sort in traditional liberal ways which is still very much are a part of who I am. And I feel like they don’t get applied consistently enough in a lot of instances. I feel like we’re a little wooly headed when it comes to things like that. I think that the idea that a corporation would behave ethically is probably just as likely as the likelihood that an individual is going to behave ethically which is to say probably not all that likely if it involves real jeopardy.
S. RODNEY 26:54 Right, or it involves real reward. Right, because I mean all–
C.T. WEBB 26:58 Yeah, yeah, I mean this is Milgram’s experiment, right? I mean, we all like to– agreeability is something that doesn’t serve us well in certain circumstances. And like I said, I think, in general, it serves us pretty well. But you put certain institutional forces in play and it can become pretty horrifying. So I don’t necessarily buy anymore, though I once whole-heartedly did, that corporations are like the nexus of evil in the world. I just, yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I–
S. RODNEY 27:35 Yeah, I see the validity of your argument. Now I’m thinking back to the ’80s and thinking about all the protests that I’ve been witness to, protests of BP, protests of Exon, protests of nuclear facilities, three-mile island. And I’ve read some really egregious stories. I mean, you have too.
C.T. WEBB 28:02 Sure.
S. RODNEY 28:02 I mean, the whole Erin Brockovich story that was made a film. I mean, corporations clearly have a track record of being motivated by profit. And no, but I’m with you on this.
C.T. WEBB 28:17 Yeah, Ralph Nader, well I was going to agree with you. Ralph Nader is like, they knew those cars were literally cutting people’s heads off.
S. RODNEY 28:23 And they didn’t give a shit.
C.T. WEBB 28:25 No.
S. RODNEY 28:25 They didn’t give a shit.
C.T. WEBB 28:26 No, there’s a lot of counterexamples.
S. RODNEY 28:28 No, right and this is the thing, right to sort of directly contradict you. There are some companies where there are rooms full of actuarial personnel.
C.T. WEBB 28:44 Yeah, that’s true.
S. RODNEY 28:45 That come to like how much does it cost to recall this versus how many people die and how many [crosstalk] and what it eventually costs us in customer confidence? Right. Where do I want to take this? I want to–
C.T. WEBB 29:03 Well can I– I actually think that’s a really useful observation. And I do not– I have no apologetics for the horror of that, none. I mean, I find that– it’s the very definition of monstrousness. It’s an inconceivable role for someone to have. But don’t we live in a world of that kind of madness. Isn’t that always the calculation when you head out the door, planet of 7 billion people. So we know predictably how many people are– approximately how many people are going to die from–
S. RODNEY 29:46 On the highway. On the highway driving their car.
C.T. WEBB 29:47 Yes, that was exactly the example I was going to use.
S. RODNEY 29:50 Yes exactly, we know. We know.
C.T. WEBB 29:52 And yet–
S. RODNEY 29:53 You do it.
C.T. WEBB 29:54 Yeah, and so, I’m not [inaudible]– as much as I appreciate Bill Gates and his advocacy and even Steven Pinker even though I don’t agree with him a lot of the time. I certainly appreciate their optimism. That’s not what I mean though. I mean that we live– that our world is a barely structured madness, barely like just fingernails barely holding onto the edge. We didn’t evolve to live in a world like this. We evolved to love rocks and shit like that and remember exactly where that one river was at that we were born next to. The trees and the streets and the constant strange faces. But we want to project that complication away from ourselves always, right? It’s corporations. It’s the liberal left. It’s this. It’s that. That madness that we all feel, that anxiety we all feel and are aware of. We are part in parcel of it. It’s not the corporations. I mean that it is someone’s job to do that fucked up awful calculation does not make that their responsibility that our world is structured in that way.
S. RODNEY 31:31 Right, but so, and I want to get back to this Steve Harvey nonsense about atheists having no moral compass. I want to say that’s–
C.T. WEBB 31:45 Who we both agree is not funny, right?
S. RODNEY 31:47 Yeah, yeah, yeah. He’s awful.
C.T. WEBB 31:48 Okay, good. I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.
S. RODNEY 31:50 No, he’s not. And those suits. Jesus Christ, why do you need to have six buttons on your suit? That makes no sense to me. It just it looks ridiculous. And I had this conversation with someone one time when I was working at [inaudible]. I was like yeah, [inaudible] models for like black men and so on so forth. And they mentioned Steve Harvey and he’s like, “Ugh.” So there is that. I think that one of the problems in what I said is that one, it makes a lot of sense to people that atheists wouldn’t have a moral compass. But I think in some ways, atheists are the people who would most, most have a sense of moral compass because they realize that they’re not going to outsource that to some God or some higher power. They’re going to realize that if it’s going to happen at all, it’s going to happen through them and though people who are complicit with them in a group to act principally in a principle fashion. And this is one of the things I keep thinking about. I probably think about this every day. I think about how to be a principle person, not because I think I’m going to win, not because I think it’s going to make me money, not because I think that–
C.T. WEBB 33:24 Yeah, it’s definitely not going to make you money, just to be clear.
S. RODNEY 33:26 No, definitely not. Not that I think that it’s going to make me particularly special either. I think I do it because I just want the world to be that way, I just do. I really want to create institutions and structures by which we can actually learn to trust each other. And I know that it’s not going to happen with someone like Steve Harvey. I just know it because he’s going to give me the rhetoric of being a good Christian and going to church on Sunday, but when it comes down to it, he ultimately has no faith in our human capacity to make that happen.
C.T. WEBB 34:06 Yeah, I part company with people like that in the same way that you just described. Yeah, I don’t have a lot of space for that world view. Not to say that I couldn’t have a reasonable conversation with someone like that or a disagreement but I just fundamentally, I don’t buy that, the idea– basically, what you’re talking about is character, right? I mean, you say like– and I know people of character. Not everyone I know has character. But that desiring consonance between your internal feeling about the world and what happens in the world is one of the best things about a principled human being, right? I mean, that pursuit that always fails, right, and never actually– or at least not for very long maintains any kind of coherence, right, in our internal worlds and the external world. That doesn’t go on for very long. But the fact that you would pursue that and the fact that it would discomfort you, that it would not– that that is not how the world would be makes you a better fucking human being, right? And that’s a human thing. That’s not a God thing or a Buddha thing or a Chuansu thing. That’s just a human capacity. So you’ve persuaded me, right? So now I’m over here advocating for– I’m railing against religious institutions.
S. RODNEY 35:43 Well, yeah.
C.T. WEBB 35:44 And championing the individual.
S. RODNEY 35:46 Yeah, but you’ve also convinced me that it doesn’t make sense to sort of just out the gate demonize corporations for being completely shaped by the profit motive. I mean, it’s possible, just like, I mean, given where we’ve come to now to imagine that there is someone is a corporation at the head and littered throughout its structure, there are people who think, “Well, the world I want to wake up to tomorrow is the kind of world where people are actually accountable for their actions.” So they actually make– in fact, I want to turn this a little bit, turn the dial a little bit more towards the conversation we have around politics. Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post is someone I’ve been reading for the past couple years. And she has an opinion page– it’s not a page. It’s a column called The Right Term which she’s been doing it for a while. And she’s an intelligent woman clearly. She’s one of the very, very few people who I’ve been reading. I really have a– by contrast, I should say I have a real problem with David Brooks who writes for The New York Times.
C.T. WEBB 37:07 We’ve talked about this before.
S. RODNEY 37:09 I have an enormous problem with George Will who I don’t think writes for the Washington Post anymore, but that sort of vaguely smarmy condescending Patrician attitude.
C.T. WEBB 37:23 I have to say– if I can say one thing in defense of George Will for a moment. He brought Stephen Colbert to a stone cold standstill on the Colbert Report which I have– I mean, I watched the show a lot and I saw him interview some– I mean, some pretty sharp people, Samuel Jackson, a bunch of other people, and George Will literally left him without anything to say.
S. RODNEY 37:50 Wow.
C.T. WEBB 37:51 He was that composed and that precise and you have to respect– I feel like you have to respect anyone that knows their spot of ground that well that they can–
S. RODNEY 38:04 And I do appreciate it because, to be honest, that’s probably the kind of person I would be on a televised show. Like I would be really composed and careful and exact. But I just don’t like his sort of–
C.T. WEBB 38:17 And humble, right?
S. RODNEY 38:18 We aim for [inaudible] and whether we get there or not [laughter]. But the thing about George WIll is that he’s very comfortable in his white supremacy, ultimately, like he just is. David Brooks drives me nuts because his sort of religiosity always gets in the way of him actually seeing what’s in front of him. But Jennifer Rubin has been so clear and so moral in her read of everything that’s happened in the past year politically through this particular White House, this administration that I’ve kind of tentatively become a fan. Because I honestly feel like if there were a sort of worldwide revolution tomorrow, and I was looking around in the chaos, the bombs going off, people running, trying to gather food, trying to get to a safe place, in the chaos– and I do this kind of heuristic fantasy and I run through this fantasy in my head every now and again, who would I want to hold hands with? Who would I trust? And I feel like she’s moving into that column of people I would trust in an emergency because I know that she actually does value this thing of being a human being who’s accountable to other human beings. There’s a roll call of people in popular culture, in the news, and people who work in media like I do who I think, Jesus Christ, in that kind of natural or human-produced disaster, I would want to be as far away from them as possible. But there are those people– and I’m coming around to understand that just because you’re in a particular position, in a particular party, in a particular corporation, that, yeah, maybe it’s silly of me to just off the cuff dismiss the possibility that you could act like a human being.
C.T. WEBB 40:30 Right, yeah, I mean, obviously, I would agree with that. I would also as a footnote probably say it’s not fair to describe George Will as a white supremacist because it’s such a powerful and potent label to put on someone without sort of specifically taking his positions to task on that point.
S. RODNEY 40:54 Okay, that’s fair. No, that’s fair. And maybe I should just– I mean, I know what I’ve read of George Will that makes me think so. And I probably can talk about those things point by point now, but this is not the conversation in which to do that. No, you’re right. No, you’re absolutely right. I mean, I do have to be careful with that. Yes.
C.T. WEBB 41:18 I mean, I think we all in 2018 have to be vigilant of the hysteria that we are surrounded by and we, of course, it’s going to affect us because we’re sensitive human beings. And it affects me as well, but I mean, especially those of us that have had the benefits of an extensive education and the time and the leisure to think about and read and talk about shit until 3 o’clock in the morning over a beer in Harlem or something like that.
S. RODNEY 42:01 Yeah, like we’ve done.
C.T. WEBB 42:02 Yeah. Yeah, I mean, we have a responsibility, I feel, to be very careful with the way that we talk about other human beings. And I feel like it’s a responsibility that is not being exercised very often. I’m not actually including you in that. You’re actually very careful the vast majority of the time, and certainly don’t slip any more than I do. But just it benefits nothing. You said to be more anecdotal is like– I don’t think we’ve talked about this on the podcast before, but I had a pretty moving conversation with my dad. I’ve told you about this previously about my dad grew up in Arkansas. He didn’t have indoor plumbing for the first several years of his life and grew up with some pretty racist ideas. I mean, like identifiably racist. I don’t mean like secret undercover racism, right?
S. RODNEY 42:59 No, no.
C.T. WEBB 43:00 I mean, I’m talking– I mean, you’ve met my dad several times. And he did real work to sort of move past that stuff, And he has gotten very emotional in conversations if I label an idea or a position racist when– and he said to me point blank in a conversation, “We need a different word for that.” I mean, this is– my dad’s bright but he’s not– he reads plenty, but he doesn’t read the kind of stuff that you and I read. He doesn’t have the benefits of reading Zygmunt Bauman, or Bourdieu, or something like that. But he just, he hears that. He lived through the ’60s. He knew what sort of sheets on the head and burning crosses and beaten and abused and murdered black bodies. And he hears that word and he goes like, “No, we need a different word than– yeah, we need a different word.” And I’m with that. We need a different word. It’s just too monochrome a brush for the complexity that is sort of human culture making and significations.
S. RODNEY 44:27 So we should wrap this up in a couple minutes.
C.T. WEBB 44:31 Yeah, for sure.
S. RODNEY 44:32 But I want to ask you, does me using the term white supremacist strike you as as inflammatory as racist?
C.T. WEBB 44:49 No, I’m taking time because I’m thinking about it. No. I think that racism is– I’d white supremacist is like a jab and racist is like a right hook or something, an uppercut. I think no, I don’t think it has the same punch or the same weight. And here’s the thing. So and this is where I– there is probably a conversation that you and I would have where I would basically agree that the position and the comportment and the arsenal that he brings to bear in his arguments are steeped in a kind of unconscious whiteness, and whiteness in the broadest sort of theoretical sense that people that haven’t sat through a graduate seminar are not really going to come to terms with. That it gets thrown about on Twitter, but not really grappled with. So of course, I’m going to agree with you. Like I almost want to say it’s like a slam dunk argument.
S. RODNEY 45:51 No, but I take your point that I should be careful about how– so this harkens back to something that– we really need to end. But this harkens back to a thing that we talked about during the anger episode where I mentioned an artist who had a problem with me because I had tacked on essentially this diatribe at the end of my rather carefully loving piece about his work about these other activists who I thought just behaved horribly. And his point was that I shouldn’t have done that because I didn’t give full breadth and scope to that argument. I just said it. It was an accusation I just threw out and it was just– it sort of tarred and feathered them and I turned around and walked out. I turn on my heel and walked off into the sunset, right? And he thought that was irresponsible. So I’m beginning, I think, to understand how other people hear that. For me, it doesn’t feel like when I talk about George Will almost like– it doesn’t feel to me like I need to necessarily justify that. It feels like, “Oh that’s just–“
C.T. WEBB 47:05 Well you have years of work behind you. You have years of work of like thinking and working through this stuff.
S. RODNEY 47:09 Right, right, and I’ve read his columns and I’ve thought about them. Right. So I’m doing that kind of shorthand, right, for the intellectual work that I’ve already done. But I realized that if I don’t– here’s a great anecdote [laughter]. It’s like being in high school and taking the test and the direction is to show your work. And if I don’t show my work, they don’t know how I got there. And I’m starting to understand that. I need to, in cases where I don’t even feel like it, or I don’t think it’s necessary, I need to show my work.
C.T. WEBB 47:48 Yeah, and I think that’s a great point to end on. So basically, we agree that Unilever needs to show its work.
S. RODNEY 47:54 Yes. Yeah, how did they get there? How did they get there? Yes.
C.T. WEBB 47:59 How did you come to this decision?
S. RODNEY 48:01 Right, tell us.
C.T. WEBB 48:03 Yeah, I appreciate that description of what it is because that’s exactly the issue, right?
S. RODNEY 48:10 Exactly.
C.T. WEBB 48:10 Thanks very much for joining us, everyone. Next week I’ll be speaking with Steven Fullwood and Seph the week after that. His busy teaching schedule keeps him from the conversation every week so we’ll miss him. Seph, thanks very much for joining us.
S. RODNEY 48:26 Thank you, man. Travis, I appreciate it.
C.T. WEBB 48:29 Take care. [music]

References

First referenced at 13:06

The Bhopal Reader 

This chronicle of the multifaceted Bhopal campaign against two of the world’s most powerful chemical corporations parallels the emergence of public understanding of environmental safety and corporate accountability that Bhopal helped to create.

First referenced at 09:53

The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism 

 

First referenced at 26:58

Obedience to Authority 

The inspiration for the movie The Experimenter. 

In the 1960s Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram famously carried out a series of experiments that forever changed our perceptions of morality and free will.

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