Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Thursday, June 12, 2008

My First Encounter With John Streamas

At this week's Palousitics lunch, during our conversation regarding the merging of victim's departments, I learned that the execrable John Streamas has been granted tenure. I recounted an exchange I had with this intellectual Lilliputian and what it means to have someone like this "instructing" students. What follows is a column I wrote in response to a newly enacted law banning the use of the word "oriental" in official Washington documents, John Streamas's e-mail to me in response along with my reply to Streamas.

Original Lewiston Tribune column, from July 6, 2002.

It's amazing what will motivate liberals to swift and decisive action and what will leave them absolutely paralyzed. Liberals anguish when they have to place limits on behaviors as obviously wrong as public nudity or even public defecation. But on genuinely trivial and pointless issues, liberals get themselves all pumped up with self-righteousness, pound their chests and march to the sound of the guns.

For example, take the issue of politically incorrect speech. When it comes to banning words, liberals can act with the greatest dispatch. In Olympia, the Washington Legislature just banned the word "Oriental," when used to describe people of Asian ancestry. It's still OK to have Oriental rugs and Oriental art, just as long as they are not made by Orientals. Get it?

On the other hand, Moscow, which remains a remote outpost of '60s liberalism, a vestige of a bygone time somewhat like an appendix, can't seem to decide on something as simple as a dress code.

For about five years now, Moscow has been unable to enact an ordinance that would dissuade women from baring their chests in public. Such a law is needed in Moscow precisely because it seems to attract or produce just the sort of women who have to be told not to run around naked.

Moscow's sister city, San Francisco, another hangover from the '60s, has also been struggling for years with the problems caused by its most treasured citizens, who are inclined to deposit their bodily wastes upon city sidewalks. Only in San Francisco, the notorious Baghdad by the Bay, could liberals wrestle with their consciences over whether or not to outlaw urinating and defecating on city sidewalks. Homeless advocates worried about the effect the law might have on the homeless.

The San Francisco City Council finally managed to pass the law last week. But they could only bring themselves to do so by publicly proclaiming that the law was aimed not at the homeless, but at rowdy drunks leaving bars. Until then, the city held its dogs to a higher standard of behavior than its humans. It has long been illegal to leave dog waste on San Francisco's sidewalks.

Outlawing the word "Oriental" was the brainchild of state Sen. Paull Shin. He said that he was inspired by Martin Luther King's efforts to ban the word "Negro." King found the word "Negro" offensive because it reminded him of slavery.

So if we are to comprehend Sen. Shin's crusade to ban an offensive word, it's worth reviewing the origin of that hated word "Oriental." As everyone who needs to find his way around knows, to be used properly, maps must first be "oriented," with the top of the map pointing north. But this was not always so. In Europe, before the invention of the magnetic compass, the top of a map was not north, but east. So until navigators had a tool for establishing magnetic north, they had to "orient" their maps by pointing the top of the map in the direction of the rising sun. As such, everything above the top of their maps came to be known as the "Orient" and everything found in the "Orient" was "Oriental." So I suppose Paull Shin's objection to the word "Oriental" is that it reminds him that Asia is east of Europe.

I'm not sure that I'm really getting my arms around the problem here. Sometimes it's just not so easy to understand the chronically indignant.

Now, back to Baghdad by Paradise Creek. Thanks to a judge who, a few years back, tossed out Moscow's tactfully worded anti-nudity law, the city council is now trying to formulate a law with enough anatomical details that it threatens to violate anti-pornography laws. The problem is that, as currently written, bikinis and dresses with plunging necklines would violate the law. Councilwoman JoAnn Mack complains that every woman in Moscow owns a dress that would violate that law.

I hope that's an exaggeration. There are plenty of women in Moscow and elsewhere who really should not wear such a dress.

Nevertheless, that liberals require years to decide that women should not strut around bare-chested in public or to outlaw defecating in public, but can ban words like "Oriental" or "one nation under God" tells us something about their minds, and why we should trust them with authority.

John Streamas's letter to me.

I assume that it is you, and not the other three Costellos at WSU with a Michael in their name, to whom I should address this response to the piece in the Lewiston newspaper on the word "Oriental." (If I assume incorrectly, then ignore the rest of this and press Delete.)

You assume that "Oriental" derives from navigation and mapmaking. > A glance into your OED or even your Webster's New World Dictionary would > show that it derives from old European words for "eastern." This may seem > benign, but any student of high school mythology knows that the East of > European tradition signifies darkness and death. But of course this is > the East of the European imagination--not any East as any Asian knows it.
This is a crucial point, as one tenet of Western (I'll bet you don't say "Occidental") democracy is the autonomy signified by our power to represent ourselves. Whites stopped saying "nigger" not out of the kindness and generosity of their hearts but because African Americans finally persuaded them to recognize its racism. Only a few recalcitrant racists still use the term--which is why today a few young blacks have re-appropriated it, as a show of autonomy and retribution. Similarly we Asian Americans are trying to persuade you whites to stop saying "Oriental," which is our equivalent of "nigger."

Generally, this is succeeding. For every Applebee's that still advertises its Oriental entree, there must be a dozen restaurant reviewers who now refer to Asian cuisine. The few holdouts grumble as if it is THEY who are victims of "political correctness" and its threat to their freedom of speech. Or else, like you, they whine about their own victimhood even as they dismiss our causes as "genuinely trivial and pointless." This is one tactic of institutional racism--deny subjugated peoples a voice and then presume to speak for them. I'll bet you took no surveys of Asian Americans before presuming to defend the imposition of this label on them. At least I hope the significance of the fact that the legislation outlawing the label was introduced by a Paull Shinn is not lost on you.

We work for a university that loudly proclaims its commitment to what it calls diversity. It wants us all to sign a Diversity Pledge, whose six points all assume that racism is a function only of individual hatred and not of institutional practices. I urge my students to refuse to sign such a pledge until the institution first commits itself to improving the racial climate here. I teach ethnic studies, in the CAC department. And I would bet that most first-year students in my 100-level classes have at least a vague sense of the problem inherent in use of the word "Oriental." So I have few fears that your own Orientalism will influence them. Yet I am disturbed by the fact that you see fit to express it in print. I have met a few faculty, staff, and administrators here who need a few lessons in the sorry history of race in the US. Presumably courses such as CAC 101, which help meet undergraduates' requirements, comprise this university's effort to teach diversity to our students--an education that these recalcitrant faculty, staff, and administrators themselves lack. And so I invite you to enroll in, or at least sit in on, my Fall semester CAC 111 course: Introduction to Asian Pacific American Studies. In it you will read a few good works of Asian American literature (yes, we're actually quite good in activities other than math), see a few films related to Asian American history and culture, and learn both the particular racisms affecting particular Asian Pacific American communities and the general patterns of racism into which these particularities fit. Learn our history as we tell it ourselves--don't rely on your Orientalist sources.

But if you have neither the time nor the desire to accept my invitation, then consider this passage from the Introduction of Edward Said's 1978 book Orientalism, the standard text on the subject (and note that the "Orient" is, for Said, definitely not merely East Asia): Unlike the Americans, the French and the British have had a long tradition of what I shall be calling Orientalism, a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience. The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience Orientalism is never far from what Denys Hays has called the idea of Europe, a collective notion identifying "us" Europeans as against all "those" non-Europeans, and indeed it can be argued that the major component in European culture is precisely what made that culture hegemonic both in and outside Europe: the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures. There is in addition the hegemony of European ideas about the Orient, themselves reiterating European superiority over Oriental backwardness, usually overriding the possibility that a more independent, or more skeptical, thinker might have had different views on the matter.

In a quite constant way, Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.

I wish to add, finally, that your defense of the word "Oriental" offends me, and it offends other Asian Americans I know on this campus. It also amuses me. I had thought of using your column in class but then realized that my students, even the most obstinately conservative, would wonder why you make a fuss over what you call "trivial and pointless," and so I dropped the idea--just as I hope you will seriously consider dropping your presumptions of authority over what we wish to be called. We are Asians, Pacific Islanders, Asian Pacific Americans, and whatever else we wish to call ourselves. We are NOT Orientals unless we say so.

John Streamas
Assistant Professor, Department of Comparative American Cultures
112A Wilson Hall
(509) 335-4791

My response to Herr Streamas

John Streamas,
I understand that the chronically indignant can never be satisfied. But I will answer you anyway. I assume nothing about the origins of the term “oriental” as describing the east. It is documentable history, not any assumption upon my part. It was only after the invention of the magnetic compass that maps were oriented to the north. Occidental does refer to the west. It is the same history. If you are a student of mythology then you know that some traditions place the sources of evil in the north or the south.

Do not assume that I use the word oriental, except perhaps to describe a rug. I don't know that I've ever used the word to describe a person in my adult life. I don't use the word because it is a dumb word. Asian suits me just fine. I was not defending the word or anyone who uses the word, only pointing out that abolishing words is silly.

And who chooses the words? When I was in high school, self-anointed “leaders of the Mexican-American community” chose the word “chicano” to describe Mexican-Americans. This was very offensive to me and my family. You obviously don't know that I'm about half Mexican. To us, the word chicano referred to someone who was uncouth, rather like calling someone a hick or rube. But, the word was applied to us without our permission.

Finally, I find it somewhat ironic that you would demand a pledge of uniformity as a proof of commitment to diversity. But, I don't find it surprising.

Oh, and by the way. I don't want you to call me a “white” anymore as you did in your letter. From now on, refer to me as a “person of pallor.”

Michael Costello


April E. Coggins said...

I am embarrassed that John Streamus has been rewarded with tenure by a public university that I pay taxes to support. Who is responsible for this irresponsible decision? With all the appeals swirling about, surely there is also an avenue for the taxpayer to appeal a bad government decision.

Barenjager said...

Look at the quality of the faculty and programs associated with those "victimology" departments. What did you expect? Of course a ding dong like Stremas was welcomed by such intellectual pygmies.