Good ole’ Paul Manata offered several criticisms of my critique of the Cleveland Indians name and logo. I thought they are noteworthy for two reasons. First, they are bad arguments. I mean bad not in the way Michael Jackson thought he was bad dressed up in leather and buckles and dancing in a parkade. Rather, I mean bad in the way the Trabant is a bad automobile or Chernobyl is a bad vacation destination. Second, they are familiar arguments. One hears them often. And it is this latter observation which makes an extended and careful refutation of them wholly worthwhile.
We’ll focus here on the “Get your own house in order” objection. You could just as well call it the “Get the log out of your own eye” objection.
Introducing the get your own house in order objection
This basic argument goes like this.
Al tells Guy that he is divorcing his wife. Guy, who is in the midst of a divorce himself, replies to Al “You shouldn’t divorce your wife.” Al retorts: “Get your own house in order Guy!”
Now in this case the superficial optics may not look good. But that doesn’t mean Al’s retort is a legitimate one. On the very worst case scenario Guy may be a hypocrite. But that doesn’t mean his advice is wrong. Al can certainly critique Guy’s own divorce, but even as he does so he should consider independently Guy’s reasons for why Al shouldn’t get a divorce. In other words, the validity of the argument is not contingent upon whether Guy applies it to himself.
That’s the very worst case scenario. But it isn’t the only scenario. Guy may be well aware of his own failings and regret them and thus may be offering his advice out of his own collected wisdom. So Al’s attempt to marginalize that advice is doubly flawed.
Paul’s nationalist version of the get your own house in order objection
Get your own house in order objections are always specified to a particular house. The narrowest edition is the personal house, i.e. one’s own life. That is the edition that Al offers against Guy. Paul Manata offers another edition, the nationalist edition. This edition seems to work like this: Before you critique any state of affairs that is occurring within foreign national boundaries you must strive to correct all similar states of affairs occurring within your national boundaries. Let’s consider this nationalist edition of the argument straight from Paul’s mouth.
Paul began by writing this: “Um, what about the Edmonton Eskimos or the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL? Guess pointing out hidden racism in Canada isn’t worth as many brownie points among the American philosophical elite as is beating on the tired old tabla of the Cleveland Indians is.”
Sidebar: Before we analyze this further note that Paul slots in a reference to “the American philosophical elite”. I am not sure what that is exactly. But the rhetorical purpose is obviously to pit some sort of nefarious elitism against the hometown populism of professional sport.
Anyway, there is the shot across my bow. My critique of the Cleveland Indians is illegitimate somehow because the Cleveland Indians are in the United States and I live in Canada, a country with its own racial insensitivities.
After I challenged Paul on this he explained further:
“I never said your criticism of the Cleveland Indians was invalidated because you’re Canadian. Did I say that? No. However, there is a phrase we have here in America, and it goes like this: “Clean up your own backyard before you start cleaning mine.” I was pointing out it’s hip and cool to criticize America.”
Sidebar: Paul just made a leap so great that even Evel Knievel would have kept his motorcycle parked. He leapt from “criticizing the name and logo of Cleveland’s baseball team” to “criticizing America”. The problem is that I’m not sure what it even means here to “criticize America” . Often that is code for criticism of the foreign policy of Washington D.C. Rulers throughout history have often sought to bouy their power by equating criticism of them with criticism of the people, culture and institutions of the nation they lead. That is a stupid equation however. To take the present case at hand, millions of Americans are deeply dissatisfied with America’s foreign policy (the popularity of Ron Paul being obvious evidence of that) so critiquing American foreign policy is obviously not critiquing America. Anyway, that is probably all beside the point because foreign policy isn’t in view here.
Assuming that Paul wasn’t identifying the government of the United States and its policies then what was he referring to? Perhaps he meant something like “American culture”. It goes like this: critique the name and logo of the Cleveland Indians = critiquing baseball; baseball is a part of American culture; therefore critiquing the name and logo of the Cleveland Indians = critiquing American culture. And critiquing American culture = critiquing America.
Seriously? Could that be what Paul is suggesting? Let’s assume he is. Well if baseball is part of American culture then jazz music certainly is as well. So by this reasoning I couldn’t critique Louis Armstrong’s music because it is jazz music and thus critiquing it would be against American culture and thus against America simpliciter.
Perhaps now you can see why I said that even Evel Knievel (a beloved American icon, and rightly so!) would not have attempted to make this leap.
Anyway, the main point is with Paul’s reference to a critic cleaning up their own “backyard” first, and here “backyard” clearly maps onto national boundaries. So what can be said in response?
Three points in response to Paul’s get your own house in order (nationalist edition) objection
This raises three questions which elide into three critiques.
First, why think that a national boundary demarcation is legitimate? Second, what is the actual meaning of the national boundary demarcation? Third, what does it mean to “clean up”?
Let’s consider the first point. Paul refers to the sports franchises of two Canadian cities, Edmonton (in which I live) and Montreal. He says I should critique those sports franchises before I critique Cleveland. Why? Because they are in the borders of Canada.
But why think that the sports francise of Montreal (which is 2975 km from my home) is more relevant than the franchise of Cleveland (which is 2712 kim from my home)? It would seem to me that geographic distance is at least as relevant as national boundaries. And Paul has offered no reason to think otherwise.
Not only is there no reason to accept Paul’s rigid national criterion. There is also a good reason not to. If we accepted Paul’s criterion then a person living in Hawaii or Alaska would have a more legitimate opinion on Detroit’s sports franchises than a person living in the Canadian city of Windsor ten minutes away from Detroit. Why would anybody think that is plausible?
Second, Paul’s position is ambiguous between residency and nationality. If I lived in Cleveland as a Canadian expatriate would my essay be more legitimate? What about if I were an American living in Edmonton?
Third, Paul says I need to clean up my own backyard, meaning (so I take it) that I need to address somehow the problem of racial insensitivity in all sports franchises in Canada before I mention critically the problem of racial insensitivity in any sports franchises in the United States.
This is a ridiculous claim. When the British entered India in the late 1700s they represented a corrupt society rent with social injustice. England was a society in which, for example, children were forced to work as slave labor in the coal mines or to eke out a horrendous living as chimney sweeps. Not to mention the fact that England was still perpetuating the wicked slave trade. Her sins were great. And yet, when the British saw the practice of widow burning they set about attempting to eradicate the practice. No doubt there were some apologists for the practice who anticipated Paul’s nationalist reasoning: “Get your own house in order Britain!” And let’s be thankful that those voices were not heeded.
Whether it is something terribly serious like widow burning, or something relatively trivial like the racially insensitive branding of a sports franchise the point remains the same. Paul’s nationalist version of the get your own house in order is nothing more than empty rhetoric thrown out so we can get back to the old ball game.