Remember the Miller Analogies Test? It was one of those “this is to this, as this is to which of these?” tests that supposedly tapped into a person’s logical reasoning ability as well as the person’s knowledge base. Analogies can’t be made properly without both:
The test aims to measure an individual’s logical and analytical reasoning through the use of partial analogies…the MAT’s analogies demand a broad knowledge of Western culture, testing subjects such as science, music, literature, philosophy, mathematics, art, and history. Thus, exemplary success on the MAT requires more than a nuanced and cultivated vocabulary.
I asked if readers remember the test, but apparently it’s still used for admission to graduate school, which I’m pretty sure was always the way it was used even back in my day.
I loved that test—loved it. It was short and didn’t require studying, it appealed to some orderly part of me, and for some reason I found it fairly easy back then.
Why am I bringing up this test now? I was thinking about certain liberal analogies and how poor they are in the logical sense but how effective they can be in the political sense, the sense the Miller Analogies Test doesn’t care about at all.
For example, did you know that illegal aliens are like runaway slaves, and sanctuary cities are like the Underground Railroad? No? Well, I didn’t either, but Newark Mayor Ras Baraka does:
Ras Baraka, mayor of Newark, NJ, said that in clamping down on sanctuary cities such as his, the Trump administration is “trying to intimidate us into being what I’ve called fugitive slave catchers.”
We all are familiar with other liberal victim analogies. Just as illegal aliens are equivalent to runaway slaves, Muslims seeking to leave Muslim countries are equivalent to Jews fleeing the Holocaust, and of course Jews in Israel are the Nazis and Palestinians the persecuted Jews.
These analogies need little logic, and logical arguments pointing out important dissimilarities are of no avail against them. Propagandists simply need to assert the analogies often enough and they become truth to a great many people on the left. Not that the left has a lock on all the false analogies in the world—the right uses them, too, but not ordinarily about victim groups and not as often, either.
False analogies rely on some combination of lack of logic, ignorance of history, and often a willing suspension of both. I experienced this sort of phenomenon for the first time when I was in college, while talking to a roommate about Vietnam. She and I seldom had spoken of politics, and anyway we were roughly on the same political page—the liberal, antiwar page. This time she happened to mention that the US was committing “genocide” in Vietnam. I was young enough and naive enough to think that perhaps her error was that she didn’t know exactly what the word meant and why it didn’t apply, so I informed her. But to my surprise, she didn’t thank me and acknowledge her error (yes, I was very young and naive). She argued and argued and argued her point, becoming more and more vehement as she became more illogical.
At the time I thought it an oddity of hers. But I filed it away for future reference, and later it became more significant and more understandable. The idea that the US was committing genocide in Vietnam appealed to her; she’s heard it somewhere (perhaps in a class?) and it was part of some other political belief system in her head, so she was loathe to abandon it. And she was not a stupid person in the academic sense, or even in terms of logic. In fact, she later became a very successful lawyer—and whatever you may think of lawyers, they are required to be able to think logically when necessary (and it’s often necessary).
I often think of that exchange about genocide when I hear these present-day analogies, and I think what’s operating here is the same thing that was operating with my friend. Usually you have a smart person (as she was) suspending judgement for the sake of presenting an argument that’s attractive to the left, and then you also have many people without analytical skills swallowing the argument whole.
As for Mayor Baraka of Newark, the name “Baraka” immediately rang a bell with me: wasn’t that the surname of the poet whose birth name was LeRoi Jones? And indeed it is (see, knowledge of poetry comes in handy sometimes). And it turns out that Ras Baraka is the elder Baraka’s son, as well as an educator and a poet himself:
A Newark native, Baraka is son of poet and activist Amiri Baraka and his wife Amina. Ras J. Baraka was educated in the Newark Public Schools and subsequently earned a BA in Political Science from Howard University in Washington, DC, and an MA in Education Supervision from St. Peter’s University in Jersey City. He was principal of Central High School from 2007 until 2013.
I’ve written about Ras Baraka and his father before, when Baraka was first elected mayor. Here are some excerpts:
The most recent [Newark] mayor, Cory A. Booker, used his position as a springing-off spot for his current office of US Senator, but Baraka won [the mayorship] by running as a Newark insider against the Booker administration, of which Jeffries was seen as a continuation. The article [in the NY Times] mentions Baraka’s family several times,saying that “Mr. Baraka relied on his family’s name” among other things, and that both candidates lived in Newark’s South Ward, “which has long been the Baraka family’s base of support.” In addition, we have this:
Mr. Baraka, 44, benefited from high name recognition. His father, Amiri Baraka, who died in January, was a leader of Newark’s cultural and political life after the riots of 1967.
So it appears that family, particularly Baraka’s father, and name recognition played a large part in Baraka’s victory. But in the entire 1000-word article, the Times somehow neglects to mention something I’d consider rather important about that family name, something that readers of a certain age (my age, to be exact) remember and that would enable newer readers to place Baraka’s father and understand who he was, and that’s his birth name, Leroi Jones, the name by which he first became famous as a “militant poet.”
The Times probably has good reason to leave this sort of thing out:
Within the African-American community, some compare [Amiri Baraka, aka Leroi Jones] to James Baldwin and call Baraka one of the most respected and most widely published Black writers of his generation. Others have said his work is an expression of violence, misogyny, homophobia and racism. Baraka’s brief tenure as Poet Laureate of New Jersey (2002–03), involved controversy over a public reading of his poem “Somebody Blew Up America?” and accusations of anti-semitism, and some negative attention from critics, and politicians.
If you follow the link to the poem you’ll find those accusations are hardly made-up, and you’ll find other examples on Baraka’s Wiki page to show that he was an equal-opportunity hater of almost everyone except black people, with “his advocacy of rape and violence towards, at various times, women, gay people, white people, and Jews.”
And what does “militant poet” mean? In Amiri Baraka’s case, it meant something like this:
After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka left his wife and their two children and moved to Harlem. Now a “black cultural nationalist,” he broke away from the predominantly white Beats and became very critical of the pacifist and integrationist Civil Rights movement. His revolutionary poetry now became more controversial. A poem such as “Black Art” (1965), according to academic Werner Sollors from Harvard University, expressed his need to commit the violence required to “establish a Black World.” “Black Art” quickly became the major poetic manifesto of the Black Arts Literary Movement and in it, Jones declaimed “we want poems that kill,” which coincided with the rise of armed self-defense and slogans such as “Arm yourself or harm yourself” that promoted confrontation with the white power structure. Rather than use poetry as an escapist mechanism, Baraka saw poetry as a weapon of action. His poetry demanded violence against those he felt were responsible for an unjust society.
Jones changed his name in 1970, when he was 36 years old and already very famous. He became a Marxist in the mid-70s (officially, that is), and in the 80s found a home in academia, settling into a professorship at Stonybrook.
I have no idea how far the Ras Baraka acorn falls from the parental tree, or how many of these views of the father the son shares today. But my guess is that dad had a pretty big influence on him.