The Election, Rural Folk and Fascism: A Reply to Shannon Prince

Being criticized for the things you say, when you’re a writer, is to be expected. It’s part of the gig, so to speak, and so most of the time, when such critiques are offered, I let them pass without much comment. But sometimes, criticisms can be so off base as to require a somewhat harsher reply. This is one of those times.

Today I received the link to a piece entitled “Word to the Wise” (where the “Wise” reference means me), written by Shannon Prince, and published on the website of the Black Agenda Report, which has run several of my essays over the years, and for which I have great respect and admiration. Many of Ms. Prince’s former essays on the site have been instructive and thought-provoking, and so I have long admired her as well. But today’s piece, which was a reply to a recently released essay of mine (“This is how Fascism Comes”), while surrounded by otherwise kind comments about my previous writing and work, was so incomplete and distorted that I feel compelled now to issue a reply, and to challenge readers to read the post that started all this mess for themselves, side by side with Ms. Prince’s critique of it, and decide which version of reality is more, well, real. Links to both my original essay and Ms. Prince’s critique of it are below this piece, so that readers can check them out if so inclined.

First, Ms. Prince suggests that my concern over the coming of fascism is apparently absurd because, after all, a choice between Obama and McCain is so pathetic as to render democracy as a concept pretty much superfluous.

But although Ms. Prince accuses me of lacking the discernment necessary to recognize this truth, it is she whose discernment skills are apparently lacking in this instance. That there is hardly a dime’s worth of difference between these two candidates on certain issues is true, and regrettable to be sure (and worth pointing out). But that fact is simply not tantamount to the suggestion that there is no literal difference between the effect that one, versus the other would have on the nation’s future. Ms. Prince ignores history in suggesting otherwise: it really does matter who is elected, perhaps only at the margins, but it matters nonetheless. There really are policy differences between these men, perhaps not on Palestine/Israel or certain aspects of U.S. militarism, but on health care, education, tax policy and judicial appointments, there most certainly are. And they matter. Those who cannot discern the difference between what an administration that includes Sarah Palin would be like, and one that is headed by Barack Obama, are seriously mired in a cynicism almost too flabbergasting to comprehend. The fact is, and it is really not debatable: as much as I could not get excited about an Al Gore presidency (and indeed I did not vote for him) in 2000, had he been president after 9/11, there would never have been an invasion of Iraq in 2003. Would he have done substantively what Bush did in Afghanistan? Probably, and regrettably so. But Al Gore, seeing no need to impress his daddy, would not have invaded Iraq, and there would be, as a result, several hundred thousand Iraqis alive today who are not. To suggest that this doesn’t matter because Gore is still a militarist at heart, is to suggest that those dead Iraqis do not matter. They do, as do the dead Americans whose deaths are the result of having been sent there to fight. So, elections matter, even when the choices are, as Ms. Prince notes, pathetic; Goldwater really would have been worse in 1964, Nixon really was worse in 1968 and 1972, and there are tens of thousands who were killed in Central America in the 80s who really wouldn’t have been but for Reagan’s victory in 1980 and again in 1984. These things matter and to suggest otherwise is to be so cynical as to be of no use whatsoever to the movement for justice and liberation.

And to equate the bigotry of McCain, with his common slur for Asian folks being among the hateful statements he has made over the years (along with his use of the c-word to describe his own wife), to Obama’s silly and preposterous line about the anti-racism struggle being 90 percent over, is stunning. Obama’s remark was foolish, and demonstrably incorrect of course. But it was not an act of hate. It is not equivalent to a racial slur. And even as disgusting as his moral lectures given solely to black men (as with his father’s day speech) are, Obama’s attitude towards folks of color is not one of bigotry. It’s not even in the same universe as the things McCain has said.

Furthermore, to say “fascism is already here” is probably the single most ridiculous statement to be made in a political column in the past several years. It is precisely this lack of discernment—the inability to differentiate between a seriously flawed, corporate-dominated duopoly on the one hand, and literal authoritarianism and fascism on the other—that has rendered the left so downright stupid in the eyes of most for years. It’s like those fools who march around at antiwar rallies with pictures of Bush, adorned with a Hitler mustache, and think they’re being “radical” just because they are pushing the envelope of good taste and style, and using words like Nazi to describe people and policies that, bad as they are, are not Nazi-ish in theory or practice. Fascism if it means anything means more than a mere “strong coalition between business and government.” Operationally it is also characterized by nearly complete repression of civil liberties, and despite limitations on true democracy and freedom that both Ms. Prince and I deplore, the notion that there is no functional free speech in this nation is so jacked up as to be unworthy of serious consideration. In such a place as the one Ms. Prince describes, the words I have written in the past, and which she claims to have appreciated despite their “subtle bigotry,” wouldn’t have been allowed, and would have resulted in state action. So too her own.

For Ms. Prince to then trot out the shop-worn platitudes about how voting for Obama isn’t the lesser of two evils, but rather, “the perpetuation of an evil system,” is unsurprising, but also disappointing, again for the lack of discernment such a comment suggests on her part. The fact is, anything short of straight up revolution is going to perpetuate the system. Voting for Cynthia McKinney will perpetuate the system too, precisely because the Green Party is not going to win, and it won’t grow one iota if you vote for her, just like it didn’t after Nader’s run in 2000. At the end of the day, McKinney voters will get that self-righteous feeling that comes from any bout of moral purity—just like the warm, fuzzy feeling some liberals get when boycotting Coors beer or whatever—but ultimately nothing will change. By definition elections do not change systems fundamentally: they are operated within the rules of the existing system. So to lament the fact that voting for Obama will perpetuate the system (whether one defines it as evil or not) is a non-sequitur. Of course it will. Ok, now what? So does driving, eating meat, wearing clothes made from synthetic fibers, using electricity, participating in the wage labor system and using a computer. Oh, and so too does living in a “white gated community” as Ms. Prince informs us she does, with nary so much as a moment’s consideration of how such communities perpetuate an evil far greater than any done by Barack Obama thus far. Elections are harm reduction: nothing more and nothing less. Just like giving out clean needles to heroin addicts will not stop addiction (but may save some lives by cutting down on disease transmission), so too elections, even with less than optimal choices, can reduce harm. There are a lot of Iraqis who would love to tell you the same thing if they could. But they can’t. Because they’re dead. And they’re dead because George W. Bush was President after 2000. Period, end of story.

In the larger part of her critique, Ms. Prince takes me to task for what she perceives as my classism, because of what she thinks I am saying about small town and presumably working class folks. First off, I never specified the class status of those whom I was describing. Many are not the working class actually, and I know that. Overall, I would suggest that Ms. Prince did not read my column very closely, but rather, decided to take offense at what she describes as my stereotypical qualities of a fascist, in part because a few of them appear to fit her. Let us examine these.

First off, I did not suggest that all fascists wear What Would Jesus Do armbands, like NASCAR, live in small towns or drink cheap beer. I said simply that if fascism comes it will be ushered in by folks such as these, because without the support of the masses—who have often been lulled to sleep by mass media elites and others—such a system cannot materialize. In no nation where fascism has gained a foothold, has it been able to do so without the compliance of the masses, and typically the less-formally educated, and rural, and more provincial in fact. And yes, rural folks are more provincial and generally more insular, precisely because of their relative lack of exposure to others, to those with fundamentally different backgrounds and cultures than their own. And yes, that insularity is dangerous. Not necessarily more dangerous than the well-honed bigotry of the elite (which I have attacked repeatedly throughout my public life), but equally worthy of concern and condemnation.

This is not a stereotype. It is a truism: to live in a small town, surrounded by others who are mostly like yourself in terms of race, religion, culture and worldviews, is, by definition, to live in an insular bubble. And although that doesn’t mean one will ipso facto become a bigot, it does mean that the likelihood of insular thinking is greater. If one thinks I am being unfair, please note that the very reason those of us who choose to live in cities choose to do so (and it is mostly city-dwelling leftists who have given me a hard time over this piece, rather than folks who live in places like Hanover, NH for school and/or work) and don’t opt to live in small towns is because we appreciate the cultural dynamism, difference, and fluidity that such places provide. Yes, some amazingly f’d up people live in such places as we prefer, but honestly, there is something to be said for living in a place that is culturally more vibrant and diverse, in terms of the overall effect that tends to have on one’s sensibilities.

I am especially interested in Ms. Prince’s attempt to draw a distinction between “feeling homosexual acts are wrong and being homophobic.” She is right, I drew no distinction between the two because there is none. Actually, homophobic isn’t the word I would use. I prefer heterosexist or straight supremacist, and yes, if she believes “homosexual acts are wrong” because the Bible tells her so, then she is guilty of these latter two offenses to be sure. The Bible also says that kids who backtalk their parents should be put to death, among other depravities, and so perhaps attacking the very biblical literalism that she (and wack jobs like Sarah Palin) seem to embrace should be viewed as an indispensable part of combatting fascism, truth be told. The people she seeks to defend as “devout students of the Bible” are no such thing. They are not divinity students for God’s sakes, but religious bigots who believe Jews, Muslims and non-Christians of all stripes are going to hell, and who think the Iraq war is a divine mandate. Listen to them Ms. Prince. No, not all rural folks feel this way, but the ones I was specifically attacking in the piece—the ones who comprise a huge number of the McCain/Palin faithful at these rallies—do. To not fear them because you as a woman of color have had some wonderful moments of cross-racial solidarity with the white classified staff at Dartmouth is ignorance on stilts. Such anecdotal evidence as this means very little to the larger social reality, and considerably less than an anecdote I can readily share and which involves a lot more people.

To wit, the 1990 and 1991 U.S. Senate and Gubernatorial elections in Louisiana, in which neo-Nazi David Duke was a candidate, and in which races he nearly was elected. Duke received 60 percent of the white vote in the Senate race and 55 percent in the Governor’s race. This was because in rural and exurban areas he received more like 70-75 percent, while receiving a distinct minority of whites in the larger cities (New Orleans and Baton Rouge). This did not mean, of course, that whites in the cities were or are less racist overall than the rural folks. Many of them—the majority indeed—no doubt harbor negative views about black and brown folks, and probably huge numbers actually agreed with much of Duke’s public agenda, aimed as it was at affirmative action, welfare recipients, immigrants, etc. But the simple fact is, at the end of the day, the cosmopolitan white folks, who on average were of higher income, and greater formal educational attainment, and even the “elite” among the white community, really didn’t vote for the Nazi. And the rural, less educated and less elite did. And it matters Ms. Prince. It matters a great deal.

And as a side note, anyone who would suggest (as some in the white leftist community did at the time) that there was no difference between Duke and his opponents (a conservative Senate incumbent, and a phony-populist, pro-corporate, crooked former Governor) would be a stone cold idiot, and yet, the logic of Ms. Prince’s column would have to suggest such a thing, because after all, voting for the environmentally irresponsible, militaristic, anti-poor folks Senator (J. Bennett Johnston) would produce many of the same policy outcomes as if Duke won. But if you can’t tell the difference between an honest to God Hitler worshipper and a typical corporate shill, then I can’t do anything for you. Prozac may be the only remaining option.

Ms. Prince then assures us that most of the bigots she’s known were well read and well off. Well of course they were, because (as she informs us) that’s mostly who she’s been around her whole life: growing up and now in the Ivy League. If you’ve been around mostly highly educated and well off folks your whole life, most of the bigots you’ll meet will look like the community you’re in, by definition. On the other hand, if you grew up in a small town, most of the bigots will look and sound like that. And so what? The question is whether the insularity that comes with living in small, culturally homogenous communities is correlated with religious or racial prejudice, or with political conservatism. And the answer to that seems to be yes: not as highly so as one might think, but higher than Ms. Prince is willing to allow. And yes, “many” radical and progressive folks live in rural spaces. I never disallowed this in my essay. Indeed, I noted that such communities grow both narrow minded folks and very, very good folks as well—as with cities and all communities. That is quite explicitly stated in the piece, though it is glossed by Ms. Prince. I must say, however, that having traveled the country for 15 years, talking to white folks about the subject matter of white privilege, for Ms. Prince to suggest that rural white folks are highly nuanced in their recognition of white privilege and the oppression of people of color is so silly that I hardly know how to respond. It’s not that such folks can’t grasp the concept or come to recognize it, but to think that they do now—and more so than white folks in cities—is just not borne out by any evidence that I have seen in thousands of such encounters.

But finally we get to the crux of what I think might be Ms. Prince’s real problem with my piece: namely, she feels that I have attacked her creationist views, and thus her faith. So she notes: “I’m a creationist who believes the world was literally made in six days. Does that somehow undermine my anti-racist activism?”

Once again, Ms. Prince has not read my words nearly as closely as she claims to have read Scripture. What I said about religion was far more nuanced than that. I said fascism would come from those who believe the Earth was made in six literal days (as in, on a Gregorian calendar that didn’t even exist yet), less than 6000 years ago. I also noted:

“If fascism comes it will be welcomed, lock stock and barrel by persons who pray at every meal to a God they visualize as white, whose son they also think was white, and who they believe is going to rapture them all into the sky upon the blowing of some heavenly trumpet, after which point all those who don’t think as they think will be burned in an eternal lake of fire. Their vision and version of God is itself fascistic—to love a God who would do such a thing is to love an abusive, sadistic and evil deity after all—so it should come as little surprise that their conception of the state would be equally authoritarian or worse.”

In other words, I was specifically critiquing those whose literalism is so extreme as to consign others to hell, and to accept a sky God image (and a white one at that) and which then forces one to ignore all scientific evidence to the contrary so as to believe in a “young Earth.” Faith does not require such absurdities as these, so my words were not an attack on faith itself. But yes, if one believes that the Earth is only 6000 years old, and that God lives in the clouds, and is white, and is both so loving as to create us and then redeem us through his Son, but then burn those whose faith traditions lead them elsewhere, then yes, one is the very definition of a fruit loop, and of very little use to the movement for social justice and liberation. As one who would be consigned to hell by such a God, and who is in effect condemned by those who believe this tripe, let me be the first to offer a hearty “f you” to anyone who would proclaim such spiritual and theistic supremacy. To think that I, or anyone else, should seek to make common cause with those who believe us to be spiritual inferiors—ostensibly because we need such bigots to join in the struggle for human liberation (as if)—is morally vapid. Just as no self-respecting person of color would want to work with open racists who proclaimed them to be racially inferior (even if they might have common cause on a given policy issue), so too, no one who is Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, or anything else, should want to work in solidarity with those who think our souls are empty vessels. Nope, sorry, screw you.

In the end, my original piece was not condemning all small town folks. I was simply saying that it is those folks—led by those at these hate-fests for McCain and Palin—who are the shock troops of fascism, the modern day brownshirts, if there were to be any in the near future. But I also noted, and Ms. Prince ignored it, that the liberals who do nothing in the face of racism and hatred are at least as bad, and maybe *worse* for their/our complacency. In other words, I spread the blame for the current state of affairs around quite broadly, and that includes to myself and others like me, who haven’t done nearly enough to confront those who engage in these kinds of hateful and bigoted actions. Would that Ms. Prince had been honest enough to deal with the full message of the article, and not merely those portions that offended her particular eschatology.

Original piece: “This is How Fascism Comes”

Shannon Prince’s critique: “Word to the Wise”

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