The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Jeopardizing the Future of America (San Francisco: City Lights, 2015).
That the United States has long had a less complete system of social safety nets than most other industrialized nations is by now well established. Despite a brief period of substantial government intervention on behalf of the poor and unemployed from the 1930s through the 1960s, for the past forty-five years there has been a steady retrenchment in these efforts, fueled by a persistent and increasingly hostile rhetoric aimed at such programs and those whom they serve.
While the fact of less adequate safety nets is evident, a clear understanding of why the U.S. has been so much stingier than others in our provision for those in need is less clearly appreciated. Among the most prominent explanations, especially offered up by liberals and those of the political left, is the historical weakness of the labor movement and the lack of a labor-based party in the U.S. Stronger labor movements in Europe have been able to wrest concessions from the owners of capital and political elites that have been harder to come by here: more complete unemployment compensation, and better health care and educational guarantees most prominently. It’s an argument with significant historical resonance, but it still begs the question: why? Why has it been so much harder for labor unions to gain strength in the United States? Why has there been no effective labor party to develop in America, even as they have been quite common elsewhere? Why have working class consciousness and the political movements that typically flow from that consciousness been generally weaker here than in other nations?
Although there are likely several answers to these questions, there can be no doubt that among the biggest is the role of racism in dividing working class folks along lines of racial and ethnic identity. The development of the class structure in the United States has been, from the beginning, interwoven with the development of white supremacy. Indeed, a fair reading of those dual histories suggests that white supremacy and the elevation of whites as whites above persons of color, even when both shared similar class positions, has been critical in the shoring up of class division. Race, in other words, has been a weapon with which elites have divided working people from one another and prevented white working folks from developing a strong identification with their counterparts of color. Unless we address racial inequity and racism—and especially as lynchpins to the maintenance of economic inequity and class division—it will be impossible to solve these latter issues. Sadly, most Americans appear not to comprehend this truism. So, for instance, in a recent survey, while eighty percent claimed the government should focus “a lot” or “great deal” of effort on addressing economic inequality, only twenty-six percent said the same about the issue of racism and racial inequity, suggesting that the connections between the two are not well understood.
You cannot praise the Justice Department for, in effect, exonerating officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown—and argue how that report proves that the black community’s outrage over police racism was manufactured—and yet ignore the Department’s companion report (or even worse, criticize it as the work of “black radicals and Marxists”), which found a pattern of racist abuse on the part of the Ferguson P.D. over many years.
You cannot presume that the Department was thorough in its investigation of Wilson but sloppy in its larger undertaking—at least not if intellectual honesty is a commodity for which you have any regard. If they did their job well in the first instance, it is likely the case that they did their job well in both.
Yet, for much of white America (and especially its more conservative set), we are to believe the one and not the other; we should use the one as a weapon with which to beat the #BlackLivesMatter movement over the head—”see, he didn’t have his hands up, that was all a lie!”—while ignoring the daily abuses of power meted out against black Ferguson residents, who were being regularly stopped, ticketed, fined, arrested and even attacked by police dogs for minor infractions. That black folks were paying, in effect, a racial tax means nothing apparently, even to the kinds of people who normally rail against taxes. That they were subjected to blatantly unconstitutional treatment means nothing, even to those who claim to love the constitution above all (at least when their Second Amendment rights are concerned). All that matters to some is that their presumptions about Michael Brown’s actions (which, and let’s just be honest about it, were fixed well in advance of any evidence) turned out to be sufficiently confirmed by the Justice Department.
And yes, I know the retort: By the same logic, so too must we who backed the original “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” narrative accept both reports, and as such, accept that our presumptions about what happened that August day were also concretized ahead of the facts, and in the end, largely unsustainable.
After a quarter-century of antiracism work, either as an activist or educator, there are a few things I’ve learned about the reactionaries and right-wingers at whom my work has long been aimed. First, that they won’t go away just because we ignore them, or decide that their arguments are unworthy of intellectual consideration. Especially in an internet age, the ability of white supremacists and assorted fascists to spread their poison hardly requires me or other leftists to “dignify their arguments with a response.” Their arguments will find a way to be heard in any event. Acting as if their positions only gain strength when taken seriously enough to receive a rebuttal is naiveté of the highest order. Nor is it sufficient to simply call them racists and extremists, as if that were enough to convince people that their arguments were wrong. At some point, labels like this cease to have much power, especially in a society that frankly has never been all that hostile to white racism in the first place.
Responding to David Duke in the 1980s wasn’t what catapulted him to the Louisiana legislature; ignoring him was. It was responding to him, forcefully and without hesitation that finally ran him from the political system before he could gain a firmer foothold within it. Responding forcefully to the nonsense that is Holocaust denial isn’t what allowed it to grow to a point where as many as one-fourth to forty percent of persons in some European countries now doubt that the mass murder of European Jewry occurred. Indeed, in many of those countries it is illegal to deny the Shoah—an approach to revisionist absurdity that is not only incredibly fascistic in its own right, but clearly isn’t working. Likewise, dissecting the racist, xenophobic views of white nationalists in the U.S., point-for-point, isn’t what caused Stormfront to become a global internet behemoth. They did that shit on their own, while most liberals and supposed leftists sat back and struck a pose of intellectual smugness, content to “deny them a platform,” as if they needed our platform in the first place.
And the second lesson learned is this: Although many reactionaries and white supremacists are truly disturbed individuals, committed to violence and hatred of others, most are probably not all that different from the rest of us. They are, many if not most of them, just regular folks, trying to make their way in the world, scared and scarred by the same things that scare and scar us all—financial and professional instability, the unpredictability of social change, family drama and just plain old human weakness. That they have allowed these forces, material and psychological, to overtake them and twist them into distortions of their mostly better selves is tragic. But to the extent we are all vulnerable to irrationality, prejudice and even hatred if fed the right diet to effectuate them, it is difficult to accept that the rest of us are fundamentally better or more moral or decent than those against whom we find ourselves arrayed.
So in following up the earlier post on the pathology of patriotism, I figured it might be worth re-posting links to a few additional older essays, all of which addressed this subject of “American Exceptionalism.” It is that, after all, which Rudy Giuliani and other right wingers accuse President Obama of failing to endorse (when actually he does, problematically, endorse a liberal but still false version of it). I think it’s important for progressives and leftists and radicals to reject the notion of exceptionalism. It’s a dangerous concept, for our own country and the world. Not to mention, it is simply a lie. Is the U.S. a great place with great people? Sure. Are there many things to love about the country, its institutions and its people? Undoubtedly. But is it exceptional in this regard when compared to other nations? Of course not. Or rather, I should probably say I have no idea because like most people, I haven’t traveled widely enough to make that judgment. But neither have most people who insist upon it. I’ve been enough places to know, however — and know enough about the quality of life elsewhere to know — that in many categories we are positively worse than other countries. without question. And when it comes to things like brutality and terror, we are certainly no better in most cases.
So anyway, and because these pieces are old (and were published before this website went live in its current form, and thus, may have been missed by most of my current readers), here are three links to pieces addressing one or another version of the American exceptionalism mythology…
In light of the recent ventilations of Rudy Giuliani, to the effect that President Obama doesn’t “love America” like “the rest of us do” — because of the way the president has framed, among other things, the actions of ISIS and our response to it — I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit an essay I wrote back in 2001 at the outset of the so-called “war on terror.” Though dated in places, it also seems more prescient than ever, especially the point that patriotism — and what those who cleave to this concept consider “patriotic” — is often against the actual best interests of the country they claim to love so much. In this sense, patriotism is not merely, as the old saying goes, the last refuge of a scoundrel, but it is also the thing such persons readily substitute for a sober-minded assessment of the real interests of their country and its people. Such “love of country” as endorsed by Giuliani, Sarah Palin and the “isn’t America exceptional?” bunch, in other words, is decidedly counterproductive and dysfunctional in most cases. Although I am working on a newer piece addressing these issues, and challenging the notion that those on the right “love” the United States more than those on the left, I also felt it would be worth circulating this piece again too. Because as was true then, so is it true now that patriotism (which goes beyond merely loving the country and its people, descending instead into a form of nation-worship) is a pathology, and one worthy of being discarded.
Can people be this illiterate? Even white nationalists?
I find myself wondering this today, having come across a new posting from the Council of Conservative Citizens (which despite its rather innocuous sounding name is a well-established hate group), encouraging people to show up at my speeches over the next several months and challenge me, presumably with words, but one suspects quite possibly with more than that.
According to the CCC, I deserve to be confronted because I have openly advocated killing members of the Tea Party. Wait, what? Oh, you missed where I did that? Yeah, that’s because it never happened. Thus my earlier reference to the rather stunning inability of right wing racists to read the plain English found in my tweets or columns. Sadly, this claim is believed by others in the larger Nazi orbit, like the folks at DailySlave (yes, they actually think white people are being enslaved, seriously), who announced on their site: “JEW RAT TIM WISE TO SPREAD ANTI-WHITE HATRED ON NEW SPEAKING TOUR” Ah yes, spreading the anti-white hatred. Because — and much to the surprise of my very white wife, children, mom and best friend — I am all about the anti-white hatred. And if you don’t like it, cracker devil, you can kiss my white ass. Oh, by the way, later the same folks who called me a “JEW RAT” also called me a “pig devil” (sort of a mixed metaphor and totally ironic given the whole Jew thing), so you know they mean business. Just sayin’.
Anyhoo, I was concerned when I saw the thing about calling for the murder of Tea Partiers. Though I certainly didn’t recall saying such a thing, I suppose one never knows. I have said some shit on social media I later regretted (haven’t we all?), so I must admit I was curious and clicked the link provided by my Nazi friends just to make sure…
Oh, that…nope that’s just Nazis being Nazis: either unable to to read (education not being their strong suit), or deliberately distorting the facts so as to gin up hostility and possibly violence against me. Well played skinheads. Well played.
So let’s clear some shit up, shall we?
First, I have never advocated violence against anyone. Ever. I have called repeatedly for the right to be crushed politically, utterly and completely destroyed as a viable political force. But not through violence, as I actually think violence for those ends would be not only immoral but counterproductive and only engender more violence and repression from the right in response. I want the Tea Party politically decimated, in other words, as with the larger conservative movement, but not physically harmed. There is a huge difference here as any remotely intelligent person should be able to discern. The fact that I have to actually explain it is pathetic, but sadly, this is the illiterate social media world in which we live, where context and analysis don’t matter, so when you say you want people “crushed” there will be those who accuse you of wanting to drop heavy buildings on them for that purpose…sigh.
As for what I actually said, and which was twisted into “Tim Wise encourages his followers to shoot Tea Partiers in the head,” here’s the deal. All of this, literally all of it, is based on a tweet. This tweet:
Ok, Ok, so saying “fuck these assholes” wasn’t very nice. My bad. I would have written, “aggressively fornicate with these cretinous anal sphincters,” but it was Twitter for God’s sakes and one only gets 140 characters, so ya know, give me a break. Anyway, as for the rest of it, only a complete fool or craven liar could think it amounted to advocating killing people.
The story to which I was referring in the tweet had to do with Tea Partiers who were openly trying to stop certain people (of color, of course) from voting by challenging their legitimacy as registered voters. They were also upset that voters of color in certain precincts with long voter lines were being provided with bottled water as a way to encourage them to stay on line (thinking such a thing tantamount to “buying votes” apparently) and were seeking to disrupt the water handouts. Their goal? To make waiting in line to vote as unpleasant as possible and thus, hopefully, to limit how many such persons of color would actually cast a ballot. In other words, they were interfering with one of the most fundamental privileges of citizenship—the liberty of voting. I was merely saying that if someone tries to suppress your liberties, you should exercise one of the most basic of those (at least, according to the very right wingers who are now complaining), by pulling a gun from your waistband, to which you are legally entitled apparently, and pointing it at anyone who would do such a thing, in effect telling them in very obvious terms to back the hell up. Such a thing is not tantamount to advocating murder unless one believes that “exercising their second amendment rights in their faces” means shooting people, which would first require believing that the second amendment gives one the right to kill people, which even the Supreme Court hasn’t said (yet!).
That anyone would interpret that as a call for violence is self-evidently preposterous. If the whole cause of my anger at the Tea Party that day was their attempt to limit black and brown voting, why would I want voters of color who were being harassed to shoot anyone? After all, I’m pretty sure that after you shoot someone, police don’t wait for you to cast your ballot before arresting you. In short: violence towards the right-wingers promising to interfere with the voting process would only serve to limit the number of persons of color getting to vote that day—the exact opposite of my desire and the inverse of the entire reason for sending that tweet in the first place.
Ironically, the threat of force against those who would interfere with basic liberties is pretty much the daily banter on right wing websites. They don’t just threaten it, they promise it, if any of those awful black UN helicopters show up at their door to “take their guns,” or send them to a FEMA camp or whatever the hell. In short, reactionaries regularly call for pulling guns, and even using them against those who would interfere with their rights. But when I say the same thing — basically calling for folks of color to demonstrate their second amendment rights if and when conservative activists try and keep them from exercising their liberties — then I’m the bad guy, and I’m the one who is calling for murder? Seriously, the stupid hurts it’s so raw and filled with infection.
So no, Tea Partiers: I didn’t advocate shooting you in the head. I mean, with those stupid revolutionary war tricorn hats y’all wear that wouldn’t be a very high percentage shot anyway. Everyone knows, body mass fool, body mass…*
The following is an essay by author and journalist Stacey Patton, which I have decided to publish on my site for a few important reasons: first, because as with all of her work, this piece is hard-hitting, analytically on-point and presents a vital perspective that needs to be heard; and secondly because despite the above, it has been rejected for publication by several other sources. Why? Because according to those who rejected it, the commentary is “anti-Semitic.” As a Jew (not religiously any longer, but I guess socially/culturally and occasionally politically) who knows how quickly many of us are to scream “anti-Semite” at anyone who says anything critical of any Jewish leader, individual (or of course, Israel), I was intrigued. So I read the essay and could not find even one syllable that qualified for the designation. And because many in the Jewish community have been complaining about the “erasure” of Jewish participation in the civil rights movement, as portrayed in the movie Selma — and because I feel that this complaint reeks of hypocrisy and even a kind of group-based narcissism — I decided it was important to publish Patton’s piece here.
By Stacey Patton
It’s not just Chris Matthews, the LBJ loyalists and George Wallace’s son that are unhappy with Ava DuVernay’s Selma; there is a group of Jews that are equally outraged. Despite claims about historic accuracy and erasure of Jewish leaders involved in Selma and the broader civil rights movement, there is much more to these gripes over a film about African American protests.
Leida Snow’s review, “Selma Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jews,” in the Jewish Daily Forward, asserts that, “the narrative strategy of the film leads to a glaring omission … the contribution that thousands of white people, many of them Jewish, made to the Civil Rights Movement.”
Snow points out that, while Dr. King is shown embracing a Greek Orthodox priest, and visible among many whites is a Catholic priest and a minister, she “looked in vain for the embrace of a man with a yarmulke, a scene that would reflect the historical moment when Dr. King marched with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Jewish theologian and philosopher widely respected beyond the Jewish community.” Although Heschel was present in the grainy documentary footage at the end of the film, Snow notes that the rabbi was not visible in the body of the film, nor were any other Jews openly recognized.
The omission of Heschel is central to Peter Dreier’s rant, “The Rabbi Missing from Selma,” in the Jewish Journal. He argues that having King and other leaders featured in the front row of the Selma protest, including Heschel, would not have diminished the film’s emphasis on the centrality of African Americans in the civil rights struggle. However, he adds, “it would have lent the film more historical accuracy, not simply about one man but as a representative of the role Jews played in the freedom struggle.”
Even Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel weighed in via JTA the Global Jewish News Source, statingthat, “…for my father Abraham Joshua Heschel and for many participants, the march was both an act of political protest and a profoundly religious moment: an extraordinary gathering of nuns, priests, rabbis, black and white, a range of political views, from all over the United States.”
Interestingly, not all Jewish observers agreed that Selma should have focused more on Heschel or other Jews. Katie Rosenblatt’s response to Snow’s criticism of Selma in The Jewish Daily Forward calls Snow out as “dangerous for several reasons.” Charging that “Snow makes this critique by drawing selectively from American Jewish history,” Rosenblatt states that Snow’s review revises history to ignore the act that the Civil Rights Movement was led by Blacks with a “small proportion of Jews playing significant roles.”
A piece in My Jewish Learning by Lonnie Kleinman and Lex Rofes titled “Selma: It’s Not About Jews and that’s Okay,” refutes Snow’s criticism by pointing out that Selma “could have mentioned Jews. It could have featured inspirational Freedom Summer veterans, as Snow asserts—and just as easily, while we may not like to admit it, it could have featured Jews like Sol Tepper, who wrote dozens of articles for the Selma Times Journal advocating for segregation and was quite hostile towards Civil Rights advocates. Good or bad, Jews could have been included more—but that’s not the focus of this film. This omission is not a ‘distortion.’”
Why is the inclusion or omission of a Jewish person a major point of criticism about a Black-helmed film that focuses on a slice of history to spotlight the African-American struggle for voting rights?
Many years ago, when discussing the issue of hate speech and how it should be addressed on college campuses, my friend Paul Gallegos at Evergreen State College smiled and said, “Ya know, just because speech is free, doesn’t mean that it has to be worthless.” It’s a concept and a phrasing that has stuck with me for years. His deft appropriation of the double-meaning of “free” (both as liberty but also as a statement of non-existent value) was a stroke of genius, and one that has informed my understanding of these issues ever since. I am thinking about it again in the wake of recent events in France.
Following the horrific killings of journalists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, much has been said by pundits and prolific purveyors of tweet: about fanatical interpretations of Islam, about free speech, about the importance of satire, and about religious profiling and the notion of collective blame. Some of this commentary has been helpful and instructive, while other iterations of it have been incendiary and useless. But through it all, and although I am most horrified by those right-wing voices who seek to use the tragedy as a way to stoke their well-cultivated Islamaphobia, I am also troubled by what seems to be a prominent if not dominant narrative among many a liberal. It is a narrative that posits the victims of this grotesque crime as high-minded truth-seekers worthy of praise and emulation, and even as heroes, perhaps martyrs for the cause of freedom and liberty.
It strikes me that we should be able to roundly condemn the senseless and barbaric murders of journalists while still managing to have a rational conversation about free speech, in which empty platitudes about heroism need play no part. For instance, I believe it is possible to agree that free speech is an essential value, and that journalists should have the right to say what they want—even to offend others—without then proceeding to act as though every utterance (just because people have a right to it) is therefore worth defending as to its substance, and that free speech protects one from being critiqued for the things one says. Read the rest of this entry »