Thursday, August 4, 2011

Stained Glass Windows Can't Be Mirrors

The ongoing tragedy of "black history" as it's conventionally told is that it makes the past defining without acknowledging the past as fluid. A yesterday that's inseparable from the legacy of slavery, emancipation, reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement is transformed into something lesser than a yesterday that consists of those events. Whole generations of black history, black achievement, black struggle, cultural evolution and even broader cultural progress stand in thrall to a past that serves to paint the present as nonexistent. When the past is zenith; when the past is rhetorically placed into a seat of unquestioned reverence; when its heroes are written as saints and its events are portrayed as the highlight of our time, where is the place for those that come after?

The frequently ignored underside of making that past defining is that it makes those who were and are unattached to that past "other". It makes the face that did exist more important than the face that does exist. It ostracizes the very people who are tasked with perfecting a progress that's over a century in the making, and it does so without even understanding the modern shape of their obstacles. Racial segregation has evolved into generational segregation, and its character is emotional and intellectual instead of physical.

The surviving luminaries of the civil rights movement have become a force that cherishes their memory, their achievements, their cultural contributions, their ideals and have used the power of a narrative they helped construct to form an enclave of black culture that's in stasis. Generational condescension is human and culturally universal; but never since the so-called "Greatest Generation" has it been backed by so appealing and consequential of a narrative. In most cases, a generation that demonstrates distaste or isolation from succeeding generations can be safely ignored once power inevitably passes to their children and the cultural landscape is formed through the imagination and experiences of fresher eyes. But these people have been anointed by history.

They marched from Selma to Montgomery. They have family members who were lynched by the KKK. They ate with Martin Luther King Jr. They took part in the bus boycotts. They remember when restaurants and bathrooms had "White's only" signs. They saw the I Have A Dream Speech live. They supported the Freedom Riders. They belonged to radicals fighting for racial equality. They were beaten by police, sprayed by hydrants, mauled by dogs and lawlessly confined to prisons. They went to the churches that were bombed. They organized around the NAACP at its most popular and relevant. They resisted, campaigned and struggled against a racist regime that was intent on making a permanent skin-decided caste. To contest them is to disrespect the enormity of what they sacrificed and to diminish the extent of what they accomplished for themselves and for those that came after. Or so many would like you to assume.

Ta-Nehisi Coates comes close - closer than many I've seen - to identifying (or attempting to identify) the rather innocuous problem he has with pondering those who've been sainted by merely belonging to the civil rights movement. I suggest reading his take in full:

A couple of reactions. First, one reason why, as a child, I wasn't much interested in the Civil Rights movement is because it was always presented as a kind of holier than thou moral play. Black history, at least in the schools, existed mainly as clunky "You Can Do It" inspirational rhetoric. I often joke that I know I'm in a hood school because there's a lot of inspirational sloganeering around "success," "achievement," and "winning." At my old middle school they actually organized us into "teams" named after heroes of black history--the Woodson team, the King team, the Garvey team, the Booker T team etc. I was on the Marshall Team. On the rafters of my hall there was a slogan that went something like, "It is by choice not chance, that we choose to enhance, the Marshall Team. We can achieve. We will achieve..." and so on.

The point was to make black history utilitarian, and applicable to our education. The strategy was not wrong, but with it came this sense that we walked in the path of infallible Gods. No one talked about, say, Garvey dismissing the NAACP as the "National Association for the Advancement of Certain People." Or Fannie Lou Hamer talking cracking some Uncle Toms head.

I don't even know that that sort of thing is appropriate for middle school kids, but my point is that the narrative of black super-morality never connected with me. The people just never really seemed human, so much as they seemed like rather divinely passive reactions to white racism. The Montgomery boycott is the perfect example. The way it was told to us, sheer magic and Christian spirit made the boycott work. Castigation and intimidation surely would have doomed it. Except any deep study of activist and activism always reveals moments like this, moments that cut against the narrative of victory through pure moral force.
Ta-Nehisi Coates presents a valuable perspective, and one that warrants more exploration and discussion than this subject ever has and likely ever will receive, but I have a separate contention. The 60's were the first time in American history where there was something resembling an institutional movement that conferred political and cultural power to black people. Through civil rights organizations and black churches particularly, a semi-unofficial apparatus was formed that shaped - and continues to shape - black perception. Through those efforts, a force of mobilization was created that continues to inspire the black population, black intellectual thought and that has some limited influence over what falls within the bounds of permissibility in black culture. Attempting to analyze the enormity of what that means and how that power expresses itself is a near impossible task as long as those involved are seen as "apart" from American culture. Instead, let's ask ourselves a different - but no less important - question: who benefits the most from that?

I find it difficult to mentally escape the sheer convenience of the narratives surrounding the civil rights movement. The mythology, the indomitable innocence and greatness of the people involved, the hushed reverence accorded to its participants, the unquestioned "good" of their tactics, the subtle "look at what we did for you" bribery undergirding its descriptions. Fallible, human and - at times - calculatingly cold figures like Martin Luther King and the NAACP leadership have been transformed into suns. And those who were closest to the light when the movement's power began to wane are now viewed as successors to an unparalleled era of greatness. They've marked their place as angels under a new series of Gods and the mere mortals that have followed don't dare to challenge them.

While the particulars of that narrative are important to grasp, the only way to truly understand it is to understand its utilitarian value. A history has been crafted that's portrayed the Perfect as victors against the Evil to the benefit of All. When your personal grounding is rooted in something surrounded by a hallowed glow, what decent person would or could question you when no one questions that interpretation of history? What decent person would say to them "You, who have suffered much are my equal and are just as capable as anyone of being wrong"? Many of these people are honorable and they've been through much - no one does or should deny that, ever - but the function of this narrative does little to instill pride in black culture or history, it does nothing to solidify the potential black cultural progression, nor does it create a relatable means of outlining black capacity for conventional achievement. In fact, it's portrayed in a light that makes their achievements seem impossible for anyone who decides to follow them. It largely postures that imitating "greatness" is the only means of attaining it. Think about that.

This is a history that makes those involved - and only those involved - completely untouchable on any rhetorical or practical level. And it does so by painting themselves as part of a bizarrely "impeccable" historical picture that makes it automatically immoral to challenge their intellectual positions and institutional authority.
Are we really supposed to believe that largely self-proclaimed "black leaders" had no part in or derive no benefit from shaping how a movement they were apart of is viewed? It would be disastrously naive to think so. And it would be short-sighted to ignore the consequences of having four decades - or, to put it differently, two entire generations - of black thought, black perspective and black expression narrowly confined to and dominated by a single generational demographic and their well-groomed intellectual successors.

A sect of people has selfishly molded an important segment of American history into a generational repository for 60's nostalgia and romanticism. They've wedded black history and black culture to a time and a context that no longer exists and in so doing, they've left no place for what black culture has become. They've decided to freeze the evolution of black thought in amber by saying that this is the only period blacks can and should take lessons on how to proceed from. The meaningless marches, the dry recitation of "Old Negro Spirituals", the empty speeches about long forgotten accomplishments that bear no relation to today's problems, the sad, sad worship of long-dead figures - all of it is an artifact of a cultural segment that's desperately attempting to continue the quasi-historical canon that's integral to their esteem. And all of it is intended to distract you from the problem with the "Look what we did!" framing: the "we" automatically excludes anyone and everyone that had no part in it.

The corny "you can do it", "you can succeed!", "you are winners!" bromides are simply revealing of a deeper generational dismissiveness. Inherent to these assumptions is the belief that those involved are "failing" now. That they have nothing that can be pointed to as an identifiable success, a worthy thought or an experience that warrants sharing and analyzing. Almost collectively, the latest generations of black culture have become viewed as problems to fix instead of genuine perspectives and experiences to incorporate. Their fundamental, culturally-guided differences as products of the civil rights movement has made them pariahs amongst those who claim to be "doing what they can".

Such myopic condescension can be attributed to many things, but the disconnected hands-off approach is simply the final expression of a culture that views at their youth as empty containers for their own dated views instead of new additions to an intellectual culture that's growing and evolving with America as a whole. They've asked its youngest to look at the eldest as the Perfect Example without understanding how impossible it is to see themselves in the face of mythic figures fighting against demons that have no modern parallel. The overstated morphing of gang members, rappers and sports players into "heroes" isn't a symbol of cultural depravity in black youth; it's a forcefully disconnected segment of black culture gravitating toward figures that actually seem like people as they recognize them. "Black leaders" have become so obsessed with deification that they've failed to question whether it has meaning to people who weren't involved or aren't close to those involved in the civil rights movement. They've even failed to question whether the struggles of the period have any relation to the systemic disadvantages that could be pointed to today.

Cultural stagnancy isn't just the result of "forgetting where you come from". It's just as often a byproduct of not knowing what you are and where you want to go. For ages, this conversation has been guided by people whose only vision for black people and black culture rests on addressing and invoking the spirit of issues that have long since been fought against and solved. In keeping with this shortcoming, there's been a cultural unwillingness to address and identify what modernity means for such a successful cultural movement, and unfortunately, this has come with an unwillingness to see what the civil rights movement didn't and couldn't address that participants of this generation could.

By thoughtlessly cleaving to an antiquated basis for institutional relevance, those most capable have foregone the primary requirement for an institution and a movement's longevity: modern applicability. That's something you can't offer by simply looking at a group of young people and dictating what's right and wrong for them. Experience does not bequeath omniscience. It's often a precursor to wisdom, yes, but it's also informed by a time that rarely resembles the time of your children or grandchildren. If you want to speak to the trials of the present, you require people who belong to the present. "Back in my day...", "pull your pants up!" and "go get a job!" speeches do little more than speak to the conceit of people who are arrogant enough to believe that "proper" is solely defined by their preferences. Lost in this patronizing display is the understanding that leadership isn't just motivational, it's transitional.

A generation you're not utilizing is a generation you've perceptually rendered nonexistent. The more successive generations are ignored and kept from the levers of influence, the more whole demographic periods become alien to the people who require them to comprehend the present. What would those oft-discussed civil rights figures say if they knew their supposedly divine shadow was being used as a boundary to limit the broadness of black political, cultural, institutional and generational expression? If they're indifferent, they were never worth praising to begin with. If they'd disagree, then why countenance this rather pernicious usage of their legacy?

The continuing sin of deification lies not only in its ability to transform the human into the unapproachably alien. It's that it is, in its own way, reductive. In the short sighted desire to make quick idols out of the first prominent black leaders, there was a failure to view them in both perspective and context. Their generation has presented those leaders to their children as glimmering towers instead of foundations that they were just as capable of adding to. The true tragedy isn't encapsulated by the loss of something black people had taken away, but by the loss of something its own cultural elements ensured that black people didn't really have the chance to receive.

Understanding The Democratic Party's Function

Since I've fulfilled my "did he just write that?" requirements for the month, let me directly outline what I didn't write and why I didn't write it. I didn't say that both parties are the same. I didn't say that dismantling the current system means failing to participate in and influence it. I didn't say that Obama's weaknesses as a president and as a product of a deformed system means that he shouldn't be voted for in 2012. I didn't say we should start primarying Obama with The Perfect Liberal Messiah. I didn't say that the Democrats' institutional conformity and aversion to open liberalism makes them Too-Conservative or unfit for governance. Mostly because what's not patently wrong with these remarks is contented with being incredibly stupid.

The recurring ideological failure of the Democratic party's more liberal and dejected elements is their spoiled incapacity to internalize two truths at once. It's not a Betrayal of Your Ideals to simultaneously think that the system is innately incapable of producing positive results and that Democrats are our only hope of short-term functionality while planning long term alterations. In fact, it's the only logical conclusion you can come to. There's a reason why government shutdowns and economically catastrophic defaults aren't threatened when Democrats have comfortable majorities: it's because Democrats are a mostly-responsible and competent party that suffers because it belongs to a system and a series of incentives that are resistant to systemic improvement at a time when we're suffering from systemic disadvantage. Its weakness is a precise function of its desire to work within the established framework and its good faith - but baseless - belief that the system can be an engine for good. Their defining flaw as a party is that they're wrong. That doesn't make the party itself bad or useless. It makes them mistaken.

They're an enemy of institutional alteration, but very little of what they've done suggests that they're an enemy of the people. The same can't in any way be said for the Republican party. And, indeed, it's the modern Republican party's unique position in American society - and in history - that makes systemic evolution and Democratic support (at least in the short term) necessary. The Republican party is a body of acid kept behind an eroding dam, and the Democratic party is the patch on one of the dam's cracks that assures the dam's structural stability. If the Democratic party goes, the dam goes and we burn alive. It's that simple.

To put it in less alarmist, but no less dire terms; America is ungovernable as long as the Republican party has anything that resembles power. Time and again, Republicans have shown a creepily pervasive apathy to the suffering their most strongly supported policies and tactics will elicit, and that craven indifference is consistently bolstered by a fanatic insulation from anything resembling fact.

A proper government relies on functionality first and foremost with a desire for progression and evolution where it's possible. A Republican government relies on the dismantling of functionality, particularly if the characteristics that maintain government are actively resistant to their policy objectives. For a normal government, the institutions that guide governmental stability are things to be respected, maintained and strengthened. For a normal government, the elements that make government - and, indeed, your country - work are not open to compromise. For Republicans, they're something to recklessly and destructively threaten if it means that you can get what you want more quickly. They've indicated as much themselves:
“What we have done, Larry, also is set a new template. In the future, any president, this one or another one, when they request us to raise the debt ceiling it will not be clean anymore. This is just the first step. This, we anticipate, will take us into 2013. Whoever the new president is, is probably going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again. Then we will go through the process again and see what we can continue to achieve in connection with these debt ceiling requests of presidents to get our financial house in order.”

Creating a circumstance where congress is forced to vote on whether or not to suddenly crash the American and global economy wasn't just an extraordinarily repugnant measure undertaken for destructively partisan ends. Not for Republicans. Neither was forming a basis for "compromise" that changed a vote on whether to crash the American economy to a vote on how fast you want to crash the economy. No. "This is just the first step". Under crippling economic conditions, the Republicans decided to threaten to make those conditions immeasurably worse in order to attain a result that weakens our ability to strengthen our standard of living and mitigate the suffering of real people. And "this is just the first step". I take them at their word. And so should you.

As long as the Republican party exists, questions of progress will always, always devolve into defensive fights for basic survival. And as long as we care about the worst-case consequences and they don't, these will continue to be fights where "victory" is defined as whatever does the least amount of long term damage. This isn't just disastrous for political morale, it's unsustainable on any long term scale. Eventually two of two things are going to happen: the Democratic party will be rendered incapable of fighting because "compromise" has brought them to something that almost precisely resembles the Republican's maximalist position. And it would mean we're in a governmental environment where there's no taxes, no efforts to address systemic inequality (cultural or economic), no regulation of food, drugs and water, a dismantling and attempted privitization of life-saving social services, the legal codification of old, white men telling women what can and can't be inside of their bodies, the complete disenfranchisement of the politically weak/poor from our political system and the codification of corporate control as more of an uncontestable absolute than an unfortunate but still-correctable trend.

Our notions of justice, egalitarianism, income distribution and civil liberties are logically sound, but it's dishonest to avoid internalizing their status as long term abstractions that can only be entertained because we're in positions of relative wealth and high living standards. While very many of us are poor, very few of us are starving. Our basic provisions are, by and large, somewhat available to us and our living expectations are a function of quality standards that were established long before we were born. The unstated consequence of Republican policy is the total redistribution of wealth away from us, the complete removal of those standards, and the completion of our inability to regain them once lost. Which means that "justice, egalitarianism, income distribution and civil liberties" become secondary to wanting to stop you and your family from dying within the next several days because of an inability to procure food. Arguing for systemic evolution is wholly contingent on our attention being focused on what we want in the long term instead of being governed by uncertainty about our ability to get what we need in the short term. The simple fact is that Republicans compromise that and Democrats don't.

You can disagree with every single item in the Democratic platform. You can - with total clarity - see their capture by corrosive special interests. You can see how their attachment to the system limits their ability to act as effective tools for progress. You can see how the incentives of government opens them to internalizing the necessity of America's Sacred Cows like military spending, "government belt tightening" and the security/secrecy state. You can find them excessively meek and rhetorically incapable of fighting against Republican offenses. It couldn't matter less. As long as the choice between the Republican party and the Democratic party is the choice between starving and not starving, the choice will always, always be easy. If self-interest is incapable of making you understand that, then interest in the well-being of your fellow citizens should suffice.

The simple truth is that there are no Nancy Pelosi's in the Republican party. A fact which would be less meaningful if you didn't understand that there can't be any Nancy Pelosi's in the Republican party. No one's asking you to give up your beliefs, compromise your principles, sell out to evil or whatever other hyperbolic trope that's in vogue at the more popular "OBAMA BETRAYED US" blogs. What is being asked of you is that you keep in mind that progress is only possible and prudent in the presence of governmental functionality, and only one party is capable of offering that.

The debt ceiling debate wasn't just illustrative of the Republican's complete disregard for our living conditions. It was illustrative of the fragility of our institutions. Solid institutions promise stability and have contingencies to assure that stability when it's threatened. Poor institutions have weaknesses that allow nihilists to subvert the will of the government - and democracy itself - to enact a "compromise" that wouldn't be achieved without threatening the system itself. The debt ceiling debate went out of its way to not only prove that Republicans refuse to govern well, but that our very system gives them the tools to threaten chaos and catastrophe.

The choice between Democrats and Republicans is not a choice between who you unquestioningly support and who you don't. It's a choice between the party that can ensure your stability and survival and the party that can't. Very few things are simple, but this is. An embrace of radicalism doesn't require an embrace of stupidity. The more we fail to appreciate the usefulness of the Democratic party, the more we make it that much more difficult to grow beyond needing it.

While there might be some satisfaction in playing the "let's get rid of Obama" and the "I can't support x Democrat in y election" game, there's no utility to it.
As of now, there are no ulterior options, and if there were, there's almost no possibility that they'll be successful or relevant beyond the emptiness of protest voting. Right now, the choice isn't between government "working well" and government just "working". The choice is between government working or government not working at all - and I can't overstate how selfish it is to pretend that making the latter easier benefits anything but the ego of political purists. We don't live in I Get What I Wantland. We won't for quite a while. So please. To all progressives, liberals, union activists and Democrats who think that feeling "demoralized" is a valid reason for making illogical decisions with your vote. Grow up.

Edit: Nancy Pelosi is the picture of governmental/congressional competence. She effectively gets her party in line, she clearly states her party's beliefs, the beliefs she states are usually closer to correct than other members of the Democratic party and she makes sure that government not only functions and works, but she left no doubt about government's stability while she had the power to do anything about it (and she's even integral to doing that now). When I say that there can be no Nancy Pelosi's in the Republican party, I mean that the attributes that make her exceptional would exile her from Republican politics. Nature of the beast and all that.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Danger of Making Obama the Face of the Democratic Party and Liberal Activism

Much as I'd enjoy joining the internet in another cycle of liberal disappointment, I have to express my discontent at the quality of the liberal blogosphere's Obama criticism. He is not a Republican. He is not like Republicans. And the more this has to be constantly reasserted, the more liberals will continue to ineffectually flounder in search of legitimate complaints. Every "this is exactly what Obama wanted" argument, every "Obama is a weak president/negotiator" argument, every "Obama isn't a True Liberal" argument betrays how thoroughly liberal disappointment rests on idealistic projection. Instead of criticizing the president, the left has contented itself with whining about Obama's failure to live up to the ideals of their strawknight while ignoring unfavorable political realities (like Republican intransigence and the media embrace thereof). This is a fine tactic for e-venting and the inevitable circle-jerking it produces, but it fails as political expression and political analysis.

This isn't to say that the linked arguments don't have minimal grains of truth - they do. But the image they rely on and the narrative they contribute to couldn't be further away from explaining the discrepancy that makes Obama the right president for a misinformed and centrist electorate and the wrong president for an unflinchingly destructive opposition or the left. Ironically, no one can illustrate why better than Barack Obama himself:

It's quite possible - and indeed, likely - that President Obama is either a liberal or mostly-liberal. It's likely that if he sat down at a table with Paul Krugman, Digby and Ezra Klein, he would either agree with or be sympathetic to many of their arguments. Why, it's even likely that he could sit down and have a productive conversation about something like unions or education reform with self-proclaimed Real Leftist Freddie deBoer. What almost none of these parties seem to understand is that the specifics of the issues in question are completely secondary to Obama's priorities.

In his mind, he's not president to fulfill the "WE NEED TO GET THIS DONE NOW!" quota of the left. His responsibility is to the institutions that he feels makes discussion of those issues - and progress generally - possible. To put it in construction terms, Obama is a janitor most of the time a repairman some of the time and almost never an architect. No effort to understand or persuasively critique Obama can happen until these details are internalized. The main flaw with from-the-left efforts to comprehend Obama is that while they're looking at it on an issue-by-issue and case-by-case basis, Obama feels he has an obligation to something greater than his - or even his party's - political preferences. He feels he an obligation to the office itself. In his eyes, his goal isn't to use the office or government to enact what he feels is societally superior (though he will try when he can, and consider it a bonus when he succeeds). His goal begins and ends with institutional functionality.

When he wanted healthcare reform, he made sure that congress was nigh exclusively responsible for conceptualizing, writing and voting for it. When he made his moves in support of gay marriage and against DADT, he went through the pentagon, which went through Congress in the form of "recommendations", and then waited for the process to prepare itself to vote on it. When he stopped enforcing DOMA, he waited until he had cover from elements of the judicial branch to do it. When he faced the possibility of a government shutdown, he took the strongest option he could that would not upset the established status quo. An approach he again repeated with the recent debt ceiling "deal". Even his consistent desire for compromise is best viewed through the lens of institutional attachment.

The way he works and the way he wants congress to work (i.e through compromise) is precisely how the government functioned before the last two decades. His loyalty isn't to liberals or conservatives, it isn't to Democrats or Republicans, it isn't even to what's "best" or "worst" for America's standard of living. Obama's loyalty is to a lost vision of the American system, and nearly every decision he's made (from avoiding his 14th Amendment options to constantly meeting with Republicans as though they're somehow good-faith negotiators) is his conformity to a role and to a functional norm that the American government feels it's been forced to collectively discard. This is the scope of Obama's vision, this is the basis for the "transformative" power he so admires in other presidents, this is the justification for every compromise, every posture, every "cave" he's made. As long as institutional functionality is maintained, in Obama's mind, he didn't cave at all. He stopped the system from irreparably breaking, which he feels is the extent of his purpose.

This isn't just an unsurprising summary of his philosophy. It's completely consistent with his political views going as far back as at least The Audacity of Hope. His belief that government can and should work is inseparably tied to his belief that government works best as it is/was. This perspective is a lot of things. A lot. But it's breathtakingly short sighted and blind to view Obama's stubborn insistence on it as naive and illegitimate or to view his distinctly conservative impulses as inherently illiberal.

Obama is a product of, an admirer of and an embodiment of the American political system and no attempt to critique Obama will have lasting value until and unless they can engage his philosophy on the terms he's outlined for himself and with a full understanding of what, exactly, they're attacking when they attack Obama. This is much, much more important than Liberal Issue Du Jour and any attempt to provide insight is going to have to confront the conclusion that by criticizing Obama, you're criticizing a comprehensive and historically informed vision of American government. You're not only saying that his conception of government can't work: you're saying it shouldn't. This isn't a moral or qualitative judgment, it's just a fact. I repeat: disagreeing with Obama's philosophy is saying that the way American government has worked for the past 200 years is not how America can or should work in the future.

The left's primary failing arises from from similarly sentimental attachment to the status quo that's tempered (in ways that Obama's isn't)
by an empirically informed disloyalty to it. That means that the left sees the factual justifications for political change, sees what's wrong with society, sees where we've erred as an electorate and how the system rewards and encourages those errors, but wishes to and thinks that it can fix these problems in the same way every single democratic movement in America has fixed the problems of their time. To put it another way, the left's problems with America are systemic. They're fixtures of our government, they're codified by law, and they're perpetuated by politicians that we elect. And despite that, the left is reluctant to take its feelings to their logical conclusion. They're willing to say that the system is broken, but they're unwilling to treat the system like it's broken.

I've long complained about the stupidity of organizing around Obama in 2008. I thought it was incomparably foolish and short-sighted to create a movement around a candidate instead of influencing a candidate with a movement. But that short-sightedness and liberal susceptibility to it is significantly motivated by that sentiment. In Obama, the left confused a maintainer for a radical. They looked at Obama and projected onto him what they wanted: systemic change without systemic destruction. In doing so, however, the left revealed how little it understands itself and its motivations. Just think about it.

Through the Senate, redistricting and Republican thievery in 2000 and 2004 and journalistic internalization of Republican arguments, the system has proven incapable of being democratic. Through campaign contributions, Supreme Court removal of campaign financing laws, and the overwhelmingly white/male/rich demographic/income representation of its government, the system is highly distorted to disproportionately represent the wealthy. Through "looking forward and not backward" rhetoric, the system forgives wrongdoing from politicians while cruelly punishing the poorest and weakest of its citizens with inane laws and extraordinarily long prison sentences. Through its failure to meaningfully police Wall Street or even set up a means of addressing climate change, the system has proven to be fundamentally averse to regulation. Through the continuation of systemic and cultural inequality the system still manages to be both racist and sexist. Through our ability to call for and wage war on countries that have done nothing to us without even requiring the pretense of an internal debate, the system institutionalizes war and makes carrying it out as easy and consequence-free as possible. Through the loss of privacy protections, civil liberties protections, and even effective safeguards against police brutality, the system spits on civil liberties while giving the most power to the people best positioned to abuse it. Through a society that values making money more than it values what's done to make it, the system doesn't just ignore income inequality, it creates it. Through its complete removal from nearly all national and political conversation, the system has shown complete indifference to unemployment and underemployment. The system birthed the circumstances that led to every decision the left has disliked in the past 20 years.

When the left saw Obama, they saw a way to address their complaints without giving the system up. They saw a way to say that their goals, their ideals and their principles were in-keeping with the best traditions of American progress. They saw the system as benign and abused instead of resistant and antagonistic. For them, Obama didn't just represent a dream of calm, liberal resurgence; he represented a vision of America that didn't have to destroy itself to become its ideal embodiment of self. What the left didn't - and still doesn't - want to do is take those principles to their logical conclusion.

Here's a hint: that conclusion isn't the sudden appearance of a candidate and a congress sometime in the distant future that somehow fixes everything we dislike - after the poor have died and after tens or hundreds of millions have suffered from our government's ailments and limitations. It isn't the slow, gradual, grassroots attempt to galvanize the electorate while the media pretends it isn't happening if there's even a hint success. If we wanted to be completely honest, completely open, and utterly clear about what the stakes are and what the left wants, the left has to admit that the logical conclusion posits that the system itself causes and represents the things the left dislikes. That what we see and despise are not systemic anomalies, but are wholly inevitable - and possibly even intended - results of a system that is actively compliant in America's most toxic ailments. Obama-hatred is simply a proxy. A symptom of a considerably deeper problem the left has with American governance. In fact, one could say that the unique passion behind Obama hatred is because many of the left have reached this conclusion without formulating it and internalizing it.

If Obama is a perfect representative of the American political system - and I think that anyone who pays attention to politics must conclude that he is - then contempt for Obama, Obama's methods, Obama's policies and Obama's approach is tantamount to contempt for the system, contempt for the methods the system requires for functionality and contempt for what's in the realm of systemic possibility for policy. When the left made Obama the face of liberalism, they weren't aware that all they were doing was wearing a mask. The failure to introspectively reach this conclusion themselves has made a liberalism that's bitterly fractured, completely unfocused and disastrously unwilling to understand the scope of their critiques and apply methods that appreciate the proportion of that scope. "Part of America" isn't wrong. America is wrong. And changing America as an entity is the only thing that could make it right. This is not in any way inconsistent with what liberals do or need to think. It's not wrong to think that. It's the key to the left's intellectual liberation.

We are radicals tied to a malignant system that institutionally diminishes the power of radicals - even when they're right. And the left should say that until the word is robbed of its marginalizing potential. We. Are. Radicals. And there's nothing wrong with that. We belong to a system where a black president can talk about the Emancipation Proclamation's retaining of slaves to a group of white people and collectively laugh at the prospect of anyone criticizing the compromise. How is it illegitimate to be its opposition?

The left faces a crisis of identity. And whether it becomes the true form of itself is entirely incumbent on whether it premises its opposition to Obama on the proper grounds. Ultimately, Obama is one man. Even in constitutional terms, his power is remarkably limited. Institutions don't merely exist to limit the power of men. They exist to shape what's permissible to say and do in a modern society. As long as the institution insists it is right, there's no institutional pretext to treat it as though it's innately flawed. We don't need new candidates because as long as this system exists, it's impossible for them to do anything worthwhile. We need new political environments for the next generation of candidates to function in.

None of this is to say that we should discard the concept of a democracy/republic or discard the spirit of our founders and dismiss the extent of what America has inadvertently done right. This post merely exists to highlight the fact that everything the left finds wrong is as attached to the system as my arm is attached to me. You can patch it up, euphemize it and rearrange it, but as long as the system exists you can't fix it.

If we're to be active visionaries and not unwitting victims of power struggles we're barely able to participate in, we must approach our arguments with total clarity. We need to know and bravely explore what we want. And we need to reach the final, painful realization that what we want is completely incompatible with the America that exists in front of us. We need to understand that Obama's failures are not Obama's: they're ours. And they'll continue to be as long as America continues to be seen as something to defend instead of something to dismantle. Obama is not, never was and never can be the face of liberalism. He's merely the face of all that liberalism can do under our current institutional framework. If that's what you want, support him. If that's what you don't want, oppose him. But understand what you're doing. Understand why. Understand its enormity. Own it.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Response To Jonathan Rauch's Trolling

I suppose Rauch believes he's communicating some edgy, insightful truth that blogger self-righteousness censors when he makes his maiden post a treatise against blogging as a medium, but really, his critique is little more than a commentary on the limits of his tastes - which are often extensions of limitations in exposure. Like most crypto-conservatives, he veils his distaste in the language of concern for some broader principle (in this case, quality in the whole of writing and thinking) and fear that a blasphemous new thing can presume to rival or take over something he's familiar with. And like all crypto-conservatism, it's simply a reworded variant of the same refrain: "how dare something new come up and get popular without me liking it":
Every time someone who could have done good science does sloppy science, or does worse journalism instead of better journalism, or mediocre writing instead of fine writing, it's a loss. When resources are scarce—and of course human talent is the most scarce and precious resource of all—it matters if blogging is inducing ADD in many of our best writers and thinkers, or driving talent away altogether.

I watch with growing concern as young journalists get channeled into content mills where they post three, seven, who knows how many blog snippets a day. I spoke with one young guy who told me he puts up seven posts a day and would like to break into longer form by doing only three. One of the most promising young journalists I know couldn't take it and quit for medical school. Another young writer tells me he longs to "get off the hamster wheel."

To learn writing and thinking in this environment is to be conditioned to compete with a blizzard of links and ads and comments and emails and IMs and...and...and... You can't assume the reader will stay with you beyond the next link. You learn to deliver a payoff in every sentence and apply attitude with a trowel. Once you acclimate to pushy, punchy blogspeak, the habit can be hard to break.

Naturally, he ignores how easily this vacuous and non-specific list of complaints can be switched. One could complain that reporting is inherently bad because you can't assume that the reader will stay beyond the next page. Or how the conventions of traditional reporting are structurally hazardous to creativity in prose and exhaustive explanations of policy. Or how the political environment of reporting creates a philosophical restriction on the kinds of view one can express and the level of openness they can be expressed with. Or how the economic constraints of magazines and newspapers inherently limits the flow of information - both in amount and variety. Or how the nature of hiring tends to overwhelmingly favor people from backgrounds that are detached from the class-concerns and class-realities of the less financed and less educated. But I'm not going to do that because I've read enough reporting to see how its flaws don't diminish its capacity for value, which is the key problem with Rauch's posts. He thinks the flaws are definining and insurmountable while ignoring the two sentences that undermine the medium-inherent scope of his case:

There are a few great bloggers out there. Andrew Sullivan is one of them.

He didn't expound, but a few assumptions can be made about why he thinks this: Sullivan's supposed quality as a blogger doesn't solely come from his value as a writer - and I'm sure he doesn't think that. It comes from his ability to manipulate the demands of the medium to produce a steady flow of art, link aggregation and real-time analysis. You don't just get to see the completed forms of his "developed thoughts", you can see the information and the arguments that inspired his conclusions. It's not a detached "View From Olympus" presented as something he's always thought and felt; it's an exhaustive, understandable and - sometimes - human framework that isn't fairly processed in one-post snippets but in whole months of posts. That's something that only writing combined with the internet can accomplish and it's something that blogging has accomplished continuously. If the medium is inherently bad, how can quality material that couldn't be produced without the medium be possible?

Seeing what caused John Cole's gradual, information/event-led evolution from a conservative reactionary/Bush supporter to being one of the most openly supportive Democratic/liberal voices on the internet is something that couldn't have been observed through just a magazine or a newspaper. The impact of Ta-Nehisi's righteous several year project to understand and contextualize the Civil War couldn't have happened in a book or a newspaper (nor could his exceptional Confederate History Month series). Bloggers who rely on insightful-but-pithy descriptions of institutions they have little respect for (like Atrios or Digby) wouldn't be able to bring concepts like "The Village" and "High Broderism" into full view without spending months (if not years) linking examples and tying those examples into longstanding concepts. The entire campaign against torture (and, indeed, the popularizing of torture writers like Scott Horton, Marcy Wheeler and Glenn Greenwald) wouldn't have been nearly as pronounced without blogging's ability to frame a collection of constant thoughts into a narrative and rawly express the shock and disgust Bush's torture regime (and its defenses) evoked.

Jonathan Rauch's argument is conveniently detached from these events, so there's no reality for him to be accountable to. As long as his argument about the Superiority of Other Mediums is premised entirely on whether it coincides with the reading standard he's used to, or "editorial standards" that limit the range of available voices, he feels he has no reason to note them. By basing his standards on nostalgia, he merely serves to obscure his argument from any reality or standard contrary to the one he's cultivated for himself. He will continue to wriggle and wail against the Uncivil, Useless Blogging strawman he's propped up to justify his narrowly antiquated tastes, and the blogosphere will persevere without his acknowledgment. And in the end, he's either wittingly or unwittingly left with the unsettling truth that the only thing a newspaper and a magazine can do that a blog can't is be liked by him. An endorsement that will be met by the blogosphere with all the relevance it warrants.

Edit: None of this is a de-endorsement of my posts praising Rauch for his excellent pro-gay marriage arguments nor is this a re-endorsement of Sullivan, whose stock in my eyes has decreased even further.

Edit 2: In case the title doesn't make it clear, I'm engaging his argument seriously, even if I'm aware that its presentation, wording, and substance means that it's likely not. I'll be disappointed if his closing post isn't "syke!"

Monday, May 30, 2011

Decoration Day

America's pride is uniquely contingent on the passive-aggressive denial of its history. By solely focusing on the benefits of the present, Americans are positioned to pretend that its fruits were not harvested through past sins. As such, America to Americans is only a large, resource-rich, agricultural and industrial powerhouse instead of the intentional and concerted byproduct of Mexican/Native American conquest, successful Native American genocide and chattel slavery. To Americans, America is what it is because it is what it is. How what it was contributes to that has an irrelevant status in the pantheon of American consciousness. The fragility of our pride isn't measured by the strength with which we declare it. It's measured by how foundational cultural amnesia and moral dissonance is to its maintenance. That characteristic has a dual role - and one we ignore to avoid owning moral culpability.

By removing the present from the ethical and intellectual restraints of context, we insulate ourselves from the requirement of understanding it. And by disguising self-constructed ignorance as patriotic nationalism, we avoid the moral requirement to identify, address and correct the very sins we act as beneficiaries to. Because of this, questions of how we should address institutional inequity become questions of why we should if citizens feel they've done nothing unequal today. Questions of how we can help the impoverished become indictments of lazy thieves who simply take advantage of the government help supplied by your hard earned tax dollars. Questions of educational differences are changed into questions of capability instead of assessments of how resource/access disparities influence results. In this self-constructed reality, our collective successes and failures are not the sum of historical consequences. We become conveniently absolved from not just taking responsibility for the sins we benefit from: we're absolved from acknowledging them.

America's expressions of exceptionalism rest on that dissonance. Our perceived innocence is wholly premised on not only forgetting our guilt, but on never knowing what we're guilty of. The myth of the rugged individualist, strapping himself by his bootstraps to succeed exclusively on his own hard earned merits is one that can only come from that typically American framing. As is the myth that cultural and societal disadvantages are chosen by those who suffer from them, and are absolved/fixed whenever the most paltry fig leafs are presented in their direction. To accept that fiction, you'd have to accept that a classist and racially biased society is neither. To accept that fiction, you'd have to think that societal progression is solely determined by individual capacity. To be a True American, you must simultaneously deny what America is while never questioning what made it so.

Memorial Day has, historically, been a testament to that founding contradiction. Its genesis as something initiated by newly freed slaves - who honored union soldiers by giving individual burials to a those corpses thrown into a mass graveyard - has been successfully paved over by those who simply want another thoughtless celebration of America's righteousness. Its significance to the Lost Cause as a rallying point to engage in the collective fantasy that the War Between The States was about something other than the militarized enforcement of white supremacy has similarly been erased from our minds. Noted historian David W. Blight (who did this marvelous lecture on the Civil War) reminds us of both points:

At the end of the Civil War, Americans faced a formidable challenge: how to memorialize 625,000 dead soldiers, Northern and Southern. As Walt Whitman mused, it was “the dead, the dead, the dead — our dead — or South or North, ours all” that preoccupied the country. After all, if the same number of Americans per capita had died in Vietnam as died in the Civil War, four million names would be on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, instead of 58,000.

Officially, in the North, Memorial Day emerged in 1868 when the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, called on communities to conduct grave-decorating ceremonies. On May 30, funereal events attracted thousands of people at hundreds of cemeteries in countless towns, cities and mere crossroads. By the 1870s, one could not live in an American town, North or South, and be unaware of the spring ritual.

But the practice of decorating graves — which gave rise to an alternative name, Decoration Day — didn’t start with the 1868 events, nor was it an exclusively Northern practice. In 1866 the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Columbus, Ga., chose April 26, the anniversary of Gen. Joseph Johnston’s final surrender to Gen. William T. Sherman, to commemorate fallen Confederate soldiers. Later, both May 10, the anniversary of Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s death, and June 3, the birthday of Jefferson Davis, were designated Confederate Memorial Day in different states.

Memorial Days were initially occasions of sacred bereavement, and from the war’s end to the early 20th century they helped forge national reconciliation around soldierly sacrifice, regardless of cause. In North and South, orators and participants frequently called Memorial Day an “American All Saints Day,” likening it to the European Catholic tradition of whole towns marching to churchyards to honor dead loved ones.

But the ritual quickly became the tool of partisan memory as well, at least through the violent Reconstruction years. In the South, Memorial Day was a means of confronting the Confederacy’s defeat but without repudiating its cause. Some Southern orators stressed Christian notions of noble sacrifice. Others, however, used the ritual for Confederate vindication and renewed assertions of white supremacy. Blacks had a place in this Confederate narrative, but only as time-warped loyal slaves who were supposed to remain frozen in the past.

The Lost Cause tradition thrived in Confederate Memorial Day rhetoric; the Southern dead were honored as the true “patriots,” defenders of their homeland, sovereign rights, a natural racial order and a “cause” that had been overwhelmed by “numbers and resources” but never defeated on battlefields.

Yankee Memorial Day orations often righteously claimed the high ground of blood sacrifice to save the Union and destroy slavery. It was not uncommon for a speaker to honor the fallen of both sides, but still lay the war guilt on the “rebel dead.” Many a lonely widow or mother at these observances painfully endured expressions of joyous death on the altars of national survival.

Some events even stressed the Union dead as the source of a new egalitarian America, and a civic rather than a racial or ethnic definition of citizenship. In Wilmington, Del., in 1869, Memorial Day included a procession of Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians and Catholics; white Grand Army of the Republic posts in parade with a black post; and the “Mount Vernon Cornet Band (colored)” keeping step with the “Irish Nationalists with the harp and the sunburst flag of Erin.”

But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.

Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.

The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

I had no idea about any of this until this weekend, and I can assure that this is the case for most Americans. For as long as I can remember, Memorial Day has been a paint-by-numbers long weekend where we cook out with family members to an uncontroversial background of veteran-worship. And while its shift from a memorial to the Civil War to a catch-all celebration of our wars and our dead has little to do with paving over that history, its function has only served to help us ignore one the most fundamentally defining cultural/domestic events in American history.

We see its traces when - in 2010 - the governor of Virginia rejoined several other states and declared a Confederate History Month to "understand and remember" that its leaders "fought
for their homes and communities and Commonwealth". We notice its taint when the Confederate Battle Flag and the Confederate National Flag have been unapologetically incorporated into the state flags of many southern states. We see remnants of its effects when, in 2011, Nathan Bedford Forrest was considered in Mississippi as someone who should be specially incorporated into licenses. We hear its echos when the "states rights" refrain - the legal justification for post-Civil War responses to freed slaves like Jim Crow and segregation - is repeated by modern and prominent politicians. We suffer under the unsettled nature of its history when the Southern Strategy can not only be adopted, but be almost uncontroversially successful in the context of political dialogue and strategy. We adopt its legacy when - in 2011 - we let states like Alabama reenact the inauguration of Confederate president Jefferson Davis without challenge. To understand the severity of this, to understand what we as Americans are and what we tolerate, this is what the Confederacy was about according to the Vice President of the CSA:
The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

This is the declaration of secession in Virginia:
The people of Virginia in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under said Constitition were derived from the people of the United States and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal Government having perverted said powers not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States.
This is the declaration of secession for Texas: this free government *all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights* [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states....

This is the declaration of secession for Mississippi:
....Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin...
And on and on and on. This is what significant elements of our country continue to lionize and celebrate. This is the treasured but never discussed history our politicians play to with dog whistles. This - and the institution the Confederates fought for - is the source of the innumerable disparities that American society has had to (and continues to have to) address. This is the one conflict that inspires the widening gulf in our political differences. This is the context that undergirds American sociological and political understanding. This is what we intentionally forget when we pretend that American culture started with a declaration of liberty for all and upheld it. This is what we ignore when we praise figures who declared that "all men are created equal" while owning slaves. This is what we ethically evade when we comment on the unique wonder of a constitution that contained a clause which argued that its black, enslaved millions only counted as 3/5's of a white man.

Slavery is the gaping hole in this country's history. And the fact that it was never filled is the source of many of its most recent disasters. The Civil War wasn't merely the expression of disagreement between two kinds of states. It was the most direct culmination of a century of compromise for a country of racists and a region which culturally and economically profited from racism. Everyone from our "Founding Fathers" to Lincoln himself pined for a circumstance where the issue could languish unaddressed. The South refused to let that happen when Lincoln was elected. Then it rebelled when he became the haunting specter of a movement that dared to raise objections to chattel slavery and dared to reflect a potentially damning political consensus against their economic well-being. American history and American modernity is determined by many essential truths, but none so essential as this: we did not win the Civil War. We simply stopped fighting it openly.

This is the electoral map for 2000:

This is the electoral map for 2004:

This is the electoral map for 2008:

This is the electoral map for 1860:

This is not the face of a country that can listlessly indulge the fantasy that the past is past. This is not the face of a country that's gotten over or beyond the repugnance of what half of it fought for. Our refusal to address the evils of our forefathers and correct the cascading series of wrongs those evils have produced is the lingering stain we collectively assume we're too good to have and too detached to remove. And our desire to pretend that being beneficiaries of that legacy isn't in the same realm of evil as contributing to it has corroded our capacity to discuss this in the proper terms. A denial of these facts is a denial of American wrong. And the flagrant cultural legitimization of the Confederacy - particularly in the south - is a monument to our cultural failures. The Lost Cause and the politically weaselly overlooking of past and continuing malfeasance has made modern leaders complicit in the continuation of our worst legacies. And the ease with which we ignore that truth has made that complicity bereft of consequences.

The Confederacy was a traitor-regime that fed its existence through forced subservience, murder, torture and rape. It was their legacy and their wishes that were embodied in Jim Crow laws, segregation, the Ku Klux Klan and other forms of terrorism and discrimination.
They are our Nazi's. But we speak fondly of them in state capitals as though they're tragic figures and misunderstood, wrongfully maligned parties.

Those pictures are not so much delineations of political differences as they are the stark outline of America's tribal differences. An entire party apparatus has risen up to not only cater to that cultural divide, but to perpetuate it. Harry S. Dent knew what it meant when he created the Southern Strategy. Lee Atwater knew what it meant when he whispered it in Reagan's ear. And Reagan knew what it meant to make a states rights argument in Philadelphia Mississippi - the site of the murder of several civil rights workers. They're playing a tune that's been humming in the background for 140 years. And they're playing a tune that regions of this country have been historically taught to dance to. No attempt to grasp America's political expression can be understood without knowing it. No attempt to comprehend its pervasiveness can be made without hearing what it sounds like:

Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry S. Dent, Sr. and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [the new Southern Strategy of Ronald Reagan] doesn’t have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he's campaigned on since 1964 and that's fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.

: But the fact is, isn't it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?

Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."
Improvement is not negation. But we exist in a country that wants to avoid distinguishing between the two. Just as our pride is contingent on a denial of history, our perceived innocence - and argued moral superiority - is contingent on our ignorance. If we pretend to not know the dynamics at play when Gingrich calls Obama a "Food Stamp President", we can pass off any indifference to that rhetoric as a defect in Gingrich instead of a defect in the country that allows Gingrich to exist. America's political and historical consciousness isn't so much a reflection of willful stupidity as it's a continued and continuing deflection of culpability. By characterizing our past as past, by thinking of racial inequity as an individual defect instead of a societally/institutionally enforced one, we ignore the fluidity of that history and the extent of our contributions to it. But to think this is merely about race is to simplify the complexity of the dynamics involved.

This is about entitlement. This is about a nation of people that feels it can ignore the problems it causes. It's about a country that feels that the capacity to overlook is a right afforded by justifiable circumstance instead of a privilege afforded by self-interested detachment. It's about a country that maintains a permanent underclass and pretends that its culture is exclusively defined by those who aren't apart of it. It's about a country that removes the ability to progress from an entire bloc of people and then mocks and ignores them when - after the potential to compete comes - their success isn't immediate. And none of this happened in a vacuum. It's all informed and inspired by an established institutional and cultural norm that refuses to admit that it benefits from oppression. Just as it's established by a history that - until the 60's - enforced the belief that color marked the level of equality you could appreciate and the level of freedom you could enjoy.

Entitlement is what marks its persistence. And entitlement is what inspires the south to pretend that such a history can be celebrated as though there's a history worth celebration. As with Gingrich, I don't merely fault them, I fault the cultural context that allows them to exist. I fault the history books that mention the Civil War and the Confederacy's evils in passing. I fault the failure to discuss, analyze and criticize the sources and expressions of Dixie Pride. I fault the way our discussion of the south - like our discussion of race - has fallen into the comfortable realm of "it's solved enough, so there's nothing left we can do". I fault a country that erases the diversity of its artistic, cultural, historic and political inspirations in favor of a "safe" history of familiar, uncontroversial and often, primarily white, male faces as though all other demographics were background noise. I fault the budding desire to pretend that unseen and silently processed inequity is proof of its nonexistence.

We've nationally internalized an inability to acknowledge our problems, and we've made that failure the string from which our patriotism dangles. That we've bought into the fiction that unconscious contribution is the same as no contribution has done little more than infect a wound we think we've healed by covering it up. And very little of our most damning qualms can be fixed without addressing these facts. American culture has made an alter to forgetfulness, and in our collective laziness, we've embraced a moral authority we have not earned, and we've cultivated a sense of progression that our institutions fail to reflect. And worse, we've made these problems persist by willfully refusing to notice them.

I daresay America not only has a responsibility to notice them, it has a moral obligation to remove them.
And we should start by putting the Confederacy in its place and by putting the continuing pertinence of black oppression as a foundation of our democracy and our history at the forefront. It's an evil we all recognize. It's an evil we constantly hear about. But it's an evil we've failed to contextualize. We see its ghosts in the crevices of our cultural mainstays, but we've made its stain so translucent that we shield ourselves from having to notice them. It's time to not only own the fullness of that history, but to acknowledge our place in marginalizing and indifferently indulging its consequences.

None of that happens without awareness.

Awareness of not only what that history is, but of the little ways that history and its effects are maintained by us. The ongoing delusion of America doesn't have to be embodied by "remembering" the elective deaths of well paid soldiers in politically and morally questionable wars. There are other, deeper things at play that not only warrant our attention, but our exertion. How many of us have the courage to face them?

Monday, May 23, 2011

"We Shall Overcome": An Indictment of Gay Activism

There are real issues to write about, and I'm sorry that I make my return by writing about none of them. This country is in crisis, and I apologize for my failure to do any part in highlighting that. But some spectacles are so unexpected and jarring that you can do little but ride the crest of your reaction. This is one of them:

I have never opposed gay marriage. I have never argued against the truth that homosexuals warrant the same legal sanctions as everyone else. As far as I'm concerned, this is not only incontestable, but uncontested in the context of my writing. But there's something about that clip that hearkens back to my reaction to the unaccountable tone-deafness of the Prop 8 aftermath. The mixture of annoyance and anger on display in my writing had a reason that might not have been reflected by those semi-coherent screeds, so I'm going to try to give voice to those complaints again. Both because I need to and because I understand my reaction better.

The gay rights movement is not a movement for anything we've traditionally understood as a right. No governmental institution has impeded their right to political representation. No governmental institution has thwarted their ability to use the political process to affect legal change. No governmental institution has removed their ability to vote. No government has made active efforts to create a two tiered society where they are the instantly known and permanently marginalized underclass. No governmental institution has risen up to give the terrorists that exclusively target them and their supporters legal and cultural immunity from any act committed against them. No governmental institution has made an effort to make and enforce laws in ways that disproportionately target and disadvantage them. The American gay rights movement was and is primarily about the right to get married. All other rights are provided for. And all other issues - including ENDA and the repeal of DADT - are rhetorically and materially incidental.

The picture I paint isn't some lazy effort to draw a contrast between the gay rights movement and the civil rights movement. It's a simple and necessary acknowledgment of just a few of the reasons why no contrast can be made. The unflinching conceit which attempts to draw parallels that don't exist isn't a testament to the movement's malice; it's revealing of the demographic make-up that inspires their collective lack of perspective. The one inescapable fact of the "gay rights movement" is that it functions as little more than a mechanism for white suburban outrage. It's a movement staffed by, headed by, popularized by and argued by people who are largely foreign to genuine, systemic disadvantage.

While many of them may understand that being deprived of the right to be married isn't the same as being deprived of the right to have basic societal/political equality, that intellectual judgment is nullified by the emotional unfamiliarity of not having your political wishes handed to you. The defining characteristic of the gay rights movement isn't that it's a "battle for equality", it's that it's a response to and reflection of privilege. They are comfortably well off, conveniently blind to the plight of people-not-them, and genuinely perplexed that even a taste of the behavior that other demographics have experienced can even conceptually be levied toward them.

The gay rights movement was never a response to systemic inequity because that's not an accurate description for what they experience. At its most repugnant, it's an embodiment of white shock; expressed by parties who have the convenience of seeing discrimination as an abstraction. The tortured analogues to the civil rights movement aren't beyond the pale because the unspoken assumption of the movement is that anything unfavorable happening to white suburbanites is equal in spirit - if not in kind - to what happened - and continues to happen - to women and blacks. The outrage isn't inspired by the nature of what they're being deprived of. It's inspired by the parties being targeted for deprivation. It's a movement that's animated less by "How could this happen?" sentiments and more by wondering "How could this happen to us?" That complaint - so blissfully detached from unfavorable realities - has become the hallmark of a privilege that's more prepared to vent about injustices than discern them.

For these people, the civil rights movement is simply a weapon. Useful for the starkness of its imagery and powerful for the now-uncontroversial nature of what it symbolizes. What it was about, what it meant, what it stood for and who was involved are secondary to its popularity. Which is why someone who mainstreamed a book saying that blacks are inherent intellectual inferiors to all other races feels that he's capable of identifying the "Arc of History" by linking the above clip. It's why a throng of smiling, unmolested, exclusively white faces can sing the anthem of the civil rights movement in
side their capitol building without a police presence and not be moved by the irony of how impossible such circumstances were for the people they're trying to invoke.

The wonder of numerical and ethnic privilege is that it can claim victory without ever having to fight. It can borrow the successes of others without request and portray its thievery as consensus. It can disrespect and insult the very people they pretend to respect and be entirely insulated from the substance of minority complaints and any requirement to understand them. It can disgracefully portray themselves as high-minded Freedom Riders fighting the New Civil Rights Battle of the Era and not realize the extent to which they mock black struggles in their pitiful effort to act as self-appointed successors to their legacy.

I have no patience for this anymore. The singular innovation of post-racist/racism thinking is that it can use the presumption of racist-eradication and marginalization as an excuse for never having to confront it. It can think of the problem of racism - and the lingering consequences of its effects - as something that's already been solved, which means they can move on to things post-racists actually want to think about. It's easy to pretend that getting married is an issue when you can look at a 17% unemployment rate (double the national average),
limited economic mobility, a drug war that disproportionately targets and imprisons blacks, and institutionally/systemically enforced discrimination as "Their Problem". It's even easier when they're issues you don't have to look at all. But its convenience serves to enable the very lack of recognition that allows racism to fester. And it lets those who do this operate without ever taking responsibility for the consequences of what they allow.

This isn't to say that gays are any more racist than anyone else. They're likely not. But their adoption of civil rights parallels, civil rights themes and civil rights language makes them responsible for the rather conspicuous lack of civil rights beneficiaries as leaders, activists, politically targeted demographics or even models. Much ink has been spilled fallaciously scapegoating blacks (and promoting the projects of people who scapegoat blacks) for being exceptionally homophobic. One would think that when more has been written about that than has been written about issues that disproportionately affect blacks that they'd be slightly more reluctant to use black history as some kind of event that they're uncontroversial successors to. The glaring lack of concern for those issues has been on display - particularly in the last two years - and it's shamelessly cynical to try and hijack a movement very few of these people seem to genuinely care about for the sake of political gain.

But look. I'm reasonable. Let's say that Andrew Sullivan suddenly apologized for his Bell Curve pushing and tried to analyze blacks from a lens that didn't exclusively relate to their supposed homophobia. Let's say that John Aravosis isn't an obnoxiously repugnant, race-centered anti-Obama partisan that doesn't use glib segregation parallels in service of lies. Let's say that Dan Savage retracted his months of blaming blacks for the passage of Prop 8 despite the fact that the statistics he used were disproven. Let's say that The Advocate and other such gay media sources suddenly started hiring/showing more black people. Let's say that the civil rights parallels died. There's still a basic issue here that not a single activist has tried to or even cared to answer: why should black people care?

The issues they face are related their livelihood, their well-being, their health, their living circumstances, their ability to economically progress, the removal of the institutional mechanisms that stunt that progression and - in the case of the War on Drugs - their freedom. What, exactly, about your ability (or lack thereof) to get married prioritizes that rather insignificant desire over concerns that affect quality/length of life?

As far as I can tell, my fundamental issue with the gay movement is that it subsists on a lack of perspective. It employs hyperbole that deceptively frames the relevance of menial concerns. It makes arguments that present the passage of their pet projects as somehow worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as legislation that affects job growth, economic growth or health care. It plagiarizes the spirit of movements they couldn't care less about and it does so without understanding why they shouldn't. And it argues itself as disadvantaged while using the very mechanisms of privilege to mainstream their issues much faster than any other demographic ever could.

This is not a battle that affects black people. This is not a battle that affects most Americans. I would even argue that this isn't a battle that substantively affects gays. This is a pissing contest for the institutionally and culturally established - be they religious, political or activist in the mold of HRC. And while it may be in service to a supportable cause, its proponents are insulting and corrosive in ways they're too homogeneous to appreciate. In 10-20 years when gays rightfully have "their rights", it's likely that no one will analyze this movement's methods or its cynicism. But for posterity, I simply want to go on record in saying that it did so with incidental success, minimal respect, flagrant dishonesty and limited dignity.

The pursuit of equality is noble and worthy goal. That nobility is tarnished when it's fed by using the inequality of others as marketing gimmick without doing anything to fight it. You don't get to demand supporters and use morally duplicitous "I'm disappointed in blacks! They're black! They should have understood/supported us!" arguments and think you're doing anything but showing the extent of your entitlement and post-racist apathy. While decency and basic common sense dictates that of course gays should get married if they want (it's not like the concept had any prominence before the 90's); decency and basic common sense should also dictate that the "gay movement" in its current form is worthy of neither veneration or support.

There's something deeply, deeply wrong with this movement and its flaws taint the legacy of genuine thoughtful, genuinely relevant social and civil rights movements under the guise of drawing inspiration from them. I wish there were prominent people capable of effectively pointing that out.