Friday, October 4, 2013

October...Surprise? Commentators on the Federal Shutdown Miss the Point

Many commentators view the shutdown of the federal government with shocked outrage. Recently, Andrew Sullivan has been showing moderates the "racial and cultural panic" that lies at the heart of the opposition to Obamacare and the Obama presidency more generally.
I’m talking about the difference between opposition to a president’s agenda and a belief that he is somehow an impostor, illegitimate, and a usurper for reasons that seem, in the end, to come down to racial and cultural panic. Do I have to recount the endless accusations against Obama of such? No president has been subjected to endless litigation of his birth certificate or his religious faith (as if the latter mattered anyway). No president has been heckled in a State of the Union address with the words “You lie!” as Obama was....

...So I have long been puzzled not by legitimate opposition to various policies but by the frenzy of it. Call it the education of an English conservative in the long tortured history of American pseudo-conservatism.
In the end, I could only explain the foam-flecked frenzy of opposition to Clinton and Obama by the sense that the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s was the defining event for a certain generation, that the backlash to it was seen as a restoration of the right people running the country (i.e. no minorities with real clout), and that Clinton’s and even more Obama’s victories meant this narrative was revealed as an illusion. This is compounded by racial and cultural panic – against gays, immigrants, Muslims, Latinos etc – and cemented by a moronic, literalist, utterly politicized version of Christianity....It is inherently irrational. It knows somewhere deep down that it is headed for defeat. But it will take down as much of the country, economy and constitution as it can while doing so.
For this time, as they surely know, Reconstruction will not be on their terms. They have no agenda because the multi-racial, multi-cultural, moderate-right country they live in is a refutation of their core identity. So race and culture fuel this – perhaps not explicitly or even consciously for some, but surely powerfully for many. And we are reaching a perilous moment as their cultural marginalization intensifies and their political defeat nears. After that, the rage could become truly destabilizing, unless some kind of establishment Republican leadership can learn to lead again. America and the world need to batten down the hatches.

For Sullivan, racism and "cultural panic" have "compounded" a backlash that basically has been in the making since white opposition to the African American Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. In other words, what we are seeing is racist manipulation of rhetoric by political leaders of the Republican Party.

Like so many critics of the right wing's drive toward self destruction, Sullivan only speaks about the leaders, not the vast numbers of followers who elect them. The real question shouldn't just be how can these radical GOP leaders hijack the American system by adding in racism to their anti-Democrat rhetoric, but also why does the general racist sentiment that underwrites their behavior find such ready reception in the general American population?

Here's the thing: It isn't just the leaders who are leading. They know what plays in Peoria. They are taking their cues from white America's predisposition to think of Black people and anything associated with us with everything negative. One of the big mistakes that moderates, liberals, and progressives make is their assumption that the federal government shutdown represents a failure of America leadership. From the perspective of Black thought, it is the success of America, and, specifically, of American antiblackness. The problem is that most people commenting on the shutdown-- conservatives, moderates, liberals, and progressives-- don't want to listen to Black thought. If they did, they wouldn't be surprised and would plan accordingly, like John Brown and Marilyn Buck did.

John Brown, abolitionist, didn't just vocally oppose slavery and say it was wrong and anti-American. He attacked slaveholders. He and a group of Black and white freedom fighters were executed for attempting to start a slave rebellion in Harper's Ferry, Virginia.

Marilyn Buck, a member of the Weather Underground, put her life and freedom on the line to execute the daring escape of Assata Shakur from behind bars. She was let out of prison to die from cancer in 2010.

I'll tell ya this. Students of Black history aren't surprised by the fact that white folks will shut the whole works down just so Black people don't get shit. Even beginner students of Black history could tell you that. There are 8-year-olds who could tell you that white people in Greene County, Alabama, burned down their own judicial institutions and records rather than see Black farmers get justice from landowning white elites, that white people in New Hampshire pulled a school house off of its foundations and shot canon shells at the dorms rather than see black children attend, that white constituencies have shut down entire public school districts and shelled out for private schools rather than see Black children attend integrated public schools, and that white people in Michigan have said that not living next door to Black people is what makes a neighborhood decent. This is not a matter of public opinion and measurable attitudes alone because it stays remarkably consistent over time. It is more like what's called a structure of feeling of just not wanting Black people to have any say in how state power is utilized. Martin Gilens recently wrote a book showing that working class white people routinely vote against their own economic interests rather than see a social safety net expanded that might include Black people, most notably the so-called Reagan Democrats of the 1980 and 1984 US presidential elections. Shutting down the society so Black folks can't have something ain't a new phenomenon.

In 1835, Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire, was dragged into a swamp by white farmers who didn't want Black students to attend the school with white students. Painting by Mikel Wells

So should we really be surprised that the vanguard of white supremacy will shut down a whole government rather than see a Black president's healthcare reform law go into effect--rather than see anything the Black people could benefit from? Hell fuck no.

In a Lacanian way of thinking, doing something beyond the point where it is healthy is the sign of a death drive. This is a compulsion to pursue a goal beyond the point where it is pleasurable or helpful to other goals. We all have it, to some extent, and it's not a mental illness per se. It's an indication that at some level we desire something more than we desire pleasure. It is a sign that we are capable of acting according to an ethics.

Sullivan can see this too. He says "it's headed for defeat" and "will take down" much of the nation until it is stopped. So he can see that it's a "lost cause" that white Americans nonetheless fight for. He might even use the term "lost cause" to trace it back to the ways white southerners narrativized their loss of the US Civil War to white northerners.

But that's what's so interesting about the extremity of this anti-Obama obstructionism and, before Obama, of the willingness to destroy civic institutions just so Black people can't have shit: The folks who do this stuff believe in their heart of hearts that they are doing the right thing. For them, it truly is an ethical drive. That means that, for whatever reasons, Black people are the index of absolute otherness. In the words of Fanon, to white folks, we Black folks signify "the lower emotions, the baser inclinations, the dark side of the soul" (Black Skin, White Masks 94). To them, we are not fully human. And acting according to that understanding is, at some level, ethical.

And that is the sick something that the Tea Partyites share with other white folks. In fact, whiteness itself is the realization, at many deep levels of the psyche and across various scales of social existence, that Black people are not human. That's what whiteness is. The fact that we Black folks are human and are sitting there saying we're human in infinite varieties of ways makes not a whiff of difference.

To be fair, not all white folks are outright oppositional to Obama or to Black humanity more generally. Some white people take our protestations of humanity and use it to feel good about themselves and their own struggles, often by policing us and telling us what we really meant to say when we said "I am Human." These people are called liberals or, more charitably, almost all of the left, who will co-opt the energies of our own Black ethical drive for freedom and use those energies to advance the interests of everybody else-- unions, white women, people of color, folks who love those of the same sex, etc.-- by calling themselves "the new Blacks" or overwriting the history of our freedom struggles with their own struggles. Sullivan does this by saying that the antiblack racism that Black folks know is at least 500 years old is really only about 50 years old, possibly 150 years old. He's reducing something that we know underwrites America itself to something that corresponds to how white people think about their own struggles.

And this is what's so half-assed about what Sullivan and lots of commentators about the federal government shutdown say. There is ample reason not to be surprised in the least that the obstructionism to Obama has shut down the federal government. The ruse of surprise is a manifestation of cowardice in the face of the plain facts of Black life. It is a failure to listen to what Black people have been saying for more than 500 years. The weakness of white liberals is that they pretend to be surprised by the shit that their cousins and uncles and mothers in the Tea Party are doing and have been doing to make Black life in America a living hell. But make no mistake: In about a month and some change, they'll all be sitting around the turkey (or the Tofurky vegetarian option) at Thanksgiving. And the knife on the table in between the Tea Party father who openly hates Black humanity and the "friend-of-the-negro" daughter who thinks Black people are just angry and misguided will be going in that turkey, not where it would be going if that daughter were unsurprised by her father's racist fascism and were committed to freedom.

Don't get me wrong. Obama's a weak-ass president who hasn't advanced Black people's interests. But as weak as the health care law and President Obama are to overcome this Amerikkan society's compulsive desire to murder Black people, what's missing from mainstream discourse about it all is an analysis of how antiblack racism fundamentally structures this entire American system that Sullivan speaks about.

No electoral politics will address that.

We will have to perform an attentive listening to what America is-- and always has been-- already telling us: that we were never meant to survive. And then we have to pick up whatever implement is nearest at hand and we have to tear this whole shit down and start over.

But when we Black folks, and the non-Black folks who are our true comrades, get out in the streets, don't be surprised. It's 500 years in the making.

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