politics

Defense and Resistance


On election day, I tweeted #breakthewall, which turned out all too optimistic, America choosing instead to reinforce its defenses warranted in important ways (given the economic convulsions wrought by globalization and automation) but ultimately alarming (resistance to the system culturally expressed through reactionary nostalgia—“make America great again”—at its limit white supremacy, but which is not just about race, constituting, rather, a powerless attempt to get back at power through simple solutions, including race, by those who feel like “strangers in their own land”). When the realization dawned on me that this was actually happening as I listened to the news in between bouts of writing, I wrote, We’re going to have to live through this for decades to come, as if the campaign wasn’t bad enough: explicit white supremacy, sexual assault, tax evasion, worker stiffing, the narcissistic cult of personality, vicious and resentful law and order, the undoing of justice in the Supreme Court, schadenfreude as political discourse, the authoritarian desecration of democracy—Trump promising to buttress the wall (ironically enough the “middle” rather than the “establishment”) that proclaims itself as America.

I had to go to work the next day. Even though I couldn’t sleep the night before and didn’t want to get out of bed the morning after, I forced myself to follow my routine, thinking that this was precisely the moment in which I should be with other people. True enough, I had good conversations at the office (not to mention texts, calls, and emails from family and friends), if cloaked (for me at least) by this sense that apocalypse had just happened, and threatens to come soon. I had to teach at the end of the day, and I was worried about what I would say, if I should say anything, and how I would be … With most students overly quiet as if containing something within themselves and at least one so visibly distraught, I decided I would address what had happened before anything else. It was really hard to talk, to say something coherent, especially with a student (one of the smartest in the class) smiling mockingly, as though shaking his head and asking, What’s the relevance of all this?, Aren’t you blowing this out of proportion?, and I hadn’t cried yet so was worried that I would, right there, in front of the class, but after repeating the same phrase quite a bit (“Sad day, dark day …”), I ended up introducing the term “negative emulation” (don’t know where it came from): If you see them up there, doing something bad, something you don’t agree with, something you think shouldn’t be, or maybe you agree in which case this doesn’t apply to you, but if you don’t, then do the exact opposite. If only at the level of personal interactions, your immediate environment, foster a world different from that which they want to recreate. Try to be kinder, more open, genuinely interested in those who are different. Do something different, if only in your local world. Be different.—Hopelessly naïve, I know, but I’d prefer hopelessly naïve or even double-faced over explicitly injurious any day.

As the initial shock starts to wane, I find myself thinking about what’s next. The simultaneous protesting (the electoral college, election conditions, media coverage, systemic rigging by the establishment blowing up on itself, the reactionary ideology that may claim to but, despite post-election demonstrations of crossing across the aisle to uphold the so-called “peaceful transition of power,” is not intended to represent all or, for that matter, “America”: #notmypresident) and acceptance of loss (when we can least afford it, given global warming, race and gender relations, the new Gilded Age, etc.) may lead, especially since it’s “painful, and will be for a long time” (given the legislative damage it will inflict, the cultural reversal it promises, the symbolic injury of the campaign legitimated by the vote), to long-term strategizing beyond electoral politics (in which, yet again maybe I’m being naïve, the humanities can be a focal point, especially in the age of fact resistance) and in electoral politics, which, however, requires that the Democratic Party (the one upended by Trump, after all, registered Democrats crossing over to vote for him) and, more broadly, the left take a long, hard look at itself (even if Clinton won, despite their behavior—the stubborn determination to make Obama fail, the obstructionism, the shutting down of the government, re-districting—the Republicans still won everything: the Senate, the House, Governor’s Mansions, soon the Supreme Court; and they did so under the magnification of the worst, brinksmanship already their order of the day; there remains, of course, the question: would the magnification work with, be had by, or upend the worst?), its tendencies (opportunistic corporatism and progressive marginalization; idealistic self-fragmentation and cynical conflation of all liberalisms), and a way forward (which necessitates, I argue, against defense, polarization and [fact] resistance, that we form the Resistance [as social movement]).

[Update on 11/20/2016]

After the election (11/9 like 9/11?), everything feels different. One of the ways in which this manifests for me is how I can’t seem to brush off the question, Does white mean white supremacist? (Of course it does not, it can’t be, but after the election, it’s harder to tolerate its truth.) It seems to me that the only way this can not be true—and it cannot be—is for those who are identified as white to fight white supremacy. Saying that “I’m not racist” or “No, white supremacy is just a fringe tendency” or “It’s just the ‘culture’ where I belong” or “It’s just a preference” is too easy—racism more insidious when it’s disavowed, racism more able to do its work through a bearer unaware. And “white” is not just an identification of those who are identified as white, white supremacy an investment not only of whites, direct or indirect. In this way, the election calls on all of us to consciously fight white supremacy. This does not necessarily mean fighting whites, who have fought supremacy in the past—but never by themselves. Likewise, this does not mean that racism will not unconsciously outwit us. However, vigilant awareness (which does not have to be paranoid suspicion) of our own complicity may be our best safeguard against the tide that, through simplicity, has already given white supremacy a major victory.

[Update on 11/23/2016]

What made this victory possible, and to what might it lead? In the final two chapters of Politics and Vision (2004), philosopher Sheldon S. Wolin warns about the degeneration of democracy into totalitarianism by way of capitalism (heard today as: neoliberalism causes neofascism—which does not, of course, mean that they’re the same):

According to Plato, a failed democracy provides the preconditions for a demagogic type of tyranny based upon popular support. According to Plato’s theory of regime change, when democracy degenerates into tyranny, the regime of will, it does not disappear. Rather it is incorporated as one of tyranny’s elements. […] John Dewey once remarked that equality becomes dangerous when it is widely praised but empty in practice. Earlier Tocqueville had made a similar point about democracy: if democracy failed to cultivate participatory forms that engaged politically the energies of the ordinary citizen, political populism would be displaced by a cultural populism of sameness, resentment, and mindless patriotism, and by an anti-political form he labeled ‘democratic despotism.’ […] In its structure, ideology and human relationships, capitalism was producing human beings unfitted for democratic citizenship: self-interested, exploitative, competitive, striving for inequalities, fearful of downward mobility. One’s neighbor was either a rival or a useful object. As the world of capital became steadily more enveloping and the claims of the political more anachronistic, capital became the standard of the ‘real,’ the ‘true world.’ By that measure democracy—as the carrier of the common good whose promotion required a strong element of egalitarianism, cooperation, and disinterestedness—appeared as untrue, falsified by reality. […] Nazi totalitarianism arose within and against a society widely perceived as the exemplar of certain core Western values, a leader in the arts, science, scholarship, and industrial technology. Its nightmarish evolution during the 1920s to 1945, from Weimar to Auschwitz, was eventually halted by military defeat only after horrific loss of millions of lives (585, 595, 597, 580).

See a similar contemporary analysis of the failure of democracy by Valerie J. Bunce and Mark R. Beissinger in Lawyers, Guns & Money. See also David Theo Goldberg’s reading of the “populist” wave around the world as the erosion of limits.

I am also reminded of something I wrote in the heat of the campaign [9/29/2016]:

If they want to make America white again, that means (unconsciously or consciously) they want to get rid of people of color (structurally, subjectively, existentially), if due to anger (in important ways, justified) displaced (really directed against power not understood: the “establishment,” globalization, changing demographics …), hence seemingly not about race at all (because the other is scapegoated—and only recognized—as an agent of power, e.g. “I don’t hate Mexicans, but I hate it when Mexicans take our jobs, our community, ultimately the favor of power—robbing me of that to which, thanks to my birthright, I am entitled … See, I’m not racist. I’m a populist.”). The desire to “make America great again” thus amounts to a nostalgic wish (the past is, indeed, comforting once it’s gone) predicated on ethnic cleansing, ultimately genocide. It’s easy not to take this as a serious threat, but they ridiculed Hitler too, dismissed him, appeased him … America’s democratic institutions, it is said, are strong, strong enough to absorb a shock like this. But to what extent is America even a democracy? Weimar Germany had formal democracy, too, but after initial attempts that failed and an economic crisis (we haven’t had one of those recently, have we?) that, among other things, unraveled an ineffectual democracy, Nazism usurped its place. But maybe that’s because Weimar was an anomaly, democracy not having had enough time to take strong root in Germany? Rome was a republic for almost 500 years, before, in the context of continued expansion and a militaristic culture, Julius Caesar usurped power and failed too before his successors, notably Octavian, turned the Republic into the Empire, in the sense not of an expanding power (which America already is—I mean, Rome already was), but of all power concentrated in one man, the emperor overruling formal democracy. With an environmental catastrophe continuously denied but definitely coming, this process, I fear, may unfold sooner and more easily than we think.

[Update on 11/24/2016]

I just read Doug Saunders’s analysis of exit polls that show that race (not poverty, not gender), especially in rural areas with low educational attainment, is the predominant factor that determined the outcome of the election. He uses the term white extremism to refer to the sense of wounded ethnic pride and wounded virility that characterize the electorate that voted in this way, a sense based not so much on economic setback as on privilege. Saunders cites historian Carol Anderson to explain this: “You know, if you’ve always been [assigned a] privileged [place in society based purely on your attributes at birth, e.g. race and gender], equality begins to look like oppression. […] That’s part of what you’re seeing in terms of the [white] pessimism, particularly when the system gets defined as a zero-sum game – that you can only gain at somebody else’s loss. […] When you’re talking about the angst and anxiety and feeling of being stifled and that kind of despair, what I see is that, as African-Americans [women, immigrants, and minorities] advance in this society in terms of gaining their citizenship rights [such that, for example, they start to claim that Black Lives Matter], that there is a wave of what I’ve been calling ‘white rage,’ which are the movements within legislative bodies and within the judicial sector in terms of policies and laws and rulings that undercut that advancement.”

This makes me wonder: Is there a way that a vote for Trump is not a vote against people of color? The slogan is “make America [straight white male] again.” If they want to make America that again, that amounts at its limit to wanting to get rid of people of color and put women back in their traditional place, wounded racial pride and wounded virility combining in a nostalgic wish. And what if the Trump voter became one not despite, but precisely because of this, without formally aligning oneself with white supremacy necessarily, but on some level knowing that this is the motivation for the vote? Clinton’s negatives may have served as a screen, and perhaps easily so especially since she’s the first female presidential candidate, but they pale in comparison to the simple ideology that Trump offered very explicitly. And does Trump offer anything other than or unrelated to “making America [straight white male] again,” this the specific form of his anti-establishment sentiment, especially given the way that he was positioned in opposition to a competent, experienced candidate? If Trump voters have other reasons for voting the way they did, can they really be disentangled from the impulse to “make America [straight white male] again”?

[Update on 11/27/2016]

Looking at polls, Joan Walsh likewise argues that while the way in which her economic message did not come through to the voters in the final weeks of the campaign hurt her, white and gender resentment cost Clinton the election. She writes, “We know that the leading predictor of a vote for Trump is that a voter scores high on questions of racial resentment, such as denying that whites have advantages because of the color of their skin, or believing that black people are violent or lazy. In Trump, they finally got a candidate who spoke to the racial and gender resentments many of them feel. We have to face up to the fact that this is the first election in which many white voters voted as white people. That’s got to include white women too. Another predictor of Trump support is gender bias: believing that women are exaggerating the discrimination they still face, or trying to use their power to get ahead of men, not pull equal.”

[Update on 11/29/2016]

By pointing to white privilege, supremacy, and/or identity politics, do these last two analyses ignore straight white male suffering, which is real (hyperbolized into “white genocide,” which is not)? But why should this be distinguished, as if straight white males are the only ones who suffer, or suffer the most, in a world, after all, they still dominate? Likewise, it is telling how, in response, the power targeted by this racially identifying group is also racially identified as cosmopolitan liberalism (“big government” fading in the background, Republicans in fact running up the tab even more than the Democrats they leave to pay for it while they shut down the government), the suffering or threat perceived as demographic, i.e. racial, rather than economic. Predicated on this logic, Trumpism is a racial response—racialism, especially when it posits relations in conflict, lying in a continuum with racism. This is obvious enough in instances all too familiar: outbursts against Obama bordering on the irrational (the search for the birth certificate, the determination to make him fail even as he is reaching across the aisle, the utter inability to vote for him for reasons that cannot be articulated), the offense or disgust felt at the notion that “black lives matter” (the very notion, just the expression, even before the demands of the movement are heard), dismissal of how people are on the streets again because another black kid has been shot by a cop just doing his job (no problem asserting that “cop lives matter” but can’t accept “black lives matter”; otherwise, it’s “all lives matter”), the refusal, despite scientific consensus, to accept hypotheses such as the origin of Homo Sapiens in Africa (as if the very association is unthinkable when, against the existing record, no evidence to the contrary is provided, at the same time happy enough with some vague allusion to “doubts,” to the “possibility” of further evidence) …

The gap between racialism and racism that allows the former to be detached from the latter is what allows white nationalism to deny (that it is) white supremacy, if going about it differently. But the fact of the matter is, thinking that “white Europeans [the real Americans]” made this country “great” (What does that mean, really? On what does it rely?) or that you don’t want to rule over others but just don’t want to be around anybody different (lots of Germans also didn’t care much for their Jewish neighbors) is not only factually untrue, historically ignorant, literally untenable, and morally reprehensible; it’s racist (not in a politically incorrect way, but actually, really) in its presupposition (whites are great, they’re the greatest, only whites are great) and implication (we don’t care about nonwhites, who cares what happens to them or where they go, so long as they’re not in this country, anywhere but here, so long as they don’t exist …), especially in a country also populated by nonwhites. White nationalism, in other words, assumes and aims to bring about white supremacy—racialism leading directly to racism.

[Update on 12/9/2016]

In an Against the Grain interview, historian Steve Fraser offers the image of the “limousine liberal” (similar, I guess, to the “armchair activist”), which may explain the conflation by the Trump voter of anti-establishment sentiment and racism, leading to the thought that the con man who invokes racial resentment is the bringer of change. This stereotype, which like these voters’ grievances has some kernel of truth, reinforces the sense that elite, cosmopolitan liberals push forth an agenda of supposedly inclusive multiculturalism and economic redistribution that, however, hypocritically demands nothing of themselves while taking from poor whites what little they have (the children of these liberals, so the argument goes, go to private schools while poor white students are forced to go to public schools with students of color). This would be convincing—except for the fact that what Trump voters have in common is not working class status (in fact, Clinton won among the poorest of voters) but white identification (90% of the votes that Trump got came from whites) across economic lines. There is no way to go around it: whiteness is the strongest indicator of a Trump vote. In fact, even in the school example cited, note how what these liberal-hating voters feel is being taken from them is racial exclusivity, indicating investment in white nationalism. You can talk about so many other things to not talk about it, but it’s race, stupid! It’s not as much about the contradictions of liberalism as it is about white supremacy.

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