Can Americans See Each Other Again?: The Rage and the Light

It’s difficult. Very difficult. To talk about America these days. Have you noticed? When I or anyone else says, “America is (this)”, or “Americans are (that)”, instantly there’s a kind of violent reaction. No! You’re generalizing! Americans aren’t this or that. And yet in that little rage something profound is said. Let me see if I can clumsily put it to words.

What is a society, anyways? To me, a society is just a way of relating to one another. How do we do that today? You, like me, are a member of many social groups. Religious, social, demographic. It doesn’t really matter what they are. Here’s what’s really unique about America today: every single group bears some kind of grievance against the others. It’s striking when you think about it — it’s distinctly not true in most other developed countries. Whether it’s the much-hated alt-right, the fringe left, the poor, the rich, the middle, blacks, whites, minorities, Muslims, anyone, everyone — bears a grievance, a grudge, a complaint. We’ll get to their validity.

What happens next? Well, usually one group says to the next, or the rest: “you are the bad people!”. What’s really happening here? Think about with me carefully. We are projecting our flaws outwards, aren’t we? Before we are members of various identity groups, presumably, we are members of a society together. If we are not, then why are complaining in such a way where society is the object of the discussion at all? Why not just campaign to secede? Write off society entirely?

Now that isn’t to say that society hasn’t failed people. Nor that you shouldn’t talk about it. Of course it has, and you should. America is a failing society, and what is truest about it is that it has failed everyone. Yes, really. Everyone. It has failed old, young, black, white, poor, middle, even rich. You might think to yourself: “how the blazes has America failed the rich?” The simple fact is that a rich man isn’t made any happier by his billionth dollar — just more miserable, cruel, and foolish — and yet every incentive in America as it exists today is to make more billionaires, not, say, scientists, artists, philosophers, poets, or even just wise, gentle, humane people, so they can buy…what? If not happiness, then maybe the illusion of safety from all the above. Grievance, suffering, pain. But life isn’t that simple, is it? You can’t buy your way out of a failed society, really. You can only buy a fortress protecting you from it. But those are not nearly the same thing. This society, this way of relating to one another, has failed every last one of us. But what are we to do with that truth? Use it as a club to beat one another over the head with? Or something a little more positive, beautiful, useful, enduring?

Now that isn’t to equivocate “levels” of failure. It isn’t to say that, for example, segregation and an opioid epidemic amongst poor whites carry perfectly equal morally weight, value, harm. Of course they don’t. But at the same time, this project of being a society take a truer kind of relating to one another than just performing a robotic mental calculus of pain, and saying “I’ve suffered the most! And they are the reason for it!”. After all, in all this, this game of projecting society’s flaws outwards, that’s all we are really doing, isn’t it? We reduce ourselves to something like little Ezra Kleins, moral accountants standing in judgment of one another, human calculators of virtue. But virtue is not really a calculable quantity. It is more a quality.

And to me that is the real point. We are all wounded by this war against being us. Hurt, ashamed, broken, rejected, disappointed, disillusioned, exhausted, afraid. To constantly judge one another as bad, terrible, lacking, elides the truer truth that beneath the wrongdoer, vendetta, eruption, insult, attack is usually a scar, a wound, a trauma, a soul that got badly broken in some way. And so the question for those who wish to be a society is: can we care about one another in such a deeper way — as human beings, not just as “identities”, roles, players in a theater of a society? If we are only going to be adversaries, opposites, prizefighters, sides, judging one another’s moral sins, then of course we neither can nor will ever really be a society.

So. You’ll maybe hate me for saying it, but this violent reaction I get when I say “Americans are (anything)” is precisely the point. Right now Americans aren’t anything together — only pure, violent negativity, the negation of being anything together. All we are really doing is hating, raging. But beneath hate and rage and the volcano is always grief, shame, hurt. Sorry: the hate of the alt-right is born from suffering, just as the rage of the fringe left is, just as the cold distance of the punditocracy is, just as the endless litany of my Twitter feed — “Trump is terrible!” — is. All of it. It’s one great ocean of suffering surging in different directions. Yes, Trump is terrible. He’s the world’s tackiest douchebag. But he’s not the point. We are.

We are better than this. We say that a lot, don’t we? But what does it really mean? Anything? To me, it means something like: we deserve better than this. We deserve better than this constant, bruising way of negativity, of simply projecting at the next group our fears and anguish instead of trying even for a moment to see, discover, know, what we hold in common. For what we hold in common is always greater than what divides us, or we would not be here at all. I don’t mean that in an cheesy, fake founding fathers kind of way — “hey, we’re all in it together! Except you guys, you’re only 3/5ths of real people!”. I mean it existentially: beneath even the foolish idea (to me) of nations, first there is one human experience, one soul, made of the same raw stuff, pure essence, happiness, grace, truth, pain, tears, birth, death. And yet if all we are is human calculators of pain, if all that we can say to one another is “those are the worse people!”, then at the very moment we deny ourselves any good genuinely social at all. Only in what is held in common can lie the possibility to really create a vision for a badly, deeply broken society. Not just a broken me, or a broken you, but a broken all of us.

And that is what is missing, isn’t it? Trump is the worst thing in my adult lifetime. If we’re reasonable people, we all agree on that. And yet, what we can’t agree on is what comes afterwards, what’s positive, what’s constructive, what’s helpful, graceful, noble, worthy, beautiful, just, true. Why not? Because we’re too busy caught up in this foolish game of being angry, hateful, enraged, oh so outraged, negative.

Negativity has even become cool, hasn’t it? There’s nothing more uncool than “sincerity”, so all the comfortably afflicted writers in vogue at this and that magazine tell me: and yet insincerity is the luxury of the therapeutic classes, isn’t it? So it’s just the same old failure to relate to one another in any true way, isn’t it? The left hates the right, with endless snark and cynicism and mockery, and the right hates the left right back, and yet neither side really sees both are acting out exactly the same role, the only common ground left in this foolish game: it’s oh so cool to be smoldering, enraged, angry, a kind of badge of honour amongst the intellectual soldiers of this forever war for the American soul. But what is it good for, this anger, really?

You know, deep down, that if anger becomes an end in itself, it is only like a storm. It passes, without creating anything. Anger is a means, maybe, sometimes — only when it helps to see one another with greater clarity and truth. But first our eyes must be open, and that is all anger can and should do: open our eyes, snap them wide awake. To the wonder and beauty and grace in every single human life. And right now, if you ask me, our eyes are shut tight, like a child afraid of the dark. And yet the darkness doesn’t go away just because you’ve closed your eyes.

We are suffering. Every single one of us. Some more, some less, but suffering is not a currency, not a game, not an accountant’s ledger. There are no winners and no losers, no kings and no beggars, in suffering — only those who can treat suffering with insincerity have the luxury of pretending so. Suffering is tears and sweat and hurt. Therefore every single one of us deserves better than this. A genuine vision for a society is about all of it, not some of it. The age of negativity, of cool anger, that America is trapped in is the defining feature of its decline. And in such a self-destructive age, to be positive — genuinely constructive, creative, inclusive, kind, graceful, gentle, true, not just “optimistic” and “hopeful” and other forms of passing the moral buck, but to see a glimmer of light burning right there, deep in the heart of every single human soul, no matter how different it is from the little “us”, even if it is as ugly as the alt-right or as cynical as the fringe left or as oblivious as the pundits or weak or desperate or foolish—to see that spark, to catch it, to hold it, to breath life into it — that, if you ask me, is the challenge of now.

August 2017



A Strong Opinion: Stop Counter-Protesting

Even if the protesters are the KKK, white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Photo Credit: Karla Cote / Flickr

First, My Definition

Counter-protest: an organized response, on the same day, at the same time and in the same place as a previously planned protest.

Now, My Argument

Counter-protests, by their very nature, escalate the risk of violence, and are therefore a less desirable tactic where the ends do not justify the means.

The Issue Is Irrelevant

This has nothing to do with which side one is on, the moral superiority of one view or the vile nature of another. If Planned Parenthood plans a march to support a woman’s right to choose, right-to-lifers should not counter-protest. And if right-to-lifers plan a march to condemn abortion, pro-choice supporters should not counter-protest. Resentment toward crashing an event is human nature and with 365 days, each side has ample time to march and make their counter-argument.

Yes, even if the protesters are the KKK, white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Deflate an Opponent, Don’t Inflate Them

The Women’s March attracted 4 million people.

How many extremists with torches were marching Friday night?

How many Nazis, white nationalists and KKK members marched on Saturday?

In a New York Times op-ed piece on August 19, Michael Signer, mayor of Charlottesville, suggested “several thousand alt-right activists and white supremacists came to my city.” He is off by a factor of 4. According to Joe Ruiz of NPR and Sandy Hausman of member station WVTF, 500 protesters were on-site with more than double the number of counter-protesters. Vox reported “hundreds of marchers” and AP “at least 500” for Saturday.

The consensus seems to come in at 500 on Saturday and less than 250 people on Friday night.

The mayor’s error is easy to understand, and I’d bet if Nate Silver or another pollster were to do a random survey and ask Americans whether 100,000, 10,000 or 1,000 right-wing extremists were in attendance in Charlottesville, many would exaggerate attendance due to the blanket TV coverage and violent nature of the event.

The Charlottesville police, according to Doug Stanglin of USA Today, estimated 2,000 to 6,000 marchers would attend before the event, billed by organizers as the biggest gathering of alt-right, white nationalists, KKK and neo-Nazis in decades.

In 1926, 50,000 KKK marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. Adjusted for current population, that would be close to 150,000 people today. A march before commercial air travel that did not include other groups. Today, Unite the Right has the benefit of a well-oiled, online ecosystem and convenient transit to bring supporters together.

And all they could muster were 500 people.

Without counter-protesters, without violence, there would be no blanket cable news coverage. And probably no innocent deaths. Might the headline have read “Unite the Right march fizzles”? What if the Democratic response was “70 years ago, 50,000 KKK marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, and today white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other alt-right groups combined, could barely muster 500 people. And while one Nazi is one too many, these are troubled, fringe people with an ideology America abhors.”

Violence Is More Likely, and Violence Rarely Benefits the Forces of Good

I am not a pacifist, believe revolution can be justified, but the bar is exceedingly high for actions that can cost innocent lives. Counter-protesting is confrontational, counter-productive and a troubling trend, if every protest in America is now going to be a head-to-head stand-off. A near impossible scenario for law enforcement and first responders.

The odds of violent encounters ratchet up, and violence is out of sync with the core ideologies of the clear majority of liberals and the left. Organizers of Unite the Right believe violence is a viable way to solve problems, came armed to the teeth, wanted violence to occur, and got what they wanted.

The Mob Effect

Any psychology student can cite studies about how people act in a mob and it ain’t pretty. People are pumped-up, taunting each other, and more prone to take actions they might not take in less heated circumstances. Counter-protests put two groups, who may hate each other, together face-to-face at a moment of heightened emotions.

It is simply a prescription for violence.

Never Elevate a Lesser Opponent

A counter-protest by its very existence is going to make an event bigger. In Charlottesville, the number of counter-protesters was double the size of the original protesters, greatly increasing the magnitude of the event. Yes, in Boston the counter-protest was so large the nationalist event didn’t even occur, but in Charlottesville opponents met and violence did happen. Incumbent candidates avoid direct engagement with challengers for a reason. Why legitimize a lesser, fringe candidate? Sharing the stage always places the lesser opponent on a more equal plain.

David Duke on TV, again?

Let’s Minimize Antifa

Michael Bray, author of “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook” appeared on “Meet the Press” with Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center to discuss the Antifa group that supports violence as a legitimate response to fascism. Bray was clear: “Fascism cannot be defeated by speech,” arguing speech alone has failed historically.

Richard Cohen, who as legal counsel for the SPLC has won many landmark legal cases against white supremacists, strongly disagreed. Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC Intelligence Project, speaking to the New York Times, said, “We’re against violence, just straight up. If you want to protest racists and anti-Semites, it needs to be peacefully and hopefully somewhere away from where those guys are rallying.”

An Antifa supporter in the New York Times said, “You need violence in order to protect non-violence.” Another Antifa supporter punched white supremacist Richard B. Spencer at the inauguration, claiming it was justified to punch a neo-Nazi.

Do we want to see people punching a socialist, transsexual or atheist because it is now okay to punch people at public events because you believe they have extreme views?

If you are with the SPLC, and concerned about the rise of Antifa, then you will recognize that a counter-protest, even if the vast majority of counter-protesters are peaceful, runs the risk of an Antifa action painting the entire group with a violent brush, while providing unnecessary talking points to the real extremists.

The Lizard People

It is estimated over 10 million Americans believe there are lizard people who live underground, eat babies and run the country. In 2017, to believe in the KKK, white nationalism and the Third Reich is comparable. James Alex Fields, who allegedly drove the car into the crowd in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer, had a history of violent behavior. Much like the petty criminal who claims a last-minute allegiance to Islam, to ensure blanket media coverage as a “terrorist” when committing a horrific crime, are we feeding extremists’ sense of isolation and core mental illness with direct confrontation and counter-protesting? Should we be sending 1,000 psychiatrists, therapists and spiritual leaders to an alt-right protest instead, to deliver a stronger message about the participants and their state of mind?

When Mathew Heimbach, founder of the Nationalist Front, calls Charlottesville, “The largest nationalist rally in over two decades,” the reality is he can only attract 250 to 500 people in a nation of 325 million, even with free tiki torches. When Heimbach suggests they “achieved all their objectives” and “We asserted ourselves as the voice of white America. We had zero vehicles damaged,” is it ideology, or mental illness?

Fighting Smartly

My opposition to counter-protesting is not meant to ignore or diminish the threat. The extreme alt-right online-world is real. According to the SPLC, there are 276 militias operating in the United States today. And according to U.S. government reports of 85 violent extremist incidents resulting in death since 911, far right-wing extremists were responsible for 62 and radical Islamist extremists 23.

And reporting from the likes of Vice News, once again eating the lunch of mainstream news, with powerful embedded coverage by Elle Reeve of Vice News Tonight, is essential. But even Josh Tyrangiel, executive producer of Vice News Tonight, twice in one interview with Charlie Rose, cautioned against glamorization saying, “I am very aware of the double-edged sword there. We do not want to glamorize them, we do not want to draw more attention to them, but obviously we are in an urgent moment.”

I hear the counter-arguments. We must fight them at every turn. Donald Trump’s true nature has now been revealed. Corporations are fleeing the administration. Confederate statues are being torn down across America. Racists are losing their jobs. A secretive, online movement is exposed and a national conversation continues.

But Heather Heyer and two police officers are dead, bad actors feel emboldened and there is a better way. An event advertised as the Woodstock of the alt-right could barely attract 500 people. Those people are on the fringe, are deeply troubled and are in need of mental health services. Let members speak at their rally. Then organize a Unite the Country march a week later, with 100,000 peaceful attendees.

Let’s recognize how far we’ve come, be tactical, avoid violence and an arms race of counter-protesting, while acknowledging how far we still must go.

Paul Krugman: Trump Can Ruin American Workers Without Passing a Single Piece of Legislation

As long as he’s in office, he’s a threat to the underclasses.

Photo Credit: YouTube Screengrab

It’s tempting to believe that, because Trump hasn’t repealed Obamacare, locked up Hillary Clinton, or built a border wall along the Mexican border, his agenda is stalled. That fantasy got a boost this week with the departure of Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. And while Bannon’s firing was a necessary move, Paul Krugman warns we shouldn’t break out the champagne just yet.

Yes, the Trump administration’s efforts to kick 20 million people of their health insurance while lining the pockets of the 1 percent have been thwarted for now. Krugman can’t even get too worked up about the prsopect of tax reform. “Straight-out tax cuts”, he writes,  “which benefit corporations and the wealthy while blowing up the deficit, might still go through, but even that looks doubtful.”

But now is not the time to get complacent. “Don’t just watch Congress,” Krugman writes, “keep your eyes on what federal agencies are doing.” Whether Trump passes a single act of legislation or not, the Department of Labor can still do immeasurable harm to workers and their unions.

The most blatant example, according to Krugman, is “the decline in the fortunes of truck drivers, whose pay used to make them members of the middle class.” That’s over now, as “their real wages have fallen about a third since the 1970s, with most of the decline taking place during the Reagan years.” That collapse wasn’t because of tax policy. It was a slow and steady erosion of the the power of the National Labor Relations Board, “that encouraged private employers to fight unionization, and in part to deregulation that undercut the position of unionized firms.”

The same can be said for the deregulation of financial companies, whose CEOs were responsible for the housing bubble, the mortgage crisis, and ultimately the 2008 recession. It wasn’t legislation that enabled them to act so recklessly but a loosening of rules across all of the agencies that cover our financial systems. When it comes to Congress, Krugman explains, “Right now it looks as if [Trump] may have much less impact on taxing and spending than most people expected. But other policies, often made administratively by federal agencies rather than via legislation, can matter a lot.”

Krugman ends his column on an especially grim note: “As long as he’s in office, he retains a lot of power to betray the working people who supported him. And in case you haven’t noticed, betraying those who trust him is a Trump specialty.”

Read the entire column at the New York Times.

Big business, military tighten their grip on Washington

One week after Charlottesville

21 August 2017

It is often the case that the outcome of events reveals the essential issues underlying political developments. This is true of the conflicts that erupted within the ruling class over the Nazi rampage in Charlottesville, which culminated in the dismissal Friday of Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon.

The corporate-controlled media has sought to portray the sequence of events entirely in racial terms, with Bannon and other advocates of “white nationalism” now purged, leaving political control of the White House and the Trump administration in steadier and more “moderate” political hands: a group of generals and ex-generals, headed by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, together with Wall Street financiers such as Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

The New York Times has led the way, with an editorial Sunday declaring that “Americans accustomed constitutionally and politically to civilian leadership now find themselves relying on three current and former generals—John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff; H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser; and Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense—to stop Mr. Trump from going completely off the rails. Experienced and educated, well-versed in the terrible costs of global confrontation and driven by an impulse toward public service that Mr. Trump doesn’t possess, these three, it is hoped, can counter his worst instincts.”

In the same edition of the Times, a news analysis celebrates what its headline calls “The Moral Voice of Corporate America.” In this account, “a chorus of business leaders rose up this past week to condemn hate groups and espouse tolerance and inclusion.”

Among those named as part of this “chorus” of “moral” leaders are such corporate criminals as Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, one of those responsible for the 2008 financial collapse; Mary Barra of General Motors, who oversaw the cover-up of an ignition-switch defect that killed hundreds of people; and WalMart CEO Doug McMillon, whose company is a synonym for low-wage exploitation.

The ruling elite saw Trump’s incautious remarks defending the neo-Nazis who rioted in Charlottesville as a serious threat to the interests of American imperialism abroad as well as the maintenance of social and political stability at home. Powerful corporate interests feared the implications for Trump’s agenda of corporate tax cuts, the removal of business regulations, a profit windfall in the guise of infrastructure reform and the gutting of Medicaid and other social programs.

Trump’s self-exposure of his efforts to build an extra-parliamentary fascistic base increased the nervousness in financial circles over the danger of a collapse of the speculative bubble that has been built up since the 2008 Wall Street crash.

The response, laid out most clearly by the Times, has been to increase the grip of the military and corporate America over the government to an extent unprecedented in US history. It is 56 years since President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his 1961 farewell address, warned of the dangers to democracy posed by the rise of the “military-industrial complex.” He could have no conception of the size, power and degree of dominance exercised by the vast military/intelligence/corporate complex of today.

The first result of this consolidation was the announcement that Trump will deliver a nationwide address tonight, unveiling plans for an expansion of the war in Afghanistan.

What the ruling elite fears above all is the growth of working-class opposition to the Trump administration and the entire political system. Thus, excised from the official narrative promoted by the media is any reference to the reality of social life in America—a country in which 20 individuals control as much wealth as the poorest half of the population—as well as the reactionary agenda of the Trump administration itself. Nor is there any discussion of war and the crimes carried out by “responsible” leaders such as Mattis, who won his appellation “Mad Dog” for his role in destroying the Iraqi city of Fallujah.

This is replaced with a series of diversionary issues, centered on a grossly distorted presentation of the United States as a country seething with racial intolerance and an exaggerated picture of the strength and influence of neo-Nazi and racist forces. Hence one has the apparently contradictory but in fact compatible phenomena, ubiquitous in the Democratic Party-aligned media, of the promotion of identity politics alongside respectful and even admiring portrayals of the white supremacist thugs who demonstrated in Charlottesville.

Typical was a newsletter released Sunday by the New Yorker under the headline, “White Supremacy in America.” In an introduction, David Remnick, author of the hagiographic biography of Obama, The Bridge, proclaims, “Make no mistake: neo-Nazis and white supremacists are now at the forefront of American politics.”

Among the featured articles is one by author Toni Morrison titled “Making America White Again,” which insists that “Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force.” In line with the Democratic Party and its various appendages among the pseudo-left organizations of the privileged middle class, Morrison explains the election of Trump as the product of the racism of “white America”:

On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

This effort to portray all whites, and particularly white men, as secret supporters of the KKK is a political fraud. Racism does exist. However, the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville are a tiny minority who are regarded with deep revulsion by the vast majority of working people. A nationwide mobilization could dredge up only a few hundred proponents of this barbaric ideology. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of all races have marched to denounce both Trump and the fascists he defends.

Trump is president today, not because of a mass vote for racism, but because he more successfully appealed to social discontent than the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton, the personification of the alliance between Wall Street and the military-intelligence apparatus, who did not attempt to conceal her complacent contempt for the plight of tens of millions of working people struggling to survive.

The racialist narrative is being used to demonize large sections of the population, buttress the identity politics of privileged layers of the middle class, provide political cover for a massive transfer of wealth to the rich, rally support for a virtual palace coup by the generals and corporate billionaires, and, above all, divert and suppress an independent movement of the working class.

The overriding threat to democratic rights comes not from a handful of fascist thugs, but from the very alliance of Wall Street and the Pentagon that is being touted as the antidote to the racists in the streets.

As for the Times and the various affiliates of the Democratic Party, they see the real threat coming not from neo-Nazis, but from a socialist movement of the working class.

The promotion of racialist politics and the tightening of military-corporate control over the government go hand-in-hand with the suppression of oppositional views, above all the World Socialist Web Site. Thus the decision taken by Google, in close coordination with the state, to censor and blacklistthe WSWS through the manipulation of search results. This is the prelude to more aggressive actions to target socialist opposition to the policies of the corporate and financial elite.

Patrick Martin and Joseph Kishore