The Rage of the Dispossessed

Manchester Memorial
Mourners gather in Manchester’s St. Ann’s Square to pay respects to the 22 people killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device outside an Ariana Grande concert, on May 22, in Manchester, England.

Pop-star, Ariana Grande is correct:

There are, simply, no words—of comfort, consolation or condolence—to offer the families of the young victims following the horrific explosion outside Grande’s concert in Manchester, England last week. The fact that the 22 people killed were mostly children and teenage girls makes the terrorist attack especially heinous.

Concerts should be a place for leisurely escapism from the mind-numbing monotony of work and school—if not even a more meaningful form of musical transcendence. (I suspect Grande embodies more of the former.) They should not be a venue of fear and repulsive violence.

Following an attack such as the one in Manchester, politicians inevitably single out the Muslim community, calling for the moderate Muslims to “isolate” and “report on” their more radical counterparts, in the hope of preventing similar terrorist attacks. (“If you see something, say something!”)

This was the crux of Donald Trump’s lecturing (and completely unoriginal) speech in Saudi Arabia. “A better future [for the Middle East] is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists, Trump said. “Drive. Them. Out.”

Trump went on:

“Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy land. And drive them out of this earth.”

Yet, in the 16-years that the U.S. and its allies have waged the so-called “war on terror,” when has a similar call ever been made to Christian communities? When have politicians or world leaders exhorted “moderate” Christians to “isolate” and “weed out” the radical members in their ranks? Nor has any effort been made to curb the growing influence of Zionist, pro-Israeli Jews–particularly those who falsely mischaracterize the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement as “anti-Semitic.”

Indeed, by all assessments Americans face a far greater threat from right-wing, nationalist and Christian extremist groups than from what Trump insists on calling “radical Islam.” This home-grown, quasi-fascist threat has grown exponentially since Trump’s election. And the discrepancy in rhetoric proves the utter hollowness of presidents’ assurances—from George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Trump—that the U.S. is not “at war with Islam.”

No doubt, our decades-long war on Islam is almost certainly what motivated the Libyan-born suicide bomber, Salman Abedi to commit this heinous act. Abedi targeted the wrong people, to be certain. His victims were innocent and completely undeserving of having their young lives cut so short in such a brutal fashion.

But the inchoate rage and hostility Abedi felt toward England and the West in general is legitimate. Our nations must understand this if we are to have any hope of truly ridding the world of terrorism.

“We have engineered the rage of the dispossessed,” author and Truthdig columnist, Chris Hedges, wrote in the wake of the 2015 Paris attack on the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo.

The evil of predatory global capitalism and empire has spawned the evil of terrorism. And rather than understand the roots of that rage and attempt to ameliorate it, we have built sophisticated mechanisms of security and surveillance, passed laws that permit the targeted assassinations and torture of the weak, and amassed modern armies and the machines of industrial warfare to dominate the world by force.

Libya was a thriving and affluent country before the U.S.-NATO military campaign deposed Col. Muammar Gaddafi and decimated the nation. Then-Secretary of State Hillary “Queen of Chaos” Clinton oversaw the bombing, which left more than 30,000 Libyan civilians dead, and over 50,000 injured in the ensuing civil war.

Clinton later gloated over Gaddafi’s death on CBS News, laughing that, “We came. We saw. He died.”

Thus it is perfectly rationale that someone like Abedi, after witnessing the destruction of his home-country, might have some animosity toward the global West.

And Libya is just one example. The scope of the ill-conceived “war on terror” (a nebulous conflict which, by design, can never end) has expanded tenfold under President Obama. The U.S. is currently engaged in military strikes in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan, in addition to Libya. Indeed, the war in Afghanistan is now the longest war in U.S. history.

And make no mistake about it: These bombing campaigns—what investigative journalist, Jeremy Scahill calls “dirty wars”—would have continued, likely with greater efficiency and professional expertise, had Clinton prevailed in last year’s presidential election.

The left must revive the beleaguered anti-war movement which has been largely dormant for the last eight years. While the recent opposition to Trump’s racist travel ban (the so-called “airport protests”) was certainly encouraging, I lament the left’s failure to connect the refugee crisis to the larger issue of war and imperialism.

As it is, those airport protests have largely subsided—along with much of the initial activism that greeted the first days of Trump’s presidency. Liberals seem content to merely sit back and trust that the courts will, again, strike down Trump’s revised travel ban. But as The Guardian‘s Rob Hunter points out, investing our hopes in the bourgeois legal system, without the necessary pressure of protests in the streets, would be a grave mistake.

Likewise, the thousands of voters who were understandably inspired by Bernie Sanders’ social-democratic presidential campaign failed to truly challenge the Vermont U.S. Senator on his hawkish foreign policy positions. When I attempted to point out Sanders’ “blind spot” on foreign policy—including his Zionist, pro-Israel record—I was promptly dismissed as a rigid “ultra-leftist.”

This, again, speaks to the contemporary left’s overall detachment from matters of war and peace. Attend an anti-war protest today, and you are unlikely to find anybody under the age of 50. And many of these Baby Boomer protesters formed their anti-war politics after having served (whether they were drafted or voluntarily enlisted) in combat themselves.

But I fear that, for millennials my age, war is very much an abstraction.

This is not to suggest young people on the left do not care about militarism. Quite the reverse, in fact. Merely, that most working-class millennials’ lack of direct experience in military combat makes it less of a priority (behind more immediately pressing issues like student debt, affordable housing, health care, and free college education) in activist struggle.

But none of these domestic concerns can ever be addressed (let alone, funded) if we continue to ignore the Pentagon’s giant “pot of gold,” as longtime anti-war activist and blogger, Bruce Gagnon calls it. Fifty-seven percent of our federal income tax dollars go to the bloated, wasteful military-spending budget. And the GOP’s baseless mantra that Obama “depleted” the military of funding should be roundly dismissed as the phony propaganda it is.

Thus, the U.S. war-machine is not a “secondary” issue as many Sanders supporters argued. It is the issue.

“These terrorist attacks are not confined to Europe,” Tariq Ali said on a recent appearance of Democracy Now! “They take place every single day in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and Yemen, Bahrain.”

… We all deplore the loss of lives of innocent people. … Everyone does. But we can’t have double standards, in which we say that someone killed in Europe, their lives are more valuable than the lives being taken in large parts of the Muslim world. And unless the West understands that these double standards provoke and anger more people, it will carry on.

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The Fire This Time

James Baldwin

The Academy Award-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, is the latest addition in a resurgence of interest in the prophetic work of James Baldwin.

Author, Chris Hedges, in a recent column for Truthdig, calls Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated film, I Am Not Your Negro “one of the finest documentaries I have ever seen.”

“I would have stayed in the theater in New York to see the film again if the next showing had not been sold out,” writes Hedges.

Portland theater-goers interested in the documentary film are experiencing a similar problem. The film’s recently concluded run at the Portland Museum of Art proved so popular, additional showings were added for April. (All of the film’s March 12 screenings sold out.)

Readers who want to see I Am Not Your Negro should definitely get tickets while they can. The film is, as the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday writes, “a brilliant piece of filmic writing, one that bursts with fierce urgency…”

Though based on the notes, words, interviews, and writings of author and essayist, James Baldwin, Peck’s film is no mere biopic.

Instead, Peck has attempted something far more daring. I Am Not Your Negro envisions Baldwin’s final, uncompleted work. The unfinished book—to be titled, Remember This House—was to be a comprehensive, personal account of Baldwin’s close relationship with the three key figures of the Civil Rights movement: Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin died in 1987, having completed only 30 pages of the manuscript.

Using a combination of Baldwin’s own voice—supplied through audio recordings, television interviews, and archival footage—and that of actor, Samuel L. Jackson, reading from Baldwin’s manuscript, Peck eschews the traditional “talking heads” format and allows his prophetic subject to tell the story of black America in his own words.

“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America–or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans,” Baldwin writes in his essay, “Many Thousands Gone,” collected in the 1955 compilation, Notes of a Native Son. “It is not a pretty story: the story of a people is never very pretty.”

But the film’s chilling coup de grace is achieved through its juxtaposition of contemporary images and video of recent victims of police violence including, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland. Clips from the mass protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri highlight the sickening reality that, in the 30 years since Baldwin’s death, precious little has fundamentally changed for black Americans.

James Baldwin’s work is undergoing something of a resurgence of interest of late and it is not difficult to see why.

In the wake of the increase in police killings of unarmed black men and women, greater scrutiny of the issue of mass incarceration prompted by Michelle Alexander’s best-selling, The New Jim Crow, the rise of a young, impassioned anti-racist movement in the guise of Black Lives Matter, and the election of an overt racist to the White House, leftists are seeking guidance and wisdom in Baldwin’s poetic prose.

Indeed, Baldwin is equal perhaps only to George Orwell in his prophetic vision, his command of the English language, and his unwavering commitment to telling inconvenient truths.

Baldwin’s novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Giovanni’s Room (1956), along with his searing essays, The Fire Next Time (1963), Notes of a Native Son (1955), and Nobody Knows My Name (1961) exposed, in prose that is both lyrical and uncompromising, the dark cancer of racism.

“If we were white, if we were Irish, if we were Jewish, if we were Poles … our heroes would be your heroes, too,” says Baldwin.

Nat Turner would be a hero instead of a threat. Malcolm X might still be alive… But when the Israelis pick up guns, or the Poles, or the Irish, or any white man in the world says “Give me liberty or give me death,” the entire white world applauds. But when a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal, and treated like one, and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.

Baldwin’s novels also grappled with issues of homosexuality decades before the emergence of the gay rights movement. (Baldwin was gay, a fact often overshadowed by his identification with the Civil Rights movement.)

In every instance, Baldwin went out of his way to defy expectations and literary trends. He did not want to follow in the footsteps of other African American writers, like Richard Wright, whose work he was quite critical of. And Baldwin refused to be pigeonholed as a writer of what he termed “protest novels.”

Baldwin brought this uncompromising stance into his activism, as well. Though Baldwin clearly adhered to liberal-left politics, he was reluctant to identify with any official political cause, party or movement.

(“Many Thousands Gone” is critical of Marxism, dismissing the notion that the Negro and “the Worker” share any economic, social, or political aims. This unfortunate view—one firmly rooted in liberal identity politics—is echoed today by Baldwin disciple, Ta-Nehisi Coates.)

As a result, Baldwin—not unlike, again, Orwell–positioned himself more as a reporter or witness of the Civil Rights movement, rather than an active participant in it.

The film opens with Baldwin’s 1957 return to America after living abroad in France for nearly a decade. Baldwin wearily confesses that he never really missed America, nor the stereotypical staples of American culture like hot-dogs, baseball, and New York City. Seeing the images of 15-year-old, Dorothy Counts, as she is heckled and harassed by white students in a newly desegregated high school in Charlotte, North Carolina, prompted Baldwin to return to the States.

“I could simply no longer sit around Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem,” says Baldwin. “Everybody was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.”

“If you have not read Baldwin you probably do not fully understand America,” Hedges writes in his piece. “Especially now.”

To understand America is to acknowledge the uncomfortable, horrifying truth so many of us are afraid to admit: This nation was founded on mass genocide and slavery. It is to concede the painful truth that America fought a bloody civil war, not to defend so-called “states’ rights,” as so many of us are taught in school, but to maintain the institution of slavery.

And it is to understand, as Karl Marx did, that both the institution of slavery and the pervasive disease of racism that continues to plague America some 150 years after slavery was abolished, are integral components of capitalism. Capitalists cynically employ racial animosity–alongside the equally deplorable oppression of sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and ableism–to sow fear and distrust among members of the working class.

The goal is to keep workers so busy fighting among themselves they fail to unite against their mutual oppressor: the bourgeoisie.

As the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass put it, the ruling class in pitting white workers against black workers, “divided both to conquer each.”

The solution, then, is not to agonize over our individual “privilege,” or to reduce the role of white anti-racists to that of mere “allies.” Rather, we must develop a multi-racial, multi-gender, multi-ethnic mass movement that can fight for nothing less than the self-emancipation of the working class.

As the closing credits began–punctuated by Kendrick Lamar’s excoriating, “The Blacker the Berry”–I felt simultaneously galvanized by Baldwin’s words, but discouraged that some 30 years after his death, white Americans have largely failed to heed his prophetic words.

“The question you got to ask yourself … the white population of this country’s got to ask itself,” Baldwin says on an archival clip from an interview on Boston Public Television, “is why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man.”

“But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it, and you have got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”

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Beyond Identity Politics: It’s the Economy, Stupid!

identity-politics

If there is a lesson to be gleaned from the wreckage of the 2016 presidential election, it is that the left needs to move beyond the narrow limits of identity politics and embrace a broad, class-based orientation of solidarity.

Hillary Clinton’s empty appeals to a corporate faux feminism failed to win over struggling working-class voters—including, ironically, at least 50 percent of white women who cast ballots for Donald Trump despite his repugnant history as a misogynist sexual predator.  And brow-beating women and Bernie Sanders supporters (“Bernie Bros”) by claiming, as Madeline Albright did, that there is a “special place in hell” for sisters who did not fall in line behind Clinton, did not help matters.

Even Sanders seems to understand the dead-end that is identity politics. During a recent stop in Boston on his current book tour/post-election-pick-me-up rally, Sanders urged progressives to “move beyond identity politics.”

“It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!'” Sanders told the audience. “No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”

It is safe to say identity politics—along with Clintonian neoliberalism—died on Nov. 8. And I for one say good riddance.

But before explaining why I view the death of ID politics as a good thing, it is worth explaining what, exactly, is meant by “identity politics,” as there seems to be some confusion among leftists over the term itself.

Contrary to the argument put forward by Marcus H. Johnson in a recent story for The Establishment, identity politics are not the same thing as civil rights. Nor, for that matter, is Johnson’s oversimplified definition of identity politics as encompassing the “political interests of women, minorities and other marginalized groups in American politics,” completely accurate.

(Indeed, it is striking how poorly informed Johnson’s entire liberal article is, to the point where he lumps Sanders–a New Deal Democrat, essentially–into something called the “alt-left.”)

Rather, ID politics—which has its roots in academic postmodernism and, as such, is decidedly anti-Marxist in nature—suggests that not only do all members of an oppressed group share the same interests, but that only those members have a stake in ending that oppression. Identity politics argues, furthermore, that all whites benefit materially from racism and, as a result, have no interest in uniting in solidarity with black Americans to end racism—or sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.

(A more ultra-leftist strain of ID politics goes even further, suggesting that all whites are racist, or all men are sexist, simply by virtue of being white or male.)

To be certain, as a white male, I can only imagine the hardships of enduring racism or sexism on a daily basis. I can never fully understand the lived experience of a black person in this country with its long, savage history of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation.

But just because an individual does not personally experience a particular form of oppression does mean he or she has no interest in fighting to end that oppression. Indeed, the system of capitalism oppresses all workers in some fashion through exploitation, wage-theft, income inequality, and surplus labor extraction.

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in her recent book, From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation:

Solidarity is standing in unity with people even when you have not personally experienced their particular oppression[.] The reality is that as long as capitalism exists, material and ideological pressures push white workers to be racist and all workers to hold each other in general suspicion. But there are moments of struggle when the mutual interests of workers are laid bare, and when the suspicion is finally turned in the other direction—at the plutocrats who live well while the rest of us suffer.

For too long now, the left has defined itself by what Chris Hedges calls the “boutique activism” of identity politics, multiculturalism, and political correctness. While these well-intentioned trends no doubt have called much needed attention to the previously ignored histories and narratives of traditionally oppressed groups, they have come at the expense of structural critiques of the capitalist system that causes this oppression in the first place.

As a result, the left has become atomized, disoriented, and rendered all but ineffective. Where the left once stood firmly opposed to war, empire, and economic inequality, it now agonizes over who has more “privilege.” Multiculturalism has become an end in of itself.

As Hedges argues in his 2010 book, Death of the Liberal Class, “Making sure people of diverse races or sexual orientations appear on television shows or in advertisements merely widens the circle of new consumers. Multiculturalism is an appeal that pleads with the corporate power structure for inclusion.”

While the inclusion of more people of color, women, and gays in the corporate and political arena is certainly a welcome trend, the folly of multiculturalism is in viewing this diversity alone as a form of progress. The fact is, one can be gay, black, female, or trans and still be part of the bourgeoisie. Take figures like Caitlyn Jenner, Clarence Thomas, Oprah Winfrey, or warmonger “feminist,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, for example.

Consider, furthermore, that black Americans have lost ground in every economic category eight years after the election of the nation’s first African American president. This is because Barack Obama has done virtually nothing for the black working class. He promptly bailed out the “too big to fail” Wall Street banks, while leaving Main Street to further drown in debt, low-wage jobs, lay-offs, and home foreclosures.

Understand that in critiquing identity politics, I am in no way attempting to downplay the struggle of marginalized groups. Indeed, socialists are often accused of emphasizing the importance of class over race, gender or gender identity. (Curiously, liberal identitarians are rarely accused of the converse–ignoring or diminishing class.)

In fact, Marx himself correctly understood the complex interconnectedness of race and class. “In the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic,” Marx wrote in volume one of Capital. “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”

Marx understood racism as an inseparable byproduct of capitalism. Bourgeois capitalists intentionally stoke divisions of racism, sexism, “ableism” and the like in order to keep members of the working class fighting among themselves rather than turning their ire toward the capitalist system itself and the wealthy elites who profit from it.

But the contemporary left is disconnected from a Marxist analysis of society rooted in class struggle. Sanders’ campaign did a lot to renew interest in socialism particularly among young people–even if his central message was ultimately undercut by his unwavering commitment to the capitalist Democratic Party.

But we still have a long way to go to create a robust, organized socialist movement to counteract both the shallow superficiality of identity politics and the newly emboldened racist right. The sooner the left jettisons this academic trend–as well as its torturous unwavering commitment to the Democratic Party–the better.

Are there groups that will endure greater threats and forms of oppression under the incoming Trump administration…? Without a doubt.

But rather than limiting our focus to only those particular groups (immigrants, women, Muslims) while sneering at those who seemingly may not face as direct or immediate danger, “This isn’t about you!”, our motto should be the old labor slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” And let’s not kid ourselves: All working-class Americans–black, white, gay, straight, female, male, trans, disabled–are going to get viciously screwed in the coming years.

Only when workers unite and fight can we hope to obtain our freedom. Now is the time for solidarity. Now is the time for socialism.