November 07, 2009

Tribalism and the Destructive Politics of Demonization (I): The Largely Unrecognized Possibility for a New Coalition

I. Introductory Remarks

My general title indicates that this group of essays easily could appear in my ongoing Tribalism series. While the subject of these essays might argue for including them there, my focus in the Tribalism essays is on the complex interrelationships of intimately personal and family dynamics examined in conjunction with very broad cultural and political forces. Future essays in that series will also deal with concerns relating to human psychology generally. In that sense, the Tribalism series is more abstract in nature, although I always try to connect the broad identifications to specific examples that illustrate how the issues I discuss can be found in the particular.

By contrast, these essays will focus on a more circumscribed area. For that reason, I finally decided to offer these articles as a group standing by themselves. But as will become clear (especially in succeeding articles in this group), certain issues I've already discussed in the Tribalism series are crucially related to this analysis. These are among the many factors I've weighed in deciding how to proceed both with these essays and the Tribalism articles; only time will tell how well I succeed. And as is always true, others will make their own judgments, as they should. In such matters, a key to my own perspective is captured very well in a lyric from Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, a work that carries enormous personal meaning for me and one that I find deeply moving. I've explained why in some detail, here.

In the song "Move On," Dot sings:
Stop worrying where you're going, move on
If you can know where you're going, you've gone
Just keep moving on.


Stop worrying if your vision is new.
Let others make that decision . . .
they usually do!
You keep moving on.


Anything you do, let it come from you--
then it will be new.
Give us more to see.
That will do for me.

A future article in this group will explore the nature and significance of the "health care reform" efforts, and why that debate has been conducted in the manner it was. (In broad terms, it has been no debate at all, a fact of overriding significance that should never be ignored.) But having just said that the subject matter of these articles is narrower than that of the Tribalism series, I must begin by placing the health care debate in the crucial political-cultural, and even historic, context.

When a small number of individuals seek to effect major change in the societies in which they live, the success of their efforts depends on a variety of factors. Among them are the clarity of their vision (what precisely it is they "see," using that word with Sondheim's meaning), the degree of dedication they bring to their task, their imagination and passion, and the specific methods of advocacy and action they adopt. In terms of how successful they are, one factor can be of great importance: the alliances they are able to forge, and the segments of society to which the different parts of those alliances appeal. Such alliances can be determinative in the success of the overall effort.

In periods of general social dislocation, upheaval and turmoil, possibilities for coalition-building appear that may not exist in other times. We are living through such a period today in many ways. As I have argued in detail and in many articles, the United States at present is essentially a hollowed-out shell. The country's productive capacity has largely vanished, and we survive (to the extent we do) on the wealth that was earlier accumulated. As I also repeatedly emphasize, I am not saying nor would I ever say that this means a devastating general collapse is imminent. The already-amassed wealth (in all forms, and not solely monetary) is enormous by any historical standard. That and numerous other factors make specific predictions largely useless. Depending on the details of how events unfold, a collapse could occur in gradual steps, over a period of years or even decades, but it could happen much more rapidly. There is no way to know with any degree of certainty. But the overall trend is downward, even severely so. (I would also argue, as I will with supporting evidence another time, that the "real" economic collapse, if you will, has not even occurred yet. But the signs of how very bad that collapse could and likely will be are all around us.)

All of this is very general; an example of some of the key issues already mentioned would be useful and instructive. So before turning to our immediate circumstances, let us consider such an example from history, one of unusual power. This particular example shows the great possibilities; it is also deeply inspiring.

II. "One of the most ambitious and brilliantly organized citizens' movements of all time"

Adam Hochschild's book, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, is the story of how slavery was outlawed throughout most of the world within a century. To understand the historical context in which those events occurred, we should carefully examine these passages from the book's Introduction, "Twelve Men in a Printing Shop":
Strangely, in a city where it seems that on almost every block a famous event or resident is commemorated by a blue and white glazed plaque, none marks this spot. All you can see today, after you leave the Bank station of the London Underground, walk several blocks, and then take a few steps into a courtyard, are a few low, nondescript office buildings, an ancient pub, and on the site itself, 2 George Yard, a glass and steel high-rise. Nothing remains of the bookstore and printing shop that once stood here, or recalls the spring day more than two hundred years ago when a dozen people -- a somber-looking crew, most of them not removing their high-crowned black hats -- filed through its door and sat down for a meeting. Cities build monuments to kings, prime ministers, and generals, not to citizens with no official position who once gathered in a printing shop. Yet what these citizens began rippled across the world and we feel its aftereffects still. It is no wonder that they won the admiration of the first and greatest student of what we now call civil society. The result of the series of events begun that afternoon in London, wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, was "absolutely without precedent ... If you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt that you will find anything more extraordinary."

To understand how momentous was this beginning, we must picture a world in which the vast majority of people are prisoners. Most of them have known no other way of life. They are not free to live or go where they want.
They plant, cultivate, and harvest most of the earth's major crops. They earn no money from their labor. Their work often lasts twelve or fourteen hours a day. Many are subject to cruel whippings or other punishments if they do not work hard enough. They die young. They are not chained or bound most of the time, but they are in bondage, part of a global economy based on forced labor. Such a world would, of course, be unthinkable today.

But this was the world -- our world -- just two centuries ago, and to most people then, it was unthinkable that it could ever be otherwise. At the end of the eighteenth century, well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another, not the captivity of striped prison uniforms, but of various systems of slavery or serfdom.


Looking back today, what is even more astonishing than the pervasiveness of slavery in the late 1700s is how swiftly it died. By the end of the following century, slavery was, at least on paper, outlawed almost everywhere. The antislavery movement had achieved its goal in little more than one lifetime.

This is the story of the first, pioneering wave of that campaign. Every American schoolchild learns how slaves fled Southern plantations, following the North Star on the Underground Railroad. But England is where the story really begins, and for decades it was where American abolitionists looked for inspiration and finally for proof that the colossally difficult task of uprooting slavery could be accomplished. If we were to fix one point when the crusade began, it would be the late afternoon of May 22, 1787, when twelve determined men sat down in the printing shop at 2 George Yard, amid flatbed presses, wooden trays of type, and large sheets of freshly printed book pages, to begin one of the most ambitious and brilliantly organized citizens' movements of all time.
I will be discussing aspects of this "citizens' movement" in future articles in this group, particularly as they relate to our own situation. Because of its centrality to part of my analysis, I need to highlight one issue immediately.

In my Introductory Remarks, I mentioned the often critical, even determinative, significance of alliances formed to advance toward a goal. Here is a fascinating discussion with Hochschild about his book. Hochschild has been talking with the interviewer about Thomas Clarkson, the man who is "largely and very unjustly forgotten today but he was very well known in his time, and very correctly seen as really the central person in this movement." They also discuss William Wilberforce, the man who is by many (incorrectly) regarded as the hero of the movement to abolish slavery. Here is Hochschild on the significance of alliances, describing how critical this particular alliance was:
Wilberforce was the inside man in parliament. Clarkson was the outside man, the travelling organiser. In a way, to have a successful movement in a democratic, or semi-democratic country as Britain was then, you really had to have both things, because the purpose of generating public pressure is to get the laws changed, and to get the laws changed you do need sympathetic people in the national legislature. Wilberforce led the antislavery forces in parliament, really, for nearly 40 years and remained very strongly committed on this issue.

One of the fascinating things to me is that he and Clarkson who, incidentally, were almost exactly the same age, were diametrically opposite in their politics about issues other than slavery. Clarkson, in the terms of the day, was very much a radical. He profoundly sympathised with the French Revolution. After the Bastille fell in 1789, Clarkson immediately went to Paris and he brought home a stone from the Bastille and he kept it in his house for the rest of his life. He believed in rights for women, he believed in extending the franchise and the rights of labour, and equal education for all, all these good causes. Wilberforce was a profound reactionary on issues other than slavery; he did not want to extend the franchise, believed women should stay in the home, was horrified by the French Revolution. But these two men agreed about slavery, and worked together and collaborated very happily for most of their lives.
This is the model for how such alliances can work, especially with regard to an issue of profound importance such as slavery. It is not necessary, and usually it is not even possible, to restrict one's compatriots to those with whom one agrees about all issues, or even a significant subset of issues. One need not and should not expect or demand that those with whom one joins in a particular cause agree with or endorse one's general views. In this case, Clarkson and Wilberforce disagreed on every other then-current issue of importance and controversy.

But they agreed about slavery, and they agreed that it must be ended. That is all one should require and, I stress, that is all that is necessary. As in this case, the goal must be very clearly defined, and the members of the coalition must be fully committed to it. I would go still further: provided the goal is defined in a way that is not subject to compromise and equivocation, even the reasons which inform the participants' commitment to that goal need not be the same. Provided they agree on the goal itself -- as here, that slavery be ended -- that is all that is needed. As I indicate, I will be returning to this issue in connection with examples from our politics today.

III. The Struggle to See the Possibilities for Connection

Over the last several months, at the same time the "health care reform" debate has continued, there has been a great deal of activity by the "Tea Party" movement and much discussion about it. Yet in terms of the issues I have identified, precisely those issues which I regard as of special importance and as holding the still unrealized potential for a "citizens' movement" in our own time, one rarely encounters a careful and measured examination of the concerns and forces that drive the Tea Party protesters. Of particular significance is the lack of attention to how the concerns and motives of the Tea Partiers could easily connect to certain aims of those who consider themselves Democrats or liberals (or progressives).

I've come across some, but not many, articles that speak to these issues. Here are three examples I've encountered over the last few months. I emphasize at the outset that one need not agree (as I often do not) with the specific terms in which these writers describe what they've seen, and one need not agree (as I often do not) with the particular policies these writers themselves endorse. What concerns me here are the more general forces in play. The writers approach these issues from sometimes very different overall political orientations, and that too is irrelevant -- just as it was in the case of the alliance between Clarkson and Wilberforce. In my view, and with regard to the underlying dynamics, all of these commentators "get it" in a way most others do not.

The first example comes from Dave Lindorff, a progressive, and he explicitly connects the Tea Party phenomenon to the health care debate:
Americans are about to be royally screwed on health care reform by the president and the Democratic Congress, just as they've been screwed by them on financial system "reform."

The appropriate response to this screw-job is the one the right has adopted: shut these sham "town meetings" down, and run the sell-out politicians out of town on a rail, preferably coated in tar and feathers the way the snake-oil salesmen of old used to be handled!

This is not about civil discourse. This is about propaganda. The Obama administration and the Democratic Congressional leadership have sold out health care reform for the tainted coin of the medical-industrial industry, and are holding, or trying to hold, these meetings around the country to promote legislation that has essentially been written for them by that industry--legislation that will force everyone to pay for insurance as offered, and priced, by the private insurance industry. What a deal for those companies--a captive market of 300 million people!
There will be little or no effort to control prices, and the higher costs will be financed through higher taxes, and through cuts in Medicare benefits.

This isn't "reform." It's corruption, pure and simple.

Any mention of a system that works--single payer--the system we already have in the form of Medicare for the elderly and disabled, and the system that has proved successful for almost four decades in Canada-- has been systematically blocked and censored out of the discussion. Every effort has been made to bury an excellent bill, HR 676, offered up by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), which would cover every American by simply expanding Medicare to cover everyone.

The only proper response at this point is obstruction, and the more militant and boisterous that obstruction, the better.

Instead of opposing the right-wing hecklers at these events, progressives should be making common cause with them. Instead of calling them fascists, we should be working to turn them, by showing them that the enemy is not the left; it is the corporations that own both Democrats and Republicans alike.

The only proper approach to the wretched health care legislation currently working its way through Congress at this point is to kill it and start over.
On Lindorff's last point, that this legislation should be killed, see this post from several days ago. One of the critical issues always to be remembered is that it should be killed given the progressives' own stated goals. Lindorff sees that very clearly; many progressives are resolute in their inability or refusal to acknowledge this shockingly obvious truth. I will examine why they will not see it in these articles.

The second excerpt comes from Matt Welch, a libertarian and Editor in Chief of Reason magazine. Once again, in terms of the issues being analyzed here, his personal general political convictions are entirely irrelevant. Welch is a perceptive observer, and what he observed at the Tea Party gathering in Washington, D.C. is important. Here is Welch:
I just came back from spending four-plus hours with the Don't-Tread-On-Me crowd at our nation's capitol. Expect a full report later, but my snap impressions:


* Of the people I ended up talking to, the general vibe was that they were conservative, and then either Republican, formerly Republican, or independent. Every single one had unkind words to say about George W. Bush's spending and governing record, though none had protested him. None expressed trust in Republicans, and most preferred a "throw-all-the-bums-out" strategy. All but one did not care about Obama's birth certificate controversy, and those I asked thought it was foolish to bring guns to political gatherings.

* People had traveled from North Carolina, Alabama, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, and Washington state.

* The view on Obama and his administration ranged from a "heading in the wrong direction" vibe to a "we're not gonna take it much longer" edge.

This is all, obviously, a partial and unscientific take, and not an attempt to encapsulate a huge event, but rather a faithful rendering of what I saw. With that caveat, I had a very hard time reconciling the human beings I talked to and observed with the caricatures described in pre-writes by the New York Times' Gail Collins ("The tea party movement activists range from geeky Ron Paulists who obsess about the money supply to conspiracy theorists who believe that Barack Obama is a noncitizen brought here by people who hate this country"), the L.A. Times' Tim Rutten ("the talk-show/tea-party right...if it has its way–will convert the GOP into an almost exclusively white, zealously religious, mostly Southern party"), and Gawker's Alex Pareene ("Glenn Beck is an actual terrorist, and the people attending his rally in DC tomorrow are al-Qaeda in America").

Political rallies are no place to seek the subtle truth, nor feel particularly glowing about your countrymen, and today was no different in that regard for me. But the meta-fact about a huge anti-Obamanomics protest eight months into his term is certainly significant, and very little of what I saw made me fear that Alex Pareene will be blown to smithereens by a suicide hijacker from Arkansas. I am confident, however, that I will soon be made to fear what I utterly failed to detect.
The third article I will excerpt is by Mike Elk, who also attended the Washington, D.C. gathering. Elk is, like Lindorff, a progressive. He offers many observations that I find especially valuable, but his headline indicates a very serious problem that I will discuss in much more detail: "Martin Luther King Would Have Loved the Teabaggers, Not Called Them Racists."

The article repeatedly refers to "teabaggers" and its variants. I offer a few words about that term at the end of this article, and I will have much more to say about the term and its meaning and significance in the next installment. With regard to Elk's article standing alone, but most emphatically not in connection with its widespread usage (where the terminology's significance is much greater and much worse), I consider this a very unfortunate blemish. But in this particular, very limited context, we can still appreciate the significance of Elk's commentary:
A few weeks ago, I attended the teabagger protests in D.C. The thing I noticed the most about the folks there was that, for the most part, they were friendly, nice, hardworking people. Sure, there were some crazies; sure, there were some racists. For the most part, though, they looked like the type of folks I grew up with in the labor movement, coming to D.C. to participate in a protest and spend the rest of the weekend taking in some monuments and museums. These weren't rich suburbanites; the teabaggers I saw were mainly poor people, whose trip to D.C. was probably the only the vacation they would be able to afford this year.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I had known many poor white people, but they all seemed to vote for Democrats because they had manufacturing jobs and were union members. Gradually, though, the unions—which were a means of educating people about politics—evaporated under the anti-union policies of Democrats and Republicans alike. I saw more and more strong Democrats turn Republican as they began to distrust a Democratic Party that took away their jobs with policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement and one massive corporate giveaway after another.


People are confused. They are angry, and they have little faith in government.


[T]he progressive movement—in particular, progressive bloggers—are making a big mistake in attacking the other side by calling them racist. It merely makes them feel defensive because nobody wants to listen to someone that is attacking them with such an emotional bomb.

It makes the teabaggers resent the progressive movement and view progressives as rich, college-educated elitists who only want to tell them how wrong they are.

Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are giving white working-class males a huge hug. [Elk's emphasis.] They are saying, "Come here; we understood you; we are one of you. We will fight on your behalf against elitist liberals who call you names." Working-class people, especially men, respond by listening to Glenn Beck even more and attacking progressives. It's an endless, destructive cycle in which no one wins.

As Martin Luther King explained in his sermon "The Strength To Love":
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.
During the whole dialogue on the teabaggers, I never heard the narrative of why these poor people were turning up at the town halls. They were turning up because they were scared of change, because the only change they have known is their standard of living dramatically decreasing over the last 30 years. I never heard anyone talk about how most of the teabaggers are the people that need health care reform the most.

In fact, we got off message entirely. We stopped talking about health care reform altogether. We failed to articulate a progressive vision these people might adopt. We took an eye for an eye, leaving everyone blind.

Very few of us made any attempt to really reach out and embrace these teabaggers on the issues that we share with them. Many of their concerns about the bailout, NAFTA-style trade deals and the general loss of trust in government are core progressive issues. We could lock arms with the teabaggers and form a powerful alliance, but, instead, we attack our potential allies because we do not take the time to engage them.


If we don't communicate with the white working class, we are never going to achieve true progressive change. We are just going to attack each other in an endless cycle and fail to realize our shared values.

It's time that we rise above immature name-calling and start talking to the teabaggers. Together, we can win!
The prevalent use of "teabagger" to describe a very large group of protesters is a notably vicious smear, and an especially contemptible one. The significance of this usage is multiplied many times when one considers that any group of protesters represents a much larger number of people holding similar views. In light of Elk's valuable commentary, his statement that progressives should "rise above the immature name-calling and start talking to the teabaggers" carries very heavy irony indeed. It is deeply unfortunate that Elk should unthinkingly and lazily adopt this usage, while simultaneously himself providing the evidence as to why the smear is unjustified.

In the next article, I will explain in some detail why I consider this term a particularly destructive smear, one that seeks not only to dismiss and delegitimize a huge number of individuals, but to render them less than human and thus to demonize them. At the same time, the perspective that the usage reveals is unable to recognize the great opportunity that exists here, an opportunity that all three of these writers see in their different ways. In my view, the widespread, repeated use of "teabagger" by so many progressives, and the ends to which that usage is directed, reveal a great deal about the individuals who so use it -- and none of it is good.

Until next time...