July 03, 2008

Are You Now or Have You Ever Been...a Racist?

[Update added at the conclusion.]

Racism is the greatest evil in the history of the United States. From the bloody slaughter of almost all Native Americans over a very long period of time, to the importation and enslavement of millions of blacks over several centuries, on through a century of "legal" segregation in the South and rigid but slightly less formalized segregation in the rest of the country, to the vicious racism directed at successive waves of immigrants, to the racism that has been a foundational element of U.S. foreign policy for more than a hundred years, unreasoning hatred of "The Other" has destroyed a horrifying number of lives, and it has grossly corrupted the political, social and cultural life of America.

Yet the prevailing story of America -- or, to be accurate, the prevailing myth of America -- sweeps all of this aside. The denial of the significance and the huge reach and unending implications of this great evil is all but complete. This is because our national discussion, such as it is, is conducted on suffocatingly narrow terms set by the ruling class. That ruling class is a white ruling class, which remains entirely convinced of its inherent superiority to all other races in the world, just as it is convinced that the specifically American form of government is the "most perfect" ever to be devised, and that will ever be devised.

Because people often do not follow links, I take the liberty of repeating the introduction to my essay, "The Mythology of the 'Good Guy' American." The major part of that article dealt with the unforgivably murderous U.S. occupation of the Philippines at the beginning of the twentieth century. In establishing the overall context for that particular history, I wrote:
In a number of essays, I've discussed the mythology about America and Americans that the great majority of people unthinkingly accept. Most recently, I analyzed this mythology with regard to the history of United States foreign policy, in the second part of this series.

As I described it in that piece, "Why the Stories We Tell Matter So Much," our national mythology sees the United States as uniquely successful in world history. We see our success, and our power on the world stage, as inherently tied to superior moral virtue. We are so successful because we are uniquely virtuous, and our national power confirms our morality, in relation to which all other peoples and all other countries can only suffer in comparison. One of the many dangerous and inevitable consequences of this view is an often virulent racism that has been reflected in our treatment of many very numerous groups of people: the Native Americans, the slaves who were brought here and were an integral part of the new country's economy, Germans in World War I (German-Americans were the "scum of the melting pot," who now needed to be gotten "rid of"), the Japanese in World War II (the "yellow Japs," who were "regularly compared" to "monkeys, baboons, and gorillas"), and a number of other foreigners and immigrants. Very recently, we witnessed the sickening spectacle of this atavistic racism unleashed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

I expressed the relevant part of this national mythology as follows:
In the most extreme (and, one could argue, most consistent) version of this tale, non-Western parts of the world are less than human -- and they are subhuman by choice. They are immoral, and sometimes even evil. Since we represent the good and they represent the evil, we are surely entitled to improve them, by invasion and bombing if necessary. If they do not threaten us today, they might at some indeterminate time in the future. And while we might kill many innocent civilians in our campaign of civilization, those who survive will be infinitely better off than they would have been otherwise. Besides, how "innocent" can any of them be -- since they are members of inferior, less than fully human civilizations, and since they are so by choice?
One point is crucial: a critical part of our national mythology is the insistence on viewing our nation and ourselves as Americans in comparative terms. When we insist that we are uniquely "good" and "virtuous," this logically necessitates a further conclusion: we are better than everyone else. We are "the Good Guys." The emphasis is not only on "Good," but on "the": we are the Good Guys in a way that no one else is, or can ever be.
Just recently, I discussed still another of the numerous distorted and distorting perspectives that result from this insistence on Americans' "unique" goodness. Part of the official story of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s -- that is, the official story from the white point of view -- is that America recognized in meaningful terms how reprehensible and detestable parts of its own history had been on this question and, in a further demonstration of our "goodness," we set about to rectify these grave wrongs with diligence and dedication.

Except that's not what happened. As I wrote in the second part of "Enchanted Evenings -- and Days, and Lives, in Hell":
With rare exceptions, White and Black America occupied entirely different spaces, geographically, culturally, economically and psychologically. One of the results of these different spaces is the profoundly opposed views of America and of American history discussed by Tim Wise, excerpted in "Obama's Whitewash." The violence unleashed in the civil rights upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s was inevitable; in retrospect (and for perceptive observers at the time), it was remarkable only for its restraint. One of the primary reasons for the violence, and a large part of the explanation as to why a sustained, massive movement encompassing millions of people was required to achieve those changes that resulted, lies in the nature of that white "kindness to Negroes." Whites in America, including those whites who exclusively made up the ruling class, were prepared to be "kind" -- but only to the extent they absolutely had to. Equality was not granted, to the extent it was, primarily in recognition of an unspeakable, deadly injustice that whites had committed, although a few whites were aware of that. For the most part, equality was granted, to the extent it was, because the cost for failing to do so had become prohibitive.
That's what happened.

In that same essay, I went on to discuss how the Obama candidacy is further proof of my general argument:
The Obama campaign is a major piece of evidence supporting the truth of these observations, and it tragically reveals how short is the distance we have traveled, and how far we have yet to go. I have written in many essays about how Obama has adopted every attitude, every argument, every cultural signifier of the white ruling class; see "Obama's Whitewash," "The Triumph of the White, Male Ruling Class," "Moving on Up, to the White Side," and the essays linked therein for much more on that. But I confess I find it immensely difficult to describe accurately or completely the surreal quality of the Obama campaign. Everyone comments on the historic significance of a Black American who may be the next president. On the most superficial level, it is certainly historic, and I would not argue that it is entirely unimportant. At the same time, it is astonishing that almost no one notes the myriad ways in which Obama has transformed himself into a white candidate in everything but skin color. Yet on a deeper level, none of this is surprising: it is only another of thousands of examples of the superficiality and triviality of what passes for our national discussion, a subject I've discussed here and here. Still, I had not expected to see "passing for white" dramatized in exactly this manner, or on this scale.
One of my ongoing themes is the steady diet of lies found at the heart of American culture; see the opening quotation of "Obama's Whitewash" for a brief summary of the problem. Because the unending ravages of racism constitute the great evil in our history, and in our present, the lies about racism are the greatest in number, and the most comprehensive.

So now we have our first Black presidential candidate, one who may very well be the next president of the United States. In the context of this miasma of lies about racism, almost no one will tell the truth about Obama and what he stands for. (I should say what he appears to stand for; it tends to change from day to day, and hour to hour, but the overall meaning of his policies is unmistakable: like almost every politician of national prominence, he stands for the authoritarian-corporatist state at home, and for endless wars of aggression and other interventions overseas. In short: he stands for the white status quo.) Margaret Kimberley and the people at Black Agenda Report tell the truth, as do Chris Floyd and James Benjamin. I try to, and certainly there are others. But not very many others. If you dare to point out, as I have repeatedly, that Obama has adopted every critical view and policy of the white ruling class, you are accused of being a racist.

At this point, it is crucial to make a few facts absolutely clear. The worst accusation that can be made about someone who engages in political debate and discussion in this country is that he or she is a racist. This is not a disagreement, even a vehement one, about a specific view on a specific subject: it is, and is meant to be, an attack on the person as a person. If the accusation is believed, it means the accused is profoundly, unforgivably immoral and loathsome. It further means that nothing the person might say is to be treated with any degree of seriousness. The accusation of racism is designed to shut the person up, to shut him down, to obliterate him entirely and to eliminate him from all consideration. The purpose is the total and absolute destruction of the person so accused.

If the majority of Americans had even a casual acquaintance with the truth, our sensitivity to the charge of racism and the frequency with which we deploy it might be a good thing. As I have said, and as I have written in many, many essays, racism is a singularly immense evil, one that encompasses a host of lesser evils, many of which are also lethal. But in the context of the unending lies we tell ourselves about ourselves and our own history, many of the charges of racism are nothing more than smears. I will acknowledge that the Obama campaign and many of Obama's supporters have happened upon a spectacularly effective strategy: with a minimum of effort, almost any criticism of Obama can be turned into an accusation of racism against the person offering the criticism. This not only deflects all attention from the criticism itself: it demonizes the critic, and removes him from all future debate. I don't think Obama and his strategists are intelligent enough to have figured out all the complex reasons that make this strategy work so well. I think they've stumbled upon it in the way most politicians conduct their careers: they are shrewd and clever, they sense where the opponent's weakness is, and they are especially sensitive to blood in the water. None of this is true intelligence. It's politics, perhaps politics very well-executed, but just politics. True intelligence doesn't enter into it.

There is a further point about the smears charging racism, and it is vital that this issue in particular be appreciated. In many articles, I've discussed the mechanisms by which Americans desperately seek to convince themselves of their inherent superiority, of their "unique" goodness. In the current campaign, that is precisely what the constant charges of racism are: a way for those making the accusations to convince themselves that they are genuinely good, that they of course are not racists, that they are enlightened and noble. But when the charge of racism is leveled in the absence of evidence, or contrary to most or even all of the relevant and available evidence, the smear accomplishes none of those things. It reveals something else, something very different: the baseless charge of racism reveals that the person making the smear is simply a vicious, disgusting liar.

In part, I have written this because a number of people have accused me of racism this week. I will not link to any of those posts; if the matter interests you, you can find them on your own. There are quite a few of them now. I expected it, so I'm hardly surprised. Still, I had not appreciated the number and comprehensiveness of the lies these despicable people would employ. They are considerably more sickening than I had thought, and I had already thought they were quite remarkably disgusting. But in offering these thoughts, I wanted to make these more general observations. I hope some of them may be helpful to others who are so unjustly accused in the same manner.

In addition to the essays linked above, I've written many others about the evils of racism. But since people tend not to follow links, I'm not going to list them here. Again, if the subject is of concern to you -- and if you are interested in what I have actually said on this subject -- you will find them by following the links above. All of those articles contain links to still other posts.

I will make one final point. It is indisputable that those who traffic in unsupported, baseless charges of racism are not concerned with the truth in the slightest degree. The pathetic truth is that they attack those who offer accurate assessments of Obama because those who reveal the fact that Obama stands only for the status quo -- the white status quo -- are interfering with their plans for electoral victory. That's the sum of their concerns. There is an obvious question about victory which can only purchased by the payment of lies and what such a victory is worth. Beyond this, one might wonder why they are so desperate to see a man elected who represents no change at all, and who accepts conventional wisdom and establishment views on every matter of importance. It appears that, in many cases, they wish to see a Black American president -- simply because he is Black, and simply because he's a member of their political tribe. You can be certain they would not extend the same consideration to a J.C. Watts, for example.

For this, too, is where we are in America today. Not only is truth the enemy, but we live in a world of the most superficial of appearances. Completely empty symbolism -- symbolism stripped of all meaning and of every connection to fact -- is what motivates such people. Rigorous thought and analysis and seriousness of purpose can find no place in this view of the world. These people live only on the surfaces of things, and they are not living or thinking to any measurable extent. The surfaces where they barely exist are those determined by others who came before, and they are entirely covered with lies. The images constantly flicker and are gone, to be replaced by other lies, which will also disappear almost immediately. There is no past and no future, and the present is stripped of all those elements that give life meaning and purpose. Some of us do not choose to live this way. If the accusers were not vicious in such an ugly manner, and if they did not lie so consistently, I would almost feel sorry for them. As it is, their irresponsibility and carelessness, and the zeal with which they seek to destroy others, are entirely unforgivable and completely disgusting.

After this explanation, I hope you will permit me a somewhat more informal response. For all those who accuse me of racism, I have this suggestion: read just two or three of the essays cited above. Actually read and try to understand them. And until you do, shut the fuck up.

UPDATE: To head off a standard line of criticism of posts of this kind, I should note that, of course, there are those Americans who are genuinely racist, and who will never vote for a Black president. I've mentioned before that I think there are quite a lot of them, certainly more than will admit to it, and that such Americans may even be determinative in this election.

Those who attack me and others who try to tell the truth about Obama and what his policies are in fact and what he stands for, and who attack us by calling us racists when there is no evidence at all to support the charge and a huge amount of evidence demonstrating the opposite, might consider how they dilute the charge by wasting it on targets that do not merit it. To the degree these smearers are concerned with the truth (which, I grant, can only be measured on the subatomic scale), they are only making their efforts to elect Obama that much less likely to succeed. When enough people understand that the charge of racism is frequently directed at people who are obviously not racists, and when they further understand that the charge is employed only to end all serious examination of Obama, they will cease to believe the charge at all -- even when it is directed at people who are racists.

But to understand this, the smearers would have to think and plan ahead. As discussed above, such people live only in the present moment, and they barely manage that. Analysis and understanding of this kind are entirely beyond them. In this manner, they work against their own proclaimed purposes, and they may fatally undermine their own efforts.

Habitually dishonest, criminally irresponsible and ineffective. An impressive group, those who traffic in baseless smears. Occasionally, there is some small degree of justice in the world.