August 10, 2011

Your Approval of History Is Irrelevant and Meaningless

Mr. Interlocutor [*]: "Mr. Bones, what do you think of the Fall of the Roman Empire?"

Mr. Bones: "I approve! Corrupt, cruel -- and, speaking as a smug, self-satisfied modern technocrat, remarkably ineffective. Time for it to go!"

Mr. Interlocutor: "And what do you think of the French Revolution?"

Mr. Bones: "I strongly disapprove! Nasty stuff."

Mr. Interlocutor: "What's your opinion of Lincoln's assassination?"

Mr. Bones: "I think the play is sadly underrated. The happenstance of negative association."

Also, from Alan Bennett's The History Boys:
MRS. LINTOTT: Now. How do you define history, Mr. Rudge?

RUDGE: Can I speak freely, miss? Without being hit.

MRS. LINTOTT: I will protect you.

RUDGE: How do I define history? It's just one fucking thing after another.
I obviously recognize the critical human need for stories. That recognition is reflected in the name of this blog (and in its URL); you can read some reflections on the subject here. In the final section of that essay, I discuss the disastrous consequences of investing psychologically and emotionally in a narrative which is dangerously false; more particularly, I analyze the self-aggrandizing and destructive myth that lies at the heart of American exceptionalism.

To impose a particular narrative of meaning on past events is almost always a pointless exercise, and frequently a ridiculous one. I don't wish to be misunderstood as saying that we cannot learn from the past or find value in understanding the forces that finally expressed themselves in action. Much of my writing here is devoted to this enterprise -- but such endeavors of mine try to confine themselves within restricted boundaries and to the task of descriptive analysis, as it were.

It is a very different matter to ascribe specifically moral meaning to large-scale cultural events as events in themselves, past or present. Yet many commentators ask us to believe that we (or, at least, the commentators in question) find ourselves standing on a different, separate plane of existence, dispassionately offering judgment on the moral qualities of events that pass before us for review. This is moral narcissism parading as sober historical analysis.

"But surely, surely you don't condone the violence in England?" Since I doubt I will ever hear the only sensible response from anyone else, let me offer it myself:

"Whether I condone it or not is fucking irrelevant, you pompous ass."

I encourage you to read Hal Austin's discussion of the London riots. Here are two excerpts to get you started. First, Austin's opening paragraphs:
It is too early to give a definitive assessment of the London Uprisings over the weekend, but there are nevertheless two key lessons that have emerged.

The first and most important is the social breakdown that can take place when the police force has become an invading army, using paramilitary tactics, and has lost the trust of the people it is meant to serve.

The Metropolitan Police are in the main interlopers in some London communities. They are mainly recruited from the regions (Scotland, Ireland and to a lesser extent Wales) and the provinces, the North East, some from the North West, and even fewer from the Midlands and the South East and South West.

But, they largely share in common a dislike of living in London. Most Metropolitan Police live in the Home Counties – Surrey, Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. They commute in to work and see policing the inner city as policing aliens, crooks, thugs, dope dealers and users, pimps and dole scroungers.

Sadly, it has been ever thus. Since the 1950s and 60s, when Notting Hill and Notting Dales police stations became like internment camps for black people. Then Brixton, Stoke Newington, Harrow Road, Shepherd Bush, Peckham, Lewisham and Harlesden, and Handsworth in Birmingham, took up the fight.
I view the following passage as especially critical, for it describes how broadly institutionalized racism creates "criminals" where none would otherwise exist:
There is no hiding the fact that a generation of socially dysfunctional young people, mainly men, are out of order. This is the generation that has fallen victim to the institutional racism that hits it full in the face the moment its members enter the British educational system at the age of five. By the time they are ready to enter secondary schools, quite often they have a record of suspensions, police searches, and teacher neglect.

The society has chosen to explain away this appalling treatment as a failure of black parenting, of peer pressure, of lack of ambition. However, it does not explain why black university graduates do not fare any better than their less qualified counterparts, why women in particular (and black women are among the highest qualified women in the country, better qualified overall than white women) do not get career opportunities to reflect this – although they do much better than men.


But the narrative of black youth crime and its fabrication by police is long and sad. Take Winston Silcott, the young man who became the symbol of the 1985 Broadwater Farm uprisings and the aetiology of his criminal history.

Silcott's first 'offence' was for riding a bicycle on the pavement, an anti-social act that can be and is often resolved with a telling off. From there it built up and built up with the petty accusations that the black community knows only so well, every time going before a magistrate who no doubt saw the courts as the institution to criminalise 'idle' young people.

It was easy from there to make the assumption that after the brutal hacking to death of PC Keith Blakelock that the police was determined that someone – anyone – must pay the price. The person, it soon became evident, was Silcott. Eventually they got him jailed, not for the murder of PC Blakelock, but for the stabbing to death of another youth, an offence for which Silcott pleaded not guilty.

It was widely assumed that his conviction and jailing was in reality punishment for the murder of PC Blakelock. To many, the death of Mark Duggan and the weekend's uprisings were but the latest chapter in the continuing showdown between Tottenham police and the local black community.
Austin offers much more history and many additional facts. It all leads to one inescapable conclusion: Violent protest against these ongoing, ceaseless acts of institutionalized racism and cruelty was inevitable. One might wonder why it didn't happen sooner, or why the violence isn't far worse than it is (so far, at least).

If you want to shake your priggishly moralizing finger at "bad actors," I suggest you cast your gaze much farther back in the train of events and much more broadly. As for judging the violence itself, as an isolated phenomenon which its critics would have us believe sprang fully grown out of precisely nothing, I can only say: "Fuck that, and fuck you, you inflated, self-important, oozing pustule. You know what you can do with your sickening 'lessons in morality.'"

It's not at all surprising that most Americans can't begin to understand what's happening in England. Most Americans still don't understand what happened in America. A few years ago, I wrote about certain of my experiences as a teenager in the 1960s, and how I became good friends with several Black Americans on the standing room line at the old Metropolitan Opera House. I went on to say:
But on this issue, my upbringing and my own experiences as a teenager were very unusual. 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 (and 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.
The nauseating moralizers who rush to condemn the violence in England also engage in a favorite trick. "Of course," they proclaim, rushing to convince us of their reasonableness and that they couldn't possibly be racist, may the gods forbid!, "blacks had real, legitimate grievances in the past. But not this time!"

Of course, with regard to the underlying forces in play, this time is exactly like last time, and the time before that. Moreover, the finger-waggers said exactly the same thing last time, and the time before that, as Austin lays out to devastating effect. The same trick is played with American history. Now that several decades have rendered the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s "safe" for distant contemplation -- a justifiably, even murderously angry black man from the 1950s isn't going to break down your door today, which is why whitey can ever so graciously acknowledge he might have had a complaint or two -- Americans eagerly rub off all the hard edges and present the civil rights movement (and Martin Luther King) suffocated in a sickening, entirely inaccurate soft, rosy hue. Protest the same way today, or say what King said in the last few years of his life ("Why America May Go to Hell"), and watch the condemnations fly.

Rush Limbaugh offered some comments on the London riots yesterday. His first point was that the target of the rioters is the "rich," and "self-reliant" individuals who own businesses. By contrast, the rioters are poor, lazy bums who only survive by sucking on the teat of the welfare state. (Note how this tracks the lies told after the devastation of New Orleans.) Limbaugh went on to say that this is the mentality of "Obama voters" in the United States. For Limbaugh, Obama is a "socialist" who seeks to destroy the rich -- and he thus disregards every critical fact about Obama and his record, which compels the conclusion that Obama is the perfect embodiment of the authoritarian-corporatist system, who enthusiastically seeks to increase the power and wealth of the ruling class. And Limbaugh ominously went on to warn that we in the United States aren't far at all from what's happening in England. In other words, and almost in Limbaugh's exact words, the primary target of the rioters, present and future -- and, much more significantly for Limbaugh, the primary victim -- is rich whitey.

You "disapprove" of violence in response to a sickening perspective of this kind, when this perspective undergirds the comprehensive, soul- and body-killing system that holds sway in England and the United States? I myself think that violence is always deeply tragic. It is uncontrollable and, among other lamentable consequences, it will always lead to the death and severe injury of innocent people. It very frequently leads to results which are worse than the conditions which gave rise to it (watch for that to happen in both England and the United States). Violence as a response means that hope has been destroyed, that the victims of the system no longer believe (or can even pretend to believe) that "change from within" is worth a damn, or even possible in any meaningful way.

Given recent and continuing events in England, the United States, and other countries, can we say that judgment is wrong? I certainly can't, even though I still think recourse to violence represents an enormous tragedy and that it will almost certainly prove to be self-defeating.

And do I "disapprove of" and "condemn" the violence itself? No, I don't. In this context, I don't know what such condemnation even means. Violence is a completely understandable response, particularly when every other means of amelioration and recourse has been systematically closed off. When you leave people no choice but to engage in violence, they'll engage in violence. You want to condemn someone as responsible? Look in the goddamn mirror, fuckhead.

History happens. Try to understand it. Otherwise, get the hell out of the way.