America, we need to have a talk. First, we get that the whole multiple personality disorder thing comes with the territory. You know, pluralism and all that. But we need your personalities to work together a bit more. For instance, the racist bully personality, let’s call him “Trumpster” (since we need a name for him and that one just came to mind), needs to chill out. And the “na-na-na-na-na-na, I can’t hear you!” personality needs to get its fingers out of its ears and its head out of its ass. You’re all in the same body…, politic…, so you’re going to need to get along.
Second, yeah, pretty flag, nice camos, love the rousing military music, but, you know, you have neighbors. Those other countries, they keep complaining about how noisy you are. You’re keeping them up at night. Just, you know, turn it down a little. No, “liberty” does not mean pissing on other people’s doorsteps and through their open windows. And that informal national anthem: “We’re the greatest, that’s why you hate us, so eat my plutonium, mother f***ers!” It’s a catchy jingo,* but the rest of the world is tired of hearing it…, and increasingly concerned.
Third, populism, democracy’s demented cousin. Sure, democracy is a great thing. We love it. The Greeks Loved it. The British loved it. Power to the people! But too much of a good thing isn’t all that good. It’s okay to let surgeons perform surgery without getting upset about how elitist it is that the hospital won’t let your drunken Uncle Donald cut into that 230-year-old kid’s chest and poke around a bit. I mean, “let’s give him a chance,” right? What harm can an ego-maniacal ignoramus with no skills, no sense, no filters, and no awareness of his own rather striking array of brightly lit deficiencies do with a scalpel, a patient unconscious on the operating table, and a reckless indifference to anyone else’s welfare or rights possibly do?
Let’s agree that “democracy” doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that the least well-informed and least well-reasoned positions on complex issues should prevail as long as there are more idiots than experts in a country. Let’s agree that just because the people with your skin color and religion and sexual orientation have enjoyed centuries of screwing everyone else shouldn’t mean that that’s right and good and should continue unabated. Let’s agree that “freedom of religion” doesn’t mean that no one else is free to practice theirs because you consider their doing so to be an infringement on yours.
Now, you’ve screwed up, big time. You’ve Charlie-Sheened us into a disastrous state of affairs. You didn’t just drink the Kool-Aid; you snorted cubic meters of the raw powder while jerking off with a plastic bag tied over your head. It’s bad. Really bad. But we’ll forgive you for fucking everything up, for placing this nation on the path to self-destruction and infamy, for endangering multitudes of innocent others, for crapping on the Founding Fathers’ graves and spray-painting obscenities on their monuments and calling it a tribute, for sticking a perverted comic book inside the covers of the Constitution and pretending that what you’re reading there is the actual law of the land; we’ll forgive you, if you just help us clean this mess up. Okay?
We know you’re not too bright, and we know you mean well (well, some of you, maybe), and we know, in any case, we’re stuck with you –like the weird, psychopathic, deformed relative locked in the attic that keeps getting out– so, please, just help us clean this mess up, and all is forgiven.
Or, at least, go lock yourself back in the attic, where you belong, and let the sane among us, the rational among us, the responsible among us, the knowledgeable among us, the humane among us, govern, as intelligently, and wisely, and fairly as we can. Because, as you love to say, this isn’t a democracy; it’s a republic, and the reason why it’s a republic is because the Framers of the Constitution strived mightily to prevent toxic stupidity and bigotry such as yours from actually ruling us. Thanks to you, their dream has now been supplanted by everyone’s nightmare.
(*Yes, that was intentional.)
As we look back on recent events and recent developments, on the shooting death of an unarmed black teen walking home from the store by an armed vigilante out looking for “bad guys;” of the response by so many dismissing it as the price we pay for the “liberty” to ”protect ourselves,” often informed by our bigotries, in violent and deadly ways; of the combination of a right-wing drive to reinstate voter suppression laws and a Supreme Court holding making it easier to do so; of the rise of an angry, violent, divisive, and frequently racist political movement in America that loves guns and, by its ideological choices, hates humanity; it’s time for us to once again ask ourselves what kind of a people we want to be.
It’s time to dream again, America, and to shout that dream from the mountain tops. It’s time to dream of a nation in which we are more committed to lifting one another up than to knocking one another down. It’s time to dream of a future, of a present, in which we care that so many are so impoverished, that so many have so little access to basic health care, that so many suffer so much unnecessary violence. It’s time to dream again of being a people whose disputes are defined more by the limits of our reason and decency than by the extent of our bigotries. It’s time to dream again of striving to become a nation, and, eventually, a world, committed more to our shared humanity than to our explicit and implicit hatreds or, just as destructively, our mutual indifference.
It’s time to dream again, to care, to think, to strive, to work diligently on behalf of that which is most rational and humane, that which is most decent and good, that which is most caring and conscious. It’s time to dream again, and, in never-flagging opposition to those base and horrifying human tendencies that ever-seek to turn our dream into a nightmare, tendencies that are so in ascendance once again in this too-often troubled and misguided nation of ours, work diligently, work with all other rational people of goodwill, work in service to our shared humanity, to make that dream come ever-more true.
(Dr. King’s prepared remarks end at about the 11 minute mark of this video, and his “I have a dream” speech, extemporaneously building on a theme he had used a few times in smaller venues, begins just after the 12 minute mark.)
If you look at the public debates over the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, one thing leaps out, something that is more broadly relevant, something that distinguishes the mental modality of the right from the left in one very precise way. This is an issue of cognitive framing, with the narrower frame permitting a conclusion of justifiable self-defense (assuming the facts most favorable to the defense), and the broader frame precluding it.
For instance, if you ask, “does one have the right to defend himself, with a firearm, against someone about to clobber him over the head with a heavy object,” most people would answer, “of course.” But what if the “defender” were a mugger who had attacked the guy with the heavy object, the heavy object were his cane that he needed due to an infirmity, and the moment being referred to were the mugging victim’s response to being mugged by an armed assailant? Does the mugger then have the right to claim self-defense, for shooting his victim as his victim tried to defend himself? Of course not.
Let’s come up with an analogy that more closely parallels the Zimmerman case, emphasizing and playing on the stereotypes involved (and other stereotypes as well). Consider this scenario: A young, white middle class woman is walking through a residential neighborhood at night to return home from the nearby convenience store. She notices a big, black guy following her. She continues to walk, and confirms that he is definitely following her. Terrified, she slips off the path and finds an object to arm herself with, a plywood board. As her stalker approaches, she comes out behind him, swings the board, screaming. Her stalker, who, as it turns out, was an armed stalker, pulls out his gun and shoots her to death. (I am using the word “stalker” to refer to any stranger following around another person with some kind of unfriendly intent, including thinking that the other person is a “punk” who you don’t want to let “get away with” some imaginary infraction that their race induced you to believe they must be committing.)
Tell me, right-wing apologists, is your big black stalker innocent, because he was just defending himself? Are you as indifferent to this innocent white woman’s violent death at the hands of an armed stalker as you are of an unarmed black teen’s violent death at the hands of an armed stalker?
Here is the complete list of differences between this scenario and the Zimmerman-Martin scenario: 1) the races of the stalker and the person stalked; 2) the gender of the person stalked; 3) right-wing ASSUMPTION of the intentions of the stalker in each scenario and the different degrees to which they (right-wingers) identify with the stalker and the person stalked in each scenario; 4) the woman having armed herself (to make her at least as threatening as unarmed Martin was); and 4) the generous assumption for my alternative scenario that all of the facts best favoring the Zimmerman defense are true.
So, why, exactly, is that white-woman-stalking-victim an innocent victim of the criminal-black-stalker, while the unarmed black victim of our real stalker (Hispanic, white, I don’t care) is just the unlucky person who was killed by an innocent person’s discharged bullet? The answer is very simple: The combination of the right-wing need to defend the absurd belief that we are a safer society if people go out with guns looking for trouble and their (right-wingers’) racism. a combination that is as horrifying and offensive to rational and humane people today as all similar past chapters of our national history have been.
Right-wing arguments (and particularly gun culture arguments) frequently rely on this narrowing of the frame, filtering out the contextual information which completely changes the analysis. Those who see in this case no guilt on Zimmerman’s part have chosen a very narrow frame, which excludes much relevant information; those who see guilt on Zimmerman’s part choose a broader and more inclusive one.
There are many other issues in which this difference in framing is central to the ideological differences found in regard to them. The right relies on a reduced frame, hyper-individualistic rather than social systemic, static and instantaneous rather than dynamical and over time. And that is not just a difference in personal taste, but a reduction in cogency.
The Zimmerman trial is over, the verdict is in, but the public issue over what kind of a people we want to choose to be continues. The right insists that it is good for society for people to have the right to arm themselves and stalk people they are suspicious of, for whatever reason they are suspicious of them, incite a violent encounter by doing so, and shoot to death the person they chose to stalk in the process of that violent encounter. I want to believe that the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t agree.
We’ve had Columbine. We’ve had Virginia Tech. We’ve had the Gabby Giffords shooting. We’ve had the Aurora Theater shooting. We’ve had Sandy Hook Elementary School. We have, on average, ten times the homicide rate of any other developed nation on Earth. We have half the privately owned firearms on Earth. And we have people who are so blithely indifferent to the death and suffering that their idolatry of instruments of deadly violence cause that they won’t let us, as a people, even implement universal background checks or limit the magazine capacity of their military grade weapons. The degree of insanity –vicious, destructive insanity– involved in this right-wing ideology is simply mindboggling.
At the same time, they want voter suppression laws (and have been assisted in being able to pass and implement them in a recent Court decision that disabled the Voting Rights Act), they want to dismantle Affirmative Action, they want to disregard the injustices and inequities of our society, they want to blame the poor for being poor, they want to disregard our responsibilities to one another as members of a society, they want to erase our humanity and promote only selfish disregard for the rights and welfare of anyone who doesn’t look just like them. And they are uncompromising in their commitment to these “ideals.”
(The examples mentioned here, of course, only scratch the surface. See Why The Far-Right Is On The Wrong Side Of Reason, Morality, Humanity and History for a more in-depth treatment.)
This is not a country divided by two opposing reasonable views, that we need to find some reasonable ground between. This is a country divided by, on the one hand, reason in service to humanity and, on the other, irrationality in service to inhumanity. It is time, America, to reduce the latter to a sad footnote of our history, and promote the former to the status of the shared foundation on which we all build. It’s time to allow our disagreements to be defined by the limits of our wisdom and decency rather than by the extent of our bigotries.
(See also Debunking The Arguments of the American Gun Culture for a cogent discussion of the competing narratives informing the right and the left, and how they fit into this struggle between reason in service to humanity and irrationality in service to inhumanity, a perennial struggle of human history, and one from which we are not, as it turns out, at all exempt.)
Part I: The Economy.
1) Every modern, prosperous, developed nation on Earth, without one single exception, has a large administrative infrastructure and has had a large administrative infrastructure in place since prior to participating in the historically unprecedented post-WWII expansion in the production of prosperity. Every single nation on Earth that lacks a large administrative infrastructure is an impoverished nation. No nation without a large administrative infrastructure has ever achieved post-WWII levels of prosperity and economic development. The claim, then, that such a large administrative infrastructure, which the far-right refers to as “socialism,” is incompatible with prosperity, is the precise opposite of what the empirical evidence suggests: It appears to be not only compatible with prosperity, but absolutely indispensable to prosperity.
2) Economic theory and empirical observation make clear why this is so: Due to the consequences of “transaction costs” (the costs of market transactions, such as gathering information or organizing interested parties to act as single market actors in public goods scenarios), government involvement in the modern market economy is a vital component of a robust and well functioning economy, and its absence ensures that centrally located market actors (who benefit from “information asymmetries”) will game markets to their own benefit and to the public’s often catastrophic detriment. The government helps to reduce transaction costs by investing in infrastructure and human capital development that involve a combination of high immediate costs and very long-term though extremely high benefits that is not conducive to reliance on private investment.
3) In the immediate wake of the implementation of New Deal policies, we had four years of historically unprecedented GDP growth, that only declined again immediately after budget hawks similar to the American far-right today pushed through a more conservative fiscal policy.
4) What finally ended the Great Depression and set the country and world on the most dramatic expansion of prosperity in the history of the world was the most massive public spending project in world history : WWII, in which the United States ramped up its industrial engine by producing enormous quantities of sophisticated heavy military equipment that was conveniently destroyed as fast it could be manufactured, demonstrating that even unproductive production can stimulate an economy, suggesting how much more economically beneficial investment in infrastructure can be.
5) Our period of greatest economic growth (the 1950s and 1960s) was also the period of our highest marginal tax rates, when we did, in fact, make massive investments in infrastructure (such as our interstate highways system) and scientific and technological research and development (such as the space program and the government sponsored advances in computer technology, both of which generated a plethora of economically enormously beneficial developments).
6) In the immediate wake of the stimulus spending by the Bush and Obama administrations, declining GDP turned to growing GDP and an accelerating rise in job losses turned into a decelerating rise in Job losses, literally turning the corner from the deepening collapse authored by eight years of Republican economic policies to gradual recovery within months of the resumption of a Democratic administration and sane economic policies.
7) Virtually no economists, liberal or conservative, recommend fiscal austerity during an economic contraction, and yet Tea Party lunatics, drenched in the false belief that a long-term deficit and debt problem is an immediate crisis, insist on policies that virtually every economic model shows actually INCREASES our debt while crippling our economy.
8) The overwhelming majority of professional economists do not agree with the Tea Party economic paradigm, and The Economist magazine called it “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical.” 80% of American economists in a 2008 survey favored Democratic Party over Republican Party economic policies (and that was BEFORE the rise of the Tea Party!).
9) The Tea Party Congressional faction famously blackmailed the country with fiscally and economically nationally self-destructive default on our financial obligations (by threatening to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, which has never before been contentious and in most developed countries is automatic), in order to secure continuing tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans which even conservative economists called “indefensible.” Even though this catalyzed a damaging downgrading of our national credit rating, they seem poised, in 2013, to repeat the same self-destructive and irresponsible behavior.
10) The two greatest economic collapses of the last 100 years in America were both immediately preceded by the two highest peaks in the concentration of wealth in America in the last 100 years (in 1929 and 2008, respectively), both of which followed a decade or more of the kinds of “small government” policies favored by the right today. Following the 1929 collapse, we learned from our mistakes and used government to create a more sustainable economy. Following the 2008 collapse, the far-right has continued to try to inflict continuing economic harm on the nation, insisting on continuing the same policies which caused the economic collapse in the first place.
11) Yet despite these many compelling facts, those on the far-right not only continue to believe what is contradicted by reality, but are 100 percent certain that their ideological dogma is the indisputable truth, and are smugly dismissive of those who disagree with them.
Part II: The Constitution and the Foundational Values of the Nation.
1) The Constitution was drafted and ratified to strengthen, not weaken, the federal government, after ten years of living under the toothless Articles of Confederation. “The Federalist Papers,” a series of op-ed arguments for ratification of the Constitution written by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, largely made the case that an adequately empowered and centralized federal government was essential to the viability of the new republic. (“Federalism” was originally used to designate the political doctrine favoring a strong federal government, but has been converted by the modern right-wing to refer to the political doctrine favoring a weak federal government.)
2) Despite the frequent refrain that government taxing-and-spending is an act of federal tyranny and “unconstitutional,” the fact is that Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the United States Constitution grants Congress the unqualified power to tax and spend in the general welfare, the Constitutional provisions limiting that power being the ones that define our electoral process, by which we the people get to decide, through that process, whether our representatives’ interpretation of “the general welfare” is one we the people agree with. So, if “socialists” vote in a “socialist” president who taxes and spends to provide universal healthcare, or to address issues of poverty or disability or other acts of humanity as a people, that is not unconstitutional, it is not an infringement on anyone’s liberty, it is not an abuse of federal power, but is, rather, Congress doing exactly what it was empowered to do.
3) While claiming to be the great defenders of the Constitution, right-wingers are in fact the great antagonists against the Constitution, because they reject the process by which we have resolved disputes over constitutional interpretation for over two centuries (Judicial Review) and fight to reduce the Constitution to a meaningless Rorschach Test which each ideological faction claims to support whatever that ideological faction favors, thus destroying the Constitution as a functioning document.
4) While pretending to be the great bulwark against tyranny, they in fact pose the greatest threat of tyranny and against our rule of law, by insisting that they are prepared to overthrow the government if they disagree with it, and by insisting that their “liberty” requires that we siphon political economic power away from our constitutionally and democratically constrained government organized to serve the public interest and into large private corporations that are not constitutionally and democratically constrained and are organized to serve the interests of the few who own the most shares rather than of the public in general (a transferal of power to corporate interests which is essentially the definition of “fascism”).
5) The claim to be the true representatives of the will and spirit of the Founding Fathers is almost the diametrical opposite of the truth, for several reasons. For one thing, the “Founding Fathers” did not have one simplistic ideological “will” that could be so easily represented. Ben Franklin, for instance, believed that all private wealth beyond that necessary to maintain oneself and one’s family in modest fashion should revert to the public “by whose laws it was created,” by means of very high luxury and inheritance taxes. Thomas Paine believed in redistribution of wealth, through the agency of government, from the more wealthy to the less wealthy. Alexander Hamilton believed in a very strongly centralized federal government. The two things that bound our Founding Fathers together and that, in the final analysis, they universally agreed on is that people can and should govern themselves through the use of their own reason and in service to their shared humanity, and that compromise was an essential tool in doing so, two things that the modern far right most vigorously rejects. In other words, the far right, by idolizing caricatures of the Founding Fathers, does the opposite of emulating them as rational and humane people striving to create an ever-more rational and humane society.
6) While power has indeed shifted from the states to the federal government over the course of our history, at the same time (and in part by that very mechanism), real protections against the potential tyranny of government have grown far stronger than they were even at the time of the founding of the nation, when states’ rights were paramount. As stated above, the first major step in that direction was the Constitution itself, replacing the toothless Articles of Confederation with a federal framework with a strong federal government.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, at the beginning of the 19th century, made another step in that direction, instituting the doctrine of “judicial review,” which gives the Court the last word in legal and constitutional interpretation, thus ensuring that our short and ambiguous founding document has, for functional purposes, a single unambiguous interpretation that we accept as a matter of law.
The next major step was the Civil War, which increased federal power to protect the rights of individuals (in this case, slaves) from the oppression of more local (state) governments and private property owners. The New Deal nationalized our sense of economic purpose and shared fate, and our participation in WWII took that spirit abroad and ramped up our economy even further. The Eisenhower administration taxed and spent with impunity, and put in place an enormously beneficial infrastructure which led to decades of historically unprecedented growth. The Civil Rights movement, Court holdings, and Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts all continued the use of the federal government to protect individual rights against state and private violation. Kennedy used the federal government to land a man on the moon, increasing our technological prowess in ways that have also been highly beneficial. And, finally, the federal government was instrumental in the development of information technologies which have created enormous prosperity.
In the meantime, the Civil Rights amendments to the Constitution and the Court’s interpretation of the Bill of Rights have led to an extraordinary extension of our liberties and of the vigor of their protection. The Bill of Rights came to be applied as a bulwark against state and local as well as federal intrusions of individual rights and liberties. The provisions came to be read with increasing rigor, requiring ever greater due process protections (which the faux-liberty-loving right have generally opposed with equal vigor), discovering a penumbra “right to privacy” that isn’t actually explicitly stated in the Constitution, and, in general, providing ever increasing protections for individuals against governmental exercises of power.
But rather than rejoice in this advance of liberty and prosperity, the right imagines that any intrusion on private property interests and their hoarding of private wealth is the real affront to individual liberty and human rights, just as their slave-owing ideological forebears did.
Part III. Morality, Humanity and Self-Congratulatory Historical Revisionism.
1) Right-wingers dismiss the plight of the poor, most of whom work long hours in low-paying jobs, as a function of their own defects and laziness, and insist that it is morally unacceptable for us as a society to assume any shared responsibility to address social issues such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, the special needs of the disabled, and unnecessary and unjust human suffering in general.
2) They do so despite the fact that every other developed nation on Earth has done a far better job than us of reducing poverty, reducing economic inequality, and reducing the myriad social problems associated with poverty and economic inequality.
3) They revise history so as to define every historical movement that is now broadly condemned to have been “left-wing movements,” such as their conversion of Nazism –a political ideology and regime which hated communists, labor unions, intellectuals, journalists, the poor, and “foreigners” living within the country, favored policies which concentrated wealth and power into constitutionally and democratically unconstrained corporate hands, and relied on an ultra-nationalism stoked up with lots of jingoism and “patriotic” rhetoric and imagery– into a left-wing movement, and their main argument why this is so is because “National Socialism” has the word “Socialism” in its name (much as the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, a Soviet client state, must have been a Democratic Republic, since it’s right there in the name, right?).
4) They revel in the (accurate) facts that the Republican Party freed the slaves while the Democratic Party was closely associated with the KKK, always implying that that alignment continues today. They neglect to mention (or recognize) that, in the wake of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which LBJ (a Democrat) was as closely associated with as Obama is with The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), southern whites (and northern white racists) abandoned the Democratic Party en masse and migrated to the Republican Party, which is why implicit and explicit racism now resides almost exclusively in the Republican Party, with the map of Tea Party strongholds closely corresponding to the map of the Confederacy, and with so many Tea Party policy positions containing so much implicit racism (e.g., voter suppression laws, opposition to any form of affirmative action, hyperbolic disdain for the first African American president, contempt for Latin American migrants, etc.).
Part IV: Guns, Violence, and a Reactive rather than Proactive Society.
1) The United States has the second highest homicide rate among 36 OECD nations (beaten only by Mexico, which “benefits” from a constant flood of our firearms crossing the border to fuel their problem), from 2 to 25 times the homicide rate of 33 of the 35 other OECD other nations.
2) In both domestic comparisons of homicide rates across all jurisdictions and cross-national comparisons of homicide rates in developed countries, there is a positive correlation between per capita legal gun ownership and homicide rates.
3) The overwhelming majority of firearms used in the commission of crimes in The United States are put into circulation by initially being legally purchased in those states with the laxest regulations, and entering the black market from there, through which they are distributed to all locales in the country due to the complete absence of any obstructions to the transportation of good across state and municipal borders.
4) As a statistical fact, a legally, privately owned firearm is many times more likely to be involved in EACH of the following than to be successfully used in self-defense: suicide, accidental shooting death, mistaken shooting death (not an accidental discharge or hunting accident, but an intentional shooting at an innocent person mistaken for an intruder or a threat), crime of passion and use as part of a cycle of domestic violence.
5) As a statistical fact, a firearm in the home has a greater likelihood of being the instrument of death of a member of the household or of an innocent visitor than to be used in self-defense, and the owner of a firearm is more likely to be the victim of gun violence than a non-owner of a firearm.
6) We, as a nation, have the highest absolute number and highest percentage of our population incarcerated of ANY nation on Earth, making us in a very literal sense the least free nation on Earth.
7) This high incarceration rate is in part a function of a right-wing retributive orientation, which believes that the world is neatly divided between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” and that if the good guys are just better armed against the bad guys, and lock the bad guys up or execute the bad guys, we’ll be a more peaceful and law-abiding society as a result.
8) The right, in other words, believes that the more we threaten one another –with decentralized deadly violence, with incarceration, with capital punishment– the more we will reduce violence against innocent victims, despite the empirical evidence that the opposite is true.
9) When an unarmed black teen walking home from the store (Trayvon Martin) was shot to death by an armed vigilante out looking for people to “defend” himself against (George Zimmerman), the right tried to dismiss this as irrelevant to the question of whether being an armed society of fearful and angry people out looking for people to “defend” themselves against is really such a good idea. They insisted that if it was legally self-defense in the moment of the use of deadly force (as it may or may not have been), then there can be no basis for criticizing the policies and ideology that encouraged the creation of the need to use deadly force, neglecting to recognize the fact that the entire encounter was a function of Zimmerman choosing to go out with a gun and look for people to “defend” himself against, and neglecting to notice the implications of his choosing to “defend” himself against an unarmed black teen walking home from the store. Following this incident, numerous right-wing posts on Facebook showed “scary” black criminals as some kind of a justification for whites going out with guns, pursuing unarmed black teens, and shooting them to death.
10) Those societies that have a more proactive and less reactive orientation –that recognize that we affect the propensity and ability to commit violent acts by the cultural milieu that we create together, that recognize that taking better care of one another and providing more social justice and less destitution, and making access to instruments of deadly violence less rather than more easy , by reducing the flood of instruments of deadly violence and the idolization of instruments of deadly violence which in part define our society— have far lower rates of deadly violence than we do, far lower rates of incarceration, far lower rates of poverty and other social ills, healthier and (according to self-report survey studies) happier populations.
11) Unfortunately, the far-right in America insists that to recognize our interdependence, to be an aspirational and hopeful rather than fearful and angry society, to be proactive and caring rather than reactive and retributive, would be an affront to their “liberty,” and thus opposes such progress in an obviously preferable direction, a direction which is more humane and productive and life-affirming.
Part V: Their Ideology’s Historical Predecessors.
1) The abuse of the concept of “liberty” to mean the liberty to benefit disproportionately from an unjust system which results in a grossly unjust distribution of wealth and opportunity, the identification of the federal government as a threat to that “liberty” and a tyrant because of it, is an ideology that has existed as long as our country has existed.
2) This conflation of the concepts of “liberty” and “property,” and the related reduction of “liberty” to a socially irresponsible license to exploit and oppress others for one’s own benefit, was originally the ideology of Southern Slave owners, who insisted that their liberty to own slave was being threatened by the tyrannical federal government, an ideology explicated in John C. Calhoun’s “Union and Liberty,” in which he argued that the “minority” (southern slave owners) had to be protected from the majority who were trying to infringe on their “liberty” to own slaves.
3) It continued to be used by Southern Segregationists, who argued that any attempt to end Jim Crow and ensure the civil rights of discriminated against groups would be an infringement on their freedom.
4) In fact, when LBJ was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the result was the movement of racists from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, where they now reside.
5) Rand Paul said that he would not have been able to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The abolition of slavery (even to the point of having to use years of military force) and the passage of laws protecting African Americans and others from discrimination in the public sphere were both federal governmental exercises of power.
6) The Right currently favors Jim Crow-like voter suppression laws based on a discredited pretext, dismisses as irrelevant the shooting death of an unarmed black teen walking home from the store by an armed vigilante out looking for people to defend himself against, opposes laws which address a historical legacy of an inequality of opportunity in America which disproportionately effects those categories of people who have been most historically discriminated against, speak in words and tones highly reminiscent of our nationally embarrassing McCarthyist witch trial era, and, in general, demonstrate that they are simply the current incarnation of an old historical perennial.
7) When confronted by those who disagree with them, people they constantly vilify and refuse to engage in any constructive national discourse with, they react with great hostility, their primary argument generally being that the act of presenting the factual and logical and moral errors in their ideology to them is an insult that cannot be tolerated.
Part VI: Their Short-Sighted, Socially Disintegrative and Globally Destructive Ideology.
1) Those on the far-right dismiss as a bastion of liberal bias precisely those professions that methodically gather, verify, analyze and contemplate information, thus insulating their dogma from any intrusion of fact and reason. (It’s no wonder, then, that only 6% of American scientists self-identify as Republican, and only 9% as conservative, compared to 55% as Democrat and 52% as liberal. 14% identify themselves as “very liberal,” over 50% more than those who identify themselves as merely “conservative.)
2) By doing so, they are able to dismiss scientific insights into the potentially catastrophic impact we are having on global natural systems through our unchecked accelerating exploitation of Nature in service to our immediate appetites and avarice, an exploitation which is converting us from fellow symbiotes in a sustainable biosphere into deadly parasites killing the host on which we are feeding.
3) Consistent with the general tone and tenor of their entire ideological package, this rejection of methodological thought and short-sighted commitment to immediate self-gratification, at the expense of others, at the expense of our planet, at the expense of our future, is an expression of a primal unmindfulness rather than the more mindful engagement with the world that we are capable of. It is a vestige of primitive inclinations rather than a progress into a more fully conscious existence on this planet. It is the rejection of the shared human endeavor that had begun to define us, a shared reaching for what we are capable of creating together, a shared commitment to reason and humanity.
This is, of course, a very partial list of the logical, factual, and moral fallacies that define the modern Far-Right. It is a single folly comprised of innumerable dimensions, including the failure to invest in children and families and communities, to value the health and welfare of our population, to have compassion and respect for those who migrate towards opportunity and do our hardest and least pleasant jobs for us for the lowest wages. It includes the disdain for gays and lesbians and transgender people, for Muslims and atheists and all those who differ in any way which triggers any number of deep and hateful bigotries. It includes the movement for an American Theocracy similar to those in the Middle East, in which Fundamentalist Christians strive to turn the state into a vehicle for their tyrannical religious fanaticism.
All of these multiple dimensions of far-right-wing folly and barbarism are part of a single, coherent package, an ideology of fear and hatred, of a variety of in-group/out-group biases and bigotries, an ideology which insists that we must not govern ourselves in ways which promote human welfare but only in ways which react brutally to the failure to do so, an ideology which eschews more effective and less costly preventions in favor of less effective and more costly reactions to problems left to fester and grow. It is an ideology which refuses to allow us, as a society, to invest in our future, to recognize our interdependence and our responsibilities to one another as human beings, and to work together intelligently and humanely in service to our collective welfare.
They’re on the wrong side of fact, the wrong side of reason, the wrong side of morality, and the wrong side of history. And they’re smug about it. We, as a nation and a world, do need a moderately conservative voice to be a vital participant in our national dialogue, but we all need to subordinate such ideological leanings to a shared commitment to being rational and humane people, wise enough to know that we don’t know much, working together to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world. While all of us fall short of that commitment to some degree and at some times, when factions form that demonstrate a consistent determination to be the diametrical opposite of rational and humane participants in a shared national endeavor, those factions become the problem we must solve rather than participants in our effort to solve it.
One of the subtexts running through the current meta-debate between the Left and the Right is a constant volleying back and forth of accusations and refutations of racism. The Left accuses the Right of racism for a variety of reasons that I partially capture below. The Right indignantly denies it, retaliating with accusations back, insisting that “playing the race card” is the real expression of racism.
Personally, I think this discussion is generally overdone and often distracting, but the thread of validity in the criticism by the Left of the Right, and the reinforcement of irrationality and counterfactuality in the Right’s response, motivates me to give it a comprehensive treatment.
First, it is important to explore the concept of “racism” itself. If, by “racism,” we mean only explicit, overt, self-conscious antipathy toward members of another race, then I’d say that only a small minority of politically active people of either major partisan camp are “racist.” The vast majority denounce such crude racism, and the extant but dwindling population of such unreconstituted racists in the population at large are not a significant political force anymore.
Before I turn to the more implicit forms of racism that I think do continue to play a significant, if not central, role in political affairs, I’d like to emphasize that I think that the ideological thread most prominent in right-wing thought isn’t racism proper at all, but rather what I’ll call “quasi-racism,” an intense in-group/out-group bias, informing a set of beliefs and positions that are very tribalistic, and very dismissive of “the other.” The antagonistic attitude toward numerous non-racial outgroups (though sometimes with strong racial associations), such as gays, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, foreigners in general, the poor, atheists, and, basically, anyone who isn’t perceived to be an in-group member, is one of the most prominent defining characteristics of modern right-wing thought.
Explicit racism, however, is not absent from the right-wing echo-chamber. On a Facebook thread following one posting of the statistic that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to be the instrument of the death of a member of the household than to be used in self-defense, for instance, one commenter responded to another by referring to “a group of n*****s raping your boyfriend” (the point being that you’d want to have a gun handy in that apparently representative scenario). On another thread at another time, a southern Tea Partier included among the problems besetting us “ungrateful blacks.” These are not isolated examples: While such explicit expressions of racism are not the norm, they recur at a constant rate on such threads, always, of course, by right-wing commenters slipping over a line many others approach without crossing.
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, there was a Facebook wall post of a news story about a trio of ”scary” black violent offenders, apparently being used to make the argument that it is understandable that armed vigilantes should go out in their neighborhoods and pursue unarmed black teens walking home from the store –even if the price of such “liberty” is the occasional shooting death of one such unarmed black teen– because, in their unself-aware but deep-rooted world view, it’s rational to be afraid, it’s rational to presume that a hoodie-wearing black teen walking through your neighborhood is up to no good, and so it is, implicitly, rational to provoke a deadly encounter with said black teen under those circumstances.
In other words, the right-wing insistence that it’s a non-issue that their ideology can lead to instances of overzealous vigilantes pursuing and killing unarmed black teens walking home from the store is an astounding illustration of an underlying –and effectively racist– defect in their ideology. (The contention that it’s a non-issue because it was allegedly self-defense on the shooter’s part neglects the fact that the alleged need for self-defense was indisputably created by the decision to go out with a gun and pursue the arbitrarily “suspicious looking” unarmed black teen in the first place.)
These same people champion Jim-Crow-like voter suppression laws (on a discredited pretext and repeatedly struck down by the courts as unconstitutional), use code words like “Chicago politics” and “ACORN” and other allusions to blacks-as-inherently-corrupt, advocate discrimination against Muslims (and denial of their first amendment freedom of religion rights), frequently vilify and denegrate Hispanics, want to deny civil rights to gays, and, in general, are committed to a tribalistic orientation to the world, in which the small in-group of overwhelmingly white, mostly male, almost exclusively Judeo-Christian bigots opposes the rights and aspirations of the myriad out-groups surrounding them, denying the reality of a legacy of historical injustices and of current inequities, fighting for a regressive, aggressive, compassionless, irrational, barbaric society, in which those who feel well-served by the status quo (or, more precisely, by the status quo of a previous era) fight to recover an archaic -if all too recent– social order more preferential to their in-group statuses.
And they do so by disregarding fact and reason; by dismissing as bastions of liberalism precisely those professions that methodically gather, verify, analyze, and contemplate information (which, as a liberal, I take as a complement and as an affirmation of how much more rational our ideology is than theirs); by selecting, revising, and ignoring historical data to serve their fabricated ideological narrative; by ignoring the weight of professional economic theory and analysis (prompting the free-market-advocacy Economist magazine to label them “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical”); by cherry-picking, reinterpreting, and selectively disregarding constitutional provisions and phrases in service to that same ideological narrative; and, in general, by defying fact and reason in service to ignorance and bigotry.
Whether we emphasize the racist overtones, the more explicit in-group/out-group tribalism in general, or just the prevailing ignorance and brutality of their ideology, the final evaluation is the same: It’s a perfect storm of organized irrationality in service to implicit and explicit inhumanity. And it’s not who and what we should choose to be as a people and a nation.
So, how much racism is there on the far right? It’s a moot point; the racism is enveloped by so much more that is the very cloth from which racism is cut that the accusation of racism is too narrow a focus and too much of a distraction. Emphasizing the broader irrational inhumanity that defines this ideological camp both captures and goes beyond the identification of the racist overtones within it.
(For more on these themes, see The New Face Of American Racism, The Tea Party’s Neo-”Jim Crow”, The History of American Libertarianism, The Presence of the Past, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, Basal Ganglia v. Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia Keeping Score, and “Sharianity”)
(This essay originated as a response to a Libertarian commenting on another Libertarian’s Facebook page, making the familiar argument about why Jeffersonian democracy, emphasizing minimal government, was both the intention of our Founding Fathers, and is the best form of government possible.)
As you might have gathered, I like the dialectic, so here’s both the antithesis to your thesis, and the synthesis of the two:
Adams, Franklin, and Hamilton wanted stronger central government than Jefferson did (thus, the first incarnation of our perennial, unintended and undesired,l two-party system was Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans v. Hamilton/Adams’ Federalists, the latter pretty much meaning the opposite of what it does today: a strong federal government). The country was a product of these competing views, and has continued to be carved on the lathe of a similar dichotomy throughout its history, to excellent effect. The Constitution itself was the first victory for the “stronger federal government” side, requiring convincing a population that considered each state a sovereign…, well, “state,” in the original and still used sense of a sovereign political unit.
These arguments to a reluctant public were made, most cogently and famously, in The Federalist Papers, a collection of essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay arguing for the need to create a sufficiently strong central government. This was in response to the failed Articles of Confederation, which did not provide a sufficiently strong central government.
The history of the country ever since has been one of a punctuated growth in power of the central government. I know that I just stated your major contention, but I don’t see it as a necessarily bad thing, or a betrayal of our founding philosophy: It is, rather, the articulation of lived history with founding principles, since the latter guided the process and form of the former. We retained strong protections for individual rights within the context of that strong federal government: Free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to organize, freedom of press, freedom of religion, protections from police (i.e., state) overreach into our private lives.
In fact, the stronger federal government has been primarily responsible for, and grew in response to the demand for, the extension of those protections of individual liberty; extending them to categories of people to whom they had been denied, and extending them to protect people from the overreaches of individual states as well as the federal government.
The genealogy of Libertarianism, and the argument on which it depends, while exalted by its association with Jefferson, is in fact characterized more by its defense of inequality and injustice (see also The History of American Libertarianism). From the ratification of the Constitution to the Civil War, it was the argument of slave owners resisting the abolition of slavery, the southern statesman John C. Calhoun famously arguing in Union and Liberty that a commitment to “liberty” and to the protection of “minorities” required the protection of the “liberty” of the “minority” southerners to own slaves! This argument was the argument of the “states’ rights,” small federal government ideological camp. That camp lost by losing the Civil War and by the abolition of slavery.
From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Era, the states’ rights, small federal government ideology was invoked to preserve Jim Crow and resist the enforcement of Constitutional guarantees to protect the rights of minorities (in the modern sense of the word), especially African Americans. That camp lost by a series of Supreme Court holdings (most notably Brown v. Board of Education) and the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (by which President Lyndon B. Johnson knowingly and willingly lost southern whites, who had until then formed a major branch of the Democratic Party, to the Republican Party, where they have since resided, and continue to comprise a large portion of the adherents to this perennial ideology).
Contemporary Libertarianism is the logical next step in this progression, after having resisted the abolition of slavery in the name of “liberty,” and the passage of Civil Rights legislation and Court holdings in the name of “liberty,” it now opposes the further confrontation of the legacy of that racist and discriminatory history by insisting, falsely, that “we’re all equal now, so any attempt to address, as a nation, the injustices still embedded in our political economy and culture is a deprivation of the liberty of those against whose interests it is to do so.” In other words, just as in those previous incarnations throughout our history, this particular concept of “liberty” still means “my liberty to screw you.”
Libertarians, conveniently, don’t see it this way, because it is a passive “screwing,” one that involves leaving in place institutionalized, but not legally reproduced, inequities and injustices. It is, as it has been before, the insistence that “we’ve done enough, and need do no more,” just as the defenders of slavery considered acquiescing to a national constitution was enough, and the defenders of racism considered acquiescing to abolition was enough, modern Libertarians think that acquiescing to a formal, legal end to racial discrimination is enough,and that it is an affront to their “liberty” to attempt to address as a nation, as a polity, the non-legally reproduced but deeply entrenched inequality of opportunity that persists in our country (see, e.g., The Paradox of Property).
This national commitment to ever-deepening and ever-broadening Liberty, including equality of opportunity without which liberty is, to varying degrees and in varying ways, granted to some and denied to others, involves more than just the African American experience: It involves women, Native Americans, gays, practitioners of disfavored religions (such as Islam), members of ethnic groups who are most highly represented in the current wave of undocumented immigration (such as Hispanics), basically, “out-groups” in general. It’s no coincidence that Libertarianism is so closely linked to Christian Fundamentalism and militant nationalism: It is an ideology that focuses on a notion of individual liberty that is, in effect and implementation, highly exclusive and highly discriminatory. (There are, it should be noted, branches of Libertarianism which are more internally consistent, and, at least, reject these overt hypocrisies, while still retaining the implicit, passive, retention of historically determined inequality of opportunity described above.)
History has demanded increasing centralization of powers for other reasons as well: an increasingly complex market economy with increasingly difficult-to-manage opportunities for centralized market actors to game markets in highly pernicious ways (due to information asymmetries); increasingly pernicious economic externalities increasingly robustly generated by our wonderful wealth-producing market dynamo (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems and Political Market Instruments); in general, a complex dynamical system that is highly organic and self-regulating, but not perfectly so, and without some pretty sophisticated centralized management is doomed to frequent and devastating collapse.
(This is why, by the way, every single modern developed nation, without exception, has a large administrative infrastructure, and had in place a large administrative infrastructure prior to participating in the post-WII explosion in the production of wealth. The characteristic that Libertarians insist is antithetical to the production of wealth is one of the characteristics universally present in all nations that have been most successful in producing wealth.)
The tension between our demand for individual liberty and minimal government, on the one hand, and a government adequately large and empowered to confront the real challenges posed by our increasingly complex social institutional landscape on the other, is a healthy tension, just as the tension among the branches of government is a healthy tension. We don’t want one side of any of these forces in tension to predominate absolutely: We want the tension itself to remain intact, largely as it has throughout our history. Through it, we took the genius of the Constitution, and extended it to constraints imposed on state and local as well as federal government, recognizing through our experience with the institution of slavery that tyranny doesn’t have to be vested in the more remote locus of government, and the resistance to it doesn’t always come from the more local locus of government. And through it, we took the genius of the Constitution, and extended it through the lessons of history and the pragmatic demands placed on our national self-governance by the evolution of our technological and social institutional context.
The pragmatic, moderate, flexible, analytical implementation of our ideals that has resulted, protecting the true liberties that we treasure, extending them to those who were excluded, deepening them in many ways for all of us, and allowing, at the same time, for us to act, as a polity, through our agent of collective action (government), in ways that serve our collective interests, is what serves us best, and what we should remain committed to, with ever greater resolve.
I recently posted on three of my Facebook pages (my personal page: http://www.facebook.com/steve.harvey.313; my Colorado Confluence page: http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence; and my Politics of Reason, Humility, and Goodwill page: http://www.facebook.com/Reasonandgoodwill) the following:
For those on the far-right who like to claim that “the founding fathers” all meant for this country to be as they envision it, here’s an interesting passage from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin (page 315): “Another…proposal Franklin made to the Pennsylvania convention (in 1776) was that the state’s Declaration of Rights discourage large holdings of property or concentrations of wealth as ‘a danger to the happiness of mankind.’” What vitriol our modern faux-patriots would heap on Franklin, one of the most revered among those same “founding fathers” in their own day, were he alive to participate in political discourse today!
My point was less to promote Franklin’s specific position than to promote the notion that the “founding fathers” had amongst them a broader range of ideas than is sometimes supposed, and that we should honor them not by constricting our discourse to a false presumption of what “they” thought, but rather should honor them by discussing a range as broad as they did. Franklin was by far the most revered generally, and amongst the “founding fathers” themselves, in their own day (until Washington won the War of Independence, and knocked Franklin down to the second most revered), and that he had proposed an idea that would be denounced by the members of a particularly virulent right-wing ideology today that claims to be most in sinc with the “intent” of “the founding fathers” speaks volumes about how constricted our national discourse has become.
The guilt for this ideological narrowing of our national mind doesn’t belong to the right alone; the left has its own sacred cows, its own ideological false certainties that are insulated from reason and evidence and further examination. But I do not find that left-wing corpus of false ideology to form the major thrust of our national collective consciousness, and certainly not its most counter-factual and counter-rational elements.
Though many on the right decry the “creeping socialism” of American domestic policy, the large administrative state along with its regulatory and redistributive functions, its public investments in public programs, is not the result so much of left-wing ideology as of pragmatic problem solving over a period of generations. It was, in fact, the broadening of the American mind through lived history, through trial and error, through the organic processes of social institutional growth and deepening in response to the challenges of shared life.
The principle force in the narrowing of the American mind is on the right, tightly constrained within a set of very narrow and inflexible assumptions largely divorced from historical, economic, legal, or, in general, social systemic evidence, analysis and lived experience. This set of ideological shackles takes several forms: 1) a false and ideologically convenient reduction of the Constitution to “the confirmation of everything we believe whether that’s what the Constitution actually says or not,” 2) an “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical” (in the words of The Economist magazine) political agenda, and 3) an uncompromising fanaticism, served by a simultaneous rejection of scholarship and hollow pretense to be supported by it, to name a few.
On many right-wing sites and pages, a rational argument (if presented by an infiltrator such as myself) simply can’t be followed, in an almost Keystone-coppish spoof of discourse, a political ideological rendition of “who’s on first?” Amidst the bizarre barrage of school-yard taunts and infantile pejoratives, simultaneous defenses and indignant denials of implicitly racist or quasi-racist attitudes, can be found an underlying thread of pure, unadulterated, unexamined irrationality and ignorance. Reason is not only rejected, but reduced to the status of undifferentiated subjective opinion, “your reason,” as if logical argumentation applied to reliable evidence is no more reliable than random bigotries, just one more set of arbitrary opinions among many, and not the one to their liking.
Overly aggressive right-wingers insist that George Zimmerman should never have been arrested because he, the armed pursuer and fatal shooter of an unarmed teen engaged in no illegal behavior at the time the pursuit began, was merely defending himself and his property, while the unarmed victim of the shooting, reaccting to being pursued struck out at Zimmerman, was not.
On one anti-immigrant site, arguments included the notion that since some illegal immigrants commit predatory crimes, not being more aggressive in the enforcement of immigration laws is an insult to the victims of such crimes. When I pointed out that this is precisely the same logic used to support overtly racist beliefs, by holding an entire race or ethnicity accountable for the real or imagined crimes of any of its members (a tactic that can be used to impugn any large group or race or ethnicity, since as a matter of statistical probability there will certainly be crimes committed by some members of any such group), the reaction was, of course, a string of dismissive and highly inappropriate pejoratives, and an insistence that their views can’t possibly bear any resemblance to racism, because they are indiscriminate in their hatred of illegal immigrants. They just couldn’t grasp the concept of categorical prejudice having broader applicability than its “racist” incarnation (leaving aside the issue of whether there isn’t, really, a specifically racist element to their antagonism), but were relentlessly bellicose and belligerent in their inability to do so (uttering such apparently timeless gems as “retard,” “idiot,” and, yes, “illegal lover,” the last while denying any similarity in form to racism…!).
There are, of course, the homophobes, the Islamophobes, and the various other incarnations of the “us v. them” mentality, full of hypocrisy and inconsistency. These are people who claim to be the ultimate defenders of the Constitution while simultaneously insisting that to allow Muslims the same First Amendment freedom of religion rights accorded everyone else would be a travesty against our nation. (One of their arguments is that Islam isn’t a religion, but rather a plot for world conquest.) These are the people who complain about an overly intrusive government who simultaneously insist that government must discriminate against people on the basis of private sexual orientation. It’s a paranoid and bellicose attitude toward the world.
The Obama-haters form a cross-section all their own, frequently overlapping with other variations, but a distinguishable sub-set in its own right. Whether one supports or opposes President Obama’s policies is not the defining distinction here: It is certainly possible to oppose those policies without belonging to this particular variation of this particular cultural pathology. But, for many, hating Obama is a religion, and the justifications highly exaggerated or fabricated, and imbued with a seething hostility. Some justify this by the similar dislike by many on the left of the previous president, George W. Bush, though I find it hard to equate outrage at a president who treated the world as our enemy (and did so in eager defiance of international law and human rights) with a president who merely tries to use government to meet the needs of the most needy among us. (Indeed, treating the world as our enemy is precisely one component of this right-wing mania, while meeting the needs of the most needy among us is precisely what they most vehemently oppose.)
Irrational bigotry, anti-intellectual dogma, unreflective and fully insulated false certainties, are the fabric of this ideology. But it is not just another cult, another little outgrowth of that ever-present but rarely dominant mindset found among religious fanatics and overzealous ideologues. It is a coalescence, a mutation of both of those categories merging into one, an overzealous ideology for religious fanatics; a religious fanaticism for overzealous ideologues. And, like an astronomical phenomenon with a growing gravitational field, more and more of right-wing American society has been sucked into its vortex, from fundamentalist religious fanatics, to grease-painted anti-government lunatics, to all varieties of xenophobes and hostility-driven personality types (though, again, to be fair, one far smaller and less threatening nest of hostility-driven ideologues is still thriving on the left as well).
Of course, as with all of the most virulent, anti-humane movements of world history, it is staunchly anti-intellectual. It has branches that reject some major and not particularly scientifically contentious scientific theories such as Evolution and Global Warming. It has branches that dismiss modern economics and want to replace it with a dogma derived from the work of a century old non-empirical Austrian economist instead. The complex and sophisticated accumulated knowledge of our civilization is considered irrelevant to this faction, because only that which supports the preferred predetermined conclusion is admissible.
It belongs to the class of ideologies and movements that includes the Inquisition, Bolshevism, Nazism, the Khmer Rouge, the Ku Klux Klan, and McCarthyism. Some aspects of it are directly descended from the same lineage of national ideologies that opposed the ratification of the Constitution, defended slavery and opposed abolition, and defended Jim Crow and opposed Civil Rights. It is in many ways milder than these predecessors and cousins, but more insidious for being so.
It isn’t just that these rather unsavory political attitudes and emotional dispositions form one major faction within our society, but rather that they have been (and may or may not still be) growing in influence while simultaneously insulating themselves from any intrusion of fact, reason, or human decency. In the 1970s, we saw TV’s Archie Bunker (wonderfully portrayed by the very talented Carrol O’Connor) as a relic of a soon-to-be transcended past, the bigot so archaic and comical that it was not a matter of great concern. But Archie Bunker was both less virulent and more marginal in his day than our neo-Archie-Bunkers are today, whose bigotry is more insidious and sublimated, and whose numbers, perhaps, are waxing rather than waning.
I am always a bit skeptical of any claims of exceptionalism, whether American exceptionalism, or the constantly repeated and rarely accurate belief in some exceptional aspect of one’s own time and place. My own version of it, voiced here, needs to be taken with a grain of salt as well: Bigots have plagued every generation. Their numbers and influence have often been greater than they are today, and their actions more violent and predatory.
What is exceptional about the present version, what worries me about it in a way that the past incarnations might not have, is that it is a mutation of that attitude and orientation that makes both its possessors and a far larger number of potential new recruits more easily taken in. It is a version that denounces racism while preaching it, that appeals to the baser nature of human beings while providing what to those so inclined is a credible cloak of respectability.
And it is a vibrant and robust current historical trend that stands in stark opposition to the deepening and broadening of human consciousness in service to humanity. When those among us who are hopeful and humane, who would rather see us become more rather than less wise and compassionate as a people, look at this trend, we see the antithesis of the future we know in our hearts is both possible and perhaps inevitable. We see Scrooge before the transformation multiplying and growing more intransigent, and Marley’s Ghost and the Three Spirits safely locked away. We see the perhaps momentary, perhaps more enduring, victory of malice and avarice and ignorance and irrationality.
The narrowing of the American mind may not be exceptional, but it is legitimate cause for concern. And those among us who favor the blossoming of human consciousness instead need to think long and hard about how to confront it, and work long and hard and smartly doing so.
There is a “liberals are hypocrites” post that is going viral among right-wing zealots on facebook, with thousands of shares and hundreds of comments on some of them, in which a news story about two African Americans who committed a violent crime against a white is, once again, proffered as proof that 1) George Zimmerman was right to pursue and shoot Trayvon Martin, 2) “Stand Your Ground” laws are good and necessary, 3) those who oppose them are trying to turn good, law-abiding (i.e., “white”) folks into unarmed innocent victims of bad, law-breaking (i.e., “black”) folks, and 4) Liberals are hypocrites because we aren’t concerned enough about black-on-white violence.
My following response, which is an expression of sheer disgust at continuing to see this ugly bigotry repeated over and over again, apparently resonating with far too many people, only addresses the first three of these issues. (The fourth can be summed up as follows: There is virtually no one defending black-on-white violence, and no laws bringing into question whether some incidents of it –or, more precisely, acts of violence by those you DON’T identify with against those you DO identify with– can be prosecuted or not. The reason the white-on-black violence of the Trayvon Martin shooting is a larger issue is because there are people defending it as a non-issue and advocating laws that make it more likely to occur more often.)
The news story (about an incident of black-on-white violence), used in this way, highlights the fundamental difference between almost all variations of right-wing ideology and almost all variations of left-wing ideology: The former is firmly rooted in fear and hatred, while the latter aspires to hope and humanity. Those on the right scoff that those on the left would be so naive, though, in reality, hope and humanity is not only a more positive orientation, but, when leavened with reason and information, is also more pragmatic, better serves one’s own self-interest, than the fear and hatred that informs those on the right. (See, for instance, Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems, for one reason why this is so.)
Those on the far-right are blithely indifferent to the death of an unarmed black teen at the hands of an armed white vigilante, because the armed white vigilante, in their mind, had every right to defend himself against any and all potential or perceived dangers, while the unarmed black teen lacked even the right to life, as long as it is one of them rather than the government that deprives him of it. One rationalization that is used is the presumption of guilt laid on the teen due to the possibility that he reacted violently to being pursued, something that these ideologues should respect rather than condemn, if we each have a right to protect ourselves against perceived threats! Ironically, however, they only defend the armed pursuer’s right to “defend” himself, and not the unarmed pursued’s right to do so!
If these right-wing ideologues had any integrity, any consistency, were anything other than implicitly racist hypocrits, they would not point to the possibility that Martin was beating Zimmerman before he (Martin) was shot as justification for the shooting, but rather with approval that Martin was defending himself against the armed individual pursuing him! Why aren’t they chanting that it’s a shame Martin didn’t kill Zimmerman before Zimmerman killed Martin, since it was Zimmerman who was the armed pursuer, and Martin who was the unarmed pursued?
But, of course, that’s not the way their little minds work, because it’s all about who they identify with, and who they identify as their implicit enemy. The armed vigilante is LIKE THEM, and that’s all that counts. The unarmed victim is THE OTHER that they fear and hate, and so his innocence, the fact that he had his life taken away unjustly, is just no big deal. They excuse the armed pursuer, because they identify with him (racially, and ideologically as an armed pursuer of someone he thought was a criminal); they implicitly condemn the unarmed teen to a death sentence without a trial because they don’t identify with him (racially, and as someone who someone like them was inclined to suspect of being up to no good). It’s the very nature of their way of thinking, and the reason why it should be odious to all rational people of goodwill.
What an amazingly convoluted ideology it is that does such contortions to be indignant that anyone would raise any objections to an armed pursuer shooting to death an unarmed teen apparently doing absolutely nothing illegal at the time the pursuit began, but spares no indignation whatsoever on behalf of the unarmed teen who was shot to death! The imagined threat to Zimmerman, who was both the pursuer and the wielder of deadly force in this instance, is more salient to them than the real danger to Martin, who was the pursued and unarmed victim of a shooting death!
What gets me most about this is what it indicates about how far we’ve sunk as a nation. This isn’t just a fringe ideology that a few grease-painted jack-asses adhere to. This has become a mainstream ideology, a cult of implicit violence and hatred justified by fear and generalized enmity.
It goes beyond the rationalization of offensive deadly violence by an armed pursuer against an unarmed victim, justified only by the pursuers “reasonable” fear of crime in general (!), essentially legalizing paranoid racist violence. It goes beyond conveniently targeting those “scary blacks” (as the news story used to stoke the right-wing indignation so poignantly illustrates) whose crimes justify Zimmerman acting as police, judge, jury, and executioner at the sight of a black kid in his neighborhood. It even goes beyond their assertion that there is no racism in America, that their now oft-invoked fear and hatred of those blacks who have not proven that they are not a threat isn’t racism at all, but rather merely the rational response to the “racism” of those who think that laws that facilitate killing unarmed black teens due to a generalized fear of crime are a bad idea.
It includes and goes beyond all of this. It extends to and is fed by the delusion that there is no social injustice in America, that people fare well or poorly primarily by virtue of their own merit, a notion that is not only absurd on the face of it, but is also thoroughly disproved by statistical evidence (see The Presence of the Past). It combines a blithe indifference to the legacies of history that relegate people to sharply unequal opportunity structures at birth, with the equally blithe willingness to subtly loathe the entire categories of people who, born into such opportunity structures, are overrepresented among the poor. But irrational bigots are not swayed by such things as fact and reason and human decency.
The fact that such a belligerent, inhumane, and just generally dysfunctional ideology can survive as a major ideological strain in American culture is scary beyond belief. This cultural virus has always been with us, but never before in my memory so virulent and widespread as it is today. Anyone who has any desire for us to remain or become a rational and humane people needs to take stock of this, to repudiate it, and to oppose it, passionately and constantly, because it is truly ugly and destructive insanity.
I’ve frequently encountered the argument that any reference to the legacy of history, to continuing evidence of a racially differentiated distribution of wealth and opportunity, is irrelevant because: 1) “I’ve never owned any slaves;” 2) everyone has the opportunity to succeed in America today, and it’s entirely the fault of those who don’t succeed if they fail to take advantage of that opportunity; and 3) the statistical trends are a result of sub-cultural problems that are the fault of the people who are suffering from them. All three of these rationalizations contain errors that are easily demonstrated.
One commenter insisted that the past is remote and irrelevant, that it is full of discredited ideas and so why should we turn to it to understand anything about the present or future? My answer was that disredited past ideas and well-evidenced past realities are two distinct things, that I am not arguing that we should be bound by past beliefs —far from it— but rather that we should be informed, in part, by past realities.
I do not oppose developing state-of-the-art new ideas and insights. Indeed, that’s what I live for. I’m a student of the ever-evolving explosion of human consciousness and its products. But those are all part of a historical process. They do not just exist in the present; they emanate from the past.
Even aside from the persistence of racist attitudes, of actual prejudice and discrimination (which are far more prevalent than some are willing to admit), there are other mechanisms by which past prejudice and discrimination continue to have present consequences. Children inherit from their parents a variety of legacies which are differentiated by history, passed down through the generations, legacies which include material wealth, social and institutional connections and privileges, and habits of thought and action adapted to and conducive to the social and material context of previous generations. Those who inherit more material wealth, richer social and institutional connections and privileges (such as ivy school “legacies,” in which the children of alumni receive preferential treatment in admissions considerations), and are socialized into the patterns of thought and action incubated in and conducive to socio-economic success, are clearly advantaged over those who inherit less material wealth, poorer social and institutional connections and privileges, and are socialized into patterns of thought and action adapted to and reproductive of relative poverty.
Paradigms persist even when we are no longer invested in their persistence. It is not enough to eradicate racist laws, or even racists attitudes, to eradicate the effects of racism. It requires a social investment, based on a recognition of a social responsibility.
There is an economic concept called “path dependence,” which refers to the tendency to remain in sub-optimal paradigms due to the up-front costs of paradigm shifts. For example, if there is new physical plant that produces something far more efficiently than what had heretofore been used, any calculation of the benefits of replacing the old with the new includes the huge up-front costs involved, and, even if there are huge long-term benefits to be gained, if the up-front costs are onerous enough, those benefits might never be pursued.
This can take many forms, from changing physical plant, to changing forms of government or economic systems, to changing understandings of reality. All of these confront various kinds of path-dependent resistance.
Here’s a very simple (and trivial) example: The “QWERTY” computer keyboard arrangement (named for the first five letters, from upper left, on the computer keyboard). If, for some purpose, someone needed to know why computer keyboards, in the present, are arranged that way, they would not be able to discover the answer by limiting themselves to consideration of present reasons why it might be so. The reason, rather, lies in the past: It minimized the jamming of mechanical typewriter hammers. It is a present reality, determined by past circumstances.
There are limitless other examples, in limitless arenas: The human spine has its shape because we evolved from walking hunched over (from four-legged, going further back), to standing upright. The spine wasn’t designed from scratch, but rather took its form from successive developments that built on previous conditions. And it is a sub-optimal design, leading to a lower back that is weaker than structurally necessary. The past is present in the present.
The notion that meeting current and future challenges requires thinking in the present and in no way benefits from understanding the past relies on a false dichotomy: Acting in the present and understanding the past are not incompatible, and, in fact, to do the former well, you have to include the latter in your approach.
Those “vague events of the past that really have no bearing” (as one commenter put it) are not so vague, and not so irrelevant. Such assertions conveniently ignore the statistical fact that the two most historically oppressed racial groups in American history, African Americans and Native Americans, are far more represented among our impoverished than random chance would allow. Why? Surely those who deny the relevance of this fact aren’t explicitly arguing that those racial minorities just happen to have an excessive amount of non-meritorious people among them, that they are “inferior” races. But it’s hard to see how their argument can be based on anything other than an implicit assumption to that effect.
The argument that members of those races have individually failed to take advantage of the opportunities available to them doesn’t address the statistical reality that so many more individuals from those races have failed in this way than individuals in the race that historically oppressed them. What a coincidence that the descendants of those who were enslaved and conquered are, on average, so much “less meritorious” than the descendants of those who enslaved and conquered them. Just highly improbable random chance, no doubt, and in no way involving those vague and irrelevant facts of history.
And the argument that it is a subcultural phenomenon begs the question: Why these subcultures and not others? Will those arguing this position really stand by the claim that it’s just a coincidence that the subcultures burdened with these problems just happen to encompass the populations we massacred, enslaved, and oppressed for centuries? Or will they admit that, to the extent that a mediating cause of social problems borne by these populations is subcultural in nature, the development of such subcultural dysfunction has as a first cause the centuries of oppression in which it was incubated?
The argument that some once disadvantaged ethnic groups have prospered, so why don’t these, doesn’t cut it either: There are many variables in play, and they lead to a wide variety of outcomes. Two major factors come into play: 1) No other disadvantaged population was ever quite so extremely and enduringly disadvantaged as the two I’ve named, and 2) the fact that there are circumstances in which countervailing factors overcome the liabilities of prejudice and discrimination doesn’t negate the existence and salience of prejudice and discrimination. In the case of generally new waves of exploited and impoverished immigrant groups who then prosper later, combinations of economic factors, less entrenched discrimination, and cultural characteristics particularly conducive to success can all come into play.
Just as some formerly underprivileged groups prosper, so do some individuals from underprivileged backgrounds, not because all is well and everyone has an equal chance, but because other factors intervene to counterbalance the injustices that really do exist. An individual might have gotten lucky by having exceptional talents, or exceptional mentors, or other bits and pieces of countervailing good luck.
But these bits of greater good fortune overwhelming an unjust situation don’t excuse the perpetuation of the unjust situation. There were slaves that escaped and prospered as well; that doesn’t mean that slavery was just fine, because, after all, some born into it prospered. The injustice isn’t erased by some fraction of those who escape it. And the fact that our current distribution of wealth and opportunity is unjust is conclusively proven by statistically significant differences in average outcomes for large populations on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender.
The purpose of understanding the past isn’t to change the past, or to apportion blame, or to cultivate a sense of guilt and a sense of victimhood, or to suggest that descendants of victims of injustices necessarily deserve reparations beyond a commitment to erasing the legacy of those injustices, or to suggest that any inequality itself is unacceptable. The ultimate goal isn’t to recognize the role of history in forming the present, but rather to mobilize that knowledge in service to humanity today and tomorrow.
Who cares why the keyboard is as it is, or the human spine is as it is, or the inequitable distribution of opportunity in America is as it is, unless there is some present use for that knowledge? In the former two, there really isn’t, because we are willing (or have no choice but to) accept the current state, and so how it became so is of little practical relevance. But, if there were a question of fundamental justice involved, of human rights and human dignity, then it would be relevant, as it is in the last mentioned case.
Letters on a keyboard aren’t conscious and don’t care where they’re located. Human beings are, and do. The “QWERTY” of the distribution of wealth and opportunity has a relevance that the “QWERTY” of the location of keys on a keyboard doesn’t. And the relevance of the history that created that distribution of wealth and opportunity is that it exists, that the injustices of history have not been erased by time, that they are still embedded in the chances of birth. A commitment to our most basic values compels us to face that fact and deal with it responsibly, rather than deny it and pretend that each person fares only according to his or her own merit and effort, despite the overwhelming evidence that that just isn’t so.
It is not merely, or even primarily, to demonstrate the relevance of past racial discrimination to current inequitable distributions of wealth and opportunity that we should be informed by this presence of history, but rather to demonstrate the existence of social and economic injustice itself. I might be inclined to argue that those who are impoverished in America, or struggling in circumstances characterized by poorer than average opportunities to thrive, regardless of their race, are by-and-large victims of ill-fortunes that were not their own making, and did not enjoy a true equality of opportunity such as we, as a people, should be striving to realize. I might be inclined to argue that our policies for addressing these injustices shouldn’t be racially targeted, or race-conscious, but rather address the problems themselves that are disproportionately borne by members of some formerly oppressed races, and by doing so address the injustices at their root, as they occur, rather than superficially by the categories in which they most prevalently occur.
But the people who deny that the injustices of the past have any relevance to the injustices of the present are doing so to argue that there are no injustices in the present, or at least no injustices of a kind that incur any social responsibility borne by us collectively as a people and a nation. They argue that those who are poor are poor because they lack merit, lack resolve, lack something that those others who are not poor have, in complete defiance of the evidence.
The number one predictor of future wealth is the wealth into which one is born: If you are born into a wealthy family, you are likely to become a wealthy adult; if you are born into a poor family, you are likely to become a poor adult. There is far less social mobility than our mythology pretends (indeed, less even than in the more liberal countries of Western Europe). When one’s fate is largely determined by the socioeconomic class into which they are born, there is less difference, in terms of social justice, between our current political economy, and the more unabashedly inequitable systems of the past. Obviously, the ideal of equality of opportunity is far from being a reality in this country.
One of the fundamental challenges facing us as a people is to recognize this, and continue to strive to remedy it. In America, too many people hide behind a political philosophy that allows them to “have their cake and eat it too,” to enjoy the benefits of living in a society without undertaking any of the moral responsibilities that that incurs (see The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism for a discussion of a different aspect of this overly-convenient and pernicious blend of individualism and nationalism). It is time we once again heeded John Donne’s famous admonition that
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Our nation is embroiled in the fall-out from a tragedy brewed from familiar ingredients. Once again, an innocent child is dead, a victim of some undetermined blend of cowboy conservativism, racism, and laws which weaken the state’s crucial monopoly on the legitimate use of deadly force.
There is no shortage of lessons to be learned from the murder of Trayvon Martin, an innocent and unarmed black teen walking home from the store, the culprit protected by a Florida law that effectively legalizes murder, as long as the perpetrator thought the person he was murdering might be a criminal (letting each be the police, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, all on their own. So much for “due process…”). To those who insist that they are not racists because racism is dead, it isn’t, and some of you are. To those who insist that liberty and justice require decentralizing the legal right to –and discretionary judgment as to when to– use deadly violence, you are liberating only human folly, and doing so at the cost of innocent others’ most fundamental of rights, the right to life.
The far right insists that if we, as a polity, try to take care of one another through our agent, the state, it is the most antagonistic thing imaginable to individual liberty, but that being able to kill an innocent teen, because he has dark skin and wears a hoodie, in response to some racist impulse, is the most necessary thing imaginable to that same liberty. If that were what the word “liberty” really meant, then it would be an odious thing. But it isn’t, neither what it means nor what it is.
“Liberty” is the freedom to speak your mind, believe and express those beliefs, organize, assemble, aspire, innovate, prosper, and thrive. It is not the freedom to harm others, to hurl our nation into a Hobbesian paradise of a “war of all against all,” in which life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” It is not the freedom to kill an unarmed teen because he’s black and wears a hoodie. It’s not even the freedom to be left to make that choice, each using his or her own judgment whether this or that individual deserves to be killed, in any circumstance other than truly imminent necessity of the defense of self or others.
That we have an ideology reverberating through large swathes of our collective consciousness that ever was foolish enough to blurr that bright line is proof enough that something is horribly amiss, and we are in urgent need of correcting it.