Saturday, October 31, 2015

Black Lives Matter: Some Connections (Re)Viewed from that Jagged Orbit

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
— Pastor Martin Niemöller (one poetic version)


My cousin Joy was active in the Peoria Holocaust Memorial Button Project, so even living far from it, I'm familiar with their approach to helping people, especially young Midwestern Americans, imagine the Hitlerian massacres by collecting and then piling together in five large transparent containers one everyday item — a button — for each of the eleven million people murdered. Relevant here is that best-estimate figure of eleven million: some five to six million murdered Jews and five to six million other "enemies of the state."

            The larger number is important, as is Hannah Arendt's project in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) to put into historical, sociological, political, and ethical context what many of my fellow Jews passionately believe must be seen as the Holocaust, the Shoah — the destruction of the Jews seen as in its essence unique. That is, the Hitlerian attempted genocide of Jews was not unique as all historical events are necessarily unique but unique in the deepest sense of sui generis: literally one of a kind.

            Whatever the ultimate Truth is about the Hitlerian Holocaust, there are two practical (pragmatic, political) problems with seeing it as the Holocaust, sui generis, absolutely unique.

            First, if the Shoah is literally unique there is little to be learned from it. The deaths of some six million Jews in "The Final Solution to the Jewish Question" would be a relatively recent reminder of the dangers of anti-Semitism and the human potential for atrocities, but that is the end of their lessons. On the other hand, if the Shoah fits into larger patterns, there is much to be learned from it about racism, colonial theory and policies, bureaucracy, human psychology — well, and so forth in a variety of areas of far more than mere academic interest.

            Second, if the Holocaust is literally unique, a Calamity for the Jews, why should non-Jews care?

            That is not a rhetorical question.

            Clearly non-Jews should care on ethical grounds: a great evil had been done, and … well, and that is of ethical significance. And then we can go on to consider how decent people should care about great evils and try to do something about them, maybe learn about them and have their consciousness raised and show empathy and compassion.

            And that will pretty much be the end of the matter, which is fine for individuals and of political significance: Compassion and empathy are central to the moral life and ethical politics.

            Looking at those eleven million buttons, though, thinking of the mass murder of eleven million people is a reminder that once a figurative death machine like the Holocaust gets into action — whoever it was designed for initially — it's going to stuff into its maw all sorts of people.

            Which is why various forms of Martin Niemöller's prose-poem keep getting quoted, and why Paul Julian and Les Goldman's animation THE HANGMAN (1964) — from the anti-McCarthyite poem by Maurice Ogden (1951/54) — is one of the more important works of the middle of the twentieth century.

            Indeed, "Black Lives Matter," and more to the immediate point in the autumn of 2015, so do Black deaths. That point must be made and made again and then repeated. Soon, though, the "Black Lives Matter" truth must be complemented by the hard-nose pragmatic political doctrine that effective, long-term politics are coalition politics, and coalitions need at least one thick root in perceived self-interest and/or the interests of one's immediate group. For Jews such consideration should motivate political as well as ethical reasons to commemorate some eleven million deaths in the Hitlerian Holocaust. For American Blacks …

            Well, it's arrogant to give advice, but I have some additional stories to upload into cyberspace, one or two of which may be of use to Black Americans.

            The first story is the oldest memory I have with words. My family had just moved to Chicago — a bit before 1950 — and I heard a new and apparently powerful word on the schoolyard and came home and asked my mother about it. The word was "nigger." My mother paused and said very carefully, "For now, let it go with this: If the first word out of a man's mouth is 'nigger,' the second word will be 'kike', so don't use it." I have no memory of when I learned the word "kike," but "kike" I knew, and in that knowledge and my mother's words I could understand that "nigger" was a word I shouldn't use and that those who used it were a danger to me.

            The Blacks, my parents' generation would say, were the Jews' Kapore in America: the "sacrificial substitute," the scapegoat that for once we didn't have to be. Except, as my mother knew, that wasn't exactly right. Among Whites in America who took race most seriously — like the neo-Nazis and the Klan — Blacks were first on the list by a great distance, but, oh, indeed there were others on their lists.

            "First they came for the Blacks …," and US Blacks by a similar great extent are the ones most at risk to be killed or abused by US police; but as we can tell you here out West, Blacks have potential allies with activists in the American Indian Movement and Mexican-American communities — and elsewhere.

            "The enemy of my enemy is" not necessarily "my friend," but s/he could be a co-belligerent; and the groups next in line to get shot by the police are definitely potential allies for Black Lives Matter. 

            A quick story from the University of Illinois, the main campus at Urbana-Champaign, on a lighter subject than homicide.

            In the late 1960s, UIUC introduced a program to admit five hundred Black students as affirmative action. It was tokenism — it turned out to be five hundred admissions total over four years, not 2000 — but it was a start. The Black students were put into temporary housing before getting dorm assignments, and they sat-in and protested, arguing that White frosh wouldn't have to put up with such shit. Actually, White frosh did: temporary housing awaiting dorm assignments had been Standard Operating Procedure for as long as anyone could remember. Among the other good things that came of this affirmative action program, was that the UIUC student housing authorities came up with faster ways to get new students into their permanent dorm rooms.

            There's a lesson here, one driven home by more serious considerations with school integration.

            Part of the idea of integration was that integrated schools would be better schools in part because the White establishment wouldn't fuck over White students and parents the way they would Black people, and, to the degree they tried, White parents and students wouldn't put up with it.

            Integration supporters overestimated White folk, underestimating the degree of "White flight" and the degree to which White establishments would be willing to fuck over most of those who remained in integrated school systems and the degree to which the poor who remained would have little choice but to "take it," and/or were willing to put up with a fair amount of school-house shit. (Education is valued highly enough to justify high risk and sacrifice in some cultures and subcultures, but not in all.)

            What should make poor Whites, Muslims, and others nervous about emphasis on Black equality is that part of the move toward equality could be treating larger groups of people equally badly.

            And to some extent, treating all Americans equally badly makes sense from the point of view of police: The assumption that every suspect is armed and dangerous and to be treated as a threat isn't irrational given the gun laws — and sheer number of guns — in much of the United States. There is a fair chance that a lot of people out on the American street are armed, untrained, nervous, short-tempered, and (hence) dangerous to the public and to themselves — and to police.

            Moreover, if it's a "War on Crime," it's to a great extent a counter-insurgency and guerilla war, where it's hard to tell who the civilians might be, and where civilian deaths can count as "acceptable collateral damage" if necessary to protect the lives of "our troops."

            Who those troops might be can get complicated.

            In Vietnam and Iraq, the US military did not leave US racism totally behind them, as indicated by my Chinese-American friend who said one of his more important jobs as an Army officer in Vietnam was as neutral mediator between Black and White soldiers (and the strongest racism he encountered was from Vietnamese who saw him, as he put it, not as an American officer there to protect them but as a "Chink"). And in US warfare in Vietnam and Iraq and elsewhere, the figure of speech Indian or Injun Country speaks volumes.

            Currently, the main "Indian Country" in the US is poor Black neighborhoods, but there is also "Indian Country" in the parts of actual Indian Country not policed by tribal forces — and maybe in some places where tribal police do have authority — and in barrios and in other ghettoized areas. In a "war on crime" with crime treated as a kind of insurgency to be met with militarized police, Black communities become the indigenous populations in which the guerillas hide.

            However, it is not just Black communities, and the whole "War on Crime," and the associated "War on Drugs" are dangerous policies not just for minorities but also for an American Republic seen as an antithesis of a police state.

            Even if racial issues magically disappeared, we'd still have problems. I was intrigued by some informal surveys I did in classes where we studied Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) and I asked my students to estimate screen time of various acts of violence in the film. Significantly, many of my students did not consider State violence against the elegant thug anti-hero to be violence. Said anti-hero, Alex, was a Brit teenager played by a young Malcolm McDowell, a kid who was fairly well cultured, if not well-socialized, a speaker of an interesting variety of London English, more or less my students' age in appearance, and emphatically White.

            A joke among collegiate dissidents in the late 1960s had members of The Great Silent Majority of Nixon-loving Americans breaking their silence with the line, "Them goddamn violent protesters should all be taken out and shot!" And when nine people were wounded and four killed at Kent State University in Ohio on 4 May 1970, at least one reaction a friend of mine heard from a co-worker, was "They should have shot them all." Rumors at the time and after had it that Governor James Rhodes — running for the US Senate — had wanted a confrontation, having noted that the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 had increased the popularity of Mayor Richard J. Daley. Rhodes lost the Republican primary election to the popular Robert Taft Jr., in a vote two days after the killings, woundings, and at least one maiming (of White folk) in Kent, Ohio — but the vote was very close.

            On 13 May 1970, a half-minute fusillade of some 460 rounds — far more than fired at Kent State — left two dead and fifteen wounded young Black people at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, without the photographs as there were at Kent State and with a racially charged cover-up.

            My point here isn't to give a "Mort Sahl Memorial Grimmy Award" for who's suffered worst — Black wins — but to note that the US faces issues not just in Black and White, not even adding Brown, Red, and Yellow, but also figuratively blue (sometimes brown or tan or khaki). None of the cops at Jackson State went to jail for a deadly shooting spree, nor National Guardsmen at Jackson State. And so forth. The State claims "a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence"; fine, but there is a problem whenever people fail to see State violence as violence and just don't get the sick joke of "them violent people should be taken out and shot!"

            Black Lives Matter and so do cops' lives — but it won't be much progress if we just get more minority and women cops and they get socialized into a cop culture of "Us (cops)" vs. "civilians," if a more diverse population of cops gets integrated into a system where agents of the State can get away with murder both figuratively and literally. If Black lives and Black deaths by police are to not just matter but get significantly reduced, we need political coalitions that can get non-cop citizen review boards monitoring police use of force, plus changes in the laws and procedures that allow police to use force that can be deadly if police officers just feel threatened. We need coalition political action to get laws and policies that ensure reasonable and equitable surveillance of police behavior: recognizing legitimate privacy concerns for police and for the victims of crime and their families. (The capital "P" People have a right to see and judge the actions of those who are supposed to serve us and protect us; TV stations don't have the right to show shooting or beating videos over and over as a kind of violence pornography passing as news.)

            Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959) is a nicely contradictory and contrarian combination of economic libertarianism with a paean to fascistic and militaristic authoritarianism in most things generally and all things military; Paul Verhoeven's film STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997) is a dystopian satiric sendup of the novel's politics. In Heinlein's intended eutopia, major crimes that we see and hear of are punished by hanging and minor ones by flogging. One flogging we see.

            As becomes pretty obvious in a YouTube search, Verhoeven's film makes clear the S&M aspect of the flogging scene, and the macho masochism. Relevant here, for 1959, Heinlein is excellent on race issues. Heinlein's hero is Filipino, and in the good liberal SF fashion of the period, when humankind's potential hegemony if not survival is threatened by giant pseudo-arachnid aliens ("Bugs"), any remaining racism becomes just silly and dangerous. Put these together, and you get in Verhoeven's movie an important switch. Verhoeven's hero is not "Juan 'Johnnie' Rico" from a rich family in the Philippines as in Heinlein's novel, but "John D. 'Johnny' Rico," incandescent White rich kid from Buenos Aires, and when he gets flogged the noncom wielding the whip is Black.

            Earth without racism is progress. Still —

            "Race Matters," but there are other ways to create caste systems besides race; the idea of race is somewhat fluid; and racism is by definition an ideology, and ideology can be both rigid and highly malleable.

            The system of authority and hierarchy in Starship Troopers as both novel and film does not require our ideas of race: it's fascism without racism. In such a fascistic society, a Black man can flog a White man: so long as someone holds the whip, whips the people ordered to be whipped — and the rest of the troops obediently "stand by to witness punishment" — that long the system holds, and it's still fascistic.

            In the USA and most of the world in 2015, we are far from post-racial, and it is necessary to assert "Black Lives," and Black Deaths, "Matter." Having made that assertion, however, even having made it come true, there is still work to be done. After making fairer who gets to whip (or club or shoot) whom, we need to greatly reduce the literal and figurative whippings and the all-too-literal clubbing and shooting.

            We need a world where a rich Black American gets the same deference as a rich White, and then work on flattening the distances between rich and poor.

            The importance of greater economic equality and opportunity is driven home by part of the backlash to Black Lives Matter: the argument summarized in the headline, "Police fear 'YouTube effect [is] affecting [their] work, contributing to violent crime," as the Washington Times puts it.

            Going into Leftist-historical mode, I'd ask us to take very seriously the possibility that police body cameras or even just the prevalence of cell phones might reduce violent crime — reducing beatings and shootings by cops — and also reduce the ability of police to do a significant part of their work.

            For much of human history there have been few good jobs and even fewer genteel statuses where one can be free or mostly free from work — and most people had drudgework jobs, many as serfs or slaves. For all of human history, many people have been motivated by a desire for status, to be better than their neighbors even, it has been alleged — alleged by among other Thomas More at the end of Utopia and Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth in The Space Merchants — even, it has been alleged, people want to feel superior even if that superiority is bought at the cost of a lower standard of living than might be possible with greater equality.

            Things are better nowadays than they were under slavery and serfdom, but there's no reason to believe that with globalization, automation, and old-fashioned greed and pride we will reach a point even in America where most people have good jobs.

            With good jobs at a premium and membership in the leisure class even rarer, it is handy for those with power to cut down competition with various kinds of caste systems: patriarchy as the most basic, with many of the goodies reserved for older males, but other systems in other places — in the USA in many places caste systems anchored in race. To repeat an oversimplified but still useful cliché, for much of colonial and than US history, White solidarity kept poor Whites allied with their more aristocratic "betters" and kept those poor Whites in their place(s), which was tolerable for them as long as they were better off than Blacks.

            Usually, this was straightforward: "keeping the niggers down" in part with crude terror — as with the KKK from Reconstruction to our own time — but more importantly through law. From the early 17th century on, there were the more or less savage slave codes in the England's American colonies and then the USA and, after emancipation, "Jim Crow" in the sense of segregation but also use of the criminal law, and with the terror tactics of crimes by cops: KKK and local police were not necessarily mutually exclusive categories.

            Nowadays, the system is more systematic and systemic, as analyzed by Ta-Nehisi Coates in "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration" (The Atlantic, October 2015) and — if I understand the argument of a book I've read about but not yet listened to — more specifically by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010).

            So Bernie Sanders has reason to listen to Black Lives Matter activists and apply a racial analysis to police violence. A multi-edged bitter joke in the 1960s — told by racists and anti-racists — had it that Ralph Bunch held a doctorate in political science from Harvard University, became the UN chief mediator in the first Arab-Israeli conflict, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, and received the US Medal of Freedom in 1963. The joke then went on to ask what the form of address was for  Dr. Bunch — an African-American — in a recent appearance in Mississippi, with the answer ... "Nigger." For racists it didn't matter at that time and matters little now how well a Black person does: race in racist theories is at the heart of what people are, regardless of action and achievements. Anti-racists used the jokes to mock racist attitudes; racist used the joke to reinforce them. Part of the reason people want money and position for is to get respect; race will matter for the foreseeable future because racism denies US Blacks respect however far they climb up the class and status ladder.

            On the other hand, Black Lives Matter activists should listen to Bernie Sanders because raising income and getting some wealth to poor people will help the class status of Blacks; and most Americans aren't fanatical racists and will show respect to middleclass and richer Blacks that they'll deny to the poor generally and Black poor very specifically.

            Insofar as the State uses violence to keep people in their place, the true "essence" is whether you're among the haves or the have-nots.  A non-racist and anti-racist populist coalition to reduce poverty — as Martin Luther King hoped — will make Black Lives Matter more, and reduce Black Deaths from cops, and from less sensational causes.

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