This is one of the hardest starts I have had writing a blog – and usually they just pour out of me. I think it is because the topic is very disturbing to me as a Jew, a liberal, a person who is fairly educated. I also have feelings of hatred inside me, and that is uncomfortable and hard to deal with. Obviously, I don’t want to vomit a screed of ill-conceived hatred onto your screen. Finally, I feel a sense of opaqueness and stuckness when I try to envision the way through. I would imagine that some other folks do not feel so hesitant and overwhelmed, and that may be owing to their greater vision, wisdom, experience, or perspective. At any rate, I will try to share some of my feelings and a few thoughts as well! The topic: the deplorable man occupying the presidency of the United States. The setting: the day after he led a Hitleresque rally denouncing Representative Illyn Omar of Minnesota during which the nearly-all-white mob chanted “Send her back! Send her back!”
“Over the years, I have come to realize that I often did not share historical knowledge with the persons to whom I was speaking. ‘What’s redlining?’ someone would ask. ‘George Washington freed his slaves!?’ someone else would inquire. But as I listened to Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric during the campaign that spring, the class took on a new dimension. Would my students understand the long history that informed a comment like one Trump made when he announced his presidential candidacy? ‘When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,’ he said. ‘They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.’
Claudia Rankine of Yale University wrote those words. Very telling.
It speaks to the massive values divide plaguing the United States at this time. It’s gross to witness, especially as a Jew. I, too, know that Jews were turned away from this country even in the time of FDR, I believe because America did not, by and large, see the writing on the wall. And if they did see it, they didn’t care. There was too much xenophobia, hatred, and economic privation (brought about mostly by Wall Street and the ownership class, as it were).
“Just recently, a friend who didn’t get a job he applied for told me that as a white male, he was absorbing the problems of the world. He meant he was being punished for the sins of his forefathers. He wanted me to know he understood it was his burden to bear. I wanted to tell him that he needed to take a long view of the history of the workplace, given the imbalances that generations of hiring practices before him had created. But would that really make my friend feel any better? Did he understand that today, 65 percent of elected officials are white men, though they make up only 31 percent of the American population? White men have held almost all the power in this country for 400 years.” ~ Claudia Rankine
There really are economic pressures and problems if you are an American and are not making a significant amount of money (say, $150,000 in the Midwest, $250,000 in New York, Boston, and many California cities). It is true that single persons who make over $90,000 or $100,000 a year, by and large, are not happier than those who make $80,000, according to psychological research. However, it is also true that a person who makes $30,000 a year is going to face much more storm and stress, financially/economically, than someone who can meet all their bills – including the ominous health care expenses, housing in many cities, and the awesome cost of higher education.
My point in the preceding paragraph is to note that the emotional, interpersonal, and community-wide stress and anxiety that courses through the society is highly correlated with the amount of financial, economic, employment, and healthcare-related scarcity (I don’t love that word; maybe pressure is a bit more accurate).
None of this is new. I would like to think that we are at an unprecedented time, with a cliff now within our collective vision. But that is not the case. I referenced the overwhelming sentiment toward Jews in this country. Of course, the view of Jews in many countries, in most eras, has ranged from chilly to downright genocidal. Writer and spot-on social critic David Leonhardt notes these relevant facts:
Calvin Coolidge wrote in 1921 that “Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend.” Henry Cabot Lodge warned, in an 1896 speech on the Senate floor, that immigrants could devastate the “mental and moral qualities which make what we call our race” — and Theodore Roosevelt praised Lodge for “an A-1 speech.” Roosevelt also told a friend he was worried about the “multiplication” of “Finnegans, Hooligans, Antonios, Mandelbaums and Rabinskis.”
A New York Times editorial in the 1920s warned of “swarms of aliens,” while a Washington Post editorial referred to Italians as “degenerate spawn of the Asiatic hordes.” Cold Spring Harbor, the prestigious laboratory, gave scientific credence to racist nativism. The same book editor who published Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald also oversaw a string of xenophobic books.
Though I believe there is evidence of the causal link between economic pressures and the way a country feels about immigrants, people of color, Jews, etc., Zack Beauchamp has this contradictory bit of evidence to consider (and he is referring to Trump’s surprising 2016 victory): “The big questions now are: Why this? And why now? One answer you’ll hear is economic: that those white-working class voters were angry in the wake of the Great Recession and the ongoing job losses due to globalization, and were looking for someone to blame. This may end up being part of the general election story — we don’t have enough data to say for sure. But preliminary data suggests it is hardly all of it. An analysis from USA Today’s Brad Heath found that Hillary Clinton got crushed in counties where unemployment had fallen in the late Obama years….” That, my friends, is what you call good old counterevidence! Hey, facts are facts.
I will present one bit of evidence for what feels to me like a true finding:The main achievement of the twenty-five years from 1950 to 1975 were the maintenance of continuous full employment, reduction in inequality through progressive income taxes, a big extension of social security, and the preservation of peace. Increases in productivity enabled real wages to rise and working hours to fall, with only very moderate inflation. Degrading poverty of the nineteenth-century kind was abolished. There were advances in health, education, women’s rights. For most of the period, economic growth was taken to be a by-product of the whole mix of policies, not an independent (much less the overriding) policy objective. There was strong social cohesion based on real improvements in the living standards of all classes.”
But, clearly Beauchamp is onto something when he notes that this isn’t simply about economic social pressures. He writes:
There’s something deeper going on here. And to understand this part of the story, you need to look beyond American borders. It’s tempting to think of Trump as something uniquely American, but the truth is that his rise is being repeated throughout the Western world, where far-right populists are rising in the polls. They’re not rising because of their economies. They’re gaining unprecedented strength because of their xenophobia.
Beauchamp goes further: “A vast universe of academic research suggests the real sources of the far right’s appeal on both sides of the Atlantic are anger over immigration and a toxic mix of racial and religious intolerance. That conclusion is supported by an extraordinary amount of social science, from statistical analyses that examine data on how hundreds of thousands of Europeans to books on how, when, and why ethnic conflicts erupt.”
Furthermore, it is also worth noting that one can’t draw a clear line of causality between education and feeling aggrieved enough to vote for Trump. That flummoxed me a bit, too. Must be my elitism talking 🙂 We liberals would like to think that it was a bunch of dolts and dopes who were sucked in by Trump’s misogyny, demagoguery, and lies. I would love to say that it is because most of his supporters are not well-educated, but there isn’t a correlation between educational attainment and believing the lies the man tells. Perhaps it is more akin to wisdom; some 60-year-olds see Trump as a savior and some 18-year-olds were enthusiastic about Bernie, to cite a parallel fact.
So if economics and education can’t quite explain why 40-50% of Americans were and are still attracted to the shit that comes out of Trump’s mouth, I am inclined to think it has to do with perceptions people have about shifting demographic, social, and privilege-oriented factors.
Let’s face it, this is a time when the Internet and simply the distance we have come from 1920 (when women got the right to vote) and the 1960s (when the Civil Rights era started to gain steam) have led to cultural shifts. A lot of folks who have enjoyed privilege for what seems like centuries see it potentially slipping from their fingers, either economically or democratically. I mean the privilege of getting thirteen months in prison because you’re a wealthy and connected white male, and the privilege of believing that though you as a white person from the lowest social class have it bad, well at least you’re not a ni*ger. And if you’re offended by that I apologize, but I live in the Deep South and it’s a real thing.
Like a relative shaming a family, the [1930s-1940s-era] Germans, our human relatives, have shamed us all. They have ruined all our reputations, not as individuals—they have ruined the reputation of the human family. Although we are not all responsible for what those who acted and stood by did, we are all stained. ~ Robert Nozick
Perhaps when Malcolm X noted that the crises faced by America in the 1960s were simply “America’s chickens coming home to roost.” That comment had a way of really pissing some white people off. I think many folks thought, felt, believed that they could escape the arc of history, which, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said bends slightly toward justice. It has been many moons since we disenfranchised and murdered American Indians; many a dark night has passed since America was importing and breeding slaves for our economic gain; generations have elapsed since the time when women were relegated to second-class status.
Owing to the chicanery that the powers that be (and the GOP errand boys) utilize to hold on to power, it is no surprise then that they stoke racial, class, and cultural divisions. It’s right out of the playbook used by Adolf Hitler. Calling Trump a distraction, Noam Chomsky spoke of this phenomenon at length [LINK]. It’s just very disheartening to see occur in real-time, and horrible to witness decent folks like the hard-working, quintessentially-successful Representative Omar (and of course, the Right’s bogeywoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) be demonized, scapegoated, and treated to such social injustice.
Chomsky said, “From the view of U.S. power, Trump is harming it; from the view of U.S. elites, he’s giving them everything they want.”
Perhaps education figures in after all. Not whether one obtained a college degree in marketing or business, but the degree to which a person is cognizant of the dark underbelly of this country they claim to love. I believe that an American who has read much history, who is honest with themselves, and who can face down the truth, will see an America that has a grossly perverted history when it comes to race, class, and religion. Whether one ought to love it or feel a deep sense of ambivalence about it it is an open question.
It is not easy to teach students to be citizens, capable of thinking critically about the world around them, when so much of childhood consists of basic training for a commercial society.
This is how liberals view race and racism and anti-gay sentiment/laws, I believe:
1. That it happened, and was significant;
2. That it isn’t over today;
3. That it’s not right to ask minorities to simply “get over it; move on.”
When conservative whites talk about “going too far” to make amends for past social justice nightmares, it strikes me as a bit maudlin and untrue. Their experience is that something unfair was done to them. And in a sense that is true. It sucks to feel that the government or other institutions are being unfair!
Welcome to America my priviledged friends! Minorities of all stripes have been feeling that way since the intolerant, self-righteous Pilgrims hit hit town. As Malcolm X also said, shockingly: “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on us!”
It’s bizarre for me to hear conservatives say, “Ok, discrimination is over, now; quit bellyaching!” Clearly it isn’t “over.” There is a stain of blood on America’s powedered wig, and it’s not coming out with water. The protests by NFL players, gripes over affirmative action, and the way Trump commands the rapt attention of nearly half of the populace indicates that it is not. We are still very much involved in the Civil Rights struggle. It was only a couple years ago that the proud South Carolinians in the state senate begrudgingly agreed to take down the Confederate flag. Though you can see a lot of humanity in this plea [LINK], it is also oddly pathetic to behold.
With belonging comes responsibility. You can’t really take pride in your country and its past if you’re unwilling to acknowledge any responsibility for carrying its story into the present, and discharging the moral burdens that may come with it. ~
I can’t say Malcolm X was wrong when he likened all this to “chickens coming home to roost.” This is what white people, Christians, capitalists are disgruntled about – having to pay for past sins they believe were unfairly laid at their feet. There is a sense, when it comes to social justice in America, that if you didn’t do the enslavement, you aren’t responsible in any way for it. It is a view of ethics that is plausible, but quite questionable.
Not only does the idea of copping to it sting, being asked to compensate for wrongs and set the scales even again really gets whites going. If you think respecting ethnic minorities to remain standing during the Pledge of Allegiance bothers some traditionally-minded Americans, try asking them to participate in a truth and reconciliation process to do social justice now for past wrongs! Their ever-lovin’ heads might explode.
…the poor were reminded that the rich were thieving and corrupt and had attained their privileges through plunder and deception rather than virtue or talent. Moreover, they had rigged society in such a way that the poor could never improve their lot individually, however capable and willing they might be. Their only hope lay in mass social protest and revolution.
Not just because it “feels unjust.” But also because of the economic pressures all middle and lower class individuals are feeling. They worry about wages; they are concerned about China and outsourcing and the lack of unionization. This is one reason why I see things in a fiscally liberal way – because it offends me that the rich live in a posh and privileged manner while the rest of us squabble and fight over their leavings. This is “class struggle”/Marxism/sociological conflict theory 101, my friends. They must be clinking champagne glasses in Martha’s Vineyard, laughing that the other classes and the lower ethnicities fight amongst themselves. All while they have the politicians and the Supreme Court to do their bidding.
Kimberly Amadeo opined on social justice vis-a-vis the social theorist and inimitable author Ayn Rand: “Rand said that capitalism had its own morality that should be protected. It allows each person to reach their full potential. She agreed with the Founding Fathers that each person has a right to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. They do not have an inalienable right to a job, health care, or education. Rand’s philosophy ignores that emotion, not rational facts, rules most people’s decisions. It overlooks the advantage rich children have when competing with poor ones. Those born into poverty don’t have the opportunities to reach their potential. They don’t start on a level playing field.”
Further, noted social and cultural critic Bill Moyers is writing unabashedly of social justice here: “In one way or another, this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether ‘We, the people’ is a spiritual idea embedded in a political reality – one nation, indivisible – or merely a charade…by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.”
Let me end on a bit of a tangent, because it is so critical to understand. In my opinion. These matters of social justice are kind of heady, philosophical issues that we can debate. Yes, people will suffer, people will die, but it’s not going to rise to the level of one of the three most critical issues facing America now, just as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War were clearly more impactful than whether African Americans were getting short shrift back in 1963. That’s not to diminish the blatant and horrific dearth of social justice that America has to recokon with when confonting its past and its present.
What I am getting at is the utter distraction that Trump is. If we could banish him, the way ancient Athenians did, so much the better. But unfortunately, he is only the most prominent, the most egregious example of this noxious phenomenon of white men in power doing things that harm the rest of us. If we guillotined him, Pence would take his place. Pence is like a calmer, more rational psychopath. When compared to an Adolf Hitler, Pence is Dr. Mengele; more recently, a Bernie Madoff, or a Jack Abramoff. He is two steps above a priest who molests children. Hence, Noam Chomsky has this alarming but I’m afraid, true, message about the current state of affairs:
It’s almost hard to find words to describe: here are educated, elite, well-off, rich people – the upper elite – who know that what they’re doing is destroying the prospects for organized human life on the planet, and do it anyway because they realize they make more profit tomorrow. …Today’s Republican Party is the most dangerous organization in human history. That sounds outragous, but think about it for a moment: Hitler didn’t intend to destroy the prospects for human existence; Atilla the Hun didn’t; nobody did. But that’s what these guys intend. And it’s not ignorant, uneducated, religious fundamentalists; these are the most educated, best-supported people in the world, and they’re doing it eyes open…. And it’s not just my opinion. Think of the Doomsday Clock… In 1947, the clock was at 7 minutes to midnight; that was right after the atom bomb. It has moved up and back since. Now, it is at the closest to midnight ever. They just moved it to two minutes to midnight. That’s the Republican Party: the ones who are running the country and dominating the world. ~ Noam Chomsky
A half-dozen quotes about social justice, race, and national cohesion:
For the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past; and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships.
…this became a great speech. One for the history books, in fact. Obama reminded us that this reform was, as Edward Kennedy believed, ‘the great unfinished business of our society.’ That it is a ‘moral issue’ about the fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country. It is about the human condition, about the history of our progress of our nation.
The debate over gays in the military was never really about balancing civil rights with national security. Britain, Israel, Canada, and Australia are among 24 militaries that lifted bans on gay soldiers without undermining unit cohesion or combat readiness. It is between prejudice that compromises national security and equality that enhances it. And that’s no choice at all.
The right wing in America has always believed that those who have money are good people and those who lack it are bad people. At a deeper level, our conservatives are true Darwinians and think that the weak and the poor ought to die off, leaving the spoils to the fit. Certainly a do-gooder is the worse thing anyone can be, a societal pervert who would alter government with subsidy nature’s harsh but necessary way with the weak. Eleanor Roosevelt always understood the nature of the enemy: she was a Puritan, too. But since she was Christian and not a Manichaean, she felt obliged to work on behalf of those dealt a bad hand at birth.
One of America’s biggest problems is that people of color are having conversations about racism literally every day. And most white people are only having them when they are forced to. …The biggest thing that I believe white people can do is to really get comfortable being uncomfortable having conversations about race and racism.
With all the outrage about growing economic inequality one might think that there’d also be growing support for wealth redistribution—policies that include hiking taxes for the wealthy or increasing aid to the poor. But a new working paper from NBER suggests that by and large, America’s desire to see wealth spread around more evenly hasn’t really increased that much at all in the past 30 years. And in fact members of some of the most vulnerable economic groups are actually less supportive of efforts that would boost the economic standing of the less well-off than they once were.
I have been an activist for social justice throughout my professional career. I learned the hard way that material success is more important for most people than justice — at least when the former is perceived to be in conflict with the latter. It is all too easy to have the most worthy aims distorted by economic and social pressures into measures of success that can be deposited in the bank.
keywords: social justice, hatred, xenophobia, racism, privilege