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Friday, September 1, 2023

The Raging Battle Over a Song

The swirling controversies around, fervent championing of, self-righteous denouncing of, and endless interpreting over Oliver Anthony’s song, Rich Men to the North of Richmond, is confounding in many ways, perfectly understandable in other ways.

Self-released Rich Men debuted at number one on three Billboard charts and received 17.5 million downloads the week of August 26.

The viral video qualifies as a phenomenon, perhaps more reflective of our country’s many social and political contradictions than of our musical tastes.

Because the video attacks the “rich men to the north of Richmond ''-- a reference remotely reminiscent of Trump’s “swamp” -- the faux-populists of the right were quick to embrace the video and call Anthony one of their own. Despite the fact that Anthony came from coastal Virginia, right-wing ideologues caricatured Anthony as a representative of white, backward Appalachia, resentful of a world changing at the region’s expense. More in the imagination of these crude political opportunists than any connection to reality, they saw a replay of J.D. Vance’s execrable Hillbilly Elegy and its equally exploitative subsequent film that launched the career of a Republican political wannabe with his hoary boot-strap story.

But Anthony will have none of that. 

He has politely, but clearly dissociated himself from right-wing political exploitation: “I’m disappointed to see… it's aggravating to see people on conservative news try to identify with me like I’m one of them… it was funny seeing my song… it was funny seeing it at the presidential debate because it was like I wrote that song about those people you know so for them to have to sit there and listen to that… that cracks me up.”

Of course, exploiting popular music for political gain is nothing new. The embracing of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA by both parties easily comes to mind. And the corporate world brazenly exploits the work of radical performers from Woody Guthrie to Nina Simone to The Clash.

Most of the political left was just as quick to denounce Anthony’s song as an anthem of the wild-eyed right. Still suffering from “deplorables” syndrome made famous by Hillary Clinton’s kiss-off of Middle America, liberals and those shilling for the Democrats ignored Anthony’s anger and desperation, suspicious of its country genre and his cultural mien.

The left identitarians, the word police, and the guardians of progressive etiquette recoiled from a couple of references in his lyrics to abusing children, welfare cheating, and high taxes, themes high on right-wing lists of grievances. The “gotcha” left was quick to announce that “we know what you really mean.” 

In an era where most Democrats and those in their orbit only have “Denounce Trump!” in their bag of tricks, it is understandable that they cannot find an ally in Oliver Anthony.

This left is deaf to the class markers dominating the song-- the ‘them’ versus ‘us’-- that runs through all left popular art from Berthold Brecht through Boots Riley. This left misses the bitterness toward a ruling class that one also hears in Nina Simone’s version of Brecht’s Pirate Jenny or the sense of growing crisis and decline with Gil Scott-Heron’s lyrics to Winter in America

It’s there in Rich Men. It may be raw, superficially informed, even uninformed, but it’s there.

Billy Bragg, the old Red Wedge troubadour, has chosen to speak out on the Rich Men phenomenon in the UK’s The Guardian. I had the great pleasure of interviewing him twice for the Communist Party’s Daily World many years ago. Bragg’s class chip-on-the-shoulder, friendliness toward the socialist countries, and enthusiasm for a somewhat robust socialism fed my own illusions that music is or, at least, could be revolutionary. As a veteran of Woodstock, I wanted to believe that radical music could be a spur or energizer of social change. Call me a Dave Marsh-like Pollyanna in my callow youth. 

I’ve since been dispelled of that illusion. 

Since those happy times, Bragg has become something of an aging Labourite, still showing good instincts to resist when Labour takes another step rightward. 

But his instincts betray him when he discusses US politics. He interprets the rich-man theme of Anthony’s lyrics, thusly: “I had in my mind corporate America, the tech bro billionaires whose companies monitor their workers all the way to the bathroom and back.” Anthony had in mind, in fact, the politicians in Washington, DC. For better or worse, most of our citizens may harbor class resentments, but direct their anger at the political strata occupied by representatives of both parties.

Bragg justifiably regrets the references to welfare and taxes-- concepts most commonly raised by the con artists of the right. Regrettable they may be, but anyone attuned to the level of political discourse in the US might see these sins as forgivable when committed by an apolitical neophyte.

Bragg seems to forget the sins of his own-- and my own-- political hero, Woody Guthrie. The great Communist songster was hardly born a saint. As recounted by a biographer, Will Kaufman, Woody’s early songbook of performances on radio station KFVD were filled with vulgar, racist depictions, language, and stereotypes. A listener wrote him: “I am a Negro, a young Negro in college, and I certainly resented your remark. No person or persons of any intelligence uses that word over the radio today.” 

According to Kaufman, “Guthrie apologized profusely, dramatically ripped the offending song sheet to shreds before the microphone, and swore that he would never use the word again.”

An “Okie,” like today’s Middle American “deplorables,” Guthrie brought lots of ignorance with him. As a musical spokesperson for the US’s working people, it must have been a painful memory that his father became district court clerk in rural Oklahoma because of a Democratic Party racist maneuver; that his father hated socialists; that his father allegedly belonged to the KKK. Yes, Guthrie had a lot of baggage.

This same ignorant Okie, years later, outraged at indignities imposed on Black fellow musicians screamed at the perpetrators and tore up a public dining room, according to Pete Seeger.

Unfortunately, Bragg can’t bring Woody Guthrie’s evolution from a “backward Okie” to bear on his judgment of Oliver Anthony. While Anthony’s first efforts are certainly no match for Guthrie’s mature body of work, surely it is unfair to dismiss Anthony before he has a chance to develop and grow.

The thirties were certainly different from our times. The left accepted a rough, clumsy, plain-speaking, protesting voice of the plight of working people and embraced, nourished, and encouraged him until he grew into a great popular spokesperson for radical causes.

Today, a similar unpolished, plaintive voice, speaking emotionally of the disdain of elites, is questioned by the sectarian guardians of left purity and dismissed as a shill for the political right. 

In one of his more sardonic songs, Guthrie imagined that if Jesus Christ lived in his time, preaching social justice “like he preached in Galilee, they would lay Jesus Christ in his grave.”

If the Woody Guthrie of the 1930s were alive today, would our Puritan self-righteous left disown him?

We’ve come a long way, but in the wrong direction.

Greg Godels

Monday, August 14, 2023

Breaking News! Some on the Left Have Benefactors…

In June, I commented on a scurrilous article originally appearing in The Daily Beast and inexplicably reposted on the Portside website. Entitled, U.S Tech Mogul Bankrolls Pro-Russia, Pro-China News Network, the article accused several left groups of having not only received money from a benefactor sympathetic to the People’s Republic of China, but, by implication, directly from The People's Republic of China or the Russian Federation. 

The Daily Beast hitman, William Bredderman, sought to stain individuals and organizations by suggesting that their platforms and ideas were both dictated by their benefactor and traitorous because of his association with countries that many perceive or hope others perceive as enemies. 

But as I argued in my original article, Bredderman’s (and the Portside editors’) “gotcha” was a big, fat “so what!”  

At that, the article was an exercise in slanderous innuendo.

When the mainstream media turns a blind eye to profoundly obvious corruption of the Bidens by foreign influencers, it is difficult to make much of an obscenely rich former tech mogul merely spreading his money around among a number of his favorite left-wing causes. 

At a time when the State Department’s tawdry Victoria Nuland brazenly slips off to Niger to demand restoration of the US’s puppet president, it is cynical for a blinded media to cry foul and imply foreign meddling on the part of a foreign power’s enthusiastic admirer. 

While a Supreme Court Justice disdainfully continues to accept numerous gifts from a prominent, widely connected “friend,” yet incurring no reprimand, it is unseemly for struggling left groups forced to the margins of US politics to have their source of funds cavalierly impugned.

But the ugliness of the article goes far beyond cynicism and hypocrisy.

Quite simply, the conclusion that Bredderman seeks is grounded on nothing. No financial link is established between the headline’s enemies-- Russia and China-- and the independently rich funder of left causes. In fact, it is bizarre to think that he needs to depend on foreign funds given his already deep pockets. Moreover, it is equally bizarre that influencers in the PRC or the RF would choose a high profile, left-identifying admirer to serve as a secret conduit to organizations or individuals within the US left.

Of course, that doesn’t stop Breddeman and those who disseminate his scandal-mongering from pressing onwards any more than an absence of evidence has stopped bogus charges of Northern carpetbagging, Moscow gold, or Communist subversion in past episodes of baseless hysteria. It’s enough to point a suspicious finger at someone breaking expected conformity and throwing his lot in with those otherwise politically marginalized.

The Daily Beast’s superficial, slimy “reportage” has now moved The New York Times editors to elevate the politically-charged claims to national attention. 

Assigning four young journalists-- none with more than two years with the paper and one with some schooling from the notorious Bellingcat, an echo chamber for Western intelligence-- the NYT faithfully reproduced the original charges with only a few new wrinkles. Media scandalizing the reputation of US left groups and individuals will prove to be good career moves, as it always has been in the past.

Again, there is no direct or even indirect evidence linking foreign-originated monies to the left organizations, but the article does offer the news organization’s own touches to the political innuendo: cash recipients “...mix progressive advocacy with Chinese government talking points…” leaving the reader with the thought that the convergence of the two points of view could NOT be coincidental or independently derived.

This should come as some bother to those of us on the “extreme” left who often find our progressive ideas converging with ideas shared with the Chinese Communist Party, the Cuban Communist Party, or many other left organizations, though we’ve never gotten one dime from the parsimonious Chinese or anyone else!

The young investigative reporters uncover public events where Mr. Singham-- the former tech mogul benefactor-- has appeared in public with Chinese officials, university professors, administrators, etc. Should they not also investigate Henry Kissinger, who was meeting recently in Beijing with officials?

Let's call this journalistic sin what it is: guilt by association. And it's a grievous sin regardless of whether it’s advanced by J. Edgar Hoover, HUAC, Joseph McCarthy, The Daily Beast, Portside, or The New York Times.

In the case of NYT, it is especially despicable because the article targets the US left group that has, over time, perhaps shown the most integrity in defense of peace. While other left groups were entangled in debate over who they would support when the war in Ukraine broke out, CODE PINK was firmly fixed on what it opposed: war, its spread, and its human cost.

While nearly everyone-- left and right-- obsessed over fixing blame and supporting either NATO/Ukraine or Russia, CODE PINK activism was directed toward ending the war, thwarting its escalation, and finding a durable peace.

Accordingly, it is no accident that it is CODE PINK that the NYT editors-- reliable servants of US foreign policy-- chose to focus its attack upon.

If you object to this New York Times smear, please consider signing this petition.

Greg Godels

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Election Fever: A Fever Dream?

With nearly sixteen months to go, we are well into the silly season. The campaigning, fund raising, maneuvering, plotting, and mud-slinging have already reached a fever-pitch. We are told that the 2024 Presidential election-- like every Presidential election in my lifetime-- holds the fate of the country in its grip.

Maybe it does.

But it is almost impossible to see how the existing political machinery-- the two-party system, fueled by vast sums of money, and lubricated with the influence of a toadying, sensationalist media-- can generate any real answers to these challenges. 

The system’s apologists like to write and speak of “our democracy” -- in supposed contrast to the shifty authoritarians. But what kind of democracy requires a billion-dollar-or-more war chest to gain access to the state’s highest executive position? Under those terms, only a handful of rich and powerful people could realistically become President of the US by convincing other rich and powerful people to support and sustain their effort. Isn’t this akin to the “democracy” of the Roman Senate?

Of course, on the lower rungs of the political hierarchy, there are elected officials who are able to fund their campaigns for far less-- entry level costs are much lower. It is possible to parlay social activism, media exposure, and a popular base into a modest fund-raising apparatus that propels some representative faces into government. But they are quickly seduced and obsessed into building an even greater fund-raising machine and locating themselves in the narrowly defined political space occupied by the two parties. The weight of the system and its conventions soon drains their independence. 

It is hard to find optimism under these circumstances.

Faced with a Democratic Party that has inexorably moved to the right from its New Deal roots, many argue for nonetheless uniting behind the Democratic Party to halt the Republican Party’s inexorable movement to the right. It is a strange strategy.

Odd as it may be, it is sold to the left as building a buttress-- a united front-- against fascism. 

It is the word “fascism” that conjures up the notion of a united front across class, across identity, and across political loyalty. For those with some minimal knowledge of twentieth-century history, fascism triggers memories of powerful nationalist movements that arose in response to a potent anti-capitalist workers’ movement and a crisis of capitalist rule, even a challenge to the very existence of capitalism. These were alone or together sufficient conditions for the rise, the threat, or the political success of historical fascism.

The post-World War One economic crisis and the rise of a militant industrial class in Italy and intense class struggle in the Italian countryside gave birth to the first self-described fascist movement in Europe. The Italian ruling class awarded it power when it accepted Mussolini as the decisive barricade against intensifying class struggle.

Similarly, of the many nationalist movements that sprung up in Germany, the Nazi Party was the one best equipped to address the rise of a growing, powerful Communist Party during the economic collapse of the Great Depression. German industrialists showered the Nazis with money, and their representatives expeditiously turned over power to Adolf Hitler.

We may extend the term “fascism” to other 1930s regimes in Europe-- Mannerheim, Pilsudski, Antonescu, Admiral Horthy, Franco, Salazar, Petain, etc.-- because they were puppets of Naziism or shared the same anti-Communist zeal which was sparked by intense class conflict within their respective countries. 

Whether one prefers to confer the terms “quasi-fascist” or “semi-fascist” instead of “fascist” on the military coups-- Greece, Chile, Indonesia, etc.-- arising from political instability and left insurgency since World War II is a matter of little import. Nonetheless, they all share-- perhaps with some nationally specific differences-- the conditions that gave rise to fascism in the 1930s. Significantly, they also all established an “open, terroristic dictatorship” as defined by the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935-- a political edifice built on the ashes of the previous structure.

It would take an enormous stretch of the imagination to suggest that the US ruling class is under siege from a revolutionary workers’ movement, that US politics has reached a stage of lethal instability, that the US economy is on the verge of collapse, or that there is a force empowered and dedicated to the elimination of bourgeois democracy. 

Confronted with these historical anomalies, it is hard to see the danger of fascism as anything imminent in the US. Certainly, there are fascists in the US, even fascist organizations. Moreover, there are many fascist-minded people and people with fascistic ideas, even in positions of power. But fascism is neither around the corner nor on the near horizon.

Yet the unjustified threat of fascism is a useful tool in uniting the left behind a soulless, gutless Democratic Party-- a shell organization built around fundraising and fright-mongering. If there were no fascist bogeyman, or Communist bogeyman, or Russian bogeyman, today’s Democratic Party would have little on which to base a campaign. 

That is not to deny that the people in the US are in crisis. It is certainly true that there is growing dissatisfaction in the US, as in Europe and other advanced capitalist countries. Opinion polls show a broad, deep distrust in long-established institutions. From the courts to the political parties, citizens have lost confidence in the old ways of doing things (for example, in a Quinnipiac University poll, 47% of respondents indicated that they would vote for a third party in the US, should there be one).

Nor should this argument be taken to mean that there is no threat from the right. In response to the mass dissatisfaction, movements and parties have sprung up, exploiting the thirst for the new, speaking to the neglect of various economic, class, and regional interests, and promising to voice the concerns of the majority against the arrogance of elites. Quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Professor Thomas Greven of the Free University of Berlin noted that “A right-wing populist backlash… was inevitable.” A scholar of right-wing populism in the US and Europe, the professor then points to the key reason: “For me, it goes back to the failure of center-left, social democratic parties to manage, in a socially acceptable way, increased global competition.”

The breadth of dissatisfaction is shown by the rise of right-populism in many countries. And, as Professor Greven argues, it is the failure of the center, especially the left center, that allows right-populism to grow. Today, as in the 1930s, the cravenness of social democracy creates a political vacuum. The opportunist right has only to fill it. In the case of the 1930s, the ruling classes saw stark choices between revolutionary socialism and fascism. They too often picked fascism and nursed it into power.

Today, there are no stark choices. In Europe, faddish, rebranded social democratic parties like Podemos, Syriza, The Five Star Movement, or The Greens fall as quickly as they arise. In the US and the UK, Labour and the Democrats don’t bother to rebrand, they simply put “New” in front of “Labour” and “Democrats,” offering their services as the acquaintance that you know as opposed to the other that you should fear.

So, if we are to understand Professor Greven, then it would make no sense to embrace social democracy-- including the Democratic Party in the US and Labour in the UK-- when the rise of right-wing populism is itself a response to social democracy’s failings! How can clinging to the Democratic Party-- the party that betrayed the cause of working people-- be the answer to the rise in popularity of its right-wing movement posing as an alternative? Surely, this is like pouring gasoline on a fire.

But once again, as in so many election cycles, leaders of labor, civil rights organizations, environmental groups, and other worthy causes are lining up to support the Democratic Party-- regardless of its betrayal of working people.

Those wise enough to recognize the Democratic Party’s many decades of spinelessness propose that the left conspire to infiltrate or take over the party, to operate both outside and inside the Democrat apparatus. 

But to what effect? 

In its long history, the Democratic Party only embraced working-class interests when pressed by independent forces outside of the Democratic Party who directly threatened the party’s most urgent agenda-- to retain or gain power. That is the story of the Democrats’ moments of glory: the New Deal and the Great Society. In both cases, the social movements led and the Democrats followed. Today’s urgency to rally behind the Democrats is foolish-- counterproductive foolishness.

Plenty of charlatans and hucksters join with the misinformed and delusional to pressure the left to steer clear of third-party movements and back the Democrats for one more round. Like the serial abuser, they ask the victims to give them one more chance.

Another apologist grants the need for separation, but suggests something called a “dirty break” instead of a divorce. Citing the long, tortured break with the UK Liberal Party that spawned the Labour Party in 1906, he recommends supporting the Democrats until the pain is so great that working people will flee the Democrats and form their own party, a process that may need several decades to ferment. Of course, that is the same Labour Party that recently ambushed its progressive wing and banished its left agenda back to the margin of UK politics.

The same author urged the same patience with the Democrats in 2017, then based on the long transitional “dirty break” that the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party made with the Democrats. The Farmer-Labor Party is long gone, but we will probably hear of the “dirty break” again in 2027.

It is a striking fact that most of our self-described left does not want to have a discussion of a third-party campaign. The mere thought of an alternative to the Democrats is seen as an assault on Enlightenment values, endangering the chances of defeating whatever candidate the Republicans turn up! It is inconceivable to them that pressure from the left might even strengthen their candidates in the distant election. It’s too risky…

For the rest of us, there is no way to begin to break the fatal chokehold that the Democrats have on the left other than supporting an outsider, an independent voice. It must be understood that the process will be long, tortured, and with many setbacks. Yet there will never be a better time when it will not be long, tortured, and with many setbacks.

It is not so important that we have the best standard-bearer or that we agree with every position he or she holds. But a good candidate does exist with good positions on the most important questions: Cornel West!

For a strong case for a third party and Cornel West’s candidacy, I recommend Chris Hedges' article: Cornel West and the Campaign to End Political Apartheid.

Greg Godels

Sunday, July 23, 2023

The Cold War, Desegregation, and Affirmative Action

As the US Supreme Court aspires to drive a nail into the coffin of affirmative action, it is important to recognize how the Cold War helped to shape the mid-twentieth-century civil-rights people’s victories and the consequent policy of Affirmative Action in education.

Some may find that connecting the conflict between the US and the USSR to the formal establishment of African American citizen rights is far-fetched. 

But the facts speak otherwise. 

The US ruling class crudely portrayed the Cold War as a contest between those defending freedom and equality versus those imposing tyranny and enslavement. The US launched multiple cultural offensives to reinforce these views, sending books, movies, and diverse artistic figures and athletes throughout the world to signal its commitment to those lofty values.

But as the great postwar wave of decolonization swept the world and the US appeared too often on the side of the colonists, the moral high ground seemed impossible to maintain in the eyes of the critical non-aligned nations.

Even more devastating was the ugly face of racial segregation that existed de jure in the Southern, formerly Confederate states, and de facto in the rest of the US, with its accompanying violent enforcement. To the non-white majority of the world, this inhuman practice negated any proclaimed commitment to freedom or equality.

To meet this Cold War crisis, the US ruling class chose an approach that was both least costly to capital and its minions and most burdensome on the working people. Rather than returning to the unfinished business of post-Civil War Reconstruction, rather than attacking segregated housing patterns (disrupting profits in the finance, insurance, and real estate sector), rather than pressing fair employment (impacting corporate and business profits), rather than guaranteeing voting rights and fair representation (disrupting the political status quo), the US ruling class placed the burden of desegregation on those who were among the most vulnerable in US society: children. It was public schools and not neighborhoods, housing, public accommodations, businesses, government agencies, or corporations that would bear the brunt of desegregation.

With the Supreme Court decision-- Brown versus Board of Education-- US elites offered a “victory” against segregation to place before world public opinion. Because it was a court decision made by lifetime appointees, it had little negative impact on elected officials or the fate of their political parties. 

Of course, the court decision was only symbolic unless backed up with enforcement. It is likely that Brown versus Board of Education would have remained symbolic and another gesture of self-righteousness in the cultural Cold War since officials took little interest in forcing it on the bastions of racial segregation.

But Brown versus Board of Education did elevate racism to a place in the public debate. Also, it energized a growing resistance to segregation, adding a new generation of fighters to the struggle and legitimizing the fight. Without the growth and militancy of the peoples’ struggle, any promise offered by the Supreme Court decision would have faded, however.

For the most part, officialdom and the Civil Rights movement operated on parallel tracks, with Federal policies focused on school desegregation in the South and the movement tackling voting rights and desegregating public spaces. Elites largely sought to confine and retard the struggle for racial justice.

Nonetheless, the movement for racial justice forced a series of civil rights acts in the mid-1960s that addressed the harshest aspects of Southern segregation, supporting voting rights and the use of public accommodations, as well as denying workplace and housing discrimination in the US. 

With the murder of the most influential anti-racist leaders, the suppression of urban risings, and the political backlash of Southern reactionaries, the US ruling class called a halt to the school desegregation project. The landmark Millikin versus Bradley Supreme Court decision of 1974 settled the limits of public education desegregation at the border of wealthier suburbs. Desegregation was meant only for poor and working-class schools, and not for the schools of the elite. For US elites-- Cold War optics be damned-- the costs of racial justice would not be borne by wealth and power. No bus would transport urban Blacks to the rolling hills of suburbia; nor would any children of the petty-bourgeois find seats awaiting in city public schools.

Class critically intersected race at that juncture, a reality that continues to shape the contours of anti-racism going forward.

Of course, despite this setback, the struggle against racism continued, but as affirmative action-- a project to go beyond formal, level-playing field equality and place material support behind the economic mobility necessary for substantial equality. Behind affirmative action was the understanding that racial justice was an active process and not a static state of affairs, i.e. nominal equality. In other words, those disadvantaged by racism needed substantial advantages to continue their journey to equality.
Ideally, the impact of affirmative action would be race-neutral. African Americans could gain “advantages” without disadvantaging anyone else: jobs could be created in workplaces where they were underrepresented without denying jobs to any non-Black worker; mentorships and job-training could be made available to all; subsidized new or existing housing could be established; health care could be universal, etc. To use the term popular with pundits, affirmative action could be “win-win.”

When the win-win logic is true of society at large, it is the basis for socialism. 

But that is not the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is relentless competition: what the same pundits call “zero-sum.” Someone must win, someone must lose. When someone applies to the best public school, there is room for one more. When someone applies to a private school, some win, some lose.

Consequently, the logic of capitalist society produces smug winners and disgruntled losers. And affirmative action that advantaged African Americans produced many who were or felt they were disadvantaged. Under capitalism, social progress is always the class struggle over who will sacrifice, who will pay.

Nevertheless, well-intentioned, anti-racist liberals pressed affirmative action on US capitalism with some success. Gertrude Ezorsky, a leading theorist of affirmative action, notes that “A dramatic increase in black employment and promotion occurred at specific companies that adopted affirmative action plans. These companies include AT&T, IBM, Levi-Strauss, and Sears Roebuck,” (Racism And Justice, the Case for Affirmative Action) She also noted that by ”...1982, 20,000 black officers had been added to police forces around the nation.” This squares with the ruling class’s determination to make police and military action against the colored peoples not look like white on Black or white on non-white violence.

Ironically, one of the greatest successes of the affirmative action era was Richard Nixon’s Justice Department-initiated Philadelphia plan to integrate the building trades. Blacks in the Philadelphia building trades went from one per cent of all workers to twelve per cent by 1982.

But as Ezorsky concedes, affirmative action declined drastically in the 1980s: “After 1980 there was a dramatic decline in the enforcement of AA [affirmative action] through the federal compliance program. The effectiveness of AA also declined as a result of Supreme Court decisions during the 1980s.”

With the courts, politicians, and the media fleeing affirmative action remedies that would address material class inequality, liberals and social democrats shaped anti-racism into “glass-ceiling” anti-racism. That is, the battle for racial justice became merely an effort to absorb more African Americans into the petty-bourgeoisie and into elite circles. 

Token or role-model representation is sold as an incentive for working class and poor Blacks. This pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap version of anti-racism reached its zenith with the elevation of Barack Obama into the highest seat of political power. The celebration of Obama, and the relatively robust growth of a Black petty-bourgeoisie, left the inner-city impoverished, powerless, and nourished only by symbolic victories.

The gap between white and Black income and wealth remains relatively the same as half-century ago-- worse for most, better for some. Educational inequities, segregated housing, poor infrastructure, and marginal employment remain the fate of many, if not most African Americans. Urban ghettoization-- once a basis for a measure of racial solidarity-- has been shattered, not by emancipation, but by colonization: the brute force of gentrification.

For the “new” anti-racism-- with its rejection of the class dimension-- language, gestures, symbols, and manners are the target of self-satisfied justice warriors and not material deprivation or class exploitation. Where a leader like Martin Luther King found the continuation of the Black struggle in the fight of Memphis garbage workers seeking better pay, today’s NGO-sponsored “organizers” look to call out verbal clumsiness, historical anachronisms, and “microaggressions.” They look to create “safe spaces” where diversity can be smugly celebrated. They can locate the roots of racism in the twisted minds of white racists, but not in a socio-economic system that benefited, and continues to benefit, from the competition that racism generated and from the super-profits that flowed from a racial division of labor.

Accordingly, the “new” anti-racists are less attentive to the macroaggressions of inferior health care, low-paying jobs, substandard housing, and still segregated, poor education. Since exploitation, poverty, and despair have come into existence, privileged reformers have blamed the victims for the evils that exploitation, poverty, and despair spawn. It is no different with today’s liberals who organize marches, seminars, and rallies decrying the violence and drug use plaguing our poorest communities, while overlooking the meager material conditions that are the fertile soil of social self-destruction.

When commentators announce the death of affirmative action, citing the recent decision, Students for Fair Admissions versus Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College, they are profoundly mistaken. Affirmative action has been dead for a long time, eviscerated, ignored, evaded, and demonized since the 1980s.

Racial preference is deemed necessary at elite, ruling-class training academies like the Ivies because their admissions policies are so riddled with legacy, athletic, donor, and faculty admissions. As guardians of ruling-class liberalism and custodians of ruling-class mythology, these largely private institutions hide the unjustifiable privilege shown to those without merit behind a cynical veneer of racial and ethnic sensitivity, hoping that it will mask class privilege. The Supreme Court decision was not a blow to long-abused affirmative action, but to a cynical system of elite privilege; it was a reminder of its hypocrisy. 

Affirmative action in higher education-- offering, affirming, and sustaining opportunities for Black students-- is easily achievable today in community colleges, colleges, and public universities by simply eliminating the huge student-loan debt that burdens those without means now and going forward. The thousands of public institutions of higher learning are eager to accept students.

Free admissions-- a realistic demand for a peoples’ movement-- would be a long step toward restoring the promise of authentic affirmative action. 

Rather than indulging the current class-blind anti-racist fashion of policing speech, humor, body language, books, and statues, an authentic anti-racism can seek to remove the material roadblocks to equality, as King and his predecessors sought. Of course, there is a cost to equality, a cost to real, and not fanciful, formal opportunity. And that burden should be borne by those who have benefited from racism: the rich and powerful.

Monday, July 3, 2023

Norman Finkelstein: A National Treasure?

Among the most dangerous people in the US are those who actually once fervently believed the foundational myths of the country’s social and political order. 

It’s the true believers-- we who are schooled on republican virtues, democratic procedures, universal equality, and fair play that are said to be deeply embedded in the US experience-- who become radical crusaders when their beliefs are shattered by the truth.

The true believers are cast as traitors to humanity, nation, race, or creed when they turn on those who foster a false loyalty or cheap patriotism based on lies or deception.

The late Daniel Ellsberg was one of these soldiers of truth. Once a handmaiden for US foreign policy, experience brought home the murderous, cynical, and false execution of that policy. At great risk-- even physical risk-- Ellsberg bravely cast aside his privileged, highly respected position and exposed the ugly, hypocritical US intervention in Southeast Asia, an engagement that led to and fueled the savage destruction wrought by the Indochinese war. Ellsberg devoted the rest of his life to opposing the abuse of his once deeply felt ideals.

Thinking of Ellsberg before his death while reading Norman Finkelstein’s new book, I’LL BURN THAT BRIDGE WHEN I GET TO IT! I could not help but see Finkelstein cast in a similar light. Certainly, they are different people, with different burdens, and different circumstances. But they are alike in important ways: both have shown uncommon courage and uncompromising idealism. Both have known the lash of ostracization. 

Where Ellsberg’s idealism was violated by the US empire’s betrayal of his ideals, Finkelstein’s idealism forces him to stand almost alone against cherished beliefs that none dare challenge. Ellsberg confronted US power, Finkelstein attacks the sanctity of conventional, officially-protected thought.

Finkelstein’s new book is not easy to discuss. It is many things-- not in a bad way, but in a personal, boldly eccentric way.  He is a remarkably good writer: a careful grammarian, a skilled wordsmith, with a keen, logical mind. No doubt the logical construction of his arguments inflames his foes even further.

The book is divided into two sections: 1.) an extensive argument against the latest fashions of the academic left, capped with an effective critique of their embodiment, Barack Obama, and 2.) an ambitious attempt to defend a John Stuart Mill-inspired account of academic freedom and academic responsibility. 

In Part I (Identity Politics and Cancel Culture), Finkelstein effectively foregoes theoretical foreplay and leaps right into discussions of some of today’s more prominent, celebrated figures, locating them and their ideas within the framework of a purported remolding of anti-racism. With the writings and initiatives of KimberlĂ© Crenshaw, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Robin DiAngelo, and Ibram X. Kendi, Finkelstein finds a bogus path to curing racism as a societal cancer, a path strikingly deviated from the tradition of his (and my) past heroes and heroines in the struggle against racism and racial inequality. 

Finkelstein carefully, and in great detail, challenges the scholarship of the writers and the political weight of their ideas. His own scholarship is impeccable, though he favors the time-honored effectiveness of hitting the nail on its head until the head breaks off! He is relentless.

To many of the young, college-educated activists who have come to understand the scourge of racism through Crenshaw, Coates, DiAngelo, Kendi, and their colleagues, the Finkelstein critique will itself appear as racially insensitive, an attack on identity that is truly worthy of cancellation. 

Finkelstein counters this “Little Red Book” mob reaction by extensively and passionately quoting from his own anti-racist icons: Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois, Paul Robeson, and Martin Luther King. His brilliant contraposing of DuBois against Kendi is a veritable seminar in deep and productive anti-racist thinking. The contrast alone diminishes Kendi’s thought. Shrewdly, Finkelstein lets the history of sacrifice, defiance, activism, and razor-sharp analysis by these giants of human advancement address the shallow bromides of smug, secure, petty-bourgeois academics. 

From the perch of an insular, arid academic office, the question of racism is a question of manners and self-styled group recognition; from the path that Douglass, DuBois, Robeson, and King trod, the question of racism was a question of emancipation, ending exploitation, and achieving economic security.

If I had my preferences, the author would have broadened his attack beyond these mostly African-American intellectuals to include the vast body of US academics engaged in navel-gazing and supplicating before the ruling class. When leading philosophers are reduced to pondering the depth of “sentiments” and public intellectuals are selling the empty, emotive catch-all-that-we-hate concept of “authoritarianism,” the commodification of anti-racism earns no special place. Intellectual life as contained in academia in general is numbing. 

Finkelstein expresses a well-earned contempt for Barack Obama, his hypocrisy, and his self-regard. In many ways, Obama gave agency to appearance over substance in a way similar to the scribblings of Crenshaw, Coates, DiAngelo, et al. Obama sold the appearance of change and delivered none.

By contrast, Finkelstein casts Bernie Sanders as an authentic agent of change shackled by the Democratic Party leadership. But surely Sanders knew about those shackles and did little to break them. In the end, he, too, sold the appearance of change and delivered none, though perhaps not as cynically as did Obama.

Finkelstein’s politics are influenced by his earlier immersion in Gang of Four Maoism. Forgoing his parents’ Popular Front leftism for REAL revolution, the author’s fingers were burnt. Like so many recovering Little Red Bookers, he now struggles to imagine any politics not going through the Democratic Party, despite his contempt for that party. Apparently, Marxist “orthodoxy” was never considered an option.

Which brings us quite naturally to the other part of Finkelstein’s book, Part II (Academic Freedom). Like Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, and a handful of other US commentators, Finkelstein is part of a dying breed-- the true, classic liberal who believes passionately and deeply in freedom of speech, a free press, free academic inquiry, and many other freedoms associated with enlightenment values. 

By the third decade of the twentieth century, history has shown these rights to be rights of convenience. The bourgeois state recognizes these rights when it is useful for propaganda purposes or when the state detects no threat, should they be exercised. Otherwise, when the state is made insecure by freedom of speech, assembly, movement, etc., these rights are squelched. 

In political theory, rights of convenience are actually privileges, where privileges are the warrants granted capriciously by those in power. With the end of the Cold War and its propaganda function, the pretense of universal rights, of absolute freedoms, is just that-- a pretense. The current tribalism around both red and blue allegiances demonstrates how shallow goes the popular commitment to the Bill of Rights.

Yet Finkelstein, like other true-believers—nineteenth-century liberals, their admirers, and a smattering of libertarians-- still clings to these beliefs and attempts to support them in a world grown cynical. 

He wrestles with the idea that a university or its educational counterparts should have freedom of inquiry and its necessary condition, freedom of speech. He relies almost exclusively on John Stuart Mill’s rule-utilitarian justification, citing the potential and actual good that comes from accepting these principles (rules). 

At the same time, Finkelstein concedes the obvious counterexamples (e.g., advocating paedophilia) that nullify the universality of Stuart Mill’s rule-utilitarianism. He and we are left with a principle neither absolute nor real-world operant. 

For Finkelstein and other enlightenment liberals, academia should be a marketplace of ideas, when, in fact, it is a class war. More broadly, the battle for ideas is waged between classes.

Nonetheless, we should embrace the idealism of Finkelstein and the other doctrinaire liberals, but without illusions. Absent a measure of free speech, the little chance we have of getting radical ideas past the gatekeepers drops sharply.

My reservations aside, Finkelstein and his book are treasures. At a time of mind-numbing conformity and groveling before power, a figure who defies conventions and takes us where the thought police do not want us to go should be cherished.

I’m reminded of my teenage epiphany when I found and read Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself. Today, I would disagree with nearly everything in the book, but at a time of stifling Cold War conformity, it broke those chains for me.

Finkelstein, too, is a chain-breaker.

Greg Godels