Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Scolding -- and Whiteness

I have mentioned before on this blog that the email "polls" from my Florida Congressman, Vern Buchanan, remain one of the few channels in my life through which I receive communiqués from the land of frothy right-wing scare-mongering. I believe I told you about the "Sanctuary for Illegals?" one. Well, the other emails are headlined in equally unsubtle ways. This is the sort of reverberating echo-chamber by which Vern takes the pulse of his constituents.

Given the tenor of the typical Buchanan "Instapoll," therefore -- I have in front of me now a couple of the choicest subject lines: "Amnesty for Illegals?"; "Support Syrian Refugee 'Surge'?"-- you can imagine my surprise at finding the far more benign-sounding "Confronting Addiction" in my inbox this weekend. And benign it was too! Vern was proposing additional funds for treating drug addiction. Sure, there were lines in there about increased enforcement as well, but the mood of the thing overall was one of compassion. I was reminded of the remarks we've been hearing on the campaign trail from the GOP candidates, of all people, about the need for drug rehabilitation; about how addiction is a public health issue, not a problem of law enforcement.

How can this be? Whence this storm of tender feelings in an election year that has otherwise been marked by such outlandish brutality? Whatever happened to the War on Drugs? To cracking down? To three strikes and zero tolerance?

I think you and I both know the answer. It has to do with the fact that the face of the  typical opioid addict in America-- at least in most media narratives -- tends to be white rather than black, and therefore garners more sympathy from the dominant political culture. It means that we are faced, yet again, with the familiar specter of the racist double standard in American morality. One can't help but be struck, after all, by the uncharacteristic tone of charity that has entered the public discussion around drug policy over the past year, as our understanding of the breadth of the heroin crisis in white working class America has grown. Perhaps one should take such salutary changes wherever one can get them, and not ask too many questions. The contrast, however, to the way this conversation unfolded in earlier decades can only be glaring to anyone with a memory that extends back more than five years. The suspicion that this sudden change of heart has something to do with racism, and with the moralistic garb under which racism most often presents itself in American politics, is difficult to escape.

By way of comparison, let us turn to another recent-ish news item relating to drug policy-- this one a case in which the views and attitudes of the 1990s intruded into the election of 2016-- and reminded of us vividly of just how far these attitudes were from the relative kindness now being displayed toward (presumably "white") people struggling with addiction by the GOP contenders in states like New Hampshire. I am referring to Bill Clinton's notorious encounter with Black Lives Matter protesters, as the latter were calling attention to Hillary's use of the term "super-predators" in the '90s, and by extension, reminding Americans of the destructive impact of the crime bill that both the Clintons (and Bernie Sanders, let's be fair) endorsed at the time. Defending the use of the "super-predator" term, Clinton replied to the protesters: "I don't know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack, and sent them out in the streets to murder other African-American children."

This response of course totally sidesteps the fact that it wasn't the gang leaders at all whom Hillary and others described in those years as "super-predators" -- it was precisely those 13-year-olds Clinton mentions that the term was meant to denote (so-called "super-predators" were ostensibly going to emerge as a wave of young adolescent street criminals in the late 1990s as the teenage population increased). Children like these, who, as Clinton correctly states, were often the victims of forced recruitment and the abuse and exploitation of adults, often ended up being tried as adults, incarcerated in adult prisons, or barricaded into solitary cells under Clinton's presidency, in part because of his crime policies.

That was the face of drug policy in the '90s. Mr. Burns was uttering a surprisingly widespread sentiment when he declared in a 1992 episode: "Thank God we live in a country so hysterical over crime that a 10-year-old child can be tried as an adult." And speaking of The Simpsons and scolding, let us remember this was also the era in which William Bennett -- the former Secretary of Education and drug czar (a resume that is more than enough in itself to explain everything one needs to know about the 1980s and '90s) -- recommended a diet of "soap sandwiches" to the young Bart.

As a maker of American drug policy, Bennett (who, in the mold of Pecksniffs everywhere, was ultimately revealed to suffer from the same kinds of faults he persecuted in others -- in his case, an addiction to gambling) was in a position to do worse than that to a generation of largely black inner city children and youth who had fallen in with the wrong crowd, made mistakes, been betrayed by the adults in their lives, been profiled by police, or who had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

To be fair to the '90s -- and to its self-appointed dispensers of stern discipline, "life lessons," and of a few good licks of the belt-- it has to be said that the finger-wagging tone of the era was so pervasive that white people too were subjected to it -- so long as they were working class and suffering (like Bart Simpson, come to think of it). So long as the economy was good enough that the educated classes felt secure, there was plenty of scolding to go around for all those -- of all races -- who had been left out of the good times -- presumably because of their own personal failings, of course.
I refer you as an instance to the scene in the 1998 film Primary Colors, in which the John Travolta character -- a dim-bulb and extra-grotesque version of Bill Clinton -- is addressing a crowd of unemployed steel mill workers (or longshoreman, or truckers, the point at any rate is clear -- these are the rust belt detritus of NAFTA and globalization). Travolta, in a syrupy imitation of the then-president, gets up in front of these workers, extracts a few "jes' folks" guffaws from the crowd, and then starts in on his stern lecture of the day. He talks about how the jobs will never come back, manufacturing is a thing of the past, and everyone present will have to take responsibility for this fact and adjust. But of course, they won't have to do it entirely alone, he says at last. If they elect him, he will provide education, which will prepare them for the plentiful jobs to arrive with the new economy.

At this point of the scene, in case the audience missed that we were supposed to find this immensely inspiring and moving, the other characters lean in to whisper to each other how overcome they are with admiration.

From the perspective of 2016, of course, we can say that the Travolta character was right -- the jobs never did come back. But neither, we notice, did the glorious new economy; and if the education eventually came, it was at the price of astronomical student debt and a completely uncertain prognosis for employability on the other side.

Now that the Clinton-era boom is over, and the educated and white collar professions seem as endangered as many manufacturing jobs, everyone's scolding days are done-- for now, anyways. Even Hollywood screenwriters start to think, while contemplating the laid-off steel workers and longshoremen: you know, that could actually be us!  Brecht's comparison of Los Angeles to hell never seemed so fitting:
[…] Even the houses in Hell are not all ugly.
But concern about being thrown into the street
Consumes the inhabitants of the villas no less
Than the inhabitants of the barracks. 
This is the thought that is the great antidote to scolding -- the realization that it could just as easily have happened to me, had things been just slightly different.


Yet the terrifying thing, the awful thing -- the thing that should shock us and yet which, in light of this country's history, is also the least surprising thing in the world -- is that over and again, these problems have to happen to white people before the dominant culture begins to take any notice.

When the crack epidemic, for instance, was devastating black communities, it was seen as a problem of "law enforcement." Only once opioid addition became a staggering problem among the white working class did pundits and politicians begin to assert things that should have been obvious the whole time -- that addiction is a public health problem; that addicts are the ones who suffer from epidemic drug use more than anyone; and that criminalization and mandatory sentences are not only savagely harmful to the people they confine for decades behind bars; they also do nothing to address the root causes of substance abuse -- which, as Brian Barry points out in Why Social Justice Matters -- can actually be a "rational" choice for people who are forced by the conditions of our economy to face stress and anxiety that would be simply unendurable in the absence of some anaesthetizing or distracting agent.

So too, structural job loss has been a problem for decades in the inner cities -- yet for much of that time, social scientists bent over themselves to trace the roots of the "problem of the ghettoes" back to "culture," or to personal behavior, or to bad morality, or some other nebulous force. Now, however, that the white working class is making its suffering known -- chiefly by lining up behind a political demagogue and master manipulator of grievance and threatening to bring down society as we know it -- now no one seems to question any more that the reason people are unemployed is that there are not enough jobs to employ them! This is something, again, that should never have been in doubt! -- yet, of course, so long as it was chiefly minorities who were suffering from its consequences, it seemed impossible for many white opinion-makers to believe it was the case.


All of this, of course, takes us to an old and perhaps defining question of American labor history. -- namely: why has there never been a genuine worker's movement in this country? Why does every rumble and bellow from disenfranchised whites in the U.S. eventually issue into some form of nativism and racial backlash, rather than a recognition of common interests with other people? Why is it, in other words, that the Trumps of the world hoodwink us every time? Why is it that Carl Sandburg's words still ring so true:
I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass. […] Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted. I forget. [...]
Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then—I forget.
Perhaps those "red drops" Sandburg had in mind when he wrote this had to do with one of those left-wing revolutions that always turn out so well. I don't think he anticipated the kinds of red drops that Donald Trump plans to shed in his first hundred days in office, as he loads sobbing immigrant parents and Muslims with voided student visas onto airplanes and starts outlining the specifics of his expanded torture program and of how he'd go about bombing the "families of terrorists." That's the sort of thing that actually seems to happen when the white American mob growls and shakes itself.

But why? Why should it be so, time and again? Other countries have, for all their failings, managed to build worker's movements that belong to the political left and that resist-- at least some of the time -- the siren call of racist and nativist demagoguery. Why can America never seem to do the same?

It is tempting to answer this question by pointing to the alleged "homogeneity" of other historical working classes. This, however, is to employ the modern construct of "whiteness" in a baldly anachronistic way. The truth is that throughout all the history of capitalism, there has never been a "native" working class, only an immigrant one. Every working class is composed of migrants -- whether they be Swabians or Bretons trekking to the metropole; black sharecroppers migrating north in the early 20th century; rural laborers fleeing debt bondage on their Midwestern farms, like the characters in a Hamlin Garland story, and who became the "farm boys beneath the gas lamps" of a different Sandburg piece; the sixteenth century British peasants driven off the medieval commons by enclosure; the Silesian weavers of a former era and the Haitian rice farmers swelling the slums of Port-au-Prince of our own. They are the Wanderratten of Heine's poem, the "eternal illegals," in Roque Dalton's phrase. All of them were once the undocumented scapegoats of their age, the victims of xenophobic prejudice. In other words, we too -- even if we are "white Americans" -- were strangers once in the land of Egypt.

If every industrial working class begins as a "foreign element," however -- and if this dearth of "homogeneity" is therefore not exclusively a fact of the American experience -- why then have other countries had more luck in crafting popular movements across ethnic lines? 

Undoubtedly, it has to do with that "forgetting" that Sandburg properly deemed the culprit. What white Americans forgot in this case was precisely that they are not Americans -- and that they are not white. They are products of far more close-knit social environments and far smaller tribes of people than that. So long as they knew themselves to be Polish immigrants or Sicilians or Scotch-Irish indentured servants, this fact would not have been so easily forgotten. And so they banded in solidarity with other tribes of similar size and similar marginal status. Now, however, that they have been so throughly deracinated as to become "plain" Americans, "just" Americans, "white" Americans -- now that that has happened, they can entertain the illusion that they can go it alone-- that they are the "majority" and that they can "take back" their country -- that they will make it "great again."

Oh my friends, not one of us is in the majority! Each of us is just ourselves, the product of whatever handful of people we have known and liked, of whatever we have read or listened to or watched. 

"When I, the People, learn to remember," promised Sandburg, "when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday [...]" things, it is implied, will be different. But what is it we have to remember? That this great curse and plague of racism in our country is founded in a lie and is fed on forgetting -- that it is the bondage that keeps us from becoming what we ought to and could yet be. That it is the bill of goods that makes us sell ourselves time and again into the hands of murderers and dictators, who use us and discard us and laugh along the way.  

When I, said Sandburg, "no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: 'The People,' with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision./ The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then."

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