How We Lost The War On Terror

I know this seems callous, but I don’t care much about September 11th. It was terrible, yes, but nothing about that day changed or defined this country.

If you want to commemorate a turning point in our recent history, try September 20th: the day President Bush declared to Congress that the attacks were acts of war. In hindsight, his speech is bursting with irony and/or despair, not the least of which is that only Congress has the power to declare war. But check out this gem:

Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us.

Cue sad trombone music. We are demonstrably less free, demonstrably more afraid. The world under our leadership is less free and more afraid. Our democratic institutions are weathering their most severe storm in 150 years. And we didn’t even wipe out terrorism — not even close.

During the Obama administration, one could at least argue we had fought terrorism to a stalemate: if we hadn’t won, at least we hadn’t lost outright. But given at our current circumstances, stalemate is too ambitious a descriptor.

We lost the war on terror – bigly.

The thing is, this failure was almost entirely due to own goals. We did some things right — give me a few minutes and I could name maybe two — but we did so many things insistently wrong that Al Qaeda barely had to take the field to win.

The crux of our failure is that we did not understand the rules of the game. To be more concrete, we let Bin Laden and Al Qaeda dictate those rules to us — we played exactly as they wanted us to. And by accepting their rules, we made sure we couldn’t win.

To understand those rules, it helps to understand what bin Laden wanted from September 11th. For him, the War on Terror (= War on America) began in 1996, with his “Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holiest Sites“, in which he announced, “Today your brothers and sons from the two holiest sites started the jihad for the sake of God to expel the occupying enemy from the land of the two holiest sites.” By which he meant Saudi Arabia, and this was apparently an attempt to piggyback on Hezbollah’s attack against the Khobar Towers, which killed several American servicemen.

That statement wasn’t enough, so in 1998 Bin Laden and company issued the “World Islamic Front’s Statement Urging Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders“: “[…]we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims:

The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it […]

That fatwa was issued in February. In August, Al Qaeda detonated bombs at two American embassies, in Kenya and Tanzania.

There are three key points to take from these statements, as well as the many speeches and videos bin Laden produced. First, bin Laden wanted war with the United States: his goal was to provoke a war between Islam and America. Second, he almost exclusively addressed fellow Muslims, with only the occasional aside to Americans. Third, he rarely differentiated between the American people and the U.S. government.

With respect to the first, Bush’s response to September 11th gave bin Laden exactly the validation he was looking for. After five years trying, bin Laden finally provoked the Americans to go to war. If Afghanistan wasn’t enough, he certainly had his war with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. By 2004, bin Laden was crowing about September 11th: “As for its results, they have been, by the grace of Allah, positive and enormous, and have, by all standards, exceeded all expectations.” Granted that even while the War on Terror was in pragmatic terms a concession by the U.S. to bin Laden, in theory we could have given him his war and then won that war. But we didn’t.

A big part of the reason we did not win, and also why we did so much damage to ourselves, was our failure to recognize the second and third points — that bin Laden was talking to Muslims, and didn’t see any distinction between Americans and our government. This is important because an effective response to terrorism requires a proper understanding of the actors and dynamics involved.

Terrorism is a form of communication, a form of threat-in-practice. In almost all cases, there are three parties: the terrorist, the target, and the audience. The terrorist attacks the target to compel the audience to respond, although sometimes the audience and the target are the same.

So, for example, when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murragh Building in OKC, his target was Federal civilian employees, but his audience was fellow ‘patriots’, whom he hoped to spur into an insurrection against the Federal government. That did not happen, and nor did the Federal government give McVeigh his war.

In bin Laden’s view of September 11th, the target was America and the audience was all Muslim people. He almost always addressed his speeches and statements to the Muslim people.

But in Bush’s view, the target was the American government and the audience was the American people, or maybe vice versa. Instead of formulating a response aimed at Muslims, Bush formulated a response directed at the American people. But, again, bin Laden rarely addressed his remarks to Americans directly, and rarely distinguished between the American people and government.

The result of Bush’s indifference to bin Laden’s audience was chaos in the Muslim world — two American-led wars, the Arab Spring, the clusterfudge  in Libya, a military dictatorship in Egypt, a proxy war in Yemen, violent repression in Bahrain, the civil war in Syria, etc. We killed bin Laden, but he died knowing he had more or less accomplished his goal.

Parallel to that was the incredible pressure brought to bear on the American people to support the Bush administration’s military agenda. Instead of responding to the attacks in a way that denied bin Laden his goals, Bush used the attacks to achieve his own goals. Let that idea settle in for a minute.

Rather than working to strengthen and preserve our freedoms, the Bush administration played to and played up our fears, to ensure our continued support for his agenda. This was not only a perversion of the oath of office, but also had the consequence of validating and rewarding bin Laden’s agenda. Not that Bush wanted the terrorists to win; rather, he simply ignored their agenda in favor of his own.

In his 2004 speech — which basically asked for America’s surrender — bin Laden argued that the Bush administration was indistinguishable from a military dictatorship: “in light of the resemblance it bears to the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half which are ruled by the sons of kings and presidents.” He described these governments as “replete with those who are characterized by pride, arrogance, greed and misappropriation of wealth.”

He further argued that the Bush administration deliberately copied those repressive tactics: “and they named it the Patriot Act, under the pretense of fighting terrorism.” Compare his critique of the United States to the worldview of Steve Bannon or Alex Jones or even President Trump. Whose is more realistic?

In 2001 I would have argued against nearly every point bin Laden used to justify his war against America: our hypocrisy on human rights, our indifference to Muslim suffering and death, our support for oppressive regimes, our antipathy to Islam, our overwhelming militarism, our imperialism, our pride, arrogance, and greed. The hardest part of the War on Terror for me has been accepting that bin Laden’s view of America was more accurate than my own. Not that he was right, but he saw us more clearly than I did.

And the fear the Bush administration spread over this country continues to corrode our democracy. It’s a pretty obvious line from Bush’s speech on September 20th, through to our present troubles. For all his talk of freedom, Bush’s response validated the use of fear as political capital and governing strategy, to the point that pretty much every freedom named in the Bill of Rights was violated on the pretext of fighting terrorism. And though Obama rolled back some of the worst excesses, that administration did not change direction.

Which brings us to the current government: can we now say with sincerity that we are a democracy of free people, rather than an empire of fear? And to which pole are are we closer? We lost the War on Terror, and the penalty is that we are more or less the people Osama bin Laden said we always were. Whom does “pride, arrogance, greed and misappropriation of wealth” describe better than our President?

If it seems too easy to quarterback sixteen years after the fact, let me point out that much of this argument is borrowed from my master’s thesis, written in 2004, in which I argued that the Bush administration’s policy was deeply problematic in terms of appropriateness and efficacy. I would change barely a word of it today, but I would add a hell of a lot more.

If anything, it was easier in 2004 to imagine a response to September 11th that 1) denied bin Laden his war, 2) strengthened America’s relationship to the Muslim world, and 3) did not pit the U.S. government against the American people. Thinking about that possibility, and what the world would look like now, is so painful I can hardly stand it.

So we have come to a point where we ought to admit that we lost the War on Terror. Based on bin Laden’s stated aims, he won. Based on Bush’s stated aims on September 20th, we lost. There’s no feasible read of either man’s statements that suggests otherwise.

As painful as it is to revisit this history, I bring this up because it will happen again. We will face another serious terrorist attack, and it’s important to understand why we lost the War on Terror so that we do not again make the same pointless, easily avoidable mistakes.

What About The Nazis?

When a person says, “I am a pacifist”, the reply is always the same: “What about the Nazis?”

In this essay on (non)violence in Charlottesville, Logan Rimel asks himself that very question. Rimel is a Christian and was a pacifist sorta, but those Nazis were so darn scary that… nevermind.

As it happens, I am a pacifist, and I can tell you what about the Nazis — specifically how pacifism can and does stand up to Nazis, and might be our best protection from fascism. I can tell you how Rimel is wrong and how we can do better.

That Rimel might self-identify as a pacifist, yet not have an answer to ‘What about the Nazis?’ beggars belief. It’s the basic test for whether you are a pacifist, but Rimel never really explains what pacifism meant to him absent an answer. The most substance we get about Rimel’s views is that his was “untested, hypothetical… weak pacifism”. I would say at best he had an interest in pacifism, but did not possess the thing itself.

And it turns out Rimel’s self-identification with pacifism is only part of a rhetorical strategy leading to a defense of Antifa, the real object of his essay. His thesis statement — “white Christians, if you aren’t willing to personally take a bat to the head, shut up about antifa” — I suspect he thinks is a throw-the-first-stone level profundity, but I take it as invitation to continue to critique Antifa’s abetment of white supremacy, on which more below.

In particular, Rimel wants to rebuke white Christians, whom he takes to be too soft on fascism because they disapprove of Antifa. He implies pacifism is an obvious Christian doctrine, but might want to check in with Reinhold Niebuhr on that. Niebuhr also asks, ‘What about the Nazis?’, the difference being that he was writing about real Nazis during a real war. Both men argue against straw men, but Niebuhr at least uses a lot more straw.

Anyway, in Rimel’s telling of Charlottesville, his reduced-carb pacifism crumbles at the first sight of a firearm, as though he is surprised that violence might be part of the white supremacists’ agenda for the event. He finds shelter under Antifa’s wings, which then leads him to slew of leading questions and false dichotomies, because he is not interested in the moral or practical aspects of pacifism.

“Are you willing to take a bat to the head?” asks Rimel, and of course the answer is ‘no’. But pacifism doesn’t require you be willing to take a bat to the head, only that you be willing to take the risk of a bat to the head — and Rimel’s conflation of the two seems intended to obscure rather than illuminate. You can wear a helmet and still be pacifist. You can hold up your arms or curl up in a ball and still be a pacifist. You can duck and dodge and still be a pacifist.

Even if Rimel was sincere in his pacifism, there is a vast difference between his milquetoast version, of wishing there weren’t violence, versus the kind I adhere to, of actively working against violence without violence. And I think Rimel’s argument falls apart when confronted with the latter sort of pacifism.

Rimel and Niebuhr and pretty much every other critic argue against a pacifism that is absolute in its intolerance for violence. For that sort of pacifism — which I have never seen in the wild — the ‘What about the Nazis?’ question is supposed to be an airtight trap. Obviously Nazis need to be resisted with violence, right? And so, the reasoning goes, any tiny admissible violence is the undoing of pacifism, and a validation of militarism.

But watch this part closely: my pacifism is not absolute. Pacifism for me means I don’t trust myself with violence, nor do I trust anybody with violence on my behalf, and I want to work for less violence in society. Nothing about that requires an absolutist stance. I can point myself away from violence without turning my back on it completely, and that is both a morally and logically consistent position to take. Even Jesus has the bit where he tells his disciples to buy swords, but it’s very hard to read that as an endorsement of unrestricted warfare. (Granted, some people do.)

Let me say that my version of pacifism stems not from Christian doctrine alone — as Niebuhr points out, there’s conflicting support in the Bible — but from ample experience with and observation of violence. I’ve tried violence, and I quite enjoy it, but it makes things worse far more often than it makes things better, especially in terms of God’s kingdom on earth. So I am a pacifist in part because of my Christian beliefs, but also because those beliefs are informed by my experience of violence.

Once you grasp that pacifism need not be absolute, the ‘WatN?’ nonsense evaporates like mist. George MacLeod, Scottish pastor and pacifist, answered ‘WatN?’ by describing himself as a “55% pacifist”. I consider myself an 85% pacifist, but he lived through World War II and I didn’t. I will allow that there might theoretically be some instance in which I trust myself (or someone else) with violence, but it hasn’t happened yet in my lifetime. I have been sorely tempted, mind you.

Here’s an example of admissible violence: a friend of the family is a police officer in Florida. Several years ago she responded to a call, and found herself ambushed by two armed criminals. They shot her ten times. She killed both of them, in self-defense. That episode does not bother me, and certainly does not void my pacifism.

You might say, “well, that’s not really pacifism” — but if I told you I am 85% Nazi, you would have no trouble thinking of me as really a Nazi. (I am zero percent Nazi.) To frame my pacifism more concretely: I doubt that even 15% of the wars we have fought in the last hundred years were necessary. I doubt that even 15% of the people killed by our government deserved to die. I doubt that even 15% of the people in our jails and prisons deserve to be there. I doubt that even 15% of the people wiped out in the Great Recession deserved their ruin.

Back in Charlottesville, Rimel thinks pacifism means “outsourcing the violence” the pacifist will not commit, which — again — is not pacifism. Pacifism is about preventing and protesting violence, not about delegating it. He then asks of the pacifist, “Are you going to rely upon a different type of violence – that imposed by the state – to protect you – even knowing it is a danger to your neighbors?”  And this I think is the crux of his problem.

My answer is, “yes?” By that I mean: if violence is necessary, then I want that violence to be performed under tight constraint and with thorough accountability by agents of a democratically-elected government. I don’t see at all how that is less preferable to vigilante groups. Granted, the state I want is not the state we have, but I am extremely skeptical that we can get from here to there via unrestrained violence.

After World War II, the Allied powers asked one another, “How did this happen? How can we prevent it?” And the answer they came up with was that the Nazis were able to roll back the rights of their own citizens without fear of censure or sanction, and once the Nazis had assimilated all of Germany they went looking for other lands and peoples. And so one leader in particular advocated for a Charter of Human Rights, as a bulwark against, “all forms of tyranny, ancient or modern, Nazi or Communist”. That leader? Winston Churchill.

Churchill was not a pacifist, and was in fact a bit disingenuous in his work for European unity: he wanted European governments bound by a Charter of Human Rights, so that they would not start wars with each other and drag Britain back in. But his basic prescription proved correct: the Council of Europe’s European Court of Human Rights is the only international body with real power to adjudicate and enforce human rights in member states. There is good evidence that members who comply with the court (so not Turkey or  Russia) are far less likely to engage in war, not to mention far less likely to use violence against their own people. So… it works.

When we talk about human rights, we are really talking about when and to what extent state violence is acceptable. The pacifist position with respect to internal violence by the state is simply that human rights should be as maximal as possible, and infringed as rarely as possible. The pacifist position is that governments should not use violence on their own citizens, or anyone else — insofar as it is avoidable.

Granted the U.S. government is not close to that standard, but for the most part the fascists and Nazis aren’t rallying in deep redpressive states like Alabama and Texas: they’re in blue cities in blue states, like Charlottesville, Virginia, or Berkeley, California, or Boston, Massachusetts, that generally have a good record of protecting the rights of marginalized people. I would not say I trust these governments, but they are not sympathetic to fascists or Nazis — so maybe it is admissible that we leave to those states the violence necessary to preserve our rights.

Rimel warns us that we’re not safe, that our Muslim, immigrant, black [sic], disabled, indigenous, Jewish, and transgender neighbors are not safe. “If you feel safe now, it’s an illusion born of your relationship to power.” But my relationship to power is one in which I have rights asserted against that power, enshrined in laws constraining that power. My rights aren’t an illusion, and neither is the centuries-long and ongoing struggle to protect, preserve, and expand those rights. Fascism is a threat precisely because it wants to build a state whose power is self-justifying and absolute, and cannot be constrained by rights or other rules — and then use that power to kill me.

Against this threat Rimel offers Antifa, members of which routinely insist they do not recognize the rights of those with whom they disagree. Which, let’s be honest, is kind of the same as saying ‘we don’t recognize rights’. But rights only make sense in a context of state power and violence, so implicit in this argument is Antifa’s endorsement of state power that is self-justifying and absolute, and cannot be constrained by rights or other rules. And this is my critique of Antifa: that they operate fully within the Nazi worldview, instead of challenging it.

As I have explained, the name ‘Antifa’ comes from Antifaschistische Aktion, a Communist paramilitary in Weimar Germany, which opposed (but probably hastened) the rise of the Nazi party. The organization was based on a belief in the necessity of total revolution — of nihilistic violence — in order to bring about Communist society. They were not pro-democracy, pro-rights, nor were they protecting Weimar society. As an aside, I don’t know who is pushing the whole lower-case ‘antifa’ not-an-organization thing; I can see how it’s good brand management, but in terms of historical literacy it makes about as much sense as talking about little-n nazis.

In terms of theological literacy, the fact of Christians and clergy defending, as Rimel does, an organization/movement/brand with roots in militant Communism makes about as much sense as defending nazis. Later Rimel calls “disparagement of antifa… a moral equivalency from the depths of Hell if ever I saw one”, but let’s be clear: I am not saying Antifa cannot be differentiated from the Nazis. I am saying that Antifa clearly differ as weaker than, less clever than, and accomplices to the Nazis. It seems irrelevant to me whether their motives make them more or less ethical than Nazis, if their consequence is counter to their stated goals.

In this one respect I am equivocating: I doubt our rights will fare any better under an Antifa government than they will under a Nazi government. Because that is what is at stake: who will control the government? The prize the Nazis are after is nothing less than total control. We have had a taste of the violence they will unleash once they achieve it, but resisting tit for tat only emboldens and empowers them in the meantime. By the time we get to a point where vigilante violence is the best available strategy against fascism, it will be too late to offer meaningful resistance.

The real struggle against the Nazi agenda is not happening in the streets, but in voting booths and courtrooms and town halls. It is community organizing and voter registration and canvassing and — yes, alas — fundraising, but none of it is violent. So a pacifist can indeed fight back against Nazis, and far more effectively than Antifa, at that. Even passivity is still doing more good than Antifa, because at least it is not affirming the Nazis’ worldview. (My critique would still be on point even if I weren’t willing to risk a bat to the head.)

Rimel’s rejection of pacifism isn’t bold or hard-nosed, but instead a retread of an argument nearly 80 years old, made with less conviction and less comprehension than the original, and with far less evidence in its favor. Rimel wasn’t a pacifist — he was lazy. Rather than engage in the tough and often tedious work of maintaining a democratic society, Rimel prefers the immersive gratification of confrontation. From his essay, it looks very much like Rimel would rather swing a bat than lift a finger to protect and expand our human rights.

The white Christian church has been too passive — or worse, complicit — in the fascist inroads against our democracy. That has to end — Rimel is right about that, at least. We cannot afford to be disengaged, to turn up our nose at politics (although many of us never did). But Rimel is dead wrong that we have to embrace violence in order to protect one another.

We best protect one another by resisting violence in all its forms, by resisting the very idea that violence can save us or redeem us or protect us. We have to fight — non-violently — to protect our rights.

 

Antifa Helped The Nazis Come To Power, Too

My social media has many memes and quotes about how worthy Antifa is, and I find it all incredibly frustrating and historically blindered.

Here’s a fact: Antifa existed in Weimar Germany. They didn’t prevent the Nazis from coming to power. Through their incompetence, they helped.

The Nazis deliberately provoked street fights with Antifa and precursor organizations (i.e. Rotfront, “Red Front”, the communist paramilitary) as a way to win support for their party. This is not a secret, or an obscure fact. It’s on Wikipedia (ffs).

In 1928, the Nazis were a marginal party: they won only 2.6% of the seats in the Reichstag in elections that year. In response, the Nazis “began a period of deliberate antagonism to the Rotfront by marching into Communist strongholds and starting violent altercations.” Hitler and Goebbels especially focused on Berlin — one of the most Communist-friendly cities in Europe — as a battleground, using their SA paramilitary to provoke street fights with Rotfront to gin up support for the party. (“SA” stands  for Sturmabteilung, often known as the Brown-shirts.)

Not content to fight Nazis, the Rotfront also antagonized the SPD (Social Democrat) government. In 1929 the Prussian government banned public demonstrations, apparently to stymie Nazis as well as Communists, but Rotfront attempted nonetheless to hold a demonstration in Berlin to celebrate International Worker’s Day. Thousands of demonstrators were met by 13,000 police: “The three days of unrest caused 33 deaths and 200 injuries. More than 1,200 people were arrested. On the occasion of the so-called ‘Bloody May’, the Prussian government, led by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), forbade the Rotfront.” The group was banned and its assets seized, although some members continued the fight in illegal groups, including the Kampfbund gegen den Faschismus (“Fight Against Fascism”).

Meanwhile, the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929 made the Weimar Republic extremely shaky. The SPD lost more and more support as the German economy grew worse. The Nazis were able to use fear of Communism and the promise of renewed (ahem) national greatness to win much of that support for their party.

In 1930 a communist shot Nazi party officer Horst Wessel, apparently in a disagreement over a woman,  killing him. From Spiegel Online: “Communists attacked the funeral procession and tried to seize the coffin. Before the funeral, they had painted the words ‘A final Heil Hitler to the pimp Horst Wessel!’ on the wall of the Nikolai Cemetery.” As a result of this action, which Nazi propagandists used to full effect, “The Nazi Party continued to attract new members, and Wessel became their martyr.”

Later in 1930, the Nazis won 18.6% of the vote in Reichstag elections, making them the second most powerful party in the country. In Berlin, where most of the action was happening, the Nazis share of the vote was “more than 10 times” what it had been two years before. But to be clear: the strategy in Berlin was not aimed only at Berlin voters, but at the entire country. For less urban or more traditional parts of Germany, stories of big-city Communists engaging in street violence against German nationalists would very easily win sympathy for the Nazis.

The SA and the [illegal] Rotfront continued to fight in Berlin through 1931 and 1932: “The deaths mounted, with many more on the Rotfront side, and by the end of 1931 the SA had suffered 47 deaths, and the Rotfront recorded losses of approximately 80. Street fights and beer hall battles resulting in deaths occurred throughout February and April 1932….” leading up the Presidential election. Hitler lost to the incumbent SPD candidate, and the government banned the Nazi paramilitaries.

Meanwhile, the Communist party in Germany had become even more ideologically rigid. They developed a theory of “social fascism”, holding that: “Nazis and Social Democrats were essentially two sides of the same coin. […] According to the theory, it was impossible to fight side by side with the SPD against the Nazis under such conditions.” On that theory, the Communists founded Antifascischistsche Aktion — Antifa — in 1932. They refused to admit SPD members unless they formally left the SPD, thus presenting a divided front to the Nazi takeover.

The fighting continued, and by July of 1932 the Nazis had won 32% of the seats in the Reichstag, the most of any party. In 1933, Hitler used the Nazis’ power in the Reichstag to get himself appointed Chancellor. Just a month later, the Reichstag burned, which fire Hitler blamed on communists, using it as pretext to crush dissent and consolidate his power in now-Nazi Germany. His first target was the communists, whom he rounded up and imprisoned, many of whom the Nazis later executed.

So that’s a brief history of Antifa and its precursors in Nazi Germany. I remembered the rough outlines of it, but filled in the details with a couple hours of research. I am not at all sympathetic to the Nazis, so I don’t blame them for Hitler’s rise. But they were useful to the Nazis as a foil, to both scare voters and show the strength of the Nazi party as protector of the German nation.

You know who is sympathetic to the Nazis and way into Nazi history? American white supremacists. So it’s a fair bet that they have this history in mind when thinking about the arc of their own organizations, and are at least loosely modelling their efforts on this precedent. Their interest in going to dark blue cities like Charlottesville and Berkeley and Boston is clear parallel to the SA’s interest in penetrating Berlin.

So you can only imagine their collective orgasmic pleasure to find themselves met in battle by people actually calling themselves Antifa — wearing black masks, no less! It’s the Goebbels playbook, point for point. The best part is that they don’t have to wait for a fascist to win the White House. They only need pin a “Bloody May” or Reichstag fire on Antifa, for the Sessions Justice department to have pretext to crack down on the left.

We are, fortunately, still in the early developmental stages of the “alt-right” white supremacist paramilitary effort. Their protests so far have been haphazard and lackluster, but they are learning and adapting and growing. They will get more and more sophisticated. Meanwhile, Antifa’s stated strategy and tactics could not be any more useful to the white supremacist narrative, and the proof of that is how much attention Antifa gets on white-supremacist/alt-right social media. Antifa is playing exactly the role the white supremacists need them to play, helping them grow and helping them learn.

If there ever was a point when vigilante violence would prevent the fascist takeover of the United States, we are past it. Trump is President. Sessions is Attorney General. For every leftist celebrating Antifa’s success in Berkeley, there are five center-right people who it see it as a militant Communist beachhead in this country. Those on the right would gladly see the Trump administration crack down on the ‘violent left’ — and it won’t be just Antifa: Black Lives Matter, ANSWER, etc.

The best hope for the left is to use the arms of government that are not under fascist control to arrest and prosecute white supremacist activists. This is what is happening — slowly, granted — subsequent to Charlottesville. Several arrests have been made, not only of the man who murdered Heather Heyer, but of other demonstrators who committed acts of violence. This has been greatly helped by photos, videos, and research from counter-protestors and their allies, which may be the best way the left can present concrete resistance to white supremacist paramilitaries. And, of course, it is too soon to give up on elections: they still offer a plausible mechanism to roll back fascism in this country.

What won’t work is violence, especially violence under the Antifa banner. That isn’t doing anything to prevent the Nazis from coming to power. Once again, it’s helping.


*There’s an error in Wikipedia about the Presidential election in “1929” — that election actually happened in 1925. The main editor for the version of the “Adolf Hitler” article I am citing is named Kierzek, and they seem to know their stuff. I don’t think they are responsible for the error. Obviously, I am using other sources, too.

 

 

 

 

 

A Hymn For Our Times

I have long disliked the Battle Hymn of the Republic, but it occurred to me in a half-dream (much as the original did to Julia Ward Howe) that it could be repurposed to our present crisis quite aptly:

Mine eyes have seen the gathering of a scant and scraggly horde,
The butternuts and brown-shirts and shitposters — how I’m bored!
They hath spewed a hateful whitening, but they’ve probably never scored.
These tools are marching on.

(Chorus)
Glory, Glory, troll-a-lujah!
Glory, glory, troll-a-lujah!
Glory, glory, troll-a-lujah!
These tools keep marching on.

I have seen them in the comments of a thousand videos,
They have bullied and harassed every feminist I know,
I disdain the whiteous semblance of these dim and blaring bros.
These tools are marching on.

(Chorus)
Glory, Glory, troll-a-lujah!
Glory, glory, troll-a-lujah!
Glory, glory, troll-a-lujah!
These tools keep marching on.

I have heard a fiery gospel, that I truly do believe:
“If one of us is chained, then none of us is free”;
But these zeros, scared of darkness, cling to white supremacy,
Thus tools keep marching on.

(Chorus)
Glory, Glory, troll-a-lujah!
Glory, glory, troll-a-lujah!
Glory, glory, troll-a-lujah!
These tools keep marching on.

We have sounded forth the tuba, and shall never call retreat;
We are flushing out the sharts of men with every block-ed Tweet.
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer! Be resolv-ed, as concrete.
‘gainst tools still marching on.

(Chorus)
Glory, Glory, troll-a-lujah!
Glory, glory, troll-a-lujah!
Glory, glory, troll-a-lujah!
These tools keep marching on.

In a beaut-e-ous preamble, were we promised liberty,
In our duty to each other, let us knock down traitor Lee,
As he fought to keep Blacks binded, let us work to make all free,
Even tools still marching on.

(Chorus)
Glory, Glory, troll-a-lujah!
Glory, glory, troll-a-lujah!
Glory, glory, troll-a-lujah!
These tools keep marching on.

March of the Racist Underpants Gnomes, Part II: White Fright

In the last post, I talked about the failure of white supremacist protestors in Charlottesville. Here, I want to talk about the allure of white supremacist views for some white people, and how the rest of us might be encouraging those views unwittingly.

Let me say I understand that the events in Charlottesville caused a tremendous amount of fear for people targeted by the white supremacists — basically, everybody except white supremacist sympathizers. That fear is valid and important, so I stress that this post is not meant to dismiss or minimize that fear, but to help solve the problems creating it. This post is focused on how white people understand and sustain white supremacy, and how we dismantle it.

In particular, I want to talk about how we talk about power. I believe the last ten years have seen a tilt in our culture and politics towards social justice that is unmatched in pace of change since the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, such that marginalized peoples are more and more empowered to act and advocate against  their oppression. The way we talk and think about oppressed peoples is changing quite rapidly, and forcing white people in particular to confront their privilege and their prejudices. Marginalized people are becoming more powerful.

Some white people see that power as being taken (or stolen) from white people, because they see power measured solely in terms of their control over other people. If Black people or queer people or immigrated people are more powerful, it is because they are taking power away from white people, and asserting that power over white people.

This is their mistake, but it is also the way we teach power and the way almost everybody talks about power in our society. So it’s also our mistake.

To correct the mistake, it is helpful to draw distinctions between types of power, which gives us different views of white power, and different layers of white supremacy. I fear this is going to seem like angels on pinheads, but — again — my audience is white people intent on confronting white supremacy.

White Powers, White Supremacies

When a Black person tells a white person that he benefits from white supremacy, the white person often hears: “You have power over me.” Not only do most white people not believe that they have that power, but even many racists would deny that power is something they want. (I say Black as an example, but of course white supremacy also targets brown, female, Jewish, queer, & etc. & etc. lives for domination.)

So the white person accused of supremacy looks at his life, quite narrowly with respect to the Black person’s life, and says: “Bullshit — white supremacy is a myth.” He finds it very easy to believe Black and white people are equal (we elected a Black president, right?). He can’t see the extent to which Black people see the people with power over them as being overwhelmingly white. That means not only are the two people talking past each other, but the Black person’s claim often has a reactance effect, antagonizing the white person to the point that he shuts down and refuses to listen.

Or, worse, he may come to accept his position in white supremacy, but instead of acknowledging it as a problem that needs to be solved, he might accept it as a privilege to be defended. Given the way we talk about power, the white person is likely to infer that the only solution to this sort of white supremacy is to give someone Black or brown power over his life — Black power as Black supremacy, rather than as Black justice.

The more we try to force empathy and understanding on such a person, the more we insist he confront the horrors of white supremacy in our society, the more likely that is to harden his views: if white supremacy was so awful for Black people, then of course Black supremacy will be just as awful for white people. The dog-eat-dog, zero sum nature of power as we think, talk, and teach it forces him into a false dichotomy: fight or surrender.

Understanding this view of power helps us make sense of white supremacists’ claims: that they don’t hate anyone; that they are simply defending white people, culture, and ‘heritage’; that white people face “extinction”; they they support “white nationalism”, not white supremacy. It also helps explain their intense hatred of ‘social justice warriors’, the people whom they see as working to change the balance of power.

This zero-sum view of power helps us understand bizarre poll results, like this one: “Asked what racial group they think faces the most discrimination in America, 45% of Trump voters say it’s white people followed by 17% for Native Americans with 16% picking African Americans, and 5% picking Latinos.” That only makes sense if the respondents see increasing empowerment of other groups coming at the expense of white people’s power. Without this lens, it all seems delusional and therefore intractable.

This view of power also tells people to see their own shortcomings in terms of someone’s power over them. I didn’t get the job I want? It’s because immigrants are taking over. I didn’t get into the school l want? It’s because Blacks are taking over. I didn’t get the marriage I want? It’s because the gays are taking over. In the ‘power-over’ view of the world, the only possible explanation for your own lack of power is that someone else has stolen it from you. And power-over is what most people have in mind when they talk about white supremacy.

But power-over is just one kind of power; another is the power to do for yourself, to make choices, to live and define your life as you see fit. This is ‘power-to’ — and so there is a second kind of white supremacy, subtler but more pervasive, in which whites have power to choose for their lives any number of choices that are denied to marginalized people. For example, my education does not give me power over Black people, but it does give me choices in my life not available to most Black people. That white power-to affects all white people and all people of color seems to me inarguable, once we admit a difference between power-over and power-to.

So there are aspects to white supremacy: 1) white supremacy as power over minorities, and 2) white supremacy as relative power-to advantage compared to minorities. A lot of would-be allies seem willing to confront one but not the other.

My sense is that ‘privilege’ in the context of racial inequality refers primarily to white supremacy in the power-to sense, and for many white people [raises hand] it has been a extremely helpful way to look at and think about white supremacy in our society. In my case, though, I was already primed to think about power-to versus power-over. I fear that some white people hear ‘privilege’ and still frame it as a problem of power-over, thereby missing the point. For what it’s worth, the privileges named by Peggy McIntosh are almost exclusively power-to sorts of things.

I should say, just to be clear: white power-to is not the whole or perhaps even the most of white supremacy as experienced by people of color. We live in a society full of institutions and norms that marginalize people of color (and others), such that even a white person dead two hundred years still has considerable power over the lives of people of color. And it’s also true that through those institutions, white people enjoy indirect power over those lives — that is, structural oppression is a definite feature of our society.

Yet many of the white power institutions built into this country are things that even white allies feel relatively powerless to correct. For example, the U.S. Senate, which was designed to protect slaveholder states from representative democracy: there’s next to zero chance of fixing this problem in my lifetime, even if I want to do so and have specific ideas on how to achieve it. For example, the credit rating system, which is terrible and oppressive but I have no clue how to fix it. For example, legacy admissions at top universities — etc. etc. etc.

While these institutions use power-over to constrain Black and other oppressed people’s power-to, they don’t actually give most white people power over marginalized people. They do give white people more power-to relative to marginalized people, but that’s not quite the same thing as power-over. And because we think mostly in terms of power-over, white people see these structures as relatively harmless because they do no see them giving white people power over marginalized people.

The solution to these problems as power-over is to put Black people in charge of the Senate, credit rating agencies, and top universities. This is terrifying for white people in the power-over frame, and for that reason very unlikely. But the correctives to white supremacy in the softer, power-to sense seem more achievable; the solution is not to subordinate white lives, but to give people of color true equality of choice, opportunity, and self-actualization. Once made explicit, this sort of white supremacy is easier for white people to recognize in their own lives, and much easier to accept as a problem in need of solution.

If the distinction between power-to and power-over does not seem compelling, let me say that I believe one of the lies white supremacy tells us is that the only meaningful power is power over other people. It is the idea at the core of empire and the only necessary premise for colonialism.

Powering Down

When we talk about social justice and Black empowerment (or any other marginalized group’s empowerment), we should be specific that we mean advancing power-to and ending power-over. We should explicitly refuting the false dichotomy that Black power means the subjugation of white people.

If it helps to understand my approach better, I can describe the goal as 1) maximum power-to for all people and 2) minimum power-over for any people. That seems to me a solid working definition of justice. In our work for social justice, we have to attack and destroy the elements of white power-over, while advancing the power-to of marginalized peoples. If we do one without the other, we will never get close to true justice.

I think many white people have no problem with the empowerment of marginalized peoples because they intuit this is not zero sum, that it does mean surrendering to those groups power over white people. To the extent that they see themselves having power over marginalized people, they do not wish to use it and would be happy to be rid of it. They can accept the premise that a society that gives everybody more power will be stronger, freer, and more just than the one we live in now.

Unfortunately, to the extent these people still think of white supremacy primarily as power-over, they are not doing the work to address white supremacy as power-to. As I say, the language of ‘privilege’ is helping them to see the problem, although I suspect many people who do not see it as power-over do not see it as power at all. We will never address white supremacy square on until we do.

I don’t know if the people who marched in Charlottesville are remediable. I believe they are, as a matter of faith, but I will not argue it here. My more urgent concern in any case is with the people who have not yet joined the white supremacist movement, and who might be prevented from doing so. Thinking carefully about how we talk to those people about our white supremacies and white powers is, I think, an important step.

Much as we wish to wash our hands of these people, our social reality is made up of all the minds that inhabit it, even those we wish did not. The risks involved in ignoring or abandoning some people and their narrow minds should be well evidenced by now. To reiterate, I am not suggesting people of color or any other marginalized groups should feel obliged to or responsible for those minds. This post is about how white people talk to white people about what we learn from listening to other people. White people must end white supremacy, of course.

Power With

It’s all well and good talking about the different kinds of white supremacy, but we can — and must — take public visible stands against white supremacists of both stripes. Yet those efforts will be counter-productive if they serve to reinforce the power-over frame.

A counter-demonstration that stokes white supremacists’ fear of power-over white people only reinforces their narrative and affirms their zero-sum view of power. This is especially the case for violence or threats against white supremacists. Instead of changing anything, this will only harden their worldview and further their cause.

In the previous post, I pointed out that violence serves the white supremacists’ narrative, the story they want to tell. My point here is that violence also implies acceptance of their frame, and works within their paradigm of power. We should instead be working against their narrative and rejecting their frame. This means we have to be careful and disciplined and peaceful, in order to derail their narrative and demonstrate that power-over is not all there is to social order.

The sense of satisfaction we get from violence, of doing something substantive to change our world, is grounded solely in our belief in power-over. It requires us to be creative, to push our minds outside of the power-over framework, but I believe there are effective ways to counter white supremacists without resort to violence. In particular, mockery seems to me more effective at countering their message. I admire the tuba player in Boston for his approach (especially the wobbly Wagner bit), as well as this bagpiper in Scotland against a somewhat different foe.

Whether our response is comedic or not, it is important that they refute both the narratives and the worldviews white supremacists are trying to promote. Our demonstrations against white supremacy must demonstrate ‘power with’ — that we are more powerful with one another than we are in power over one another. We must demonstrate that we have the power not just to resist white supremacy, but the power to stop it.

 

March Of The Racist Underpants Gnomes, Part I

The events in Charlottesville last weekend were appalling, and I share the outrage and grief many people have expressed. That said, it seems clear to me that the white supremacists failed to realize their agenda in Charlottesville. I want to talk about that in failure in this post. In part II, I will talk about our response to white supremacy more generally.

The goal of this event was to “Unite the Right”, and the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville have a story they want to tell about the subjugation and extermination of white people and white culture in American society. Their goal in this rally was to show that story, to act it out: to have a bloody confrontation in which Black Lives Matter or Antifa or even the Charlottesville police were attacking and injuring peaceful white demonstrators trying to defend their ‘heritage’. If they had to use guns to defend themselves, so much the better for their narrative.

Clearly, this story did not happen. The rally failed, making the organizers look like  the underpants gnomes of popular uprising: there’s a bunch of empty question marks on the flowchart from “rally” to “white hegemony”. In this case, their failure stems from two factors: the restraint of the police, and the murder of Heather Heyer.

The seductive elegance of racism is that you don’t have to think about it: whatever you feel is the answer is the answer. You don’t have to read history or politics or learn anything real about any other person. You can read up on fantastical history to buttress the way you feel about things, but that history is right because you feel it’s right — not for empirical or factual reasons.

The downside of this navel-gazing is that you end up with a silly view of how the world works. Most of these guys think protesting — showing up, chanting, waving tiki torches around like drunk Alpha Sigs — is an intrinsic theory of change. It is not. The rest — the ones who showed up armed — seemed to think that once the counter-protestors got violent (e.g. Antifa, also no theory of change) the police would step aside and let them defend themselves and their proud Aryan heritage with lethal force.

I suppose they hoped a deep blue city in a blue state would give them the visuals of government repression. But Michael Signer, the Jewish mayor of Charlottesville, and Terry McCaulliffe, New-York-born Democratic governor of Virginia, were never going to be baited into a bloodbath. These are not people at all invested in Confederate ‘heritage’ or advancing white supremacy. Not only that, but Signer clearly understood the supremacists’ script and was having none of it.

It’s counter-intuitive, but Signer’s best move here was to prevent the counter-protestors from causing violence that might give the armed protestors any grounds to open fire. So the police had the appearance of protecting the protestors and permitting some scuffles. They received lots of criticism for that, and entirely fair comparisons to the responses to BLM marches and Standing Rock, but it was the appropriate response here.

As a general principle, it is a bad idea to give terrorist and hate groups exactly what they want. To the extent they are looking for violent confrontation, avoiding that confrontation is resistance. Joining that confrontation is cooperation. If you are looking for ways to take a public and visible stand against white supremacist terror, consider carefully whether your plans align with the goals of the people you intend to stand against. There is an extra burden on groups like Antifa to articulate a theory of change in which giving white supremacists what they want somehow ends in justice.

The only visual I have seen that really fits the supremacists’ frame was the photo of Corey Long — a Black man — using a spray can as a flamethrower against a group of white people. I know he was only defending himself because I read his account of the event, but that is not how it plays in white supremacist media. In their version of events, Corey Long is the symbol of Black violence against white people. His engagement with the protestors, however well intended, is now evidence to legitimize their narrative.

Fortunately, the police in Charlottesville did not give them more such evidence, and largely prevented counter-protestors from doing so as well. So one part of the white supremacist’s failure in Charlottesville was that the police refused to follow their script — not violently repressing them, and not letting counter-protestors do it, either.

The second part of their failure was the murder of Heather Heyer. Yes, the police might have done more to prevent her killing, and it was also their failure. But Heyer’s murder is a serious problem for the white supremacists: it completely inverts their narrative, making them clearly the bad guys. You can see this in how much energy they are spending trying to discredit Heyer and distance themselves from her killer.

Worse yet for them, the Commonwealth now has a pretext to intervene against not only her killer, but every person who helped organize or promote the demonstration. There’s at least three ways to charge this, as far as I can tell, but here’s one:

§ 18.2-42.1 Acts of violence by mob. Any and every person composing a mob which commits an act of violence as defined in § 19.2-297.1 shall be guilty of that act of violence and, upon conviction, shall be punished as provided in the section of this title which makes that act of violence unlawful.”

This is an anti-lynching law, by the way. The criminal conspiracy that led to Heyer’s death is drawn pretty clearly across the Internet, and preserved in a million retweets and screen caps. Against the ‘lone wolf’ argument, let me point out that it is well established that vanguard violence like this is fueled by the audience effect of a sympathetic crowd behind the perpetrator. The guy driving was indeed driven by all his dude-brüder giving him the mental energy to commit this act. Those people are also culpable for the murder of Ms. Heyer.

If that’s a compelling argument for you, Virginia Attorney Mark Herring needs to hear as much; his number is (804) 786-2071. You might also call and leave a voicemail for Commonwealth Attorney for Charlottesville (i.e. state prosecutor), Dave Chapman, at (434) 970-3176 — also a Democrat, retiring this year and with nothing left to lose.

If you are angry that the police did not do more in Charlottesville — and that anger is justified — the police and mayor and prosecutors for the city and the Commonwealth now owe you a vigorous and thorough prosecution of these crimes. Bring your anger to bear: pressure them to conduct a comprehensive and thorough prosecution of the people involved in Heyer’s murder.

It is important the Commonwealth do so, because the Federal government is not likely do it instead. The FBI might be itching to investigate, but Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department can’t be seen as a reliable partner here. Both the state and the Federal government could prosecute simultaneously, so the Commonwealth’s prosecution does not prevent the Federal government from acting (nor vice verse).

The death of the two state police officers in a helicopter was probably just bad luck, but the fact that it was associated with this event will work against the white supremacists. Those deaths will be an albatross for the organizers, in the eyes of most law enforcement agencies.

To be clear: Heather Heyer’s murder was a failure for the white supremacists, but not because of anything the counter-protestors did deliberately. I wish there was a more sensitive way to describe her murder than ‘own goal’, but there it is. I don’t think anybody quite gets how narrow that failure was: if Heyer was not murdered, Corey Long would be the visual for the rally, and the narrative would tilt way more in the white supremacists’ favor.* The counter-protestors accomplished little else against that narrative, especially compared to the restraint of Boston rally the following weekend.

Everybody knew the white supremacists were eager to commit violence in Charlottesville. Yet many counter-protestors seemed to think that meeting that violence with anger and outrage — or worse, more violence — would somehow prevent the white supremacists from doing harm. Instead, that only amplified the violence, and so everybody engaged in anything other than strict non-violent protest helped build to the climax of Heyer’s murder. I do not blame counter-protestors for Heyer’s death, but I 100% think they could have done more to prevent it. It does not take a murder to demonstrate that white supremacy is wrong.

I am especially troubled by the clergy who claim to have been protected by Antifa. By accepting and endorsing that protection, they both legitimized the white supremacists’ narrative and encouraged more violence. Christian clergy especially should feel guilty that they may have traded Heyer’s life for theirs. My humble request to clergy and other counter-protestors is that they just take the beating, or run away.

For anybody who can’t take the beating, the good news is that there are still lots of ways you can work against white supremacy. In the next post, I will talk about how we understand white power and white supremacy, and what we can do about it.

__________________

*As I was finishing these posts, I saw this poll from Politico, in which only 15% of GOP respondents blame the white supremacists for the violence in Charlottesville:

According to a poll by The MassINC Polling Group, 40 percent of registered Virginia voters surveyed blame the white nationalist marchers for the violence in Virginia.

Another 41 percent, however, think the blame falls equally on the white nationalist marchers and the counterprotesters.

Just 6 percent think the counterprotesters should be blamed for the incidents earlier this month.

Only 15 percent of Republican respondents blame the white nationalist marchers for the violence, compared to 65 percent who think both the white nationalist marchers and counterprotesters are equally to blame.

Is that a win for the counter-protestors? Note that ten percent of GOP voter blame the violence solely on the counter-protestors, and another 10% declined to answer the question. I blame the white supremacists for the violence, but that 41% number is not acceptable: it means white supremacists were successful enough at telling their story that they murdered a woman and still more than half of Virginia voters equivocate on whether they are to blame for it.

Fire From The Maddened Crowd

I’ve put off writing about the shooting of Congressor Steve Scalise and others — apart from the stray comment on social media — but it happened at the intersection of several of my interests and I don’t think most people are quite processing it fully. Where others might want to toss it in the ‘crazy shit’ box and move on, I want to unpack it and get a better look.

Not a tragedy

I have seen the shooting described as a tragedy. Matter of fact, the Virginia Democrats sent out an email describing it as a “terrible tragedy”. Of course, I do not condone the shooting, but it was hardly a tragedy. A tragedy is an event that happens despite our best efforts. This happened because of the GOP’s best efforts. Our understanding of the event has to acknowledge that fact.

There is a pretty clear causal logic here: the GOP has long argued that an expansive read of the Second Amendment is justified because guns are necessary to protect against tyranny. Their threshold for tyranny is low enough to include the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau, so it should not be surprising that when the GOP took control of the government and began a program of extraordinary peril to broad swathes of public, some people then viewed those policies as a form of tyranny. And the GOP has been nothing but clear on this point: if you see tyranny, you should take up arms to fight it.

I say this not to endorse the shooting, but simply to say that it is evidence that the system is working as intended. No doubt that intention was based in part on a prejudice that no liberal snowflake would ever have the backbone to pull the trigger. Now that they see they are wrong, GOP legislators are scrambling to reconcile their platform with the now-obvious threat. Mo Brooks, bless his heart, cedes not an inch of ground.

“What we just saw here is one of the bad side effects of someone not exercising those rights properly,” the Alabama congressman told reporters when pressed on whether he was reconsidering his position on gun control.

He scores points for logical consistency, but the obvious flaw in his argument is that he is no longer in a position to decide what counts as ‘proper’. Brooks wants to cast his party as a defender of rights, but rights are always asserted against the government — which his party now unfortunately controls. A tyrannical government will almost never see itself as tyrannical, and will always see anti-tyranny as improper.

Other GOP legislators are taking the obvious tack, and blaming the shooting on mental illness:

“I don’t see this as gun control issue,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who leads the archconservative House Freedom Caucus, said. “I think to default to that would be a missed opportunity […] ultimately to understand that the mental health component is an important thing for us to address.”

No points awarded here: it is far less brave and honest than Brooks’s view. Again, the problem is that the GOP endorses armed resistance against tyranny, but is in no position to define legitimate resistance. While it would be terribly convenient to their platform if the shooter were mentally ill, that only disqualifies the shooter’s political agenda if he was too mentally ill to vote — which we know was not the case.

Mental illness as effect

So far so good — I think many people inclined to read this far will readily agree with most of what I have written. But it’s worse than you think. For starters, the mental illness argument seems to be intended to delegitimize any opposition to the GOP — as if the shooter was himself incarnate all that is wrong with the left — while absolving the GOP of any responsibility for the shooting.

But the presumption that mental illness arises for reasons specific to the person, some genetic defect or family history, neglects the extent to which mental illness is a response to violence, particularly violence condoned or performed by the government. Look at how people of color talk about their experience of white supremacy: more and more, they are using language that echoes psychological and psychiatric clinical descriptions of mental illness. They talk about anxiety, depression, adjustment disorder, PTSD — not because they were born that way, but because they were born into a society that does them profound violence. Now ask: how is it not mental illness that so many white people are inured and insensate to the violence against colored people? I will come back to that question in a moment.

To spell it out: our government’s policies are violent enough to affect the mental health of many of the people hurt by those policies. It is nonsense for the government to then accuse those people of mental illness as if that invalidates their concerns. When some of these people turn violent, attempting to focus on treatment of mental illness is saying nothing more useful than, “Let’s make society safe for unlimited government violence”. That’s bass-ackwards and also not going to be particularly effective. So, yeah: it’s entirely possible for most people on the left to be mentally ill, because mental illness is how normal, healthy brains sometimes respond to violence.

 Violence as cause

To understand government violence properly, we need a better understanding of violence generally. When we say something is violence, what does that mean? A rough notion is that it causes people harm — but then we need a definition of ‘harm’, and it ends up being very turtlesy most of the way down.

When I was in grad school, I got the bright idea to try to rewrite a famous paper in political science by focusing on violence, instead of the economic uncertainty in the original. I thought the author was ignoring some deep violence in his argument, and that it made more sense to look at the violence. That meant I had to find a good scholarly definition of violence, and it turns out there is really only one in English-language scholarship.

That definition comes from a guy named Johan Galtung, who defined violence as the deliberate reduction in potential being of another person (I’m paraphrasing). If this seems obscure, it might help to ask why psychological abuse of children counts as violence: the answer, per Galtung, is that it wrecks the child’s power to imagine herself as something else, as some potential other, better person. It limits who that child can be. Violence as ‘reduction in being’ turned out to be very powerful tool for Galtung, because it allowed him to talk about all kinds of violence — structural, systemic, latent, etc. — other than the plain physical forms that most readily come to mind.

One of the most shattering things I read in in this project was a discussion of the Columbine school shooting by Willem Schinkel, in his Aspects of Violence. Drawing heavily from Galtung, Schinkel talks about the environment that the shooters grew up in — the extreme uniformity of it, even outside of the oppressive conformity of high school. This, he says, gave them very little by way of potential — the rigidity of their social context was a form of violence, and gave them very few options. Gun violence was one of their few options, one of the few models they had for other ways of being.

That’s not to excuse the shootings, but simply to say: violence rarely comes from nowhere. It is no coincidence that schools are the site of so many shootings: schools are most people’s first and most intensive experience of government control over their lives. In most schools, that control ranges from unpleasant to suffocating. Schools often limit their students’ potential being, as much as they expand it.

I know full well there are many great teachers in our schools and nearly all of them want what’s best for their students. But the system itself is one of structural violence against many students. Every time a school is strapped for cash, that’s a class that can’t be offered or an extracurricular that gets shut down, and some kid sees a little part of their possible self die.

To come back to my theme: if that first, intense experience with government is positive, you are more likely to be an active citizen and to think of government in a favorable way. No wonder the GOP hates public schools: starve the schools and you can raise a generation of citizens who think government is a trainwreck. The collateral damage is that one in a million of those citizens is going to be so broken — some even before they graduate — that they gun up and shoot a bunch of kids. As fervently as I support gun control, I know it still won’t fully address the actual cause of the violence.

Violence as a system

The paper I wrote — Violence and International Relations — was such a success that it became my dissertation topic. At the same time, I encountered baffling pushback from classmates and teachers. It very slowly dawned on me that maybe the reason we didn’t talk about violence in my classes was that we were part of the problem. American academia is very much part of the American establishment, built on a vast complex of structural and systemic violence. My professors had zero incentive to confront that violence, so they put my ass on the street.

One of the ways the system sustains itself is that we are conditioned to think of government violence as okey-dokey. This shows up in political science and in the public at large as an unwillingness to name government violence as violence. One of my committee members actually told me that capital punishment was not ‘violence’, because they are convicted first. He has a job. I don’t. And when Gabriel Giffords was shot, a highly respected political scientist wrote a blog post titled, “On the Rarity of Political Violence” — as if the United States didn’t execute and imprison more people than any other country in the world.

For the Scalise shooting, there’s this Charlie Pierce article, “When White People Realize American Politics Are Violent”, which manages to avoid naming a single violent thing that the American government does to its own people. Slavery is violent and political. Mass incarceration is violent and political. Police killings are violent and political. I honestly don’t understand how this is difficult: anything the state does is political, so any violence the state commits is political. It’s way less abstract than 2 + 2 = 4.

And so far, I have mostly talked about the violence that the government does to American bodies. I have said nothing about the extensive violence our government does to a vast horizon of potential being. If your view of yourself includes a possibility of getting married, and the government says you can’t, that is violence against you. The fight for gay marriage was a fight against government violence. Likewise, when the government watched as the 2008 recession wiped out people’s savings and left them homeless, but then bailed out the banks that were repossessing their houses — that was a form of violence. How much less potential did those lives have in 2010 than they did in 2007? You can only just begin to measure it in trillions of dollars. I end up agreeing vigorously with this guy:

“I’m never surprised by mass shootings in America. Considering how brutalized and under pressure most people are and how easy it is to get guns, I’m surprised every day there ISN’T a mass shooting.”

Unlike Europe, the civilizing process is incomplete in the United States, and there’s lots of historical and contingent reasons that mostly boil down to our original sin, slavery. As a result, we still have lots and lots of violence, and that violence is the main thing wrong with our country. Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism, ageism — name a thing wrong with American society, and you will find it comes to ground in government violence, whether sanctioned or performed. The American government. Our government. If that seems hard to believe, I strongly encourage you to ponder why the Scalise shooting seems so awful and the things the government does — from no better motive — are okay. The answer might be that you are so dependent on the illusory security the state provides — like any capitalist enterprise, it spends a lot time trying to convince you that you have wants and needs you don’t actually have — so dependent that you are inured even to the violence it causes to you, as well as others. I know I was.

And yes, I left grad school with an extremely dim view of the American state. (I also, for what it’s worth, picked up some robust mental illness — anxiety, depression — along the way.) But it’s not all doom and gloom! I am pretty sure I found a solution — the solution. I said earlier that government violence can make people mentally ill, implying that government policies can have profound, even organic effects on people’s brains. Well, if the potential is there for harm, it is also there for good. Stephen Pinker wrote a whole book arguing that the historical decrease in human violence is due to the fact that political development shapes peoples minds for better. Politics can make violence unthinkable. And Pinker is a psychologist. Or a neurologist. Or a linguist? (I’m too lazy to google it.) Point being: this is a pretty amazing claim from a leading student of the mind.

Pinker’s argument hinges mightily on the work of German sociologist Norbert Elias, specifically his work on the ‘civilizing’ process. Loyal readers will know I am a big fan of Elias, and his work was a cornerstone of my proposed dissertation. The short version is that as the modern state formed in late medieval Europe, the rulers of those states began to centralize their power by demanding better and better behavior from their subordinates, as a way to control them. This included routine rules like not raping and murdering as much, but also things like what forks to use on what dishes and what sorts of foods were acceptable and what to wear and when and where to poop. Most of what we considered ‘civilized’ behavior in the West dates back to this period, and it turns out that all these rules taught people better control over their impulses, especially when those impulses were violent. For most of us, we don’t kill people not because it’s against the law; we don’t kill people because it’s just simply not done.

What Elias did not predict and Pinker missed is that state violence is also decreasing, and has been for a hundred years or so. That sounds bonkers in a bracket that includes WWII, but consider that slavery was mostly abolished, capital punishment is nearly abolished, torture was almost abolished, and conscription is less and less common. Human and civil rights — the exact opposite of state violence — are more widely credible and more widely observed. Neither Pinker nor Elias can explain that decline: there’s nothing in the civilizing process that suggests states should relinquish their power to enslave, kill, torture, or conscript.

My argument — and I’m pretty sure it’s correct — is that as people became more and more civilized, they came to expect that same good behavior from their leaders. This was especially true in democracies, for obvious reasons, but even true in less-than-democratic societies. Even most authoritarians can’t quite gin up medieval levels of violence (Bashar Al Assad might be a glaring exception). I called this the ‘civilizing trap’ because it’s more important in academia to have good names for your ideas than it is to have good ideas. But I got the boot before I could do the research to confirm it. Why would the establishment not want to see that question explored? I don’t know, it’s not my problem any more.

My sense is that the GOP’s agenda has it exactly backwards: they believe that private political violence is the best check on government political violence, but these are the same people who cheered loudly when Trump promised to bring back torture. So not only do they lack the capacity to recognize meaningful state violence, they are pursuing an agenda that guarantees more private violence as well. Not that the shooting of Scalise was their fault, but c’mon: what did you expect? There is zero evidence that a well-armed society leads to less government violence. There are, on the other hand, tons of evidence that the only consistent means to reduce government violence is the disapproval of the public expressed in social norms and laws. We can literally think the guns away.

Responding to violence

So what does that mean for us, who got this far? Three things: first, we have to be eyes-wide-open in our view of state violence. We cannot let ourselves be accustomed or inured to it, and we must resist it as much as possible. The men with guns are there to diminish you, more than protect you. It’s not a matter of voting for the lesser of two evils: both parties, in this century and before, have been vigorous champions of the state’s capacity for violence. We hardly even talk about it, except as it pertains to “issues”. But violence is the issue. Government violence is the issue. We need to press that in public and popular discourse. Unfortunately for the current trajectory of the left, that means not getting too caught up in the lines between racism and sexism and classism and so on, but seeing that beneath them all is the violence of the state. It is this violence that we must stop — that we must make unthinkable, if we are to survive.

Second, we can’t get distracted by the more dramatic but far less consequential violence of regular folks, mentally ill or not. We have to focus on reducing state political violence, as a cause of private political violence. The guy who shot Steve Scalise was nothing against the awesome violence of the American state, which asserted an infinitesmal fraction of its power by shooting him dead right back. Again, that’s not to condone what he did. But in the bigger picture, it just doesn’t matter compared to government violence, and solving the government violence problem will go a hell of a long way towards solving the private violence problem.

Third, and this part may be hard to ponder: there may be a time constraint in this project. Our political apparatus was not designed for the tensions our society suffers, and they may pull that machine apart sooner than most people imagine. You can already see the cracks, and there are people who believe the Scalise shooting was the first shot in a civil war. I don’t know that I agree, but if that war is coming, the only way to prevent it — and to prevent the left from losing it, because we will definitely lose a shooting war — is to make violence unacceptable and unthinkable.

More immediately, my guess is that we will see more shootings of elected officials, and these will be used to justify new policies of violence — of drastic curtailment of our rights — by the government. We must not accept the narrative that these shootings are somehow our fault, that we must suffer for them. The government — those in government — must accept and account for its own role in the proliferation and promotion of violence.

Does Donald Trump Have Free Will?

Discussions of free will tend to attribute it to human beings in abstract, or humanity as a whole. I want to look very specifically at a single human being — Donald Trump — and ask whether he has free will.

If you think Donald Trump is doing a great job, the question is irrelevant. Of course he has free will — or maybe he’s possessed by the ghost of Ronald Reagan. Does it matter?

Whether or not Trump has free will is a question implied by his critics. The many people arguing that he is mentally ill or demented or senile are implying that he does not have free will, at least not full and unimpaired free will. On the one hand, these claims are an attempt to explain why Trump is not mentally suited to the Presidency, and argue for his removal under Section 4 of the 25th Amendment. On the other hand, they excuse his behavior and blame it on some organic process in his brain.

The other argument against Trump is that by unimpaired free will he deliberately chooses antisocial behavior. Many mental health advocates and disabled people take umbrage at the implication that Trump’s behavior is due to some sort of mental health problem or mental disability, and prefer to blame Trump on Trump. They (correctly) point out that you don’t have to be crazy to be an a–hole. By this argument, Trump should be impeached under Article 2 of the Constitution, insofar as his bad behavior includes high crimes and misdemeanors.

There is merit to both of these approaches, but the problem is that they view Trump’s behavior in a very narrow snapshot. This narrow view does not take into account the full social context nor personal history that informs Trump’s behavior. By taking a broader view that includes those aspects, I want to show how it is possible to be both mentally ill and possess free will; how Trump can be senile but also fully accountable for his actions.

In rough terms, free will is the ability to choose your own choices. The SEP fills it out a little more: “‘Free Will’ is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.” (You can read there a cogent summary of philosophical debates over free will.)

Free will as a philosophical problem tends to be viewed as an intrinsic property of humans — as though somewhere in your brain is a fold of tissue or a tangle of neurons that controls free will. And yet neurology experiments to identify the exercise of free will tend to come up with contradictory evidence. There are many people who believe free will is simply fiction.

If free will is a fiction, it is a social fiction adopted from great need. It is hard to imagine a society without a concept of free will. That society would either be horrifically fascist or horrifically anarchic. Whether or not it has a material basis in our neurology, free will is an idea that we find very useful.

Insofar as it is an idea that orders our lives, free will is real whether or not it exists independently of society. Ideas are real, or can be — not in a material sense, that you can touch them, but in these sense that they have observable effects in the world. Another such idea is love; try to imagine a Valentine’s Day based solely on the biologic aspects of our idea of love. For that matter, try to imagine a Valentine’s Day without free will.

Another way to approach free will as a social idea is to imagine a person on a desert island (as in deserted — without other people). Imagine that he has somehow never had contact with other people. He has grown up without any sense of society or human interaction. Does he have free will? In the social sense, this question is meaningless.

Were you or I on that desert island, we would carry with us our ideas about society. We would carry in our heads mental models of how the people we know would expect us to behave. We would likely behave according to those expectations even if we had no hope of rescue: not eating human corpses that fall out of the sky, not having sex with the local animals, not pooping wherever the urge struck us (or at least feeling guilty about doing so).

These expectations would be very durable, at least until time or despair wore them away. Were we to be then rescued, our rescuers would think we had gone insane — that is, we had lost our ability to choose rationally. They would think we had lost our free will.

In the social sense, our free will is constrained by the people whose influence makes up our mental map of society. If you every time you put a dish in the dishwasher, you hear your mom saying, “Put the dish in the dishwasher”, you can understand what I mean. You have free will in the sense that you are choosing between your instinct not to clean up or your memory of your what you mom insisted you do, but you also had no choice about your mother’s voice being burned into your synapses.

Even if you don’t hear their voices, your mental model of society includes many people who have affected your life — family, teachers, friends, even people you see on TV or read about. If you have bad people in the model, it is easy to make bad choices. If you have good people, it is easy to make good choices. If you have no people, you have no choices. Your free will is never really exercised independently from the people in your life, at least in the social sense.

So when I see Donald Trump described as “lonely, angry and not happy with much of anyone”, what I get is that his social model is full of people helping him make bad choices. Or worse, not helping him make any choice at all: I fear many of these people simply affirm and indulge his instincts. It also means he is being judged, criticized, and ridiculed by a society that he literally cannot imagine. To the extent that he has no access to that social reality, his situation is far worse than being stranded on a desert island.

But here’s the thing: Trump chose his island. With his wealth and position, he had every opportunity to bring good people into his orbit — whether that means real friends who would call him on his bullshit or family to help him recognize his decline or even just a good therapist. And he chose instead people who would reflect his own ego and instinct back, and not help him make good choices.

Even if he’s mentally ill or senile, the fact is he chose to surround himself with people who can’t help him recognize that fact and deal with it. Imagine The Notebook except the lady with Alzheimer’s is Donald Trump and James Garner reads him The Art of the Deal. It sounds like hell, but Trump wrote, directed, and produced it himself.

Consider that we have no problem locking up young black men from impoverished neighborhoods for dealing drugs. We do this on the premise that they freely choose to deal drugs, even though they might have been born into a social context where many people and most role models are drug dealers. They had no choice of their social model, and that model constrained them to almost exclusively bad decisions, but we treat them as if they had access to a wealth of possibility.

Trump had that wealth of possibility, and he still chose a terrible social context. So I am inclined to hold him accountable for his behavior, no matter the proximate cause of that behavior. The ultimate cause is that he has — for decades — surrounded himself with sycophants who only reflect his own ego, people who would bend to his will rather than exercise their own. Whether he is mentally ill or senile is irrelevant, because he showed no interest in making good choices when he was not mentally ill or senile. And he owns the choices he has made, far more so than he owns any building with his name on it.

Whatever his high crimes and misdemeanors in office, Trump’s original sin was choosing himself over other people. And did that of his own free will.

White Privilege Versus White Power

A few years ago, I discovered I had ‘privilege’. It turns out being a white middle-class cis-hetero male comes with all sorts of perks and benefits, which are often denied to other people. Who knew?

Of course, I sort of knew. I just didn’t have a name for it. And the use of the word privilege I think is helpful in understanding and addressing the disparity in those benefits for women, minorities, and other marginalized people. I can see that I have all sorts of privilege, which structure my relationship with people who do not have the same privileges.

I see that some white people disagree, even those inclined to be allies of oppressed people. Sticking with racism as a specific case, it is quite common to see conversations like this (especially online):

White person: I think racism is a real problem but [something awkward]
Person of color: You are wrong because you are speaking from privilege.
White person: What are you talking about? I am not a racist.

Usually there is more energy to these conversations, but the gist is the same. Granted, where the problem of racial justice is concerned, my white privilege is obviously a disadvantage in understanding racism. I can never really get what it means to be a  person of color in this country.

On the other hand, white privilege is a clear advantage when it comes to the experience of being a racist in this country. I may not understand quite what the machine does, but I have a pretty good idea of how it works.

And in the conversations (arguments?) I’ve summarized above, the difference of perspective is the source of disagreement. Unpacking the idea of privilege and understanding those perspectives might help allies be better allies.

As I say, I can readily accept that I have privilege. My experience of that privilege — and racism more generally —  is as a sort of power, in the power-to sense, as well as in the power-over sense. That is, white privilege gives me power to do things that people of color cannot, as well as giving me power over those people. In fact, my experience of racism is so defined by power-to that it is very hard for me to see the power-over side.

Judging mostly by social media, this is where a lot of white people get hung up on the idea of privilege. They misinterpret it as being solely power-over, which they vehemently deny because it is not something they feel or even want. It is uncomfortable.

To recast the conversation, the white person is saying “I want to end racism.” The person of color is saying, “racism is the power that you have as a white person”, and the white person responds, “I do not want that power”. If I understand privilege only as power-over people of color, privilege is then a zero-sum game: I have to give it up to be an ally. If I don’t see myself as having that power, it leaves me powerless to help.

This is not only true for would-be allies. It is very true, I think, for the way indifferent white people hear the word “privilege”. The point of the ‘my family didn’t own slaves’ defense is to deny power-over, and thus deny the power-to end racial oppression. My family didn’t own slaves, but I can still accept that I have power-over people of color, because I have looked carefully at my experience and seen how the power-to that I enjoy is the product of a society organized in ways that give white people power-over people of color.

In general, it is a very common mistake to see power-over as the source of power-to. Instead, it’s more often the other way around: power-to begets power-over. And yes, white peoples’ power-over slaves made this country what it is. But since Emancipation, the main vector of oppression in the U.S. has been the gross disparities in power-to. People intent on sustaining white power structures then use those disparities to assert power-over people of color. Do not doubt: there are some people who want power-over, and will fight to keep it.

Ally-inclined whites can fight back without giving up their power-to. In fact, I think white privilege is crucial to the victory against white power. Peggy McIntosh, in her essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, is very clear that not all white privilege is negative. She lists the ways in which being a white person gives her privilege, and the list is mostly a series of choices allowed her by society. Few of those choices hurt people of color, except that they are often denied to people of color.

Ending white privilege is then a matter of giving people of color the power-to make the same choices. I don’t mean power-to make the same choices that white people make, in the sense of modeling their lives on white lives. This is another hang-up for ally-inclined whites because, as McIntosh explains:

“…whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us.'”

Empowering people of color has to mean giving them the same control over their lives as white people enjoy, the same mass of possibility — and especially the power to choose differently from white people. Ally-inclined whites must expand their view of the normal and ideal life to include the sorts of lives that people of color choose to live independent of white power-over. Ending that power-over means working — using power-to — to ensure that people of color really do have those choices available.

In a perfect world, people of color would already have the power-to realize those choices without white people’s help. But in that world, there would also be no power-over. In the society we live in, I doubt people of color can get there on their own. White people have to choose their lives in ways that help people of color choose theirs, to ensure they have power-to.

Accepting white help I think means recognizing that for ally-inclined white people, the experience of racism is primarily an experience of power-to, even as people of color experience it as power-over. This does not mean denying the experience of power-over or power-to, but simply understanding the two sides of this particular coin.

The benefit of reframing the disagreement between people of color and ally-inclined whites is that it becomes easier to see how white privilege can be used to destroy white power. We are then no longer hung up on the experience of racism is, but rather about what choices white people must make to ensure people of color enjoy the same power to choose for themselves.

The Evolution of Florida Man

If you don’t know who or what Florida Man is, you can check out his Twitter or just read about him on Wikipedia. The question here is why Florida Man?

The Wikipedia article notes that Florida’s open-records laws make it easier for journalists to write stories about random criminal weirdos — although that defense is from the Miami Herald, which maybe has a dog in the fight. Carl Hiaasen, native Floridian and long-time Herald columnist, has a less charitable take:

We do have this vortex of depravity in Florida. Strange things happen all over the country, bizarre and disturbing things. But Dave Barry will tell you the same thing: The sheer weight and volume of weirdness is unique to South Florida and now really all of Florida, all the way up to the Panhandle.

As a native Floridian, I agree with Hiaasen. Nowhere else I have lived has the deep antisocial tendencies that Florida does.

And why? Hiaasen’s theory — which I can’t find a link to — is basically that Florida is a magnet for weird people, that the weird ones are disproportionately likely to move down there from wherever.

There’s a sociological argument to be made that this is true, insofar as moving away from your home community requires you to disconnect from the social context of your life. A person with diminished social capacity is going to find that disconnect easier and more attractive than a person with normal social capacity.

Yes, there are some normal people in Florida, but the bias towards antisocial means that the weirdos are somewhat more prevalent than in other states. This increases the prevalence of single-actor weirdness, but also greatly increases the likelihood that two weirdos will meet up and do something weird together (or to each other). If this were a statistical model, the interaction term would be highly significant.

And it’s not that every person in Florida is antisocial — just that a larger proportion than other states we consider ‘normal’. And because Florida has such a big population, that translates to a big population of weirdos. Alaska, as best I can tell, also has a disproportionate share of weirdos, but because the total population is small the total number of weirdos and weirdo incidents is much less than Florida.

The weirdo-magnet theory works whether you believe diminished social capacity is a nature problem or a nurture problem. Probably some of both, but I tend to believe it is more a nurture problem: the antisocial weirdos don’t learn the requisite social skills and thus aren’t able to teach them to their offspring.

It’s also true for old people, as well as young. It is entirely possible for a person to conform to social norms for most of his working life, then retire to a life of social dysfunction in sunny Florida. I would argue that this phenomenon best explains why Florida’s government does so little to check antisocial behavior: oldsters who no longer give a damn about anybody are a crucial voting bloc.

Were the State of Florida – the government – more functional, it could play a major role in teaching residents and citizens the social skills necessary to live in civilization. Instead the state does pretty much the opposite, a negative feedback loop driving social dysfunction.

For centuries the state – in the general usage of the term – has been the vehicle for Western civilization, the vessel in which we have learned to live with one another. Next year marks the 400th anniversary of the start of the Thirty Years’ War, a period of brutal political and social upheaval that ended the Holy Roman Empire’s domination of Europe and forged the modern system of sovereign nation-states.

That system has a checkered record, for sure, but there is also good evidence that the nation-state has made human civilization much less violent than it had previously been. The state has spent the last four hundred years teaching people to think about their actions, to behave with greater respect and less malice toward one another, and punishing transgressors. In the same way that Florida selects for weirdos, the nation-state selects for normal people — in fact, the state defines what counts as normal.

Not every weirdo in Europe was killed outright in this process — although many were. But Europe, through its colonies, had a relief valve for the weirdos, shipping them to places like… here. The Pilgrims and Puritans came to this land because they were religious minorities fleeing King Charles I (and that some later returned to England to fight against the king in the civil war).

And for centuries since, this country has welcomed misfits and rejects from Europe and elsewhere in the world. Again, it’s not that everyone is badly socialized — but enough are that we stand out in Western civilization. We have lagged behind consistently: you can measure it by our human rights record, our inequality, our social welfare spending, our propensity for war.

And because of our power and prominence, the weirdness of American society has global consequence. The U.S. is, in effect, the Florida of the industrialized world.

There is no better proof of this than President Trump. While Trump may seem too brash or blustery for New York, he is well within the normal curve for Florida. It is no coincidence that he spends most weekends in Florida — not New York. He was born up north, but his soul belongs down there.

We elected Florida Man because we are Florida Man. It’s easy for Americans to laugh at the weirdos in Florida, but a lot harder to get laughed at by the rest of the world. It’s important to ask — and understand — why.