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First as Tragedy, then as Farce

This is another unedited piece, originally commissioned for publication but ultimately unfinished due to my lack of interest in the editing process. This was written over 6 months ago and a number of things have happened in the intervening time period. If I were to rewrite this piece, it would explore more fully the Trump phenomenon, delve deeper into the different factions of the Right, and flesh out both a need for antifascist work and also its limitations. For now, the essay exists as it is, below:

 

The death of LaVoy Finicum is just the latest entry in a series of escalating tactics from militia members and armed right-wingers. What differentiates this moment from others is that it is the first violent clash between the state and the militia movement of this period. How this will play out within the Right is anyone’s guess. But what this moment illustrates clearly is how unoriginal this situation is. What we are seeing is a resurgence of the same violent, armed right-wing forces as we saw in the 1980s and 90s. While the circumstances between these two periods have many important differences, this right-wing resurgence needs to be properly situated in the antecedent period. By understanding what came before, we can understand what has happened so far, and what could happen soon.

What is very apparent in the relations between the state and militia groups is that when the militia groups have had standoffs with the state, the state has not sought to intervene violently. This is in stark contrast to armed and unarmed black people who are shot by the police whether or not they are committing an offense. What many people have called “white privilege” is actually a history of blunders and retributory violence that has made the state choose nonviolent containment rather than all-out assaults. It was in response to these blunders that Timothy McVeigh committed the Oklahoma City bombing.

The Patriot Movement that we know today, consisting primarily of the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, among other militia groupings, was not the first of its kind. The first militia movement started in the 80s. Then, the militias were a mixture of white supremacists and patriot-types that we would recognize today. The commonality between these groupings was conspiracy theories about the government. Many of these groups were inspired by The Turner Diaries, a right-wing survivalist novel published in 1978 about the outbreak of a revolutionary race war. Among the early groups inspired by this novel was The Order, a white nationalist group founded by Robert Jay Matthews operating in the Pacific Northwest. This group committed a number of armored truck robberies and murders before being tracked and besieged by the FBI. One of these murders was of Denver disc jockey, Alan Berg who was shot in his driveway by an Order member. On December 7, 1984, in the first of many standoffs with right-wing groups and individuals, the FBI surrounded Matthews’ hideout and fired flares into the home. The house caught fire and Matthews burned to death inside of it. His death is observed by some in the white nationalist scene as a martyr’s death, and some make a yearly pilgrimage to the site of his death.

The next two big standoffs occurred not with terrorist groups or militias, but with people inspired by right-wing religious ideology. Branch Davidians. Ruby Ridge.

Both of these standoffs and the failure of the federal government to intervene successfully during them, fueled a rise of militias. They also inspired Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. This is not to mention the right-wing violence occurring outside of the militia movement. There were numerous black church burnings, abortion clinic attacks, shootings and bombings, and killings carried out by white supremacists, among the more infamous murders being the one of James Byrd Jr. This violence was occurring at the same time as the shift to neoliberalism happening. They were also happening in the absence of a social movement. The WTO protests was a brief blip that didn’t carry on into movement that would have forced a confrontation with these right-wing forces. In addition, by the time the WTO protests happened, the crest of the militia movement was waning, dropping off into negligible numbers after the election of George W. Bush.

With this backdrop, the Left should have expected the militias’ resurgence to be accompanied by increasing violence. But for whatever reason, while the reality of militias existed, the Left recognized only that existence, not the potentiality for violence that existence foretold. For the past near-decade, militias and armed right-wingers have existed with little resistance from the Left or from the state, sometimes even in service of the state, similar to their earlier existence. What has changed is that there is the unfolding of the Black Lives Matter movement. These two movements existing in tandem with each other provoked a clash that at this point, the Right has managed to outmaneuver and contain. Without an appreciation for the danger and the possibilities, the Left risks being absolutely overpowered by the Right.

These groups, both out-and-out white supremacists and right-wing populist militias, pose significant threats to the Left and to the communities that we organize in. Over the past decade and most visibly over the past year, we have witnessed an escalation in tactics from the Right and this escalation has targeted the Black Lives Matter movement. Even though this violence has more and more encroached on the movement, activists and organizers have yet to fully comprehend the danger these groups pose.

The earliest resurgence of the militias could be seen in the right-wing backlash to immigration. The Minute Men militia has been terrorizing immigrant communities and providing “border patrols” for a while now. More border patrol militias have sprung up since the Minute Men and many of the members are current or former official border patrol agents. Just recently, former Texas Governor Rick Perry went on patrol with some of these groups, showing that there is at least some official sanction to their actions. In 2009, a member of the Minutemen militia murdered a immigrant man and his nine year old daughter in their home.

As the right-wing resurgence continued, there were a number of attacks on Muslims and people stereotyped as Muslims. In August 2012, a white supremacist opened fire in a Sikh temple, killing six people and wounding four. In addition, there have been a number of mosque burnings. There was also an armed protest outside of a mosque in Irving, Texas. White supremacists and militia groups have latched onto the Islamaphobia as a rallying ideology.

When things in Ferguson popped off, the Oath Keepers came to the city armed to protect local businesses. Eleven months after the shooting of Michael Brown, which propelled what is now referred to as the Black Lives Matter movement, Dylan Roof entered a Black church and opened fire on the churchgoers, killing nine people. What should have tipped the Left off, underlining the danger lurking on the Right, was instead reduced to a number of memes lamenting Roof’s bulletproof vest and trip to Burger King. Roof’s manifesto was a call to action, a call to violence that many took up, setting fire to Black churches around the country. It wasn’t until four months later that violence would strike the movement itself.

After the shooting of a young black man, Jamal Clark, by cops in Minneapolis, leftists came together with members of the community to occupy a police station and agitate for recognition of the murder. During the vigils and occupation at the police station continued a number of days, the protestors there were threatened on video by those they described as white supremacists. A few days later, white supremacist showed up to the occupation where they were confronted. While some of the protestors escorted the men away from the site, the men opened fire and shot five of the protestors. When the shooters were apprehended, they received what amounted to a slap on the wrist.

What was obvious to those who had recognized the patterns of the earlier period, still hasn’t been fully understood by the Left. White supremacists and militias are not just nutjobs who protest the government. They’re nutjobs with guns who are willing to use them against those they perceive as the enemy. Even after the shooting of the Minneapolis protestors, the representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement requested protesters and community members to disarm. This is an absurd conclusion. The shooters came into the space armed and left having shot people. This wasn’t a problem of the community inviting the danger by being armed.

There are two misconceptions that need to be addressed about these groupings on the right. The first is that they are merely acting in accordance with the state’s agenda. Paramilitary terror against black and brown communities and violence against leftist do work in the favor of the state, these forces do are not one-for-one analogues of the state. What should be recognized in the recent standoffs at the Bundy Ranch and in Oregon is that these groups also want a destruction of the state. The state plays a dangerous game in allowing right-wing terror to flourish, because the Far Right’s growth also means a potential threat to state power.

The second misconception is that groupings on the left should attempt to dialogue with these groups as there are some overlaps that we can exploit. This is a dangerous folly that we cannot support. While the poor white working class is a group that has been abandoned by the Left in recent years, working with reactionary organizations emerging from this demographic serves only to increase those organizations’ stature not our own. We need to seek organic relationships with the white working class and present an alternative to the Right, rather than mixing the two.

What happened in the 80s and 90s have lessons that we can learn from today, but we have not sought to learn those lessons. We need to recognize and appreciate the danger that the right poses. This does not mean that we need to be afraid of the right, but that we need to be prepared for the violence that they have promised. It shouldn’t take another Minneapolis to make us take steps to protect ourselves.

Notes on the Resurgence of the Right in the US

The following was written nearly a year ago with two other pieces that have not been published here. All three pieces dealt with violence, both voluntary and systemic. This piece is a reflection on the resurgence of far-right violence in the United States. Although written a while ago and worked on in bits and pieces since then, it is not yet complete. A fuller understanding of the Right’s social base and the material conditions of its resurgence would create a better picture of this movement. Additionally, a fuller discussion on the distinction between far-right conservatives and fascists would add clarity to this piece. Lastly, this was written before Ferguson and the presence of militias protecting white businesses is not dealt with here. It is possible that I will return to this piece later, adding everything that is currently missing, but for now, I present this incomplete work.

Since the economic collapse in 2007, right-wing movements have seen a surge in popularity. In Europe, the far right has gained seats in parliaments around the continent. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS has gained territory and adherents to its ultra right-wing vision of Islam. In the United States, the far right’s resurgence has expressed itself in the return of militias and hate-groups. All of these movements are a disturbing trend and in the United States represent a shift towards violence as the state’s main tool in repression.

Looking at repression in the United States, we can see that it has come from two groups most visibly: the police and right-wing militias. As the state moves further and further into austerity, the communities most likely to rebel against these measures need corralling. Police repression is not new and is not any more brutal than it has been in years past, but it is more visible. From Mike Brown to Eric Garner, cops killing unarmed black people have been in the news constantly.

Right-wing militias have similarly been front and center in the news. Right-wing groups, specifically in the South have been patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, ostensibly protecting the country from Latin American immigrants. In reality, their existence is a threat to Latino communities, whether documented or not. Like police violence, the militia patrols have existed long before the present day, but have become headlines recently.

While cops have been analyzed quite extensively, there is a dearth of analysis around how the far right and the militia aspects factor into it specifically. While neo-nazism and fascist elements abound, the current far right is conservative in nature. However, they still represent a serious threat to those who live in their domain. One of the most important aspects of these movements is their attachment to guns.

In the United States, the issue of guns lies on an ideological cleavage. Many left of center liberals believe that the “right to bear arms” has passed its expiration date and should be culled or severely limited. The Democratic Party’s attempt to introduce an anti-assault weapons ban is an example of this mindset. However, the Right is fairly unified on the subject of the right to bear arms. The Right has fought tirelessly to reject any legislation that curtails the right to any weapons. This includes legislation enforcing background checks. This is in the face of high-profile shootings, growing right-wing terror and the resurgence of right-wing militias. Why is it that the majority of United States legislature have embraced these movements?

Many of these movements cling to a sense of legality. Right-wing militias and groups believe that the United States Constitution is the supreme document regarding their rights (of course, this is with some interpretation because they do not believe in the same interpretation of the Constitution as many left of center liberals). More importantly, they believe that the Constitution provides for the unabridged ownership of firearms. This colors a lot of the rhetoric of the Gun Lobby. It is a constitutional right to bear arms and any infringement on that right is cause for rebellion and insurrection. If you’ve ever viewed videos about guns on YouTube, you’ve seen that many of the video bloggers believe that gun confiscation constitutes a “line in the sand” during which they will rebel violently and in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson’s “The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” missive. A respect bordering on worship of the 2nd Amendment is scripture for the American Right.

This devotion to legality is limiting to the Right’s understanding of itself though. The United States has routinely violated its constitution in order to preserve its own power. At times, it even incorporates these violations into the interpretation of the Constitution through the Supreme Court. The Constitution provided that slavery was a legal right and the Supreme Court originally supported this. When the Civil War began, the United States outlawed slavery regardless (at least, in the territories not under its immediate control) and waged war to bring the rebels into line. During the First World War, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917 severely violating the 1st Amendment. However, the Supreme Court decided that the law was constitutional and incorporated this infringement into its law. A state cannot will its own destruction. When a state is faced with an existential threat, it will violate its own rule of law to ensure its survival.

For the Right, this means that the 2nd Amendment means nothing to the state. The United States will only allow right-wing militias to operate if it believes that the United States can control these movements. If these militias/movements couldn’t be harnessed to the United States’ nationalist agenda, they would face a severe crackdown. And that’s what we can see today. The Democratic Party does not believe that the right-wing can be controlled, can be harnessed. Members of these militias and movements are bombing federal buildings and shooting other citizens. The Democratic Party certainly didn’t think these groups could be controlled in the 90s when right-wing terror seemed to be at its high point. Terror (most notably the Oklahoma City Bombing) was rampant from these elements. Members of the Democratic Party have introduced legislation to ban assault weapons or to limit their capacity but the vast majority of these attempts have failed. The Right is unified in its rejection of what it believes to be “anti-gun” legislation. Why is this?

The state, or at least the rightmost faction of it, believes that these movements can be controlled and can serve its interests. This is why the Supreme Court recently changed its interpretation of the 2nd Amendment from recognizing the rights of militias to recognizing the right of individuals to bear arms. These movements aren’t entirely militia-driven, so establishing an individual right contributes to the ideology of individualism and pulls more people into the fold.

We can look at armed left-wing organizations to see how the rule of law changes when the state faces an existential threat. The Espionage Act of 1917 jailed many socialist and radicals who advocated against the war and against capitalism in general. When the Black Panthers militantly carried the weapons openly, the state of California took that legislated that “right” away (it is important to note that Ronald Reagan and the NRA worked together to pass this law). Left-wing groups in the 60s and 70s faced massive repression, often times violent repression. The Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army, the American Indian Movement and others were followed, intimidated by and even shot at by the police and federal agents. The Constitution was tossed aside when the left was strong.

So how does this armed Right benefit the state? They stand strongly opposed to the left. They own guns and they train with those guns. The threat of a leftist specter haunts their collective imaginations and they are willing to fight against that threat for the state. They are also willing to corral people of color, women and queers through violence.

It’s important to wonder though, how the Right views itself in relation to the state. The Right can continue its symbiotic relationship with the state only as long as it believes that the state’s interests are its interests too. The Right believes that they are patriots who are protecting the rule of law through voting and through violence. But it doesn’t think that a “liberal” state is in its own interests. This is opposition to “liberals” is concurrent with the conservative restructuring of the state from welfare to austerity. Even if the Democratic Party is also a party of war and austerity, the Right believes that it isn’t. This poses a big threat to the Democratic Party, but not the state in general. If the Right can be counted on to restore the ‘rule of law,’ as they understand it, the state will continue to exist and a complete restructuring and consolidation can be achieved.

The contradictions in the Right’s relationship to the state were on full display when militiamen descended on a small Nevada farm owned by Cliven Bundy. When the government started confiscating Bundy’s cow due to his two decade refusal to pay taxes related to the cows’ grazing, right-wing groups and individuals came from across the country in order to oppose the government’s agents. They saw themselves as defending a man from a tyrannical government. Cliven Bundy himself seemed not to recognize the United States as a legitimate entity. The militiamen seemed to believe in a United States that represented and protected its citizens, but did not require taxes or payments for the government’s services. This understanding of the government has been growing as the neoliberal restructuring of society has pushed along. The government should protect private property and business owners while asking for little in return to sustain it. These militiamen on the Bundy ranch seemed willing to resist government agents violently to defend this understanding of the state.

The continued armament of the Right poses a real problem for the radical Left. I would hazard to guess that the Left is far less armed than the Right and far less trained. Many of these militia members have been in the military or were police, two careers that afford great weapon/tactic training but are complete anathemas to the radical Left. Without this training, the Left is liable to fall victim to right-wing violence without putting up much of a fight. And more worrisome is the Right’s eagerness for violence. As we have seen from the Bundy Ranch standoff, the Right is starting to understand itself in opposition to the state and ready to fight back against the government and other perceived enemies today.

McCutcheon, Citizens United, and Electoral Politics

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down a campaign finance law restricting federal campaign contributions to $123,000 per year in the case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. This decision is a continuation of the Court’s gutting of campaign finance laws and allowing greater influence from corporations and rich individuals. But why would conservative members of the court expand corporate influence on politicians when at the same time, their politician counterparts are waging a war on government influence/interference in private enterprise?

What exactly does McCutcheon v. FEC do? Prior to the Court decision, individuals were only able to contribute an aggregate limit of $123,200 to federal candidates in an election cycle. They could give at most $48,600 to federal candidates and $74,600 to party committees. By law, a person can only contribute up to $2,600 to any one candidate so under the previous law, a person could only give the maximum individual contribution to eighteen candidates. The limit to any one party committee was $32,400 meaning that at most, only two committees could get the maximum contribution.

The Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, gets rid of the aggregate limit. Although donors are still limited to contributing $2,600 to any one candidate they can now contribute that amount to as many candidates as they see fit. The $123,200 limit is gone and donors can contribute as much money as they want to. A majority of the Supreme Court sees aggregate limits as a limitation to free speech and struck it down on that basis.

This is the biggest American election decision since Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Citizens United allowed corporations and unions to spend money from their general treasuries on political advertising before elections. Citizens United did not allow corporations to donate directly to campaigns though, but with this new ruling, if corporations did gain that right, their ability to inject funds directly into campaigns would be unlimited. Is this where the Supreme Court is heading? In SpeechNow.org v. FEC, the Court ruled that corporations could contribute unlimitedly to independent organizations, organizations that don’t donate to candidates directly. This along with the recent McCutcheon decision seems to indicate a growth in that direction.

There has been a flurry of pieces in the wake of the recent decision on what this means for our elections. The Washington Post created a list of winners and losers from the case and Slate laments the inability of John Roberts to see that money corrupts, but these analyses miss the bigger question. Since the recession, conservative rhetoric has been that the government is a hindrance to private enterprise and is at the bottom of the economic collapse (against all evidence). Why is it that the Supreme Court allowing rich individuals and corporations to inject money into the political system while conservative politicians and intellectuals push for the government to stop interfering with private enterprise?

It cannot be because of the populist victory of Barack Obama. While his rhetoric during the 2008 campaign sided with people against the banks and corporations that led to the financial crisis, President Obama has done nothing but side with those very same banks and corporations. From the bailout to not prosecuting a single person responsible for the crash to forcing austerity on the poorest of Americans, President Obama has been lockstep with the ideas conservatives have been pushing. While the Court decisions have come after his election, they don’t seem to be directly influenced by his win.

Instead, it may just be that the ideas of the rich are not as consistent as they’d like to think. The same people who advocate for less oversight and less regulation of private enterprise generally support the vast amounts of subsidies and grants that come from the federal government. The idea behind denigrating the government’s role in business is not to get rid of it entirely, but only to get it out of the areas that reduce businesses’ bottom line. Government programs that assist the poor, ones that corporation have to pay into, are acceptable targets for the chopping block, but money given from the government to fund research and development are not. The ability to inject more and more money into the electoral process allows the rich more opportunities to decide exactly what cuts are necessary.

The ability to reform electoral finances is slowly being stripped away, but it wasn’t much of a solution in the first place. Even while these laws were in place, the majority of senators were still millionaires. Congress and the President still sided with businesses rather than the people. These decisions are simply exposing electoral politics as a dead-end. 

The Limits of Free Speech

A year ago, neo-Nazis and white supremacists groups planned a march in Washington DC. I took part with hundreds of others in a protest against those groups. We followed their march, yelled at and taunted the white supremacists who turned out for the event and did as much as we could to disrupt their message and show them that DC didn’t want them there. Twice we blocked their march only to have police on horseback disperse us. As the march continued, more and more police showed up wearing full riot gear.

Not a single protestor out that day considered whether or not this was infringing on the neo-Nazis’ right to free speech or whether we should tolerate their right to speak about white supremacy and fascism. If the police had not been protecting these individuals, I am very sure that many of the protestors would have violently suppressed their ability to spread their messages of hate. But some people in the neighborhoods we marched through felt that we should respect their right to hold their disgusting opinions because they were just opinions. Many people believe that fascists should be allowed to speak and hold rallies because their ideas are completely obsolete and they make a mockery of themselves just through talking about their ideas. This is completely false.

The idea of ‘free speech’ has morphed from a concept prohibiting governments from regulating the press into a philosophical credo applied to everything under the sun. If Reddit users want to have a subreddit posting pictures of underage girls, it’s within their rights because ‘free speech.’ If a celebrity wants to say something racist or sexist, people defend that celebrity’s right to free speech. It’s only an opinion; it’s only words. Freedom of speech has become a defense on any and all criticisms of someone being denounced for saying something awful.

There are a number of reasons that people defend free speech. One of those reasons is that it ensures that everyone has a voice. Minority voices are often shouted down and without free speech, those voices would be silenced violently. We can consider Black, Women and Gay Liberation movements as examples. Without the concept of free speech, these movements would have faced even higher levels of police and state repression just because of the things they advocated for. Additionally, free speech is often defended because even if the most repugnant of speakers has a voice, it ensures that everyone has a voice. 

Unfortunately, the reasons to defend speech are often not even taken into consideration in real situations. In the aforementioned Liberation movements, participants were violently assaulted, jailed and repressed specifically for the things they said and advocated for. The police rarely, if at all, came to protect their marches with riot shields and horses. These movements threatened state power and were a threat to the status quo. White supremacists and neo-nazis seek to consolidate state power and are not generally a threat to those who make decisions.

Besides just state repression, Neo-Nazi and White Supremacists words have a legacy of violence and subjugation behind them. Both of these groups used violence in the past (and present) to seize their political aspirations. They have murdered and terrorized people and to allow these groups to speak peacefully is a disgusting slap in the face to those who they seek to subjugate again. And the wish to subjugate again is not only a hope, but a reality that they work towards.

Speech is too often thought of as divorced from action. We have the right to say and believe what we want as long as we don’t act on the things we say. But that line of reasoning fails to take into account speech to incite. Nobody can claim free speech when yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded building. No one can claim free speech when encouraging people to riot. But even going beyond just incitement, speech is concomitant with action. Fascist marches, demonstrations and speeches exist in the same reality as their organizing and building. And building the organization means murder and terrorism.

That is not just hyperbole; the stronger these organizations become the more violent they become. Looking at the fascist-sympathizing, paramilitary organization in Greece, we can see that their political ascension has come after years of organizing and violent attacks on immigrants and leftists. Their speech has followed their terrorism. And even when they achieved some political success, their violence did not stop. A Member of Parliament assaulted a KKE MP on national television and members recently murdered Pavlos Fyssas, a Greek rapper also known as Killah-P.

Even moving away from the realm of intentional political violence, we can see that violence and speech are not separate. The use of racial, homophobic and misogynist slurs exists in a political and societal climate in which violence against these groups is still real and rampant. Although people may use these words among their friends and insist that they mean no harm by them, the reality is that people who assault and marginalize vulnerable groups continue to use these words as a way to demean, dehumanize and degrade. Misogynistic slurs may be funny to some, but we still live in a world in which sexual assault, rape and violence against women are still disturbingly common. The derogatory meaning of the N-word may seem like a product of bygone eras, but we still live in a society in which black neighborhoods are militarized and black bodies are shipped off to prisons at alarming rates and where black unemployment continues to dwarf white unemployment

Criticizing people for voicing marginalizing opinions is not being “politically correct.” Attacking white supremacists for their views is not violating their free speech. It’s a resisting violence against marginalized people. When politicians or campaigners call for restrictions on women’s bodies or increasing funding for wars or police departments, they are directly advocating for violence against people. This is speech cannot be separated from action and only action can stop its consequences. 

Black Against Empire: A Review

Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., the authors of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, have a very ambitious goal: to tell a better history of the Black Panther Party than anyone else. Their method is stated up-front. They want to trace the history of the Black Panther Party through its stated politics. This history takes us from the meeting of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to the expansion of the party to over forty cities around the country all the way to the death of Fred Hampton and the final dissolution of the Panthers. Through it all, the authors have a deep respect for the Panthers as true revolutionaries and warn those who came after the party that they’ll never be able to achieve what the Panthers did without understanding the people like they did.

This was actually my first time reading a book about the history of the Black Panther Party. All of my previous information about the party came from the Internet, movies and some YouTube videos. As a history of the Panthers, this was a great one. Bloom and Martin take you from the very beginning to the very end and do a great job at explaining what they believe made the Panthers into a popular and well-run organization. They note that while the Panthers were a product of their times, they organized effectively to meet the needs and concerns of the people. They fought against the draft and police brutality while at the same time creating community programs such as free breakfasts for kids and clothing drives for the neighborhoods they worked in. These positions gained them support from both poor blacks and white allies.

Bloom and Martin also stress the importance of Third World Liberation to the Panther project. The Panthers understood black people in the United States to constitute a sort of colony within the United States itself. With this idea, they pushed for solidarity with other Third World Liberation movements such as the North Vietnamese and Chinese communists. They also understood themselves and the black poor to be at war with the United States and pushed for a revolution at home. In their first few years, they aggressively pushed insurrection and revolution through fighting police brutality and state repression.

Bloom and Martin argue wonderfully for their understanding that the Black Panthers understood the milieu they found themselves in a created a working, replicable politic for pushing against the status quo. They track the downfall of the Panthers as the state dialed down the draft and moved more blacks into the middle class through jobs programs and affirmative action. This made the popular base of white liberals and moderate blacks evaporate and left the tension in the party exposed. With the leaders of the Panthers wanting to focus on survival tactics to wait until the moment was ripe for revolution, some local groups wanted to push for revolution right away, believing that it would draw the masses into action. These tensions were the end of the party.

While the book is great, it could definitely be better. There are a number of issues hampering this history and had Bloom and Martin spent more time on it, this could have been THE book on the Panthers.

One of the issues is that the narrative is garbled. The book seems to move more or less chronologically, but certain sections will jump from 1970 back to 1968 or 1969. Eldridge Cleaver goes into exile in Cuba in one section and but is speaking in the United States in another, and returns to the public sphere in yet another. Bobby Seale is arrested and jailed, speaking in Connecticut, in jail, held in contempt and being prosecuted in Connecticut. All of these happen without adequate explanation of how Seale got out of jail each time. One of the biggest issues of the book is Seale’s prosecution for murder in Connecticut but we’re never even told how the trial actually unfolded. Angela Davis joins a knock-off Panthers Party in Los Angeles and disappears until she’s at a rally for the real Panther Party then we’re told she’s a love of George Jackson. The manhunt for her is never even mentioned. Stokely Carmichael is an important figure in the beginning of the book, disappears in the middle and is inexplicably called a ‘bootlicker’ in the end. Many of the threads of the narrative are tangled or hidden.

Another problem with the book is that it never really goes into the Black Panther Party’s actual politics. We’re told they believe in Third World Liberation and that they struggle against Police Brutality, but those are the most we get. Intercommunalism (Huey Newton’s idea) and the idea of the lumpenproletariat being the revolutionary class (Eldridge Cleaver’s idea) are brought up only in passing. Indeed, only two pages of this book are spent looking at the Marxist-influence of the party’s ideas. We don’t know how Che, Mao, Marx and Fanon really influenced them; we’re just told that Party members were required to read them and that some leaders were well-versed in their works. For a book purporting to analyze the politics of the organization, it was very lax on that analysis.

Lastly, one of the things Bloom and Martin found important was the alliances the Panthers forged with Third World Liberation movements and white allies. We are treated to some information on how the Young Lords, The Red Guard and the Young Patriots were all influenced by the Panthers and how the Panthers mobilized white allies to support, demonstrate and raise money for Bobby Seale’s murder trial, but we’re left wondering what other projects the Panthers collaborated on with these groups. We’re told that after the United Against Fascism conference, they created National Committees Against Fascism around the country that allowed whites to join, but they are never mentioned again. What were their daily activities? How did they organize? What were the tensions in the groups, if any?

While there are criticisms to be made about this book, I still very much enjoyed it. As my first Panther book, I learned a great deal of information I had not known before. I learned that David Hilliard rather than Newton spearheaded the community service programs. I also learned about numerous other Panthers who often are not talked about: Ericka and John Huggins, Bunchy Carter and Doug Miranda. If you don’t know much about the Panthers and want to learn more, this is a great introduction.

Evolution vs. Naturalism: What is Rational?

Alvin Plantinga’s article ‘Evolution vs. Naturalism’ aims to unseat the discourse of Dawkins and company that science and only science is the way to understand truth in our universe. While it is important to challenge the New Atheist rhetoric of scientism, this article is lacking.

Plantinga’s argument centers around the idea that naturalism, “…the idea that there is no such person as God or anything like God” is untenable with the concept of evolution. Evolution is blind; its forces can only move species in the direction of traits that help it survive in the species’ environment. This means that our cognitive functions are not set out to discover truth, only to survive. Plantinga says:

“The problem, as several thinkers (C. S. Lewis, for example) have seen, is that naturalism, or evolutionary naturalism, seems to lead to a deep and pervasive skepticism. It leads to the conclusion that our cognitive or belief-producing faculties—memory, perception, logical insight, etc.—are unreliable and cannot be trusted to produce a preponderance of true beliefs over false.”

He concludes that it is not rational to be a naturalist. Rationality cannot exist because the probability that our mental faculties are reliable is very low.

“If evolutionary naturalism is true, then the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable is also very low. And that means that one who accepts evolutionary naturalism has a defeater for the belief that her cognitive faculties are reliable: a reason for giving up that belief, for rejecting it, for no longer holding it. If there isn’t a defeater for that defeater—a defeater-defeater, we could say—she can’t rationally believe that her cognitive faculties are reliable. No doubt she can’t help believing that they are; no doubt she will in fact continue to believe it; but that belief will be irrational.”

The biggest problem with Plantinga’s argument is that he is conflating the concepts of ‘true’ and ‘rational.’ Plantinga’s argument is that we cannot rationally hold to naturalism because we cannot know if what we believe is ‘true.’ Rationality has only a small relation to what is true.

If I buy the ‘Clapper’ (a sound activated electrical switch allowing consumers to clap and turn off and on their appliances) and attach it to my lamp, I can rationally assume that when I clap, my clap is turning my lamp on and off. The truth may be that I have a slightly unhinged friend turning my lamp on and off, having unplugged my Clapper as a joke, but my belief is still rational. I bought the Clapper and installed it and the effect is consistent with what I expect.

And that is how logic works. Basic philosophy students learn that a valid argument is not necessarily a true argument.  A valid argument is one in which the conclusion would be true if the premises are assumed to be true. I bought and installed a Clapper. The Clapper turns appliances off and on via loud clapping sounds. I clapped and my lamp turned off. The Clapper is working. Accepting these premises as true, my conclusion would also be true. However, my premises are not true because my friend is playing a practical joke. My Clapper is not installed and therefore my conclusion is false. However, no one would say that I was being irrational for believing my Clapper was working even though that conclusion is false. Indeed, many people would think it irrational to believe that my friend was turning my lights on and off, even if it was true!

That is where Plantinga fails in his argument. He never quite defines ‘true’ or ‘rational’ and because of that, he does not make the necessary distinguishing between the two. Even a meaning of ‘belief’ for Plantinga may run into problems. Regardless of whether we could trust our faculties to give us ‘true’ belief, we can know that we believe rationally.

Our brains have evolved from ‘lower’ life forms, there is no doubt about that. They are adapted for survival in our environment (or at least our ancestors’ environment). This may mean that we cannot know truth because our faculties are not ‘designed’ for truth, but our cognition allows us to work with certain rules of logic that we have developed over our millennia of existence. These rules, constructed through our faculties and through society, regardless of their truth, allow us to formulate rational beliefs and arguments. If atheism and naturalism are some of those beliefs, they are not irrational beliefs. They may be untrue, but still very valid.

Even some Christian philosophers accept a break in rationality and truth. Soren Kierkegaard understood that Christianity and its central tenets were not rational. Looking at how the world worked, it was irrational to believe that God existed or that Jesus rose three days after his execution. But it was central to his philosophy that these things were true nevertheless and that a leap of faith was necessary for true belief.

Plantinga, for his own side of the argument, lacks a very compelling reason why theism is not susceptible to a similar skepticism. He says, “Clearly this doubt arises for naturalists or atheists, but not for those who believe in God. That is because if God has created us in his image, then even if he fashioned us by some evolutionary means, he would presumably want us to resemble him in being able to know…” Why is it that we can presume this? Why should we not presume that God would grant us omniscience or omnipotence in his image? Why should we not presume God would grant us the ability to create wine from water or feed hundreds with just a few loafs of bread?

Plantinga falls into a similar problem that Descartes encountered when Descartes was deciding whether he existed or not. Descartes believed that since he could think, he could assume a God who was good and wanted him to be able to think. But that is not a good assumption at all. A God who was wicked or a jokester might have made him with the belief that he could think when it was really an illusion. Plantinga assumes a God who wants us to think, when the difficult work of providing a foundation for that assumption has not been done.

A refutation of the scientism nonsense that is constantly spewed by Dawkins and company is definitely necessary and especially from the religious side of things. Fundamentalist sects unfortunately define religion and their theology is generally as weak as the arguments made against them by the New Atheists. Unfortunately though, this article will not be the ammunition needed against the New Atheists.

Syria and Western Intervention

Last Wednesday, footage was released from Syria showing what many believed to be a chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus. Reports differ on how many were killed, from a few hundred to over a thousand. It is not even known whether it was definitively a chemical attack or who the perpetrator was. Regardless of what is and isn’t known, the United States, France and Britain seem to be ready to strike at the Syrian government and help the opposition overthrow Bashar al-Assad. United States naval ships have moved into the Mediterranean in anticipation of military conflict and both Britain and France have noted the necessity of military force in Syria if chemical weapons have indeed been used. The question posed to the world now is not whether Assad should go but whether Western intervention should be used to remove him.

The Western powers have described intervention in Syria as a moral duty. Gassing civilian populations cannot be condoned and the United States cannot allow it to continue. However, the United States can allow the Syrian opposition to commit war crimes and continue to help it overthrow Assad. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights noted earlier this year that the opposition is believed to use torture, extra-judicial killings and desecration of bodies as war tactics. All of these are war crimes. Yet, it is these groups that the West is attempting to help into power. Additionally, Carla del Ponte, a UN Human Rights investigator told Swiss TV that victim testimony pointed to the rebels being the perpetrators of the recent chemical attack. Although the panel has not yet made a definitive conclusion on who perpetrated the attacks, it would seem as if the minds of Obama, Cameron and Hollande are already made up. The Western powers do not care about whom commits human rights violations; they care only about who they want in power.

Looking at the United States’ track record, this is easy to support. The United States has overthrown countless democratically elected administrations and replaced them with dictators. Amid the reports of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, a little noted article from Foreign Policy reported that the United States supported Saddam Hussein while he was using chemical weapons on Iran. There is no guarantee that Western intervention in Syria would end the human rights violations of Bashar al-Assad; it would only guarantee that the new regime would be loyal to the United States.

The United States has been using the Arab Spring idea to promote regime change in North Africa and the Middle East. It has coopted actual struggles and rebellions in order to stabilize its hegemony in the region. Look at both Egypt and Libya as examples. Egypt has been a US ally since Anwar Sadat came to power. The US provides billions of dollars to the Egyptian military every year. When the Egyptian revolution erupted, it was the Egyptian military that stepped in a deposed Hosni Mubarak. Earlier this year when the Egyptian people took to the streets to protest Mohamed Morsi, it was the Egyptian military that again stepped in to depose him. One reason that the United States has an interest in quelling unrest in Egypt and putting in a loyal regime is the Suez Canal. Too much traffic goes through the canal to allow for disruptions. Additionally, the United States military uses the Suez Canal in order to move its ships into the area. If the Suez Canal was closed, it could mean a lack of US military presence in the region. Also, Egypt is a regional hegemon and allowing the country to ally itself closely with China and Russia might destabilize the United States’ hold over the region.

Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was a brutal leader, but the United States accepted him as the country’s leader while Gaddafi was an ally in the War on Terror. However, when Gaddafi wanted to nationalize the oil production in Libya, that’s when the United States turned on him and supported the Libyan rebels (also alleged to have committed war crimes) through funds, weapons and airstrikes.

The West does not intervene in conflicts without a purpose. There a plenty of war crimes happening all throughout the world, but they do not attract the attention of Western powers. What is it about Syria? Oil is one factor and security is another. Although Syria produces only 1% of the world’s oil, its continuing civil war has an effect on the oil market. Installing a stable government could return the market to normal. Syria has also been a haven for forces seeking to fight against Israel. Israel is a major ally to the United States because it is a hegemon in its own region. With a loyal government in Syria, a crackdown on those forces could be instituted, increasing Israel’s security, and in turn, increasing the security of the US.

Assad is not a peaceful leader by any stretch of the imagination and this is why the choice of ‘leave Assad be’ and ‘support Western intervention’ looks so easy. If we want to remove a bad person, we support the forces that will remove him. But the real situation is much more complicated. Removing Assad may not end the violence inflicted on Syria. The rebels are not innocent themselves. It may be hard for people to accept the suggestion that we allow the situation in Syria to continue, and it’s definitely hard to suggest it. But Western intervention does not have as its aim stopping violence. It only has an aim to replace the figure of power. To support Western intervention does nothing for the people of Syria. It just makes the violence committed condoned by the United States.

Social Space and Animals

Vegans and omnivores have argued ceaselessly since veganism became an actual movement. Many of the seemingly convincing arguments around veganism come from the idea of ‘speciesism’ or the idea that putting humans at a higher level than animals is wrong. It is seemingly convincing because it puts the interlocutor at a disadvantage to say why animals can be killed for food but not babies or those in persistent vegetative states without falling back on the truism “well, we’re human.” Though I believe that steps should be taken to ensure animal welfare, I don’t think we need to accept the idea of speciesism to do so.

Some arguments for meat production fall under the idea that animals are not as smart as humans therefore they can be used as food. The vegan counterargument to this is that we do not eat children or those in persistent vegetative states. Some argue that pigs and cows are as smart as two year olds and therefore deserve rights on a similar level as humans, at least in the right to life. Even arguing that at least babies can grow into adults that are much smarter than animals doesn’t hold against the vegan argument.

“We cannot claim that biological commonality entitles us to superior status over those who are not members of our species. In the case of applying this to people with severe and profound cognitive disabilities, there is also a problem about saying who the ‘‘we’’ are. What is really important about saying ‘‘us?’’ Is it that we are all capable of understanding language, and perhaps even rational argument? In that case, I am not addressing those who are profoundly mentally retarded. Or is it that I am addressing all those who are members of my species?”

Peter Singer – Speciesism and Moral Status

Rhys Southan of Let Them Eat Meat, a blog about ex-vegans, tries to attack this problem by noting that just because something has sentience, or the ability to move and think, doesn’t mean that it can’t be killed. Which is a strange argument to make.

“Where vegans lose me is in the leap from “animals are capable of suffering” to “animals have a right to life.” Why do vegans equate an ability to suffer with having an inviolable reason to live? It’s intuitive to not want to cause pain to something capable of pain, but I’m not sure what this has to do with right to life if the life can be ended painlessly. How do vegans get from “these creatures move around and it hurts when we punch them in the snout” to “we can’t stun them and then kill them”?

But this doesn’t alleviate Southan from the speciesism argument. We can stun and kill animals, but what exactly differentiates an animal from a person? Why is it that we can stun and kill animals for food but not humans? And this is a question that Southan fails to answer because he doesn’t question his idea of what a human is.

A human is a constructed idea. That doesn’t mean that humans and monkeys and spiders are all the same thing. It means that the way we distinguish humans from monkeys is constructed through a discourse. Costas Douzinas notes:

“[B]ecause ‘human­ity’ has no fixed mean­ing, it can­not act as a source of norms. Its mean­ing and scope keeps chan­ging accord­ing to polit­ical and ideo­lo­gical pri­or­it­ies. The con­tinu­ously chan­ging con­cep­tions of human­ity are the best mani­fest­a­tions of the meta­phys­ics of an age. Per­haps the time has come for anthro­pos to replace the human. Per­haps the rights to come will be anthropic (to coin a term) rather than human, express­ing and pro­mot­ing sin­gu­lar­it­ies and dif­fer­ences instead of the same­ness and equi­val­ences of hitherto dom­in­ant identities.”

Although Douzinas was starting a conversation on the inability to regulate norms through the current discourse of human rights, rather than weighing in on the rights of animals, he points out an important problem in trying to define human-ness.

Do we base human-ness off of genetics? How much genetic difference constitutes human-ness? What combination of genes or set of combinations distinguishes people from apes? What about those with genetic abnormalities? Does the capacity for language, or spoken language, distinguish us? What about those incapable of speech? The lack of a definition of human makes Southan’s argument incomplete. What allows Southan to move from ‘we shouldn’t punch pigs in the snout because it hurts them’ to “we should be able to stun and kill pigs for food”?

Looking at how social space creates networks and relationships between humans and animals can solve this problem. Animals cannot enter into the social space in a similar way to humans. Humans, even children and those in vegetative states, occupy a different role in social space than animals. Animals are not sent to school for a number of years or given therapists to help them adjust to the living as an agent in human social space. Although there are pet psychologists, animals cannot interact or be interacted with in the same ways humans can. So the speciesism argument fails because it does not take into account how animals are constructed within social space. Animals are not on the same level as humans in the space we construct. But so too does Southan’s argument that animals can be killed because they aren’t human. Construction does not imply rigid destiny. We can change the way we interact and construct animals into our social space, but not completely. We can stop raising them and killing them for food. We cannot however, through natural (i.e. not technological) interactions teach animals to occupy the same role as children in our social space.

More on Cultural Appropriation

More on Cultural Appropriation

 

Cultural appropriation is a violent event. It forces people to perform their cultural practices for money, alienating them from one of the few things that provides them with relief. Those whose lives are being commodified fight this appropriation daily. But not all resistances are progressive. Some resistances reinforce the white supremacist discourse of biological racism. These resistances need to be fought as much as cultural appropriation.

 

Capitalism is the current drive for cultural appropriations. The need for capitalism to find new markets and new sites of profits leads to companies commodifying everything it can. This includes cultural artifacts and practices. All cultures are commodified because there is nothing sacred in profit-making.  However, because of white supremacy’s existence within capitalism, those cultures that are not privileged through forced incorporation into whiteness are more visibly commodified because of their exotic qualities.

 

One of the contradictions that arises from this commodification of the exotic within a white supremacist structure is that the non-white cultures are both denigrated and exalted. These cultures have to be denigrated in order to maintain a division within the ranks of the workers but also have to be exalted in order to make them good enough to sell. This commodification creates within it the seeds for unification.

 

However, also within commodification is fetishism. Commodity fetishism is the tendency to see products as things-in-themselves, things without history, things that are divorced from the labor that went into them. So when cultural practices and artifacts come to market, they are not seen as pieces of someone’s culture but just as products, products that can be worn, manipulated and ultimately castoff like any other commodity.

 

Additionally, people from commodified cultures are often required to perform those cultures in order to make a wage. We have to look no further than Hawaii’s tourist industry to recognize this forced performance. Cultural practices like the luau and hula dancing and artifacts like the lei are all commodified to be consumed by tourists. This forced performance for a wage alienates people from their cultures, divorcing them from one of the few things that may have resisted capitalism. Hawaiian cultural practices are not the only things commodified nor the Hawaiian people the only ones alienated from their labor but both instances are instructive.

 

Cultural appropriation should be distinguished though from cultural mixing. Cultures are not static; they are dynamic. Cultures change and mix, share and combine. To attempt to understand cultural practices as originating in one or another place is to attempt to look at culture as an unchanging entity. This is important when looking at how some resistances to cultural appropriation express themselves.

 

Some of those who wish to resist against cultural appropriation mistake commodification with participation. Therefore they try and restrict participation to those who are originally from the culture. But their definition of those from a specific culture are as superficial as the definitions from racists. They subsume different cultures into Western ideas of race and reinforce discourses on biological racism.

 

Culture, in these resistances to appropriation, is reduced to race. Therefore Black culture belongs only to those who can be perceived or traced back to Black ancestry. Asian cultures are condensed from the many to one pan-Asian culture. The requirement that someone be of a particular race to participate within a certain culture borrows from the one-drop rule and blood quantum requirements that have so often been necessary to be considered authentically of color. This racial requirement for authenticity also allows those outside of a certain culture to speak authoritatively on something they don’t actually participate in.

 

How can we fight against cultural appropriation though? There is no fighting commodification without fighting its engine: capitalism. And there is no fighting capitalism by dividing ourselves by biological racism. Those who participate in cultures not of their own should be implored, not just to stop the fetishism of a culture but to also join in the fight against racism and commodification; implored to join the fight against racism and alienation. 

 

More Reading

 

Haunani Kay Trask – Tourism and the Prostitution of Hawaiian Culture

Vijay Prashad – Bruce Lee and the Anti-Imperialism of Kung-fu

Men’s Cooptation of Feminism

            Men’s place in feminism is contentious. Some believe that feminism is a title that only women should be able to claim. Others believe the opposite. However, men’s ability to claim the title is constantly challenged by their own behavior: specifically the cooptation of feminism. Men routinely use feminism as an excuse to justify their own misogynistic behaviors.

            One of the more pernicious cooptation of feminism is men’s support of pornography. While some strands of feminism see porn as a method of taking control of one’s body and find it empowering, men misunderstand (willfully) that the object of empowerment is to take back the body as something that belongs to the woman. Instead, they use ‘consent’ as a method to justify all kinds of violent and degrading porn. Even if consent wasn’t an idea fraught with complications, men are socialized to view violence against women as normal if a little brutish. Consumption of porn continues to lead men to view women negatively and as objects.

            This cooptation is dangerous especially as women in pornography and prostitution are economically coerced into those jobs. Men’s support for porn continues a cycle of violence on women’s bodies. While for some women it may be empowering, for men, porn continues to be about sexual aggression against women. Their consumption is not empowering to women.

            I think this cooptation stems from men’s socialization. Men are socialized to see women’s bodies as available to them at all times. They conflate reclaiming bodily integrity as being permanently sexually available. So some feminist men generally ape the words of sex-positivity and pretend to be about women’s equality (rather than liberation) but use feminism to justify their own sexualization of women. They generally only support those feminists whose words they can twist to justify the way they see women.  This allows them to change none of their behavior and resist questioning any of their own privileges.

            Feminism isn’t about equality; it is about liberation. Men cannot expect to be able to claim the title feminist without first understanding that many of their behaviors and ideas are poisonous.