W.E.B. Du Bois, Trump, and “Intellectual Totalitarianism”

I recently ran across a fascinating piece by Andrew Lanham in the Boston Review.  It concerns the U.S. government’s attempt in 1951 to convict Du Bois–when he was 83 years old, mind you–of sedition because he had helped create a petition opposing nuclear arms. He was forced to criss-cross the country giving speeches to raise money for his defense, which was ultimately successful.  Nonetheless, Du Bois regarded the episode to be a final break with the U.S., so sought exile in Ghana, where he eventually became a citizen and where he died.  The specifics of the case are interesting, but just the fact that the U.S. would treat such a person–accomplished scholar, important leader, writer, editor, and mentor–as it did remains mortifying–all the more so because Trumpism replicates the anti-democratic, white supremacist “spirit” of those times.

Link : Essay on Du Bois

Lanham wrote, “I thought of this history this week when Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, began his confirmation hearings. In 1986 Sessions was denied a federal judgeship partly because he allegedly called the NAACP, which was co-founded by Du Bois, “un-American.” (In his 1986 confirmation hearings, Sessions walked a fine line, saying that the NAACP “take positions that are considered un-American.”) Trump himself has suggested that the government should revoke the citizenship of flag burners, and Trump’s pick for national security advisor, Michael Flynn, has called for an indefinite world war on terrorism, which he says must begin at home by targeting Muslim Americans. This is the same ugly cluster of ideas that landed Du Bois in court on trumped-up charges sixty years ago: the idea that demanding basic civil rights is tantamount to treason; that protesting national policy means forfeiting one’s citizenship; that darker skin or leftist views make one less American; and that an open-ended global war justifies unconstitutional repression.”  And later, he refers to Hannah Arendt in connection with the Du Bois case:

“In 1951, the same year Du Bois waged his battle in court, the philosopher Hannah Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she argued that we can ‘measure’ totalitarianism by whether governments strip their people of citizenship. Despite her own intense opposition to the Soviet Union, Arendt feared that “even free democracies” such as the United States were “seriously considering depriving native Americans who are Communists of their citizenship.” Du Bois did end up practically stateless when the State Department effectively cancelled his citizenship after he moved to Ghana in 1961. There is no description of this more accurate than what Arendt would call it: intellectual totalitarianism.”

Our current intellectual [if it rises to that level] totalitarianism affects civil rights, immigration, foreign policy, access to citizenship, gun-policy, voting rights, and so on. One might generously call our present political disaster atavistic, but that assumes the country advanced and hasn’t simply remained stuck in 1951.

Thanks to Lanham for a timely, illuminating essay.


The March on Washington and White Privilege

Coverage of the remembrance of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s speech (1963) is mostly segregated, ironically. Here’s what I mean: in local and national newspapers, on network and cable programs, and so forth, coverage tends to focus on Black reactions to the March and the speech. A local paper might get the reaction of Black residents who are known to be activists or who attended the March or both. A cable channel might get the reaction of a Black political figure or a Black academic. And so on.

There’s nothing wrong with such coverage; it’s necessary. But what’s missing is a White response that isn’t merely reactionary, like that of Laura Ingraham’s on Fox News, or passive: think of a White commentator sitting back and observing Black folks reminisce or opine.

That is, the coverage maintains White privilege, in this case the privilege of remembering a moment comfortably, of watching Black folks discuss the event, and of having the event framed in safe ways. The overall effect of the coverage is to suggest that things were bad, there was a March and a great speech, and things got better.

I’d like to see more White folks interviewed–Whites who found themselves galvanized by the events and got involved, or even Whites who don’t remember the 1960s fondly. I’d like to hear from Whites who recognize their own privilege and see things in the nation and in their communities that still aren’t right: race-related issues with education, law-enforcement, the judicial system, voter-suppression, and so on.

I’d also like to see a more complicated remembrance of those times–one that includes views from Malcolm X, the actions or inaction of politicians at the time, facts about the FBI’s secret wiretapping and surveillance of Dr. Kind (a timely angle, given our current problems with surveillance).

Mainly I’d like to see coverage that genuinely engages White people and that doesn’t isolate black people, coverage that isn’t routine and even cliche.

Rhetoric Takes Another Beating in the Gun-Control Debate

The murders in Newtown, CT, seem to have correlated to a shift in attitudes toward attempts to “control” guns. They also seem to have hardened views to the extent reasoning has taken a beating.

By “controlling” guns, we can limit gun-violence; that is the implicit logic of those wanting new laws and wanting old laws enforced. It’s hard to imagine enough evidence to support this implicit logic, but at the same time, most of the gun-control advocates admit that they are trying to do “something” in the wake of the murders. Try a lot of things and see what, if anything, works: that position seems reasonable, even if people don’t agree with it.

The gun-control purists seem to make the following mistakes in reasoning:

1. Any limitations on how guns are purchased, which guns are purchased, and how ammunition is purchased translates into a confiscation of all guns. Gun control = gun-ban. In reality, all the measures proposed don’t threaten the possession of hand-guns or shot-guns for self-defense or the possession of rifles and shot-guns for hunting.

2. Any support for any new laws is un-Constitutional. Even Ed Meese jumped into this mess by saying “it” (any executive order related to guns) would be un-Constitutional. He’s a fortune-teller!

3. The Constitution guarantees the right to own fire-arms. This view ignores the phrase “a well-regulated militia. It also ignores all the advances in technology regarding “arms.” Let’s start here: should adults have the right to own hand-held rocket-launchers? How about we say, “No”? Okay, then from that point, let’s walk back toward hand-guns and shotguns. Bazooka? No. Soon, of course, we’ll walk back to assault-rifles. Should we have the right to possess them? I think it’s a reasonable question to ask. Purists think it translates into banning guns altogether.

4. A proliferation of guns and of people (in public places) with guns will cut down on violence. For example, teachers should pack heat in the classroom. Regarding the specific example, I’m thinking “No” because I think of all that could go wrong. Regarding the larger remedy: It seems every bit as shaky, if not more so, than the assumption that new gun-laws will reduce gun-violence.

The only thing I know for sure about the current debate is that it won’t be a debate, per se. It will be a campaign of slogans and fallacies, rather like every other important national “debate” we now have. One effect of global warming seems to be the flooding of middle-ground.

The GOP Adjustment as Rhetorical Problem

Adapt or wither: that seems to be one major piece of advice the GOP is receiving. However, I did hear at least one “progressive” radio-host advise, “Please don’t adapt!”

Adapt to what? Allegedly, changing demographics, contrary attitudes toward some social issues, and the perception that the GOP chiefly represents “wealthy interests.”

If the problem(s) were seen in rhetorical, not strictly political terms, I might advise the following:

1. Define the “immigration problem” as “an immigration problem”–not as a problem of race and not as a threat to “culture.” If you think immigration-processes should be more orderly and consistent, then work with Democrats to make them so. Or don’t adapt and keep making the issue more about race and culture, and keep intimating that Latinos are “taking our jobs.”

2. Don’t swallow this business about “a changing America” whole. African Americans have made up 10-12 % of the population for a very long time. This isn’t a change. They vote largely Democratic because you, GOP, have basically pushed them to do so and because you have treated the first Black president like dirt. You can still play traditional rough politics and treat him with respect.

And if I were you, I’d have somebody confess that the Southern Strategy has always been about race, and I’d have the official confessor apologize.

3. When it comes to politics and governing, stop defining “gay marriage” as a religious issue. Treat it as a religious issue in your respective religions. If your church doesn’t want to host gay marriages, then it need not do so, obviously. But otherwise marriage is a civil matter, even if some couples–gay and straight–behave uncivilly after they get married. The U.S. isn’t a theocracy. I’ve met Tea Party people who agree with me on this, by the way.

4. Stop running the trickle-down con. People are catching on that’s it complete economic bullshit. More than that, there’s concrete evidence from Clinton’s 8 years that modestly raising taxes on the wealthiest helped the economy without hurting (as if!) the wealthy. Romney tried to run the Reagan con again, and enough people didn’t go for it (apparently) for you/him to win. It’s a pathos-move that’s quit working, and it never made logos-sense.

5. Look, we all know all politicians have to be data-deniers sometimes. Politicians lie. They deceive. But when it comes to data about evolution, global warming, dirty water, dirty air, and running out of fossil fuels, you all need to grow up.

6. When both you and the Democrats discuss budgetary issues and government-intrusion issues, you have to stop pretending the military is beyond enormous. It’s a data-thing. Empiricism.

7. If the question of abortion were as simple as you want to make it, a lot more people would agree with you now. If the question weren’t in large measure about women and their right to control what happens to their bodies, a lot more people would agree with you know. If you really want fewer abortions, support education and contraception. Or: don’t adapt.

Or–don’t adapt, as your progressive “friend” suggested.

Is It Fascism Yet?

By “it” I mean the U.S. government, and let me be among the first to answer, albeit tentatively, “No.”

I posed the question to an historian, who answered, “No–look at places [countries] where it’s [fascism] real.” Of course, I’d already done that, but at the same time, I still wondered about certain fascist characteristics.

Definition? What a good idea. Let’s go semi-pro (wikipedia): Fascism “is a radical authoritarian nationalist political ideology.”

“Radical” means “extreme” in this case, I assume.

And then there are Lawrence Britt’s 14 “markers” of fascism that are easily found online.

But back to our basic definition and its application, if any, to the U.S.: As to the authoritarian part: In the U.S., if you’re poor, Black, an immigrant, someone perceived to be an immigrant, perceived to be an enemy combatant, can’t a variety of governmental agencies do whatever they want with you in more cases than not? For example, the Executive Branch now has a “kill list,” apparently, on which may appear U.S. citizens. So if you’re a U.S. citizen perceived to be associated with terrorists, the President may order you killed and there will be few if any consequences for him or her.

As to the nationalist part: the U.S. seems as jingoistic as I’ve experienced it in several decades. The idea of “American exceptionalism” has become a parody: we have an exceptionally large military complex (spending more than the rest of the world combined on “defense”); we suck up more energy per capita than any other nation; one of our major political parties denies a human role in global warming and associates any kind of comprehensive health-care reform as “socialist.”

As I understand fascism, corporate power more or less runs the government, with the military. To quote Senator Bernie Sanders, “Wall Street regulates Congress,” and I don’t think this is news. True, it’s not the same as Mussolini’s appointing corporate leaders to a legislature, but corporate power seems virtually unchecked these days.

The U.S. invades countries at will, and I think there’s a good argument to be made that Bush II’s invasion of Iraq was illegal. It was certainly unprovoked.

Language, I think, plays a significant role in what may be a slide toward fascism. Consider how many people sincerely believe President Obama is not a “real” American. Consider how “national security” and “for national security reasons” have excused the burial of information, spying on citizens, holding people indefinitely in prison, and so on. Consider “the war on terror,” which is by definition unending. Consider “enemy combatant,” which has been applied to persons who in fact were not in combat and not enemies of the U.S.–but were just hanging around. Consider the awful euphemism, “rendition.”

It is difficult to argue that the U.S. is a fascist state, but it’s also difficult to see what would stop it from becoming one at this point. Whether the nation indeed is moving in that direction I leave to you.

What amazes me (it shouldn’t) is how sanguine most people seem to be about kill-lists, warrantless wire-tapping, Guantanamo, rendition, the national incarceration-rate, the rate of incarceration for Black Americans, the let-me-see-your-papers laws, the unaudited Pentagon, the super-secret NSA, and so on. “There’s a man with a gun over there . . .”.

An Open Post to Ted Nugent

Before I get to the open post, here’s a brief set-up. David Atkins has a nice piece on Hulabaloo about what appears to be a kind of mass Right-wing panic:


The title is “What’s their big problem?” His main point is not to question why the Right opposes President Obama but why they do so in such apocalyptic terms, especially since the Obama Presidency has been moderate at worst (“worst” from the Right wing’s perspective). You can supply the particulars as well as I or Atkins, I believe.

Atkins goes on to speculate that what their big problem is . . . is a demographic shift, in which a large portion of the population that might be inclined to vote is leaning toward the kind of moderation President Obama and others represent. He also says that race probably plays a role in the over-reaction, which is exemplified by Ted Nugent, he argues:

‘Nugent called President Obama a criminal and denounced his “vile, evil America-hating administration” which is “wiping its ass with the Constitution.” Taking it a step further, he said that “If Barack Obama becomes the president in November, again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year.” “If you can’t galvanize and promote and recruit people to vote for Mitt Romney, we’re done,” he continued.

Supreme Court justices also came under assault by Nugent, who claims that the court’s more liberal members have signed a declaration against Americans’ right to self-defense…

Nugent concluded with a call to cut off the heads of Democrats in November: “We need to ride into that battlefield and chop their heads off in November. Any questions?”’

I know Mr. Nugent meant “An questions?” rhetorically, and he didn’t have my kind in mind. I’m an English professor and a poet, after all. But in this open post to Mr. Nugent I’ll ask some polite questions of him, and make some observations.

What has President Obama done that President Bush didn’t do to offend those concerned with the Constitution? The Bush administration prosecuted what some consider to be an illegal war (Iraq), conducted warrantless wire-tapping, invented the category “enemy combatant” and detained “enemy combatants” indefinitely and tortured them. So why didn’t you direct such hostile rhetoric at President Bush? Simply because he was Republican, or because he was White, or both?

Aside from continuing some policies that Bush started, what has President Obama done to violate the Constitution? Regarding gun-control and the Second Amendment, President Obama has done nothing. Not one thing. If it’s the healthcare-bill you’re concerned about, don’t be: it’s being reviewed, according to the Constitution, by the Supreme Court, where 5 justices are conservative. He’s submitted budget-ideas to Congress but has, as the Constitution mandates, deferred to to Congress, which establishes the budget. He’s made no more recess-appointments than Bush or previous presidents have. I’m out of guesses: where specifically has he violated the Constitution? Just say so, but be specific.

It’s true that the four liberal justices disagreed with the majority in the relatively recent rulings related to the Second Amendment, but in none of the minority opinions appears the view that “the right to bear arms” doesn’t exist. I think most sensible people know where the problem exists: technology. When the amendment was written, we had muskets and single-shot handguns, and few people, if any, owned cannons. Now we have armor-piercing machine guns, rocket-launchers, bazookas, and so on. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that a discussion about how far the amendment can be stretched is necessary? Isn’t it in everyone’s interest?

Two observations: I remember when Glenn Beck interviewed you on his old show, before the show on Fox. Of candidate Obama, you said, “I wish him well, he as a beautiful family, I just disagree with him. You know–Fedzilla.” Now, reasonable people can disagree about whether President Obama represents a bigger government than George Bush or Bill Clinton did. That point aside, I have to say that I admired your statement back then. You didn’t take Beck’s bait. You spoke like a gentleman. Well done. Your side lost the election, but not because of your classy rhetoric.

Second: here, perhaps, is a surprise. Although I’m a poet and a professor, I grew up in the backwoods of California in a town of 200, at an elevation of 4,000 feet. Not Detroit, in other words. I was immersed in a world of hunting and fishing. My father owned about five rifles and two handguns. I grew up eating venison. I’m still an avid fisherman. When I go back to visit, we always go target-shooting. My brother’s cabin features a couple of mounted deer heads. And so on. My father was a Republican. But he didn’t indulge in violent, ugly rhetoric. He was just of the opinion his views were correct, and he’d argue them, but he was secure enough in them not to threaten people or confuse a campaign with a battle. He fought in World War II. He never waived a gun around. He would consider anyone who did to be dangerous and, I’m sorry, but also an “asshole.” He was a genuine mountain man. Loud people who bragged and talked too much about weapons he considered to be “tourists.” You dig?

That is to say, Mr. Nugent, stop acting like an asshole. Stop acting like a city-slicker. Reign your rhetoric in. Raise money for Romney. Work on his campaign. Stay in the public arena. Show your children and President Obama’s children and everybody else’s children how it’s done. You argue your case. You give tough speeches. You give specific examples. You fight, figuratively. Politics is in place of war, remember. Then there’s an election. Someone wins. We all move on from there. If we’re men, we’re man enough to deal with it. We say of the other fellow, “He’s got a beautiful family. I wish him well. But the next go around, I want a Republican to win.”

I’m going to say to you what a lot of us Boomers, apparently, need to hear: grow up. And lighten up. You’ve never had a single liberty taken away from you. No doubt you have a beautiful family. I wish you well.

Outlawing Words

Apparently Tennessee’s Senate has passed a bill that outlaws the mention of students’ and other persons’ being gay and that outlaws speaking (and writing?) the words “gay” and “homosexual” in public schools. I wrote “apparently” because apparently I’m still in shock that such a measure would pass, even in the Epoch of Wedge Issues. The passage of the bill brings up so many rhetorical and political issues:

(the story)

1. If you were a student or teacher in such a school or a member of another group in which a word had been outlawed, what would your first move be? That’s right. Invent another word. So you could say, “I just read this terrific novel that concerns happy and thespian culture.”

2. Has the concept, “conservative,” now lost all meaning vis a vis Republicans? I mean, what about conserving free speech? I realize that some forms of intimidating speech and some forms of attire are allowed to be limited on a school campus, but literally outlawing words in all contexts? This seems both legally, politically, and rhetorically . . . absurd. Radical, not conservative.

3. When does a wedge-issue become a self-inflicted wedgie?
So the cynical ethos of such a bill is to attract your base (which may be most base indeed) to you because you are creating a spectacle in which you are appearing to stand up in defense of something. But is there a point at which even the base can recognize absurdity? I guess not. Otherwise, we would not have the spectacle of Palin, Bachmann, and Trump. I can’t think of anyone as (both) popular and absurd on the Demo side, but I’m sure one will come to me. I suppose some conservatives think of Nader as that person, but I don’t think one can fairly accuse Nader of using wedge-issues. A terrier, he seems to pursue issues until the culture catches on and does something about them: DDT and seat-belts, for example.

4. I suppose I’ve left the most obvious for last: why? Outlaw these words, these facts (here’s news: some people are gay) because you want to . . . ? Let’s assume this isn’t wedge-politics. If that’s the case, then those voting for the bill have another outcome in mind. What is it? “If no one talks about gay people and homosexuality in high school, then homosexuality will go away”: is that it? And is there ANY knowledge of teen-age and human behavior in the Tennessee Senate? If you want to insure that human beings in general and teenagers in particular will talk about something, tell them they mustn’t.

Gay, lesbian, homosexual, homosexuality. Outlaw words!

The Scopes “monkey” trial could sustain serious dramatic treatment. I don’t think this particular trial of words could. It calls for Beckett.