Analyzing the Rhetoric of Cornel West’s Critique of TaNehisi Coates

In the Guardian [Dec. 17, 2017] Cornel West, academic and civil rights leader, recently published a harsh critique of TaNehisi Coates, writer for the Atlantic, labeling the latter the “neo-liberal face” of Black struggle.

The critique interests me because it perpetuates yet another fissure in the coalition required to resist Trump, because it recapitulates debates among Black leaders during the Harlem Renaissance (an era I have published in and taught courses on), and because it also reminds me of the position James Baldwin took in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s; that position was of a writer first, although if you know about Baldwin, have read him, and have seen videos of him, you know he didn’t use that position to back away from struggles, attacks, and controversies.

There’s no getting around the fact (nor would I want to) that West has been a speaker and writer of titanic stature over the past three decades, and I agree with many of his positions.  That said–caveat lector--I’m very sympathetic to Coates and Baldwin.

The West piece isn’t that long, so I thought I’d reprint it and take up some of its points as we move through it.

“Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power, a book about Barack Obama’s presidency and the tenacity of white supremacy, has captured the attention of many of us. One crucial question is why now in this moment has his apolitical pessimism gained such wide acceptance?

  1. I think West begs the question here.  That Coates isn’t political in the way West would like doesn’t mean he is apolitical. That he is pessimistic about matters of race seems rationally grounded in his experience and what America looks like today, with Trump at the top.

Coates and I come from a great tradition of the black freedom struggle. He represents the neoliberal wing that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fightback invisible. This wing reaps the benefits of the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people.

2. I think it would be more helpful for West to explore what concrete differences exist between Coates and him, rather than merely labeling Coates “neo-liberal.”  Further, until very recently, Coates had had a tough time making a living.  Then he got hired by the Atlantic and published two successful books. Making a living as a writer isn’t the same as “reaping rewards from the neoliberal establishment.” Further, writing about his own experience, writing “to” his son with the reader “looking on” (as Baldwin wrote to his nephew in The Fire Next Time), and focusing on White Supremacy does not equate with “silence” about these other issues; rather it suggests that Coates is writing about what he knows.

The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading. So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ worldview.

3. The disagreement is one West has invented. To my knowledge, Coates has not attacked (or even disagreed with) West in print or on video.  And after this piece by West was published, igniting a Twitter storm, Coates simply left Twitter, viewing the spectacle as a distraction.  I would speculate that Baldwin would have done the same, except Baldwin would never have joined Twitter.  His carefully wrought, enduring nonfiction simply wasn’t in that 140 (or more) character genre. –Not to mention all the silliness and propaganda (some of it Russian) that saturates the land of Twitts. 

Coates rightly highlights the vicious legacy of white supremacy – past and present. He sees it everywhere and ever reminds us of its plundering effects. Unfortunately, he hardly keeps track of our fightback, and never connects this ugly legacy to the predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty, patriarchy or transphobia.

4. Again, Coates’s focusing on a few things, including White Supremacy, isn’t the same as ignoring the other issues; indeed, Coates has made it plain that, in his view, one can’t understand American without understanding White Supremacy, thereby suggesting that it (White Supremacy) vitiates all institutions and informs most irrational, hateful prejudices.  West’s logic reminds me of the New Left’s logic: everything must be about class, therefore don’t bring up race, and therefore if you don’t always concentrate on class, I can’t support you. 

In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable. What concerns me is his narrative of “defiance”. For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic – a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action. It generates crocodile tears of neoliberals who have no intention of sharing power or giving up privilege.

5. Coates does perceive White Supremacy to be implacably powerful (if not “almighty”), and, like Derrick Bell (as West notes later), doesn’t see that situation changing soon if ever.  It is hard to gainsay Coates’s realism.  Further, Coates sees his calling to be that of a nonfiction writer, a witness in prose to racism and White Supremacy.  He prefers not to be a leader, and he seems to know and respect his own limits. West wants him to be West, Jr., it seems, and Coates wants to be Coates. 

When he honestly asks: “How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you?”, the answer should be clear: they claim you because you are silent on what is a threat to their order (especially Wall Street and war). You defy them when you threaten that order.

6. For me, this comes way too close to blaming the victim.  White Supremacy’s effect on Coates, his family, his home city and neighborhood, and so on, does not spring from his being silent, nor has he been silent; he just doesn’t write what West wants him to.  Calling out White Supremacy is as much a threat to the “order” as calling out Wall Street. 

Coates tries to justify his “defiance” by an appeal to “black atheism, to a disbelief in dreams and moral appeal”. He not only has “no expectations of white people at all”, but for him, if freedom means anything at all it is “this defiance”.

7. Given American history then and now, Coates’s position of expecting nothing of white people (except more of the same) seems rational.  It occurred to be that West, for all his anti-neoliberal writing and preaching, may be caught up in the American narrative of progress: in American, things must and will get better.  In fact, things “must” do nothing, and they are getting worse, suggest the data.  For me, Coates’s position, like that of Derrick Bell, is refreshingly contrarian and honest. 

Note that his perception of white people is tribal and his conception of freedom is neoliberal. Racial groups are homogeneous and freedom is individualistic in his world. Classes don’t exist and empires are nonexistent.

8. I need to be persuaded that Coates’s view of white people is tribal.  Based on his experience, Coates simply doesn’t trust white people to change themselves or the country fundamentally, and he didn’t invent the white homogeneity that has forged American history and that informed Trump’s election. Neither is he a Black Nationalist. I wouldn’t presume, nor should West, to say what Coates’s view of freedom springs from, although Coates himself has made it clear that he’s interested primarily in making a living to support his family.  First things first isn’t “neoliberal.”

This presidency, he writes, “opened a market” for a new wave of black pundits, intellectuals, writers and journalists – one that Coates himself has benefited from. And his own literary “dreams” of success were facilitated by a black neoliberal president who ruled for eight years – an example of “Black respectability, good Negro government.”

9.  President Obama tried to change things within the “neoliberal” system.  West has chosen a different way, and Coates yet another one.  If anyone expected any president, let alone the first Black one (whom the GOP tried to “break,” even using that loaded language), then that person was delusional.  President Obama probably could have done more in some areas and done things differently in others so as to satisfy West and others.  He also came very close to doing all that was possible, given the circumstances. And if he had presented himself in the radical way West seems to have desired, he would not have been elected. Period.  He could have been radical, or he could have been president, but not both.  As things stood, the GOP effectively turned him into a radical in the eyes of the rabid, racist base. 

There is no doubt that the marketing of Coates – like the marketing of anyone – warrants suspicion. Does the profiteering of fatalism about white supremacy and pessimism of black freedom fit well in an age of Trump – an age of neo-fascism, US style?

11. I don’t want to get into an ad hominem attack, but the way West and his booking agents have marketed him and the way he has created a Cornel West “brand” (going so far as to appear on Fox News with Bill O’Reilly, contributing, one might argue, to a fascist spectacle) suggests he may want to tread lightly with regard to Coates’s moderate success.  Coates’s first book sold 1.5 million copies.  Why not be happy for him?  Further, even a cursory reading of Coates’s essays and books shows that they oppose the worldview of Trump and his followers.  

Coates wisely invokes the bleak worldview of the late great Derrick Bell. But Bell reveled in black fightback, rejoiced in black resistance and risked his life and career based on his love for black people and justice. Needless to say, the greatest truth-teller about white supremacy in the 20th century – Malcolm X – was also deeply pessimistic about America. Yet his pessimism was neither cheap nor abstract – it was earned, soaked in blood and tears of love for black people and justice.

12. So now Coates’s bleak worldview is wise, not neoliberal?  Further Coates’s pessimism has been earned: chiefly by growing up in a very hard neighborhood in the very hard city of Baltimore. Also, his writing is the opposite of cheap and abstract: it is deliberate, serious, and above all concrete.  There is a reason Toni Morrison, who knows a thing or two about writing, compared Coates to Baldwin.  It’s fine with me if West wants to critique the comparison between Malcolm X and Barack Obama, but that comparison was a one-off, and it is in no way central to Coates’s writing.  Obama inspired him: is that so horrible?

Unfortunately, Coates’ allegiance to Obama has produced an impoverished understanding of black history. He reveals this when he writes: “Ossie Davis famously eulogized Malcolm X as ‘our living, Black manhood’ and ‘our own Black shining prince.’ Only one man today could bear those twin honorifics: Barack Obama.”

This gross misunderstanding of who Malcolm X was – the greatest prophetic voice against the American Empire – and who Barack Obama is – the first black head of the American Empire – speaks volumes about Coates’ neoliberal view of the world.

13.  I’m getting close to thinking West hasn’t read Coates, whose writing reveals that he has an expansive, patiently developed view of American and black history.  In fact, he credits his time at Howard University with disrupting and correcting his facile view of history. Moreover, his father, a former Black Panther, literally forced Coates to read books.  That Coates’s worldview may differ from West’s does not mean that Coates understands American history less than West does. 

Coates praises Obama as a “deeply moral human being” while remaining silent on the 563 drone strikes, the assassination of US citizens with no trial, the 26,171 bombs dropped on five Muslim-majority countries in 2016 and the 550 Palestinian children killed with US supported planes in 51 days, etc. He calls Obama “one of the greatest presidents in American history,” who for “eight years … walked on ice and never fell.”

14. I agree with both West and Coates on this one.  True, there’s not all that much competition (and no competition from Trump), but Obama will likely be known as one of the better presidents, especially given the stiff headwind into which he had to sail.  That said, Obama no doubt approved immoral tactics.  

It is clear that his narrow racial tribalism and myopic political neoliberalism has no place for keeping track of Wall Street greed, US imperial crimes or black elite indifference to poverty. For example, there is no serious attention to the plight of the most vulnerable in our community, the LGBT people who are disproportionately affected by violence, poverty, neglect and disrespect.

15. West has made no attempt to back up the charges of “tribalism” and “neoliberalism.”  He just keeps trying to apply the labels, hoping they’ll stick.  And concentrating on White Supremacy doesn’t imply indifference to the most vulnerable or those affected by violence, poverty, neglect, and disrespect.  Coates grew up among the most vulnerable and has written about that. 

The disagreements between Coates and I are substantive and serious. It would be wrong to construe my quest for truth and justice as motivated by pettiness. Must every serious critique be reduced to a vicious takedown or an ugly act of hatred? Can we not acknowledge that there are deep disagreements among us with our very lives and destinies at stake? Is it even possible to downplay career moves and personal insecurities in order to highlight our clashing and conflicting ways of viewing the cold and cruel world we inhabit?

16.  Maybe others have attacked West’s “career moves,” but Coates hasn’t, so I’m not sure what he’s getting at.  If anything, West seems to have gotten a bit personal with Coates, slapping labels on him with a certain amount of  glee and a glaring absence of evidence.  As to insecurities–well, in this particular piece and in his dust-up with Michael Eric Dyson, West sometimes reminds me of academics who attain a certain stature in their field, and as in West’s case, who attain celebrity.  They often view another’s success as an implicit  threat to their fame and influence. West has earned his stature.  I just wish he could thank Coates for his contributions and congratulate him for his modest success.  I think, too, that it would be more productive for West to view an array of critiques of white (or “neoliberal,” if you will) as necessary and, we hope, effective. Instead he seems to want all Black intellectuals to get in line, his line. 

I stand with those like Robin DG Kelley, Gerald Horne, Imani Perry and Barbara Ransby who represent the radical wing of the black freedom struggle. We refuse to disconnect white supremacy from the realities of class, empire, and other forms of domination – be it ecological, sexual, or others.

The same cannot be said for Ta-Nehisi Coates.

17. True enough. Coates decided to go his own way, but by focusing on white supremacy, he hasn’t ignored class.  He writes a lot about his own struggles in and with class. Further, concentrating on white supremacy seems crucial in America’s current predicament, and as Coates pursues that line, others can, should, and will pursue the others that West mentions. A productive division of labor. 

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Lies, Willful Ignorance, Shortcuts, and the Pseudocracy

The rhetoric surrounding the Affordable Healthcare Act continues to fascinate.

**For instance, it has been labeled Obamacare by the GOP–and then by the media. That tells us something about about the media. Need a shorter headline? Try AHCA or AHA. I grew up reading headlines that included JFK and LBJ. That said, President Obama practiced rhetorical aikido when suggesting that he welcomed the nickname, “Obamacare.” Is there a valid gender-related point to be made about “Hillarycare” and “Obamacare”? Hard to say.

**President Obama famously said that if you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it. What he failed to say, or chose not to say, is that you can keep your plan if the insurance company lets you keep it. So he was deemed a liar. He is a politician; therefore, he prevaricates. However, I suspect he was taking a shortcut so as to keep things simple. For we live in a time when sophisticated, complex utterances (as if adding the bit about the insurance companies were complex) won’t fly in politics. The president’s lie, gaff, elision, or shorthand (you choose) was ironic, in part, because the AHCA is in fact not socialistic. You can’t keep your plan if the insurance company won’t let you BECAUSE the insurance company is a private entity, a capitalist corporation, which makes a profit on misery and/or on the prospect of misery. Or perhaps I’m being Dickensian here.

**The AHCA is “big government” and “socialist,” claim some GOPers. When large insurance-corporations became socialist and were taken over by the government, I do not know.

**Then the flap about the health-exchange website. Yes, a classic governmental eff-up, out-dated technology included. A gaff that may have turned President Obama briefly into a Casey Stengel impersonator. When Stengel was managing the hapless Mets, he once (or more than once) yelled, “Can anybody play this game?” However, a reality-check might induce one to mutter instead, “First World problems.” Oh, the Americans are having some software problems with their new health-care initiative. Let us pray! Meanwhile, consider the catastrophic slums in Venezuela and India, for example; or the horrendous problem with the trafficking of girls in Cambodia; or thousands dying of thirst and hunger around the globe.

**The Congressional Budget Office produced a report suggesting that the AHCA might influence workers to work less (fewer hours). The GOP translated that as “the AHCA will cause unemployment.” A CBO spokesperson responded more or less like the unnamed correspondent in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “That is not what we meant at all.” Paul Krugman asked whether Eric Cantor, for example, had spouted off about unemployment before reading the report, or whether he had read the report and decided to lie. Cantorian willful ignorance was operative no matter what, Krugman argued.

**In “News of the Weird,” we learned that the cost of a scanning-procedure in Philadelphia hospitals can range from about $1200 to $200. Welcome to retail! “How much does this treatment cost?” “Give me your debit card, and then I’ll tell you!”

All of it seems like a cry for help. Swedes and Germans, among others, must look at the spectacle, rhetorical and otherwise, and think, “How effing hard can it be?” Meanwhile, politicians and pundits continue to play the came because (pax Stengel) they can play the game, just not the game that matters to people when they become ill and/or infirm.

David Brooks’ Faulty Reasoning About Why the GOP Lost

I give David Brooks credit. In looking for reasons why the GOP had a bad night, he’s not being as shameless as Karl Rove. I know that’s faint praise. The long-con-artist Rove is blaming a storm for his failure to deliver what billionaires paid him for. Here is Brooks’ take:

Growing beyond proper limits, government saps initiative, sucks resources, breeds a sense of entitlement and imposes a stifling uniformity on the diverse webs of local activity.

During the 2012 campaign, Republicans kept circling back to the spot where government expansion threatens personal initiative: you didn’t build that; makers versus takers; the supposed dependency of the 47 percent. Again and again, Republicans argued that the vital essence of the country is threatened by overweening government.

These economic values played well in places with a lot of Protestant dissenters and their cultural heirs. They struck chords with people whose imaginations are inspired by the frontier experience.

But, each year, there are more Americans whose cultural roots lie elsewhere. Each year, there are more people from different cultures, with different attitudes toward authority, different attitudes about individualism, different ideas about what makes people enterprising.

More important, people in these groups are facing problems not captured by the fundamental Republican equation: more government = less vitality.

The Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values. Two findings jump out. First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work. By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites.

Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government. In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.

Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil. It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable. It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs.

* * *

As it happens, I’m an expert on part of what he says. I grew up “on the frontier”–in a High Sierra town of 200, once a Gold Rush town. And, culturally, part of me came from Sweden but that part was atheist, not Protestant. Also, I saw what the GI bill did for one of my uncles, who flew mission in a Flying Fortress. It allowed him to go to a state college and get a teaching degree. He taught and coached for the next 30+ years but never gave up on the “frontier” stuff like hunting, fishing, building your own cabin, and panning for gold.

My uncle’s values were not, in fact, different from those described in the Pew poll concerning these alleged “people from elsewhere.”

Everybody in the U.S. is from elsewhere, and why begin history with Protestant colonialists? Why not start it with the slaves who were brought here in 1619? Or the Spaniards out on that frontier? Or the French in the bayous? And so on? And why not mention that many of the early members of the federal and state governments owned slaved? That’s the ultimate “government intrusion” and extreme “attitude toward authority.”

So I assert that Brooks’ argument is based on a false, White-centered, nostalgic view of history. I also assert that the GOP had a bad night (but only narrowly, let us remember) because it has been begging for one. Look who speaks for them mostly loudly, hear how much hate is in the speech, and see how weird the stances are: abortion banned even in cases of rape; denying global warming; claiming “trickle down” economics is anything more than a long-con (70%+ of economic growth is driven by consumer–middle class spending, not by how much dough rich people get to keep); wanting government to intrude on two adults’ decision to spend their lives together (what’s more “American” than that?); and treating the first Black president like a you-know-what.

I also assert Brooks’ argument hinges on a false dichotomy: either government helps the economy or private enterprise does. They both do, and they both must. If these “new people from elsewhere” don’t work with the same fallacy as Brooks does, it may simply mean they are reasonable. Government can raise the taxes or sell the bonds necessary to build schools, bridges, sea-wall, an electric grid, and so on. Who does the work? Private contractors. So enough of that dodge, please.

If government has grown beyond proper limits, then why not question the proper limits of the defense budget, which is the most out of whack part of our budget when compared to all other countries?

Is a national health insurance program–operated by private insurance companies–and improper intrusion of government, or just something my practical uncle would see as necessary?

Barack Obama as Big Government Lefty is one of the larger straw men the GOP has built. On what issues is President Obama to the Left of Eisenhower or Truman?

I think the GOP decided to see how far right it could go on a range of issues, and so it went too far. I think it decided long ago to be a White party. Lindsay Graham has admitted as much, and we all know about the Southern Strategy, which is race-based. That’s the short version. There’s more to it than that, but it isn’t the more that Brooks cites.

Is It Time To Shift the Paradigm?

Cynics like me have often opined that the two-party system is more or less a one-party system. For example, aside from health-care reform, to what extent has President Obama differed from President Bush? You get the picture.

Now, however, it may be time for cynics and others to assert their preference for the the Repub licans’ to (I shall keep it basic) get their shit together. The usual caveat obtains: the Dems are no bargain. Nonetheless, the GOP seems to oppose the following:

1. Ordinary, fair voting. You know it’s true. They seek to suppress the vote, at least. Or: they can’t imagine themselves winning without cheating.
2. Abortion–even for women who are raped.
3. The fact–established fact–of human-influenced global warming.
4. Modest but necessary taxes on the upper-income brackets. I get weary of asking people simply to look at the tax-rates under Reagan, Carter, Nixon, LBJ, Kennedy, and (not a socialist!) Eisenhower. Seriously, look at them. I also get weary of suggesting that incoming revenue might be a valid piece of the deficit-puzzle. Ya think?
5. Advice and consent. Instead of considering and then voting upon President Obama’s nominees for the courts (etc.), Mitch McConnell has decided to filibuster and never to go into recess. To go to Washington to stop the process of government? Is this what the founding dudes had in mind? Five words: Bring it to a vote.
6. Any discussion of arms control. Remember when arms control was kind of a foreign policy issue? Now we have to assume that anybody has the right to bear any arm. A magazine of 50 rounds? You bet! Shoulder-mounted missiles? Jefferson wanted one! An A-Bomb in the basement? What would George Washington do? The alleged defense of the Second Amendment is not the issue. The issue is the maturity involved in allowing a rational discussion of limits. But, oh no, the GOP would rather behave like middle-schoolers newly acquainted with Meth. Dude, let’s party with automatic weapons!
7. Anything not White. The GOP opposes Blacks, browns, Asians, Indians, and so on and so forth. Oh, yes, they will cite distracting examples of the contrary. But seriously: they’re not even up to the task of opposing President Obama on political or policy issues.l Instead they have to go for race, religion, origin, and all the other horse shit.

The Democrats are no bargain; or, at least that used to be the case. But now the world isn’t even safe for cynics. Republicans have made Democrats seems almost okay.

Do political scientists grapple with this new reality? Or do they simply play the metronome game? This side says this, and this side says that.

The Rhetoric of Employees-As-Political-Beings

Wild Bill and I work at a small liberal arts college, which is, according to the tax code, a not-for-profit entity–although, given the cost of tuition, some parents may want to dispute that status.

I just received the following email from the dean here (all my colleagues did, too):

Dear faculty colleagues,

In this election year and especially as political activities heighten as we approach election day, it is important to remember the rules governing political activities on college campuses. We need to remain in compliance with applicable rules and regulations in order to preserve Puget Sound’s tax-exempt status as an educational institution.

Certain political activities are permitted and others are strictly prohibited. Essentially, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations such as the University of Puget Sound may not participate in or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office. Two helpful resources for planning are:

• Puget Sound’s long-standing Political Activity Policy, which aligns with applicable laws and regulations and can be found on the university’s web site here.
• Specific situational guidance provided by the American Council on Education (ACE), with helpful examples of permitted and prohibited activities based on judicial and IRS rulings, IRS guidance, the Federal Election Campaign Act, and Federal Election Commission regulations. These ACE guidelines can be found here; item I.B.Y7 on providing opportunities for candidates to speak is particularly worth noting.

If you have any questions, [ ] or her delegate will help sort through the details of your desired political activity on campus and help determine what is and is not possible.

Of course, being a writer and teacher of writing (and not a lawyer), I focused on the last sentence and desired to excise “what is and is not possible” and replace it with “what is and is not appropriate, according to the regulations.” That is, it’s possible for me to campaign for someone on campus. It’s not appropriate, apparently.

Of course (part deux), I thought of Governor Romney’s allegedly having urged certain corporate employers to tell their employees whom to vote for: Romney, I’m assuming.

I do understand the rationale behind treating not-for-profits differently than for-profits. I’m just not sure I agree with it. In fact, I think a plausible (if not convincing) argument could be made that campaigning on campus would be instructive to students, especially those in a political science department. And a plausible argument could be made for inviting bosses not to lean on their employees about elections. What, eight hours of work isn’t enough for you? You have to bug me about your political preferences?

Finally, I’m mildly amused by the idea of a boss telling an employee whom to vote for. I imagine an employee responding with a “sure, boss,” followed by much eye-rolling once the boss is out of sight. I also imagine voting the opposite way, just out of spite. The situation is just a bit like the question of signing loyalty-oaths back in the 1950s. A colleague once opined that the most likely person to be first in line to sign the oath would be . . . a disloyal person–a spy, for example, or just a wag.

We are all political animals, or beings, Aristotle noted. Except when we wee are working for non-profits. Or when we are working for for-profits, in which case we are, apparently, children.

Of the “Re-distribution of Wealth” and the “Welfare State”

Mr. Romney’s tactic (Romney seems unencumbered by a strategy) for extricating himself from the quicksand into which the almost hour-long tape has plunked him seems to be to say, in effect, “President Obama was ‘secretly’ taped, too, and he was caught talking about helping poor people!”

Mr. Romney is getting some help. Rush Limbaugh asserted that President Obama is not the president of all, hates people who make money, and wants to take that money and re-distribute it. Robert Samuelson suggests that Mitt Romney is missing an opportunity to emphasize the degree to which Mr. Obama supports “a welfare state.” Samuelson also suggests that about 90% of the population receives some kind of federal monetary support, not the mere 47% whom Romney insulted.

Let us slip out of this circus’s tent and examine two terms, “re-distribution of wealth” and “welfare state,” for we are about rhetorical focus while they are about noise.

Of course, “re-distribution of wealth” is meant to send Marxist electrical shocks through our flesh, nerves, and bones. I’m feeling nothing because I’m focused on the “re.” Why not just “distribution” of wealth? I feel the same way about “re-doubling” our efforts. How about if we go more slowly and just try doubling them? And if we have to quadruple them, how many efforts were we giving in the first place?

Second, does raising the income-tax rate of the wealthiest from 33% to 39% constitute a distribution of wealth? I’m trying to imagine a (former) very wealthy person chatting with a friend and saying, “Bob, I’m not rich anymore. I just paid my taxes.” It’s more likely that Bob’s friend will continue to get richer regardless of the tax-bill because of the way capital grow, the way it keeps distributing wealth to those with capital. Ladies and lads, let us dispense with the “re” and politely ignore subliminal Marxist alarms–not, I shuffle to add, for political reasons but for linguistic and rhetorical ones. Let us also remember that during the presidency of Dwight David Eisenhower (a noted Marxist), the income-tax on the wealthy was much higher than 39%. Chill out, fellow capitalists! Mr. Lenin, he dead.

Concerning “the welfare state,” I choose to define that as a state concerned with the welfare of its citizens. It is a shocking notion, I admit. The effects of this notion have almost devastated Sweden (a noted “welfare state”) because it gives glum Swedes too little about which to be gloomy. It is a clean, well lighted place. Well, not so well lighted in Winter. “Erik, more vodka, my good man–I can’t see the sun, and it’s noon.”

On a more serious knot, I mean note, has President Obama done anything to alter the essential capitalist character of the United States’ economy? Could he do so even if he wanted to? How?

Even Mr. Samuelson admits that much of the dreaded “federal assistance” comes in the form of Social Security checks and Medicare reimbursements, which follow hard upon the heels of imbursements. We who get a paycheck distribute some of that to the Social Security program, and, through a payroll tax, we distribute another part of that paycheck to Medicare. If we live long enough, we get that money back–figuratively. As far as I know, this system has not eradicated private property, eviscerated the rich, or put clamps on the alleged “free-market” system, which often seems as free as a rigged lottery.

Ours is a capitalist economy, so capitalist that, arguably, much of Congress represents corporations more faithfully than it represents constituents “back home.” The federal government, however, does in fact distribute some money collected to the following: military veterans who have earned a pension and/or who need health-care; people who have been out of work but are still looking for work; old people who paid into Social Security for 20, 30, 40, 50 years; old people who need to see a doctor and/or buy medicine. President Obama seems to support the basics of such a system. Many presidents seem to have supported it. It seems like a pretty good system to me, especially given the alternative: large numbers of people in every community who are ill but get no treatment, hungry but get no food, old but have no place to go. One upon a time, the systems were invented to address such problems in our communities. Okay?

Inside that aforementioned tent, much noise is directed at this system of distributing money to those who, apparently, need it and who paid into the system themselves. I wish more noise were directed at another distribution of money: that which goes to our military system, which costs more than all the military systems of the world combined. I think a military system is a good thing to have, but does ours need to be this big? Even if I were inclined to say “Yes” (I am not so inclined), I’d want more “debate” about the topic and less debate about how Social Security, Medicare, and checks for the unemployed are (not) draining the wealth of the wealthy. Mr. Romney wants to distribute even more money to this military system. I think this smacks of Marxism. I kid the Romster.

Rush, take your “welfare state” and “re-distribute” it where the sun doesn’t shine–and no, that’s not Sweden. Mitt, the tape runs for almost an hour, and it captures you giving the rich diners what you know they wanted to hear. Your words were distributed.

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 . . .”.

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