Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Elephant In The Room

NOTE: Apologies for the small font in the second half of today's entry; I have been unable to fix it. Use your browser's Zoom feature to make the type bigger and easier to read. -CK

The July 19/26 issue of The Nation features a series of brief essays on the economic theme of "Inequality in America and What to Do About It." The authors include Dean Baker, Jeff Madrick, Katherine Newman and David Pedulla, Orlando PattersonRobert Reich, and Matt Yglesias. All are worth reading and make good -- if predictable -- recommendations such as raising the top marginal tax rate, taxing financial assets, additional stimulus, competitive trade policy, and financial aid to education. Reading the essays, though, I couldn't help but think of the poem about the blind men and the elephant: Each essay accurately described the animal, but none got to the true nature of the beast.

As a boy, I liked connect-the-dots puzzles. As the pictures emerged, I learned to discern patterns and trends. For example, consider the teabagger "movement":
  • comprised almost exclusively of conservative whites
  • reduces the Constitution to the 2nd and 10th Amendments (states' rights)
  • refers to the president, clearly a mainstream liberal, in overwrought code words like "socialist"
  • reacts with over-the-top hysteria to a health care bill grounded in old-school Republican policy
  • dismisses the stimulus bill, which included tax cut for the middle-class, as "porkulus"
  • blames the financial meltdown on Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the people who took out predatory loans rather than the institutions that made them
  • supports the Arizona anti-immigrant law and blames only President Obama for the undocumented workers in the country
  • assumes as an article of faith that the president hates white people (including, presumably, his loving mother and grandparents)
When I connect the dots, I see a gang of whites angry that President Obama is (supposedly) transferring hard-earned white wealth to lazy, undeserving, and often illegal minorities. Moreover, they want to arm themselves to prepare for the virtual (in their minds) certainty that Obama's government will come after them. (Think about the Oklahoman who want to form an official state militia to fight off the government.)

Ronald Reagan, that master of coded language, told the American people that government had become the problem. He hearkened back to the Puritan ideal of a shining city on a hill, invoking a time when American life was simple and uncomplicated by vexing social issues. What he meant -- and what many unquestionably believed -- was that government had stopped working for the heirs of this America, and that it was only interested in spending their tax dollars on undeserving welfare queens. The solution, Reagan claimed, was to remove the government from everyday life by drastically reducing taxes and eliminating regulations on businesses that only meant well, leave the unworthy to their own devices, and let society take its natural course. All would benefit, especially the dependent poor who would learn to stand on their own two feet. "Poor," of course, was one of many conservative code words for "minority."

It's unquestionably true that Reaganism enabled a very few Americans have become obscenely wealthy on the backs of everyone else. But it also encouraged the gut conviction in a huge swath of white voters that anything the federal government does benefits minorities at someone else's expense. And, the right-wing media fosters and reinforces this conviction with an assortment of code words (like "socialist") and the cynical argument that it is liberals and minorities who are the real racists. These voters have become impervious to any argument that the rich are screwing them; rather than blame fellow whites, they'd rather believe that blacks and browns are at fault. This is the true legacy of Reaganism.

The Nation ennobles this repulsive development by blessing it as "populist rage," when in plain fact it is racism, that eternal scourge of the American Dream. Racism has taken a new form wherein the advantaged imagine oppression at the hands of the disenfranchised, but it's racism nonetheless. Psychologically subtle and twisted, perhaps, and galling, but as plain as the sneer on Glenn Beck's face.

Until and unless progressives shift the terrain of the public political dialogue from race to class, they'll have to settle for frustrating incremental gains. Right now, progressives are at a distinct disadvantage: Their most obvious asset -- the president -- symbolizes what Orlando Patterson calls African-American success in the public sphere; his existence contradicts the very idea of racism as most people understand it. Moreover, the right has become adept at throwing the racism argument back in progressive faces: It doesn't have to make sense, it just has to stick and distract, and be constant and loud. The endless pounding of the essentially the same specious comments on news stories and blogs reveals a concentrated effort to accomplish no less than a redefinition of the term "racism." 

I don't know how progressives change the discourse, or even if they can. For starters, though, it would help if those progressives who occupy their time attacking President Obama would figure out that the real enemy is on the right.  But in the end it comes down to this: Too many people in this country would rather be bigoted and anti-intellectual than better off economically. In fact they're proud of it. It's not a pretty picture, but it's what we've become...

Don't miss the Media Matters take on the ridiculous assertion that the Obama DOJ won't investigate black intimidation of white voters...

Robert Reich needs to get out more. He's a good man with an unmatched grasp of policy, but he regularly falls into the progressive trap of believing that good, rational ideas will inevitably carry the day because, as he writes in his Nation article, "...we are a sensible nation." On what does he base this assertion?...

Gosh, what a surprise...

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose...


Roy said...

Racism has always been the elephant in the room in American politics, all the way back to the arguments over the wording in the Declaration of Independence. Part of Robert Reich's starry-eyed optimism is his failure to see the elephant.

Thanks for the Leon Russell; that was great!

K. said...

The voice isn't what it was and he looks like a long lost member of ZZ Top, but he's still Leon. And "This Masquerade" is still a great song.

Reich should know better: He was a Sec'y of Labor and has seen the process up close and ought to know by now that there's nothing rational or sensible about it. But he keeps putting forth great ideas that he is certain would succeed because they are great ideas, and lack only the man or woman to push them.

Darlene said...

How can we change the discourse when the ideologues ignore facts? I recently read a long, but very good, article that stated that when confronted with facts that dispute their arguments it makes the ideologues worse. They just dig in their heels and are more convinced than ever that they are right and that the facts are a Socialist plot to confuse the issue. In other words, don't confuse me with the facts; my mind's made up.

I am beginning to think it will always be thus. Maybe it's a 'right brain' 'left brain' thing. Some people are wired to think a certain way.

K. said...

You have a point, Darlene. The ultimate answer is to out organize them and marginalize them. There is a bloc of voters who are apolitical or truly independent and who will become more and more open to the class argument. The problem is that requires an ideological commitment, which they mistrust and have avoided.

Renegade Eye can explain it better than I can, but the Marxist perspective is that things change when the conditions for revolution are right, which I interpret as getting bad enough. Americans seem to respond only to emergencies, so maybe there's something to that.

Renegade Eye said...

I'd like to see more bloggers write posts as this. There is a need for polemical debate, and theory.

Most people have profoundly conservative lifestyles. They have their routine, and stick to it. What will surprise you, is that this type of conservatism, is the basis of change. There come times, to bring food on the table, protect their family and home, moments when they change their routines, and become actors in history. They become players, and don't rely on professionals as politicians.

Does this happen under the worst conditions? Not really. If it did India, would have a revolution daily.

In the US during the Great Depression, union and Communist Party membership fell to the bottom. As the economy improved, people's confidence rose. In 1934 we saw the start of big strike waves, the formation of the CIO etc.

Biggest changes usually occur during transition periods, say from the start of a new trend in the economy.

Sometimes people become active, as trotsky says, "after getting hit by the whip of counterrevolution." Recent immigrant protests against Arizona's law, are an example.

I hate the leftists in The Nation, Chomsky etc., who talk of the Tea Party activists as representing some progressive rage, or real life fears. Sorry folks, but it's just the Republican Party rebranding itself.

K. said...

Thanks, Ren. This clarifies matters.

There's a fantasy -- at least I think it is -- among elements of the left that conservative blue collar workers can be brought around once they are made aware of their economic exploitation. I think that racism makes this a pipe dream for the reasons I lay out in this post. They know they're being exploited; they'll never accept that whites are doing it.

I have just known too many people who are proud to be bigoted and ignorant to think that we can ever make common cause with them. Prejudice and anti-intellectualism are too deeply rooted in their identities to expect it to change by force of rational argument. When I was younger, I believed otherwise. I don't any more.

Steven said...

"Prejudice and anti-intellectualism are too deeply rooted in their identities to expect it to change by force of rational argument."

Oh, so true! I provoked a 'Flaming' of myself in a Comment section the other day simply by asking a question of a previous commenter.

Okay, I shouldn't hang around the Comment section of some, no, many blogs and I knew it; I see it all of the time...but still I was surprised at the anger I provoked with a question. There was nothing rational about it at all. And it's endemic.

K. said...

I've really pulled back on reading comment sections just because I get depressed. The standard approach is along the lines of accusing someone of making an ad hominem attack just before making an ad hominem attack. Or to call someone a racist, then make a racist remark.

The other one is to carry one about "reading" and knowing "the facts," when it's clear that they get theirs from Fox News and Ann Coulter.

Distributorcap said...


this is a great post

racism is so deeply rooted in this country that it truly affects everything that happens and occurs in the public domain. also deeply rooted in our individual psyches is this feeling of entitlement - we are constantly told and spoon fed that we are an entitled and special nation.

you know what - we arent entitled and we arent that special. the tremendous economic and social gains from the 1860's through the mid 60's were due to hard work, a drive to better our children and improve society. this superiority complex - well i dont know when it came to be, but it was CEMENTED by ronald reagan - when he said cut all taxes and dont take away anything. we really started believing our shit didnt stink and that the rest of the world was the problem, not us.

until we realize that only hard work and some sort of accomodtion with the rest of the planet is our best interest (not thinking the oil in the middle east is our oil and invading countries at a whim becuase they scare us) we will continue to march to the abyss.

K. said...

Thanks, DC. One thing about being a southern liberal is that you know in your bones that race lurks behind every ugly impulse in American life.

I'm not an expert in American Exceptionalism by any means. I would guess that the roots lie in Manifest Destiny, began to flower after the Spanish-American War, and became a matter of fact (to Americans) after WW2. We stumbled badly in Vietnam, then Reagan came along to tell people what they wanted to hear about odorless American defecations. The sad thing is how counterproductive it is.

The other things that fueled growth during the period you reference were geographic isolation that protected us from invasion; a huge reserve of natural resources relative to the size of the population; and, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, periods of open immigration.