Activists often invoke a fear of "selling out" to keep followers in line
For my last Times column I did some cursory research on other movements, besides abolition, and some of the tactics. I got through quite a bit of Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy's Sell-Out: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, which is a semi-defense of ostracism as a political weapon.
A quick nugget:
During the Civil Rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s leading black figures constantly addressed themselves to what they saw as the problem of racial betrayal by complacency, collaboration and outright treachery. Fannie Lou Hamer declared that the champions of black empowerment had to "stop the Toms" from selling out. "I don't believe in killing," she remarked, "but a god whipping behind the bushes wouldn't hurt them."
Malcolm X asserted that "just as the slave-master used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slave master today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms--twentieth century Uncle Toms-to keep you and me in check,": "There are Negroes," Martin Luther King Jr., complained, "who will never fight for freedom. There are Negroes who will seek profit for themselves alone from the struggle. There are even some Negroes who will co-operate with their oppressors."
In Montgomery, during the bus boycott, the talk actually got quite real:
The boycott is typically portrayed an entirely voluntary enterprise in which the heroes of the story wage their struggle against racist villains without morally soiling their hands at all. The reality, however, was considerably more complicated. The boycott was mainly animated by the commitment of many blacks to reform, if not erase, patterns of racial subordination that they rightly abhorred.
It is important to note, however, that the boycott was also reinforce by the knowledge that any black person caught riding the buses would face ostracism from his peers. He or she would be denounced as a sellout--or words to that effect. Tha the fear of reprisal acted as a coercive influence is no mere speculation. A number of blacks who sought to ride despite the boycott testified in court proceedings that they were physically harassed or intimidated by supporters of the strike.
As it turns out, extraordinarily few African Americans rode the buses. More would have evaded the boycott, however, had they not feared the cost of attempting to do so. This slive of black Montgomery would have included Negroes who either opposed the boycott on ideological grounds or opposed being enlisted in a strike by which they did not want to be inconvenienced. These blacks have largely been airbrushed from the public memory of the boycott. But they did exist and should be taken into account.
A couple of reactions. First, one reason why, as a child, I wasn't much interested in the Civil Rights movement is because it was always presented as a kind of holier than thou moral play. Black history, at least in the schools, existed mainly as clunky "You Can Do It" inspirational rhetoric. I often joke that I know I'm in a hood school because there's a lot of inspirational sloganeering around "success," "achievement," and "winning." At my old middle school they actually organized us into "teams" named after heroes of black history--the Woodson team, the King team, the Garvey team, the Booker T team etc. I was on the Marshall Team. On the rafters of my hall there was a slogan that went something like, "It is by choice not chance, that we choose to enhance, the Marshall Team. We can achieve. We will achieve..." and so on.
The point was to make black history utilitarian, and applicable to our education. The strategy was not wrong, but with it came this sense that we walked in the path of infallible Gods. No one talked about, say, Garvey dismissing the NAACP as the "National Association for the Advancement of Certain People." Or Fannie Lou Hamer talking cracking some Uncle Toms head.
I don't even know that that sort of thing is appropriate for middle school kids, but my point is that the narrative of black super-morality never connected with me. The people just never really seemed human, so much as they seemed like rather divinely passive reactions to white racism. The Montgomery boycott is the perfect example. The way it was told to us, sheer magic and Christian spirit made the boycott work. Castigation and intimidation surely would have doomed it. Except any deep study of activist and activism always reveals moments like this, moments that cut against the narrative of victory through pure moral force.
The funny thing is even while these more human portraits attract
me, they actually point out why I am ill-suited to radical activism or
activism. In re-reading Douglass's denunciations of Lincoln last week, I
couldn't help but feel that sometimes, they were really unfair. And
yet, leaving aside the fact that I have never lived as a slave, I don't
know that it's the job of any activist to be "fair." It almost seems
"unfair" to ask radicals to function in a moral universe where no other
humans, especially those with power, tend to live. I strongly suspect
that any serious history on Mandella's ANC will find the exact sort of
behavior, if not behavior that's even more complicated.
yet, while being convinced by Kennedy's defense, there is not a single
African-American in the world who I feel comfortable disparaging as a
sell-out or a Tom. Indeed, I've never liked Malcolm's "house slave/field
slave" comparison. I couldn't see myself physically threaten someone
for riding the bus, if only because, I'm very much an individualist. I
understand why these tactics existed, but I recoiled while reading about
them. I think about gay rights activist outing conservatives who
support anti-gay policies. I recoil at that too. But I'm not an
activist. Nor is it really my fight.
listening to a lot of lectures on Napoleon and the French Revolution. I
think I would have been with Burke. And yet, the Revolution was good,
The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed.
The strangest part about the continued personality cult of Robert E. Lee is how few of the qualities his admirers profess to see in him he actually possessed.
Memorial Day has the tendency to conjure up old arguments about the Civil War. That’s understandable; it was created to mourn the dead of a war in which the Union was nearly destroyed, when half the country rose up in rebellion in defense of slavery. This year, the removal of Lee’s statue in New Orleans has inspired a new round of commentary about Lee, not to mention protests on his behalf by white supremacists.
The myth of Lee goes something like this: He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.
Charlottesville marks a new era of even bolder assertion of the right to threaten violence for political purposes.
It could have been so much worse.
Like ISIS attackers in Europe, the Charlottesville murderer used a car as his assault weapon. But Charlottesville this past weekend was crammed with anti-social personalities carrying sub-military firearms. It could just as easily have been one—or more—of those gun-carriers who made the decision to kill. If so, Americans might this week be mourning not one life lost to an attack, but dozens.
As recently as 2009, the nation retained a capacity to be shocked when individuals carried weapons to political events. Such was the case in Phoenix, Arizona, on August 18, 2009:
A man toting an assault rifle was among a dozen protesters carrying weapons while demonstrating outside President Obama's speech to veterans on Monday, but no laws were broken. It was the second instance in recent days in which weapons have been seen near presidential events.
If the president is concerned about violence on the left, he can start by fighting the white supremacist movements whose growth has fueled its rise.
In his Tuesday press conference, Donald Trump talked at length about what he called “the alt left.” White supremacists, he claimed, weren’t the only people in Charlottesville last weekend that deserved condemnation. “You had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” he declared. “Nobody wants to say that.”
I can say with great confidence that Trump’s final sentence is untrue. I can do so because the September issue of TheAtlantic contains an essay of mine entitled “The Rise of the Violent Left,” which discusses the very phenomenon that Trump claims “nobody wants” to discuss. Trump is right that, in Charlottesville and beyond, the violence of some leftist activists constitutes a real problem. Where he’s wrong is in suggesting that it’s a problem in any way comparable to white supremacism.
The scientists are all talking like it’s a sure thing.
On August 21, the “moon” will pass between the Earth and the sun, obscuring the light of the latter. The government agency NASA says this will result in “one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights.” The astronomers there claim to have calculated down to the minute exactly when and where this will happen, and for how long. They have reportedly known about this eclipse for years, just by virtue of some sort of complex math.
This seems extremely unlikely. I can’t even find these eclipse calculations on their website to check them for myself.
Meanwhile the scientists tell us we can’t look at it without special glasses because “looking directly at the sun is unsafe.”
Anti-Semitic logic fueled the violence over the weekend, no matter what the president says.
The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was ostensibly about protecting a statue of Robert E. Lee. It was about asserting the legitimacy of “white culture” and white supremacy, and defending the legacy of the Confederacy.
So why did the demonstrators chant anti-Semitic lines like “Jews will not replace us”?
The demonstration was suffused with anti-black racism, but also with anti-Semitism. Marchers displayed swastikas on banners and shouted slogans like “blood and soil,” a phrase drawn from Nazi ideology. “This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers,” one demonstrator told Vice News’ Elspeth Reeve during their march. As Jews prayed at a local synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, men dressed in fatigues carrying semi-automatic rifles stood across the street, according to the temple’s president. Nazi websites posted a call to burn their building. As a precautionary measure, congregants had removed their Torah scrolls and exited through the back of the building when they were done praying.
President Trump, forced to choose between working with business leaders and espousing white identity politics, has chosen the latter.
Updated on August 16 at 3:59 p.m.
While Donald Trump is on vacation, there are major renovations going on in the West Wing. Perhaps they’ll alter plans and include a portcullis and a moat, because the White House is under siege.
The president is once again facing loud denunciation (though so far little else) from members of his own party. Vice President Pence is cutting short an overseas trip and returning home to an administration in crisis. And Wednesday afternoon, the president announced he was pulling the plug on a manufacturing council and a strategy and policy forum, both comprised of business leaders, after a spree of defections in reaction to Trump’s handling of violence in Charlottesville.
Antifa’s activists say they’re battling burgeoning authoritarianism on the American right. Are they fueling it instead?
Since 1907, Portland, Oregon, has hosted an annual Rose Festival. Since 2007, the festival had included a parade down 82nd Avenue. Since 2013, the Republican Party of Multnomah County, which includes Portland, had taken part. This April, all of that changed.
In the days leading up to the planned parade, a group called the Direct Action Alliance declared, “Fascists plan to march through the streets,” and warned, “Nazis will not march through Portland unopposed.” The alliance said it didn’t object to the Multnomah GOP itself, but to “fascists” who planned to infiltrate its ranks. Yet it also denounced marchers with “Trump flags” and “red maga hats” who could “normalize support for an orange man who bragged about sexually harassing women and who is waging a war of hate, racism and prejudice.” A second group, Oregon Students Empowered, created a Facebook page called “Shut down fascism! No nazis in Portland!”
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
Frederick Douglass’s 1866 essay for The Atlantic on how Congress can cope with a chief executive who refuses to recognize the rights of all citizens
By December of 1866, the Civil War was over, but the conflict that would define the nature of the United States of America was not close to finished. Encouraged by President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat sympathetic to their aims, the former Confederate states had eagerly subjected the newly freed slaves to the Black Codes, laws confining them to inferior status and second-class citizenship, denying them votes, citizenship and even freedom of movement, while armed groups of whites attacked them with impunity. In vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Johnson insisted that the law protecting the freedmen’s rights was in fact “made to operate in favor of the colored against the white race.”
In a rebuke to Johnson, his party fared poorly in the November 1866 election, and the newly strengthened Republicans vowed to protect the freedmen's rights. Before the new Congress took office, the former slave and abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass urged the Republican Party to defy the president by protecting the fundamental rights of black Americans and shielding them from the violence of the former Confederates.
The president used a narrow condemnation of neo-Nazis to mount a defense of the politics of white resentment.
President Trump’s short press conference Tuesday afternoon was remarkable for seeming cogent. In so many of his public statements Trump wanders, free-associates, digresses, and seems either incapable or uninterested in piecing together complete sentences. The fact that he didn’t seem to be improvising made his defense of some of those who participated in a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, more important.
It was the clearest and most precise articulation of a view that Trump has espoused since the start of his political career. The president worked to draw a fine distinction between different elements of the march, and in the process to rescue his own vision of pride in white America from being tarnished from association with neo-Nazis. Trump mounted a defense of a political movement rooted in pride about Confederate symbols and white heritage by seeking to disassociate it from its more extreme elements.