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Jairus Victor Grove
Co-Editor, The Contemporary Condition
The past few weeks have been very educational. Bill O’Reilly insisted that all Muslims are responsible for 9/11 only to be told that he should ‘moderate’ his remarks. A Move On activist was slammed against a curb for questioning Rand Paul’s integrity. Tea Bagger Judson Philips is openly campaigning against his Democratic opponent’s Muslim faith, and one of John Boener’s fellow Ohio Republicans vociferously defended spending his weekends imitating a Nazi SS Trooper. The Tea Party more generally has continued its open hostility towards Americans and migrants that are not Anglo-Saxon and apparently, and is not aware or not in support of the First Amendment.
So here is what I have learned so far. Judson has carefully explained that all Muslims are dangerous because the Qu’ran approves of killing infidels (apparently Judson did not read the part of the Bible that says people should be stoned for mixing crops or taking the Lord’s name in vain and most of all for worshiping other gods). O’Reilly made the same defense of his comments on The View, arguing that it was a violent religion and that his statement was an ‘indisputable fact.’ O’Reilly demanded of a flustered Joy and Whoopie “what religion were the 9/11 attackers then?” suggesting that if 9/11 attackers were Muslims ergo all Muslims attacked us on 9/11. Barbara Walters promptly admonished her colleagues and calmly told O’Reilly he needed to refer to them as extremist Muslims. In the entire discussion that followed no one thought to ask why such tempers were flying over a moderate Muslim community center (not a mosque) when the United States was negotiating a massive and unprecedented arms transfer to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is Osama Bin Ladin’s country of origin and a state that champions intolerant and violent interpretations of Islam.
But we have heard this all before. The Right’s racism is unfounded and irrational. No one reading this post will change their minds about Islam simply because I point out that the Jewish and Christian Bible has just as many demands for violent punishment and killing. So is this just the rehearsed Left response? The Right does something offensive, those of us on the Left notice and bemoan it? I don’t think so. Something has changed. The Right and the particularly loud figureheads of the Tea Baggers are not just being ‘politically incorrect.’ They represent a new racism.
For those of you that like to kick it old school, don’t worry. The old racism has not gone anywhere. It will continue to find its expression in the arbitrary enforcement of drug and gun laws, the increasingly privatized prison-industrial-complex, and neoliberal bootstrapping narratives that blame the underclass for their near permanent state of despair. What is different and worth thinking about more is why these same modes of structural violence are not sufficient or to put it another way, are not satisfying for the Tea Bagger’s demographic. Fear, anger, insecurity, are not new to various classes of white voters that have felt for decades that they have been left behind by the promise of American prosperity and ignored by mainstream politics. So is the fever pitch of violence and vocal expression of heretofore unspeakable racism simply the result of the recent economic decline? Is the recent economic decline the tipping point for the downward trend of wages for the last twenty-five years or is there something else adding affective fuel to the fire?
I would suggest that what is going on here is exacerbated or enabled by the ‘near enemy’ of the 2008 derivatives debacle. However there are other major operators in the mix of the ascendent and increasingly normative racism expressed by Judson Phillips and Bill O’Reilly. The evangelical-neoliberal resonance machine that seemed so badly beaten in the 2008 election was merely bruised not bowed. In fact the hostility against non-white immigrants, Muslims, gays, liberals, scientists, academics etc is all too familiar to those of us who closely watched the Palin rallies during the last Presidential election. Is history simply repeating itself? Is it back from the dead like some kind of seasonally appropriate zombie?
No. Something has changed. What was publicly retracted, muffled, cut out of broadcasts, expressed only in ‘misspoken’ words (think George Allen’s Macaca comment) has found a public legitimacy that has crossed the thin line between word and deed. The assault of Lauren Valle is not likely to be an aberration. In Bill O’Reilly’s words, “Muslims attacked us on 9/11.” As cynical as I was of Bush’s plea to Americans to distinguish between terrorism and Islam, I have come to miss those days. It is no longer necessary to apologize for that conflation. In Judson’s case it can be your campaign platform. The return of the evangelical-neoliberal resonance machine has left behind its compassionate conservative voice and found a new militancy. To borrow one of neoliberalism’s favorite words, there is a fresh crop of violent entrepreneurs that make O’Reilly seem ‘mainstream.’ Therefore the possibility of a Tea Bagger caucus in the House of Representatives is not just irritating, it is dangerous. It means an audience of like-minded Congresspeople that believe in war. The cultural wars of the 80s and 90s were at best a low intensity conflict in comparison. Newt Gingrich and William Bennett may have been a preview of part of this resonance machine’s agenda but that tactics are being taken to a whole new level.
There was an initial first response in me that chalked up the comments of Tea Baggers as gaffs and enjoyable gaffs. There was a satisfaction in seeing people say what I knew they were thinking. Growing up in Texas there was always a difference in what could be said in the locker room, in protected social engagements, at church or at home, and what could be said in public. It was unmannered or unrefined to be too open about your superiority. Racist jokes, slurs, violent depictions of difference were shared openly amongst ‘friends’ and shared again in glances and unspoken behavior elsewhere.
So isn’t this better? Once in the free market place of ideas won’t these ignorant rednecks simply be humiliated by the voices of democratic reason? I don’t think so. While ‘covert’ racism and hostility are certainly not good, the expanding comfort zone where these ideas can find expression is cause for worry – not an opportunity for more debate. When issues like the significance of gay suicide or the legitimacy of racism become ‘debatable’ we have already ceded too much ground.
These ideas are toxic to even the deepest pluralism because they begin from the premise and emotional commitment that pluralism is the enemy. These discussion are not brought to forums such as CNN or The View for reasoned debate or invitational discussion. They are a provocation of war to sort friends and enemies.
As noble and recently defeated Republican House member Bob Inglis discovered after condemning Glen Beck’s racist remarks against President Obama, breaking rank carries immediate party consequences, and therefore electoral consequences. In the case of Inglis it was not crossing party leadership that lead to his downfall but engaging one of the resonance machine’s most terrifying entrepreneurs. Beck began referring to Inglis as ‘African-American’ to signal to his viewers that Inglis was a race traitor. A conservative Republican and self-described ‘proud Southerner’ Inglis said he could ‘feel’ the racist vitriol during the primary that lead to his landslide defeat by Tea Bagger Trey Gowdy. A 71% victory for Gowdy in a primary against an incumbent of his own party is unusual to say the least. What changed in Inglis’ platform? Was he found with a dead girl or a live boy? No. His crime was not standing idly by while racism blossomed in his party.
The Tea Baggers are not interlocutors. I have coached competitive college and high school debate for over a decade and just about the only thing that cannot be debated is whether your opponent has the right to speak or participate. Once argument becomes a prelude, bait, for the recording of black lists and the identification of ‘high value targets,’ the cynicism has become terminal. Politics has given way to war.
Does this mean the electoral process is dead? That all that is left is to take to the streets? Absolutely not, but if violent racism and homophobia become acceptable topics of reasoned debate then public reason is little more than a thin veneer of manners soon to give way to something much darker. Every opportunity must be seized to prevent electoral success, but even that, while necessary, will not be sufficient. The Left needs to engender a new militancy of its own. It cannot merely mimic the exclusionary tactics of the Right, we cannot simply grab out apiece of the hate pie. More militant pluralists must intervene at every level of practice from faculty meetings, media outlets, and bar discussions to set the terms of what is sayable and what is not.
There is also the ‘near enemy’ to attend to. People have reason to feel insecure and afraid. Economic justice cannot be the democratic agenda only when it is convenient. The market will not save us and while I am the first to insist on pluralizing connections with those who would struggle with us, those committed to the neoliberal order of growth and the cruel austerity measures that are imposed on the most vulnerable when that system fails are not part of that coalition. In fact rather than looking to the ‘generous’ wings of the democratic party we are more likely to find opportunities for coalitions amongst those religious folk who are alienated by the new fury of the resonance machine then amongst those who would rather tolerate fascism than give up on market based solutions. These are fragile times and we cannot wait for a market miracle to turn down the heat on the pressure cooker.