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The Ailing Left and the Geopolitics of Cruelty

In the six years since I started this blog, I have tried to render upsetting social and political events in abstract terms and subject them to some level of analysis. Last year, for instance, I wrote a bit arguing that by showing that he was sexually violent and abusive to his daughter Donald Trump’s was successful in portraying himself as an omnipotent strongman figure to his base. I want to continue with that theme and unite it with some of my observations about the institutional failure of Canadian left politics at present.

But in doing so, I want to simplify things. My ability to wrap syllables and analysis around hard realities is sometimes useful. But sometimes it distances us too much from the horror we face and the simplicity of the problem before us. Great work has been done to re-legitimate the word “lie” after decades of obfuscating terms like “mis-statement,” “alternative facts” and “journalistic balance.” I would like us to do more with another necessary word: cruelty.

Simply put, our problem is that every day, more and more people in our societies embrace cruelty and other people’s suffering as a necessary moral good. And that, readers, is, in my estimation, evil.

 

The reason Americans have chosen a confessed rapist and proud child molester to lead the greatest empire the world has ever known is because the ascendant social and political movements, in state after state, around the world, are those that celebrate cruelty and the infliction of suffering on others.

There have been many devastating consequences of pragmatic socialists aligning with liberal utilitarians over the past half-century, from the Third Way (neoliberalism with a human face) to the conflation of socialist thought with a nebulous, incoherent progressivism, to the replacement of socialist internationalism with foreign policy Taoism. But perhaps the most devastating is this: people who have believed themselves to live in an unjust society, who feel the palpable injustice of neoliberalism with its bloodless technocracy, heritable privilege and collision course with the carbon cycle have been offered nothing by the left. No large-scale leftist political movement has stated with clarity “this social order is fundamentally unjust and must be replaced with a just one.”

Instead we, on the left have offered short-term tactical alliances, strategic retreats and technocratic fixes. We have been so focused on trying to save the vestiges of the twentieth-century Keynesian welfare state that we have become the defenders of the status quo, promising desperate people that, with us as junior partners, things will get worse slower.

As a result, we have stood back and given free rein to the worst forces in our societies to offer the only theory of fairness on offer. By submerging socialism in liberal utilitarian discourse, colloquially known as “progressivism,” we have quit the field. We have chosen not to offer any competition to those saying “everything is fucked. The world is just as unfair as you feel it is. We must take drastic action to change everything.” At the very moment when climate science tells us unambiguously that this is actually the only position an intellectually responsible person can take, we continue to offer incremental change that no one is looking for.

So, who is saying that? Those speaking with the most clarity on this issue are American conservative evangelicals and Salafists. They have a simple message: God is trying to punish people. He is trying to scourge humanity and the institutions that comprise twentieth-century states are standing in the way. There are too many earthquake survivors, too many cancer survivors, too many people living through famines and droughts, too few homeless people freezing to death, too few asylum-seekers drowning on the high seas. The consequences of climate change have been effortlessly repurposed by these movements. Droughts, famines, floods and fires are God’s traditional tools for scourging the unjust and the just alike. And once again, government stands in the way, thwarting God’s judgement at every turn.

Day after day, I read well-intentioned but confused liberals and socialists on social media bewildered that Trump’s supporters are so foolish as to think that Obamacare’s repeal will make things better. Such a position arises from a failure of imagination about what “better” can mean, the inability to understand that the way its repeal will make things better will be by causing more people to die, people who should already be dead, were it not for the hubris of Barack Obama to try and interpose the state between God and his judgement.

Such a worldview is cruel. The theory of fairness that is on offer is that God is trying to punish us and we, arrogantly, are trying to dodge that punishment. But, at the same moment, it is altruistic. Many of the people fighting to repeal current US healthcare law or keep their town in the hands of ISIL or the Lord’s Resistance Army or Boko Haram are willing to sacrifice their own lives in the name of this monstrous theory of justice. People are willing to lay down their own lives to make sure that there is more suffering and death in the world, in accordance with God’s plan.

Not only does the contemporary mainstream left fail to validate the feelings of those who believe the world is fundamentally unfair and must be reordered to restore justice, it also rejects the efforts of people who wish to be heroes—valiant people who have that intuitive consciousness of the injustice of the present order. The world is, and always has been, full of people who are willing to put everything on the line to fight evil. There are incipient heroes in every family, in every neighbourhood, town and village. Many people have been surprised by the thousands who put their bodies on the line at Standing Rock last year, the thousands who faced off against the state in the streets in the early days of the Trump regime. Many people were stunned by the Syria-wide protests against a monstrous, homicidal regime following the bombing of Aleppo. I was not.

The problem is that the mainstream electoral left has a place for you if you can represent yourself as a victim, an aspiring technocrat or a classically liberal rational actor and benefit-maximizer, and, ideally all three, if you care to look at the BC NDP’s candidate selection procedures. But what about people who want to denounce injustice, call out evil for what it is, and march out into the streets to challenge it? The fascist movements around us are winning because they have a place for those people and we do not. The leftist mobilization we have seen in recent months has taken place in spite of the prevailing thinking of the left, not because of it.

Our present political moment arises from the fact that there is only one compelling narrative for vanquishing injustice that people are being offered. And it is the one that celebrates cruelty, that eggs on climate change, that revels in torture, that cheers “LET HIM DIE!!! LET HIM DIE!!!!” like that 2012 Republican primary debate audience when candidates were asked about the uninsured. In opposition to this, we offer an imagined past of tolerant twentieth-century welfare states, accommodation with global capital and the investor class, investor rights regimes like the EU and NAFTA, and small-scale technocratic change, provided the investor class gets its cut.

It is a testament to the fundamental decency of the human race that, in democracies around the world, a slim majority continues to reject the politics of cruelty and conservative religio-political eschatology. In the absence of a visionary left, that decency is all that is holding human civilization in place.

Did the Survivor Vote Swing the Election for Trump?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump vote at PS 59 in New York, New York, U.S. November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX2SKKG

There has been a lot of talk about how Donald Trump won over so many white women in his campaign. The general narrative is, and I am not saying it is untrue, that, for American women, white supremacy trumped female solidarity. I am sure that is the case. But it is useful to think about the other things that might also be true, truths that function synergistically with this one.

A terrifyingly large proportion of people in America have had sex to which they did not consent by the time they turn eighteen. It is just shy of a majority of women and as many as one in six men. And the Trump campaign telegraphed their candidate’s propensity—perhaps even preference for—non-consensual sex, especially given that his main rebuttal of the “grab them by the pussy” tape was to suggest his accusers were too ugly to have been the women he actually assaulted. Similarly, the campaign did the opposite of disabusing the public of the notion that at least one of his daughters grew up having sex with him, something to which he has alluded in multiple interviews over the decades.

What is, as I suggested in my piece on Trump’s preference for incestuous relations, this was an intelligent and rational piece of campaigning.

As we learn—but never accept—in countless failed rape prosecutions, people who have been sexually violated, especially people who have been sexually violated by adults as children do not reliably say “no.” They do not reliably ostracize their accuser or reject his future overtures. They do not reliably resist further infringements on their bodies, dignity and sense of self. That is because one of the most powerful lessons a survivor of sexual abuse learns is this: their abuser is all-powerful and nobody will help them. Even if unlikely help eventually arrives in the person of the state or a concerned relative, it is often too late to unlearn that fundamental lesson about what it means to survive: one’s only hope for safety is to curry favour with one’s abuser. In this way, Trump is the epitome of the abuser: no matter what happens, he is too rich, too powerful, too dangerous, a man totally above the law and impervious to shame or social disapproval.

What survivors have also learned from the failed rape prosecutions in our media is that a survivor needs to fashion a public image of themselves that either denies their past experience or portrays them as a Lifetime Network TV movie hero-victim, for whom sexual violence and abuse has been a crucible, forging them into an implacable warrior against their abuser and the system supporting him. The majority of survivors who have become more vulnerable, more involuntarily compliant, more calculating, dissembling and fearful are viewed as reprehensible beings to be derided or attacked for currying favour with past abusers or consenting to further abuse.

What if the Trump campaign activated this? What if this is what undergirds his decisive victory among white women is this? What if the more his violent, predatory monstrosity was displayed, the more it began being refracted through the emboldened misogyny of men in their own space, America’s survivors intensified their performance of divided selfhood. Trump, in a way, became the biggest, most inescapable sexual assailant imaginable. In all the ways that a child sees a sexually predatory adult as omnipresent and omnipotent, Trump actually was, his face on every TV screen, his words coming out of the mouths of so many proximate men, like the eponymous priests of ancient Egypt, embodying America’s fascist, rapist god-man.

For most survivors, the way forward would be clear: dissemble and comply. Somehow your abuser will know if you tried to thwart him. In all likelihood, your abuser wants you to generate a narrative that you have consented, that he has done nothing wrong. Ultimately, the greatest performances of domination are the ones that inspire feigned consent. What if the moment, America’s survivors placed their hands on that lever, they felt their omnipresent, omnipotent abuser leaning over the flimsy cardboard privacy partition, their eyes full of malice, and knew what they must do to survive another day?

An Open Letter to Thomas Monson, Prophet, Seer and Revelator of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Dear Sir:

Remember back in 2008 and 2009 how America’s liberals, progressives and socialists were mightily peeved at your sponsorship and conduct of California’s notorious Proposition Eight, the initiative that sought to kill same-sex marriage in the state? Remember how mad we all were at the way you seemed to tear down the First Amendment and dance upon it as you not only sponsored the campaign but explicitly ordered your congregants to set aside their own judgement and conscience and instead follow your directives to ban same-sex marriage?

When the Church defended itself against these highly legitimate grievances, the Brethren suggested that the campaign might well have been the result of a revelation from the Lord, revealed to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as part of the charge to promote the Proclamation on the Family as just short of latter-day scripture. Nevertheless, you guys seemed to have learned your lesson and decided never to meddle so directly in US politics again. A year ago, I would have said, thank you for finding the maturity and decency to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s.

Today, I say, forget all that! Unlearn your lessons! Never mind about Proposition Eight and all the people you hurt; the courts sorted that out in the end! Meddle in your nation’s presidential politics! Meddle like it’s 1844!

Remember that plan Joseph Smith was assassinated trying to pull off, how he was going to deadlock the Electoral College by winning one state in a three-way race and use that to get stuff done? This can’t be a totally bad plan. It was your founding prophet’s after all, likely one bestowed by divine revelation. My guess is that if you inquire sincerely of the Lord, after some prayer and fasting, he may let you know that plan is, once again, a “go.”

And I am confident that, if on Sunday morning, an emergency Church Educational System bulletin were to invite Mormons throughout the state of Utah to concur with the Brethren in granting the state’s six electoral college delegates to Evan McMullin, that would probably get done  Donald Trump is, after all, as the Deseret News editorial board, stated “evil” and completely unfit for any position of public trust. He is a clear and present danger to America and to the world at large.

I’m pretty sure there is a non-canonical prophecy about faithful LDS members emerging from the mountains to save the Constitution at America’s hour of greatest need. You know the one I mean. Maybe there is something to that after all. If there is, there is much that the American people will have to thank you for next week.

Yours truly,

 

Stuart Parker,

Former Joseph Smith Seminar Fellow of the Mormon Scholars Foundation

Winning Like Samuel Tilden: Trump, Violence and Voter Suppression

Stop saying this current US election cannot be rigged. It’s a trap. Donald Trump is projecting. He is rigging the election.

There is an unacceptable amount of gloating going on among opponents of Trump right now, all centred on the idea that Trump and his cronies have been outfoxed, outwitted and are now flailing around desperately without the vaguest plan for winning the election. The New York Times, the 538, the Guardian and other media keep stating that Trump has “no path to victory” and that his incessant claims that the election has been rigged are evidence that he knows this.

But let us consider for a moment that these claims of election rigging are the centrepiece of a path to victory that has nearly worked in the US on occasions in the past and has been highly effective in electing the kind of leader Trump wishes to be, a kind of Third World strongman, as opposed to a US president bound by conventional checks and balances.

Let us consider the two acknowledged effects of Trump’s constant refrain of election-rigging:

  1. It is causing both Republicans and Democrats to close ranks and state, in advance, that they will immediately and unequivocally accept the results of the election.
  2. It is assisting Trump in recruiting a growing paramilitary force of “poll watchers” and “election observers,” who will be deployed, with guns, to areas where there is a substantial concentration of non-white voters.

Trump, furthermore, has focused his accusations of voter fraud in ways that specifically target black and Latino voters. His rhetoric has talked about “different communities,” “you know who I mean,” and claimed that the main forms of voter fraud will be black Americans in “inner cities” voting multiple times and casting votes on behalf of the dead and illegal immigrants who are being waved through the US-Mexico border and being immediately permitted to vote in close states.

Even without a specific order to commit violent acts, Trump’s army of second-amendment activist poll watchers will, almost certainly, produce some violent conflicts. If they begin to harass non-white voters even non-violently, their presence might well engender violent reactions and ad hoc responses by armed young men from the communities they are attempting to intimidate. With as many as 15,000 Trump poll-watchers already signed up and with numbers increasing daily as their candidate exhorts them to come out and stop the alleged theft of the election, America can look forward with certainty to, at least, some polling places erupting into violence.

That is probably why Trump is sending his poll-watchers to the least white, most densely populated places. The hope is not for orderly voting but for rioting, for his disorganized paramilitary to bring not order to voting but such disorder as to require the intervention of law enforcement and the consequent shuttering of polling stations.

For those who watch elections run by de facto dictator strongmen like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, we know what happens next: in order to restore public order, voting at that polling place is terminated and the voters are dispersed, in order to maintain public order. In a Zimbabwean election, ZANU-PF thugs go from one polling place to another and precipitate rioting and armed conflict, requiring that polling abruptly end in opposition strongholds before even half the votes there are cast. With no alternative place for opposition supporters to vote, massive vote suppression is achieved in the name of public order.

And what choice would local officials have, except to shut down polling places if people there were being shot, if there were rioting, if shop windows were breaking and businesses burning? The duty of law enforcement would be clear. And it is useful, at this point, to remember that in most places where Trump is mobilizing poll watchers, state law enforcement is being run by Republican governors and legislatures. Sudden and massive suppression of the non-white vote would coincide with the interests of local Republican candidates and, in the case of North Carolina, a Republican governor facing probable defeat without some kind of game-changing last-minute shift.

It is in this light that we should re-evaluate what appear, at present, to be Republican condemnations of Trump’s election-rigging rhetoric. “It is impossible to rig this election,” GOP officials in Ohio and elsewhere are telling us. There appears to be a sudden national consensus that no fraud or rigging can take place and that election night results should be immediately accepted, even if, for instance, law enforcement officers had been forced to shut down voting in Philadelphia, Miami or Columbus, even if tens or hundreds of thousands of black and Latino votes were prevented from being cast, votes that might sway the outcome in states that currently seem just outside Trump’s reach.

What if, after spending a month gloating about how we have manipulated Trump into walking into our trap, we are, in fact, walking into his by promising immediate concession in the event of election night defeat and declaring large-scale rigging impossible? While it may well be that even with substantial election day violence, America’s unwieldy popular front anti-fascist coalition of neoliberals, socialists and everything in between will still triumph, let us not confuse our opposition’s impulsivity with stupidity as we did when the fascists arose at the end of the last Gilded Age. Hitler’s and Mussolini’s thugs were figures of fun and their leaders impulsive fools incapable of achieving the great evil to which they aspired, right up until the moment they won.

Nor is this sort of thing unheard-of in America. The “Solid South” was born in the 1876 election, before the discriminatory, racist poll taxes, grandfather clauses and the like were placed in the election laws of the former Confederacy. In 1876, the irregulars who were never fully demobilized from the Confederate army in 1865, re-emerged as a paramilitary force known as the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that has endorsed Trump and is actively campaigning for him this election.

When the Klan emerged onto the national stage, it did so as a force that used the very tactics to which I refer: voter intimidation, violent assaults on black voters, inducement of rioting and social disorder at poling places. They did so in support of the Democratic candidate for president, Samuel Tilden of New York. Through widespread violence against black voters, they flipped the states of North Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas from Republican to Democrat, inaugurating the Solid South and ending Reconstruction, an era initially created not through Jim Crow segregationist laws but through extra-legal paramilitary violence.

It may be that Hillary Clinton’s margin is too wide, that too many votes will have been cast before election day, that states not targeted by Trump’s election observer brown shirts will be sufficient to provide Clinton with the 270 electoral votes she requires. But it is foolish to suggest that Trump has no plan for rescuing his campaign. And ultimately, as an admirer of fascists, thugs and political strongmen the world over, a Tildenesque victory is one that is more aesthetically appealing to him in any case. So let us be vigilant. Donald Trump is a madman, not a fool.

Being Godlike in America: Incest, Impunity and the Presentation of Trump’s Autocratic Credentials

At the height of the gulag, purges, death squads and Ukrainian famine, Joseph Stalin’s underlings approached him about a deeply worrying concern that might imperil the regime. Reports were coming in from everywhere that most Russians believed that the vast majority of people who were being executed or sent to Siberia were innocent of any crimes against the USSR.

But Stalin reassured them. It was not merely inevitable that most Russians would realize that those being murdered, imprisoned, tortured and shamed were innocent. It was necessary. For totalitarianism to succeed, it was necessary for citizens to fundamentally alter their understanding of the state and its leader. Whereas every Russian emperor from 1454 to 1917 had been heir to the title of Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, “equal to the Apostles and God’s vice-gerent on earth,” Stalin had to do better, to exceed this status in his project of remaking Russian society in his image. It was not enough to be God’s agent; he had to be a god himself.

God, Stalin reasoned, based on a clear understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy theology and scripture, could be clearly recognized as distinct from mortals because his mortal servants were sent to punish the guilty and the unjust. God, as revealed in the Book of Job and countless other scriptural narratives, was the sole moral agent who possessed the right to punish the innocent and just. And only being god-like could Stalin, with a tiny fraction of the resources, population and allies of the capitalist empires he stared down, possibly prevail.

Whereas liberal capitalism was advancing a political theory in which any adult person might be entitled to govern a state and mete out its laws in a fair and moral fashion, Stalin offered an opposing theory, one rooted in the origins of the Russian state and its antecedents, the Byzantine Empire and the Khanate of the Golden Horde. Whereas the rulers of the capitalist, liberal West were to be understood as “first among equals,” men entitled to no more and no less than their fellow citizens, Stalin would present himself and his deceased predecessor, Lenin, as ontologically distinct from mere human beings.

And so Stalin set about doing god-like things: persecuting his children, terrorizing his allies, engaging in unspeakable atrocities, carelessly and pointlessly murdering millions as though they were straw dogs. It is in this light that we must understand actions that appear to have hobbled the Russian economy, political system and even Russia’s physical environment. No mere man could conduct himself in such a terrifying, incomprehensible, unspeakable fashion. Stalin, people concluded, must be something more.

It is in this light that we must approach the Donald Trump campaign.

Donald Trump is a man uninterested in serving as America’s president, engaged in a constant, endless process of technocratic compromise, negotiation and brokerage, the very thing craved by his opponent. Trump is not running for that job and has no interest in it. Trump is running for Stalin’s job, Mao’s job, Hitler’s job: absolute and supreme leader of a vast, world-spanning imperium. There is nothing irrational about his election strategy. He wishes to be elected with a clear mandate to serve as America’s god-king; anything less is of no interest to him.

And it is in this light that we must understand the programmatic, intentional and strategic marketing of parent-child incest by Donald Trump. Trump chose to give the convention address, reserved for generations for the spouse of a presidential candidate, to his daughter Ivanka. This choice was intentional and premeditated, as was his unambiguously libidinous kissing and ass-grabbing of his daughter on national TV before the address, the daughter about whom he has been making sexualized comments in the media since before her tenth birthday. Trump is direct, clear and unflinching in notifying America that he owns that girl’s ass and has since she was conceived.

And that is because he has been contemplating a run, not for the American presidency but for the role of American Emperor since before she was conceived. From her conception, she has been a prop, a means by which Trump can demonstrate his god-like status. A mere man, you see, couldn’t fuck his daughter and brag about it on national television; only a superhuman being could do that and walk away unscathed. Like taxes and contracts, the bedrock of the liberal social contract, prohibitions against the most monstrous form of sexual abuse do not apply to Trump because he is a god-being who can demonstrate this status by showing himself to transcend not merely our laws but our most fundamental social mores and taboos.

In writing this piece I was as reminded of the father of a friend of mine who killed himself this year (the son, not the father, sadly), a monster who began raping him when he was eighteen months old. That man was a charter member of the New Age movement, whose lifelong hustle has been photographing people’s auras for money. He begins each day with this affirmation: “I am a god-being, limitless beyond human comprehension,” like Ivan the Terrible, Russia’s most god-like emperor who is remembered best for beating his own son and heir to death – for no reason.

Like most survivors of programmatic and flagrant sexual abuse, my dear old friend was as powerless to retaliate against his abuser as is Ivanka Trump, a woman who has received the message loud and clear from over three hundred million Americans that they will not lift a finger to protect her. Her only hope of relative safety, like most survivors of sexual violence, is convincing her abuser that she is a willing, nay enthusiastic, participant in her own abuse. Victims of lifelong sexual abuse are at once ventriloquist and dummy, normalizing their abuser’s discourse while performing their accord with it as voluntary and enthusiastic, offering hagiographic descriptions of their abuser.

What we must understand is that, for Trump’s followers, their leader’s ongoing sexual violation of his daughter is what Slavoj Zizek terms an “unknown known,” in his tribute to the epistemology of Donald Rumsfeld, something we all know but refuse to permit our consciousness to see, a belief we concurrently deny and use as a premise undergirding our reasoning. Open secrets, unknown knowns, are the most powerful form of knowledge in a society because they represent the inchoate substructure of a social order. State-sanctioned torture, race- and gender-based violence, massive inequalities of wealth and opportunity structure our every interaction and so they must exist at the periphery of our consciousness.

By signaling that he is the incarnation of those very forces, Trump offers his followers what marginalized, desperate people in America desire, a literal deus ex machina. The invisible forces that are so terrifying that we cannot speak of them by name are incarnate in a man. Perhaps, they reason, this god-man might be more easily propitiated than the implacable invisible-handed deity that has laid waste their families, towns and workplaces.

Even at a Symbolic Level, Hillary Clinton’s Candidacy Sets Feminism Back

To date, debates about whether a vote for Hillary Clinton and against Bernie Sanders is a feminist vote have centred around policy differences between the two candidates and have compared the two candidates’ platforms and records, and Sanders’ record is clearly superior when it comes to the issues. Left uncontested until now, however, is the idea that electing Clinton would be a victory for feminism at the level of symbolic discourse, that the election of a woman over a man would, at least symbolically, strike a blow for feminism and against patriarchy. This was a view that I myself held. But now I am not so sure.
In 1986, Ann Richards was elected governor of Texas. A feminist, pro-choice Democrat, Richards faced all the usual character attacks one might expect and then some. That was because she was a divorced, recovering alcoholic who refused, on dozens of occasions, to deny second- and third-hand claims that her past drinking had been matched by an equally prodigious cocaine habit. In this way, she challenged, in every way, the double standards of respectability women face on a host of questions concerning personal and familial morality and lifestyle. Four years before William Jefferson Clinton was nominated to run for president, Richards had given the keynote address to the Democratic convention that nominated Michael Dukakis.

When asked about being the first female governor of Texas, Richards was quick to correct her interlocutors and remind them that she was not, in fact, the state’s first governor due to a long-standing tradition in hyper-patriarchal Dixie. Ma Ferguson, wife of former governor James Ferguson, had been elected Texas governor sixty years previously. That is because the culture of the former Confederate States of America is not only highly conservative with respect to racial issues; this extends to class and gender politics as well. And that is why, as soon as women gained the right to vote in the South, the region’s planter aristocracy began dodging term limits and corruption charges by using their wives as electoral proxies through whom they could hold onto power, skirting the spirit of the law.

Such arrangements were public and blatant. Speaking to audiences of Klansmen and religious conservatives, disqualified male politicians could travel from town to town, proudly proclaiming that if their wives were elected, their regimes would continue without the slightest interruption. To such audiences, these claims seemed reasonable because, in a highly patriarchal society, it is inconceivable that a good wife or daughter would be anything other than a simple extension of her man’s will. This was the campaign of legendary segregationist governor George Wallace for his wife Lurleen in 1966. While she stayed home, her husband went back to the hustings to remind voters that she would rule in name only; he would be calling all the shots. And true to his word, upon “her” victory, he did just that.

And this sort of thing is not unique to Dixie. In 1970, social conservatives in India turned out to elect Indira Gandhi at Prime Minister precisely because they understood her personhood to be wholly subsumed in the greatness of her late father, Jawaharlal Nehru who had ruled the nation from 1945 to 1964. Next door, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s daughter Benazir succeeded him in a similar fashion in 1993. What we have often missed, watching such elections from the Northern US or from Canada, is that periodic election of a great man’s daughter or widow, functions to reinforce the greatness of a patriarchal lineage, showing that a man’s greatness is such that he can rule through a minor proxy from a sickbed, prison cell or even beyond the grave. However autonomous these individuals are, once elected, their election campaigns rely not just on exploiting but reinforcing popular beliefs about the inferior and subordinate character of women’s agency in religious, conservative, traditionalist societies.

For all the legitimate criticism Margaret Thatcher might face for her policies, her election in 1979 showed women in modern democracies that effacing of their own agency and deliberately campaigning in the shadow of a man was not the only route to national leadership. Thatcher helped blaze a trail for governor Richards, as well as for tough, independent national leaders of the right and the left, like Angela Merkel and Julia Gillard.

More than that of any other self-styled progressive in the industrialized world, Hillary Clinton’s so-called feminism is based on a retrograde political understanding of the meaning of gender in the public square. As I first observed in 2008, Bill Clinton, as any good campaign surrogate should, tailors his message to his audience when speaking for this wife. And, the more conservative and Southern the state, the more he speaks not of “she” but “we,” when it comes to the next Clinton White House. It is actually this phenomenon that has given rise to claims by analysis that the Clinton campaign has an African American “firewall.” Whereas the overwhelming majority of white voters in the South who identify as conservative and evangelical are diehard Republicans, the same is not true of black conservative evangelicals, who remain a major constituency for the Democrats. It is that demographic phenomenon that is conferring Hillary Clinton’s lead in South Carolina: a bloc of conservative evangelicals are, once again, hearing from her husband about how a victory for her is really a victory for him.

Clinton, herself, relies on this kind of thinking, as she has since beginning her first presidential run in 2006, by emphasizing how her “experience” distinguishes her from other candidates. Yet, curiously, the record, the experience she most frequently references—and the record and experience her adversaries are most likely to attack—are initiatives associated with her husband’s presidency. Holding no office other than “First Lady,” a royal consort equivalent office that reminds us that the US has not conducted an overhaul of its constitution since the 1780s, she claims credit for any major law passed in the US by dint of her husband’s signature appearing on it.

The move that Clinton is making here is not some clever feminist tactic to stick it to the man; it is an affirmation of the ancient English legal doctrine of “couverture” in which a man’s legal personhood wholly subsumes the personhood of his female dependents, his wife and daughters, who only cease to be part of his legal body through his death or their marriage to another man. Her claims of an ontology coterminous with her husband’s from 1993-2000 should be enough to sicken, never mind discourage, the deeper thinkers in modern feminism.

Compare this to her reluctance to take credit for the policies of the cabinet in which she served from 2009-12, her indifference to the accomplishments of Senate Democrat majority in which she served with Bernie Sanders from 2006-08, and the bizarre patriarchal traditionalism of her campaign is thrown into sharper relief. Ultimately, Clinton is claiming that her experience as a part of her husband is actually more real than her experience as an autonomous political actor.

In this light, we must ask whether, even in a symbolic universe of rhetoric, position, titles and ceremony, a Clinton victory will be a step forward, sideways or backwards for women in America and throughout the democratic world.

Life Near the Colour Line – Part 2: The Fool’s Paradise of Race

So, it turns out that, unbeknownst to me, that thing about the direction that water corkscrews down a drain varying based on which side of the equator one is on is actually an especially persistent urban myth. There is no actual scientific foundation to this belief, which is perpetuated through a combination of confirmation bias and minor fraud.

The kind individual who drew this to my attention was worried that the debunking of this popular myth might hurt my project of attacking the colour line. But when I learned this, I was nothing short of elated. In fact, it was all I could do, in writing the second part of this essay, not to claim that I had known all along and suckered people into believing that the Coriolis Force Effect on drains was real in order to illustrate my larger point more effectively.

Needless to say, the fact that the equator the men with the metal bath tub in Meru were demonstrating had no scientific or ontological reality beyond its social manifestation renders it more not less like the colour line. The men are still sweating and running for the Kenyan shillings in the white tourists’ pockets; it’s just that they know that their performance of the equator’s physical power is not a response to an external physical reality but to the beliefs inside the tourists’ heads. Their ability to make the world around the tourists converge with their expectations conditions the number of shillings they can earn. They are engaged in a high-stakes performance. And performing a non-existent effect of the equator is much like performing race.

One way or another, people in Meru were living on the equator on a warming planet, where Lake Nakuru, which once attracted tourists with its enormous flocks of flamingos, was now a mud flat, a malodorous brown mass of flamingo bones and bugs. Like it or not, the people of Meru were living on the equator and dealing with the consequences of their position. But these men’s social performance of the equator could profoundly affect their lives; by confirming the beliefs of the tourists, by making the equator real in the way we needed it to be, they could support their families. And performing race is a lot like performing the equator. It is associated with great risk and great reward.

One of the manifestations of privilege is the opportunity to inhabit a fool’s paradise, to hold cherished beliefs about the world around you that other people feel compelled to make real. That is because the more privileged one is, the greater the reward people experience for confirming the things you need to be true and the greater the risk for challenging your beliefs.

Cherokee English professor Thomas King speaks of this when he writes of people’s accusatory distress at discovering that he is “not the Indian [they] had in mind.”

Fundamentally, the power of racism inheres in its accuracy. It allows people to make guesses about how people will behave and what will happen to them that are accurate more often than not. Even if we factor-out confirmation bias, racism works because the people who live at the top of racial systems live a fool’s paradise. As they move about, those around them stage performances of their race in order to minimize risk and achieve reward.

On the rare occasions people decide to entertain the idea that I am black, I am conscripted to into validating their predictions. Do I feel a connection to Africa? Do I have a sense of rhythm? Do I enjoy a Trinidadian curry and a slice of watermelon? Have I been in conflict with the law? Can I speak with a US inner city accent? Well, if not that how about a Southern one? A Jamaican one? No? Really? If I refuse to shore up the fool’s paradise of racism, the conversation soon moves to derision, confusion or frustration and my interlocutor soon concludes that I cannot be black. I can inhabit the fool’s paradise of race as a black person, only so long as I perform that blackness.

Perhaps I, a socialist intellectual, am trying to make the point that race is a social construction—further evidence that I am white because that is what racism predicts that white people will do.

Luckily for me, I can just shut up about who my ancestors were and I am no longer performing forced labour in a fool’s paradise. But people who are clearly on the black side of the colour line never get a rest. They have to find a kind of black person to be, a kind of person that their blackness predicts, an identity that maintains race as the powerful predictive tool that it is. If they won’t, they are some kind of asshole, someone who lacks grace and decency to pick one of the accepted black roles to perform. If they are so damned insistent on being a black intellectual, perhaps they could be Cornel West and use their PhD to say prophetic, mystical things to white America about their shared destiny, things that captivate yet are found insubstantial and trite under rigorous examination. Or, failing that, maybe they could be one of those angry, uppity black woman intellectuals nobody likes. Elevated by their spirituality or blinded by their uppity, misandrist anger: look! there are smart black people to be!

It tells us much that the international media have reached a consensus that the Spokane NAACP is an organization of such significance, such importance, such power that the composition of its current executive merits headlines, scrutiny and international attention. Whatever her motives, whatever her inner thoughts around which she structures community activism through a medium-sized private club in a third-tier American city, her existence cannot stand in the fool’s paradise of America.

While our new system of race nullifies the existence of people like me, people with black parents who refuse to perform our race for an audience, people who voluntarily choose to be black are beyond the pale. When people have tried to explain to me why this woman infuriates them, many of these self-identified progressives explain that it’s not “fair” that a person who has all the advantages of a white upbringing should then get all the “advantages” of being an adult black woman. These are the same people who, a week ago, knew that being a black female adult in today’s America is anything but advantageous. That is why such arguments soon descend into other intellectual positions that are equally bankrupt and absurd, like the assertion that race and ethnicity are clearly bounded, independent variables, or the claim that race is incomparable to gender because it, unlike gender performance, is enmeshed in the legacies of colonialism and empire.

People need to do something about Rachel Dolezal because she is fucking with their ideas of what race is, where it comes from, how you authenticate it and what guesses it lets you make about what is going to happen next. But most importantly, she is fucking with who gets to decide people are black. It as though she has got hold of one of the ends of the colour line and is dragging it towards white people against their will. And that sort of thing cannot stand in our great American fool’s paradise.

More on these last few thoughts in part three—and on the ownership of shoes in seventeenth-century Angola.

Life Near the Colour Line – Part 1

“The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the colour-line.” – W. E. B. Du Bois, 1900

I guess it’s still the twentieth century because boy is white Anglo America mad about the colour line today. A troubled and somewhat dishonest woman from a family that contains both black and white members has been outed in the international media by her white parents for “impersonating” a black person. They want you and me to know that she has no business being the president of the NAACP’s Spokane chapter because she does not have one drop of black blood. Who gives a shit what the NAACP thinks or whether they want her representing them? We know who gets to draw the colour line; and it sure as shit isn’t politically engaged black folks. As we are all supposed to know, blackness lives in the blood, in ancestry; it is inalterable, a stain upon a lineage passed from one generation to the next.

Of course, that’s only if you don’t live near the colour line.

I have lived near the colour line for most of my life. My black mother and white father didn’t travel to much of the US during their thirteen-year marriage because their relationship and my very existence violated the miscegenation laws that remained on the books in southern states throughout much of their relationship.

That’s why, when I was born, older relatives from both sides of the family breathed a collective sigh of relief: I had “such good skin,” meaning, of course, that I could be mistaken for white if nobody looked too closely at my hair or my physique. Like my great aunt Connie, I had a body that could “pass.” Passing was made easier living in a wealthy neighbourhood in which my mother was mistaken by the casual observer for my nanny or some other sort of domestic servant. (Her dad was afraid of visiting us, in case his visits exposed us.) It was helped too by her pouring her savings into sending me to a private school that had no black students.

But it was there that I was found out. Even before I knew what passing was, my famous black uncle died and I got to be called “nigger” by the school bullies. That went on for a year and a half but then it stopped because the colour line was moving.

When my dad took me to Kenya in 1988 to photograph wildlife, we visited the equator. You know that story about how water runs straight down a bathtub drain without corkscrewing clockwise, as it does in the Northern Hemisphere or counter-clockwise, as it does in the Southern? It’s supposed to go straight down at the equator. In Meru, on the equator, you can pay to see this. But what they don’t tell you is that you need four burly men holding that detached bathtub running north, running south, chasing the equator as the magnetic fields creating it jerk and twist it this way and that.

Here, in the temperate zones, we see the equator as a stable absolute, a fixed point etched into the surface of the earth. But when you’re actually there, it bounces this way and that, like a taut skipping rope being used in a tug of war. If you have to relate to the equator, sometimes you are chasing it carrying a half-full bathtub, with a bunch of confused white tourists in toe jogging to keep up. And sometimes it just rolls over you and there’s nothing you can do about it.

That’s what the colour line did to me. By the time I went to Kenya, there was no longer any such thing as passing. Race was alive and well in America but the age of the one-drop rule was over. Race now lived in your body’s external appearance.

The terms “white trash” and “hillbilly” stopped referring to the white descendants of people whose ancestors had been sold into servitude on tobacco, rice and indigo plantations in the seventeenth century. Now these terms were just class descriptors. With sufficient education and wealth, members of this formerly racialized group could become like the kind of people my great aunt Connie and I were becoming: people who were suddenly on the white side of the colour line.

We were free!

Of course, there were some problems with that. Like all those people who lost their Indian status by getting law degrees or white husbands, I experienced some ambivalence going from being the same race as one half of my relatives to being the same race as the other half. Perhaps that had something to do with having no say about when or whether the colour line rolled over me.

But it did mean that I had new uses in BC’s tiny black community. In the early nineties, some community activists attempted to co-own my leadership of the BC Green Party. They wanted to be able to honour me for being the first black political party leader in BC. Except they couldn’t do that. We settled on “the first leader of African descent.”

I was also useful at that time because the keynote speaker at a major community event had recently given some very problematic advice. This young man was nearly as light-skinned as I. And he had some advice for young black people about who to achieve success for their families: “marry white,” he said, like his dad had, “most people don’t even realize I’m black.” It was at that moment, that community activists needed people like me and the editor of our newspaper, The Afro-Carib News, to defy the placement of the colour line and stand with our black family members. And stand proudly.

Many of my friends saw this as a joke, something worthy of their laughter. And it was and is absurd. It was the same kind of absurdity I and my white tour group felt as those burly sweating men ran back and forth with a metal bathtub in Meru in 1988. It provoked a nervous, desperate laughter as they saw a fixed reference point wriggle and bounce before their eyes, while desperate, sweating Africans chased it in the heat of the day.

I will post a second part soon. Clearly this essay is not done.

ISIL, Pancho Villa and the Centipedes: the Politics of Imperial Over-reach and Outrage Porn

In David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of Naked Lunch our junkie-hero, William Lee attempts to steal his sleeping co-worker’s tank of pyrethrum insecticide in a desperate attempt to get high. But his coworker awakens and grabs hold of his tank and begins questioning Lee about his motives for stealing it, “Is that why you tried to lift mine,” he asks Bill, having correctly divined his motives. “That’s unkind, Edwin. ‘Lift’ is unkind. No… I’m doing a job for a friend. You see… it’s the centipedes. Yes, the Centipedes are becoming downright arrogant. They’ve started attacking his children!

In many ways, this scene is a microcosm of the whole film. It is about the collision between the Freudian uncanny and Americanism. No matter how depleted out hero becomes, not matter how bizarre and alien the landscape in which he finds himself, his responses, whether bewildered or heroic, remain those of an American interloper.

As America begins its next quixotic foray into the lands between the Levant and Persia, graveyard of occidental empires, this seems as good a starting point as any for understanding how it is that the president who came into office to pull American soldiers out of the Middle East will leave office as the commander of yet another American war effort in the region.

As William Lee illustrates, Americans are suckers for outrage porn. Theatrical gestures designed to generate outrage capitalize on one of the most important aspects of the American psyche. Republican apostate Kevin Philips, creator of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the associated book The Emerging Republican Majority, argued in his 2006 American Theocracy that one of the most important aspects of imperial culture is the capacity to become offended very easily. Comparing modern US senatorial debates with those of republican Rome, he observed that in order to constantly mobilize expansionist war efforts, an empire’s political consciousness must be extraordinarily sensitive to offense. In the public discourse of the Roman Republic, the state was constantly being threatened and insulted and its citizens abused in foreign lands; the republic’s honour demanded swift and devastating responses to these insults.

But if there were one form of political theatre more capable of mobilizing Rome’s lethal force, it was the public theatre of moral offense. Rome became an empire because of its capacity to continue mobilizing against the rival empire of Carthage for centuries. More than avenging the deaths of Roman soldiers in prior battles or protecting Rome’s expanding Mediterranean trade, what formed the backbone of war propaganda during the Punic Wars, was the sacrifice of babies to the Phoenician god Baal. While these sacrifices were not of Roman children, nor especially numerous, they inspired consul after consul to send legion after legion to war in North Africa.

It is in this context that we must understand the genius behind ISIS’s provocation of the United States. ISIS’s burnings and beheadings represent a tiny proportion of the death toll inflicted by the incipient Caliphate; most deaths are like those caused by its adversaries: deaths associated with seizing, sacking and occupying cities, deaths associated with conflicts between fighting men in planes, tanks and body armour. But is the ritualized, public executions that are galvanizing US opinion to the point where even the Bernie Sanders neo-isolationist presidential bid is becoming equivocal about the war.

Imperialists cannot bear to watch public acts that defy the moral code they understand their hegemony to uphold. Not only is inhumane suffering publicly dramatized and celebrated; so is the flouting of the empire’s power to impose its theory of the good upon the world. Theatrically-staged burnings and beheadings are not merely atrocious in humanitarian terms; they throw down a gauntlet and they shame the empire that will not challenge them. That would be like letting the Centipedes rip a man’s children limb from limb.

To some of my readers, it might seem surprising that Barack Obama would be, in the last full year of his mandate, so susceptible to this kind of challenge. Didn’t he come to power to end American imperialism? Such a view fundamentally misunderstands Obama and his foreign policy agenda. If George W. Bush was America’s Theodosius I, the emperor who ended the empire’s religious pluralism, closed its academies and sent its scholars to work as apologists for a nationalized Christianity, Obama is its Julian the Apostate, a man who understood himself not to be a destroyer of the empire but its restorer. Julian reopened the academies, re-legalized paganism and set Rome back on its pluralistic course. Like Obama, he was a personal beneficiary of the empire at its best, a winner in the pluralistic global order of Kennedy and Johnson, at the noontide not only of imperial power but of its original liberal ideals through the Alliance for Progress and the Second Reconstruction. Men like Kennedy and Johnson were so committed to liberal ideals that not only were they willing to send the army to Saigon; they were willing to send it to Selma.

The Obama presidency’s foreign policy has been about rebuilding the ruins of an empire, in a desperate attempt to prevent it from being overtaken by the harbingers of decline: ignorance, fundamentalism and a disregard for its plebians. Obama and Hilary Clinton will never receive the credit due them for the Honduran coup, when the first new US-backed military junta took power in decades took power in Latin America and ended the expansion of the Chavista bloc. Similarly, Obama’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have been policies of rationalization, resource and expectation management. Obama’s policies are those of retrenchment project: federal efforts to limit the power of states to enact the New Jim Crow, universalization of basic material rights like health care, reinforcement of the Munro Doctrine after a decade of neglect and the rebuilding of America’s multilateral military coalition through cooperative efforts with its NATO allies. This is a presidency committed to restoring the empire to the greatness it possessed when it welcomed his father Kenyan father into a vast, pluralistic, liberal global order.

Would LBJ or Kennedy have been able to tolerate the theatrical provocations of ISIL? Not on your life; compared to the great, presidents of muscular liberalism, he is really being quite restrained. But the atrocity porn continues to stream out of Syria and Iraq, making a lie of the Pax Americana.

But behind that humiliation is another, deeper humiliation awaiting the American Empire. This theatre of outrage has been the means by which men have made themselves national and global heroes, the means by which movements and states have rebounded from torpor and irrelevance.

Caliph Ibrahim of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant joins a venerable tradition of men who have made themselves and their ideas powerful and relevant on a global scale by mobilizing American outrage against them, a tradition whose hundredth anniversary we will be celebrating on March, 9th, 2016.

This tradition is one that the US would do well to remember, were such a thing permitted by the deep structures of American historical memory. In 1916, Pancho Villa’s fortunes in the Mexican Revolution were in decline; first battling the regime of German and US-backed conservative usurper Victoriano Huerta, Villa had come to personally command an army of tens of thousands of Mexicans seeking land reform, democracy and an end to neocolonialism. But infighting had broken out amongst the revolutionaries and the moderates, led by Venustiano Carranza, had reduced Villa’s army to less than five hundred men, hiding out in Mexico’s northern borderlands. It seemed that all was lost for the Villistas until Villa hit upon an idea that would, indeed, turn the war around and inspire tens of thousands of new recruits to flock to his banner.

He staged a quixotic attack on the United States of America. Crossing the border into New Mexico, he attacked an armoury of the Thirteenth Cavalry in the small town of Columbus. While the initial attack took place on the pretext of replenishing his badly-depleted supply of arms, Villa’s inspired choice allowed him to reap far more than he, and the hundred men who joined in the attack, could carry off.

America had been humiliated, by a brown-skinned “bandit” and his handful of followers, its storied southwestern cavalry shown up as unprepared, weak and untrained. There was simply no way American could do anything other than make Villa into the titanic figure he remains in the mythology of the Mexican Revolution.

As we saw eight-six years later, America has no choice but to respond to the taunts of a guerrilla leader hiding in the hinterland of an arid, mountainous, impoverished state with population deeply resentful of the US and sympathetic to the guerrillas: send in a of fifteen thousand men to look for that one guy, to storm around the countryside pissing off the locals, searching dwellings and caves and asking for news of the fugitive in some kind of heavily-accented, ungrammatical version of the local language. While these responses never seem to work out that well for the US, even when they end up catching the guy—no thanks to the column of fifteen thousand troops turning over larger rocks—but they do work out awfully well for the movement that makes the successful provocation.

There is a grandeur and heroism that accrues naturally to the out-gunned ragtag band of guerrilla fighters or terrorists—and Villa was certainly called a terrorist—that dares to challenge the hegemony of a world-spanning imperium. This vast, heroic stature only a massive imperial punitive expedition can confer takes on an existence that mere military defeat cannot erase. Simon bar Kokhba, Pancho Villa: this is the league that Caliph Ibrahim seeks to enter. As has been the case since the Muslim armies first broke out of the Arabian Peninsula and tore Egypt away from its Byzantine overlords, one can only be a true Caliph if so recognized by one’s opposite, by the Pope, or better, by the Byzantine Emperor or Holy Roman Emperor.

Since George W. Bush’s shift in the legitimating discourse of American imperialism from anti-communism to militant Christianity through his appropriation of the power to pronounce national benedictions, as God’s vicegerent on earth, “may God continue to bless America,” the possibility of reconstituting an Islamic Caliphate through American aggression has grown. The more effectively the US can be provoked to send the armies of Christendom to fight ISIL, the more this war will resemble a Crusade, and the more it resembles a Crusade, the clearer it will be for all to see that Ibrahim must really be the Caliph. While Islamic jurists, political leaders and scholars will dispute that claim, the imperial response to these acts of public shaming and provocation will make a far more powerful argument to the contrary.

Whereas groups like Boko Haram focus their terror into striking fear into the people of Nigeria, Niger and Chad through atrocities staged for the benefit of local villagers, ISIL has been far more focused on and effective in its efforts at cultural translation. The kidnappings and murders of West African women and children by Boko Haram are not staged as outrage porn for Americans but as direct threats to West Africans. And in this way, they do not become America’s business.

It turns out that the problem with the Centipedes is not simply that they are attacking children. The problem with them is that they are becoming “downright arrogant;” the attacks on children are a necessary but insufficient condition for vengeful imperial ire; atrocities, acts that are beyond the moral pale of the hegemon, must not merely take place; they must be staged, with defiant pride, shaming the empire into its own quixotic, pride-driven retaliation.

What I Wish Obama Would Say in Tonight’s Debate

Here is what I wish Obama would say in tonight’s debate:

“Governor Romney, when you become the presidential nominee for one of our two great political parties, you enter into a sacred trust with the American people, to honestly represent your plans for America so that they can make a clear, reasoned choice.

John McCain, George W. Bush, his father, Bob Dole, Ronald Reagan — all of them had the courage and decency to put your party’s ideas forward honestly so that Americans could make a clear choice in a contest of ideas. But you are depriving Americans of that same chance by not being honest and constantly changing your story.

You, Governor, have big, audacious ideas, ideas I don’t agree with, just like I didn’t agree with President Bush’s or Senator McCain’s ideas. But they are your ideas. Unfortunately, you lack the courage those men displayed because you won’t honestly present your ideas to the American people and let them pass judgement. Instead, you are misrepresenting both your ideas and mine, trying to confuse Americans about what they are voting for. And that breaks the sacred trust that has existed between the American people and every Republican presidential candidate since Abraham Lincoln campaigned on a platform of free soil, free people and an indivisible union.

Americans need a clear choice in this crucial election. And they will have one, if you can find the courage to be honest with them. And let them make their choice based on the two competing visions we are offering this country.

But if you won’t do that, the American people have reminded me in the past week that it is my responsibility, as their president, to tell them what you really stand for and why the stakes are so high. And that is a responsibility I won’t shirk, even if you shirk your responsibilities as the GOP’s nominee.”