Wednesday, July 30, 2008

An Aging Radical on Race and Politics

I don't write much these days. Formerly I wrote quite a bit about radical politics and social transformation, but I've grown weary of that practice and it never really seemed to amount to much anyway. In my experience it's often thankless work if you're promoting revolutionary changes because there aren't that many who can truly appreciate radical ideas. And, even if some do appreciate the ideas, they usually couldn't help you in many ways even if they were so inclined. Anti-materialistic philosophy often effects the choices people make in their lives (in terms of acquiring and dispersing even the most fundamental necessities). And these days a guaranteed home and food supply, to say nothing of ample leisure, is often considered something of a luxury. The progress of the civilized world has led us to a place of slums and hundreds of millions being severely malnourished. I could, and will, go on highlighting the serious shortcomings of the modern global system -- but that's just a backdrop to the ideas I will be trying to develop in this article.

This is difficult for me because I am loathe to discuss the topics of the title which relentlessly cause so much stress, in so many ways, in so many lives. However, I think these things are important to consider and thoughtful consideration is still something that I have a bit of respect for. So I am going to present some ideas here which will inevitably be received as somewhat controversial by so many backwards regressive types who run roughshod over everyone and everything they can. Controversy is not my goal. Neither is addressing the criticism of small corrupted minds. Once again... it's thoughtful consideration which I hope to engage in, and possibly inspire, to some degree. If I could make these ideas into single soundbite or a pill which you could pop for enlightenment, I would -- but I am not Fox News or Pfizer. These ideas are best presented with a well developed background and so, as wildly as the world is spinning out of control, I'm not going to rush what I have to say. If you don't have the attention span to take a few minutes to consider these subjects (about which some of you might even fancy yourselves as experts), then you are possibly part of the problem. And I don't herein present myself as infallible, but I will try here to be honest and, again, only hope to make some of us think a bit. The tone of this article will be blunt, casual, and frank -- it's the only way I can write it.


Like many Americans, I have very limited knowledge about my racial or ethnic history. I know that I am pale and ate at McDonald's as child. If people feel they can or can't trust me because of these things, I can understand the conditioning that would lead to that narrow-mindedness. But to provide a background of my own experience, here are the specifics that I know about my own personal ethnic/racial makeup... One grandfather claimed his relatives came from a country between France and Germany which no longer exists. Obviously this doesn't tell me much and, frankly, I'm not sure where he's talking about or if he had any real clue himself. He and his family were farmers in Arkansas, perhaps cotton-pickers like my grandmother and her family. For how many decades or centuries they were there doing that, I simply don't know. They were incredibly poor, like so many others, and there is no family crest which contains our family history beneath it. They are pale people with black and blonde hair. My grandmother's family was very pious in the Baptist strain and she still reads the Bible every day. Her husband's family (the family of my aforementioned grandfather) seems to have struggled from an early age since his father died when he was very young and, culturally, about all I can say about him is that he was a worker -- on the railroad, in the navy, building cars, etc. That grandfather was referred to by many of my friends as "the most racist person" they had ever met -- and I need to tell you that this paper may get disturbing in many ways that some of you might have a hard time reading.

My other grandfather (on my Father's side) was 1/2 Blackfoot-Sioux. I met him only on brief occasions when I was very young but I recall that he was a thin man with jet black hair and dark skin. My father had similar (but less prominent) features and I only retain the bone structure of their faces (my skin is pale and my hair is dirty blonde like my mother's). My father's mother I know almost nothing at all about. She was a plump woman and I once had a dream that she was Jewish. They were dirt farmers, she and my grandfather. Once I was attacked by a mother hen when my little cousin and I snuck into their chicken coop with a toy gun.

Culturally my father retained some things, very few things, that I ascribe to his Native American heritage -- and that basically amounts to his being an adamant sportsman. When I was a child he and I would go fishing before school, after school, and again late at night to check the trot lines. He was an avid hunter and I've eaten much venison, and even the occasional creature like a squirrel. That is all I culturally credit to his Native American heritage. Beyond that... he was assimilated into several other less pleasant cultural activities -- like working in the factory and driving a big truck. Yee haw. His childhood was very violent, from what I have gleaned in regard to his brothers and sisters, who were apparently very abusive. These are violent tendencies which he brought to my mother and I, but I won't go much in to the extent or the details about that -- except to say that one time when I was a child I tried to bludgeon him with a bat when he was beating my mother. I ran out of my room and swung it at him but he caught it in his hand and I had given him a weapon. I ran to the Polish neighbor lady across the street who was teaching me to read. But these are issues of westernized culture, which transcend the race and ethnicity of my heritage (which I actually know so little about).

My father ended up being my idea of a "good ol' boy." He was always trying to do whatever was culturally popular with his group of workers. To tie this with race (in way that is only as random and abstract as life usually is)... I remember him being on a softball team one season as the token "white" guy. It's an odd recollection and, as strange as it sounds, I remember him telling me that I was black on several occasions. I think this was some sort of mind-fuck that you'd just have to experience to truly appreciate. He wasn't the most overtly racist guy in the world (certainly not compared to my grandfather on my mother's side) but he wasn't beyond making racist jokes (outside of "mixed" company) which, I guess, in a sense, were a joke about race overall as I look back on it today. It's hard to explain and I don't justify or forgive any bullshit concepts he held or may have expressed. I'm just trying to give my experience in the hopes that it may give others some insight into the issues that surround us so often. I can only speak about what I know, and this is what I've got -- it's not theoretical.

My aforementioned racist grandfather was a real number. Light-hearted sometimes, but not one to deal with people's bullshit. He had a work ethic. Often in his life he held down more than one full-time job (so as to be able to provide for his wife and five kids). He hated the television show "All In The Family" because he practically was Archie Bunker! He made Archie Bunker seem tame, but it must have seemed like everyone was laughing at him when they laughed at Archie. Oh man, he was such a curmudgeon too. I'd get a "Peace & Justice" newsletter in the mail (I lived with him for several years) and he'd begrudgingly give it to me as he berated me for being involved with "this peace bullshit." BUT... he wasn't all bad. I don't say this (as some would try to see it) to prove my credentials, but my best friend in high-school (and a lost love of my life) was a black girl. We talked on the phone constantly and she'd come over often. Grandpa would be all peaches and cream. It was so surreal, but I think he was genuinely fond of her. Like so many others, he couldn't maintain his utterly despicable behaviour in the presence of a truly wonderful individual. He'd say a few things when she had gone but... he couldn't and didn't say much. I'm sure I pre-empted his worst (as I had learned to do), but he also must have truly felt the pain of his hypocrisy. A similar thing happened when I had a relationship with a Jewish girl for about a year. I remember telling her some of the things he had said in the past, not realizing how uncommonly awful they were, and she was upset -- but again, around her, he was peaches and cream, and I truly believe that he appreciated and recognized these lovely young women as just that.

Perhaps some of you can relate to incidents like these I've described, others maybe not so much, but these are some of my basic experiences in regard to race and racism. There are some others I can relate (and perhaps will) but I write this in the hopes that it may inspire some thoughtful consideration. My mother was against racism (one of her few good qualities) and she and others I have known (combined with a healthy dose of the The Cosby Show) are probably why I wasn't indoctrinated in worse ways. But I recognize racism in others, and have from an early age. I remember Katrina, the only black girl in class, crying in the third grade because someone said the "n-word" and then the teacher tried to get the idea across (unsuccessfully) that "nigger" wasn't a bad word. Then, in high-school, during my sophomore year, there was an integration project put into effect that closed West High School and led to kids from the west side being bused across the river to Jefferson High School. Racial tensions were very high. There were some hall monitors who were employed as diplomats, of sorts, but some of them were actually very racist. I remember one of those monitors berating a girl I was talking to in the library because he knew about kids like me "who wear the leather jackets and cry when their friends die (of suicide)," and so he wanted to know why she was talking to me. But the real event was a full blown race riot at the high school. My friends and I were just getting back from lunch and, as we were walking in, several dozen of the long-hair kids (we called them "stoneys" and they liked AC/DC, Metallica, and hot-rod Cameros) all started running out. Then, dozens more of the black kids started pouring out of the school after them exchanging blows with them the whole time. It was pretty serious and the next day was the lowest attendance day in school history. I took pride in finally not cutting class and being a small fraction of the student body attending. I don't know what more to say about that incident but it was 1990 and racial conflict was plain as day. Smaller skirmishes continued in my school till I was finally expelled for lack of attendance and general mischief. Suffice it to say that, like many others, I dealt with overt racism, from all sides, at an early age -- and I recognize its reality in many forms.

Once in my mid-twenties, when I was in Oakland CA, I had a conversation with a guy who was involved with the modern Black Panthers and black power movements. It's fine that, "Free Mumia" et al, but the thing that stuck out in my head was his denigration of my ancestral reality in regard to my Native American grandfather. It was his position that every white boy with a drop of indian blood couldn't claim any of that heritage, in any way, because they still looked pale and could get by in modern Amerikan society easier than a person of color. To a degree I could see his point but on the other hand... I have anti-industrial and pro-primitivism tendencies (and I would revive the old Native ways if it were in my power). Just because I may not look a certain way, or because I am only genetically related to some degree, that should not preclude me from from my tendencies to identify with those people in any way at all. This seems to be the system's method of pigeonholing people and robbing them of any cultural heritage or of any desires to reclaim it. You are black, you are white, you are asian, etc. And there is a tendency to simplify it even beyond that because all the masters really want us to be is subservient consumers. Race is tied with cultural heritage and, if we want reclaim something in life more substantial than what the techno-industrial system provides us, we are potentially a destabilizing factor within that system. The more standardized the basic realities of race and heritage become the easier we are to market to and the easier it is for us all to get along side-by-side at the factory on the assembly line. It's the basic formula of the melting pot -- wipe out, assimilate, or enslave (and if it can be done without the people knowing or caring then it's all the more effective).

There is something of a paradox in strongly identifying with people of similar racial makeup or appearance. Ideally, if it led to preserving sustainable cultural pathways that had been in place for generations, that would be a good thing. But when we add strong racial identity with the techno-industrial system we get something more like the Nazis. And even if we don't end up with the wholesale genocide of other groups (as when races are co-opted, assimilated, and homogenized), when it happens that a people take on the habits of techno-industrial civilization their fundamental values change and, in the name of progress, they become equally destructive in other ways. It can be as pronounced as the devastation caused by Chernobyl & Bhopal or as subtle as a cop of color oppressing the poor people of his own neighborhood -- all in the name of law, order, democracy and progress.

Obviously there is much more to racism than these few experiences described thus far, but personal experience can not help but to make us ponder. It should make us ponder. This is a problem that relates to class and historical identities. It relates to the tendency that some people have to dominate others and maintain power and control. So many other horrible things are happening in the world but still we are forced to confront the reality of racism, blind stupid hate, for the most superficial reasons. This is a subject not conducive to frank talk and open discussion and many are very engrained in their backwards indoctrination. Knowledge of that reactionary indoctrination makes it difficult to overcome because no matter how people identify, there will be some with whom they identify that have these backwards ideas. And there should be no shame in having beautiful black skin or long blonde hair, but there will always be someone around who dislikes you for those very cosmetic reasons. And self-preservation or the desire for upward social mobility can make people prone to use their racial appearance to get ahead and stay ahead of the rat race. I'm not saying it's a good thing, but it's something that happens and there are too many stupid people indoctrinating too many children of every race, creed, and color -- so it's probably not a situation that will go away any time soon. But while your appearance may get you ahead somewhat with some groups... the lack of upward mobility, and the oppression of others, makes for general social unrest around the world.

African Americans are undoubtedly treated unfairly in the USA and around the world. Tiger Woods may go to the the country clubs, Phil Ivey may bluff Doyle Brunson in the biggest poker games, and Barrack Obama may even become president, but if poor general conditions continue to exist for the vast majority of dark-skinned people, even the success of those men may be seen as tenuous. I'm not saying that Tiger, Phil, or Barack should necessarily do anything much different, but we should all be mindful of the bigger scenario and realize that we all suffer -- black, white, rich, and poor -- because of the backwards state of the world and superficial racist politics.

And that brings me to why I got it into my head to write this article. In the past I have been opposed to the oligarchic two-party corporate industrial politics of the USA, particularly in regard to presidential politics, but if there has to be a figurehead for the beast, maybe it doesn't have to be the most bat-shit crazy, spoiled corrupt cracker that we can find. Maybe if we can get into office someone who has undoubtedly experienced oppression and racism from the under-side... maybe we can see some things change for the better. I don't want to sound overly hopeful, nor do I want responsibility for any of the corrupt things he inevitably does in office, but I think Barack Obama (or perhaps another Black politician later) might be able to pull a Putney Swope and effect real change. (For those of you unfamiliar with the film Putney Swope, it's about a brother who backs into the Chairman's seat of a major advertising firm and institutes some black power values. It's hilarious.) And I don't think Obama will be nearly as radical as Putney Swope (in fact I fear the opposite) but I feel like a president of color might effect some change. And even if Obama (or another black politician) were to campaign with the claim that more black Americans would go to jail and get worse health care, I can't help but to believe that persons of color would be holding out hope that, if elected, they wouldn't be as awful as they seemed while campaigning.

But there is the rub. Obama could end up being the Democratic equivalent of Clarence Thomas and not really change all that much in regard to the status quo of any American (much less any African Americans). Are we supposed to take at face value his recent praise of Ronald Reagan?! Even if that was an attempt to woo a few insane Republicans, it's still scary politicking and I'd hate to think he might actually be sincere. We need very fundamental changes in the USA and the ideas he implements need to be bigger than the ideas he's campaigning on. Perhaps he's trying to stay mellow and subdued and conservative during the campaign, but there are a few things I think he could say that would transcend race and improve the conditions of the average American.


First... the war on Iraq. Beyond oil, this is also just another war on dark-skinned people around the world. Millions are dying in Iraq (directly from the bombing, collapsed infrastructure, and now civil war) and American soldiers of every race are dying in this unjust war. The general american public opposes this war and a more aggressive withdrawal plan could be presented with support from the vast majority of the population at home and abroad. The financial cost of this war alone should be enough to finally convince the masses that it must end. It's a simple position, it's a popular position, and withdrawal is a key election issue.

And the cost of the war, while effecting all Americans, disproportionately effects African Americans who already receive much worse health care and other rectifying social services (this is money that could be spent on housing, education, and the arts). End the war and promote health care, preventative health care, and you have another very popular position.

And then you have the issue of the prison-industrial complex and the war on drugs. This is an issue which again effects all Americans but African Americans disproportionately. Perhaps again he's being conservative after his admitted use as a youth, but these are issues which the American population can relate to and it could easily be framed in terms of economics. Rehabilitation is cheaper and the easing of racial conflict brought on by the system would also be a boon. America is becoming a police state. People don't like it (they should like it less) and they can be persuaded to vote against the police state. His mixed support for the Patriot Act and back-peddling on FISA is very troubling. In the future we can only hope that he will take stronger stands against this type of totalitarian legislation. These are issues which effect all Americans and people around the world as well.

Finally... the environment. This again is an issue which effects the poor and persons of color disproportionately. But it is an issue which transcends race, class, gender and even partly lines. It is an issue which could be undertaken by a prominent candidate like Obama without fear of losing votes. The grassroots environmental movement is a very large voting block and, by making quality propositions to regulate industry and to actually reduce consumption (a politically peculiar idea which needs to be promoted), the world could be preserved for future generations and made a better place to live. Wars over resources would decrease and health would improve in every area. This could be made a key election item. (I would like to point out as an aside that bio-fuels are inefficient and that the agricultural run-off is polluting the waterways. We need to consume less, not find different things to consume.)


I honestly don't hold out much hope for the system at all. I'm skeptical that any decent person could ever be elected president. Worse, if a wise and moral person were ever allowed to take office they would be taking responsibility for a system that has already run amuck and which may be beyond redemption or repair. Or, if they were to actually try and force the major reforms necessary, the system and the population would have to endure some hardships which they may not be prepared to handle. For example... to avert further environmental degradation, nay disaster, our per capita consumption would have to decrease. And, because many people's standard of success and happiness are tied up to corrupted ideals of materialism, this change would be seen as a negative. The economic waves created by some of the necessary changes to the techno-industrial system could lead to other perceived hardships like unemployment and the associated problems with that. And this change would not just be isolated to the U.S. (as other nations would have their economic systems thrown into upheaval as the U.S. attempted to become a more sustainable and humane entity). Even if the U.S. were able to transition smoothly, the consequences of other governments collapsing could bring terrible consequences here.

Another ethical problem people create for themselves by voting is the responsibility that they then take on for the problems created by those elected officials. Heaven forbid that anyone should vote successfully and elect a totalitarian warmonger, but simply by participating in the election process you are giving legitimacy to whomever gets elected, whether you've voted for them or not. This seems especially true since the presidential election was so blatantly stolen in 2000 and most probably in 2004 as well. Nevertheless... those that seize power legitimately, or by sleight of hand, can proclaim that the process was carried out and that everyone who participated should respect the outcome. The whole thing is presented and treated like a game in which no one should behave like a sore loser. If only it were a game.

So this article does not amount to an endorsement of anyone or encourage you to vote, but it does hold out hope that someone (or some group of people) might someday be able to somehow make a positive change in the system -- but bringing about that change may be far more complicated than many imagine.

1 comment:

Jesse said...

You can share links with plain hyperlink code or by putting a widget in your sidebar and adding links to a blogroll like that.


Hope I helped, keep resisting and stay in touch!