Friday, April 02, 2010

Racism, political violence and false equivalencies (2)

Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby has been griping for a while about how liberal commentators, especially on TV, often play into conservative stereotypes of condescending liberals snobs when they talk about white racism in politics.

But I'm beginning to wonder if there is any way someone could criticize white racism in American society and politics that would meet his standards. I even wonder if he thinks white racism is a significant problem, though he occasionally makes remarks suggesting that he does. I hope one of these days he actually gives his own view of the nature of the problem and examples of critical analysis of it which meet his approval.

In his Howler column for March 30, he takes Colbert King and Frank Rich to task for talking about white racism in the Tea Party movement. Somerby writes:

For ourselves, we aren't inclined to agree with the Tea Party crowd. We don’t share their views about health reform. In a new poll, only 15 percent of Tea Party folk self-identify as Democrats; we vote for the Dems every time. We wouldn’t want to rally alongside a sign which semi-recommended the use of a Browning. On the other hand, anti-war rallies of this past decade featured dumb signs too.

King is a man of the DC elite, and he sometimes acts it. He could have taken his big fat keister down to Capitol Hill that day; as a journalist, he could have asked members of this crowd to explain their thoughts on various topics. What did they think of that Browning sign? What are their views on race—on gay issues? But bigots always think they can know the souls of Those People without having to dirty themselves by entering into their presence. And in every generation, fine members of high elites try to keep themselves free of the rabble. [my emphasis]
The fact that those complaints pretty much mirror the kind of grievances we've been hearing from whiny white people since the Wallace movement of the 1960s doesn't mean they're wrong. But it does leave me not knowing where he differs with the whiny white folks on recognizing and dealing with white racism.

The Colbert column which he criticizes is In the faces of Tea Party shouters, images of hate and history Washington Post 03/27/10. I've become enough of a disciple of the Howler's media criticism to appreciate his close reading of news reports and columns to see if the empirical basis for the reports and judgments is identifiable. Somerby makes a good point that relying on the slogans and images on signs can be misleading when trying to understand a particular protest. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't look at the signs!

Because they aren't irrelevant, either. If you see a sign at an antiwar march or rally saying, "War is beautiful!", it's probably a reasonable assumption that could be easily verified that the sign belongs to a counter-demonstrator. Police usually manage to figure out a way to separate opposing demonstrators from each other. (An infamous instance in which police failed to do so was in Germany on June 2, 1967 in Berlin at an anti-Shah demonstration in Berlin; the reverberations from that event were still a major news topic in 2009.) And if you ever see a labor union march, you generally don't see signs saying "Lower wages! Workers are lazy! Unions are evil!" Because unions generally know how to organize marches, which means among other things having the protest equivalent of parade marshals to regulate what signs appear and to guard against disruptions. (Full disclosure: I was once upon a time trained in Alinsky methods of organizing by the United Farm Workers labor union, including by at least one person who as I recall had worked directly with Alinsky himself.)

In other words, I've been at enough demonstrations - and organized a few myself - to know that if you're present at such an event, you can generally tell if the organizers consider a particular contingent of demonstrators as acting within what the organizers see as the parameters of the acceptable. For instance, that video of the event in which brave Karl Rove became too frightened to stay around and sign copies of his book Courage and Consequences: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight because of the fearsome presence of a scary Code Pink mob, shows protesters, at least one of them holding a sign. See if you have a hard time telling whether the Code Pink members who express themselves are likely to be in solidarity with most of the people attending the event and vice versa:

If we're going to adhere to the most strict principles of Somerby-ist empiricism, we would have to conclude that we don't know if the vast majority of the audience were sympathizers of Code Pink or not. But anyone who's ever been to any similar public event will consider it a no-brainer to make a reasonable guess.

King has this to say about the Tea Party movement, and Somerby considers at least part of this passage objectionable:

Tea Party members, as with their forerunners who showed up at the University of Alabama and Central High School, behave as they do because they have been culturally conditioned to believe they are entitled to do whatever they want, and to whomever they want, because they are the "real Americans," while all who don't think or look like them are not.

And they are consequential. Without folks like them, there would be no Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity or Pat Buchanan. There would never have been a George Corley Wallace, the Alabama governor dubbed by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Diane McWhorter in a 2008 Slate article as "the godfather, avatar of a national uprising against the three G's of government, Godlessness, and gun control."

Hence, an explanation for the familiarity of faces: today's Tea Party adherents are George Wallace legacies.

They, like Wallace's followers, smolder with anger. They fear they are being driven from their rightful place in America.
Now, the Tea Party movement didn't spring full-grown from the brow of Glenn Beck yesterday. FOX News and other Republican front groups began organizing it early last year. And I've followed it since then. I've seen reports of their demonstrations including the mob scenes at the Congressional town hall meeting last August, I've read some of the things their defenders and critics say about them, I've paid attention to what people like Dave Neiwert who are actually knowledgeable about far-right politics have had to say about them, I've seen reports of leading members of the movement expressing their opinions as well as rank-and-file participants, I've heard the kind of rhetoric they use and the kinds of issues they emphasize.

And I wouldn't say from what I've seen, heard and read that Colbert King's description of the most vocal Tea Party activists that I just quoted is accurate. And you certainly don't have to assume that every sign that appears somewhere around one of their rallies that everyone that identifies with the Tea Party movement agrees with that particular sign to come to that conclusion.

Now, maybe this makes me a liberal snob who is bigoted against whiny white people, by the Howler's standards.

Or, it could be based on my actual judgment shaped by my knowledge and study and experience in politics, including giving particular attention to far-right movements in US history. It probably is influenced in some way by having grown up in a small town in rural Mississippi that in some ways still feels the effects to this day of the lynch-murder of two 14-year-old African-American boys in 1942. And by being in high school when the full racial integration of the schools in Mississippi finally occurred. And by having heard a lot of white people express a wide variety of attitudes on racial issues, from overt racists to white people who were very actively involved in the civil rights movement in Mississippi, and a lot in between.

What I do see based on my understanding and judgment is that the Tea Party movement, whatever it's redeeming features may be in some Grand Scheme of Things that Somerby sees and I don't, is promoting some of the most toxic political ideas and attitudes in American society, including white racism.

Digby also points us to that notorious liberal snob Karl Rove saying the following about the salt-of-the-earth Tea Party movement in a Wall Street Journal editorial:

A small fraction of the tea partiers' leadership are ambitious individuals who haven't been able to hold office in either the GOP or Democratic Party. Some are from fringe groups like the John Birch Society or the remnants of the LaRouchies. Others see the tea party movement as a recruiting pool for volunteers for Ron Paul's next presidential bid.

If tea party groups are to maximize their influence on policy, they must now begin the difficult task of disassociating themselves from cranks and conspiracy nuts. This includes 9/11 deniers, "birthers" who insist Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., and militia supporters espousing something vaguely close to armed rebellion. [my emphasis]
Damn those libruls like Karl Rove, lookin' down their noses at reglur white folks and callin' 'em names! It's this kind of librul arrogance that drives people to burn crosses on black people's lawns and shoot abortion providers in the head at church! How long can Real Amurcans put up with snotty libruls like Rove?

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