WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE USA? – AND WHY IT MATTERS TO US

Like many observers I have been increasingly gobsmacked by the slow train-wreck of the Trump presidency, asking myself, “Is this guy for real? – Can this get any worse?”. And the answer is perpetually yes; “yes it can get much worse”. In this post I begin to unpick some of the madness and explore some further questions: why should this matter to us and what can be done?

The images of protest and mayhem sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Police in Minneapolis are symptomatic of deep-seated racism in the USA. They are also symptomatic of rampant economic inequality, social distress and long-brewing political discontent. In many ways the morally bankrupt and politically fetid Trump administration has created a perfect storm.

George Yancy posed the following question to long-standing American dissident Noam Chomsky in a 2015 interview:

When I think about the title of your book “On Western Terrorism,” I’m reminded of the fact that many Black people in the United States have had a long history of being terrorized by White racism, from random beatings to the lynching of more than 3,000 Black people (including women) between 1882 and 1968. This is why in 2003, when I read about the dehumanizing acts committed at Abu Ghraib prison, I wasn’t surprised. I recall that after the photos appeared President George W. Bush said that “This is not the America I know.” But isn’t this the America Black people have always known?

There is a very long and bloody history of oppression and Black protest in the US dating back to the slave revolts of the 1700s. Urban uprisings from the 1960s have often been triggered by incidents of brutal Police assault or killings. In Los Angeles the Watts rebellion of 1965 led to 34 deaths. Protests following the arrest and beating of Rodney King in 1992 left 63 dead.  The death of George Floyd is the latest among many recent Police killings of Black people.

The social theorist Lois Wacquant (2009) examines the way in which the dis-enfranchised urban Black working-class population has been locked out economically, pathologised morally and incarcerated physically:

For Wacquant, neo-liberalism has seen the development of a new form of statecraft. This has been variously termed the penal state or mass incarceration. The USA now holds over twenty-five per cent of the world’s prisoners. The impact on the African- American community, in particular, has been devastating (Mauer, 2006; Clear, 2007; Drucker, 2011). Alexander (2012) argues that this has served to create a new ‘caste’ of marginalised, disenfranchised young black men.                                                          (Cummins, 2016, p. 77)

There is also a lengthy history of politicians seeding racist fear and prejudice among the White population. Bob Dylan’s ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’ was released in 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement: “A South politician preaches to the poor white man – ‘You got more than the blacks don’t complain. You’re better than them, you were born with white skin’, they explain.” Trump’s electoral and governance style has raised this divisive and destructive politics to a new extreme.

To understand the otherwise baffling success of Trump, it is necessary to grasp some of the political-economic-social-cultural problems at the heart of corporate America. Yes, Trump has successfully manipulated the insecurity of the white working class, promising jobs and dignity to the rust-belt heart land. But he has also struck a deeper chord. While superficially spouting the usual patriotic bullshit about liberty and opportunity, Trump has also exposed the hollow promises of the liberal democrat façade.  He has pulled back the mask. Jodi Dean, an American communist academic expressed this very accurately in 2015, arguing that Trump was, paradoxically, the most ‘honest’ candidate in US politics:

Some of the underpaid and exploited enjoy through Trump. Not only does he give them permission to express their racism, sexism, and hate, but they are already accustomed to imagining themselves with his power, firing and degrading a wide array of those with whom they disagree. His television shows taught them to do this, instilling in them practices of judgment and dismissal ready to move out of prime time and into the political sphere. Others like the way Trump’s brutality, his directness, unsettles and disrupts the branded lies that are the mainstream parties. He’s going to screw the same folks who screwed them.

Understanding something of why Trump’s politics of ignorance and loathing has ‘worked’ in the American context does not make it any more defensible. His administration’s response to Covid-19 is appalling beyond words. As Chomsky has recently observed, “Donald Trump is culpable in the deaths of thousands of Americans by using the coronavirus pandemic to boost his electoral prospects and line the pockets of big business.” The US National Association of Social Workers heavily criticized Trumps racist policy stance in 2019 and the US Council on Social Work Education has condemned endemic racism, linking it to the current crisis.

One of the many disturbing patterns evident in the recent images of US unrest is the prevalence of Police violence towards local and international news media crews. Part of the Trump narrative is that journalism (apart from Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing mouthpiece Fox News) is ‘fake’. Truth, as we have come to see again and again, is what Donald Trump decides it is on any given day. The parallels with the rise of European fascism last century are as clear as Kristallnacht, Nazi Germany’s 1938 night of broken glass. Boastful threats to deploy the US army against people demanding change to the racist fabric of US society carries the unmistakable stamp of brute dictatorship rather than liberal democracy.

Could this happen? Could civil strife escalate? I would like to say no, but then again, I thought Trump wasn’t electable. Despite the wealth, global power and influence of the US, western allies can surely no longer refuse to comment on the idiocy, arrogance, nepotism and destructiveness of the Trump regime. It is as if western leaders are locked into some sort of bizarre accommodation syndrome. Yes, it is not diplomatically conventional, or economically sensible, to openly criticise the US Government but we have never had a dangerous self-obsessed fool of this calibre in the White House before. These are not normal times. To look away, share a flicker of a wry smile and remain silent, is to side with the oppressor. 

It matters here in Aotearoa because we have our own endemic issues with personal and institutional racism. Our justice system and the prison industry which it feeds are disproportionately populated by Māori. Māori were dispossessed of their land to make way for settlement and to provide wage labour for capitalist development (Poata-Smith, 2002). Māori and Pasifika people continue to be over-represented on the relatively impoverished margins of our society. I am an aging white man and I don’t profess to speak for anyone except myself, but in my opinion the answers to this racial inequality are not simply cultural; they are also material and political, rooted in the shortcomings of the capitalist model of development.

If the USA fails as a democracy, there is a chance we can all fall under the spell of post-truth populist thuggery. Enough is enough. The carnage of the Trump agenda needs to be recognised for what it is and roundly rejected by the international democratic community.

In March 2017, I wrote the following lines on this site:

Left politicians may be re-politicised by the unfolding Trump debacle – compelled to shed their cynical accommodation with systems that are regulated in the interests of corporate profit and promote meaningful socialist policies that address the grossly unfair distribution of wealth and opportunity in societies like ours.

Change can never revolve around corporate capitalism ‘for all’ because by its nature corporate capitalism cannot be ‘for all’. Jedediah Britton-Purdy writes about the Sanders’ campaigns as follows:

Democracy means that people choose how we will live together, rather than accept the hierarchies and boundaries we are born into as fate. It means making that shared choice in a way that honors everyone’s equal value and tries to give each person equal political power. By that simple standard, the United States is not much of a democracy. In 2016 and 2020, one campaign tried to make democracy more real, and in doing so became a movement and a generational watershed for people who have come to understand how an unequal and undemocratic country is killing them and laying waste to what they love. Such a thing doesn’t end when a campaign stops, but what it becomes is uncertain.

We live in edgy times. As Žižek (2014) has reminded us, liberal democracy is more fragile than it appears. There is much to be done in pursuit of social justice. In the words of Abbie Hoffman, You measure a democracy by the freedom it gives its dissidents, not the freedom it gives its assimilated conformists.”

Lastly a link to information about the kaupapa of the Black Lives Matter movement and a list of BLM related academic articles for interested readers – *free to access until the end of August.

Image credit: Dan Gaken

 

References:

Cummins, I. (2016). Wacquant, urban marginality, territorial stigmatization and social work. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 28(2), 75-83.
Poata-Smith, E. S. (2002). The political economy of Māori protest politics, 1968-1995 : a Marxist analysis of the roots of Māori oppression and the politics of resistance (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy). University of Otago. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10523/151
Wacquant, L. (2009). Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham: Duke University Press.

2 thoughts on “WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE USA? – AND WHY IT MATTERS TO US

  1. And thank you for your generous comment Merrill. I like the distinction between guilt and responsibility and your example of the power of dialogue is an important message. You seldom get change without conflict and edgy as the situation in the US is today we may see a wider rejection of the ugly dominance of money, power and privilege that this Republic has woven. Many ‘young’ minds will be moved by the chaos we are seeing and this must be a good thing. Best wishes – Ian

  2. Thank you for writing Ian…Your mastery in this, and your clarity in bringing points into focus is a gift

    As another aging self (reference to your point) I speak on my behalf as a Irish Catholic of my constant wonder about guilt, shame, grief as dynamics within me, these unrecognized which limit or boundary my capacity for humanity with another in these times as a woman and social worker in Aotearoa. I also consider these are playing out in another’s response either with or against me.

    This posting came over my desk this morning was helpful- I share it here
    Exerts from August 25, 1970, Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) and James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) who sat together on a stage in New York City for a remarkable public conversation about such enduring concerns as identity, power and privilege, race and gender, beauty, religion, justice, and the relationship between the intellect and the imagination.

    In the following exert I am interested in the edges, the skin or the cultural containment around experiencing guilt and responsibility, and what does not shift if I do not see /hear/taste these ‘edgings’ with respect. For once seen, these are as a ‘space’ where we may see each other ( such seeing requires that we also see/locate our self, and our ‘edging’). This occurs to me, also is a possibility where we meet and deepen as Treaty partners

    ….MEAD: Everybody’s suffering is mine but not everybody’s murdering, and that is a very different point. I would accept everybody’s sufferings. I do not distinguish for one moment whether my child is in danger or a child in Central Asia. But I will not accept responsibility for what other people do because I happen to belong to that nation or that race or that religion. I do not believe in guilt by association.

    BALDWIN: But, Margaret, I have to accept it. I have to accept it because I am a black man in the world and I am not only in America… I have a green passport and I am an American citizen, and the crimes of this Republic, whether or not I am guilty of them, I am responsible for…

    Imagination can take us places and also manage paradox. My mothers Irish (Connemara) greeting – ‘may the face of the people be towards you’, assumes significance. In the greeting I hear ancestors whisper ‘We are each other’s hope’. Thank you for your wisdom, and your skilled and thoughtful article

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