Thursday, May 24, 2012
Are These the New John Browns? "I am not Trayvon Martin." White Anti-Racists Talking to Cameras on Youtube
Reverend James Reeb. Jonathan Daniels. Andrew Goodman. Michael Schwerner. Viola Gregg Liuzzo. John Brown. These are the names of white folks who lived ethical lives and placed themselves in harm's way for the freedom of Black Americans. They also died trying to save white America from its own self-destructive racial wickedness.
In the Age of Obama, the Internet, and post-Civil Rights America, where have men and women of this type of iron will and principle gone? Are they on the lecture circuit? Occupy Wall Street? In the academy? Doing community organizing? Working silently in the shadows?
The nature of white supremacy and the Racial State have most certainly changed and evolved. One does not necessarily confront institutional white supremacy and meta racism with the same strategies and tools that forced down Jim and Jane Crow. Styles do makes fights; perhaps, there is no better example than considering people's movements and how the State and market democracies are vulnerable (or not) to them.
My concerns are not limited to white anti-racists. The same questions can be extended to black and brown people. As I have mentioned on numerous occasions, there is a desire to buy into the myth that all of our people marched with King, stood up to white power and Bull Connor, wore berets and leather with the Panthers, or hunkered down with Brother Robert Williams.
The reality is that most people, in any society where collective action occurs, are free riders who benefit from the blood, sweat, and tears of others. But, these same folks do not want to be left out of their generation's defining struggle--just like the many adult children who find out either during a deathbed confessional, or organizing the deceased's estate, that their dads lied about fighting in World War 2.
Many African Americans discover a similar truth. Mom and dad were not at the sit-ins. Perhaps for fear of going to jail, losing their jobs, or other practical concerns, they were on the sidelines. Nevertheless, they/we/most of us benefited while not contributing though direct action.
I hold a key appreciation for the idea that "the political" is an expansive concept that is not limited to formal political behavior. Yet, and as I have grown a bit older, I have become increasingly suspicious of a tendency to embrace the symbolic, and often the trivial, as constituting purposive politics which substantively challenges arrangements of power and resources.
"Hoodie" politics. Wearing multi-colored rubber or plastic wristbands. Clicking "like" on a cause that will circulate around Facebook. Posting a comment on a blog. The Stop Kony campaign. All of these examples involve making one individual feel like they are participating in a grand struggle. There is no risk, demand, threat, or cost. Thus, can it really be considered substantive political action?
A broadly inclusive public sphere is integral to a healthy democracy (these behaviors can in fact be "pre-political" or serve as a barometer of the public mood; we must also be careful to note how there is also a rich history of debate societies, salons, pamphleting, and public rallies that online spaces are a direct descendant of).
However, my ultimately worry is that for a whole generation these online acts may constitute the limit(s) of their political engagement. There is a double bind at work here as well. On one hand, the major organs of power which influence the day-to-day lives of those born in the neoliberal age that came into being in the 1970s are profoundly anti-democratic. The banking, finance, military, marketing, as well as the commercial and industrial actors who constitute the global superclass, could care less about a given person's vote, sit-in, "approved" protesting, or the like.
Moreover, the sleight of hand is that while they have disdain for democracy, these same agents benefit from the illusion of participation and legitimacy. Thus, the need to create alternate spaces for "democratic behavior" like social media and the Internet. The illusion and spectacle of shows like American Idol and America's Got Talent are cousins to this phenomenon: Americans can "vote" for the winners in a meaningless human freak show; but their votes in the "real world" are a choice between two bankrupt and moribund political parties, an act that has little transformative power over the forces which impact the contours of their society.
The young woman in this video offers up a smart and sharp reflection on race, white privilege, and the lazy thinking that motivates much of the liberal shared empathy crowd who believe that slogans are a challenge to power.
Is this the best they/we/us have to offer? Talking into a camera on Youtube is the new face of politics in the 21st century? What type of politics come from a virtual public sphere that is all chatter and no action in the real world?