American Exceptionalism And Political Violence

Adam Shatz offers some interesting thoughts on dreaming of political violence in the Age of Trump-Bannon:

It’s notable how easily violent thoughts have come to those of us who have known only a single, and much contested, month of the Trump-Bannon era. American exceptionalism may be dead, but it lives on as a habit of mind…in the unprecedented horror we imagine ourselves to be experiencing….It might be useful to think about these fantasies in wider terms, as a way of trying to understand the citizens of other countries, particularly those whom Americans have for the most part refused to sympathise with. We might try, for example, to understand why Palestinians have carried out violent attacks against the people who have occupied them for…half a century. They have been under military rule, without recourse to elections or a fair legal system, much less citizenship, for roughly 600 times as long as we have been under Trump.

Indeed. And we would do well too, to look inwards and closer as well, at the state of communities that have already, for ages now, suffered the kind of political and legal regime we imagine the Trump-Bannon era to resemble. The crisis of mass incarceration and the systematic evisceration of the US Constitution that it has both relied upon and facilitated provides the grimmest reminder that arbitrary search and seizure, detention, arrest, show trials, and cruel prison sentences are already the norm for some American citizens. Innocents make plea deals that send them to jail for years; families are torn asunder; no one reading the formidable corpus of literature on America’s prison and penal system, or the manifestos issued by Black Lives Matter, would imagine that much worse could happen to a black American in the Trump-Bannon era. The heavy-handed knock on the door in the middle of the night at the end of which a young man goes missing, and sometimes ends up dead in police custody? Been there, done that. The road-stop followed by the gunshot, which leaves an unarmed man dead? Been there, done that too. The ACLU received $24 million in donations in the weekend following the issuing of the disastrous ‘Muslim ban’ Trump executive order; it certainly could have used some of those dollars in holding the tide against the assault on the Constitution that drug warriors have been mounting for close to over three decades now.

Why, again, would such an openly declared war not provoke fantasies of violence? America is lucky, very lucky, that the millions of guns floating around in its cities and suburbs have not yet been turned against the armed constabularies who, on the pretext of conducting a War on Drugs, have felt free to promiscuously wage war against entire demographics instead.

The Trump-Bannon era calls for resistance, and resisted it will be. But let us not imagine that this era is exceptional, that the political and legal crisis it showcases is. To do so would be to lapse all too easily to facile self-congratulation, and to let the real work remain undone.

Stephen Miller Is Punchable, Yes, But He Is Worthy Of Emulation Too

Martin Shkreli has good cause to be aggrieved. He spent considerable time, energy and financial resources aiming to attain the title of America’s Most Punchable Person, and succeeded spectacularly. Unfortunately, the incoming Trump administration has upended many American verities, and Shkreli has found himself similarly displaced from the hearts and minds of the American people. The first pretender to the throne was Richard Spencer, the sunglasses-wearing neo-Nazi who, demonstrating once again that half-baked racial political theories will have a long life in the warm glow of the Bannon rays emanating from the White House, earned himself a punch in the face on the day from one of the half a dozen or so spectators attending the Trump inauguration. Now, another contender is here, and I’m afraid that Shkreli’s pretensions must be put to bed: there is no way that even the smirking, obnoxious, ‘Pharma Bro’ can contend with Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s national policy adviser. (Duke University has a lot to answer for; both Spencer and Miller are Duke graduates. While Spencer does not seem to have distinguished himself with any overt racism during his college days, Miller set the groundwork early for his work in the Trump administration by earning a reputation as an unrepentant racist. An academic friend of mine–who teaches at Duke–noted that while he never had the (dis)pleasure of teaching Miller, Miller had already established himself as a “shithead” on campus.)

Miller’s appearance on the Sunday morning talk show circuit–to lay the groundwork for the voter suppression strategy that is destined to be the centerpiece of many state legislative initiatives this year and the next, as a prelude to the 2018 mid-term elections–will be memorable for many reasons. Foremost among them, of course, is that Americans now have confirmation–if they needed any after the excruciating 2015-2016 election season–that Goebbelsian propaganda techniques i.e., the endless repetition of lies over and over again to turn them into the unvarnished truth are the new normal in national politics. (The Republican Party and conservative talk show luminaries like Rush Limbaugh, Alan Jones, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and their ilk have paved the road, and the Bannon-Miller cavalcade can now merrily zip along on its many lanes.) Voter fraud in the 2016 election is the new ‘Barack Obama’s missing birth certificate’ and unlike that oddity, this one is going to cost many Americans their vote. Moreover, thanks to the effrontery of some Federal courts and their judges in deciding to hold the legal line against the reckless exercise of executive power, the rhetorical barrage to relentlessly undermine the judicial system has continued; as Miller infamously put it, the President’s ‘authority will not be questioned.’

Miller read his lines from a teleprompter; he was prepared to implement the next piece of the Bannon communication strategy and he was efficient, even if affectless, while doing so. Offering refutations of his many lies is going to be exhausting, and Bannon and Miller know it. The only possible counter strategy is to put out an opposing message–one that actually speaks to alternative policies and visions–and to relentlessly repeat it on every possible occasion. It is no shame to learn from one’s enemies; indeed, one must.

The Trump-Bannon Executive Order ‘Strategy’ And Its Rhetorical Value

The flurry of executive orders signed by Donald Trump since January 20th was designed to accomplish several objectives.

First, on attaining office, establish continuity between the ‘campaigning candidate Trump’ and ‘President Trump’ by acting to ‘implement’ the most visible campaign trail promises–the ones packing the most rhetorical punch. This should be done without regard to the legality, constitutionality, or practicality of implementation of the orders. These orders should bear the distinct impress of dynamic, purposeful action; their signings should be staged in impressive settings reeking of power; the president’s pen should resemble a sword cutting through legislative red tape. Their failure, their rollback, their rewriting, will obviously proceed in far more subtle fashion, perhaps under cover of the night. In press parlance, the whopper makes it to the front page, the correction finds its way to page seventeen. Red meat, even if tainted, needs to be thrown to the ‘base;’ the resultant feeding frenzy will keep them busy and distracted for a while. Passing laws is boring and staid; it speaks of negotiation and compromise; executive orders execute. Or at least, they seem to, which in the present circumstances might amount to the same thing–at least as far as the spectators are concerned.

Second, when these orders encounter political resistance in the form of citizens’ protests, as they almost certainly will, emphasize the source and nature of the opposition, even if these demonstrations and protests appear to be large and organized: focus on the marches in ‘elite, out-of-touch’ cities like New York and San Francisco; emphasize that the protesters are opposing action and appear happy with the status quo, in direct opposition to the dynamism of the president. (Useful idiots in the media can be relied upon to offer commentary like “these protesters seem to have made up their mind to oppose the president no matter what he does” etc. A few close-ups of women yelling slogans–to emphasize the ‘hysterical’ nature of the protests, and some of black protesters to make the claim that ‘they have nothing better to do’ will certainly make the rounds.) This will also allow the deployment of the usual ‘anti-American’ tropes.

Third, when the orders encounter legal resistance in the form of pushback from legal advisers, civil liberties lawyers, and Federal judges, emphasize again, its ‘elite’ nature: meddling, lying, lawyers; unelected activist judges imposing their self-indulgent wills on the general will of the people; law will now become synonymous with ‘red tape,’ regulations,’ and ‘rules.’ The bureaucratic nature of the legal system will be emphasized.

This is all great grist for the Bannon propaganda mill. The executive orders might not ‘work’ in one sense; they certainly will in another.

These strategies are not new; they are old and honorable members of the Republican Party’s playbook. They will, however, be implemented with unapologetic ferocity by an ideologically determined crew, using all the available machinery–sophistical and sophisticated–of modern communications at hand. The only weakness in this strategy is that it might not have anticipated the resultant ferocity of the opposition to it, and the unintended consequence of uniting an opposition that before the elections appeared disparate and disunited.

Drexel University Should Uphold George Ciccariello-Maher’s Academic Freedom

On Christmas Eve, George Ciccariello-Maher, Associate Professor at Drexel University, sent out a tweet which read as follows:

All I want for Christmas is White Genocide

There were no scare quotes around ‘White Genocide’ but the upper-case spelling was an indication that something less straightforward than calling for the genocide of white people was on the cards. (After all, Ciccariello-Maher could have just tweeted “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.’ Think I’m reading too carefully? What can I do–it’s an old habit of mine.) A little investigation–i.e., googling ‘white genocide’–produces the following link as the first hit:

White genocide is a white nationalist conspiracy theory that mass immigration, integration, miscegenation, low fertility rates and abortion are being promoted in predominantly white countries to deliberately turn them minority-white and hence cause white people to become extinct through forced assimilation.The phrase “Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white”, coined by high-profile white nationalist Robert Whitaker, is commonly associated with the topic of white genocide. It has been spotted on billboards near Birmingham, Alabama and in Harrison, Arkansas. [citations removed]

Was Ciccariello-Maher calling for ‘mass immigration, integration, miscegenation, low fertility rates and abortion‘ in particular communities as part of a strategy to render ‘white people…extinct’? I doubt it. (Though I don’t suppose he’d be unhappy with rights for immigrants,  the protection of abortion rights for women, etc.) Given the definition provided above, and given Ciccariello-Maher’s previous tweeting record, which includes many online spats with neo-Nazis, anti-semites, and an assorted army of trolls and deplorables, it is fair to surmise–indeed, it is an inference to the best explanation–that Ciccariello-Maher was cocking a snook at this army of trolls, throwing their term mockingly back in their face; he was, how you say, being satirical.

By way of related example, consider a Facebook status that I put up a a week or so ago:

Our campus safety officer sent us some ‘Holiday Safety Tips’ – you know, the usual, watch your purse and package etc. But no warnings about wearing earplugs for Christmas caroling, or avoiding wassailers like the plague. You may, if you like, consider this the opening salvo or broadside of the War on Christmas. By air, by land, by sea, and sometimes, by social network.

On one reading of my Facebook status, I seem to be declaring–by way of my suggestion that Chrismas carolers and wassailers require safety tips to be sent to those in their vicinity–a ‘War on Christmas’. Inquiring into the provenance of that phrase–which I have capitalized above–shows that it is a favorite of FOX News. I appear to be having a little gentle fun at those who would bemoan the secularization of the holiday season.

I provide this bordering-on-pedantic analyses of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet, because the investigation I carry out above is in point of fact an elementary one; anyone with a modicum of intelligence would arrive at the same conclusion I did: Ciccariello-Maher was being satirical. But not Ciccariello-Maher’s employers, Drexel University, who in response to a predictable chorus of bleating complaints from a Breitbart-led army of trolls–who also sent many death threats to Ciccariello-Maher–issued a statement of reprimand and concern; disciplinary action might yet be taken against Ciccariello-Maher.

This is a familiar situation: an academic makes an extra-mural political statement; complaints from the butt-hurt issue; university employers, their commitment to academic freedom always shaky, overreact. (The American Association of University Professors operative standards of academic freedom protect precisely the kind of political speech that is at play here.) Moreover, Drexel, by condemning the content of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet, seems to be taking on the position that it is ‘against’ ‘white genocide’–that is, it is against ‘mass immigration, integration, miscegenation, low fertility rates and abortion…being promoted in predominantly white countries to deliberately turn them minority-white and hence cause white people to become extinct through forced assimilation.’ I doubt Drexel has any such position–so why is it making such a claim?

The larger trend, on display here, is worrying too: as a new administration takes office, and installs Breitbart types in its administration, its faithful crack down on political speech they deem offensive. Drexel University should hold the line and protect the academic freedom of its employees, and not cave in as shamefully as they have here.

Note: The following is Ciccariello-Maher’s statement: Continue reading