Strident BLM activists are imposing their orthodoxy on race-related matters with a fervor approaching Red Scare McCarthyism
Should the issue of racism really trump all of America’s other flaws, such as runaway wealth inequality, out of control military spending, a corrupt finance system, an oligarchic mass media, and a throttled democracy?
Headcounters inform us that 15 to 25 million people have turned up in the past six weeks for demonstrations related to Black Lives Matter (BLM), making this one of the biggest waves of civic engagement in American history. A few reforms to policing are under discussion, and we see some shifts in political leanings – polls indicate enthusiasm for Trump ebbing, pessimism about the direction of the country rising, and support for reduced funding of police departments. But surely something broader is afoot?
It isn’t difficult to see that the BLM movement is making a real mark in two ways. In the conceptual realm, many BLM-supporting scholars are promoting an unabashedly narrow understanding of the driving forces of American history and power structures, ardently centered on racial oppression. On the ground, meanwhile, a strong current of left illiberalism has taken shape, wherein a minority of strident activists are imposing their orthodoxy on race-related matters with a fervor approaching Red Scare McCarthyism.
Andrew Sullivan, writing in The Intelligencer, has aptly characterized BLM’s analytical approach:
“It sees America as in its essence not about freedom but oppression. It argues, in fact, that all the ideals about individual liberty, religious freedom, limited government, and the equality of all human beings were always a falsehood to cover for and justify and entrench the enslavement of human beings under the fiction of race. It wasn’t that these values competed with the poison of slavery, and eventually overcame it…. It’s that the liberal system is itself a form of white supremacy…
“This view of the world certainly has “moral clarity.” What it lacks is moral complexity. No country can be so reduced to one single prism and damned because of it. American society has far more complexity and history has far more contingency than can be jammed into this rubric.”
Allow yourself a moment to survey the country’s primary problems. Your list might include:
Runaway global warming, plausibly a threat to all forms of life on earth within the foreseeable future.
A finance system that fuels corruption and capital flight from all over the world to “offshore” banking havens – meaning primarily UK dependencies and the US – thereby hollowing out their tax bases, and ours. The amounts are staggering, in the tens of trillions of dollars.
Runaway wealth inequality, which correlates persuasively to every measurable human pathology, across every geography, across all wealth groups. The biological consequences of the stresses accompanying inequality are heavy, and even punish the rich, as Richard G Wilkinson and Kate Pickett elaborate throughout their book The Spirit Level.
About 150 million Americans live with chronic disease, attributable partly to pollution from pesticides, plastics, pharmaceuticals, etc, and, likely also to the stress effects of wealth inequality.
The Pentagon’s colossal budget – unauditable and thus unaccountable to Congress – sucking out ever increasing resources, and inclining the US to stoke international tensions so as to justify the river of money.Also on rt.com Trump hails Obama! How the US president has turned to his predecessor’s ugly methods of repressing dissent to tackle BLM
A higher-education constellation steered more to producing profit than mature citizens, with a consequent erosion of America’s human capital on various planes.
A throttled democracy, where the trivial controls over campaign fundraising allow big-money donors and corporations to influence politicians. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) expressed his despair about crafting meaningful banking regulations back in 2009: “…the banks …frankly own the place.” And so the stimulus package gives hundreds of billions to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin with virtually no controls and with corrupt outcomes, but without public uproar.
An oligarchic mass media that erects a “wall of propaganda” (political commentator Cenk Uygur’s phrasing) against anything smelling like social democracy – and, I would add, any gesture of rapprochement with Russia, among other taboo subjects, including climate change, and military intervention.
Are any of these issues dependent on the legacy of American slavery? America has myriad challenges to face, the vestiges of slavery and racism among them, not above them. Contorting analytical approaches to prioritize the perspective of racial oppression obscures more than it illuminates. America needs citizens better informed on all of the crises listed above.
The trajectory of the George Floyd demonstrations seems to illustrate the risk of BLM becoming myopic. BLM architects in the academy insist that the goal is to end “racial capitalism” via a color-conscious version of social democracy, but the race-grievance dimension – once presented as all-eclipsing – drowns out all other messages. And so the mass media has easily channeled the demonstrations into very narrow terrain: demands to reduce police budgets and ensure accountability for rogue cops. (Not so long ago, be it noted, BLM leadership cozied up to numerous corporate donors, and has looked decidedly not revolutionary to keen critics such as social commentator Paul Street.)
Meanwhile, BLM’s self-righteous repudiation of America has found potent application in its culture wars. An armada of aggressive online social-justice warriors has honed a seemingly unbridled “cancel culture” – including iconoclasm (toppling statues, for example), conformity control (condemning the phrase “all lives matter”, or anything else that might somehow dilute anti-racist messaging), demanding participatory anti-racism on their terms (“silence is violence”, for instance), denunciations (branding any level of skepticism racist, and often insisting that beliefs straying from their line threaten the physical safety of black people), and punishment. Plenty of people accused of racism – or simply racial insensitivity, or less – have been fired, some even after making self-abasing confessions to their perceived sins, because their employer fears the wrath of the woke mob.
BLM did not invent any dimension of cancel culture, ie, the exclusion of tainted persons, groups or institutions from communication venues or respectful attention. Recall, for instance, the McCarthyist anti-communist witch hunts, or the establishment’s branding of anyone doubting the Russiagate narrative as a “Putin apologist.” But BLM’s stridency and moral certitude has fomented cancel culture.
Cancel culture is not risk-free to progressive causes. In 2017, its #metoo emanation claimed the career of Senator Al Franken, one of the most progressive senators – an outcome many of his colleagues regret. And this is not an epiphenomenon. On July 7, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter from more than 150 cultural luminaries, including left-wing icons Noam Chomsky and Gloria Steinem, expressing grave alarm over “… a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate… in favor of ideological conformity”, “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism”, a “tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”, and “calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”
They warn that “resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion,” and lament the cowardly obedience of corporate and university leaders in bowing to digital woke-mob demands. “We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists, who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement. This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”
Let’s hope that message gets through.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.