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America’s False Ideology of White Supremacy

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Oct 30, 2008 By Seth Sandronsky

Seth Sandronsky’s ZSpace Page / ZSpace

Recall the woman who told Sen. John McCain at a recent Minnesota rally that his opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, is an Arab and therefore not to be trusted? McCain “defended” Obama by contrasting Arabs and Americans as separate groups of people in a kind of hierarchy of trust.

That exchange speaks volumes on the ideology of white supremacy. It has been and continues to be a mirage of unity between Caucasian lower and upper classes. That has been so in varying degrees since America’s colonial days of black and Native people’s dehumanization and subjugation. The same ideology drove Chinese, Filipino and Mexican people’s exclusion from the U.S. mainstream. Also in this outcast mix, seen initially as non-whites, were Irish, Jewish, and southeastern European immigrants to the U.S.

Cut to today. For white supremacy to help sustain the widening income and wealth gap in the U.S., elected leaders can and do conjure an “Other,” a darker and dangerous sub-human to build up and put down for reasons of public safety and security. McCain’s Minnesota rally illustrates domestic and foreign threads of this ideology.

I turn here to Diana Ralph of Canada. She has an important chapter on “Islamophobia” in The Hidden History of 9-11-2001. Ralph shows how anti-Muslim bigotry, a demonization of the “Other,” works for the U.S. political class in mobilizing a grass-roots anger and fear after the East Coast attacks of Sept. 11. One result has been a sort of silent consent for the torture of prisoners of the war on terror, mainly non-white Muslims.

On that note of armed repression, Islamaphobia dovetails with the U.S.’s “peculiar institution” of white supremacy. That ideology is the wellspring for much of the Obama character assassination rhetoric of McCain and especially Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, his vice-presidential pick. An unclear number of their backers ape this vision, sadly.

I suggest that the tactic of baiting Obama as a racial Other comes in part as a response to the crumbling illusion of market competition’s benefits trickling down to the American people. Further, this approach seeks to defuse the short-lived rebellion from the populace of all backgrounds against Washington’s bailout of big creditors. The threat of a racially inclusive uprising from below of small debtors beset by a rising rate of home foreclosures, plus under- and unemployment, is real to upper class power. What horror!

Accordingly, McCain and Palin offer some white wage earners and pensioners a re-play of what African American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois called the “color line,” the main contradiction of U.S. democracy. From this ideology of skin-color inferiority and supremacy emerges the straw man of Obama as a reputed Arab and all-around danger to America.

Transcending the class and race contradictions of U.S. democracy, Du Bois noted, could yield to the American people a truly popular politics. That is the future, a very difficult thing to discuss, indeed. Yet discuss and act on it we must, in the present moment. This process, I maintain, would create a logic of more class and skin color equality and unity where too little exists now.

Such a reformation of U.S. society has high hurdles to clear. One is the economics and politics of locking down the throwaway people who employers no longer need to produce wealth. Crucially, this trend of caging and politically weakening the nation’s low-income blacks and Latinos foreshadowed the Bush II administration’s creation of Muslim “enemy combatants.” Together, the uses of these incarcerated populations serve the agenda of economics and politics as usual at home and abroad.

Now is the time for more rational discussion of the reasons for and results of white supremacy in domestic and foreign affairs. Laboring women and men of America have much to gain here. This holds true no matter which candidate, McCain or Obama, becomes the next resident on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento ssandronsky@yahoo.com


Written by Arroyoribera

October 30, 2008 at 7:09 pm

Posted in Commentary, History, Racism

Nader/Gonzalez 2008 — an alternative to pro-corporate political parties

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A week after the November 2004 presidential elections in the United States, I put a home made “Nader 2008” sticker on the back of my car. It is there to this day, though the harsh winter this year has taken a toll on it. I voted for Ralph Nader for President in 2000 and 2004. Now that Ralph Nader has announced for the Presidency again in 2008, I will vote for him again.

Why? Because someone must speak truth into the vacuum of silence and ruling class consensus created by the major media, the two-party political machine, and the corporate money which buys our candidates and the electoral process. With the exception of Dennis Kucinich, noone in the Democrat Party was willing to do so and Kucinich — when he would not shut up — was simply excluded from debates by the corporate-owned Democrat Party. Perhaps former U.S. Representative Cynthia McKinney will run as another voice of truth which can not be shut up. In that case, I will consider voting for her. The important thing is that we must not spend the next 8 months listening to the voices of corporate and ruling class rule in this country, to the exclusion of the true dreams of the U.S. people — peace, prosperity, equality, justice.

The only candidate worthy of my vote — and your vote — is a candidate willing to courageously stand and speak the truth about the United States as an aggressor imperialist nation, an international pariah, a nation ranking low in comparison with other industrialized world (and even in comparison with some developing nations) in many measures of societal well-being, as a racist nation perpetrating war on non-European peoples both abroad and at home.

Nader vs. Wolf Blitzer– http://youtube.com/watch?v=BiYYNfkVGSo&feature=related

VP candidate Matt Gonzalez — http://youtube.com/watch?v=UaoncB-akQY&feature=related



A Feb. 5 Star Tribune editorial claimed that Ralph Nader “undermines the democratic process” by running as an independent, anti-corporate candidate and refusing to join the Democratic Party.The reality is that it’s the two major parties in this country that undermine the democratic process by excluding all independent voices who seek to challenge their monopoly on power and the corporate domination of our political system. In 2000, the Democrats and Republicans colluded to exclude Ralph Nader from the debates even though a majority of Americans said they wanted him in them. In 2004, the Democratic Party and its supporting organizations spent tens of millions of dollars on lawsuits to keep Nader off the ballot in a vain attempt to ensure that voters would have to vote for their pro-war candidate John Kerry.The editorial also claims that Nader would have been able to have a major influence if he had given a national convention keynote at the Democratic National Convention, like Barack Obama in 2004. There’s no chance that the Democrats would ever, in a million years, allow Nader, who earned his reputation by attacking corporate interests — the very same interests that provide the majority of funding to the Democratic Party — to give a keynote speech at their convention.There’s nothing funny about the prostitution of our political system to big corporations. I sincerely hope that Ralph Nader will again run for president to provide a voice to those fed up with corporate power, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the $500 billion military budget, the criminal injustice system and racist war on drugs, and the enormous gaps between rich and poor in this country. If he doesn’t run, big business and their two-party system will be laughing all the way to the bank.



Written by Arroyoribera

February 26, 2008 at 10:07 pm

Posted in Commentary, Elections, Media

“The Karen Boone Incident”

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Do people in Spokane still remember what, according to Spokesman-Review writer Doug Floyd’s 1997 article in the American Journalism Review, “continues to be referred to in Spokane as ‘the Karen Boone incident’ “?

Do people remember the concerns about mistreatment of minority groups and racial profiling in Spokane expressed loudly by Spokane communities of color in 1997 and 2001 and 2003 and as recently as the summer 2007, mistreatment and profiling experienced, felt and discussed on a daily basis up until today?

Does anyone recall in 2001 former Spokesman-Review editor Ken Sands writing: “In Spokane, racial profiling by police is accepted as fact in the small minority population, and greeted with much skepticism by the vast white majority”?

Do you think that the experience of racism described over and over by minority members of this community and the sentiments unleashed in 1997 against courageous community members like Karen Boone simply disappear overnight?

What about the Spokane law enforcement recently referring to a fast gas owner as a “gypsy” and a “Hindu”?

What about Spokane Police illegally strip searching a black man?

What about the police killings of boys and men from diverse Spokane communities — Eagle Michael, Jerome Alford, Otto Zehm, and others?

Is Spokane a racist town?

Can you imagine what would have been the outcome of the incident of Spokane Police Officer Jay Olsen shooting Shonto Pete in the head if Pete had been killed by Olsen rather than having survived as he did having been shot in the back of the head?

I will tell you what the outcome would have been. They would have sobered Olsen up, put him back in his uniform, strapped him into his squad car, and said, “Get back in there white boy, we need ya”.

Does a decade make any difference? How do we know? What is the report from the man and woman and boy and girl in the street? In the classroom? In the welfare office? In the opera house? In the cathedral? In the mall? In the hospital?

Do we know? Do we care? Do we think it matters?

Or would we rather it just all go away?

A Sacrifice for Civic Journalism

American Journalism Review (July/August 1997)

By G. Douglas Floyd
G. Douglas Floyd is an interactive editor at the Spokesman-Review.

Karen Boone agreed to write a column, not pull the pin on a hand grenade. Call it her sacrifice for civic journalism.

A 37-year-old African American in the 92 percent white city of Spokane, Washington, Boone was convinced to voice her opinions about her community’s diversity (or lack thereof) in the local paper, the Spokesman- Review. In a February 26 (1997) column she related a poignant tale of her participation in a community leadership group, an experience that led to her painful realization that even she had become desensitized to the feelings of ethnic invisibility faced by minorities in Spokane.

The paper’s editors felt her story was a perfect fit for the S-R’s “Your Turn” column, a feature created during a February 1994 overhaul of the editorial pages with the intention of providing a forum for Spokane citizens who felt they were being overlooked in the paper’s coverage (see “Climbing Down from the Ivory Tower,” May 1995). Boone was reluctant to contribute at first, fearing her privacy would be at stake. But eventually she decided she owed it to herself and to other minorities in the community who felt, as she did, that the local paper did not accurately represent them.

In her column, Boone described the “psychological loneliness and isolation” she experienced as a teenager growing up in Spokane, and her “diligent attempt” to adapt culturally to life in the city. “I must ultimately find a way to maintain my ethnic authenticity while seeking to find my way of life in Spokane,” Boone wrote.

The end result of Boone’s effort to enlighten Spokane’s mainstream shocked Boone and her editors alike. Her 400 words in the S-R ignited intense community debate about Spokane’s racial attitudes that continues to ripple.

The backlash took the form of an incendiary letter Boone received the day after her column ran. “You niggers really piss me off. Bitch & complain is all you worthless assholes are good for,” it began, going on to suggest Boone go “back to Africa & swing with the baboons.”

Concerned but not frantic, Boone called the paper to tell of what her column had wrought. She faxed in a letter to the editor in response to the hate mail. A local human rights group called Unity in Action got word of what continues to be referred to in Spokane as “the Karen Boone incident,” and challenged the paper to publish not only Boone’s response but the hate letter itself.

On March 11, the Spokesman-Review published both letters, along with an editorial denouncing the hateful act and telling readers how to get involved in local human and civil rights activities.

“Our responsibility was to continue what we’d started,” says S-R Editor Chris Peck. “We were trying to get real voices in the paper talking about what it’s like to be a person of color living in Spokane, and the events that unfolded added another chapter to that story.”

And another and another, it seemed to Boone. As she tried to get beyond the incident and focus her energy on her new job as head of Spokane’s Institute for Neighborhood Leadership, people kept coming to her with their personal stories of wrangling with racial issues. Blacks revealed to her their daily experiences with prejudice. Whites unburdened their long-repressed consciences.

As Spokane citizens mobilized in support of Boone, keeping her story alive by flooding the S-R with letters and calls on her behalf, members of Unity in Action organized a public rally in a downtown park and enlisted Boone as a speaker.

“We wanted to let people know we’re not going to take it,” says Robert Lloyd, one of the rally organizers and publisher of the African American Voice, an alternative paper.

Boone still feels overwhelmed with stress, and her teenage children, one of whom opened the hate letter thinking it was addressed to her, struggle with anxiety.

But the incident galvanized the community, and provided a fitting backdrop for a much-needed public discussion about racism. Lloyd, a 23-year resident of the city, says the Spokesman-Review handled the incident well. The only criticism he’s heard, he says, is the one Boone herself has expressed to the paper: Somebody should have warned her what would happen.

“I probably would have done it anyway,” she now says, “but I would have liked to have been better prepared for what happened.”

Peck says preparing guest writers for unpleasant replies is one of the reasons the paper has “interactive” editors — to serve as allies and mentors and to connect with readers. Another reason is to build bridges to sectors of the community, including minority populations that don’t feel the newspaper reflects their

Lloyd says the Spokesman-Review has made headway, but not yet enough to be widely embraced by the city’s black community. “The S-R is like a guy whose wife caught him with somebody else,” he says. “It’s going to take a long time to win trust.”

Written by Arroyoribera

February 20, 2008 at 9:26 pm

Posted in Commentary, Media, Racism

Walk a Mile in my Shoes — Everlast (Video)

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Spokane Police officer: “I have a job…to get these shit bags out of the park”

You may have read the Spokesman-Review article about the September 19, 2007 forum/chat with Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick. The article referred to Carmen Jacoby, an outreach worker from the Community Health Association of Spokane (CHAS).

I was present at the forum when Jacoby told of being on a “bridge walk” with WSU nursing students at the 4th and Monroe Bridge Park. She described how a Spokane Police officer showed up. Jacoby told Chief Kirkpatrick and the public how she attempted to ask the officer a question to which he responded, “Who are you?”

Jacoby answered the officer, at which point he told her, “I have a job to do. I have to get these shit bags out of the park“.

Offended by the officer’s remark, Jacoby asked the officer for his badge number. The officer then told her to move back or he would put her in the back of his patrol car.

The Spokesman-Review’s report on Jacoby’s statement to the Chief at the forum reads, “Jacoby said the officer used an obscenity to refer to the homeless”.

The obscenity used by the officer to refer to the homeless was “shit bags“.

Chief Kirkpatrick is known for promoting her “zero tolerance policy” on misconduct. Apparently it does not apply either to calling citizens “shit bags” (or “faggots” for that matter) nor does it extend to threatening to put community professionals in the back of your patrol car for asking for your badge number.

Would it be exaggerating to say that the Chief’s once impressive little PR line about “zero tolerance” and her other little ditty about “you lie, you die” are starting to sound a little hollow?

God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes, ’cause then you really might know what it’s like to sing the blues


For a complete version of “What it’s like”, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L–IXGV797Y

Written by Arroyoribera

February 11, 2008 at 7:14 am

Posted in Commentary, Poverty, Videos

Newsroom Diversity Report on the Spokesman-Review — Non-representative but better than its peers

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According to the 2005 Newsroom Diversity report produced by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Spokesman-Review newspaper — the daily newspaper monopoly in Spokane, Washington — is doing better than many of its peers in the industry but still has a minority newsroom staff disproportionately small in relationship to the diversity of its readership.

If the weekly VOX newspaper — a Spokesman-Review production edited and written by Spokane area high school students — is seen as part of the S-R’s efforts to develop the newsroom of the future at the Spokesman-Review, one can see why the Spokesman’s newsroom fails to reflect the diversity of the Spokane region, however small that regional diversity is. And one can see why, unless pro-active measures are taken by Spokesman-Review editor Steve Smith and his staff, the Spokesman will continue to lag in the area of diversity and the ability to see the world from what Spokane homeless and GLBT advocate Dr. John “Gus” Olsen calls “the perspective of other”.

A look at the editorial membership of the VOX is very revealing. A quick look down the left side of The Vox Box blog page reveals the 17 faces — 16 students and one faculty — who make up the VOX editorial staff. A discussion on diversity on the The Vox Box last year resulted in a call from one student for me to be banned from not only that blog but from all Spokesman-Review blogs (“How much of an issue is diversity in Spokane” — part 1 and part 2 at The Vox Box.)

To his credit, Spokesman-Review editor Steve Smith was able to acknowledge and clearly articulate what the overwhelmingly white staff of the VOX could not understand or acknowledge: that diversity in the newsroom is crucial to democratic society and to the ability of a publication to report on, much less understand, the world in which we live. Some of Mr. Smith’s thinking on the matter, including a vow by Smith that in the future the VOX staff will be more diverse, can be found at this post entitled “Diversity in the News” at the S-R’s News is a Conversation blog.

[For those who are unaware, it bears pointing out that Steve Smith is considered a “trailblazer” and a maverick in the journalism business. He is a figure of considerable importance and notice in the world of newspaper publishing for his innovations and explorations of the “transparent newsroom” and “interactive dialogue”, as well as for experimentation in how to integrate the world of the newsprint paper with that of electronic “print” news.]

American Society of Newspaper Editors — Resource on Diversity in Journalism

Freedom ForumFor newspapers to reflect their communities, newsroom staffs and the stories they cover should closely mirror the diversity of the population in the newspapers’ circulation areas. The Freedom Forum is charting an aggressive course to identify, recruit and train people of color for journalism careers.

PBS Online NewsHour — Newspaper editors across the country assert that they’re trying to achieve a better racial balance on their staffs, but many journalists of color say they’re still underrepresented at work.

Written by Arroyoribera

February 6, 2008 at 10:23 pm

Posted in Commentary, Diversity, Media

Dr. Tom Jeannot on MLK, Permanent War, and the Illusion of Democracy

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Dr. Tom Jeannot — Gonzaga University’s brilliant radical philosopher — spoke on the morning of February 2, 2008 at the monthly Spokane Humanist breakfast in north Spokane. These were his passionate and timely words:


Permanent war and the illusion of democracy

I’d like to begin by thanking Bart Haggin for inviting me back again to the Humanist Breakfast. It’s been a while since I’ve spoken in public, and since I tend to sound like a broken record, I hope I’ll have something new to say this morning. Since Bart extended the invitation, I hope to address, if not quite directly, a topic about which he’s been thinking, speaking, and writing for some time now, namely, power, which he broadly divides into three great kinds: the military and police power of the state; the economic power of the captains of industry and finance; and, not as an afterthought but the key to it all, is popular power, the power of the organized people themselves. Bart is confident that through organizing, which he holds to be the hardest but the most important work we can do, people’s power can resist and even overcome the pernicious effects of an increasingly militarized national security state, both domestically and abroad; and of the political economy of the few-oligarchs or plutocrats-arrayed against the many, ordinary working people and their diminishing expectations, facing as they are the mounting threats against so much as a modicum of economic and financial security, their wages declining, their hours longer, their benefits precarious, their pensions vanished, their homes threatened with foreclosure, teetering on the edge of personal bankruptcy, living paycheck to paycheck, the costs of healthcare and education soaring in a seemingly endless inflationary spiral, and all of the impacts of petroleum, still traded in dollars, selling at $100 a barrel.

It’s not that I think Bart is wrong about organizing, but the people in their large numbers, the working-class majority, confront a hard-fought uphill battle, and it’s difficult to see, in the short term, how reality could be on their side, against the increasing colonization and domestication of our lives by the forces of state-administration, the political economy of globalized capital, and the adjutants of capital in the culture industry and corporate media who operate a propaganda machine that would have been the envy of Joseph Goebbels. (This is sometimes called “the news.”)

Our soul-wearying, life-sapping Age of Reagan grinds on, as well as the world-historical reality to which this Age arose in reaction of a global race to the bottom in the epoch of state-capitalism. Unless you’re independently wealthy, this is the treadmill you’re on, like it or not. Being on a treadmill might not be so bad by itself, we’re well enough accustomed and nicely habituated to the daily grind of our lives, except that it has a destination or an eschatological horizon that can only evoke our horror or terror the moment we pause in our plodding, heads bowed low, to turn our gaze towards the fate we may not be able to avert, of thermonuclear holocaust and ecological collapse, which are the final destinations of advanced industrial, state-capitalist, bourgeois society.

To which the answer might be a platitude on the lips of a George W. Bush or a Newt Gingrich, the classic triple play. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who not coincidentally was a member of the Nazi Party, famously said in his interview with Der Spiegel, which he gave on the condition that it be published only posthumously (as it was in May of 1976, a decade after he gave it), “Only a god can save us now.” For a Bush or a Gingrich, such a divinity, essentially the opposite of what Heidegger had in mind, is nevertheless held to be sacred: technological innovation, what’s called “the entrepreneurial spirit” or “the American genius of free enterprise,” and the theology of what goes by a euphemism worthy of the Pentagon, virginally springing from the head of our latter-day Zeus — Zeus now disguised and donning the garb of the professional economist — only more like the Gorgon Medusa than the goddess of wisdom herself: namely, the so-called “free market,” which allegedly, like a force of nature, dispenses its blessings and disposes over all things. Technology, entrepreneurship, and the structural adjustment programs of neoliberalism might hold the keys to the kingdom — I think it says somewhere in the New Testament, “Thou art Milton Friedman, upon this rock I build my church” — but a betting person, back to the wall in this winter of 2008, might not be willing to bet the farm. If this answer proves correct, by the way, and I’m entirely wrong in my self-assigned role of Chicken Little, it won’t much matter whether the next Commander-in-Chief is Hillary Obama or Mitt McCain, or whether Silvio Berlusconi is restored to power in Italy or Nicolas Sarkozy succeeds or fails in imposing an “American model” on French national life, or whether Ehud Olmert resigns or holds his fragile coalition together in Israel, or whether Osama bin Laden is captured “dead or alive.” The wisdom of Margaret Thatcher might be the wisdom of this age, who said, “There is no alternative.” Or Francis Fukuyama may be right after all with his euphoric prediction at the end of the Cold War that we have at last arrived to the end of history and all people want in Indonesia is Playstation 3. But I suppose it would be redundant to say that this is not where I’m placing my bet.

In which case, something else truly grim appears, our dire national emergency, about which the American psyche seems so strangely complacent, whether we indulge our taste for the daily newspaper, or Katie Couric, or the slightly more highbrow Snooze Hour or NPR. The campus where I teach is eerily sanitized, like the Skywalk or the Northtown or the Valley Mall. Or I push my cart down the aisles of Fred Meyer or some other mega-store adrift in the daydream of my solipsistic bubble, having pulled into the mega-parking lot provided for my convenience as the sole occupant of my four-door sedan. Safely insulated from Jena, Louisiana, from Baghdad and New Orleans, from Kabul and Kinshasa, Nairobi and Mogadishu, the Gaza Strip and the refugee camps, inner-city Detroit and the suburbs of Paris, the outskirts of Mexico City and shantytown Soweto, the slave-labor cities of China and the sweatshops of Bangladesh and Honduras, the daily grinding poverty of Peshawar and East L.A., I swipe the magnetic strip of my plastic card and load my baubles into the trunk of my car. Like the man who jumped off the Empire State Building, I pass the fiftieth floor and tell myself so far, it’s going pretty well. After all, I have everything that James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, joked that any Black person would want, before he was forced to resign in disgrace, as if the pervasive racism of our society could be quarantined in the person of a single evangelical Christian who watches and waits with his Zionist cohort for the second coming of Christ, blazing in glory no doubt, like Slim Pickens astride a nuclear warhead, aimed not at the Temple Mount but Teheran, where the Evil Empire has since relocated its demonic headquarters.

Now this much is merely confessional and not the social science, the critical theory of society you’ve turned out to hear this morning. Thinking of my point of departure as I was driving home from the airport after a blistering weekend in Chicago, having only hours before cabbed my way across the devastated south side of that great American city, I was forcefully reminded that it was the national holiday in honor of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. when a public affairs program on KYRS re-broadcast the famous speech now known as “Beyond Vietnam,” the breaking of his silence of perhaps the greatest American figure of the latter half of the twentieth century. Thinking of the U.S. war of aggression on the peoples of Southeast Asia, in the totality of its meaning and implications, Dr. King urged that the great need of that hour, which neither Lyndon Johnson nor Hillary Clinton seems to have heeded, was in his words a “radical revolution of values.” It was King the revolutionary now speaking and not the plaster-of-paris saint whose grandiloquence we have come to prefer in the diction, say, of a Barack Obama. It was this King who quoted a Buddhist monk as follows:

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism…

It was this King, addressing his auditors there at the Riverside Church in New York, who quoted “the late John F. Kennedy,” the murdered President whose words, King said, have now “come back to haunt us….[:] ‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.'” This revolutionary King whose path would lead him to Memphis as surely as Christ went down to Jerusalem had come to the meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned on April 4, 1967 in order to warn the peaceniks there that:

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…, we will find ourselves organizing ‘clergy and laymen concerned’ committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. So such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.

At the Humanist Breakfast this morning, we will surely grant Dr. King his measure of poetic license in order to say that the “calling” of the “sons [and daughters] of the living God” denotes the humanity inscribed in the essential meaning of humanism, the churchgoers then knowing as surely as we know today that, in King’s words, the “recent statements of [the] executive committee [of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam] are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.’ That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam” (emphasis mine).

A time comes when silence is betrayal, even as we march and rally “without end” in the futility of public protest, corralled as we are in the Bush Adminstration’s “free speech zones,” which are really the cattle pens of our irrelevance. For it is the immeasurably sad truth of the American polity forty years after Riverside that no “significant and profound change” has occurred “in American life and policy,” King’s call for revolution having fallen on deaf ears and the hearts of stone of what our friend Brad Read once a week calls the Zombie Nation. (You can listen to Brad and his guests on the KYRS public affairs program, “Zombie Nation,” airing live at 11 on Saturday mornings and re-broadcast Tuesday afternoons at 3.)

At Riverside, King said,

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered….

Yet our social life forty years later is even more cast in the pattern of what the Hassidic Jew, mystic and philosopher Martin Buber called the “I-It” relation, as distant from the “I-Thou” relation as the Colville Confederated Tribes Reservation and the Spokane Indian Reservation are from the Couer D’Alene Hotel Golf and Spa Resort, whose website informs us that they “have mastered the art of relaxation,” offering “luxurious accommodations, rejuvenating spa treatments, sumptuous cuisine, and breathtaking holiday displays,…the destination of choice for discerning travelers worldwide.” Presumably one can find there too an emperor who fiddles while a ring of fire encircles the globe. Don’t get me wrong, I like luxurious accommodations and sumptuous cuisine as much as the next guy and gal, and they are often on my mind as I push my cart through the solipsistic bubble of my private reveries, every bit as much a zombie as the strangers to my right and left may or may not be, as fascinated by “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights” as President Bush told me I should be in his rousing speech to the nation right after the September 11 attacks, asking not what my country can do for me but what I can do for my country; to wit: “Go shopping.”

Thinking that I would make Dr. King’s speech at the Riverside Church my point of departure for this talk this morning, I had in mind the triple evil he called out by name on April 4, 1967. But when I listened to that speech on my way into town from the airport, I thought for sure he had named “racism, economic exploitation, and militarism” as the hydra-headed monstrosity disfiguring the image of America and situating it in the antipodes of “the right side of the world revolution,” its polar opposite, not merely counter-revolutionary but the very bastion and emblem of reaction. Instead, at Riverside, King called out “extreme materialism” as the middle term mediating its monstrous twins, racism and militarism. That it was not “economic exploitation” he said at Riverside troubled me for reasons I don’t have the time to explain this morning, except to say that “extreme materialism” and “economic exploitation” are not in fact synonyms, and one might just as well hear Focus on the Family or the malevolent Pat Robertson decry the evils of “materialism” from their televangelical and mega-church pulpit, a bully pulpit if ever there was one to overawe the originator’s, that other great imperialist and prophet of manifest destiny, the rough-rider Theodore Roosevelt, whose butchery in the Philippines set the archetypal pattern for the American Century to come. I was disturbed enough by the non-coincidence of terms to look into it more deeply, which is how I discovered what you probably already know, that King had given two speeches damning the carnage in Vietnam in that April of 1967, and that the speech that was broadcast on KYRS was not the Riverside speech at all of April 4, but the speech he gave from his hometown pulpit, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on April 30. On April 4, he did single out “extreme materialism,” the damning expression that might fall from the lips of any preacher or priest, even a fascist’s.

Whole paragraphs of the April 30 speech repeat April 4 verbatim, but it’s in the April 30 speech that he substitutes “economic exploitation.” I’m not a King scholar and so I can’t say why he shifted his terms in speeches otherwise so nearly identical that the KYRS host confused the one for the other, except that it constitutes a striking and important difference in meaning. An orator as brilliant as King does not line up his terms and relations randomly or accidentally. Their precise order matters, and it matters to get it right. In the syllogistic reasoning King would have mastered through the course of his doctoral studies at Harvard and Boston University, the middle term is crucial. At Riverside, King linked racism to militarism through the middle term of “extreme materialism,” but I’ll venture the guess that the ambiguity and vagueness of this expression bothered him and he searched for a language more precise, less equivocal, and closer to home of the message he sought to convey. As it happened, just the right term occurred to him by April 30, and it was “economic exploitation,” the precise expression to characterize a social universe of “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights,” a “thing-oriented” and not a “person-oriented” society, which not by accident was racist and militarist to its core. King’s purpose was to indict the very foundations of the society he loved, in much the same way as the poet he quoted, “that black bard of Harlem,” Langston Hughes, who had written: “O, yes, I say it plain/ America never was America to me/ and yet I swear this oath–/ America will be!” Such an America to be, known deep in the souls of black folk, whose own freedom struggle is the signal beacon of any shining city on a hill, is nothing less than the opposite and the negation of an America that “never was America to me”: or in King’s words, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death….”

That condition of spiritual death has already descended on the Zombie Nation we have finally and actually become: not the people but their masters, and not their masters in the form of proper names, but the mastery of a finely honed killing machine whose death grip has us all by the throat and is choking us to death. There is a terrible logic at work whose origin we could trace all the way back to the primal genocidaire named Christopher Columbus. To come closer to our own time, however, Chalmers Johnson has recently revived the category of “military Keynesianism,” the final solution to the crisis of capital accumulation and the law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit that nearly destroyed the capitalist mode of production in the aftermath of the stock market collapse in October of 1929. But capitalism is nothing if not resilient: the shift from nineteenth-century laissez faire to state capitalism took three discrete forms in the 1930s: Stalinism, fascism, and the liberal welfare state of the other Roosevelt’s New Deal, all three of which essentially relied on massive rearmament and the total mobilization of society for permanent war.

If the fascist and Stalinist forms were consigned to the dustbin of history, the modern liberal welfare state appeared to have survived unscathed, regenerating accumulation and giving rise to the greatest economic expansion known to humanity, lasting roughly from 1945 to the deep recession of 1974-75, when the next accumulation crisis nearly shipwrecked the nation-state project a second time in the course of less than half a century, presaged by the oil crisis of 1973. As News & Letters made the crucial point in its August-September 2007 issue, “Since the mid-1970s, it has become clear that welfare state policies conflict with the expansionary requirements of capitalist value production. This has eliminated the economic basis of progressive liberalism. The Social Democratic or liberal Left has proven unable to effectively challenge the Right because the objective basis upon which its policies were predicated has seriously eroded.” In other words, the abiding significance of the Reagan-Thatcher years was the state decision, in Bill Clinton’s words, to bring an end to “welfare as we know it.”

Welfare-state liberalism, based on Keynesian economic theory and policy, is no longer viable today, necessitating the austerity measures that are wrecking the lives of working people everywhere, not only in the U.S. but around the globe. With the triumph of the Chicago School, Keynes is dead in every respect but the only one that truly mattered: military spending and the deepening militarization of the whole of society. This has little or nothing to do with who is the Commander-in-Chief or which political party momentarily has the upper hand. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, however, a thorny ideological problem came to the fore, the solution to which was a matter of no small consequence in order to forestall what the German philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas aptly named a “legitimation crisis.” The voluntary compliance of the citizenry has proven to be necessary, which in turn can be secured only if Oceania is permanently at war with Eurasia and Eastasia. To this end, slogans are necessary, and after “Crusade” failed to pass muster with the early focus groups, fortunately, “freedom and democracy” were near at hand.

Living in what Michel Foucault, quoting Jeremy Bentham, called the “panopticon,” an ideal prison in which the prisoner is subject to a surveillance so total that no watchman or guard is necessary, the society we live in today has at last metamorphosed into what the American philosopher Jeffrey Paris calls “the carceral society,” a society for which a massive prison-industrial complex, the Bagram prison in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib near Baghdad, and the concentration camp at Guantanamo, an official state policy of torture and so-called “extraordinary renditions,” a doctrine of the “unitary executive,” and the suspension of habeas corpus are prerequisites. Likewise pandemic racism and militarism.

Only a few brief years ago, the nation-state project of the U.S. was “hegemony,” to use the term that Chomsky took from the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci: unrivalled economic, geopolitical, and military supremacy. As of the winter of 2008, however, as we twist in the gale-force winds of still another accumulation crisis, the U.S. has become the largest debtor nation in the world, and geopolitically, King’s prophecy taken from a Buddhist monk has come to pass as people around the world revile the US and see naked imperialism for what it is. This means that the only card the US has left to play is its unparalleled military might, the only arena in which Keynes still has a purchase, which is steadily bankrupting us at the same time the Commander-in-Chief invokes the specter of World War III. Apparently, the drive to permanent war requires the formation of a national-security state, hostile in every way to whatever vestige of “democracy” there still may be.

It’s hard today to believe that Langston Hughes’s oath would still be worthwhile taking, and yet it’s equally hard and nearly impossible to see any other way out. Martin Luther King was a revolutionary, and the time for revolution is now, just in case it’s not already too late. How far Clinton, Obama, McCain, or Romney are from any of this is also the measure of the illusion democracy has become. It seems to me that when King substituted “economic exploitation,” he knew what he was saying. I’m not suggesting that King was a Marxist, although this has been alleged by the John Birch Society and J. Edgar Hoover. But the exploitation of labor-power is the engine of surplus value, self-expanding value is the goal of the system, people are reduced to equipment of the vast economic machine, and I can’t help feeling that our mechanized, routinized lives grow darker by the day when official state policy is a program of mass murder and the time of Dr. King has passed us by.

Tom Jeannot

February 2, 2008


Read Jeannot’s thoughts on the July 4, 2007 “near police riot” in Riverfront Park as well as reflections by another author on the topic of “What does self-defense against a police riot look like?

Written by Arroyoribera

February 2, 2008 at 3:27 pm