“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published by Harper’s Magazine (7/7/20), lauds the recent climate of protest for spurring calls for police reform as well as greater inclusion and equality, but laments what came with it: a new set of “moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our social norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”
Yet polarization has been the norm for some time and open debates the exception. Scripts and slogans face off in sound-byte sensationalism between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, left and right, leaving the engagement with the ideas that can heal this malady lacking. The free exchange of ideas is the lifeblood of liberal society and the precondition for democracy, but access to information by a plurality of citizens who have time to process it for this purpose is necessary for quality debates. This liberal pluralist model is becoming endangered, some say, though in fact it has barely ever existed.
The production and dissemination of information has become concentrated in fewer and fewer corporations since the mergers-and-acquisitions mania arrived in the late 70s. This has helped repress alternative voices, the resulting power imbalance nullifying the necessity for the entrenched interests to engage in debates. The rise of the internet promised to expand access to the increasing information flow, thus empowering more citizens to participate in debates. But the net we have now is a conglomerated species of this corporate concentration, offering quite limited individual access to its algorithmic power. It delivers a wealth of information, but social media constricts expression to tweets and a paucity of characters, minimizing critical thinking and making it difficult for dissenting voices to make headway against the powerful status quo. Its one-dimensional dynamic lends itself to quick-hitting, packaged positions and not interactive discussions.
Trump has mastered this kind of “communication,” spreading doses of distortion into the cybersphere that are devoid of the propositional value necessary to generate significant debates. His tweets are reactive snips of policy that don’t factor since he lacks a larger theory of governance, and snipes at personal targets, throwing cancellation tantrums that reveal the thwarting of his desire to exert total authority. But the performance peccadilloes and substance confusion of the Trump spectacle distract from the conformity of an agenda that more rigidly authorizes neoliberalism.
Trump’s response to the pandemic reveals the effects of this rigidity and how the thwarting of his desire to exert total control leads to ever more cancellation tantrums that reinforce the chaotic effects of his administration’s ideological conformity.
This crisis demands strong, decisive authority but also flexibility, an openness to the suggestions of Mayors and Governors and other players along the chain of authority. Trump ignores most of what he hears—especially the science pertaining to Covid—and reprimands dissenters while the virus spreads. In a national emergency the get-government-out-of-our-lives mindset has to be suspended; the profit-driven private sector that links health care to employment must be transcended. The application of absolute authority can be efficient and humane. Witness how China, and other countries with benevolent governmental traditions like Germany and South Korea, refunctioned private power to quickly master the crisis.
Trump’s authoritarian failure has produced a mess of inefficiencies—leaving a near epidemic lack of inclusion and equality open to view—that must be denied or scapegoated away. But the unnecessary deaths are the most striking consequence of this failure, which fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable sectors. Total authority directed against those with the least power in society will qualify as fascist, a charge efficiently hurled at Trump for some time now. Fascism invariably targets a special sector or ethnic group of the powerless, and usually for extinction. The greater incidence of deaths among blacks and other minorities certainly qualifies, though their lack of access to good jobs with healthcare also predisposes them and other deprived cultures—like the white working class—to conditions that make them more vulnerable.
The disproportionate incarceration of blacks in institutions where the virus is especially lethal is the product of a systemic racism functional for generations. Trump’s position on migrants and asylum seekers has been labeled racist, his alleged targeting of the racial groups from the “s-hole” countries of the south for deportation possible evidence of a fascist agenda, not to mention the existence of ICE’s detention centers (loosely compared to the Nazi death camps). Yet it should be noted that Obama deported more illegals to these same countries than Trump has (Zachary B. Wolf, “Yes, Obama Deported More People Than Trump,” CNN, 7/13/2019). This “deporter-in-chief” possessed a degree of immunity for his immigration policies, his diplomatic demeanor positive reinforcement.
Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric has compounded his policy negatives. And his reticence if not full refusal to disavow support for alt-right and white-supremacist fringe groups—whose ideas are pandered by Stephen Miller, his senior advisor—reinforces the suggestion of racism. A recent book traces this influence (Jean Guerrero, Hatemonger, William Morrow). The Republican Party’s dismal representation of blacks since the Goldwater loss in 1964—the Obama elections excepted—weighs heavy on efforts to counter such influence. Nearly 10% of blacks voted for Trump in 2016, one of the highest percentages, but that is sure to decline in the upcoming election.
The Trump administration’s execution of neoliberalism, a rigid Social Darwinist rendition, indirectly targets the mass of vulnerable. No need for camps or middlemen. The unprotected and uninsured are efficiently converted to statistics and banished from the census. This system freely develops itself while many of its subjects freely express their individualism, ignoring whatever they might notice about how this systemic classism functions. The prolific attacks against Trump the person, his style, have screened us from learning how.
One of the positives of the current protest climate, according to the “Letter,” is the “calls” for more inclusion and equality, more verbal attention to this issue in the hope that substantive policies might follow. But new attitudes stewing in this climate have stiffened the political activism, obviating the desire for debate, and leaving a tendency to “dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” The brutality and transparency of the George Floyd killing was perhaps the catalyst for the most aggressive protest movement in generations, steeped in a righteous consensus. Scripts were accordingly weaponized in the urgency of the moment, doing battle to cancel the wrong responses and ideas and censor erupting differences.
Absolute morality—too much moral certainty—can produce an epiphanic blindness that endorses the quick embrace of correctness, and the oversimplifications that prejudge the facts. It is fed by abstractions that bear little relation to reality’s messy contradictions that must be seen and grasped to form a semblance of the truth. Relative morality on the other hand is fed by hesitation in the face-off with unpredictable existence, the reserving of judgment to prepare for necessary adjustments.
It’s difficult to understand the immoral consequences associated with the profusion of righteous scripts, the series of reprisals erupting from such a potentially-liberating moment. Like the firing of the New York Times op-ed page editor for publishing Senator Tom Cotton’s support for sending Federal troops to stabilize zones still occupied by protestors; and the firing of the employee who cited data from a study by Omar Wasow, Princeton political scientist, showing how the riots in the late 1960s coincided with a shift of support toward law and order and the election of Richard Nixon (a kind of maiming the messenger blooper that slighted the role of the media in shaping such shifts in opinion).
Media censorship always comes into play to manage protest events, with mainstream venues decidedly supportive of “law and order.” During the last great uprising, the Seattle WTO protests that terminated the Clinton presidency, the narrative that unorganized labor was fighting the global sweat-shopping forces stewed beneath the story that destructive anarchists were sabotaging the progress of world trade (see “Trading Terror, Making Democracy,” Left Curve, #27). The momentum of the recent protests has perhaps mandated a form of payback—politically-correct compensation for perennial biases—that immunizes activists. DemocracyNow, for example, slights or ignores the violence perpetrated by blacks against others and their own, targeting mostly the events that secure their victimization.
Then there’s the vigilante statue-censorship. The Robert E. Lee types are a slam dunk and long overdue to be canceled. But some, like that of Ulysses S. Grant, for example, are far from consistent representations of racism or any other disease. Their historical contradictions will no longer be visibly present as a stimulant for future generations to master them. And canceling, like silencing, breeds more of the same, steadily eliminating choices and narrowing the boundaries of what can be said. The solution to this in the “Letter” is to add options and expose citizens to more arguments.
But since the market of ideas is mostly owned and controlled by the few, how realistic is it to endorse the imaginary freedom of the liberal pluralist model as a solution? Not everyone can add their two cents to the arguments equally. The evolution of the protests was dictated by the participants’ reactions to this imbalance, the need to force issues into the limelight and strive for some degree of relative parity. The enveloping moral certainty and conformity were not caused by the protests, which were the effect of a culture conditioned by a lack of the free exchange of ideas, years of talk by representatives failing to work the system successfully.
The George Floyd flashpoint galvanized “certainty,” and the subsequent tactics mimicked the memes and means at hand, the proof shaped by our weakened norms for open debate—and Mr. Trump’s actions—that it’s okay to skip steps and authorize at will to get results; oversimplify to spawn a process that can lead to the complexity of positive actions; cancel in order to avoid final cancellation.
These are the tactics of the cultural activists—doing battle through the logic of the new social movements that survive the new left’s decline—that conservatives have condemned over the years, the aggressive push to teach the un-enlightened the errors of their ways and accept that America needs to be more diverse, racist-free, sexist-free, homophobic-free, etc. Against charges of forcing it, and even resorting to fascist methods, these activists proceed with an eyes-wide-open “moral certainty” that might cut a few corners but succeed in canceling a lot of bad and progressing toward a more inclusive, democratic citizenry.
What have the Democrats done to extract positives from the protest climate and possibly cancel the tendencies the “Letter” claims emerged from them? Their convention was about unity, projecting the idea that beating Trump is their overriding purpose, so lively debates of the issues were hardly expected. But the issues that were debated before Sanders folded his campaign reflected a great deal of disunity, and they were on the table due to the emergence of one of the most progressive eruptions in the country’s history. This was just after the 2010 mid-term elections that brought Tea Party activists to Congress, provoking a left-populist reaction that seeded the Occupy Movement which began raising the issues pertaining to socio-economic justice that Sanders crystalized in his bid for power. This legacy was responsible for pushing the debates in the 2020 election cycle to the left in the runup to the convention, which effectively ended with Biden’s South Carolina victory.
And at the convention itself we witnessed the silencing and—at times—the cancellation of this legacy, replaced with the blinding moral certainty of the evil Donald Trump and the darkness he has wrought. We have lost our soul and need to restore it, said the Democrats. We are in a “battle for the soul of our nation.” Nothing about the culture that brought him to power or subsumed us in darkness. No reflection of their role in restructuring the post-Reagan political economy, their underwriting of an inequality-generating system that marginalizes the lower classes through the fascism of market rationality. Nothing about their perspective on racial diversity, prominent since the mid-70s, that stresses improving color demographics and emphasizing the positives of racial and ethnic identity to the exclusion of policies that work to substantially eliminate inequality. Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris in this sense was perhaps perfectly consistent, a candidate from an elite background passing the skin-color test.
Instead of reflecting on these issues and engaging in open debates about their consequences, the Democrats stooped to the Republican obsession with mis-statement, though on a lesser scale. A fact check published in the New York Times found problems with several issues. Here’s two of them.
The Democrats claimed that Trump’s proposed suspension of payroll taxes for those earning less than $100,000 will lead to a permanent draining of the Social Security fund but it was a temporary, short-term offering subject to forgiveness, and is the exact measure Obama enacted in 2011. Exaggerating threats to Social Security is one of the Democrats’ obsessions, and such distortions reflect their dearth of policy options on this issue (Linda Qiu, “Fact-Checking the Democratic National Convention,” 8/21/2020).
The Democrats’ alarm over Postmaster Louis DeJoy’s “reforms” of the Post Office—more like “shock doctrine” assaults— is reflected in the $25 billion the House recently voted to undo them and give it the financial ability to handle mail-in voting. However welcome this move was to shore-up confidence in this important public institution, the problems with the Post Office predate DeJoy’s arrival. They’ve been created by neoliberal privatizers in Congress, including many Democrats. This hypocrisy was not reflected upon in their proceedings, however, only the issue of the difficulty Social Security beneficiaries have in getting their checks. Against the broad suggestion that this pertained to the vast majority of recipients, the fact check found this: “In August, 549,818 received their checks through the mail, while more than 63 million people—or about 99.1 percent—received their benefits through direct deposits.”
The repression of voices to project unity inevitably demands conformity, specious moral certainty, censorship and cancellation in order to maintain the illusion of normalcy. A critical face-off with the disunity could help the Democrats forge a more representative narrative that transcends the polarization and offers a real difference. But this repression moved the Democrats closer to the Republicans in fact despite the heated personal attacks against Trump and his performance which conjures a great divide. Their inability to push the issues attached to these repressed voices—like Universal Basic Income, Medicare For All, the Green New Deal, funding of the Pentagon, the power of organized labor, etc.—signals that they’re likely near the threshold of cancellation. After all, Biden represents the victory of the mainstream wing of the Democratic Party. And they likely wanted to keep a discussion of these issues from the public out of fear that this would destroy the convention spectacle, the aura of unity, but also to lessen the risk of being too far left and losing support at the ballot box. This means they have to be more like the Republicans—hence the large invite list to speak from across the aisle. It also suggests we are moving closer to an elite-managed one-party system with two wings, despite the strong support among the public for these issues. Masterful censorship!
The danger of such a dumbing-down display, however, is to intimate an Obama administration redux that might not be attractive to many potential voters. So there had to be a re-branding process. As Jeffrey St. Clair claims in this regard, “Hope and change have been replaced by empathy, soul and faith” (“Roaming Charges: Conventional Weapons at the DNC,” CounterPunch, 8/21/2020). The gorging on religious symbolism, or more appropriately abstract spirituality, versus the debating of the material concrete—why not some spinoffs from liberation theology that apply abstractions to the improvement of everyday life?—drugs the public into dropping out, searching for answers in alternative, non-thinking streams of images. The DNC elite serves up opiates to divert attention from itself and its machinations.
Without debating the material concrete for the purpose of lifting bodies from the darkness of deprivation to have a go at quality survival and even prosperity, battles for the elusive soul of the nation will spawn misguided crusades and inquisitions.