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Trump, the Culture Wars and the Left

Despite being the most subliterate President in American history, Trump has managed to interject himself into recent culture wars that are the bailiwick of tenured professors and highfalutin media pundits. Since Trump confused the word council for counsel, he needs all the help he can get. While Stephen Miller or some other erudite malefactor wrote the speeches, you can at least give him credit for being able to read them. As for their purpose, they are in keeping with his white supremacist agenda.

On the Fourth of July, Trump made a speech at Mount Rushmore that resonated with the Harper’s Open Letter that appeared only three days later:

One of their political weapons is “Cancel Culture” — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.

He has since followed up with attacks on the N.Y. Times Project 1619 and critical race theory. The odds of him having read a single article in the magazine section that launched Project 1619 or some peer-reviewed journal article on critical race theory are about the same as me winning the N.Y. Marathon. His failure to have ever read a single word, however, did not prevent him from attacking them in a speech given at the National Archives Museum on September 17th.

He denounced Project 1619 as a leftist lie:

The left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies. There is no better example than the New York Times’ totally discredited 1619 Project. This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.

As for critical race theory, it was the sort of thing that kept J. Edgar Hoover up at night:

Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed. Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families.

While his attack on these culture war outposts flows from white supremacy, some people have been just as worked up but mostly from a liberal or even a Marxist perspective. As mentioned above, the Harper’s Open Letter was classical liberal apologetics. As for the September 17th speech, you get talking points disconcertingly close to what we have heard from the class-reductionist camp headed by Adolph Reed Jr.

When the World Socialist Web Site went on a campaign against Project 1619, they interviewed historians who signed an open letter demanding corrections from the N.Y. Times. The historians were appalled by the project’s findings that slavery remained a legacy in race relations in the U.S. until the present-day. They also interviewed Reed, asking him about critical race theory and how he sees it at work in the 1619 Project.

It’s another expression of reductionism. On the most pedestrian level it’s an observation that what you see is a function of where you stand. At that level there’s nothing in it that wasn’t in Marx’s early writings, or in Mannheim. But then you get an appropriation of the standpoint theory for identity that says for example, all blacks think the same way. It’s taxonomic, a reification. So the retort to that critique has been “intersectionality.” Yes, there’s a black perspective, but what you do is fragment it, so there are multiple black perspectives, because each potential—or each sacralized—social position becomes discrete. That’s what gives you intersectionality.

Like many people on the left, especially those that regard BLM as the cat’s paw of America’s most powerful corporations, Reed considered Project 1619 and critical race theory in the same way that Deep Throat advised Robert Redford in “All the President’s Men”:

I’ve been joking for a number of years that here at Penn the university administration has three core values: Building the endowment, already at $16 billion. Buying up as much on the real estate as they can on both sides of the Schuylkill River. And diversity. And they’re genuinely committed to all three of those because they think that part of their mission is to make the ruling class look like the photo of America.

Yes, we have to watch out for that diversity business. Obviously, it is an attempt to turn every Black student taking advantage of it to become the next Condoleezza Rice. Just ask Walter Benn Michaels, who sees it as having no use except grooming some lucky African-American for a job at Goldman-Sachs. Reading Michaels over the years, I have never seen a single word defending affirmative action from the racist assaults from Trump and other Republican Presidents. In April, Inside Higher Ed reported that when states ban affirmative action, their numbers of underrepresented minority students go down, for the long run. For example, at U.C. Berkeley, the underrepresentation gap before the affirmative action ban was 14.9 percent. The next year it grew to 24.9 percent, and the year after it hit 34.4 percent. These facts don’t seem to bother Professor Michaels.

Reed and Michaels are long-time collaborators. On nonsite.org, an online peer-reviewed journal upon whose editorial board they serve, they have a spanking new article titled “The Trouble with Disparity.” They repeat arguments they have made in dozens of articles as if sheer repetition will convince readers to buy into class-reductionist fables.

As is key to their class-reductionism, they dwell exclusively on economic indicators such as the Gini index which has gone from .397 in 1967 to .485 today. The higher it goes, the more unequal the society. (At .630, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world.) Making a point they’ve made a thousand times, they want to wake up the woke left. “Indeed, they may well believe that attacking racism is also a step in the direction of attacking the gap between the top decile of American wealth and everybody else.”

I doubt that this was what drove people into the streets after the cops murdered George Floyd. They hoped to apply enough pressure so that the authorities would prosecute the cops. I assume that most were smart enough to understand that Black and white income was a related but separate problem. For example, in the 1930s, Blacks joined CIO unions because they understood that it was the best way to get a living wage. At the same time, they joined the NAACP because they were sick and tired of lynching. You can walk and chew gum at the same time, after all.

For example, A. Philip Randolph, a trade union leader that Reed and his co-thinkers see as emblematic of their class-based Marxism, organized a March on Washington movement in 1941. The goal was not to raise Black income but to desegregate the army. We understand that whites enjoyed higher-paying jobs in the military, so there was a material incentive to this anti-racist struggle. There was also a material incentive in fighting for affirmative action in the 1960s. If Blacks could only sweep floors in a steel mill, then they needed the state to take their side even if it meant preferential treatment to make up for past practices. While this might not pass Walter Benn Michaels’s litmus test, it was a struggle in the interest of the most exploited sector of the working class.

For the class-reductionists, this argument is supposed to reduce anti-racists into a quivering, defeated heap:

It is well known by now that whites have more net wealth than blacks at every income level, and the overall racial difference in wealth is massive. Why can’t antiracism solve this problem? Because, as Robert Manduca has shown, the fact that blacks were overrepresented among the poor at the beginning of a period in which “low income workers of all races” have been hurt by the changes in American economic life has meant that they have “borne the brunt” of those changes. The lack of progress in overcoming the white/black wealth gap has been a function of the increase in the rich/poor wealth gap.

So, what’s their solution? They advocate social-democratic redistributionist policies that reduce income differentials between top and bottom. Also, there should be anti-discrimination measures with teeth and increased public investment where black and brown workers are disproportionately employed. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this except hoping that an American President would carry out such a program short of a socialist revolution. Reed and company pinned their hopes on the Sanders campaign that was supposed to be the Second Coming of the New Deal (even though FDR sold out Black workers to keep the Dixiecrats mollified.)

There may be other measures that can improve the lot of Black Americans, even though they do not get a kosher stamp of approval from Reed. Reparations would go a long way to make up for the housing and job discrimination that lingered on after Jim Crow ended. For the class-reductionists, this kind of anti-racism is out of the question. Whether it gets their approval or not, it seems to be gaining some momentum as The Guardian reported:

California will consider paying reparations to descendants of slavery, becoming the first state in the US on Wednesday to adopt a law to study and develop proposals around the issue.

The law establishes a nine-member taskforce to develop recommendations for how California could provide reparations to Black descendants of enslaved people and those affected by slavery, and would look into what form those reparations might take and who would receive them.

The recommendations would not be binding. The taskforce must submit a report to the state legislature one year after its first meeting.

I have doubts that reparations will happen unless there is a powerful struggle demanding it. It will take the kind of determined mass actions that BLM spearheaded after the cops murdered George Floyd, even if they, like reparations, did not pass muster with Reed and company.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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