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The Politics of Moral Outrage

It seems like a good moment for a little reflection on the past couple of years.  A lot has happened, and a lot hasn’t.  What has happened, among other things, has been a whole lot of police brutality, racially-motivated killings by police, a whole lot of media coverage of this sort of thing, a whole lot of protests and riots, and a whole lot more media coverage of that.  What hasn’t happened — what hasn’t been reflected in all of this — are significant political or economic changes that might begin to address the ever-deepening inequities in this extremely polarized society.

Before I continue with this bit of analysis, I want to make it abundantly clear that I speak as a participant, not only as an observer. Like millions of other people in the US, I have spent a lot of time on the streets over the past couple of years. Unlike many of the young folks marching in the streets over the past couple of years, who quite naturally are doing this sort of thing for the first time, I’ve been at it for a while now, participating in other social movements that came before this one as well, in the US and in many other countries, since I’m lucky enough to make a living as a working, touring musician, primarily playing for different elements of the left, mainly in North America and Europe.

There are a lot of young folks I know who are very traumatized by a whole lot of police brutality and other terrible things they have been dealing with.  In so many cases, as much as they are traumatized, they are also trying to figure out what the hell just happened.  It’s often a lot easier to make sense of things after the fact, rather than during, so that’s very understandable.  My perspective on what’s been happening has also been evolving, and I sure hope that in the process of analyzing events, I don’t come off as someone who thinks he knew everything to begin with.  This is not an “I told you so” piece of analysis, and I hope it doesn’t come across as such.  It’s just an earnest effort to make sense of a few things, from this particular middle-aged radical in Portland, Oregon.

The role of the corporate and “public” media and the Democratic Party apparatus in events of the past few years must first be understood, it seems to me.

I became politically active as a child, in the late 1970’s.  This is also when I started reading newspapers, listening to the radio, and watching news programs on TV.  Certainly from the time I was 12 in 1979, up until 2016, the modus operandi of the corporate and “public” media was to almost completely ignore us (“us” being the radical left social movements of different periods).  Thus, when thousands of people were being arrested for trying to shut down nuclear reactors, when a million people gathered in Central Park to protest against Reagan’s preparations for nuclear war with the Soviet Union, when ten thousand people surrounded the Pentagon and shut it down for the duration, when a train ran over protesters trying to prevent arms shipments to Central American dictatorships, and many other things that happened just in the early 1980’s alone, the press was virtually silent.  If you knew about the protest in Central Park or the munitions train that ran people over in California, it was probably because you were there, or your friends were there, or you were reading very local press.

The same continued to be true with the global justice movement in the late 1990’s that saw so many meetings of the corporate elite around the US and the world shut down through the actions of tens of thousands of people committing civil disobedience and blocking the streets everywhere, shutting down entire cities for days on end.  Outside of the local press, which had to cover these events — local press can’t not mention the fact that tens of thousands of people have shut down the center of your city, or the tens of thousands of riot cops occupying it — it was crickets.

When thirteen million people around the world — including at least half a million in New York City — protested against the imminent US invasion of Iraq, on February 15th, 2003, this made the news.  But all the many other antiwar protests before and after that one, often of a similar scale, were almost completely ignored.  I could continue with lots of other examples.

There were exceptions to this rule.  The two biggest ones were the sustained national and global media coverage of Cindy Sheehan’s Camp Casey initiative in 2005, when she and many other folks (including me, briefly) occupied a stretch of road outside of President Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch, and then again during the Occupy Wall Street movement that I was also involved with, to which local, national, and global media gave blanket coverage.

Overwhelmingly, when media did cover the peace movement or the movement for economic justice, the coverage was designed to dismiss or ridicule.  I long ago lost track of the number of protests I have attended where if the media showed up, they spent most of their time filming the hippiest-looking bongo player in the crowd, and then they left.

From the time Trump was elected, until the time Biden took office, for a full four years, this formula for corporate media coverage radically changed.  Suddenly, although any protests related to the housing crisis or US foreign policy or just about anything else were still systematically ignored by the media, when people showed up in any numbers to protest against Trump’s policies related to immigration or to his generally racist orientation, there was blanket coverage.  This continued to be the case after the murder of George Floyd, which helped give rise to the movement that the media dubbed the Racial Justice movement.

As part of the media coverage of the movement, media outlets all over the country began to do a lot more stories about historical events.  What was for most people in the US a basically hidden history of institutional racism, lynchings, pogroms, police violence, mass incarceration, and so on, was being systematically exposed.  What was not being systematically exposed at all by the same media outlets was the history of multiracial rebellions, multiracial organizing, multiracial labor unions, and multiracial cooperatives of all kinds, that has been a constant, powerful thread in this country’s history, along with the police, pogroms, and prisons.

So what happens when the media tells you every day about the history of racial injustice, with hardly a mention of the history of multiracial struggle aiming to transform society?  When all you hear about are the unions that kept out people of color, but nothing about the unions that rejected that nonsense?  When it’s all about the massacres, and nothing about the uprisings?  When Oklahoma is known only as the place where the horrific Tulsa Race Massacre happened, but not as the place that gave birth to the multiracial Working Class Union that was crushed by the state several years prior to the racist pogrom?

And then what happens when, along with this warped coverage of history presented in the media, the media also continues to ignore any protests that aren’t related to their neoliberal conceptualization of racial justice?

I don’t think most young people marching in the streets over the past couple years — or most of the older folks as well — are aware of the way the corporate media coverage of us has changed so radically in the past few years.  I doubt most of us are aware of the agenda involved here, or how it has shaped what has been going on on the streets, but it has undoubtedly been profound.

One manifestation of the media coverage of the protests, and the media’s efforts to educate us about some of the history that has been kept out of the textbooks, has been a whole generation of young people who should be forgiven for believing that nothing much was happening on the streets before 2016, or 2020 even.  A whole generation that should be forgiven for knowing a lot about the history of institutional racism in the US, and virtually nothing about the history of multiracial unions or uprisings.

Many of the people organizing and speaking for the movement that was on the streets of the country for much of 2020, in particular, clearly fit the description.  I say this as someone who has sat through a hell of a lot of bad speeches in my time, most definitely including 2020.  Whatever fantasies people may have about their intellectual independence and the sophistication of their political and historical analyses, we are all massively influenced by what the media covers and doesn’t cover, just as we are massively influenced by what we did or did not learn in school.  In all the speeches I heard in Portland in 2020, I never heard anyone mention the multiracial Industrial Workers of the World or the multiracial rebellion in West Virginia in 1921, the biggest this country ever saw.

What we do hear about every day, however, is how privileged white people are to be white in this society, and how we white people need to change the situation we created, and use our power as the privileged group in society to change things.  The lack of change is implicit evidence of the lack of interest in change on the part of white people.  If you have been educated by CNN and PBS, all of this perspective would make good sense, since this is the perspective actively implied, and sometimes even stated outright, by one pundit after another — as well as by one young speaker after another at the protests in this and other cities across the US through much of 2020 in particular.

Without knowledge of the history of multiracial organizing, but with lots of knowledge about the history of racial oppression; without knowledge about the way the capitalist class systematically uses race and ethnicity as a tool for dividing and conquering the working class, but with lots of knowledge about organizations dominated by white people that followed the institutionally racist line and discriminated against people of color, it’s easy for some folks to start thinking of terms like “privilege” as an actuality, rather than as a relative concept.

As we are marching around the streets of Portland, walking around the thousands of tents occupied mainly by homeless white men, it’s quite a disconnect to manage to think of these people as privileged in any way.  It would seem evident that any concept of actual privilege in this context is clearly ridiculous, requiring a total denial of lived reality in order to embrace.  The concept of relative privilege is much easier to make sense of, but if it is not understood in the historical context of privilege being used as a tool of oppression — divide and conquer — then it’s a concept that is worse than useless.

Why not just useless, but actually worse than useless, you may be wondering?  Is this dude just playing with language because “worse than useless” sounds more impressive than just plain “useless”?  No.  Understanding the concept of relative privilege without understanding its basis in divide and rule capitalist politics, starting about 500 years ago in what is now the United States, is worse than useless, because it plays right into the hands of the capitalist divide-and-rulers.

Once we are casually identifying groups within society — within the ranks of the working class super-majority in the United States — as more or less privileged than the other, and we are not constantly connecting this relative privilege to tools of oppression, we are implicitly or often explicitly saying that the solution here is those elements of the working class who are less discriminated against than others need to fully understand their relatively privileged position, and do something about it.

What we are supposed to do is always necessarily unclear, other than reading books and overcoming our internal biases and shopping at Black-owned businesses.  It’s pretty obvious to any casual observer of the US that white working-class people reading books and overcoming their internal biases isn’t going to accomplish much.  But making the real changes that need to be made — for example, providing every member of society with great schools, high-quality, guaranteed housing, and universal health care — would clearly all go so much further in creating real equality than anything else that might be done by those in power.

But these are not the demands I’m hearing much about at the protests.  Sure, if you’re paying attention, you can read about these kinds of demands in Black Agenda Report (Glen Ford, rest in peace).  You can hear them in the speeches of Al Sharpton and William Barber and Angela Davis.  Getting rid of the police is a wonderful idea, but as long as there are a handful of extremely rich people and a majority of people of all racial backgrounds living in some form of poverty — which is the reality in this country — getting rid of the police is a nonstarter, because the rich won’t let that happen.

The rich?  Yes, the ones in power, who we never hear about at the protests.  Not the white working class — the rich white people, who actually elect most of the Congress and most of the state legislatures, and make up the ranks of those bodies as well.  Did you know most of the people in the Congress are millionaires, and the Democrats on average are wealthier than the Republicans?  These are the folks who are in power, not me, or most of the people reading this.  Not that you’ll hear about who really runs the country on PBS or CNN, or in most classrooms across the US.  They prefer their illusions of democracy — a democracy that just needs to get more inclusive, since it’s obviously already working so well for all the whites.  (Just ask the guys in the tent down the block.)

When Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of murder, there were a few anemic little protests in the US — nothing like what many in power were anticipating.  Why?  There are a bunch of explanations, I’d say.  One is that the ongoing reality of police racism and police brutality across this country has been out of the news since Biden’s election.  That’s the biggest reason.  The second-biggest reason, or at least my best effort at making sense of the situation, is that the movement that was so dominant on the streets for much of 2020 and 2021 has effectively eaten itself alive.

Once again, my analysis here is based on lived reality, not on reading corporate media reports.  There are only so many protests people can attend where a majority-white crowd has to listen to a teenager lecturing us about the history of racial oppression in the US, who has some vague idea of who Fred Hampton was, but who has never heard of the IWW, the Battle of Blair Mountain, the Socialist Party, or the Communist Party.  There are only so many lectures one can stomach about the hundred-year rule of the KKK in the South, without any mention of the multiracial movement against the Klan that has been a feature of southern life from the hundreds of interracial communes formed during Reconstruction to the Freedom Rides to the Greensboro Massacre.

Along with the usual factors like police brutality, the Circular Firing Squad — as us more ecumenical movement people like to call the less tolerant among us — has effectively strangled the life out of this movement, undoubtedly with massive support on the part of the secret police.  (You know, the secret police that we don’t have, but do, as demonstrated by the Cointelpro papers and lots of more recent evidence.)  And this callout mentality was a natural outgrowth of the skewed, NPR-sponsored understanding of current reality and history.  If we don’t have an understanding of how divide-and-conquer capitalism works and has worked for the past several centuries, but we do have an understanding that some people in society are more privileged than others, this very piecemeal perspective will naturally produce the cancel culture.

That is, if you think your enemy — the obstacles to your progress in this racist society — includes some of the white folks standing in the crowd with you at a march, then that’s very convenient, because they’re easy to find, unlike the people in power.  If you think progress lies mainly in any average white person learning about, deconstructing, and overcoming our racist upbringing, then it’s very easy to see how sensible it must seem to denounce anyone who has a less sophisticated understanding of institutional racism than you do.

Unfortunately, though, this tendency mainly plays into the hands of the powers-that-be, which is not at all accidental.  This is why the corporate media overlords and associated political class are engaging in the program of political education that they are engaging in — not because they’re suddenly waking up to the realities of institutional racism.  They want us to eat each other alive.  They want us to think that history is basically an irredeemable mess of terrible atrocities.  They don’t want us to know about the real history of multiracial, anti-capitalist struggle in this country, that has been so thoroughly repressed, and then hidden from the record, or relegated to the margins of the radical left periodicals that hardly anyone even knows about, let alone reads.

If this was a movement that, as a movement, truly understood the nature of power, of capitalism, and of the media, then it could have real impact.  What we have instead, which anyone would know if they’ve spent much time on the streets of Portland over the past couple years, is a movement that, when it was still happening, was actively reviled by significant elements of the general public.  Within the movement itself, significant elements were constantly fleeing the ranks of the movement, alienated by both the speeches and the tactics involved.

Again, this is not theoretical, I’m talking about what I saw, take it or leave it.  I’m all for dumpster fires in principle, but when people light a dumpster on fire, most of the crowd leaves.  This is a simple illustration of the dynamics within the movement that I saw time and again.  When the speeches are mostly condescending, people don’t come back, no matter how strongly they feel about the underlying reasons they came out onto the streets in the first place.  When civil disobedience means randomly blocking traffic on busy roads full of regular people trying to go to work or pick their kids up from school, this doesn’t make a movement popular.  Most people can easily understand the idea of shutting down the courts or the prisons or the big corporations that run society, but blocking traffic on random roads and pulling dumpsters into them tends not to garner much public support.  Personally, I love it.  But I’m not talking about myself here, I’m talking about building a movement.  Or why this one died.

Whatever is coming next, I hope it’s a movement that understands who the enemy is, and who it isn’t.  But you can be sure that CNN, PBS, the FBI, and a lot of other powerful forces in society will be doing their best to confuse us into attacking each other, instead of our corporate masters.