Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama’

“The History of White People” by Nell Irvin Painter

THE DARK HISTORY OF “WHITE”

Introduction

We were told that the election of Barack Obama meant that we—America—had transcended into a beatific state called “post-racial.” We were proud of having overcome three centuries of a history of stubborn slavery and an even more intransigent segregation, both of which were based on bogus “racial” “theories.”  We proudly and overwhelmingly elected an African American as the President of the United States. Once the tears of joy and pride had been wiped way and clear vision was restored, it was shamingly clear that, far from being a phenomenon of the past, racism was alive and well and virulent in the “land of the free” and the “home of the brave.” The years-long assault on the legitimacy of a Presidency, the determined and unrelenting efforts to force “failure” upon, not only one man—because he was black—but upon the general population has spanned a gamut of accusations: “Muslim,” “Kenyan,” Socialist,” “In over his Head,” “Ineffectual,” even “Monster,” and so on. Make no mistake, racism is hiding behind each and every one of these words.

Whatever words are used, they all add up to one word “black,” which is the opposite of “white,” and, in the minds of these retrogrades racists, there are two words that should never come together: “Black” and “President.” It is important to understand that the (right-wing, Conservative, Tea Party, whatever) attitude that Barack Obama can never be a “legitimate” President is fundamentally different from that of the Democrats who felt strongly that George H. W. Bush had not been elected President twice and had been put in the office through a unilateral action on the part of the Supreme Court but bowed to the rule of law and lived peacefully (if unhappily) under his Presidency. The complaint of the Democrats was a legal one, while the complaint against Obama is a racist one. Over time, Democrats learned to live with what seemed to them to be a coup d’êtat and let the subsequent career of Bush determine his fitness to serve, but, in contrast, the refusal to accept the very basic fact that Obama is an American citizen (born in Hawaii) continues.

The question is why?

Of course, it is impossible to get inside of the psychology of a sizable group of people, but it is possible to get into the history of the culture that created the concept of “whiteness” and the racial dialectical that similarly constructed its polar opposite, “blackness.” Until recently, the very thought of  “white” was an absent presence: there but invisible, unspoken but acted upon, reiterated but not acknowledged. “White” as a “race” existed and exerted an unquestioned power but “white” was not seen. This social “white noise” was embedded in the cultural common consciousness, coming from everywhere and no where.  The power of “white” rested upon the fact that its source and origin remained both operative and obscured.

 Some twenty years ago, “white” came out of the dark and into the light of history and “whiteness studies” was born. This 2010 book by Nell Irvin Painter is part of these academic attempts to examine “whiteness” or “white” as a concept, but, in this book, she examines how the description of a skin color, “white,” became a loaded term, implying innate superiority of one skin color over anther and, by extension, of one “race” over another. To those who watch The Colbert Report, Painter was the game author who attempted to get it across to Stephen Colbert that “white” was an intellectual construct. Colbert asked a very interesting question, trying to determine if her book was a straight historical account of the comings and goings of white people. The History of White People is not what its title infers and the title is probably both ironic and provocative.

With a Ph. D. from Harvard and an academic position at Yale, Painter, a gifted artist and celebrated historian, took up the task of tracing the history of what I could call the “need to define” “white people.” This self-imposed task separates the work of Painter from the theoretical field of “whiteness studies,” for she has produced what is a fairly straightforward account in which she traces to the formation of a discourse on “white people.”  It is only recently that an African American has been in the position to write about white people. Or to put it another way, white people have written a great deal about black people but society and culture prevented the objects of this whitened scrutiny to write back. The sheer fact that Painter is black gives the title an extra punch, mitigated by her easy and congenial manner: she comes in peace not in condemnation. As Painter explains on the first page,

I might have entitled this book Constructions of White Americans from Antiquity to the Present, because it explores a concept that lies within a history of events. I have chosen this strategy because race is an idea, not a fact, and its questions demand answers from the conceptual rather than the factual realm.

One of the oddities of “white people” is that unlike “German people” or “British people,” there is a paucity of literature devoted to defining “white people.” This scarcity is particularly notable when compared to the enormous amount of time, energy and ink spent on defining “black people.” There is, in fact, an excess, a surplus, an overflow of writing on “black,” giving the relative silence on “white” the kind of power only wielded by withholding. Withholding of “white” gave “white” not just a powerful potency but also created an assumption of what white meant, a blankness that allowed “white” to be over/written by whatever qualities the culture desired. In other words, “Blackness” was defined from the position of “Whiteness,” which was the vantage point of power and privilege which claimed in inalienable right to Represent. This is power indeed.

Painter’s book in interesting because of the way in which she lays out her argument that the “history” of “white people” is a discourse devised for socio-economic purposes dedicated to the maintenance of domination. First, she tracks down the basis of the word “Caucasian” and then linked the term to “white” which is then linked to “beauty” which was then connected to “intelligence, leading to the logic of superiority. Second, she establishes how the historical connection between color, “black” with bondage and  “white” with free, and  slavery was made. The importance of taking these two steps or of establishing these two separate discourses, is that the discourse of racial superiority and the discourse of slavery are separable. Painter has to separate the concepts because, once slavery was abolished, the discourse of racial superiority could live on unchanged. Slavery is easy to outlaw; the concept of one race being “superior ” to another is an idea and cannot be abolished.

Slavery can die but racism can live on.

How Racism began, without “Race”

Nell Painter begins her journey into understanding how two neutral words, “white” and “people” became conjoined with ancient Greece, supposedly the “cradle of Western civilization.” The ancient Greeks had no concept of “race” and differentiated among the peoples they came into contact with in terms of place or locale. Historians divided various tribal groups in a accordances with the physical and social distinctions due to climate or terrain. But there was one group that was beyond their empirical reach, those mysterious and legendary inhabitants of the region the Greeks called the “Caucasus.” Here was the land of myth. As Painter laconically describes it, this modern territory,

…is a geographically and ethnically complex area lying between the Black and Caspian Seas and flanked north and south by two ranges of the Caucasus Mountains. The northern Caucasus range forms a natural border with Russia; the southern, lesser Caucasus physically separates the area from Turkey and Iran. The Republic of Georgia lies between the disputed region of the Caucasus, Turkey, Armenia, Iran, and Azerbaijan.

Today this region is still remote and isolated, only occasionally breached by modernity but through a historical accident that is rather arbitrary, “white people” have been named “Caucasians.” Like the Greeks, the Romans had no concept of “race” but the contribution of the Romans to racial thinking was both considerable and accidental. It was the Romans, who, in search of Empire, classified most of the inhabitants of Europe. The Romans were interested in the “civilization” or cultural traits of the non-Romans compared to the Empire builders. “For Roman purposes,” Painter writes, “politics and warfare defined ethnic identities.” Painter points out that it was Julius Caesar who gave many of the names we know and use today, from “Gaul” to “Germania,” to the peoples he encountered. In discussing the differences among these scattered and disparate tribes, Caesar was assessing their relative battle worthiness and determining how he would subdue them.

The Romans, as Empire builders, were imperially promiscuous, the better to blend the subjugated peoples to the conquerers. The result was centuries of intermixing and intermarriage resulting in a hybrid culture that some say diluted the social foundation of the Romans and gradually eroded the Empire.  In contrast, the Germans or the Germanic tribes would be very resistant to the benefits of Empire and were hostile to outsiders. In the early years, during the time of Caesar when the Romans were striving to understand their northern neighbors, important differences were imagined. As Painter says,

How could eminent citizens of this great empire squeeze out admiration for the dirty, bellicose, and funny-looking barbarians to the north? The answer lies in notions of masculinity circulating among a nobility based on military conquest. According to this ideology, peace brings weakness; peace saps virility. The wildness of the Germani recalls a young manhood lost to the Roman empire. Caesar headed a train of civilized male observers—with Tacitus among the most famous—contrasting the hard with the soft, the strong and the weak, the peaceful and the warlike, all to the detriment of the civilized, dismissed as effeminate. As we see, the seeds of this stereotype—a contrast between civilized French and barbarian Germans—lie in the work of ancient writers, themselves uneasy about the manhood costs of peacetime.

The Greeks imagined the Caucasians and the Romans imagined the Germans and these ancient mythologies would link “whiteness” to “masculinity” or, to put it another way, there would be a link between purity and resistance compared to hybridity and femininity. The Gauls submitted to the Romans and permitted interpenetration of tribal cultures while the Germans remained “uncivilized” and aloof, withdrawing behind the Rhine river where they remained unmolested. The importance of “Teutonic purity” would be revived later and after the fall of the Roman Empire, Painter relates, “white people” are linked to the barbaric tribes of the British Isles, another resistant group divided by Hadrian’s Wall. The Anglo-Saxons, like the many tribes of the Roman Empire were an amalgamation of conquers and the conquerers—a hybrid mixture of Viking/Scandinavian tribes that invaded the island and settled.

It is interesting that the ethnic groups that gave the Romans the most resistance, the tribes in Great Britain and Germany, were the ones who became linked to “white people,” however, another element had to be added before the concept of “white” could come into existence. As stated, the modern concept of race is a very modern one and was linked to the final ingredient: “black” and slave. Until the sixteenth century, slaves were of all colors. In fact, as Painter points out, the word “slave” comes from the word “Slav,” or the Slavs from eastern Europe who, as the result of the labor shortage after the Black Death, were caught up in a lively slave trade. The “Slave” and the “black” “race”  were not paired until the need for workers on the sugar plantations in the Caribbean encouraged the European colonizers to depend upon the Africans.

The Confluence of  “Black” and “Slave”

The Spanish eradicated the indigenous population of the Caribbean in a couple of generations and, the English settlers of the North American continent also found out that it was difficult to enslave people—the Native Americans—in their own territory. Africans, seized and stolen from their homes, arrived in America dazed and disenfranchised, far removed from their own cultures with no hope of returning, made good slaves: strong and healthy, confused and divided by dialects and languages. Unlike the Native Americans, the Africans had nowhere to run and no place to hide. However, the idea of “slavery” and lifelong servitude took decades to affix itself to Africans only. Other books have outlined the process in which white indentured laborers and black indentured laborers were socially and legally separated from each other, leaving the white person “free” and the black person “enslaved,” but foundational focus of Painter is the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, because it is in this period of “enlightenment” that the slavery of black people had to be justified.

Although she later outlines how the “peculiar institution” of slavery in America was developed, Painter unexpectedly begins by linking “white” and “beauty” through

the eighteenth-century science of race developed in Europe, influential scholars referred to two kinds of slavery in their anthropological works. Nearly always those associated with brute labor—Africans and Tartars primarily—emerged as ugly, while the luxury slaves, those valued for sex and gendered as female—the Circassians, Georgians, and Caucasians of the Black Sea region—came to figure as epitomes of human beauty.

The profitability of slavery, regardless of color, throughout the eighteenth century, would stifle any moral qualms about holding humans in bondage for two centuries. However, Painter emphasizes a clear and present subtext in the racialized discourse: the practice of dividing people in terms of physical appearance—beautiful and ugly—based on the Greek ideal (as filtered through Roman art), laced with sexual fantasies, stimulated by both homosexual and homosexual desire. Beauty, for men and women, was Greek and was attributed to certain kinds of features deemed unique to Europeans (white people) as opposed to Africans, Asians or Slavs. Tall, slim, pale-skinned, straight hair and straight noses were the favored elements—not just Greek features based on marble statues, but also diametrically and conveniently opposed to dark skinned, flat nosed, coarse haired Africans and Asians.

Painter does a nice job of presenting a number of intellectual and philosophical and scientific ideas put forward in the eighteenth century (and in the two subsequent centuries) concerning the measurement of skulls and the angle of facial profiles. To the reader conversant with these endeavors, the author presents a brisk summation across a series of chapters. The underlying reason for this growing discourse on “difference” is, of course, linked to the rise of Empires. The imperial adventures of European nations coupled with the enormously profitable enterprise of slavery were inconvenient coincidences with the Enlightenment and its rational doctrines of equality. We can assume that the serious manner in which the Europeans blinded themselves with (pseudo) science to account for their unwillingness to allow the logic of Enlightenment thought to play itself out was a defensive measure.

In America the need to distinguish “white” from “black” was acute. Europeans were intent on explaining their supposed superiority in terms of beauty, equated with innate intelligence, as the reason for colonizing and exploiting the rest of the known world. Unlike the Americans, the Europeans did not keep slaves nor did they depend upon a slave economy. In the American South, an agricultural feudal economy while the Europeans built an international mercantile economy. But in a small and new nation, the South was not only anachronistic but also powerful. Its leaders were slaveholders reluctant to give up their incomes to square their words of freedom with their deeds of slavery. When the Americans gained their independence, they did so by denying the majority of its inhabitants, women and slaves, basic rights. As English politician Samuel Johnson caustically asked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

Painter places Thomas Jefferson, slave owner, lover of a slave, father of slaves, at the center of the American thinking on the significance of “Anglo-Saxon” heritage. She writes,

To Jefferson, whatever genius for liberty Dark Age Saxons had bequeathed the English somehow thrived on English soil but died in Germany…In 1798 he wrote Essay on the Anglo-Saxon Language, which equates language with biological descent, a confusion then common among philologists. In this essay Jefferson runs together Old English and Middle English, creating a long era of Anglo-Saxon greatness stretching from the sixth century to the thirteenth. With its emphasis on blood purity, this smacks of race talk. Not only had Jefferson’s Saxons remained racially pure during the Roman occupation (there was “little familiar mixture with the native Britons”), but, amazingly, their language had stayed pristine two centuries after the Norman conquest: Anglo Saxon “was the language of all England, properly so called, from the Saxon possession of that country in the sixth century to the time of Henry III in the thirteenth, and was spoken pure and unmixed with any other.” Therefore Anglo-Saxon/Old English deserved study as the basis of American thought. One of Jefferson’s last great achievements, his founding of the University of Virginia in 1818, institutionalized his interest in Anglo-Saxon as the language of American culture, law, and politics. On opening in 1825, it was the only college in the United States to offer instruction in Anglo-Saxon, and Anglo-Saxon was the only course it offered on the English language. Beowulf, naturally, became a staple of instruction.

Jefferson’s obsession with the Anglo-Saxons and their mythical racial “purity” was shared with other Americans who were intent on establishing a cultural distinctiveness for those descended from English ancestors. The subtext was more than an attempt to elevate the “pure” white race above the African slaves; it was also a device used to coin social difference to elevate one class of white people above another. The sheer quantity of argument and writing about their racial superiority on the part of white males from all corners of intelligentsia imply a deep unease with their convoluted reasoning. Every now and then a counter argument was put forward, and a rare black voice was heard. Painter introduces the reader to David Walker, a free man in Boston and a well known activist who, in 1829 wrote David Walker’s Appeal: in four articles, together with a preamble, to the coloured citizens of the world, but in particular, and very expressly, to those of the United States of America. According to Painter,

Walker’s Appeal spread a wide net, excoriating “whites” and, indeed, “Christian America” for its inhumanity and hypocrisy. Over the long sweep of immutable racial history, Walker traces two essences. On one side lies black history, beginning with ancient Egyptians (“Africans or coloured people, such as we are”) and encompassing “our brethren the Haytians.” On the other lie white people, cradled in bloody, deceitful ancient Greece. Racial traits within these opposites never change.

Another sub-text that Painter locates in the growing American discourse on race is the dilemma of slave holders—the moral and psychic damage done to them by owning human beings and being unwilling to let the humans in bondage go free. To the modern reader, the guilt of the Founding Fathers is pure hypocrisy, for these high minded men did not have the courage to let go of their slaves, the foundation of their wealth and class position. When the Constitution was written the argument for doing nothing about slavery was put forward, for owning slaves seemed to be on the verge of being less and less profitable. However, the invention of the Cotton Gin in 1794 by Eli Whitney ended the wistful hope that slavery would collapse of its own weight. Once slavery was profitable, the discourse of justification intensified.

Slavery as the American Stain

The need to explain why slavery should continue to be a feature of American life would become more pressing as the nineteenth century progressed. European nations gradually outlawed slave trade, but sharp eyed observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville realized that the slave culture in the South constituted a moral cancer, a disease in the democratic republic. It is not just slavery, however, that is the embedded flaw, it is racism. Racism made it possible to enslave the black and to push the Native Americans off their lands. In his perceptive Democracy in America (1835) Tocqueville  wrote unflatteringly of the Southerners:

“From birth, the southern American is invested with a kind of domestic dictatorship…and the first habit he learns is that of effortless domination…[which turns] the southern American into a haughty, hasty, irascible, violent man, passionate in his desires and irritated by obstacles. But he is easily discouraged if he fails to succeed at his first attempt…The southerner loves grandeur, luxury, reputation, excitement, pleasure, and, above all, idleness; nothing constrains him to work hard for his livelihood and, as he has no work which he has to do, he sleeps his time away, not even attempting anything useful.”

Europeans made fortunes in the vile trade of capturing and selling slaves but they distanced themselves, not from the profits but from the consequences by not actually owning Africans. According to Painter, Tocqueville seemed to find it hard to write of the South and its customs, but his friend Gustave de Beaumont examined slavery in America in Marie, or Slavery in the United States, a Picture of American Manners, written in the same year as Tocqueville’s first volume on America. However, Beaumont’s book was not translated into English until 1958 and, tragically, when it was finally published in America, its theme, how “one drop” of “black blood” designated an individual as “black.” Indeed, Painter does not point this out but during World War II, the American blood supply for the soldiers was divided between black and white blood.

For Painter, the Civil War and the extended blood letting over the question of slavery verses the rights of a state to own human beings is only but one part of the question of “race” that, by the nineteenth century had begun to define American thinking. As she writes,

In a society largely based on African slavery and founded in the era that invented the very idea of race, race as color has always played a prominent role. It has shaped the determination not only of race but also of citizenship, beauty, virtue, and the like. The idea of blackness, if not the actual color of skin, continues to play a leading role in American race thinking. Today’s Americans, bred in the ideology of skin color as racial difference, find it difficult to recognize the historical coexistence of potent American hatreds against people accepted as white, Irish Catholics. But anti-Catholicism has a long and often bloody national history, one that expressed itself in racial language and a violence that we nowadays attach most readily to race-as-color bigotry, when, in fact, religious hatred arrived in Western culture much earlier, lasted much longer, and killed more people. If we fail to connect the dots between class and religion, we lose whole layers of historical meaning. Hatred of black people did not preclude hatred of other white people—those considered different and inferior—and flare-ups of deadly violence against stigmatized whites.

What makes this book remarkable is that long before the Republican’s so-called “Southern Strategy” of the 1970s,  American had already absorbed racial and racist thinking even before the Civil War. The other value of the book is the sad evidence of how deeply supposedly intelligent and fair minded people, American and European intellectuals and scientists were implicated in fashioning a discourse of dehumanization and prejudice. Painter devotes a segment of the book on how various immigrants who were not English struggled to be accepted as “Americans.”  Broadly put, in Hegelian terms, the Master/Slave, the One/the Other dialectic became deeply embedded in the American psyche. Although America was a nation of immigrants, from the very start, only certain kinds of immigrants were welcome: no Irish, no Italians, no Jews, no Eastern Europeans, no Asians, and so on. In fact the nineteenth century, punctuated by the Civil War was one long struggle against the Other, whether it was the Native Americans in the West or the Catholics in the East.

Enlarging “White” through Diminishing Others

Many of the literary architects of the discourse of racism that constructed the concept of “white people” created a construct of “whiteness” that was designed to maintain the privilege of a favored few. Thomas Carlyle, generally well remembered for his efforts to improve the conditions of the working class, stained his record of humanism with viscous writing about the Irish. When Carlyle was writing the Irish were being deliberately starved out of Ireland but he was a man without pity. As Painter wrote,

Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), the most influential essayist in Victorian England, held the racial-deficiency view, having fled Ireland’s scenes of destitution in disgust after brief visits in 1846 and 1849. In one cranky article he called Ireland “a human dog kennel.” From his perch in London, Carlyle saw the Irish as a people bred to be dominated and lacking historical agency. He took it for granted that Saxons and Teutons had always monopolized the energy necessary for creative action. Celts and Negroes, in contrast, lacked the vision as well as the spunk needed to add value to the world.

Thomas Carlyle teamed up with the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson in a rather awkward partnership. Carlyle thought that slavery was a perfectly permissible state for the inferior race, while Emerson was an abolitionist. But both were involved in a mystical enterprise of elevating an imaginary Anglo-Saxon “race” above other “races,” such as the benighted Irish. As other writers have pointed out, the language and terminology developed by the English to defame the Irish and justify the British rule over Ireland. This language of inferiority and beastality was formed centuries before the African slave trade and was already ready to be deployed and applied towards any group considered unworthy. Although, as Painter points out, African Americans, such as Frederick Douglas, understood the parallels of prejudice against the Irish and the blacks, the Irish rejected this comparison and fought to be called “white.”

Other respected philosophers, from France’s Ernest Renan and America’s Matthew Arnold wrote extensively of the wonders of the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons. These writings can be read benignly as an attempt to delineate a national identity for a modern world, now obsessed with “difference.” But this strain of thinking was also at heart divisive and, for America, racist. By the middle of the nineteenth century, America was experiencing a tidal wave of immigration, starting with the Irish, followed by the Italians, all of whom were Catholic and all of whom were, therefore, alien to the supposed Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans. The poetics of a Matthew Arnold and the violent bigotry of the Know Nothing Party are but two sides of the same coin. By mid century, as Painter writes, “The Anglo-Saxon myth of racial superiority now permeated concepts of race in the United States and virtually throughout the English-speaking world. To be American was to be Saxon.”

The reasons for this painstaking and fictional construct of “Teutonic” and “Anglo-Saxon” superiority seems clears today. Carlyle feared the consequences of democracy and other writers feared the invasion of the Others. However, the extent to which these supposed “great” men were aware of the contradiction between their views of the superiority of “whiteness” and the mercy and love of Christianity and promise of equality and democracy is unclear. But for the next one hundred years (and beyond), there would be a mountain of writing piling up a pseudo scientific and pseudo philosophical explanations for why certain peoples should be excluded from the basic rights of human beings and citizens of a free nation. This discourse constructed a fantasy vision of “white people” that was the base for a superstructure of exclusionary laws directed against people who were “not white.”

Clearly the political unconscious of both America and England is an ugly one, but Painter includes an interesting section that links racism not just to beauty but also to sexual desire. Most of the constructors of “whiteness” were middle class privileged males who may or may not have been latent homosexuals. Painter reads their texts much the way in which we read Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s writings on (Roman copies) Greek Art and finds an underlying current of, shall we say, intense admiration for the (male) beauty of the Teutonic ideal. These descriptions of the beautiful white male linger on today—fair skin, blue eyes, blond hair, tall thin frame—and are seen in Ambercombie and Fitch and Ralph Lauren advertising. That said, “white people” are gendered male and “beauty” is linked to the idea of “white.”

With the dubious intellectual weight behind the notion of the inherent and innate superiority of “white people,” came the construction of the “Aryan” idea that was so powerful that art history still includes the ancient Egyptian culture as “Western,” regardless of the fact that the Egyptians were Africans and black. The romantic idea of Aryan and white continued to be supported well into the twentieth century, as after the Civil War in America, “whiteness” was linked to enfranchisement and the power to vote. Even though black men were give the “right” to vote in 1870, full voting rights for non-whites took a hundred years to come about and the hard-fought right to cast a ballot remains under threat today.

Aryan Supremacy Through Eugenics

One of the great services of Painter’s book is the parade of scholars and scientists who wrote of the wonders of being Aryan and Anglo-Saxon and who did studies of the human skull in order to “prove” racial superiority. Today, these men are obscure and well-known only to specialists, such as Painter, but, in their time, as she stresses, they were respected and celebrated. What is remarkable is not only how forgotten these architects of racism are today but also paradoxically how completely their discourses penetrated the American collective consciousness. Reading of one after another of these supposed intellectuals is simply depressing. Decades after slavery was abolished, the writings kept coming, their perpetrators festooned with honors and crowned with laurels, halted only in the face of the Nazis.

Not that the proponents of Aryan superiority would be entirely silenced by the horrors of the Holocaust but the doctrine of racial superiority would lose its luster, at long last. The nation therefore owes a great deal to the occasional and brave white dissenter, like the anthropologist, Franz Boas, who joined with Black intellectual, W. E. B. Dubois to fight racism and anti-semitism in those decades before the Second World War. As Painter points out,

During the late nineteenth century, poor, dark-skinned people often fell victim to bloodthirsty attack, with lynching only the worst of it. Against a backdrop of rampant white supremacy, shrill Anglo-Saxonism, and flagrant abuse of non-Anglo-Saxon workers, Boas appears amazingly brave. It mattered little in those times that lynching remained outside the law. More than twelve hundred men and women of all races were lynched in the 1890s while authorities looked the other way. Within the law, state and local statutes mandating racial segregation actually expelled people of color from the public realm.

The voices, such as that of Boas, who spoke out against the bogus assertion of “race,” were shouting into a headwind of rhetoric. American histories rarely stress the articulate racism of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. But early in the twentieth century, instead of leading the population into a new century with new thinking, they vigorously extended the creed of “Anglo-Saxonism.” The trend towards to “Teutonic,” abated somewhat due to the Great War in which the Germans or the Teutons were the enemy. One of the outgrowths of elevation of “white people” was the attendant fear of “race suicide,” due to the threat of intermarriage among the Anglo-Saxons and “inferior” whites. In the Northern states, these rants were due to the continued flux of immigrants who were diluting the essence of the “white” race, in the South, the fear of inter-racial mixing drove many localities to forced sterilization of those who were unfit to breed.

The “science” of eugenics, that would become the driving force behind the Nazis extermination of the Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” was, like many of the racist theories in America, tended to be the brian child of New Englanders. Cradled and supported by the most eminent universities in the nation, these writers drove a discourse of exclusion and elimination of the wrong kind of blood or hereditary. It was taken as an article of faith that “inferiority” was hereditary and that there was no concept of environmental considerations that may have caused generational poverty. On one hand, scholarship was turned into public policy that prevented equal opportunity and, on the other hand, those who were impacted were then declared inferior due to generations of bigots who kept the Irish, or the Italians, the Chinese, the African Americans, and so on, from achieving.

The solution to the socially engineered under achievements of the poor and disadvantaged was forced sterilization, which was found constitutional by an 8-1 majority. Virginia led the way in 1924 and for a decade (with California coming in as the second largest sterilizing state), until shamed when the Nazis took up identical policies of sterilizing the poor and those who might inherit a tendency towards criminality, other states followed. But forced sterilization continued until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Eugenics was directly linked to the argument of inherited superiority of “white people” by taking the assumption of birth rights and privileges and turning it against towards those who had inherited poverty.

If one inherited one’s low economic status, then one also inherited a low intelligence. As with sterilization, technology and pseudo science was put in the service of white suprematists. Blithely unaware of the impact of environment upon intelligence and of the inherent biases in the so-called “intelligent” tests designed by  Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon, the anti-immigrant “nativists” used yet another measure to disenfranchise and marginalize the less white whites. The bundle of frantic efforts to maintain domination with tactics including Jim Crow Laws, forced sterilization, anti-immigration intelligence testing and restricted immigration were all based on the supposed superiority of the very white European stocks. However, as these superior beings, in all their shining whiteness, descended into the mad savagery of the Great War.

White Public Policy

The awkwardness of seeing the “white people” acting badly did not deter decades of effort during the twentieth century in legitimizing people of color, Catholics, and  Jews. These bigoted beliefs mainstreamed and popularized through mass media and had become widely believed. Fortunately, these beliefs were forced underground and were muted by mid-century. As Painter explains,

After its heyday among race theorists in the 1910s and 1920s, Anglo-Saxonism declined during the Great Depression and the Second World War. A new generation of social scientists had outgrown such blather on race. Now scholars were questioning the very meanings of any and all concepts of race and studying the troubling fact of racial prejudice. Ruth Benedict, along with Franz Boas and their like, were beginning to carry the day…The change from 1920s hysteria to 1940s cultural pluralism occurred simultaneously in politics and in culture.

After the Second World War II, racism, based on the the ideal of “white” beauty, continued under other guises, despite the fact that the idea that there was a scientific entity called “race” was being debunked. During the final decades of the twentieth century, the idea of “white people” was less intellectualized and more politicized. The efforts to assert the superiority of whites was no longer respectable in academia but the efforts to deny African Americans the benefits of the New Deal, the G. I. Bill, and even basic civil rights continued in public policy through a maze of laws and customs. In addition to being pushed to the margins, people of color were trained through mass media to “look white.” As Painter writes,

Much nose bobbing, hair straightening, and bleaching ensued. Anglo-Saxon ideals fell particularly hard on women and girls, for the strength and assertion of working-class women of the immigrant generations were out of place in middle-class femininity. Not only was the tall, slim Anglo-Saxon body preeminent, the body must look middle-rather than working-class.

People of color or different “ethnic” types were forced by real estate laws and municipal zoning to live in ghettos and barrios, where they were invisible. The race presented by mass media as “American” was pure white, people of color were rare and on the fringes in movies and many mainstream magazines, from news magazines to fashion magazines, refused to print photographs of people of color. But the Civil Rights Movement countered the myth of white cultural and physical superiority by challenging white people on moral grounds. Painter quotes Malcolm X,

“When I say the white man is a devil, I speak with the authority of history…. The record of history shows that the white man, as a people, have never done good…. He stole our fathers and mothers from their culture of silk and satins and brought them to this land in the belly of a ship…. He has kept us in chains ever since we have been here…. Now this blue-eyed devil’s time has about run out.”

While the “white people” were frightened after hearing the frank assessment of a certain portion of the African American public, that same public would be alarmed at the writings of an anti-melting pot white supremacist, as quoted by Painter, as having

taught at Stanford University and the experimental college of the State University of New York at Old Westbury. In The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, perfectly suited to the times, Novak concentrates on those unmeltable “PIGS,” Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Slavs, in their view so long reviled: “The liberals always have despised us. We’ve got these mostly little jobs, and we drink beer and, my God, we bowl and watch television and we don’t read. It’s goddamn vicious snobbery. We’re sick of all these phoney integrated TV commercials with these upper-class Negroes. We know they’re phoney.”

These words, complete with misspelling, from Michael Novak’s Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (1972) would, today, be termed “hate speech.” At the time, they were the leading edge of the Nixon “Southern Strategy” which was a fancy term of thinly disguised racism. Here and there a few lone voices among white Southerners were raised and revealed the inherent lack of “ethics” in the system of racial segregation, bases upon the fiction of “white supremacy.” Painter presents

Lillian Smith (1897–1966), a white southern essayist, novelist, and (with her lifetime partner Paula Schnelling) operator of a fancy summer camp for girls, powerfully described her South in Killers of the Dream (1949 and 1961). The book pilloried southern culture as pathological and white supremacist southerners as caught in a spiral of sex, sin, and segregation.5* Here was a book of wide influence that portrayed whiteness as morally diseased.

It would take science, real science this time to put to rest the notion that there was “race.” There are only human beings who have skin colors and facial features that have evolved due to the environment. Painter quotes

the words of J. Craig Venter, then head of Celera Genomics, “Race is a social concept, not a scientific one. We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the same small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world.” Each person shares 99.99 percent of the genetic material of every other human being. In terms of variation, people from the same race can be more different than people from different races.18 And in the genetic sense, all people—and all Americans—are African descended.

Painter’s book is divided into a series of what she terms “Enlargements of Whiteness.” The First Enlargement” is in fact the formation of the post-Enlightnement discourse on “white people” by writers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The Second Enlargement builds on these beginnings and uses the ideas of racial superiority to expand political rights for one group of white people, the males, and excluding other groups, people of color and women. The Third Enlargement expanded these privileges after the Second World War by showering benefits upon white males and by excluding equally deserving people of color and women from the great government “thank you” stimulus that created the male middle class. The Fourth Enlargement is one of the struggle of women and people of color to enter fully into the American dream.

Conclusion

People of color made inroads during the post-war period because the discourse that defined “white people” was doubly discredited. First the Nazis adopted lock, stock and barrel the entire panoply of racist ideologies and used this discourse on “Aryans” and “Anglo Saxons” and what have you to slaughter millions of human beings. Second, the final stand of the white supremacists during the Civil Rights period was so public and so ugly and the resulting photographs and television coverage was so shaming that it was impossible to defend the determination to disenfranchise millions of American citizens. But the final coup de grâce was the genetic studies that proved that all humans share the same genetic makeup and that there is no scientific entity that could be separated out as “white people.”

Painter ends with the hope that perhaps intermarriage and “race mixing” will end the black/white dichotomy but that is far in the future. In the meantime as she points out “Nonetheless, poverty in a dark skin endures as the opposite of whiteness, driven by an age-old social yearning to characterize the poor as permanently other and inherently inferior.” The discourse on “white people” is alive and well and is an article of faith by millions of Americans who may or may not be aware of the immoral and unethical and unAmerican roots of their ideologies. It is sad to learn from this book that the term “American exceptionalism” is a code for “white people”—Anglo-Saxon “whiteness.”

When politician say that “Barack Obama does not believe in American exceptionalism,” they are saying “Barack Obama is black.” Like all the invading immigrants from the Irish to the Hispanics, he doesn’t “belong;” he is not an “American.” The discourse on “white people” is why there is such a strong belief that the President wasn’t born in America. Obama cannot be an American because he is an African American; he is black. Painter needs to write a sequel to this book that focuses on the twenty-first century salvage operation of this discourse which continues on the fringes on hate websites and in political speeches. The Discourse of “White People” continues to mar the American Dream.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

 

 

 

 

 

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The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics by Rob Christensen

THE PARADOX OF TAR HEEL POLITICS. 

THE PERSONALITIES, ELECTIONS, AND EVENTS

THAT SHAPED MODERN NORTH CAROLINA

BY ROB CHRISTENSEN

North Carolina is a small state of little consequence, so why is a political history of “modern North Carolina” of any interest to people outside of the state? The immediate answers might be “John Edwards” and his horrifying fall from grace or the upcoming Democratic Convention this summer.  But the long-term answer can be stated in two words: “Jesse Helms.” For the art world that name sends shivers down the spine, because during the last twenty years of his career, the notorious Senator began an on-going war against artistic freedom.  But the name of Helms should resonate for other reasons—-he was, in his time, the spiritual and practical Godfather of the extreme Right Wing and of the Tea Party.  The author Rob Christensen makes an interesting case that the future of many bad things begins in North Carolina.

In the South, race and class are everything, determinative, and have the half-life of uranium. Given that questions of race and class have shaped the past, present and future of the region, the most interesting aspects of this book is the undeveloped subtext—the legacy of slavery.  Christensen, a newspaper reporter, writes in a Dragnet manner and, to be fair, is not a historian and thus does not put the story of North Carolina politics into a fully developed temporal context. The author is a newspaper reporter who has a column in the Charlotte Observer and is a veteran observer of the political scene in the state and his task is to inform the reader of the modern—twentieth century—political history of his state.

Christensen makes a compelling case that North Carolina is a state caught between progressive ideas and traditional values. At this time, North Carolina seems to count as a border state, lodged between the Old South (to the South) and the New South (to the North). Although it is not on the Mason-Dixon line, over the past two decades, it seems to have joined the category occupied by Virginia and Maryland. As with these in-between states, “outsiders,” business interests, and other “new” industries, such as technology, have invaded North Carolina. Maryland and Virginia are outliers of the federal government and home to people, who come from all over the nation, to live and work in the northern-most suburbs. The result has been a slow sea change in their political and cultural make-up that have left these states, like North Carolina, divided between the old and the new.

While Virginia and Maryland accepted the newcomers passively, North Carolina actively courted them. In North Carolina, the changes have been forced by the modernization of the state through the famed Research Triangle between Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill and the arrival of the big banks in the city of Charlotte. The state is now split into factions—the more liberal university communities and the more conservative business interests and the outlying rural regions that are reactionary in their outlook. The state that unexpectedly went “blue” for a Black man, Barack Obama, in November 2008 also voted for a ban on gay marriage in May 2012.  Christensen’s book explains why the state should act in such contradictory ways.

Christensen sums up the contradictory nature of the state in his opening page of the book:

Politics was largely controlled by big business. The state lit the cigars for corporate executives but was hostile to organized labor; it generously spent money on roads and universities but was stingy when it came to the poor. State leaders sought a measure of fairness toward its black citizens, as long as it didn’t threaten the system of segregation. It was a business progressivism that was in tune with North Carolina’s growing urban middle class of lawyers, power-company executives, bankers, textile-plant owners, newspaper publishers and editors, and others.

On the surface, this description could be of many or any state with a substantial minority population, but most states don’t have the same cultural legacy that North Carolina does. For all its contrary aspects, for all its position as a border state, North Carolina was, is and will always be a Southern state burdened by the legacy of slavery.  The fact that the culture of slavery and its unsettling consequences should still be so powerful is rather curious.  If one compares crimes against humanity, it is customary for the succeeding generations to increasingly move beyond the sins of their grandparents and great-grandparents.  The young people in Germany are more than ready to vow “Never Again” and to move forward; they, after all, are not the ones who have to atone.

The famous book, The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherliche is instructive in that the authors point out the Germany, as a collective society, had difficulty in mourning their loss (the Jews) and were living with melancholia. Many studies, such as that of Lawrence Rees, The Nazis: A Warning From History, the generation that had to come to terms with their crimes refused to do so.  Rees’s shocking book (made into a video) contains testimony of aging Nazis who are too old to prosecute and who were, therefore, willing to “confess” but not repent.  Without getting into the weeds of how to compare cultural crimes, it might be said that the South still has not come to terms with slavery.

But what is the cause of the prolonged melancholia—a psychological condition that has persisted like a cancerous disease for over one hundred and fifty years? What is the “loss” for which the region is unable to mourn? Is the “loss” the defeat of the Confederacy? Or is the “loss” of the feeling of Mastery that slaveholding—owing human beings—brings to the owners (even those who had no slaves)? Or is the “loss” the loss of honor and moral standing for clinging to slavery long after the rest of the civilized world had outlawed it? Or does the melancholia come from the humiliating combination of being marked as wrong, sinful and brought low to a state of abjection?  We can only conjecture at the reason for the South’s insistence that the local customs, however odious, must be maintained at any cost, but it is clear that what sets the region apart is its adherence to slavery and its inability to repudiate its past.

Part of the problem for the South is the consequences of slavery.  And those consequences—a century of segregation—happened not so long ago. Many people living in the South benefitted and benefit still from segregation.  Many people living in the South suffered and suffered still from segregation. Segregation has served the region quite well—if one is white. The result of the continuing benefits is a cultural defensiveness on the part of the whites, who evidence a resentment of “outsiders” who do not accept the unspoken rules of the game.  It is difficult to be condemned by history and to be looked upon with suspicion by the present and to find one’s culture to be out of step with the tide of history. Many Southern states stubbornly defend an indefensible past and stubbornly fight to maintain the traditions of separate and unequal.  But North Carolina splits the difference between an unpalatable past and an unknowable future—it will go along with inevitable change but not too fast.

Christensen outlines the tactics of North Carolina politicians who attempted to navigate the requirement to accept the inherent racism and acknowledge the strata of class in the state. The state began the modern era as a Democratic state.  Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, were few and far between.  In addition to being the party that led the federal government to victory in the Civil War and the party that abolished slavery, Republicans were associated with the decade of Reconstruction. Reconstruction, not to put too fine a point on it, was the Occupation of the South by the North. During this period, backed up by the occupation forces, freed African Americans were given economic and political opportunities and rights.

With hindsight, it seems astonishing that a recently subservient group should move so quickly to political activism, but this remarkable accomplishment got little credit from the outraged whites. By the end of the century, this brief period of relative equality came to an end and white supremacy pushed African Americans out of legislatures and out of the mainstream of public life. Christensen outlines in horrifying detail the long and bloody campaign of the Democrats to regain power through terror and intimidation. He provides a chilling poem of White Supremacy:

THE WHITES SHALL RULE.

The whites shall rule the land or die

The purpose grows in hearts of steel

With burning cheek and flashing eye

We wait what waiting may reveal.

But, come what may the whites must hold

What white men’s patriot valor bought;

Our grandsire’s ashes not yet cold, Hallow the soil for which they fought.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, whites were back in control and African-Americans began to experience life under the regressive laws of Jim Crow.  Christensen gives an account of the violent ouster of African Americans from power in the city of Wilmington—an event of which I was unaware.  Like Tulsa and Rosewood, Wilmington was a city where African-Americans prospered. But all that ended in the fall of 1898, like Tulsa and Rosewood, in the destruction of a Black community at the hands of white terrorists. As Christensen wrote, “Democrats engineered what must surely be one of the few coups d’etat in American history.”

He continued,

“The forced exile of the Republican leaders was followed by a voluntary exodus of 2,100 black residents from Wilmington, including many members of the black middle class. Within two years, Wilmington was transformed from a city with a small black majority to a city with a slight white majority. Wilmington would never recover its position as North Carolina’s leading city.”

The author noted that the entire campaign of terrorism was bankrolled by the business elite, who wanted to end, forever, the unlikely alliance of Republicans, African-Americans and the lower classes—the farmers and textile workers. By evoking race, Populism could be defeated.  The lower class whites were bought off by being given privileges that African Americans did not have—everything from voting to being allowed to ride in the front of the bus.  Or to put it another way, in order to privilege Whites, constitutional rights had to be taken away from Blacks. And after the campaign of domestic terror, the pre-war status quo was reasserted—African-Americans were inherently unequal and, if slavery were outlawed, then the Jim Crow laws would reify this presumed inequality.

Blacks were put back “in their place” all over the South. North Carolina was but one of many states that rejected federal rule and Reconstruction and any thoughts of racial equality.  In addition, the pattern of separating the lower classes from their natural economic allies, the African Americans was replicated in all Southern states. North Carolina was a fiercely anti-union state and its antagonism to unions was fueled by a natural antagonism to outside “agitators” who would try to change the culture.  Lower class mill workers would rather cleave to the upper classes who exploited them and be complicit in their own oppression because of their shared allegiance to white supremacy. In return for the workers’ willingness to be exploited, the businesses and industries did not hire their greatest competitors, the Blacks.

Having passed through North Carolina some years ago, I noted the presence of the linen industry, the furniture industry, liquor business, and the tobacco industry—long-time business powers in the state.  These industries are huge, providing the nation’s living room sofas, chairs and tables, the nation’s sheets and towels, and the nation’s oral addictions and yet the state was improvised.  On one level, the workers are paid such low wages that the state does not have much of a tax base; on the other level, these industries are enormously profitable and small North Carolina should be a very wealthy state.

Christensen discusses these dominating industries and their political power in the state but I wish he had solved the mystery that puzzled me—where do the tax dollars go?  This is a state that lacked basic fundamental safety conditions on the streets and highways—no reflective paint in the median strips, no reflective caps, and street lights were few and far between, making night driving an exercise in Russian roulette. One can only assume that for over a hundred years, generations of politicians have been paid off by the local businesses and that taxes must be abnormally low, rewarding the few at the expense of the many.

And here is why this book has resonance beyond North Carolina. What is interesting about this book is that it sets out the conditions for today’s politics and patterns that seem inexplicable—patterns that, the author suggests, have spread throughout the nation.  Much has been written about the “Southernization” of certain states and regions in America, most notably Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.  Sadly, starting with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, aka playing the race card, what has been exported has been largely negative—racism, classism, creationism, fundamentalism—none of which is in keeping with the modern world but are defiant survivals of a dead social system.

Without repeating the entire history of all the state’s governors, ably laid out by the author, it is clear that, from the beginning of the century, white supremacy ruled. White supremacy ruled without challenge until the Civil Rights era of the sixties and ended with the two rulings of the Supreme Courts in 1954 and 1955 and the two Civil Rights laws in 1964 and 1965.  Unlike other states that resisted the orders to integrate—Alabama and Virginia—North Carolina quietly complied. But the intervention of the federal government—again—“imposing” outside values and ideas upon a region that cherished its “ways” did not change the minds and hearts of the state.

The problem is that the South is a region of the nation that is often at odds with the Constitution and its ideals.  Off and on, the federal government has to assert itself in attempts to bring these states back into the Union, whether through warfare or legal actions. There was a Southern cultural refusal to accept the authority of the federal government. Ever since the defeat of the South and Reconstruction, the South has understandably never been favorable to Washington D.C. However, the South conveniently ignores the fact that the federal government provides funds and jobs for most of the states through military bases, such as the Naval base in Virginia, and other federal projects, such as the space programs in Florida and Texas.  North Carolina, Christensen stated twice, is “bristling” with military bases.

The problem is not how to escape the contradiction between being dependent upon federal largess and maintaining cultural customs but how to export the attitude of defiance and distrust of the “government” and how to maintain traditional “values” of racism, classism and homophobia. Enter Jesse Helms. Jesse Helms has long since gone to his maker and, upon his demise, cartoonists (who are artists) imagined him going (to his surprise) to Hell for his race-baiting attacks on the fine arts. But to the surprise of those of us in the art world, Helms had far more up his sleeve than the fight against art revealed. According the Christensen, Jesse Helms changed North Carolina from a Democratic state into a Republican state. As he wrote,

“Helms became North Carolina’s most famous national political figure of the twentieth century. He helped transform the state into a Republican stronghold instrumental in the elevation of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, shifted the GOP to the political right, and contributed to the polarization of the nation’s politics.”

The triumph of Jesse Helms and the Southern Strategy of White Supremacy rests upon the fact that in the South race trumps everything.  Race trumps class. Race trumps gender. Race trumps economic self-interest. Race trumps morality and ethics and honor.  Good and decent people are apparently willing to do anything to maintain the system of White Supremacy.  Christensen does not go into that much detail but he make it clear, from time to time, that enormous amounts of time and energy are spent maintaining a system that oppresses African Americans. But now that so many citizens of color have migrated out of the state, joining the other thousands from other Southern states, this time and energy are expended in maintaining a cultural supremacy of Traditional Values.

That said, it seems that Helms was—compared to the more courtly Sam Ervin—blatantly open about keeping Blacks out of power, assuring that the rights of women suppressed, and maintaining business as the state’s overlord.  The passage of the Civil Rights Act gave Helms an opening.  Christensen remarked, “Few people understood the power of the white political backlash better than Helms.”  The author explains that the Southerners were conditional Democrats, that is, they would support the national party if, and only if, white supremacy could be continued without interference. After decades of lynchings and oppression and Jim Crow systems could no longer be allowed to continue, the agreement was broken and Dixie sprinted to the welcoming arms of the Republicans.

One could wonder why the Republican Party—the party of Lincoln—would accept an entire region of White Supremacists, but the heritage of history is trumped by the desire for power.  Helms was an early and loud voice of modern day “conservatism.” He was a one-man Fox News before Fox News, starting out as a newspaper and radio reporter who became increasingly unwilling to accept the political progress that followed the Second World War. By 1960, Jesse Helms was on television in Raleigh, appearing on a station owned by a conservative son of a Baptist minister. As Christensen wrote,

“Although Helms did not host a talk show, in some ways he was a forerunner to Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and other national conservative commentators who would emerge in the 1990s, giving voice to conservative anger.”

Indeed, the author quotes a few of the “commentaries” of Jesse Helms that sound familiar to anyone who follows the news today.  Stating that “Helms preached an unvarnished libertarian conservatism. He called Social Security ‘nothing more than doles and handouts,’” Christensen further described the sentiments of Helms towards “…Rural electrification cooperatives were “socialistic electric power,” and Medicare was a “step over into the swampy field of socialized medicine.”

As quoted by Christensen, Helms opined that, “They didn’t call it socialism, of course. It was given deceptive names and adorned with fancy slogans. We heard about New Deals, and Fair Deals and New Frontiers and the Great Society.” In speaking of anti-war protesters, Helms stated, “Look carefully into the faces of the people participating. What you will see, for the most part, are dirty, unshaven, often-crude young men, and stringy-haired awkward young women who cannot attract attention any other way. They are strictly second-rate, all the way.”

These comments would be transplanted without much alteration onto the current debates on “Obama Care” and “Occupy Wall Street.” Helms (who had a well-earned reputation as a nasty political campaigner) became a United States Senator in 1972, riding to glory on the coattails of Richard Nixon. Helms would stay in place for the next thirty years, fighting the good fight, voting reflexively against everything federal. Christensen states, “…he was an ardent foe of nearly every social program, from food stamps to child nutrition programs; opposed nearly every consumer program, including the creation of the Consumer Protection Agency; and voted against nearly every environmental bill.” He was an early supporter of school prayer and was vehemently anti-abortion, bringing together like-minded Congress members to fight for and against their “causes.”

But for Helms, the real Messiah was not Nixon or Ford and not fellow Southerner, Jimmy Carter, but Ronald Reagan. Helms allied himself early on with someone he considered to be a true conservative. As Christensen writes, “By the beginning of the 1980s, Helms was the leader of a powerful political movement that would soon be dubbed the New Right. Helms had helped install Ronald Reagan in the White House.” Christensen quotes a Reagan biographer, Lou Cannon, who emphasized the importance of Helms to Reagan: “…the 1976 North Carolina primary was the “turning point” of Reagan’s political career. “Without his performance in North Carolina, both in person and on television, Reagan would have faded from contention before Kansas City, and it is unlikely that he would have won the presidential nomination four years later.”

In addition to using newspapers, radio and television to spread the doctrine of opposition to the “government” and of White Supremacy, in addition to working hard to bring a fellow conservative, Ronald Reagan, into power, Helms was also a pioneer in forming a powerful financial and political machine to get himself elected. The Congressional Club was a forerunner of today’s “grass roots” organizations that serve as laundering operations for billionaires who want to control the government. The achievements and reach of this “Club” was astonishing.  Christensen listed its accomplishments:

The Congressional Club not only engineered Helms’s reelection in 1978, 1984, and 1990, but it also elected John East, a political science professor at East Carolina University, to the U.S. Senate in 1980 and Clinton businessman Lauch Faircloth to the U.S. Senate in 1992. In the process, it defeated Democrat after Democrat. The Congressional Club handed four-term governor Jim Hunt his only defeat in 1984. It unseated Senator Robert Morgan, a moderate Democrat, and Senator Terry Sanford, a liberal. It scotched the hopes of John Ingram, a white populist, and Harvey Gantt, a black candidate. The Congressional Club also had a national reach. It helped elect Reagan, but it failed in its attempt to elect Steve Forbes as president in 1996. The Congressional Club tried in 1985 to buy the giant television network CBS because it wanted more conservative national news broadcasted. The club became a training ground for a generation of young conservatives—people such as Charles Black, Alex Castellanos, Carter Wrenn, Arthur Finkelstein, Richard Viguerie, and Ralph Reed—who later ran the campaigns of U.S. presidents as well as those of prime ministers of other countries.

In a prediction of the “permanent campaign,” the Congressional Club operated continuously for twenty years. The anti-gay, anti-Black, anti-government take-no-prisoners confrontational approach to politics of Helms was part of what Christensen called a “civil war” within the Republican Party. As early as the 1980s, a war began for the soul of the Republican Party, a battle between the “moderates” and the “conservatives.” Today, we know that the “moderates” lost and the Jesse Helms-types of politicians are now in control. In another foretelling, the 1982 race between the former governor, the progressive, Jim Hunt and Helms for the Senate was expensive. According to Christensen, “…the race cost $26 million, a national record for a Senate race at the time and the equivalent of $51 million in 2007. The advertising lasted nineteen straight months, breaking only for a week-long 1983 Christmas truce.”

Suddenly in trouble in this campaign, Helms resorted to the race card. Christensen recounts,

“When conservatives are in trouble in North Carolina, they frequently turn to racially charged issues. The momentum in the race began to shift in October 1983, when Helms launched a heavily publicized filibuster against legislation making slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. For several days, Helms attracted headlines as he hammered away at King’s alleged communist connections. “King’s view of American society was thus not fundamentally different from that of the CPUSA [the American Communist Party] or of other Marxists, and political agitation, his hostility to and hatred for America should be made clear.”

Helms also tied Hunt to “gay activists” to “right wing death squads” and continued his opposition to abortion rights. Christen noted that while the fight of Helms to fight against the Martin Luther King holiday played well at home but his stand against abortion was not as popular. But nevertheless, in another foreshadowing of the avalanche of “war on women” bills that have been put forward and bills that have been passed in the past two years, “During his career, he sponsored twenty-seven antiabortion amendments or bills. Helms called the legalization of abortions a ‘human holocaust with no parallel in history.’  And he said abortion should not be permitted under any circumstance. ‘Rape does not justify murder of an unborn child,’ Helms said in 1988.”

The last stand of Jesse Helms was, in another prophecy, against a Black man, the poised and polished Harvey Gantt. Helms had a long career opposing racial equality.  Christensen writes,

“During his Senate career, Helms managed never to find a civil rights bill that met with his approval. In 1982 he staged a filibuster against an extension of the Voting Rights Act, even though it was supported by seventy-five senators and endorsed by President Reagan. Helms sponsored bills that would have banned court-ordered busing for racial integration. He was a major backer of the apartheid regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe). For years, he blocked efforts to put a black judge on the conservative, all-white Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, prompting President Clinton to call his actions “outrageous.”

And yet, Christensen continues, “Helms’s segregationist views in the 1960s reflected those of a majority of white North Carolinians, according to public opinion polls.”

Although it was the 1990s and thirty years after the Civil Rights movement, certain segments of North Carolina voters could not bring themselves to vote for a Black man, and Jesse Helms defeated Harvey Gantt twice during this decade. During the first campaign, the Helms campaign produced one of the most devastating ads against racial equality in modern history.  More powerful and more aesthetically produced by Republican operative, Alex Castellanos, this ad is described by Christensen:

One TV ad dealing with racial quotas became perhaps the best-known political commercial in North Carolina history. The ad featured a pair of white hands crumbling a job application as the announcer says: “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is. Gantt supports Ted Kennedy’s racial quota law that makes the color of your skin more important than your qualifications. You’ll vote on this issue next Tuesday. For racial quotas: Harvey Gantt. Against racial quotas: Jesse Helms.”

Although he vehemently denied playing the race card with this ad, Helms evoking white fears of Affirmative Action, stated, “…you want quotas to dominate and dictate whether you get a job or whether you get a promotion, you vote for Mr. Gantt.”

Christensen also reports on the efforts of his campaign to suppress the Black vote— tactics that also predict those that are being deployed against people of color, students and the elderly today. Although he won his election through his usual underhanded and unseemly fashion, Helms, according to Christensen seemed angry, his customary victim pose: “The confederation of liberals has struck out again: the homosexuals, the defenders of pornographic artistry—if you want to call it that—the National Organization for Women, the pro-abortion crowd, the labor union bosses, and the left-wing news media,” he said.  The only reason Helms seems to have decided to retire in 2001 was because of his declining health. Too bad, he would have like what he could see in today’s politics. Jesse Helms died in 2008, the year a Black man was elected President.  A new era of backlash had just begun.

The career of Jesse Helms was a curious one.  On one hand, he seems to be working against the tide of history and justice—opposed to the rights of women, people of color, gays, the working class, and social equity and equality—that wonders how he survived for so long.  On the other hand, he spoke powerfully to all those who were fearful of change.  The fears of losing Supremacy, whether of race, class or gender, are long-lasting and tremendous effort has been put towards maintaining the status quo.  Jesse Helms was in artful and intemperate in his phraseology—-in his own time—but his crude coarseness is now commonplace in political “discourse.”  Christensen pointed out that

“As late as 1965, Jesse Helms was still defending the use of literacy tests. The real question, Helms said, “is whether illiterates ought to be allowed to vote. And that raises the question of what kind of politician is likely to benefit from a system in which people who cannot possibly understand their responsibility are allowed and encouraged to register and vote without question.”

Today, it is accepted to propose an electrified fence on the Mexican border to kill “illegal aliens,” it is acceptable to suppress voting rights in a Redeux of Jim Crow laws, and it is acceptable to call for taxing people so poor that they are not eligible for income tax while, at the same time, cutting the taxes of billionaires. All of these “proposals” are part of a larger effort to restore the balance of power the way it was one hundred years ago. Undoubtedly it was that nostalgic longing for social control over a long list of people who should be suppressed that led to the passage of an amendment in May 2012 to deny the right to marry to gay couples. It is unlikely that the people who voted to (unconstitutionally) deny an inalienable right to a certain segment of the population actually know any gays or lesbians; they are voting against the future. But they were also voting in the face of increasing legal opposition to such oppression.  On May 31, less than a month later, the federal court of appeals in Boston declared the Defense Against Marriage Act to be unconstitutional. The constitutionality of homophobia, a favorite bugaboo of Jesse Helms, will be decided by the Supreme Court sometime this year.

Christensen ends his book with a description of the rise and fall of John Edwards, just acquitted of campaign finance misdeeds.

“There is a temptation to see Edwards as a tragic Greek figure like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. Unquestionably, he was a man of immense political talents, but his vaunted self-discipline wilted under the pressure cooker of big-time politics and he lost his grounding.”

But on a more upbeat note, the author recounts an attempt to undo the race riot in Wilmington:

“In 2000 the state legislature created a commission to investigate the insurrection—patterned after Florida’s inquiry into the 1923 Rosewood Massacre and Oklahoma’s investigation into the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The commission’s final report, issued in 2006, recommended greater efforts to educate the public about the violence, compensation to the heirs of victims who can prove a loss, creation of incentives to help Wilmington areas damaged by the violence, and efforts by newspapers to distribute the report and acknowledge their own role. In 2007 the Democratic Party apologized for its role in the white supremacy campaign.”

It is always assumed that California, particularly Los Angeles, is the predictor of things to come. But, The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics makes a disturbing case that North Carolina, a small state caught between the past and present, is also a role model for how America deals with social change—one step forward two steps back. But, despite the one step forward, the legacy of Jesse Helms lives on in North Carolina that is still run by a well-funded political machine.  Christensen’s book perhaps could not continue to present day, but North Carolina is now owned and operated by the “Knight of the Right,” James Arthur Pope, profiled in 2011 by the formidable Jane Meyer in the New Yorker article “State for Sale.” I quote her at some length to make the parallels between the foundation that Helms laid and today’s political tactics clear:

Yet Pope’s triumph in 2010 was sweeping. According to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, of the twenty-two legislative races targeted by him, his family, and their organizations, the Republicans won eighteen, placing both chambers of the General Assembly firmly under Republican majorities for the first time since 1870. North Carolina’s Democrats in Congress hung on to power, but those in the state legislature, where Pope had focused his spending, were routed.

The institute also found that three-quarters of the spending by independent groups in North Carolina’s 2010 state races came from accounts linked to Pope. The total amount that Pope, his family, and groups backed by him spent on the twenty-two races was $2.2 million—not that much, by national standards, but enough to exert crucial influence within the confines of one state. For example, as Gillespie had hoped, the REDMAP strategy worked: the Republicans in North Carolina’s General Assembly have redrafted congressional-district boundaries with an eye toward partisan advantage.

Experts predict that, next fall, the Republicans will likely take over at least four seats currently held by Democrats in the House of Representatives, helping the Party expand its majority in Congress. Meanwhile, the Republican leadership in the North Carolina General Assembly is raising issues that are sure to galvanize the conservative vote in the 2012 Presidential race, such as a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Republican state legislators have also been devising new rules that, according to critics, are intended to suppress Democratic turnout in the state, such as limiting early voting and requiring voters to display government-issued photo I.D.s. College students, minorities, and the poor, all of whom tend to vote Democratic, will likely be most disadvantaged. Obama carried North Carolina by only fourteen thousand votes and, many analysts say, must carry it again to win in 2012, so turnout could be a decisive factor. Paul Shumaker, a Republican political consultant, says, “Art’s done a good job of changing the balance in the state.”

 

And this state—North Carolina—is the site of the 2012 Democratic Party Convention.  Stay tuned.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Disintegration. The Splintering of Black America, by Eugene Robinson

DISINTEGRATION

Affirmative Action has been an unqualified success. A legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, Affirmative Action forced employers to give “preferential” treatment to those who had been discriminated  against in the job market.  For hundreds of years—or ever since the dawn of society—certain elements of society have been singled out and given privileges on the job market. For the most part, hiring has always benefited the male and excluded the female from all desirable occupations and from most paying jobs.  In American, people of color joined women in the ranks of the historically discriminated against. But then came a series of Supreme Court decisions and laws that were passed over a decade, starting with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education and ending in 1967 when President Lyndon Bains Johnson issued an Executive Order, extending President John F. Kennedy’s of 1961 to include women. And with these decisions, laws and orders, Affirmative Action began to transform American society.

There is no way to go back in time and measure the loss that gender and racial prejudice caused to American society but one gets a sense of the magnitude when one compares this country as it existed in 1960 to the way it is today in 2012.  What was lost, thrown away and denied for generations is incomprehensible.  One can only grieve for the lives lost and contributions never realized. Thanks to Affirmative Action women and people of color have risen from the position of being excluded and oppressed to being leaders in business and politics and have become powerful voices and presences in society. Eugene Robinson, author of Disintegration. The Splintering of Black America notes that

“The biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action over the past four decades have been women—mostly white women—who occupy a place in the workforce and the academy that previous generations could not have imagined. (When the feminist revolution came, black women already worked for a living.) Second, in terms of gains, have been middle-class African Americans.”

The achievements of these people who just needed to be “affirmed” in the same way that the white male had always been affirmed have been remarkable.  Even more striking, the advances were made within the space of one generation. In the 1950s it was “common knowledge” that Blacks were incapable of…fill in the blanks…and women were unable to do….fill in the blanks.  Over half the population of American were systematically stigmatized on the basis of no evidence whatsoever.  Given that prejudice is often internalized, the success of women and people of color is all the more remarkable in that each and every individual has had to fight discrimination both internally and externally. There is no doubt that few of these individuals could have acquired an equal education or a well-paying job or a decent home to live in without affirmative action. The fact that women are still routinely paid half of men and the continued complaints about Affirmative Action indicate that, if the federal government had not intervened, the white male would still dominate and discrimination would be unchallenged.

In a culture where the normal political processes no longer function and governments at all levels seem clogged and dysfunctional, it is important to take the time to measure the impact of social policies intended to bring about economic, social and political equality. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eugene Robinson, who writes for The Washington Post, has set out the assess the progress of the African American community since the Civil Rights movement. Written in the wake of Katrina and the shocking sight of the dead floating in the flood waters, Disintegration  describes what the author has designated as four categories among African Americans: the first and most familiar, thanks to Bill Cosby, is the Mainstream middle class upwardly mobile group, then there is the equally well-known, thanks to popular culture and politics, the Transcendent: the Ophras, the Obamas, the Tigers, the third group, less visible, is what the author calls the Emergent, or the recent African and Caribbean immigrants, and the last category is what America saw on television in the summer of 2005, the Abandoned.

The African American citizens of New Orleans, who had been left behind, were caught up in one of the most horrific hurricanes of the century. These helpless people had been abandoned in more ways than one—it wasn’t just that the buses to take them to high ground never came, it was also that somehow the Civil Rights Movement had not been able to lift them up out of poverty. Robinson dissects the reasons why some African Americans succeeded and some failed and continue to fail, and, even worse, will probably continue to fail. He stresses that the “disintegration” of the African American community refers to the splintering of the once solid group into faction in terms of income and class and historical memory.  As these elements move further and further away from one another, the result is an increased diversity where  the term “African American” means less and less or to be more precise, needs to be rethought.

Robinson undertakes a task that is extremely difficult.  On one hand, there is a sizable portion of  America that automatically responds to any African American as the Other and reflexively join together in an atavistic racial solidarity, whether to establish voter suppression laws or to defend the killer of a teen-age boy carrying nothing more than a bag of Skittles and an iced tea and a cell phone. On the other hand, the African American community is losing the solidarity that enabled its very survival during the dark centuries of slavery and segregation. In addition, Robinson points out, this community has become assimilated into the mainstream. As he stated,“…black American experience is nothing more or less than an integral and necessary component of the American experience.” Indeed, much of what we define as “American” comes from the Black culture—jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, fried chicken.  Robinson quotes the

“MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant winner Charles Johnson published an article in The American Scholar titled The End of the Black American Narrative. He posited that a ‘unique black American narrative, which emphasizes the experience of victimization, is quietly in the background of every conversation we have about black people, even when it is not fully articulated or expressed. It is our starting point, our agreed-upon premise, our most important presupposition for dialogues about black America.’ This narrative is based on ‘group victimization,’ Johnson writes, and it is obsolete; it blinds us to ‘the inevitability of change’—and the fact of change.”

While Katrina proved that there are numerous African Americans who are victimized as a group, it would seem that they are also the remnants of a tragic legacy of generational disadvantage compared to the other groups that managed to escape the “victim narrative.”  Robinson begins this narrative, not with slavery, but with the end of Reconstruction.  As I have pointed out elsewhere, the gains made by the former slaves after the Civil War were astonishing, which makes the fact that all the hard work and all the accomplishments were taken away by

“…the virtual re-enslavement of African Americans and a return to what racists like Grady considered the “natural” order of things. Nowhere was this bitter pill more difficult for black people to swallow than in Atlanta, where the former slaves and their descendants had come so far. There, a critical mass of black ambition had ignited what seemed an unstoppable reaction. Black educational institutions such as Atlanta University and Morehouse College were producing an educated elite. Black businesses, while still small in relative terms, were expanding and producing real economic benefits for the whole African American community. The grand project of black uplift looked so promising; now it was being snuffed out. In Atlanta, which was the intellectual center of black America, prominent thinkers waged a vital debate: What could black people do about this brutal campaign to kill the black American dream?”

To take away not just the dream but also hope meant that the bitterly disappointed African Americans would have to be crushed though a reign of terror carried on the dominant white population.  The memory of the remarkable achievements of the post slavery decades had to be exterminated and wiped from the memories and the hearts and the hard lessons of inborn and innate inferiority had to be forced into internalization. The fact that African Americans daily evidenced abilities equal to whites was apparently particularly galling and the what Robinson calls “re-enslavement” was enforced by public lynchings and brutal Jim Crow laws. Any rumor of any infraction of the elaborate system of creating a second class (non) citizenship would draw instant retaliation.  Robinson gives a frightening account of a “race riot” in Atlanta—one of many during the first half of the twentieth century—and notes that the term referred to whites rioting against Blacks and their property. He writes of the aftermath,

“The full psychological impact of the Atlanta riot may be incalculable, but one specific result is clear. Many whites—even those who disapproved of mob violence, lynching, and the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan—were deeply shaken by the many instances during the melee in which blacks displayed the will and the means to fight back. Segregationists pointed to the resistance as proof that they were right—that blacks had to be kept down, had to be kept in their place. Measures to deny black citizens the vote throughout the South were perfected. Public accommodations were labeled whites only and blacks only; merchants began requiring black patrons to enter through the back door. This whole blueprint for the New South was codified into law as a way of delineating two ostensibly ‘separate but equal’ societies. Black Atlanta was effectively walled off from the rest of the city, left to make its own way in the world. The long, dark night of Jim Crow segregation had fallen.”

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Great Migration sent waves and waves of African Americans to northern cities and the South lost the best and the brightest, those most able to survive the wrenching sacrifices of  abandoning friends and families and homeland to start anew in alien territories. But the diaspora of the African American culture enabled the next generations to enter into the Mainstream and allow some to become Transcendent. Not that the Northern territories were hospitable and welcoming.  As Robinson stated, “It’s true that racial segregation in the South, enforced by law and terror, wasn’t the same as racial segregation in the North and West, which was often enforced by housing covenants but also had to do with custom and clan.” Recalling the solidarity within the Black community when he was growing up, he also noted, “We were all black, and to be black was to live under assault.”

Robinson compared the mood within the African American community before and after Jim Crow—optimism became pessimism and resignation.  He writes of the

“…enormous deficits that newly freed blacks faced. Without assets or education they had to start from scratch, but during Reconstruction they made rapid gains. The problem was that those gains were promptly and often brutally taken away by Southern officials when Reconstruction was abruptly halted. This betrayal was committed with the acquiescence of the federal government—which was more interested in reaching an accommodation with the South…”

In the South, African Americans lived under a regime of terror; in the North, African Americans had hope and possibilities but the optimism was replaced with the need to survive and make the best of the new opportunities. He discusses how the deep despair and rage lying just beneath the surface broke out after the assassination of Martin Luther King.  It is no wonder that, sixty years after migrating from the South to the Promised Land, that the community would react violently.  It is at this point, in the spring of 1968, that “race riot” became linked to Blacks.  Robinson writes,

“The King assassination was too much to bear. It was not just a murder but a taking—the theft of our leader, our future, our reason for continuing to hope that America was finally ready to accept us as true Americans. The paroxysm of violence that followed was deliberately destructive: They take from us, we take from them. In the end, of course, we took from ourselves. The self-destructive nature of the 1968 riots was evident to all, even as the mayhem was unfolding.”

Although Robinson does not note the link, this self-destructive act of internalized self-loathing explains the intensity of the hopes projected onto Barack Obama. Only when one understands the history of slavery, segregation, discrimination, prejudice and terror endured day after day, century after century does it become clear why the election of a Black President felt like the Second Coming. But Robinson points out that the 1968 “race riots” were the final act, punctuating, these centuries of injustice as with an exclamation point. Thanks to the Fair Housing Act, the African Americans who could escape from the confines of the ghettos became part of a second Migration.  As he reports, some managed to get out and refugee to the suburbs while others were left behind in the slums.

Robinson makes an important and little noted point, that the White Flight was also a Black Flight that, as he said, “split” the African American community once again. First, those who could not or would not leave the South were left behind, and then, second, another group, once again, “did not make it.” With these migrations came increasing Black-White contact that would, over time, produce another category—the bi-racial individual. Most African Americans are distinguished from “Africans” by the presence of white blood, white ancestors, usually due to the slave masters raping the female slaves. But for centuries these somewhat whitened people were forced to remain behind the color line, due to the “one drop” rule.  Robinson points out that, unlike other nations, such as Brazil, America was racially rigid and enforced its codes, imagining that somehow “racial purity” could be maintained.

However in 1963, interracial marriage became legal and by the early twenty-first century, the young generation thinks noting of racial mixing. Intermarriage encourages, even necessitates assimilation into a larger community that becomes a third alternative characterized by tolerance and acceptance.  But by and large the progeny of these unions are, like Barack Obama, considered “Black,” because, as Robinson points out, the culture will not allow them to be anything else. Presumably, due to ties to the white comity, this group is considered Mainstream and, thanks to federal laws, can live anywhere they want, go to school anywhere they want, and are guaranteed equal opportunity to any job to which they aspire. these gains are the result of sixty years of waiting for the door to open again.

If Mainstream means “assimilated” out of the Black community and into the White community, then the African American Mainstream differs in significant ways. First, this affluent and successful group has a large number of single women, living alone or raising their children alone.  Uninterested in dating outside their race, they are also disinclined to spend their time hunting for suitable African American husbands. Robinson muses over whether or not this situation of female independence is the result of a narrative of the Matriarchy, but it should be said, that regardless of the historical roots, the aloneness of these women is but part of a larger trend: the majority of the adults in America live “solo.” The other interesting aspect of this Mainstream group is the loss of deference to adult authority, from parents to community elders. More and more, the African American teenagers are acting like their white counterparts—typical rebellious teenagers. Unlike their parents and grandparents they have no memory of the hard times when family was all there was.

The “disintegration” of the Mainstream community has begun in Robinson’s own lifetime. He provides the reader with interesting sections on the solidarity of the professional educated Black community, held together by links of acquaintance and old school ties, held together though a network of fraternities and sororities.  Robinson states,

“They were established, beginning about a hundred years ago, to provide mutual support and encouragement among blacks who knew that when they graduated from college they would be taking their hard-won learning into a cruel, openly racist world. Obviously the world today is a different place. But the black fraternities and sororities have endured—and they have remained black.” He added, “Pi Phi, known colloquially as the Boule, from an archaic Greek word meaning ‘representative assembly.’ The Boule (pronounced boo-lay) is for high-achieving black professionals, and its reach is nationwide.” 

One wonders if the new generation of the Mainstream will continue to join these societies, for, as Robinson observes, “My generation, like those that came before, was forged in an all-black context amid a hostile society.”

Since 1990, Robinson notes, African immigration to America, still thought of as the Promised Land, has exploded.  The result was a net community, composed of people of color who had no history of victimhood and slavery: the Emergent group.

“Immigrants from the Caribbean began to arrive in larger numbers after passage of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965. The law loosened restrictions on immigration based on geography—a system that favored Europeans over nonwhites—and shifted the emphasis to professional qualifications and family reunification. Subsequent measures in 1976 and 1980 made it easier for immigrants to come to the United States as students or refugees; an attempt at comprehensive immigration reform in 1986 allowed many undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status, including 135,000 from the Caribbean and Africa. For Africans, the key impetus was passage of the Immigration Act of 1990, which increased the number of immigrants admitted on the basis of their skills.”

Allowed to enter, as Robinson writes, due to their skills and education, these immigrants had many advantages compared to the “local” African Americans. Although he does not mention the relative lack of prejudice against them, in fact the African African has had a somewhat easier path. For some reason white Americans consider such individual to have a higher status than those who are descended from slaves.  Robinson notes that “Today, Africans coming here voluntarily on wide-body jets are the best-educated immigrants in the United States—better-educated than Asians, Europeans, Latin Americans, or any other regional group.”  Indeed, he added, “…wherever African immigrants had settled in substantial numbers: Their children were performing so well in school that they were overrepresented, relative to their overall numbers, in the lists of overachievers.”

The author attributes this outstanding success to the mindset of optimism.  I would also add that the psychology of the African immigrants is somewhat akin to that of the African Americans who migrated northward. Robinson writes,

“Most immigrants who surmount all the obstacles and make it to the United States are accustomed to success. Whatever degree of political and economic dysfunction their home countries might be suffering, the immigrants managed to master or escape the local context. By virtue of their presence, they are among the winners in their societies. Optimism comes easily, and with it a certain sense of entitlement. All or some of this gets passed down to the next generation.”

One could site the same thing of the Great Migration, if the word “hope” is substituted for “optimism.”  That said, Robinson makes an interesting point: while the first generation of African immigrants were immune to the “stereotype effect” or the internalization of inferiority, the second generation were more susceptible to the narrative of certain failure. He also makes another important distinction between African Americans and African Africans and Caribbean Africans—they know their ancestry and have retained their heritages. In contrast, part of the process of conquest and enslavement in the American South, entire cultures from many parts of Africa were erased. He recounts,

“When our ancestors were brought here, slave owners waged a deliberate, thorough, and successful campaign to erase all traces of our prior cultures. There were, for example, many slaves who left Africa as Muslims; Islam had been established on the continent for centuries by the time the Americas were discovered and the Atlantic slave trade began. Once in the Americas, Muslims were given no leeway to practice their faith. Christianity was the only religious option, and it was all but mandatory.”

In contrast the Africans who were taken to destinations with a Catholic culture were allowed or were able to retain elements of their heritage. He writes,

“In Cuba and Brazil, they managed to fuse their religious tradition with Roman Catholicism in a way that was Catholic enough to satisfy the slave owners, but Yoruba enough to allow the slaves a sense of connection with their ancestors. These syncretic faiths came to be known as Santeria, candomblé, macumba—there are many names and many distinctions—and they basically associating specific Yoruba demigods, called orishas in Cuba and the other Spanish-speaking slave-owning islands, with specific Catholic saints.”

In conclusion, Robinson notes that no amount of DNA research can do any more than give an African American any but the vaguest idea of his or her ancestry. “…our ancestors’ history was obliterated,” he states,  “In that sense, we really have no idea who we are.” One of the central theses of this book is how the lack of ancestral knowledge was, for a long time, overcome though a shared history of slavery and deprivation and group solidarity.  But this common identity is “disintegrating” as the community is moving away from its roots, which were domination and oppression, towards a new upward mobility.  Here is where the African American group identity splits apart into two extreme segments. If Eugene Robinson places himself within the Mainstream which socially and economically is linked to the Emergent group, then on either side are the Transcendent and the Abandoned.

Like the fraternities and the sororities, the Transcendent are bound together through ties of friendships and circumstances.  Robinson uses the President as a prime example of a Transcendent, that is an African American that is beyond the reach of the narrative of race. He illustrates the network of the Transcendent by writing that

“…the first African American president, confronting the direst financial crisis since the Great Depression, was able to summon an experienced African American CEO (Richard Parsons) out of retirement to oversee troubled Citigroup. It meant that when the president went to work on his campaign promise to bring the treatment of terrorism suspects back into line with civilized norms, he could task an African American attorney general (Eric Holder) with the job. It meant that as President Obama decided on diplomatic steps he could take to rid the United States of its Crazy Cowboy image in the world and chart a new course, he could pick up the phone and call two African American former secretaries of state (Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice).”

However, no African American is forever free of race.  The Transcendent Obamas are a case in point.  Robinson makes the good point that the couple has de-raced public assistance by going to causes that are universal—obesity and health care. But he also writes of the suspicion of  the other Transcendents towards the President—with his white mother and his privileged position among the white community, is he “Black” enough? For a significant segment of the white community, Obama is too Black.  Although Robinson does not go into the ways in which the President has been treated, the disrespect shown to him by his Republican and conservative opponents can be explained in on fashion other than open racism. I have something of an issue with Robinson when he writes, “I dwell on Obama’s candidacy because it was such a Rorschach test for the Transcendent class.” Unlike some Transcendents, such as Oprah, Will Smith, and Sean Combs, Obama is under constant scrutiny and attack.  He has lived the first years of his Presidency like Jackie Robinson in Ebbets Field.

Those who find the preternatural cool aloofness of Barack Obama irritating may not be aware of what the “first Black” must endure.  When Branch Rickey hired Jackie Robinson to play ball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he knew that the athlete would be under constant siege. The exchange and bargain between the two men is famous:

Rickey: “I know you’re a good ballplayer. What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.”

Robinson: “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”

Rickey, exploding: “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”

Far from Transcending, Obama cannot fight back and he cannot speak up with the same freedom that a hip-hop star has. That said, Robinson makes a good point, that Obama is part of a generation that has little or no memory or experience of segregation. Unlike Jackie Robinson who was the grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper who migrated to California, Obama was not raised with a narrative of being a second-class citizen.  Indeed, Robinson states,

“These young Transcendents, generally in their forties, are indeed too young to have lived through Jim Crow. They are not too young to know what it was, and certainly not too young to believe as passionately as their elders in the need to keep fighting to advance the unfinished project of black uplift. But there is a difference between knowing what it is like to face racism and discrimination, which this next-generation black elite does, and knowing what it is like to be consigned by law and police authority to second-class citizenship, which it does not. In that sense, the post-segregation Transcendents carry less baggage through life.”

It remains to be seen if Obama’s restraint is due to an incomprehension—after being schooled in non-racist environments by white people—Occidental College, Columbia and Harvard University—at how he is being treated—or a deep knowledge of—like Jackie Robinson—how carefully he must tread. Robinson pictures Obama as an Insider and he is, in the parts of America that have become “post-racial.” But in the Red States, he is not only an Outsider but an Interloper.  While the President, in an interview with the author, talks of his awareness of the increased opportunities, he is also aware of the dark history behind the achievements. In an interview with Robinson, Obama said, “I do think it is important for the African American community, in its diversity, to stay true to one core aspect of the African American experience, which is we know what it’s like to be on the outside, we know what it’s like to be discriminated against, or at least to have family members who have been discriminated against. And if we ever lose that, then I think we’re in trouble. Then I think we’ve lost our way.”

On the other end of the spectrum are the Abandoned.  In contrast to the high achievers, they are invisible, tucked way in slums and fringe neighborhoods or incarcerated in jails. Pushed out of gentrified neighborhoods, these individuals are caught in a spiral from which there is no recovery.  Despite his horror at the ugly spectacle of human suffering during the aftermath of Katrina, Robinson regards the Abandoned with a despairing realism and a surprisingly conservative stratagem. The Abandoned are those who have been left behind, weighted down by the preceding generations inability to escape poverty.  Whether the Abandoned were Abandoned in the South during the Great Migration—almost certainly the cause of the poverty of the Katrina victims—or were Abandoned in the inner cities of the North, there is little hope for these people.

Commentators who had no understanding of the culture of New Orleans asked why the Black community had not evacuated.  But these are people who had no means of transportation and who were unwilling to leave their homes.  As Robinson discovered,

“An unusually high percentage of poor African Americans in New Orleans own their homes rather than rent, and some were determined to protect their property against looting. The parts of the Lower Ninth Ward that are closest to the Mississippi sit on relatively high ground, and those streets had never flooded before Katrina…”

The lack of transportation meant that the African Americans of the Ninth Ward and other poor neighborhoods could not follow the jobs and industries to the suburbs. The only jobs available were in the tourist industry that favored the kind of talent that could service and entertain the visitors. Robinson explains the tragic and unintended consequences of the Civil Rights Movement on those who would be left behind:

“At the same time that jobs were moving out of the cities, African Americans were winning unprecedented rights and freedoms. Those who were best prepared to take advantage of the new opportunities moved away from places like the Lower Ninth, leaving the least-prepared behind. The 1960s riots hastened an exodus that had already begun. As the black Mainstream made for the exit, what had been economically diverse African American neighborhoods became uniformly poor.”

The gaze of the television cameras on New Orleans allowed America to see what had become of those who had been Abandoned.  But the same story—without hurricanes—could be told in many other cities, such as Detroit and Baltimore. Lack of education, lack of transportation, lack of self-esteem, communities divided between rootless males and female-headed families, hopeless anger and self-defeating behavior are generational pathologies and survival strategies.  Robinson looks with empathy upon these communities where lives come and go, lived out in a flat line of neglect. “The web of restraints that keeps Abandoned black Americans from escaping into the middle class has been examined from every angle, described in great detail, and lamented ad infinitum. But the web continues to tighten.” He concludes, “It begins in the womb.”

The African American child born to an Abandoned mother has almost no change in life.  His or her plight is all the more stark, given the astonishing progress of the Mainstream.  As Robinson states,

“As the Mainstream have risen, the Abandoned have fallen. To be black, poor, and uneducated in America is, arguably, a more desperate and intractable predicament today than it was forty or fifty years ago…for all intents and purposes, Mainstream African Americans have arrived. The Abandoned, however, have not. And the question is whether they ever will…Increasingly, between the Abandoned and the rest of black America, there is a failure to communicate, much less comprehend…Abandoned black America—increasingly isolated from the Mainstream—develop a cultural ecosystem that makes sense internally but nowhere else.” 

Robinson explains that young black females are well aware of the facts of life and of condoms but they deliberately get pregnant so that they can establish their own households and lives and have someone to love them. While Robinson approves of the independent single Mainstream mother, he understands the consequences of this pattern of single motherhood on a young girl without financial resources.  He recommends a conservative approach—a two parent family—without explaining how the young males will be educated to take on such a responsibility.  The young man is caught up in his own needs.  If the girl needs to be love, the boy needs to be respected. As Robinson explains,

“For young people especially, material possessions, such as the most fashionable brand-name clothing and jewelry, are important because they command respect. The same is true in Mainstream society, of course, but the stakes are higher in communities where people struggle to afford necessities, let alone luxuries. Any teenager who obtains and flaunts high-status items—the right North Face jacket, for example, or the right Timberland boots—has to be willing and able to defend them. Taking such accoutrements by intimidation or force from the owner is the kind of bold action that can enhance another young man’s status among his peers, and in turn provide inoculation against those who might be tempted to try something like that with him.”

One can understand how, to those who are Abandoned and who have no place in Mainstream society, territory and personal possessions would be important, worth fighting and dying for. The Abandoned have nothing else.  According to Robinson,

“…the unwritten code of insult, umbrage, and retribution that holds sway in Abandoned communities—enforced by a few, but followed by many—plays an enormously destructive role by choking off ambition and creating an atmosphere of randomness and uncertainty. Those capable of code-switching have a chance of leaping the chasm—those who understand, for example, that while “acting white” in school is seen as a sign of softness and weakness, it is possible to avoid showing vulnerability in public and at the same time earn the kind of grades that make it possible to go to college. Those who cannot live in both worlds, who do not understand both sets of values, are all but lost. The essential, and tragic, problem is that “keeping it real”—adhering to the code—requires either engaging in all manner of self-defeating behavior or finding elaborate subterfuges to avoid shooting oneself in the foot. The warping of values in Abandoned black America means that being successful requires being duplicitous—being literally two-faced. And that is never an easy way to live.”

Robinson ends his book by presenting solutions to the seemingly intractable problems faced by the Abandoned.  Regardless of the good intentions of the Mainstream or the Transcendent to help the Abandoned, these are individual efforts, well meaning but hardly adequate to the enormity of the task.  He insists that Affirmative Action should continue but be targeted to the Abandoned or those in real need. He also suggests that the richest nation in the world can well afford a Marshall Plan for the inner cities.  In a surprising move, Robinson suggests something akin to the badly received remark of Barbara Bush about the Katrina victims:

“What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”

Robinson suggests that the gentrification or the taking of inner city territory from the Abandoned should be continued. As he states,

“…gentrification breaks up tough knots of Abandoned poverty and scatters people to the winds, including to other areas that might be just as poor but are more racially integrated, the process actually can be to the displaced—with one big caveat. The caveat is that the displaced cannot simply be forced into another all-black ghetto—one that is more remote, with even fewer amenities and services. This is largely what has happened in Washington and some other cities, and the result is that the problem just gets moved, not solved. By far the best solution—and, yes, it costs money—is to preserve or create low-income housing that allows the Abandoned to stay in place while the neighborhood gentrifies around them.”

I am not sure the author has thought through the consequences of such a contrast between the Abandoned and the Mainstream, nor is it clear how the “tough knots” are broken up if they are only transferred to a high rise.  In addition, as the implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe projects in St. Louis suggested, poor people don’t take kindly to being herded into containment communities. As Alexander von Hoffman of Harvard University wrote of the fate of the 1956 high rise development,

“Only a few years later, disrepair, vandalism, and crime plagued Pruitt-Igoe. The project’s recreational galleries and skip-stop elevators, once heralded as architectural innovations, had become nuisances and danger zones. Large numbers of vacancies indicated that even poor people preferred to live anywhere but Pruitt-Igoe. In 1972, after spending more than $5 million in vain to cure the problems at Pruitt-Igoe, the St. Louis Housing Authority, in a highly publicized event, demolished three of the high-rise buildings. A year later, in concert with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it declared Pruitt-Igoe unsalvageable and razed the remaining buildings.”

Whatever the problems with Robinson’s solutions, he asks the African American community to take responsibility for the Abandoned community.  Without adding that the rest of America is loath to spend money on a cause that seems intractable, he suggests that,

“Mainstream and those of the Abandoned coincide in the long run; ultimately, the goal is for the Abandoned to become Mainstream. But those interests diverge along the way. Two obvious goals for African Americans are consolidating decades of impressive gains into solid, multigenerational wealth; and doing whatever it takes to uplift the millions still trapped in desperate, multigenerational poverty…Transcendent CEOs can’t rescue the Abandoned, but they can serve as localized engines of economic development for the Mainstream by making certain that their companies actually practice diversity rather than just preach it. If they ensure that qualified and capable African Americans are represented among their executive teams, suppliers, and outside bankers, lawyers, and accountants, they will leave behind a far greater legacy than whatever the final numbers say on the balance sheet.”

Although Robinson was writing in 2010, he mentioned the unfathomable sums of tax payer dollars shoveled to the troughs of Wall Street to “rescue” perfectly able bodied white males only in passing and noted, also in passing that Americans were willing to sent money to Iraq and Afghanistan but not to the Abandoned in their own country. I wish he had made more of this comparison, because surely part of the persistent poverty among the Abandoned is the fact that, as he points out in his analysis of the film Precious, Americans believe that if you are poor, you brought this condition upon yourself and that “you deserve it.” An updated version of this book might be able to add numerous comments made in the last two years by members of Congress who excoriate the poor and extol the rich for the purposes of taking money from those in need in order to give money to those in un-need. This lack of compassion and this refusal of responsibility and this deliberate unraveling of the social and moral fabric of America is the real definition of Disintegration.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Game Change, 2012

THE RISE OF SARAH PALIN AND THE FALL OF JOHN MCCAIN

GAME CHANGE

HBO Spring 2012

Political cynicism is rarely rebuked.  Seasoned operatives play the game to win by fair means or foul and apparently never consider the long-term consequences.  When their glory days are long over, some, like Lee Atwater and Robert McNamara, recant their tactics and their lies. Game Change, an HBO special movie based on the well-received book of the same name, is a cautionary tale of the unintended consequences of a half-baked political strategy that revealed the “dark side” of populism.  Four long years have come and gone since the memorable and frightening 2008 Republican primary which revealed the fecklessness of a Presidential candidate, John McCain, who selected as a running mate, Sarah Palin, a neophyte governor utterly unfit for public office.

Sadly, the movie is slack and soggy, as half-baked as the plan to make Sarah Palin into viable vice-presidential material.  This is a compelling true story that we all saw unfold in real time.  Those of us wedded to the notion that a politician should be at least competent felt alarm and consternation at the rise of Sarah Palin.  It would be hard to say which was more frightening—her supreme ignorance or her supreme raw political talents. The sheer terror of the thought of Sarah Palin as second in line to the Presidency, the shudder that ran across the body politic, is strangely subdued in this account of one of the most unforgivable insults handed to the American people.  And yet, after watching this sympathetic account of a badly handled candidate, I came away with a new respect and empathy for Sarah Palin.

The real villains of the piece are Steve Schmidt and John McCain who needed a “game change” to confront and counteract the charisma of Barack Obama.  Gently played by an amiable Ed Harris, John McCain is given an Easy Pass in this account of his catastrophic campaign.  The John McCain of today is an angry man, still smarting over his humiliation at the hands of Barack Obama.   Defeat has not sat well with him and he has shown none of the graciousness of a vanquished John Kerry or Jimmy Carter.  Ed Harris makes John McCain seem like a doting and absent-minded grandfather, rather than a candidate wounded from the campaign against George Bush and determined to find redemption.  There is no trace of his trade-mark hot temper, impulsiveness, and volatility.

That said, the movie clearly shows McCain as being reckless and irresponsible. On one hand, he casually used Sarah Palin to boost his percentage points; on the other hand, he abandoned her to his campaign staff, who came to hate her.  Chief hater was Steve Schmidt, well played by Woody Harrelson, who really steals the movie.  Schmidt rather liked Palin in the beginning but when the governor did not respond well to his wishes, he learned to fear and loathe his recalcitrant candidate.  Unfortunately, Julianne Moore’s performance is thin and bloodless.  Yes, she imitated Sarah Palin very well, but it is as if the imitation overwhelmed Moore’s ability to act and give power to what history suggests were a very real rage at what was being done to her.  In the face of Harrelson’s Emmy worth performance, Moore almost recedes and we are never given a convincing emotional connection to how Sarah Palin broke away from her captors and went “rogue.”

The film obscures the fact that Sarah Palin had actively campaigned for a larger role in Republican politics, courting susceptible neo-conservatives such as Bill Kristol, who pushed John McCain to select her as a running mate.  Kristol seems to have had a crush on the beautiful governor of Alaska and played a partial and outsider role to the campaign that gave his voice a significant weight with McCain.   Doubtless, Palin also enchanted McCain who, in the beginning (in real life), was visibly besotted with her.  By not making the connection between Palin’s active ambition and the thwarting of her fantasy of political stardom, her rise and rebirth after weeks of humiliation at the hands of the press has no foundation.

Game Change asserts that Palin was located through Google—an odd elision of known facts that makes the campaign look even more lacking in judgment that it was in real life. The criteria were few: the vice president must be a woman, to  counter the Republican deficit with women, and she must be pro-choice, to inspire the listless Republican base.  Given that America is behind Afghanistan in the percentage of women we have in public office, finding a Republican woman with the kind of political experience routinely granted to men was a difficult task.  Most Republican women active in politics at that time were pro-choice, narrowing the field significantly, almost guaranteeing a Sarah Palin-type—lightly educated and living in an isolated area outside the mainstream.

All Sarah Palin had to offer was ambition, the skills of a performance artist, and a taste for public adoration.  Sadly, from the very start, the McCain campaign mishandled a very viable politician who proved to be a game changer—if not in the way anyone had imagined.  What Schmidt utterly failed to see, even after her acceptance speech at the Republican politician, was that Palin could not and should not be prepped into sophisticated knowledge of world affairs. It was the intention of the McCain people that their boss should have a running “mate,” or a political wife who would “support” his positions.  Apparently assuming that a woman would be less ambitious than a man selected as vice president, the team did not consider the fact that the nation would view her the same way as a male candidate: as the proverbial “heartbeat” away from the Presidency.

Palin understood not only her expected role but also saw her nomination as a path to her own political future, and it is this ambition that Game Change failed to grapple with.  Julianne Moore is never allowed to fully show the driving ambition that led to the eventual success of Palin and is forced to spend most of the movie in a state of shamed failure.  True, Palin, as would anyone funning for office, needed to be “prepped.”  However, her needs went beyond an updating or a boning up on obscure aspects of foreign policy: Palin had to be taught or educated at a high school or college level, but the film shows that she was prepared for press interviews with condescension bordering on contempt.  In the process, the army of managers, consumed by concerns with her weaknesses, failed to see Sarah Palin herself and neglected to determine her strengths. The campaign proceeded to remake her in their own image.

The result was an artificial creation, an attempt to turn an ordinary Alaskan wife and mother who also happened to be a governor into a well informed chicly dressed talking head stuffed with undigested factoids.  The problem was that political operatives were not trained as teachers and did not have a clue as to how to educate a human being.  No one can learn disparate bits of information given without an intellectual context.  In a reflection of No Child Left Behind, Schmidt and Wallace, tried to teach Sarah Palin for the test—interviews with the press.  When confronted with this well dressed, sleekly made up vision political acumen, the press reacted accordingly, asking Palin the kinds of questions any run of the mill politician familiar with Washington D. C. could answer.  What was seen, what we all experienced, live on television, was a person stricken by a panic attack when asked about the “Bush Doctrine”—-“In what respect, Charlie?” And her inability to think when asked about which newspapers she read—”All of them.”

Oddly, given the amount of time the film gave to the teaching of Sarah Palin, little time is given to the interviews, which were sheer agony to watch in real life.  Nothing is more painful that witnessing a complete failure to construct a coherent thought but there is almost nothing in Game Change of Palin’s mangled syntax, twisted by what must have been her sheer terror.  After the interview with Charlie Gibson, the campaign owed her an apology but instead the operatives blamed her and redoubled their efforts to cram facts down her throat as if she were a Strasbourg goose.  No wonder, the poor woman became catatonic and rebellious.

Perhaps because the people who worked for McCain had ulterior motives concerning their own futures in politics, McCain is absolved and Palin takes all the blame.  Nicole Wallace flatly refused to work with her (and ultimately to vote for her) after Palin bombed the Katie Couric interview, leaving the governor to the irritated mercies of Steve Schmidt. Lower placed operatives in the campaign clearly leaked their dissatisfaction with Palin to the press and undermined her during the campaign with the presumed effect of letting McCain off the hook and shifting the blame from themselves to an inexperienced candidate.  In hindsight, everyone claimed that 2008 was a “Democratic year,” and the the McCain candidacy was doomed, particularly in the turbulent wake of the Bush presidency.  Palin, then, was a “Hail Mary” attempt at a three-pointer.

If there is, as Palin claims today, a “false narrative” to Game Change it lies in the refusal to take responsibility on the part of the major players. Why did Schmidt and Wallace not see who and what they were dealing with—the real Sarah Palin? Was it unconscious sexism? Was it failure to recognize the capacities of a person so different from themselves? Was it their own blind loyalty to John McCain?  This blind spot, whatever it was, blurs the heart of this narrative and, in the end, the film rushed past the most significant part—how Sarah Palin, possibly encouraged by her husband Todd, shook off her handlers and found herself, her own voice and reached past the campaign to the voters. In the process, she eclipsed McCain.

To this day McCain remains circumspect about Palin’s rise to fame and glory.  After all, it was this very rise of Palin’s popularity that not only surely bruised his ego but also wrecked his candidacy by unsettling the balance of the campaign.  And herein lies one of the great “what ifs” of 2008.  What if Schmidt and Wallace had recognized the potential of Sarah Palin?  What if they had allowed her to use the interviews with the press to reach out to the voters who had felt ignored and talked down to—the voters who adored her?  What if the campaign had used Palin to reach the very groups they hired her to represent—conservative women and base voters? What if they had allowed her to be herself?  No doubt Palin would have stumbled and made mistakes, but with proper guidance, perhaps she could have learned how to be a populist candidate with the heart she obviously had.

Instead, at the end of the campaign, what we saw was an angry mishandled woman on the loose, seething with resentment over the “lamestream media,” those very television journalists who had revealed her deficiencies and held her ignorance up to public ridicule.  Although there the movie is far too lax in covering Palin’s self-redemption, the candidate struck out on her own and began to campaign her own way.  Now that she drew huge and rapturous crowds, the campaign seemed to be unable to “handle” or contain her energies.  According to Game Change, her populism disinterred the “dark,” racist, xenophobic side of American life.  The audience to the film must fill in blanks that should have been edifyingly filled, showing us only a John McCain losing control of the narrative, horrified at the sight of the ugly underbelly of America and overwhelmed on Election Day by the public alarm over what had been unleashed.

In another area of fuzziness, both in chronology and agency, Game Change appears to blame Palin for linking Obama to a “terrorist” and to an America-damning pastor.  But this kind of dirty guilt by association game had been part of the Republican playbook since Lee Atwater and remains fully operative today.  In the end of the film, McCain warns Palin to beware of the “extremists,” such as the Limbaughs, of the Republican party.  This brief scene appears too self-serving, too pat to be genuine, a much too obvious attempt to make McCain appear to be blameless for what Sarah Palin had supposedly revealed about the Republican “base,” no pun intended.  But blaming Sarah Palin is another Easy Pass for the part Republican master-minds played in devising the infamous divisive “Southern Strategy”—divide and conquer through racism.  Palin did nothing but take advantage of an already ready well-worn set of tactics and rode to glory on behalf of the “Real” America.

A year ago this month, Bill Kristol bemoaned the failure of Sarah Palin to take advantage of the (unearned) opportunity that was given to her.  Like many of Palin’s  former defenders and supporters, Kristol jumped ship after Game Change the book was published.  It seems that they were disappointed that Palin’s reach towards fame exceeded her desire to do the hard work of growing into a viable politician.  Instead of going back to being a governor of Alaska, gaining experience and preparing to take on the role of heir apparent in 2012, Palin compounded the impression she did not want to work by resigning half way through her term and becoming a television personality on a boring reality show.  Instead of growing her candidacy for President into an aura of inevitability, Palin became an inarticulate talking head on Fox News, an embittered mockery of her former self, using self-righteous religion as a cudgel against liberals.

Rising from the ruins of the failed McCain campaign, a year later Steve Schmidt gave an timely interview with Anderson Cooper on CBS’s 60 Minutes and indicated that, although Palin “helped” more than “hurt” the campaign, he would not chose her again.  In clearing the ground just before Game Change was published, Schmidt sought redemption and exoneration for his part in what author John Heilemann termed an “irresponsible” action of foisting a “dangerous” candidate upon America.  Schmidt’s mea culpa worked and, thanks to an excellent book and to this television movie, Schmidt has cleansed himself and continues to do penance on MSNBC.

Game Change the movie benefited from additional interviews and from reading Palin’s book, Going Rogue, and the new perspectives from her book clearly added to the “empathy” angle, as the screenwriters stated.  One does feel sorry for Palin and it seem clear—book or no book, movie or no movie—that the McCain campaign let Sarah Palin down badly.  But Palin herself profited only monetarily, not politically, from those intense months.  One wonders…what if Sarah Palin had learned from her experience on the McCain campaign and surrounded herself with serious and sympathetic advisors?  She could have molded her very real strengths as a devoted wife and mother and shaped her image as a normal person called to a higher office.  She could have honed her formidable talents as a communicator.

But like a minor character in a Shakespearean tragedy—a Rosencrantz—Sarah Palin thrust herself to the fringes of history, a fleeting novelty, discredited by her own roiling resentment.  Too bad.  What if she had allowed herself to try to be better than she was, to learn?  Imagine the Republican primary today with Sarah Palin on the debate stage.  Her natural running mate: he whose name cannot be Googled. Now that would have been a real Game Change.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

 

The Assault on Reason, 2007, by Al Gore

WHAT IF AL GORE HAD BEEN THE PRESIDENT?

A Review of

THE ASSAULT ON REASON, 2007, by Al Gore

One of the great “what ifs” in American history is “what if Al Gore had become president in 2000?”   Notice I did not say, “What if Al Gore had won the 2000 election?”  For some, George W. Bush did not defeat Al Gore, instead the Supreme Court in what many left-wing thinkers consider a coup-d’état handed him the presidency.  Who knows who really won?  The counting of the votes, hanging chads, butterfly ballot and all that, was never completed but was halted by the Court.  The Republican response to the Democratic dismay was to “suck it up” and accept the loss.  While this transfer of the presidency to George W. Bush has never left the consciousness of the Democrats, and while we will never know who actually won the most votes in Florida, some things we do know for certain and that is what would not have occurred if Gore had become president.

Imagine what we would not have had

  • No war in Iraq
  • No “discretionary” wars
  • No Patriot Act
  • No torture, no torture memos,
  • No wholesale spying on the American people
  • No Guantanamo Bay
  • No Abu Ghraib
  • No flouting of the Geneva Convention
  • No privatization of the military
  • No Haliburton, no KRB
  • No wars fought on credit cards
  • No unfunded prescription drug programs
  • No government lying
  • No outing of CIA agents
  • No inaction on Katrina
  • Job outsourcing offset by jobs at home
  • No Great Recession
  • No Bush Tax Cuts to the Wealthy
  • No massive debts
  • No union-busting governors
  • No Defense of Marriage Act
  • No polarization between political parties
  • No John Roberts
  • No Samuel Alito
  • No Citizens United Decision
  • No Tea Party
  • No Sarah Palin
  • No Michelle Bachmann
  • No Barack Obama

What we would have had:

  • A Short War in Afghanistan
  • A Green Economy
  • Green Jobs in America
  • Smaller Wall Street Crash
  • Illegal Immigrants made legal tax-paying citizens
  • The Protection of Reproductive Rights
  • The Protection of Voting Rights
  • Well-funded Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid
  • Compromise and Negotiation
  • A Respect for Truth and for Reality

Each president teaches the nation a series of lessons, some of them with lasting repercussions, some good and some bad.  Lyndon Johnson taught us that presidents lie.  Richard Nixon taught us that government is not to be trusted.  Ronald Reagan taught us that greed was good.  George H. W. Bush taught us to use racist lies as a campaign strategy.  Bill Clinton taught us that presidents have sex while in office.  George W.  Bush taught us that it was just fine to spend money we do not have and had no way of paying back.  Barack Obama taught us that resistance is futile.  Al Gore taught us how to lose gracefully.  Al Gore also taught retired public servants who to make the most of their retirement and how to maximize their experience for the public good. Of all the ex-politicians, Al Gore has contributed to the globe perhaps the most admirably, warning the world of the coming catastrophe of Global Warming or Climate Change or whatever you want to call it.  Only Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have equaled Gore in public service after serving in elected office.  We are still waiting to see what the Bushes, Senior and Junior, will do to show that they deserved the faith their voters put in them to serve the people.

We know what happened under George W. Bush.  But what if Gore had been president?  What are the arguments that things would have been better as the result of a Gore presidency?  First, Gore would have retained the surplus accrued under Clinton.  There would have been no tax cuts for the rich.  So how would all that extra money have been spent?  Undoubtedly, the deficit would have been paid down over time.  But there are always rainy days and the unexpected.  During the first decade of the twenty-first century, there were two events that could not have been planned for.  In making the second point, we could arguably ask: would there have been a September 11th?

While it is doubtful that the terrible insane plan to turn planes into weapons could have been detected, there would have been much more awareness of the dangers of Islamic terrorism in the Gore administration than in the Bush administration.  The Bush State Department was fully briefed by the outgoing administration on the threats from Al Qaeda and chose, famously, to ignore the information.  Third, while we can assume that, regardless of the increased vigilance that 9/11 would have happened anyway, we also know that there would have been no war in Iraq.  Certainly after September 11th, American would have fought what probably would have been a short and sharp war in Afghanistan.  How short, we cannot know, but certainly not the ten plus years we are witnessing now.

Another cost of the Bush wars was the very expensive privatization of the military. Once the military took care of itself, from cooking to cleaning to fighting.  Under the Bush administration, the basic cost of running a war was enormously increased by outsourcing what had been standard military tasks to private companies, which proceeded to overcharge the government.  It has long been known that the Defense Department had always been the target of enrichment scams on the part of civilian businesses and there were attempts, however feeble, to keep the outrageous overcharges under control.  Under the Bush administration, the ceding of the military to private enterprise exploded the cost of the war beyond what it would have normally been.

And none of the increased costs were paid for.  During the Second World War, the military was self-sufficient and the citizens paid the costs, one day at a time, through the sale of war bonds.  Instead, no bid contract were handed out from everyone to electricians to caterers to commandos, effectively doubling the personnel and causing costs to spiral out of control.  It is doubtful that under a Democratic president that the wars would have been either plural or privatized.  Without the wars, there would have been no Patriot Act, no wholesale spying on the American people, no Guantanamo Bay, no Abu Ghraib, no torture memos, no flouting of the Geneva Convention, no decline in American credibility and no loss of American honor.

Fourth, this war would have been paid for.  The two Bush wars were the first in American history to be waged without a tax increase and fought totally on borrowed money.  Fifth, it is unlikely that going into two wars on credit cards would have been coupled with another charge on the card, the unfunded and unpaid-for prescription drug plan.  Although it would be safe to assume that none of the budget busting events that happened under Bush—two wars, a tax cut and a prescription drug deal, none of which were ever paid for—under a Gore Administration, it would not be safe to assume that there would have been no financial melt-down.  The crisis of 2008 could well have come about regardless of who was in charge. The only real question is how bad would it have been?

The Gore administration would have, in all probability, continued the de-regulation of the lending financial industries undertaken by the Clinton economic team.  What is unclear is the extent of the financial excesses.  During the Bush years, Wall Street came to resemble Las Vegas even more than usual.  The stock market and its minions take its cues from political leadership and the market clearly followed the lead of the Bush administration and adopted the philosophy of short-term goals and short-term gains, to borrow and spend with no thought to the consequences.  The market will always take advantage of the slightest permissive loophole and even invent a few more but, under Bush, there was clear permission to binge.

Recall that after 9/11, the president urged the nation to shop.  Credit cards were flashed and homes were used as the proverbial piggy bank and, thanks to “liar’s loans,” value was extracted from what was the homeowner’s major financial asset.  The market may always be counted on to behave badly and selfishly but, under Bush, the basic fabric of responsibility and morality and ethical behavior became openly unraveled.  The bills finally came due and the entire structure, built on fantasy, came crashing down.  Would the Gore administration have bailed out Wall Street?

It is possible that, given the precedents, such as the Savings and Loan debacle, the answer would have been “yes.”  But it is probably safe to assume the crash would have been much less severe and the money would have been there to pump into the economy.  Not only that, but the economy would have been in much better shape and could have better absorbed such a blow.  Under the Bush administration, there was no job creation and no rise in middle class income.  Jobs were going out the door and traveling to other nations with cheap labor.  Tax incentives were created to encourage outsourcing and corporations were allowed to not pay taxes.  Of course with the high cost of labor and the stringency of regulations in America, all the businesses that could do so shipped their jobs overseas.

This practice was nothing new and had been going on since the 1970s.  Outsourcing is not a bad thing in and of itself.   American consumers have certainly enjoyed affordable commodities; from television sets to automobiles, and it make sense to allow certain societies to specialize in manufacturing if the advantage exists.  The problem is that, under Bush, these lost jobs were never replaced.  Real wages went down and, when taxes were cut, especially on the people who continued to experience a rise in income, revenues fell sharply.  With not enough coming in and with huge unprecedented amounts of money going out, a deficit rapidly replaced the surplus and America went into a deep financial hole.

With the Afghanistan War over, with the rich paying their fare share, with no unpaid-for prescription drug plan, with no war in Iraq, and with a healthy economy, the Gore administration would have been ready for the Wall Street Crash of ’08.  The Bush administration encouraged jobs to leave America and did nothing to encourage job creation at home.  Eight, here is where there would have been an enormous difference between Bush and Gore.  Environmentally conscious, Gore would have started green industries in America, creating green jobs.  Green jobs are the kind of jobs that cannot be outsourced and the range of these kinds of jobs is enormous, offering opportunities to men and women with a wide range of skills and education.  In addition, green jobs would have been located everywhere, eliminating the pockets of joblessness and limiting the dependence on federal spending seen in the southern part of the United States, for example.  People could have actually afforded their homes, paid their bills, and, who knows, maybe there would have been no total meltdown that impacted homeowners.  Maybe Wall Street would have had to suffer for its own excesses.  Who knows?

Given the aging Baby Boomers under Gore would there have been an upswing in socialized medicine and health care?  Or to put it another way, would Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid been in financial trouble?  The crisis in these government guarantees of public health is due to the lack of taxes to support them.  With normal tax revenues, there is no problem for the future of any of these programs.  It is even possible that, under Gore, American would have been allowed to buy drugs on a competitive market, even allowed to buy drugs in Canada, bringing down the cost of health care. But there is something more to consider.  Under Gore would there have been a Democratic push to legalize illegal immigrants?  Given the rewards, why not?

Legal citizens pay taxes, instead of sending the surplus to Mexico, because they now have a stake in their new nation.  The influx of income would be felt immediately in local and state and federal governments. People of Latino descent are a fast growing demographic and a young demographic, more than taking care of the spaces left by the Baby Boomers who will very shortly stop paying taxes and will start extracting their contributions to their retirement.  The current budget “crisis” could be solved simply by ending the Bush tax cuts and by making illegal aliens legal.  Legal citizens can vote and in gratitude, they would vote for the party that had given them citizenship.

Republicans know this fact of life and will continue to obstruct Democratic efforts to solve the “immigration problem,” which like many of the so-called “problems” we are told we have are problems of Bush’s making, because they know that the Republican base is a small one.  The idea of a permanent Democratic majority is simply unthinkable to the Republicans, even Bush knew that, but his own party blew the opportunity he gave them.  The Republicans can offset their smaller numbers with larger campaign spending, which is no anonymous and unlimited, thanks to the Supreme Court infamous Citizens United decision.  And that Decision brings up another major difference between the administration of Bush and Gore.  Under Gore, there would have been no John Roberts and no Samuel Alito and no rightward turn to the Supreme Court.  Instead, Gore would have nominated two more liberal or neutral justices to the Court and there would have been no rollback of civil liberties and no decisions that favored corporations over citizens such as we have seen over the past decade.

Finally, the last thing that we do know is that without Bush and the drift rightward of his administration, there would have been no Barack Obama.  Obama, a conservative Reagan Democrat, was able to position himself left of Bush, only because of the extreme right leaning positions taken by that administration.  Obama’s mild Republican health care policies, which seek to shield American citizens from predatory health care companies, were a shock due to the strong contrast to Bush’s laisse faire attitude towards the poor and the middle class. Without a right-wing Bush administration, there would also have been no Sarah Palin.  The Bush administration prepared the ground for an extreme Republican agenda and for extreme Republican candidates who do not read newspapers and who want to pray the gay away.

At the end of a Gore administration, the next president could have been a moderate Republican, like Romney, or another environmentally conscious Democrat.  It is doubtful that whomever the President would have been in 2008 that there would have been the latest upsurge of the John Birch Society, the Tea Party.  The Tea Party emerged, as did Sarah Palin, on the fertile soil of the Wall Street Bailout.  With a good economy, there would have been no need for a faux “tax revolt.”   Today, when nothing substantial gets done in Washington, it is hard to imagine what might have been.  As unimaginable as it seems, the Democrats and the Republicans would be talking to each other today.

Just as Ronald Reagan allowed greed to emerge unchecked in America, George Bush allowed and encouraged a take-no-prisoners approach to politics.  Taking a page from the book of his father’s late unlamented advisor, Lee Atwater, for the campaigns of the younger Bush, no trick was too dirty, no lie was too extreme, as long as it worked politically.   The result was the birth of scorn for “reality-based” narratives and the door to stories that had no basis in fact was opened.  It was fine to lie about the weapons of mass destruction, it was OK to reveal the identity of an officer of the CIA, just as it was perfectly acceptable to torture and to hold people indefinitely without charge or trial.  If one side believes in an untenable scenario and castigates anyone who wants to tell the truth, then compromise is impossible.  Once facts become meaningless then the party, which believes in non-facts can neither see nor agree to other points of view.  When the Bush administration showed its willingness to buy into improbable versions of actual reality, the way was cleared for political gridlock.  Without an agreement on basic facts and basic truths, no actions could ever be taken.

What the Bush administration taught us is that there was no accountability.  Would the Wall Street Robber Barons have been allowed to go free in a post-Gore administration? Probably not, but Obama, following a regime without penalties, threatened the bankers with only Elizabeth Warren. But there is such a thing as accountability and we, the middle class American citizens, are still paying for old sins that we did not commit.  In his best selling 2007 book, The Attack on Reason, Al Gore does not mention any of the might-have-beens listed above. He simply outlines in a clear precise language the failings of the Bush administration.  Writing before the Wall Street Crash, his concerns have to do with civil liberties lost and the campaign of misinformation that passes for “news” during the first decade of the twenty-first century.  Gore is especially concerned about the spread of false information by a mass media that is controlled by corporations and political interests.  Gore quotes Edward Muskie, a former presidential contender, brought low by media manipulation in 1970,

“There are only two kinds of politics.  They’re not radical and reactionary or conservative or liberal or even Democrat and Republican.  There are only the politics of fear and the politics of trust.”

We all know that the next famous quote was “I am not a crook,” uttered by Richard Nixon.  The president engineered his own demise by turning a small political misdemeanor into a massive cancerous cover-up, bringing the term “Watergate” and all things “gate” into being to designate scandals that could not be overcome.  Watergate, like the McCarthy Hearings, was played out on television to a fascinated audience who was dazzled at the cast of luminaries brought low.  Watergate was a rare case of the truth coming out and of that truth having consequences and of those responsible being held accountable.  It would be the last time such a public political punishment would occur.  Watergate was a story broken by a great newspaper, The Washington Post and what lodged in the public psyche was that newspapers, print media, was the last resort of truth.  Since Watergate the public spends more and more time passively consuming television in a one-way no-exchange experience.  As Gore points out, today, television is the public’s main source of political news on government business and newspapers are folding one by one.

Not only are newspapers dying and television ratings are soaring but television viewing has become more and more of a niche experience.  Unlike newspapers where a range of news and opinions co-exist, television programs appeal to the fears and prejudices of the audience.  Television exists to entertain and to make money for the owners not to seek and find the truth.  Furthermore, competition has greatly lessened among media outlets since the 1970s and a few vast conglomerates control everything.  Monopoly capitalism has captured the news, turning it into a source of revenue.   In such an atmosphere, reason has no place.

Gore’s main thesis is that reason has been replaced by “dogma and blind faith.”  The result is “a new kind of power” that is arbitrary because the public is not informed and cannot consent from an informed position.  Gore also states that this power comes from “deep poisoned wells of racism, ultranationalism, religious strife, tribalism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia…” In such an atmosphere, the ugliness that always underlies any body politic is allowed and even encouraged to emerge.  Real problems can be ignored while non-problems and fake crises distract the American people.  The result is a replacement of our system of checks and balances with unchecked power and influence thanks to a “coalition” that serves their own interests, not that of the public.

Gore used the Iraq War and the systematic lies that led to it as a prime example of the techniques of distraction.  It is now known that the Bush administration came into office with the goal of deposing Saddam Hussein and the administration’s spin machine diverted attention away from Osama bin Laden to phantom weapons of mass destruction.  Anyone who disagreed with President Bush or brought facts to bear was dismissed as “unpatriotic.”  Ideology replaced facts, faith replaced information, fantasy replaced history, and dogmatism replaced reason so that Bush could “benefit friends and supporters.”

The coalition, or the “friends with benefits,” that Gore describes is made of a number of groups or what Bush called “my base.”   He lists “the economic royalists” who want only to eliminate taxation and regulation, an “ideology” which has an “almost religious fervor.”  The public interest does not exist for these people.  Indeed, any government programs that aid the people are disincentives to make these people work hard for low wages.  The interests of the “wealthy and large corporations” have the highest priority for Republican ideology.  The infallibility of this ideological position is buttressed by what Gore lists as “well funded foundations, think tanks, action committees, media companies, and front groups capable of simulating grassroots activism and mounting a sustained assault on any reasoning process that threatens their economic goals.”

True, Republicans have been trying to dismantle the New Deal and the prosperity of the middle class for eighty years, but Gore asserts “this is different: the absolute dominance of the politics of wealth is something new.”  He traces the long struggle in America to create an equal society, which is also a struggle against monopoly power and corporate interference with the workings of government but once regulations that made sure that there were many choices of media outlets to ensure competition.  Under Reagan, Gore points out, media competition was ended when regulations were lifted allowing vast corporations to gather together many television and radio stations and newspapers into one bundle that spoke with a single mind, devoted to preserving the wealth of the wealthy.  Any information that should get in the way of ideology is promptly distorted for the cause or spun in a favorable direction.  Gore says of the Bush administration, “I cannot remember any administration adopting this kind of persistent, systematic abuse of the truth and the institutionalization of dishonesty as a routine part of the policy process.”  Gore states that the result of administration tactics was “to introduce a new level of viciousness in partisan politics.”

The Supreme Court, always compliant with right wing agendas, helped President Bush garner unprecedented and unchecked power to the executive branch.  The Bush doctrine became whatever the president did was legal, a stance taken unsuccessfully by President Nixon.  Bush was allowed to flout the American legal system and to disdain international laws.  All Supreme Court decisions were made in favor of corporations and their powers and against the people, leaving the individual with no recourse, not even the right to a trial by jury.  Bush was less interested in social issues than the later Republicans would be.  He was far more interested in amassing the power to do what he wanted, whether it was warrantless wiretapping, searches without search warrants and the “right” to put an unprecedented number of innocent citizens under surveillance for no particular reason.  The public was not allowed to assemble freely and any protestors were removed far away from the President and corralled in special sections so that Bush’s day would not be ruined by any sign of dissent.

Gore ends his description of the illegal and unconstitutional abuses of the Bush administration by stating what it would take to create a “well-informed citizenry” that democracy requires.  He does not have much faith in television and puts his faith instead in the Internet.  Gore warns that there are powers, corporate powers, which want to control the Internet by giving the content the rich and famous approve the green light of high speed and forcing the dissenters into the slow land of endless downloads.  This compartmentalization of the Internet into fast and slow ideologically structured lanes is a real and present danger.  One can only hope that the True Believers and the Bloggers will keep protecting the last bastion of true participatory democracy.  This book was published before the Bush presidency ended and does not account the last days of the Bush Bonfire when Wall Street burned.  Reading The Assault on Reason three years into the Obama presidency is to recognize how totally the Bush administration ruined the very promising situation it inherited from the Clinton-Gore administration.  One realizes that this is a group of politicians where were discredited to a man and woman but they were never held accountable.  They just got out of town and left the government in a shambles.

What was gained?  What was the Bush Administration all about?  Reading Gore’s book helps us understand that what was gained by the monied interests was a significant weakening of regulations of all kinds, a shrinking of taxes on the rich, an enlargement of subsidies even for the wealthiest corporations, and a lack of meaningful consequences when oil spills or chemicals leak or coal mines cave in and people die.  Wall Street banks can demand money from taxpayers and then refuse to help the very same citizens refinance their mortgages while giving themselves record bonuses.  Global Warming is now a hoax and every time it snows, the right wing throws verbal snowballs at Al Gore.  Every time there is a tornado or a flood or a drought, then the same people call the federal government.  Labor unions, especially teachers, are now the villains and these groups are under assault so that more tax breaks can be given to the wealthy.  States’ rights have made a comeback and even Obama, a black man who should know better, says that states should decide on whether or not to “allow” gay marriage.  “Compromise” and “negotiation” are bad words for a person whose election promise is to destroy government as we know it.  Washington is in gridlock. Media has rewritten lived history: the deficit was caused by Obama who was not born in the United States and who wants us to all become “European,” whatever that means.

Gore has been largely silent about these events that have unfolded since his book was published, but he cannot be surprised by the trend of today’s events.  He has not been outspoken like Bill Clinton, nor has he overtly supported Obama.  He has put forward the facts of Global Warming, won his Nobel Prize, and he will watch to see all his prophecies come true in forest fires, tornadoes, floods, droughts, melting ice caps, the extinction of polar bears, the widening of the hole in the ozone layer, endless winters, rising sea levels—Gore watches it all.  Some Americans look away from the dust storms and cry “Hoax.”  Other Americans have lost hope, and no wonder.  The game, we learned, was rigged for the rich and not for the public interest.  The land will be raped for the profits of the few and we the many will pay for the destruction.  Meanwhile, we watch television and see good-hearted well-meaning Americans demonstrating in Revolutionary War costumes to preserve tax cuts for the Wall Street bankers.  The media they watch has convinced them to dismantle all the social programs they enjoy and use.  These good people have been gathered together by powerful corporate interests who can bend them to their will.  Reason has no place in politics.  Nor do facts. Nor does reality.  Spin rules.  Slogans speak.  If Al Gore is right, the last refuge of the honest broker is the Internet…while it lasts.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

 

Grown Up Digital: The Net Gen as Learners and Teachers

GROWN UP DIGITAL.

HOW THE NET GENERATION IS CHANGING YOUR WORLD

By Don Tapscott

2009

Is the Internet changing our brains?  We know what our brains look like on drugs—-but do we know what our brains look like on the web?  Don Tapscott, one of the experts in the realm of Internet communication says that our minds have been improved by unlikely mechanisms, such as video games and the much-scorned Wikipedia.  Even though it is hard to imagine World of Warcraft as the implementer of intellectual prowess and the facilitator of social skills, today’s children and teenagers, the sons and daughters of Dungeons and Dragons players, are smarter than their parents.  For some educators, the news that their students have sharper, better developed minds than they do, will come as a bit of a surprise.  However Tapscott insists,

…what we are seeing is the first case of a generation that is growing up with brains that are wired differently from those of the previous generation.  Evidence is mounting that Net Geners process information and behave differently because they have indeed developed brains that are functionally different from those of their parents.  They’re quicker, for example to process fast-moving images…

What does it all mean? What are the implications for the future?  Tapscott’s book is an informative and insightful journey into the way the twenty-somethings—the Net Generation—think.  Despite the scientific data that suggests that the brain of a person who has been web-trained his or her entire life is different from the book generation, the main thesis of Tapscott is not so much brain change but power change.  He posits the Net Gen as the “Lap Generation,” the first generation to lap or pass their parents by possessing authority their elders do not understand: how to use electronic technology.  The result of the younger generation’s apparent natural mastery of all things tech, Tapscott thinks, is the end of hierarchies and the abolition of a centralized authority.  The author focuses on four areas, family, education, business, and politics. All of these entities are being faced with the Lap Generation and their egalitarian mindsets.

Family

The youth of today are better informed, more adept at technology, and savvier with the ways and means of the Twenty-first century than the adults who are still in charge of education, businesses, and governments.  What Tapscott’s book points to is a huge generations gap, a chasm as wide as the famous “generation gap” of Margaret Mead.  For the Baby Boomers, their parents’ pre-war knowledge and experiences were irrelevant and useless, making what the author refers as the authoritarian family structure of the era extremely frustrating for the Boomers.  The fathers, who acted like CEO’s, as Tapscott calls them, pontificated, but they had little of use to share and were unwilling to learn from their children.  After years of having to endure lectures on topics that were alien to teenagers in the Sixties, the Boomers escaped the home front, never to return to the clutches of authority.

In contrast, today’s parents, who are the Boomers grown up, are more open to listening and to allowing their children to show them how to log onto the Internet. The relationship between parent and child is more open and more nurturing.  Parents and children are close, so close that an entirely new kind of parent has emerged, “the Helicopter parent.”  As an educator, I am familiar with that kind of ever-hovering parent but did not know that these same parents will continue to hover.  They will go on job interviews after college, and will even confront the boss if their child is not well treated.  How are the parents so well informed about the office politics for their child?  The Lap Generation, the “boomerang” generation, making a strictly economic decision, likes to live at home.  There are no hierarchies, only equality, in this new family.

After reading Tapscott’s observation about the new family, it occurred to me that this new arrangement bodes well for the distant future when the Boomer parents are elderly.  For the first time in generations, it may be possible that the children will care for the parents.  The Boomers ran away from home and abandoned their parents.  Many Boomers today are facing the conundrum of what to do about an elderly parent or two.  It is not uncommon for the Boomer’s elderly parents to be abandoned—again—in a facility where they will live out the last of their golden years, unvisited, and will die, unmourned.  But the Boomers who have been respectful and kind to their children should expect better care from their children.  What else could this new kind of anti-authoritarian family offer to the future?

Education

Educators should take note.  The current model of pedagogy is teacher focused, one-way, one size fits all.  It isolates the student in the learning process…. (Net Geners) will respond to the new model of education that is beginning to surface—student-focused and multiway, which is customized and collaborative… says the author.

Tapscott states that the Net Gen carries with it two sets of expectation when these students enter schools and colleges.  First, they are shaped by their experience with the Internet, which demands that they interact with technology, search for content, and socialize with their peers, long distance.  Second, they expect to shape and participate in their own education.  Rather than passively accepting intoned truths delivered from behind the lectern on high, this generation wants to participate and collaborate in what they expect to be a joint enterprise.  The author characterized current education as being a one-way model, that is one-person talks and another listens.  It occurs to me that, in fact, the educational system reflects the technology.  The Guttenberg technology, based upon the printing press, is a one-way form of communication.  The author writes and the reader reads.  The radio repeated this form of speaking and listening that reflected the print technology.  Then television came along and replicated the Gutenberg method once again.  Education is based upon the premise that an educated person, i.e. e. the teacher, is also a reader who has read and who, is, therefore, qualified to redeliver the written messages in an oral form, again repeating the model of one way communication.

Following my line of thinking, the real challenge to today’s educational model is the Internet, which is a two-way mode of communication.  In contrast the traditional Sermon on the Mount, the Web is participatory, non-authoritarian communication, a call and response format that is ignored and discredited by the authorities until they feel threatened by the sound of Other voices.  The call and response nature of the Internet—this new technology—means that education must become more participatory for the Net Gen students.  Tapscott writes that the Net Gen students expect interactive teaching and learning.  If they cannot actively collaborate, they will tune out and get bored with traditional methods of lecturing.  Although Tapscott does not get into the weeds of pedagogy, I suspect that, contrary to their current teachers, this is a generation that would accept and welcome distance learning.  Today’s students are used to learning from the computer, an instrument that many of today’s educators view with suspicion.  On one hand the computer is a convenient tool, on the other hand, it challenges the authority of the teacher who wants to be the sole source of knowledge.

Tapscott describes the elders of the Net Gen, the Gen Xers, as being “aggressive communicators who are extremely media centered.”  But unlike the Gen X, the Net Gen grew up using the “programmable web.”  “And every time you use it, you change it.”  The author continues later, “On the Net, the children have had to search for, rather than simply look at, information.  This forces them to develop thinking and investigative skills—-they must become critics. Which Web sites are good?”  Tapscott rightly calls the model of education we currently use—-teacher lecturing and student listening—-as Industrial, but I think he may be off by a few centuries.  The model is more that of a pre-Gutenberg culture, before the printing press made it possible for people to read what they wanted.  I would agree with Jeffrey Bannister, quoted in Tapscott’s book, who uses the term, “pre-Gutenberg.

We’ve got a bunch of professors reading from handwritten notes, writing on blackboards and the students are writing down what they say. This is a pre-Gutenberg model.

I might point out in passing, to Bannister, that in attempting to accommodate multiple learners, it is considered good practice to write on the board for the students who learn by reading, not hearing.  Indeed, Tapscott also states that,

Students are individuals who have individual ways of learning and absorbing information.  Some are visual learners; others learn by listening.  Still others learn by physically manipulating something.

As early as 1967, as Marshall McLuhan, also quoted by Tapscott, said,

Today’s child is bewildered when he enters the nineteenth-century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment, where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patters, subjects, and schedules.

The New Learning must be customized for each student’s needs.  Tapscott also quotes Howard Gardner, who called today’s educational model as mass production, a reflection of the industrial economy, which created assembly lines and Taylorism that forced human beings to work in tandem with machines.  According to Gardner, school is also mass-production.  “You teach the same think to students in the same way and assess them all in the same way,” he says. True but this is how No Child Left Behind teaches, as it must, for the standardized test.  Even the best secondary schools teach towards to entrance exams so that the students can get the highest scores, not necessarily the best critical thinking skills.  The test becomes the teacher.   How are the Net Geners going to respond to a mechanism so crude and arbitrary as an SAT test?  Note that these standardized tests do not take into account the way that the test-takers, the Net Gen, actually think.  Change takes place at a glacial pace, especially when the entire educational system comes from a foundation based upon magical thinking: if the speaker says it, it is so.  Education equal authority—unquestioned authority.   How did strange combination of information without questions come about?  And how did such a procedure become labeled as “education?”

When Gutenberg invented the printing press, the Church was against this new instrument, because the sacred words, once intoned only from the pulpit would be distributed to the great unwashed, delivered by the voice of authority.  The Church feared, rightly, that the power of the printed word and of reading would allow the people to challenge the priesthood.  The authority of the Church was unquestioned and was based upon a far older form of disseminating information, an oral culture of story telling.  A culture of story telling is a logo centric culture, backed by the presence of the speaker who is the source of the story, information, and the truth.  God spoke to Noah, to the Prophets, etc. and the word of God was transcribed.  It was the task of religion to tell to those congregated the words of the Lord.  The Church inherited a largely illiterate society—even kings and queens often could neither read nor write–that had to be preached to.  Through years of standing for six to eight hours in cathedrals, hearing mysterious Latin, listening to sermons, and “reading’ the sculptural programs and the frescoes, the uneducated people under the care of the clergy were socially conditioned to listen to one voice (God’s) and one source of authority (the Church). The Protestant movement was proof that once the common person could read the words of the Bible, those people would take unto themselves the power to interpret God himself.

There are historically close ties between the Church and the University.  The first universities, the Sorbonne and Oxford, were affiliated with religion and, with the clergy the only educated group, the priests became the first faculties.  The traces of this history are clearly visible any graduation day with the procession of professors marching down the center aisle of the school auditorium, like the clergy files down the nave, in full “regalia,” wearing the long black robes, very monk like.  Further traces of the Church lie in the very practice of lecturing: the teacher stands at the head of the class and speaks alone.  The students speak only to ask questions and are expected to subside into obedient silence.  Just as the priests re-spoke the Word of God, academics re-speak the words of their precursors.  The very form of academic and scholarly phraseology mimes the sacred scriptures.  “As —- tells us,”  “As —- famously said,” and so on.  Logos being handed down from authority figure to authority figure.  Academics depend upon the logocentric tradition and upon the mystical belief that the speaker is backed by the fullness of authority.  It is as if Moses descended from the mountain, bearing tablets written in stone—not to be altered—-after communing with the Almighty.

The assumption of a plenitude of knowledge, like that of the completeness of presence, is a false one but authority must be protected at all costs.  Another prevailing characteristic of education, inherited from the Church, is, paradoxically, secrecy.  Knowledge is guarded by the initiated, those who are learned in the ways of scholarship; knowledge is not to be given out freely, especially insider secrets. Like the Greek temples where only the priests were allowed inside the inner sanctum, only those inside the circle of the select are allowed to “speak” or be “present,” that is to publish, that is to “re-speak” the already spoken.  The Internet has changed all that.  The Net Geners are not readers, they are not listeners; they are iconographers.  As Tapscott notes,

Net Geners who have grown up digital have learned how to read images…. they may be more visual than their parents are…. (They) tend to ignore lengthy instructions for their homework assignments…

Tapscott points out that students of today learn better through images.  Indeed, this generation has invented a series of new hieroglyphs that function as signs such as happy= (: and sad= ):

Today’s students, Tapscott points out, will want to customize their education.  He mentions that “tinkering” has made a come back.  Indeed it has.  The time of the mash-up has come.  In higher intellectual circles, we call the mash-up, or sampling, bricoulage, that is, taking the existing culture and making something else with it.  This is postmodern thinking, reclaim, reuse, remake, recycle.  The very same teachers who teach postmodern theories are those who insist upon “original” work from students who are what I call, the Mash-Up Generation.  The professors who eagerly and enthusiastically teach Postmodernism, or the questioning of the “metanarrative” of Modernism, will reject cutting and pasting and demand that the student cite “sources,” or the validating voices of authority.  The same professors find it hard to accept that a student has ideas of his or her own, attitudes that stem naturally from their own generation, for, although the Boomers may have resisted authority, they knew it existed.

If my generation got into trouble for questioning authority, this generation gets into trouble for leveling sources.   Every voice, every bit of cultural material has equal value and can be freely borrowed and re-used.  Net Gen seeks convenience and speed over venerated voices, who are often unwilling to make themselves available on the web.   Even more threatening to the traditional authority of educators is the declining value of scholarly knowledge, which is being by-passed and ignored by the mainstream undergraduate.  Every teacher knows that students think that Google is a database.  Students routinely ignore the expensive databases, paid for by student tuition, made available through library websites.  Getting into the date bases is a clumsy and cumbersome and often unrewarding enterprise, because the technology of these databases is antediluvian.  Naturally the student goes to Google’s fast and functional search engine to find information.  Like the Net Gener who gets a job and finds, to his horror, that the technology is twenty years behind the times, the student will not tolerate the ritual of multiple clicks and passwords and all the other paraphernalia that work to make knowledge inaccessible.  Even when forced to read a credible source, the students, accustomed to the all-purpose Net-speak, rebel at the insider jargon, written by scholars writing to scholars.

Net Geners want to be informed, not talked at.  They like to take materials they find helpful or interesting and remake it.  As opposed to always referring back to the authorities, the Net Gen likes to write its own material and to create its own content.  Tapscott indicates that the Web actually encourages creativity and productivity because the Web gives easy access to inventors.  From their habits of playing video games or participating in the virtual reality of Second Life, the Net Geners learn how to play their own game.  Speaking of video games, Tapscott says,

“This kind of play is deeply creative.  It involves trial and error, learning by experiment, role playing, failure, and many other aspects of creative thinking.

None of this kind of creativity is allowed in education.  Play is forbidden and failure is mocked.  In contrast, the author discusses a thirteen year-old writer who contributes stories to a website where they are read by thousands of readers.  “Isn’t that better than writing on paper and hoping that some day it might get published?” Tapscott asks.  For today’s teachers and professors the Web 2.0 is something Roland Barthes would have loved: this new Web is called the “read-write” web—we read it and we write it.

Although there are many teachers who are eager and willing try more experimental student centered ways of making learning a collaborative enterprise between mentor and apprentice, they are constrained by a system that demands command and control.  Distance Learning still attempts to replicate a now-obsolete classroom format, by demanding assignments at set due dates, by demanding chat room appearances at a set time, and so on.  This is hardly learning the way the student needs it, customized, when the student can devote the time to it, at a pace that facilitates learning.  Even distance learning classes end after a set number of weeks.  Traditional classroom education is ruled by the physics of time and space: one teacher to a classroom, a certain number of students in a space, taught a common denominator course that must fit into a larger curriculum at a specific time.  Student centered education is evidenced by allowing students to speak more or to participate in class discussion.  There is no time for the teacher to waste.  S/he has a set amount of material that must be covered.

Students are increasing unwilling to learn in the traditional manner, because they assume all knowledge is available on the Internet. Why learn math when one has a calculator?  Why not teach how to use the calculator to find the answer?  Why plow through many books when Wikipedia tells you anything you want to know and, even better, you too can write the content.  Tapscott tells an amusing story about interviewing a young man named Joe O’Shea who stated that he never read a book—why should he?  All the information he needed is on the Internet.

“I don’t read books per se,” he told the erudite and now somewhat stunned crowd.  “I got to Google and I can absorb relevant information quickly.  Some of this comes from books.  But sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense.  It’s not a good use of my time as I can get all of the information I need faster through the web.  You need to know how to do it—to be a skilled hunter.”

Before you educators out there jump to your feet to explain the difference between “information” and “knowledge,” know that the punch line was that the young man had just been awarded a Rhodes scholarship.

Business

Tapscott describes a new world in which the consumers remake the product, as they are remaking education. Education, he suggests, should think like a business and respond to the consumers, but Tapscott also points out that the businesses, which do not respond with agility to the demands of the Net Gen can get into trouble.  The Net Gen, rightly, in my view, views businesses and corporations with suspicion.  Tapscott points to the empowerment of the NetGeners who like to be “prosumers,” that is, proactive consumers, who customize their products.  Young people have been prosumers for generations, but no one has named their practices until recently.  Little girls have always treated their Barbies to new hair-dos and teen-age boys have always modified their cars with after-market products and custom decoration.  This desire to contribute to mass-produced and mass marketed products has only recently been harnessed by companies such as Apple where “there’s an app for that.”

The users of Apple have often been referred to as a “cult” because of their devotion to the product.  The term “cult” is derogatory and comes from those who simply don’t understand how the Net Gen thinks.  Apple is thought of by the techies as an honorable company, which strives to produce a product that is beautifully designed and user friendly.  In addition, the company also works closely with its user base, from the Bleeding Edgers to the novice customer, asking the tech savvy to participate in the improvement of the function and design of the product and watching for the difficulties of the blunderer so Apple can make function more straightforward.  The reason why the flap over the iPhone4 and its broken antennae was so minor to Apple users is because those customers know that the company will fix and improve the problem with the next iteration of the phone.  The Apple user is invariably an Early Adopter who expects such glitches and enjoys participating in the fix.  This kind of audience participation is the Apple business model and it has won the company a devoted following.

But all companies are not so accommodating to the customer base.  Witness the hostile relationship between music lovers and the music industry, publishers and those who write and read books, the car companies (Toyota) and those who drive.  The new generation of consumers wants to customize their experience with the product, Tapscott declares, but the corporate mind thinks in terms of profit not prosumer.  To the Net Gen, music and art and literature and knowledge, like information, should belong to no one and everyone.  Downloading “illegal” music is common practice, done without shame or remorse.  How can anyone own music?  Doesn’t art belong to everyone?  The Net Gen is forcing companies that want to survive to be transparent and participatory, Tapscott writes.  Older corporations do not want to interact with their customers.  Like the traditional media, the corporate mind insists upon a one-way communication: top down. As Tapscott says,

…the industry has built a business model around suing its customers.  And the industry that brought us the Beatles is now hated by its customers and is collapsing.  Sadly, obsession with control, privacy, and proprietary standards on the part of large industry players has only served to further alienate and anger music listeners…

Tapscott states that the Net Gen prefers flexible hours and “want to chose when and where they want to work.” not only that these young people what their work to be “meaningful.”  “They’re not loyal to an employer; they’re loyal to their career path,” he remarks.  Imagine the surprise of business types when the Net Gen shows up to “work.”  The Net Gen wants to play.   The Net Gen employee comes to a company for one reason—-no, not a job—to learn.  Once the Net Gen worker learns what s/he needs, s/he will move on to the next learning experience.  It is pointless to expect the Net Gener to be “loyal” to the company. The concept of loyalty that his grandfather may have enjoyed was broken when companies began sending jobs overseas in the Seventies.  Companies still expect the employee to commit to being a permanent fixture, while refusing to guarantee lifetime employment, much less health care. For the average corporation, human beings are a financial liability, but the Net Gener comes to play with the idea of contributing creatively.

Companies tend to create what Tapscott calls, a “generational firewall,” which separates the newbies from the oldtimers.  This strange way of not utilizing recruited talent is not unfamiliar to me.  I have often asked, why hire someone who is then suppressed and under utilized?  Business runs on a hierarchal basis, those at the top give orders and the orders roll downhill where the underlings carry out the dictates.  The Net Gen employee, according to Tapscott, does not accept hierarchy and assume that they were hired for their talents.  If they cannot and are not allowed to participate as an equal, the most talented will simply move on.  Their attitude, quite properly, is: if you won’t listen to me, why should I stay?  Net Gen wants to contribute and needs to contribute to something meaningful.  As the parents of the Net Geners changed the modeling of parenting, education needs to change its traditional assignments and business needs to change its traditional models.  Show the Net Geners what’s in it for them.

Politics

That same attitude—-what’s in it for me? appears in politics.  Today there are two common questions in popular culture: “What would Jesus do?”  And “What’s in it for me?”  We assume that Jesus would not say, “What’s in it for me?”  We like to think he would say, “What can I do for you?”  “What’s in it for me?” is a business question and the answer has to be “profits.”  “Profits” is a business answer.  So when a politician promises to run the government like a business, that implies that the government will not be in the service of the people but in the service of profit making entities, like corporations. Imagine if government were run like a business, like, say an oil company or a music company. Tapscott is convinced that the Net Geners have a better way. The Net Gen voter is an active participant who, unlike her grandparents, is a volunteer or a community activist, Tapscott says.  Some of the Boomers joined the Peace Corps, some marched for Civil Rights and some protested against the Viet Nam War.   Others marched for women’s rights and demanded gay rights.  The Boomer’s children are the Net Roots who became activated by the prospect of being allowed to participate in the election of Barack Obama.

Tapscott discusses the Internet based campaign at length, and reading these passages, now that we are two years into the Obama administration, is enlightening. I think that much of what Tapscott writes is insightful and informative and I learned a lot from reading his book, however, I do think he is too sunny and too hopeful and too optimistic.  Politics is a case in point as the enthusiasm for Obama wanes quickly.  The Net Gen expected results.  When Obama promised “transparency,” they thought that the President was thinking like the open artless, and fearless sharing that takes place on Facebook.  The web is totally open and uncontrolled as a source of energy and information. The web is a place where things happen.  That is why so many people (like me) devote their time to contributing to it.  But the Net Gen quickly learned its lesson.  As Tapscott writes,

Most Net Geners believe that the mechanics of power and policy making are controlled by self-interested politicians and organized lobby groups…The Net Generation does not put much trust in politicians and political institutions—-not because they are uninterested, but rather because political systems have failed to engage them in a manner that fits their digital and ethical upbringing.

The Net Gen experience as Internet users has taught them that if they coalesce towards a cause they can make changes.  The fact that the Net Gen volunteers for Obama were so excited because they were “natural” Democrats, that is, they shared a cultural attitude that the government should work for the people, and that they—the (young) people could shape the outcome through their participation.   According to Tapscott, the Net Geners are not conservative but more open to change and new ways of thinking than any other generation.  But a Democratic victory did not bring the change they expected.  And now the Net Gen has turned their backs on the administration.  Why?  The problem is that the government is controlled by a group of middle-aged people who will not let go of power.  Just look at Congress on C-Span.  All old White Men.  No one under forty.  No poor people.  Few People of Color.  Some women here and there.  No collaboration, no participation from half of the members of Congress, who appear to have abdicated their governing responsibility in the pursuit of political power.  The strategy of not participating—this is not the Net Gen type of thinking in Congress.

Things only get worse when one turns on to the news programs.  The gap in age is shocking.  Although there are some networks or news programs I do not watch, I do record at least four hours of news a day on TV to which I listen while I am writing) and read three newspapers a day. There are no young faces, no young writers (and therefore no young readers), no young voices, no young way of thinking. Only the Hill reporter, Luke Russert, the bright son of the late Tim Russert, stands out as someone under thirty.  An entire generation is being left out of the conversation.  The elders reflect back on their days with President Carter or President Clinton, prehistoric eras for the Net Gen, and discuss and debate raging political quarrels that are non-issues for the younger generation.

People—usually men—well beyond their childbearing years decide abortion policy.  People—increasingly women as well—who are too old to fight send their young generation off to war for their own political ends or their lobbyists needs.  People with lifetime jobs in Congress decide how much money the unemployed will or will not get. People with guaranteed government health care decide that others cannot have those same privileges and see no hypocrisy in their positions.  Those who are heterosexual (they say) decide the personal lives of homosexuals.   And so on.

Would results be different if the younger generation made itself heard?  As Tapscott points out, this generation is far more tolerant than their parents or grandparents.  It is their grandparents who are concerned about racial and gender equality, interracial marriage, “illegal” immigration, gay marriage, and other hot button issues.  For their grandparents, global warming is debatable, for this generation, raised on green values; a devastated planet is their inheritance.  If you asked a Net Gener which problem worried him more, the budget deficit or global warming, he would say, “global warming.” Always the optimist, Tapscott writes,

I’m convinced we’re in the early days of something unprecedented.  Young people, and with them the entire world, are beginning to collaborate—for the first time ever—around a single idea: changing the weather.

For the Net Gener, it is discouraging to see who is in power and to watch how they behave.  Partisan bickering and political game playing instead of collaborative game, negation instead of affirmation, blocking change instead of accepting it—all of this is alien to the younger generation.  Those in the government and those elected to office are one-way communicators, out of touch and out of date.  They allow the public to “speak” every two years at the ballot box.  And these are the people to whom the question of Net Neutrality will be turned over.  The corporations want to segment the Internet so that they can profit maximize what has been a free good, available to everyone.  The case of whether or not the net will remain the great equalizer will probably be decided by the Supreme Court, presided over by a Chief Justice who does not understand e-mail.

Not a wonk, I am probably better informed than some people and I value the facts over ideology.  So does the Net Gen.   For us it is not Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, it is integrity, honor, and the desire to tell the truth.  For Washington D. C., it is sound bytes and talking points.   By selling the “War on Terror” the “War for Weapons of Mass Destruction,” and the need to Bail Out the Big Banks to the credulous public, the government has created what a Bush appointee called, a “post truth” society.  How true.  For the Net Gen, truth matters.  The trust of the public in its leaders has been shattered, leaving a vacuum for the bloggers and talkers to fill.  Another authority has to be appointed and anointed.  For the older generation, still willing to accept one-way communication, sound bytes stand for wisdom, tweets become knowledge, and talking points are the truth.  The Net Gen finds it astounding when the politicians change their stories and refuse accountability, even when they are caught changing their positions or lying or fabricating stories. The Net Gen is used to trolling the Internet and finding the facts and cannot understand how their elders can lie, get caught, pay no consequences, lie again and so on.  No wonder they are disillusioned by politics.

The Future

Tapscott does not entirely ignore the real problems brought by the Internet revolution.  He points to the gap between the have-nots of technology and those who are active users.  His main examples are the poor or the third world, but there are other have-nots, closer to home, such as the poor, the elderly, or the close minded, or the technophobes who are getting left further and further behind.  Then there are the bad effects of the Web.  One of the odd and underreported facts of technology is that the Bleeding Edge is usually made up of illegal or questionable practices that become outlets for pathologies, including on line gaming, Wall Street derivatives, pornography, pedophilia, including on-line bullying.  It is these Early Adopters who benefit the Web by using it and creating new pathways, meaning that all these nebulous people are always one step in advance to the forces of law and order.   Parents protest the perfectly legal video games, such as the horrible Grand Theft Auto (which has awesome artwork) but forget that they watch and enjoy violent adult films such as Pulp Fiction. That said, the dangers of the Internet are real but, in the name of freedom, the Net Gen will defend the right of anyone and anything to prowl there.  One can only hope that the same Supreme Court that granted freedom of speech to corporations will see fit to allow the Net to remain open to all comers.

Tapscott believes that “Net Geners are quick to recognize that the best way to achieve power and control is through people, not over people.  Good lesson.  The Net Gen is intelligent enough to know that Obama cannot change Washington D. C.  There are too many entrenched interests.  The question has become not what can I do for you? but what’s in it for me?  All that hard work, all that dedication, all that Hope and no pay off, no results.   People go into politics to get things done, to make things happen and when nothing changes, you turn away.  It’s like your last job: you learned something new and then moved on.  How sad.  The problem for the Net Gen is that the fifty-sixty something generation of Baby Boomers have no intention of changing or of letting go of power.  They are impervious to the Net Gen.   “They” being the Big Banks, they being the Big Corporations, like Big Oil, are so powerful, have such a stranglehold on America that “They” answer to no one.  Big Business cares not about the Net Gen, neither as employees, nor as consumers.  By the time the Net Gen will have their turn to come into power, they too will be in their fifties, fully thirty years from now.   The Baby Boomers joined the Tea Party in their maturity.  What will the Net Gen do with their golden years?  Tapscott concludes his book,

The big remaining question for older generations is whether that power will be shared with gratitude—or whether we will stall until a new generation grabs it from us.  Will we have the wisdom and courage to accept them, their culture, and their media?  Will we be effective in offering our experience to help them manage the dark side?   Will we grant them the opportunity to fulfill their destiny?  I think this will be a better world if we do.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Suggested readings from Don Tapscott’s Bibliography:

Beck, John C., and Mitchell Wade, Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Changing the Workplace, 2004

Benkler, Yochai, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, 2006

Carlson, Scott, “The Net Generation Goes to College,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 7, 2005, chronicle.com

Gee, James Paul, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, 2003

Howe, Neil, and William Strauss, Millennials Go to College: Strategies for a New Generation on Campus, 2003

——Millennials Rising: the Next Great Generation, 2000

Keen, Andrew, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, 2007

Moglen, Eben, “Anarchism Triumphant: Free Software and the Death of Copyright,” First Monday, August, 1999, emoglen.law.columbia.edu

Prensky, Marc, Digital Game-Based Learning, 2000

Roos, Dave, “How Net Generation Students Learn and Work,” Howstuffworks.com, May 5, 2008

Tapscott, Don, and Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: Harnessing the Power of Mass Collaboration, 2006

Weinberger, David, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, 2007

Mentioned in his book but not included in his bibliography:

Carr, Nicholas, “Is Google Making us Stupid?” Atlantic Monthly, July, August, 2008