Considerations, Context, Courage, and Connections
“I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them … and had read them … now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. … Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929, Shocken edition 1969 p. 185)
As Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign continues to gather support, he comes under ever sharper scrutiny – not only by Republican and Democratic Party opponents, but by others who are themselves working to address the social inequities that abound in our society. Some such criticism is itself destructive; the tendency to view every insufficient step forward as a form of betrayal is a charge that every alternative candidate from Eugene Debs to Jesse Jackson has faced. Yet criticism and debate is a healthy and necessary part of the process of building a social justice movement that is rooted in the diverse and unequal experiences of our society. The idea that unity can be created solely by seeking to overcome economic inequality — as a goal shared by all working people — while putting all other concerns on the backburner is false; all such attempts have come to grief on the realities of how people understand the world they inhabit. As the history of organized labor has repeatedly shown, division is not caused by those who have challenged racism or sexism, those who have challenged discrimination in any form – rather division is caused by the reality of such discrimination and perpetuated by those who wish to close their eyes to truths others know to be true through experience.
The importance of incorporating that experience in the Sanders campaign was expressed in an article by Bill Fletcher Jr. “The suggestion that race can be resolved through an appeal to class and economic justice alone suggests that economic justice will equally resolve the racial differential,” Fletcher wrote.
“It is not simply a matter of ‘a rising tide raises all boats’. The reality is that all boats may rise, but who finds one’s self in which portion of each boat? Or, to use the metaphor of the Titanic, who is in steerage and who is closer to the main deck?
“When movements like #BlackLivesMatter and many in the immigrant rights movement point to this matter of racial injustice, they are not suggesting attention for a ‘special interest.’ Rather, they are pointing out that there can actually be no economic justice in the absence of racial justice. There can be no unity without a commitment to the fight for equality and justice. These struggles are interlinked. The sort of ‘political revolution’ that the Sanders Campaign proclaims has been a long time coming. Yet it will never arrive if there is not a full recognition that the class struggle overlaps that of racial justice. The ruling elites, for several centuries, have appreciated that race is the trip wire of U.S. politics and social movements. When will progressives arrive at the same conclusion?”
What follows is a consideration of several ways of connecting the dots to which Fletcher alludes. Taken together as an overview they may inform an orientation toward the Sanders campaign in its specificity and toward the broader challenge of addressing universality and difference, of building a unity that is genuine because it is built upon an appreciation of the fuller dimension of how social injustices impact upon individuals in all aspects of life.
The late comedian George Carlin once did a whole riff on how we overvalue the word “courage.” Courage on behalf of what is the question that lies begging – courage when engaging in brutal and cruel behavior, in the midst of brutal and cruel warfare, does nothing to change the underlying reality of pain and suffering inflicted upon those who are victims. This glorification of “courage” without reference to content is upheld too when someone is praised for speaking his or her (but almost always it is a “he” being praised) mind without softening words or bowing to “political correctness.” Ignored is the veracity of what is being said, for only the tone is praised – and ignored too is whether the words are used hurt others, hinder understanding, promote hate. The use of abstract words to distort the meaning they are presumed to have speaks to Hemingway’s critique of language.
Nonetheless courage – and indeed integrity, freedom, democracy, equality – can be made meaningful words, but only so long as they are linked to broader purposes, so long as they become concrete. It is this definition of courage that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (a once-brilliant basketball player, an always-thoughtful and principled human being) applied in a recent Washington Post op-ed that helps shed light on the relationship of Bernie Sanders to Black Lives Matter and, beyond that, says a great deal about political choices that need to be made over and again. To quote:
“Ernest Hemingway once said that courage was ‘grace under pressure.’ Two presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, have recently tested this proposition. And how each man responded revealed the type of person he is and the type of president he would make: Trump authored his own doom, and Sanders opened immense new possibilities as a compassionate person and serious candidate for president.”
The negative example Abdul-Jabbar uses is Trump’s crude and bullying response to Megyn Kelly’s questions about his publicly contemptuous attitudes toward women. As Kareem notes, Trump’s response was not only an attack on women, but also an attack on the First Amendment – for free speech and freedom of the press themselves become empty terms when someone in position of power uses their voice to attack and silence others. It was an approach Trump also took toward Univision, when refusing to answer questions about his attacks on Mexican immigrants – and his veiled threat to the First Amendment goes in tandem with his direct attack on the 14th Amendment which gives citizenship rights to immigrants but also significantly gave citizenship rights to black Americans, rights denied notwithstanding generations of having lived in this country.
And that brings us to the contrast with Sanders, for the article goes on to say,
“… Bernie Sanders faced his own challenge at a political event … when two African American women pushed in front of him to use the microphone to demand four and a half minutes of silence to honor the death of Michael Brown. Sanders left the stage and mingled with the crowd. Later, Trump criticized Sanders as being ‘weak’ for allowing them to speak, but truly he showed grace under pressure by acknowledging their frustration and anger. Instead of bullying their voices into silence or ridiculing them as losers, pigs or bimbos, Sanders left. After all, it was not his event; he was a guest. Besides, his voice was not silenced, but came back booming even louder: The next day, Sanders posted a sweeping policy of reform to fight racial inequality.”
The emergence of Black Lives Matter and the ever-widening support for Sanders anti-austerity message and call for a “political revolution” stem from the same source – the deepening patterns of inequality and insecurity that remain even in the midst of current economic growth and job growth. The stagnation in the US economy has lasted more than a generation now, and has been accompanied by an atrophying of our political system in which corporate power is expressed ever more openly and directly. The sense that there is no way out, that the system has failed, is the basis of the appeal not only of Trump, but more generally of Republican politicians and ideologists who use the sense of grievance, the sense of loss and decline, to point fingers and lay blame. Key to that is the separation of societal problems faced by most from the problems of inequality faced by many within the overall sense of our country’s decline; a separation which makes it easy to shift responsibility for the current state of affairs from corporate power to those who were excluded during the putative “good times” of a past long gone – be that working women, be that Latino (or Asian or Muslim) immigrants, be that African Americans unwilling to live second-class lives. Because a system with separate and unequal categories of rights can’t be justified in so direct a fashion, it manifests itself in cultural issues, in attacks on abortion or gay marriage, in promoting fear of black crime or Arab terrorism or Latino drug dealers, in rhetoric about anchor babies and “illegals,” and in both rationalizations of violence against women and the use of racialized tropes to project fear of people of color assaulting “our” women – and thus to justify police and vigilante-style attacks upon those deemed “other.”
Such a line of thought can be projected in “objective” social forms of charter schools, gentrification, bank lending practices that lead to disparities in wealth, health, education, employment or in the demagogic blaming-the-victim forms taken today by Trump, Cruz, Walker and their ilk. But what is relevant here is that an attempt to overcome injustices by a change in economic policy alone is insufficient to redirect people’s anger or hopes. For the appeal of conservatives lies in the pretense that a measure of economic security and opportunity will be possible if the egalitarian impulse of those who have less is rejected. And hence the need for advocates of universal measures ranging from health care to all to living wage initiatives to also address the issues of inequality – and issues of war, civil liberties, the environment, the whole panoply of concerns that are in fact if not always in immediate appearance, class issues inherent in the conflict between labor and capital. The increase of violence and fear of violence in everyday life is coextensive with the increase in insecurity, the point Angela Davis made in a talk given in February when the focus of popular anger was centered on Ferguson:
“… ‘Why the mobilizations now?’ Davis asked. Some would assume it’s because so many black men and boys have been killed within a short amount of time; however, she reminded us that the issue of black men being targets of police violence is not a new occurrence, and it is important to correct the notion that it is. ‘There has been an unbroken line of racist police killings since the era of slavery,’ Davis declared. Davis directly attributes police militarization to the war on terror, also saying that the war on terror has redefined what it means to be an immigrant and legitimized anti-Muslim prejudice and violence. … [therefore] when addressing racism, other inequalities cannot be ignored. Racial and sexual violence are two modes of violence that have, historically, been particularly overlooked as well as allowed and accepted. ‘The pandemic of intimate violence is not disconnected from state violence,’ Davis said. She then called upon us all to ‘speak out against economic exploitation, against war, against the destruction of the environment, against anti-Muslimism and anti-Semitism, against gender bias and homophobia, for access to good organic non-GMO food, for free health care and free education for all.’ ”
The linkage of issue to issue is not the same as a laundry list that includes one item after another, united only by being written on the same piece of paper. Rather such inclusion speaks to how the lives of each and all are complex and themselves interconnected. And it only serves those who wish to maintain existing relationships of power and subordination to pretend otherwise. The legal challenges to labor law which, if successful, could largely undo the protections (weak and under assault as they be) are certainly distinct from various proposal designed to both make the lot of immigrants currently in the US more precarious, to lock many of them into a permanent system of lesser rights, and to make entry into the country more dangerous and more desperate. And indeed they are and do require distinct responses. So too are the issues of poverty and hunger distinct from the issue of choice and reproductive health for women. Yet so too they are as one for they are connected in the bodies and lives of those who experience them as a totality.
Dolores Huerta, a founder and Vice President emeritus of the United Farm Workers (and an honorary chair of Democratic Socialists of America), certainly has lived these together and the work she has done as an organizer and activist has been all these arenas – the struggle for an end to poverty and for union representation, the demand for women’s rights and the rights of immigrants. A unity in difference is evident in her defense of Planned Parenthood:
“People who oppose women’s access to health care have spent years attacking Planned Parenthood with too many smears and distortions to count. But the one that truly makes my blood boil is the claim that because so many women who turn to Planned Parenthood are people of color … Planned Parenthood must be racist! A spokesperson for the right-wing Libre Initiative just made this attack, accusing Planned Parenthood of ‘target[ing] minority communities’ and of working to diminish the ’political power’ of women of color. … When we say that Planned Parenthood does extensive work in communities of color, that’s because women in those communities are deciding for themselves that they need the help Planned Parenthood offers. When a woman — especially a low-income woman — needs or desires access to contraception, a cancer screening, and yes, even an abortion, she can go to Planned Parenthood. Having that access means she has the ability to control her own health and her own future. That is not targeting or diminishing women. Instead, it’s allowing them to have the dignity of making their own medical decisions, a right that so many people in the United States take for granted but that Latinas are too often denied. …
“To put it simply: Attacking Planned Parenthood for providing Latinas with reproductive health services is another way of saying that Latinas shouldn’t have access to reproductive health services at all. If some people want to attack Planned Parenthood, that’s their right. But they should be honest about what they’re attacking. They’re attacking our access to health care, birth control and abortion.”
In her remarks we see the same logic that asked the Sanders campaign to address issues of racism and police violence – not as a distraction from his demand for universal economic justice for all, but to strengthen that demand. It was a logic that he and his campaign understood and are increasingly coming to embrace.
Closing the Circle
Returning to a contrasting comparison along the lines made by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Cornel West [amongst his many other distinctions, West is also an honorary chair of DSA] stated in an interview that:
“Brother Bernie and Brother Trump share one thing in common: They speak to the anti-establishment impulse among those who are looking for some candidates who are for real, as opposed to the superficial, donor-driven politicians that usually are dominant in any election cycle. [Trump] says, I have been a donor, I have been a participant in this corrupt system for 30 years. But all of a sudden now he’s going to make America great again? No. Plutocratic corruption of government is unpatriotic. I don’t know how you’re going to be so much in love with America but you’re participating in plutocratic corruption of the system and then you wake up now 30 years later and say, ‘Lo and behold, I’m going to be the savior of overcoming the corruption.’ No, that lacks integrity. He has authenticity, but he doesn’t have integrity. Bernie Sanders has authenticity, but he’s also got integrity. Integrity, of course, doesn’t mean that you agree with everything that a politician does. But it’s just so rare that you get authenticity and integrity.”
“Authenticity,” like “courage” can be reduced to rhetoric without substance, yet rhetoric which finds a chord amongst people with a desire for public speech that is direct and unadulterated, unlike the poll-driven language devoid of belief offered up by most Republican (and Democratic) candidates for higher office. But addressing popular discontent and promising change, without challenging the corporate power at the center of our economic and political system can only find one outlet – scapegoating people; a “populist” racism is the only place authenticity such as Trump’s can go.
On the other hand, the integrity of Sanders is connected to a critique of the structural economic and political injustices rooted in capitalist society, injustices which give political meaning to the projection of a socialist alternative, injustices which can only be addressed by opposing all forms of such injustice rather than appealing to some in order to further step on others. West sees Sanders’ integrity in those terms, terms which allow him to make a deeper and fuller critique of contemporary US capitalism than does Sanders. West has been doing that, most recently when campaigning with and for Bernie in South Carolina. In the same interview as quoted above, he explains how he sees those interconnections:
“… how do we come up with a language that allows a coalescing to take place, so that we don’t end up with narrow talk about diversity and inclusion within a neoliberal framework? That is basically what the Democratic Party is all about. It’s about diversity and inclusion within a neoliberal framework. That’s got to be radically called into question. You can call it into question in the name of fighting against white supremacy. Wonderful. You can call it into question in the name of fighting against economic injustice and class inequality. That’s wonderful.
“But when it comes to movements, we’ve got to interweave the struggle against white supremacy with the struggle against economic injustice, with the struggle against homophobia, with the struggle against patriarchy, and any form of xenophobia. Anti-Jewish hatred, anti-Palestinian hatred, anti-Arab hatred, anti-Muslim hatred. How do we talk about all of those simultaneously?
“Twenty-five years ago, people talked about it in terms of fighting for radical democracy. Once you have the empowerment of everyday people across the board, then you’re able to wed what people traditionally call ‘identity politics’ with what people call ‘class-centered politics’ because the two are so inseparable that you can’t talk about one without the other. I think there’s something to be said for that position.”
It is a position we can now fight for and through the Sanders campaign. Rather than ask people who feel left out to silence their voices, we can construct a path that makes the inseparability between “identity politics,” and “class-centered politics” central to all socialist politics.
Most of those who are active in building Sanders’ campaign, just as most of those active in the streets protesting police violence, are young. A contrast to the voices in the articles above – although themselves of differing generations, it is true that Huerta, Davis, Abdul-Jabbar, West and Fletcher all were decisively influenced by the transformations and struggles of the ‘60s and ‘70s, whether in the heart of them or just coming of age in that era. And this influences the perspective they bring to bear on the issues of the intersectionality of race, gender, nationality and class, on the relationship between movement and electoral politics – even given the significant differences between them (as can be gleaned in the varying emphasis in the perspectives noted above). The period – roughly coinciding from the Montgomery Bus Boycott through to Nixon’s resignation – saw a tremendous upsurge of activism which sought to expand the gains of the New Deal to the country as a whole, an expansion which brought to the surface hidden/suppressed tensions and manifested itself in an enormous number of political, cultural and social movements which transformed our society, yet fell short of needed social transformation. Instead we had the reaction of Reagan, of neo-liberalism, of the Democratic Leadership Council, of a sharpened conflict between so-called identity politics and a narrow supposed class politics that saw each other as the problem. As reaction continued, such tensions became muted in a shared attempt to maintain some radical vision, some measure of progressive politics.
Today we are in a renewed moment where popular movements are again on the offensive, demanding what could be rather than simply resisting another loss. In such circumstances it is not surprising that there are disagreements over how to move forward, how to be inclusive without privileging one voice over the other. To date, certainly, it seems that much has been learned from the past; we are not seeing a replay of the dynamic that undermined transformatory politics two generations ago. Still, the danger remains. And, yet and so too does the possibility of concretizing hope in a way that can rebuild our democracy, establish social justice, and give greater relevance to a socialist project as diverse as our society, as united as our collective needs. It is a perspective which can be furthered through the Sanders campaign so long as we root the political in the everyday experience of life in a society with multiple forms of hierarchy and division. The possibility of such taking place may be gleaned in a resolution adopted this summer by National Nurses United entitled “Black Lives Matter and the Health Impact of Societal Racial Disparities”:
“While there are clear correlations between structural racism in the criminal justice system and economic and social justice, each area is also a clear and present danger to life and health, as well as an infringement on the human rights of those affected and on American democracy. As nurses, we are dedicated to preventing all forms of illness, protecting health, and alleviating human suffering. … [therefore the] NNU supports efforts at comprehensive solutions including, but not limited to:
• Comprehensive criminal justice reforms, including national standards for greater public oversight, accountability, and prosecution for rights violations …
• Systemic prison and sentencing reform to reduce mass incarcerations and disparities, and improved prison and jail health services.
• Genuine, universal guaranteed healthcare based on a single standard of quality care for everyone …
• An end to austerity economic policies that disproportionately affect minority populations. ….”
That resolution was consistent with the one the NNU adopted shortly thereafter on the presidential campaign: “Caring, compassion, and community. These are the values at the heart of registered nursing. This is true at the bedside, as nurses advocate for patients and families—and also beyond the walls of the hospital, as RNs call for environmental, racial, and economic justice in the name of public health. National Nurses United, which represents some 190,000 nurses nationwide, seeks to uphold that positive vision for the health of this country by endorsing Senator Bernie Sanders for president.”
Grace under pressure unites all such movements in multiple ways as this overview seeks to show – courage of convictions rests in the grace given through respect to one and all.
The Washington Socialist <> October 2015
Bill Fletcher Jr. – “Why We Cannot Speak of Economic Injustice Alone, or, Why Race Matters” Democratic Left, 8/28/15
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – This is the Difference Between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, Washington Post, 9/2/15
Summer Noble – Angela Davis Speaks on Racism and Police Militarization at Annual MLK Jr. Convocation” Huffington Post, 4/4/15
Dolores Huerta –“Shame on Those Who Smear Planned Parenthood, an Essential Resource to Latinos,” People for the American Way Blog, 8/27/15
Zeeshan Aleem – “Cornell West Speaks About Endorsing Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump,” Policy.Mic, 8/26/15
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