Jeff Baxter’s enduring memory, from childhood, is the glow. Coming down over the hill overlooking the coke plant in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the molten iron would make itself known – both as a vision and an aspiration. “It’s like the sun landed there,” says Baxter, a burly, bearded retiree, who achieved his boyhood dream of becoming a steelworker.
It's rare to hear an author say, “Researching and writing this book has made me want to scream.” But perhaps it's not surprising, given the topic of Gary Younge’s Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives -- the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly death-by-gun of startling numbers of kids in this country -- and the time he spent tracking down the stories of the young Americans who died on a single day in November 2013 in separate incidents nationwide.
In the second round of France’s presidential elections in 2002, the left was faced with an unfamiliar challenge: What accessories to wear to the polls? The Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, had been knocked out in the first round. Now the choice was between the fascist National Front candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the conservative sleaze magnet, Jacques Chirac. There were no good options: Chirac had once opined that French workers were being driven crazy by the “noise and smell” of immigrants. But there was certainly a catastrophic option: the election of Le Pen, who had branded people with AIDS “lepers” and trivialized the Nazi gas chambers as “a detail” in history.
So the left debated casting ballots for Chirac wearing gloves or surgical masks (until they were told doing so might nullify their ballots), and in the end, many went to vote with a clothespin on their nose. “When the house is on fire,” FranÃ§ois Giacalone, a Communist Party local councillor, told The Guardian, “you don’t care too much if the water you put it out with is dirty.”
In 2016, Donald Trump’s clinching the Republican nomination in the same week that a right-wing extremist narrowly lost the presidential election in Austria raises a serious strategic challenge for the progressive left. We are rightly buoyed by the notion that a better world is possible and have tasked ourselves with creating it. But it is no less true that, at any given moment, a far worse world is possible too, and we should do everything in our power to ensure that we don’t let somebody else create it.
There are two crucial distinctions to be made here. The first is to distinguish between those political opponents who are merely bad, and those who represent an existential threat to basic democratic rights. The second is to draw a clear distinction between the electoral and the political. For example, Mitt Romney was bad: Had he been elected in 2012, terrible things would’ve happened, and it is a good thing that he was defeated. But Trump is of a different order entirely. Xenophobic, Islamophobic, unhinged, and untethered to any broader political infrastructure, he has endorsed his supporters’ physically attacking protestors. His election would represent a paradigmatic shift in what is possible for the American right. To call Trump a fascist may suggest more ideological coherence than his blather deserves. But he is certainly part of that extended family and, as such, represents the kind of threat that Romney (for example) did not.
The same is true of Le Pen and Norbert Hofer, the hard-right Austrian presidential candidate who called gun ownership “the natural consequence” of immigration. The fact that the Austrian presidency is primarily ceremonial is beside the point; had Hofer won, others in more substantial positions would have followed.
Since this kind of threat is of a different order, so should be the response. While fascists have learned to cloak their bigotry in less inflammatory rhetoric (one more reason why Trump is an outlier: This is a trick he has yet to learn, though I’m sure the Republicans have their best folks working on it), their blunt message must be met with a blunt response. They must be stopped. And if their route to power is through the ballot box, they must be stopped there.
The question of whether, in America for example, one should forgo the two main parties for a third that is not beholden to big money and will back the interests of the poor and marginalized is an important one. But the question in these instances is not whether we will be in a better or worse position to organize and fight back after the election, but whether there will be future elections at all—and if so, in what atmosphere of intimidation and coercion they might take place.
In that case, one should vote for the largest immovable object in the path of the extreme right—whether that’s Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton or Jacques Chirac or Alexander Van der Bellen, the former Green Party spokesman who narrowly beat Hofer in Austria. But while defeating these forces at the polls is important, it is also insufficient. It does nothing to tackle the underlying causes for their popularity or address the grievances on which these parasites feed. Preventing them from gaining office is in no way commensurate with stemming their influence or power.
Take the most likely U.S. presidential matchup: Clinton and Trump. Trump’s rise is rooted, to a significant extent, in the profound disenchantment of a section of the white working class created by the effects of neoliberal globalization in the wake of the most recent economic crash. Hillary’s staunchest advocate (her husband), whose legacy she shares on the stump (“We lifted people out of poverty” and “We created jobs”) bears considerable responsibility for the conditions that made Trump possible. Bill Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act exacerbated the economic collapse, and his embrace of the North American Free Trade Agreement helped depress wages. Hillary Clinton backed these initiatives at the time, even if she has rowed back on some of them since. Setting her up in political opposition to Trump pits part of the cause against the symptom, with no suggestion of an antidote.
So even as one votes for Clinton—if she’s the nominee, then no one else is going to be able to stop Trump from taking power—one must prepare to organize against her. If she wins, her agenda will make an eventual victory for someone like Trump more likely, not less. More than a decade after Le Pen’s defeat, his daughter, who now heads the National Front, could yet reach the runoffs again. Hofer’s Freedom Party came in second place in the parliamentary elections in 1999 and was in a coalition government. Elections alone cannot defeat the populist right; we have to drain the swamp from which they gather their bait. When your house is ablaze, you grab whatever’s handy and put it out. But when the flames are quenched, the laborious task of fireproofing is in order.
ï»¿After the Labour Party’s electoral defeat in Britain last year, the party’s small left caucus debated whether it should stand a candidate for the leadership at all. Some feared defeat would expose just how small the caucus was. Others insisted that someone needed to at least raise the arguments against anti-austerity and for a progressive foreign policy to counter the narrative that Labour had lost because it was too progressive.
For the past couple of years the summers, like hurricanes, have had names. Not single names like Katrina or Floyd – but full names like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. Like hurricanes, their arrival was both predictable and predicted, and yet somehow, when they landed, the effect was still shocking.
Recently, in an effort to embarrass Republicans pandering to their scientifically challenged base, Senate Democrats proposed a series of votes on climate change. While most Americans and the overwhelming majority of scientists believe climate change is real and people are the primary cause of it, Republican voters are evenly divided on whether it exists at all, and reject the idea that we are responsible.
In times of crisis, those who would like us to keep just one idea in our heads at any one time are quick to the megaphones. By framing events in Manichean terms – dark versus light; good versus evil – an imposed binary morality seeks to corral us into crude camps. There are no dilemmas, only declarations. What some lack in complexity they make up for in polemical clarity and the provision of a clear enemy.
Shortly after Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri, a local pizzeria owner, Jim Marshall, flashed a gun at black protesters after an argument. Some branded Marshall a racist and called for a boycott. A few weeks later, according to The Washington Post, his wife, Dawne, stopped kneading dough and addressed her patrons. “We are not the type of people who they say we are!” she declared. She pointed to two black customers sitting in her restaurant. “When I see you, I see you,” she added, as she began to cry. “I don’t see color!”
This would be funny were it not so pathetic. If Dawne Marshall really didn’t see color, how on earth would she know to point at the black people, and why would she say that to them?
To the twenty-first-century racist, race is always, ostensibly, irrelevant. Not only do they not see color; they are also blind to history, economics, politics, privilege, disadvantage, systemic bias and institutional exclusion. All they really see is inferiority and the inherent threat of those who embody it: They “just so happen” to be black in the same way that the people Dawne Marshall pointed out happened to be black.
The right’s response to police shootings has followed this particular contradiction. First they insist these shootings have nothing to do with race, only to ask in the next breath why those who are race-obsessed refuse to address a different racial phenomenon—“black-on-black crime.” “Ninety-three percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks,” said former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, deploying a conservative talking point. “We are talking about the exception here [in Ferguson]…. I would like to see the attention paid to that, that you’re paying to this.”
On any given day, Rudy Giuliani is wrong a thousand times before he even wakes up in the morning. But here are five reasons why changing the subject from police shootings to “black-on-black crime” is so wrongheaded.
1.â€ˆThe term is a racial canard. Of course, it could merely be descriptive, an adjective for a certain kind of crime, like “same-sex domestic-partner violence.” But it’s not. Same-sex domestic-partner violence is distinguished from opposite-sex domestic-partner violence. But “black-on-black crime” has no racial equivalent: nobody talks about white-on-white crime (see 2) or Asian-on-Asian crime. It’s a construct assigned solely to black people, and it interprets their transgression through a purely racial lens. It ranks alongside “the down-low,” a phrase used to refer to black gay men who lead straight lives, only to cheat on their wives with other men. When white men do it, it’s called “Brokeback Mountain”; when black men do it, it gets a special name. The phrase “black-on-black crime” makes sense only if you understand black people’s propensity to commit crimes against people of their own race as inherently different from the way other racial groups commit crimes.
2.â€ˆIn this regard, black criminals are not particularly different. America is very segregated, and its criminality conforms to that fact. So the victims of most crimes are the same race as those who commit them. Eighty-four percent of white people who are killed every year are killed by white people. White people who buy illegal drugs are most likely to buy them from white people. Far from being extraordinary, the fact that black criminals are most likely to commit crimes against black people makes them just like everybody else. A more honest term than “black-on-black crime” would be, simply, “crime.”
3.â€ˆIt is not a taboo. Anyone who seriously thinks that black people are not talking about black people killing other black people just doesn’t know any black people. Black people talk about it a lot. They have a lot to talk about. But while black-on-black crime is a nonsense term, black crime is a serious issue. Black people may not be much more likely to kill members of their own racial group than whites, but they are still more likely to kill and be killed. It’s not as though the black community hasn’t noticed that. Most cities have several black-led organizations confronting this very thing. Nor do black people grieve according to some code of silence. Go to any inner-city church, youth club, park, concert, barbershop, beauty salon or high school basketball game and listen. Every now and then, like last year after Chicago high school student Hadiya Pendleton was shot, they even get a national platform to talk about it. And when they do, they seize it.
4.â€ˆThe police are a special category. That’s the point. Black people are not, by dint of their melanin content, instructed to protect and serve the public; the police, by dint of their employment, are. Black people do not have a monopoly on violence; the police do. So when the people entrusted with upholding the law kill someone, that raises very different issues than if a kid from down the block shoots somebody. When the people who are supposed to protect everybody show an undeniable propensity to kill one group of people more than others (black men aged 15 to 19 are twenty-one times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts), that inevitably raises the question of discrimination. Our taxes don’t pay to support black criminals in their pursuit of black victims; they are currently going to support police in the shooting of black people.
5.â€ˆThe police are not an elevated category. The law still applies to them. When black people kill other black people, families and communities seek justice. When there are eyewitnesses, videos and forensic evidence, they want investigations, arrests, indictments, trials and convictions. They also want the punishment to be proportionate to the crime. They want no less when a policeman is the killer. In reality, they get far less. In fact, they get nothing. There is no punishment because, apparently, there was no crime.
In September 1955, an all-white jury took just 67 minutes to acquit Emmett Till’s killers. Till, 14, said either “Bye, baby” or wolf-whistled at a white woman in a grocery store in Mississippi. Three days later his body was fished out of the Tallahatchie river with a bullet in his skull, an eye gouged out and his forehead crushed on one side. “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop,” said one juror, “it wouldn’t have taken that long.”
In a 1978 political essay, Power of the Powerless, the Czech dissident (and later president) Vaclav Havel paints a scenario of a greengrocer who has been sent a poster announcing “Workers of the World Unite” by the authorities along with his vegetables. Explaining why the grocer would put the poster up in his shop window, Havel writes: “He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life ‘in harmony with society’.”