Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is Upon Us: “For the American Right, the price of power has been a deal with the devil of white supremacy”

William F. Buckley, I suppose, would have wanted to be remembered as a powerful and charismatic public intellectual for conservatism and one of the foundational thinkers in the late 20th-/early 21st-century formation of conservative thought and the current Republican Party.

While Buckley failed as a political candidate and may in many ways be lost to history, his goals have been mostly accomplished—creating a Republican movement that succeeded in significant ways from Ronald Reagan’s rise through the election of Donald Trump, with only minor detours for centerists such as Bill Clinton (anti-welfare and “tough on crime” advocate) and Barack Obama.

What did Buckley envision?

His was a political ideology that shifted the 1950s Republican moderates and liberals to a reactionary party grounded in (when convenient) libertarian principles and Christian values that stood firm against the rising tide of Brown v. Board (school integration) and the Civil Rights Act of the mid-1960s as well as the violent civil rights movement swelling from the 1950s into the 1970s.

Buckley repeatedly argued that Black people killed during the Civil Rights Era had provoked the violence, for example. He was a “know your place” sort of racist.

Buckley held firm throughout his public career that Southern whites had the right to their beliefs, even if those beliefs were racist, and that the federal government must not impede on those rights (Constitutionally wrong, was his thin argument), even if those efforts sought to gain the full rights of Black people.

Yes, Buckley was a racist, the sort of racist who admitted racism was a plight on humanity and the U.S., but he argued, it was a plight that must be allowed to play out somewhat organically and not spurred by the influence of government mandate (whether through the courts or legislation). Buckley was also the sort of racist who claimed whites were superior to Black people at the moment, even as he wasn’t going to argue directly there were genetic differences (although he was fine with letting such claims linger).

Buckley rarely even flinched and sometimes eagerly trafficked with those who did make much more gross and hateful claims—George Wallace, James Jackson Kilpatrick, etc.

In Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is Upon Us, using the James Baldwin/Buckley debate as the crux of his examination, Buccola draws a powerful conclusion about Buckley’s impact on U.S. politics: “For the American Right, the price of power has been a deal with the devil of white supremacy” (p. 365).

The line from Buckley to the Reagan Revolution and then to the current Trump administration is straight and direct. For those who want to claim that Trump is an aberration, a distortion of modern/contemporary Republicanism, Buccola’s book is a harsh slap in the face.

Trump and the current Republican Party is at least a logical conclusion to what Buckley and other conservatives started in the 1940s-1950s.

Buckley mastered what we now see as typical Trumpisms: claiming belief trumps evidence, cozying up to blatant racists for partisan political expediency, making sweeping ideological claims about “the individual” while refusing to recognize the inequities that weigh on real individuals (especially if those individuals are not white), resorting to American exceptionalism and framing any enemy as being “anti-American,” promoting boot-strapping over government intervention, and refusing to acknowledge one’s own enormous privilege while also claiming great accomplishment from hard work and intellectual superiority.

In short, Buckley wrote Trump’s playbook, although Trump is a slightly more buffoonish version of Buckley, himself a stylized character, more theater than substance despite Buckley’s penchant for arcane vocabulary.

However, I must stress here that despite my initial focus on Buckley, Buccola’s outstanding scholarship and compelling writing has one star: James Baldwin.

From The Atlantic: James Baldwin, right, discusses a civil-rights incident with Bayard Rustin, left. (AP)

Just as Baldwin was often the complicated and complicating moral compass while he was alive, Baldwin provides not only context, but the moral counterbalance to Buckley’s inexcusable dispassionate dogmatism.

As someone who has often written about and teaches from Baldwin, I recognize in Buccola an essential primer on Baldwin’s evolving thought throughout the key decades surrounding the Buckley debate in 1965.

Readers witness Baldwin being smeared as a communist (and his explanations to the contrary), labeled “anti-American” (although he repeatedly argues that to criticize the U.S. is to love it), provoked to pick sides between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (Baldwin resisted, praising both men but cautioning against the dangers of any strict obligations to organized religion), and characterized as a leading cause of racial violence (maybe the central target of Buckley’s “blame the victims” campaign).

While Baldwin sought always to live the life of an artist, he was drawn time and again into his role as public intellectual, journalist, practitioner of the jeremiad, public speaker, and debater.

Even Malcolm X was apt to warn others that Baldwin was always his own man—so what he said and when he said it remained Baldwin’s.

Guiding Baldwin was his own conception of love:

In order to achieve freedom of this sort, Baldwin contended, we must love one another. His understanding of love was deep and complex, and the love he prescribed was difficult and often unsettling. To love someone, he explained, is to deny them “spiritual and social ease,” which “hard as if may sound,” is “the most important thing that one human being can do for another.” Love requires us to force each other to confront the delusions that we rely on to avoid taking responsibility for our lives. “Love takes off the masks,” Baldwin declared, “that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” (From The Fire Is Upon Us, Nicholas Buccola, p. 163, quoting from Baldwin’s “Down at the Cross,” pp. 335, 341)

And that commitment rested against Baldwin’s consternation about white America:

“There are days—this is one of them—when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it … [and] how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here.” … “I am terrified,” [Baldwin] said, “by the  moral apathy, the death of the heart that is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I am human …. And this means that they have become … moral monsters.” (p. 186)

Ultimately, Baldwin had the irrefutable last word on race in the U.S.:

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,’ but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie. (On Language, Race and the Black Writer, James Baldwin, Los Angeles Times, 1979)

And as Buccola quotes Baldwin talking to “students at Cambridge”:

What is happening in the poor woman, the poor man’s mind. They have been raised to believe, and by now they helplessly believe, that no matter how terrible their lives may be, and their lives have been quite terrible, and no matter how far they fall, no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge and consolation which is like a heavenly revelation: at least they are not black. (p. 259)

Yet, Buccola paraphrases Baldwin arguing “most white Americans live in a state of denial” (p. 347).

Buccola makes a deeply compelling choice by framing the racial/racist history of the U.S., and how that drives and intermingles with U.S. partisan politics as well as media, with one moment in U.S. history—when Buckley and Baldwin directly debate “the motion of the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro” (p. 376; note that this volume includes the most intact transcript existing of the debate, another gem of this book).

These two men, born within a year of each other although Baldwin was in Harlem and Buckley, in extreme wealth and privilege, are not mere tokens of history, but valid voices of the current tensions in a country that wants to call itself free and equitable but often, like Buckley, refuses to acknowledge our sins (as Baldwin did) or do anything about them.

Reading Buccola’s extended exegesis of the debate, I am reminded of comedian George Carlin: “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

And, of course, more Baldwin: “The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something we do not understand and do not want to admit” (“Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,’” 1948).

In the Epilogue, Buccola shares Baldwin’s recollection of Buckley avoiding an elevator packed with Baldwin and his Black friends:

“He will say, of course, if challenged, that the elevator was crowded, but I remember the split second—the twinkling of an eye—in which he looked at me and he saw me looking at him. Okay. But I [emphasis in original] would have gotten on the elevator.”

Racist. Liar. Coward. These are the words that came into Baldwin’s mind when he thought of Buckley. (p. 361)

Apt words, chilling words, that serve us, sadly, now.

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The Politics of Wealth and Power

Celebrated author of the graphic novel Maus, Art Spiegelman, and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick may seem to have little in common except for their respective fame and success in their fields.

But Spiegelman’s recent experience with Marvel Entertainment has exposed a much more significant parallel, as Spiegelman concludes about having his work excluded by the company for being too political:

A revealing story serendipitously showed up in my news feed this week. I learned that the billionaire chairman and former CEO of Marvel Entertainment, Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, is a longtime friend of Donald Trump’s, an unofficial and influential adviser and a member of the president’s elite Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida. And Perlmutter and his wife have each recently donated $360,000 (the maximum allowed) to the Orange Skull’s “Trump Victory Joint Fundraising Committee” for 2020. I’ve also had to learn, yet again, that everything is political… just like Captain America socking Hitler on the jaw.

This moment of being policed for being too political experienced by Spiegelman has been Kaepernick’s life outside of the playing field for the past three years.

Kaepernick’s NFL sin leading to his being banished from the Gridiron of Eden that is professional football was protesting during the National Anthem—an act often cast as protesting about the National Anthem and thus rejecting the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Despite their fame and success, Spiegelman and Kaepernick are embodiments of workers in the U.S., and thus, they share the burden of workers to be apolitical.

Yet, the context of those demands are important to emphasize: Marvel Entertainment chairman Perlmutter, like many of the owners in the NFL, is allowed his politics of donation.

Politics, then, in the U.S. is reserved for the wealthy and the powerful because the term itself is code for the status quo of power dynamics. The wealthy and powerful must protect their ability to maintain the status quo (that’s their politics regardless of party affiliation) by demanding that workers remain subordinate through taking always the apolitical (thus, non-threatening) stance.

When the owner class claims to be apolitical, that argument represents how “politics” in the U.S. is about what has become normal (thus “apolitical”) versus what is being unmasked (thus “political”).

During the Kaepernick controversy about protesting during the National Anthem, for example, little was noted about the political nature of the anthem being played at a sporting event, about the role of U.S. military endorsement deals with the NFL.

U.S. women’s soccer national team captain Megan Rapinoe and athletes at the recent Pan Am games have also chosen to protest during the anthem and ceremonies—often receiving the same sort of framing by political leaders and the mainstream media: The acts of protest are political (and disrespectful) but the anthems and ceremonies are left as if they are themselves apolitical (since they are normal, common).

If we pull back from that dynamic, this helps characterize why remaining silent about systemic racism or individual acts of racism are not themselves labeled “political,” but naming and confronting racism tend to be cast as not only political but radical, dangerous.

In the U.S., it remains more disruptive to confront and name racism than to be racist.

Racism, sexism, and politics are all matters of power, and we must resist simplistic framings of the terms and their consequences.

The irony of Spiegelman’s and Kaepernick’s experiences is that they are simultaneously punished for being political while those in power doing the punishing are themselves exercising their politics—directly the politics of their status and wealth and then tangentially their partisan politics that they prefer to be ignored if not outright hidden.

Concurrent with Marvel policing Spiegelman’s politics and Kaepernick’s three-year anniversary for being banned from the NFL as too political, the owner of the Miami Dolphins actively campaigns for Trump while a player for the Dolphins exists in the expectations that he remain apolitical (no protesting) and even apologizes for criticizing the hypocrisy between that owner’s claimed ideals and the realities of Trump’s politics and personal bigotry and misogyny.

As a lifelong educator, first in K-12 public schools and then at the university level, I have lived an entire career steeped in the demand for objectivity and somehow teaching in an apolitical mode.

While teaching often includes this directive as central to how we are trained and then how we are monitored and evaluated, nearly all workers exist under these norms while the ownership class maintains very direct and powerful political lives that they want to be, again, ignored or hidden even as their businesses and personal actions benefit from and perpetuate that politics.

Much of this is cloaked in respectability politics and a sort of business culture that is grounded in layers of “proper,” “professionalism,” and “appropriate” for so-called work environments.

Kaepernick, you see, as a professional must exist while at work as if the real-world around him doesn’t exist.

Like a majority of the NFL, Kaepernick as a young black man, then, cannot acknowledge or use his unique influence to confront this:

About 1 in 1,000 black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police, according to a new analysis of deaths involving law enforcement officers. That makes them 2.5 times more likely than white men and boys to die during an encounter with cops.

The analysis also showed that Latino men and boys, black women and girls and Native American men, women and children are also killed by police at higher rates than their white peers. But the vulnerability of black males was particularly striking.

“That 1-in-1,000 number struck us as quite high,” said study leader Frank Edwards, a sociologist at Rutgers University. “That’s better odds of being killed by police than you have of winning a lot of scratch-off lottery games.”

The number-crunching by Edwards and his coauthors also revealed that for all young men, police violence was one of the leading causes of death in the years 2013 to 2018.

Kaepernick and NFL athletes are also supposed to defer to societal expectations of power as expressed by the Attorney General:

After telling the crowd that “we need to get back to basics,” Barr said that public figures in the media and elsewhere should “underscore the need to ‘comply first, and, if warranted, complain later.'”

“This will make everyone safe — the police, suspects, and the community at large,” he said. “And those who resist must be prosecuted for that crime. We must have zero tolerance for resisting police. This will save lives.”

Yet, human existence is perpetually a state of politics.

What Spiegelman’s and Kaepernick’s experiences represent is that those with wealth and power see the world as theirs and seek to maintain the rest of us as their working class—passive, compliant, and apolitical.

The politics of wealth and power is expressed in a demand that everyone else remain silent and passive, that everyone else conform to being apolitical.

The NFL and the Politics of Lies

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –

“This World is not Conclusion” (373), Emily Dickinson

I taught throughout the 1980s and 1990s in my small rural hometown in Upstate South Carolina. That town literally had a railroad track separating the black and white sides of town.

The very small school district includes only four schools—primary, elementary, middle (junior, when I attended), and high—that encircled the largest church in town, Woodruff First Baptist, its steeple looming prominently over the schools and the town.

white church near trees at daytime

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Many of my students attended that church, and for a time, virginity pledges became a thing. Sunday morning services included girls and young women coming forward to pledge their virginity until marriage.

These young women received praise and recognition throughout the town and at school. At one point when this trend was at a peak, a group of young women came to me upset that, as they explained, most of their peers taking the virginity pledge were far from virgins, before the pledge or after.

These young women taking the pledge were playing a powerful game of making public displays that gave them social capital but required in no way that they practice what they proclaimed.

The young women who had not pledged, were mostly not sexually active, and felt a great deal of resentment also informed me that one of the young women who had recently been praised in front of the student body, and was also a very popular student and cheerleader, was among a secret group of young women who helped each other pay for and acquire abortions.

I have dozens and dozens of these stories, since I grew up in the deep South and am well acquainted with the power and hypocrisy of the Christian veneer.

While I have mostly stopped watching all organized sports, college or professional, I was wrangled last night into viewing the 2019 Super Bowl. What resonated with me above the lackluster game itself and the disappointment of another success story for the New England Patriots (with a coach and quarterback who personify all that is wrong with the NFL and the U.S.) was the clear drumbeat throughout the event by the NFL that the organization is deeply committed to social justice.

Over the past few years, the NFL has ostracized Colin Kaepernick for political protests and perpetuated the vapid notion that some of the athletes have sullied the game with their politics.

This same NFL began the most recent Super Bowl, as usual, with nothing except politics, the National Anthem and a military flyover. But most disgusting of all was the use of Martin Luther King Jr., ostensibly since the game was played in Atlanta, GA, to associate billionaire owners and the league with social justice.

I have never seen anyone look more out of place than the images of Commissioner Roger Goodell touring Atlanta and marking great places and moments in civil rights.

The NFL is a master of the politics of lies, playing up its own brand while simultaneously beating down any millionaire worker who has the audacity to be anything other than a player-drone for the billionaires who own them.

I understand how many NFL players feel compelled to remain stooges for the corporation that pays many of them well, even as the evidence is mounting that almost all of them are being physically and mentally maimed, that virtually all of them are just cogs, expendable. None the less, I cringed when Marshawn Lynch showed up in one of the most popular feel-good spots portraying the NFL as all that is good and happy:

There is a world unlike this one in which I imagine Marshawn Lynch as the hero and not bent by the great burdening weight of the NFL.

But that is not this world.

Concurrent with the Super Bowl has been a brewing controversy about the governor of Virginia, which Chris Emdin confronts broadly:

Today, as everyone indicts the governor for his racism and everyone professes to stew in anger at how he has let down his constituents, I am most disturbed by the ways that we allow folks to construct progressive public personas that are allowed to mask a problematic past even as the country endorses the past and the masking. WE have allowed people to use buzzwords like equity and social justice to mask their racism. WE have allowed sitting next to the right people or hanging the right painting to erase things they have done that cause pain. WE have failed to allow folks to face their history and the part they play in what they profess to fight against. It is easy to advocate for something without acknowledging that you are part of what caused it. It is easy for the governor to denounce the hatred in Charlottesville without acknowledging that he is a branch of the tree that the hate there grew from.

Emdin unmasks the progressive veneer that works like the Christian veneer—for some. Mostly for the privileged who use that veneer to maintain a death-grip on their unearned power.

In this age of Trump politics, we must recognize that billionaire NFL owners are no more committed to social justice than Trump is to Christianity.

Billionaires have been afforded their billions because of inequity, and the only real threat to their egregious wealth is equity, the cleansing sunshine of social justice.

The NFL exists on lies, it needs lies. The NFL is a microcosm of U.S. capitalism that exists on poverty, that needs poverty.

Kaepernick was sacrificed exactly because he was the Truth, unadulterated because the banishment was swift and seemingly invisible, silent. Allowed to return to the NFL, like Lynch, Kapernick likely and excusably would have merged into the fold in some uncomfortable way—like Jim Brown’s face if the commercial above is paused just right.

The NFL’s lie is just another Great America Myth, another cultural lie. The Super Bowl was its crowning act of this year’s season of lies.

The perfect team, the Patriots, now sit on that throne of duplicity like an arrogant middle finger to all that is decent and humane.

Like the church steeple ringed by my home town’s only schools.

Viewing Pleasantville in Trumplandia

Twenty years ago, we could marvel at Pleasantville for its technology, the allegorical take on racism and censorship, and the acting brilliance of lesser-known (then) Reese Witherspoon, Tobey Maguire, Joan Allen, and William H. Macy.

Viewing the film in 2018 includes a somber recognition of a young Paul Walker and Jane Kaczmarek before Malcolm in the Middle. But it may be the character of Whitey (David Tom) and watching the overt racism, near-sexual assault of Betty Parky (Allen), and rioting scenes that take on more than a critical reconsideration of mid-twentieth century America and force us to re-see in this film in contemporary Trumplandia:

Whitey, not so subtly, utters “colored girlfriend”— about Margaret (Marley Shelton)—with sneering disgust and leads a group of young men taunting Betty, until Bud (Maguire) steps in and asserts his full humanity (something that appears to be at the root of what characters turn from black-and-white to color) by knocking Whitey, bloodied, to the ground:

Image result for pleasantville whitey

In the wake of Trump being elected president, viewing this film—and rewatching Breaking Bad, for example—exposes how whiteness works often to center itself regardless of the context.

Walter White, in Breaking Bad, is a white man who is doing well—a teaching career with a stable family and home—but feels wronged by fate (others more successful in the career he leaves behind) and nature (diagnosed with cancer). This entire series centers White (whiteness) and his not-so-subtle libertarian ideologies in the same way the mainstream media now center so-called white rural Americans (the narrative goes) paralyzed by economic fear.

While Break Bad is far more problematic in its depiction of fragile masculinity and racism, Pleasantville in the context of Trumplandia comes off now just a bit lazy.

The allegory of race remains itself powerful, but fragile masculinity is allowed to play as a joke, the white men who resist change in the TV sit-com are buffoons—a stark contrast to the genuine pain demonstrated in the more compelling existential angst in the outlier white man, Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), and powerfully in Betty:

The near sexual assault of Betty and the riot scene must be reconsidered as very damning messages about white and male fragility—dramatic harbingers of the #MeToo movement and the right-wing violence in Charlottesville, VA, in August 2017.

Yes, Pleasantville works as something of an allegorical take on social change and the scar of racism in the U.S. But it also unwittingly embodies some of the consequences the U.S. now suffers from failing ever to confront directly that calls for tradition tend to be grounded in maintaining the worst sorts of bigotry—racism and sexism.

And while I think Whitey remains an increasingly significant character as we rewatch Pleasantville now, I also want to focus on the Mayor, Big Bob (J.T. Walsh)—a couple speeches specifically.

As a political leader, Big Bob’s rhetoric demonstrates the use of language as a veneer, as Big Bob argues: “Up until now everything around here has been, well, pleasant. Recently certain things have become unpleasant. Now, it seems to me that the first thing we have to do is to separate out the things that are pleasant from the things that are unpleasant.”

The “pleasant/unpleasant” dichotomy is quite sordid underneath the term. “Pleasant” is women knowing their place, and a community with no “coloreds.”

And as I noted above, many of the scenes depicting white male fragility are played for laughs, hyperbolic concerns about dinner not being on the table or clothes ruined while ironing:

Yet, Big Bob’s discourse even against the cartoonish solidarity of these men watching their world’s change is illuminating:

My friends, this isn’t about George’s dinner. It’s not about Roy’s shirt. It’s a question of values. It’s a question of whether we want to hold on to those values that made this place great. So, a time has come to make a decision. Are we in this thing alone or are we in it together?

While some criticized Alice Walker for an uncharacteristically happy ending in her The Color Purple, we should not be surprised Pleasantville as a fantasy and comedy allows all these heavy issues to resolve with a bit of light-heart “aw-shucks” in a final park bench scene where Betty moves from George to Bill (note that the film remains mired in the importance of women in conjunction with some man):

The narrative, in hindsight, of Pleasantville is incomplete, but we are disturbingly equipped now to decode it. Part of that decoding must be that the narrative the mainstream media is feeding us isn’t incomplete; it is dishonest and lazy.

The white male fragility that created Trump and now is actively emboldened by Trump is not the buffoonery of the film. It is deadly serious and it must not be ignored, or simply explained away.


See Also

To Kill a Mockingbird, White Saviors, and the Paradox of Obama and Race

Jeff Daniels and Tobey Maguire in Pleasantville (1998)

Invisible in Plain Sight: On Refusal

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

A few days into my first-year writing seminars, I have begun to guide students toward reading like writers, navigating texts for the what and how of written expression.

As a way to interrogate their misconceptions about the essay (grounded mostly in inauthentic templates), we walk very carefully through the first six paragraphs of James Baldwin’s A Report from Occupied Territory, published 11 July 1966 in The Nation.

The essay exposes students to the historical realities of racial and racist police brutality—which we connect to Colin Kaepernick and NFL protests—as well as Baldwin’s powerful craft as a writer of non-fiction and a more rich and subtle awareness of the essay. This report helps, for example, students re-imagine how effective writer’s create essay openings—not functional single-paragraph introductions with unimaginative thesis sentences.

Each time I explore this essay with first-year students, however, I am reminded of how some of the best elements of the work—Baldwin’s use of “occupied territory” and “a foreign jungle but in the domestic one”—remain mostly invisible to those students.

Baldwin is referencing war, the Vietnam War that was pervasive at the time of the essay, in order to create a critical portrayal of the police as militaristic. Many students are inhibited from recognizing this analogy.

They have a sanitized view of war (contemporary war as drone attacks has been rendered invisible). I grew up in the 1960s watching the Vietnam War on the nightly news.

They are also blinded by their assumptions about authority figures, such as the police.

While not all of my students view the police positively (perspectives among races and social class vary among my students as we explore the NFL protests, for example), they have recently left K-12 education where the norm is that all authority must be respected, where the adults in authority appear mostly uniform in that deference to all authority.

Dominant ideologies, then, have the power to create invisibility in plain sight. Once anything becomes normal, many simply refuse to see what is right their before their eyes.

Consider the dilemma by a woman scholar, Nikki Usher, prompted to cite a scholar she had actively worked to avoid because of his sexism:

And for those men whose academic sexism hasn’t risen to the level of actionable correction, and very likely won’t — while they continue ignoring female scholars and belittling their work on a daily basis — their reputation overall will remain clean. A serial sexist is unlikely to cite the work of female scholars, but if he is a predominant voice in your field or subfield, there is no way for you to avoid having to continue to build his academic reputation through citations, even if you would like to avoid doing so.

In my first-round submission, instead of mentioning this male professor’s work, I found and cited a half-dozen other scholars who made the points I needed for my theoretical scaffolding, although not in the same foundational articles. But of course the journal reviewers went looking in my manuscript for a citation of the serial sexist’s name and work.

This is a bind that we have yet to account for — how the process of building on academic work itself burnishes the reputations of people whose scholarship is good and sometimes even foundational, but whose characters are awful. In the case of a sexist jerk, you are often left without recourse: Cite him, or look like you don’t know what you’re talking about to reviewers and readers.

Sexist men scholars not citing women often works invisibly and makes women scholars invisible, when the field refuses to see that, of course.

Scholars taking the faux pose of objectivity (citing the seminal work of men scholars, and claiming not to be endorsing the scholar as a person or his behavior) create another level of invisibility—both of which work to perpetuate disciplinary status simultaneously along with refusing to hold abusive scholars accountable.

Those who refuse to see white and male privilege are complicit in maintaining both as invisible in plain sight.

One problem with invisibility as refusal, however, can be seen in my students reading Baldwin and Usher struggling to manage her own scholarship and status.

That problem is grounded in how the marginalized are often positioned with the responsibility to bring that which has been rendered invisible into the light while also being poised to suffer the greatest consequences for that unmasking.

The student stepping back from idealized views of the police in order to acknowledge Baldwin’s criticism is taking a risk in a context that is mostly authoritarian.

A woman scholar taking ethical stances against the powerful current of her field is assuming risk in a context that maintains a false veneer of objectivity and high rigor.

To focus on Usher’s dilemma, this is a nuanced aspect of the #MeToo movement that itself has been rendered invisible, micro-aggressions of scholarship dominated and controlled by men. There is a pretense here that scholarship is somehow distinct from the personal, the person.

I imagine for those outside of academia, sexist men scholars systematically ignoring women scholars (not citing) seems a pale thing when compared to Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK.

For women, however, the cumulative and ultimate consequences of all types and degrees of sexism and gender-based aggression are similarly erasing, paradoxically creating women as invisible in plain sight.

I think about Margaret Atwood recalling that when she attended an all-male graduate course at Harvard, the professor sent her for coffee—Atwood the woman as scholar was rendered invisible behind her perceived status as servant to men.

Ultimately, those left invisible in plain sight remain trapped by the system that perpetuates itself, as Usher exposes.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man recognizes his invisibility and in the novel’s end has embraced it, reclaimed it, hibernating himself as a sort of resignation.

This too is a paradox, the incredible weight of invisibility, the burden of being erased through refusal.

If we are to experience a revolution of recognition, the leverage of those with privilege is essential, to pry away the cloaking in order to see what has been right their in front of our eyes all along.

Free Speech, Free Market, and the Lingering “Rigid Refusal”

In the documentary Corridor of Shame, which explores the historical inequities of school funding in South Carolina along lines of race and social class, Senator (R, SC) Lindsey Graham claims while speaking at MLK Day in 2005: “We have a disparity of funding in a region of our state…. The reason we have disparity in funding is not cause we are prejudiced at the governmental level. It’s because we collect taxes based on property value. And our property value in those counties are pretty low because there’s no industry.”

Graham’s denial of systemic racism represents what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “elegant racism” while confronting the “oafish racism” of Cliven Bundy and former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling:

The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad. The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state’s rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s singularly segregationist candidacy.

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

Graham acknowledges inequity, but uses “prejudiced” instead of “racist,” and casually rejects systemic racism.

As Coates explains, whites in the U.S. are more apt to acknowledge oafish racism while almost always employing elegant racism, such as denying systemic racism; therefore, Graham’s obfuscation is a powerful and effective political ploy, especially in the South.

In the matter of a few days recently, this distinction has played out in a public way with the NFL instituting a new policy about players protesting during the National Anthem and Roseanne Barr having her ABC sit-com canceled after a racist outburst on social media.

The NFL Anthem policy and Barr’s show cancelation have two important elements in common: what they represent in terms of how the U.S. confronts and understands racism, and how many in the U.S. have a deeply flawed understanding of free speech.

First, when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick initiated protests during the National Anthem, the public and political response has tended to misrepresent the actions. Kaepernick and other players were protesting systemic racism, inequitable policing of blacks often resulting in death, during the Anthem.

Notably, Barr’s oafish racism, comparing a person of color to an ape, has resulted in a similar outcome for Barr and Kaepernick—the loss of work—although the former is a racist and the latter is protesting racism.

While Kapernick and other protesting NFL players have been condemned for being political (disregarding they are taking credible stands against a reprehensible social reality), Barr has a history of being bigoted.

Writer Roxane Gay has examined that history and then the recent cancelation, in fact.

Also significant about these two situations is that the new NFL policy does in fact limit when and how NFL players can express themselves, but Barr was perfectly free to share her comments, with an incredibly wide audience.

That comparison leads to the now common aspect of the public discussion of Barr’s cancelation, claims that they are about free speech: Since the NFL and ABC are not the government, neither of these situations is an issue of free speech.

As Katherine Timpf explains:

First of all, this is in no way a free-speech or First Amendment issue. The First Amendment protects us from facing consequences from the government over our speech, not consequences from our peers or our employers. Yes, what Barr said, although abhorrent, absolutely was constitutionally protected speech, and, of course, it should be. After all, giving the government the power to decide what is and is not “acceptable” speech would be giving the government the power to silence whatever kind of speech it felt like silencing, which would be very dangerous indeed. Anyway, the point is, a free-speech-rights violation would be someone trying to, say, arrest Barr for her comments, not firing her for them. Her rights were in no way violated in this case. ABC simply exercised its own rights as a private company to decide whom it does and does not want to associate with, and it’s my view that no one should blame its executives for making the decision that they made.

Therefore, the NFL policy on the National Anthem and the cancelation of Barr’s sit-com are not about free speech but the free market. Both the NFL and ABC are hedging that their actions preserve their audiences, their bottom line.

And what those concerns about their audiences reinforce is that the public has a much lower tolerance for oafish racism (Barr) than for confronting elegant racism (NFL protests). The NFL believes its audience either denies or cannot see systemic racism, and thus does not support the so-called politics of NFL players who protest while ABC feels that continuing to give an oafish racist a major platform will erode their audience.

Here is where we must confront the problem with trusting the free market since doing the right thing is linked to the moral imperative of the majority, the consumers. Currently in the U.S., that majority remains insensitive to systemic inequity and injustice; therefore, elegant racism survives—even bolstered ironically when oafish racism is shamed and seemingly blunted.

When each oafish racist is given their due, those denying systemic racism have their worldview confirmed since they see individual punishment as justice.

These actions by the NFL and ABC reflect that in the U.S. whites are still in the early adolescent stage of racial consciousness. Being able to confront oafish racism isn’t even fully developed yet.

Many in the media called Barr’s slurs “racially insensitive,” showing the same sort of refusal to call a lie, a lie that now characterizes mainstream media. But a few in that media are calling Barr’s words “racist,” and ABC folded under the weight of that fact—although we should be asking why Barr had this second chance considering her history of bigotry.

As a people, white America is not adult enough, however, to move past finger-wagging at oafish racists and to acknowledge systemic racism because, as Coates recognizes, “to see racism in all its elegance is to implicate not just its active practitioners, but to implicate ourselves.”

James Baldwin’s “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'” remains a chilling warning then: “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.”

That anything, as the NFL and ABC have exposed, is racism—the cancer destroying our democracy and our free market.

As consumers, we have a moral obligation to tell the NFL it is wrong; we will not stand for systemic racism. And we must tell ABC that canceling Barr’s sit-com is a start, but it isn’t enough.

As citizens, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror of the voting booth—something we have failed to do yet in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

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Who Me?

They Were Born for This Moment: How the student activists of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High demonstrate the power of privilege.

Dahlia Lithwick’s take on the impact of teenagers from Parkland, Florida after yet another mass school shooting is a flawed Bob Dole read on the power of education. The most telling moment that this misreading of why America seems to embrace these teenagers comes here:

Despite the gradual erosion of the arts and physical education in America’s public schools, the students of Stoneman Douglas have been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America and that is being dismantled with great deliberation as funding for things like the arts, civics, and enrichment are zeroed out. In no small part because the school is more affluent than its counterparts across the country (fewer than 23 percent of its students received free or reduced-price lunches in 2015–16, compared to about 64 percent across Broward County Public Schools) these kids have managed to score the kind of extracurricular education we’ve been eviscerating for decades in the United States. These kids aren’t prodigiously gifted. They’ve just had the gift of the kind of education we no longer value.

Political analysis of Dole’s last failed run for president often includes that Dole’s narrative focused on going back to an idealized and whitewashed past, while Bill Clinton focused on the future.

To suggest a “1950s-style public education” is a major element of the good ol’ days is an incomplete and ultimately offensive view of history.

Public schools reflected and perpetuated in mid-twentieth century all of the very worst aspects of American society, including segregation and corrosive inequity along race, social class, and gender lines.

The disturbing irony of the flawed central thesis of this argument is that the student activists from Stoneman Douglas High do in fact represent the realities of 1950s-style public education: Privileged children in the U.S. also benefit from privileged schooling—a fact of the 1950s and of the 2010s.

There are, however, two lessons from the activism of these Parkland, Florida teens:

  1. It provides another entry point into debunking that education is the great equalizer, and
  2. it represents in contrast to how America has responded to #BlackLivesMatter activism the lingering racial divide about whose voices, and thus lives, matter.

To the first lesson, consider the following:

And as a powerful visual for understanding that educational attainment does not level racial inequity, consider this (as well as a wealth of research contradicting education as the great equalizer):

Yet, Lithwick maintains:

Part of the reason the Stoneman Douglas students have become stars in recent weeks is in no small part due to the fact that they are in a school system that boasts, for example, of a “system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age.”

The mistake here is that educational opportunities are a marker for the accident of birth most children enjoy or suffer; highlighting the rich schooling experiences of the Parkland, Florida students receive is a veneer for confronting that they mostly are the beneficiaries of privilege, first in their homes and communities, and then in their schools, which reflect and perpetuate their privilege.

To be clear, this is no condemnation of these teen activists, but their access to widespread national recognition is driven mostly by their privilege in many of the same ways that the Bush family and the Trumps have parlayed generational wealth into more (often ill-got) power, regardless of their merit.

This misreading of the reasons why the Parkland, Florida teens are being heard provides cover for the more damning and problematic second lesson, as Sarah Ruiz-Grossman confronts:

For some black activists who have long been mobilizing around gun violence, the current wave of public attention and outrage over the issue is welcome. But it also invites the question of why there’s been comparatively little attention and outrage focused on the even more common reality of routine gun homicides in the country, which disproportionately affect communities of color, and specifically black Americans.

Prominent black organizers and public figures have also noted the largely positive public response to the student activists from Parkland ― most of whom are not black and who attended school in a largely white, relatively affluent Florida suburb ― compared to the frequent vilification of young black activists protesting gun violence, particularly police shootings.

The Stoneman Douglas High teens are no more credible in their activism than the many black teen activists who have responded to the equally disturbing normal of police shootings that disproportionately kill blacks.

When affluent and a certain kind of articulate young people confront mass gun violence, their privilege sparks responses that are distinct from the responses to a differently racialized and classed protest against gun violence perpetually killing one person at a time.

Kurt Vonnegut, who died of lung cancer, confessed in the preface to a collection of short stories: “The public health authorities never mention the main reason many Americans have for smoking heavily, which is that smoking is a fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide.”

Beyond the macabre humor and stark reality of Vonnegut’s admission, we must see that he is deconstructing the power of normal; once something become normal, it projects the impression that is also right.

In the U.S., the messengers and the messaging are more powerful than the message. And this is the large scale lesson of the Parkland, Florida activism: Privileged voices and lives matter.

Public schools in the U.S. are not game changers, not great equalizers. Further, as the Parkland, Florida teens argue, no public school should be tasked with defending children against a negligent political class bought and owned by the NRA.

1950s nostalgia also ignores the celebrity class, often movie stars, doing the dirty work for Big Tobacco, ruining the health of America’s youth for the sake of commerce, and this too fits in an ironic and ugly way with misreading why privileged Stoneman Douglas High teens are now waging a battle with the NRA controlling negligent political leaders.

Simply saying something is true doesn’t make it true, and just because it is normal doesn’t mean it is right.

The Stoneman Douglas High teen activists were born for this moment. They demonstrate the power of privilege.


Please see these Twitter exchanges as well: