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Sandal-wearers and Gun-toters

I recently picked up the summer 2010 issue of The Defenestrator, published in Philadelphia. Its masthead describes it as “a newspaper for hope and refusal.” My eye fell on an article by Robert Saleem Holbrook, “’Proud to Be an American!’ When Ignorance is Virtue.” The article attacks what it calls “the political and cultural right.” “Every day we’re bombarded with shouts that a radical left-wing government has seized power and have to suffer the protests of a Tea Party movement composed of grumpy old white people pissed off that an intelligent ‘socialist’ African American was elected president of the United States.”

This is ridiculous, says Holbrook, since “Obama is neither radical nor socialist.”

 “So what is it that has the extreme right in an uproar,” he asks. His answer: “perception.” “The extreme right, in particular cultural purists, perceive Obama’s election as a shift in the racial/ethnic demographics of the country…. The idea that an intelligent minority [Holbrook probably means “member of a racial minority”] has ascended to the presidency of the United States is a difficult reality for many to accept and contend with, therefore they have fallen back on the bankability of racial animosity to galvanize their base and opposition. This racial animosity explicitly equates being an ‘American’ with being white, particularly white male, and conservative.”

“Perhaps nowhere is the animosity more expressed than by the so-called Barbie doll of the extreme right, Sarah Palin [whose] racial animosity towards Obama is at its most obvious when she mocks Obama as the ‘professor in chief’ and makes derogatory references to his intelligence and elite schooling.”

According to Holbrook, the problem is ignorance. “Many cultural conservatives like to say that the left views middle America as stupid and uneducated. Well here’s a confession: that is true.” He continues, “To cultural conservatives ignorance has become a virtue…” As examples he cites recent moves in Texas and Virginia to restore a right-wing version of U.S. history to the school curriculum.

“How do you deal with these people? How do you contend with deliberate ignorance? Do you ignore it? Shout it down? Debate with it? Treat it with detestable contempt? [I doubt that Holbrook detests the contempt rather than its target, but that is what he wrote.]

“I think the only way you deal with this mentality is to confront it because at its root it is the lynch mob mentality.... One does not have to be pigeonholed into being labeled a liberal or a defender of Obama for challenging this racist conservative opposition.”

The people Holbrook calls “racist” and “conservative” oppose Obama’s giveaways to the banks and insurance companies; so do I, so do the readers of The Defenestrator, and so does Holbrook; many of them oppose the wars in central Asia; so do I, and so do the readers of The Defenestrator, and so does Holbrook; they oppose Obama’s misnamed Healthcare plan, they oppose centralized control of the schools, they oppose gun control, etc.; so do I, and so do the readers of The Defenestrator, and so (probably) does Holbrook.

Many of the people Holbrook calls “the political and cultural right” have difficulty distinguishing among political categories. That is no small problem, but their view of Obama as a socialist has an element of truth: for most of the twentieth century “socialism” has meant bureaucracy and the centralized state, and has indeed been the highest form of capitalism.

So who is it that needs confronting?

I spend a good deal of my time in central Massachusetts, far from the “pwogwessives” of Cambridge and Brookline. A few years ago I attended the Garlic Festival in Orange, which featured organically-grown vegetables and folksinging. Most of those present wore Birkenstocks and arrived in Toyotas and Hondas. I enjoyed myself. A few weeks later I went to the Game Feed sponsored by the local gun club. The menu included wild turkey, moose and bear meat, the music was country, and the guests drove pickup trucks and motorcycles. I enjoyed myself there, too.

At both events the crowd was made up almost entirely of white people.

I may have been the only person who attended both events. I do not claim that my attendance had any political effect; but I do say that the alienation of the sandal-wearers from the gun-toters is symptomatic of a general problem on the “left” (an obsolete and useless category).

Lastly, I ask readers to think about what it means that the most prominent spokesman for “white male conservatives” is female.

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Sandal-wearers and Gun-toters | 2 comments
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Response to Sandal-wearers and Gun-toters : Wednesday, March 23 2011 @ 02:43 am
From: Emily (Philadelphia)
This seems to me to be a notably vacuous, self-glamorizing, and confused critique of Holbrook’s original article. In fact, if I was asked to summarize the root of Ignatiev’s political disagreement with Holbrook, as it is leveraged in this piece, I would be left a bit at a standstill, flailing about for requisite “content.” However, to frame it as generously as possible, I think the gist of the contention would be something like this: the categories of “left” and “right” - as well as that of “conservative” and “progressive” - are no longer adequate (if they ever were) to describing either the physical circumstances or political landscape in which the people of the U.S. currently find themselves. Left to itself and/or if actually pursued in Ignatiev’s own response, this might conceivably be a useful call for the general complication of our analysis of political orientations in America. Unfortunately, however, as it is written, Ignatiev’s own piece in no way carries out such a complication, but rather performs the very opposite: depopulating each given perspective that it portrays not only of its differences, but of its very ideas.

In fact, Ignatiev’s insistence that all of these various political “groupings” (whether, to use his words, of sandal-wearers or of skeet-shooters) are all so much one and the same, performs the worst kind of oversimplification, dumbing down our understandings of identity and politics alike. Further, the fact that he provides “evidence” for this condition of “sameness” via the unsurprising revelation that Ignatiev himself, as a white male professional, can move so “freely” between each of two all-white spaces that he chooses to describe and can “enjoy” himself in each, is no help either. If Ignatiev wished to meaningfully contest Holbrook’s observations that an orientation of racially-informed ignorance foundationally informs the current Tea Party syndrome, this would necessarily require that Ignatiev invest his own writing with some substantive critique and cross-evidence to populate that counter-position. But Ignatiev does not do that. What he does instead is:

1. He immediately disposes of the explicit racialization of the phenomenon that Holbrook is attempting to address through the bizarre claim that since some of the folks that are part of the Tea Party movement “believe the same things we do” they simply can’t be “racist” or “conservative.” In other words, because “they too” were against the corporate bailout and/or have opposed the wars in Central Asia (a percentage that Ignatiev is definitely substantially overstating), this somehow prevents the possibility that their thinking might also be informed by white paranoia and/or the deep-rooted historical narratives of racial superiority which they continue to encounter every day in environments both institutional and familial.

Ignatiev’s insistence here that the “believing” of or advocacy for one thing somehow intrinsically
precludes one’s participation in the other, frankly just doesn’t make any sense and isn’t well-supported when one actually looks at the rhetoric deployed by these groups. Similarly, his assertion that two people who agree on a single and particular demand (i.e. the inadequacy of the Healthcare plan) necessarily agree on everything that leads up to or is encompassed by that demand is not only unconvincing, but represents a dangerous assumption that can very quickly and easily lead us to some pretty lousy places and alliances. Indeed, we can see this happening right now around some of the anti-prison expansion dialogues that have recently been spawned in the wake of varying degrees of state and federal financial melt-down around the country. In these cases, decarceration advocates or prison abolitionists may find themselves suddenly “agreeing” with certain fiscal conservatives in their demands for a trimming of expenditures on the massive U.S. punishment industry. However, their agreement pretty much ends there.

To say it more clearly, as an advocate for decarceration, I and others would like to see the money currently spent on the penal system redirected back into the community’s most impacted by racialized poverty and imprisonment in ways that are community-directed and that seriously address the root causes for how harm/violence (economic and social, as well as physical) is propagated in our neighborhoods. I want the whole prison industrial complex to “get cheaper” by seeing more people being sent home more quickly, and even more importantly, by never being sent to prison in the first place. And on that point, many a fiscal conservative could scarcely disagree with me more. In fact, in certain facilities in Oklahoma right now prison budget cuts are taking the form of staff lay-offs to the point that whole prisons are being placed in a condition of permanent lock-down year round (or 23/24 hour isolation for everyone inside, all the time). No yard access, no classes, no visitors, no libraries. No one going home. And you only advocate for that, if you devalue the lives of those people held inside so profoundly (and in ways that are so profoundly class and racially-informed) that you can’t imagine those who are imprisoned as having either human needs or human worth. And thus, they and I do not have the same demand – even if we might occasionally find a slogan or two that we can coalesce on now and again.

2. You might notice that in those moments when I said “I believe” above, I didn’t also add “and so do we and so do you and so does Ignatiev.” This was not an act of blind oversight on my part, but rather a desired and measured declaration of “non-sameness.” Ignatiev’s self-confident way of both presuming and ventriloquizing everyone else’s political orientations throughout his column is something that I find disturbing. On multiple occasions (almost as a kind of choral mantra), he repeats: “And so do I, and so do the readers of The Defenstrator, and so does Holbrook.” He performs this colonization of others’ minds and voices without either their consultation or approval. Nor does he acknowledge as a weakness this failure to confer or to seek representational accuracy. As a regular reader of The Defenstrator, I actually don’t agree with everything in Ignatiev’s laundry list of presumably “shared politics” and the reasons for those particular divergences are substantial; they are both ideological and material in nature. It would require more than a simple attestation of “I do not concur” to populate those discrepancies and would not meet well with the broad sweep of Ignatiev’s cries of “identicality” and “common ends.”

For someone who seems to have a political stake in insisting that our existent categories are too oversimplified, it’s strange to then watch Ignatiev proceed to both oversimplify and even more unnervingly, literally speak for a huge swath of non-consensually aggregated others.

3. I also think it’s useful to note that while Ignatiev parades his own standing of empathy for and comfort among “the everyday people” of this world (which for Ignatiev finds its fullest and most authentic expression in the form of white central Massachusetts residents), he saves his most sarcastic and snide comments for two small grammatical unconventionalities in Holbrook’s text. In neither case, does the written construction in question actually lead to any confusion concerning Holbrook’s intent or message. However, by ostentatiously bracketing and highlighting these “errors” as he does, Ignatiev elects to rest his claims to intellectual superiority not on the content or merit of his contestations (indeed, Ignatiev’s piece is sorely lacking in this department), but on the conventional perfection of his own sentence-structures. That this move is revelatory of a certain kind of academic and access-based bias (not to mention pretentious hypocrisy) in Ignatiev’s thinking – coming at the very moment that he claims to be positioning himself otherwise – hardly needs to be said.

4. Finally, I’d like to just take a moment to notice that the means by which Ignatiev elides the racialized rhetoric often contained in the anti-Obama slander of conservatives (that Holbrook alternately highlights) is by patently “whitening” every social and conversational space that his response spotlights. It is evident from Ignatiev’s provocational and patronizing tone throughout that he assumes the writer of the original article to be just one more white, urban, malcontent on the fringe who prides themselves on their supposed distance from the Tea Party constituencies, while all the while failing to realize just how close to those very same constituencies they really are. Ignatiev, on the other hand, we are supposed to believe is superior to these and any other false delusions of identification, a quality that is manifested in his ability to fluidly move between and across such “phony” divides. Unfortunately for him, this claim of Ignatiev’s – like every other - collapses (and happily so) at every available point. His own touted flexibility of terms turns out to be nothing more than a failure to look closely at either specific lives or specific ideas.

And while I definitely don’t think there’s anything absolutely intrinsic to one’s biography or geographic locality that ever rigidly predetermines one’s analysis or capacity for analysis, it does strike me as a little ironic that Ignatiev fronts his own aptitude for “keeping it real” from a position of rurality that is marked by festival attendances and professorships, while in conversation with another author who has been involuntarily sentenced to “keep it real” in an even more rural, white enclave, from the heart of one of its maximum security and movement-controlled prisons. A space that can, in truth, be regarded as “all white” only by the measure of its guards and its wardens – not by its forced occupants. It makes me wonder if Ignatiev would attend and reflect upon the guard union’s holiday party at the State Correctional Institute of Greene, Pennsylvania with the same ease, joviality, and lack of distinction that he bestows on his other visitations.

I find it hard to believe that Ignatiev has really become so delusional and/or vacantly generalizing in his tendencies (though his last line seems to indicate otherwise) as to suggest that simply because Sarah Palin is a female-bodied human, we should seriously consider that the Republican party may no longer be a bastion for patriarchal policymaking, but rather the site of a new liberatory, feminist platform. To rid ourselves of this ludicrous fantasy we need only take one look at the efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, WIC, and every other women’s health or welfare program currently available.

Give me a break; that’s not complication of the landscape, that’s fatuous denial.

In difference (which is a world away from indifference),

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