Brooks on the Snowden leak; aka, What a twit


The banality of evil, indeed

What an infinite boob is David Brooks. His argument against Snowden is that the NSA leak (a) betrayed the trust of those who were party to the secret, and (b) invites the state to crack down on security further.

Note, the logic here rules out not just Snowden’s leak but the entire business of leaking categorically. It would equally rule out someone in Hitler’s inner circle’s leaking plans of the gas chambers (a ridiculous example, yes, but fitting for a ridiculous argument).

Granted, Brooks admits the possibility (and how could he not?) that a leaker could possess information so momentous it morally overrides these concerns. But he just rumps this onto the original argument, never integrating it into the line of thought. This is just cheating: You can’t make an argument with absurd implications (e.g., “nobody should leak anything, ever”) and save it with, “but of course this implication is so absurd it can’t always hold.” (No, Brooks, that’s what I’m saying.)

Rather, you have to specify the conditions under which the exception holds or doesn’t hold. Brooks only hints at a line without actually drawing it; but then, he can’t be sure Snowden falls afoul of it. He is like a meteorologist getting on TV, day after day, and telling us what causes rain, but never getting around to whether or not it is actually going to rain today.

So yeah, leaking state secrets risks serious repercussions. We knew that. The question is, just how does NSA fail to justify the risk? What exactly would need to be added to it to qualify as leak-worthy? In other words, just why was Snowden wrong and under what conditions would he have been right? Isn’t that the whole fucking issue?

Do the work, man. Make the case. Or go the fuck home.


Tax Day Special: Tea Partiers, et al, and the conceptual poverty of “lower taxes”

(Also see this video, which is more to the target demographic.)

* * *

Among Tea Party types, “lower taxes” is a hallmark demand. I would call this a unifying thread, but that would falsely suggest there is much more to many of the participants; often, “lower taxes” is about it. There is of course “reduced spending,” but this marks a difference which makes no difference. And there is a reason Tea Baggers choose Tax Day to protest spending (and immigration, and Muslims, and all the rest).

Bad history from the getup

“Tea Party,” then, is probably a misnomer. At bottom the Boston Tea Party had little to do with “high taxes.” First, it was as much a protest against tax relief against taxation of any kind. The colonists were aggrieved that King George had granted his tea-merchant cohorts a tax exemption—a tax cut, if you will, recalling our own would-be King George of late—among other favors having nothing to do with taxation at all. Second, the revolt couldn’t have been about “high taxes” because the colonists’ taxes weren’t high.

British citizens in the homeland were being taxed up to fifty times what the colonists were, to artificially fund the lifestyles of the latter. Of course, the colonists were upset about the ”without representation” part of being taxed. But the Tea Bag folks are represented—at least, in the sense that the colonists were on about.

The incoherence of “lower taxes”

It is fair to ask: But what’s in a name? We must look at the substance of the protest.

With other conservatives, Tea Baggers are notoriously poor at naming just what they would cut from the federal budget (i.e., just which “taxes” they would “lower.”) But their demand means absolutely nothing without this content. The failure to specify becomes worse when you consider that they intend “lower taxes” as a virtue, a general recommendation: It is not just low taxes for this or that budget, but for budgeting; thus, the details can’t be spelled out in advance. I argue that this abstractness makes the “lower taxes” mantra worse than incomplete; it is incoherent.

* * *

Bear with me. I could see if somebody wanted no taxes whatsoever. This isn’t my position, but it is clear and coherent.

Likewise, I could see if they wanted taxes to fund only certain things and not others. This would not be so far from the first position; instead of “no taxes for anything,” it would be “no taxes for this thing.” Again, this is clear and coherent. And formally speaking, this does describe the Tea Bag position; for instance, they want taxes for defense, but not for (certain) health care.

But then, why their focus on “lower,” plain and simple? I mean, lower for health care, OK; but then what for defense, and all the other things they want to tax for? Once they drop the health care budget, can we, say, jack up every other region of taxable spending by more than the “liberals” ever dreamed of paying for health care alone?—Or jointly depress them to less than health care was before the drop?

I just don’t know what to do with “lower taxes.” It gives us only slightly more direction on budgeting a nation as “no live tigers” gives us on decorating a home.

Economic versus moral arguments for “lower taxes”

There is more than one kind of argument against (high) taxation emerging from this camp. Some ground the position in rights and justice—people have a right not to be taxed, or a right to their taxable income. Here, however, I’m interested in a different argument: The idea that taxation should be kept low so that people can “keep more of their money in their pockets.”

This is the argument you hear first and oftenest from Tea Party types. And one expects that; these “bread and butter” concerns (or “materialist” ones, for the Marxists present) are, I think, a necessary condition for mobilizing large groups of people in protest. Sure, there will always be some who march and shout on bare principle; but I imagine if Obama pounded through a bill that raised everyone’s taxes by 5%, but raised their wages by 200%, the “Tea Parties” would dry up post-haste, “principles” clunking in tow.

Yes: In theory, taxes could contribute to, even create, financial insecurity for taxpayers. But just how does “needing more money” relate to “lower taxes”? I mean, if the issue is simply “having,” why make a fetish of “keeping my money” versus “making more in the first place”? For an increase in either will result in an increase in “having.” In theory, TP’ers could talk about taxes, or wages, or both—right?

What’s more, “earning” or “making” occupies a kind of intuitive, quasi-logical priority over ”keeping”: To use an analogy, if I am a farmer who is vastly underproducing her crops, I am probably not going to focus the bulk of my complaints on the carrots the rabbits steal after the harvest. My point is, unless the issue is pure, distinterested procedural justice, bitching about taxes only makes sense if you are getting “enough” in the very first place.

Why the real problem is (and must always be) wages

Some considerations

It is true that, by some measures, the tax burden for most non-wealthy sorts has increased over the last, say, thirty years. (I don’t intend to argue that here.) But other facts suggest that the economic problems affecting most rank-and-file Tea Baggers (and other lower and middle earners) are due primarily to wage and benefit deficits, rather than taxes taken out after the fact:

(1) During the same 30-year period, consumption levels have been maintained by this group only because of an explosion in consumer debt. In turn, this reflects a decrease in real wages across the same period.

(This, in relative and absolute senses, e.g., the share going to low and middle earners, as well as the per- dollar spending power of this share.)

(2) This decrease in real wages has outpaced any rise in taxes.

And most importantly,

(3) The gap between the value of what this group of wage earners produce at their jobs, and what they are paid for it, is far greater than the gap between what they make and what they would make if they kept what is presently taxed.

(Note: Any alternative to this (3)-scenario—that is, any reversal in the relative sizes of the two “gaps” in question—is utterly unthinkable. The net worth of the entire working class is less than the dollar-value of their collective alienated production; long before they could be taxed enough to rival the latter, they would run out of money, stop buying the products they make, and the economy collapse.)

A “tax relief dividend” versus a “productivity dividend”

To illustrate the enormous import of this last point, consider economist Juliet Schor’s observation that “since the 1970’s, labor productivity has roughly doubled.” This means that today, we can reproduce a 1970s standard of living (measured in ”marketed goods and services”) in half the time it took then.

Schor’s main emphasis is on the extra free time this could mean for workers. But the productivity dividend can be viewed in ‘material’ terms as well. It means, conversely, that across the period in question, we could have doubled the standard of living for each worker without increasing the work day. Needless to say, recalling point (1), nothing even close to this has happened. The dividend has been reinvested back into the productive apparatus itself (and luxury consumption for the capitalists) rather than the pockets of workers.

Clearly, there is simply no way any parallel “tax relief dividend” could compete with this “productivity dividend.” The added standard of living which could have accrued if workers kept everything they earned since the 70s comes nowhere close to what they could have earned in the first place.

All of which suggests that the employer class, rather than the state, is the proper primary target when it comes to materialist grievances.


A possible Tea Party response is to say that the state is a fairer target than the owning class. The state is “unjust” in (over)taxing, as it lacks any claim to the contested funds in the first place. Employers, on the other hand, have property rights to the productive yield; while it might be nice if they gave workers more, they are not under the same moral obligation as the state. As employees, we are only in a position to ask; as citizens, we can make demands.

This moves us from the economic-materialist realm of argument to a moral, rights-and-justice based one. Though we’ve focused on the former, most Tea Partiers will in reality appeal to both. But this dual approach suggests an incoherence of its own.

Appealing to rights at this point seems to invalidate the ‘material’ complaint we began with—and the same could be said of most formulations (or formulators) of “laissez-faire.” They are asking us to believe: “Yes, it is morally wrong to violate property rights in order to enhance human welfare; and it would remain so even if heaven fell blazing to earth as a result of maintaining this principle. (For how could a mere want override a right?) But hey, whew, wonder of wonders: Gratefully, it only so happens that respecting these rights is the best way to maximize human welfare anyway! (If it weren’t, though, we’d still have to bite the bullet and respect them.”)

(I for one find this counterintuitive in the highest. I mean, holy shit, what are the chances?)

Final thoughts

A scalpel not a cave-club

What a person “has” is determined by a complex of earnings, benefits, expenditures, taxes, waste, and so forth. Each of these could be sub-typed as you wish; there are different sorts of earnings, expenditures, etc. Opposing “high taxes” amounts to arbitrarily opposing a certain “type” of expenditure rather than the net, balanced outcome of credits-versus-debits. This approach is like that of someone who had gotten lost by making a wrong left turn, and so began opposing all left turns, rather than just working to combine left and right turns in such a pattern as to best get from A to B. It is not so much left turns, but the specific “mixture” of left and right turns which gets one lost (or indeed, which gets one to her destination when the journey is a success).

Talking to whites about their (our) racism: a question for anti-racists

Memphis, TN, is one of the few American cities where a critical aspect of white privilege is almost impossible to sustain—namely, the part that means almost never finding oneself in the minority. In Memphis, whites are outnumbered 2 to 1 by blacks, and other demographic factors can make the ratio “feel” much higher. (The city provided my first experience of being the sole white person in a filled-to-capacity venue. This was at the Applebee’s down the street from my house—hardly the Apollo fucking Theater.)

My wife and I spent a year there as part of her (pharmacy) grad schooling. The UT Health Services program attracts a large crop of students each year. Of course, many of these students are white, and as grad students who can afford to relocate—future doctors, dentists and pharmacists, at that—are privileged even among whites.

A quarter of the pharmacy students must complete their final three years at a satellite campus in Knoxville. My wife and I made this move, and naturally drew many acquaintances from this smaller “expat” community.

Among the white classmates, there are frequent expressions of “relief” to be out of Memphis due to the tangible “racial tension” there. When pressed, this inevitably reduces to anecdotes about how some (or a lot, or most) black people there were rude or standoffish toward them. (Note that the alleged cases are typically ones in which the white person is the patron of some customer service the black person is providing them; buying shit is really the extent of the “victims’” experience with local, non-school-related African-Americans.)

While they accuse these blacks of poor behavior, I have never witnessed overt racism attending these accounts. However, I strongly suspect that these impressions are due to latent racism on the part of the white students. (Shit, I know it is.) And naturally I have the urge to “prove” this to them.

I have tended to argue in the following way:

(1) My own experience has not matched theirs. Note too, my data set is probably far larger and more representative: Not being a student, I was more in “the real world” than they. My friends, neighbors and coworkers were likelier to be drawn from the general population, rather than the grad school community.

(2) Studies strongly suggest that high majorities of whites who do not perceive themselves to be racist tend to hold latent racist views. I like to say: “If an open, avowed racist—a klansman or something—relayed a string of negative encounters with blacks, wouldn’t we suspect his racism had something to do with these impressions?; but then, why not suspect a latent racist’s racism as responsible for the identical class of impressions?”

Specifically, those studies indicate that whites tend to rate the same ambiguous behavior as more aggressive or “personal” when performed by blacks rather than by fellow whites. (The evidence is broken down in sect. (ii) of this post; the citations are in Tim Wise’s blog, my original source.)

None of this really “works,” despite my confidence that my associates are overall decent, well-intentioned types. To them, as to most whites (most people?), “racism” always refers to bald, deliberate nastiness toward people of color; knowing they don’t feel this way about blacks, they resist the attribution of racist ideas. (Though I always include myself in the charge.)

Finally, to myself, I entertain a completely different defense angle:

(3) Assuming the white complainants are accurately recounting these exchanges, the “inhospitable” behavior could be perfectly justified. The fact of generalized white racism—or rather, the fact that blacks are aware of generalized white racism—can engender perfectly rational “trust issues.” (None of these are very exotic in kind; they are the sort of thing each of us has dealt with in some relationship or another.) One is reluctant to bestow much effort on someone who is not sure to appreciate it, much less to sincerely reciprocate; or to bend over backward in a service capacity for someone who is likely to think it is his or her “proper place” to do so in the first place; etc. (If you already see me as a clown, the last thing I’m gonna do is tell you a joke.)

(Note that “erring on the side of niceness” is not a risk-free option here. Acting within a trust deficit is no zero sum game. Turning out to be a sucker—or in this case, wondering if you’ve been one—takes a psychic toll.)

I haven’t pressed this line of argument for fear it concedes too much to the whites’ accounts; I don’t wish to reinforce a belief that blacks are standoffish. (Again, that hasn’t been my experience.) I’m only saying that if this is the case, there may be a good reason.

* * *

To conclude with a question:

This issue points well beyond what to tell my friends in isolated conversations. Any anti-racist work will encounter the “rude/unruly black” meme soon enough.

For example, during the 2009 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. flap, anti-racist advocates such as Tim Wise and Michael Eric Dyson were afforded public fora on the matter. They had to address the routine charge that Gates needlessly escalated the confrontation.

Some responded to the effect that, given the prevalence of racist ideas, racial profiling, etc., “it isn’t a crazy idea to ask if racism had to do with the incident.” And I agree—just as I contend it “isn’t crazy” to ask whether racism accounts for these impressions of those white students.

But this answer seems unsatisfying. My burden is how we might go further and actually answer the question with a, “yes, it was indeed racist” in a given case—especially in a way that might impress a (decent, well-intentioned) white critic.

So is the case I make to the white students even a good one? Is it the best sort of case one can hope for? Or what?

Two riffs on homophobia

(1) “Enlightened homophobia” and straight privilege

Everyone has heard some version of, “I don’t mind gays so long as they don’t bother me.” This is somewhat like saying, “I don’t mind grocery clerks so long as they don’t throw canned goods at me when I enter the store.” Even if the statement were acceptable on its own, the fact that one would bother making it at all calls even his qualified acceptance of grocery workers into question. The fact that he isn’t saying it about other groups of workers assumes some special propensity on the part of these groups to misbehave.

What these vaguely enlightened types mean by “gays bothering them” is most often: approaching them romantically, making out in front of their children, etc. Once we plug in this variable, the comparison to grocery store workers is less apt. Of course we blame grocery workers for hurling stock at patrons; but on what grounds do we blame, say, gay men for approaching straight men? (I target straight men here because they are the demographic from which the argument tend to emerge.) Why must gay men bear the burden of making absolutely 100% sure in advance that whomever they are approaching is receptive to the approach? It is quite possible that the target of a cold straight approach could be a lesbian; yet straight men hold themselves to no such standard. (And holding different social groups to different standards is, in a word, discrimination.)

And why limit mandatory advance knowledge to knowledge of sexual orientation? When I equated matching orientation with “receptivity,” this was a pretty cavalier simplifying device. Any number of straight women are unreceptive to any number of straight men, too; and sexual orientation is just one of many factors that would make them so. Men concerned to “not bother” an unreceptive woman would have to deal with this entire catalogue. The whole enterprise of flirtation would be fatally hampered by an attempt to obtain all the requisite information beforehand. A clinical demographic survey is quite the turn-off for an opener.

Nor would it be enough; receptivity to a romantic approach is at least in part determined by how the approach itself goes, and thus logically cannot be determined in advance no matter what “facts” we know about the parties. (My wife and I are damned compatible, but we’d never have gotten off the ground if on our first meeting I’d shat my pants and addressed her only through a ventriloquist’s dummy.) We simply cannot know if we are open until we see a bit more of what we are opening ourselves to.

(2) The “incomprehensibility argument” against homosexuality

Years ago, I thought I had heard a certain “argument” against homosexuality. It was so absurd that in time, I figured this was misremembering. But sure enough, I heard it again a few times lately. This prompted some light internet research which yielded many more references (including this recent invocation by Mike Huckabee). I talked to some of my coworkers about gay marriage and it was the first thing two of them said about it.

One might call this the “incomprehensibility” argument—insofar as it can be called an argument at all. It consists entirely in the homophobe’s sheer inability to understand why, for instance, a man would want to be with another man. (I hear this argument from both sexes, but mostly of gay men.) It is not entirely clear what this even means. This can’t be like not “understanding” a math problem or a foreign language. It is some kind of failure to “project,” to imagine or picture oneself in the position of having this attraction—and of course the conclusion that the attraction must then be wrong.

So much can be said here. Is the homophobe saying, because he can’t imagine these feelings, he doubts that gay men actually have them for one another? Surely not. But then, if it is true that someone can “imagine” this, the argument wouldn’t apply to those persons’ behavior, right? Homosexuality wouldn’t be wrong for them. Surely it is not the case that, if not everyone is gay, then no one can be. The strongest mandate the logic permits is: Don’t be gay if you can’t imagine what it is like. (And I imagine you wouldnt if you cant.)

By the same token, the homophobe can’t “understand” so many other things—why his friends enjoy cigarettes, or Indian food, and soforth. There are even straight sexual acts, no less—some underworld kink, if nothing else—which he doesn’t “get.” This is, I think, almost exactly what it means to have different interests; and everyone’s interests differ at least somewhat from everyone else’s. In such cases, we don’t work up our lack of imaginative projection into a norm against these activities. Another’s interests could be wrong, yes, but we demand other kinds of evidence to make the case. Nobody says, “I don’t get 70’s music, so it is immoral.” And nobody would listen if they did.

Conversely, many homosexuals will fail to “get” the homophobe’s attraction to women. They can’t imagine themselves wanting that. Should it not follow that the homophobe’s orientation is also wrong? For him to maintain that his own lack of understanding “counts” here, and the homosexuals’ does not, simply begs the question: His argument is supposed to show that homosexuality is spurious; that same argument cannot simply assume that conclusion when it gets in trouble.

Finally—and I consider this the kicker—even the most rabid gay-basher already accepts sexual ‘orientations’ he doesn’t “understand”: He is no more able to “picture” his wife’s or lover’s attraction for men, or for him in particular. He (we’ll assume) is not turned on to look at himself in the mirror, or at other men. But this inability does not lead him to doubt the reality nor the moral legitimacy of his lover’s attraction to him, or to males. He cannot have it both ways; if the “incomprehensibility argument” is rational, then, his lover’s behavior is not.

Reflections on the National Socialist “Stand” in Knoxville

[Last summer, the National Socialist Movement, a white power group, held an anti-immigration rally in my current home of Knoxville, TN. This is an albeit dated review of that action and our counter-protest.]

Exempting an ultraleft “anarchisty” youth, I have always regarded white power counter-protests with ambivalence. I haven’t been confident that they “do” anything. Most actions that look like this are intended to raise awareness among the non-activist public about issue-x, with a longer term view to movement-building. But everyone is already opposed to overt racism. Like scientific theories, you want your actions to be fecund, to set up momentum for future actions; but this campaign is so immediate and defensive, it isn’t clear where it “goes” after its all over. You either run these guys out of town, or drown them out—and then what?

But with a Nazi group marching a stone’s throw from my home (even closer to where I work), I committed to go. I was genuinely open to some aggro shit. I was ready to go all antifa left-wing futbol hooly on some asses. This reflected both a tactical preference (more on that below) as well as, to be frank, less noble hypermasculinist motivations. I had no reason to expect there would be room for scrapping, though, and there wasn’t. (I was on probation anyway.)

The group that held the rally is the National Socialist Movement (NSM). My clandestine forays onto various white power boards give me the impression that NSM is the hate group most likely to be (a) praised in superlative terms, as well as (b) mocked and scorned, by their racist peers. They earn respect by maintaining high member rolls and “putting in a lot of work,” but the “realist” David Duke-ish contingent see a credibility threat in their cheesy faux-military maneuvers, Nazi suits, ranks and such.

Puh lease.

The rally promised to be a fairly big deal as these things go. NSM called their Knoxville visit “The Stand in the South”—not a stand, nor one stop on a serial stand, but “The Stand.” This follows two weeks of white power events in 2007 where other groups tried to get the murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom prosecuted as a black-on-white hate crime. There is some evidence these groups see Knoxville as a relatively friendly place for their kind of work and want to turn it into some kind of regular gig. Many antis (as in, anti-racists) I talked to with were motivated to counter-protest because they got the same impression.

I attended with nine middle-TN comrades (some in the little-c friend sense, some in the big-C socialist-ally sense). I had met all but one only recently via the MTRF campaign (defending the Murfreesboro mosque plan from Islamophobic Tea Party types).

I mentioned being ambivalent. Ambivalence is a mind-state; in terms of action, I went all out. I tore an old t-shirt (red, consequently) to make a “protest rag” (this is for anonymity to cops and to racists, and to be able to walk, not run, if the gas came.) I haven’t worn one of these for years. It is arguably cheesy. But it felt good. I felt strong, and socialist as fuck.

Our group arrived in downtown Knoxville’s Market Square around 1:30. I had a vague plan to meet a local activist, Richard Butler, to whom I’d only spoken by phone. (I know him better now.) He is from the second of two ARA groups in town, which he started on the premise that the original had become too exclusive in an effort to shed the network’s “punky” image. I think he also complained that they prefer the hippy-dippy dancing stuff to any kind of direct action. (Needless to say, this Richard Butler should never be confused with the like-named founder of the Aryan Nations.) Richard B. was there but was still waiting for his people. He and lots of others were saying, with some desperation of tone, that the NSM was “already at the courthouse” (the site of their rally). This was 1.5 hours before they were scheduled to march there from the Square. I concluded they had marched early, ostensibly to avoid close contact with angry antis. (Granted, they would’ve had a police escort, but this is more porous than the barricade that would be waiting for them at the rally.) This was a mistake; they marched around 3:00, as scheduled. I was the victim of honest misinformation. (I found this out only after bombing the white power sites with charges of “chickenshit.” But fuck it.)

So we left Richard to wait for his people, arriving at the courthouse area around 2:00. The “free speech zone” was set up in a section of Gay Street right across from the courthouse. Barricades ran the length of this street and turned the corner onto a section of Gay Street (to the left of the FSZ, facing the courthouse), where the NSM would march in from to get to the courthouse lawn. (At one point, I would think to heckle NSM for being homophobes “parading” down “Gay Street.”) We were advised by an unofficial anti spokesperson that the cops guarding the entrance to the FSZ would not permit water bottles to pass. (It was a pretty hot day.) There was some speculation that the cops were trying to “dry out” both sides; luckily, a light rain would provide some relief in time. Cops were checking bags and frisking everyone going into the FSZ, so we left our bottles with the Food not Bombs people, who promised to watch all contraband until 4:00 PM. (I also had mace, which I hid in a bush.) I later heard people swear the cops permitted mace, tazers and other weapons (not guns) if you declared them, but I can’t verify that.

* * *

We spent maybe an hour in the Zone waiting for the NSM guys to turn onto Main Street. Eric Bell, part of our contingent, is a documentary filmmaker—not aligned with any political group—doing a piece on the ‘Boro mosque protest. He took this time to film our opinions on the NSM thing. Apparently, NSM were frisked a second time at the Gay-Main corner, just out of sight, which (if not other factors) made them late for the protest. (This also inspired another jeer: “Late for your own rally? I thought you sons of bitches made the trains run on time.”)

I have to mention the huge law enforcement presence. I am piss with estimating numbers but cops were simply everywhere. Surely there were a couple to few hundred to be seen from the FSZ. Some were inside the Zone, and a sniper set up in the balcony above us. A few were on the courthouse lawn with the Nazis. There were various armored vehicles, paddywagons, helicopters, motorcycles, bicycles, etc. about at any time. FBI, THP, KPD, and SWAT (or whatever we call them here) were represented. One assumes there were undercover cops too. A line of riot cops lined the street side of each Gay Street barricade, one line facing us and another facing the NSM.

As with the water ban, it is hard to see a benign rationale in this degree of force. Nor do I suspect it is a product of mismanagement, a “waste.” Whatever else it is, it is an exercise, a test of the police infrastructure. And you can bet it’ll be used on us eventually; this protest was the only time any of us activist-types could recall having been on the other side of the batons. (Funny: The city made the NSM wear all black for identification, and they have a penchant for military regalia to boot (which is often black anyhow). A couple of times, new contingents of riot cops marched into view and it was hard to tell right away that they weren’t NSM.)

* * *

Here’s an aside: Speaking of bombarding the white power sites, a little more than half the youtube footage of this event was put up by NSM or their sympathizers. Of course, I lustily taunted them in the comments about needing police escorts. Here’s a snippet:

1964Smoky responds:
The police were there to protect you homos from yourselves. Several of the NSM marchers are ex-military and could have easily taken all of you on.

I respond:
You should tell the cops that. That would contradict every public statement they have made re. this and the previous rally. As you well know, the NSM are under discipline not to attack the antis; the police know this also and given the history of previous rallies, they have no reason to expect NSM to act out. “The Commander” is simply flexing nuts (as are you) when he says otherwise.

Also, how many NSM members are “ex-military”? More than 10% of the antis?—because that’s the proportion of ex-mil in society at large. Surely you aren’t claiming that NSM could beat 50 ex-military among the antis (10% of 500), which surely neutralizes their own “ex-mil advantage,” plus all the rest of the hundreds of antis? I assume you’re joking here.

Talking shit, or the ethics of such

Around 3:00 the NSM folks began to appear, crossing Gay Street onto the courtyard. They trickled in rather than marched or paraded or anything. This may have been, again, because they were being fed through patdowns just out of view. This entrance point was the closest we ever got to them, at least those of us bunched on the left side of the FSZ; plus, there was only ever one or two NSM walking past at any one time. This made it possible to call specific racists out, get them to focus on you in particular, and have a kind of direct personal exchange with them. Between comrade J. Westbrooks and myself, we talked more shit than a pro wrestler. Of course, this continued when the rally cranked up, but the noise level and distance between us was never as accommodating again.

The shit-talking in general brought up issues of its own (in no particular order):

(1) There is a preponderance of obese Nazis both in general and in the NSM. In fact, I’ve read a number of the NSM’s white power critics refer to them as a bunch of “fat slobs.” I yelled to a few of them that “Hitler would have thrown your fat ass in the oven, too,” or “Hitler called obesity a defect,” etc. (I don’t actually know if any of that is true; but neither do the NSMs.) One huge guy would lift up his shirt and pat his big belly at me whenever I said this, as if to revel in the feature he thought I was mocking. This was a pretty dopey response, as I wasn’t calling him fat, but inconsistent.

[For the record, I love my heavier brothers and sisters. Indeed (though this will sound worse to some) I’m known as a bit of a chubby chaser. Not that a fetish is the purest proof of “fat acceptance”; but I trust it is incompatible with a view that fat is ridiculous, ugly, etc., and therefore that I meant any such thing by that taunt.]

(2) We (comrade Wesbrooks and I at least) threw a lot of middle fingers and used a ton of profanity. I tried to bait the men into fighting, but this was probably never going to work. (But all it takes is one….) This bled into the personal attacks such as above.

There were those among the antis who opposed this more negative or “hostile” tack. Some were giving out these neon signs that said “LOVE.” On the back, it had a disclaimer that your use of the sign implied consent to use proper decorum, show respect, etc.

The “LOVE” sentiment probably means a couple of things at once. I’m sure it is partly about “loving,” rather than hating, people of color, immigrants, gays, and the rest of the NSM “enemies.” (As in, the NSM should show love rather than hate.) But it is also about us “loving” the NSM themselves rather than hating them. Some people on the microphone (there was prepared material from the organizers, and then open mic time) conveyed this feeling explicitly.

A few thoughts on this:

(a) There is a persistent feeling among anti types that resisting white power and homophobia is fundamentally about “opposing hate.” Well, I “hate” this argument. Surely the hate in and of itself can’t be the problem: It is conceivable (if unlikely) that the NSM could keep all of its noxious policies while dropping just the hate. I mean, you don’t have to hate blacks and latinos to want a nation separate from them (though I’m sure it helps.) There are already plenty of hard-right-wingers who probably don’t hate people of color (Pat Buchanan, maybe?), but this doesn’t stop their policies from harming these groups.

So would we be (more) OK with the NSM if they dropped the “hate”? Would they be any less “protest-worthy” without it? Surely not. But then “hate” is not the main issue here. (Not to mention most of us “good people” hate something, even someone. And we’re OK with that. It is all about just what or whom is being hated.)[1]

(b) I assure you the NSM are unimpressed when a group of “race traitors and mongrels” tell them they are “loved.” This reminds me of when Christians express “love” for more hostile nonbelievers. (You see this from street preachers a lot.) In these contexts, “I love you” sounds obligatory, backhanded and opportunist. Shit, the Bible even says that in being kind to one’s enemy, “you will heap burning coals upon his head.” (“Kill ‘em with kindness” is a secular rendition.)

The point is that you can’t use your own value system to impress an antagonist whose antagonism consists in denying that very system. You’d first have to provide them with a reason to buy into the system. Antis declaring love for the NSM is as effective as quoting the Bible to atheists about the folly of atheism. It can only make us look weak and stupid.

(c) At one point, an older anti chastised us for using personal insults. I politely told the guy I would take it under advisement. (I didn’t mean it but I was trying to be polite. Comrade W. kind of “gave him the business,” though. I ain’t mad at ‘im.)

I have partly addressed this criticism above; being negative per se is simply not the problem. It is not “wrong” in moral terms. (However, it could be impractical. This is entirely a tactical matter.)

But “personal insults” are more than a matter of negativity. There are other issues. On the one hand, there is a falseness in insulting people on the basis of traits that, as all us enlightened types know, aren’t really bad—or at least, that don’t warrant being picked on, i.e., things a person can’t help, or things that picking on won’t help, and things that are moreover irrelevant to the racism we’re really against.

Along these lines, I observed that this kind of protest brings out the arguably worst in a leftist (myself included). Some of the personal stuff was probably innocuous enough: I nicknamed this skinny NSMer “Ichabod Crane” (he definitely got this) and mocked that he wouldn’t fuck back with me on the streets. There was a really dumpy Commander guy with a shittown mustache who warranted, “Time to make the donuts!” after the chef in the old Dunkin Donuts commercials. (Maybe for regional reasons, nobody seemed to get this). In general I tried to impress the NSMers with how dopey and stupid they looked and how I could kick their asses.

Some of the material was less innocuous. I actually heard a gay man call the NSM men “fags.” There were a number of limp-wristed Heil Hitler salutes thrown up as well. The obvious problem with this kind of thing is that it implicates everyone who shares those traits. In mocking legitimate targets on the basis of these “negative” traits, you insult everyone who possesses them. In the end, you are making a homophobic (etc.) statement, whatever else you might be doing on top of that.

Still, the advantages of a “negative” approach are easy to find if you look for them. Socialists are not liberals, but will often use the language of liberalism against the (liberal) state as a way of simply getting things done; it amounts to holding an opponent consistent with its (her/his) own principles. The analogy is remote, but I have some sympathy for fucking (back) with hypermasculine males on and in their own fucked up terms. I couldn’t bring myself to call anyone an overtly homophobic name, but I can imagine “softer” sentiments that call his courage or fighting abilities into question. These features don’t make a damn in the world, but they probably make a damn to him, and this could bear effects. The clearest example of this at the NSM protest was heckling them for being “bad Nazis”—out of shape, shitty formation, late for their own protest, etc. (whereas the “real” Nazis were sharp, on time, etc.) This kind of jeer is intelligible, but nobody takes it to mean one advocates being a proper Nazi. Again, the charge is one of inconsistency.

(I don’t really have any conclusions here. Just articulating the terms of the question. I’m open.)

(d) The other thing everyone did was to mock the NSM about not being able to hear anything their speakers said. We would place a hands to the ear with a screwed up face, saying “What?? I can’t hear you,” pointing in the air to request a volume increase. (I assumed it was a shitty P.A., though the white power guys assure me our side sounded like garble to them as well. One also claimed that the cops allowed our side to exceed the specified decibel level, while the NSM either played nice or was regulated.)

“Arationality” (A kind of conclusion)

This leads me to a main point. If this kind of action “does” anything, I think the drowning out is a key objective. First, I can’t imagine anyone driving 10 hours, and speaking for 2, being absolutely indifferent to whether the message-proper gets out to the public. The white power folks I read afterward seem genuinely disappointed about getting shut down. So maybe this keeps them from coming too often. For whatever reason, R.B. surmises that, when they don’t get a huge response, they come back to the same city in about six months. (They were met in force here in 2007 and didn’t return for three years.)

There is also the issue of recruitment. The NSM is fond of saying, “Where the NSM goes, the NSM grows.” I think this could be true, possibly truer now than in many years. As comrade Jase reminded me, white hate groups have grown 5-fold since Obama’s presidency. The recruitment “pool” seems to be growing apace; the NSM Commander himself said at the rally that the Tea Party Movement was “a step in the right direction.” (They were also invited to come and protest with them.) And I don’t think the actual content coming across the P.A. necessarily has that much to do with recruitment success. The mere fact that a racist group shows up, bravely taking the shit that is given to them (and it isn’t always just verbal), probably inspires and emboldens people already informally sympathetic to white supremacist ideas. They will visit the website even if they can’t get to the group then and there.

But content aside, the drowning out and the strong, passionate opposition in general, can make these groups appear ridiculous. At one point, J. got on the mic and began reciting in Hebrew. These clowns really got pissed at this! It was like Superman responding to kryptonite, almost comical. This is just a dramatic example of how an opposition can convey a sense to potential recruits that these ideas are just beyond the pale, beyond any serious consideration. And it makes them look like they take themselves way too seriously.

This is why I don’t oppose personal attacks on these people per se. There is a distinct ‘arationality’ to this whole enterprise even before we get to content. This is manifest in the above scenario; if stiff opposition conveys a sense that racist ideas are ridiculous, it is in the way that dancing cartoon elves “convey” to consumers that chewing brand-x gum will be fun. It accomplishes the right goal for all the wrong reasons—but accomplishes it no less. This reinforces the completely wrong approach to decision-making, but the cost in a given case might be worth it.

Nobody seriously thinks we can dialogue with white power groups; at least, if we can, we aren’t trying to do it at a counter-protest. On the one hand, this erodes much of the grounds for banning “personal” attacks. The form/content dichotomy is a false one here: If shouting the NSM down isn’t “personal,” it remains a whole bunch of other stuff just as unconducive to “serious” engagement. (And really, if you were shouted down at a public meeting, could you not take this “personally,” even if the content avoided “personal insults” about your appearance, etc.?) The only possible object of setting up a P.A. on the clear other side of the street is to harass and harangue them as much as possible—before you even get to content. Remaining “respectful” ceases to be an option once the shouting down begins. You can not protest, but pretending the protest gains anything by being “respectful” is just bad faith.

To repeat, this might not apply with other kinds of actions. The counter-protest of the Murfreesboro anti-mosque group is about winning the “hearts and minds” of the broader non-activist, non-left community. One approaches this with a certain decorum. Let them look like the unhinged bigots. But “everyone” already hates the Nazis. Few people are (as) put off by yelling, etc. at them. (They killed 6 million Jews, for God’s sake.)

I also think these considerations lead logically to some kind of violence. I think chucking rocks and other debris at the members, leaping the barricades en masse and rumbling with them, will run them out of town more assuredly and keep them away for a longer time. That is, all of the things the protest is designed to do (whether or not the participants are consistent in their self-appraisals of what they are doing), it will do better with physical violence. It might cause the city to deny the next white power permit also. I don’t think it will alienate the broader public, and I think the same “paling” psychological effect on potential recruits is only enhanced. The only obstacles are moral objections, e.g., pacifism, and of course fear of being arrested.

* * *

Finally, I can think of some other reasons to protest white power groups. First, there are all the “generic protest goods”: You can see how cops work, as next time, they’ll be protecting someone else from. Any protest also fosters solidarity and networking among comrades.

Second, for socialists specifically, it provides a chance to point out the connection of anti-racist ideas to socialism (conversely, racist ideas to capitalism). Racism is one of those cleavages within the working class that impedes collective action. This has been actively exploited by individual capitalists and is also “selected for” by the system in functionalist terms. There is also the fact that whites and blacks tend to earn higher wages to the extent that the wage-gap between them is smaller. And there are many such facts.


[1] On the other hand, hate can be positively useful. It can aid in opposition campaigns of all stripes (protest, war), provide inspiration, drive, etc.

On requiring a “loyalty oath” of the Murfreesboro Islamic Center

The latest insult in the ongoing Murfreesboro mosque controversy is the demand by Lou Ann Zelenik and cohorts that Imam Bahloul sign a pledge essentially forswearing terror, “infidel-killing,” contravention of American laws, and the like—forswearing, that is, the parts of Islam that supposedly call for that sort of thing.

The first thing to know about all of this is that Lou Ann, etc. don’t actually want it signed; at least, they couldn’t want it for the reasons they say they do.

They wouldn’t believe the Imam’s pledge anyhow. Demanding it only makes sense if Lou Ann, etc. is unprepared to accept it in the first place. Think about it: If they were sincerely prepared to accept a promise to forswear terror or terror-support, such a pledge would be neither necessary nor sufficient. You might take the word of someone who tells you they aren’t a murderer (or a murder-supporter), if, for whatever oddball reason, they brought up the subject out of the cold blue. But if you already assume they might be guilty—and if you need a pledge, you do—then surely a paltry verbal assurance won’t be enough to make you feel secure: “Oh, you’re not going to chop off my head, you say? Shit, I really thought you might. OK, works for me!” Of course a guilty person has motive to claim innocence; a suspect’s own assurances are worthless for evidentiary purposes. Add to this that the anti-mosque contingent are absolutely convinced that Muslims will invoke taqiyya to lie to “infidels” to mask their true, sinister intentions.

So whatever the reason Lou Ann, et al, are making this demand, it isn’t because it would make them feel more secure about the Imam’s and his community’s intentions. So the motivation must be something else.

For reasons having nothing to do with “supporting terror,” the Center has good reason not to sign: It is insulting to impose “loyalty oaths” on one sector of the community and not others, especially when they come from open antagonists of that sector. (Zelenik was the first to allude to the new Center as a “training camp,” language which has stuck. At times, the construction is just openly referred to as “a mosque and training camp.”) This would be like the Klan demanding that black people pledge to bathe regularly and not steal in order to gain full entry into the community–after having widely accused the black community of failing to do both. Signing would just endorse that insult, and would imply that the connection (blacks-theft; Muslims-terror, etc.) has some prima facie plausibility—again, while giving their critics zero reason to back off.

But this refusal will be used by the anti-mosque crowd as more evidence that these crazy Islamists are ravening to take over. That’s probably what’s behind this. When they do this, keep the following in mind: Is it reasonable that the Imam, etc. would be OK with supporting terrorism, etc. but not with telling a lie (i.e., signing the pledge without meaning it, just to get the critics off their backs)? If they were really endorsing a nasty version of Shariah law, complete with injunctions to kill the infidels that request the pledge, why wouldn’t they just say they weren’t?

[p.s. The first “plank” of the pledge states: “Redda Law, the Shariah Law that allows the killing of Muslims who leave Islam, must be banned in Islamic teachings and in Shariah legal doctrine.” So wouldn’t the anti-mosque crowd have considered the possibility that the ICM would not wish to sign out of fear that it would bring a fatwa on itself for apostasy? I mean, they talk as though this happens here all the time.]

On left and libertarian marriage: If we don’t like the state, why seek its approval?

I am friendly with some anarchist and libertarian types who share my liberalism on social issues (if not for the same reasons) and a preparedness to “deep critique” the state (if not in the same way). The repeal of California’s Prop 8 gay marriage ban has sparked some discussion among us as to the nature of marriage (that is, civil marriage) itself.

Since marriage amounts to the state’s sanctioning of behavior, Michael asks: “Why should we care about the government’s approval or disapproval?” In context, this can be expanded: “Why seek the government’s approval through (a) getting married or (b) securing marriage rights for gays, given that the state is a fucked up or at least not especially favorable institution?”

This is a fair question. We would likewise question a friend’s desire for his neighbor’s approval, if that neighbor were a jerk or a total stranger. Knowing nothing else, we would expect our friend to be hostile or indifferent to this sanction. His contrary behavior warrants an explanation.

(Michael: Tell me if this articulation is off base.)

This being said, I must answer a question different from Michael’s. This is because I contest the premise that (a) or (b) has to be about seeking “the government’s approval” per se. (It could be; but it need not be.) There are other reasons in favor of marriage, and the right of marriage.

A qualification: There are obvious ways in which the preceding statement could be true, ways that need no argument. For instance, we all know of immigrants who seek marriage in order to remain legally in the country. Obviously they don’t care if the state approves of or ”likes” their union’, they just want to stay here.

The same could be said of people who marry simply to please their parents. Some serial killers get married just to appear “regular” and inconspicuous. However, when I refer to ‘motivations for marriage other than state approval,’ I mean “normal” reasons consonant with the values people bring to stereotypical love-marriage. I mean that this need not be about seeking government approval per se.

(1) Why seek government approval for oneself?

I will first discuss the the motivation to become married oneself, to get married, apart from whether anyone else can.

To use myself as an example: I sought marriage partly because it provided a ready constraint on certain of my own relationship-related behaviors. For me, it functions as a kind of self-enforcement. Marriage can add an immediacy, a sense of “high stakes” to relationship problems which can enhance the drive to work things out, creatively seek solutions, etc. Plus, one’s willingness to place oneself under such a constraint “proves” to one’s partner that one is serious, beyond verbal assurances or “smaller,” less costly tokens. It “puts your money where your mouth is.” (For similar reasons, I believe activist groups are wise to collect membership dues, even if they just throw the money in the wastebasket; paying in, in and of itself, shows and enhances commitment.)

Needless to say, this does not imply a moral mandate to get married. There are valid relationship constraints other than marriage; purely religious marriage and similar non-civil sanctions could serve the same function. Maybe for some, force of will functions well enough without external constraints of any sort. I chose civil marriage because it is “available” and has broad social currency. The point here is that my participation does not depend on or reflect any special romance with the state’s favor–even if the idea of marriage is inseparable from the idea of “state favor.” One can get married despite this feature.

Here is an analogy: Let’s say I really need to get into this drug rehab program. This program will only admit an addict if the Board of Directors determine they possess a certain level of “sobriety promise,” or a “good heart” or “hardy fibre,” or any feature you like. Still, it would be misleading to say that my interest in entering the clinic is fundamentally about wanting or needing the board’s approval. It is about getting sober, gaining access to all those features of the program apart from the board sanction that will aid in this goal. The fact that l cannot get at these features without also getting the approval is beside the point. It doesn’t even matter if I agree with the determination or think the B of D are complete douchebags who have terrible reasons for admitting me. For it is the place they occupy in the world, the role they play, not any “approving feelings” they have toward me, that matters to and drives my decision.

(2) Why seek government approval for others? (i.e., Hating the state and Prop 8 )

We move onto the question of supporting the rights of others (e.g., gays) to get married. First, I am not going to address the issue of homosexuality as it relates to marriage directly. I’m not addressing homophones who believe the “sin” of gayness will contaminate or trivialize “proper” straight marriage. I am instead addressing those socially liberal readers who might see gay marriage as an unimportant cause to take up because “seeking government approval” is silly or wrong.

It may appear I have already answered the question: If you accept my argument that there are good reasons to become married (apart from “government approval”), you would, barring homophobic prejudice, be inclined to think gays should be able to do this. But this appearance is misleading. For it is possible to reject everything I’ve said above and still accept gay marriage. That is, it is possible to think that marriage is silly or wrong (seeking “government approval” or whatever) and thus that nobody should ever do it—and support the right of gays to become married. These are separate questions entirely. (I press this point because I’d like to convince anti-state types to support gay marriage even if they don’t support the above argument.)

My view is: It is reasonable to expect that, when one segment of society can obtain this “approval,” while another segment can’t, this has a deleterious effect on the out-group, one which should, all things being equal, be prevented. And this maintains whether or not becoming married is a good idea.

Similarly, if the state set up and enforced whites-only clubs, this would harm non-whites. And it would do so whether or not any of them actually want to enter the club. (You can see why they might not). The harm would also maintain whether or not anyone ought to want to enter the club—that is, whether or not anyone’s going to the club is a good idea from the perspective of the patrons themselves.

I would argue that exclusion from popular, revered social institutions harms the excluded group directly, in and of itself. For now, I refer to the mountain of evidence suggesting that inequality damages the “less equal.” (Inequality being but a persistent, public, and glaring form of exclusion.) This might not apply in the case of a single club—but imagine exclusion from every club in the country, where patronizing clubs is, like getting married, something almost everyone does or wants to do.

In addition, “state approval” has a causal effect on social ideas: Under “normal conditions,” the sheer legality of a thing encourages citizens to tailor their norms in favor of it (and vice-versa). Being legal also affects the real practice of the thing, increasing the number of instances, heightening its visibility; the more “normal” it thereby becomes, the more the norms (continue to) follow it. (Granted, in some cases, e.g. ending slavery, this ‘norm-alization’ comes only after a period of its opposite, a social reaction against the legalized thing. So this can be a long-term effect.) This effect is only enhanced when the thing in question isn’t just not illegal, but, like civil marriage, actually created by the state and having no life apart from it.

We can use these points to enhance the above “club” analogy: Let’s say that the exclusive club in question is a strip club. Let us assume that watching naked people wiggle around is harmful to those who look at it (it is addictive, ends relationships, etc.), but still acceptable in the “libertarian” sense of only really affecting the lookers themselves. (For the record, this is not my own view on wiggle-watching.) The activity is a “bad” thing, something that, like securing the government’s “approval” in marriage, nobody should care about pursuing or letting others pursue per se. However, if the state allows only whites to do this harmful thing, this also has a harmful effect on non-whites—an effect apart from the harmful effects which flow directly to the whites engaging in the activity. And the harms of exclusion are, for all we know, worse than the “direct” effects of actual participation.

My point is that “inclusive” marriage—offering marriage to gays—should be pursued, even if we “anti-state” types agree that nobody should ever take the state up on the offer and that it would be better if the whole institution didn’t exist for anyone. Given the fact that it does exist in the particular exclusive form that it does, permitting gays to do likewise will protect and benefit them even in ways unrelated to the merits of being married (or conversely, despite the demerits of being married).

* * *

No piece of this argument depends on viewing marriage as good “in and of itself” in any respect whatsoever (though again, I believe it can be beneficial). You could think marriage totally sucks, for the reasons Michael alludes to or any others, and still accept all of the above.

(Hope this makes sense, brother Michael.)

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