Power keeps faith with power

The recent death of longtime Cuban despot Fidel Castro has led many to remark on the admiration Castro received from many who might have been expected to find in him an enemy. For example, Roman Catholic blogger Mark Shea wrote a post remarking on Castro’s brutal repression of the Roman Catholic church in Cuba; his commenters responded by pointing out that leading members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, including the past three popes, have made many signs of friendship towards Castro. Rod Dreher documents the complicity of Roman Catholic bishops in Castro’s regime in some detail; Mr Dreher is not Roman Catholic, but Russian Orthodox. However, in the same post he reports on a statement made by his own chief pastor, the Patriarch of Moscow, in praise of Castro, showing that his church is in no better a position.

That the leaders of the largest theistic organization in the world would make themselves so useful to the leader of a regime that has oppressed the adherents of that organization so fiercely ceases to seem strange if we take this as the first rule of analysis: Power keeps faith with power. If a common ideology or common social identity ensured loyalty, the hierarchs of Rome and Havana would stand with the laity, the religious, and the parish priests who have been imprisoned for their faith; yet they rarely mention these persecuted, happily consorting with their persecutors. The only ideological consideration that moves those in power to act is the belief that the institutions which maintain their position should continue to operate, which means that those who are in a position to help or hinder those institutions in matters affecting their survival must be brought on board. The only identity that influences the actions of the mighty is their identity with each other; the powerless, even the powerless among their own supporters and putative fellows, are abstractions whom they rarely encounter in person, but see primarily as figures on revenue statements, opinion surveys, and other ledgers.

Flagrantly corrupt organizations like the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban Communist Party are easy targets for this sort of analysis. But the same principle applies everywhere. So the policies by which USA has opposed the Castro regime are unintelligible except as a case of power keeping faith with power, betraying every other trust. The two chief prongs of the economic warfare that the USA waged on Cuba throughout virtually the whole of Castro’s time at the head of the regime there were, on the one hand, a highly restrictive policy on trade between the USA and Cuba, and on the other a highly lax policy on immigration from Cuba. The trade embargo has been greatly eased in recent years, but only after it had consistently failed to weaken Castro’s grip on power for a half-century. And the “Dry Foot” immigration policy remains in effect. Though the Dry Foot policy has certainly helped to immiserate the people of Cuba by accelerating the Brain Drain of skilled professionals and other highly productive individuals from the island, it has probably strengthened the regime’s grip on power, by luring to Miami and points north the people likeliest to lead a revolt .  Both halves of the economic warfare policy were worse than useless to those who were ostensibly supposed to be its principal beneficiaries; that the embargo persisted for so long, and the Dry Foot policy persists still, is explicable only in terms of the powerful interests in the USA who benefit from their continuation, and from power’s tendency to keep faith with power.

Remembering that power keeps faith with power, we see what people may be getting at when they deride “identity politics.” Writing in Slate, Jamelle Bouie argues that Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” of the 1980s, inviting disenfranchised white working people to identify with people of color and other minority groups, is a better model for a revival of the American Left than is Senator Bernard “Bernie” Sanders’ vision of a politics that puts class first. Mr Bouie sums up his case thus:

But the history of the Democratic Party contains a model for moving forward, with an approach, honed by Jesse Jackson, that bridges the divide. And thinkers in the political and policy world have crafted solutions that reflect this approach. It respects the reality of the modern Democratic Party: a formation that represents—and depends on—the votes of women, young people, and people of color.

Mainstream Democrats have set their sights on white voters. But the path forward—the way to win them and energize those voters of color who didn’t come to the polls in 2016—might lie in the insights of black voters and black communities and a larger appreciation of how and why identity matters, in a politics of we kin, blackness in many shades. Against a political movement that defines America in exclusionary and racial terms—as a white country for white people—a renewed Rainbow Coalition is the only defense worth making.

As far as it goes, this is unexceptionable. When we get to “the reality of the modern Democratic Party,” though, we see a big trap door about to open under our feet. The Democrats can get the votes of 60,000,000 or more people in national elections, roughly half the electorate, yet hold fewer than 30% of all elected offices in the USA. Part of this can be blamed on institutional quirks such as the boundaries of the states, gerrymandering of electoral districts within states, the advantage that Republicans derive from their greater financial resources, etc.

Other parts of the problem derive from a vulnerability inherent in the structure of “the modern Democratic Party.” The great majority of African Americans may vote for Democrats, but the voices heard in the councils of the party are not those of that majority, but of the professional politicians who presume to speak for black people. Likewise for each of the other groups that make up the Democratic coalition. Often the spokespeople will come reasonably close to the views of their constituents, but even then there is an Achilles’ Heel- voters know from long experience that power, including the relatively modest power to draft portions of the Democratic Party platform and to have a say in who will be appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development under Democratic presidents, keeps faith with power.

Nonblack voters thus hear invitations to identify with blackness, when they come from the Democratic Party, not as invitations to identify with their African American neighbors, but as invitations to go along with the policy positions of the Congressional Black Caucus and similar groups. Those groups may do a fairly good job of speaking for the people they claim to represent, but are made up of human beings, and are therefore ships tossed on the rough seas of politics. As such, they are as likely, given time, as the US foreign policy establishment or the Cuban Communist Party or the Roman Catholic church to find themselves making common cause with the deadliest enemies of anyone who is so incautious as to trust them without reservation. That leaves whites open to the appeal of the ethnic bloc voting that they have long practiced in the South and that they increasingly display in other parts of the country where their numerical majority is as weak as it is in the South, perhaps less because they prefer the leaders of the Republican Party to those of the Democratic Party than because they can see a clearer path to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on them for its core support than they can see to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on everyone but them for its core support. When an ethnic group votes as a bloc, it is a power within the party it backs, and the other powers within that party dare not betray it too obviously.  When the members of a group scatter their votes, that group is no power, and its role is to be betrayed at every turn. So, in the absence of a labor movement or other force uniting people on a basis other than race, white voters are no more likely to identify with blackness than African American voters are to identify with whiteness.

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Something that’s wrong with white people

black-mad-people-man-angry-reading-white-cartoon

He wants a crackdown

I think one of the least appealing characteristics of white Americans is an excessive tendency to identify with authority figures. We can see this tendency among whites who lean to the political right, who are often ridiculously tenacious in their defense of police officers who shoot unarmed suspects or presidents who invade barely-armed countries.  I’m a white American myself. Even though I usually tend towards the opposite extreme, being overly leery of authority, there are times when I revert to the norm. For example, when I’m under stress, my first reflex when I hear about a conflict is to identify with the more powerful side and ask impatiently why they don’t just go in with overwhelming force and sort the whole mess all out once and for all.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, people were still talking about the 71-day standoff that began when activists associated with the American Indian Movement took control of the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Those activists were armed, and in the course of the standoff they shot United States Marshal Lloyd Grimm, paralyzing him from the waist down. When the topic of the Wounded Knee Incident came up in a room full of whites, there was always a good chance someone would say that the authorities should have resolved the situation with a violent assault, that organizers Russell Means and Dennis Banks should have been prosecuted on the gravest possible charges, and that the patience the government showed during the standoff and the acquittal of Mr Means and Mr Banks at their federal trial in 1974 were special treatment accorded to the activists because they were Native American.

For the last several days an armed group made up of whites has been in control of a federal bird sanctuary in Oregon. While the group who seized Wounded Knee were moved to action by their belief that their tribal government was corrupt and in need of reform, a belief that connected to a wider vision of Native American history and the place of Native peoples on this continent, the group in Oregon is incensed about what they see as the unjust federal prosecution of one man who, like them, was upset about federal land policy in the West. What strikes me is the sheer number of left-leaning whites whom I’ve heard in the last couple of days talking exactly like the people who were frothing at the mouth about Russell Means and Dennis Banks almost 43 years ago. I’ve heard them call for police violence to end the standoff; I’ve heard them call for prosecutions under federal anti-terrorism statutes; I’ve heard them say that a failure to do either of those things is the result of special treatment for the occupiers due to the their race. White people haven’t changed very much over the years, and don’t change just because they put down one political party’s banner and pick up another’s.

I’ve seen a number of interesting things about this situation.  Counterpunch isn’t what it was when Alexander Cockburn was alive and co-editing it with Jeffrey St. Clair; Cockburn would probably have had a great deal of sympathy for the occupation and never had anything but scorn for people who interjected the word “terrorism” into a political discussion, but Mr St. Clair is the co-author of a piece there today calling the occupiers terrorists and chronicling the woes of a federal land management official who has long been in conflict with them and their relatives. Mr St. Clair certainly makes out a strong prima facie case that the occupiers are a bunch of jerks and that they they would be an unwelcome addition to any neighborhood, but that’s a long way from justifying the use of the “terrorist” label, a word which, these days, is virtually trademarked by those who demand a submissive attitude to the law enforcement and intelligence-gathering apparatuses of the US government.

Artur Rosman, citing his status as a naturalized citizen of the USA, declares himself incompetent to form an opinion about the Oregon standoff, and quotes at length from an African American friend of his:

If over the last several years you’ve thought that any of the black lives cut short by police violence “had it coming” because they were not compliant with law and order and/or were disrespectful and aggressive towards those in authority, then surely you are now advocating for a quick and overwhelming amount of lethal force to be brought against the activists in Burns, Oregon, who are openly breaking the law, actually bearing and threatening to use arms against police forces, intentionally flouting authority, etc. You can’t have it both ways. Conversely, if you think that the patience and calm with regard to the disgruntled and armed activists in Burns, Oregon, is probably the better part of wisdom, then surely you have been deeply outraged at the lack of patience and calm shown by police officers in so many cases in recent years involving un-armed black men and women posing far less of a threat to authority and government than is represented by this “militia” in Oregon. Again, you can’t have it both ways. Or, if you want to have it both ways, especially if you’ve been tempted by the “all lives matter” clap-trap, you have some serious explaining to do.

At Slate, Jamelle Bouie cautions against an interpretation of the situation which is phrased in solely racial terms. He also points out how bizarre it is that people who present themselves as opponents of police violence appear to be frustrated that the police are not handling this matter with an immediate recourse to violence. Mr Bouie’s last two paragraphs sum this aspect of it up well:

In any case, why won’t they shoot at armed white fanatics isn’t just the wrong question; it’s a bad one. Not only does it hold lethal violence as a fair response to the Bundy militia, but it opens a path to legitimizing the same violence against more marginalized groups. As long as the government is an equal opportunity killer,goes the argument, violence is acceptable.

 

But that’s perverse. If there’s a question to ask on this score, it’s not why don’t they use violence, it’s why aren’t they more cautious with unarmed suspects and common criminals? If we’re outraged, it shouldn’t be because law enforcement isn’t rushing to violently confront Bundy and his group. We should be outraged because that restraint isn’t extended to all Americans.

Libertarian stalwart Justin Raimondo has taken a lively concern with the case; in this piece, he anticipates the arguments Mr St. Clair and others have made about the basic rottenness of the people occupying the bird sanctuary and the cause they represent. Mr Raimondo defends the occupiers and extols their cause, unconvincingly to my mind, but vigorously.

He’s also spent a lot of time tweeting at people who have expressed authoritarian rage at the Oregon activists; here are a couple of samples:

 

 

and:

 

Glenn Greenwald has also mounted his Twitter account and taken it to the heart of this particular battle. As for instance:

and: