Revival time is here again.
I can smell it. The nation’s preachers are out in full force. First, there was President Obama telling us we needed to have a great race healing. Now, Attorney-General Eric Holder comes out to tell us we’re still segregated. We work together, but then we live and play by ourselves in segregated groups. We’re all cowards when it comes to race, says Holder.
Holder might have had a point and so might Obama had they spoken at any other time…and in any other way. But frankly the only segregation that really matters now is the segregation of the political class and its clients from the rest of us. It doesn’t matter which neighborhood you live in, black, white, brown or parti-colored — they all spell b-r-o-k-e the same way.
Barack Obama is a likeable guy. Not for one minute do I believe that he’s doing anything but the best he can. He’s sincere.
That may just be the trouble. It seems to be the delusion of societies to think they lack precisely what they have too much of. C. S. Lewis said as much. Cultures awash with hedonism believe themselves puritanically repressed; societies long lost to any orthodoxy fear religious dogma; and now with race at the center of talk shows and college seminars, of gym etiquette and prison protocol, we’re told that more race-talk is what we need.
Do we really need to spend more time spewing what we think of each other like inbred cousins on a Jerry Springer show? Jerry used to be my vacuum time, so I actually know how those things ended — in a scrum of tattoos and ripped shirts, fake hair and flying cusses.
If that’s togetherness, a bit of segregation might be more civil.
And a bit of proportion might be more sensible.
We can call it segregation today, but I wonder what people segregated a century ago would think about that. Students clustered in groups of their own choosing are not terrified men and women fleeing dogs and police batons.
Actually, you don’t need to go back a century. You can find the same thing today in prisons, at non-violent demonstrations, wherever people are rounded up and snatched out of their houses. The victims are black, brown and white. And they’re not where they are because we don’t talk enough about race in this country. They’re there because we don’t talk enough about the state.
I’m almost afraid to write this way because any criticism of the current shibboleths about race is apt to get you into trouble. Many people, for instance, think we should hear out any African-American voice on race, without dissent. It seems like the decent thing to do after their history of oppression in this country. So African-Americans get race and soul, much as Indians get non-violence and yoga, Native Americans get medicine-men and beads, the Chinese get martial arts and acupuncture…and the Irish get shamrocks, booze and dreadful childhoods.
This we call authentic. Lived experience makes for credibility, we tell ourselves.
But from another perspective it looks a lot like segregation too. Intellectual segregation. If African Americans get to talk to us about race, and only race, then we don’t really have to listen to them on anything else. Conversation becomes a fairly predictable thing with each party trotting out the lines allowed to them…and the rest of us compelled to sit through it because we’ve learned that to question might taint us as bigots… haters… mean-spirited… bitter…. resentful… and any of the carefully chosen buzz words that police the boundaries of polite discourse.
Mr. Holder worries about college students picking whom they want to sit next to at lunch. He wonders why we should be integrated at our workplaces but set apart in our play-time and in our living.
But that’s no mystery.
It’s precisely when we’re focused on things outside our group identities that those identities recede into the background. When someone’s throwing me a rope to get me out of a burning house, neither of us has much time for thinking about skin colors or nose shapes. We’re more interested in making sure we escape without being scorched to a crisp. Should we survive, we’ll feel kindly to each other. Our differences might even become a plus. If anything goes wrong, we might blame it on those differences. But at least, we’ll still focus on what we accomplished or didn’t accomplish as human beings.
What I mean is this: at work, in school, on a team, race recedes quite naturally into the background. If you doubt it, ask why integration took place first on the battle-field and on the sports-field.
It’s in our off-time, with no task at hand, that race begins to loom as a problem. And not only race. Gender, age, occupation, class, religion — any of these can become trouble. It usually takes some strong belief to paper over the trouble.
Now, in America religious beliefs are — at least, theoretically — banished from the public sphere. The rationale is that they’re too different to live together peaceably. And among political beliefs, the most American of them — the belief in individuals and free markets is — at least, theoretically — at odds with a strong notion of the public sphere. That tends to leave us more fragmented than smaller, more cohesive societies. That’s the way it is with multi-ethnic, multi-cultural empires
With common purpose absent, all that’s left to us is affirmation of process. Which is why constitutionality becomes paramount in America.
But even constitutionality can’t be unhinged entirely from common purpose or common meaning. Because, if there’s no point to a process, all things become equally point-less…
Or, to put it another way, equally point-ed; they are meant only to score points.
That is to say, a process devoid of an underlying common meaning tends to become purely and entirely political; its only rationale is to produce whatever results we want at the moment.
So, when we get rid of purpose, in sneaks production. Not production driven from the bottom by demand. This production is driven from the top by planning.
And so you get the commissar. And the clients of the commissar.
You get the corporate-state.
In the corporate-state, getting what you want is all that matters, and the words by which you get what you want, the words by which you score points and keep score, are not conversations among citizens. They’re slogans intended to scatter the herd hither and thither, or drive it from this point to that.
Words in the corporate-state become forms of coercion. We’re fed language whose purpose is less to bind us together in common humanity as it is to drive us where we cannot truthfully be led.
It is a language of fraud. It is propaganda.
It is the language of empire.
An empire that has to keep its white, black and brown citizens, its Christians, Jews and Muslims, its men and women, its poor, middling and rich, constantly focused on the most divisive things about them, in order to keep them from focusing on what might actually bring them together — the task at hand.
We may or may not be cowards about race, Mr. Holder. But we’re far bigger cowards about facing up to the way race is used in politics in this country today:
as a red herring — to distract
as a red rag — to goad
as a red light — commanding us to stop and go no further.
No amount of preacher talk can hide that. No amount of cant about race should stop us from talking about the one thing we do need to talk more about: the nature and goal of the state power under which we live today.
Lila Rajiva [send her mail] is the author of the ground-breaking study, The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media (MR Press, 2005), and the co-author with Bill Bonner of Mobs, Messiahs and Markets (Wiley, 2007). Visit her blog.