“ONE DROP OF NEGRO BLOOD”: WHAT IT MEANT AND WHAT IT MEANS

[This is a revised version, 8/8/13]
It took me many years in my teaching to declare to my
students that societies run on myths.  At
this point it seems strange that it took so long for me to come to that. But
now I see it so clearly in so many places, in so many ways.  David Runciman reviewed a book in the London Review of Books that caught my attention. Ira Katznelson, in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our
Time
, explains the strategic partnership that FDR had with southern
Democrats.  Both sides had to compromise
in order to work together even though in fact their agendas were different and
actually contrary in some critical ways. 

What struck me was how racism was such a critical basis of
the agenda of leaders in the South in that relationship.  The whole agenda in the South was to make
sure that the federal government didn’t interfere with what the power elite in
the south were doing in their own states.  States rights was
crucial in their federal discourse because the power elite needed to do what they
wanted locally.  Among themselves in
the South they justified their grip on power by appealing to racial
superiority.  Northern agendas should
never intrude on that myth. 

An example:  In a
debate about anti-lynching legislation in the US Senate in 1938 the Senator
from Mississippi, Theodore Bilbo, said that “one drop of Negro blood placed in the
veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and
strikes palsied his creative faculties.”  With this argument he protected lynching in the South from
federal legislation. 

In some ways not much has changed in the South, we might
say, because politics in the southern states seems still to be aimed at holding
at bay the pressures of outside [Northern] mores. 
The difference is that the Republican Party seems to be a better vehicle today for effecting that agenda than the Democratic Party. 

But of course in lots of ways much has changed.  Senator Bilbo made his statement – it shocks
ours sensibility in these times – in 1938. 
But his world was already ineluctably caught in a world that would
unmask the myth that seemed plausible in his time.  Thirteen years later, doctors in Baltimore
removed some cells from a tumor of an Afro-American woman, Henrietta Lacks, who was, it turned
out, dying of cancer.  To their surprise the doctors discovered that the cells taken from Mrs. Lacks could be multiplied in the lab.  Cell research became possible on a scale previously inconceivable.  Since that time those cells have been multiplied more times than anyone knows and become the basis for more than 74,000 scientific studies.  One drop of Negro blood has in this case provided
the world – scholars all over the world – with basic insights into “cell
biology, vaccines, and in vitro fertilization and cancer” [NYTimes 8/8/13, p. 1].

Little did the good Senator from Mississippi know. But my point is he wouldn’t care. What he sought to effect was protection of the interests of the power elite of his state [who happened of course to be white and their constituency to be white] justifying that agenda by reference to a myth about race; it paid to promote such a fantasy.  The justifications now are different – the power elite and their constituency in Mississippi are different now — but power seems to work about the same way as before.  Those who have it seek ways to protect it and — as humans need always to justify what they do – they explain the reasons for their behavior and policies in highly moral terms.  The South – and the North, and all human collectives, when they try to represent their collective interests – still speaks in moral terms; and in the case of the South it is still the Bible Belt.

The difference now is what can ring true: cell research, based on blood samples of a human being is taken to be exemplary of the whole “human race”; it is no longer considered to be a sample of a particular “race” [a category that cannot be documented biologically].

But it still raises questions about what is “real.”  Are all those studies based on Mrs Lacks’s cells?  Are they still hers?  Are they “Negro”? Who do they belong to?    

Share and Enjoy

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Delicious
  • LinkedIn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS

Mobilizing “the masses” and slandering a president: More reason to worry about the Republican Party

At this moment, when we all wonder about what is happening to this country, I want to reproduce here some signs of how seriously the politics in this country is broken.  What I present here has been available to the public for a long time but seems largely unremarked.  

In 2005 the BBC produced a film called The Power of Nightmares. The film was directed by Adam Curtis.  The style of presentation, in its content and background music, suggested menace, the sense of dread and suspicion that animated the two opposing leaders whose struggle preoccupied world attention after 9/11/2001:  Osama Bin Laden, representing the Islamist movement, and George W. Bush and his administration. The film was constructed to provoke, even to irritate, especially an American audience.

Whatever might be said about the film, it included some information about the opinions and activities of notable American officials that few Americans seem ever to have heard of.  So I reproduce selections from the film [drawing from the screenplay posted by Bill St Clair]. What they reveal is a body of individuals within the Republican Party who were willing to exploit the religious populations of the country through unseemly manipulation of information.  

A central point of the film was that the Neoconservatives who came to power with George W. Bush had been influenced by Leo Strauss’s notion that societies run on myth.  For these neoconservatives myth is good when it mobilizes populations to take on “good” projects, even if the “myth” is indeed untrue.  Many of the neocons entered government and participated in the Nixon and later Republican administrations.  They had ideas and agendas, but they had the problem of how to mobilize the American people to join in their particular reading of the world and what to do about it.  

Truncating much that ought to be said about the context, I here reproduce what the film reveals about the way the “neocons” got their “troops” – by appealing to the sentiments of the evangelical community.  This is the story I reproduce here.

A major shift in the conservative white community had taken place during the Carter administration.  The white “evangelical” community turned against Jimmy Carter, the only President who had a Bible class before being elected President and returned to his Bible class afterward.  The reason for this abandonment of Carter was this [according to Ralph Reed, Active Faith, p. 105]]: 

“The greatest spark of the [white evangelical] movement was not abortion but an attempt by the Carter-appointed head of the Internal Revenue Service to require Christian and parochial schools and academies to prove that they were not established to preserve segregation or they would risk losing their tax-exempt status. … For conservative evangelicals it was nothing less than a declaration of war on their schools, their churches, and their children.  More than any other single episode, the IRS move against Christian schools sparked the explosion of the movement that would become known as the religious right.” 

Ronald Reagan, a new-age president, saved the white conservative community from Jimmy Carter.  Whatever his personal beliefs were, Reagan easily articulated the concerns of the white evangelical movement.  We pick up the narrative here from “The Power of Nightmares.”   
From Part One:

Voice Over: And at this very same moment, religion was being mobilized politically in America, but for a very different purpose. And those encouraging this were the neoconservatives. Many neoconservatives had become advisers to the Presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan. And as they became more involved with the Republican Party, they had forged an alliance with the religious wing of the party, because it shared their aim of the moral regeneration of America. 

IRVING KRISTOL , Founder of Neoconservative movement: The notion that a purely secular society can cope with all of the terrible pathologies that now affect our society, I think has turned out to be false. And that has made me culturally conservative. I mean, I really think religion has a role now to play in redeeming the country. And liberalism is not prepared to give religion a role. Conservatism is, but it doesn’t know how to do it. 

VO: By the late ‘70s, there were millions of fundamentalist Christians in America. But their preachers had always told them not to vote. It would mean compromising with a doomed and immoral society. But the neoconservatives and their new Republican allies made an alliance with a number of powerful preachers, who told their followers to become involved with politics for the first time. 

JAMES ROBISON , Fundamentalist Preacher, 1980: I’m sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals, and the perverts, and the liberals, and the leftists, and the Communists coming out of the closet! It’s time for God’s people to come out of the closet, out of the churches, and change America! We must do it!

Rev. Robinson epitomized the particular way the religious right described those who supported   progressive change in America:  as “radicals, perverts, liberals, leftists, and Communists.”  This became the rhetoric by which the conservative leaders  of the country, especially in the South, characterized the progressive movement in America.

PAUL WEYRICH , Religious activist – Republican Party: The conservative movement, up to that point, was essentially an intellectual movement. It had some very powerful thinkers, but it didn’t have many troops. And as Stalin said of the Pope, “where are his divisions?”. Well, we [Republicans] didn’t have many divisions. When these folks became active, all of a sudden the conservative movement had lots of divisions. We were able to move literally millions of people. And this is something that we had literally no ability to do prior to that time. 

INTERVIEWER (off-camera): Literally millions? 

WEYRICH : Literally millions. 

Note Weyrich’s terms:  The Republican Party was able to “move literally millions” of evangelical Christians by harnessing the agenda of social conservatives in the South to rhetoric of the evangelical tradition.  Some evangelical preachers may have felt it accorded with their own social perspective; at least some became useful voices for the politically conservative movement.  Conservative rhetoric worked for the evangelicals who believed it as well as for the neoconservatives who merely found it useful.  

VO: And at the beginning of 1981, Ronald Reagan took power in America. The religious vote was crucial in his election, because many millions of fundamentalists voted for the first time. And as they had hoped, many neoconservatives were given power in the new administration. Paul Wolfowitz became head of the State Department policy staff, while his close friend Richard Perle became the Assistant Secretary of Defense. And the head of Team B, Richard Pipes, became one of Reagan’s chief advisers. The neoconservatives believed that they now had the chance to implement their vision of America’s revolutionary destiny—to use the country’s power aggressively as a force for good in the world, in an epic battle to defeat the Soviet Union. It was a vision that they shared with millions of their new religious allies.

From PART TWO

WILLIAM KRISTOL , Chief of Staff to the Vice President, 1988-92: For Strauss, liberalism produced a decent way of life, and one that he thought was worth defending, but a dead end where nothing could be said to be true; one had no guidance on how to live, everything was relative. Strauss suggests that maybe we didn’t just have to sit there and accept that that was our fate. Politics could help shape the way people live, that politics could help shape the way that people live, teach them some good lessons about living decent and noble human lives. And can we think about what cultures, and what politics, what social orders produce more admirable human beings? I mean, that whole question was put back on the table by Strauss, I think. 

VO: The neoconservatives set out to reform America. And at the heart of their project was the political use of religion. Together with their long-term allies, the religious right, they began a campaign to bring moral and religious issues back into the center of conservative politics. It became known as the “culture wars.” 

[ TITLE : Christian Coalition commercial ] 

VO (on commercial) : Your tax dollars are being used to sponsor obscene and pornographic displays. 

PAT ROBERTSON : I don’t like Jesus Christ, who is my Lord and Savior, being dumped in a vat of urine by a homosexual, and then have my money to pay for it! I think that’s obscene. 

ROBERTSON : Satan, be gone! Out from this [unintelligible]! C’mon! 

VO: For the religious right, this campaign was a genuine attempt to renew the religious basis of American society. But for the neoconservatives, religion was a myth, like the myth of America as a unique nation that they had promoted in the Cold War. Strauss had taught that these myths were necessary to give ordinary people meaning and purpose, and so ensure a stable society.… 

MICHAEL LIND , Journalist and former neoconservative: For the neoconservatives, religion is an instrument of promoting morality. Religion becomes what Plato called a “noble lie.” It is a myth which is told to the majority of the society by the philosophical elite in order to ensure social order.… 

LIND : In being a kind of secretive elitist approach, Straussianism does resemble Marxism. These ex-Marxists, or in some cases ex-liberal Straussians, could see themselves as a kind of Leninist group, you know, who have this covert vision which they want to use to effect change in history, while concealing parts of it from people incapable of understanding it. 

VO: Out of this campaign, a new and powerful moral agenda began to take over the Republican Party. It reached a dramatic climax at the Republican Convention in 1992, when the religious right seized control of the party’s policy-making machinery. George Bush became committed to running for President with policies that would ban abortion, gay rights, and multiculturalism. Speakers who tried to promote the traditional conservative values of individual freedom were booed off the stage.…  

VO: For the neoconservatives, the aim of this new morality was to unite the nation. But in fact, it had completely the opposite effect. Mainstream Republican voters were frightened away by the harsh moralism that had taken over their party. They turned instead to Bill Clinton, a politician who connected with their real concerns and needs, like tax and the state of the economy.…. 

VO: At the end of 1992, Bill Clinton won a dramatic victory. But the neoconservatives were determined to regain power. And to do this, they were going to do to Bill Clinton what they had done to the Soviet Union: they would transform the President of the United States into a fantasy enemy, an image of evil that would make people realize the truth of the liberal corruption of America. 

….. 

VO: But despite all his efforts, Kenneth Starr could find no incriminating evidence in Whitewater. Nor could he find any evidence to support any of the sexual scandals that had come from the Arkansas Project. Until finally, his committee stumbled upon Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, which Clinton denied. And in that lie, the neoconservative movement believed they had found what they had been looking for: a way to make the American people see the truth about the liberal corruption of their country. A campaign now began to impeach the President. And in the hysteria, the whole conservative movement portrayed Clinton as a depraved monster who had to be removed from office. But yet again, the neoconservatives had created a fantasy enemy by exaggerating and distorting reality. 

JOE CONASON , Author ‘The Hunting of the President’ : They were trapped by a mythological person that they had constructed, or persons—the Clintons, these scheming, terrible people who they, the noble pursuers, were going to vanquish. I think, in the leadership of conservatism, during the Clinton era there was an element of corruption. There was an element of a willingness to do anything to achieve the goal of bringing Clinton down. There was a way in which the people who perceived Clinton as immoral behaved immorally themselves. They ended up behaving worse than the people who they were attacking. …

They commissioned David Brock to uncover every possible evidence of unseemly behavior in Bill Clinton’s past.  This is the story the film presents of that period, based on an interview with David Brock himself. 
From PART THREE

VO: Since then, Brock has turned against the neoconservative movement. He now believes that the attacks on Clinton went too far, and corrupted conservative politics. 

INTERVIEWER (off-camera): Was Whitewater true? 

BROCK : No! I mean, there was no criminal wrongdoing in Whitewater. Absolutely not. It was a land deal that the Clintons lost money on. It was a complete inversion of what happened. 

INTERVIEWER : Was Vince Foster killed? 

BROCK : No. He killed himself. 

INTERVIEWER : Did the Clintons smuggle drugs? 

BROCK : Absolutely not. 

INTERVIEWER : Did those promoting these stories know that this was not true, that none of these stories were true? 

BROCK : They did not care.  

INTERVIEWER : Why not? 

BROCK : Because they were having a devastating effect. So why stop? It was terrorism. Political terrorism. 

INTERVIEWER : But you were one of the agents. 

BROCK : Absolutely. Absolutely.

So it turned out that none of the accusations against Carter were true and the Republican leadership seems to have known it all the time.  The whole point was to slander Clinton.

And it was to continue appealing to the loyalty of the evangelical “troops” who could be persuaded to support the Republican Party even if the grounds of their appeal were cynical:  There is little evidence that the Neocons shared the deep convictions of the evangelicals whom they sought to use for their projects.

I post this material because I suspect few Americans are aware of these affairs.  I have lamented that the Republican Party seems tragically to have gone astray, to have lost its authentic moral fiber.  These comments by individuals who seem to have been directly involved in the movement since the 1980s give us some clues as to how this misadventure took form. 

Share and Enjoy

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Delicious
  • LinkedIn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS

The back side of the station in Saudi Arabia: Murder by the State

Tom Friedman has often referred to the Middle East as a fuel station for the Western world.  As long as they pump fuel we’re not concerned about what’s going on out in back of their station:  anything can go on there as long as we get what we want from the pump.  The problem is that what goes on “out back” is inimical to Western values, indeed, values of decency anywhere.  
This I feel confident in saying because it is evident that these regimes are embarrassed for the rest of the world to see what they are doing to their own people.  Syria is in the news these days for abusing its own citizens, its army shooting them down as if they were armed warriors when the people being killed are unarmed.  And Saudi Arabia has piously condemned the Syrians, all the while enforcing rules among it own citizenry that are blatantly unfair and unjust.  
The Nation (http://www.thenation.com) has published a report on the Saudi plan to execute a 23-year-old journalist who faces charges of apostasy for posting controversial views of the Prophet Muhammad on Twitter in early February.  The political reasons seem transparent and therefore the hypocrisy nauseating.  I copy the article here to emphasize the outrage that this case deserves.  I appreciate having the situation drawn to my attention; the person who sent it to me believes that Mr Kashgari will indeed be executed.  Kashgari, as his name implies, is not of Arab descent so he is an easier target, treated as an insidious influence among the purebred citizens.  Here is the article from the Nation.  [Click on the title able for a link to the source.]  
————————————————————————
The Nation:  “The Price of Dissent in Saudi Arabia” February 15, 2012
Saudi Arabia appears determined to sacrifice one of its young on the  altar of domestic politics. At the center of a brewing storm is Hamza  Kashgari, a 23-year-old journalist who faces charges of apostasy and a  potential death sentence for posting controversial views of the Prophet  Muhammad on Twitter in early February. In three short messages, in which  he expressed a mix of devotion, frustration and uncertainty about his  faith, Kashgari has stirred rancor across Arabia. His greatest affront, it seems, was giving voice to doubt. Many in Saudi Arabia share his views, but it is a poisonous environment for those who harbor uncertainty. In a place that demands public conformity to a narrow interpretation of Islamic orthodoxy and servility to religion’s  gatekeepers, Kashgari said too much.
Tens of thousands of self-righteous Saudis responded venomously, including the country’s king, who allegedly personally ordered  Kashgari’s detention. Amid calls for his death, a desperate and  frightened Kashgari tried and failed to flee. An escape to New Zealand, where he hoped to press for political asylum, was interrupted after authorities in Malaysia deported him back to Saudi Arabia. Should Kashgari face formal criminal charges of apostasy, prosecutors will argue that he blasphemed Islam’s most important figure. It is an accusation fraught with peril. Angry clerics serve as gatekeepers of the law and, more important, as dispensers of cruelty masked as justice.
While the most vituperative responses to the Kashgari affair are no  doubt rooted in zealous conviction, the reality is that this episode,  and particularly the government’s support for the case against him, has  little to do with protecting the sanctity of Islam. Rather, the Saudi regime is playing a calculated political game, one that aims to oppress some critics, to outmaneuver others and to bolster its thin claims to religious legitimacy.
While his postings on Muhammad suggest contemplative self-reflection,  Kashgari subsequently confided that he was aware not only of the  potential risk but that by courting controversy he was deliberately testing the limits of his freedom. Before his deportation, he described  his actions  [1] as practicing “the most basic human rights—freedom of expression and  thought…there are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are  fighting for their rights.”
Kashgari was hardly a revolutionary, but his views most certainly were.  The kingdom’s government is intolerant of free speech, especially  anything that challenges political authority. Dissenting religious and  political views, including those expressed by Kashgari, are widely  shared inside the kingdom. Among the droves of death threats and the cries of angry critics, Kashgari also commands a sympathetic following.  Thousands have rallied in his support. And the regime in Riyadh is well aware, particularly in an era of revolutionary upheaval, that a  significant number of its subjects bristle against its authority. Such  sentiment is hard to quantify, and criticism is only safely asserted  anonymously. But the critics are there, most notably in the new social  media. And they have potential power, which the regime grudgingly  understands.
But while Twitter and Facebook have opened avenues for dissent, there  are still significant dangers, something the Kashgari affair makes  painfully clear. The regime is notorious for filling its prisons with  political activists. In November the kingdom sentenced seventeen  activists [2] to long prison terms for daring to demand greater human and  political rights. And there are other pressures at work that inhibit any  public mobilization in support of Kashgari or against the regime. Many  who have called for his death demand   [3] exactly the same for the thousands who support him. Given the power accorded by the regime to extremists, it is enough to shock most into reticence.  Ultimately Kashgari proved vulnerable not because he is alone but because the regime has rendered the price of dissent unbearable. By arresting and threatening him under the cloak of Islamic law, the regime  has also sent a clear message to others like him.
Kashgari’s persecution also marks an effort by Saudi Arabia’s leaders to  shore up support from within the halls of religious authority. The royal  family has long leaned on the country’s senior clerics to stamp its  temporal power with the imprimatur of religious legitimacy. But many in  the kingdom see through the claim. Pious and agnostic alike consider the  royal family corrupt and irreverent. It is commonly held that Riyadh’s  assertion of Islamic authority is spurious, a fiction that the  government peddles as an excuse to protect its personal fortunes and  power. Whether genuine or not, the result has been the empowerment of a  class of religious scholars who are committed to protecting their own  authority.
The Saudi-scholar alliance has proven a devil’s bargain at times. Over  the past three decades these frustrations have generated significant  challenges to the regime, with outspoken clerics periodically targeting  the government for its infidelities. Mindful of this, the kingdom’s  leaders regularly seek opportunities to placate potential critics in the  mosques. In doing so, they have assured the rise of a clerical class  that is simultaneously a pillar of support and a potential threat. An  unfortunate consequence of this arrangement has been the de facto  encouragement of extreme figures at the expense of more reasoned voices.
As the drama surrounding Kashgari unfolded Nasser al-Omar, a  particularly odious scholar with a history of calumny, emerged as the  leading figure in his public persecution. Al-Omar’s radical credentials  are considerable. In the 1990s he was an advocate of an especially  shrill anti-Shiite sectarianism    [4], a sentiment that is deeply entrenched in Saudi society today. More  important, he is part of a generation of scholars that has openly  questioned the fitness of the Al Saud to rule. In a video commentary   [5] that quickly went  viral, al-Omar broke down in tears as he called for Kashgari’s  execution. Al-Omar tapped into widespread sentiment, but his visibility  and the government’s accommodation of figures like him speaks directly  to both the cravenness of the government’s agenda as well as royal  anxiety about the potential for the clergy to rally against the crown.
Hamza Kashgari, then, is a sacrifice the royal family is not just  willing to make, but that its continued power depends on. In the torrent  of invective and recrimination that has swept through Saudi Arabia in  recent weeks, the country’s rulers no doubt find comfort in pitting its  citizens against one another. Better to encourage culture wars than  allow critics to direct their ire toward the seat of power.
————————————————————————
*Source URL:* http://www.thenation.com/article/166305/price-dissent-saudi-arabia
*Links:*
[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/13/saudi-writer-mohammad_n_1273081.html
[2] http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/11/22/saudi-activists-sentences-idUSL5E7MM3J820111122
[3] http://arabnews.com/saudiarabia/article574314.ece
[4]  http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/saudi-arabia%E2%80%99s-sectarian-ambivalence

[5] http://www.you

Share and Enjoy

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Delicious
  • LinkedIn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS