All Lives Matter? Like when the Founders said “all men are created equal”?

Tweet from twitter.com/blakedontcrack
Tweet from twitter.com/blakedontcrack

The rhetoric of “all lives matter” in response to “black lives matter” is one of the most tired, toxic debates of the past year. My own opinion is relatively common- the latter is clearly not true in our society, and thus the former is clearly not true until things change.

“All lives matter” is the cry of people who in one way or another don’t see black Americans as equal to themselves. This stretches from dime-a-dozen racists to immensely powerful people. A politician can say “all lives matter”, then go to the floor and vote for mass incarceration, for cuts to social programs, against police accountability, and all matter of policies that reinforce white supremacy and create second-class semi-citizens. The victims of the War on Drugs are not only caught in a cycle of poverty, they have an inferior set of civil rights. American political and social leaders exalt freedom and liberty, but draw clear lines on who is to receive them and who is not deserving.

As the tweet states, perhaps my favorite summary of the issue, we should not be surprised by the disingenuous use of “all lives matter”. The United States is built upon hypocrisy. Of promising one thing and delivering another. Just like “all men or created equal” was based on a very narrow definition of who is a person- male, free, and white- it is abundantly clear that in 2015 the lives of people of color are not worthy of consideration. My previous post about police intimidation of activists saw a law enforcement official create a line between “true citizens” and those that challenge the system. I doubt the author of the email thinks that all lives matter equally.

Liberty and justice for all? Hardly.

Courts are a model of efficiency when they impose mandatory minimums for crimes of survival, but have no interest in capitalist looting of society. Property is valued higher than certain types of people. A CVS was damaged in Baltimore? Clearly people of color can’t control their anger. An irate officer tackles Sandra Bland after arresting her for nothing? Well, she should have just cooperated with the officer- the officer didn’t do anything wrong!

This is the latest of many episodes where the core hypocrisy of the American state is exposed- a state built on the bones of indigenous people, and fueled by the forced labor of people deemed unworthy of being included in the statement “all men are created equal.”

Obstruction by design

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One of the great tropes of American politics is the ineptitude of Congress. In particular, great amounts of journalistic ink have been devoted to gridlock in the U.S. Senate. The headline is always correct- the Senate is dysfunctional and no expertise is needed to see that. But I think there are some poor assumptions made when people talk about the Senate. Here are two:

  • Senate legislative gridlock is new. It’s really not. Important legislation has passed the House only to die in the Senate since the birth of the Republic. In particular, the first half of the 19th century went from crisis to crisis, as while the South had a much lower population than the North, they were given an equal number of senators.
  • Senate rejection of treaties is new. The US has signed many treaties but often does not ratify them. UN treaties are some of the most well-known, such as the Kyoto Protocol and more recently the UN  Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which failed two years ago. This predates the UN, as the United States, who proposed the League of Nations but did not become a member due to Senate opposition.

Both segue into my main point- the Senate is an inherently obstructive institution. That is why it exists. Its flaws are not borne of modern political culture but just the latest decoration. Not only is the Senate by nature obstructive, I would say that almost all upper houses in parliaments and congresses are obstructive. By nature the elections for the upper body are not rooted in proportionality- many bodies like the German Budesrat have an artificially small gap between tiny regions and huge ones. In cases like the United Kingdom’s House of Lords, the members aren’t elected at all, and their modern power is purely to delay and obstruct legislation.

The deification of the Founding Fathers, and the subsequent Framers, needs an injection of the political reality they crafted. The Connecticut Compromise gets applause as a brilliant piece of union-saving policy work, but it dictated a system where the rights of the minority could hold up nearly every vital government function. This ‘minority’ is often abstract, usually given a very virtuous portrait. Currently that minority is often a group of small-minded politicians, who by virtue of the Senate system do not need to explain their actions or defend their conduct. In the past that minority was representatives of slave power, who killed actions to limit the spread of slavery using the power given to them, even when they were strongly outnumbered by free-state residents.

Media outlets and individuals bemoan terrible Congressional approval ratings, and how little is done in the Senate in particular. This should not be surprising. American government is a blueprint for obstruction.

Abolitionist spirit: the role of outside agitators

An anecdote that may help stir your thoughts about what has been happening in Ferguson:

Saturday afternoon I attended a political meeting, held weekly. The planned roundtable was scrapped. M., the original presenter, instead traced the history that has led to Ferguson. It was an incredible journey, encompassing mob violence, Jim Crow, the Red Summer of 1919, deindustralization. On first glance it was incredible that our presenter could have put this together on short notice. However, as a black woman, her life has been affected deeply by these historical tendrils. White Americans have their own historical path that is second nature, but it’s radically different.

Subsequent discussion had many different threads, but the recurring one was the presence of “outside agitators” in Ferguson. I referenced an article published in Jacobin about the origin of the term, going back to how it was used to describe the Freedom Riders and those northerners who came to register voters and protest segregation.

There were some splits in opinion. I simply pointed out that a race-class struggle should not be confined to a small Missouri town, where the authorities have state and federal backing but the protestors do not. Our political group debated the usefulness and place of white anarchists, and groups like the Revolutionary Communist Party, who have been operating during the unrest. Do you criticize the moral stances of these groups, or just disagree about their tactics?

After a long back-and-forth among the members, M. got to close the discussion. What she said surprised me, and her point was powerfully made. This was a conviction.

Looking at the history of black people in the United States, one could say that outside agitators have been crucial to progress and freedom. In fact, she said that they were “the best thing to happen to black people.”

Oldest known portrait of John Brown, 1846 or 1847.

By far, the most deified group of Americans are the Founding Fathers. American mythology paints them as selfless, defenders of abstract ideas and promoters of radical concepts of freedom and equality.

Of course, that’s not true, and there are plenty of selfish reasons that these strata of people had for revolution. What M. said is that a much better embodiment of that commitment were the abolitionists in that period of 1820 to after the Civil War.

They too had selfish reasons for their actions, but when one looks at someone like Garrison or John Brown, you see the outside agitator in its full form. As Professor David Blight of Yale bluntly puts in in his (freely available) course on the Civil War era, John Brown was a white person who killed whites to free black slaves. The Founding Fathers never killed anyone to free blacks, but rather give them more personal power over slave policy. That has happened again and again, and let’s not just paint it as whites taking pity on blacks. It was people of all races, but outsiders none the less- be it a class difference, a political difference, or jut a geographic difference. Brown, for all his atrocities and personal faults, most likely accelerated the end of slavery. He agitated. He was an outsider. Someones you need a person to stir the pot.

Of course, M.’s opinion is her own, and that doesn’t mean it’s a popular one. The example of abolitionists is electrifying for me. It is a unique way of defending the outside agitator.

American Revolution: Against imperialism, but for it as well?

I attended a Socialist Alternative branch meeting in Oakland today. At the end there is the technical business, including future topics and who is to present on them.

One was a historical dilemma that is essential to the United States: how can the American Revolution be seen as a struggle for freedom, if it was forwarded by slaveholders, who by the end had even more authority over the people they owned? Even a middle school history class tackles with that. Of course, when you bring in ideas of capital, imperialism, and white supremacy, there are more nuances to explore and consider.

Since I’m headed on a journey through western Canada tomorrow, I can’t write out in full the thought I had.

Wasn’t the American Revolution a fight both for and against imperialism? The colonists fought against British colonialism. Their victory allowed for a more complete imperialism of western Africa; both current slaves, and those to be taken from their homeland, were subject to imperial control. And because there was a 32 year gap between British abolition of slavery and US abolition, the colonies gaining independence brought decades more oppression.

Learning empathy, resolving identity, rejecting violence against women

In my Ring The Bell promise, I said I would continue to write on the subject of sexual violence and oppression against women. So here are some thoughts.

Born a white cisgendered male, I have two fundamental flaws. My life has been about first acknowledging these flaws, then working to overcome them.

First- the sheer blindness I have towards discrimination and unfair treatment. Only through reading Audre Lorde, Malcolm X, and right now Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir A Place to Stand have I began to appreciate how fixed the game is. Much like how a member of Congress can support and defend a war that they themselves do not have to fight, one is tempted to shut their ears and eyes and pretend that injustice is cleansed from our society. And many white, male Americans have retreated into this cocoon, and ignore what other people are suffering through.

The problem is distance, and the solution is an ever-vigilant campaign to understand and to empathize. In the civil rights battles of our time, white men like myself either stand with the enemies, or sit the fight out. An awakening to injustice in its countless forms: racial discrimination in arrests and sentencing, stop-and-frisk policies that almost exclusively target minority youth, and the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment across continents. Two weeks ago I wrote about how every country in the world has slaves– even countries that consider themselves enlightened and in a morally superior position on the global stage. The Walk Free Foundation says that just under thirty million people are treated as slaves. A strong majority of them are women, including many under the age of 18.

It seems impossible that in my own California county sex slaves are routinely found in police operations. Even if I personally do not mistreat women, it is because of men- as sexual consumers, as organized criminals, as buyers of goods that are far too cheap to come from voluntary labor- that this system continues. The bottom line is that violence, discrimination, and oppression- are not someone else’s problem. They are everyone’s problem.

The second flaw is an issue of identity. White men are often under siege as a major group perpetuating discrimination and abuse. This is statistically true, and many civil rights campaigns ended up against a power clique dominated by white men . One can become defensive from all of this- feel that they are personally being blamed. But just because other white people, other men, other cisgendered individuals are part of the problem doesn’t mean I am the same. This underlying primal mentality- to defend groups that look like you- is dangerous and has to be overcome.

So the first flaw requires an ability to understand the world, and learn from other people in different circumstances. The second is liberation to act for justice, not solely as a white man who sees the world in a very specific way. I am not just white, I am not just male, I am not just an American citizen. I am Andrew Mackay- and my concerns are universal.

This is all a complicated way of saying simple things. While I will never fully understand the plight of women, or another ethnic group, I can understand the conflicts going on among men- especially white men. Coming over to a side that speaks out against sexual violence requires a stark reading of your own philosophy and ideas of what is and what is not important. Some men are almost through the process, and will join me to continue on the path. Others have not even started yet. But there are millions of them, and without them only so much justice can be done.

 

Slavery: work yet unfinished


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Over a year ago, I wrote a post about the large number of slaves in a world where it is almost unanimously illegal. The number I cited was 27,000,000.

The Walk Free Foundation has joined in this study by releasing their first report on global slavery. Their number is around 29,600,000- almost ten percent higher. And it points out how wide the problem is. Some countries (Mauritania, Haiti) have a high proportion of slaves, and large countries like India, Pakistan, and China have slave populations in the millions. But no country is completely free. The use of illegal immigrants as sexual or servile labor exists even in the most advanced, liberal stated. They estimate 59,000 slaves live in the United States. They remark:

“The relative wealth of Canada and the United States, their demand for cheap labor and relatively porous land borders, makes them prime destinations for human trafficking.”

In some ways, it is still like the days of the Transatlantic slave trade. Economics makes the international trafficking of people lucrative, and while it is no longer legal, it is also difficult to control. For a citizen, it is unlikely that he or she will be enslaved; but for another class of people, they come to America in chains. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries it was Africans, now they come from all over the world. Families from Asia and the Middle East bring child servants with them (a well-known case from an Egyptian couple), and prostitution is in many ways buoyed by cheap involuntary labor. Living in the the Bay Area, I know that San Francisco has slaves, brought from Asian countries to work in brothels and “massage parlours.” Actions to rescue children have happened as recently as August- a nationwide sweep included 12 children in San Francisco.

Often we think of freedom in political terms. You live in a democracy like France or Japan, or you live in a dictatorship like North Korea. The first means you are free, the latter unfree. But it’s more essential than that. It’s about freedom to go to school, and to work where you want to. It’s about receiving pay and benefits for what you accomplish. It’s about being able to appeal to the government or private organizations for help and advice. It’s ultimately being treated as a person rather than property.

In America we think of “slavery” as a historical concept, something that was settled with the Thirteenth Amendment and a brief ceremony in a Virginia parlor. But it’s not just history. It is memory, it is reality. We have work yet unfinished.

The spectre of slavery

There are 27 million enslaved people in the world today. To put that in perspective, that is more than at any other time in history. It is perhaps the greatest failing of modern societies- every country has abolished slavery, and yet it is an epidemic of unprecedented scale. In the twentieth century, we eradicated smallpox, stopped famine in dozens of countries, and made strong progress against malaria and cholera. It would seem that with technology and international cooperation, we are on the path to ensuring basic standards of living for all people. The Millennium Development Goals – an ambitious set of priorities created by the United Nations, is being met (PDF, look at p. 2 for a good chart) in many instances, or at least there is some progress.

Yet we have failed to stop humans from owning other humans. It is endemic to all continents- from indentured domestic workers in southeast Asia and the Middle East to sexual trafficking in San Francisco. Our own country has never wrestled away the demon that is slavery. Though the war between one half of American and the other eventually declared slavery an abomination, the white plantation society continued working with sharecroppers rather than slaves. California ignored the Thirteenth Amendment and continued to make ‘vagrant’ indigenous people into slaves- well into the 1870s.

Continue reading “The spectre of slavery”