An American Dilemma

Many of us (i.e., white Americans) are surprised by the recent and not-so-recent events in Ferguson. To many white people, the recurrence of such stark racial issues reeks of a time forty or fifty years past, irrelevant to a so-called post-racial America. What many of us don’t realize is that very few people outside white America- whether American minorities or people outside the US looking in- are surprised. Firstly, our memories tend to be shorter than the memories of people living in other countries. The LA riots were barely twenty years ago. Those with power tend to write the history books, and, as such, we have been very successful in ensuring that any obvious signs of racial inequality are relegated to dusty corners of the history books. Secondly, I learned US history once outside the US and once inside, and I can vouch for the graphic, brutal horror with which America’s racial narrative is taught overseas. It is simply not taught in the same way here in America. This is not to say that people in other countries are not racist. But the racism of people in other countries generally resembles tribalism or xenophobia more than the systemic societal schisms were see here. The American form of racism (much like baconnaise or deep-fried Coke) is a unique and terrible thing.

With the possible exception of Brazil, in no other post-Enlightenment country were labor and capital ever divided cleanly along racial lines. In no other post-Industrial Revolution society did labor ever own zero wealth and resources. Nowhere else in the world was national unity ever challenged and redefined by the right to own other human beings. In no country were slaves ever literally half the population, as they were in the US at the peak (trough?) of slavery as an institution. Nowhere else did it take a hundred years to ‘clean up the law books’ (read: establish a series of marginally less unequal equilibria) after slavery ended. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point: there should be small wonder we’re still struggling with the idea of racial equality.

When people say things like ‘there’s still a lot of racism in this country,’ I can only think ‘no shit.’ There’s very little else in American history that rivals the centrality of the racial narrative as a driver of the American identity. The concept of individualism may come close, but, lest we forget, the right to own slaves was itself for years couched in the language of individual rights. It was varying opinions on this racial divide that formed the biggest challenge to the American identity in its formative years, and it wasn’t until that schism came to a head and quite literally tore the country apart that the identity of the country coalesced into something remotely unified. White Americans- even white liberals- don’t want to hear any of this. We want to be in charge of opening and closing the debate on race. We want to define when racial America ends and post-racial America begins. Realistically, we can’t do that. The debate has been open for well over four hundred years, and we can’t close it unless we discuss our own failings as a society. Until then, there will only be more Fergusons to come.

Cristoforo Colombo non ha scoperto un cazzo di niente, belìn!

Seattle is leading the way in hopefully beginning to eradicate a pointless celebration of a murderer. With a bit of luck, this (and a similar step in Minneapolis) are the first steps in a global reappraisal of what Columbus actually represents.

Italian Americans, however, are offended by this decision, apparently. Firstly, Columbus was not technically Italian as no Italy existed until years after his death. Secondly, I fail to see why a community would want to be represented by an opportunistic, genocidal maniac. As a result, I have taken the liberty of preparing a list of just some of great Italians who deserve a day to honor them.

You get the point.

The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

Noah Smith put up an excellent post the other day about the long-standing myth (possibly started by former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) that so-called Asian values, at times, clash with democracy. We’ll ignore, for the moment, that Mr Lee’s comment led to the first major swing toward the opposition Workers’ Party in Singaporean history. We’ll also ignore that Taiwan, South Korea and Mongolia have all successfully transitioned to democracy, and that Indonesia and the Philippines have made strides toward democracy as well. Never mind that India has had democratic institutions for as long as the West has. Counter-examples are rife, and not just in Asia. The values vs democracy story is not a new one, yet it persists despite being repeatedly and definitively disproved.

Long before Mr Lee’s comment, the survival of la leyenda negra, Gen. Franco, and a revolving door system of dictatorships throughout Latin America allowed some to make a convincing case for the inherent reactionary and non-democratic nature of Latins (whoever they are.) The amazing aspect of this story was that it was used not only to denigrate the democratic capabilities of Latin Europeans and Americans, but was also espoused by reactionaries such as the Brazilian Integralists to justify maintaining their own non-democratic power. Years after democracy has established itself in Spain and continues to grow throughout Latin America, conservative thinkers and strategists still cite “yes, but” arguments as an attempt to denigrate the strides made toward democracy in these countries. It’s not difficult to imagine Rudyard Kipling espousing such arguments, nor Karl Rove. Colonialism is colonialism, not matter who you slice it, and it never works.

Sure, the narrative of history is often uncertain, unpredictable and non-monotonic. Nations and peoples often get stuck in vicious political or economic cycles as a result of poor decisions, corrupt power structures or desperation. But, growing up in a multicultural household, having lived in four countries on three different continents and visited over thirty others, I have only come across maybe ten people in the whole world who do not seek growth and expansion of their own freedoms and, more importantly, their capabilities toward autonomy and self-actualization. To suggest that such values simply do not exist in some parts of the world is nothing short of a cynical, deleterious racism couched in academic terms.

Strange Bedfellows

This article seems to be pointing to the use of triads on the part of the Chinese Communist Party in an attempt to control (or provoke, rather) pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. In a case of Morrisettian irony, it was a crackdown on criminal activity by the CCP shortly after the Chinese Revolution that drove the triads into Hong Kong in the first place.

This brings to mind Shaban the Idiot, a disruptive, avowedly anti-political street thug hired by the Shah’s regime to provoke pro-democracy protesters during Operation Ajax in 1953. Or, perhaps, Ghaddafi hiring Tuareg tribesmen, long ignored and marginalized by his own regime, to fight on his behalf during the Arab Spring. Clearly, this sort of political outsourcing is nothing new.

Leaving aside the case of the Tuareg, who (probably) reacted to an uncertain situation by throwing their lot in with the likely winner, it’s unsurprising that street thugs or organized criminals would be opportunistic. That’s sorta their MO. What is surprising is that legitimate regimes would take advantage of criminality. It almost seems as if the monopoly on violence is in this case is being extended to anyone who is politically convenient at that point. And as we’ve been seeing, throwing your support behind the wrong people at the wrong time can end in disaster.