E pluribus unum
Many of us understand and agree that the way you lose to terrorism is to cop to its premises in the way that you react to it. If ISIS or Al Qaeda want to claim that there is a war of civilizations, a religious war between “Muslims” and “The West”, the worst thing we could do is to live up to the role into which the terrorists have cast us by indiscriminately harassing and attacking Muslims. Acts of ostentatious violence are calculated to goad us into reinforcing the enemy’s framing of the conflict. Unfortunately, the tactic frequently works, because “we” are not a monolith, and some domestic factions in fact share a commonality of interest with the terrorists. During the Republican primary season, at least as abhorrent as anything Donald Trump said was the emergence of recitations of “We are at war with radical Islamic terrorism” as a kind of litmus test of seriousness among the allegedly sensible candidates. Perhaps I am cynical, but the sprawling, shadowy, money-drenched national security state is still disproportionately a Republican constituency, and that strikes me as relevant to why these politicians would garb themselves so enthusiastically in a costume sewn by our enemies. (Of course, there is no evidence of any quid pro quo, and I’m sure the candidates are all perfectly sincere in their way. So let’s not call it corruption.)
Similarly, if Donald Trump wants to start a race war, I wonder whether the best approach is to step in and take the other side. You might win an election that way, but you might also take us from a country of people who, still, mostly, don’t think of themselves as partisans for their race to one in which organizing along racial lines becomes a matter of self-defense. Of course, it often has felt that way, and really has been that way, for African Americans. Although there might be a certain justice in extending that condition to the rest of the country, I’m not sure that it would ultimately work out well for any of us. Functional nation states generally try to reduce the salience of socioethnic difference in favor of a national identity. That one of America’s two political parties has sometimes sabotaged this objective for political reasons doesn’t mean it would be a good idea if they both did. It seems to me an overtly racialized United States would be a lot more, rather than less, comfortable place for Donald Trump or the 20th Century politicians to which he is often compared.
I think that the “war on terror” cannot be won by defeating ISIS or Al Qaeda or any other enemy, but will end when the people of the Middle East have hope of living decent lives in stable countries with legitimate governments. Most problems in the world must be solved, not defeated, however attractive the branding of yet another “war on” may be. In the United States, I don’t doubt that various forms of racial animus drive the support of Donald Trump, to some degree. But you can’t solve “Trumpism” by defeating racism. The so-called “white working class” has lots of reasons to be aggrieved besides race or resentment over changing racial hierarchies, including legitimate grievances that would be shared by the not-white working class. Racism itself is an outcome as much as it is a cause. If interpreters of political affairs make wild efforts to dismiss colorably legitimate explanations of grievance in favor of unsympathetic racial resentments, that might be politically useful in delegitimizing support of Donald Trump. It might, less usefully, actually be believed, both by the people whose concerns are being caricatured (and so who come to see themselves as racists) and by others (who take an ever harder line with a cartoon moral enemy).
Of course, socioethnic conflict can be useful. It is an old strategy of colonialists to create racial strife in order to divide and rule. In Europe, elites turned a crisis that emerged from venality among bankers and poor regulation by Brussels into an ethnonational morality play that has destroyed the legitimacy of the EU and continues to devastate several countries, precisely in order to deflect blame from themselves. An America as unequal as ours has become engenders lots of blame that may require deflecting. Carl Beijer writes, “[L]iberalism relentlessly co-opts identitarian politics as a way to channel civil unrest away from class struggle.” (ht Ryan Cooper)
To be clear, I don’t think the writers with whom I am taking issue are intentionally sowing discord. They are writers whom I often admire, who, I think, have given less thought to the implications of the lines they are taking than I wish they would.
Update: This piece is not a response to the awful events in Orlando, which I learned of just after hitting “post”. Stupid fucked-up world.
- 12-Jun-2016, 7:30 a.m. PDT: Added bold update re terrible Orlando shooting.