Thoughts on Ishmael Reed’s suggestion that African Americans should abandon the Democrats for the Greens
A friend of mine recently emailed me that when you ask people what their hands have done, as opposed to asking them, “What have you done?”, the answers are very different… more concrete in response to the question about hands.
Seems very difficult these days to explain a thing called ideology. It’s a culturally shared mental construction of how the world works, with some norms (rights and wrongs) smuggled into the premises of these beliefs.
It’s difficult to explain, therefore recognize, therefore unmask… in order to understand things differently; and it is the most powerful means of social control for many of us. Steve Biko, the great South African martyr, said that “the greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
We aren’t born with it. We learn it. And it doesn’t all come at once, it begins with simple ideas upon which the culture builds. Moreover, those simple ideas are often passed on to us — as part of our expected nurturing — when we are very, very young — by the people whose hands we seek for love, safety, food, hygiene, play, and companionship. So the ideas that form this culturally-shared world view — ideology — do not come to us hermetically sealed as some segregated intellectual product, like a line of code in a computer. We receive these ideas as gestalts that have both a cognitive and affective content… like the color orange, neither red nor yellow or it ceases to be orange.
Earlier, I said ideology serves a control function. It’s not control in the sense of someone giving a direct order. It’s the kind of control a dog experiences with one of those underground electric containment fences. The dog eventually takes the boundaries for granted and accepts her limitations as an irreducible fact… therefore beyond challenge.
With society divided between the very powerful and the variously more powerless, there are those who control the levers of our survival, those who are keepers of “special” knowledge, those who design the production of our societies, and their power translates into the power to design the production and distribution of culture, too.
The ideas and ideologies that support the status quo of power become the “invisible” dog fence in our heads… and hearts. So the hands of the powerful can continue to do what they do, and our hands will continue to do what they do.
A textile worker once told a friend of mine who was union organizing, “All I am to these people is a set of hands.” His lungs were full of disease at the time, from the particles he breathed while his hands ran machines. His bosses warned him that if he complained, they’d give his job to a Black person (different terminology was used).
Ideology is part of a circuit, like an electrical circuit, between hands-things and idea-things. But because it is like that Invisible Fence (TM), it has a kind of magical property. Ideology simultaneously reproduces power and conceals it.
Part of our dominant ideology in this culture is the notion that ideas give rise to the things we do. Philosophers call this “idealism,” not to be confused with the popular use of this world that signfies an aspiration to make the world a better place.
This idea (no pun intended) that ideas determine our actions was challenged by other philosophers (called “materialists,” not to be confused with the everyday term, meaning acquisitive). The materialists said that our actions give rise to our ideas… the ideas being like mirrors that reflect our experience.
As is the case for many of these philosophical controversies, if one can just get enough perspective, what is revealed is a “false dichotomy”… the analytical separation of one actually-indivisible phenomenon into two opposing parts.
What makes lived experience perhaps more determinative of ideas than ideas are of lived experience (I believe this to be true) is encountered necessity. The requirement to do hands-things is often very immediate and urgent in the physical world. That should not trick us into believing that the Invisible Fence of ideology is somehow less important; because that Invisible Fence defines where and when and what and how we can do things.
The Invisible Fence keeps most people from even considering the majority of things that desperately need to be done right now to prevent all manner of horrors for us, others, the people of the future, and basically the whole planet. The reasons we need to do these things — re-tool the entire society to thrive more locally and sustainably — is outside the Fence, and might as well be a parallel universe for the vast majority of people. Among all the people who most need to understand this are Americans, because we live in the geographically defined polity that simultaneously has the most rapidly destructive practices and the geopolitical power to theoretically make the bad things stop.
One check-in with our own experience, however, tells us that the tiny few of us who — for whatever accidents of fate — actually understand how the current trajectory of our society might be compared by aliens to sociopathic lemmings… well, we know damned well that we don’t have the capacity to change all those minds… at least not fast enough to stop the majority of the bad things that are pretty much inevitable already… wars, dispacements, starvation, brutal poverty, pandemics, species die-offs, climate destabilization, soil destruction, loss of fisheries and poable water, et al.
For a lot of people, this inevitability means, what the hell, let’s just smoke a number and quit thinking about it. And while I’d be happy to indulge the number with you, maybe with Howlin’ Wolf and a tasty fruit salad, I’d say you are wrong. This reaction of giving up when you might only make a tiny difference is inside-the-Invisible-Fence attitude.
We are morally obliged to fight for the future, in my humble opinion, at least once we understand what’s at stake; and the fact that we might very well lose it all and eventually be forgotten by history is a pretty shitty excuse for not trying.
DeAnander and I have been floating some ideas of our own — actually ideas other people have already had, and that some people are quietly acting on right now — about what has to happen to make that fight. It includes a lot of stuff the traditional left has dismissed, partly out of its male affinity for war metaphors (I’m doubly guilty here, because war was actually my job for a long time), and partly out of its rigid orthdoxies that brand anyone who doesn’t follow their political cookbooks as “voluntarists,” and “anarchists,” and “petit bourgeois,” etc. Food sovereignty, for example. Self-sufficiency. Relocalization. Occasional tactically-placed monkey-wrenching.
The tradiditonal left will always emphasize mass movements as the key to political change — though in this “challenge” to the more agile practices that can coalesce into mass movements — real ones, not Hurculean efforts by various toy Internationals — they ignore that voluntarism was the charge leveled at the Freedom Riders, whose action catalyzed a very signficant mass movement. Moreover, this preaching about mass movements to the exclusion of all else generally has a sub-text… the mass movement must be based primarily in “class struggle,” which there hasn’t been in the US for decades. The mass movement with the deepest potential for social transformation — feminism — was sidelined with the left’s assistance (as a secondary contradiction, etc etc etc), and has been so co-opted by liberals, opportunists, and academic mooncalves that serious feminists have seen the term feminism drained of any meaningful specificity.
I say all of this as a preface to saying that anyone who claims s/he has The Formula for Success in political struggles is as full of shit as a Christmas goose.
And I say that as a preface to discussing Ishmael Reed’s provocative suggestion, in a recent Counterpunch piece, that African Americans should abandon the Democrats for the Greens.
Reed did a commendable job in his commentary of skewering the Democrats, and their allies among putative African American leadership — Reed called them “the new black class of Martha’s Vineyard blacks.”
His willingness to write for Playboy is an issue for me, because it belies the same gender cluelessness that his use of the term “weak sisters” does.
His suggestion — to other Black folk rhetorically (but posted at a site that is largely read by left-liberal white men) — is that Black folk might rightly perceive the Greens to be mostly white, but that an alliance with Greens can’t play out much worse for African America than the deep and deepning dependency of Black America on the execrable Democratic Party.
He doesn’t say it during his rake-over of the Dems on the prison issue, but the truth is that endangerment of the Alaskan grizzly will mobilize many white Greens to outright war, while the endangerment of African American children living near toxic dumps or the thoroughly racist US prison system will create a transient clucking of tongues. And I say this as one who takes sides with both the bears and the kids, and am near enough to being a prison abolitionist (as soon as Dick Cheney dies in prison). It’s just true. Middle class white people do not have the same preoccupations as Black folk, because they are the colonizer’s base, and Black folk are the colonized. These are two pretty dramatically different frames of reference.
The imminent announcement of Cynthia McKinney’s presidential bid with the Green Party resolves a conflict for me, with my family background placing me in the white experience, my military background placing me in the imperial experience, and my kids and grandkids connecting me to Black experience. White folk are not in a position to cook up political formulae for Black folk (though I don’t think any political leader — white or Black — is off limits from critique by any critic). I don’t have to engage in the risky behavior of analyzing the massive diversity of Black political behavior in order to cast my lot with other anti-establishment white activists and endorse a Black candidate that has the bona fides to speak to the issue of Black politics from the inside.
There is a pretty good chance — at least in my current imagination, based as it is on my own lived experience — that Black voters will continue to cling to the Democratic Party out of a justifiable fear of Republicans, that many will be as misled by “leaders” as white voters consistently are, and that McKinney will become the darling of the white left… which we use in all the wrong ways that amount to leftist tokenism. I hope that doesn’t happen. In any cse, her candidacy will be a test of the efficacy and reach of anti-establishment Black intellectuals and activists. Not a moral test, but a political barometer… maybe for all of us.
Let’s face it, white and Black environmentalists, feminists, anti-capitalists, et al, are up against the most formidable ideological barrier in history, late-imperial, high-technology consumerism. This ideology and practice has proven overwhelmingly effective at turning all our brains into onion soup. We are almost all as driven and acquisative and disenchanted and superficial as can be, which means the real issue that matter are not even available to us, because we have nearly zero critical capacity to understand and evaluate them.
It is no accident that when the suburbs were constructed as a way to maintain Black colonization after the fall of Jim Crow, residential spaces were class-color segregated, and the deepest integration was accomplished in consumer spaces… just as the US was emerging into the latest neoliberal epoch as the global consumer of last instance.
So this question of Black and Green (and Red, if you include the few of us who still call ourselves socialists) — love the color scheme — political alliance is one that has to be examined not merely on the basis of comparing idealist programs, but on the basis of what this tanslates into as hands-work. Very risky stuff.
White-Black coalition work does not have a happy history. It is so unhappy, in fact, that some might make a good argument that were Black and white constituents to coalesce around McKinney (as one example), this might better be done in semi-autonomous and self-segregating ways. White folks can be incredibly stupid when working with Black folk, because they have not the slightest idea how often they assert their own unacknowledged privilege into the proceedings. On the other hand, white organizers have access to more resources, and self-selecting separatism — even if agreed upon — results in the same-old same-old with regard to money, media, and institutional support.
If there is any suggestion one might make about this dilemma it begins with the fact that this need not remain a dilemma, but that it is the responsibility of white folk to get right.
That means actively seeking to understand what is meant by white privilege as a way of combatting it in our own practices. The question raised by Reed is about the political behavior of Black folk (which is why this commentary is not addressing, for example, Latin@s and other “ethnicities”). The reason the issue of “whiteness” is on the table is that our system is one of white supremacy. So he white-black polarity is unavoidable in this discussion of Reed’s suggestion, and of the McKinney candidacy.
All that said, there is another question about these kinds of candidacies. Are they acts of philosophcal idealism? Are these campaigns taken up out of a mistaken belief that we can change practice by changing minds? This is a serious question, one with which I myself struggle as a veteran of the leftist idealism of the-tiny-programmatic-sect. I already said that I think the practice-idea dichotomy is false; but that I also acknowledge that the practical repetitions in our system-dependent lives, as well as the invisible fenced of cultural production, are real and highly determinative influences.
My own tentative answer has to do with scale and expectations. Boosterism pisses me off when the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce does it; and it is highly unbecoming for any politics of resistance. Taking up the cudgel in these seemingly Quixotic ways is not delusional if we don’t lie to ourselves about what we can do, what we can know, and what we can predict. If we are modeling a serious poltics of resistance, then we better do it seriously… and honestly.
If we convince 4% of the population to vote a certain way by cheerleading them, then we have accomplished a transient sales job. If we can convince 4% of the population to create a political disruption within their capacity, their eyes wide open about the levels of unknowability and risk, then we have created a serious,critical, and courageous political cadre as an early step in a revolution.