Friday, February 1, 2013

Featured Reader Comment on (Black) American Nihilism: "But Even More Frightening to Me is Their Surrender to Authoritarianism"

When I switched over to Disqus, I did so with the intention of bringing in some new voices. I also made that choice in order to encourage friends of WARN to return and comment more often. My hope is that new voices would chime in and lurkers would talk more often. Slowly, but surely, those goals are being met.

We are in a transitional moment: page loads and "hits" are stable if not increasing. As I told one of our guest posters Bill the Lizard, I would rather have a small group of good folks who share, discuss, and teach us all something over the course of 10 comments, than 100 comments full of foolishness. I am totally at peace with that choice.

On occasion, I feature readers' comments as a means of pushing our conversations forward, and of highlighting the great range of intelligent observations (and interventions) which have taken place on We Are Respectable Negroes since its inception. In many ways, you all have been way ahead of the curve: the arguments we have developed together from Herman Cain's race minstresly, to the Adam Lanza shooting, and Mitt Romney's dog whistle racism, have been taken up by the national news media. 

Never forget, you/we/us heard it/did it here first.

I am very fascinated by questions of meaning, society, and belonging. For that reason, I return often to questions about the role of nihilism on the black public sphere, specifically, and American society, more generally, whenever possible.

Something is very wrong. I am not sure when the Common Good was derailed by the corporate democracy and the fetish that is the market. 

Did it begin with George Bush the Younger telling folks to go shopping after 9/11 in order to stand up to the "terrorists" though that is a defense of "freedom?"

Or was that mouth utterance simply a statement of what we have long known?

Something is amiss. Hegemonic power is by definition so omnipresent that we cannot get a hand around it. Exhaustion in the face of Power is by design, and is not accidental.

Paul Sunstone, commenter and friend of We Are Respectable Negroes, offered up a great and reflective observation in our discussion about black nihilism in the Age of Obama that deserves more attention and shine. 

His comment is very well-timed for me personally. In my seminars this quarter I have been probing, asking students about the Common Good, and hoping to get a spark of response about the many ways that our civil liberties have been rolled back over the decades. I use the most troubling examples--kill lists; torture; indefinite detention; Top Secret America; the practical impact of gross wealth and income inequality on life chances, democracy, personal liberty, and freedom--and have come to a disheartening conclusion.

Most students know something is wrong and do not care. A good number care, but feel powerless, so why complain? Out of a room of 45 students, there are about 5 who know about the realities of Power, the surveillance State, and what perpetual war against "terrorism" means for the. To their credit, these students have not opted out. The former two groups only care about Facebook. Said observation is painful truth-telling; it is not an exaggeration.

The more aware group teaches me a thing (or three) each class. As a group they have decided not to use Facebook (and other related mediums) for reasons of privacy and mental health. When the latter group chimes in, the possibilities of critical pedagogy come alive and are made real; the seminar that day is a good one.

To point, in speaking to those concerns about nihilism, society, surrender, and agency, Paul Sunstone suggested the following. His comments are well-worth reflecting upon.

Is he right? If so, what can be done?
First off, that ignorance and indifference scares me, but I have seen it myself -- not in students, but in well-educated middle aged adults. I think it's a nihilism masked by a kind of optimism, by a unholy belief that things can't be so bad that they demand commitment, sacrifice, and action. 
But even more frightening to me is their surrender to authoritarianism. 
The one thing I fear most, really fear, is that when the pounding comes, that's how the majority is going to go. They are going to look at their declining fortunes, and then seek out an authoritarian leader who promises to save their butts, and tells them who to scapegoat. I don't see that as inevitable, but I do see it as all too possible.
Lately, I've been thinking the way to reach these people, the way to get them on our side, is first through economics. Show them what's happening to their wealth, their incomes, and why it's happening. Then branch out from there.
But that's just what I think, and I could be very wrong. I know so little about it. Too little. What do you think we should do?


Michael Varian Daly said...

Norman Mailer said in the run up to the Second Iraq War, “I think
the natural government for most people, given the uglier depths of human
nature, is fascism. Fascism is more of a natural state than democracy.”

Constructive_Feedback said...

[quote]Something is very wrong. I am not sure when the Common Good was derailed by the corporate democracy and the fetish that is the market.

Did it begin with George Bush the Younger telling folks to go shopping after 9/11 in order to stand up to the "terrorists" though that is a defense of "freedom?"

I think it was a two step event horizon, sir.

Bush told us to "go shopping" after 9/11
Obama told us that 'Libya was a Humanitarian Mission"

While we were out shopping few of us knew our history to note that King Leopold II of Belgium said that his invasion of "The Congo" was a "humanitarian mission" as well.

Strange days, indeed.

geerussell said...

Definitely start with the economics. The economics is where they get you to believe there is no alternative. We ignore unemployment, stagnant incomes and financial sector rents... and get on board with team cat food to "fix the debt" by killing social security & medicare.

It's not a conspiracy. It doesn't need to be. Incumbents with power naturally dedicate themselves to defending the status quo and with them all rowing in the same direction that's where we get taken.

We should be doing so much better:!&t=26m30s

Paul Sunstone said...

Wow, Chauncey, way to get me to blush! I'm honored. Very surprised and honored.

Dena Shunra said...

I've noticed it in myself: there are public issues I want to talk about in presumably-safe public spaces - and I draw back, because I've gotten to the point where I don't believe the discussion will serve any purpose other than to entrench positions that are already polarized.

Case in point: school security. The local school board convened a meeting to discuss this topic. Knowing that it would be attended by friends and supporters of a local arms dealer (who'd like to arm the school staff, turning a fine profit) - I decided not to go. Listening to the discussion would be infuriating, but standing up to speak my position (gun control is necessary, fewer guns mean a safer environment) would mark me for harassment by the pro-gun groups.

And it's not just about guns. Or Israel (I object to its racist policies and tried to raise the issue of possibly joining the BDS campaign in my small town; Israel sent its consul general & a well-funded team from Seattle to thwart even the conversation about this, and for years people would cross the street to avoid me.) Even such apparently minor issues as traffic roundabouts and school lunches end up with a tremendously polarized conversation.

This being the state of the discourse, I don't know how to discuss anything at all - and I end up drawing into a protective cocoon, one more voice silenced.

chauncey devega said...

I know it is hard. But you have to speak up and intervene. You will get yelled out, mocked, and called all manner of names. Remember, "liberal" is a bad word from the 1980s on. Reasonable and centrists independents and conservatives are "traitors" or don't love America too.

The Right and its hyperconservative allies in the media, education, and on the ground with the Tea Party brigands have tried to silence many people. Fight back strategically and wait for opportunities to effect change quietly and also subtly.

chauncey devega said...

Your great observation deserved more consideration. I appreciate your insight.

chauncey devega said...

Got to cosign that one.

Dena Shunra said...

Oh, I'm not going to stop speaking up forever. But I'm going to spend some time trying to figure out how to speak up in a way that will make sense and feel - if not safe - less threatening.

Strategic upspeaking, as it were. Or using other ways to speak. Twitter's pretty good for me, that way - while town hall meetings have been painful and unproductive.

That suggestion you made, "wait"? That's where I'm at. Except, of course, on Twitter.

Paul Sunstone said...

The video you linked to was very helpful.

evening said...

It is sad but not surprising that only 5 of the group "get it". In any given class, I'd be surprised by that high of a number, but given what you teach it seems about right.

I think things have mostly always been this way. Few "get it" while the masses don't. I think it is the nature of things, unfortunately.

I don't know if it is because most aren't aware enough to figure it out, or if they prefer to be ignorant and go about their lives.

Shirley Hicks said...

This is the first time I've posted to your blog, although I've been reading it for about six months as part of my cultural immersion experience in the American Deep South.

I'd say economics. You need to make the links between their interests and the greater African-American communities (I use plural, because, from what i've been learning, there are many, depending on geographical location and economic strata) as part of building an alliance.

chauncey devega said...

Thanks for chiming in! Always good to hear from folks. Economics is critical here. But, are the very rich any less nihilistic--and have the capacity to impact policy and the rest of us--than the very poor?

chauncey devega said...

Ignorance is the illusion of safety.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Thank you for going to a third party commenting system. I actually wish that IntenseDebate were the gold standard instead of Disqus, but either beats relying on email notifications.

Shirley Hicks said...

I have no idea, for I don't walk in those shoes.

I've had wealthy friends who are sensitive to the greater societal issues and I've had others who aren't. But not here in the States - elsewhere, where the dividing lines are in different places.