A Democrat and Republican Problem

How should we understand our current moment regarding sexual harassment and violence? Who is at fault, where is the line and what are the consequences? Allegations against figures in the entertainment industry and ongoing allegations against current and past presidents and congressman have lead to a conversation about sexual harassment and abuse and larger discussions about what behavior is appropriate and how persons can be held accountable for their actions. And while nearly every commentator, pundit or person on Facebook or in conversation agrees that this type of violence is despicable and wrong and worth condemning outright, there lacks, certainly at the national level, consensus on what allows this violence to fester and how systems of power condones sexual violence.

In terms of root causes, many pundits discuss the sexual abuse allegations against Sen. Al Franken and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore as, “both a democrat and republican problem.” Some conservative commentators go further and point to how men are raised as causes of violence while liberals reference the patriarchy as the largest root cause of violence against women. While these are helpful strategies in discussing sexual violence each on its own merits does not go far enough in labeling the root causes of the mayhem that infests our society, in acknowledging the violence against all that is the beating heart of our capitalist system. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are capitalist parties with no real interest in changing the pre-existing power structures. And to blame the “culture” of masculinity or the patriarchy has the same limitations as blaming black “culture” for disadvantages in their communities or Muslim communities for religious violence. To locate blame in some inherent masculine trait is to disregard half the population of humanity, the vast majority of whom struggle under capitalism and are allies in the struggle against sexual oppression.

Sexual violence, against women and men, is its own type of horror, and each victim of sexual violence lives in their own paroxysm of grief, rage and humiliation. Acknowledging the uniqueness of sexual violence obviates us, however, in locating such violence in the constellation of violence that constitutes the capitalist system. Sexual violence is the valence of power, pure and simple. Even the term “sexual violence” obscures the power dynamic involved because its so easy to get caught on the “sexual” part at the expense of the “violence” part and become confused into thinking that this is just an extreme end on the spectrum of sexual gratification. Sexual violence uses sexual gratification to subjugate another person, an act no decent person would ever recognize as a legitimate type of sexuality. If we see sexual violence as about power we can begin to locate it among other forms of oppression that powerful people use against less powerful people. Moving beyond the halls of power or the glamour of Hollywood, we can see this dynamic play out in many workplace environments where a boss has the power to humiliate, exploit or threaten their employees. The Alianza Nacional de Campesinas wrote on behalf of 700,000 female farmworkers standing in solidarity with the victims of Hollywood actresses who have been victims of sexual abuse:

“Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security. Like you, there are few positions available to us and reporting any kind of harm or injustice committed against us doesn’t seem like a viable option. Complaining about anything — even sexual harassment — seems unthinkable because too much is at risk, including the ability to feed our families and preserve our reputations.”

Under a capitalist system there can never be a true reckoning with this type of abuse of power. Capitalism keeps the end goal of both the far right and the left at bay. The far right cannot enact their endgame of returning all women to the home in a Gilead-style patriarchy because it would deprive the market of too many workers and consumers. In turn, the left’s desire of a reckoning with sexual violence cannot come to pass because there would be an equal amount of economic shock if all men who have committed some form of sexual harassment or abuse were held to account. Again, too many workers and consumers would be lost. As the female farmworkers said, there is too much at risk, too many families to feed. Under capitalism we are too economically dependent on each other to make a real inroad into changing the systems of power that protect sexual abuse.

The imaginative leap comes when we can stand in solidarity not only with these women, but all the victims of capitalism, both men and women. Sexual violence festers in hierarchical power structures, as does the violence committed by the police against Tamir Rice, as does the suicide and opioid epidemic in rural white communities. To fail to locate sexual violence as another, uniquely horrific, example of capitalist violence risks ghettoizing this violence, to marginalize it as another social problem among many. And to not locate sexual violence among other forms of capitalist violence is to risk pushing the victims of that violence into the arms of the nascent fascist movement that is growing in America.

The victims of sexual violence need to be heard, comforted and counseled wherever possible. Victimization happens individually, behind closed doors, perpetrated and disregarded by those in power. Erasing the hierarchical power structures that allow capitalism and its attendant violence to thrive can only be accomplished collectively, in the clear light of day.

Senator-Franken-767x972@2x

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN)

 

Access Hollywood Syndrome

As usual men are behaving badly. The latest celebrity to get into the news for sexual violence is the comedian Louis C.K., who has admitted to masturbating in front of women without their consent. C.K. admitted to these stories after five women were on record for the New York Times detailing their encounters with the entertainer. In response to these now substantiated accusations, HBO has removed his content from their streaming service and his latest movie is no longer being released. Also in the news is the senate candidate from Alabama, Roy Moore, who is alleged by the Washington Post to have molested a 14 year-old girl some three decades ago. What these two men have in common is a use of sexual violence as a way of enforcing cultural and political power.

A whole host of pathologies have gone into allowing Louis C.K. and Roy Moore to flourish. To speak to all these pathologies, as a man, is presumptuous. Men need to listen to women, both victims of sexual violence and sexual harassment, to understand how this problem is perpetrated. What can be said, at the very least, is that these men are the beneficiaries of a culture that fetishizes their perceived excellence to the exclusion of all other virtues. Our society values men who are seen as extra and uniquely special, talismans of excellence and genius. These men are imbued with perceived charisma and intelligence that seems to allow them to make groundbreaking art or pursue rarified political power on behalf of their political party. We value these men, in part, because they are stand-ins for our own ambitions, ambitions to be outstanding that is the bedrock of our hierarchical culture. Such projections explain, in part, why the entertainment and political industries look away from these bad men’s behavior. In a recent interview with David Axelrod, John Stewart was asked about the allegations against his friend Louis C.K. Stewart’s knee jerk response was smug dismissal of the question. David Aexlrod was visibly annoyed by the temerity of someone questioning his vaunted and rich guest about his vaunted and rich friend. Cultural conservatives in Alabama have responded similarly to the allegations against Moore. Everything from outright denial to rationalizations using biblical allusions have been used to defend Moore’s alleged actions. Circle the wagons, knee jerk smug dismissal, hostile criticism, character assassination, these are the tools used to defend the political and cultural elites when one of their own is under attack. And while Louis C.K. has come out and admitted to his misdeeds and is facing serious career repercussions, Moore is still the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from the yellowhammer state. Because to admit the truth is to admit that the elite’s hold on power and charisma is a mirage, a castle built on sand. When we turn broken and small men into infallible idols these men will always abuse their power and betray our trust. Sexual violence is an expression of power against women. Only by deconstructing these sacred idols and creating a society imbued with gender equity can we begin to erase our culture of never ending sexual predation.

 

The comedian Louis C.K. and Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore

Thoughts, Prayers and Condolences

On Sunday, November 5, a young man walked into a Texas church armed with an AR-15 and opened fire, killing 26 people and wounding another twenty.  The victims of Sutherland Springs include a five-year-old child and a pregnant woman. The pastor’s fourteen-year-old daughter was murdered while her parents were away on vacation. This was the largest mass shooting in Texas history. A few weeks earlier a man opened fire from a hotel window in Las Vegas and shot five hundred people, killing fifty-eight. That was then the largest mass shooting in all U.S. history. If someone is reading this in the future, these events will have been forgotten, eclipsed by larger mass executions. Eyewitness accounts of first responders from Newtown, Connecticut, where a young man executed a school full of kindergartners describe what an AR-15 does to a five-year-old body. At close range, the bullet will cause the body of the child to explode.

In the aftermath of such events, politicians cast about for talking points; on the right, thoughts, prayers and condolences; on the left, common sense gun laws. When Democratic members of congress say that “common sense” regulations of guns will work they are peddling a myth. While studies have found that a reduction of guns in circulation will reduce gun violence, our current laws largely preclude such action. This is why “common sense” language is so ineffectual. Gun violence is best understood not as interpersonal disputes but as a type of political speech, a speech that is guaranteed by our bill of rights. To say there should be “common sense” restrictions on a right to a gun is like there should be “common sense” restrictions on freedom of thought. The freedom of thought and speech that allows the New York Philharmonic to flourish also allows for a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. To restrict one is to restrict another. Liberals have been willing to live with hate speech because it is a price we pay for other forms of intellectual rights. If we accept that owning a gun is a fundamental right protected by the constitution, than of course individuals are going to use these guns for violence, sometimes mass violence. The political right should admit openly and without shame that Texas and Las Vegas and Newtown and the thousands of suicides each year by guns are the price we pay for this freedom. Copping to anything less than a full admission of cost-benefits is a lie. The freedom to own a gun is the freedom to commit violence at will. To say mentally ill people or domestic abusers should not have access to a firearm is a dodge. We might as well say mentally ill people should not have access to a library card or sexual predators be denied access to internet pornography. Books, pornography and guns are too widespread and any worth wile restrictions futile.

Only when we accept as a society that owning a gun, both as individuals and by the police, is not a fundamental right worth preserving will we rid ourselves of this plague of violence. Technocratic solutions offered by the center will not suffice in preventing the next slaughter. Until we de-comodify violence as a unit of exchange in the form of guns can we prevent the next mass murder from occurring. We must take a step unthinkable today; renounce a right we believe is enshrined in the constitution and collectively give up our suicidal ownership, both as individuals and the state, of guns. Anything short of this is a half measure that will allow this plague to fester. Our goal should not be restriction of gun ownership but abolition of gun ownership. Your common sense prayers and condolences are not enough.

 

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e2-cddc-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections

A lost Cause

The Civil War has never been won. As a historical fact, of course, the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 but no one can reasonably say that the hostilities ceased on that date. The Civil War did not end with Lincoln’s assassination on April 14 or the formation of the Ku Klux Klan on Christmas Eve of that year. The Civil War did not end in July of 1866 when a riot killed 150 people in New Orleans, or in 1877 when the last of the Federal troops pulled out of the south and ended reconstruction and with it any attempt to create a racially just society in the former confederacy. The latest murmur of historical memory comes from John Kelly, Donald Trump’s chief of staff and a retired four star Marine general. In an interview with Laura Ingram Kelly said,

I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which, 150 years ago, was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War. And men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had to make their stand.”

Kelly is articulating what has become a “lost cause” narrative of the Civil War that is popular amongst a surprisingly large group of Americans, including, it seems, his boss. Kelly’s “honorable people” dodge resembles his boss’s own “both sides” argument made after the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville earlier this summer. Similar to the creationist “argument” for intelligent design, this rhetorical device is intended for one purpose, to muddy the waters on the issue and absolve wrongdoing of intellectual or political responsibility. As many historians have written before, the Civil War was fought over one issue, slavery. Every Confederate state’s articles of secession mention slavery as the paramount issue and the Vice President of the confederacy, Alexander Stephens, said, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas [as racial equality]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” Tariffs, states rights, etc. were not discernible causes for the conflict.

The centrality of anti-black racism that undergirded slavery was so profound that it could survive unchanged and retrench itself after such a massive political cataclysm as the Confederacy’s defeat. Even after the biblical violence-newer estimates put the death toll at 750,000 men- where the entire economy of the south was destroyed, the elites of the era embraced a concerted effort of terrorism and racial violence as a way to undermine advances made by African Americans. In spite of the violence done to their cities and citizens there was no price the south did not seem willing to pay to retain their ideology of racial superiority. The south endured their suffering because in the end they were able to tell a story of southern Redemption, a story of an out of control federal government, of African Americans undeserving of political rights and an oppressed poor white majority held in bondage by these two nefarious factions. “Lost Cause” mythology, as it is now known, told a moving tale of southern charm and hospitality, stately grace and manners, of dastardly blacks and blue devils on horse back terrorizing helpless southern citizens. What this story does, however, is act as a back door for low down bitter anti-black racism to enter into and fester inside our political language. Anti-black racism cloaked in lost cause-ism has become such a permanent feature of our political life that we have stopped hearing its pernicious double think. Slave-holders and traitors become, “honorable men”, murdered black children get called in the media, “thugs.”

John Kelly, and more importantly his boss Donald Trump, partakes of this tradition of lost cause-ism and refracted racial dog whistling. While Trump’s language is more nakedly crude than past Republican politicians, the anti-black racism is right at home in modern conservatism. America’s ‘founding sin’ was slavery and in many respects anti-black racism is the defining animus of so many of our political decisions, a ghost in the machine, rattling around and popping up in surprising places, in issues of policing and housing and education and the environment. Trump and Kelly didn’t invent racism, but are instead the latest exemplars of a vicious and lost cause.

 

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47dd-f3e9-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

Image courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections