I supported Bernie Sanders, but then, like almost everyone else, I assumed Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump. I was surprised by the actual outcome but was amazed and then shocked by the strength and quality of the reaction to his election by those who had supported HRC. Like other middle-class “liberals,” I had viewed my side as the more reasonable one, or at least not the one that would descend into vicious personal attacks on the opposition candidate, up to and including a hope for his assassination. In 2008 I had watched right-wing Republicans call Obama a foreign-born, Muslim terrorist who only sought the presidency so he could use it to destroy the nation, pledging that they, the opposition, would do everything they could to frustrate him at every turn and make him a failed president. Now I am seeing liberal Democrats behave the same way, calling for immediate impeachment, believing every accusation made about the president-elect, declaring – as had their right-wing counterparts – that he would not be their president. A university education and middle-class income is apparently no match for deep outrage.
I have learned a great deal about my fellow Americans as a result of this election. I have learned perhaps even more about the continuity of human nature across all classes and economic levels of humanity. And, thanks to the history I had been reading previous to and since November 8, 2016, I think I understand better how ordinary people can come to tolerate or even condone the persecution of their neighbors over ideological or religious differences. I see how they can care more about their own prejudices and injured feelings than they do about the future of their nation or their own offspring.
It ain’t pretty.
The obvious answer to that question is that they’re the group who are neither rich nor poor but are sandwiched in between those two, a kind of stabilizing alternative to which the poor or “working class” can aspire to rise to and a safety net for those who have lost greater wealth so they need not fall all the way into poverty. We like to believe a middle class is essential to a democracy because it is they who make up the bulk of a prosperous and supposedly well-educated majority capable of making the kinds of decisions a well-ordered republic requires.
But what is the purpose of such a class beyond the maintenance of a national myth of political rule by a rational majority? Other cultures speak of a bourgeoisie, or more properly a petite bourgeoisie. To Marxists the former is likely to be synonymous with “capitalists,” the class we in American associate with the upper class, the latter with our own middle class. But other societies are also more class-conscious than our own, even rigidly so. Our way of ranking our population is much less fixed, open to free movement certainly in the economic sense and to a much larger extent than other societies in the social sense too.
The original idea of who deserves to be in the ruling, i.e. the bulk, of the voting class was seen in a very different way by the framers of our constitution than it is today. Back then it was exclusively free white landholding men. Today it is any citizen, rich or poor or in-between. But has the function of that voting class, mostly middle-class, changed from the one it served for Madison and Hamilton? And what is its function, if it has any beyond just a sociological and economic designation?
I see historical evidence that shows the purpose of a middle class like our own is crucial to maintaining a buffer between those who hold most of the nation’s wealth and those who possess very little of it. Without such a class the so-called one percent would have to rely upon brute force to keep in line and protect themselves from the so-called lower classes. With the disintegration of our middle class we can see a tendency toward more and more oppressive rule with the militarization of the police and with incarceration on a scale not practiced by any other nation on earth – a lurch toward a new feudalism.
The fact that the police and other governmental agencies obviously protect the privileges of the middle class does not mean they are not there ultimately to protect the interests of the upper class. It’s a function the middle class has performed wherever it has been constituted and allowed to prosper, not just in America. Consider the situation in the slave states of the Caribbean. Without a substantial white population to rely on to keep the large slave population in line, the ruling class had to resort to creating a middle class out of free blacks to serve as a buffer between themselves and those in chains. This is why West Indians tend to be better educated and more self-confident than our own African Americans. More than two hundred years ago Black West Indian men were already receiving the kinds of educations and professional opportunities we have not yet provided for our own descendants of slavery. Even West Indian women could become solid members of the middle class by opening shops and other small businesses.
A similar effort was made in the South to form a buffer, middle class of European-Americans between landowners and African-American indentured servants after the two had repeatedly combined forces against their owners. Only, promises of freedom, land and “whiteness” made to rebellious European-Americans in exchange for their acting as police to previous comrades of African and mixed descent never fully materialized, consigning them permanently to a landless state of poverty with only their “whiteness” to console them. Even so, they remained faithful to their new “race,” protecting their previous masters’ interests as if those interests were their own.
Almost a century ago Walter Lippmann published a well-thought-out book about the American political scene in which he concludes that public opinion – by which he meant the opinion of those that vote – needed to be carefully manipulated by those with the best understanding of what was best for the nation. The possibility of such manipulation, though not new, was at the time greatly enhanced by the advent of the public relations/advertising industry that had just come into its own during the Wilson WWI administration. “Manufacturing consent” has since became part and parcel of how the powerful elite have co-opted the middle class into accepting their, the elite’s, political agenda. Until recently no oppressive security force was required to effect this control as it has been in other nations. The media does the job virtually without coercion from outside, automatically.
The result has been a perfect pas de deux between upper-class moneyed interests and middle-class willingness to serve their masters as long as they are themselves guaranteed a comfortable living standard and access to unlimited upward mobility. If this requires the impoverishment of one-sixth of the population who typically don’t vote in the same percentages as their betters, that’s a trade-off the guilt for which can be ameliorated by token welfare policies or simply by blaming the victims.
My first substantive encounter with the oppressive Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories came several years ago at an event held in the local Dutch Reformed Church here in Brooklyn, New York. Till then, what I knew about Israeli policies and actions in the West Bank and in Gaza had relied heavily on mainstream media reports. But the event that night featured two speakers, both Israelis, one an 18-year-old about to be drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces, the other a middle-aged American who had lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before moving to Israel. The younger man intended to refuse service in the Israeli army and expected to receive a jail sentence in consequence. The older man had already served time in the reserves. The church was mostly full, the pews largely filled with people sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. But a substantial contingent critical of what the speakers had been saying later turned up in the rear of the church and made themselves heard. One woman was especially vocal, shouting “cal-UM-ny! cal-UM-ny!” in an attempt to drown out the speaker. A lone policeman assigned to the event restored order….
A few years back I heard a brief interview on the BBC with the mother of a child who had been sexually abused by a Catholic priest, aired at a time when the church’s sexual abuse scandal was at its height. New revelations were occurring almost every day, entire dioceses were going bankrupt as a consequence of having to pay out millions in compensation to victims, some of them now middle-aged. It wasn’t unusual to hear the voice on the the air of someone who had been sexually molested by clergy, sometimes many years earlier, and had only just come forward. What was very unusual, indeed unique in my experience, was the response this particular mother gave to the BBC presenter when asked how she felt about what had happened to her son.
She said that, as appalling as the physical abuse was, it was nothing in comparison with the psychological trauma he had suffered as a result of the religious “education” he had suffered at the hands of the church.…
…I could do worse than turn to someone who calls themselves a Jewish atheist. Some of them seem to find an easy affinity with the best teachings of Jesus.
Why not? Jesus, the itinerant rabbi, didn’t preach anything that wasn’t preached by the best of his predecessors in ancient Judea. Jesus was as Jewish as Yom Kippur. These Jewish atheists (their own self-designation) are simply acting in the tradition of Isaiah and the other prophets who railed against injustice and hatred and hollow ritual.
But it’s Jesus as often as Isaiah that today’s prophets quote to express how they feel. The most recent example of this I found in a column by Matthew Norman in the British Independent.
“In his last Easter message, the PM reminded us that this is a Christian country. ‘Across Britain, Christians don’t just talk about ‘loving thy neighbour’,” he said. ‘They live it out.’
“As an atheist Jew with no theological training, I may be on weak ground picking a fight with this dedicated churchgoer about what the guy he worships on Sundays meant by
‘loving they neighbour as thyself’. Perhaps Jesus was speaking literally about the person in the next house. The one with the latest model Lexus in the driveway.
“And yet, having attended the church attached to my school four times a week for several years, I have the nagging sense that ‘thy neighbour’ actually meant ‘everyone else’; a vague feeling that when, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said ‘Blessed are the merciful’, the mercy in mind stretches to victims of monstrous civil wars who endure unimaginable horror to give their children a chance at having less gruesome lives.”
Noam Chomsky is also fond of quoting the gospels, citing their “preferential treatment for the poor” and praising Pope John XXIII. (He also doesn’t hesitate to name a more recent pontiff as co-conspirator in the murder of Liberation Theology priests and even a bishop.) I don’t think this affinity for the gospels is because Chomsky was secretly baptized as a newborn by his Irish nursemaid, any more than I believe Matthew Norman’s humaneness is the result of his subjection to four days a week of Christian propaganda during his
formative years. Otherwise the Fundamentalist Christian wet dream of converting “the Jews” would have been accomplished simply by bombarding Jewish neighborhoods with Christian tracts.
What I think is going on is a response that is natural to human beings when they find themselves in a position of freedom from religious cant, whether Christian, Jewish or other, and have a warmly beating heart in their breasts. To be sure, such freedom does not affect everyone this way. There are plenty of atheists who are out-and-out monsters. I just happen to keep coming across the Matthew Normans and Noam Chomskys. Long may they flourish!
“Most good history does this, stands the standard narrative on its head, whether it’s Colin Calloway’s books about American Indians, Ilan Pappe’s revisions of official Israeli history or contemporary accounts of slavery in the American South by Frederick Law Olmsted. Noam Chomsky does it for just about any modern period of American history, and any number of younger journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Max Blumenthal, and Jeremy Scahill, to name just three, are busy correcting the official lies we are fed on a daily basis. It’s a good time for truth….”
My latest at Eclectica.
The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand has made some interesting observations about the current status of Muslims in Europe. He says that for 100 years (roughly 1850-1950) Jews were used as the alien threat to the national integrity of newly emerging nations there. Anti-semitism or, as he more accurately calls it, Judeophobia, arose at the same time strong nationalistic movements were coming to a head. The national myths which accompanied those nationalisms (Sand, quoting Ernest Renan among others, would say the myths actually created those national identities) harkened back to a fictional ur-people – Gauls, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons, Romans – from which the present population derives its identity and its peculiar character. Jews, in the mid-19th century seen for the first time as a race rather than just as a religion, did not fit into these narratives. In fact, they provided convenient enemies, threats from within to the purity of the national identity, a “sang impure,” to quote from the Marseillaise.
This fantasy of a homogeneous people played itself out most dramatically in the brutal stupidity of Nazism and other less comprehensive attacks on Jews throughout most of Europe, especially in those more easterly parts of the continent where blood – what we would now call genes – determined which nation-state you belonged to. In the west, France and England for instance, citizenship became a matter of choice rather than birth. But even in the west animus against Jews continued on an unofficial level.
By mid-twentieth century, Sand maintains, this wave of anti-semitism had played itself out. Jews became what they had always been in the West: French, British, Americans who happened to practice a different religion. It’s not that everyone suddenly started loving Jews, but official, state-authorized discrimination against them disappeared. In some places (France and Germany, e.g.) speech hateful of Jews became illegal. The idea in Europe of a “Judeo-Christian” culture took root.
But the notion, however fanciful, of a national bloodline for many people has persisted to this day. Foreigners – North Africans in France, Turks in Germany – have taken the place of Jews as the unassimilated alien, a kind of fifth column whose intentions are suspect at best, terroristic at worst. And, unlike the Jews of the nineteenth century in western Europe, they do not live among other French and Germans but in ghettos, the suburbs of Europe that correspond to America’s “inner cities.” Unassimilated, ill-educated and in France accounting for six times their percentage of the population in the prisons, they are seen as aliens even to the second and third generations. And, simply by the fact of their being Muslim they are associated with violent extremist groups like Al Qaeda, though very few actually become operatives for such organizations.
Ergo Charlie Hebdo, a publication that feels no qualms about degrading everything Muslim, including and especially what Muslims consider sacred. Only French casuistry can make the kind of arguments that have recently been made by and on behalf of that publication, portraying it as an equal-opportunity lampooner that it is only upholding the rights of unfettered speech fought for by the likes of Voltaire. Even a cursory look at the cover cartoons of Charlie Hebdo over the last few years indicates something more (or less) than good-humored, not to say intelligent, satire. And even 3.7 million French marching lockstep and carrying “Je suis Charlie!” signs (led by some of the world’s worst persecutors of free speech) doesn’t negate the despicable Islamophobia displayed in that publication. In fact, those 3.7 million French are proof of the dearth of rational thought, never mind toleration, in that country. Noam Chomsky, well before the Charlie massacre, pointed out that France has a very bad record of freedom of the press. Massive crowds of self-styled liberals marching in defense of massive prejudice and massive bad taste doesn’t prove otherwise.
Popular perception of social phenomenon may be like its understanding of new scientific ideas. It’s said to require fifty years for a new concept like Relativity or Quantum Theory to enter the public consciousness. It’s just about fifty years since state-approved Judeophobia disappeared. How long will it take before we recognize that Islamophobia is just as ignorant and shallow a prejudice as vilification of Jews? Or that it serves a purpose as feral as the one provided by that earlier prejudice? We like to think we are beyond certain types of thinking and behavior. Yet, has anything essential changed about us thanks to the twentieth century’s bloodbaths? Look around. I still see nation-states paying lip service to international law while operating in the same fashion as the worst actors of the last century. I also see my neighbors, by which I mean most of the world, stuck in the same uninformed mindsets as their parents and grandparents, only with different prejudices and rationalizations tailored to conform to the accepted prejudices and rationalizations around them. What we are seeing play out today in Europe looks a lot like the old anti-semitism with a new victim as its scapegoat.
Is this the best we can do? A march to defend the right of high-octane bigots to throw fuel on the fires of an already festering anti-Muslim bigotry in the land that gave us the Enlightenment? Diderot would be outraged. Voltaire, who is indeed in the first rank of those defending the rights of even the most outrageous use of free speech, would be firing off letters to the editor, denouncing Charlie Hebdo. Do we have to make the comparison with what public opinion would have made of a gang of Jews angered by anti-semitic cartoons in Der Stuermer in 1934 storming into the editorial offices with Tommy guns and wasting most of the staff? Would 3.7 million Germans marching the next day to uphold freedom of the press seem as laudable as the march led by that front line of hypocrites and the million people carrying Je suis Charlie signs behind them?
Not a fair comparison? Maybe, maybe not. But don’t kid yourself into thinking something basic has changed about human nature in the last eighty years. Fear of the other still runs as deep as it ever did, as does the herd instinct – even in la belle France.