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Amor Mundi: The World At Stake

The World At Stake

Lacino Hamiltion argues that Black Lives Matter is transforming from a protest movement into a political movement.

“In taking a hard look at how the Civil Rights movement transitioned from a protest movement to a political movement, we can discern certain lessons for the Black Lives Matter movement at this precarious moment today. The most important is that eradicating racial oppression ultimately requires struggle against oppression in all its forms; diverse coalitions offer the most promising strategy for the fight ahead. But so far unfortunately, the main direction of activists today seeking racial equality has been to shrink from the dangerous implications of restructuring America’s economic systems. Too often, their focus has instead been on simpler, more comfortable ways out such as protesting, for example, for the release of a video or the arrest of a police officer.

Protest can bring awareness to a problem that is being ignored or minimized, provide people who are angry and frustrated with racial oppression an outlet to channel their energies, and even force a resignation every once in a while. But institutional patterns and practices will not change unless protesters go beyond rallying, marching, and what usually amounts to empty slogans. The function of activists is to translate protest into organized action, which has the chance to develop and to transcend immediate needs and aspirations toward a radical reconstruction of society. This is the case today, to an unprecedented extent. The intensive indoctrination and pervasive nature of social inequality calls for intensive counter-education and organization. It also calls for knowing where we have been, in order to know where we are going.

Bayard Rustin, a close associate of Martin Luther King Jr. and a leading tactician of the Civil Rights Movement, wrote a little known article, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” for Commentary in February 1964. In his visionary article, Rustin provides a framework for looking at the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1964 and how that movement was evolving from a protest movement into a full-fledged social movement–an evolution many supporters of Black Lives Matter are now calling for.

“In a highly industrialized, 20th century civilization,” Rustin wrote, “we hit Jim Crow precisely where it was most anachronistic, dispensable, and vulnerable–in hotels, lunch counters, bus terminals, libraries, swimming pools, and the like.” In those forms, Jim Crow did not impede the flow of commerce in the broadest sense. It was, instead, a nuisance to America as the country emerged from World War II as the self-proclaimed citadel of democracy and preeminent purveyor of individual freedoms.

Direct-action tactics like sit-ins and freedom rides helped bring down the legal foundations of white supremacy in America. However, Rustin recognized that in desegregating public accommodations, “Blacks affected institutions which were relatively peripheral both to the American socioeconomic order and to the fundamental conditions of life of Black people”–a fact registered by millions of other Black people whose material conditions did not change.

Not long after the first flush of sit-ins, several developments took place that complicated the Civil Rights Movement: the first was the shifting focus of the movement in the South, symbolized by the founding of the Alabama-based Lowndes County Freedom Organization, the original Black Panther Party, which called for building independent Black institutions or power bases; the second was the spread of the movement from the South to the North and West, where Black people were engaging in insurrection in hundreds of cities; third was the expansion of the movement’s base to Black communities where revolt was always minutes away.

It was these shifts that began to transform peripheral demands of desegregating public accommodations into wider expectations for social change. Blacks began to seek advances in employment, housing, schooling, the elimination of police powers, and so forth. The movement expanded its vision beyond race relations to economic and political relations–or in the words of civil rights giant Ella Baker, “The struggle is bigger than eating a hamburger at a white counter.”

Of the many valuable analyses of the Civil Rights Movement, one is the rising need to expose and critique conflations of capitalism with democracy, while also diagnosing this formulation’s role in suppressing the exploration of alternative economic arrangements in struggles against white supremacy, domination, and exploitation. Even Martin Luther King came around to this line of thinking. In his last Sunday sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” he told the congregation, “There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today… it is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle. The disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic.”…

The term revolutionary, as I am using it, and as Rustin and others used it before me, refers to the rapid qualitative transformation of fundamental institutions. Structural change is the only way to rid American society of the ideology of racial inequality–the law cannot do it. The people must do it for themselves. They must become revolutionaries and refuse to accept traditional roles of protesting for a few superficial concessions, while also pushing back against calls for moderation. By organizing to win an ambitious restructuring of society, Black people and their allies are more likely to transform into the material base needed to build programs (critical literacy, media literacy, political theory, political economy and human rights advocacy) and more likely to support such a radical restructuring.”

Hamilton and Rustin’s imagination of politics as collective action in the name of a revolutionary re-foundation of the political order has much in common with Hannah Arendt’s understanding of politics, a politics that also can be helpful in thinking through the rise of Black Lives Matter as a political movement. In her essay “On Civil Disobedience,” Arendt lauds the American tradition of civil disobedience, which she understands as the non-violent use of collective disobedience by an aggrieved minority. Civil disobedience is not an individual act of conscience but is a political movement a mobilized minority. Collective civil disobedience is not rebellion. It speaks to the country and acts as a part of the country; and it does so publicly. Where criminals hide, civil disobedients act in public according to a claim of fundamental dissent; they accept the basic claim of fundamental authority even as they seek changes in that authority. And in their actions, civil disobedients can de-legitimate governmental authority. That is their goal, since the first step toward revolutionary action is the loss of legitimacy that leads to a revolutionary situation.

But civil disobedience, by itself, changes very little. It can destabilize a government and can lead to a revolutionary situation. But a revolutionary situation, Arendt writes, only rarely leads to a revolution. More often it leads either to counter revolution or to nothing.

Civil disobedience and the politics of revolution will only succeed, Arendt argues, when it can express a new idea that might inspire the majority. She was critical of the student revolutionaries of the 1960s not necessarily because of their violence, but more importantly because they did not come up with new ideas that could transform the revolutionary situation into a meaningful political revolution. Without such an idea, the violence of the so-called revolutionaries appeared as nothing more than protest and could not become a meaningful politics.

The creation of a new meaningful politics that could transform a revolutionary situation into a revolutionary politics is also the challenge of the movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street. If they aspire to become revolutionary political movements, they must do more than expose the illegitimacy of government; they must also do the hard work of thinking and imagining what a more legitimate and more just world would look like. Until they do imagine such a new common world that might appeal to a majority of Americans, these movements will appear as simply violent protest movements rather than be the political revolutionary movements that Hamilton is calling for.

‑Roger Berkowitz


A Private Person

Mark Greif

Daniel Cohen speaks with Mark Greif about his writing and outlook. Cohen asks Greif about the overarching concern with the decline of the public sphere in Greif’s books, the concern that as the public sphere has become increasingly impoverished, those things that have been and ought to remain private — including the functions of the body — become increasingly public.” Greif responds by acknowledging Hannah Arendt’s idea of the private realm as a place of refuge that makes it possible to gather one’s strength to enter the public realm.

“Here I really do follow Hannah Arendt in believing that successful action in public, and the ability to go out and speak before everyone’s eyes the truth that you alone believe despite their dislike or criticism, really requires that there be some place of safety into which you can withdraw. Where you don’t have to be a public person, where you can have the simplest means of the reproduction of the body. You sit, and you eat and drink, and you’re a big slob, and you sleep. I think it’s as dangerous to have a fully politicised society in which everyone is always under scrutiny and always judging one another with no place of recourse to be nothing, to just be alone, as it is dangerous to have what we tend to complain more about at this moment: a fully spectacular society of images which have no one’s assent or commitment. So I do believe, in that sense, in quite a strong public/private distinction. And I do think there’s a way in which, in our preoccupation with the robust public sphere of debate, we miss out on the dangerous super-public sphere of scrutiny, and especially scrutiny of the physical body, the biological body.”


McCarthyism For the 21st Century

Tunku Varadarajan interviews Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose views on the need to ideologically fight and suppress political Islam, explicitly recall and embrace Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusades.

“Ms. Hirsi Ali wants the Trump administration—and the West more broadly—to counter the dawa brigade “just as we countered both the Red Army and the ideology of communism in the Cold War.” She is alarmed by the ease with which, as she sees it, “the agents of dawa hide behind constitutional protections they themselves would dismantle were they in power.” She invokes Karl Popper, the great Austrian-British philosopher who wrote of “the paradox of tolerance.” Her book quotes Popper writing in 1945: “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

I ask Ms. Hirsi Ali what her solution might be, and she leans once more on Popper, who proposed a right not to tolerate the intolerant. “Congress must give the president—this year, because there’s no time to lose—the tools he needs to dismantle the infrastructure of dawa in the U.S.” Dawa has become an existential menace to the West, she adds, because its practitioners are “working overtime to prevent the assimilation of Muslims into Western societies. It is assimilation versus dawa. There is a notion of ‘cocooning,’ by which Islamists tell Muslim families to cocoon their children from Western society. This can’t be allowed to happen.”

Is Ms. Hirsi Ali proposing to give Washington enhanced powers to supervise parenting? “Yes,” she says. “We want these children to be exposed to critical thinking, freedom, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the rights of women.” She also suggests subjecting immigrants and refugees to ideological scrutiny, so as to deny entry, residence and naturalization to those “involved with, or supportive of, Islamism.”

In effect, Ms. Hirsi Ali would modernize the “communism test” that still applies to those seeking naturalization. “I had to answer questions when I applied for citizenship in 2013: ‘Are you, or have you ever been, a communist?’ And I remember thinking, ‘God, that was the war back then. We’re supposed to update this stuff!’ Potential immigrants from Pakistan or Bangladesh, for instance, should have to answer questions—‘Are you a member of the Jamat?’ and so on. If they’re from the Middle East you ask them about the Muslim Brotherhood, ‘or any other similar group,’ so there’s no loophole.”

Might critics deride this as 21st-century McCarthyism? “That’s just a display of intellectual laziness,” Ms. Hirsi Ali replies. “We’re dealing here with a lethal ideological movement and all we are using is surveillance and military means? We have to grasp the gravity of dawa. Jihad is an extension of dawa. For some, in fact, it is dawa by other means.””


North of the Park

Selin Thomas moves into Harlem:

“In so short a span of time, a stitched-up eighty years, the destitution of my relatives, their bald struggle and pain, has been transformed into physicians, law degrees, the upper middle class; literacy, homeownership, and mercurial great-grandchildren. So recently were institutional rights attained that my father was born before his could be federally guaranteed; that most parents will recall the era of segregation if asked; and that the president’s overarching campaign promise, to “make America great again,” can be read simply as a call for a return for it.

It is a new realization — that even after the Harlem Renaissance, Ellison and Baldwin, the Movement and President Obama — that we are not any more assured in our freedom. In Harlem, you are reminded of that. Harlem is evidence of the confused irony of pride and disenfranchisement, ascension and self-loathing, composure and shame inherent to black America.

A neighbor is looking into gun sales because a friend of his was surrounded in her car by three men screaming “nigger” at her at a red light in Delaware and another had hot coffee thrown in her face; a teenager on the train at 110th raps about the rope his mother gave him for the garden being used to hang him; Bill Saxton, a well-known jazzman with a spot on old Swing Street, enters a regular Saturday-night performance visibly shaking after an interaction with the police. “They’re just looking for a reason to shoot, so you gotta stay still,” he tells the audience. Then he plays.

In this country, of advantaged and disadvantaged skin, I am advantaged despite my personal history. No one knows I’m black. Tribalism is inseparable from the structure of power and society here, unique to this embattled land, and so will not be readily forgone; here, the color of our skin is currency. That is precisely the reason for the strength of my identification with my blackness, vulnerable not only to the attacks from without it, but also to that loitering crook, and his mnemonic shadow, within. The necessity to overcome our American dilemma is not inhibited by my identity. It is strengthened.”


Just Do It

Sheila Liming only wants one thing. She wants you to read:

“At the conference last spring, following an evening reading by a well-known author, I found myself standing in the lobby area where said author was dashing off autographs for those who had lined up to purchase copies of his books. A campus administrator of the conspicuous and high-ranking variety was also loitering nearby, within earshot of both the author and myself. Only an hour before, this administrator had performed the honors of introducing the author in question; his speech had been congenially laden with descriptions of the author’s achievements and publications, all of which were suggestive of a certain level of familiarity. But as we stood there in the lobby, watching the patient legions of book purchasers (most of them students) inching towards their respective meetings with the author, this administrator turned to his female companion and asked if she was ready to go. “Don’t you want to buy a book?” she asked him, to which she received a dismissive reply: “Who actually has the time to read?”

This wasn’t the first time I had heard an academic professional or career educator publicly denounce the practice of reading. Indeed, I can recall similar instances from throughout my career as a graduate student, including the time that a colleague of mine (a creative writer pursuing an MFA in fiction) told me that, as a writer, he didn’t believe in reading: “I’m a writer, I make things,” he told me, “Whereas you’re a reader, you consume things.”  In saying this, my colleague appeared to be drawing a sharp line between the twin skill sets of the literary arts curricula and, at the same time, reinforcing a puzzling division of labor. Such binaries lend credence to and support for so-called “producerist” ideologies, all-too-common today, that would have us value innovation over use and, thus, production over education.

One of the more recent and better-known contributions to the growing argument against reading appeared last fall courtesy of critic Amy Hungerford. Hungerford’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “On Not Reading,” hinges on the observation that “The activity of nonreading is something that scholars rarely discuss.” But these anecdotal experiences, I think, suggest otherwise, as does the ethos that encourages the various participants in our literary ecosystem—everyone from high-school and college students to professors, editors, and writers of all stripes—to privilege acts of literary production over anything that might resemble “consumption.” All that time spent reading, we are effectively being told, might be more productively spent writing essays about not reading so that other readers can not read them.”


Fine Distinctions

Victoria Law considers how the focus on the difference between violent and nonviolent crime stunts any attempts at real (and necessary) reform for America’s prisons:

“More than 40 years after the War on Drugs was declared, our nation faces overcrowded prisons and skyrocketing costs. As state and federal budgets sag under this weight, politicians who once vowed to be “tough on crime” are now introducing legislation that ostensibly begins to undo their efforts. Though the new president has set himself firmly against Obama’s criminal justice reform (along with everything else Obama has implemented), lawmakers on the state level are continuing their efforts to cut prison populations.

On the federal level, there have been talks of a bipartisan approach to criminal justice reform. In the Senate, for example, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul teamed up with Democrats Patrick Leahy and Jeff Merkley to introduce the Justice Safety Valve Act, allowing federal judges to hand out sentences below the mandatory minimums. Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner teamed up with Democrat Bobby Scott to introduce the Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective (SAFE) Justice Act, which encourages probation for lower-level offenses. The act’s supporters run the gamut of the political spectrum, from the NAACP and the ACLU, to the Police Foundation and Right on Crime.

But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that this is the start of abolition–or even wider decarceration. As the SAFE Justice Act pushes for nonprison alternatives for lower-level (nonviolent) convictions on the federal level, it still focuses on “concentrating prison space on violent and career criminals.” Even Obama, who recently wrote that criminal justice reform has been a focus of his entire career, has stated, “There are people who need to be in prison, and I don’t have tolerance for violent criminals.”

Concentrating prison space on violent and career criminals might be a goal that few would argue against. After all, who doesn’t want to be safe in their homes, streets and communities? But this divide between nonviolent and violent crimes ignores the root causes of harm and violence as well as society’s failure to recognize and address these forms of violence.”


Posted on 16 April 2017 | 9:30 am

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