Monday, June 5, 2017

Divisions in American Left Yield Trump: The Case of Bill Maher and Response of Some Liberals to Discussion of This Case

It's clear to me following the last federal election in the U.S. that the American left is divided in a way that powerfully contributes to the dysfunction that has produced a Trump presidency and a Republican majority in Congress. Bernie bros vs. Hillary supporters. Libertarian-leaning Democrats vs. socialist-leaning and progressive ones. Those who see "identity politics" and "political correctness" as the bane of the Democratic party, and those of us who cannot imagine a Democratic party without a commitment to identity politics — because identity politics touches on the concreteness of those who are "actually" poor and marginalized in our society; it names the reasons many of us are shoved to the margins and struggle economically.

The vituperative responses of some liberals (or is "libertarians" really the more accurate word here?) in the U.S. to any open, critical discussion of Bill Maher's recent use of a racial slur term on national television drives home to me yet again just how divided American progressives or liberals are — and what we're divided about.

1. The Nuns on the Bus tour Arkansas last year. When they're in Little Rock, we're divided into discussion groups at the church where we're meeting, and each roundtable is asked to list the five most pressing issues of social justice facing our community. Every table in the room (the participants are about equally divided among white and black folks) lists racial justice/racial reconciliation as a key need of our community.

Sister Simone Campbell, who's moderating the discussion, is surprised. "When we did this exercise in northwest Arkansas last evening, not a single table had that on its list," she tells us. The whole room breaks out into laughter, and she looks shocked: as she tells us afterwards, she has learned something important, something she did not know about our state as an outsider looking in. We tell her that we in central Arkansas aren't at all surprised to hear about her experience in the northwest corner of our state.

From the outside looking in, Arkansas is a small, monolithic state all of whose citizens think alike — a typical "Southern" state. In reality, we have long had two distinct cutures in our state, one an upland culture in which slavery was almost non-existent, the other a lowland culture dominated by a slave economy prior to the Civil War. The northwest corner of the state, where the Republican party has historically been strongest in Arkansas, is heavily white.

Some communities in that area of the state deliberately made people of color unwelcome following the Civil War, making this corner of the state even more white than it had been previously. It's not accidental that people in that corner of Arkansas would not list racial justice/reconciliation as a key issue to confront in their community, while people in the center of the state would agree that it's one of the most pressing issues our state needs to deal with.

Racism does not exist for some people when they refuse to see racism.

2. I'm having a dialogue with a scholar of religion who grew up in California, is on the faculty of a university in California — a Catholic scholar of religion. She's heterosexual and married.

I tell her that one of the shortcomings I see in much Catholic theology and religion scholarship in the U.S. nowadays is that it's dominated by heterosexual (and usually white) people who don't even see or acknowledge their heterosexual power and privilege as a starting point for their theological reflection.

"Oh, I've had workshops about that at my university in California. We're told to start with such acknowledgments. I already know about all of that," she tells me. I give up on dialogue with her after that, and stop following her on Twitter.

She just doesn't get it, doesn't get that she enjoys astonishing entrée as a white hetersoexual married woman, which those of us in the Catholic theological community who are not heterosexual (or white) do not enjoy. She speaks for us and claims to stand with us.

But she will not even listen to us.

3. This Catholic scholar of religion happens to enjoy entrée at the leading publication for the Catholic theological community in the U.S., Commonweal. Following Trump's election, the movers and shakers of that publication published repeated statements excoriating those who wanted to talk about racism as a root cause of Trump's election.

"You're engaging in identity politics." "You're pushing political correctness and trying to silence your opponents." "You're ignoring the economic disaffection of white working-class voters." They said all of this and more.

For some years now, this publication has refused to provide a meaningful Catholic forum for open discussion of the issue of racism in American society, just as it has also refused to provide a meaningful Catholic forum for discussion of LGBTQ issues in which the voices of LGBTQ people are invited into the conversation and listened to respectfully.

Commonweal persistently manages to communicate that economically secure heterosexual white Catholics are the default brand of Catholicism in the U.S. and that it's impolite to push for open discussion of the issue of racism within a Catholic community that can't possibly have a racist bone in its body. Because Catholic.

Racism just does not exist when we refuse to see racism.

4. In the past week, when I mustered the courage to talk about the topic of racism in an email discussion group to which I belong, many of whose members are connected to Commonweal, a member of that group who happens to be a priest (a white one and a very conservative one) chose to shut me up with a dismissive reply, and another member of that group, a liberal layman (heterosexual, married, white) also connected to Commonweal, posted a clapping hands emoticon in response to the priest who had chosen to shut me up in a dismissive way. As it happens, that influential Catholic layman lives in California.

I did not even merit more than an emoticon response from this leading liberal Catholic layman, who happens to be white, heterosexual, married, and living in a liberal community in California.

Some people count. Others don't. Some get to do the talking. Others don't. People in some parts of the country should shut up and listen to people in the more enlightened areas of the country.

If we say that racism does not count, it does not count. If we say that we do not see racism, then racism is not there. If we declare that the N- word is "just a word," it's just a word.

Shut up and listen to us. You have nothing to teach me; I live in California.

5. As it happens, someone connected to me on Facebook, who lives in California, as it also happens, said that very thing to me yesterday, vis-a-vis the controversy about Bill Maher's use of the N- word and my response to it.

There's a reason the American left is so deeply divided, in disarray, unable to make political headway and to make a dent in the Trumpist movement. There's a reason people outside the bicoastal elites in the U.S. often seek to communicate to the members of those elites, in which the national media are deeply rooted, that they do not listen respectfully to us, hear our voices, or seek to understand us.

That they come across as dismissive, elitist know-it-alls who cannot command respect because they do not themselves treat others with respect . . . .

There's a reason that African-American citizens of the U.S. and those standing in solidarity with African-American citizens of the U.S. have sought repeatedly to tell the whole nation that, until we deal with the problem of deep-seated, historic racism in this country, we will never move forward as a nation. The fracture within the American left over Bill Maher's use of the N- word on national television underscores the vital, imperative importance of that point.

(I have no intention of picking on any particular state, and that is why I keep using the phrase "as it happens" in my report above. I find much to admire about California and have many good friends in California. These kinds of elitist responses could well emanate from other parts of the nation. They are, however, typical of what many of us living in the hinterlands in the interior of the country hear on a too-predictable basis from people in more "enlightened" and "influential" places.)

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