Wednesday, December 23, 2015

America 2015 (A Year On The Brink)

"So It Goes" by Nick Lowe seems to be an appropriate song for this year

Every year about this time I take stock of what's happened, both in my personal life and in the larger world.  This year, 2015, will either be seen in the future as an important turning point (a la 1968), or a momentary outbreak of change that quickly subsided (like 2011, the year of Occupy.)

The thing that dominated the political scene in America this past year was the color line.  In regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, the protests related to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014 did not quickly become a thing of the past, as unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray showed. In that case the attorney general actually secured indictments, but the trial process has been difficult.  Movements against racism went well beyond the police.  In Chicago the mayor himself was implicated in covering up a cop's murder.  At the University of Missouri students actually managed to get their president to resign for not doing enough to address racism on campus.  Pressure was put on Democratic candidates for president, and now Bernie Sanders is explicitly endorsing the movement's goals. The Democrats rely on black votes to win elections, and the BLM movement might thus finally break the two-party consensus of "tough on crime" dating back to Clinton.  Despite the setbacks recently in Baltimore and the continuing headlines of police shooting unarmed African Americans, the new anti-racist movements could be poised to bring about some major changes.

Of course, whenever the color line gets challenged, white people spring forth to its defense, and fight that defense more fervently the more that line gets challenged.  The Republican Party has been using racial resentment against president Obama for years, but in 2015 that coded resentment was out and proud, thanks to Donald Trump.  His campaign initially benefited from him being perceived as a straight-talked who would upend traditional politics.  He achieved staying power, however, by going after Mexican immigrants in openly bigoted terms.  The success that this has brought him has forced many other Republicans to follow suit, leading to the opening of an Overton Window.  Trump has advocated mass deportations of millions, the kind of thing carried out in only the most repressive states, and yet his popularity keeps rising.  Fear and resentment of Muslims has grown in staggering fashion, so much so that Republican officials fell over themselves to be the first to castigate Syrian refugees and proclaim that they weren't welcome.

In a sign of the times, the violent white supremacists are coming out of the sewers and out into the open in ways I've never seen in my lifetime.  Some of them shot four black protesters in Minnesota, and the protests at the University of Missouri were partially spurred by white supremacist graffiti. Anti-Muslim hooligans have been defacing mosques and Muslim centers all around the country.  Trump is speaking to these and their grievances, and white power groups and figures have now endorsed him.  Trump may very well go down as a historical oddity, like Boulanger in France in the late 1800s.  But like Boulanger, Trump represents deeper forces at play.  Just as France in the fin-de-siecle was a place of extreme political and cultural divisions, so is America.  In both cases reactionary elements have a romance with authoritarianism and removing "internal enemies."  The anti-Semitism of the late 1800s has been replaced with Islamophobia and racial resentment, but both rooted in the desire by a particular group to "take our country back."  If 2014 finally ended the fatuous talk in the media of a "post-racial America," 2015 was the year that openly expressed white supremacy came back into the national discourse.

In the midst of all of this, guns played a big role in 2015, from San Bernardino to Umpqua. This past year confirmed something we already knew after the Newtown massacre: gun control is just not going to happen.  If a room full of dead children wasn't going to move the issue, nothing else ever would.  Something most progressives don't seem to understand is that for a large group of people, guns are a crucial element to their very identity, and many of those people think gun ownership is a bulwark against government tyranny.  Beyond the headline-grabbing massacres, the open carrying of guns at protests has gone from something that once caused great alarm a few years ago to a commonplace occurrence.  America was always a heavily armed society, but it is now one where guns are allowed almost everywhere, and where they are being used in protests to intimidate and imply the threat of violence.  Americans now think that in response to the threat of terror that we need MORE guns, not fewer.  Banning assault weapons used to have huge amount of support, now only a minority would back it.  2015 may very well go down as the year that the NRA's interpretation of the role of guns in society actually became conventional wisdom.

Looking forward I try not to let my usual pessimistic tendencies predominate.  There are levels of political action and activism by young people that I have not seen in my lifetime; it's the kind of thing I so sorely wanted to be a part of in college where I formed a club with a handful of friends to that end because there were no organizations on campus for social activism.  While Bernie Sanders will likely not get the nomination, the fact that he draws the level of support that he does is heartening.  Anti-racists are making the likes of Rahm Emmanuel run for cover and are forcing many institutions to confront structural racism.  Years of activism by the gay rights movement paid off this year with the Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage.  Transgender people are getting rights and recognition when they used to only get scorn and mockery.

At the same time, I can't escape the thought that these green shoots of progress will only prompt a much stronger reaction, uprooting them violently.  Trump is leading the Republican race as a quasi-fascist, and even if he doesn't win, his army of supporters is still out there, ready to act and ready to listen to another demagogue.  There is still no justice for Sandra Bland and countless others.  The most fearful among resentful white people are literally sticking to their guns.  2015 was a year on the brink in America, 2016 will likely decide whether that brink will be breached or not.

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