The Politics Of Cruelty And Cruelty As Politics

1. Hanging From Trees

For writer Adam Serwer of The Atlantic, the most awful thing to experience at The Museum of African-American History and Culture are photos of lynchings—particularly those capturing crowds of smiling white people surrounding murdered black men hanging from trees:

“The artifacts that persist in my memory, the way a bright flash does when you close your eyes, are the photographs of lynchings. But it’s not the burned, mutilated bodies that stick with me. It’s the faces of the white men in the crowd. There’s the photo of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana in 1930, in which a white man can be seen grinning at the camera as he tenderly holds the hand of his wife or girlfriend. There’s the undated photo from Duluth, Minnesota, in which grinning white men stand next to the mutilated, half-naked bodies of two men lashed to a post in the street—one of the white men is straining to get into the picture, his smile cutting from ear to ear. There’s the photo of a crowd of white men huddled behind the smoldering corpse of a man burned to death; one of them is wearing a smart suit, a fedora hat, and a bright smile.”

“The Cruelty Is the Point” | The Atlantic | Adam Serwer | 10/03/18

Serwer takes this experience and expands on cruelty as a theme of the current political regime:

“We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era. There were the border-patrol agents cracking up at the crying immigrant children separated from their families, and the Trump adviser who delighted white supremacists when he mocked a child with Down syndrome who was separated from her mother. There were the police who laughed uproariously when the president encouraged them to abuse suspects, and the Fox News hosts mocking a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub massacre (and in the process inundating him with threats), the survivors of sexual assault protesting to Senator Jeff Flake, the women who said the president had sexually assaulted them, and the teen survivors of the Parkland school shooting. There was the president mocking Puerto Rican accents shortly after thousands were killed and tens of thousands displaced by Hurricane Maria, the black athletes protesting unjustified killings by the police, the women of the #MeToo movement who have come forward with stories of sexual abuse, and the disabled reporter whose crime was reporting on Trump truthfully. It is not just that the perpetrators of this cruelty enjoy it; it is that they enjoy it with one another. Their shared laughter at the suffering of others is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump. [Emphasis mine]

Taking joy in that suffering is more human than most would like to admit. Somewhere on the wide spectrum between adolescent teasing and the smiling white men in the lynching photographs are the Trump supporters whose community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.”

The “loneliness and atomization” that makes the cruelty of white supremacy possible is a political phenomenon in the sense that politics is ultimately about the power (backed by force) to decide who is “in” and who is “out.” Historically, the cruelty Serwer speaks of is the end-stage of a 50-year process that has redefined the Republican Party several times along themes of racial animosity and class anxieties.

John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election for many reasons, not the least of which was his careful “micro-targeting” of the black vote without alienating southern Democrats. Eisenhower had won the black vote by large margins in the previous two presidential elections. As the party of big business and restraining the welfare state fell under the influence of Barry Goldwater, it also became more hostile to the increasing pace of social change in general and the growing demands for black civil rights in particular. Goldwater’s Southern Strategy was designed to capture the South by terrifying and angering whites who felt threatened by the prospect of full citizenship for people they may not have considered fully human. I consider this the first major occurrence of cruelty at scale in the modern history of the Republican Party.

Antagonism towards non-whites—particularly blacks—didn’t work for Goldwater. But to varying degrees, it’s worked for subsequent Republican presidents. Richard Nixon’s antipathy for blacks was exceeded only by his dislike and mistrust of Jews not named Kissinger. Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 run for the presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi, infamous as the place where three civil rights workers were murdered for registering voters. Reagan scapegoated blacks further with his attacks on “welfare queens.” In the 1988 presidential campaign, so much attention was focused on Willie Horton one might’ve thought he was the Democratic candidate. Few if anyone knew then that the infamous Southern Strategy would come alive again in a virulent, racist recording made by Bush campaign consultant Lee Atwater:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.””

“Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy” | The Nation | Rick Perlstein | 11/13/12

Meanwhile, beginning with Goldwater, Republicans developed a parallel track along which ran constant anti “big government” Republican messaging aimed predominantly at working and middle-class whites though they needed social safety net policies as much as blacks. Despite this, the right affirmed and stoked their cultural and racial anxieties offering economic alternatives more suited to upper classes. Instead of opting for solidarity with other racial groups in similar economic circumstances, as their wages stagnated, their unions weakened, and their “good jobs” moved to other countries, “culture war whites” began to laud famous entrepreneurs and captains of industry as models to admire and emulate. Likewise, their trust in public sector solutions (like Social Security and Medicare, oddly but effectively branded as “entitlements”) withered away as ideologues such as economist James Buchanan led an assault on the idea that politicians and bureaucrats acted in anything other than their own self-interest:

“Governments, [Buchanan and others] argued, were being assessed in the wrong way. The error was a legacy of New Deal thinking, which glorified elected officials and career bureaucrats as disinterested servants of the public good, despite the obvious coercive effects of the programs they put into place. Why not instead see politicians and government administrators as self-interested players in the marketplace, trying to “maximize their utility”—that is, win the next election or enlarge their department’s budget?

This idea turned the whole notion of a beneficent government, and of programs and policies designed more or less selflessly, into a kind of fairy tale expertly woven by politicians and their flacks. Not that politicians were evil. They were looking out for themselves, as most of us do. The difference was in the damage they did. After all, the high-priced programs they devised were paid for by taxes wrested from defenseless citizens, who were given little or no effective choice in the matter. It was licensed theft, reinforced by the steep gradations in income-tax rates.”

“The Architect of the Radical Right” | The Atlantic |Sam Tanenhaus | 07/17

In other areas of the right-wing spectrum, neoconservatives (for their total support of Israel) forged alliances with evangelical Christians (for their staunch anti-communism) as another wing of the Reagan coalition. Both groups joined in on critiques of inefficient government. Eventually, conservatives of all stripes converged on the idea that government hindered more than it helped and should simply “get out of the way” of corporations, entrepreneurs, financiers, fossil fuel barons and average families making those choices that were best for them. The State, with its anti-liberty rules and cumbersome regulations, can never get things done as efficiently as individuals and firms that could harness the entrepreneurial spirit that had made America great. Margaret Thatcher captured this ideology of the individual perfectly when she declared, “There is no such thing as society.”


2)  Cruelty On An Industrial Scale  

Following Serwer’s analysis of cruelty, I think of the sustained assault on the policies and values of the New Deal, the New Frontier, the War on Poverty, the Great Society, and the War on Drugs as “epistemic cruelty”—cruelty against others that’s justified by one’s sense of identity, difference, and privilege regardless of shared economic interests and aspirations. This kind of cruelty is “epistemic” because it’s about transforming beliefs and values in such a way that true cruelty not only becomes possible, but also acceptable and necessary to protect and preserve the interests and social status of white identity from perceived racial, cultural, and class threats.

The purpose of right-wing ideological warfare over several decades has been to 1) weaken, then break the social bonds between individuals; 2) re-calibrate “class” as an indicator of social, cultural, and sometimes moral value; and 3) dissolve the possibilities of political change through mass democratic movements (not controlled by right-leaning corporate money and messaging, of which the Tea Party was a devastatingly effective example.)

Epistemic cruelty plays a critical role in an analysis of the response to the victories of the civil rights struggle. Wins for blacks such as The Fair Housing Act and school busing were almost immediately followed by “white flight.” As blacks moved into better neighborhoods in inner cities, whites moved out, taking their wealth with them, ensuring that cities with suddenly starved tax bases would go downhill. Then there was violence against school busing initiatives as whites thought that blacks in their schools would eventually mean blacks in their neighborhoods. All along, white anger focused on affirmative action as a new handout to blacks but also the end of handouts over decades to whites.

Another purpose of epistemic cruelty is to produce and propagate racist myths, attitudes, and messages about who’s getting special, unearned treatment, who’s unfairly suckling from the government teat, and who can easily be blamed for the economic and social decline of white life. Thus, epistemic cruelty is ultimately about who’s not worthy of being a real American.

The answer to this question has always been people of color—blacks getting welfare, jobs, and college admissions they didn’t earn, and brown people getting the undeserved benefits of citizenship. Throughout the 1980s, middle-class whites hardly ever blamed their stagnant wages on deindustrialization, America’s growing dependence on foreign oil, the redistributive effects of globalization, multi-nationals utilizing cheap foreign labor, and the politicians that serve their interests. Likewise, whites barely noticed a changing global economy and transformations in the nature of work. Worse, white hero-worship of superstar CEO’s like Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, and “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap obscured the harsh reality that during the go-go ’80s money earned from dividends and rents exceeded money earned from wages for the first time in the history of this country.

But there’s no longer wool over the eyes of the white middle and working class. Our president has made them aware that they are the victims now. They’ve been the true victims for a very long time, apparently so long that their victimhood justifies a staggering and wide-ranging regime of personal and institutional cruelty on black people.

This cruelty is on an industrial scale, captured on film or in print media. Below are links I’ve been curating that document epistemic cruelty:

There are no actual lynchings in any of these reports. Yet the breadth and depth of cruelty shamelessly displayed by fellow Americans is horrifying. Sometimes I’ve read these stories in shock. Sometimes I’ve read them with dueling surges of rage and helplessness. Perhaps worse, sometimes they read like a kind of terror porn. Surely there’s some sense in which America has left a lot of us swinging from trees without solutions for being victimized by white identity anxieties. Sadly, perhaps gravely, it now seems that “Yes we can” truly has become “No you can’t.”


3) There Must Be Some Logic To It

What I call “white identity policing” is an instance in which a white person reports the actions and behavior of a black person to the police that (s)he would not report were the same actions those of a white person. I’ve suspected that the frequency and tenor of white identity policing is a knock-on effect from the curious way that Black Lives Matter receded from the spotlight of a very specific cultural, political, and media moment.

Unlike other mass movements over the last decade, “the movement for black lives” was the only one that was thoroughly criminalized, routinely called “anti-American,” and even branded as terrorist. A Harvard-Harris online survey reported:

“Overall, 43 percent of voters have a positive view of Black Lives Matter, compared with 57 percent who have a negative view of the movement, the latest Harvard-Harris survey found.

Only 35 percent of whites have a favorable view of the movement, while 83 percent of blacks have a favorable view.

Twenty-one percent of Republicans have a positive view of the movement. That figure dips to 18 percent among those who voted for President Trump.

Meanwhile, 65 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of those who voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton support the movement, which sprung up during the 2016 election to protest several controversial police shootings of black people and broader frustrations with the criminal justice system and police treatment of minorities.”

“Poll: 57 percent have negative view of Black Lives Matter movement” | The Hill | Jonathan Easley | 08/02/17

I contend that staunchly pro-police whites felt antagonized by Black Lives Matter and were also sympathetic to smears and propaganda aimed at the movement. In my analysis, these whites think that Black Lives Matter never really went away. Rather, they believe radical black leftists took millions from liberal foundations and slipped from the streets into lower-profile political organizations, liberal churches, and classrooms. There they blend their “radical” beliefs into the rest of “normal” black and white liberal society in the way that the Viet Cong blended in with Vietnamese villagers. Right-leaning critics of “Cultural Marxism” make similar claims that radical 60s leftist thinkers have captured humanities departments (and thus the minds of middle-class kids) in American colleges and now use political correctness tactics to police free speech.

Whites antagonized in this way would conclude that Black Lives Matter is still plotting to subvert law, order and the current regime of racial hierarchies. Epistemic cruelty transforms harmless acts of daily black life into 21st-century reckless eyeballing. Such threats to the natural order can trigger an instance of white identity policing. Walking through an apartment building to your home, grilling in a park, or selling hot dogs or bottled water on the sidewalk become more than merely criminal acts—they are subversions of a natural order that whiteness must restore. Whites suddenly aggrieved by white life out of balance because a black woman is in a public pool even risk losing their jobs when their cruelty is captured on video. Still, even when their livelihoods are taken away, none are ever recorded owning up to how their epistemic cruelty made their actions OK.

Thus, epistemic cruelty in these incidences—just as they are in old black and white photographs of smiling whites at lynchings—is less an expression of irrational bigotry and displaced racial violence, and more a reminder to blacks that racial hierarchies are still intact and ever-present. Despite considerable social and economic gains over the last 50 years, blacks have a place and should always be aware of it. These boundaries aren’t going anywhere so long as there are racially aggrieved white people who’ll take the law and egalitarian norms into their own hands to maintain social order—even at the risk of losing the social status of whiteness that epistemic cruelty and voting for Trump are supposed to maintain. 

Theirs’s is a Hobbesian realm of fear, anxiety, scarcity, stagnation, and bad faith that the good times their parents lived through will one day return. They figure themselves the most “American” Americans, yet stuck as they are, they’ve never acknowledged that America has always a place of constant, relentless, unforgiving change, the kind of change that will leave them in history’s dust bin if they don’t change. I’d pity them if I weren’t so fucking pissed off.


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IMAGE SOURCE: man-984217_1920 (CC0 Creative Commons)

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