In the category of “duh” but still incredibly valuable for being said — and well-said at that — is Rich Benjamin’s recent article on AlterNet “White Racial Resentment Bubbles Under the Surface of the Tea Party Movement.” Benjamin cooly reveals that underneath their anti-tax, anti-elite, intensely nationalist, pseudo-populist anger is good ol’ fashioned racism. Anti-tax code phrases like, “You should keep your own money!” really mean, “You shouldn’t have to give your money to those good-for-nothing poor people of color and immigrants.” The complaint about “government death panels” manufactures fear that the politically correct, liberal government will keep minorities alive at the expense of elderly whites (and by extension all white folks, who will hopefully someday become old).
Even the colonial imagery with which the Tea Partiers have slathered themselves harkens back to white-dominated, segregation America.
David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has suggested that, perhaps instead of the stupid, politically wimpy spending freeze, progressives propose national legislation stating that tax revenues flowing from and federal spending flowing to each and every state in the union break even by government mandate. No more shall the angry white people in “pure” states like Idaho be able to complain about tax hikes on those “diverse” and “pluralist” hell holes like California and New York that pay for Idaho’s roads and schools and health care. No more welfare for white states! If the milky tea set resents our nation’s move toward inclusion and cultural richness, along with things like (gulp!) equal treatment of women and progress toward racial justice and celebration of the American values of openness that invited immigrants here in the first place, then let them retreat into their own economic enclaves and see how well they fare alone. Forget red, white and blue. Just red and white from now on.
(Fortunately, corporate oligarchy knows no color or nation and I’m sure that Wal-Mart and chicken processing plants will be happy to continue to exploit an all-white workforce just as they have the white, black and brown working class. But luckily, the white radical separatist Anti-merica won’t have to contend with unions or any of those pesky groups trying to keep corporate power in check.)
Ah, the poor white people… If only they could be free. Benjamin astutely notes that the “individual rights” mantle to which the Tea Partyists desperately grasp is a manipulation of the identity-based rights assertions they have so long resented.
“Tea Partiers will bend your ear about “freedom from government” or their “Hunters’ and Fishers’ Bill of Rights.” This white-inflected rights-based outlook champions individual and neighborhood “freedoms,” withdrawn from the common nation, preoccupied by private interest, poised to behave according to private caprice. Tea Partiers contrive the right to live, make money, own property, zone neighborhoods, or protest taxes at will, without regard to the common good, a troublesome offshoot of rights-based agitprop.”
In her brilliant and still important book Mobilizing Resentment, Jean Hardisty details the work of Right wing leaders for decades to gin up the specific, race-based resentment that continues to percolate through the ranks of conservatism. But, Hardisty also contends, there are other forms of resentment mass America — right, left and middle — are experiencing. The Right wing has chosen strategically to fan and mobilize racial resentment, to fuel an us-versus-them narrative that conveniently obscures the real destruction caused by elite Right wing and conservative economic power. But if we listen to where people are at — including the misguided but ultimately hurting like the rest of us Tea Party followers — there are other deep and palpable resentments we could mobilize instead.
I offer the following list of alternative resentments stewing in the American public at large, to be tapped instead of racial resentment and hopefully toward more constructive (including racially unifying) ends:
1. Wall Street resentment. Obvious, but apparently not as obvious as we think. Recent polling suggest that the American public, across party lines, are more pissed off at Wall Street bankers than Obama, Congress, pretty much any other aspect of our political or economic structure. But the fact that, despite things like the Showdown in Chicago and other mobilizations of average Americans against outsized corporate power, the anti-government sentiments of the Tea Party still capture public attention says something about (a) the corporate Right’s keen interest in diverting attention from itself and (b) the rest of our failure to sufficiently and creatively gin up and channel anti-corporate anger ourselves.
2. Resentment at the sale of our democracy to the highest bidder. Even those who have swallowed the lie that government by-the-people-and-for-the-people is somehow inherently opposed to the people’s best interest should be offended by the recent Supreme Court decision to allow unlimited corporate influence in elections. As if it wasn’t bad enough that K Street owned Congress and the White House through back door channels. Now we’ve blown open the front door, too. The fact that, in case after case, politicians act against the public interest in favor of corporate interests — not because government doesn’t work but because Right wing and corporate elites have broken government — is pitchfork worthy indeed.
3. Ol’ fashioned class resentment. Not that we need to eat the rich or anything, but in an era of rampant economic crisis affecting the working class and middle class and even swaths of the upper-middle class as well, the fact that the super-rich are still super-rich and big business bonuses may be down but are certainly not out should put all our panties in a bunch. That Marx was onto something. At least with his analysis… That is not to say (as many Marxists do) that race has nothing to do with it, that everything reduces to class. Our American stratification of class is deeply racialized as is the way we experience and manifest class divides. But whereas once whites might have naively have pretended that their small, white sloop was better than the sinking dingy of poor people of color, now that we’re all in a bottomless, drowning boat, it should be more obvious to us than ever that our common fate — and common interest — stretches across race.
4. Rejection of stale nationalism. I recently observed some focus groups in which white working class and middle class folks were presented with optimistic messages about the economy that often began with something like, “America is the greatest nation in the world…” They objected. Not just to the non-reality of the statement today. It was as though they resented being lied to, being told all their lives that if they kept their heads down and worked hard and didn’t make trouble, in our great nation, they too could become great. Instead, they vastly preferred a narrative that said, in effect, “Our economy isn’t working for anyone on either side of our border and it’s time we fix it for everyone.” For generations, we have been told that our self interest is most wisely linked with the self interest, narrowly construed, of the American nation-state. The super-capitalists didn’t buy that. They linked their interests with globalization, money beyond borders, profit and exploitation that knew no bounds. Yet we kept our heads down, worked hard, didn’t make trouble — and now look what happened. If we continue to appeal to nationalism as our salvation, not only will we fail to build the global identity and political vision that is truly needed for our and the globe’s progress, but we will play directly into the hands of (now-global) economic elites who want us out of their internationalist hair.
5. General resentment of elitism. Americans are quite united in their opposition to elitism, they simply disagree about where to place the label. The conservative base resents liberal elites. The progressive base resents the corporate elite. The working poor resent the intellectual elite. The religious evangelicals resent the Church-based elite. Can’t we all just get along? The underlying premise of resentment of elites is the deeply condescending idea that we are not as qualified as “our superiors” to make decisions for ourselves, our communities or our nations — decisions about our economy, legislation, our spiritual guidance, etc., etc., etc. Jeff Sharlett captures this well in The Family, the idea that Right wing Christian elites are driven by their sense that their elite power is driven by their God-given superiority and duty to make decisions on behalf of the rest of us. Wherever it manifests itself, we should all be offended by such an insulting and belittling concept of power. But of course, if we continually fail to align across narrowly construed and misleading ideological interests and instead fight among ourselves, perhaps we the people are as incapable of wielding power as the various elites claim…
Ultimately, resentment must be channeled into hope to be politically meaningful. Resentment gets us all the room. Hope gets us on our feet and out the door to do something about it. But getting in the room together is a good place to start — especially if we can find a way to get more of us in the room together, united across race not divided by it.
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