Barry's Blog # 64: Trayvon Martin, Edward Snowden and American Myth

Nineteen-nineteen was one of the most contentious years in American history. The presence of millions of unemployed World War One veterans added to an already difficult economic situation. In every industry, working people were confronting the excesses of capitalism. The year saw: more labor strikes than in any previous year; a resurgent Ku Klux Klan; several major race riots; pressure for both prohibition of alcohol and women’s right to vote; and a massive reactionary mobilization by the government and the major media in what became known as the (first) Red Scare, which led to the murders of many activists by police and right-wing thugs.

The ruling elites – and, because of the unrelenting media blitz, the middle class as well – were obsessed with the new version of what I have called the “outer other” of communism, or as it was more commonly called at the time, “Bolshevism.” J. Edgar Hoover blamed this evil ideology specifically on “alien” immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.

Serious cracks in the myth of American innocence had appeared, and people were faced with the terrifying possibility of having to question the most basic assumptions of the stories we (whites) have told ourselves about ourselves. These stories include sacrifice of the children and redemption through violence; heroic masculinity; upward mobility; white privilege; racial exclusion – and scapegoating.

When our government and media gatekeepers perceive the need to shore up the cracks in the myth, they have always done so by demonizing the “other,” both to provide distractions from the pressing economic issues, and to offer a way out of the anxiety that arises when we begin to doubt the roots of our identity. We know who we are because we are not “them.” White American identity is very shallow and fragile, because it is built upon a sense of who we are not, rather than upon who we are.

But whenever America attacks the outer other (originally Indians, then Bolsheviks, eventually Muslims), there seems to be a need to demonize the inner other as well (then, as always in America, the Black man). If identity is attacked from the outside, then fears of losing that identity from the inside may also arise. So, as Anthony Read writes in The World On Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism:

When racial unrest erupted…it was inevitable that Bolshevism was seen as a prime cause: ‘REDS TRY TO STIR NEGROES TO REVOLT’ was one typical headline, while the New York Times…was quick to blame ‘agitators among the Negroes, supported by the Bolsheviki, the IWW (the “Wobblies”) and other radical elements…’

On one level, to connect the black struggle for justice with other progressive and revolutionary movements is to imply that Blacks couldn’t or wouldn’t rise up on their own, that only “Reds” would agitate Blacks into protesting their conditions. On another level, these hysterical headlines were not concerned with rational argument but only to evoke fear of the other in every possible form.

The same dynamics could be seen earlier, during the Populist period of the 1890s, as well as later, in the 1950s, during the second Red Scare, when the same Hoover accused Martin Luther King Jr. of being a “card-carrying” member of the Communist Party. The presence – or contrived fear – of the other on one side of our identity inevitably evokes the other side.

The first Red Scare lasted a few years, until the myth of innocence was temporarily restored in the late 1950s. The second one lasted much longer, primarily because of the political and cultural explosions of the 1960s. It ended only because the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

But the economy continued to unwind and America remained in a constant state of turmoil. Elites needed a new “outer other.” They found it very quickly with the threat of Muslim terrorism. Soon after the tragedies and invasions of 2001, they refocused upon the threat of illegal immigration, which has the curious potential to evoke both inner and outer.

By the election of 2012, however, it became clear to reactionaries that Latino-Americans had become a voting block too powerful to ignore. However, the traditional, reliable “inner other’ remains the Black man in America.

This is true even though our gatekeepers have portrayed the nation as being “post-racial” because it has a Black president. The presence and symbolism of Barak Obama have enabled the media to ignore or at least minimize racial profiling, the growing poverty and despair in the Black community, voter registration scandals, the epidemic of police and vigilante violence against Black people (“When Police Shoot And Kill Unarmed Men” —, the lack of accountability (“F.B.I. Deemed Agents Faultless in 150 Shootings” —, the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and Obama’s own war upon our privacy.

The War on Terror is our third Red Scare, with the simple exchange of brown (Muslims) for red (Communists). It is just as contrived, just as fictitious, as the first two scares. However, the other fiction of post-racialism supports the sense that we are too sophisticated now to believe that terrorists might be behind progressive and anti-racist organizations. So even the most extreme right-wingers don’t bother to make such suggestions. The tragedy is that they don’t have to anymore.

All this leads me to suggest that it is no coincidence that both the Edward Snowden controversy and the miscarriage of justice in the Trayvon Martin trial should be so prominent in the news today. Snowden’s revelations are so important because they call into question the hideously wasteful national security state and the edifice of faith in government that the gatekeepers have struggled so hard to rebuild ever since 9-11, indeed, ever since the end of the Viet Nam War, ever since the sixties. Hence the nearly universal vehemence that the corporate media and almost all elected politicians, including the liberals who have tied their fortunes to Obama, have heaped upon Snowden.

Violence against young men of color never ended during these years. But now we have a new escalation in the hate because the economy has not and will not recover for working people. The good, blue-collar jobs are gone forever. To add to the insult to traditional masculinity, most jobs are in the female-dominated service industry. But the gatekeepers have offered a sop to the millions of disillusioned white men and terrified white women (George Zimmerman’s jury was composed entirely of women, none of whom were Black). The sop, coded in “post-racial” language, goes like this: We welcome you to re-affirm both your identity and your trust in our institutions through risk-free hatred and punishment of the scapegoat.

If there is anything encouraging to be found in the current situation it is this: When the gatekeepers go to such lengths both to convince liberals to demonize whistleblowers (this administration has attacked eight of them, more then the combined total of all previous administrations) and to enable and encourage violent rednecks, it is an indication that the new cracks in the myth of American innocence are getting so wide and so numerous that they must be fearing that the whole thing might be in danger of falling down.

Dionysus caused the walls of mythical Thebes to collapse. His story is archetypal; that is, it happens ultimately in every psyche and in every culture. And the more inflexible those in charge (in psychological terms, the ego), the harder they will fall.

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Comment by Nan Sierra on July 18, 2013 at 6:24am

Good article, thanks!

I've often thought Dionysus (in terms of hippies, flower power, free love) was the driving force initiating the sixties eventual political rebellion...  

The demonization of Muslims seems to me the clearer example of being welcomed to reaffirm identity and trust "through risk-free hatred and punishment of the scapegoat." There seems little penalty, socially or legally and hardly any shame attached to spewing hatred and spreading whoppers of misinformation, outrageous profiling at airports and the like, or passing laws against the bogeyman of Sharia law.  Though I haven't thought it through clearly, as you have, the continued racism against black people seems to me more twisted, covert and invariably denied with protests of innocence--there was no racial profiling, the Tea Party isn't racist, etc-- exactly because it is less broadly welcomed. It's still there but having lived through the 60s and been an activist most of my life, I think that there has been a broadening of consciousness which makes racism against African Americans less amenable to the kind of political manipulation you've described. Fifty or so years ago, it's likely George Zimmerman wouldn't have been charged and his acquittal, if he had been, unremarked in mainstream culture.    Doesn't make any difference to the victims, of course. Trevyon Martin's young life has been stolen and justice was not done.  But the broader consciousness does makes racism (I think or maybe just hope) less broadly amenable to the kind of political manipulation you've described. With Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Edward Snowden, the public unconsciousness seems deeper and the manipulation so blatant, it's cartoon-like.

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