The Uses of Patriotism

Joseph Rakes attempts to stab Ted Landsmark with an American flag at an anti-busing rally in Boston, April 5, 1976.

For the last few months, Langston Hughes’s depression-era poem “Let America Be America Again” has been playing in my head.

The poem has something of a promiscuous political history. John Kerry used the its title as a campaign slogan in 2004; Scott Brown, in a 2012 campaign ad. In 2011, it appeared on Rick Santorum’s website, before the anti-gay Santorum learned more about Langston Hughes and scrapped it. Now, of course, you hear its echoes in Trump’s ubiquitous refrain. Both evoke an America that was, that can be again. It begins:

Let America be America again
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

This first voice is nostalgic and patriotic. Trumpian. But interrupting it is another voice, sullen and blunt:

(America never was America to me.)

Two more stanzas follow this pattern. The first voice sings the praises of “that great strong land of love” where “opportunity is real, and life is free, where “equality is in the air we breathe.” And again the other voice interrupts: “(It was never America to me)”; “(There’s never been equality for me, nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’)”

Finally, the first voice addresses the second, venomously:

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

Here the second voice escapes its parentheses and carries the remainder. “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,” it says, “the Negro bearing slavery’s scars… the red man driven from the land.” The second voice tells another American story, one that contradicts the pastoral hopefulness of the first, a story in which exploitation and subjugation have been the norm, where the rich “live like leeches on the people’s lives.” There is no America to redeem because America never was.

Not incidentally, the politicians who’ve channeled Hughes’s poem have dwelled on the first rather than the second voice. When John Kerry quoted several lines from “Let America be America Again” at the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas in May 2004, he skipped over the second voice altogether.

We know why. The second voice unsettles; speaks out of turn. Drawing her veil across the stars, she casts an unflattering shadow on America’s self-image. The second voice refuses to succumb, even briefly, to the seductive comforts of an illusion. It’s a lovely story, she says, but it isn’t true. American was never America to me.

This, it should be said, is a courageous act. It’s dangerous to contradict the myths of the comfortable—especially when they’re singing.

* * *

On August 27, at a preseason football game in Santa Clara, California, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the national anthem. He told the media afterward, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.”

“There are bodies in the street,” Kaepernick added, “and people [are] getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

A few hours later, a 49ers fan filmed himself burning Kaepernick’s jersey in effigy. Other fans soon followed suit. In one video, Kaepernick’s #7 jersey hangs from a tree, engulfed in flame, as an orchestral recording of the anthem plays in the background. The fan holds his hand over his heart as the jersey turns from red to coal-black and falls to the ground, as if on cue, when the horns sing “home of the brave.”

Over the past two months, Kaepernick’s anthem protest has spread to dozens of other NFL players, and to college, high school, and youth athletes. Meanwhile, the vitriol against Kaepernick has reached a fever pitch.  At a 49-ers game in Buffalo a few weeks ago, Bills fans sold t-shirts in the parking lot imprinted with an image Kaepernick’s face framed by crosshairs and the words “Wanted: Notorious Disgrace to America.” He has begun receiving death threats

Where Kaepernick’s critics see an insult to the nation’s symbols, his supporters see the highest expression of patriotism. For them, holding the nation accountable to its purported values is what patriotism consists of. As MTV’s Jamil Smith wrote, channeling Baldwin, Kaepernick’s actions demonstrate how “the greatest love for our nation is shown by those who seek to improve it.” “I’m not anti-American,” Kaepernick has said, “I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.” After the first wave of reaction, Kaepernick and his allies opted to kneel instead of sit during the anthem—a gesture, in its execution, not unlike supplication.

But none of this matters to Kaepernick’s frothiest white critics. Anti-racism doesn’t figure in their definition of patriotism. Quite the opposite. For them, the image of a Black man refusing to submit, refusing to show sufficient passivity, gratitude, deference, is intolerable. It’s not only unpatriotic; it’s un-American.

I’ve wondered lately—and especially since America elected an unrepentant white nationalist as president—whether there isn’t some perverse wisdom in this view. The question of whether it’s possible to criticize American racism without implicating something deeper, something at the root of American identity and history remains unsettled. As Wesley Morris observed recently, “Whiteness and America have always been kept synonymous, conjoined, fiercely paired.” Can we indict the former without incriminating the latter?

Colin Kaepernick’s critics seem to believe that to protest racism—no matter how cautiously—is to protest America. Perhaps they’re right.

* * *

On March 21, 2008, Bill Clinton was speaking at campaign stop for Hillary Clinton in Charlotte, North Carolina. Envisioning a general election between his wife and John McCain, Bill said, “I think it would be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country, and people could actually ask themselves who is right on these issues, instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics.”

His meaning was clear enough. Obama’s patriotism—his Americanness—had long been the subject of suspicion. Right-wing radio hosts emphasized his Arabic middle name and speculated he had taken his oath of office on a copy of the Quran. A photo circulated on right-wing listservs of Obama with his hands clasped below his navel, instead of over his heart, during the national anthem. Debate moderators grilled him about American flag lapel pins. And always, the question of his relative patriotism was linked to that of his blackness.

With one sentence, Bill had fueled the popular perception that Obama wasn’t quite America-loving in his worldview, while simultaneously lamenting that controversies about his race and origins were distracting from the real issues of the campaign. It was a common maneuver among Obama’s tactful detractors in the waning days of the 2008 primary: not that Obama’s blackness was disqualifying of course, but that it was too controversial, maybe even dangerous. (A few weeks later, Hillary Clinton would cite Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination as justification for staying in the race.)

Exactly three days before Bill’s Charlotte remarks, Obama had given his famous “A More Perfect Union” speech in which he contrasted his ideas about race and American history with those of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ. Wright had become a media lightening-rod after snippets of his sermons appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America.

The most controversial clip was taken from a 2003 sermon in which Wright offered this concise history of America’s treatment of “her citizens of African decent”:

She put them in chains. The government put them in slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing God Bless America. No, no, no. Not “God Bless America”; God Damn America! … For killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating her citizen as less than human. God Damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme.

You can guess which few seconds were played incessantly on every cable news network for weeks.

Wright’s pulpit politics—inspired by the Black liberation theology of James C. Cone, infused with Afrocentrism, and rooted in the lived experience of his congregation on the South Side of Chicago—were as scandalous to white audiences as they were familiar to Black ones. The idea that anti-Black racism is as much an American tradition as, say, standing and removing one’s cap for “The Star Spangled Banner”, is not a controversial opinion at many Black kitchen tables. As one Trinity Church congregant told ABC news, “I wouldn’t call it radical. I call it being black in America.”

In this and other sermons, Reverend Wright told a story of America in which violence against people of African descent was a constitutive element of American social, cultural, and economic life—where racism was not an aberration from the norm, but embedded in the norms themselves. It’s an idea with a deep lineage in the Black radical tradition, from Frederick Douglass to W.E.B. Dubois to Claudia Jones to Malcolm X to Angela Davis. Today, its best articulator (and chronicler) is Ta-Nehisi Coates.“In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body,” Coates writes,“it is heritage.” There is blood on the leaves because there is blood at the root. To change everything that needs changing, you’ve got to uproot the tree.

But that wasn’t Barack Obama’s lineage. While declining to denounce the man himself, Obama said Wright’s remarks “expressed a profoundly distorted view of the country—a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” In its place, Obama offered a vision of an ever-perfecting union, inevitably tilting toward unity and equality. What it means to be American—to be a patriot—is to be invested in this self-improving project, to aspire to fulfill the promises of our founding documents.

“The profound mistake of Rev. Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society,” Obama said, “It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country… is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”

As always, Obama himself—the Black man born of a white mother, married to the descendent of slaves, preaching racial unity and running for the “highest office in the land”—was the ultimate rejoinder to Wright’s pessimism. Obama’s very existence, his success, belied the idea that America was inseparable from her history of anti-Black oppression. “For as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible,” the future president said.

In this manner, Obama became history’s most eloquent exponent of what Cornel Law Professor Aziz Rana calls the “creedal” story of national identity, “according to which the United States has been committed to the principle that ‘all men are created equal’ from the time of its founding, and our history can be viewed as a steady fulfillment of this idea.” Obama told a version of this same story when he was introduced to the nation at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He has returned to it in speech after speech.

“A More Perfect Union” was a comprehensive exposition of Obama’s racial vision. Reading it now, it feels like a premonition, a place-setting, a prelude—if a misleading one—to everything that has happened in the past eight years.

But it wasn’t enough. A month later, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post wrote that in order to “put the race issue to rest” for good, Obama should give yet another speech, this one directed at white Americans and modeled on John F. Kennedy’s address about his Catholicism in 1960—in which Kennedy allayed Protestant fears that he was a Manchurian candidate for the Vatican. It’s difficult to imagine what more could be expected from Obama in this regard; Cohen doesn’t say. No matter how often he professed his love for the nation of his birth—or repeated the refrain that “there is no black America, no white America, but a United States of America”—Obama’s blackness still signified, in the white imagination, an allegiance to another country, to an alien set of values. And, in Cohen’s judgment, white people were not wrong to regard it with unease. “[Obama] did not confront white fears,” Cohen said of the Reverend Wright speech, “Instead, he implied that they were illegitimate.”

“[President Obama] has become the most successful Black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear,” Coates wrote in an essay on Obama’s first term, “and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches.”

It’s remarkable, in a way, that a man who has spent his whole political career telling a story that so deeply flatters the nation’s self-conception should be the subject of such consistent suspicion—so much so that two-thirds of his successor’s supporters wrongly believe he is Muslim and 59 percent say he wasn’t born in the United States. Just as it’s remarkable that a president who has presided over 8 years of increasing luxury for the extraordinarily wealthy and a continuation of our imperial foreign policy is seen as a crypto-communist intent on sabotaging America’s global hegemony.

Probably none of this is remarkable to Jeremiah Wright.

The great irony of Obama is that the reaction to his presidency has so thoroughly contradicted the story Obama himself told us about its meaning. Some significant fraction of the white population simply never accepted the legitimacy of the first Black president. Despite his repeated public repudiations of radicalism of every kind, they insisted on seeing him as a vengeful militant, intent on subjugating whites and Christians. For eight years, the right cultivated a fantasy of white racial grievance and paranoia, fueling legislative obstruction, a resurgent white nationalist movement, and now, Donald Trump.

But another group of whites voted for Obama because they enjoyed the story he told, in which they were daring participants in a millennial project of moral renewal. Obama would inaugurate a new era of racial harmony, in which they, the good white people, would be absolved of guilt, unburdened by history. With Obama came the promise of racial redemption—preferable to the much more frightening prospect of racial reckoning.

“We were supposed to be post-racial, with the election of Obama,” said right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh in 2015, summarizing this view, “We were supposed to have put all this behind us. His election was supposed to mean something. It was supposed to signify that we had overcome and gotten past the original sin of slavery. And instead, as I knew would be the case, it’s gotten worse.” Today, many white Obama voters are frustrated with Obama’s inability to fulfill his impossible promise. They complain that “race relations” have soured (by which they mean Black Americans have continued to protest and resist racism) and lament how little good all that talk of unity did. Some of them, we now know, helped elect Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, for non-whites, the persistence of racial inequality in wealth and income, aggressive incarceration, and racist policing have all strained the credibility of Obama’s creedal narrative. Violent white backlash—to Obama and to the Black social movements that have emerged during his second term—has belied the story of inevitable racial progress Obama told in 2008.  And white America’s overwhelming support for President-elect Donald Trump has laid bare its preference to move backward, not forward—to reclaim the material and psychological privileges of white supremacy. The creedal story of national identity, says Aziz Rana, “finds itself in profound crisis.”

But as the Obama era comes to a close, a new generation of Black radicalism has emerged, one which more closely resembles the tradition the president disavowed in 2008, as a condition for winning the trust of white America. The Movement for Black Lives isn’t afraid to locate anti-Black racism at the white hot center of American culture, history, and politics. And they aren’t deluded about what would be required to abolish it. 

* * *

In a way, Colin Kaepernick is poised ambiguously between these competing visions of Black politics—that of the reverend and that of his congregant.

There are two ways of viewing his protest: as an indictment of a reality that fails to live up to America’s foundational norms or as an indictment of those norms themselves. As an aspirational appeal to the American creed or a condemnation of its insufficiency, as “God bless the America that can be” or “God damn the America that is.”

Some of Kaepernick’s defenders have said that a focus on patriotism—on the flag and the anthem itself—is a distraction, mobilized by critics who don’t want to face the critique he is voicing. Certainly there’s truth to that. Kaepernick isn’t protesting the Star-Spangled Banner, after all, he’s protesting systemic racism. As Kaepernick put it, “There’s a lot of racism disguised as patriotism in this country.”

But there’s also a way in which it sanitizes Kaepernick’s protest to insist that its form is all but orthogonal to its content. Kaepernick could have called out racism and police brutality in any number of ways. A press release. A video. An op-ed in a major newspaper. Instead, he has chosen to do it in a way that directly implicates the nation and its symbols.

Kneeling during the anthem conveys something more specific than opposition to racism alone. It suggests that anti-blackness is inextricably embedded in the rituals of American nationalism, that nationalism itself is synonymous with a project of racial control. Kaepernick made this most explicit in a now-deleted social media post the night before that first pre-season game in Santa Clara. Kaepernick retweeted an image juxtaposing the Confederate and the American flags captioned “The fact that you really believe that there is difference in these flags means that you’re ignoring history.”

Ironically, racists tend to appreciate this fact. They understand, if not always consciously, that whiteness and American-ness are “fiercely paired.” It’s why they adorn their movements in the stars and stripes. Why they question the patriotism of those who criticize the racial status quo. Why they believe Obama was born in Kenya, that Colin Kaepernick is a Muslim.

If there’s something contradictory about being a white supremacist and loving America, the people who chanted U-S-A while Donald Trump insulted Muslims and Mexicans haven’t gotten that memo.

* * *

Another person who sees Kaepernick’s protest as an insult to the nation itself—its rituals, symbols, and norms—is New York Times columnist David Brooks. Brooks, despite the liberal pedigree of his employer and his fondness for the crease in Barack Obama’s pants, is an archetypal conservative: nostalgic for traditional hierarchies, instinctively threatened by dissent, and convinced that individual and collective suffering arise from moral rather than material want. Still, I often find his work instructive. The best of it offers a precise inversion of insight, a compass that points south.

In a column headlined “The Uses of Patriotism,” Brooks writes that the anthem protest reflects and perilously exacerbates a process of declining confidence in America’s “civic religion”—a “fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism,” which over the centuries has “fired a fervent desire for change.” For Brooks, as for Obama, a shared belief in the values of the founding is what creates the conditions for change. When we sing the national anthem, Brooks writes, “we’re not commenting on the state of America. We’re fortifying our foundational creed…expressing commitment to the nation’s ideals, which we have not yet fulfilled.”

Brooks believes that by refusing to participate in these “displays of reverence” for the nation, Kaepernick and his allies make it harder to achieve the change they seek. “If these common rituals are insulted,” Brooks writes, “other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story.”

A more frank and cynical formulation of Brooks’s view is this: anti-racist movements are doomed to fail unless they flatter white people’s fantasies of their own benevolence. Black people must make their democratic claims in terms of the creedal story or risk being ignored—or worse. This isn’t a exactly a novel suggestion. Movements from abolition to the Black freedom struggle have, at various times, made this strategic bargain. Martin Luther King was particularly skilled at deploying the American creed as a means of mobilizing dissent while minimizing white fear. “Martin Luther King Jr. sang the national anthem before his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Brooks says, comparing King to Kaepernick, “and then quoted the Declaration of Independence within it.”

But the white response to King—like the white response to Obama—suggests the limits of an anti-racist politics rooted in the creed. White reactionaries killed King; now they use his legacy to criticize modern civil rights leaders. Obama’s time in office has inspired a resurgence of outright white supremacy, and the ascendence of a president with little apparent interest in preserving multi-racial democracy. If even the most careful, flattering critique of America’s racist reality is received by whites as an indictment of America’s most essential norms, perhaps there is something wrong with our norms.

Brooks writes, “The answer to what’s wrong in America is America,” which, unintentionally, is quite correct. America is what’s wrong with America.

Even King became disillusioned with creedal politics in the years before his assassination. In 1967, he wrote, “for the good of America, it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country…is freedom and equality while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists.” America isn’t a nation with a racism problem; it’s a racist nation. Creedal politics are a compromise with white supremacy, one that many Black social movement leaders have realized they can no longer afford.

And its a myth. The creedal vision of social change is one without conflict, without winners and losers, without competing interests, in which reform movements have succeeded by the force of moral appeal alone. America has become more and more racially equitable, this story suggests, because we all agree, at least in principle, that it ought to be so. In reality, the history of Black politics is a history of the struggle to wrest unearned power and prosperity from the clutches of whites, who’ve erected a fortress of law, ideology, and violence around their privileges. Every significant siege of the fortress—from Reconstruction to Black Lives Matter—has ignited a forceful counterattack by the besieged. A white backlash. 

One of the things we rarely reckon with is the fact that dismantling white supremacy is not in most white people’s immediate interest. It will require, what Martin Luther King called “a massive redistribution of economic and political power.” For whites, the attraction of the creedal narrative—in which increasing racial fairness is a natural consequence of our shared moral development—is psychological as well as material. As Reverend Wright, put it in 2015, “One of the reasons America has never confessed to its original sin is that confession means repentance, and repentance means you gotta pay.”

The difference between believers in the creedal narrative and those who see anti-Black racism as a “constitutive” element of American life is one of relative credulity in the face of American myth. The difference depends on how one reads the words, “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence: as an aspiration or a lie. David Brooks believes it’s an aspiration, the moral principle that has guided and motivated what Obama called in 2008, “the long march… for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.” Reverend Wright says it’s a lie. “The truth was they believe all White men were created equal. The truth is they did not believe that even White women were created equal.”

In Where Do We Go From Here?, published just before his death, King wrote, “In the days ahead we must not consider it unpatriotic to raise certain basic questions about our national character.”

We must begin to ask, “Why are there forty million poor people in a nation overflowing with such unbelievable affluence?” Why has our nation placed itself in the position of being God’s military agent on earth…? Why have we substituted the arrogant undertaking of policing the whole world for the high task of putting our own house in order? All these questions remind us that there is a need for a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society… For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born.”

A variety of patriotism that rejects militarism, racism, and capitalist orthodoxy, would indeed be, as King says, “a new set of values”—unrecognizable as the patriotism that today is used to silence and stigmatize dissent, to paper over America’s racist reality. Instead of sanitizing the past, it would reckon with it. Instead of washing the blood off the leaves, it would address the blood at the root. It would entail, as King says, “a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society.”

* * *

The final, redemptive verses of Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” are instructive:

O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

The task for today’s anti-racist movements is to remake America on new ground. Not by recovering the values of America’s past. But by radically imagining America as it never was. The preamble to the comprehensive Movement for Black Lives platform captures this spirit: “We have come together now because we believe it is time to forge a new covenant.” (Not to fulfill the promises of the old one.)

America never was, but it could be. As Colin Kaepernick recently said, “Let’s make America great for the first time.”

Trump and the Working Class

I’ll try to make this brief. The apologetics and schadenfreude and recrimination are flowing fast. Too fast for good thinking. But this is important. A divide has emerged on the left between (1) those who believe Democrats need to develop a credible appeal to the archetypal (white, rural, high school-educated) Trump voter; and (2) those who believe these voters are irredeemably racist, and that any effort to include them in a coalition would entail a compromise with white supremacy.

I’ve largely avoided this conversation until now. It’s been marked by bad faith and straw men on both sides. And I think the media’s preoccupation with these voters—over, say, working class people of color—is itself an effect of a white supremacist lens. Why are media organizations willing to spend so much money and energy seeking to understand and empathize with the plight of certain members of the underclass and not others? As is often the answer to American questions: racism.

That being said, I don’t think there’s a sufficient way forward for left politics that does not try to organize and win over white workers. It may be true that due to demographic change, Democrats won’t need white working class voters to win presidential elections in the near future. But they do need them to win back state legislatures, gubernatorial races, senate and congressional seats. The thing about these “irredeemably racist” hinterland states is that they all have cities, and in those cites are minorities. These states also have women and immigrants and LGBT people and disabled people. As it stands, the marginalized populations in red states live under the rule of increasingly authoritarian statehouses and governors, whose priorities include depriving gay & trans people of their rights & safety, depriving poor and black people of the franchise, depriving working people of the right to organize, and depriving women of the right to get an abortion—not to mention empowering police, prosecutors, and immigration enforcement.

Unless leftists are content to condemn these populations to permanent white, nativist, reactionary rule, we have no choice but to prioritize organizing—yes, “winning over”—white workers in these states. Make no mistake: the most inspiring organizers in the country, many of them black and brown and gay and trans, are already and have long been doing this work. But the instinct among some liberals right now to write off Trump-voting states altogether is both politically and morally untenable and insulting to the organizers struggling—in an often hostile environment—to empower oppressed communities in the South and upper Midwest.

Crucially, the point is not to develop an economic program that simply ignores anti-racist concerns. Trump’s working class voters cannot be won over to a progressive coalition simply by bribing them with economic rewards. White supremacist ideology is an insidious thing. The very means by which struggling white workers lives could be materially improved—redistribution of wealth, government investment in communities and education—have been stigmatized as handouts to minorities. As we know, racism itself is among the chief obstacles to the implementation of a more egalitarian welfare state. Rather, the task—as it has always been—is to convince these workers that they are part of class that includes black and brown people, but that does not include their wealthy white bosses. That is: that they are part of the working class; and that the antipathy they feel towards elites is justified and shared by the people of color scapegoated by their political leaders.

Creating a multi-racial, anti-racist populist front will be difficult. There’s no roadmap. But it’s been done before—to varying degrees of success—by labor unions during the Black Freedom Struggle, by communists organizers in the South, by the CIO, by the New Deal coalition. A reinvigorated labor movement is an indispensable part of the way forward. Throughout history, unions have been the best vehicle by which white workers come to identify as workers first. That remains true today.

It’s going to be hard. But we don’t have a choice. Wealthy whites in red states, who benefit from the entwined dual-regime of white supremacy and capitalism—what we should insist on calling “racial capitalism”—will continue to fight with ever greater resources to preserve and further entrench the status quo. White workers share their interests, but not all of them. That’s the opening. It always has been.

I watched one of Trump’s last speeches before the election. In it, he said, “Tomorrow, the American working class will strike back.” I was struck. No contemporary Democratic politician would (or could, credibly) say those words. Afraid of scaring off their donors or being red-baited, most Democrats won’t even utter the phrase “working class”—preferring the capacious and increasingly meaningless “middle class” or, at best, “working families.” But Trump said it. His rural and exurban white supporters have a class consciousness of sorts. They despise elites. They feel that the system is rigged. But that antipathy is entirely entangled with their fear of a black president, of eroding racial and gender hierarchies, and their perception that multi-cultural elites are helping minorities at their expense. Trump can say “working class” because everyone in his audience hears the unsaid word “white” preceding it. It is, as it has ever been, the left’s task to build a mass political movement where there are no words silently preceding the term “working class.” It’s not hyperbole to say that everything depends on it.

Let’s Do Something Else

Today, Hillary Clinton called on Americans to remember the days immediately following September 11th, 2001, when “we did not attack each other [but instead] worked with each other to protect our country and to rebuild.” She urged us to recapture and revive the spirit of those days, “the spirit of 9/12.” I very much fear we’ve already begun to heed her call. That is, I fear we’ve already begun to fold the monstrously specific tragedy in Orlando—perpetrated against queer people of color, who otherwise rarely figure in the stories America tells about itself—into a narrative about American greatness, American resilience, America’s capacity to triumph over evil and punish its enemies. I fear we’ve already begun to enlist the 49 dead into the project of American empire, here and abroad—into the endless, borderless war that began on 9/12.

Acting collectively in the face of tragedy can be an honorable thing. “Don’t mourn; organize,” we often say. And, indeed, New Yorkers—those who weren’t beating up suspected Muslims—really did help and love each other in the days after the World Trade Center attacks. A whir of fellow feeling and compassion broke out, if only to be subsumed, days later, by the drumbeat of war.  But it’s difficult for me to imagine what possible good can be accomplished by the “we” Secretary Clinton means when she says “we have to steel our resolve to respond”—the nationalist “we” that includes the police, the prisons, the military (the appropriate place for AR-15s, I’m told), the FBI, the intelligence agencies, the whole array of state mechanisms for violence and control. In the aftermath of tragedy, I have much more confidence in other, smaller versions of “we.” Much more intimate, specific versions of “us.” The “we” enacted at a block party. On a picket line. On a dance floor. At a nightclub.

By all means, let’s do something together. But not something in “the spirit of 9/12.” Let’s do something else.

Chait, Marxism, Liberalism

Jonathan Chait’s new salvo against Marxism and campus political correctness (which he now treats as synonymous in the same haphazard way the far right attributes identity politics to the Frankfurt School) is peak Chait—the purest expression yet of his ideology of liberalism as such and pugilistic disdain for any politics or political philosophy that steps outside its bounds. Others have already responded to the broader absurdities of Chait’s depiction of triumphant liberal politics. I’m gonna focus on a smaller point:

One of the great advantages of Marxist thought is that it acknowledges the hollowness of liberal universality in the context of capitalism—in which vast differentials in power condition who really gets to benefit from political rights. (Think of A.J. Liebling’s quip, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed to everyone who owns one”; or better yet, Anotole France’s: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges and beg in the street.”) Not only is political equality an illusion, the persistence of the illusion serves the interests of those in power and harms the poor.

Chait rarely if ever engages with the substance of this critique. Instead, he consistently confuses—or deliberately conflates—the left’s description of these conditions (“liberal equality does not, in fact, exist”) with an endorsement (“we leftists believe liberal equality ought not to exist”). When campus activists interrogate the abstract “free speech” rights of a commencement speaker—insisting that power dynamics always already condition who is permitted to speak with authority and whose speech is worthy of defense—Chait hears “we don’t care about free speech.” When, in fact, they do. Very much so. By applying the topography of power to a scenario that Chait imagines playing out on an even plane, the activists illuminate its actual political stakes: that perhaps the imperiled speech is not that of the wealthy person on stage with the microphone, but the students of color in the crowd trying to be heard.

This myopia is symptomatic.  It’s why Chait wrings his hands over protestors jeopardizing Donald Trump’s speech rights but has spilled little ink over the criminalization of pro-Palestine activism; why rappers get felony charges for depicting criminal acts in their art while Martin Scorsese gets Oscars.  The absence of a theory of power in liberalism consistently undermines its pretensions to impartiality, to the equal application of principle.

Maybe there are still some orthodox Marxists who insist that paying any mind to bourgeois political rights hardens the existing order against revolution. Chait seems to think they are everywhere, running popular magazines and leading campus protests. But that’s not the position of many leftists I know. Rather, we tend to think of liberal principles in aspirational terms. The world we are trying to build is one in which freedom of speech can actually be guaranteed to everyone in the way Jon Chait imagines it already is—where political equality can flourish in fact as it now does in ideological fiction. 

What leftists understand is that achieving that world—as opposed to the “actually existing” liberal democracy we have today—will require a massive redistribution of income, wealth, and political power and sustained agitation against racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry. Chait’s political philosophy, by itself, is utterly incapable of bringing it about. Liberalism, in the absence of a critique of power, fails to live up to its own principles. It always has. And without the continued work of the radicals Chait disdains, it always will.

Baseball, Whiteness, and Fugitive Joy

“Knights of the KKK,” a Klu Klux Klan baseball team. 1957.

I am deep in the throes of a late-onset obsession with Major League Baseball. The combined factors of living a pleasant, partially above-ground subway ride away from the stadium where my favorite team plays, their having had an improbably good season in 2015, and finding myself in dire need of an outlet for naturally anxious emotional tendencies besides the very fate of our nation… have ignited in me a deep and (often) deeply satisfying fandom—propelled by the zeal of the lately converted. If I’ve already bored you with this stuff in person, I’m sorry, and know that I will eventually be talking about politics.

There is a lot to love about baseball—the oblique communications between pitchers and catchers; the Homeric feats of batting and symbiotic dance of defensive play; the satisfying empiricism of advanced metrics set against the ever more distant horizon of “that which can’t be quantified;” the real-time descriptive poetry of a good radio broadcast; the comfort and reliability of a long, steady season; the feeling of mild vertigo when, upon emerging from the beer and hotdog musk of a stadium’s cement peripheries, you first glimpse the improbable expanse of green at its center; the gulp of fresh air at that moment; the aesthetic disorientation of enjoying a slow pastoral game in a hurried urban setting, etc. etc.—but as I’ve come to accept and embrace my new mania, I’ve also had to face the uncomfortable fact that baseball is, in obvious and less obvious ways, America’s most conservative sport.

There’s a very literal sense in which this is true. Baseball team owners are almost exclusively white men with money, much of it ill gotten (at least by my standards)—in real estate, investment banking, oil and gas. (Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who made his first million suing asbestos manufacturers, is a notable exception.) And they tend to tailor their politics accordingly. During the 2012 election cycle, MLB club employees, members, and ownership groups gave $24 million to politicians, PACs, and independent expenditures. Seventy-five percent of those donations went to conservative causes.

This is John Rocker. With then-girlfriend Alicia Marie. 2006.

And while rich white guys also own most NBA (98%) and NFL (97%) teams, the dominant politics of the players in baseball are conservative too. Former Yankee greats Paul O’Neill and Johnny Damon both recently endorsed Donald Trump for president. Ditto Pete Rose and former Atlanta Braves hurler John Rocker, known during his era for an extraordinarily racist and homophobic screed against New York in Sports Illustrated, and more recently for wearing and selling “Speak English” t-shirts and pointing to his non-white girlfriends as evidence that he’s “not a Republican in everything.” (I’m not going to unpack that for you. I’m sure you’ll do just fine.)

It’s not that every player in baseball shares the politics of Rocker, O’Neill, Damon, or “second baseman” (his words, not mine) Daniel Murphy, who told reporters he “disagrees” with the homosexual “lifestyle” after gay ex-player Billy Bean visited Met’s spring training camp in 2015. Conservative politics are dominant in the hegemonic, if not in the statistical sense. Mets broadcaster Ron Darling, one of MLB’s rare out-and-out liberals, says he “always felt tons of pressure not to express [his] liberal views, and/or opinions” as a player in the 80s. “Clubhouses, at least in my experience, tend to be right of right,” says Darling. Fernando Perez, a former Tampa Bay Rays outfielder and another liberal (also possibly MLB’s only avowed fan of Robert Creeley), says that for every Rocker or Damon, there are a handful of players in the club who share their politics but don’t say so to the media. “Murphy probably got so much love at second base last year from guys who commended him for his courage to stand up to gays, while patting him on the ass,” Perez told the Daily News.

But there is a more insidious and, in my judgment, destructive way in which Major League Baseball expresses and enforcing its conservatism: through what are called its “unwritten rules.” These tacit norms constrain how players are permitted to act on field, with an emphasis on stoicism, emotional restraint, and humility. Violate these rules—ostentatiously celebrate an out, flip your bat after a big hit, or stand and watch a homer fly instead of diligently rounding the bases (termed, in the blue parlance of an all-male workplace, “pimping”)—and an opposing pitcher just might sock you with a 90 mile-an-hour fastball the next time you’re up. The unwritten rules are affective demands, concerned with how players should and should not move their bodies, and they’re enforced by the threat of pain.

Recently, a reporter made the mistake of asking Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage a question. Gossage, no stranger to giving clouds a piece of his mind, but also a widely respected baseball veteran, took the opportunity to call Toronto Blue Jays superstar Jose Bautista, a “fucking disgrace to the game” for violating baseball’s norms of propriety. Goose said Bautista’s infamous bat flip during Game 5 of the ALDS was “embarrassing to all the Latin players who ever played before him.” He also name-checked Mets’ outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, presumably for doing this:

It’s not a coincidence that Cespedes is Cuban and Bautista Dominican. These flare ups of concern about the erosion of baseball values—translation: that baseball players occasionally act like they’re having fun—almost always center on non-white players’ perceived violations of baseball etiquette. Gossage’s comments are plainly racist. But the fact that this handlebar mustachioed white man is prone to racial prejudice is less troubling than the fact that his comments do not (at all) contradict the presiding ideology in baseball. They reflect it.

Put simply, baseball’s unwritten rules—like many other American norms—are selectively enforced. The longer you’ve been in the game and the whiter your skin, the easier it is to get away with peacocking without taking a ball to the ear. Whereas, if you’re black or brown, the smallest gestures of triumph can be construed as provocations—by opposing players, managers, and fans alike.

This is Goose Gossage.

During the NFL playoffs, when white America was feeling scandalized by Cam Newton’s unapologetic blackness, I was reminded (yet again) how indispensable a lens is sports for understanding race and racism in America. Nowhere in American culture is the white demand for black propriety and deference more clearly articulated than in sports. The negative reaction of white fans and writers to Cam Newton’s dancing, his fashion, his arrogance, and his talent is difficult to interpret as anything other than a basic hostility toward black joy and exuberance.

In baseball, the dynamics are the same, only worse. In the MLB—where 61 percent of players, 87 percent of managers, and 83 percent of the fans are white—the cultural authority of the Old Guard is much less thoroughly eroded than it is in the NFL or NBA. Cam Newton was scolded for elaborate dances and dabbing in the end zone. Meanwhile, Bautista, Cespedes, and others are criticized for bat flips—for doing literally the best thing you can do in baseball, and then tossing the implement with which they did the best thing with too much oomph.

Meanwhile, Manny Machado, a 23-yr-old Dominican player, took a fastball to the shoulder (it was headed for his head) for doing this:

You didn’t miss anything. That was it. Jonathan Papelbon, a 35-yr-old white pitcher, himself not exactly a paragon of decorum, decided Machado had expressed too much elation after hitting this go-ahead homer, his thirtieth of the season. So, two innings later, he plunked him.

Explaining why black athletes and fans have abandoned baseball (and they have), comedian Chris Rock said that anti-celebration codes make baseball “like a visit to the queen—if you don’t bow correctly it could be an international incident.” The authoritarian tones of the analogy are apt. Enforcing traditional codes of conduct is the primary way that whiteness continues to exert its authority over the game. When baseball old-timers talk about the “right way” to play the game, they mean the “white way.” And in this, I see less a genuine loyalty to the game’s existing norms, than an attachment to the privilege of defining what those norms are.

No other baseball league functions this way. As the New York Times reported—with pearls firmly clutched—during the World Baseball Classic in 2013:

“The Dominican Republic has celebrated every hit as if it were its last, every putout as if it had decided the game. Its players have clenched their fists, pounded their chests and screamed — sometimes in the fourth inning. And if the Dominicans took a late lead, the whole dugout would explode, players bursting onto the field, like confetti out of a party popper.”

This is closer to how baseball is treated in Japan, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and other parts of Latin America. It’s not the staid, genteel affair it is (or is supposed to be) here. South Korean players have elevated the bat flip into an art form.

In the baseball mainstream, these discrepancies are often explained as “cultural differences,” usually with a scarcely concealed nod to stereotypes about naturally “hot” Latin temperaments. The growing number of players from Latin America simply have to be taught the American way, they say.

But the oppressive nature of American baseball is not about preserving something essential about American culture. It’s about control. Or perhaps more accurately, the core value being preserved—cloaked in a demand for gentility—is control itself. Put simply, baseball’s unwritten rules are about disciplining unruly non-white bodies.

This subtext was made text by white San Diego Padres pitcher Bud Norris in an interview with USA Today in October 2015. After complaining about Astros outfielder Carlos Gomez, a Dominican player known for inspiring the ire of opponents with home run celebrations and the occasional taunt, Norris said this:

This is Bud Norris.

“This is America’s game. This is America’s pastime… We’re opening this game to everyone that can play. However, if you’re going to come into our country and make our American dollars, you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years… I understand you want to say it’s a cultural thing or an upbringing thing. But by the time you get to the big leagues, you better have a pretty good understanding of what this league is and how long it’s been around.’’

Norris’s message to his foreign-born colleagues is plain: your safety and security here is contingent. You owe us your deference, your compliance. This is our game; you’re only playing it.

On the bright side, the fact that the Goose Gossages of baseball are honking (and have been for years) is evidence enough that their dominance is slipping. More and more players and fans are sick of the unwritten rules, which hamper the excitement of a game already considered “too boring” for the 21st century. Bryce Harper, one of the two best players in baseball and a nationally known baseball prodigy from the age of 12, recently told ESPN The Magazine, “Baseball is tired. It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do.”

What are kids playing these days? Football, basketball. Look at those players — Steph Curry, LeBron James. It’s exciting to see those players in those sports. Cam Newton — I love the way Cam goes about it. He smiles, he laughs. It’s that flair. The dramatic.”

Harper, who is white and 23, praised players like Andrew McCutcheon, Jose Fernandez, Yasiel Puig, and Manny Machado for making the game exciting with their willingness to emote on the field. Harper has had his own disciplinary run-ins with the baseball Old Guard. Last season, Jonathan Papelbon choked (yes, choked) Harper, his teammate, in their dugout for…well, either for not running out a pop-fly or for being really good and young and arrogant or for criticizing Pap over beaning Machado. Unclear. Probably all of those things. (Not insignificantly, at least one reporter found a quorum of “current and former” players who backed Pap in the dispute. They wouldn’t go on record.)

Charles Krauthammer, rightwing pundit and crap human, explained why so many conservative thinkers enjoy baseball thusly:

“Bill Buckley once said his mission in life was to stop the world. Well, modern conservatives don’t want to stop it, they just want to slow it down and the perfect model is baseball.”

There’s something to this. Baseball acquired its status as America’s pastime in the 20th century because it embodied a national nostalgia for quaint pastoralism in a rapidly industrializing world. In this formulation, baseball—like conservatism—looks back. It yearns for a return to a lost time of simplicity and plenitude. (Of purity.) 

But as intellectual historian Corey Robin has convincingly argued, conservatism’s nostalgic symbolic politics are always subservient to its more fundamental end: defending established hierarchies against dissent. What looks like an investment in preserving traditions, is really an investment in preserving traditional authority.

I don’t think baseball is an essentially conservative sport. But I do think it is an institution rife with hierarchies, resistant to change. Jose Bautista’s bat flip, Manny Machado’s swagger, Andrew McCutcheon doing the worm at first base—these moments aren’t just entertaining. They’re acts of defiance against the existing power structure in baseball—fugitive moments of joy, stolen from a hegemonic order of players, ex-players, managers, and fans who would sooner see baseball’s relevance wane than surrender authority over its meaning. In their fear of relinquishing control to a younger, less-white generation, baseball’s conservative hegemony imposes sterility and punishes joy, feeling, and sincerity. It’s tired. Very tired.

The truth is that baseball’s future—like America’s—belongs to and depends on young people of color. Most reasonable people in baseball know this, whether or not they welcome the fact. May the old order tremble at the sounding of their bat flips.

[NB: If this were a remotely comprehensive post about baseball and conservatism (clearly it’s not!), we would have talked about the league’s labor politics—including the fact that the recruitment of Latin American players is rife with exploitation and that many American minor leaguers are paid less than minimum wage. Ditto the fact that many of the racial power dynamics described above are likely enabled by seniority and the CBA. But I’m not getting into all that here. I’ve rambled enough and I’m already way out of my depth on this shit.]