Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"Which Minority to Scapegoat Next?" Right Wing Wonders

Wasting no opportunity to try to divide working people against one another, right wingers took to the airwaves over the last few days to blame Mexicans and Latinos for the swine flu virus. As usual, sociopath and popular conservative radio host, Michael Savage, led the chorus.

Wingers like Savage are continuing the long conservative tradition of stoking fear and exploiting public distress to turn one group against another. Race, in particular, is an easy fault line to work with and has been crucial to long-term conservative strategy and short-term electoral success. 

For example, in early America, the Southern Slaveocracy worked diligently to keep three main groups resentful of one another and in vain competition: poor Whites, Black slaves, and Native Americans. Occasionally there were stories of two or three of these groups uniting to resist the autocrats (poor Whites joining in a slave revolt, runaway slaves joining fugitive Indian tribes, etc.) but such unity was crushed with all possible speed. It wasn't so much the danger of any one particular local uprising that stirred such quick reaction from the Southern Nobles as the creeping fear that such uprisings might be contagious, that they could demonstrate a possibility not previously considered by the great majority of people: reordering society for the benefit of the many rather than the benefit of the few big owners. But as long as the poor White farmers competed with slave labor and poor White frontier families were fighting with Indians, the Established Order was safe.

In the North--really all over the country--you could follow the same story, with different actors. The Irish immigrants must hate the Chinese immigrants and the German immigrants must hate the Italian immigrants, and so on. They must be played against one another, to ensure that they never stand together, organize, and improve their common condition by remaking the whole system. Over the course of our history, the only way for the "profit first" system to prevail against the push for a "people first" system was for the powerful to keep the people divided and distracted.

Today, the same divide-and-conquer impulse is behind the conservatives' anti-Mexican campaign. Think about it, if we weren't distracted by hyped up fears and feuds, it wouldn't be long before we won medical coverage for every American, a full employment program, a reverse of the always-increasing military spending, a "Green New Deal" to name a few things. 

But if half of this latest anti-minority effort is part of the long-term strategy on the part of what Americans once called the Money Power, then the other half is the short-term, tactical maneuvering of Republican politicians and conservative media personalities. For over 40 years, the Republican coalition won in large part by exploiting White resentment and fear of Blacks. The "Southern Strategy" worked for a long time. But the country has grown more diverse and more tolerant, so the strategy doesn't work for a national party anymore. The problem for Republicans is that after doing this for so long they can't simply turn the party's message around on a dime. For one, the GOP is largely dominated by people who were won over by the racial and cultural wedge issues and who aren't going to give them up easily. The other reason is that feeding red meat to this crowd is not just a tool of big business, it is big business (talk radio, Fox News, the pop culture surrounding Sarah Palin, etc). There is an eager audience who eats this stuff up. 

So Michael Savage and his ilk fill the airwaves with a familiar anti-minority tune, and Republican politicians almost have to dance along. The difference is that, in 2009, most people are sick and tired of it. The Savage gang is playing for a smaller and smaller crowd, as reasonable people drift away and the political balance continues to shift.


Nate said...

Also announced today: Michael Savage is no longer allowed to enter the UK.

Chris said...

Your divide and conquer conpiracy theory doesn't seem realistic.

There are voices out there that have spread fear and encourage segregation.

But I don't think it's an organized plot by WASP nobles against immigrants, slaves, natives, etc.

I think it happened naturally. It's in the psyche of many WASPs to want to hold onto their trad empire and not allow change. So it was just the loud mouthed fearful sweet tea necks that unknowingly promoted the divide-and-conquer idea. People are people so we can't expect everyone to be educated open-minded. Shit happens. All we can do is do what we each think is right.

Elizabeth said...

I actually agree quite a bit with Chris. No doubt nobles, Big Money, etc., have exploited and encouraged problems in "race and society relations"...but that problem existed in the hearts and minds of people of their own accord before it was exploited. Much of it is from a traditional belief, passed down among generations, that the "unknown" or "different" are to be feared or must be wrong.

At least speaking from the American historical context, many white frontiers-people didn't unite with the indians because they had first-hand experience that these were people they didn't want to mess with. Old prejudices die hard. Likewise, slaves, many treated horrifically by their white upper-class neighbors, didn't want to exactly be "climbing in bed" with the red-headed step-child of their masters. Besides the fact that racial superiority was rampant, even among poor white folk. Were these feelings exploited? Absolutely. But maybe the problem is that people didn’t trust each other in the first place, thereby making it easy to exploit their fears.

I also agree with your post, though. Where they can, people (rich, poor, black, white) have a natural tendency to exploit anything that will be to their advantage (we've all done it when we really think about it), and pitting one against another is to the benefit of those who are trying to keep people from uniting as "one nation under God". There’s a whole school of historical and philosophical thought built around the labeling and naming of “the other”. It’s interesting stuff.

Chris said...

The reality is that people fall into a spectrum of how accepting they are of people that are different from them. One's openness to the unusual is ingrained and played out from the cradle to the grave.

You have insiders and outsiders. It's the insiders that hold the power. The outsiders just have to bare being outside the standard. It makes life difficult not being fully integrated in mainstream society. I'm thinking of Arab immigrants to the US. Think of the outright resentment and bigotry many people today would have at just the notion of having an Iranian for instance over for dinner, or providing Arabic or Farsi as a language in American public schools. Of course it was the same deal in other eras of US history when we were warring with other countries. It’s like war breeds irrational hate and prejudice toward the ethnicity of the enemy. It’s like a fueled football match with rabid fans. Everyone hates the other team. We play this idea out in sports in a not as serious way.

But these problems don’t only exist in America. This is a human issue. Every country has majorities and minorities. What can we do to spread the good vibes of peace and acceptance? The answer is to take a toke from the universal peace pipe and let it be, man.

Better Than Machines said...

There are really a few different issues here.

First, the upper class has absolutely benefited materially from working people being divided against themselves. Does that mean all racism in America has been an upper class plot? No. But they've certainly played it for all it's worth and stoked it when it helped them.

Second, racism does not just occur naturally in individuals. They have to learn it somewhere. Two infants or toddlers of different races will not hate each other just because they notice they look different. They have to be taught that the race difference matters.

The kind of racism we've had in America against Blacks was largely created for specific ends that served the upper class: the moral justification of slavery, the division of the lower classes to dilute their power and keep them servile. We cannot ignore that this was one of the main driving factors behind the kind of racism that emerged in America.

Does that mean it was a conspiracy? Not necessarily. It wouldn't require conspiracy. All it would require was the members of the upper class promoting ideas that served their short-term interests.

The kudzu vines don't conspire to destroy my oak tree. But climbing the trunk and choking the branches helps them reach the sunlight every single day they do it. After a while, my tree is dead, and I have a kudzu monster.

But the big capitalists aren't just kudzu vines. They're people. They can conspire and often do.

I'll try to write more along these lines when I have some more time.

Mason said...

I agree with the premise that the rich and powerful have a history of supressing and dividing the lower classes against themselves for their own end. However, to make sense of this stuff, I think it's best to address each situation individually instead of implying (maybe unintentionally) a grand conspiracy of the elite/conservatives.
I didn't hear what Savage said, but I'm guessing that he was blaming the "illegals" for bringing swine flu into our country. If that's the case, it seems to me that this is more just Savage showing his racist side or promoting an anti-hispanic-immigration agenda. Often conservatives are worried into a frenzy that the illegals are going to take all our jobs and drain our tax revenue. And now they can even make us sick!
I don't see this specific event as an attempt of the elite to divide the working classes so we don't organize with Hispanics for populist reform; rather, it's an effort to promote an anti-hispanic immigration agenda. This strategy could have just as easily originated from a very low class working dude (like joe the plumber) who is scared of losing his job and tax money to the Mexicans.
That said, there ARE a lot of Heritage Foundation think tank types and conservative (and I'm sure even liberal) elites who promote deceptive economic analysis of hispanic immigration/illegal immgration, which is much of the foundation of a lot of fear that joe the plumber has. This would indeed be a grand strategy.

Becky said...

Just wanted to chime in and recommend a book. Mike Rogan's _The Wages of Whiteness_. It details exactly how the idea of "whiteness" as an asset was sold to poor Southern whites--people who had absolutely nothing to gain from continued slavery--to enlist them in the great noble cause of secession.