The crushing logic of idealism
Neil over at the Bleeding Heart blog celebrates the foiling of a potential assassination attempt against Barack Obama. Whilst thwarting the half-cocked plans of a pair of skinheads is worthy of applause, I don’t think I can go out on quite the same limb that Neil has. Saying that the arrest of these two men, who wanted to kill 88 black people, 14 by decapitation, before trying to kill Obama, deals a heavy blow to white supremacy is going a bit far. Neil also far overestimates the significance of a black win.
Of course this isn’t a sin committed by one blogger, alone in all the world. The media deliberately overplays the significance of getting a black man elected President of the United States. Yet the opinion of one lefty blogger, in my view, matters more than the views of the established media.
The cause of white supremacy is not dealt a blow by arresting the participants – indeed, were that the case, we should simply order the arrest of all neo-Nazi groups and have done with the problem. In this one instance, we’ve stopped a plot and while that is laudable, it is a matter of treating the symptoms rather than engaging with the root of the problem. Nor will getting a black person elected challenge the root of the problem – in fact I can see circumstances where it makes matters worse.
The root of the problem, as Jon Cruddas has been trying to highlight, is the low-level perpetuation of myths and the linking of these myths to local problems to give the far-right a political base. Without this base upon which to operate, the far-right falls back on its thinly-veiled racist cultural scene to sustain it, punctuated only by the occasional and violent reaction to circumstances far beyond the control of their movement – such as their intervention in race-related riots.
Arresting one or two people isn’t going to change that. For as long as people live under the exploitation of capitalism and have little direct say, the idea that this exploitation is increased by immigration or that life generally is made worse by the races living side by side, is an easy way for the simple minded to explain their bad circumstances. An Obama presidency isn’t going to change this – how Obama’s leadership plays out remains to be seen. It could be beneficial and then again not.
One way in which it could be beneficial is through it’s deconstruction of the liberal critique of racism. Obama’s victory, and the failure of white racism to diminish thereafter, will prove once and for all that racism is not just about a battle of ideas. It has a structural element. It will also weaken the left-populist critique of a top-down racism, wherein racism is orchestrated, along with all the other ills of society, by capitalist overlords in charge of where the “glass-ceiling” is set.
Considered from another perspective, it might not be such a good thing because with the accession of a black man to the most powerful office in the land, popular consciousness of racial issues might be diminished. Certainly a lot of Brits, those not connected to the American inner cities where racial issues are the norm, seem to think that with this victory, a decisive blow will have been struck against racism. If some Brits can think that, I can’t imagine the American middle classes will be far behind.
This could inspire a dangerous complacency, creating the space for exactly the opposite reaction that we might logically expect from an Obama presidency. Racists will plausibly be able to say that they’re not racist, but… – an age-old formula that might carry new weight in a country which has just elected its first black President.