Sociology of the Charleston massacre: White nationalism, terrorism, “lone wolves,” and gun control

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Dylann Roof’s manifesto can be read here. (Update: It seems to have been removed, but you can read a full PDF version of the document here). Roof compiles a dossier of the various “races,” their putative prospects and faults. He has stuff on Jews and Hispanics — seems mostly ambivalent toward both — but it’s obvious this white nationalist fuck was mostly preoccupied with black people. The section on “blacks” takes up more than half of the document, dwarfing all the others combined. Jews and Hispanics were not the main object of Roof’s virulent hatred, and he expressed “a great deal of respect” for East Asians.

Nothing infuriates me more than white supremacists. “Last Rhodesian.” Go figure.

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“Lone wolf” as organizational strategy
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Anyway, this massacre is not a matter of some deranged individual. People like Dylann Roof don’t just pop up out of nowhere, in isolation from historically-evolved social and material conditions. They are products of a racist society. So it’s a structural and systemic issue rather than an issue of one or two “bad apples.”

However, as a friend pointed out to me, the “lone wolf” description actually makes sense when it comes to the strategy that’s been consciously cultivated by neo-Nazi organizations in the US over the years. Not to unduly “individualize” this phenomenon or anything like that. This kid discovered websites online that seemed to support and further articulate his preexisting racial prejudices, and he networked face-to-face with local hate groups. But this matches the pattern of decentralized organizational behavior that’s cropped up in recent decades. My friend put it best:

The anger at the use of the term “lone wolf” to describe Dylann Roof is severely misplaced. The use of the term in this context does not medicalize racist violence, it actually deepens our understanding of it. A ‘lone wolf’ is a white supremacist terrorist that is acting according to the decentralized organizational model that neo-Nazi leaders like Tom Metzger, founder of White Aryan Resistance, began to promote in the 1990s. Older American neo-Nazis, like George Lincoln Rockwell, had simply tried to mimic the NSDAP’s structure and ride the wave of 1950s anticommunism to cultural and political success. This shift in tactics was caused, primarily, by the decline of segregationist supporting institutions and politicians, including David Duke, as well as the successful infiltration of many White Supremacist groups by the federal government. Beyond transitioning to a decentralized organizational model, many neo-Nazi groups also began to deploy a whole host of entryist strategies to try and infiltrate mainstream conservative groups like the Minute Men and government institutions like the military. They also tried to repackage and, consequently, normalize their beliefs through a number of campaigns that transitioned their public views away from explicit eliminatory antisemitism, white imperialism, lynching, and eugenics and toward conspiracy theories about the United Nations, nativist opposition to immigration, criminal stereotyping, and race realism. Many of these groups also began to promote apartheid South Africa as a model for their vision of America and increasingly distanced themselves from Hitler and his followers. By not using the term “lone wolf,” antiracists end up stripping part of the recent history of neo-Nazism in the United States out of their description of this murderous fascist.

Just to reiterate, this does not in any way call into question the pervasiveness of racism in American society. Nor does it entertain the fantastic explanation of the attack as some sort of “assault on our religious liberty,” as 2016 presidential candidate Rick Santorum characterize the killings.  It’s pointless to psychologize this tragedy, chalking it up to mental illness or imbalance, or to attribute it to some other ideology (like anti-Christian hatred).

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Terrorism and hate crime as legal categories
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Clearly, the shooting was ideologically motivated: namely, by notions of racial supremacy. It was a deliberate act of terrorism targeting the black community of Charleston.

Legally speaking, however, I think categories such as “hate crime” and “terrorist” are superfluous. Not just here, but also in the case of Frazier Glenn Cross/Miller with the triple-homicide at that Jewish center in Kansas a couple years ago. I’m not suggesting that these aren’t terrorist or racist crimes. Obviously they are. Still, I’m not sure if these categories really add to the crime of premeditated mass murder. For clearly biased political reasons, the appellation “terrorist” is typically only applied in cases of jihadist violence (and not with white supremacist killings). Both are terrorist, no doubt. At the juridical level, however, this classification is mostly just tacked on in order to compound the number of years faced by persons accused of more minor crimes. Usually it’s used to threaten or punish individuals of Middle Eastern descent entrapped by law enforcement in supposed terror plots.

While we’re on the subject, a few words on this last point. Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks broadcast has pointed out an unsettling truth: since 2002, right-wing homegrown white terrorists have killed more Americans than Muslim extremists. So much for the spurious notion that foreign jihadists constitute the greatest threat to American lives. Continue reading

Black politics in the age of Obama

Cedric Johnson and Mel Rothenberg

Platypus Review 57 | June 2013

On May 6, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society  hosted a conversation on “Black Politics in the Age of Obama” at the University of Chicago. The speakers included Cedric Johnson, the author of Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (2007) and The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans (2011); and Mel Rothenberg, a veteran of the Sojourner Truth Organization and coauthor of The Myth of Capitalism Reborn: A Marxist Critique of Theories of Capitalist Restoration in the USSR (1980). Michael Dawson, author of the forthcoming book, Blacks In and Out of the Left, was unable to attend due to an emergency. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation. Complete audio of the event can be found online.

Cedric Johnson: I want to demystify the Obama phenomenon, which dates back much further than the 2004 DNC, as it has unfolded over the past decade. I also want to demystify the notion of “black politics” generally.

I am not disappointed with Obama, because being disappointed would mean I had expectations that had not been realized. I certainly disagree with Obama, but he has done just about everything I expected him to do with respect to domestic policy, questions of inequality, or geopolitics. He has been fairly consistent.

The problem with the Obama phenomenon is that too many people got caught in the rhetoric of “change.” As a political slogan it was perfect: No matter where you were, you could find something you could connect with. This operated on at least three different registers. On one level, it simply meant a change to another party’s leadership. For some, simply turning the page on the Bush years counted as change. At another level, there was what might be called the Jackie Robinson effect: There were those who wanted to see Obama break the barrier and become the first black president. Finally, and this was the most dangerous, many believed that Obama was going to deliver some substantive revitalization of liberalism within the United States. The idea was that he would be the second coming of FDR. People have made the same argument more recently. Michael Eric Dyson made this case last year on Democracy Now!, in fact, urging support for Obama’s reelection bid. One or another of these arguments proved convincing for many who ought to have known better — not just liberals, but people who consider themselves Marxists or radical leftists. Continue reading

Two Lefts? (Guest post by Konstantin Kaminskiy)

Protestors at Occupy Wall Street

The following is a post by my friend and fellow Platypus member Konstantin Kaminskiy, a Economics major at Baruch college and a Marxist.

by Konstantin Kaminskiy
Guest Writer
Dandelion Salad
Questions of Political Economy in Modernity
Oct. 14, 2011

This is a report on and some thoughts inspired by “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation with Michael Kazin,”a panel discussion hosted by Demos.  I have described them before as broadly wanting a New Deal.  I will add to that — they are progressives, or Left Democrats, or “Obama-pushers.”  This constitutes one of the Lefts represented at the event.  The other is Occupy Wall Street, which was represented by one of their organizers.

Michael Kazin’s new book is titled American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.  Actually the title sums up the framework pretty nicely.  The Left goes through stages.  First it dreams, in the form of Henry George, whose “Progress and Poverty” apparently sold more than anything Marx wrote and Edward Bellamy (“Looking Backward”).  These dreams are utopian and see the complete transformation of society as desirable.  The movement becomes large enough to pressure politicians to pay attention to them and enact some sort of changes.  Communists are important as far as they are a part, and sometimes at the heart, of this pushing.

Examples of this include the anti-monopoly laws and most significantly the creation of the American welfare state, connected by Kazin with pressure on Roosevelt from radical socialists and general strikes in multiple cities.  The argument is that the left has been “culturally successful but politically a failure.”  Anti-corporate films are, after all, successful at the box office, and that is the continued legacy of the New Left.  The Left has also been successful as far as it took society as it is, which means accepting all sorts of religiosity.  The Left is not, however, going to take power, or anything like that — the revolution, for Kazin, is impossible.  The best we can do with our utopian creativity is force what are really cosmetic changes.  He seems to not note the ways in which the “cultural left” has reinforced the system of capitalism.

The comments of Kelly Heresy, described as an Occupy Wall Street organizer, were refreshing by comparison.  OWS has failed to propose any creative demands.  It has failed to push politicians.  That seems like anathema to them, the corporate-funded system is not to be trusted to originate or secure any real changes.  Between the Democrats and Republicans there is no difference.  At OWS they are “having a conversation,” and have found that assembling at the park is a way to do that.  There is a core of devoted organizers, but “some college kids who think it’s a vacation” have also become involved and are bad for the image.

He sees us “at the beginning of a new era in human history” because we are so connected by modern media. OWS is about participatory democracy and direct action.  For Kazin this must eventually give way to the political process, to compromise — for those at OWS a new world of acting as individuals on a direct democracy basis, without representation, seems to be open.

These are two different ways of viewing the world, and the OWS way seems to me to be the more profound, open, and interesting way.  They take for inspiration the Paris Commune and the Greek Agora — to a Marxist there is deep irony in both.  But there is possibility — they have yet to decide that the best we can have is a “more fair” distribution of resources or “democracy in the workplace,” whatever those things might mean.  They hold open the possibility of “taking back the system for ourselves.”

When, time after time, Kelly Heresy defended against the “you must push power and vote” formula with the “greedy corporate funding runs everything” formula I wanted to scream out: “Lenin would agree!” Roosevelt was not funded in the same way that Obama was funded, but this matters little. Lenin says that the “real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism” is “to decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to misrepresent the people” (The State and Revolution). This can be applied to Roosevelt as much as to Obama — Roosevelt and his class had something to fear, the radical left. Obama and his class have no such fears, OWS has not been able to shut down entire cities while keeping people fed and orderly. Kazin sees that time and time again concessions have resulted from this process — since the left has been able to get something it has been successful, and must do this and only this. OWS, by comparison, seems to hold history open.

In the Q&A I introduced myself as “an economics major at Baruch and a Marxist.”  My comment to the panel, and question, was almost word for word this — “I see two lefts here. The first left had at one point theorized about why the world is as it is and how it could be changed.  It now declares to us that the revolution is impossible, that the best we can do is little changes.  The other Left, in a very embryonic form, is thinking about systems and how they can actually be changed.  We have been pushing Obama for the last 150 years.  We are here, with some of the greatest inequality ever.  I could go on.  Is the pushing of Obama a viable strategy for meaningful change?”

To complete the paradigm: the historian Kazin did not understand the pun. Obama is not 150 years old, he pointed out. We must push the Democratic Party, not Obama.  The OWS organizer had no difficulty in seeing what I meant by the “Two Lefts.”

Seeing the General Assembly of OWS later that day forces me to add to my comments here — OWS seems to believe that the revolution has already been achieved, that the task now is to spread it to more places, occupation is revolution.  They have constituted a new society already.  But what is to become of them, of this movement, is at least more open-ended than the world of Kazin, in which the power as it is cannot be challenged or replaced, period.