Friday, November 25, 2016

Giving us back the horrors...

In the Star Trek episode "A Taste of Armageddon", the crew of the Enterprise approach a Eminiar VII, planet that has grown comfortable living in an extended state of  inter-planetary war with a former colony, Vendikar. The inhabitants of Eminiar VII and Vedikar have made their war bearable by waging it with computers, launching their attacks mathematically. The war resembles a video game in all but one aspect: the casualties really die. As part of the agreement between the warring world, those declared dead in an attack must report to disintegration chambers that neatly annihilate them.

With Captain Kirk and the enterprise caught up in this conflict, They perceive only one choice: force the governments of Vendikar and Eminiar VIII to make peace (this episode predates the Prime Directive). He makes his way to the center of government in the capital of Eminiar VII, and  after a cat and mouse dialog with the planet's ruler, Anan 7, Kirk manages to destroy the connected computers that manage the lethal video game. As usually happens in science fiction of the 1960s, the computers explode spectacularly, and Anan 7 stumbles out of the smoke and storms at Captain Kirk: "Do you realize what you've done?"

"Yes," replies Kirk, "I've given you back the horrors of war."

The small band of neo-Nazis who tainted Donald Trump's campaign have given us back the horrors of racism and "white" supremacy.

For all my adult life, over forty-five years now, North American politics have rejected overt displays of racist ideology or overt attempts to promote "white" supremacy. We agreed on equality, justice and brother and sisterhood; even as the conservative domination of US and Canadian politics in the 1980 gutted social safety nets, even as governments, particularly in the United States, replaced the social safety net with a prison industrial complex of unprecedented scope, exemplary cruelty, and severe inequality.

The dominant society of North America has plundered First Nations resources and culture while renouncing racism, put a record number of Black bodies behind bars while pledging ever greater efforts to equality and inclusion, parsed the finest details of cultural sensitivity while sending thousands of persons of colour to prisons and subjecting prisoners to periods of solitary confinement well known to send even the most resilient souls into madness. Our society has reached a peak of cruelty to a few unfortunate victims, while offering ever greater magnanimity and inclusion.

Yet the ugliness of the "white" supremacy system - of any supremacy system will always come out from behind the system, if only because the petty beneficiaries of the system will conflict, deeply, with the grand beneficiaries. The petty beneficiaries of any supremacy system are members of the group identified as "favoured" but with the least resources and the thinnest qualifications. Those people have a natural interest in restricting the definition of the favoured group ("whites", Roman Citizens, Spartans, nobility) to as few people as possible, so as to get the largest share of the benefits.  The grand beneficiaries of the supremacy system include the leaders of society, people with the greatest power and often, though not always, the strongest credentials. The grand beneficiaries of the supremacy system have a strong incentive to bring as many outsiders, particularly talented outsiders. in.

As it happens, American history contains a specific point at which we can see this process at work: the story of the Four Chaplains, four US army chaplains who gave away their life jackets to save others when the troop ship Dorchester was torpedoed in 1943. It does not take away anything from the genuine heroism of these four men to say their celebration had a specific political meaning: two of the chaplain represented Protestant denominations, one was a Catholic priest, and the fourth a Reform Rabbi. In the wake of the profoundly racist rhetoric of the first half of the twentieth century, with narrow definitions of "white" promoted by authors like Madison Grant, the story of the Four Chaplains, and many others like it popular culture, served to broaden the definition of "white".

For all of my life, the inclusion of the Jewish community in the definition of "white" has gone with little dissent. In the weeks following the elevation of Donald Trump, that consensus has not collapsed, but it has grown distinctly tattered at the margins. The petty beneficiaries of the white supremacy have made it very clear they never agreed to share the benefits of white privilege. The hard core believers in white privilege are on record asserting the United States as their inheritance and nobody else's.

Now racists have many more people in their sights: everyone who doesn't look like their imaginary picture of a Northern European needs to worry, as does everyone different in any other way. Even disagreeing with the neo-Nazi right risks a storm of Internet hate. Like the inhabitants of Star Trek's Eminiar VII we have had a rude intrusion of reality: however we try to tame them and make them something we can live with, the horrors of racism, like the horrors of war, will break through. The Star Trek episode ends with the leader of Eminiar VII agreeing to end the war. Maybe this eruption of ugly hate will impress on us that the only thing to do with racism is to refuse it.

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