The Myths That Guide Us

I recommend this article in WaPo by David Perry.

In early May, the white supremacist Jeremy Christian — who is accused of killing two men in Portland, Ore., on Friday — posted on Facebook, “Hail Vinland!!! Hail Victory!!!” “Victory” makes sense. Bigots feel empowered these days. But why “Vinland?” Why was this accused attacker talking about the short-lived Viking settlement in North America?

It turns out that white supremacy has gone fully medieval.

As the current contests over Confederate monuments exemplifies, Americans are accustomed to contested narratives about race and history fixating on the American South. Some of the most dangerous terrorists in the U.S., though, are looking much, much, farther north. Vinland was the name that a group of 10th-century Vikings, led by Leif Erikson, gave to a grapevine-rich island off what we believe is the coast of North America. For white supremacists, the concept of Vinland asserts a historical claim over North America, stretching especially from the Northeast coast to the Pacific Northwest. They use the myth of Vinland to position themselves as righteous defenders in the wars of race and religion they believe are coming.

Perry goes on to explain that the real Vikings of history weren’t as “whites only” as the white supremacists imagine, not to mention the fact that the Vinland colony was kind of a bust. But the Viking romanticism is interesting.

Having been raised in a whites-only community well stocked with people harboring racist beliefs, I noticed a long time ago that the worst white supremacists tend to be drearily ordinary. As a rule, they are not particularly bright, accomplished, educated, talented, successful or handsome. They are people who don’t stand out in any way except for the white supremacy thing.

And a long time ago it occurred to me that their very ordinariness was why they made such a Big Bleeping Deal about being white. It was the only attribute they had that made them special.

This is an entirely subjective opinion not backed up by scholarly studies, but I know my people. I sincerely believe a whole lot of these guys go down the white supremacy rabbit hole because they’ve come to live inside a myth that says their whiteness entitles them to greatness. In their own minds they are the heirs to a noble tradition of warrior-men who eventually will return in glory and re-assert their natural superiority over all those other people. And yeah, it’s nonsense, but it’s a fantasy that helps them avoid confronting how utterly banal they and their lives actually are.

We all go through our lives with an internal narrative in which we are the heroes, or at least the leading man or lady (or, if you are a bit warped, the martyr). People who are reasonably well-adjusted live with narratives that are, arguably, not completely divorced from objective reality. We may see ourselves as somewhat more charming or competent or better looking than others do, but as long as that doesn’t get in the way of interpersonal relationships, that’s probably harmless.

But when you see yourself as a noble elite warrior superior being, but you’re really a mediocre little nebbish with a beer gut, this is not healthy. Propping up your self-esteem is normal, but living inside a complete fantasy is not.

And yeah, the attachment to monuments that mythologize the Confederacy and the so-called Lost Cause is closely related to this same phenomenon. The romanticization of the Confederacy is another myth people use to make themselves feel they are part of something heroic, and we could do without it.

Sometimes the myths living in our hearts and subconscious really can elevate us, however. Perry continues,

Vinland wasn’t the only medieval presence at the Portland murders. Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche died fighting to protect the vulnerable people targeted by hate. Myrddin is the Welsh name for Merlin, the great wizard in the court of King Arthur. Taliesin was a 6th century Welsh poet who was later folded into the Arthurian legends. Their namesake died defending the vulnerable. His last words were, like a chivalric hero, to tell the people on the train that he loved them all.

I had recognized the names Taliesin and Myrddin, and as Perry is a Welsh surname, those names probably popped out to David Perry as they did to me. What a terrible waste.

History has never just been “the past.” As a historian, I study the way that groups have always tried to assert control over their story, seeking to mold legend, myth and reality into a useful narrative about identity and destiny. Stories like this have power, and we’d be foolish to ignore the threat.

Expanding this topic just a bit — it’s probably the case that people who have a normal amount of self-esteem, who are reasonably satisfied with their lives, and who feel connected to the communities they live in, are less likely to be sucked into Viking fantasy land than someone who feels alienated from himself and uncomfortable with the world.

“Religion and nationalism,” wrote the great philosopher/psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, “as well as any custom and any belief however absurd and degrading, if it only connects the individual with others, are refuges from what man most dreads: isolation.”

There always will be individuals who, for many reasons, never find a place for themselves in the world. But when people form movements based on their shared fantasies, and when they start slashing people on trains, or on London Bridge, it becomes a bigger problem. Young men especially seem vulnerable to losing themselves this way, but any sort of person could be vulnerable.

From what I have seen of radical, militant Islam, the most extreme versions especially, it is less about religious devotion than it is about alienated people living in a fantasy about their own ethnic and cultural entitlements, and resentments, combined with myths of past glory and future destiny. That the fantasy is packaged in Islam speaks to the way Islam dominates history and cultural identity in some parts of the world, but Islam isn’t the primary cause. I propose that Islamic terrorism basically stems from the same syndrome that inspires Jeremy Christian to live in a Viking fantasy.

And I don’t necessarily think this is “crazy.” I’ve heard nothing to make me thing Jeremy Christian is psychotic, as in hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t there. I’m not sure how a psychiatric professional would classify this, but seems to me it’s more of a social or cultural pathology than a “mental illness.”

And as we’re still sometimes having the argument about whether outreach to the white working class requires betraying racial equality, consider that racism is a common refuge for alienated white guys. And currently we’ve got a generation of white guys whose fathers had steady union jobs with good wages and benefits that are now long gone. If racism is growing in this population, the way to combat that is not to yell at them, but to come up with ways to help them feel connected to a more progressive vision. Martin Longman has some thoughts on this.

And it’s likely that “getting tough” and dropping bombs will have little impact on terrorism in the Muslim world, except maybe to make it grow.

And we must tackle the myths, head on. For example, tear down the Confederate monuments that mythologize the Confederacy; replace the myths with the actual history of the Confederacy and the brutality of slavery. We’ve let the “Lost Cause” nonsense fester far too long. The play-pretend Vikings may be a little harder to reach. But David Perry writes,

American white supremacists want to make Vinland great again, laying out an imagined past in which Vikings are the rightful conquerors of North America, locked in eternal battle with the Skraelings, the Viking slur for indigenous people. We must inoculate ourselves against this hate by telling a better story, one that recognizes the many errors of our past, but also lays out a vision for a more inclusive future.

That last part is most important, I think.

Racism Is No Excuse

Let’s not overstate the racism factor. While there is much wailing about those awful racists who voted for Trump, a closer look at the numbers suggest that the real story of this election was the people who didn’t vote for Trump … or Clinton, or anybody else.

Carl Beijer, who writes for leftie publications, argues that this wasn’t so much the bigot election as the apathy election.

From 2012 to 2016, both men and women went from caring about the outcome to not caring. Among Democratic men and women, as well as Republican women, care levels dropped about 3-4 points; Republican men cared a little less too, but only by one point. Across the board, in any case, the plurality of voters simply didn’t care.

White voters cared even less in 2016 then in 2012, when they also didn’t care; most of that apathy came from white Republicans compared to white Democrats, who dropped off a little less. Voters of color, in contrast, continued to care – but their care levels dropped even more, by 8 points (compared to the 6 point drop-off among white voters). Incredibly, that drop was driven entirely by a 9 point drop among Democratic voters of color which left Democrats with only slim majority 51% support; Republicans, meanwhile, actually gained support among people of color. …

… The major trend in 2016 was one of increasingly apathy. Within that broader trend, the demographic patterns are muddy. Deviations in relatively support from group to group don’t map well onto the standard media narratives that dominated this election; for example, apathy grew more among women and voters of color than among men and white voters. Among the candidates, Clinton either broke even or lost support among every single demographic group, while Trump won support among voters of color and boomers.

See Carl B’s blog for more data.

I’ve read that, particularly in the Rust Belt states, if the same numbers of people who came out for Obama in 2012 had voted for Clinton in 2016, she would have won those states, even though Trump did better than Romney did in those rust bucket states. For example, this anecdote is from Wisconsin:

Urban areas, where black and Hispanic voters are concentrated along with college-educated voters, already leaned toward the Democrats, but Clinton did not get the turnout from these groups that she needed. For instance, black voters did not show up in the same numbers they did for Barack Obama, the first black president, in 2008 and 2012.

Considering how razor-thin the margin of victory was in Wisconsin and elsewhere — there’s your loss.

It also appears that some people who voted for Obama in 2012 voted for Trump in 2016. So were they not racist in 2012?

Was the loss this year a “whitelash” against the Obama Administration? If so,why didn’t that cost President Obama the election in 2012? I can believe that some bigots are more worked up now than they were in 2012, considering that Trump and his followers have been stoking the fires. But if Democratic voters, including nonwhite ones, had voted as usual, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

During the primaries we were way oversold on Hillary Clinton’s alleged support among African American voters. She clobbered Sanders in the early southern primaries because huge majorities of black voters chose her, and that gave her a lead that he could never catch.  Clinton supporters even held this up as proof that Bernie Sanders is racist, which was absurd, and not that Democratic voters in the South just plain didn’t know who he was. As I wrote several times during the primaries, as time went on he won larger and larger percentages of black voters, and he had the support of a majority of black millennial voters.

But Beijer wrote back in June that people were misreading this.

Hillary Clinton has won an overwhelming majority of black voters who have participated in the Democratic primaries: the Wall Street Journal places her share at 75.9 percent, and my math puts it at 77.9 percent. This is certainly a better showing than we’ve seen seen from Bernie Sanders, who has won support from about a quarter of black voters.

But on this basis, Clinton’s partisans have routinely concluded that their candidate has won some kind of democratic mandate from black Americans. While this is true in the trivial sense — she has won votes from a majority of those who actually voted — this framing overlooks the overwhelming majority of voting-age black Americans who either voted against Clinton or declined to vote at all. In fact, based on an analysis of exit polls, turnout numbers, and census data, an extraordinary 87.9 percent of voting-age black Americans have not voted for Clinton.

The news stories revealing that the Clintons were worried about African American voters began to turn up in September.

“Hillary Clinton’s campaign is in panic mode. Full panic mode,” said Leslie Wimes, a South Florida-based president of the Democratic African-American Women Caucus.

“They have a big problem because they thought Obama and Michelle saying, ‘Hey, go vote for Hillary’ would do it. But it’s not enough,” Wimes said, explaining that too much of the black vote in Florida is anti-Trump, rather than pro-Clinton. “In the end, we don’t vote against somebody. We vote for somebody.”

This article is from November 1.

African-Americans are failing to vote at the robust levels they did four years ago in several states that could help decide the presidential election, creating a vexing problem for Hillary Clinton as she clings to a deteriorating lead over Donald J. Trump with Election Day just a week away.

As tens of millions of Americans cast ballots in what will be the largest-ever mobilization of early voters in a presidential election, the numbers have started to point toward a slump that many Democrats feared might materialize without the nation’s first black president on the ticket.

The reasons for the decline appear to be both political and logistical, with lower voter enthusiasm and newly enacted impediments to voting at play. In North Carolina, where a federal appeals court accused Republicans of an “almost surgical” assault on black turnout and Republican-run election boards curtailed early-voting sites, black turnout is down 16 percent. White turnout, however, is up 15 percent. Democrats are planning an aggressive final push, including a visit by President Obama to the state on Wednesday.

But in Florida, which extended early voting after long lines left some voters waiting for hours in 2012, African-Americans’ share of the electorate that has gone to the polls in person so far has decreased, to 15 percent today from 25 percent four years ago.

Voter suppression was a factor in some states that Clinton lost, but not in all of them.  See Voter suppression didn’t cost Hillary Clinton the election at Vox.

Here’s another analysis:

Of the nearly 700 counties that twice sent Obama to the White House, a stunning one-third flipped to support Trump.

Trump also won 194 of the 207 counties that voted for Obama either in 2008 or 2012.

By contrast, of those 2,200 counties that never supported Obama, Clinton was only able to win six. That’s just 0.3 percent crossover to the Democratic side.

Again, if we were to claim that racism cost Clinton the election, we’d have to conclude that people who were not racist in 2008 and 2012 had become so in 2016. Or, maybe, Clinton lost because not enough voters were enthusiastic enough about her to go to the polls and vote for her. Take your pick.

It’s true that a lot of outspoken white supremacists supported Trump. But I’m writing this because I’m seeing way too many people say that we can’t win over those racist voters who elected Trump, so we’re doomed. It isn’t that simple.


From the Guardian:

A group of young black men were incorrectly arrested on suspicion of firearm possession during a protest in Ferguson, Missouri, as a group of white militiamen, armed with rifles and wearing body armour and camouflage, claimed they had been granted permission to walk through the protests by police officers. …

… On Monday night, a group of at least three black men who were standing by a car next to a hair salon on West Florissant Avenue were arrested after a phalanx of St Louis County police surged towards them, using pepper spray and batons. A spokesman for the police department told the Guardian by email on Tuesday that officers had received information “that the occupants or folks near that vehicle were possibly armed with handguns”.

But the spokesman later confirmed that none of those arrested during the swoop were in possession of any weapons.

The treatment of these suspects, who were wrestled to the ground and placed in plastic flexicuffs, came in seemingly stark contrast to a group of white militiamen, who arrived at the protest at around 1am, after the arrests occurred, carrying loaded M-15 rifles with several magazine cartridges strapped across their body armour.

So, yes, white guys from out of town are allowed to strut around with assault rifles while black men are wrestled to the ground and handcuffed in their own neighborhood on suspicion that they might be armed. We’re not looking at equal treatment under the law, I don’t think. If Ferguson residents took to calling themselves a militia and marched around visibly armed to the teeth, would the cops leave them alone? Um, probably not. For the record, Ferguson police say the Oath Keepers did not have permission to patrol the streets with guns. But neither were they arrested.

Lots of other people have been arrested in Saint Louis County in the past few days, including:

The philosopher Cornel West was among those arrested, as were prominent Black Lives Matter protesters DeRay McKesson and Johnetta Elzie, according to reports. The Reverends Renita Lamkin and Osagyefo Sekou were also reportedly arrested. Rev. Lamkin, an African Methodist Episcopal church pastor, and Rev. Sekou, a pastor from the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, have been prominent figures in protests in Ferguson since Michael Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson last August.

They were arrested while standing on the steps of the federal courthouse, which usually isn’t a criminal act. The federal courthouse I know of is near downtown St. Louis, not in Ferguson, so I assume these activists can’t be said to have been instigating riots in Ferguson by standing on steps.

Since I live in a Buddhist temple with no television I don’t always know what’s going on on the tube. But it seems to me we’re not hearing as much about these events as we should be hearing.

There’s lots of bickering about #BlackLivesMatter on the web, but it’s all about Bernie Sanders. I personally think #BLM badly violated my Bigger Asshole rule by hijacking and taking over a couple of Sanders events. The fact that you can find thousands of discussion threads on #BLM and Bernie and practically nothing about Cornel West being arrested for standing on the steps of a federal courthouse rather proves my point. Stupid protesting is worse for your cause than not protesting at all. We’re just pissing each other off and having the wrong conversation.

Charles Pierce:

What happened in Seattle was an embarrassment to the tradition of public protest.  It was a hysterical piece of performance art that accomplished absolutely nothing toward whatever goals its performers sought to achieve. Rage is not an excuse. Frustration is not an excuse. This was a simple act of public vandalism, aimed (again) at the wrong target. I have been to a bunch of rallies already in this godforsaken campaign. If the two principals here had tried this at any Republican rally; if they had tried it at any rally for any candidate of the party that largely has supported the militarized state of American policing, that more than any other political institution has worked to create the climate of The Other by which Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin are thugs while the people who killed them are blameless victims; if they had tried this at a Republican rally, they’d have been hauled off in handcuffs within five minutes, if they were allowed into the hall at all. This is taking advantage of the openness of a campaign that is overwhelmingly sympathetic to your goals, instead of bringing your fight to the politicians who actively oppose you, because it’s easier to do. Consider me unimpressed by the courage involved. I feel absolutely no compunction about saying that this “action” was stupid and counterproductive. It was loud and spectacular and it accomplished nothing good.

After days of people asking why #BlackLivesMatter was targeting Bernie Sanders — and sometimes Martin O’Malley– and not Hillary Clinton, finally some BLM activists talked to Hillary Clinton. That’s right; they sat down and talked to her. What a concept. Oliver Willis, however, was not impressed.

Representatives of the Black Lives Matters movement met with Hillary Clinton, and if you actually thought this movement was about stopping black people from being killed and reforming criminal justice issues with minorities, you should not only be disappointed but disgusted. …

…All along I’ve been worried that #BlackLivesMatter was some sort of millennial-flavored angst, a generation once again letting its feelings cloud out everything else. I’ve hoped that wasn’t the case. I hoped that what we’ve been seeing is about getting actual change to happen, the sausage making boring stuff that past movements – women’s rights, minority rights, gay rights – got done that have made America a better country now than it used to be.

Perhaps this exchange has been mis-characterized. God, I hope so. Because if this is accurate, if its about feelings and notions and not laws and rules and policies, the movement is doomed.

I’m seeing all kinds of wild rationalizations why Bernie Sanders was targeted and not the Republicans or Hillary Clinton. None of those rationalizations make sense. Avedon Carol wrote (on Oliver Willlis’s blog):

The Clintons pushed all those horrible Tough On Crime policies in the ’90s that massively increased incarceration of black people.

Bernie Sanders is one of very few people who objected to those policies at the time and has never stopped objecting to them. Contrary to the press (and BLM) narrative, he didn’t add racial issues to his speeches, he was saying that stuff all along.

My impression is that there’s a lot of pent-up rage against white liberals who don’t always “get it” or come through when needed, and Bernie Sanders’s supporters — who do sometimes come across as way too ebulliently giddy about Their Guy than is emotionally healthy — push their buttons. But effective demonstrating has to be more disciplined than that.

See also: A woman of color and Washington state senator expresses huge ambivalence about Seattle.

GOP Crack — Race and Abortion

Joshua Green writes at Bloomberg Businessweek that yesterday’s voting rights decision is a poison chalice for the GOP.

Many of the GOP’s current problems stem from the fact that it is overly beholden to its white, Southern base at a time when the country is rapidly becoming more racially diverse. …

… The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a central provision of the Voting Rights Act will make it easier for Republicans to hold and expand their power in those mainly Southern states. That will, in turn, make it easier for them to hold the House. It will also intensify the Southern captivity of the GOP, thereby making it harder for Republicans to broaden their appeal and win back the White House.

Several states are rushing ahead to put voter ID laws in place. Will redistricting be far behind? See also Voter IDers Hit The Ground Running After Supreme Court Ruling.

The first comment to Green’s opinion piece says, “More apt, this decision is a crack pipe for the GOP. They won’t be able to help themselves.” That’s right. Just watch the Republican base push to disenfranchise every person of color south of the Mason-Dixon, wherever that is, and quite a few north of that, as well. I am hoping for a new and energetic voting rights movement to arise from this. I’m also hoping for a big fight in Washington, with clearly drawn lines between the pro- and anti- voting rights crowd.

The other issue they cannot leave alone is abortion. Following Wendy Davis’s heroic filibuster in Austin that blocked an abortion restriction bill, you know that a bunch of old white guys (and a few addled women) will keep trying until they see to it that Texas women will be going to Mexico for abortions. Mexico will have to build its own fence.

But in the long run, I don’t see this as helping the GOP expand its base. It’ll thrill the base it’s already got, but it’s also serving notice to younger women that they’d better get their butts to the polls if they want to keep their reproductive rights.

See also Wendy Davis’s Filibuster By the Numbers