How the Old Racism Became the New Fearism

(originally written for the Huffington Post in 2010, it seems a propos given Trayvon Martin)

There are fewer sentences more sincerely uttered these days than “I’m not a racist.” In fact, except on the Aryan fringe, you’d be hard put to find anybody who believes the word applies to them. And they’re telling the truth too, strictly speaking.

Hate is so last century; it has been replaced by fear. Not fear of dark people themselves, but fear of what their ascendancy represents for white people. Barack Obama embodies the new reality that blacks are finally getting a seat at the table — sometimes at its head. Hispanics are the hardest-working, fastest growing demographic in the country. When money and power expands in a one segment of the population, it recedes somewhere else. We on the left may view this as the bloated minority finally contracting toward right-sizedness, but if you’ve had more than your fair share for centuries, you’re bound to experience any readjustment as an usurpation of your just entitlement.

It’s not for nothing that the Tea Partiers suffer the most from fearism. They are overwhelmingly white, over 45, and are mostly in the top quintile of American income earners. They are reacting viscerally to their perception that they will have to go from having more to having less, just so the have-nots can finally have some. In their world view, if you have little, it’s because you’ve done little. They seem to see the men hanging out in front of the Home Depot as if they’re not the same construction workers who built all those (now foreclosed) houses during the bubble. (Their legal status didn’t get too much scrutiny when they were willing to make $7/ hour working all day in the hot sun, did it?)

This fear creates all sorts of distorted perceptions, as fear tends to do. There’s the irrational certainty that Obama is going to take their guns away, (after the census but before he rounds them up for FEMA concentration camps.) Universal healthcare has been twisted into the ultimate socialist plot, replete with death panels and gulag rationing. The phobias are always around loss–you can only want your country “back” if you’re convinced it’s been taken away.

Less prosperous whites fear that they will fall even further down the economic ladder, but they are also clinging to less tangible sources of status. Being born here, speaking English, raised a Christian–all of these accidents of birth feel like accomplishments if you don’t have a lot else in your life to feel proud about. It’s a scary thought that none of these traits make you intrinsically better than anyone else in the world—or would be if you allowed yourself to think it.

Don’t get me wrong, someone waving a poster with Obama as a witch doctor on it certainly provides ample ammo for the label of old-fashioned racist. But that wouldn’t explain how the right could idealize a Clarence Thomas or elevate a Michael Steele. They’re not afraid of fellow ideologues who happen to be black or brown, they’re only afraid of those who represent or promise change. If we sometimes feel outnumbered and outfoxed (pun intended) by the tea-party right, imagine how they felt on election night, 2008? “Left Behind” is not supposed to be about them.

If fear or prejudice both lead to the same racist result, why is it important to distinguish between the two as its cause? Because the same person who is certain they’re no hater might be willing to admit they’re afraid. It’s a little humbling, but at least it doesn’t make you a bad person. And those who acknowledge that fear is driving them might start to peer over the veil of unreason to make less fevered and more rational choices.



    • Mark Olmsted Racism as hate is an outdated concept. Too many George Zimmermans can point to the Joe Olivers they know as “proof” they are not “racist;” or even cite their own mixed blood. And isn’t it strange that we use “homophobia” to explain hostility to gays? Why not homocism?
      What happened to Trayvon Martin exemplifies how fear and hate bleed into each other in the real world–they come from pretty much the same place.

Paying Taxes: Old Patriotism Meets New Philanthropy

In the movie “All About Eve,” the titular character, Eve, asks Bill Sampson, the director, why he’s going to Hollywood. “Is it the money?” she asks.  “No,” Bill shrugs.“Uncle Sam will take most of it.”  He says this without resentment or rancor. Paying taxes was the patriotic thing to do in the 40s, and besides, Bill’s passions are his work and Margo Channing, not making money.  (The unhappiest character in the movie is the producer, Max Fabian. Money is all he thinks about.)

“All About Eve” is set in the immediate postwar years.  To finance the war, both taxes and the deficit had skyrocketed to much higher levels, as a percentage of GDP, than they’re at today.  Tax rates remained high in the succeeding decades, as administrations both Republican and Democratic presided over a largely interrupted and remarkable stretch of American prosperity.
Then in the late 70s, globalized wealth gave birth to a new class: the Super Rich. Suddenly the mere rich were discontented, and the era of tax-cutting began under Reagan. There was some pushback under Clinton, resulting in prodigious job growth and one year of rare surplus,  then came the Bush tax cuts and a sharp rise in income inequality. The consequences of this concentration of wealth have been a wrecking ball through the U.S. economy ever since.

Now we have the strange display of Bill Gates getting 39 billionaires to pledge to give away half their wealth.  Isn’t that nice? Such generosity. As if there is no correlation between a tiny sliver of the population making more money than they can ever spend and a huge increase in the number of people who can barely make ends meet.

These billionaires have discovered–the easy way–that indeed money doesn’t buy happiness (though giving it away may purchase a modicum of redemption.) Hell, I could have told them that. Or they could have just tuned into any episode of the “Real Housewives of Wannabe County.” It would be hard to find more glaring evidence of the utter spiritual bankruptcy that comes with making it a life goal to have bouncier breasts and a bigger boat than your best frenemy.

The other trait of the strivers seems to be an utter conviction that any day now, they’re going to make it up into the top income percentile.  After all, Sarah Palin did it. Here’s a woman who might have been of actual public service, but who was so anxious to rake in the dough that she couldn’t even finish out one measly term as Alaska Governor. And millions admire her for it; Mama Grizzly going for the honey in spite of all those nasty liberal bees.

I can hear the hedge fund managers and the CEO’s laughing all the way to the bank.  They’ve gotten the top half of the bottom 98% convinced that the bottom half of the bottom 98% is the cause of all their woes. It’s classic Divide and Conquer.  

As an ex-con, I laugh when the Tea Party screams about “freedom.”  Trust me, you don’t quite get what that word means until you can’t even walk down to the corner to get yourself a 7-Up.  Not to mention they’re not one iota less free to make all the money they want under Barack Obama as they were under George Bush. What they’re really caterwauling about is their “feardom.” They’re afraid what they imagine is whitefully theirs will suddenly go to people who haven’t “earned” it. You know, the people who voted for Obama. Negroes and Homos. Socialists and Spanish-speakers.

Oh hear me, Rich People.  More money does not make you more happy.   Look around you—or at least out the window of your limo. Wouldn’t it be nice if those kids coming home from school were in a class size of 25 instead of 35? Wouldn’t it make you feel better to know the person in the ambulance whizzing by was going to get prompt treatment that wouldn’t bankrupt her? And how about that homeless veteran, collecting cans to turn in? Don’t you think he deserves better?

Don’t fight higher taxes, Rich People; pay them.  Just tell yourself you’re giving it away to a poor relation. After all, Uncle Sam is family.

The Low Self-Esteem Engine that is Rick Santorum

When I came up with the idea of a “low self-esteem engine”  I wasn’t even thinking of anyone in particular, I just thought it made for a funny pun.  But Santorum does strike me as coming basically from the Eric Cantor school of former nerds. The 98-pound weakling who got decent-enough looking after college to actually land a wife, and then discovered through politics that he could actually have power over all those jocks who made him feel like shit in high school.  (The one college shot of Santorum in a beard and smoking a pipe is so indicative. It says: “I don’t know who I am. I need a mask. I need accoutrements. Maybe you will think I have a personality.”)

Getting it together wasn’t enough for Rick. He couldn’t stand how all his college friends went on to have sex with whoever they wanted, and a lot of it, gay or straight (especially gay–that one guy down the hall he couldn’t help but notice in the dorm.)  If he could only have missionary sex with just his wife, they had to as well.  His entire worldview became one in which the behavior of other people had to validate his own choices.  He has endless children? No abortions for anyone.  He can’t ever see what it’s like to make out with a guy? You have to pray away your gay.  The rich entitled white guy who wouldn’t know low self-esteem unless it was an ingredient his toothpaste? Gotta beat him for President.

And of course, Obama is the worst, because his humble origins are far humbler than Rick’s, and he didn’t even have the advantage of white skin.  Obama is the quintessential American success story, a man who rises to the top on the basis of intellect and merit, and nothing else.  If Santorum can beat him, maybe he can finally have the feeling he never had when he wasn’t voted Class President. Maybe he finally won’t feel like a fraud, maybe those nasty kinky thoughts will finally go away. If he makes everybody live like he does, than maybe that little voice of doubt that has plagued him all of his live will finally be quelled. The more doubt one has, the more one feels the need to double down on certainty.

And of course, this is precisely the syndrome afflicting so many of the people who vote for him. “We are afraid of who we really are.  We will vote for the guy who tells us we are morally superior, and them maybe it will be true.”  So they do, and the rest of the United States suffers.

I think we should require therapy in order to vote.  Ten sessions for everyone — twenty for Republicans. Maybe then we can restore some sanity to their choices.

MCO 2012

The Right Not To Bear Children

Much has been made of whether “the right to privacy” is in the Constitution. It’s not, explicitly. Who cares?  When is America going to stop fetishizing a document written by rich white men 230 years ago who owned slaves and didn’t think woman were worthy of the vote?

Of course the Founders couldn’t conceive of two men getting married. Here’s a few other things they didn’t have an opinion on: air traffic control, immigration reform, equal pay for equal work, and Social Security. They would have thought a “safety net” was a term used by fishermen. The idea of a black President, voted in by both sexes of myriad colors would have provoked peals of laughter in the Continental Congress.

Some rights they forgot to put in the Constitution: The right to be non-violent.  The right to love another consenting adult and do what you want together behind closed doors. The right not to be a parent.

In the ideal NewtSantoRomneyverse, you might be legally deprived of the resources to purchase contraception. If you’re in a working poor family that can barely buy shoes for the children you do have, it could mean that you do not have even a fundamental right to intercourse, for fear of creating a child you don’t have the resources to raise.

Another one the Founders forget to spell out: the right to marital copulation.

So if you can’t afford the pill, and the condom breaks, you and your wife may be forced to make the  choice of an extra child who will be the tipping point into poverty, or scraping together enough money for an abortion.  Let’s not even talk about an unmarried woman, or a woman who’s been raped, or a victim of incest.   Let’s not even talk about the social costs of children raised in homes that cannot provide for them materially or spiritually, the inexpressible sadness of being born unwanted. Spend some time in prison Rick. It will be everywhere you look.

Less access to contraception equals more unplanned pregnancies.  More unplanned pregnancies lead to more abortion.  These “pro-lifers” are anything but.

And if you are against contraception, you don’t believe that human beings have a fundamental right not to bear offspring.  

President Obama is once against violating the cardinal rule of never playing defense.  He needs to attack. Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich are not pro-religion, they are deeply immoral. They believe in policies that would increase abortion and poverty. They are the anti-lifers, and it needs to be said, loudly, clearly and unapologetically.

Challenging the Morality of Profit

A friend of mine posted a link to an essay on a site called “The Morality of Profit.”  The site actually promotes a wide array of opinion, but this particular essay held that: “A society is moral if it both allows man to fulfill his potential and, in utilitarian terms, creates the most good.  Fortunately, a society based on the profit motive can achieve both of these factors.  By acknowledging the fundamentals of human nature – that man is intrinsically self-interested – and channeling it towards productivity through a system based on such an understanding, both individuals and societies will develop and grow.”

I beg to differ. Under this logic, the unbridled application of the profit motive would create the most moral society—and history shows us instead the Gilded Age.  Unrestrained capitalism may produce the most wealth, but the wildly unequal distribution of that wealth guarantees that some will have more opportunity to fulfill their potential than others. The reality is that the more the profit motive rules, the less moral the resulting society.

I would have to be a blithering idiot to ascribe no good to the profit motive, nor acknowledge the multitude of positive human endeavors in which it plays an indispensable part.  The transcontinental railroad, for example, allowed for the wholesale destruction of the buffalo, sealing the fate of the Plains Indians. But it also linked two sides of the continent—the epitome of an inevitable development.   I would not be writing this without the internet and 10,000 inventions that preceded it—many motivated by the desire to make money. Societies in which there is no profit motive mostly do not work—witness North Korea.  (I say “mostly” because many small communitarian societies in which there is no profit motive have worked very well–Native American tribes are a prime example.)

Without the profit motive we wouldn’t have much in the way of mining, oil and gas, skyscrapers, bridges, food production, housing, biotech, retail, fashion, banking and air travel—in short, all the elements of modern industrial society. It is also an indispensable part of any realistic solution to third world poverty—though ironically so, as this poverty is almost always inextricably linked to the legacy of rapacious colonialism

But the fact is that the best things we do as human beings are never motivated by the desire for profit. Not one poem is written, symphony composed, or masterpiece painted.  Miep Gies did not hide the Frank family for money, nor was it the reason Mother Teresa tended the sick of Calcutta. It’s not why 99.9% of all athletes pick up a football, swim a mile, or run a marathon.  It’s not why you read to your kids at night, tend to an aging parent, or stage an intervention for a drug-addicted friend.

Here are two lists. One denotes 10 things done solely with profit as an overriding motive; the other, 10 things in which the desire for profit plays little or no part.  (If there is a related consequence, I put it in parentheses.)


1. The Slave Trade (Civil War)
2. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
3. The Iraq War
4. Sex Trafficking
5.  Blood Diamonds
6. The Arms Trade
7. The Drug Trade
8. The Genocide of Native Americans
9. The Destruction of Rainforests
10. Off-shore Drilling (The BP Disaster)

Little or No Profit Motive

1. Motherhood
2. Affection
3. Volunteering
4. The Arts
5. Play
6. Twelve-Step Programs
7. National Parks
8. Exploration
9. The Olympics
10. Education

The profit motive may be necessary, but “moral” hardly seems like the right adjective for it.  Loan-sharking is not moral.  Strip mining is not moral. Sweatshops are not moral.  A world in which making money reigns as a supreme expression of morality would be a sorry utopia indeed.  Greed may be inevitable, but the urge to accumulate as much as possible should be far down on the list of traits a society should ever want to anoint as one of its highest values.
MCO 2012