Pence as president could be worse than Trump

The thought of Donald Trump’s monstrous ego being swiftly turned out of office because of his incompetence and corruption can’t help but give us a warm feeling of schadenfreude. Yet contemplating his possible impeachment gives full meaning to the idea of being careful of what you wish.

The complicating factor here is that an impeachment and removal from office would elevate Christian fundamentalist Mike Pence to the presidency. That would be truly a horrifying development. Not only because Vice President Pence is more of a “true believer” in the extreme Right agenda than is President Trump but as an experienced legislator and governor, he’d likely be far more effective in steering bills through Congress.

With some of the most ideological Republicans in control of all three branches of government, and given that the Democratic Party has shown no sign whatsoever of learning from last year’s electoral debacle, hoping for relief from traditional politics seems even more hopeless than it is ordinarily. What to do? Even the ongoing campaign to “Refuse Fascism” by “driving out the Trump/Pence regime” has a controversial element to it. Although appropriately aimed at both while targeting the system that could elevate such horrors to the apex of political power, this sort of campaign spreads confusion by equating what is a particularly nasty manifestation of capitalist formal democracy with full fascism.

The Indiana Toll Road (photo by Georgi Banchev)

Let’s step back for a moment and remember a bit of history. In the last years of Weimar Germany, the Communist Party of Germany maintained a rigid sectarian line that focused its attacks not on the Nazis, but at Social Democracy. The Social Democrats were scorned as “social fascists,” and the coalition governments of Social Democrats and its moderate Right allies denounced as “objectively fascist” already. Instead of a united front against the Nazis, the only strategy that could have defeated Hitler before Hindenburg appointed him chancellor, energy was dissipated in sectarian sniping.

When the Nazis took power, they wasted no time rounding up Communists and Social Democrats, sending them to the first concentration camps. Of course, it was the Social Democrats who paved the road for the Nazis through their continual reliance on the right-wing death squads known as the “Free Corps” who would later became the seeds for Hitler’s storm troops.

The difference between a miserable, politically bankrupt bourgeois government and a fascist government was hammered home the hard way. Let us not make the same mistake now. Donald Trump’s ascension carries the seeds of a potential fascist movement but it is not actually fascist; thus far it is a conventional Republican administration in its policies, albeit one more extreme and incompetent than even the Bush II/Cheney administration. That is more than enough reason to organize with urgency, going beyond demonstrations to building organized movements. But if both Trump and Pence were removed from office before their terms were up, then House Speaker Paul Ryan would take office. Hardly an improvement!

The bar is mighty low indeed when Speaker Ryan, capable of little more than robotically repeating the lines he’s been fed by the Koch brothers, can, with a straight face by corporate-media commentators, be considered an “intellectual.” As the Green Party activist Paul Gilman jokes, “Ryan is considered an intellectual by Republicans because he’s read both of Ayn Rand’s novels.”

None of the foregoing in any way is an attempt to discourage the work of Refuse Fascism, or anybody else organizing against the Trump administration. We need more of this kind of work — especially work that targets capitalism instead of focusing on personalities. For our ability to limit the damage from the White House and its congressional enablers will depend on the intensity and effectiveness of our organizing.

A general in the Republican war on women

Circling back to Vice President Pence, it would be nearly impossible to overstate his extremism. In public speeches, he has said he is “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order.” Like many evangelical Christians, he believes he has a right to impose his religious beliefs on everyone else, and as Indiana governor passed a law intended to do that. As a Daily Kos report put it:

“He has repeatedly claimed that he should make policies and pass laws that are in accordance with his faith. The evangelical church Mike Pence has been attending teaches that marriage is only between one man and one woman. The wife must be submissive to her husband. All women are expected to submit humbly to the teachings of Christian men.”

The church he attended in Indianapolis openly calls for a theocratic state, believing the Bible should be taken literally:

“We believe the Bible to be the verbally inspired Word of God, inerrant in the original manuscripts and the sufficient and final authority for all matters of faith, practice, and life.”

And this church asserts that not only should women be “deferential” to men and be “guided” toward marriage and away from a career, but that this applies to all women, whether or not church members. The Daily Kos article notes that a foundational book used by the church

“does not distinguish between conduct expected from women in voluntary marriages and unrelated women who may be members of another faith. This book teaches that preferences of women from different faiths (or no faith) are simply wrong and need to be corrected by the older women.”

And thus it is no surprise Vice President Pence would so distinguish himself for his crusades against women. As a member of Congress, he led fights to defund Planned Parenthood. Upon becoming Indiana governor, he cut Planned Parenthood funding by more than half and cut funding for domestic-violence programs. The slashing of funding for Planned Parenthood forced five non-abortion clinics that provided testing for sexually transmitted diseases to close, leading to an increase in HIV infections so severe that federal intervention was required. As the health crisis began to spiral out of control, local public health officials suggested using a needle exchange and harm-reduction program to combat it, but Pence refused, allowing the crisis to worsen.

Women’s March of January 21, 2017, in Chicago (photo by Jonathan Eyler-Werve)

As member of Congress, he co-sponsored a bill allowing hospitals to turn away women in need of life-saving abortions, and another bill that would have designated fertilized eggs as people with legal rights.

As governor, he signed into law a measure requiring fetal tissue from abortions to be buried or cremated, which was suspended by a federal judge before it could go into effect. The law would also have imposed rules designed to seriously impede the right to an abortion and subject doctors to potential jail terms. And it was under Pence’s governorship that Purvi Patel was given a since-reduced 20-year prison sentence for a miscarriage, after prosecutors claimed she had induced a “late” abortion.

A general in the war on gays and lesbians

In an Orwellian touch, then Indiana Governor Pence signed into law the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The act does not grant freedom of religious belief, already strictly enforced and one that governments and courts bend over backwards to support, but rather was intended to allow evangelicals to force their religious beliefs on others. The law would have trampled on the rights of others, such as allowing businesses to refuse services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, similar to Southern businesses being allowed to refuse service to African-Americans.

The Human Rights Campaign, in a report analyzing the Indiana law and other similar laws around the country, wrote:

“These bills are often incredibly vague and light on details — usually intentionally. In practice, most of these bills could empower any individual to sue the government to attempt to end enforcement of a non-discrimination law. The evangelical owner of a business providing a secular service can sue claiming that their personal faith empowers them to refuse to hire Jews, divorcees, or LGBT people. A landlord could claim the right to refuse to rent an apartment to a Muslim or a transgender person.”

Swift public pressure and announced boycotts led to a revision allegedly softening the law, but the intention is clear. A President Pence would surely feel emboldened to attempt such a law on the national level.

His animus toward the LGBTQ community is so severe that he tried to block federal funding of HIV treatments unless they came with a requirement to advocate against same-sex relationships. He opposes non-straight people serving in the military, going so far as to claim that “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service because the presence of homosexuals in the ranks weakens unit cohesion.”

A crusader against science

Not surprisingly for someone who believes in the Bible as the sole source of truth and law, Vice President Pence is no fan of science. He doesn’t believe in evolution or global warming. On evolution, a Think Progress analysis notes:

“Speaking with an inflection many evangelicals would recognize in their pulpits, Pence advocated in 2002 for changing science textbooks to describe evolution as merely one ‘theory’ among many, and suggested including ‘intelligent design’ — a school of thought similar to Christian Creationism — alongside the work of Charles Darwin.

‘The truth is [evolution] always was a theory,’ he said. ‘And now that we’ve recognized evolution as a theory, I would simply and humbly ask: can we teach it as such? And can we also consider teaching other theories. … Like the theory that was believed in by every signer of the Declaration of Independence? The Bible tells us that God created man in his own image, male and female he created them — and I believe that.’ ”

Vice President Pence’s hostility to science has apparently prevented him from understanding that human knowledge has progressed since the 18th century. That is of no consequence because God gave him the ability to read the minds of people dead more than 200 years.

The Minneapolis climate march of April 29, 2017 (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

And as to global warming, perhaps here the concerns of his billionaire backers are intermingled with his religious obscurantism. He once wrote an essay in which he said: “Global warming is a myth. The global warming treaty is a disaster. There, I said it.” Putting “greenhouse gases” in quotation marks (maybe he didn’t take chemistry in high school?), he assured his potential voters that the Earth had actually cooled over the previous 50 years. In a truly marvelous piece of perfect ignorance, he wrote:

“[T]he greenhouse gases alluded to are real but are mostly the result of volcanoes, hurricanes and underwater geologic displacements. Regrettably, none of these causes can be corralled by environmentalists hungry for regulation and taxes and, therefore, must be ignored.”

Funded by the Koch brothers

The Koch brothers must have been proud of him. He certainly has proved to be a winning investment for them. One of the brothers, David Koch, donated $300,000 to Pence’s gubernatorial bids, and there are strong ties. A 2014 Politico article reported:

“A number of Pence’s former staffers from his days in Congress have assumed major roles in the brothers’ corporate and political spheres. And Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ top political group, has been holding up Pence’s work in Indiana as emblematic of a conservative reform agenda they’re trying to take nationwide. … Pence has worked to spotlight the fiscal issues that animate the Kochs’ political giving. People close to the brothers say he first earned their network’s admiration during the George W. Bush years, when he opposed what he deemed Big Government policies backed by his own party, including No Child Left Behind and a Medicare expansion, and repeatedly warned that the GOP was veering off course.”

The Bush II/Cheney administration was too liberal! Something else to keep in mind should Vice President Pence gain even more power than he already has. Given his ability to understand how government works, he would likely be more effective at ramming through far Right wish lists than Trump. A Republican consultant quoted by The Guardian backed this opinion:

“Pence has outstanding relationships with the GOP leadership on Capitol Hill of all stripes, not just the social conservatives. So there’d be clear alignment and rapid progress on healthcare, taxation, and many other key policy initiatives that have eluded the party over the past months as a result of Trump’s unorthodox approach.”

To what extent the policies of the Trump administration are those of Mike Pence and what policies are those of White supremacist chief strategist Steve Bannon are difficult to know. Perhaps they have separate spheres of influence or, as is likely, there is considerable overlap in their agendas. The draconian budget proposed by the Trump administration on May 23 has the fingerprints of the budget director, Mick Mulvaney, a far right ideologue himself, but it is likely the vice president had much say in it — the punishments intended to be administered to people for the crime of being poor are certainly consistent with his style.

Given that Donald Trump doesn’t have the intellectual capacity or attention span to actually be president, and appears to rely heavily on a small coterie, Mike Pence likely is already directing much policy. There is nothing to choose between the two. We don’t have to declare them fascists to find them plenty scary enough. (You are, after all, reading this on your computer screen at your leisure rather than having this conversation in a concentration camp. And by this point, Hitler had already consolidated his dictatorship with political opponents and union officials murdered or in camps.)

We have all the reasons we could want to oppose the Trump administration at every step. An administration, not one personality. There is no reason to think ousting President Trump would lessen the danger to the world he presents, and could actually have the counter-intuitive effect of increasing it. Organize!

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Economic issues are not separate from “identity” issues

Building the largest possible movement to not only tackle the immense, and intensifying, problems facing humanity and the environment but to overcome these problems is our urgent task. Given the position the Left finds itself in today, serious discussions inevitably include a variety of perspectives, and that is healthy.

But sometimes these discussions can veer too far into an “either/or” dynamic. These debates center on who should be the subject(s) of a mass movement that can begin to reverse the European and North American slide toward the right, a direction that, at least for now, appears to be sweeping across Latin America as well. In the United States, following the shock election of Donald Trump, an “either/or” debate has taken shape in the form of “identity politics” versus “class politics.” But do we really have to pick a side here?

An example of an activist arguing that there has been too much focus in the U.S. on “identity politics,” Bruce Lerro, writing for the Planning Beyond Capitalism web site, argues that both the Democratic Party and the Left ignored working class concerns, catastrophically leaving an opening for a right-wing demagogue like President-elect Trump to fill a vacuum. Critical of what he calls a capitulation to “long-standing liberal ideology [that] all ethnicities and genders will be able to compete for a piece of the capitalist pie,” Professor Lerro writes:

“Calling people into the streets on the basis of attacks on ethnic minorities or anti-Islamic remarks alone ignores the results of the election. It reveals the left’s inadequacy in having next to no influence over all the working class people who voted for Trump as well as the 47% of the people who didn’t bother to vote at all. It continues the same 45 year history of identity politics which has failed to make things better for its constituents, except for all upper middle class minorities and women in law and university professors who benefit most from identity politics and who moralistically preside over politically correct vocabulary.”

It is true that liberal ideology tends to fight for the ability of minorities and women to be able to obtain elite jobs as ends to themselves rather than orient toward a larger struggle against systemic inequality and oppression. Leaving capitalism untouched leaves behind all but a handful of people who ascend to elite jobs. Barack Obama’s eight years as U.S. president didn’t end racism, did it? Nor would have a successful Hillary Clinton campaign have brought an end to sexism. A movement serious about change fights structural discrimination; it doesn’t fight for a few individuals to have a career.

Black Lives Matter takes the streets of New York City

Black Lives Matter takes the streets of New York City

But to say this is not to deny that racism, sexism and other social ills have to be fought head-on. So even a focus on class issues does not mean ignoring these issues, Professor Lerro writes:

“In criticizing identity politics I am not proposing that race and gender issues should not be discussed or that they don’t matter. My criticism of identity politics is that it has historically excluded social class. From an anti-capitalist and socialist perspective, race and gender are most importantly discussed at the location where capitalists produce surplus labor — on the job. So where there is white privilege over wages or the quality of jobs offered, this issue should be discussed openly by workers in and out of a union setting. At the same time, when we are organizing against capitalism and developing a socialist political practice, race and gender issues as they affect socialist organizing, need to be confronted. But the further away discussions of race and gender get from social class, the workplace and efforts to organize against capitalism and for socialism, the more they becomes discussions for liberals — not socialists.”

Racism and sexism in our own movements

Racism and sexism, however, are found outside the workplace, and have not been eradicated from social struggles. Certainly there can not be any going back to the open sexism of 1960s movements. There was a prominent demonstration of that era in which no women were invited to speak, and a group of women in response confronted men organizing the event about this, insisting that their demands be included. In response, one of the men told them that there was already a women’s resolution, which was simply a general plea for peace. Demanding that issues specific to women’s oppression be included, the male activist not only refused further discussion, but actually patted Shulamith Firestone, soon to be the author of The Dialectic of Sex, on the head!

Such degrading behavior would not be tolerated in a Left movement today, but it can hardly be argued that sexism (or racism) has been overcome once and for all in Left movements, never mind in larger society. The days when a Left movement can tell a member of an oppressed group to “wait your turn, it’ll all be better after we have the revolution,” really should be behind us.

Even after a revolution, these issues have to be worked on. Women, for example, made serious advances in the 20th century’s socialist revolutions but never sufficient advances, and there was often backsliding. The Sandinistas banned the display of women’s bodies in commercial advertising after coming to power in Nicaragua, but near the end of their first 11 years in power sponsored a beauty contest, nor did they legalize abortion. No woman sat on the Sandinistas’ highest body, the nine-member National Directorate, during those 11 years despite their fighting in large numbers, and even commanding, during the hard struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. No woman ever sat on the Politburo during the Soviet Union’s 74-year history.

Working people are oppressed, but not all to the same degree

The world’s advanced capitalist countries are far from a revolution, so all the more is it necessary to seriously make structural discrimination a component part of Left struggles, without forgetting the class dimension any such struggle must contain. In a typically thoughtful article in CounterPunch, Henry Giroux, while not losing sight of class issues, and the overall repression of working people under neoliberal regimes, refused to downplay the extra repression that rains down on minority communities. He wrote:

“Large segments of the American public, especially minorities of class and color, have been written out of politics over what they view as a failed state and the inability of the basic machinery of government to serve their interests. As market mentalities and moralities tighten their grip on all aspects of society, democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing.

As these institutions vanish—from public schools to health care centers– there is also a serious erosion of the discourses of community, justice, equality, public values, and the common good. With the election of Donald Trump, the savagery of neoliberalism has been intensified with the emergence at the highest levels of power of a toxic mix of anti-intellectualism, religious fundamentalism, nativism, and a renewed notion of American exceptionalism.”

Professor Giroux argues against a focus on what he calls “single-issue movements” but not in the sense of dismissing liberation movements based on specific oppressions, but rather argues for a joining together of struggles through drawing the connections among various social movements. He writes:

“Central to viable notion of ideological and structural transformation is a refusal of the mainstream politics of disconnect. In its place is a plea for broader social movements and a more comprehensive understanding of politics in order to connect the dots between, for instance, police brutality and mass incarceration, on the one hand, and the diverse crises producing massive poverty, the destruction of the welfare state, and the assaults on the environment, workers, young people and women. …

Crucial to rethinking the space and meaning of the political imaginary is the need to reach across specific identities and to move beyond around single-issue movements and their specific agendas. This is not a matter of dismissing such movements, but creating new alliances that allow them to become stronger in the fight to not only succeed in advancing their specific concerns but also enlarging the possibility of developing a radical democracy that benefits not just specific but general interests.”

Economic issues aren’t separate from other issues

All working people are exploited under capitalism. It would be the height of folly to sideline this fundamental commonality. But the levels of exploitation, and the intensity of direct oppression, varies widely and it would be folly to ignore this as well. Those subject to higher (often far higher) levels of discrimination have every right to focus on their own emancipation, and those in more privileged positions have an obligation to support those emancipations. Further, the perpetuation of class oppression central to capitalism depends on deep divisions within the working class, not only in terms of setting different groups at each other’s throats but in providing relatively better pay and conditions to some so that the more privileged set themselves apart from the less privileged, reinforcing hierarchies that maintain divisions among working peoples.

Therefore it is self-defeating to attempt to downplay racial, sexual and other divisions in an effort to “concentrate” on economic issues, as if these are somehow separate from other issues. In a very thoughtful essay dealing with the roles of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in dampening activism and propping up the system they purport to critique, Sophia Burns goes on to argue that no fight against capitalist exploitation can succeed without women and People of Color playing central roles. If they are playing central roles, then the fight for their specific emancipations is central to the struggle.

Her discussion merits being quoted at length. Writing in The North Star, she argues:

“There’s an implicit notion that members of more privileged groups (men, whites, straights, etc) do not meaningfully stand to benefit from doing away with racism, sexism, etc. That underlies the moralistic connotations of ‘allyship’ — you support struggles in which you yourself have no personal stake, because that’s what an ethical person would do. Now, if you’re middle-class, that assumption is basically true. You aren’t part of the ruling class, but you have a degree of security, comfort, and control over your life. If you’re middle-class and white male, then pro-male or pro-white inequalities are pretty unambiguously good for you. So, the only reason you’d oppose them would have to be ethics, not self-interest.

But the working class has neither power nor security under capitalism. The fact that different parts of the working class are treated comparatively better or worse along racial, gender, etc lines does not change the fact that the whole class is exploited, oppressed, and ultimately powerless. However, white workers, male workers, and straight workers could not possibly defeat the ruling class alone. After all, it’s the middle class that is disproportionately white, male, etc — the working class has more people of color, women, and social minorities in general than other classes do. White men are only around 1/3 of the total US population, and an even smaller portion of the working class. So, because racism, sexism, etc exist within the class system and (combined together) directly oppress the large bulk of the working class, no working-class politics that rejects or ignores them has the ability to succeed. They’re components of the operation of the class system in practice, serving both to allow extra-high exploitation of female and non-white workers and to undercut the political potential of the class as a whole, which deepens all workers’ exploitation.

Racism and sexism are components of capitalism, and all ‘capitalism’ means is the exploitation by business owners of everyone else. So, when a white male worker understands capitalism as a class system that exploits the class of which he is part, it’s only through externally-imposed propaganda that he’s convinced that he has no stake in getting rid of racism and sexism. Economics is not a separate issue floating alongside others. Nothing that exists in capitalism is outside of capitalism.”

From the standpoint of the relationship to the means of production, white-collar middle class employees, as commonly defined, are of the same class as a blue-collar assembly-line laborer. Both are exploited economically in the same way, being paid a small fraction of the value of they produce. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that such middle-class workers (even if more properly understood as a strata within a working class that includes the vast majority of humanity) are privileged compared to other workers, and that their composition will be more heavily weighted toward dominant racial, ethnic or other groups in a given capitalist society, with the nastier and lower-paid jobs disproportionally held by disadvantaged groups.

Struggles against chauvinism are not an adjunct

The pervasive propaganda that denies that capitalism is exploitative or even refuses to acknowledge the different opportunities among different groups “is not a class-free worldview, but rather a worldview that’s natural for the middle class and that gets promoted because it serves the ruling class,” Ms. Burns writes. Thus, she argues, a false opposition is created between economics and other issues.

“Of course, because sexist and racist ideas receive the massive institutional sponsorship they do, working-class whites do have deep-seated racist notions and working-class men are often profoundly chauvinistic. The struggle against such beliefs and practices, even (in fact, especially) when they manifest within the working class, is not an adjunct to class struggle. It’s a central and necessary part of it. But when activist nonprofits and their supporters use an exaggerated account of working-class bigotry to dismiss working-class politics and a class struggle worldview entirely, they aren’t benevolently defending the marginalized. They are playing a useful role for the system that brings bigotry and privilege into being.

Neighborhood and workplace organizing, inside the working class and outside of the activist subculture, must include breaking down racism and sexism, within the class and everywhere else. But the self-interest of each part of a class is in the ultimate self-interest of the entire class. Even white male workers have a material stake in abolishing white and male privilege, despite the fact that it’s a long-term interest that isn’t acknowledged by mainstream ideas. Middle-class white men, of course, do not have that same stake. If a socialist movement is healthy, it’s not a middle-class affair.”

Let’s take this discussion a step further. Should we even use the term “identity politics”? Susan Cox, speaking on the Joy of Resistance: Multicultural Feminist Radio program on December 4, argued that being female is not an identity but rather is a material reality, and one of the most foundational realities that define the world’s social organization. She pointed out that women’s unpaid domestic labor props up the entire capitalist economic system. Defining feminism as a movement with a goal of global resistance wrenches it from the idea that it is an individualistic, lifestyle choice.

Further discussing this issue in an article in Feminist Current, Ms. Cox wrote:

“One would think being half of the damn population would make us more than some minor, divisive concern.

Women’s issues have been labelled “identity politics” for decades in order to belittle the feminist cause as politically unsubstantial/unimportant. In fact, the term first became prominent in American academia during its anti-Marxist ’80s in order to describe women as a fragmented group of individuals, rather than a class of persons with common class interests.”

It is reasonable to dispute the use of the term “class” in this context, but it should be indisputable that women face a particular oppression, one that although predating capitalism has long been an essential prop for maintaining capitalism. Racism is also necessary to maintain capitalism, and thus fighting it can never be an adjunct to a broad struggle for a better world.

Dismissing all those who voted for Donald Trump as bigots, “deplorables” or ignorant is not only simplistic and mistaken, it is bad practice. Some who voted for him can be described in such terms, but plenty voted for him, however mistakenly, out of a belief that he would bring back their jobs and because he represented, in their minds, “change.” Some Trump voters previously voted for Barack Obama — such folks can hardly be described as racists. Similarly, in France, many now supporting the National Front formerly supported the Socialist Party or the Communist Party. The United Kingdom Independence Party, however ridiculous we might find its name, is peeling off supporters from Labour.

Again, those trends do not mean there is no racism in such movements; that plenty of such exists is obvious. But economic insecurity is driving the rise of far right movements on more than one continent. Establishment politics has failed working people, and working people, including those without higher education, know it. They live it. At the same time, the far right movements that are gaining support among working people tap into the racism, nationalism, sexism and anti-Semitism that both exists within working classes (reflecting the whole of society) and is an inculcated weapon of division launched by elites who have every interest in our not uniting.

To “choose” between class politics and identity politics is a false choice. We are defeating ourselves if we decide to separate interrelated struggles and then debate which is the “proper” one. A multitude of tactics are just as necessary as fighting on multiple fronts, taking on the multiplicity of interconnected issues.

It takes more than ‘bad apples’ to instill de-humanization

If we want to understand why so many professional athletes engage in sexually predatory behavior, or, at minimum, act so entitled, we can’t do so without taking a look at the cultures surrounding high school athletics.

The path to athletic entitlement passes through many Sayrevilles and Steubenvilles. There is not necessarily anything unique about Sayreville, New Jersey, or Steubenville, Ohio, nor their high school football teams, however much they serve as examples. The Steubenville case, in which two football players were found guilty of the rape of a girl who was not only raped while unconscious but dragged naked from party to party as a trophy, surely exemplifies towering senses of privilege.

Incredibly — or maybe not so surprising in light of the town rallying around its football team rather than the rape victim — one of those players is back on the Steubenville football team this fall. A convicted sex offender, who must register with the authorities for the next 20 years, is allowed back on the field. So much for athletics as a “privilege.” Worse, the Anonymous activist who drew attention to the rapes and the local culture of impunity is facing several times more jail time than the convicted rapists.

Sayreville, nearby towns and the Raritan River (Photo by Doc Searls)

Sayreville, nearby towns and the Raritan River (Photo by Doc Searls)

It remains to be seen what will happen to the seven players (so far) on the Sayreville War Memorial High School football team charged with sexual assault, hazing and other counts. This case is distinguished by the players allegedly assaulting younger teammates. Here again, nearly as shocking at the inhumanity of such cruel hazing, is that many people in Sayreville chose to rally around the football team, demanding a reversal of the decision to cancel the remainder of the season rather than justice for the assault victims.

No different were the reactions of many Pennsylvania State University students, when the years-long sexual assaults of young boys by an assistant football coach, and the indifference to it by head coach Joe Paterno and the Penn State administration, were finally uncovered. Rather then react with anger at a monstrous breach of trust, some students staged a riot because Paterno was fired and, more broadly, the Penn State community complained that the penalty on the program was too harsh. Forgotten were the victims of the predatory assistant coach, who was enabled by too many who saw football as more important than the educational mission of the university.

These are not isolated cases outside ordinary parameters of behavior, but rather lie on a continuum. Rather than single out these towns, the questions to ask are these: Why has athletics been elevated far above its actual level of importance? What does the acceptance of this brutality say about the United States as a society?

A national pattern, not a handful of ‘bad apples’

It’s not as if hazing or bullying are something rare. Approximately 28 percent of children in grades six through twelve experience bullying, according to Nobullying.com. That has consequences: A 2011 Harvard School of Public Health study found that male bullies are four times more likely to grow up to physically abuse their female partners. Alfred University researchers believe as many as 250,000 members of sports teams in the U.S. have been subject to hazing, including 68,000 subject to what it terms “unacceptable initiation activities.”

The sports section of a typical newspaper features ample coverage of local high school football teams, and coverage, even if less in depth, of other high school teams. Why does this country care so deeply that someone can run with a ball and knock others over while doing so? The student who excels in math and is headed to a medical career in which she might make a discovery that cures a disease, or the student who is a natural in physics and will become a scientist, are not only unknown but perhaps even a target of abuse while adolescents.

For all the famous universities within its borders, the United States is an anti-intellectual society and if you doubt that, ask yourself how George W. Bush became president.

How many United Statesians can name more prominent scientists than prominent athletes? Millions, I would guess, but the U.S. is a country of hundreds of millions.

It is a country obsessed with being “Number One.” Fans need their football team to be “Number One” by dominating opponents and allowing nothing to stand in the way. The country needs to be “Number One” by dominating other countries. The football team of course doesn’t have to turn brutality on its more vulnerable members; it doesn’t even have to be brutal toward an opponent on the field, merely more skilled. But violence is inherent in the sport. Violence is inherent in dominating other countries.

A seamless transition from one to the other? No. Football in itself doesn’t make a young person violent or cruel. It’s only a game. But when a young man is treated as a star because he is successful on the field, and begins to receive special treatment and allowed to skirt rules that apply to others, it is no surprise that strong senses of privilege arise. That privileged young man is continually bombarded by social and mass-media messages that reinforce individualism, glorify violence, impose inequality between men and women, and present macho behavior as the standard to emulate.

If seen as objects, some will treat as objects

When women are so frequently depicted as objects for the pleasure of men, can it be a surprise that some adolescents, the Steubenville rapists being but one example, literally treat young women as objects to do with as they please? And when the messages they receive are that they can do whatever they want because they lead the football team to victory — when the coaches, school administration and the surrounding community all signal that — then we have something beyond simply young men out of control.

That the Sayreville hazing — more accurately, if the accusations are proved true, sexual assaults — was directed against boys and not girls changes nothing. What else could such outrages be other than an attempt to sexually humiliate the targets? Bullying, hazing and sexual assault are all too often dismissed as “boys will be boys.” Behavior in the Sayreville locker room that likely started as moderate forms of hazing unchecked morphed into sexual assaults, and this escalation had to have built over years.

Reading through readers’ comments underneath the stories New Jersey’s state newspaper, The Star-Ledger, has been running online, I couldn’t help notice that even those who believe the allegations and endorse the suspension for the year of the football team mostly defend the head coach’s character and claim he could not have known.

I do not know if the coach knew. I do find it hard to believe he didn’t, but if he really didn’t, it was because he didn’t want to know. He should have known. But, despite these displays of public support for the cancelation of the football season, the concomitant support of the coach demonstrates a lack of seriousness in confronting what has happened.

Only a few can win when the economy is a lottery

Athletics is also inseparable from the “lottery economy” that the U.S. has increasingly adopted. Millions of dollars potentially await someone who makes it to the top, but the odds are little better than a lottery — few will cash in as a tiny percentage of high school athletes will play in college and a minuscule percentage of college athletes will become professionals. Far more enter this lottery with delusions of winning than are realistic.

It is little different for the economy at large. Astounding riches are showered upon a handful of entrepreneurs who had lots of luck on their side. The overwhelming majority will earn little or nothing from their ideas. (Of 1.5 million patents in force in the U.S., only 3,000 are commercially viable, according to a U.S. patent office spokesman.)

Bill Gates is frequently listed as the richest person on Earth. Why? His company is incapable of delivering a good product; its high profits are the fruits of an accidental monopoly. IBM was dominant in computer hardware and when it introduced a personal computer, it handed Microsoft a license to supply the operating software, which Microsoft originally bought from another company. Once clones of the IBM computer were introduced, Microsoft was in the best position to provide their operating software. A monopoly was born, and that monopoly was leveraged to force widespread adoption of other Microsoft products.

Movie stars, singers and athletes rake in millions, tens of millions, of dollars. They give us want we want, it is all too easy to say. Perhaps, but is the value of the entertainment provided truly worth hundreds or thousands of times more than a scientist whose work makes the world a little better or the teacher who educates the citizens of tomorrow or everybody who wakes up and goes to a boring job so they can keep a roof over their family’s heads?

And it’s not necessarily the inventor who cashes in. We’d have to conduct research to find the people who invented the Internet. They are not likely wealthy. Yet a handful of people who were in the right place at the right moment, handed an accidental monopoly, are worth billions and, in the case of Bill Gates, believes that gives him the right to impose a privatization agenda on education and impose a top-down corporate model on health care that ignores root causes. In a world that values expertise instead of money, would an engineer who foists mediocre products on the world be taken seriously when straying into fields in which he knows little?

That is but one side of celebrity culture, the same money-driven culture that glorifies football players and allows some of them to believe they can use and discard other human beings, dominate them, as they wish. Impose serious and appropriate punishment on those who deserve it, certainly. But those athletes who run amok are not simply “bad apples,” they are a product of a society becoming more savage, more unforgiving, more unequal as we are pitted against one another and told we must rip out each other’s throats to survive.

It can be a short road to de-humanizing others, whether the people in a far-off country, or minorities and women at home. In a dog-eat-dog world, most dogs will be eaten, no matter how much macho strutting is indulged.

Ding Dong! Thatcherism and sexism are alive

I have a deep ambivalence over the playing of the song “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” to commemorate the death of Margaret Thatcher. I can well understand the desire to rebel against orders by the British right-wing establishment that everyone must celebrate the prime minister’s “accomplishments,” but the exercise in this form is nonetheless deeply sexist.

Surely there are plenty of political epithets to be hurled at her memory that reference the disastrous policies of her reign. Ronald Reagan was just as awful, but he wasn’t denounced as a witch at his death, was he? Clearly, few of those who took part in the campaign to have the song played on the BBC’s music-chart program stopped to think about the sexism inherent in branding a woman a “witch.” Yes, even when we are talking about someone as horrid as Margaret Thatcher.

What does her gender have to do with her policies? And can it truly be said sexism is a thing of the past because a woman became head of the government of one of the world’s most powerful countries? No more than it could be said that racism is a thing of the past in the United States because Barack Obama is president.

Prime Minister Thatcher imposed misery on millions of Britons; her defenders’ demands that no ill be spoken of her rightly deserves contempt. What mercy did she show to working people? But although the prime minister was powerful and notoriously impervious to opposition — I still have a vivid memory of her reacting to being showered with derisive laughter from the Labour benches during a Prime Minister’s Question Time session with a fierce stare that unmistakably said, “You are very lucky I can’t have you all killed or I surely would” — women as a group do not possess privileges.

Statue of Alice Nutter, English woman accused of witchcraft. (Photo by Graham Demaline.)

Statue of Alice Nutter, English woman accused of witchcraft.
(Photo by Graham Demaline.)

Unequal pay in the workplace, unequal opportunities, expectations of shouldering most of the burden of child care, violence at the hands of male partners, violence at the hands of men in general, sex trafficking, under-representation in governments and legislatures, difficulties being taken seriously, social and institutional discrimination — and this does not exhaust the list.

Social expectations are not separable from that list. Although most of those denouncing the prime minister as a “witch” likely think of themselves as making some sort of political statement, they are really just demonstrating their absorption of the sexism that permeates the world.

When we drill to the bedrock, branding Prime Minister Thatcher a “witch” has much to do with her not conforming to gender “norms.” She may have made her family’s breakfast in the morning, but there is no denying her ruthlessness and cold-heartedness in advancing her political career. Such behavior may or may not be liked in a male politician, but would not be seen as “abnormal behavior” in the way it often is in a female political leader.

An easy example are Bill and Hillary Clinton — she was portrayed on countless occasions as secretly possessing male genitalia and mercilessly ridiculed for supposedly being overly aggressive. Yet are her political positions, or her admittedly ambitious climb to political heights, in any way different than her husband? No — yet she is routinely mocked in ways her husband never has to endure.

If you don’t act ‘feminine’ you are a witch

The cultural history of “witch” is nothing to take lightly. A United Nations research paper reports that “more than 100 women are tortured, paraded naked or harassed … every year” in India’s Chhattisgarh state alone. Rita Banerji, founder of the 50 Million Missing Campaign, reports that more than 2,500 women were branded as “witches” and killed across India in the past 15 years.

In Ghana, there are six witch camps where women accused of witchcraft are banished, forced to live in wretched conditions to escape the near certainty of enduring torture, beatings and lynchings should they leave. The anti-poverty group ActionAid reports:

“Women who do not fulfil expected gender stereotypes, for example if they are widows, unmarried or cannot have children, are vulnerable to being branded as witches. … Some camps, for example Gnani, have male residents who have been accused of wizardry. However most of the camps contain only alleged witches and the total number of men in the camps is far lower than the number of women. This is because men are generally less vulnerable than women as they are economically better off and more able to resist physical violence. This illustrates that vulnerability is a key underlying factor in witchcraft accusations. … Though both men and women can be accused of witchcraft, the vast majority are women, especially the elderly.”

The UN research paper, written by Jill Schnoebelen, reports witchcraft accusations occur on every continent. These accusations often follow a pattern:

“The poor can be accused of jealousy-induced witchcraft, and the well-to-do can be accused of practising witchcraft to acquire wealth.”

A report in the Australian non-profit news Web site Global Mail, detailing mass accusations of witchcraft in Papua New Guinea, notes that communities stressed by the arrival of multi-national mining companies are scapegoating women:

“[T]radition has in places morphed into something more malignant, sadistic and voyeuristic, stirred up by a potent brew of booze and drugs; the angry despair of lost youth; upheaval of the social order in the wake of rapid development and the super-charged resources enterprise; the arrival of cash currency and the jealousies it invites; rural desperation over broken roads; schools and health systems propelling women out of customary silence and men, struggling to find their place in this shifting landscape bitterly, often brutally, resentful.”

The beneficiaries of oppression

These patterns were seen during the centuries of “witch” burnings across Europe and North America. In Germanic states, women were targeted as witches in order to take their wealth for benefit of states and well-connected individuals, while in the British Islands witch hunts mostly targeted poor peasant women, accused by wealthy individuals who were part of local power structures. The Inquisition peaked during a long period of famines, unrest and declines in population; women were systematically excluded from wage work in part to force them to bear children that would replenish the supply of workers in an era of falling population and in part to enable the sustainability of the male wage worker through enforced housework.*

Although witch hunts are today a relic of the past in those cultures, the underlying social forces driving them have not faded into history. As Fran Luck, host of the Joy of Resistance Multicultural Feminist Radio program, writes:

“[T]he oppression of women (and other oppressed groups) is not ‘an accident’ or a vestige from another era, but is an active process from which someone/someones are benefitting now!”

Accusations of witchcraft are no more separable from the cultures in which they arise than is the treatment of women in advanced capitalist countries. In the global North, the mass media and popular entertainment endlessly parade women as objects of pleasure for men, with serious consequences for women who refuse to conform. The oppression of women, as with the oppression of People of Color, national hatreds and similar chauvinisms, is woven into social fabrics, fostering social divisions.

That an individual woman such as Margaret Thatcher rises to a position of power in itself does nothing to alter those social fabrics. She is part of a system, not an individual deus ex machina, no matter how personally ambitious. The neoliberalism imposed by Margaret Thatcher, or Ronald Reagan, or Augusto Pinochet, is a natural consequence of the centralization of power and wealth, the beneficiaries of which have the ability to have their interests maximized above all other interests and to disseminate their ideologies through a multitude of institutions.

It did not take a “witch” to impose such policies, nor could one have imposed such policies if they weren’t already desired by the most powerful corporate interests. By denouncing a “witch,” opponents of Thatcherism not only blind themselves to the reality of the larger system of which it is a component, they actively promote the individualist ideology that maintains that system and the sexism that forms one of its longest-lasting components.

* This paragraph relies on Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation [Autonomedia, Brooklyn, New York, 2004]; Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour [Zed Books, London, 1988]; Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Witches and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (second edition) [Feminist Press at City University of New York, 2010]