When Michael Shear and Peter Baker wrote in the NY Times this afternoon that Biden is inheriting a collection of crises unlike any in generations I wish I had more faith in him and his team. But I have almost none. "Almost" because I have a gut feeling he's going to do one thing-- something historically immense-- right. You may not remember, but Biden got his start in politics as a racist, or at least playing to racist sentiments. I think he's going to try righting that wrong-- not just his own, but our country's. Pray I'm right and pray he does it right.
Shear and Baker wrote that on his first day in office alone, Biden intends to issue executive orders that "include rescinding the travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries [an anti-racist move], rejoining the Paris climate change accord, extending pandemic-related limits on evictions and student loan payments [2 anti-racist moves], issuing a mask mandate for federal property and interstate travel and ordering agencies to figure out how to reunite children separated from families after crossing the border [an anti-racist move]... He also plans to send sweeping immigration legislation on his first day in office providing a pathway to citizenship for 11 million people in the country illegally."
This afternoon, Umair Haque posited that "racism made America a failed state, just like its greatest mind predicted." The greatest mind of which he speaks? Martin Luther King. But is America a failed state? Hard to believe, right? How do you want to measure it. By the January 6th coup attempt, for which neither Trump nor any of his henchmen have been indicted, let alone arrested? How about by the greatest challenge of the new century so far, one America has failed dramatically and tragically: the pandemic. These are the numbers for the word's dozen most powerful economies (listed by order of size of economic output):
USA- 24,255,613 cases-- 73,047 cases per million residents; 1,219 deaths per million
China- 88,118 cases-- 61 cases per million residents; 3 deaths per million
Japan- 315,910 cases-- 2,502 cases per million residents; 35 deaths per million
Germany- 2,035,657 cases-- 24,254 cases per million residents; 560 deaths per million
India- 10,557,646 cases-- 7,610 cases per million residents; 110 deaths per million
UK- 3,357,361 cases-- 49,315 cases per million residents; 1301 deaths per million
France- 2,894,347 cases-- 44,289 cases per million residents; 1,073 deaths per million
Italy- 2,368,733 cases-- 39,209 cases per million residents; 1354 deaths per million
Brazil- 8,413,413 cases-- 39,430 cases per million residents; 977 deaths per million
Canada- 701,169 cases-- 18,490 cases per million residents; 471 deaths per million
Russia- 3,544,623 cases-- 24,283 cases per million residents; 446 deaths per million
South Korea- 71,820 cases-- 1,400 cases per million residents; 24 deaths per million
Biggest economy, most cases in aggregate and per capita, and near the top of deaths per million. Failed state? Haque wrote that he wonders "what might an America that really understood MLK’s message have been like. What kind of country would that have been and become? The answer is: it would have been a better place for everyone. A more prosperous country, in every way imaginable. How so? MLK’s central messages were twofold. Nonviolence and love. And yet Americans are such violent people-- they fetishize and worship violence at such a deep level-- that even 'leftists' today roll their eyes and laugh at such a message. Love! LOL!!! But they shouldn’t."
MLK was America’s only great social philosopher. Yes, really. He foresaw that a society based on violence-- like America was-- was therefore limited to collapse, no matter how rich or powerful it ever got.That people would be limited to exploiting, abusing, hating, and dehumanizing each other…right down into the abyss. Doesn’t that sound eerily accurate to you? Those fascists storming the capitol, with the aim to murder legislators and overthrow democracy-- that, my friends, is the stuff of real and serious social collapse. Some of them were professionals. They are authoritarian-fascist paramilitaries, death squads in waiting (if they were in Afghanistan, we’d call them “the Taliban”). So how did MLK know America wasn’t going to make it, if it couldn’t change?
He understood that a society based on violence could only ever aspire to capitalism, but that capitalism was to fail ruinously as a model of social organization. There’s not a single thinker of that originality, scale, or scope anywhere else in American history. Not even close. And he went far further than that: only people that genuinely loved one another could do better than capitalism-- and its endless abuse, exploitation, greed, and dystopia. Americans, sadly, have never understood any of that. They (in the majority) hated MLK bitterly on the day he died. Today, they celebrate him as a kind of Hallmark character-- without engaging, ever, without the ferocity and depth of his thought. Hence, the fascists at the Capitol. What do you expect from a society based on violence? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
MLK understood-- or would have-- that all the following things are forms of violence. People forced to “crowdfund” healthcare-- to beg their neighbors for pennies for medicine. A workplace culture where being abused and berated by your boss is totally normal. Incomes not rising for half a century-- while costs skyrocket to absurd levels. The average American dying in debt. Being forced to choose between healthcare and your life savings. Having to give up your home because you want to educate your kids.
All these things are forms of violence. Violence runs deep. It isn’t just mobs of fascists smearing feces on the walls-- though it is also that. It’s what Americans do to one another as everyday interaction-- and shrug off as normal. Mental, emotional, social, cultural violence makes up the very fabric of everyday American life. It’s the poisonous residue of slavery. And it’s profoundly traumatic. It has lacerated the American mind, and made violence a legitimate solution to every social problem. But these forms of all-pervasive violence are what a capitalist society is limited to.
Hence, America’s developed a kind of bizarrely punitive culture, the total lack of a working contract, and never developed into a mature, civilized society. Can’t afford healthcare? You must not deserve it! Can’t retire? Didn’t work hard enough! Can’t feed your kids? You’re lazy! And so forth. Kids getting shot at school? Arm the teachers! Buy a bulletproof backpack, dummy! But none of these things are true. Americans aren’t lazy or undeserving, and the answer to violence isn’t ever…ever…more violence. Americans just don’t understand what violence really is-- and so they’re stuck in a vicious cycle of it.
Violence is deprivation of the things we can and should give one another. That definition will strike the American as crazy. Give? Should? But who is the crazy one? If I can and should give you personhood-- but deny it-- am I not committing violence against you? Then you’re a subhuman, after all. So how about healthcare, education, childcare, income, savings, housing, and so on? When I deny you those, if I can give them to you-- in what way isn’t that violence? Don’t you end up hurt as a result?
Violence is the absence, in this way, of the basics of life. They begin as abstractions, like personhood or dignity-- but soon enough become concrete, like medicine or money or a pension. The principle remains the same: deprivation.
Poverty, in that way, is the presence of violence. If violence is deprivation, then poverty is simply violence being done to you. You may be intellectually poor, financially poor, socially poor, emotionally poor. All these things are forms of violence that have been done to you.
The answer to all this, MLK said, was something as simple and radical as it was beautiful. Love. But he didn’t mean it in a kind of romantic, gushing way. The way he’s been minimized for-- yet was killed for. He meant the fierce courage to genuinely-- genuinely-- care for another. If I love you, I must give you personhood. I must give you equality and freedom. I must give you healthcare, education, childcare, and so on. I must invest in you, nurture you, nourish you. I must not only simply care for myself and my own. That is what capitalism limits us to-- and that is why, in MLK’s eyes, it was bound to fail. Hasn’t that come true?
The opposite of violence was love-- in the hardest terms. Love as genuine social investment and dignity and nourishment of one another as human beings. That is why I say MLK was America’s only great social thinker. The Founding Fathers were not great thinkers. They might have been great doers-- who knows-- but their answer to social problems was as simplistic as it was ugly. Violence. Only landed white men were to be part of this new democracy. Slaves were to be made of people who were not really humans. I can’t call people like that great thinkers, and neither should you. They were simple minds, peasant minds, who never outgrew their craving for land, money, possessions, power.
But to define violence and love in these hard terms-- and to draw the relationship between them-- as MLK did? That, my friends, is profound, beautiful, radical. And most of all, it’s true.
Love, in this social philosophy, is something far, far beyond what “economic forces” limit us to. It is the great liberating force of the human spirit, which leads to concrete social progress. Under capitalism, I can see you as a producer, or a consumer-- or even a slave or a servant-- but never really as a human being. I am always just looking for a way to exploit you. I am focused on gaining power over you, getting the upper hand. I can never love you. Violence therefore never comes to an end. Capitalism limits none of us to ever having inherent worth-- we must battle each other to the death for it. That is how capitalism and violence are intimately linked. Americans crowdfunding healthcare or else they die is a visceral-- and very real-- example.
Now. Who exemplifies this philosophy of love and non-violence in the modern world? Strangely enough, it’s the great social democracies. Canada and Europe. They are far, far more loving places than America, in this hard, concrete sense. I don’t mean that everyone is swooning over each other. I just mean three things.
• One, people there genuinely care for one another in the sense that they are willing to nourish one another in hard terms: they love each other.
• Two, they are able to love one because they understand violence is deprivation, the absence of dignity, respect, worth, value-- they get that violence isn’t just had at the point of a gun, it’s exploitation, abuse, aggression, hostility, too.
• Three, because they invest in one another, they have built great systems of public goods-- healthcare, retirement, education, childcare, elderly care, all affordable for all, universal-- that lift everyone up together. And so living standards there have skyrocketed.
If America had really understood MLK’s message, it would have been a far, far better society: richer, happier, saner, wiser, healthier, longer lived. Like Europe and Canada are today. Not just a better one in loose moral terms-- but in hard socioeconomic outcomes. Americans might have had what Europeans enjoy: expansive public healthcare, that raises life expectancies. Instead, they have to get second mortgages for healthcare no one can afford-- so life expectancy’s crashing down. They might have had education that was affordable for all-- instead of student debt that cripples whole generations for life. They might have been able to retire-- instead of being exploited for starvation wages until the day they die. All Americans would have been better off. Even white ones.
In other words, an America that understood MLK would have outgrown capitalism and progressed to a higher stage of social development-- social democracy. But Americans never understood any of this. And the sad thing-- the weird thing-- is that they still don’t.
If I point to those fascists at the Capitol, and ask the average American: “What do you think of this violence”-- they might say something like: “It’s hateful and disgusting.” But if I say: “Do you think that a lack of healthcare, retirement, decent working conditions and standards, incomes stagnating for half a century, skyrocketing inequality, a middle class imploding into poverty, a working class that was simply abandoned to fend for itself, generations who’ve been taught the answer to being demeaned and dehumanized is “grit”-- do you think all these things are forms of economic, social, cultural, and mental violence, too?”…well, I think the average American would look at me like I’m crazy.
Maybe you are, yourself, right about now. So let me distill the point I’m making.
Americans see violence in such a simplistic way that they don’t really understand it at all-- and so their society’s limited to regress, not progress. They don’t see things that are considered grotesque and horrific forms of violence in the rest of the civilized world-- being dehumanized and berated and exploited at work, having no basic medicine, being charged the price of a home for healthcare-- as violence at all. They don’t really know what violence is. That is because they’re so surrounded by it, because cruelty, hostility, aggression, and deprivation are so commonplace, violence is just like the air Americans breathe.
But without understanding all this violence as violence-- how can Americans ever learn to be nonviolent-- and all the beautiful things that spring from the seed of nonviolence? And without nonviolence, how can they love one another? And without loving one another, how can they ever nourish one another with, for example, healthcare and retirement-- instead of exploiting one another viciously over it… like capitalism wants them to?
...Americans think that men with masks waving machine guns around are what violence is. Sure, they are. But they are not the only kind. They are just the tip of the spear of of cruelty, hostility, aggression, and contempt for one another as human beings that has brought America to disgrace, folly, and self-destruction. And until Americans really understand that, I think, their future is as certain as it was that, one day, a violent man with a grudge, who hated the ideas of nonviolence and love, would shoot its greatest social philosopher dead.
This is old. Can it still make you cry?