Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Symbol-Minded Politics

by Anthony Schiappa

Social media users are in a colitic fit over the name “Washington Redskins.”

It’s racist as hell. Everyone knows that, even the “get over it” crowd, which refuses to take its own advice. As a few bloggers have pointed out, the mascot would be racist even if no American Indian found it offensive, though this point itself smacks of white liberal paternalism.

On the other hand, 90,000 mostly white sports fans aping the tribes that their country eradicated is exactly the kind of grotesque image that neatly captures contemporary American culture. Naturally, its sublime truth must be hidden from view. Sweeping under the rug any honest depiction of our grim history—that’s one thing that liberals and conservatives can agree upon.

In fact, if it weren’t for the outrage at racist team mascots, most people, except perhaps gamblers, would never give a second thought to the plight of the American Indian.

So the zeal with which name-changing efforts have been supported by non-Indians makes me wonder about the underlying motivations of these do-gooders. Why the sudden concern for a group that is usually forgotten? Partially, it seems as though nerds are getting some revenge against the suffocating jock culture they grew up in; others seem to get their kicks harassing a sleazy one-percenter like Dan Snyder. Much of it is simply the knee-jerk outrage of the Internet.

There is, of course, more to it. A name change for the Redskins, the third most valuable franchise in the NFL, would indeed be symbolically powerful, but there’s the rub. It would do nothing to address the daily realities of racism, manifested in the universal horror of poverty. Those realities would only be further obscured by a strictly symbolic political victory, because things really aren’t getting better. They’re getting worse.

And to those who would counter that a name change would “send a message” or “raise consciousness,” I challenge you to explain what that means in concrete terms without sounding like an imbecile.

Because the far more destructive consequences of racism can be found in economic statistics on the majority of American Indians who don’t, incidentally, own casinos. Twenty-five percent of Native Americans live in poverty; in non-urban counties, the number jumps to 60%. Reservations, many of which are on isolated sites chosen by the federal government as part of its program of extermination, are among the poorest places in the country, no different than what we euphemistically call “the developing world.” On the Blackfoot reservation in Montana, unemployment hovers at 69%, three times as high as the national rate at the height of the Great Depression. Of America’s high-poverty communities, American Indians have the lowest rate of full-time job holders, at 36%.

This means little or no access to healthcare, education, infrastructure, and other basic services. It also means poverty’s daily indignities and ceaseless toil, born of “crushing necessity,” as Céline put it. Yes, there is the melodrama of the poor’s suffering, but there are also the petty hardships and bad trade-offs that comprise everyday life.

And here we come to the limits of multicultural liberalism, which cannot confront the animating matrix of all forms of social domination, the capitalist economy. It is the economic hierarchy—of the robbers and the robbed—that sustains all other social hierarchies. Equality will not be achieved without a direct confrontation with the objective force of capital. This means a total and unequivocal rejection of capitalism and the formulation of something like an explicitly socialist framework.

This is why the multicultural liberal ethic, of “realizing the possibilities of here and now” and the dismissal of any subjects like economic exploitation as “flattening,” is a dead end. Whatever its alleged good intentions, a strategy of “making do” will never ameliorate the coercive violence of our economic system, nor can it ever fundamentally alter it. It can only democratize access to its bankrupt channels, redistributing poverty more evenly among all demographics, joining exploiters and exploited in shared intersectional identities.

Unable to address capitalism’s structuring of all social experience, liberalism fights its empty battles within the spectacle of symbolism and representation. As a result, nothing is accomplished. And it never will be. Its activity, masquerading as political action, unconcerned with challenging the established order, can only reinforce it. "Multiculturalism" emerges as jargon for academic careerists, whose trash remedies legitimize our current sordid social conditions and freeze them into permanence.

In the case of the Redskins controversy, their approach could have unintended consequences. Such symbolic victories slyly provide cover for continued economic exclusion. Triumph in the realm of appearances means defeat in lived experience. While it may be morally right for these mascots to be abolished, lifting that fight out of the context of poverty and its attendant miseries could cause the plight of the American Indian to further recede into the multicultural fog. They may, in fact, become even more invisible.

It’s yet another trade-off that the wretched continually confront. For the symbol-minded, it’s a trade worth making.

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