A Brief History of American Socialism

“Educating Americans through the means of the library service could bring about a change of their political attitude quicker than any method. The basis of communism and socialistic influence is education of the people.”

– Congressman Harold Velde of Illinois (1950), speaking to Congress in opposition to library services in rural areas (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States)

 

The United States has a rich socialist tradition. It is an integral part of our history and saturates our modern culture. Each morning millions of schoolchildren rise from their desks, place hands over their hearts, and recite a Pledge of Allegiance written in 1892 by socialist Francis Bellamy, a New York pastor.

Many American children learn and love the popular song “This Land is Your Land” by socialist Woody Guthrie. One of the verses:

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Millions of tourists flock to New York each year to see the Statue of Liberty, which is engraved with a poem, “The New Colossus,” written by radical Emma Lazarus. It ends:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Famous figures like Helen Keller, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jack London, Kurt Vonnegut, Malcolm X, Upton Sinclair, Arthur Miller, and W.E.B. Du Bois called themselves socialists. Others, such as Mark Twain and Thomas Paine, espoused socialistic ideas without labeling themselves (the latter existed before the term). People like Francois Fourier and Robert Owen established socialist towns across the nation. One community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, was supported by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson (see Nichols, The S Word).

Before the Red Scare and McCarthyism swept the United States during the Cold War, socialism was not a widely vilified political ideology. Major individuals and organizations publicly espoused it, from the Congress of Industrial Organization to American churches (launching the Christian Socialist movement; as Marx wrote, “Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge”).[1] The Scare has not yet passed, still gripping the older generation and conservatives, typically perpetuated by misinformation and fear-mongering. It has, however, begun to weaken, particularly due to Bernie Sanders and a surge in interest from a younger generation.

Whatever your political persuasion, it is undeniable that American socialism fueled the progressive movement and broadened freedom for all citizens. Throughout our history, many of the loudest demands for black rights, women’s rights, worker rights, and peace came from socialists, communists, anarchists, and other elements of the radical left.

Consider first the labor movement. Radicals were instrumental in leading the charge against starvation wages, child labor, unsafe working conditions, 12-16 hour workdays, seven-day workweeks, fines for tardiness, and so on in the 19th century and beyond. Solidarity was their battle cry. Troublemaking was their tactic: organizing, petitioning, striking, protesting, boycotting, picketing, sitting in, rioting. Socialist heroes like “Big Bill” Haywood and Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor helped win us the workplace rights we take for granted today.

Of course, worker strikes occurred in the 18th century—that is, before the socialist movement. Americans already had a keen understanding of how capitalism functioned. Shoemakers with socialistic ideas declared in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1844, four years before The Communist Manifesto:

The division of society into the producing and the non-producing classes, and the fact of the unequal distribution of value between the two, introduces us at once to [a] distinction—that of capital and labor… Labor now becomes commodity… Antagonism and opposition of interest is introduced in the community; capital and labor stand opposed.[2]

In 1860, Lynn participated in the largest strike in American history up to that point. 20,000 shoemakers went on strike in 25 towns throughout New England. The ideas that are the foundation of socialism—that the interests of owners and workers are not the same, that the capitalist few are a “non-producing” class growing wealthy off the labor of the many, the workers, the “producing class”—were already held true by American workers. They knew it from their own experiences. Thus socialism became fairly popular in the United States.

The quest for democratic, worker control of workplaces has also been underway for a long time. In the first recorded strike of U.S. workers, 20 tailors in 1768 left their employer and formed a cooperative. The Knights of Labor helped launch nearly 200 worker cooperatives by 1886, across the country and across various industries. “The Knights thrived for a decade but were eventually crushed by big businesses, which rallied to stamp out this new and disturbing breed of competition, refusing to ship goods made by cooperatives, sell machinery and materials to them, or issue them bank loans.” Still, the movement persisted, seeing a resurgence as African Americans sought economic independence (in 1907 there were 156 co-ops founded by African Americans), during the Great Depression, and in the revolutionary times of 1960s and 1970s.[3] Today there are still worker cooperatives across the country.[4]

In the spring of 1886, 200,000 Americans rose up in rebellion. American socialists organized and led labor unions and the Knights of Labor in a massive nationwide strike to push for an 8-hour workday, declaring a May 1st deadline for corporate power to yield. Violence sparked between protesters and police, and when a bomb went off in Haymarket Square in Chicago, the authorities hunted down and arrested the leaders of the strike. After a sham of a trial, four socialists were executed. May Day, International Workers Day, commemorates this event.

Strikes only grew larger. In the fall of 1934, 421,000 textile workers across the nation went on strike for better working conditions. During World War II, there were 14,000 strikes involving nearly 7 million people.[5] Still today, the labor movement (Fight for $15, Occupy Wall Street, and so on) is often organized, led, and strengthened by Marxists.

The history of American socialism is also a revolution against slavery, racial hatred, discrimination, and segregation. For example, the Republican Party was founded as an anti-slavery party in a schoolroom in Ripon, Wisconsin (a former utopian socialist community) on March 20, 1854 by radical Alvan Bovay and 16 other socialists.[6] Many socialists, the most prominent being Karl Marx, condemned black slavery and were elated when Lincoln became the first Republican president in 1861.

Abraham Lincoln, while no socialist, had his sympathies in the right place. As John Nichols points out in The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism, Lincoln was close to socialist editor of the New York Tribune Horace Greeley, befriended and allied himself with radicals who fled after failed revolutions in Europe in 1848 (some of them friends of Marx), appointed one socialist as his assistant secretary of war and another his ambassador to Spain, and even cordially corresponded with Marx about the American Civil War.[7] Lincoln said in his 1861 State of the Union Address:

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them…[8]

Later, the labor movement sparked an interracial push for equality for blacks in many workplaces and leftist groups. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, poor blacks and whites often came together to strike for better wages, working conditions, and equal treatment. There were thousands of strikes in cities across the nation each year, and within them were sparks of progress. Blacks and whites were fighting the same battle, as losing limbs or dying on the job, dire poverty, and starvation were realities for millions of workers in Industrial America. Many realized their true conflict was not race but class.

Workers of all colors saw their employers grow rich, but were themselves given barely enough to stay alive, even though it was the workers themselves who created the wealth by creating the good or providing the service. And thus many unions and organizations integrated, like the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World, both of which welcomed blacks, women, Asians, and immigrants. Many of such institutions’ founders, leaders, and members, the lifeblood of the labor movement, were socialists, who called for “equal rights for all without distinction to sex or race”[9] (to quote an 1883 congress in Pittsburgh). One union, the American Workers League, was formed as an interracial organization in 1853.[10] The American Federation of Labor opened its doors to black members in 1929.[11] At its height the Communist Party had 80,000 members, 9% of them black.[12] In an America where blacks were drinking from separate water fountains and being tortured and executed at neighborhood picnics, small pockets of socialists across the country were building a more tolerant society.

Many socialists understood the relationship between race and class. Racism was used to justify further oppression and wage theft by the capitalist class. Just as emancipation would mean the end of free labor for slave-owners, human equality would force business owners to pay blacks the same wages as whites. Racism served to prevent this, just as sexism and xenophobia prevented the same for women, undocumented immigrants, and others. In Communism and the Negro (1933), New Yorker Max Shachtman (head of the Worker’s Party) wrote:

The ruling class is in urgent need of the theory of racial inferiority…it affords them a moral justification for the super-exploitation and persecution to which it subjects the Negro. If trifling sums are allocated for Negro education, he is, after all, “only a nigger.”; if housing conditions are abominable, if the Negro is scandalously underpaid, if he is deprived of every democratic right, he is, after all, an inferior who does not deserve or require better; if he is hanged from a tree and riddled with bullets, or soaked with oil and burned to death by a mob of savages, it is, after all, “only a nigger” who suffers.[13]

Shachtman declared, “White workers [must] become the most uncompromising champions of the Negro.”[14]

Now, this is certainly not to say all leftist unions and all socialists were pro-civil rights or accepted blacks as equals. Racism within their ranks stalled progress, to be sure. There was often intense racial hostility in the competition for work. Corporations often responded to strikes by hiring unemployed blacks to replace white strikers, since they could pay them dismal wages with less threat of resistance—the racial tension and violence this created damaged the prospects of interracial organizing. And racism served capitalists a second way: it discouraged workers of different colors from uniting and unionizing to push for higher wages or shorter workweeks. However, many saw the closing line of The Communist Manifesto (“Working men of all countries, unite!”) as a call for racial equality in the fight for class equality. It is telling, also, that the Communist Party of the United States ran a black man, James W. Ford, for the vice presidency in 1932—to put that in perspective, Martin Luther King, Jr. was three.

Socialist, civil rights leader, and labor organizer A. Phillip Randolph once said, “The Socialist Party was the only party that had a philosophy that took account of the race problem and whose economic analysis addressed itself to the solution of the Negro’s problems.”[15] W.E.B. du Bois said in 1908 that “the only party today which treats Negroes as men, North and South, are the Socialists,”[16] and fifty years later, “It is clear today that the salvation of American Negroes lies in socialism.”[17]

Malcolm X later commented:

You can’t have capitalism without racism. And if you find a person without racism and you happen to get that person into conversation and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political Philosophy is socialism.[18]

Stokely Carmichael posited:

If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power. Racism gets its power from capitalism. Thus, if you’re anti-racist, whether you know it or not, you must be anti-capitalist. The power for racism, the power for sexism, comes from capitalism, not an attitude.[19]

And Dr. King said:

We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.[20]

Moreover, he declared:

We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values… We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed.[21]

Still today, many of the most passionate anti-racists, such as those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, are also socialists.

While white and black socialists pushed for racial equality, socialist women were hard at work across the country battling for gender equality. Marxist women were integral to the labor, peace, and civil rights movements (in 1937, while men conducted a sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, plants, women armed themselves and fought police to protect the strikers[22]), but they are more so responsible for the freeing of womankind (something not all socialist men were happy about). They published literature, organized, and protested. In the 1915 suffrage campaign in New York, they distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets in multiple languages, and held hundreds of meetings. Radical leftists like Emma Goldman, Helen Keller, and Mother Mary Jones (who co-founded the IWW), led the charge for voting rights, property rights, sexual rights, education rights, employment rights. Like some African Americans, they understood that a capitalist system that kept economic and political power in the hands of a few rich white men impeded their human progress.

Charlotte P. Gilman of Connecticut wrote a poem called “The Socialist and the Suffragist”:

Said the Socialist to the suffragist:
“My cause is greater than yours!
You only work for a special class,
We for the gain of the general mass,
Which every good ensures!”

Said the suffragist to the Socialist:
“You underrate my cause!
While women remain a subject class,
You never can move the general mass,
With your economic laws!”

Said the Socialist to the suffragist:
“You misinterpret facts!
There is no room for doubt or schism
In economic determinism—
It governs all our acts!”

Said the suffragist to the Socialist:
“You men will always find
That this old world will never move
More swiftly in its ancient groove
While women stay behind.”

“A lifted world lifts women up,”
The Socialist explained.
“You cannot lift the world at all
While half of it is kept so small,”
The suffragist maintained.

The world awoke, and tartly spoke:
“Your work is all the same:
Work together or work apart,
Work, each of you, with all your heart—
Just get into the game!”

After 20,000 immigrant women garment workers organized and went on strike in New York City in 1909, they celebrated the first Women’s Day. A few years later, in 1917, women demonstrators in Soviet Russia helped topple a dictator, and March 8 became the day International Women’s Day would later be celebrated.[23] Many of the fiercest feminists and equality advocates in the modern era are of course radicals.

With their activity and leadership in the progressive freedom movements, socialists were quite popular, a force to be reckoned with. In the first decades of the 20th century, an estimated 1 million Americans read socialist newspapers. The Appeal to Reason, a socialist publication from Kansas, was one of the nation’s most widely read papers, with 790,000 subscribers.[24] The Socialist Party had nearly 120,000 members.[25] Socialist politicians served in 340 cities across the country, some 1,200 mayors, councilpersons, state congressmen, etc.[26] In 1910, Milwaukee became the first major city to elect a socialist mayor, Emil Seidel. The city had socialist mayors off and on for the next 50 years, popular because they rooted out corruption and improved public services like health care, education, and public housing. Victor Berger of Milwaukee became the first socialist U.S. Congressman in 1911 and served off and on until 1929; throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the two major parties in Wisconsin were the Republicans and the Socialists. Even the smaller Communist Party put men on the New York City Council. The first Communist mayor in America served Crosby, Minnesota in 1933.[27] Oklahoma had one of the strongest socialist movements, with 12,000 Socialist Party members, who joined other voters in giving over 100 socialists local political power in 1914.[28] Missouri had 135 Socialist Party locals.[29]

Socialist parties had significant influence over candidates and policies. Even decades later, when the Red Scare gripped America, people still favored socialist policies; Upton Sinclair (author of The Jungle), in a letter to famous socialist Norman Thomas, remembered, “The American People will take Socialism, but they won’t take the label. I certainly proved it…running on the Socialist ticket I got 60,000 votes, and running on the slogan to ‘End Poverty in California’ I got 879,000.”[30]

The most famous of all American socialist politicians was Eugene V. Debs of Indiana. He was the presidential candidate for the Socialist Party in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. In 1920, he garnered 6% of the national vote (nearly 1 million people), a percentage any modern third-party candidate would die for, and he did it from a prison cell.

Debs was jailed, like thousands of other Americans, many of them socialists, by the Wilson administration for opposing America’s involvement in World War I. In a 1918 speech, Debs had thundered, “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” When the ruling class beat the drums of war, the loudest pleas for peace were often from socialists.

At his trial, Debs said, “I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. Gentlemen, I abhor war. I would oppose it if I stood alone… I have sympathy with the suffering, struggling people everywhere. It does not make any difference under what flag they were born, or where they live.”

He was sentenced to 10 years, experiencing firsthand America’s sacred “freedom of speech” and its relevance during wartime. He was released early by President Harding, and died in 1926. Though not all radicals opposed the war (it in fact caused great division in the socialist movement), across the nation thousands of IWW members, unionists, laborers, socialists, and communists marched for peace, while the Department of Justice censored mail, raided meetings, broke into homes, and made arrests to root out these “disloyal” Americans. The government managed to destroy the IWW, but not the antiwar spirit. In Boston, for example, 8,000 marched on July 1, 1917, holding banners that read: “If this a popular war, why conscription? Who stole Panama? Who crushed Haiti? We demand peace.”[31]

Throughout the rest of the 20th century, American socialists and communists would continue to be at the forefront of peace movements during each and every war the United States entered. This continued into the 21st century.

 

Notes

[1] Communist Manifesto, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2762617?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[2] Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 231

[3] http://inthesetimes.com/article/17061/a_co_op_state_of_mind

[4] https://usworker.coop/home/

[5] Zinn, People’s, 397, 417

[6] Nichols, The “S” Word, 58

[7] Nichols, 66, 73, 80

[8] Lincoln, 1861 State of the Union Address, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29502

[9] Zinn, People’s

[10] Nichols, 179

[11] Nichols, 179

[12] https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/15/the-socialist-history-they-hide-from-us

[13] Schachtman, Communism and the Negro

[14] Schachtman

[15] Nichols, 187

[16] Manning Marable, W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat, https://books.google.com/books?id=aw4eCwAAQBAJ&pg=PT108&lpg=PT108&dq=w.e.b.+du+bois+%22north+and+south,+are+the+socialists%22&source=bl&ots=dxvYm4T2L1&sig=CG5ioeCDBdppiVc2c7mXhm1v5C0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjbsLWP9anSAhVM82MKHQhpAWsQ6AEIHzAB#v=onepage&q=w.e.b.%20du%20bois%20%22north%20and%20south%2C%20are%20the%20socialists&f=false

[17] W.E.B. du Bois, “The American Negro and Communism,” October 23, 1958, http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/pageturn/mums312-b206-i015/#page/1/mode/1up

[18] Malcolm X, Remarks at Militant Labor Forum Symposium, May 29, 1964

[19] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tug8RJyLoz0

[20] King, Beyond Vietnam: Breaking the Silence, 1967

[21] http://kairoscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/King-quotes-2-page.pdf

[22] https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/15/the-socialist-history-they-hide-from-us

[23] https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/15/the-socialist-history-they-hide-from-us

[24] https://socialistworker.org/2012/07/19/the-appeal-for-socialism

[25] Howe, Socialism and America

[26] Zinn, 340

[27] Nichols, 132-133, 103-105

[28] Zinn, 340

[29] https://jacobinmag.com/2017/02/rise-and-fall-socialist-party-of-america/

[30] Letter to Norman Thomas (1951), Upton Sinclair, http://spartacus-educational.com/Jupton.htm

[31] Zinn, People’s

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The Corporate Assault on Human Beings and Their Democracies

Political power, wealth, and business interests are all intimately linked. Rarely do we see one without the other, which can have devastating effects on both democracies and citizens. To paraphrase radical historian Howard Zinn, “The interests of corporations and the interests of the people are not the same.”

 

I: The Corporate Assault on Democracy

To rise to the highest political positions, an official must have a great deal of money and be well-connected to established political players and business titans. While there are some upsets, the best-funded candidates win congressional elections 86-97% of the time.[1] The same is virtually always true of presidential races.

Corporate donors therefore have a tremendous amount of power. In the Citizens United case of 2010, the Supreme Court allowed corporations to give as much money to political campaigns as they like. Therefore the richest corporations have the greatest ability to help decide elections, leaving poorer businesses, unions, organizations, not to mention the common people, in the dust. (Many problems with corporate influence in government also apply, to a lesser degree, to unions and organizations, from the UAW to the NRA. Solutions like public financing of elections [or perhaps only allowing small campaign donations from individuals] and lobbying reform must apply to all entities.) The 2013 McCutcheon v. F.E.C. case then allowed unlimited individual spending on elections, further empowering the rich to choose candidates.

However, capitalists cannot always know who will receive the most funding nor foresee with absolute certainty the victor, so corporations have long given money to both sides to assure whoever wins will aid their interests (public officials are keen to pay back donors, especially to secure funding for reelection campaigns). A senior vice president of International Telephone and Telegraph put it best in 1960 when he said his company board would “‘butter’ both sides so we’ll be in a good position whoever wins.”[2] As the Center for Responsive politics reported on giving to the party governor associations, “High profile donors that give to both sides include Comcast, Wal-Mart, Hewlett-Packard, AT&T, Coca-Cola, AFLAC and Verizon. The majority of these corporations donate about the same amount of money to both sides with five corporations giving exactly 50%: Novartis Corp, Kolhberg & Co, KKR & Co, Jacobs Entertainment Inc. and Intuit Inc.”[3]

Einstein wrote in 1949 that there existed an

…oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education).[4]

Corporations have methods of influencing public policy beyond candidate selection. They either are media companies or own the media (GE owns NBC and Comcast, Disney owns ABC, etc.), and fund think tanks, plus university departments and research institutes.[5] They threaten to move to other cities, states, or countries if politicians don’t enact laws that benefit them; their departure could mean ruin for local economies and working families. Boeing, the largest employer in Wichita, Kansas, infamously held that city—and state—hostage in the early 2000s.[6] Corporations employ armies of lobbyists to bribe politicians with campaign funds to enact or oppose specific policies, such as deregulating industries or putting exemptions into the tax code. Armies of lawyers and accountants then make sure companies are effectively using the loopholes to whittle down their taxes. This has been underway for decades, and now the largest companies pay no taxes, and even get tax refunds. Tax rates for rich individuals have likewise been significantly reduced. See “Giant Corporations Are Not Paying Taxes.”

Corporations lobby to make sure certain unethical and illegal actions can no longer be punished. In 1966, for instance, “auto industry lawyers persuaded members of Congress to delete the criminal penalty from the motor vehicle safety law, even for companies who knowingly sold defective cars or parts—and willfully declined to recall the cars even after their use resulted in injuries or death.”[7] Increased product safety meant higher costs for capitalists, so it was important to minimize or eliminate criminal penalties once they decided to put workers or consumers at risk. Or take the deadly opioid crisis of the first two decades of the 21st century, in which pharmaceutical companies made a killing by ignoring government requirements to report suspiciously large orders of opioids (such as nine million hydrocodone pills over two years to a town of 392 people), which were going to shady pain clinics and thus to addicts. When the DEA began cracking down on this negligence, the pharmaceutical industry launched the usual bribery methods (lobbying, donations to politicians, job offers) to convince Congress to scale back the DEA’s regulatory and enforcement powers.

In addition to the trillions in subsidies and tax breaks they receive, corporations use the government (and taxpayer money) as a life raft when they run into trouble. In the 1980s through the early 2000s, the financial sector succeeded in deregulating the practices of Wall Street banks and insurance companies, allowing those entities to make predatory investments and loans with public money. It was fraud on an unimaginable scale: mortgage lenders handed out low-quality, high-cost (and overvalued) home loans to consumers. This reaped hundreds of billions in profits for the banks, but in 2008 destroyed the housing market when scammed borrowers facing enormously high interest rates and mounting credit couldn’t make their payments. These people lost their homes to foreclosure, millions of nice homes stood empty, and the demand for housing construction vanished. The housing market crashed, and with it nearly the entire national economy (the global economy took a hit as well). Americans who owned stock lost fortunes, the poor lost their homes, and the banks, which loaned and borrowed money from each other, collapsed like dominoes. Yet the government bailed out the largest financial institutions, handing over trillions in taxpayer funds to the very CEOs and boards of directors who created the crisis!

Corporate power players, after all, ran the Department of the Treasury. Former Goldman-Sachs executives, for instance, held many of the top positions in the department, per usual. (Phone records have revealed the heads of financial institutions like Goldman-Sachs, Citigroup, and JP Morgan can get the treasury secretary on the phone several times a day, something no ordinary American is privileged to.[8]) The corporatists would stop at nothing to acquire the fortunes needed to save their corrupt institutions. Bailouts have been common practice for a long time—in 1999, Noam Chomsky pointed out that over 20 corporations on the Fortune 100 list would not still exist if not for public bailouts.[9] Congress gave the banks a $700 billion bailout. Not only did they save their banks, the capitalists awarded themselves millions of dollars in record bonuses. Today, the same men still control the financial sector and the governmental body in charge of overseeing it. “Three years after a horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud,” reported Charles Ferguson in 2011 (Inside Job), “not a single financial executive has gone to jail.” Finally, one did in 2014. He got a sentence of 30 months.[10]

Senator Bernie Sanders summarized the state of American politics well when he said, “Wall Street is extraordinarily powerful. Congress doesn’t regulate them… Wall Street regulates Congress,”[11] in the same way Populist Party orator Mary Ellen Lease summarized it in 1890: “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street.”[12] In the Trilateral Commission report of 1976, Samuel Huntington of Harvard, a consultant to the White House during the Vietnam War, wrote that the country was “governed by the President acting with the support and cooperation of key individuals and groups in the executive office, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, and the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media, which constitute the private sector’s ‘Establishment.’” He was not being critical. He believed there was an “excess of democracy,” recommending “limits to the extension of political democracy.”[13]

Corporations now design the very laws by which they must abide. Ralph Nader writes, “Few regulations are issued without heavy tinkering by corporate attorneys; the results are often obsolete before they are enacted” and “corporate lobbies have effected changes in the law that reduce or escape fines, cap damages under tort law, hold enforcement budgets down, appoint enforcers from their own executive ranks to head agencies, and pour money into the coffers of political parties and candidates.”[14] In 2013, 70 of the 85 lines in a bill on financial reform came straight from a draft created by Citigroup lobbyists.[15] Groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) bring together local lawmakers and business titans to draft legislation that ends up being voted on and thus benefiting the corporate designers.[16] Corporate influence leads to all kinds of lunacy, from Obama pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which allowed corporations to sue governments, including the U.S., if their policies interfered with corporate profits, to the weakening of anti-trust (anti-monopoly) laws, allowing corporations to swallow up or eradicate competitors.

2013 research from Political Research Quarterly showed that both political parties follow the whims of their wealthy constituents and donors, and during the 111th Congress Democrats were worse than Republicans in serving lower-income, majority interests.[17] A 2014 study from Northwestern University and Princeton University found that when economic elites overwhelmingly oppose a law, it only has an 18% chance of enactment.[18] Researchers concluded, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

Corporate executives are regularly installed in high government positions and set about serving the interests of private capital. President Nixon appointed a businessman to head OSHA who “was hostile to OSHA’s aims. One of his first acts was to order the destruction of 100,000 government booklets pointing out the dangers of cotton dust to textile workers.”[19] In 2013, President Obama announced that Tom Wheeler, former executive of (and Washington lobbyist for) cable and telecommunication giants, would be the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Wheeler, after all, raised almost three-quarters of $1 billion for Obama’s two presidential campaigns.[20] A man who spent decades lobbying for deregulation for some of the wealthiest corporations was now head of the government agency responsible for overseeing and regulating the same industry. Within a year, Wheeler was leading the charge to further allow monopolistic practices among Internet, cable, and phone service corporations, such as dismantling net neutrality regulations. Things of course reached an absurd level under President Trump. His secretary of energy was on the board of directors of Energy Transfer Partners and earlier said he wanted to abolish the Department of Energy. His head of the Environmental Protection Agency didn’t believe in climate change and was at the time suing the EPA over environmental and health regulations. His National Economic Council director, chief strategist, and treasury secretary were all Goldman Sachs boys. His education secretary favored private schooling without government oversight over public schools, and was in no way qualified for the job, but donated huge sums to the Republican Party.[21] Most all were extraordinarily wealthy.

Not only do corporate millionaires and billionaires become powerful politicians and federal agency heads, many public officials retire and join corporate lobbying firms. The politicians who once at least put up a façade of serving the public make millions using their political connections to influence legislation to the benefit of corporations. It is called the “revolving door.” It is a two-way street of corruption and client politics. In 1974, only 3% of retiring Congressmen became lobbyists, but now it’s 50% of Senators and over 40% of House Representatives.[22] A 2012 article from the Nation reminded us, “Politicians never have to disclose job negotiations while in office, and never have to disclose how much they’re paid after leaving office,” leaving corporations free to

…secretly promise [politicians] a million dollars or more in pay if they come to work for [them] after they leave office. Once a public official makes a deal to go to work for a lobbying firm or corporation after leaving office, he or she becomes loyal to the future employer. And since those deals are done in secret, legislators are largely free to pass laws, special tax cuts, or earmarks that benefit their future employer with little or no accountability to the public.[23]

The average increase in salary for a lawmaker-turned-lobbyist in 2011 was 1,452%.[24] This is just an example of the rich getting richer, however. In 2009, nearly half of all 535 congressmen were millionaires, with a median net worth of $1.8 million for senators and over $620,000 for house representatives.[25]

It also takes money to preserve political careers, a large part of the problem. Congressmen spend 25% to 50% of their time in office fundraising, possibly more during election years. Even congressmen who have no chance of being voted out of office still are required to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for their party, to be used to support tight races. Thus politicians spend enormous amounts of time at dinners where donors pay huge sums of money per plate, or on the phone asking for contributions, instead of focusing on legislation the people desire.[26]

The Center for Responsive Politics tracks lobbying and corporate spending to influence law, and found the financial and real estate sector spent nearly $500 million in 2013 alone. The health care industry spent about the same. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce alone spent nearly $75 million on lobbying, the National Association of Realtors $38.5 million, Blue Cross/Blue Shield $22.5 million. Thousands of firms poured a collective $3.21 billion into lobbying. Campaign coffers overflowed with legalized bribes: the 113th Congress got $30 million worth of contributions from law firms, $16.5 million from real estate firms, $14 million from insurance powers. Nearly 130 senior staff (aides and advisors who work for lawmakers) of the 112th Congress were former lobbyists. The White House and the Departments of Commerce, Defense, State, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture have each employed over 1,000 people who were once lobbyists or went on to become lobbyists. The CIA, the Army, the Federal Reserve, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Departments of Education, Treasury, Transportation—virtually every agency—is infested with officials with business associations and interests.[27]

This can have enormous effects. Take the construction of the transcontinental railroad, one of the most important achievements for the development of our nation. Railroad companies

became dependents on government, using their initial capital not to start construction, but to bribe legislators…the first transcontinental railroad was not built by laissez-faire. The railroad capitalists did it with government land and money…the Central Pacific, starting on the West Coast, got 9 million acres of free land and $24 million in loans (after spending $200,000 in Washington for bribes).

The Union Pacific railroad sold shares to congressmen at discounted rates because, as one congressman involved in the bribe said, “There is no difficulty in getting men to look after their own property” (Zinn, A People’s History of the United States)!

Indeed, the deals and favors border on the absurd. After Reagan removed controls on oil prices, essentially awarding $2 billion to the oil industry, twenty three oil executives donated over a quarter-million dollars to redecorate the White House living quarters; the owner of the Core Oil and Gas Company said, “The top man of this country ought to live in one of the top places. Mr. Reagan has helped the energy business.”[28] Lobbying is an extraordinarily important practice for oil and gas companies in the face of the environmentalist movement, as massive sums of cash help keep politicians in line with industry objectives and garner profitable subsidies. The industry spent nearly $41 million on politicians’ campaigns in 2013 and 2014. Total, the industry spent over $326 million lobbying the U.S. government. The government spent nearly $34 billion on the fossil fuel industry in the same time period, in the form of subsidies, a nice return on an investment.[29] University of Kansas Law School researchers found that for every dollar spent on lobbying, companies received $220 in tax breaks—a return of 22,000%.[30]

That is the corporate assault on our democracy. It is dangerous because in a democracy decision-making power is supposed to rest with the people, who send public officials to Washington to represent them. Those with greater wealth are not supposed to have more influence and control over the process. If the majority of the people want to protect the environment but oil companies do not, who should win?

 

II: The Corporate Assault on Human Beings

Yet the dangers of capitalist control of government are overshadowed by the physical perils of the profit motive (distinct from the theft that constitutes capitalistic exploitation). Corporate abuse harms and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent people worldwide each year and can work against positive social goals, like ending drug addiction, establishing safer workplaces, or protecting the environment (we’ve seen elsewhere the damage capitalism is doing to our planet). Corporate abuse takes place to increase profits, and weak regulations and harmless consequences allow it to continue.

Profit is why corporations sell addictive, deadly cigarettes, which kill more people than all illegal drugs combined. Profit is why tobacco companies kept knowledge of cancer and other dangers secret.[31] Profit is why the National Football League tried to bury findings on CTE, the brain injury many players sustain.[32] Profit is why Big Oil buried its own findings that manmade CO2 was contributing to climate change.[33] Profit is why the quality of fast food is so poor, why much of it is packed with dangerously addictive levels of sugar, salt, and fat, as well as chemical additives and preservatives. Profit is why innocent people are dropped from their health insurance coverage when they get sick.[34] Profit is why energy companies want inefficient modes of transit and electricity, and therefore fight tooth and nail against cleaner, more efficient forms of energy, higher MPG requirements, and stricter environmental standards. General Motors and Chevron bought up and destroyed Los Angeles’ public rail system to make way for their products.[35]

Laws with no teeth allow corporations to dump toxic waste or install garbage incinerators in poor minority areas, and to poison our air, water, and soil with pollutants, pesticides, and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) toxins. Profit is the reason drug companies “promote off-label or unapproved uses for their medicines through their salespeople and physicians,” resulting in tens of thousands of deaths each year.[36] It’s why drug companies focus research and development on medicine for minor problems that have to be bought continuously over a lifetime, and focus less on drugs for diseases like malaria, whose victims have no money.[37] It’s why some companies research ways to make their products wear out faster, so people have to buy more—“planned obsolescence.”[38] It’s why oil companies sometimes conspire to hold back production to keep prices up—this has been done not just by Arabian oil cartels but also by American firms.[39]

Weak regulations are why employers casually violate rules for worker safety, leading to everything from lead and asbestos poisoning to maiming, blindness, and death. “In the ’80s, the Reagan administration essentially informed the business world that it was not going to prosecute violations of OSHA regulations. As a result, the number of industrial accidents went up rather dramatically…working days lost to injury almost doubled from 1983 to 1986…”[40] In 2014, Congress changed safety rules for truck drivers, raising the number of hours per week an employee could drive from 70 to 82—despite recent deaths on the roads caused by exhausted truck drivers.[41] Businesses had money to make. In 2016, Oxfam reported that American workers in poultry plants were denied bathroom breaks so often that workers had to wear diapers. Oxfam said that “the cost of cheap chicken in the U.S. is workers who face low wages, suffer elevated rates of injury and illness and face a climate of fear in the workplace.” It reported that

…unnamed workers from Tyson Foods Inc., Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., Perdue Farms Inc. and Sanderson Farms Inc… said that supervisors mock them, ignore requests and threaten punishment or firing. When they can go, they wait in long lines even though they are given limited time, sometimes 10 minutes, according to the report. Some workers have urinated or defecated themselves while working because they can’t hold on any longer… Some workers “restrict intake of liquids and fluids to dangerous degrees”…[42]

Employers often find it more profitable to put worker lives on the line and simply risk paying pennies in fines (illegal immigrants can have it even worse). Nader writes:

Roughly sixty thousand Americans die each year due to workplace-related toxins and trauma. OSHA has an annual budget of $550 million to diminish the occupational disease, death, and injury epidemic, but only a portion of that budget is used for actual inspections and enforcement. Violations that pose a substantial probability of death or serious injury incur an average penalty of only $910.

60,000 Americans a year. The International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency, estimates over 650,000 workers around the world die each year from workplace hazards and toxins; 160 million people grow ill.[43] For example, from 2009 to 2010, 137 Apple workers were poisoned by inhaling hexane, a chemical in gasoline used to clean the glass cases on iPhones. Apple favored hexane over something safer, like alcohol, because hexane dries very quickly, meaning faster production.[44] In the 1970s, after defective fuel tanks in Ford Pintos were revealed to explode in some accidents, Ford calculated that it would be cheaper to pay lawsuit settlements ($200,000 for each case) than recall and repair the cars ($137 million). Ford did not fix the problem. 180 innocent people died each year from explosions linked to the defective fuel tanks.[45]

None of this is new. As capitalism matured, industrializing nations saw horrific suffering as armies of poor men, women, and children were worked to exhaustion in factories, plants, and mines. Dying or losing limbs on the job and starving to death at home were the realities for millions of human beings during the Industrial Revolution. Ordinary people saw their employers grow rich, while they were given barely enough to stay alive. Victor Hugo[46] in the 1880s told the rich of England:

The workers of this world whose fruits you enjoy live in death. There are little girls who begin at eight by prostitution, and who end at twenty by old age. Who among you have been to Newcastle-on-Tyne? There are men in the mines who chew coal, to fill their stomach and cheat hunger. Look you in Lancashire. Misery everywhere. Are you aware that the Harlech fishermen eat grass when the fishery fails? Are you aware that at Burton- Lazers there are still certain lepers driven into the woods, who are fired at if they come out of their dens? In Peckridge there are no beds in the hovels, and holes are dug in the ground for little children to sleep in; so that, in place of beginning with the cradle, they begin with the tomb.[47]

In 1904, 27,000 American workers were killed at work; in 1914, 35,000 died in industrial accidents.[48] In the U.S. and across the world, workers had to organize, unionize, strike, protest, and riot for government regulations, for safer working conditions, decent pay, shorter days, weekends, the end of child labor, and equal opportunity and treatment for minorities and women.

At times the deaths of employees can be profitable to capitalists in a more direct way. “Dead peasant insurance” (or “corporate-owned life insurance”) is used when a corporation takes out a life insurance policy on an employee or former employee and receives cash upon his or her death. It was originally a way to insure the lives of top executives and buffer against turmoil and collapse in the case of an executive death, but it was later extended to cover even the lowest-paid employees because it was profitable to do so. Capitalism: A Love Story stresses this is a common practice in corporate America, with Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, Bank of America, AT&T, and Citibank among the many guilty firms. It tells the tale of Daniel Johnson, whose employer received $1.5 million upon his death, and explains how corporate owners compare worker deaths and insurance rewards against “expected mortality” estimates to increase the efficacy and profitability of the system. From a 2002 Wall Street Journal report we learned that when former employee Filipe Tillman died of AIDS, Camelot Music collected $339,302; when store clerk William Smith was murdered at work, National Convenience Stores collected $250,000; when nurse Peggy Stillwagoner died in a car wreck, Advantage Medical Services collected $200,000.[49] It is difficult to call our society civilized when corporations actively find ways to profit from worker deaths. Government regulation in 2006 required employers to get employee consent before taking out a policy and restricted the use to higher-paid employees. But this effort was weak, as it left a deplorable practice completely legal. In 2011, the owner of an oil-change business tried to hire a hit man to murder a former employee so the owner could collect $250,000.[50]

A 2016 CBS News investigation found mass fraud throughout the life insurance industry. Firms like MetLife, Prudential, and John Hancock didn’t pay death benefits to family members of the deceased who weren’t aware they were beneficiaries. Instead of honoring the deceased, who paid for the policies to make sure their families would have money in case something happened to them, the companies cancelled the unclaimed policies and kept the sums. Millions of such policies were wrongfully and knowingly cancelled, saving the companies billions. 25 companies settled lawsuits and paid $7.5 billion in owed death benefits. 35 more were under investigation that year.[51]

Clearly, the interests of corporations and the interests of the people are not the same.

 

Notes

[1] http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2008/11/money-wins-white-house-and/

[2] Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 548

[3] https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2010/11/democrats-and-republicans-sharing-b/

[4] Einstein, Why Socialism?

[5] http://time.com/4148838/koch-brothers-colleges-universities/

[6] Frank, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, 86-88

[7] Nader, Seventeen Solutions

[8] Maass, Case for Socialism, 93.

[9] Chomsky, The Common Good, 73

[10] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/04/magazine/only-one-top-banker-jail-financial-crisis.html?_r=0

[11] http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/05/18/1092100/-Bernie-Sanders-Congress-doesn-t-regulate-banks-banks-regulate-congress-Must-see

[12] Zinn, People’s, 288

[13] Zinn, People’s 559-560

[14] Nader, Seventeen Solutions

[15] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/10/29/business/dealbook/29lobbyists-documents.html, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/10/citigroup-bill-passes-house/

[16] http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2002/09/ghostwriting-law/

[17] http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/08/19/oligarchic-tendencies-study-finds-only-the-wealthy-get-represented-in-the-senate/

[18] http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/the-us-no-longer-democracy

[19] Zinn, People’s, 575

[20] http://business.time.com/2013/05/02/tom-wheeler-former-lobbyist-and-obama-fundraiser-tapped-to-lead-fcc/

[21] http://www.marieclaire.com/politics/a23922/donald-trump-cabinet-appointments/

[22] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/books/review/this-town-by-mark-leibovich.html?pagewanted=all

[23] http://www.thenation.com/article/166809/when-congressman-becomes-lobbyist-he-gets-1452-percent-raise-average#

[24] http://www.thenation.com/article/166809/when-congressman-becomes-lobbyist-he-gets-1452-percent-raise-average#

[25] Alan Maass, Case for Socialism, 106

[26] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ylomy1Aw9Hk

[27] http://www.opensecrets.org/influence/

[28] Zinn, People’s, 577

[29] http://priceofoil.org/fossil-fuel-industry-influence-in-the-u-s/

[30] http://archive.news.ku.edu/2009/april/9/taxlobbying.shtml

[31] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/big-tobacco-kept-cancer-risk-in-cigarettes-secret-study/

[32] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-nfl-worked-to-hide-the-truth-about-concussions-and-brain-damage-excerpt/

[33] https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/08/even-oil-companies-know-global-warming-is-man-made/

[34] https://gsgriffin.com/2017/06/14/free-market-healthcare-is-immoral/

[35] Chomsky, Common Good, 59

[36] Nader, Seventeen Solutions

[37] Imagine, 181

[38] Imagine, 181

[39] Zinn, People’s, 549

[40] Chomsky, Common Good

[41] http://socialistworker.org/2014/12/18/washingtons-presents-1-percent

[42] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-05-11/poultry-workers-in-diapers-as-bathroom-breaks-denied-oxfam-says

[43] http://www.ilo.org/public/english/region/eurpro/moscow/areas/safety/statistic.htm

[44] Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA, 232

[45] Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 74

[46] How socialist was Hugo? See http://isreview.org/issue/89/enduring-relevance-victor-hugo

[47] Hugo, “The Rich”

[48] Zinn, People’s, 327

[49] http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/april_19.htm

[50] http://www.foxbusiness.com/personal-finance/2014/06/26/does-sneaky-boss-have-life-insurance-on/

[51] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-life-insurance-investigation-lesley-stahl/

The Ethics of the N-Word

When I wrote “Why Black History Month Isn’t Racist But White History Month Would Be (and Other White Conundrums),” I summarized and closed with the following sentence: “Because you know your history and because you are a decent person.”

Of all white conundrums, “Why is it OK for black people to say the N-word but not white people?” is probably the most embarrassing. The answer to this question is of course identical to the conclusion of the prior article, but I did not include the infamous racial slur because it seemed like the topic deserved its own piece. Further, while the answer is the same the question is a bit different. The last article concerned why white people shouldn’t celebrate their race the way many black people do. That had something to do with whiteness — what should white identity really entail? White people being able to freely say racial slurs has nothing to do with whiteness. Only blackness.

Asking why it’s “not OK” for whites to use the N-word is really asking why it isn’t socially acceptable. Asking why something isn’t socially acceptable is asking why a majority opinion exists that this something is immoral. What’s socially acceptable is always rooted in ethics, from slavery to the age of consent, and thus the question is actually “Why is it immoral for whites to say the N-word but not blacks?”

Morality concerns what does harm to others. Our answer is thus self-evident. Whites who use the slur do more harm (psychologically, emotionally) to black folk than other black people who use it.

“It’s like a knife,” Ice Cube told Bill Maher after Maher used the slur. “It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people.” Maya Angelou described it as a “poison.” Human beings, she said, “are worth everything. Women are better than being called the ‘b’ word, and blacks are better than being called the ‘n’ word… You are better than being called the word that would deny your humanity.” It is astonishing that some white people seem confused that a term historically used to mark blacks as subhuman, worthy of oppression, rape, and murder, might cause emotional distress, from embarrassment to rage. (It’s not actually astonishing; white people have a long history of lacking basic empathy and critical thinking skills.) The slur causes such pain that physical dangers like knives and poison often accompany its description.

While some African Americans use the N-word and others despise it so much they do not (Ice Cube and Angelou, respectively), in either case the word coming from a white person has a different connotation because of our history. That is obvious and hardly complex. Even if the user considers himself or herself an antiracist or speaking without racist intent, the impact needs to be considered as well. It’s what ethical people do. They think about how their actions affect others; for the N-word, the impact of a white user is simply not the same as that of a black user, even if some black people are also bothered when fellow blacks use the term.

If what’s immoral is based on what causes harm to others, we know then that varying amounts of harm translates to varying degrees of wrong. Ethics exist on a continuum, a sliding scale; they are not black and white. A poor man who steals $25 from a rich man to buy a meal because he is hungry has not committed a wrong as grave as a rich man who steals $25 from a poor man because he is greedy. The intents are quite different, and while the financial loss is the same it hardly has the same impact. A woman who kills a rapist in self-defense has not committed so grave an immoral act (in fact, none at all in my view) as a woman who kills her husband to cash in a life insurance policy. Different intent, even different impact: though the loss of either man may cause pain to their family and friends, one scenario rids the world of a rapist.

Knowing ethics are situational, it’s easy enough to imagine a continuum for the immorality of the N-word, from least wrong (or perhaps not wrong at all) to most wrong, such as:

  • A white person quoting a black person criticizing the word or a white racist using the word (as a means of education)
  • A white person using it when singing hip-hop alone in a car (only potential harm exists: frequent use of the word privately could lead to public use)
  • A white person using it in a joke or mimicking its use as a term of endearment among black people (these contexts cause emotional and psychological harm)
  • A white person using it to degrade, vilify, oppress (overt racism, extreme emotional and psychological harm)

Other scenarios could be conjured. While some will object, insisting these are all equally immoral (or disagree on the order — perhaps the first and second could be switched, as the first one is public and might cause more harm), emphasizing that the use of the N-word is on an ethical continuum is key to demonstrating why it’s not OK for white people to use it, why it isn’t a double standard, hypocritical, all that intellectual laziness.

Imagine the scenarios we would put before those above. These would be situations even less unethical, perhaps morally acceptable. For example, a black person singing along to hip-hop, using the N-word as a term of endearment with a friend, writing a song that includes it, etc. None of these carry the harm or potential harm that the examples featuring white folk do (even though they may carry some, such as upsetting other African Americans who do not use the term, influencing white folk, and so on).

So we see how different contexts and different speakers cause varying degrees of harm, which changes the immorality accordingly. To be moral, we whites must be cognizant of the pain we can cause. You do not use the N-word because you know your history and because you are a decent person.

(Here I must acknowledge my bias. As a white writer interested in race, I often am in the first category for whites above, quoting others word-for-word so as to preserve the full power, whether wickedness or wisdom, of the N-word. I do not censor the words of James Baldwin:

What you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears, and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me… I didn’t invent the nigger… I’ve always known that I am not the nigger. But if I am not the nigger, and if it’s true your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger?… You’re the nigger, baby. It isn’t me.

Nor do I censor — whitewash — the true wickedness and hatred of whites who use the slur to tear down and demean black people, such as when a Baltimore teacher, in addition to calling her black students “idiots” and “stupid,” screamed that if they didn’t take schoolwork seriously each would end up a “punk-ass nigger who’s going to get shot.”

There are times when the N-word is redacted not to protect black people but to protect white people. Not all readers will agree, but I think there are moments when quoting the word — in writing; verbally falls elsewhere on the moral continuum — can remind whites of its evil, its pain, in the same way exposure to the true barbarism of our racial history can deeply impact white people and change them in positive ways. In a time of white denial, such an education of the word’s full power may be helpful.)

But even after understanding the moral difference between users of different colors and accepting that whites should not use the term, whites may yet have a remaining conundrum: “Why do black people use the term when it’s hate speech targeting them?”

While again emphasizing that many African Americans detest the word no matter who says it and would never say it themselves, we need to understand that appropriating derogatory labels is a very human thing to do, almost to the point of being predictable. Victims often seize the hate speech of perpetrators and adopt it because it strips the latter of their power.

There are many examples in world history of this. “Yankee Doodle” was originally a song used by the British to mock the American troops during the Revolution (yankee itself was likewise a term of derision). The song was quickly appropriated by the Americans. Next, observe what the GLAAD Glossary of Terms notes of queer: “Once considered a pejorative term, queer has been reclaimed by some LGBT people to describe themselves; however, it is not a universally accepted term even within the LGBT community.” Impressionist was created to mock Monet and others who didn’t paint in an ultra-realist fashion. If a sneering art critic inspires the reclamation and redesign of insults, why wouldn’t white supremacists? A jesuit was originally someone criticized for using the name of Jesus too often. Suffragette was first intended to mock militant women. Nasty woman became a badge of honor in 2016, as did deplorable. There are countless other reappropriations, varying in their degrees of popularity, from tree hugger to bitch. Parents even teach children to handle bullies in a similar manner. Adopting words meant to attack and insult you is a human trait that speaks to our resiliency, feelings of self-worth, and deep appreciation for irony and tragicomedy. Understanding this should erase white people’s assumptions that black people who use the N-word are expressing nothing but self-loathing.

Petition Against the Militia

On the weekend of August 19, 2017, leftist activists organized two events in Kansas City, Missouri: a rally against prisoner abuse and a march against white supremacy. Though successful, these rallies were stalked by men dressed in camouflage and armed with knives, handguns, and rifles — members of a right-wing “militia” group called the “Three Percenters.”

These men were inspired by the “militia” that protected the neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and Confederates in Charlottesville, Virginia, the week before. They were not present to protect the Kansas Citians gathering for justice for prisoners and people of color, as they absurdly implied in the press and to passersby. They came to intimidate, no doubt with some hope a protester would break a window or step out of line in some fashion so they could murder said protester and call it justified. The Three Percenters circled the protesters during speeches and then followed them on their march.

The Kansas City Police Department allowed this. It could have kept these counter-protesters behind a police line, cornered off away from the crowd, as it did during a June 10, 2017 protest/counter-protest. But instead the “militia” was allowed to stalk the crowd. Videos even surfaced of a disturbingly friendly police-“militia” relationship, in which one Three Percenter says the KCPD asked them to come and another tells police they’d “keep you in the loop” concerning any altercations (highlighting what they were there for, to take matters into their own hands, the police a mere afterthought).

Because the Three Percenters were there to intimidate, because weaponry readied against unarmed protesters is both unnecessary and enormously increases the risk of altercations, violence, or death, because protesters felt unsafe, and because (as with a car mowing down protesters) it is only a matter of time before a “militia” kills a protester for no reason, we demand the following:

1. During future events, “militias” and other counter-protesters will be kept at a safe distance behind a police line. The police will not allow them to leave their area, circle the crowd, enter the crowd, follow the crowd, or harass or terrorize or intimidate the crowd in any way.

2. The KCPD will immediately release a public statement declaring the above is official policy and will be followed to the letter.

https://www.change.org/p/kcpd-keep-the-militia-on-a-leash

It Can Happen Here

The chilling hatred white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-nazis displayed in Charlottesville, Virginia, the weekend of August 12, 2017, was an affront to human dignity — and at multiple times a literal attack upon it. On Friday night on the University of Virginia campus, students standing up against the “Alt-Right” were surrounded and assaulted. At the “Unite the Right” rally the next day at a city park, a rally participant ran over and killed Heather Heyer, a paralegal and anti-racist activist. He injured 19 others in the attack. Others severely beat Deandre Harris, an anti-racist protester and hip-hop artist, in a parking garage. Fistfights broke out elsewhere.

Symbols of white supremacist violence, genocide, and oppression were prevalent. Swastikas and Nazi salutes, Ku Klux Klan hoods and crosses, Confederate flags and burning torches. Chants like “Proud to be white,” “You will not replace us,” “White lives matter,” and “Blood and soil” (an old Nazi slogan) filled the air. Many enjoyed the privilege of walking around with heavy weaponry and acting provocatively without fear of swift and painful police retribution.

Yet standing against them, arm-in-arm and singing, were local clergy. People of all colors, genders, orientations, and beliefs worked together — truly, the American ideal — to show with their bodies and voices that white supremacy has no place in a decent society. Residents and visitors from around the nation, youths and workers, radicals and civil rights activists, they all marched through the streets together in the name of justice. Not all went home unscathed. One did not go home at all. But all did the right thing in that moment. History will look as admirably upon them as it looks upon the souls attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday 1965.

It is their example that Kansas City must follow. With our words and with our bodies, Kansas Citians must confront racial hatred in all its forms. What happened in Charlottesville can happen here.

Kansas City is still scarred by its history of oppression of people of color: from where we live to how long we live to how much wealth we have. Events in 2017 alone have left an open wound in our present. As documented, swastikas, nooses, slurs, vandalism, threatening phone calls, declarations of “white power,” Alt-Right literature condemning a diverse America, beatings, and a shooting by a man hunting Arabs have all been experienced in our city in the past eight months alone. The past few years is an even darker story. There is no question the same elements that made this weekend’s horrific events possible exist in Kansas City.

We will confront daily the legacy of Kansas City’s white supremacy, working for equality and prosperity for all people. All of Kansas City — especially white people, who have turned away in the face of injustice for too long — must address racial and other mistreatment or stereotyping wherever they see it and at the moment they hear it. All of us must be fearless in the face of danger. We must confront hatred with our words and our bodies. We will speak up and show up. Justice expects nothing less. History expects nothing less.

How Racism and Illegal Immigration Benefit Capitalism

Both racism and illegal immigration have been enormously beneficial to capitalism.

In human history, the idea of biological inferiority only became widespread alongside the rise of the African slave trade, as traders and merchants needed a justification for the enslavement of millions of people who were neither prisoners of war nor individual debtors (the traditional justifications for slavery among Europeans). Perpetuating the myth that blacks were little better than animals allowed organizers and participants in the slave trade to reap colossal profits from free labor with impunity. Racism served the monetary interests of a certain few.

Even after slavery ended, racism was used to justify further oppression and wage theft by the capitalist class. Just as emancipation would mean the end of free labor for slave-owners, human equality would force business owners to pay blacks the same wages as whites. Racism served to prevent this, just as sexism and xenophobia prevented the same for women, undocumented immigrants, and non-whites in general. In Communism and the Negro (1933), New Yorker Max Shachtman (head of the Worker’s Party) wrote:

The ruling class is in urgent need of the theory of racial inferiority… It affords them a moral justification for the super-exploitation and persecution to which it subjects the Negro. If trifling sums are allocated for Negro education, he is, after all, “only a nigger.”; if housing conditions are abominable, if the Negro is scandalously underpaid, if he is deprived of every democratic right, he is, after all, an inferior who does not deserve or require better; if he is hanged from a tree and riddled with bullets, or soaked with oil and burned to death by a mob of savages, it is, after all, “only a nigger” who suffers.[1]

Racism served capitalists a second way: it discouraged workers of different colors from uniting and unionizing to push for higher wages, shorter workweeks, or more decent working conditions and treatment. There was racial hostility in the competition for work, and corporations often responded to strikes by hiring unemployed blacks to replace white strikers, as they could pay them dismal wages with less threat of resistance. The racial tension and violence this created impeded the progress of interracial organizing and helped keep the working class poor.

Prominent black leaders saw the connection between racism and capitalism. Malcolm X said, “You can’t have capitalism without racism”; Stokely Carmichael said, “Racism gets its power from capitalism”; and Dr. King said, “The evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together.”[2] They knew that racism served capitalists’ financial interests, whether consciously or as a matter of course.

Illegal immigration has likewise enormously benefited capitalism, both in the U.S. and worldwide, in a similar way to how racism benefits capitalism. In the U.S. it is illegal to hire undocumented workers; employers do so regardless, particularly in the manufacturing, construction, agriculture, restaurant, and service sectors.

Illegal immigrants are some of the most exploited workers in history. (See Amnesty Solves Conservative Criticisms of Illegal Immigration for more on this general topic.) With employers holding the power to fire or turn them in to the authorities, undocumented workers face dismal pay, harsh working conditions, and an inability to organize and unionize to improve their position. They are not entitled to a minimum wage, nor benefits, nor overtime, nor child labor protections, nor in most states injury compensation. In 2008 authorities discovered children as young as 13 working in an Iowa meatpacking plant, and beaten and bruised adults working 17-hour days.[3]

Alan Maass writes:

For corporations and the U.S. political establishment, immigration has nothing to do with making opportunities available to the world’s poor and suffering. Like slavery in an early era, the key is how immigration guarantees a pool of cheap and easily controlled labor.

If you look at the history of the United States, the idea that immigration controls and border security are about keeping immigrant labor out is laughable. For two centuries, one group after another was encouraged to move to the United States under conditions of illegality, and be the scapegoat at the bottom of the heap. Irish, Jews, Germans, Swedes, southern Italians, Eastern Europeans, Asians, Mexicans, Central Americans, Muslims…[4]

Capitalists can increase their profits by taking advantage of millions of people, again whether intentionally or as a natural, inadvertent consequence. Capitalism benefits from a steady flow of illegal immigrants.

It is very interesting to note that in this case the ideology of anti-immigrant conservatives does not align with the interests of capitalist power. So often conservatism serves corporate interests, such as the hostility toward environmental protection regulations and the opposition to the minimum wage.

But here racism benefits capitalism in one way and hurts it in another. Virulent racism allowed for the super-exploitation of certain groups of people, but also created masses of racist people who opposed the arrival of blacks, Jews, Greeks, Italians, Hispanics, etc. throughout American history. Most all non-Western European immigration, legal and illegal, has been opposed because of bigotry at various times. The current anti-immigrant hysteria certainly has a racial component. In sum, while capitalism benefits from illegal immigration the same racism that also benefits capitalism encourages people to oppose illegal immigration, screaming for deportation, patrolling borders as vigilantes, and calling for the construction of massive walls.

 

Notes

[1] Schachtman, Communism and the Negro

[2] Malcolm X, remarks at Militant Labor Forum Symposium, May 29, 1964; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tug8RJyLoz0; Martin Luther King Jr., Beyond Vietnam: Breaking the Silence

[3] http://www.alternet.org/story/94703/exploited%3A_the_plight_of_the_undocumented_worker

[4] Maass, The Case for Socialism

The Bereshit (Jesus in Genesis) Argument Has No Merit

On New Year’s Eve 2016, a friend introduced me to the term bereshit, Hebrew for “in the beginning.” It is the first word of the bible, and is believed by some to contain a secret message concerning the crucifixion of Christ. The bereshit argument is therefore also called the “Jesus in Genesis 1:1” theory.

The theory goes like this: Hebrew letters have special meanings, and when you examine the meanings of the six letters in bereshit (beyt-resh-aleph-shin-yud-tav) they form a sentence: “The Son of God is destroyed by his own hand on the cross.”

I told my friend I was skeptical but would research it, and later came across this graphic and this video (minutes 10:00 to 17:00). Both assert the following meanings or associations of the letters: beyt (house, tent), resh (first person, head), aleph (God), shin (consume, destroy, teeth), yud (hand, arm, works), and tav (covenant, mark, cross). Beyt and resh, when combined, make the word “son.” So the bereshit sequence can be read “son-God-destroy-hand-cross,” or “The Son of God is destroyed by his own hand on the cross.”

I reached out to some of today’s most respected and renowned Old Testament scholars to determine the merits of the bereshit theory. I also spoke to John E. Kostik, a well-traveled Christian speaker, who created the video. He informed me that proving bereshit theory was as simple as looking up the meanings of Hebrew letters, which have matching Hebrew words. “Bereshit begins with the letter beyt. The Hebrew word for ‘house’ is beyt!”

I remembered a question John Goldingay, professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, posited to me earlier that day: “Why would no one have seen it for thousands of years?” So I asked Kostik why web information on it is relatively sparse and why many pastors and believers don’t know about it. He said that because the original language of Hebrew is not widely known, and because Jewish scholars do not view Christ as the messiah and therefore do not have open eyes, the spread of this knowledge has been limited. I asked for sources on the topic, and Kostik directed me to Jeff A. Benner’s work.

Like Kostik (and myself), Benner is not a professional scholar. He works for an engineering company and lives in a log cabin, but like Kostik studying ancient Hebrew is his passion. He documents his studies on his website, which he dubbed the Ancient Hebrew Research Center. While disappointed not to find a university professor with findings published in peer-reviewed journals, that was the source I was given so I pressed on.

The first task was to see if the ancient Hebrew word for “house” indeed had the same name as the first letter in bereshit.

I looked up these words in Benner’s dictionary of commonly used ancient Hebrew words in the bible, and consulted Strong’s Concordance to ensure they were accurate, which they were.

The definitions below with ancient Hebrew lettering are from Benner, with a Strong’s Concordance number to crosscheck. Definitions without ancient Hebrew lettering are from Strong’s Concordance alone. Hebrew words are read right to left.

 (ba-yit): House. (The structure or the family, as a household that resides within the house. A housing. Within). Strong’s 1004.

 (rosh): Head. (The top of the body. A person in authority or role of leader. The top, beginning, or first of something.) Strong’s 7218.

 (a-luph): Chief. (Accorded highest rank or office; of greatest importance, significance, or influence. One who is yoked to another to lead and teach.) Strong’s 441.

Not pictured. (shen): Tooth. Strong’s 8127/8128.

 (yad): Hand. (The terminal, functional part of the forelimb. Hand with the ability to work, throw and give thanks.) Strong’s 3027.

Not pictured. (tav): Frowardness (perverse thing) or mark (from tavah, Strong’s 8427). Strong’s 8420/8420a.

These then needed to be compared to the letters themselves. Here are Benner’s descriptions of the early Hebrew letters:

 (beyt, today ב): image of a house, tent

 (resh, today ר): image of a man’s head

 (aleph, today א): image of an ox’s head

 (shin, today ש): image of two front teeth

 (yud, today י): image of arm and hand

 (tav, today ת): image of crossed sticks

You will notice the names of these Hebrew letters are indeed virtually the same as the Hebrew words above. We will get back to this.

Initial problems with the bereshit argument become evident fairly quickly. First, assuming these letters represent what’s asserted, bereshit reads “house-head-chief-tooth-hand-mark.” Benner himself does not include “God,” “consume,” “destroy,” “works,” “covenant,” or “cross” as definitions.

If we open the scope of the meanings to include Strong’s, that gives us:

  • House (court, door, dungeon, family, forth of, great as would contain, hangings)
  • Head (band, captain, company)
  • Chief (captain, duke, chief friend, governor, guide, ox; chief is actually not listed)
  • Tooth (crag, forefront, ivory, sharp)
  • Hand (be able, about, armholes, at, axletree, because of, beside, border)
  • Mark (very froward thing, perverse thing, desire, signature)

And still the key words are missing. “House-head-chief-tooth-hand-mark” is not all that close to the original bereshit claim. Even skipping Strong’s translations and using only Benner’s, a wide range of secret messages can be conjured. “Family-leader-yoked teacher-tooth-hand-perverse thing” is an equally valid secret message in the first word of the bible!

Key words necessary for the bereshit argument are simply assumed without basis. Aleph, while having to do with leader, has nothing to do with God, as confirmed by my scholars. Notice a noun is transformed into a verb in the conversion of “tooth” to “destroy”! It’s merely “inferring a verb,” says John J. Collins, professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School.

When I raised to John Kostik the fact that these words were missing, he sent me an image that depicted shin standing for destruction in another word, but could not provide a source. “Maybe common sense is to be employed,” he said, adding, “God doesn’t have to source everything through man. God is the source.” I pointed out common sense could also make shin stand for dental hygiene. I did not receive a reply.

You’ll notice “son” is missing here. As explained above, one must combine the first two letters to create “son.” Beyt and resh can join to form the word bar, son (Strong’s 1247). Thus, bereshit can at best be read “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark,” according to Benner and Strong. Or “son-most important-tooth-hand-perverse thing” if you prefer.

Of course, opening the door to letter combinations, rather than moving bereshit closer to validation, can move it farther away. As before, many combinations and words, and thus secret messages, are possible. Beyt-resh-aleph could form bara’ (choose, Strong’s 1254). Resh-aleph could be used for the name Ra. We could combine shin-yud-tav to create shith (to put or set, Strong’s 7896). Yud-tav could form yath (whom, Strong’s 3487). Therefore, “The house of Ra is set” is an equally valid secret message in the first word of the bible, if not superior.

“I actually find this use of the Bible scary,” says Mark S. Smith, professor of Old Testament Language and Exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminary, “because it ends [up] being made into meanings that its creators want, and not what the Bible really says.” A similar sentiment was expressed to me by Michael V. Fox, professor emeritus at the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin, John Goldingay (“One can prove almost anything by this method”), and Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary (“Sound[s] more like nonsense to me, pressing to [see] what is not there”).

Further, we must be sure to note there are no prepositions with bereshit. My example at best could be “house-Ra-set.” There is no “the,” “of,” or “is.” Where do bereshit believers get any pieces beyond “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark”? Even if we had “son-god-destroyed-hand-cross” there would still be room to create other narratives, for instance: “My son god destroyed when his hands formed a cross.” Additionally, even if prepositions formed a complete “The Son of God is destroyed by his own hand on the cross” there would remain the possibility that this was first discovered by some first-century A.D. scribe who invented a story of Jesus to “fulfill the prophesy.” But no matter. While “son-god-destroyed-hand-cross” would be intriguing indeed, “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark” is the best we have.

I reached out to ask Benner if he was a bereshit believer. He replied, “I personally do not believe that secret messages are encoded in specific words of the Bible.”

However, Benner’s website does associate letters with certain meanings. The scholars I spoke to were adamant that ancient Hebrew letters should not be viewed as “standing for” something. Ron Hendel, professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at UC-Berkeley, says of shin, “It’s just a letter of the alphabet. It doesn’t stand for anything except the sound ‘sh.'” This is because ancient Hebrew was never pictographic (where symbols represent things), it was phonetic (where symbols — letters — represent sounds).

Early Hebrew letters (Paleo-Hebrew) came from the older Phoenician alphabet (“phonetic” is not a coincidence), which had 22 letters, all consonants, just like its Hebrew offspring. The Phoenicians lived along the Syrian, Lebanese, and northern Israeli coast, and spread their alphabet across the Mediterranean regions, setting the stage for the development of Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and later English.

In the phonetic Hebrew language the crossed sticks symbol, tav, represented only the “t” sound, as in “toy.” In a similar way, the Greek letter tau makes the “t” sound. English doesn’t generally spell out its letter names, but one could say the English tee makes the “t” sound. There is no evidence that the ox head, the crossed sticks, the man’s head, nor the others were actually used by the Hebrews in a pictographic way, where if one wanted to write the word house one would draw beyt. You had to use letters to form words, like  (ba-yit) above. And no one thought the word “house” contained the secret code of “house-arm-mark.”

“The letters never really ‘meant’ those things” to the Hebrews, says Molly Zahn, associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, “because the whole point of an alphabet of only a limited number of letters (22 in the case of Hebrew) is to represent sounds, not ideas.” Pictographic languages like hieroglyphics require hundreds — thousands — of signs to be useful.

Other societies, such as the Egyptians and Sumerians, did use pictographic language for a time (think hieroglyphics and cuneiform), but there is no evidence the Hebrews did. The best evidence points to the first Hebrew writing system being an offshoot of the Phoenician script, which aligns neatly with the evidence that the Hebrew people themselves were an offshoot of the Canaanites, a group that included the Phoenicians.

Now, that does not mean the symbols used by the Hebrews were never used in a pictographic way — they were just never used in a pictographic way by the Hebrews. There is no evidence (“None whatsoever,” emphasized Victor H. Matthews, dean of Religious Studies at Missouri State University) that the Hebrews as an independent people used a pictographic language; they were likely already armed with a Canaanite phonetic language upon their formation. We thus arrive at this question of how it is the names of these Hebrew letters are essentially the same as the words of the everyday objects they were modeled on. This phenomenon has certainly made the bereshit argument seem plausible to some.

If we were to look back in time, before the Hebrews existed, before Phoenicia developed its groundbreaking alphabet, we would likely see the people of the region using pictograms of objects. As Zahn explains, they used the image of an ox’s head to mean an alpu (ox) and a little house drawing to represent a ba-yit. These were eventually used by the first phonetic thinkers to represent sounds, specifically these words’ first syllables, the “ah” and “b” sounds. Alpu evolved into different forms — aleph (Phoenician, Hebrew), alpha (Greek), alif (Arabic); so did ba-yit — beth (Phoenician), beyt (Hebrew), beta (Greek, today more vita), ba (Arabic), and so on. So it should not be surprising that objects and letters modeled off those objects should have nearly the same names. This is not unique to Hebrew, either. The Arabic word for tooth (sini) looks like سن and sounds, and appears, remarkably like the letter س (sin). The Arabic word for hand (yd) looks like يد and is somewhat close to the letter ي (ya). Other examples in Arabic and other tongues are not difficult to find.

Some will of course argue that the Hebrews, being “God’s chosen people,” invented the pictographs (and/or phonetics) themselves and disseminated them to other peoples. Or that regardless of how biblical Hebrew came about God nevertheless orchestrated events so that whoever wrote Genesis unwittingly put a secret message of Christ’s story in “in the beginning.” But given the evidence it must be concluded that the message could at best be “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark,” which itself is an arbitrary arrangement, word choice made by Christians wishing to construct what is not there.

The final verdict on bereshit? To quote Tremper Longman III, professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, “It’s bull.”