At the time, many influential African American voices, among them Spike Lee and Coretta Scott King, spoke out against 1988’s Mississippi Burning, a film based loosely on the infamous 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, civil rights activists who’d gone South to register black voters. Critics were upset by the lack of black role models, and the rather too rosy depiction of the white FBI agents whose portrayed dedication to solving the murders and putting an end to Klan terrorism seemed widely off the mark to those who’d lived through the turbulent era. Civil rights leader Julian Bond said People are going to have a mistaken idea about that time …These guys were tapping our telephones, not looking into the murders, while Spike Lee decried what he saw as another iteration of the tired old “white saviour” narrative, which, O.K., but damn, it’s a powerful movie, the acting is terrific, and the scene above, in which the character played by the great Gene Hackman describes a childhood incident involving his racist father, has been on my mind lately. It’s a powerful allegory of how misfortune, pain, and a sense of being thwarted by things beyond your control can fill simple minds with rage against the wrong targets, in this case a poor black sharecropper named Monroe, whose mule Hackman’s father poisoned out of envy, and bigoted indignation that a black man might be able to do better in life than he could. His father was so full of hate, Hackman explains, that he couldn’t see that being poor was what was killing him, which wasn’t anything that could be laid at the doorstep of some other harmless guy trying to get just a little bit ahead; but we look for somebody to blame when our own lives disappoint, and let others fill our hearts with poison about who that should be.
An obvious lesson, I guess, but one that seems little heeded these days.
It seems to me that the greatest and most pernicious swindle of our time, as practised for many years by the GOP, and perfected by Trump and his many bootlicking Republican accomplices, is the one at the root of the racist, nationalist populism that’s tearing the U.S. to shreds, and threatens to spread all over the Western world: they’ve managed to convince a huge swath of White America that it’s actually less fortunate, struggling people, folks many of whom reside much lower on the totem pole than they do, who pose the true threat to their futures, and are the ones to blame for what’s gone wrong in their country. At the same time they’ve managed to stigmatize the only actors in the political system who want to do something to make ordinary people’s lives better, casting them as sneering, snobby elites who don’t understand real America, and are plotting to help undeserving brown people grab all the spoils in a zero-sum game that will see White Christian America lose its power, privileges, and traditional culture. Demographic change is the cancer! Immigrants are the pestilence! Liberals want to replace you! It spews out of GOP mouths at every opportunity, sometimes not-so-subtly coded, sometimes naked and overt, and if that’s not enough to indoctrinate them then Rupert Murdoch will have his stooges on Fox News force-feed it to them every damned night. Liberals hate the White race, oh yes they do – just look at Critical Race Theory, being taught in elementary schools in a concerted, systematic effort to get your kids to hate America and despise themselves and their parents too!!
They’ve got them all so brainwashed and full of hate that they can’t see that it’s the White elites, the same ones selling them this toxic line of bull, the plutocrats who fill the coffers of the GOP PACS, and get the laws changed at every turn to favour their own narrow interests, who’re the ones killing them. The GOP has the Base convinced that climate change isn’t real, that all regulation to promote the common good is tyranny, that the things liberals would do to spread the wealth around amount to communist totalitarianism (i.e., “socialism”, which is the same thing), and even, somehow, that they aren’t actually dying in droves from a latter-day Black Plague that’s already killed one out of every 500 of their fellow citizens, including, quite likely, somebody that they know, and soon, if things don’t improve, a growing number of their own children. They wallow in borderline poverty amid crumbling infrastructure, unable to afford education, health care, or even good food, working multiple jobs for starvation wages, dropping like flies from drugs and alcohol, their life expectancy shrinking, their prospects dim, and they know just who to indict for it all: black and brown people, and their liberal enablers. All those Afghans the Dems want to let in, since letting in all those Mexicans and Guatemalans wasn’t enough to finish the job. All those so-called “Dreamers” who never should have been brought here, out there taking jobs away from native-born citizens. The devious liberal campaign to repopulate the country and remake society is why Trump was cheated out of office in the sham election, and why the January 6 insurrection was an exercise in the purest patriotism. Something has to be done before the true America is destroyed!
It’s crazy-making, but you know what, it works. It plays.
Maybe you’re out there thinking oh, gee, really Graeme? You don’t say. I know. None of this amounts to penetrating insight. I know these are all, by this point, trite observations. It’s just that sometimes I feel like I’m watching a guy stick his hand into a blast furnace, and I simply have to shout but you’ll get burned! Uh-huh. No kidding, right?…but if it’s so obvious, why does buddy thrust both mitts into the fire anyway?
Well, maybe he won’t, this time. Lately, there’ve been a couple of hopeful signs that some of these attitudes might be changing, just a bit, at least when it comes to Democratic policy, and what the liberals want to do to rebuild American society. All that pandemic relief was a Godsend, and the idea of investing trillions not just in physical, but human infrastructure, and upping taxes on the very wealthy to pay for it, is actually pretty popular, even among dyed-in-the-wool Republican voters. That’s why you’re not hearing much out of GOP politicians about Democratic fiscal profligacy, a theme that would have had them all frothing at the mouth not too long ago. Oh, they’ll go at the Dems with the debt ceiling, just to screw them over, and keep them from delivering for the voters ahead of the mid-terms – but negative attack ads? Public posturing? Not so much. It’s not a winner anymore. That’s O.K. though, because they can stick to the culture wars, and foment unrest about vaccines, and COVID, and the tyranny of regulation, and let the Democrats screw themselves as usual, with Joe Manchin and others like him fixing to torpedo the liberal schemes to rebuild the country and make it just a bit more hospitable for regular people. Yeah, that’s a “D” by his title, but Joe knows where his bread is buttered, and who does the buttering. There’s nothing he knows better, so count on it, Joe will be only too pleased to slip the blade between all those liberal ribs. Meanwhile, Ron DeSantis can talk about freedom from the tyrant Fauci, and Greg Abbott can claim that AOC and her liberal cabal of brown women want to destroy the power grid by forcing Texans to put wind turbines and solar panels where their above-ground pools used to be, and oh yeah – take away their guns. Never forget the sacred guns, and the devious plans to confiscate them. Hey look over there! Shiny object! Freedom!! USA!! USA!!
Gaslighting, all of it, and God help me I see it coming North. We’ve got this over-privileged ex-Conservative dum-dum Maxime Bernier and his People’s Party vying for votes, and he’s bringing it all into our polity, the rage against multiculturalism, the hostility to immigrants, the climate denial, the vaccine resistance, shit, he’s like Tucker Carlson with a Québécois accent, and he means to fool us all about what’s going on, and who’s to blame. I’m just waiting for him to claim that the upcoming election was stolen. Are Canadians, too, primed to be filled up with hate and misinformation, to the point they can’t even see who really holds them back and does them harm?
I don’t know any more. Stay tuned.