Just a Cheaper Pair of Hands
I don’t know who Bomani Jones is, because he is involved in sports media, and generally speaking, I would rather bathe in hydrofluoric acid than listen to sports talk radio. However, he had some things to say about l’affaire du Donald Sterling that were so sensible and righteous that they should have shamed anyone who didn’t think of saying them first. (Ta-Nehisi Coates was also on point when the subject of Sterling hit critical mass, but Coates is so relentlessly competent and eloquent that it’s almost boring to point out how good he is.)
Donald Sterling is, at least for the moment, the owner of the perpetually underachieving Los Angeles Clippers franchise of the National Basketball Association. He was recently brought low in the estimation of most of the American public when tapes of him saying extremely impolitic things about black people became widely circulated; his punishment for this more-grotesque-than-normal display of racism has been public scorn and humiliation, the loathing of the public and his own players, and a lifetime ban from the NBA, and may ultimately include his ouster as the Clippers’ owner (though for this he will be more than fairly compensated; “after all,” as an equally image-conscious businessman once said, “we are not communists.”
The usual suspects — a mix of libertarians with an imperfect understanding of the First Amendment, conservatives terrified that they might not be able to use the word ‘nigger’ as much as they would like, run-of-the-mill racists, and contrarian liberals — squeaked that Sterling’s punishment was too harsh, and that no one should be deprived of his livelihood just because he privately voiced his socio-sexual panic at the thought of black cock (as if ownership of the Clips was Sterling’s meat and potatoes rather than a huge, expensive, money-losing status symbol). That this was pure nonsense was obvious to pretty much everyone with sense, and the collective conscious of America giggled appropriately at the poltroonish circumstances and cheered lustily when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver unceremoniously tossed Sterling out of the Billionaire Boy’s Club. A wrong, it was generally agreed, had been made right.
As the justifiably furious Jones pointed out, however, it was the wrong wrong, and the right wrong hadn’t been made right at all. Sterling’s fall from grace had come suddenly — in the middle of a news cycle stuffed to the gills with delightful reminders of American bigotry — and was funny because of its circumstance. It was largely engineered by a former girlfriend of his, likely in response to a lawsuit against her by Sterling’s wife, and was doubtlessly made without his knowledge and released without his consent. All of which is of only moderate interest and relevance to the endgame; Sterling was, regardless of the circumstance, shown to be a putrid bigot who should by no means have such a loud voice in the affairs of the nation, and I will shed no tears about what particular combination of self- and public interest led to his ouster from the public sphere. The only problem is if one believes that this is the first time Sterling has ever done something racist, or that it is the worst racist thing he has ever done, or that it is such a particularly damaging thing that it has finally made him worthy of public censure. And anyone who knows even the least little thing about Donald Sterling knows that none of those things are even remotely true.
Sterling made his millions in real estate — and, specifically, he is well-known to be a brutal, deceptive, and particularly despicable slumlord. He has been hauled to court time and again over his discriminatory housing practices, and he has lost; these cases have cost him millions, and they are not secrets, but matters of public record. Over and over, Sterling has been found guilty of driving minority tenants out of his ‘better’ (that is to say, whiter, which is to say, more profitable) properties and into broken-down, under-repaired, poorly maintained, and often dangerous slums. The revelations in these court records reveal plainly what kind of a man Sterling is, and what kind of a man he has been since the beginning: not a comically out-of-it old fool who was baited into revealing his harmless racism by a conniving piece of tail, but a deliberate and calculating villain who has, among other things, compared the black and Hispanic residents of his apartment buildings to vermin; contrived to drive out minority renters by under-servicing them; and dispatched his wife, under false pretenses, to survey his buildings and target black and Hispanic tenants for eviction. He is, in short, a shrewd and self-centered serial racist whose bigotry stems not from his status as a old white jerk whose time has passed, but from his status as a greedy and deliberate lawbreaker who employs racism as a blunt instrument to pummel maximum profit out of his properties. Bomani Jones, on his way to bury a friend whose murder was the product of ruined inner cities caused by exactly this sort of discriminatory housing practice, furiously preached that America has decided to crucify Donald Sterling for an almost harmless manifestation of racism, after having completely ignored for over 20 years his participation in a far more toxic and dangerous one.
So, too, the case of rancher Cliven Bundy. FOX News, the National Review, and more than a few Republican politicians made this freeloading creep into a cause célèbre until he clumsily tripped himself up by dint of some drearily predictable comments about “the Negro” and the accompanying comfortable-honky speculations about whether or not said Negro might have been better off as a slave. These, to me, are perfect examples of what is meant by, but almost never used to indicate, the concept of political correctness: Sterling and Bundy were pilloried because the things they said, specifically about black people, are no longer correct, in the sense that even though a lot of people still believe them, it simply will not do to say them out loud. Sterling was not laid low because he spent the last four decades getting obscenely wealthy by the systematic deployment of racial discrimination, but because he had the bad luck to run afoul of a vengeful mistress who cajoled him into saying something racially offensive out loud. Bundy was not brought down because he spent 20 years siphoning the value from land that rightfully belongs to you and me, and refusing to pay a fair cost for that land because of some deranged sense of racial entitlement, or even for summoning hordes of gun-toting insurrectionists to bluff up his claim to the ‘right’ to exploit that public property; he was brought down because he had the bad taste to ignorantly pontificate in front of those flunkies about how we got it all wrong after the Brothers War.
The problem with these responses is that they are far too easy. They allow us to indulge our favorite (and, increasingly, only) kind of rebellion: media outrage and internet activism. They let us whip ourselves into a self-righteous frenzy of moral rectitude from the complete and total safety of our offices, our homes, and our smart phones, engaging in the easiest possible means of removing a perceived threat: making fun of them and their cluelessly flagrant contempt for decent values. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this per se; I will never disparage the value of disrespectful mockery, biting satire, and straight-up goofing on some tone-deaf old fuck whose brain is stuck in the 19th century. Goodness knows I do enough of it. But the reason I do it is the same reason everyone else does it: it’s easy. It’s free. It’s so cheap it costs us literally nothing, a stance for which we get virtual pats on the back in the form of retweets and likes and which never risks us tasting blood behind our teeth. And worst of all, it leaves the greatest villains — the men and women who run society, who twist the laws and strangle solidarity to fatten their bank accounts and put themselves atop a pile of broken social contracts but are smart enough to never, ever let words escape their lips that would lead to such a public relations disaster — completely off the hook.
There’s also the issue of proportionality. This is, far and away, my biggest beef with so-called ‘social justice warriors’, the otherwise well-intended and even virtuous activists who nonetheless dedicate themselves to such fripperies as gender accounting, tone policing and concern-trolling. In focusing on the lack of rectitude in the language of those who are often their allies, they are expending vast energies on trifles while the real bad guys run absolutely amok in the background. While they scoff and huff over pronouns and pop-culture representation, the real enemy is every day crafting legislation that allows them to irreparably poison the planet and bankrupt the public tills without punishment, to reify slavery in the form of a profit-mad prison system, to bind women eternally to a cycle of choice-free childbirth and inequality, to destroy the very ideas of equitable income and everyday survival, to eliminate every possible shade of diversity and build a war where there are only two conceivable distinctions between humans: the rich and the little people. I would never argue that one should give up one’s causes, and some of the people who fight these battles are the most admirable people I have ever known; but as long as we focus on using the right terminology instead of fighting the more important fight — which, though many May Days have passed since that dreadful first one in 1886, has never stopped being the bosses against the workers, the landlords against the tenants, the owners against the owned — many of them are simply complaining about problematic language on the long and slow-moving queue to the entrance of a labor camp.
If we somehow manage to throw off the heavy yoke of false consciousness, if we figure out a way to stop voting against our own interests, if we realize that there are people who have to be taken out and taken out for good — and recognize that they might just have to be taken out in a way that costs us a lot of sweat and blood — then we can do something about the true enemy, the parasitic rentier class and its ideological toadies who talk us into the grave while their bosses take away every possible chance at a decent life. Once that’s done — once we put a system in place that checks the forces who see everyone but themselves as just a cheaper pair of hands to run the machines — then we can concentrate on other important issues like using the right words for things, and making sure our media fully reflects the diversity of our society. That’s important work, and it needs to be done; and it’s a fight that can be won. The progressive nations of Europe have won it, or at least are winning it, despite powerful forces trying to distract them from the fight. But right here, and right now, we need to focus on restoring some kind of economic balance, some kind of recognizable democracy, some attempt to physically wrest the reins of power from those who have them so tightly knotted around their wrists, before we can engage in any other meaningful fight. We cannot count on the monied class to make the occasional comment about race, gender, or sexuality so crass that we unite behind the idea of not listening to them anymore; we no longer have the time to to wait for the leaves to fall so slowly from the dying tree. We don’t have the excuse of not knowing for sure who the enemy is; we simply lack the will to do anything to stop him that isn’t easy or fortuitous.
The song asks us: is there anything left to us but to organize and fight? We are very rapidly running out of answers.