by Christian Anderson, City University of New York
Not too long ago, a forwarded message arrived in my inbox. Simply titled ‘2012’, it was addressed to dozens of other people, and I could see from the long string of old threads that it had percolated through many more before it ever found its way to me. It came from a distant relative in the Midwest. He had added his own introduction above the threads. “I have never heard this said as plain or as well”, he said. “Class war at its best”.
‘The message’ started with an almost incomprehensible expletive-filled rant. Here is a sample:
“…folks who are getting the free shit,
want even more free shit on top of the free shit they are already getting!
Now…people who are forcing the people to Pay for the free shit,
have told the people who are RECEIVING the free shit,
that the people who are PAYING for the free shit,
are being mean, prejudiced, and racist.
So…the people who are GETTING the free shit,
have been convinced they need to hate the people who are paying for the free shit,
by the people who are forcing some people to pay for their free shit,
and giving them the free shit in the first place.
We have let the free shit giving go on for so long that there are now more people getting free shit than paying for the free shit.”
If the message of the lead was a bit unclear, the conclusion left little room for confusion:
ELECTION 2012 IS COMING
A Nation of Sheep Breeds a Government of Wolves!
Let’s Take a Stand!!!
Language: English only!
Culture: Constitution, and the Bill of Rights!
Drug-Free: Mandatory Drug Screening before Welfare!
NO freebies to: Non-Citizens!
We the people are coming!
I’M 100% for PASSING THIS ON!!!
Only 86% will send this on. Should be 100%. What will you do?
My first impulse was to simply disregard this message and delete it. Why give any thought to such far-gone quackery? But then my father-in-law (a retired highway worker and something of a working-class intellectual) wrote back to the sender to express bewilderment and take offense. Amazingly, the relative (not insignificantly, an underemployed single white adult man) responded that he was very sorry; that he honestly hadn’t thought this would be the kind of thing that would offend anyone. In essence, he believed that the ideas he forwarded in the message were just common sense.
This sequence of events made me stop and think. I questioned my initial dismissiveness. I also wondered if there were any broader intellectual and political insights that might be gained by taking expressions such as the ones in the message more seriously.
Les Back (2010) has argued that the impulse to dismiss views we don’t agree with as mere “drivel” is misguided. Such dismissiveness, he asserts, ultimately fails to address disquieting questions about how such views actually gain their traction and legitimacy in the world. Once that failure happens, we lose part of our ability to effectively confront things like racism, xenophobia, assumptions about the deserving v. undeserving poor, and so forth. Listening to our opponents, Back argues, is not about “making nice” but is instead “a way to develop a more searching critical engagement with the kinds of human beings we have become.”
So what is there to be confronted in the message above and in others like it that are most definitely circulating within the present conjuncture? Stuart Hall once wrote that “[t]he problem of ideology is to give an account, within a materialist theory, of how social ideas arise. We need to understand what their role is in a particular social formation, so as to inform the struggle to change society…” (1985: 29). Hall was drawing heavily on Gramsci’s notions of common sense, consent, and hegemony to try and pose an important question at the height of the Regan-Thatcher era: Why is it that people who should, hypothetically, be sympathetic to radical politics—the unemployed, marginalized, and dispossessed—so often subscribe instead to reactionary right-wing ideas that are, in the long run, antithetical to their own self- interests? This question is as pressing now as it was then.
In the midst of the excitement about movements from Occupy to the Arab Spring, are we—like I did—failing to listen to the other ideas and messages that are circulating out there? What might be at stake in failing to pay them serious attention? There is nothing inherently radical, progressive, or even tolerant about millions of people in precarious positions that leave them fearful and/or fed-up. Numerous scholars including the geographers Mustafa Dikeç (2007), Derek Gregory and Allan Pred (2007), and Vinay Gidwani (2008) have shown the different ways in which unstable social and economic conditions can lead to new forms of extremism or structural violence instead of social justice. The message from my relative further demonstrates the disturbing impulses towards the purging of difference that can emerge within such moments.
Bearing all this in mind, now might be a crucial time to listen, soberly consider ‘the kinds of human beings we have become’, proactively confront the ugly ideas that obviously still hold sway, and, ultimately, work towards building the social relations that will allow us to be the human beings we want to become.
Back L (2010) The listeners. New Humanist July/August http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2010-08-03-back-en.html (last accessed 13 February 2012)
Dikeç M (2007) Badlands of the Republic: Space, Politics and Urban Policy. Oxford: Blackwell
Gidwani V (2008) Capital, Interrupted: Agrarian Development and the Politics of Work in India. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Gregory D and Pred A (eds) (2007) Violent Geographies: Fear, Terror, and Political Violence. London: Routeledge
Hall S (1986) The problem of ideology: Marxism without guarantees. Journal of Communication Inquiry 10:28-44