Escaping the American Onlookership
Most Americans are at least somewhat aware of the painful web of political cynicism that presently ensnares them. The news media, entertainment, academic, and government nerves centers of the nation pulse with deception designed to nudge the public into agreement with self-evident falsehoods. The mindless repetition of key phrases and political clichés through social media and internet conduits creates a kind of Alice in Wonderland sensation of politics. Have we all gone mad? The current mediated hysteria surrounding the killing of Michael Brown is an important example of the American onlookership.
Spectacles are created via media to produce greater social conformity around political opinions held by our elite. No crisis goes to waste. These spectacles are grotesque and create a sticky web-like intellectual sensation that compels hearers and viewers to surrender logic to pathological assumptions about political life in America. The grotesque exploitation of Michael Brown points to an exploding political economy of racism by the left against young black men. In essence, black male bodies are called to self-destructive martyrdom to perpetuate a rhetorical economy of racial indignation by media vendors.
The New Civil Rights movement is the antithesis of the Old. Consider James Farmer’s guidelines for civil rights activism that successfully defeated segregation in 1960s Southern America. James Farmer Jr.-- the great debater-- created the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the 1940s to combat segregation. The current activism fails several of his basic tests for civil rights action in the 1960s:
1. A CORE member will investigate the facts carefully before deciding whether or not racial injustice exists in a given situation.
2. A CORE member will seek at all times to understand the attitude of the person responsible for a policy of racial discrimination and the social situation which engendered the altitude. The CORE member will be flexible and creative, showing a willingness to participate in experiments which seem constructive, while being careful not to compromise CORE's principles.
3. A CORE member will make a sincere effort to avoid malice and hatred toward any group or individual.
4. A CORE member will never use malicious slogans or labels to discredit any opponent.
5. A CORE member will be willing to admit mistakes.
6. A member will meet the anger of any individual or group in the spirit of goodwill and creative reconciliation: he will submit to assault and will not retaliate in kind either by act or word.
So little of the current media hysteria surrounding Ferguson meets any of these criteria. The public incitements to violence and further vigilante attacks on the rule of law fly in the face of civil rights. Black men are being killed in order to feed the egos of American Pharisees who fancy themselves less racist than anyone else in the nation. Individuals who know better are sitting silent and refusing to calm the flames of racial violence. It is increasingly clear, as an investigation of the facts is underway about Brown’s killing, that Brown attacked the police officer, assaulted him, fought for his gun and charged him. The outrageous comparisons of Brown to Emmit Till and other civil rights martyrs is disrespectful to those great young men who died and to the larger cause of civil rights that remains necessary today.
Abiding by CORE principles, would have prevented the violence done in Ferguson since Brown’s death. But decades ago Farmer himself saw that the movement was threatened by “Jacobins.” Jacobins were political radicals that did not have the patience to pursue the kind of racial reconciliation demanded in the visions of King and Farmer. America is confronted by the same militant impatience today. They believe that there is no time for the rule of law. We must take justice into our own hands and work to incite further division and hatred. The abuse of young men’s lives like those of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown is an international disgrace.
But the symbolic rendering of their lives into violent incitements is antithetical to any true vision of civil rights. We should not “drink from the cup of bitterness” and we should strive for judgments based on an assessment of “character and not the color of their skin.” The American onlookership fights against this greater American tradition and duty. The direct incitements to the public for violence and resistance to the rule of law are wrong. It is time to end these high tech lynchings of black men.
African American men like James Farmer Jr. and James Meredith should be the better models for a path out of the American onlookership. James Meredith, who fought a one-man war to be integrated into the University of Mississippi in 1960, betrayed the ideological monopoly of racism by working for Jesse Helms in the US Senate. Men like Farmer and Meredith put the patient but hard task of justice above political party. For that, they have been ostracized and too easily forgotten. But their efforts were effective in ways that those of Malcolm X and others were not.
Studies on questions of race demonstrate that the charge of racism is now consolidated into a political charge. This is extraordinarily ironic since the party that now operates the political economy of racism for their self-serving benefit is the same one that maintained institutional racism in the South during the 1960s. We must return to the traditions of debate and civility that provided for the kind of leadership that Farmer drew upon after being trained as a debater.
To what extent, did the media malpracticing spectacle of Trayvon Martin inspire or motivate the dangerous actions of Michael Brown? To what extent, does the ongoing spectacle of “unarmed” black men incite the pathological martyrdom of more black men? Without honest answers to these questions and a stronger community of the beloved willing to ask it, the civil rights movement will remain hijacked by the Jacobins and it will be young black men who pay the greatest price. We must work to tear down our American spectatorship and become the kinds of informed citizens worthy of the rule of law. If this were to happen, we could consider ourselves the proper heirs of Freedom Summer 1964 and complete a race run well for Freedom Summer 2014.
Ben Voth is an associate professor of Communication Studies and director of debate at Southern Methodist University. He is Dedman interdisciplinary fellows scholar for church-state affairs and Africa studies and an advisor for the Bush institute. He is the author of a new book exploring solutions to these problems: The Rhetoric of Genocide: Death as a Text by Rowman and Littlefield publishers.