Mark Lewis Taylor
This essay first appeared in CounterPunch on November 5, 2018.
Look deeply into the violence on display today in the United States and we will see more than just generalized “hate.” We are not suffering only from disrespectful discourse or some deficiency in liberal civility. On the contrary, today’s hate has a certain structure. There is a specific matrix of vitriol that we must name and resist.
The shooters are steeped not just in uncontrolled hateful rage, or even in eccentric personal despair and derangement. They have imbibed and ooze white racism and American nationalist xenophobia, directed at select groups at home and abroad.
Such shooters are ready to kill innocent targets if they are members of what to them are threatening groups. These may be Blacks in a Black church or grocery store near Louisville, Kentucky as on last Wednesday, or American Jews at worship in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that Robert Bowers bloodied last Saturday morning.
Trump like even some of CNN media opponents has decried the generalized “hate in our country.” Since the Pittsburgh massacre Trump seems to have learned the word “anti-Semitic” and is denouncing it. White House advisor Kellyanne Conway says “the lesson” from Pittsburgh is “anti-Semitism, the evil in the world.”
Indeed, naming anti-Semitism is better than just denouncing a generalized “hate.” The shooter was going in to kill Jews. “All Jews must die,” he said. In the Christian Seminary where I teach I underscore in nearly all my courses that anti-Semitism has been and is a long-standing, pervasive problem, and especially in Christian circles. It must cease. Instead, though, Christian faith is often taught as “superceding” Judaism with a better “new covenant” effected by Jesus. So, some Christian evangelicals seek to convert Jews for Jesus. Vice President Mike Pence sparked outrage by inviting one “Christian Rabbi” of this viewpoint to speak at his political rally.
Such Christian views must be seen against the backdrop of a repressive history by Christians. There is a long-history of Christian attacks of Jewish people, but not only for their faith. Contrary to Conway, anti-Semitism is not just an outbreak of “anti-religiosity.” It is also vicious thought and action based on centuries-old and groundless stereotypes and accusations. It not only issued in the Nazi holocaust against Jews and others but in countless pogroms and other massacres. David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition is one place to start for documenting that history. To work against anti-Semitism comprehensively one does well to work with groups like Jewish Voice for Peace.
But calling out anti-Semitism is hardly enough. It should not even be the central concern in this particular political moment. In fact, a critique of only anti-Semitism by Trump and friends or anyone else at any of the networks – from Fox, to CNN to MSNBC – will not ably resist anti-Semitism. This is because what fuels and sustains anti-Semitism today is the congealing of a consolidated structure of largely white and upper-middle to Uber-Rich power holders. These by habit and often intent discriminate against and target many other “Others” – Muslims, Blacks and Latinx, LGBTs and the often criminalized poor of every background. In the U.S. these are often denigrated, stranded in poverty, incarceration, left to die. They are often killed in the dark. Abroad, because they are not Americans, with few pangs of conscience “foreign others” can be bombed and left to die by the millions– as in Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Palestine and in all-too-many other regions. Geopolitical and big business interests usually exploit this other-making white supremacy. If you think this does not concern “us” just remember that to sustain the wars abroad and against select peoples in the U.S., the state is turning ever more to fascism-for-all – a fascism whose encroachment in the U.S. has been enabled by Democrat and Republican neoliberal corporatist policies across decades.
Consider the full arc of hate in the mind of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, Robert Bowers, who intoned “All Jews must die.” He was obsessed with immigrants, with “invaders” as he called them. In a social media post Bowers singled out for criticism the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees from nearly every continent and religious background. Precisely such actions would have run afoul of Bowers’ expansive matrix of hate. HIAS worked consistently against the policies of President Trump. Bowers wrote, “HIAS likes to bring in invaders that kill our people.”
Bowers hated not just Jews, but especially certain Jews engaged in justice-work for all.
HIAS had condemned Trump’s travel ban against Muslim countries. It had called “shameful” Trump’s lowering of the ceiling for the number of refugees admissible into the U.S., bringing it to an all-time low. It had condemned the Trump administration for planning to send thousands of migrant children to an encampment in the Texas desert, and had partnered with other synagogues, also with churches and mosques for refugee resettlement, as in HIAS’s work celebrating Syrian refugee children in the U.S. While the HIAS hoped migrants moving across Mexico would observe all immigration rules and laws, the HIAS stated“Most fundamentally, we must remain committed to upholding the human rights of those seeking asylum.”
Not surprisingly, then, it is not just Jews Bowers targeted, but the vast numbers of those in the migrant caravan from Central America who are Christians. (Note to U.S. Evangelicals who watch Fox News: these migrant caravanners are mostly your Christian brothers and sisters in flight from Central America.) Whether Christian or not, they are fleeing a vortex of violence in Central America. Much of the violence – especially “the gang problem” – is the result of U.S. wars of intervention in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador of the 1980s and 1990s. But this history did not matter to Bowers. It does not matter to Trump. Most Americans don’t want to know it. The role of the U.S. in making the conditions of forced flight are clearly presented in the documentary by Juan González, Harvest of Empire.
In addition, Bowers and his fellow social media posters on the Alt-Right-connected Gab site often targeted other religions – not surprisingly Muslims. The Guardian reports that Bowers had re-posted another user’s despicable rant: “Open your eyes! It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!” (sic). And then his final post read as follows: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”
“My people?” Bowers is of course referencing his white people. This bespeaks a staple of the contemporary Alt-Right, of young racists and Klan members who conjure the dangers of “white genocide.” It should also be noted that the darling and pretend intellectual at Fox News, Anne Coulter has suggested that recent immigration law intentionally reduces the white population and would be called genocide if nonwhite demographics were so threatened. Trump without mentioning “white genocide” explicitly speaks to the unease of whites losing their demographic majority with constant calls to restore “our American way of life” to “Make America Great Again.” Fox News will deny any such racist animus (subtle or blatant). But it is more than merely suggested by the fact that nine-in-ten (88%) of Trump’s voters in 2016 were white. Watch also Trump’s recent campaign ad for Republicans. It foregrounds largely one white family in a tony neighborhood where white children play their violins. People of color need not appear. Then too Trump’s pre-midterms racist anti-immigrant ad conjured for whites the specter of brown hordes at the gates ready to kill Americans en masse.
Ramped up by fears of white threat, of dwindling numbers or, in the extreme, of “white genocide,” troubled and reactionary white males seem ready to pick up their AR-15s and Glocks to take rage out on the specific “others” they deem threatening. In a U.S. society that has long been “gunfighter nation” to its core, seeking mainly a “regeneration through violence it does not surprise that the U.S. still exudes a militaristic ethos that pervades a war economy and the reflexes of many white males in the imperial hegemon that is the U.S. The resort to guns at home is a part of the empire’s culture of death abroad. What is more, the gun-sickness of empire spreads, from whites killing “others,” to their own people, their children, even themselves. Can we think the connections between U.S. weapons to Saudi Arabia for war on Yemenis, to U.S. gun-running into Mexico, to then U.S. white males brandishing weapons against U.S. citizens and residents?
Yes, let us call out “hate” and denounce anti-Semitism. But in doing both it is essential to name and organize against the congealing white racist, nationalist/imperial and corporatist power structure that Trump has proven himself an expert at catalyzing.
This is why I signed on to support the Bend the Arc group of Jewish leaders who marched against Trump, telling him in their Open Letter: “You are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you fully denounce white nationalism, . . . until you stop targeting and endangering all minorities, . . . until you cease your assault on immigrants and refugees, . . . until you commit yourself to compassionate, democratic policies that recognize the dignity of all of us.”
Only this kind of denunciation along with annunciation of creative new structures in America can stop the violence. And only these will stop a Donald Trump who excels in promoting the reflexes of killing that both Republicans and Democrats have too long enabled.