This Is What’s At Stake

In some ways, it’s surprising that something like this has taken quite so long to happen in this election cycle. Almost a year after Poway, eighteen months after Pittsburgh, two-and-a-half years after Charlottesville. No, a flag can never do as much literal damage as a loaded rifle or a speeding muscle car plowing through a crowd, but to deny that they now exist on a continuum is the kind of vulgar materialism reserved for those who want to wish away just how bad things have gotten. 

Geographically, it makes sense. Phoenix, after all, is border territory, home of Joe Arpaio and his outdoor detention centers, but at the same time more than a third Latino, with an undocumented population estimated in the tens of thousands. No wonder that Bernie Sanders’ promise to abolish ICE and CBP, polls so well among these communities. Sanders’ candidacy is quite literally a line of defense against concentration camps that litter the US border and the gestapo-like raids that come with them. 

It is not hyperbole then to say Phoenix is a frontier of empire, a place where the tectonic plates of reaction and opposition are constantly breaking against each other. Those who piggishly continue to insist “it can’t happen here” forget that empires are where spectral fascism becomes solid and corpulent. And yes, this American iteration will – must in fact – include an anti-semitism that sees Jews as a key component in a world conspiracy of inundating economies with socialism and populations with non-whites.   

This contingent of American politics is not so much fading away as it is evolving and morphing. In a recent article for Commune, Shane Burley insists that the recent relative quiescence of the alt-right is due to the assimilation of its platform into post-Trump national conservatism, along with the disarray that actual alt-right organizations now find themselves in. There is undoubtedly something to this. But it is also true that this runs alongside an uptick in attacks by far-rightists, isolated individuals “red-pilled” into acts of indiscriminate violence in the name of a pure world threatened by impurity, what Richard Seymour identifies as the “lone wolf phase of fascism.” Think of the shootings in El Paso, Christchurch, and again of Pittsburgh and Poway. 

We should make no mistake: a Joe Biden presidency will do nothing to stop this. For one thing, it is painfully obvious that Donald Trump will be able to run circles around him in the general election. For another, and connected to this, he is imbricated in the same imperial project that inevitably bends in the direction of state repression, of a militarized border, of racialized violence. Many of the liberal, centrist and even conservative organizations denouncing the display of a Nazi flag at the Phoenix rally have already undermined themselves by remaining silent as Sanders has been dragged through the mud for his support of Palestinian rights, with the accompanying implication that he is “not a good Jew.”  

Moving forward, we can reasonably bet that the likes of MSNBC and CNN will condemn this in that non-committal way we are now used to. Doing so will allow them to continue with their cynical “two white men dominating the primaries” narrative. It will also, perhaps more dangerously, ignore the very imperial process of splitting and redefining whiteness that his happening before our eyes. 

To look at all this and say that Sanders’ candidacy does not in fact represent a potential break with this timeline is woefully myopic. Clearly, the most virulent and nasty elements in American politics think otherwise. No, a Sanders presidency will not be able to put a halt to it, at least not decisively. But it will raise the possibility of dealing a very real blow to these same forces, creating what I have in the past referred to as “breathing room” for the networks of struggle and solidarity needed to drown them in the rivers of history. This, and nothing less, is what is at stake.  

Here In the Empire

Poway, California. The final day of Passover. 

According to one eight-year-old child in attendance, the shooter aimed for the kids first. 

The rabbi was shot through the hand, losing his index finger, and reports say that at first he attempted to continue speaking from the front. A member of the congregation, sixty-year-old Lori Gilbert Kaye, the only one to die, jumped in front of him.

The rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, will later write in a New York Times op-ed, “today should have been my funeral.” 

Anyone who refuses to feel some combination of shock, despair, and absolute rage at all of this has no business reflecting on the politics of it. 

* * * 

To what degree is America willing to let antisemitism simply exist as part of its landscape? How often must something be “unfortunate” and “senseless” for it to finally be deliberate and structural?  

The former two are in the vocabulary of rehearsed dismay, of those who see bigoted violence as sorrowful but inevitable. There is a deception – unconscious or not – in such a routine. It obscures the way in which atrocities always fit somewhere into a system’s necessities. 

Make no mistake: antisemitism, the oppression of Jews, is very much a structural phenomenon. Though it predates capitalism, it took on a very specific role in its rise and the concomitant spread of European imperialism. Sai Englert, in his 2018 article for Historical Materialism, illustrates how the rise of capitalism and the modern nation-state subjected European Jews to “colonial processes of racialization,” excluding them from the national identity while conversely promising political liberty through assimilation.  

That process reached its crescendo in World War II and, inextricably bound up with the conflict itself, the Holocaust. The demotion of most European nations to, at best, junior partners in an ascendant American empire after the war’s end was part of a global rearrangement in the geopolitical terrain. Maps were redrawn, new walls were thrown up that in some cases left the most powerful nation-states in disarray. But the images of the ghettoes, the concentration and death camps, of industrially perfected genocide, left a mark on global consciousness that took the form of the refrain “Never Again.”  

Of course, refrains always run the risk of being empty words. Plenty of antisemites and antisemitic ideas ran and continue to run through the halls of American industry and politics. Look at any strain of reactionary thought over the past seventy-five years – anti-communism, opposition to civil rights or queer liberation – and you’ll find tinges of the same modern/classic judeophobia. 

Antisemitism never went away. It merely had its place in American life shifted. Its current “return” is both an intensification of this shift and a reemergence of the old in the age of a very troubled empire. 

Empire, it should be emphasized, is not a conspiracy. Conspiracies are conducted and decided behind closed doors. Empires are hidden in plain sight, built in the brazen light of day, sewn into our routines and perversely grafted onto our sense of a stable future. As such they push and pull on our conceptions of self and other, on the boundaries of identity and subjectivity. It also, quite frequently, weaponizes them. 

* * * 

John Earnest, the man who shot up Chabad of Poway, made his motivations clear in his manifesto. He praised Tree of Life synagogue shooter Robert Bowers, and Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant. Like them, he sees Jews as operating in concert with Muslims, non-whites generally, “cultural Marxists” and others as undermining whites and Christians.

Against the backdrop of Christchurch, Tree of Life, Charlottesville and beyond, ignoring the obvious is impossible. But you can still minimize it. It is unsurprising that Meghan McCain and Ted Cruz are blaming Ilhan Omar’s criticism of AIPAC for the events in Poway, brushing aside the proof that Earnest was also likely behind the Escondido mosque arson in March. It is a narrative that deliberately ignores the assault on Muslims, as well as the rejection of AIPAC by so many American Jews.  

It is not simply that it is easier to convince an Islamophobe of antisemitic ideas. Islamophobia is deeply entangled with contemporary processes of racialization, the delineation between “good Jew” and “bad Jew” proffered by the establishment right. These same processes, it should be noted, are also pushed by an Israeli apartheid government that is cozying up to the global far-right

Fascism is by its nature a distillation of imperialism’s most virulent logic; each sees in the other a funhouse mirror version of itself. If it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the rhetoric of the mainstream right from its fascist counterpart, this is why. Both rely on a vision of the repressive state as the only reasonable bulwark against the brown hordes lapping at America’s gates. 

Consider how Trump responded when he learned that Jonathan Morales, the Chabad member who chased off Earnest, is a border patrol agent. “Sincerest THANK YOU to our great Border Patrol Agent who stopped the shooter at the Synagogue in Poway, California,” he tweeted. “He may have been off duty but his talents for Law Enforcement weren’t.” 

Capitalizations are Trump’s own. 

* * * 

More news as I was still writing the above: a shooting on the last day of classes at University of North Carolina – Charlotte, killing two and injuring many others, and the murder of a Sikh family of four in West Chester, Ohio. The suspect of the UNC shooting is in custody but there is no word of a possible motive. There is no known suspect for the West Chester killings.

I could write that this is one of those weeks where America appears to be coming apart at the seams, but that would be to imply that there is something unique in the terror. There isn’t. It is by now utterly quotidian. Utterly American. 

Debating gun control offers very little. Yes, this country has become a murderous parody of itself, the place where André Breton’s eighty-year-old description of “the simplest surrealist act” has come to life. And there are influential political forces who have aided in making this a reality. 

But what we are witnessing would eventually, even if all guns were to vanish tomorrow, find some other equally violent expression. Empires are ruthless places while in turmoil; they require outsiders, an us and a them, and the kind of atomization that makes these acts inevitable. 

Similarly, the liberal ideal of multiculturalism is a poor ideological defense against racialized terror. A different conception of identity is called for. There is something to be said in what Robin DG Kelley refers to as “polyculturalism,” a framework that allows for both the autonomy of cultures and the inevitability that they will converge, morph, and redefine themselves.  

All cultural transgressions create new foci and axes, which then collide and bend and create new ones still. What this points to is an interpretation of culture not as a series of untouchable monoliths but as a process (a cultivation if you will) ultimately shaped by humans. The question then becomes “which humans?”

Recent years have seen a renewal of interest in pre-war Jewish radical ideas, those that informed and came out of the socialist Bund and other similar groups. It’s seen in formation like Jewdas in the UK, the Jewish Solidarity Caucus of DSA, in books like the recently republished Revolutionary Yiddishland. Prime among these ideas is that of “doikayt,” the Yiddish word for “hereness,” expressed more lengthily in the slogan “vauhin mir lebn, dos iz aundzer khoumland” … “Wherever we live, that’s our homeland.”

Again, refrains always run the risk of becoming no more than rhetoric. The critical charge of this one, its actionability if you will, is in its implication of militant recognition. A rejection of the meek quietism of “thoughts and prayers,” “tolerance” or “acceptance.” If it echoes other mantras of revolution and self-determination – the Black Panthers’ “community control” or the Zapatistas’ “¡Ya basta!” – then all the better. Those who survive the empire can also redefine themselves without its permission.