The Necessary Naming of Parts

Henry Reed was a British airman in World War II and his poem about a rifle lesson is rather famous – Lessons of War: The Naming of Parts – a narrative poem about a rifle lesson, at the time designated in the military as “the naming of parts” – get it all straight – but there’s that garden outside the window. Everything’s in bloom. It’s a warm day. Things get hazy. Which parts of which things is the instructor naming? Is he naming the functioning parts of life out there or the rifle, the instrument of death? It gets confusing, as it should. It’s an antiwar poem. The naming of parts, and their proper functions, is a curious business. It’s never as clear as it seems.

That’s the problem with Donald Trump. What is he up to and is there a name for it? Is it possible to name the parts of what he’s up to and the function of each? The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson thinks so, and he offers this:

President Trump’s race-baiting attack on African American athletes is nothing new. During the civil rights movement, blacks in the South who dared to stand up for justice were often punished by being fired from their jobs. Trump is demanding that National Football League team owners act like the white segregationists of old.

It was gratifying to see the overwhelming rejection of Trump’s hideous rabble-rousing by NFL players, owners and fans. But let’s be clear: There is no reason, at this point, to give Trump the benefit of any doubt. We should assume Trump’s words and actions reflect what he truly believes…

We have a president who, if he’s not a white supremacist, does a convincing impression of one.

This is a simple matter of the naming of parts:

Recall that Trump and his father were sued by President Richard Nixon’s Justice Department for illegally refusing to rent apartments to black prospective tenants. Recall that Trump continued to insist that the “Central Park Five” – four black men and one Latino – were guilty of a brutal rape even after DNA evidence had conclusively proved their innocence. Recall that Trump led the “birther” movement, ridiculously claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Recall Trump’s campaign appeal to black voters: “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed – what the hell do you have to lose?”

And recall his reaction to Charlottesville, where he discerned some “very fine people” among the torch-wielding parade of Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis.

I don’t believe this can all be political calculation. I believe Trump is telling us what he really thinks – and who he really is.

Michael Gerson agrees, but names the parts differently:

It is often difficult to determine if President Trump’s offenses against national unity and presidential dignity are motivated by ignorance or malice. His current crusade against sideline activism at professional football games features both.

Trump’s current crusade certainly does rely on ignorance:

The end of slavery was hardly the end of oppression. We are a country where the reimposition of white supremacy following the Civil War involved not just segregation but also widespread violence. A country in which mass incarceration and heavy-handed police tactics now create a sense that some neighborhoods are occupied by a foreign force. A country in which wealth and opportunity remain, in significant part, segregated by race.

If white Americans can’t feel even a hint of this alienation and outrage, it is a fundamental failure of empathy and historical memory.

That may be the problem with this guy:

Trump seems ignorant of, or indifferent to, the unfolding drama of the civil rights movement – of President Abraham Lincoln’s firm hand signing the Emancipation Proclamation, of African American military heroism in defending the Union, of the stubborn courage displayed by protesters in the front of buses and at segregated lunch counters, of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, repeated in many bloody versions. When the president looks at protesters, he cannot see what they are trying to be.

There is that, but Gerson also sees pure malice:

Trump must know that rallying his white base against young African American protesters is feeding racial tension and providing permission for bigotry. He is essentially accusing these athletes of disloyalty, just as he accused Mexicans of being rapists and Muslims of being threats. This is a pattern and habit of division by race, ethnicity and religion.

Stop and consider. This is a sobering historical moment. America has a racial demagogue as president. We play hail to this chief. We stand when he enters the room. We continue to honor an office he so often dishonors. It is appropriate but increasingly difficult.

Again, if he’s not a white supremacist he certainly does a convincing impression of one, and Gerson can offer only this:

In this case, demagoguery is likely to be effective, in part because protesters have chosen their method poorly. The American flag is not the racist symbol of a racist country. It is the symbol of a country with ideals far superior to its practice. This is the banner under which the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry – the first African American regiment organized in the Civil War – fought the Confederacy. This is the flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol on July 2, 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed. This is the flag that drapes the coffins of the honored dead on their final homeward trip, to a flawed nation still worthy of their sacrifice.

The extraordinary achievement of America’s founders was to elevate a set of ideals that judged (in many cases) their own hypocritical conduct. With the Declaration of Independence, they put a self-destruct mechanism in the edifice of slavery. They designed a system that eventually transcended their own failures of courage – at least in part – with more to go.

Donald Trump doesn’t think that way:

President Donald Trump has ramped up his fight with the National Football League (NFL), calling on the popular league to ban players from kneeling in protest at games while the US national anthem is played.

“The NFL has all sorts of rules and regulations. The only way out for them is to set a rule that you can’t kneel during our National Anthem!” Mr Trump wrote on Twitter, fueling his war of words with the multibillion-dollar NFL in his fifth-straight day of public comments on the issue.

This may never end, unless others simply ignore him:

League spokesman Joe Lockhart said he would not react to Mr Trump simply “exercising his freedom to speak”.

As far as sacking players who opt to kneel, Mr Lockhart refused to speculate.

“I will leave the hypotheticals and the speculation to others,” he said.

“I’m not going to go down that road.”

Let Trump sputter, and he did sputter:

Earlier, President Trump praised two NFL teams that had largely steered clear of the controversy: the Arizona Cardinals – who linked arms and stood for the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner – and the Dallas Cowboys, who knelt before the song, but then proceeded to stand.

“The booing at the NFL football game last night, when the entire Dallas team dropped to its knees, was loudest I have ever heard. Great anger,” Mr Trump wrote.

“But while Dallas dropped to its knees as a team, they all stood up for our National Anthem. Big progress being made – we all love our country!”

The woman who now has nothing to lose wasn’t buying it:

Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump’s ex-rival in the 2016 presidential contest, blasted the US President for targeting black players and stoking racial tensions.

“He’s very strategic about who he attacks, and he is sending a message. It’s a huge loud dog whistle to his supporters,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters.

She saw a convincing impression of a white supremacist, or the real thing, but Jonathan Chait wonders about that:

Self-styled “anti-fascist” demonstrators have inserted themselves into a number of political dramas over the past year, often winning plaudits far beyond their narrow movement. When one demonstrator punched Richard Spencer, the far-right activist, on Inauguration Day, it provoked a spirited intramural debate within the left about the morality of unprovoked physical attacks on … Nazis? Fascists? White supremacists? Racists? Who, exactly, can be assaulted on the basis of political viewpoint?

It may be time for the naming of parts, and their proper functions:

It may seem pedantic, in the face of a threat as radical as the Trump presidency, to quibble over terminological distinctions between different varieties of odious people. But the language we use organizes our political thinking. And one of the terrible things Trump has done to this country has been to warp the terms and categories – and, hence, the character – of the political opposition through the exertion of sheer terror. Seemingly harmless changes have crept into our political lexicon, which may have dangerous consequences.

Chait thinks these things matter:

Consider the question of whether it is accurate to describe Trump as a “white supremacist.” Ta-Nehisi Coates adopted this description in a sharp and deservedly praised Atlantic essay. Sports talk-show host Jemele Hill repeated the term. (“Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.”) The Trump administration (displaying its characteristic lack of respect either for freedom of speech or intellectual consistency) demanded her firing. This caused numerous commenters on the left to defend not only Hill’s right to say it – a very sound position – but the substance of what she said. Hill “has a measure of truth on her side,” writes the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan.

But, as in Reed’s poem, that’s where things get hazy:

Until very recently, “white supremacist” had a fixed meaning, and it described something different than the political style represented by Donald Trump. Before the 1960s, many American politicians openly advocated white supremacy. After that, political appeals to racism had to use some level of symbolic remove. Conservative politicians have employed crime, welfare, or affirmative action as triggers. Conservative politicians often denied or downplayed the persistence of racism in American society. Racism has been absolutely central to the political appeal of conservative politics since the 1960s, and many politicians have harbored private racist beliefs, but racism has worked almost exclusively as subtext, not text.

They needed to make that clear:

The term “white supremacist” has described a different group of people than standard Republicanism. It meant a member of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, or some other similar organization that argued explicitly for white power. News articles linking mainstream politicians to white supremacists might mention some secret link between the two – such as the revelation that Representative Steve Scalise had given a speech to a white-supremacist organization – but they were understood to be different movements. Every mention of white supremacists that appeared in the New York Times in the 12 months before Trump’s candidacy referred either to American politicians before the civil-rights era, or to explicit advocates of white power, such as those Scalise was discovered to have met with (but not Scalise himself).

Fine, but Chait sees a change in all this:

The emergence of the alt-right has created a bridge between conservatism and white supremacy. The term “alt-right” itself has become fuzzy, since actual white supremacists coopted it almost immediately, but it originally referred to a movement occupying the ideological space between Nazism and standard conservatism. The alt-right was more racist than traditional conservatism, but it still did not identify as white supremacist. In one interview, Steve Bannon said, “I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist.” In another, he called white supremacists “a bunch of clowns.”

This is not to absolve or defend Bannon, who is playing a repugnant game, drawing open white supremacists into his coalition and using their energy without going so far as to endorse their worldview completely.

And that led to this:

The intermingling of what turned out to be a winning major party campaign with white supremacy is a development of enormous historical significance. We should be deeply alarmed about the fact that the president tweets memes created by Nazis, or renounces their support in tepid ways that leave them convinced that he privately supports them.

And one thing leads to another:

White supremacists have thrilled to Trump because he has drawn upon their themes and, after decades in which both parties excluded them completely, given them an opening into major-party politics. That offense is sufficiently serious without escalating the indictment.

The language we use to describe Trump helps us organize our response to him. The election of a David Duke as president would necessitate a different kind of response than the election of a person who plays footsie with David Duke. And the election of a traditional Republican, whom David Duke does not like at all, such as George W. Bush, would necessitate a different kind of response than either of those events, even though all three are, from the left’s perspective, very bad things. To flatten the language we use to describe different kinds of right-wing politics is to bludgeon our capacity to make vital distinctions.

Chait thinks that’s a trap:

The method here is to panic liberals into abandoning liberalism. In normal times, liberals accept the right of even the most heinous opponents to engage in peaceful political expression, because giving either the government or violent street fighters the right to silence opponents of the left is a power that could just as easily be turned against the left itself. But if Trump is not merely a potential authoritarian but an actual one, and the appearance of a handful of Nazis (a demonstration in Charlottesville drawing upon supporters across the country mustered only a few hundred) is the onset of Weimar Germany, then liberalism seems like an insufficient response…

There is a side that asserts our common humanity and fights fascism, racism, and hate. It was represented in Charlottesville by the leftist groups who took to the streets to confront the far right. The other side is the one that took innocent lives on those same streets. The stakes are high. We have to choose.

You are either with the people beating up the racist-fascists, or you are with the racist-fascists themselves. To oppose one is to support the other. See how quickly and easily the category of fascists and racists can grow? The panic they are currently fomenting over Trump or a tiny number of Third Reich cosplayers can eventually be turned against anybody who questions their tactics. While only a minuscule number of progressive Americans subscribe to such radical views, a much larger number has inadvertently ceded the terms of the debate to those who do.

That’s a big mistake:

A militant response against white supremacists might appear like an extreme response to extreme circumstances, but it has no clear limiting principle. Put together the expanding definition of white supremacy with the belief that white supremacists have no political rights. How exactly is democracy supposed to work?

In short, the naming of parts, and their proper functions, is a curious business. It’s never as clear as it seems, and Josh Marshall offers this:

We should recognize that these definitions are being contested because the ground underneath our feet is in fact moving. Those who champion racial justice and equal rights – not just from African-Americans and other non-whites but from all people of color with an intrinsically greater urgency – are fed up with a definitional taxonomy in which lots of people can duck the obloquy merited by their beliefs and actions by simply declining to sign on to them explicitly. I also get Chait’s point, that it may not be productive or accurate to class everyone in these totalizing terms. Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are definitely different from David Duke. But – and I say this slightly jokingly but mainly in earnest – maybe we should call Sessions and Trump moderate white supremacists and Duke a white supremacist extremist.

Lawyers might call that a distinction without a difference but it’s not, and there’s a reason for that:

Many people have not fully thought through how today’s dramatically different demography changes the very meaning of ‘white supremacy’. In 1970 a white person could fully support civil rights for African-Americans, oppose every sort of formal and informal bigotry and prejudice. But whites still made up almost 90% of the population. The political, social and cultural dominance of white people was a given regardless of whether you fully dismantled every aspect of white supremacy or not. The simple fact of overwhelming numerical superiority made that so.

To be clear, the difference between this hypothetical post-racist society and the Jim Crow South is vast, really all the difference in the world. But whether or not you would live in a society in which most power and wealth was in the hands of white people was a bridge even the most pro-civil rights white person really did not have to fully cross. In our individual lives, I think we all know that things we do of our own volition feel very different than things we’re forced to do. We’ll do things freely we’d resist if it were forced on us. I think this reality is highly instructive about the politics of race today and how changing American demography has changed it. Accepting or even supporting equal political rights for a small minority of the population – which is frequently referred to precisely by their numerical minority status – is quite different from imagining a world where whites are not a majority at all.

So now we have a moderate white supremacist running the show, imagining a new world where whites are not a majority at all, which might be the case soon enough. This had to happen, and Marshall explains why:

To be clear, the diehard racist whites of 1970 are or would be the diehards of today and the most determined anti-racist whites of 1970 would likely be the same today too. But there’s a vast, fluid and ambiguous middle group. Our definitions of race in America remain fluid. But at least as we define it today, whites will no longer be a majority at all in the relatively near future. Certainly, they won’t be the overwhelming majority able to define and dictate cultural, economic and political power more or less as they choose. That scares a lot of white people. And it can scare people who might have non-white friends and not have any overt antipathy toward non-whites. The changing demography post-1970 has brought the issue of white supremacy far more acutely and unavoidably to the fore than it was in the past. That is a big, big part of what Trumpism is all about.

If being white is a major part of your political and cultural identity, how you think about who you are, there really is a lot to worry about. That’s because being white isn’t really a biological reality, it’s a category in America that means being the dominant and powerful group. Again, that’s what Trumpism is. A white person can’t cease to be white just by willing it. That’s not how it works. But what you see as important, how you identify, has quite a lot to do with whether you see a future where white people are no longer a majority as a threat.

So now, with Trump in charge, it really doesn’t matter whether you say you’re a white supremacist or not:

Trump exists and the question of white supremacy is right at the surface today because of the demographic tipping point that country stands at. Whether Trump hates people of color or would take away their rights if he could is a mind-reading exercise we could talk about forever. But the fact that he believes in and wants to preserve a country where white people call the shots goes without saying. So maybe it’s not simply that we’re pulling David Duke and Donald Trump into the same definition. Maybe it is that the changes in the country have made the functional difference between the two much less relevant.

The counterargument is that precision in language is precision in thought. We do seem to have a president who, if he’s not a white supremacist, does a convincing impression of one. That may be a distinction without a difference, as Marshall says, but what are we supposed to do with that? Sure, take a knee. But then what? The naming of parts, and their proper functions, is necessary. That’s how you learn to use that rifle, if you can keep your mind on things.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Necessary Naming of Parts

  1. Gerald Parks says:

    A very good article! Willful ignorance is not BLISSful.. just plain stupid! white Americans have been allowed to deny Slavery, Genocide, Jim Crow their participation in and collective benefit from said denial. This is NOT what happens to those who deny the Holocaust in Germany or the USA. To do so is to be immediately subjuct to revulsion ans derision by virtually everybody. Why? Because the terrorizing, torture, rounding up, forcing people to work against their will and murdering six million human beings by self confessed white supremacist aka Nazis is inhumane and wrong! Hummm …isn’t Slavery called America’s original sin? So why not the same response in American society? Answer …denial of Slavery, Genocide ,Jim Crow and the impact on human beings aka American citizens . Who were at a time legally referenced to as 3/5th of a person/human being.
    Willful ignorance is not BLISSful….just plain stupid!

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