smash white anxiety: on woke politics and cancel culture

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Do your friends sound like this nowadays? Please, read on.

In the 21st century, I venture to say that the vast, overwhelming majority of people in the United States have now witnessed racist violence done against people of color, particularly against Black people, whether in-person or online. This is why so many have been spurred in recent months to some sort of progressive action – but not all are so spurred. We are also seeing a more intense rise, proliferation and encouragement of white anxiety.

What is white anxiety? White anxiety is fear, discomfort, and hesitation. It is a position taken to justify not doing anything to address racism. They rationalize. So and so is connected to a non-profit. Oh, see, Coca Cola is saying that Black Lives Matter! The New York Times is cynically running the 1619 project. Nancy Pelosi is wearing kente cloth. I get it. That’s all very interesting, but still doesn’t explain why white people are wrapping themselves up in anxiety rather than getting off the internet and into the movement to do what they can to change the material conditions on the ground. Instead, there’s a certain sector hyping each other up to criticize “wokeness” – a dog whistle for being vocally against racism and other forms of oppression. Its propagators say it’s a screen for sincerity — but who decides? If this describes your current approach, if you are uncertain of the way forward in these troubled times, then this message is for you. It’s my sincere hope that you cut the shit and get involved instead of continuing to cower under your bed, hiding from the specter of a Black woman rolling her eyes and you not being able to fire her for it.

So, in an attempt to meet people where they’re at, I listened to my first (and hopefully last) episode of Chapo Trap House. Even as people say the episode I listened to was especially bad, it goes to my point of how necessary it is to address a present rightward shift in discourse. The show featured Matt Taibbi, Amber Frost and Will Menaker speaking about how the media’s unwillingness to cover certain aspects of the revitalized Black Lives Matter movement – property destruction? I saw a lot of that covered; the president himself won’t shut up about it – revealed a fear of this so-called cancel culture. Taibbi called it “extremely Soviet” and all three commentators saw a mounting challenge to free speech emerging, even going so far as to infer this wokeness and cancel culture as existential threats to concepts like a Sanders presidency and Medicare for All.

As someone who has actually been deprived of employment and publicly shamed for my political views, I feel for the people who worry about that sort of thing happening to them someday. It’s a really nasty experience. When it happened to me, it went completely unreported. No open letters were published in Harper’s, no podcasts were dedicated to my plight. I had a small community of people around me who stepped up to soften the blow by providing me with what support they could, but even that petered away eventually, and I am still left with the likely permanent scars of being professionally outed as a Communist. I’m not bitter because this is not new. When I was going through the worst of it, it put me in deeper connection with my immigrant ancestors who were blacklisted, tortured and incarcerated for organizing against capitalism in the company towns of Montana. Looking at what they went through, what heroes endured under redbaiting and COINTELPRO puts my own situation in perspective, and I certainly don’t have it so bad.

So, to now see millionaires, billionaires, pundits, podcasters, landlords and gentrifiers wringing their hands over cancel culture makes me take pause. To see people who might not have lifted a finger to defend other forces of repression suddenly pulling their hair out over this alleged challenge to free speech seems strange. Their networks are solid, their wealth untouched. Without deep systemic change, they will be politically rehabilitated like Mel Gibson or your favorite pundit/politician with a messy history. Dalton Trumbo did time in prison for his politics; JK Rowling and her like will not.

CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS FOUNDATION ANNUAL LEGISLATIVE CON

UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 11: CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS FOUNDATION ANNUAL LEGISLATIVE CONFERENCE–Gary Webb, the reporter with the San Jose Mercury News who broke the story of the CIA supplying drugs to the Contras to sell in Southern California, at an issue forum called, “Connections, Coverage, and Casualties: The Continuing Story of the CIA and Drugs.” (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Are they gaslighting us or are they really so delusional to compare themselves to people like Gary Webb, Julian Assange or Chelsea Manning, people who have been actually and irreparably cancelled for their political views and speech? Is a public wrap on the knuckles via our ever-changing and cascading social media feeds really a challenge to free speech, or is the very outcry against cancel culture a powerful rightwing counter-reaction rooted in, among other things, white anxiety? My suspicion is that this is just right-wing backlash to recent gains made, or a self-appointed “left” arguing why they’re right-wing enough to not be suddenly cancelled by their bourgeois donors. Either way, let’s address these pundits and their surface concerns.

First: free speech is practically a joke in a country where six corporations control around 90% of US media. Various cases studies produced under the bloody war on terror – Anwar Al-Awlaki’s top-secret execution comes to mind – prove that yes, just speaking the wrong kind political opinions can be a capital offense. But nobody is running Angela Nagle or Aimee Terese off to Yemen – in fact, their credibility and audiences are getting larger. Whether or not you are fired (or blown up by a tomahawk missile) for what you think or say depends entirely on the political environment in which you’re communicating political speech. On Chapo, the hosts openly muse whether or not the New York Times 1619 project would have been launched under a Hillary Clinton presidency. This is useless speculation; not only because she did not win in 2016 but because the very material conditions that produced Donald Trump also resulted in the 1619 project, and that these conditions were themselves produced mainly by an economic system that allows six corporations to control 90% of the media and foster an environment for the anti-woke brigade to flourish and thrive. To extrapolate, would the Chapo Trap House brand enjoy its range of support if its positions hadn’t been ultimately validated by Trump’s victory?

L: Chapo’s monthly earnings; R: Julian Assange, canceled journalist

Corporations latching onto a movement does not invalidate the aims or concerns of said movement; on the contrary, the more likely these corporations are to latch on or appropriate slogans actually validates a movement’s aims and concerns. It shows what is a real threat to power. The anodyne and tokenistic adaptation of a slogan by a megacorporation – without an affirmation of its underlying principles – is not comparable to adapting a public policy position that meaningfully slashes its profit margins and hold on power. There was no special section of the New York Times suddenly dedicated to appropriating the Bernie Sanders campaign – quite the opposite. They felt quite comfortable dragging Sanders into his second loss for president. In part, that’s probably because no mass movements burned down buildings or smashed windows on Fifth Avenue for free universal healthcare. Nobody torched a cop car because the DNC thwarted yet another presidential primary. The fact that cities all over the country are taking down confederate statues themselves is deeply impressive. Not because taking down statues will in and of itself accomplish anything – though it does – but mainly because the existing power structure of the United States is deeply threatened by a multiracial, multinational movement against white supremacy and will do whatever it can to assuage its wrath by appearing to concede, while at the same time  — and this is important — drawing a line between acceptable and unacceptable forms of protest. According to a growing list of left-minders, cancel culture now ranks up there with looting and burning down cities in the possible harm it could do to the movement for socialism and liberation.

On Chapo Trap House, Amber Frost speaks of police and prison abolitionists being unable to define what abolition would actually look like – but did not appear to have read anything besides a New York Times op-ed (!) to find out more. It seems the easiest way to avoid cancellation is to avoid voicing actual questions and concerns and not inviting actual prison abolitionists on your show. Frost claims that “nobody offline knows” what prison abolition is. Regardless of whether or not she’s heard of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who has neither a twitter account nor podcast, does she consider the millions who are in prison today to be “offline”? Or, is she just doing what people with white anxiety do: avoiding conversations to squirm away from actually confronting their own beliefs and actions?

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Aimee Terese and her readership locating the primary enemy of universal healthcare…. Black trans women?

I would argue this anxiety is more damaging to our collective liberation than corporate sloganeering or the cynical weaponization of anti-racism. This anxiety is a large part of what’s driving a wedge between those of us fighting for Black lives and those of us fighting for universal healthcare. For the record, I’ve never met or even heard of a police/prison abolitionist who is against universal healthcare. I’ve also never heard of anyone opposing defunding the police and redistributing the bloated budgets into social programs or universal basic income as opposing it because – and I really can’t believe this honker of a strawman they dragged in at 43 minutes – racists would also receive universal benefits. For those who reliably fight for both, seeing the struggle for Black liberation and the struggle for political and economic equity as one and the same, the two completely and utterly dependent on the synchronicity between them, this white anxiety of pitting one against the other sounds schizophrenic at best, and racist at worst.

Other sleights of hand litter the podcast, as Amber Frost mentions that abolishing the police and prisons would fail victims of rape and murder, yet does not disclose that most murders and the overwhelming majority of rapes are not successfully solved/prosecuted, and that a staggering number of police officers are also rapists and murderers. Taibbi mentions that for Black and Brown people, becoming a police officer or a US soldier is a path to the ever vague “middle-class lifestyle”. He fails to mention why this is, or offer a critique of the system that makes it so. In the grand tradition of Thomas Friedman, he mentions overhearing arguments “on the corner” and “in those neighborhoods” between drug dealers about whether or not more NYPD are needed. He refers to “the whole race problem” and I wonder if it’s white anxiety that keeps him from just using the actual word racism. They speak broadly and selectively of what “most people” think without addressing why “most people” think the way they do, and how that might change. Taibbi even claims that the current movement against racism and white supremacy has no humor or culture or music, effectively telling on his 50-year-old self as someone who is deeply out of touch.

Frost, Taibbi and Meneker fall into the greatest and most dangerous trap when they present their aims as being siloed and blame what Frost calls “minoritarian” ideologies for a Sanders loss. If they’d been in the streets, they might have heard the popular chant of “all lives will matter when Black lives matter”. Raising awareness about how racism and other forms of division are primarily utilized as a weapon against labor is precisely the first step towards recognizing that Black liberation is liberation for everyone. And that is because a capitalist system that depends on keeping people in cages and redlined neighborhoods cannot adequately and permanently address those issues without also addressing its own systemic nature. Every abolitionist I know will readily admit police and prison abolition cannot take place under capitalism. Why are people so eager to sidestep this conversation in favor of whining about cancel culture and virtue signaling?

Taibbi waxes nostalgic for a type of journalism that reported the facts instead of putting a “thumb on the scale”, which is risible coming from a person who would call themselves a journalist and whose Wikipedia page compares his work to that of Hunter S. Thompson, the father of Gonzo journalism. I am a materialist; I see thumbs on the scales everywhere in journalism, especially in the journalism of bygone times. Editors have long made decisions about what stories to run – it’s their job. Journalists have (and still are) thrown in jail for reporting the truth. Perhaps there was a time where the public discourse seemed fairer for people like Chapo Trap House and its staggeringly white audience. But it wasn’t fair to the rest of us and it still isn’t.

If these people find themselves suddenly on the wrong end of the social justice movement, if they’re feeling anxious about being cancelled, it is not incumbent on  survivors to find their way to dirtbag left politics. It’s not Angela Davis’s job to listen and deeply consider where the Chapo Brooklyn literati and their white audience are coming from. Theirs is, after all, the dominant ideology buttressed by current power relations. They are anti-democratic establishment while themselves functioning as a part of it. They are the progeny of whites who thought the system had shown its possibility and readiness for reform once Barack Obama became president. They are the ones who quite frankly need you to believe that a monthly subscription to their Patreon is more effective towards building socialism and liberation than burning down a precinct. They know the anxiety intimately, and they play it up, soothe the audience back into whiteness-as-defensive-posturing, not as a relation of power to be abolished.

To me, white anxiety manifests itself in two ways. On one hand, we have the dynamic encountered in all-white antiracist spaces, which seem focused on building a (inherently racist) white community of healing and reflection. It holds the assertion that racism is genetic and essentialist. White people are racist because they are born that way. This is, of course, racist, and can and often does lead to the simultaneous tokenization and exclusion of people of color, and results in an attempt to “reformulate” whiteness as opposed to abolishing it. There is a defensiveness to the anxiety, a sort of passive-aggressive martyrdom that overrides attempts to actually engage with and challenge whiteness as a power relation. Some might call this white fragility, and while the two might be similar, I believe there is a difference in that anxiety is an inhibitor to action, a kind of institutional defensiveness, whereas fragility seems primarily a way to deflect accountability and responsibility, an individual defensiveness.

The other way that white anxiety seems to manifest itself nowadays is through a sort of laughing, side-hug embrace of racism and other forms of oppression. Here is where we locate the debate regarding cancel culture. It echoes a lot of the verbiage about “political correctness” from the nineties and early aughts. To speak about political correctness never meant a defense of oppressed communities. It was a sneering eye-roll. The term “woke” seems to have supplanted the term politically correct in the recent era, with “virtue signaling” taking on a similar veneer.

What are they getting at? If they’re not defending whiteness, then they are at least revealing a deep contempt for the masses, of whom Angela Nagle thinks will forget about “skyrocketing homelessness, rents and outward youth migration” because a larger group of people now believe anti-Black violence is not just a US issue, but an international one. As if these problems and lived experiences just melt away for everyone when the media changes its focus, as if Bernie Sanders didn’t enjoy the greatest grassroot support for a running candidate in my lifetime. As if these problems and lived experiences didn’t shape the moment we’re all in currently. This thinking veers dangerously close to blaming the working class for its own dismal situation. But there is nothing new about this sneering. You’re just as unlikely to see Angela Nagle at a Black Lives Matter rally as you are to see her at a union meeting.

As many of my mentors have told me, in our collective struggle towards liberation, class is always primary – but race is never secondary. They cannot be separated. A commentator on the podcast episode mentioned that “if we want to overthrow capitalism we’re gonna need a lot of whiteys.” This is true, and I believe it. That’s why it’s so important to overcome this white anxiety, both negative and positive, otherwise we’re never getting universal healthcare, much less the end of capitalism. Again, it is not incumbent on the people who are disproportionately targeted, tortured and killed by white supremacy to start seeing their oppression through a “color-blind” lens. It is incumbent on all those whiteys to actually start listening to non-white people and taking them seriously. It’s incumbent on all those whiteys to enter into the conversation with sincerity, a healthy dose of humility, and a deep understanding that our liberation really does depend on building towards a society where all Black lives matter. But to a lot of people, even admitting this is true seems to provoke the kind of white anxiety I’ve been describing. After all, there is little mention of “what is to be done” about racism in this contemporary criticism of “cancel culture”. At the end of the day, it’s easier for white people to focus on this existential dread rather than the challenges of evictions, unemployment, police brutality, and, of course, racism and other forms of oppression.

One response to “smash white anxiety: on woke politics and cancel culture

  1. Michael D Yates

    This is a fine piece. You have more tolerance for pain than I, listening, closely no less, to a Chapo House podcast. Frost is a know-nothing and Taibbi is proving himself awfully close to his expiration date. Their not so subtle racism shines right through, doesn’t it? They seem to miss altogether that the cry to defund the police is also one for new forms of public safety. People want to take care of their own safety, through some form of community “policing”. They don’t want or need an occupying army. You’d think that a journalist saying, like Joe Friday on the old Dragnet TV show, Just the facts, ma’am” would have looked into this in some detail, rather than rely on supposed anecdotes.

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