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by Lawrence Bush
LAST NIGHT I WATCHED Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016), which tells the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slavery rebellion in Virginia. The film is soaked through with the intense physical, sexual, and spiritual violence of American slavery — the nearly four-hundred-year-old tradition of American slavery — and it inflamed me. I once again felt dumfounded by the perversity and cruelty of America’s white slaveholding ancestors — and by the extensive denialism throughout the white American population about the history and ongoing reality of racism.
At a certain point in the film, the scripturally-obsessed Nat Turner (played by Parker) reads one of the Bible’s passages that call for the extirpation of the Amalekites, the Hebrew people’s “eternal enemy,” and all of their civilization, even their livestock. As he was reciting the passage to brace himself for the violence to come, I felt outraged enough, for one of the first times in my life, to embrace the vengeful spirit of those passages and to recognize an enemy as an enemy.
Perhaps Donald Trump’s never-say-die supporters, his “basket of deplorables” (Hillary’s most memorable phrase ever) — 30+ percent of Americans — are, indeed, my enemies. Half of them seem to be neo-Nazis or John Birchers in their ideologies or sympathies. Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and other hateful trolls of rightwing media have seen to that. And another half of them are stewed in Jesus-Loves-Me Rapture-Armaggedon religious fanaticism that makes them barely less dangerous than ISIS.
And most of them are armed. Which I’m not. Not yet.
Would I like to see Rush Limbaugh taken out by a mass shooter? Sure would. Would I like to see Ann Coulter run down by a marauding terrorist in a truck? Sure would. Maybe it’s time to organize a Committee for the Proper Use of Senseless Violence. . .
BUT THEN I RECALLED what I had earlier heard from Van Jones on NPR, talking about his new book, The Messy Truth:
“You’ve always had people who didn’t give a damn about us,” Jones said, “who were absolutely hostile — people like Sessions, people like Trump, people like Bull Connor. And you also have people right now who are ashamed, but . . . [we] continue to criticize them. . . . we tend to look at the red states as -- almost from a colonial point of view. These are ignorant, backwater — you know, full of unwashed, uneducated people who do need to be converted to the NPR religion, who do need to be force-fed some kale and then they’ll be better off. And we don’t see that we are creating a market for the Donald Trumps of the world by our own elitism.”
Van Jones, who is a very smart political organizer and commentator, insisted on acknowledging how insulted many white Americans feel about our presumption of their racism and their backwardness. Why would they vote for our side, our candidates, he asked, if we are failing to acknowledge their own pain and suffering and discomfort in this cruel and fast-changing American capitalist system?
“There are poor white people all over the country now,” he continued,” who have addiction and poverty and criminal records and are living in neighborhoods with high death rates — in places like West Virginia, Appalachia — and nobody’s doing anything for them, either. I’m looking around like, why are we fighting each other? We’ve got the same problems. Common pain should lead to common purpose. And common purpose should lead to common protests. Common protests should lead to some kind of common sense. . .”
NU, WHO’S MORE dangerous to the system? The folks who expect to convert whites to anti-racism by pointing out their white privilege, or the black activist who speaks to people’s shared suffering? The folks who go fight neo-Nazis with their fists and sticks, or the black man in a suit calling for a coalition of common pain?
“. . . There are very few fights I’ve won where it was only black progressives. Every fight I’ve won, it’s been some weird coalition of like some crazy white Republican who’s mad at this person, and some Latina grandmamas over here, and some business people and labor people. Whenever you actually put together something that works, it’s always complicated. It’s always messy when you’re actually doing stuff that’s real work, when you’re actually getting bills passed, when you’re actually getting prisons closed, when you’re actually getting reforms done.”
Nat Turner had no real alternative to armed uprising. Just as the Warsaw Ghetto fighters had no alternative to armed uprising. Our current task is to make sure we have alternatives.
Still, I went to bed last night wishing we had a Committee for the Proper Use of Senseless Violence.
And wishing that I already had Van Jones’ book at my bedside.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.