Monday, December 12, 2016

When Justice Is Derided as "Purity"

Bernie Sanders' critics called him a "single-issue" candidate because he exposed the ever-widening wealth gap as the engine that drives social, racial, and environmental injustice. By the same logic, they could argue that Jesus became a single-issue messiah the moment he said, "love of money is the root of all evil."

For a single-issue candidate, Sanders advocated a wide variety of policy solutions. Sometimes those solutions highlighted the economic underpinnings of injustice, as when he called for equal pay for women in the workforce. Sometimes he found it more effective to propose responses than to offer diagnoses, as when he contended that we could best address the murderous repression of our racist police state via new standards of community policing--or when he suggested that a strong alliance with Israel need not hinge on support for apartheid policies that treat Palestinians as second class citizens. American cities obviously brutalize communities of color for the same reason that Israeli settlements expand illegally into Palestinian land: because such exploitation is profitable for over-privileged people at the expense of under-privileged people.

The reason Sanders' campaign resonated so powerfully with people from disparate backgrounds was that he insisted upon viewing economic matters through the lens of justice. We all know that the US government shouldn't have blown $6 trillion on the war in Iraq since the entire fiasco was predicated on lies about weapons of mass destruction and an unfounded connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks. We know it's unjust that hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians are dead because of the cupidity of our war profiteers and the stupidity of our citizenry.

But the Sanders campaign made it plain to us that we are being punished for our crime. If we can't afford the systems of public healthcare and education that characterize other industrial nations, it's because we are too busy bankrupting ourselves on unjustifiable wars. Sanders' critique of our many flawed domestic and foreign policies is simple: When you do the wrong thing, other people suffer--and so do you.

If we don't let greed rob our women workers of the wages they deserve, we will all be better off. If we don't let greed rob our communities of color of safety and dignity, we will all be better off. If we don't let greed destroy the planet we inhabit, we will all be better off. In every case, the message resonates because it's true. 

If Sanders really was a single-issue candidate, his issue appears to have been the contention that justice and economics are intertwined and that fighting for a more just world amounts to fighting for a better world.

Anyone who watched or attended a Sanders rally saw this sense of justice become infectious for attendees from disparate backgrounds with disparate priorities. Men cheered for equal pay for women; soldiers cheered for non-interventionism; fossil fuel workers cheered for lower carbon emissions. Sanders' supporters intuitively grasped the implicit lesson that the obfuscation of economists and policy wonks cannot bewilder any of us as long as we refuse to lose sight of the basic notion of justice.

But that sense of justice has come under attack by analysts who make it their business to sneer at political "purity tests." The faulty assumption of such analysts is that the Sanders coalition would have been stronger, somehow, if only he had been willing to abandon one plank or another of his platform. Perhaps he should have embraced fracking as "clean energy" or hung the Palestinians out to dry in an appeal to Zionists or argued that what looks like systemic racism in our police culture is really just a "few bad apples."

Such cynical concessions, in the mind of the pundit class, are the essence of coalition building. If you're not willing to throw some group (women, Native Americans, the LGBTQ community) under the bus, how can you possibly expect to get everyone else on your side?

According to this argument, if I find Keith Ellison repugnant because he supports a no-fly zone in Syria and opposes the boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) movement, then I've fallen into a purity trap. By daring to believe that a person who wants to provoke a war with Russia is not my ally, I have somehow allowed perfection to become the enemy of the good.

But how do I know that Ellison is good? I don't know any such thing, though Democratic spokespeople insist it must be so for three main reasons.

First, he's black--and since black people are underrepresented in American politics, I should be cheering for him. (Never mind that Clarence Thomas is also black and has consistently voted against civil rights initiatives.) Second, he's Muslim--and since Muslims are underrepresented in American politics, I should be cheering for him. (Never mind that Ellison's opposition to the BDS movement indicates his eagerness to appease moneyed interests, such as AIPAC, at the expense of voiceless Muslims.) Third, he was one of a handful of superdelegates who endorsed Sanders during the primary campaign. (Never mind that he later flipped to supporting the warmongering corporatist nominated by the Democrats--suggesting that his transient support for Sanders was, like Sanders' candidacy itself, a sheepdogging exercise meant to lend an air of progressive legitimacy to Clinton's candidacy.)

To suggest that Ellison is an otherwise great candidate who just barely fails a purity test is to overlook the glaringly obvious fact that he is a puppet of his donors rather than a champion of the people. When a politician claims to stand up for justice on four out of five issues, that doesn't mean he's 80% pure. It means that his donors only have a vested interest in injustice 20% of the time. They're happy to let him talk about justice for groups x, y, & z as long as they're not profiting from injustice against those specific communities.

But when a politician like Ellison advocates war with a nuclear-armed power, it's not because his perspective on justice is a tiny bit cloudy on that particular issue. It's because going to war with Russia is the particular injustice from which the major donors behind the curtain of the Democratic Party expect to profit.

The same goes for any so-called progressive on any issue of injustice. Alan Grayson claims to be a Democrat with a spine who will stand up for his constituents. But in the wake of June's Orlando nightclub shooting, Grayson championed the inane no-fly/no-buy bill advocated by Democrats (a bill that would not have prevented the Orlando massacre) over his own proposed reinstatement of the ban on assault weapons (a bill that would have prevented the massacre):

You can call this absurd position of Grayson's a lapse in judgment. It was no such thing. It was a calculated betrayal of justice. If Democrats like Grayson wanted to protect civilians from mass shootings, they would ban assault weapons. But donors don't profit from such bills. Donors profit from the expansion of the powers of the unaccountable surveillance state. Grayson served the interests of those donors--not the interests of his constituents. He didn't fail a purity test; he showed you who is pulling his strings.

Whenever political analysts concede that a politician fails this or that purity test, they are really just acknowledging which particular corrupt agenda pays the bills for the politician in question. Democrats love to say, "People are going to have honest disagreements about difficult questions," but they don't mean that there will be debates about the best mechanisms we can install to insure that police stop murdering black motorists. What they mean is that some Democrats will pay lip service to the idea of addressing police brutality while a handful of others controlled by donors with a vested interest in perpetuating that brutality ensure that it is perpetuated.

Justice is justice. You're committed to it or your aren't. The Sanders campaign proved that the broader your appeal to justice is, the more people you will draw into your coalition.

The purity test argument is an attempt to persuade people that coalition-building means excluding certain forms of justice from consideration. It's a lie. 

No comments:

Post a Comment