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Jun. 10 2009 - 12:34 pm | 8 views | 1 recommendation | 6 comments

Why mocking the poor is a bad, bad strategy

teabaggersbnp3The second bomb came crashing in from the extreme right – the British National Party – which now has two Members of the European Parliament, both with records of extreme bigotry. Its leader Nick Griffin has palled about with David Duke and bragged about how much he learned from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, while as a young man Andrew Brons joined the National Socialist Movement, set up on Hitler’s birthday as a tribute to him.But it is not the case that 10 per cent of people in Yorkshire are sympathetic to Holocaust-denying lunatics. No: they were overwhelmingly broke young white men who would, a generation ago, have formed the Labour core vote. They are angry about low wages and chronic shortage of housing – and simply telling them they are bigots won’t get us very far.

Any conversation with BNP voters has to begin by agreeing that they are right to be angry about both subjects. There is a housing scandal in Britain today. In the 1980s, the revenues from council house sales were squandered by Margaret Thatcher on tax cuts for the rich, instead of being used to build more social housing. Labour allowed social housing construction to fall even further. We now have a housing drought, leaving hundreds of thousands of people stuck in cramped, damp homes. Similarly, our minimum wage is one of the lowest in the developed world. Tax credits are good, but today they only go to people with families: the rest watch their wages sink.

via Johann Hari: The Three Ticking Time Bombs Under British Politics.

There are similarities between the British National Party and the rise of the “tea-bagger” movement in America. Both BNP supporters and the tea-bagging Beckians are guided by fear from the collapse of the world economy, and both class of supporters tend to be poor-to-middle class white men that are looking for an “other” to blame for all their woes. The BNP leadership chooses to represent itself with viciously racist and xenophobic rhetoric, and tea-baggers have been known to carry signs that read, “Show us your REAL birth certificate,” a reference to the long-circulated rumor that President Obama was not born in America, making him another dangerous “other.”

But I agree with Hari that it’s a bad strategy to totally mock and marginalize these movements. A good way to fuel bigoted behavior is to make dissidents feel like they don’t have an outlet for their frustrations. While I have also pointed out the horrific ideologies held by the BNP, making BNP supporters feel like they are stupid for having any grievances with their government is a terrible strategy for reform. A better way to handle this surge of fringe political groups would be to channel that anger into a productive dialogue. People that have lost their jobs, homes, and life savings should be angry, but not at immigrants or black people. They should be angry at a government that — as Hari points out — has done everything in its power to dismantle social safety nets like public housing.

While Britain suffered under Margaret Thatcher, America withstood Ronald Reagan, another foe of social spending and regulation. In Britain and America today, people are enduring the legacy of those ill-conceived ideologies. A natural byproduct of that suffering is the rise of fringe political movements, and while the terrible philosophies harbored by groups like the BNP should not be encouraged (and thankfully have been very publicly derided in the form of spirited protests,) more Progressive-minded individuals would be wrong to dismiss all BNP supporters’ grievances.

Both the British and American governments should be held accountable for decades of deregulation, and should now focus on social spending with an emphasis on creating and sustaining domestic jobs that pay a living wage. But the conversation cannot backslide into name-calling and fear tactics. Calling one’s foe “stupid” or a “red neck” cannot result in productive conversation. Blaming every grievance on immigrants won’t stop the damage of unregulated globalization.

Allowing the very legitimate debate about the role of government to sink into the mud can only result in a more divided nation where the ruling class will once again escape judgement for its crimes.

Updated at 5:00 PM: I wanted to add a brief note about the tragedy unfolding in Washington, D.C. where James W. Von Brunn, a known white supremacist, opened fire in the Holocaust museum, killing a security guard. Brunn has had a history of publishing racist and anti-Semitic web posts and books, and was arrested in 1981 for protesting high interest rates by storming into the headquarters of the Federal Reserve Board with a sawed-off shotgun. 

This is yet another example of a disturbed man projecting his anger on a group of people that had no direct influence on his own life. However, the argument that this is a “lone lunatic” isn’t intellectually honest. Men like Brunn seek out like-minded comrades with whom they share their darkest desires, and they always display odd behavior before carrying out their plans. Somewhere, someone knew Brunn was a ticking time bomb.

Notice, the term “terrorist” is never applied to a criminal like Brunn, or Scott Roeder, the man who killed George Tiller. Oftentimes, the media fails to acknowledge that these kinds of domestic acts are also terrorism simply because they’re carried out by right-wing extremists. But their deeds do terrorize entire communities, and the term should be applied. 

While it’s important not to alienate reasonable members of fringe political groups (for reasons I described above,) it is also equally important to condemn the horrific behavior displayed today in Washington. This kind of behavior is unacceptable, and the media should be honest when choosing words to describe Brunn’s act. I suggest: “terrorism.”


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  1. collapse expand

    Both BNP supporters and the tea-bagging Beckians are guided by fear from the collapse of the world economy, and both class of supporters tend to be poor-to-middle class white men that are looking for an “other” to blame for all their woes.

    I think that American tea party protestors are not that neatly categorizable. Plenty of middle-class and up folks are taking time off from their day jobs in unglamorous professions or trades, in flyover country, to voice their opinion. I also think you mischaracterize the motive force as fear, where I believe it is anger and disgust at the fustercluck that the Money Party has made. I believe that the Tea Partiers rightfully blame the corrupted nexus of big money and centralized power, and are disgusted at the venality of having the selfsame people and organizations that created and profited from this mess try to double down their profits in the recovery. Why anyone from any Wall St. bank (let alone Government Sachs) is anywhere near the US treasury is beyond me, and where is the only administration ‘official’ with any credibility (Paul Volcker)? He’s been marginalized in favor of the GS elite and their toadies.

    And I agree that mocking the poor (for being poor) is a bad strategy, but mocking the poor (or anyone else) for making knowably bad decisions and then flailing about trying to get someone else to clean up after them is good clean fun. Of course, it’s all fun and games until they actually _get_ someone to pay for their mess, using AIG as a conduit from the treasury to CDS holders (such as, surprise surprise, Government Sachs)…

    • collapse expand

      but mocking the poor (or anyone else) for making knowably bad decisions and then flailing about trying to get someone else to clean up after them is good clean fun.

      So all poor people are poor because of their own mistakes? That’s a very oversimplified analysis. Many tea-baggers (and non-tea-bagging Americans) lost their jobs because of corporate outsourcing, or because of the recession. Yes, many are angry, but the catalyst for anger is frequently fear: fear that they won’t be able to find a job, fear that they’re being marginalized, fear that their country is changing and leaving them behind.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    You are correct that both Britain and American are enduring the legacy of the neo-liberal Thatcher/Reagan policies that reduced social spending and destroyed regulation. Unfortunately this was made possible by the co-option of the working people and the poor who were told that these “free markets” and tax cuts would improve their lives, and that government was always inefficient and ineffective and that it was the problem.

    Of course, none of these things are true, but it will be hard to reverse course while this same group (now larger than before) remains under the sway of the Friedmanites. Racism was never that far from the surface in the U.S., and rather than disavow the policies they have been clamoring for over the last 30 years, it’s easier for the right to simply make their racist secondary agenda primary.

    I don’t know the UK situation, but in the US there is not a responsible political party that can both identify with the poor and working people and restore regulation, industrial policy, and the social safety net that we need to get through these times. That opens the door to the tea-baggers and anti-immigrant racists. The Republican Party seems all too ready to lead that charge rather than provide responsible leadership.

    Our two parties cannot have a debate about the role of government because they beliefs are almost identical. That leaves empty posturing on one side and demagoguery on the other.

    • collapse expand

      I think much of the blame for the passing of free trade agreements like NAFTA can be placed on the mainstream media, which “reported” on the agreements as though they were the cure for all of America’s ailments. (Of course, there were pockets of resistance such as the 1999 WTO riots.) When the media keeps hammering home the message that something is “good for American workers,” after a while, the workers swallowed the propaganda. Those workers that didn’t were drowned out by the sea of “popular support” i.e. the media working in tandem with the government.

      I agree that there isn’t a political party that identifies with the needs of the poor. I guess it used to be the Democratic party, but those days are long gone. Now, we have two corporate parties that ignore the needs of most Americans. What we need is to revive Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea of a Poor People’s Party to represent the needs of the vast majority of Americans.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Ah, I’m a right wing nationalist and I’ve got a piece that’s been out there for a month calling the shooter of Mr. Tiller a terrorist.

    It’s at http://www.treatyist.com

    Note that Mr. Tiller’s shooter belongs to a fringe that holds its people to be sovereign citizens. In other words, they do not hold themselves to be US citizens and in that sense are just as much enemy combatants as Joe Padilla was.

    What we want to know is, if Mr. Tiller’s shooter knew about plans to blow up or assault other abortion clinics, and you do believe he is a terrorist, do you waterboard the guy to find out more, or not. I don’t support partial birth abortions at all but a terrorist is a terrorist. Break out the towel and the water, I say. What do you say?

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