Mar 28, 2020

No longer merely metaphor: Re-reading The Plague by Albert Camus

Photo of Albert Camus, seated at desk, smoking cigarette
Albert Camus, 1957
Albert Camus' novel The Plague offers a portrait of a town under quarantine, ravaged by an epidemic. It tells us of life arbitrarily constrained and unjustly shortened, of human beings isolated by law and by disease, of panics and shortages, of despair and heroic sacrifice. It presents a grim picture of human life, but an affirming picture of human beings.  It ends with a clear moral, that "what we learn in time of pestilence" is that "there is more to admire in humanity than to despise."[i]

The book follows the lives of several men -- most notably Rieux, a doctor; Rambert, a Spanish Civil War veteran now working as a journalist; and Tarrou, a Communist turned pacifist -- as they do what little they can, risking their lives and suffering separation from their loved ones, in order to try to fight the contagion and attend to the public health.  That it falls to such people to take the initiative says much about the failures of the authorities, and reflects Camus' attitude about authority overall. 

The official response to the outbreak is belated, dithering, confused, and inadequate.  The inaction of the authorities forces ordinary people to take extraordinary measures.  The turning point comes when Tarrou, the former Communist, approaches the doctor, Rieux.  "The sanitary department is inefficient -- understaffed, for one thing," Tarrou remarks.  "I've heard the authorities are thinking of a sort of conscription. . . ."  Rieux admits that this is true, though the Prefect remains paralyzed by indecision.

Tarrou then asks,

If he daren't risk compulsion, why not call for voluntary help?

It's been done, [Rieux replies].  The response was poor.

It was done through official channels, and half-heartedly, [Tarrou points out].  What they're short on is imagination. Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic.  And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate for a common cold.  If we let them carry on like this they'll soon be dead, and so shall we.

He then proposes:

I've drawn up a plan for voluntary groups of helpers.  Get me empowered to try out my plan, and then let's sidetrack officialdom.  In any case the authorities have their hands more than full already.  I have friends in many walks of life; they'll form a nucleus to start from.  And of course, I'll take part myself.

The network Tarrou set up took on a range of responsibilities: They "accompanied doctors on their house-to-house visits, saw to the evacuation of infected persons, and subsequently, owing to the shortage of drivers, even drove the vehicles conveying sick persons and dead bodies." They did their work diligently.  But to what degree these measures contributed to the ultimate waning of the epidemic, or whether the plague just ran its course, we naturally cannot know.  Nevertheless, the sanitary squads may have served a more important purpose: 

These groups enabled our townsfolk to come to grips with the disease and convinced them that, now that the plague was among us, it was up to them to do whatever could be done to fight it.  Since plague became in this way some men's duty, it revealed itself as what it really was; that is, the concern of all.

The plague, of course, is not simply the plague.  It also serves as a metaphor for the French experience under Nazi occupation, when the official response -- surrender and collaboration -- forced ordinary people, Camus among them, to take action themselves and form a Resistance movement. 

This analogy is striking, and has deep implications.  Camus saw fascism -- and indeed any belief system that justifies murder -- as a threat to all humanity which, nevertheless, human beings spread and to which anyone may succumb.  His thinking on this point was almost mystical in its severity: To affirm life meant that one must resist death.  To accept even the fact of death was equivalent to suicide, and akin to murder; it was in fact to become complicit with death in all of its forms.  The challenge, always, was to affirm the value of humanity against the tyranny of death, knowing that such a struggle would ultimately end in defeat.  This required a spirit of rebellion, and thus Camus placed his hopes not in authorities or institutions, but in the hearts of ordinary people.

Rereading The Plague now, in the midst of a pandemic, one finds that it suddenly has a new relevance. It is no longer merely metaphor.  Our hopes for surviving the scourge of Covid-19 cannot rely on the actions of those at the top of the social hierarchies, whose decisions so often manage to be at once draconian and inadequate.  Politicians, bureaucrats, and police are not to be trusted and, in any case, will pursue solutions dependent on laws, bureaucracies, and police.  They are, to Camus' way of thinking, simply another set of symptoms of the plague itself, which is a spiritual and political, as well as a medical, condition.

The cure, if one is to be found, relies not merely on medical science, but on social solidarity.  Our survival may depend on the actions of our coworkers and our neighbors -- people with no official position and no authority, but with enough courage and common sense to act in the public interest even against the orders of the authorities and the instructions of their own purported leaders. In a growing wave of wildcat strikes, auto workers, librarians, electricians, sewer maintenance workers, garbage collectors, fast food workers, bus drivers, warehouse workers, and workers at slaughterhouses have shut down facilities to prevent the spread of contagion when their bosses refused to.  People around the country are forming mutual aid networks to share resources, check in on neighbors, and provide for those who are under quarantine.  Such actions need not, and should not, wait for official decisions.  And these moments carry in them also the promise of a different kind of society, where the bureaucrats are sidelined, where everyday people suddenly discover their own power, and where we look to each other, instead of the authorities, to meet our basic needs. 

Perhaps, then, Camus' analogy may be borne out by reality: Perhaps the means of fighting pestilence will prove to be the same as those for fighting fascism.

The edition quoted is The Plague, by Albert Camus. Translation by Stuart Gilbert.  New York: Vintage, 1991.


Photo by United Press International, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

[i] I have slightly altered this quotation. The Gilbert translation reads "men."

Mar 25, 2020

Interview with Hilary Moore, co-author of No Fascist USA!

I recently interviewed writer and anti-racist political educator Hilary Moore about the new book No Fascist USA! The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons for Today's Movements, which she co-authored with James Tracy. The book includes a foreword by Robin D. G. Kelley and is published by City Lights Books. Here’s an excerpt from the publisher’s description:
In June 1977, a group of white anti-racist activists received an alarming letter from an inmate at a New York state prison calling for help to fight the Ku Klux Klan's efforts to recruit prison staff and influence the people incarcerated. Their response was to form the first chapter of what would eventually become a powerful, nationwide grassroots network, the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, dedicated to countering the rise of the KKK and other far-right white nationalist groups.

No Fascist USA! tells the story of that network, whose efforts throughout the 1980s––which included exposing white supremacists in public office, confronting neo-Nazis in street protests, supporting movements for self-determination, and engagement with the underground punk scene––laid the groundwork for many anti-racist efforts to emerge since. Featuring original research, interviews with former members, and a trove of graphic materials, their story offers battle-tested lessons for those on the frontlines of social justice work today.
I worked on anti-racist initiatives with members of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I played a small supporting role in the making of this book. Here is the interview:

No Fascist USA! book cover
ML: Why did you want to write this book?

HM: I was a collective member of Catalyst Project, supporting majority white grassroots organizations in Arkansas and Kentucky to expand their anti-racist campaigns. When Trump came onto the Presidential scene in 2015, we noticed a marked shift in what kinds of support these folks were asking for: models, lessons, tips on how to confront newly emboldened white supremacists in the context of long-term anti-racist organizing in majority white communities.

Then in the summer of 2016, I went to a counter-rally to protest the coalition of the Traditionalist Worker Party and the Golden State Skinheads at the state capitol in Sacramento, California. They were using Trump’s campaign as an excuse to unite groups. There, I saw white supremacists stab five people. Horse-mounted police then ushered the white supremacists into the safety of the halls of the capitol. This rocked me and I needed answers. What do you do when shit like this happens?

It seemed that there was a very big gap in my years as an anti-racist political education trainer and the rapidly shifting political terrain. Within white anti-racist strategies—we knew how to challenge institutional policies that prop up white supremacy, we knew how to identify racism in our movements, and with varying degrees of success create anti-racist movement culture, but when it came to confronting white supremacy in the flesh, we were fumbling.

We wrote this book because there were striking similarities between how quickly the political terrain shifted under the Reagan Administration and what was happening with the onset of Trump. For us, the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee was particularly interesting, given their relationship and steadfast commitment to movements for self-determination, and that being the basis from which they confronted the Klan and other white supremacist formations.

ML: What surprised you about the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee?

HM: I was surprised when we realized that most JBAKC members were lesbians and anti-Zionist Jews. So much of the content produced by the JBAKC spoke to the role of white people, rather generally. They rarely, and more likely never, referenced their personal experiences in their political work. It struck me, that a majority-white anti-Klan organization was the political priority of this group of lesbian and anti-Zionist Jews.

I remember asking Laura Whitehorn about this. She said it wasn’t something they talked about very much. It wasn’t until some people surrounding the JBAKC were sent to prison, and were asked by journalists and friends about their personal experiences, did people begin to connect their social location to their commitments to movements for self-determination. This makes sense then, as to why it took awhile for this fact to show itself in the research and writing.

ML: In antifascist activism of recent years, the concepts of “diversity of tactics” and “community self-defense” have been useful for some of the most powerful local initiatives. Reading No Fascist USA!, I saw both of these concepts prefigured in some of the JBAKC’s actions and organizing drives in the 1980s. Could you speak to how JBAKC used diversity of tactics and community self-defense, and what we can learn from their example on these issues?

HM: Broadly speaking, the JBAKC emerged from a call for community self defense. The call was put out by incarcerated leaders within Black liberation struggles. It pointed to the Klan’s activity targeting those leaders within the prison system and it asked people who would become the JBAKC to step into a buffer role against those attacks and an amplifying role to spread those demands. An important aspect is the fact that COINTELPRO had ravaged social movements in the 60s and 70s, so the concept of community self-defense, from this vantage point, wasn’t simply a defense from white supremacist groups, but law and order arms of the state as well.

I think one of the most interesting things about the JBAKC was how they adapted their tactics over time, adjusting to changing political conditions, while keeping their political principles in tact. At first, they were unwilling to work with groups who held different approaches to social change, like reform or voting work. But, when they were pushed to scale up, they began to bring these same principles into coalition work.

And that was a dance. It takes more skill to both hold a political line and create multiple entry points for all kinds of people. They were by no means experts on coalition work, but they were successful in bringing together unlikely groups. For example, faith groups and anti-racist skinheads in their campaign in Chicago to stamp out racist graffiti.

ML: People often assume that having revolutionary politics means being strident and sectarian, and the way to get away from sectarianism is to moderate your politics. Your account of how JBAKC evolved directly challenges that assumption. John Brown started out as a strident, self-righteous radical group, but to a significant degree they were able to move away from the self-righteousness, without giving up revolutionary politics about the United States. What do you think helped them to make that shift, and what lessons can we learn from it?

Poster: "Stop racist attacks on Arab people in the U.S."
John Brown Anti-Klan Committee flyer, 1991
HM: In 1983, organizers in the New African Independence Movement pushed the organization to work more coherently as a national network, and to build broadly, rather than remain as loosely affiliated chapters based on the coasts. Receiving this kind of strategic assessment from trusted comrades was, I think, the clearest reason that the JBAKC decided to shift gears. They had dabbled in coalition work in Austin and Richmond, but this push clarified the organization’s form. It also spawned their first national gathering in Chicago, where members and supporters from all over came together to share tactics and strategies. From then on, the JBAKC more often than not chose tactics that reflected a popular mobilization approach.

Another moment that crystallized this shift was when four JBAKC members were held in contempt of court, and later indicted, for refusing to testify in a grand jury. The organization had always prioritized support work for people incarcerated, but this moment, again, sharpened the imperative to communicate broadly about their particular politics.

When the state comes down on social movements, like it did, for their political work, the need to articulate why it’s happening—so that you can build a wide and lasting network of support— becomes very clear. From this position, being strident or self-righteous only gets you isolated.

ML: No Fascist USA! talks a little about JBAKC members’ experiences with grand jury resistance—refusing to cooperate with grand juries that were supposedly investigating radical activists for their involvement in political bombings or other activities. Could you say more about those experiences—what was at issue and how does this kind of resistance relate to the current situation in the U.S.?

HM: In October 1983, Reagan gave orders to invade the island nation of Grenada. A couple weeks later, a bomb exploded at the U.S. Senate building. In its newspaper, the JBAKC wrote about the bombing of the building “as a response to the invasion of Grenada and other armed actions in solidarity with El Salvador and Nicaragua.” Two years later, four members of the D.C. chapter, were called to testify in a grand jury.

At first these four members were surprised—the D.C. chapter had already folded, and some people had moved on to other political work. But the JBAKC came out of a political tradition that saw tactics like grand juries as a tool for intimidating activists and gathering information for political repression.

This ethic helped them turn what could be an isolating experience into a political platform. They signed onto a national campaign against grand juries, connecting what was happening in this small chapter to broader resistance efforts. The indicted members also believed that the state targeted them specially—as white activists that supported the Puerto Rican Independence movement and Black liberation movement—because white activists are often the weak link under state pressure.

Grand juries have a long history in the United States, and as such, there is a long history of resistance that organizers and activists today can learn from. For instance, in 2011 grand jury subpoenas were issued to members in the [Chelsea] Manning Support Network and others in the Boston area. In 2017, six indigenous water protectors were called before a grand jury in the height of the struggle at Standing Rock, marking the first time the federal government has pursued felony charges against people demonstrating to prevent the building of fossil fuel infrastructure.

ML: The JBAKC focused primarily on combating organized white supremacist groups, and they emphasized the connections between explicit white supremacism and established institutions such as the police and prisons. But what about subtler forms of racial oppression, where people of color are systematically oppressed but there’s no explicit racial bigotry, maybe even a direct rejection of it? How did John Brown address those institutions or situations?

HM: They didn't. Of course they cared about different kinds of racism, and probably personally would act on some of the things you described, but as an organization that just wasn't their intervention.

ML: One of the reasons that Three Way Fight was created was because leftists in the U.S. have traditionally treated fascist movements as just a more extreme version of the established racial and economic order, and have ignored or minimized the ways that far rightists clash with the state. The JBAKC slogan “cops and the Klan go hand in hand” is sometimes true, and describes an important part of the situation, but it also leaves out an important part. John Brown was active during a decade when neonazis were literally taking up arms against the state and being killed in shootouts with police, and when Tom Metzger was urging his supporters to “take the game away from the left” to give voice to white workers’ rage at the ruling class. How did John Brown folks address these realities—and their implications for the left?

HM: By 1980, the JBAKC was one part of an anti-Klan movement that was adjusting to the massive opening in racist attacks and organizing. Given their politics, they wanted to make an intervention in the anti-Klan movement: we cannot rely on cops or the government, for protection from the Klan or other white supremacist groups. During this time, it was common practice for anti-racist groups to appeal to local police departments and city officials to “Ban the Klan” or later, when white power groups turned on the government, to work with the FBI. The JBAKC thought this approach did not protect people in movements fighting for self-determination.

They were also drawing lines of parallel logic: yes at times Klan and cops shared memberships, but they also take up different and complementary roles in intimidation and control of Black and Brown communities. The Klan takes up that work in one way. Police take up that role in another way. U.S. imperialism takes up that role in yet another way.

This moment in history is especially interesting because, like you said, there was a major shift: the white power movement began publicly declaring war against the U.S. government. Because the JBAKC was already in motion six years before this, they had to adapt. I think their biggest intervention on this was in their newspaper. They wrote articles tracking and assessing shifts, like the way Tom Metzger’s was vying for state power in California while at the same time as creating organizations that undermined governance of state power.

But no, it didn’t change their overall strategy or so much of how they went about their anti-Klan work. If anything, this happened in the moment of the organization when they were trying to popularize anti-racism. They were focused on building up a grassroots network of support—a hotline, sending out anti-racist graffiti packets, organizing anti-racist punk shows to raise funds, and writing letters to connect anti-fascist people across regions.

ML: JBAKC advocated “self determination for the Black nation,” meaning creation of an independent country of New Afrika in the Deep South, as a centerpiece of combating white supremacy in the U.S. I’ve always thought there was a tension between the idea of self-determination—i.e., choosing your own status, shaping your own destiny—and the assertion that the outcome of this choice would necessarily be creating an independent state. Political independence is one strategy that’s been advocated by some forces within the Black liberation movement, but as far as I know it’s never been the dominant, majority strategy within the movement. How did John Brown navigate this tension in its interactions with Black political organizations in the towns and cities where it was active?

HM: Absolutely. This tension was real and never resolved. For the most part, members navigated the tension through their relationships, which means there wasn’t a clear, formulaic approach. It also meant how it was handled was uneven and subjective to each chapter.

For instance, in Austin, members were coordinating with people in the Black Liberation Army in New York, while also working on the ground with the Black Citizens Task Force in Austin, who held a more traditional grassroots organizing approach in winning housing and workers rights in the Black community in Austin.

I think it was part of their learning in coalition work: that you can have a long-term vision for Black political independence and still work in coalition with organizations, against white supremacist organizing, who are fighting for basic rights.

ML: What else would you like to highlight or discuss in relation to the book?

HM: The shift you raised, where white supremacists began attacking the U.S. government, also marked a time when far right actors began taking underground action. Public rallies and big demonstrations to sway public opinion was no longer the name of the game. Leaderless movements and single shooter racist attacks against migrants, Black people, and Jewish people are on the rise today—from El Paso to Hanau. The lessons offered in the story of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee don’t account for this tactic directly. I will say though that no matter what, having strong networks of people who know why anti-racism and anti-fascism are important, who are organized before something terrible happens—that lesson is timeless.

Mar 19, 2020

Far rightists divided on coronavirus and Trump

Julia DeCook has a good article outlining how right-wing media activists have been exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to spread xenophobia, conspiracy theories, and other forms of misinformation:
The conspiracy theories about the virus range from it being a biological weapon created by the Chinese government, that it is a conspiracy created by U.S. democrats to prevent Trump’s reelection, or that the CIA created the virus in order to lessen China’s power. Another conspiracy theory that has been circulating, due to a QAnon conspiracy theorist on YouTube, is that the COVID-19 pandemic was created by the Pirbright Institute in England and by Bill Gates, former CEO of Microsoft. The themes that emerge from these conspiracy theories point to fears and anxieties typical of the right-wing surrounding globalization, multiculturalism, and government cover-ups on the level of the belief of a “New World Order.”

Additionally, Twitter analysis found that there are number of bots that are intentionally spreading disinformation about the virus and the pandemic itself, further strengthening beliefs among conspiracy theorists and the radical right that the media is “overblowing” the significance of the virus. Donald Trump, the president of the United States, has actively been retweeting and sharing information that is blatantly false about COVID-19, specifically that the U.S. has contained the virus, as well as false information about the fatality rate.

*                    *                    *

COVID-19, like other pandemics, has been politicized among the far-right in the United States and worldwide to stoke the fire of Sinophobia, hatred toward the left, and xenophobia toward immigrants in general. ... Fox News personalities like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham repeatedly refer to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Coronavirus” or even “the Wuhan flu.” ... Right-wing media figures have also used the outbreak to justify the building of the border wall, to halt immigration, and to disparage the U.S.’s dependence on the Chinese economy.
"Scapegoat" (Bouc émissaire) - bronze by C. Jongen
Other critics of the far right have made related points. At the beginning of February, Ali Breland in Mother Jones detailed how a number of online conspiracy theorists were not only conjuring up unsubstantiated plots to explain the disease, but also using such claims to make money. And Right Wing Watch has carried several stories about the politics of the pandemic, such as one featuring “The Most Ridiculous Coronavirus Tweets from the Right”—ridiculous for their racism and/or contrived defense of Donald Trump’s policies.

These articles accurately describe a large and important part of the U.S. right-wing landscape. The costs of this rhetoric are stark, as the Trump administration’s brutal treatment of immigrants and refugees increases their risk of getting sick, and virus-scapegoating has brought an upsurge in verbal and physical attacks against Chinese and other Asian people.

At the same time, sections of the far right have also addressed the pandemic in ways that may be surprising to some critics. It’s true that many conservative commentators have been trivializing the disease and claim the Democrats have been overblowing the situation in order to weaken the president. However, some of the most wild-eyed right-wing conspiracists have been saying the opposite for weeks (in some cases a couple of months)—warning that the disease is deadly serious, mainstream conservatives have been lying to the public, and the Trump administration has to do a lot more to address the crisis.

For example, Natural News founder Mike Adams, who is notorious for peddling everything from chemtrails conspiracy theories to herbal remedies for Ebola, has denounced “people like Dr. Drew, Rush Limbaugh, Mike Pence (who still promises millions of testing kits will appear any day now), the US Surgeon General and countless TV hosts, ‘journalists’ and talking heads who all assured the nation that the coronavirus was ‘no worse than the flu.’” Far from defending the president, Adams declares, “It’s time to stop thinking that Trump might be the answer to defeat the deep state and, instead, start thinking about how the entire corrupt, incompetent, malicious, anti-human system of government/industry collusion needs to be allowed to self-destruct once and for all.”

Other rightist have echoed parts of this argument in more muted terms. Jackie Morgensen on the alt-right and antisemitic Darkmoon website ridiculed Trump’s claim that the U.S. is more prepared to combat the coronavirus than any other country by pointing out that the president cut most of the CDC’s money for fighting pandemics two years ago. (I found this article because it was reposted to the neonazi web forum Stormfront.) More surprisingly, the leading Patriot movement organization Oath Keepers, which as a rule has been staunchly loyal to Trump, published a series of articles calling the virus “a VERY real, very serious threat to our nation and its people” and urging the president to take aggressive measures long before he showed any willingness to do so.

A different sort of back-handed swipe at President Trump came from Cindy Jacobs, one of the top leaders of the Christian rightist New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) movement. NAR is massive, with some three million adherents in the United States and millions more on several other continents, and it has consistently supported Trump since the 2016 Republican primaries, through vehicles such as “POTUS Shield.” Like many other right-wing Christian leaders, Jacobs responded to the coronavirus by calling for a day of prayer. Yet one feature set Jacobs’ call apart—its internationalism:
[T]his is a wake-up call that we are a global church, and that the challenges affecting other nations truly affect us all. Pray for the nations as we pray for our own!

If you have been complacent about praying for other nations suffering from this virus, we encourage a time of reflection and repentance.
Jacobs’ global approach to the pandemic stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s nationalistic and xenophobic response, such as pressuring a German drug company to provide a coronavirus vaccine “for the US only.” It’s hard to read the NAR leader’s language as anything other than a rebuke of Make America Great Again ideology—and its top promoter.

My aim here is not to gloss over Jacobs’ or NAR’s authoritarian theocratic politics, or to suggest that right-wing conspiracism is less bad if it takes pandemics seriously. The point, rather, is that rightists don’t speak with one voice and don’t necessarily say what we expect them to say. Many U.S. far rightists have responded to the coronavirus by promoting nativist and white supremacist policies, dismissing science, and attacking Trump’s critics, but some have been ahead of the crowd in advocating social distancing and calling out the administration’s inaction, and a few have even challenged a nationalistic approach to public health as misguided. These differences point to deep-seated tensions and conflicts among rightists regarding Trump and many other issues. They also highlight far rightists’ dangerous capacity to incorporate elements of progressive politics into an oppressive and demonizing framework.

By C. Jongen (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.