Opposition is inevitable in an oppressive society. The conditions of alienation necessitates it. Those focused on maintaining hegemony recognize its inescapability and direct the creation of oppositional elements that fall under the control of the political and economic elite. The existence of a controlled opposition enables an outlet for the disaffected, while also limiting the disruption that this poses for the broader system. A controlled opposition, even when decried by some sectors of the dominant political-economic system, will be buttressed and legitimized by others. This particular drama is necessary in order for it to maintain its nominal appearance of being radical.
I was thinking about Iran’s rhetorical and military response to the assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani. The Iranian political leadership and civilians called for vengeance. This is quite a contrast to the penchant of American Negroes to forgive, almost reflexively, those who do ill to us.
I have wondered about the conceptual underpinnings of these differences. Many say that Christianity is at fault here. That Black people have been sedated by a very powerful opiate–a religion that compels fixation on the hereafter rather than the present world. Often we know better than this, that is that African Americans’ relationship with Christianity has been more complex than this, but nonetheless, such rhetoric persists–especially in the context of asymmetrical and racialized violence in America.
Then I was in a bookstore tonight and saw a book titled, “Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans” by Gayraud S. Wilmore. I glanced over it, didn’t buy it, but it stimulated a necessary reevaluation of some of these premises.
I recalled Nat Turner and Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, who though Christian, were advocates of armed insurrection or armed self-defense. Turner, for his part, reportedly said that his rebellion began with a sign for God. Bishop McNeal Turner famously declared that “God is a Negro”. He would go on to argue in favor of armed self-defense. He stated: “We have had it in our mind to say this for over seven years, but on account of our Episcopal status we hesitated to express ourselves thus, fearing it would meet the disapproval of the House of Bishops. But their approval or disapproval has done nothing to stop the fiendish murderers who stalk abroad and are exterminating my race, so we have now said it, and hereafter we shall speak it, preach it, tell it, and write it. Again we say, Get guns, negroes! get guns, and may God give you good aim when you shoot.” Turner’s instruction is a historical echo of the 20th Century group, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, whose commitment to armed self-defense, reminds us that Christianity has also been an idiom of armed struggle or armed self-defense.
At a certain level I think that this suggests that African people have been sufficiently ingenious so as marshal a range of conceptual vehicles as mediums of radical thought. Hence we find that the idiom of revolutionary or insurrectionary struggle has variously been that of “New World” African spiritualities (as in the case of Haiti), Christianity (as in the case of Nat Turner), Islam (as in the case of Malcolm X), to say nothing of non-religious voices. The imperative for resistance has, at times, been of greater import than the medium of its articulation, which has variously become malleable in the hands and minds of those who see its utility for radical ends.
The spirit of an age: Confusion and alienation
In his writings, W.E.B. Du Bois refers to the “spirit of an age” at least once explicitly, and numerous times implicitly. The “spirit of an age” is the essence, energy, or character that characterizes a particular time period. It is the prevailing mood or personality of a given historical moment.
One might argue, for instance, that the spirit of the age of the mid-1950s to early 1970s was one of mass-struggle, as movements for self-determination or social justice were being waged in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe. These movements ran parallel to the state manifesting varying degrees of reform and/or suppression, as these struggles challenged its basic legitimacy.
Similarly, the 1980s and 1990s, and to some extent the 2000s–in the U.S. in particular–were characterized by the ascendance of acquisitiveness, consumerism, and materialistic impulses. All of this was paralleled by a reconfiguration of the state, greater economic insecurity, globalization, and the rapid ascent of technological revolutions in the areas of telecommunications, finance, and commerce.
I would argue that our present moment, the 2010s, is characterized by abounding confusion and alienation, as the “progressive” politics of our day reinforce an untenable status quo in the forms of appeals to reform, despite the fact that we have reached a point in the development of the U.S.’s political-economy where reform is wholly insufficient to move progressively from the current state of things to a truly emancipatory order. In fact, and in many instances, the politics of identity, are advanced as if they were the apex of critical discourse. While appeals to identity may be viscerally appealing to some, liberatory movements must ultimately offer both a critique of and alternative to the existing order. Thus even the most aggressive, seductive, or irrepressible movements of our time are generally insufficient to either disrupt, dismantle, or problematize an increasingly dangerous neo-liberal capitalism, a recalcitrant white racism, or the fratricidal violence of communities that function as almost de-facto sites of “internal colonialism”. This is because, I ague, that these movements, and much of what comprises this cultural moment reflects “abounding confusion and alienation”, and that this myopia is, generally, inescapable and endemic.