Jan 202011

BY PAUL STREET  [print_link]

“The culture of New Age Racism also brought blacks to the age of Oprah” – Elaine Brown, 2002

“A Real Black-Tie Event:”
Love, Tears, and Racial Progress

I recently caught a snippet of television that was relevant for understanding the savage persistence of stark racial inequality in the United States.  I was flipping the dial late at night and caught part of Oprah.  She was speaking to Oscar favorite Jamie Fox, who appeared on a giant screen, sitting in front of a piano.  They were talking about his experience playing Ray Charles in the movie “Ray.” 

The multi-billionaire Oprah mentioned that she realized she could “be anything I wanted to be” when Sidney Poitier won the first Academy award ever given to an African American.  She told Jamie that she loved him.  The multi-millionaire Jamie informed Oprah that he loved her back. 

They spoke cheerfully about the significant black presence that will be displayed at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, which is being hosted by the black comedian Chris Rock.  “It’s really going to be a black-tie event this year,” Jamie said.  Everybody laughed. 

Jamie played a song on the piano.  Oprah and Jamie exchanged some more “I love yous.”  It looked like Oprah was tearing up. Many of her predominantly white female audience members seemed equally moved. 

They were happy for Jamie and Oprah and Chris Rock and all the other African-Americans who have “made it” in the United States.  And they were happy for America’s benevolent decision to slay the beast of racism and open the doors of equal opportunity to all. It was another chance for white self-congratulation and for whites to forget about – and lose more sympathy for – the large number of black Americans who are nowhere close to making it in post-Civil Rights America.

Still Savage Inequalities

For a considerable portion of whites in “post-Civil Rights” America, black-white integration and racial equality are more than just accepted ideals.  They are also, many believe,accomplished realities, showing that we have overcome racial disparity. According to a survey conducted by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, and Harvard University in the spring of 2001, more than 4 in 10 white Americans believe that blacks are “as well off as whites in terms of their jobs, incomes, schools, and health care.”

The 2000 US Census numbers that were being crunched as this poll was taken did not support this belief.  More than three and a half decades after the historic victories of the black Civil Rights Movement, the census showed, equality remained a highly elusive goal for African-Americans. In a society that possesses the highest poverty rate and the largest gaps between rich and poor in the industrialized world, blacks are considerably poorer than whites and other racial and ethnic groups.  Economic inequality correlated so closely with race that:

  • African-Americans were twice as likely to be unemployed as whites.
  • To attain equal employment in the United States between blacks and white, 700,000 more African-Americans would have had to be moved out of unemployment and nearly two million African-Americans would have to be promoted into higher paying positions.
  • The poverty rate for blacks was more than twice the rate for whites.
  • Nearly one out of every two blacks earned less than $25,000 but one in three whites made that little.
  • Median black household income ($27,000) was less than two thirds of median white household income ($42,000).
  • Black families’ median household net worth was less than 10 percent that of whites. The average white household has a net worth of $84,000 but the average black household is worth only $7,500.
  • Blacks were much less likely to own their own homes than whites.  Nearly three-fourths of white families but less than half of black families owned their homes. 

Meanwhile, blacks were 12.3 percent of U.S. population, but comprised nearly half of the roughly 2 million Americans currently behind bars. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of black men in jail or prison grew fivefold (500 percent), to the point where, the Justice Policy Institute reported in 2002, there were more black men behind bars than enrolled in colleges or universities in the U.S.  On any given day, 30 percent of African-American males ages 20 to 29 were under correctional supervision – either in jail or prison or on probation or parole. According to the best social science estimates in 2002, finally, one in five black men was saddled with a prison record and an astounding one in three black men possessed a felony record.

“They’ve Got the NBA – What More Do They Want?”

Ask white Americans who think that blacks are equal to (or even ahead of) whites what exactly they are talking about and you won’t get census data.  You’ll hear about Oprah, Michael Jordan, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Barack Obama, the guy who leads Jay Leno’s band, or the black lawyer or doctor who recently moved into their neighborhood. The white father of a white friend of mine contributes the following pearl of wisdom regarding what he sees as black Americans’ exaggerated sense of grievance and entitlement: “they’ve got the NBA – what more do they want?”      

Wildly popular among white viewers, “The Cosby Show” helped fuel some of this sort of thinking during the Reagan era. As left culture critic Mark Crispin Miller noted in a 1986 essay titled “Cosby Knows Best,” the affluent, hyper-consumerist, apolitical African-American Huxtable family – headed by the affable, impish obstetrician Cliff (played by Dr. Cosby himself) – functioned as “an ad, implicitly proclaiming the fairness of the American System: ‘Look! [Cosby shows us] Even I can have all this!’” “On ‘The Cosby show,’” Miller noted, “it appears as if blacks in general can have, and do have, what many whites enjoy and that such material equality need not entail a single break-in.  And there are no hard feelings, none at all, now that the old injustices have been so easily rectified.”  Consistent with its mission of selling the American System and the related idea that America’s racial divisions had been overcome, “The Cosby Show” refused to permit any “negativity” on the screen.  “This is a conscious policy,” Miller noted, observing that “Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard, reads through each script as a ‘consultant,’ censoring any line or bit that might somehow tarnish the show’s ‘positive image.’ And the show’s upscale mise-en scene has also been deliberately contrived to glow, like a fixed smile. ‘When you look at the artwork [on the show’s walls], there is a positive feeling, an up-feeling,’ Cosby says. ‘You don’t see downtrodden, negative I Can’t Do, I won’t do.’”

Separatism and Its Consequences

Part of the problem behind many whites’ racial equality understanding gap is segregation, which continues at high levels. White women might flock en masse to their black princess Oprah’s Chicago television studio to receive inspiration, wisdom, and (on lucky days) surplus commodities, but Oprah’s home city is harshly segregated by race.  The Chicago metropolitan area has a black-white dissimilarity measure of 80.8, meaning that more than four out of every five area blacks would have to move for African-Americans to be distributed evenly with whites throughout the metropolitan area. Within Chicago, 74 percent of black residents live in neighborhoods that are 90 percent or more African-American.The average Chicago black lives in a census tract where 4 of every 5 residents (81.1%) are African-American, while the average white lives in a census tract where less than 1 in 10 people (8.9 percent) is African-American.

 Fifty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision ruled that “separate is unequal,” the average black K-12 public student in Chicago attends a school that is 86 percent black.  Two hundred and seventy four schools, (or 47 percent) of the city’s 579 public elementary and high schools are 90 percent or more African American and 173 of these schools – or 30 percent of all public schools in the city – are 100 percent black.

Of the half million blacks living outside Chicago in the six county Chicago metropolitan area in 1999, 70 percent lived in Chicago’s Cook County, the great majority residing south of the central city.  More than half (52 percent) of all suburban blacks reside in just 13 south suburban Cook County towns – this in a broader metropolitan area that is home to 265 local municipalities.  

Under such separatist – dare we say apartheid? – conditions (and Chicago is no longer the most segregated city in the nation), large numbers of whites have only the slightest sense of the reality of black experience.  The corporate-electronic visual mass culture is their main source on that experience and that medium presents a dangerously schizophrenic image of black America split between super-successful and largely admirable (not-all-that) black superstars (Oprah being the best of all) and dangerous (all-too) black perpetrators (though many successful black athletes and artists inhabit what seems to be in an intermediary category of their own: successful perpetrators).  The majority of ordinary, hard-working black Americans who happen to be neither rich nor criminal are amazingly invisible on television and in the broader white-owned corporate communications empire.

“We Got the Message…Now Get On With It”

In my teaching and public-speaking experience, you can make progress with some whites who mistakenly think blacks are now “equal” (or better) by reminding them that the only blacks they “know” are on their televisions and citing the relevant disparity statistics.  The really intractable blocks to white racial understanding revolve around the “why,” not the “what” of racial disparity. Insofar as stark differences in wealth, health, income, security and general well-being persist between blacks and whites, the large majority of white Americans deny that anti-black racism is the cause. Many whites point to the elimination of numerous discriminatory laws and barriers as well as the passage of equal employment legislation and affirmative action as proof that American society “bent over backwards” to guarantee blacks equal opportunity.  Convinced that racism is no longer a significant problem for blacks, most whites find the real barriers to black success and equality within the African-American community itself.  If problems for blacks persist, many whites and some privileged blacks (e.g. John McWhorter at the Manhattan Institute) think it’s only because too many blacks engage in “self-sabotaging” behaviors.  “As white America sees it,” note Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown in their excellent study By The Color of Their Skin: the Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race,(2000), “every effort has been made to welcome blacks into the American mainstream and now they’re on their own.”  In the glorious self-help “New Age,” it’s all about self-victimization and self-help.  The thing is for black people to conquer their inner demons. 

Predominant white attitudes at the turn of the millennium are well summarized by the comments of a white respondent to a survey conducted by Essence magazine.  “No place that I’m aware of,” wrote the respondent, “makes [black] people ride on the back of the bus or use a different restroom in this day and age.  We got the message; we made the corrections – get on with it.”

Black Bourgeois Victim-Blaming as Music to White Ears

Even among some African-American intellectuals who describe themselves as “left” and/or “center-left,” there is a tendency in “the post-Civil Rights” era to question the notion that “race” or (more accurately) racism is a significant reason for the persistently disproportionate presence of blacks at the bottom of America’s steep socioeconomic and institutional hierarchies. In a recent PBS documentary revealingly titled “America Beyond the Color Line,” Harvard’s reigning black intellectual Henry Louis “Skip” Gates argues that “class” has replaced “race” as the main problem for black America.  “Class” for Gates means that that poor blacks need to work harder and smarter to acquire the skills, education, habits and values possessed in greater degree by their black economic superiors, including the leading US imperialist (favorably portrayed in “Beyond The Color Line”) Colin Powell, who is featured as an example of what blacks can accomplish when they work hard, study, save and behave decently.

The main “class problem” that Gates portrayed in “America Beyond” is that poor blacks just don’t…well…have any (class, that is). “Unless there is a moral revolution and a revolution in attitude among our people,” Gates says, “unless [poor blacks] decide to stay in school, learn the ABCs, not to get pregnant when you’re 16, not to run drugs, not to sell drugs…we’re doomed to have a relatively small black middle class and huge underclass and never the twain shall meet.  The only way we can succeed in society,” Gates told the Chicago Tribune in 2003, “is by mastering the ABCs, staying in school, working hard, deferred gratification.  What’s happened to these values?,” asks Gates.

“My father always said,” Gates elaborated, “and it’s true, if we studied calculus like we studied basketball, we’d be running MIT.  It’s true and there’s no excuse” (Johnson, “Beyond Gates”).

This was the key theme in Gates’ earlier PBS documentary “Two Nations.” In that earlier rendition of his version of the “class over race” thesis, Gates proclaimed that black poverty was about poor decisions: “deciding to get pregnant or not to have protected sex.  Deciding to do drugs.  Deciding not to study.  Deciding, deciding, deciding…”

By my Caucasian experience, this sort of talk is music to most whites’ ears.  The majority of whites love to see black middle- and upper-class authority figures blame non-affluent blacks for their own problems. “See,” millions of American whites murmured after Cosby celebrated the 50th anniversary of theBrown decision by assaulting the black community’s “lower economic people”…. “…see this is what I mean. It’s their own fault.  Don’t take it from me, don’t talk about racism, listen to one of their own.  Listen to Bill Cosby.” With the perceived blessing of Cosby et al., whites are free to ignore numerous racist policies and practices they are personally responsible for tolerating and, often enough, perpetrating:

● racial bias in real estate and home lending that reflects and empowers the refusal of whites to live next door to blacks

● a largely policy-enforced shortage of affordable housing in predominantly white opportunity-rich communities

● the proliferation of expensive, publicly funded suburban and ex-urban roads and developments that encourage the removal of economic activity and social resources ever further away the disproportionately black inner city

● the funding of schools largely on the basis of local property wealth

● excessive use of high-stakes standardized and related zero-tolerance practices in predominantly black public schools

● the hyper-segregation of black children into high-poverty schools

● racial discrimination in hiring and union-managed apprentice-training admissions

● the racially disparate “War on Drugs” and the related campaign of mass black imprisonment and felony-marking

● the aggressive pursuit of welfare caseload reduction without concomitant efforts to increase economic opportunity in poor black communities

● the disproportionate investment of local public economic development funding dollars to communities that need assistance the least and the diversion of those funds away from communities that need those funds the most

● the widespread mainstream determination to blame poor blacks for their own plight and to ignore the deep and special historical and related ongoing societal obstacles to equality faced by African-Americans.

This list goes on.

Racism’s Two Levels

The main problem with the conventional mainstream white wisdom on the disappearance of racism is a failure to distinguish adequately between overt and covert or institutional racism.  The first variety of racism has a long and sordid history. It includes such actions, policies and practices as the burning of black homes and black churches, the public use of derogatory racial slurs and epithets, the open banning of blacks from numerous occupations, the open political disenfranchisement of blacks and the open segregation of public facilities by race.  It is largely defeated, outlawed and discredited in the US.  Witness the rapid public humiliation and political demotion of Trent Lott, who lost his position as United States Senate Majority Leader after he spoke in nostalgic terms about the openly segregationist 1948 Presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond.   

The second variety involves the more impersonal operation of social and institutional forces and processes in ways that “just happen” but nonetheless serve to reproduce black disadvantage in the labor market and numerous other sectors of American life.  It includes racially discriminatory real estate and home-lending practices, residential “white flight” (from black neighbors), statistical racial discrimination in hiring and promotion, the systematic under-funding and under-equipping of schools predominately attended by blacks relative to schools predominately attended by whites, the disproportionate surveillance, arrest and incarceration of blacks and much more. It permits whites to routinely engage in many of the same “self-sabotaging” behaviors that mainstream U.S. wisdom portrays as the essential cause of black inequality without experiencing the same degree of terrible consequences as are visited upon blacks for “bad” beliefs and actions.  Under its reign, poor blacks are lectured to get their values and behavior together but no wake-up call is issued for structurally empowered white Americans to stop “deciding, deciding, deciding” to:

● deny blacks equal access to the nation’s highest opportunity communities  through a panoply of well-documented discriminatory real-estate, home-lending, and zoning practices and policies.

● target blacks for historically and globally unmatched mass incarceration and felony marking, thereby richly exacerbating the already deep socioeconomic and political disadvantage of lower-class African-Americans.

● maintain strict lines of racial segregation between predominantly black and under funded inner city schools and predominantly white, affluent, and well-funded suburban school districts.

● divert hundreds of billions of dollars from social programs needed to assist the victims of domestic U.S. structural racism to pay for economically dysfunctional tax cuts that benefit the disproportionately white opulent few and to pay for an objectively racist foreign policy that pays its primary dividends to wealthy whites.

● disinvest in communities of color, helping create the barren material underpinning for neighborhoods where adults males with felony records and prison histories are more numerous than livable wage jobs.

● protect various overseas drug lords who happen to serve America’s imperial objectives while conducting a massive domestic anti-narcotics campaign that is significantly less effective and much more expensive than treatment when it comes to mitigating the ravages of substance abuse and generates the critical raw material (black bodies) for the nation’s remarkable, globally unmatched and white-run prison industrial complex.

● permeate severely disadvantaged black neighborhoods with predatory financial institutions that exploit ghetto residents’ limited economic choices.

●  go easy with affluent white corporate and high-state criminals who devastate untold lives and communities with fraudulent practices and schemes while consigning hundreds of thousands of poor blacks to hard time in violent mass incarceration facilities for small-time narcotics transgressions that are deemed unworthy of imprisonment in every other nation in the democratic world.

● subvert the meaning and significance of American democracy by constructing a preposterously expensive, big-money and big-media-dominated “winner-take-all” election system that makes it absurdly difficult for racial, ethnic, and ideological minorities to translate their vital needs and perspectives into policy.  

● attack “affirmative action” college admissions practices that help try to marginally compensate a minority of blacks for centuries of structural racism while maintaining silence over “legacy” admissions practices that reward predominantly white applicants (i.e., Harvard and Yale graduate George W. Bush) for being born into a family that attended the same school in the past.

The “Oprah Effect” and the Foretold Price of Civil Rights Victory

Richly enabled by policymakers who commonly declare allegiance to anti-racist ideals, the second, deeper level of racism has an equally ancient history that has more than merely outlived open, public American racism and the passage of civil rights legislation. Covert racism may actually be deepened by these civil rights victories and by related partial black upward mobility into the middle and upper classes insofar as those victories and achievements have served to encourage the illusion that racism has disappeared and that the only obstacles left to African-American success and equality are internal to individual blacks and their community – the idea that, in Derrick Bell’s phrase, “theindolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races.” Indeed, “it’s hard,” Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown note, “to blame [white and even some black] people” for believing – falsely in Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown’s view – that racism is dead in America “when our public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration ideal and our ostensible progress towards achieving it.” 

“There are [now] enough examples of successful middle-class African-Americans,” Georgetown law professor Sheryl Cashin notes, “to make many whites believe that blacks have reached parity with them.  The fact that some blacks now lead powerful mainstream institutions offers evidence to whites that racial barriers have been eliminated; the issue now is individual effort.”  The “odd black family on the block or the Oprah effect – examples of stratospheric black success – feed,” Cashin observes, “these misperceptions, even as relatively few whites live among and interact daily with blacks of their own standing.”  Episodes and events like the brief humiliation of Lott or the election of a black Mayor or U.S. Senator or City Hall’s criticism of racist sentiments on the part of bigoted white firemen offer opportunities for public officials and the broader mass culture to pat themselves on their back for advancing beyond the primitive state of open racism even while they promote policies that dig the hole of more covert institutional or societal racism yet deeper.

Martin Luther King. Jr. sensed some of the danger here at the outset.  He noted in 1967 that “many whites hasten to congratulate themselves on what little progress [black Americans] have made.  I’m sure,” King opined, “that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved.  Most white people are so removed from the life of the average Negro,” King added, “there has been little to challenge that assumption.”

“Change Your Life,” Not the System: The Full Effect

Oprah’s usefulness in fueling white racism denial goes beyond the fact that she is one of the richest people in the world – sufficiently wealthy to periodically hand out millions of dollars worth of consumer goodies to hundreds of assembled middle-class white women in her studio audience. The full toxic “Oprah effect” is also about the how of her ascendancy. Like Powell, Rice, and perhaps now Obama, Oprah is perceived by many whites as succeeding because she’s “not all that black,” as Powell once described himself: because she has absorbed dominant white middle- and upper-class “self-help” values and rejects the supposedly obsolete and dysfunctional effort to make white America face up to – and pay for – its racist structures, policies, and practices, past and present. 

It’s a carefully cultivated perception. With her army of disproportionately Caucasian counselors, personal trainers, fitness consultants, personal chefs, massage therapists, interior designers, and New Age healers, Oprah has taken an “inner journey” toward primarily personal healing and accountability and away from the collective struggle for racial equality and social justice.  “The other kids were all into black power,” Oprah told the Tribune in the mid-1980s. But “I wasn’t a dashiki kind of woman … Excellence was the best deterrent to racism and that became my philosophy.”  As her programming became ever more racially “sanitized” during the 1990s, Elaine Brown notes (in her excellent book The Condemnation of Little B [Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2002]), Oprah’s emphasis focused on “providing …comfort to what became her core audience of white women, in the form of ‘lifestyle’ and glamour ‘makeovers,’ diets, and New Age self-healing readings and practices and endless self-deprecating discourse over her own weight and ‘nappy’ hair.”  “Winfrey carefully avoided using her unparalleled power and voice on behalf of black women,” Brown bitterly observes, “even as the political agenda pounded poor black women and their children ever deeper into poverty and degradation.” 

Today, while American inequalities of class and color are worsened by racist imperial adventure in the Middle East, Oprah trumpets and exemplifies narcissistic personal obsession, egoistic wealth accumulation, and the narrow pursuit of individual “excellence” amidst permanent, unchallenged, and brutal social injustice. In Oprah’s world, it’s all about how to “Change Your Life,” a slogan that does not mean engaging with fellow African Americans, other people of color, and white allies in the difficult and often dirty struggle to challenge hierarchy and democratize society.  It’s mainly about private color-blind solutions and personal experience.  It means working with what Brown calls “a group of whites possessing curious credentials” (New Age healers and consultants), the great struggle to look and feel better inside the smaller circles of daily life – circles that happen, in Oprah’s case, to be situated at the super-opulent heights of a grotesquely unequal societal pyramid that grants more than 2 billion world citizens less than a dollar a day on which to live the good life that is sold in Oprah’s show and magazine.  

As for the participants in the upcoming and aforementioned “black tie event” (the Academy Awards), it is worth recalling the meaner side of black upper-class elitism, expressed by Chris Rock in his popular routine “Niggas vs. Black People.” Rock divides black America into two classes, Cosby’s “lower economic people” being the “Niggas.” “I love black people,” Rock says, “but I hate niggas! Boy, I wish they’d let me join the Klu Klux Klan.”

Now there’s something for Oprah’s predominantly white audience to get teary-eyed about, after a bit of advice on how to decorate their next palatial Hollywood mansion more perfectly in accord with the unmet needs of their inner child. 

Paul Street (pstreet99@sbcglobal.net) is the author ofEmpire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11(Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004) and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago(Chicago, IL: The Chicago Urban League, April 2005

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Jan 202011

Alex Doherty interviews Paul Street

January 20, 2011 |  [print_link]


[* This interview originally appeared as “Jared Loughner and the Paranoid Style” on the Web site of New Left Project (UK) at: http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/jared_loughner_and_the_paranoid_style/]

1. Doherty: In the wake of the killings in Tuscon the tea party and their fellow travelers have been attacked for their lack of civility and for constant use of military metaphors regarding their opponents in the Democratic Party. Is civility really the key issue here?

Street: No, it isn’t. Citizens have no special obligation to be gracious and polite – to show “good manners” on the model of an aristocratic tea party – toward politicians and each other in a democracy.  Real civic democracy often involves rugged and passionate conflict. Egos get bruised.  Harsh words are exchanged. Unpleasant truths are spoken to and against power, often in justifiably angry tones. 

On military metaphors, they are nothing new. Factions and parties and activists have spoke of rallying troops, winnings battles, waging wars, targeting opponents, raising campaign (finance) “war chests” and the like – making militarized political analogies and metaphors – since the beginning.  

The elite call for civility generally reflects and expresses the “better sort’s” fear of “the rabble’s” “populist rage” – of the non-affluent majority’s legitimate popular anger. And ordinary people get understandably irate and “uncivil” when “representative democracy” translates into too much representation for powerful corporations and financial interests and little if any real democracy for the people. That translation is deeply entrenched in the U.S. , where, as the American philosopher John Dewey noted a century ago, “politics is the shadow cast on society by business.” U.S. policy now seems more captive than ever to the closet dictatorship of money. Lots of regulars are reasonably outraged by that.  As the left liberal commentator William Greider put in (in a column titled “Obama Asked us to Speak, but is he Listening?”) in the spring of 2009: “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.  They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the [economic] catastrophe.  They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.” 

During the Iowa presidential Caucus campaign, the Democratic candidate John Edwards used to say that big progressive change could never be accomplished without “an epic fight with concentrated wealth and power” (whether Edwards actually wished to wage that fight is an open question). He openly and quite impolitely attacked Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as “corporate Democrats” and mocked Obama’s “Kumbaya” notion that good results could come from “sitting down at a big negotiating table with corporations and Republicans.” Obama scored points with corporate funders and the corporate media by rejecting Edwards’ common-sense populist rhetoric as uncivil, arguing in a Des Moines debate that “we don’t need more heat, we need more light.” We have seen who his bringers of “light” are – the very same Wall Street and Pentagon overlords who ran the country into the ground under George W. Bush. Lecturing the masses on the need for civility while making policy on behalf of the rich and powerful is an ugly elitist game.  

Still, the Tea Party’s particular brand of incivility should be a source of concern. It has little to do with legitimate popular anger.  The Tea Party is basically the fake- and rancid-populist right wing of an ever more reactionary, racist, plutocratic and authoritarian Republican Party.  It is largely a corporate-funded, corporate-crafted, and corporate media-ted, top-down phenomenon, Its membership is disproportionately affluent and very predominantly white and its rage is directed primarily (and quite illegitimately) at the poor, blacks, Latinos, Muslims and at government programs that serve – or are perceived as supporting – the disadvantaged.  Its anger often takes paranoid forms, including the widespread and highly moronic sense among Tea Partiers that Obama is some type of socialist and Marxist totalitarian who is scheming to steal American prosperity and freedom.

The Tea Party does include on its margins dodgy, hard-right, proto-fascistic elements who advocate violence against “government” (a third of “Tea Party activists” surveyed by CBS and the New York Times last April agreed that it is “justified for citizens to take violent action against the government”), immigrants, and “the left” (a category that for Tea Partiers seems to range from Angelina Jolie and Charles Schumer to the local natural foods coop, NBC, and Hugo Chavez.) Attachment to guns (including rapid- and repeat-fire assault weapons that are about killing large numbers of human beings) runs strong with many Tea Partiers, especially among its more extreme elements. So does a deep sense of persecution and powerlessness in the face of “big government” and other large forces.  When we factor in ongoing economic insecurity, the deepening mental illness and even psychosis of many isolated and marginalized Americans, the absence of a serious mental health policy in the U.S., widespread deadly-gun ownership and lax gun laws (Arizona allows citizens to carry concealed weapons without a permit) it becomes a cause for apprehension when:

* Tea Party chapters put up billboards telling citizens to “PREPARE FOR WAR” with a “Marxist” government (their openly idiotic take on the corporate-imperial Obama administration).  This happened last year.

* Tea Party inspirational leader and neo-John Bircher Glenn Beck uses his widely viewed prime-time far right Fox “News” television show to compare American progressives to Osama bin Laden and to say the following to the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress:  “Shoot me in the head if you try to change our government—I will stand against you. And so will millions of others.”  This happened last June.

* Beck advances on air a hypothetical scenario where the government is considering taking his children because he refused to let them receive a mandatory flu vaccine and tells the audience that his response to the government would be “Meet Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson.” This happened last October.

* Beck regularly screams at callers-in, condemns his detractors as dangerous anti-Christian socialists, and calls for armed rebellion to “take the country back” from horrid leftist “progressives” and the “big government” they support.

* Fox “News” host Bill O’Reilly fantasizes on air about killing a Washington Post reporter and tells co-host Megyn Kelly, “I think you and I should go and beat him up” (this happened last November)  - a comment that is consistent with O’Reilly’s regular practice of verbal bullying, coupled with hints of physical coercion.  O’Reilly and Beck regularly interrupt and “out shout” opponents. O’Reilly cuts guests off, yelling “I don’t want to hear it.”’  He calls his critics “pinheads” and orders them to “shut up!”  O’Reilly has physically threatened those on “the left” on more than one occasion. His latest bestselling book is titled “Pinheads and Patriots” – a title meant to question the Americanism as well as the intelligence of liberals and leftists.

* 24 percent of Tea Party supporters and 32 percent of Tea Party activists believe that political goals can be legitimately pursued through “violent action against the government.”  This opinion was registered in an April 2010 CBS-New York Times poll, which also found that more than three in four of those activists get their television political news from Fox .

* Rick Barber, a Tea Party candidate seeking the Republican nomination in Alabama ’s Second Congressional District, runs a campaign advertisement in which he compares taxation and “the tyrannical health care bill” to slavery and the extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany. “We live in perilous times … We are all becoming slaves to our government,” Barber warned. The “army of voters” depicted in his ad included a number of openly armed individuals.  This happened last June.

* Katherine Crabill, a Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates in the state’s 99th District, calls on Americans to resist the “radical” course Obama was supposedly setting for the country.  Appearing at a “Tea Party” rally, Crabill says that  “We have a chance to fight this battle at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box.”  This happened in July of 2009.

* Gabrielle Giffords’ hard right 2010 Congressional opponent Jesse Kelly holds a gun event that is billed as follows on the Pima County Republican website: “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office.  Shoot a fully automatic M-16 with Jesse Kelly.”  This happened last June.

The problem with all these thuggish, gun-slinging and violence-threatening right-wingers isn’t incivility as such.  It’s a toxic mixture of elite-sponsored arch-authoritarianism, nationalism, paranoia, and racism – all connected to the advance and defense of “gun rights” (including the right to brandish a semi-automatic Glock pistol at your local coffee shop) and a culture and discourse of physical coercion and violence. With Fox “News” and the right-wing talk radio network, the ugly brew is quite ubiquitous in the reigning media-politics culture. Its like constant background chatter now.

The president, the media and much of the political class are on this big civility kick.  They are using the Loughner atrocity to quell citizen anger as such – to marginalize real and legitimate popular discontent. I have nothing but uncivil contempt for those who posit a moral equivalence of “incivility” between an armed rightist who uncivilly attacks a federal official or structure and an unarmed antiwar marcher who uncivilly chants “Hey Obama, what do you say, how many kids did you kill today?”  And that reminds me, it is a bit nauseating to get Gandhian lectures on nonviolence and the need for a “New Era of Civility” from a president who rains deadly bombs and drone-launched missiles on wedding parties, children, and villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Somalia . I am reminded of Bill Clinton waxing eloquent and teary-eyed about the need for love and healing in the wake of the Columbine school shootings (April 20, 1999)  while he was criminally bombing Serbia (between March 24 and June 11, 1999) and continuing the “economic sanctions” that killed more than a million Iraqis during the 1990s.

2. Doherty: The tea party has pointed to the mental instability of Jared Loughner and his interest in leftist literature to deflect criticism of themselves. Can the Tea Party really be blamed for this atrocity?

Street: Well, not really. Jared Loughner is not a Tea Partier and I doubt that he has been personally influenced by the Tea Party phenomenon much if at all. Technically insane or not, he is a type of lethal rightist that has been around in the U.S. for some time, since before the rise of the Tea Party phenomenon. As professor Zoltan Grossman recently noted on ZNet, Loughner is a particular kind of American fascist – a “constitutionalist fascist, cut from the cloth of the Posse Comitatus,” a survivalist militia founded in Wisconsin during the 1970s.  I’ll quote Grossman at some length because he gets to the essence of Loughner’s world view and helps explains the confusion (which right wing media is predictably advancing) between Loughner’s ideas (articulated rather clearly on a YouTube video posted last year) and leftist ideas:

“The Posse threatened judges, killed a number of people, and outgunned police SWAT teams at the time. It has since spun off into a variety of ‘plenipotentiary judges’ (affiliated with the Sovereign Citizens Movement and other ‘common-law’ groups) that issue their own liens, and refuse to pay taxes or apply for identification. Like Loughner, they deny the worth of U.S. currency as not backed by gold or silver, which they claim the Constitution requires.”

“The motivations of constitutionalist fascist movements are quite different than the current Tea Party conservative populists. They tended not to follow Christian fundamentalism, but promoted their own brand of ‘Christian Identity,’ heavily racialized and driven by global conspiracy theories dominated by Jews (or euphemisms thereof, such as bankers or the Federal Reserve System). They may be mentally unbalanced, but somewhat rational in how they emulate and follow the example of earlier far-right militants such as Tim McVeigh.”

“Much like McVeigh or the followers of Lyndon LaRouche, they do not defend the capitalist status quo, but pose themselves as a right-wing revolutionary alternative to it. They often oppose the same things as leftists–such as military interventions, trade deals, corporate power, and government surveillance–but for entirely different reasons. Their goals are to ‘protect U.S. sovereignty,’ cut off contact with foreign peoples and the United Nations, and attack the global financial conspiracy.”

“Loughner repeated another hallmark of most fascists, by declaring in his video that the government is practicing ‘mind control’ and brainwashing citizens through the educational system–even through the structure of English grammar itself. Some of these views are promoted in American Renaissance, a magazine that describes itself as “ America’s premiere publication of racial-realist thought.”

“…Loughner’s views on grammar closely reflect those of David Wynn Miller, a Milwaukee-based far-right activist, and founder of the Sovereign Citizens Movement. Miller himself admitted that Loughner’s ‘argument sounded familiar,’ and ‘He’s probably been on my Web site, which has been up for about 11 years. The government does control the schools, and the schools determine the grammar and language we use. And then it is all reinforced by newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and everything we do in society.’” (See Zoltan Grossman, “Real Fascists in Our Midst,” ZNet, January 12, 2010 at http://www.zcommunications.org/real-fascists-in-our-midst-by-zoltan-grossman)

I doubt very much that Loughner needed to be exposed to Sarah Palin’s now infamous map – the one that used gun-sight imagery online to target “liberal” congresspersons, including Gabrielle Giffords, for removal – to be motivated to go after Giffords (against whom he seems to have held some personal grudge since 2007). Still, it’s pretty repellent to listen to Tea Party big shots claim pure innocence.  They and the broader resurgent right wing led by FOX News, hard right talk radio and much of the Republican Party (for which “the Tea Party” is a loud and obnoxious front) are a big part off the noxious mix – the arch-authoritarian poisoning of public discourse, the savage misdirection of personal and popular anger, and the high-decibel legitimizing of violence and guns. They are not directly or legally culpable but they have some moral responsibility for the shootings just like the “anti-government” right wing congressional Republicans of the 1990s (Gingrich and Dick Armey – both key Tea Party leaders today) had some real moral responsibility for Timothy McVeigh’s assault on the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

More than “the Tea Party,” I would blame (a) the absence of a serious mental health policy in this country and (b) lax U.S. and Arizona gun laws– the pathetic ease with which Loughner was able to obtain and use deadly weaponry calibrated for unspeakable carnage.  Loughner was deemed too mentally unstable to attend community college or join the U.S. Army, but he had no difficulty purchasing a Glock handgun and a 33-round magazine!  These two factors are particularly worrisome in a period when the investor and governing classes seem to have no use for masses of American citizens (15 million of whom are now officially unemployed [the real number of involuntarily jobless is much higher]  – the biggest number since the Great Depression) and as the right wing media empire (anchored by Fox) keeps up a steady drumbeat of vicious misinformation and hysterically instructs shattered people with fragile psyches and damaged mental faculties to “act now” (before its too late) against “socialist tyranny” (the right’s absurd take on Obama’s state-capitalist neoliberalism)…through the “bullet box” if necessary.

Of course, the Tea Party agenda – really just a loud and extreme version of the right-wing Republican agenda – would further advance the economic and social ingredients of rising toxicity. Its vision of America would turn the U.S. into an “Armed Madhouse” (the title of one of Greg Palast’s books – for Palast it’s already an accurate description), suggested in the following chilling post-slaughter comment  from Tea Party state representative Jack Harper (R-Arizona): “when everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim.”  Yes, let us all – women, men, boys, and girls (one of Loughner’s murdered victims was a third grader named Christina Taylor Green) strap on weapons and ammo before every trip to the supermarket or coffee shop. Last year Harper submitted a bill to the Arizona state legislature that would allow faculty members to carry guns on university campuses. Welcome to the wild west.

Of course the Democrats have proved fairly useless when it comes to helping ordinary Americans avert economic and personal decline. They have done little to overcome the disastrous consequences of epic recession, to restrict guns, and to bring about a sane mental health policy in this country. The Democratic Party is controlled by an amoral business elite that has been ruining American lives and driving untold numbers of working and middle class people out of their minds for more than three and a half decades now.  According to recent reports, Loughner had not received a paycheck in six months.  He’d been fired from at least five jobs, and had filed unsuccessful employment applications at more than 60 low-wage retail outlets.

3. Doherty: What do you make of Loughner’s interest in conspiracy theories and the wide interest in such theories across the political spectrum in the United States?

Street: Loughner is one of many U.S. citizens caught up in what the American historian Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics. By Hofstadter’s account in 1964, reflecting on the far-right Goldwater movement, this style was an old and recurrent phenomenon in U.S. public.  Notable for extreme and badly misdirected anger, the paranoid style is characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”—a sense that mysterious and nefarious forces have infiltrated and subverted the land, including the highest reaches of government and politics, threatening to enslave the republic. Paranoid-style groups and individuals tend to speak, think, and write in chiliastic and melodramatic terms, claiming to have discovered—and urging militant opposition to—powerful elitist forces of darkness. Examples past and present include mid-nineteenth-century nativist claims that “the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions;” late-nineteenth-century Populist warnings about “the secret cabals of the international gold ring;”; 1950s McCarthyism’s crusade against communists “high in this government;” and the 9/11 “Truth movement” (which insists that the al Qaeda jetliner attacks of September 2001 were an “inside job” conducted by the Bush administration to justify U.S. occupations in the Middle East and South Asia). These and other examples of paranoia in American history are a fairly predictable outcome of the contradiction between the nation’s ubiquitous claim to be a model democracy and the harsh authoritarian political and policy realities imposed by the deeply entrenched, structurally empowered super-citizenship of concentrated wealth and empire.  It also reflects the pronounced absence from American political life of commonsense class-based structural analyses of the aforementioned underlying conflict between capitalism and democracy. As Hofstadter noted, Americans afflicted by the paranoid tendency are often “shut out of the political process” and  “hav[e]no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions” and thus “find their … conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery.”

Powerful political actors who are not shut out of the political process exploit and sometimes fan the paranoid style to win support from those who are and/or feel powerless in the face of existing social and political forces. The paranoid style draws heavily on mass ignorance about “the actual machinery” of power, which is rendered un-mysterious in the commonsense class analysis that is so sadly taboo in the United States, where left thought is largely shunned by dominant educational and media institutions and left institutions are amazingly scarce. The right wing version of the paranoid style is currently experiencing a return to the center of American politics like no time in more than five decades – a return that is intimately linked to the disappearance an actual left, the death of mainstream liberalism, and the rise of the right wing media empire. 

4. Doherty: Many outside the United States are mystified by the determination of Americans to bear arms. Can you explain why events such as just occurred in Tuscon do not cause Americans to rethink the gun laws?

Street: This is a nutty country whose violent essence was nicely captured in the following Rage Against the Machine lyric: “rally ‘round yo family with a pocketful of shells.” The U.S. was founded and expanded as a militantly expansionist settler-imperialist “Gunfighter Nation” (Richard Slotkin) and gun-brandishing is no small part of the American mythology.  We’ve had numerous recent mass gun killings, from Columbine high school (Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, April 1999) to Virginia Tech (Seung Hui Cho, April 2007) toNorthern Illinois University (Steven Kazmierczak, February 2008) and so on and it’s always the same. We get the tearful speeches, the terrible funerals and memorials and the horrid profiles of the killers, with stories on the signs they showed, the treatment they didn’t receive, and the ease with which they obtained the instruments of mass butchery. The “armed madhouse” doesn’t change its guns laws and we just wait for the next outburst, chalking it up the dark side of human nature and the randomness of fate. This was the basic White House theme after the Loughner shootings. Obama turned to the Bible, telling mourners in Tuscon that “Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding.” Quoting from the Book of Job, the president informed his fellow Americans that “Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations afterward. None of us can know what triggered the attack or what could have been done to prevent it.” It doesn’t get much more insipid and watery than that.

I could probably go online and find a fair bit of public opinion data showing that many, maybe (who knows) most, Americans support stricter gun control laws and that U.S. support levels go up after incidents like these. But they have numerous majority progressive policy opinions that never seem to go anywhere in the narrow-spectrum U.S. political system. . The gun lobby is very powerful in Washington DC and in state capitals across the country and not many back-on-their-heels ordinary Americans are not likely to engage in a prolonged struggle against it – or against the oil lobby, the insurance lobby, the finance lobby, big media, etc. Then they get demoralized, dumbed-down, diverted,  and otherwise deactivated by the sort of vapid, hope-killing drivel that Barack “None of Us Can Know” Obama puts out. For what its worth, Obama has been very respectful of the gun lobby (even with the carnage at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois universities during the last presidential election cycle) throughout his political career.

5. Doherty: hat are the implications of the Tucsn killings – do you think we should expect more political violence in the US ?

Street: Well, they are going to tighten up security around congresspersons. It should become much tougher to speak (civilly or not) to our local House representative this year. If rightists are planning more and bigger attacks, keep an eye on April 19th – it’s a big proto-fascist day in the U.S. April 19 marks the anniversary of the first shots being fired in the American Revolution at the Battle of Lexington/Concord, the fiery conclusion to the 1993 siege (of far right evangelicals by the federal government) at Waco, and McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.  Last April 19, gun activists celebrated with two rallies in the Washington, D.C. area to demonstrate their opposition to an “oppressive, totalitarian government” run by supposedly radical Democrats who (according to Larry Pratt, the Executive Director of Gun Owners of America) are “coming for our freedom, for our money, for our kids, for our property.” If I was at Homeland Security, I’d put April 19th in my cross-hairs.

These violent fascists and proto-fascists aren’t going away in the name of civility (or anything else) under current U.S. social, economic, and political conditions. In his Tuscon memorial speech, Obama repudiated progressives who point to the role of right-wing ideology in inspiring the Tucson massacre.  The civility president called for “a good dose of humility, rather than pointing fingers and assigning blame.” He counseled Americans to “sharpen our instincts for empathy,” to show greater “kindness and compassion,” and to ask “whether our priorities are in order.”  

This was an attempt to cloak deepening social tensions in America and present a sugar-coated picture of US political life. He made no reference to the real and deep problems confronting the American people—mass structural unemployment, extremes of great wealth and mass poverty, worsening ecological catastrophe, the ongoing deterioration of social infrastructure, a vastly expensive military empire that continues to conduct criminal wars both overt and covert, and more. He deleted recent federal tax cuts for the wealthy, passed while the administration and congress have refused urgently needed action to provide jobs for the unemployed, alleviate poverty, and bail out state and local governments. The U.S.-based World Socialist Web Site puts it very well:

“Contrary to [Obama’s] invocation of America as one big family, it is a society with an unbridgeable class divide between the financial aristocracy and the working people….The political response to the Tucson massacre has unfolded in a completely predictable manner. The Republicans and the ultra-right media are in attack mode and don’t back down, proceeding, instead, with ever greater arrogance and hysteria….The Democrats are cowardly and evasive, forswearing or quickly abandoning any suggestion that the right wing should be held responsible for the direction of Jared Lee Loughner’s attack….But on a more fundamental level, both parties and the entire ruling elite come together to cover up the social context of this crime. The title given to the memorial service, ‘Together We Thrive: Tucson and America ,’ could serve as a monument to the complacency being spread by the entire political establishment. If there is one thing that is not happening in Tucson —or in America —it is ‘thriving.’”

“The city and the country are both mired in the deepest economic slump since the Great Depression. A few figures suffice to indicate the scale of the crisis. Tucson has an unemployment rate that topped 9.2 percent during the summer, with more than 40,000 people currently out of work….Arizona has the second highest poverty rate among the 50 states, 21.2 percent, and Tucson has the highest poverty rate of any city in the state. The median household income in Tucson is 28 percent below the national average, while the per capita income is 26 percent below the national average….Barely 45 percent of the people of Arizona have private health insurance, with 20 percent uninsured, 20 percent on Medicaid and 13 percent on Medicare. Twenty percent of the population of Arizona, more than 1.3 million people, have no health insurance coverage…More than 70,000 homes were foreclosed in Arizona in 2010, up from only 1,000 five years ago.”

“Under conditions of a capitalist social order that deals with the unemployed—and the mentally ill—in cold and inhuman fashion, and a ruling class that glorifies violence and practices it more widely and brutally than any other on the planet, events such as those which took place January 8 in Tucson are inevitable.”(See Patrick Martin, “Obama inTucson: Providing an Amnesty for the Right Wing,” World Socialist Web Site (January 13, 2011) at http://wsws.org/articles/2011/jan2011/obam-j13.shtml).

I’m not the biggest fan of the party behind the WSWS, but that’s very well said. 

Speaking of getting “our priorities in order” (Obama), a recent report from the National Priorities Project containing the following information

* New York state has 128,128 Head Start [federally subsidized pre-school]-eligible children, yet only 48,013 Head Start places. For New York ’s share of this year’s Afghan War spending, the state could fund Head Start places for all eligible children for 21 years.

* Wisconsin has 527,000 uninsured residents. For Wisconsin ’s cumulative Afghan War spending, the state could provide insurance for all uninsured for 3 years.

* The state of Washington consumes 1,168,531 Billion British thermal units (BBtu) of non-renewable energy and only 881,676 BBtu renewable energy. For Washington ’s share of cumulative Afghan and Iraq war spending, it could pay 23% of the cost to convert all non-renewable energy to all solar energy or 79% to convert to all wind energy.

* At the University of North Carolina , Chapel Hill, the North Carolina share of total war spending ($34 billion) would fund all in-state expenses of a four-year education for each incoming freshman class for the next 135 years.

* To date, $815 billion dollars has been allocated for the war in Iraq since 2003 and $445.1 billion dollars has been allocated for the war in Afghanistan since 2001. With this latest update, total cost of war funding is $1.26 trillion.

I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s warning from New York City ’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967: “a nation that spends more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Should we expect more political violence in the U.S?  To quote Sarah Palin: “You Betchya.”

Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008; Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York:Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010).  His next book Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (co-authored with Anthony Dimaggio) will be published next May.  He can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com



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Jan 202011

Freedom Trails Take Their Toll in Animal and Human Suffering

Patrice Greanville  [print_link]

It Needn’t Be That Way

AT TYPICAL HIGHWAY SPEEDS, it may be no more than a sudden, blurry impression of red, quickly and thankfully left behind in mind and space–a hump on the road, a badly mangled small body you and other drivers strive to avoid–but the jarring occurrence is almost inevitable these days. It’s the sight of an animal killed on the road. The American highway devours animals’ lives at an astonishing rate–twelve victims a second, up to a million animals a day, perhaps more than 300 million casualties a year. Nobody knows the actual precise figure, but most observers agree it is huge.*

In magnitude, it’s an animal holocaust surpassed only by the hell of factory farming. Indeed, the carnage is so unrelenting that by the time you finish reading this column, more than 6,500 additional animals will have succumbed in the U.S. to lethal encounters with fast-moving vehicles and uncaring or incompetent drivers. Compared to this victimization, human casualties50,000 a year–pale into insignificance. For every human fatality 80,000 animals die on the road. And the slaughter is likely to get worse: Congress has just raised the speed limit on some rural highways, where many animal killings occur, to 65 miIes per hour.

Roadkill figures are very high in the US, but the carnage is global. As the accompanying images illustrate, from North America to Australia, Paraguay, Singapore, India, Africa, Thailand, China and Europe, no country or continent is safe for wildlife in the proximity of roads. 

Yet the problem is not only a question of speed limits and irrepressible highway and urban proliferation. Its roots go much deeper, to the cultural and economic origins of the Great American Highway, and our unbroken romance with the private automobile.  

Business-minded America has always been a nation in a hurry, impatient with delays and intolerant of any obstacles which might hamper mobility or profit. In no other modern industrial nation has individualism cut so deep or produced more disturbing consequences. Sociologist Philip Slater wasn’t too far off the mark when he noted in his book The Pursuit of Loneliness,

“Americans attempt to minimize, circumvent, or deny the interdependence upon which all human societies are based … We seek a private house, a private means of transportation, a private garden, a private laundry, self-service stores, and do-it-yourself skills of every kind. An enormous technology seems to have set itself the task of making it unnecessary for one human being ever to ask anything of another in the course of going about his daily business … We seek more and more privacy, and feel more and more alienated and lonely when we get it.”

Roadkills are symptomatic of humanity’s dismal priorities when it comes to animals

For a nation in love with the idea of privacy the automobile was the logical choice, and it seemed an affordable choice, too, at a time when oil was thought inexhaustible and gas-engine pollution was no more than a gleam in the doomsayer’s eye. The final push toward highway proliferation came in the wake of World War 2, when the massive exodus of the new, affluent middle class to suburbs without adequate public transportation triggered an aggressive program of road construction all over the United States. The ambitious highway construction program received an added boost from the Eisenhower administration as it made preparations for rapid deployment of war materials and military units across the US. In the 1950s, no one could foresee the actual consequences of such actions.

These developments pleased (but scarcely surprised) the auto industry. Hardly a disinterested observer, the industry, led by General Motors, had long pressed the American government to dismantle most forms of public transportation. The switch eventually doomed numerous rail and bus systems across the nation; by the late ’40s the car and its inseparable sidekick, the highway, had won. From that point on, the yearly advance of the asphalt ribbons became a fact of life in the young, car-addicted republic.

The Search for Solutions–Breaking Loose from Carmania and the Privatizing Urge

The problem of the omnipresent highway is as much a political as a technical one. Without relaxing the mesmerizing influence that runaway individualism and the powerful auto lobby exert on national policy, without an energetic campaign of public education, the chances for real gains are remote or nonexistent.

Consider what may have to be done:

   A new national mass transit and freight system. Whatever else is done, it’s indisputable that a shift back to urban, suburban and interstate railway and bus systems, especially for commuting and freight purposes, would greatly reduce highway congestion, pollution and fatalities. A variety of organizations are now advocating increased federal and state funding for improved public transportation. Whenever possible, animal advocates should support (or suggest) such initiatives.

   Urban redesign and better utilization of land resources. In the not-too-distant past most people lived and worked in the same cornmunity. Traveling great distances to the workplace on a daily basis was unthinkable. Modem industry gradually broke up the former integration of working and living spaces, but the 21st Century may yet see a return of the “integrated” lifeplace. Because of economic criteria, a higher ethical awareness, and the possibilities afforded by the wholly “computerized environment,” urban planners are now better positioned to design more efficient housing and more self-contained communities. By reducing human pressure on habitats, housing and industrial design geared to maximizing available space may play a crucial role in helping the environment and the animals.

   Improvements in highway and automobile design. Ideally, all new highways should incorporate animal welfare and habitat-sharing standards as legitimate design questions. A great deal of truly creative research needs to be done in this field, with ethologists providing data on the habits and characteristics of numerous species. The object, of course, would be to deter and interdict random animal access to the roads, while providing safe crossings at adequate intervals. This might prevent the current “fracturing” of animal habitats, while still allowing the animals to cross roads to gather food, find shelter, rejoin their offspring or simply get home. Scent deterrents, human-inaudible sounds, electric-eye fencing, overpasses and underpasses are some of the possible techniques. The perfect solution is nowhere in sight, but the U.S. must join the search for answers, and there are exciting industries waiting to be born. Naturally, all such innovations would have to be incorporated in both new and existing roads.

   To complement all the above, the gas-engine vehicle itself might have to be considerably enhanced. At present there’s an acute need for improved nighttime visibility (i.e., non-glare high beams) and for better communications between drivers, especially new signalling devices to warn oncoming traffic when an animal or another emergency is spotted a few hundred feet ahead. In addition, on-board animal deterrence and driver-alert systems based on radar or infrared technologies might provide the crucial edge to avoid fatal collisions.

But technical innovations alone can’t beat the odds. The US., which of all modem industrial nations has the least stringent licensing requirements for drivers, should be persuaded to institute new, federally-sponsored “driver enhancement” programs to teach all drivers including so-called professionals–the best ways to react under all sorts of weather and animal emergencies. (In this area, television, Internet-borne materials, and regular videotapes could prove invaluable.)

Roadkills needn’t be accepted as the “inevitable” price of progress. New types of highways—judiciously built, including the new “smart highway” concept—coupled with urban and automobile improvements can go a long way to relieve human pressures on the animal world. In adopting these measures, Americans will not only regain some of their lost fellowship; in so doing they’ll also hasten the day when the freedom to drive someplace will not automatically imply the high probability of depriving countless innocent animals of their lives.

PATRICE GREANVILLE is this website’s founding editor. He is National Director of The Voice of Nature Network (VNN), whose National Anti-Roadkill Project (NARP) attempted in the late 1980s to do something about this issue.  For further information about this topic, be sure to check the archives of ANIMAL PEOPLE, a site devoted entirely to reportage on animal questions around the world. 



A recent study showed that insects, too, are prone to a very high risk of roadkill incidence.[3] Research showed interesting patterns in insect/butterfly road kills in relation to the vehicle density. Although the insect community is equally at risk, much of the attention goes to bigger, more charismatic animals.

About 350,000 to 27 million birds are estimated to be killed on European roads each year.[4]

Breakdown by species

In 1993, 25 schools throughout New England participated in a roadkill study involving 1,923 animal deaths. By category, the fatalities were:[5]

*The actual figure in 2004 is put between 190 and 250 million casualties each year, still a major assault on domestic animals and wildlife.  Copyright 1987-2005 The Voice of Nature Network, Inc. A 501(c)(3) organization.

Extrapolating these data nationwide, Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People Newspaper estimated that the following animals are being killed by motor vehicles in the United States annually:[6]

This study may not have considered differences in observability among taxa (i.e. dead raccoons are easier to see than dead frogs[citation needed]), and has not been published in peer-reviewed scientific literature.

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