In ordinary times, for the bulk of the American population, presidential election years resemble a period of deep moral sleep whose fitful dreams are stimulated by a media that plays a role not unlike that of the Freudian unconscious. It proposes various devices that include the tracing of candidates’ gaffes, the unveiling of reported scandals from the past and the citing of polls, all complemented by outlandish, largely negative electoral advertising. The media can thus supply all the random associations and emotions necessary to create the illusion of a meaningful plot.
In those ordinary times, on a Wednesday morning in early November, the people wake up once again to a reality that has been marginally influenced by the extravagant dream components of the campaigns that preceded the election. The awakened sleepers know that all the drama that appeared so substantial, even existential, was nothing but an illusion. Despite all the rhetoric of change, hope, new frontiers, draining the swamp, restoring order or creating a safer world, all those promises were, as Shakespeare’s Prospero explained, “such stuff as dreams are made on.”
Joe Biden as the New Messiah
These are not ordinary times. The nation’s unconscious, the media — guided by its usual instincts and reflexes — has been hard at work spilling out its emotional content with the aim of providing the plotline of the season’s political dreams. But this time, the people sense that there’s a deeper meaning to the story. They understand that when they wake up in November, some of the content of their dreams — often resembling nightmares — will have operated some form of change in their landscape.
Polls are one of the standard dream components offered by the media. Because of the unexpected events taking place during this year’s troubled sleep, the polls are delivering considerably more meaning than in the past. This time, they reflect something more than the superficiality of potential voters’ casual opinions and passive allegiances. Unlike other years, 2020 has focused on existential emotions. In normal times, the whole pretext of a poll in this profoundly consumerist society is simply to determine purchasing preferences.
Voting in modern democracies defines the means thanks to which the public believes it can purchase its politicians. (In reality, the donors have already taken care of that, so that belief is something of an illusion.) This year is different. Whether in their response to polls or in their vote in November, the decisions people are faced with have become existential. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the survival of black Americans in the hands of the police, the decisions people are faced in 2020 literally turn around questions to life and death.
A Monmouth poll published on June 2 provides a fascinating illustration of that shift. In reference to demonstrations that have spread across the US, it reports that “a majority of the American public (57%) says that the anger that led to these protests is fully justified.” That figure includes 55% of whites. For blacks, the figure is 69%.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
1) Considered acceptable even when, according to normal standards, something is judged to be unacceptable
2) In Puritanical cultures, chosen by the God of predestination
Another result of the poll cited above is even more surprising. The Monmouth pollsters asked a specific question concerning the burning of the local police precinct in Minneapolis: “Given what happened, do you think the actions of the protestors were fully justified, partially justified, or not at all justified?” In response, 54% felt it was fully (17%) or partially (37%) justified, while 38% felt it was not justified.
Much of the debate in the past few days has centered on the actions of some protesters who have attacked and looted stores. The idea that protests are good but damaging private property is bad has long been the traditional way of neutralizing the message of political demonstrations. It suggests that the protest itself was nothing more than a pretext for criminal acts of gratuitous violence and theft.
But these protests have introduced another distinction. A police station is public property endowed with obvious symbolism in the context of George Floyd’s death, who was killed while in police custody on May 25. This may explain the majority’s judgment that burning it down was justified. Americans tend to feel differently about private property, which according to the standard ideology is sacred. On the other hand, in the various debates, many distinguish between burning down a Target store (understandable and forgivable) and burning down small businesses (unacceptable and unforgivable).
This had led to another divide between those who believe protests are good — on condition that they remain impeccably non-violent — and those who agree with this observation of the militant activist Assata Shakur: “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” Those in the first category cite Martin Luther King as their authority to explain the progress that was achieved in the 1960s. Those in the second cite Malcolm X. Others may remember James Baldwin, who wrote, concerning his childhood memory of the aftermath of riots in Harlem: “It would have been better to have left the plate glass as it had been and the goods lying in the stores. It would have been better, but it would also have been intolerable, for Harlem had needed something to smash.”
Public expressions of anger hold a particular place in US culture. In certain circumstances, Americans consider anger, like ambition, as something positive, even to be aspired to. In others, people see it as destructive of public order, an unjustified attack on the integrity of a nation often referred to as the “greatest in history.” In some sense, Americans, who practice “anger management,” consider anger an asset, something to exploit intentionally and profitably, in contrast with the traditional Christian classification of anger as one of the seven deadly sins.
The Boston Tea Party inaugurated the events that led to the nation’s war of independence from England, remembered as the Revolutionary War. The colonists revolted against British attempts to dictate through taxation the type of tea the colonial consumers would be allowed to consume. The assault on British ships in Boston harbor began at the instigation of two celebrated revolutionary heroes, John Hancock and Samuel Adams. Both men were tea smugglers, importers of contraband Dutch tea, who sought to protect their lucrative smuggling business. They understood that their fellow colonists would back them up in their plan to destroy the cargo of a rival supplier because of their own indignation at having to pay a tax on the British East India company’s tea.
Anger and even angry mobs have always played a positive role in US history. Anger merits approval so long as it remains consistent with the interest of the propertied classes. One simplified explanation of the American Civil War is that the propertied classes of the North, whose property was increasingly defined by industrial assets (as Thomas Piketty observes in “Capital and Ideology”), had achieved dominance over the land-based property system of the South, slave labor being a crucial component of its property.
By the late 1850s, anger was growing in the South when politicians in the North began hinting that they might abolish slavery. The Southern states deemed this an attack on their property. After Abraham Lincoln’s election, South Carolina expressed its anger by seizing federal military installations and organizing the secession of the Confederacy from the union. The North deemed the seizing of its military installations an attack on its property. The reciprocal anger of the two sides resulted in the death of half a million Americans.
Collective anger and the assault on property is, very simply, part of America’s great historical tradition.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary. UPDATED: June 6, 2020, at 17:15 GMT.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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