Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. But I’m not a film reviewer and this isn’t a film review. Taking a step back from its engaging plot and characters the film is a political cop-out. Cops and good whites are too good, fighting loony racists like David Duke, who is linked in the final scenes of the film to another loony, Donald Trump. Trump and his followers are the enemy.
As if racism and white supremacism weren’t integral to, internalized in US and liberal western societies – and externalized in foreign “adventures” or “interventions” as western wars are coyly termed. As if the very voluble opponents of Trump were the goodies to his and Duke’s baddies. As if Hillary Clinton got it right when she referred to millions of “deplorables” at an LGBTQ rally and the duped, indoctrinated Trump voters were the problem – not the political system or the corporations that own the media or the political class or the Congress, Republican and Democratic, bought by corporate donors who use the power they have to make sure voters remain duped and indoctrinated and above all divided and ruled. As if the huge amounts of corporate money riding on Clinton’s 2016 campaign for the presidency were pure largesse.
Making Trump and his supporters and mad David Duke types the enemy leaves out half the problem. Sure they are extreme right-wing nuts and we have to make sure they don’t succeed in making some kind of fascist revolution. Plus their tentacles in Europe and Latin America. Very dangerous. Very bad. As Trump might say. And they are.
Yet to the delight of mainstream Republican leaders Trump has been enacting mainstream Republican party policies like never before. “They have had to deal with a president, whom even his own appointees call “an idiot,” “a moron” and “someone with the understanding of a fifth or sixth grader.” They have had to tolerate presidential behavior that is “unhinged” and “narcissistic,” with lengthy rages, tirades and vicious insults” (Forbes) – and have done so gladly because the price is worth it, with tax cuts for the rich, lifetime Supreme Court appointments, and the removal of annoying impediments to business such as environmental protection.
Trump is no more unhinged than they are. Any continued attack on the environment is no less than psychopathic. The majority of the Republican leadership don’t see making the planet uninhabitable as a reasonable restraint on doing business.
Further, BlacKkKlansman’s and our making Trump and his supporters the problem, the buffoons, both trivializes their fascism and fails to see how intertwined they are with their vociferous opponents – sunshine fascists they might be called – hawking a polite supremacy, a politics of manners masking racist and colonial nastiness.
Decades of militarizing US police and the terrorizing of black communities didn’t stop under Democrat presidents. Bill Clinton the Democrat passed some of the worst racist legislation, privatizing prisons and introducing ‘three strikes and you’re out’, leading to mass incarceration of African Americans and thousands disenfranchised as convicted felons. He bombed one of Sudan’s only two pharmaceutical factories, a dirt poor country, with the aim of affirming America’s prestige, and enforced genocidal sanctions against Iraq that killed more than half a million children. His victims just happened to be people of colour whose lives don’t matter when it comes to moves on the Grand Chessboard – a term invented by a highly respected liberal intellectual.
Obama honed the surveillance state to perfection and persecuted whistle-blowers with what Norman Solomon called “absolute twisted passion”. His Insider Threat program (Executive Order 13587) required government employees, under threat of punishment, to spy on each other and report non-conformist behavior. What is non-conformist behavior for a liberal insider and how far does it go? His liberal passion has enabled racialized state surveillance of Muslims as a non-conforming class.
America’s greatest token black man bombed seven countries all of them predominantly Muslim, expanded Donald Rumsfeld’s Africom that is bent on militarizing the African continent, terrorized countless numbers of people of colour in their daily lives with hovering drones while casually brushing aside habeas corpus, and deported more illegal immigrants than all presidents before him together. One of his last acts was to bequeath 38 billion dollars to a clearly racist state, Israel, with the condition that all of it be spent on US weaponry.
Obama himself said in his farewell address that the presidency is like a relay race – you pass the baton on, having done your bit, to the next one – in a seamless continuity flaunting a mere attitude of choice every four years.
“The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the ‘smiling’ fox”, said Malcolm X. (I don’t know what Malcolm X would have made of Obama). Note: he said “more dangerous” because of their deceptiveness, not “worse”.
Some of those who wanted Martin Luther King dead knew him for what he was, not the King sanitized for liberal consumption but the radical – much closer to Malcolm X than the comfortable myth, the halo adorning him. His Riverside speech in which he described “the business of burning human beings with napalm” as a symptom of a nation “approaching spiritual death” got him condemned by 168 US newspapers including the Washington Post and the liberal New York Times, and ended his formal relationship with Democratic president Johnson who was busy escalating the assault on Vietnam: “What is that goddam n— preacher doing to me?” King saw the Vietnam war as evidence of a “deeper malaise” in American society and opposition to it as inextricably bound up with the struggle against racism ….the malaise of militarism, of “our oil under their sand” and other raw materials we must have regardless of the human cost; the malaise of a white supremacist nation that knows it has the right to bomb and invade and murder, and expects little fuss because the murdered are un-white, inherently fanatical and don’t share our superior values or even understand them.
BlackKkKansman gets none of this. The US is portrayed as more or less just fine as it is except for a few laughable nutters that need to be got out of the way. The film at its end points ominously to Trump, warning against the resurrection of the KKK, but as a kind of figment, a nightmare from the past.
Trump and his Washington cronies are morally degenerate, but however dangerous he is we shouldn’t delude ourselves that he is the problem. He’s the emperor without clothes, without the liberal mask; he’s the caricature, he’s the fool mocking our liberal sensibilities. He’s our materialized unconscious mind.
And he’s giving us a chance – an opportunity to penetrate the deeper malaise we need to deal with before it destroys us. Trump and the absurd David Duke are not the enemy out there from back then. They are us, they are ours, we made them. They are the real us that we hide behind our liberal western masks when we say Vietnam was a well-meaning failure; when we believe against all evidence that Iraq has WMDs; when we’re surprised at Wikileaks’ exposure of indiscrimate killing from a helicopter, as if we shouldn’t have known that ‘turkey shoots’ are a standard part of the wars we later call ‘mistakes’; when we believe media hype over the Russian ‘threat’ and let it distract us from the biggest threat to the world from our militarism and our – not just Trump’s – pathological abuse of the environment; when we seriously think Iran with no nuclear weapons could be a military threat to Israel which has hundreds, or to the US which is militarily unassailable; when we swallow the myth that a nation armed to the teeth and obsessed with weaponry has benevolent intentions.
When we become part of the trampling herd, or worse, when the herd possesses us, when propaganda is us and we are propaganda. When we thoughtlessly repeat vacuous slogans about the “radical centre” transcending political conflict or let ourselves be taken in by any similar botoxed transformation of essentially nineteenth century colonial “visions” of the world we live in; or take up the “post-truth” catchphrase as if we’d just lost a world of journalistic truth-telling.
Or when we’re content to see cops in a movie fixing our racism problems for us.
BlackKklansman is a feel-good film. It’s a great film if we want to keep our feathers unruffled and sleep peacefully at night, embedded in the system, minds comfortably turned off, maybe like Democratic President Truman who said he never lost a night’s sleep over his decision to use nuclear weapons on human beings.
Of course we have to distance ourselves from Trump and his idiotic and dangerous nativist propaganda. But we’re not in a position to just point at his duped or self-duped followers, his angry white men and women who saw through some of the cant and ran from the smiling fox into the fangs of the wolf. Unless we’re happy to be divided and ruled, which we frequently are, not least when we point our elitist finger at people who should be our allies, many of them betrayed by a system that’s left them nowhere to turn to.
Not least because we’re being duped too, by those smiling liberals waiting to take over the machine again, who are dangerous because their power over us depends on our acquiescence, more complete through our wilful blindness, our unwillingness to see through the latest pretty-boy front-man for the power elite, be his name Kennedy, Macron, Obama, Leopoldo Lopez or Trudeau. The Guardian leader writers and the Middle East correspondent of the New York Times who have cheer-led every western war are standing right next to us pointing fingers, distancing themselves too.
It all went wrong and Trump got to be president. First instinct – dig up the Russians; that commie threat always worked in the past. Putin got Trump elected, the commie rat (better leave out the “commie” bit now though). Repeat “we have evidence” often enough and it becomes true.
But there are more thoughtful minds at work. We must have made some mistake somewhere they say. Now “centre-left” or “radical centre” intellectuals will tell us – reveal to us – the sensational truth that it was a mistake to rely on markets to replace our moral judgment. (I hear the guffaws between darts at my local pub – they thought unrestrained greed would lead to a fairer world, ha ha!) They will confess that it’s not the end of history after all; or that the Grand Chessboard is a bit outdated now. They will dustbin their furtive liaison with the “Clash of Civilizations”. Now like drunks coming off a bender, they will repent all those wars that were “mistakes” and disavow all that megalomanic chatter. Now we have to bring morals back into politics, they will preach. Reformed characters looking for a new formula to hang on to power – trust us – like us – they will say. Although we bailed out banks that trawled poorer mostly black buyers into bad mortgage deals, and stole from their victims twice by subsequent repossessions. Although we bombed, and bombed, and still can’t let go of that deep sense it’s our privilege as liberals to bomb, because when we do it there’s always something ineffably right and surely white about it.
Trump the Jack-in-the-Box is the western liberal establishment’s greatest fear and their alibi. Greatest fear because he’s revealing what they are desperate to hide, the true psychopathic face of the corporate world, their corporate world – and somebody might notice. Alibi because they can make him the problem and when we’ve helped to get rid of the lunatic, to dematerialize him, to get him back into the bottle if we can do that – then let’s carry on as usual with a new smiling face, a new promise of “hope and change”, or whatever slogan the public relations industry comes up with to keep the trampling herd quiet next time round.
If we, the trampling herd, let them. If there’s a next time round.