Let’s be clear about this. I don’t want your flag. I’ll happily put my lighter to it if you wave it in my face, but I don’t want it. And I don’t care if you think it is a diversionary issue in the wake of the murders of nine people in a church in South Carolina by yet another American with easy access to high-powered weaponry, because what your flag does say, whether you want it to or not, is that you share something important with that murderer, notably exposure to a fevered virus composed of racism, xenophobia, victimization, paranoia and ascendancy, all based on a shared absolutist, antisocial worldview summed up thusly: They’re Coming For Your Shit.
Of course we need to analyze motivations in crimes this heinous, but any conversation on this matter is horseshit if it sidesteps or occludes the inescapable fact that the Charleston gunman, Dylann Roof, is the product of an American Hate-Industrial Complex. The Hate-Industrial Complex is a loose consortium of people working tirelessly to churn out Dylann Roofs and Wade Michael Pages and Jerad and Amanda Millers and Frazier Glenn Crosses and John Russell Housers even on those days blessedly free of gun violence by vaguely Nazi-eseque lunatics. Everything Dylann Roof said in his online “manifesto” correlates to the Victim-über-Alles worldview bellowed at him and countless others 24/7 by Fox News and its sundry philosophical talk-radio and online satellites. He is the harvest of an American sickness as red-white-and-blue as a warm apple pie spraypainted red-white-and-blue, fucked by John Wayne’s zombie corpse and draped in the flag.
The Hate-Industrial Complex has, in fact, altered the national forum so inexorably that we may never again agree on what constitutes a bad thing. It is predicated on an old and increasingly irrelevant morality (“traditional family values,” “Biblical Law,” “Natural Law”) that is fighting demographics, empiricism, sense and basic humanity. It trades on a theology that conflates gross self-interest with morality and suggests that all other motivation is a craven mob of lesser beings storming your castle. Since it is difficult to make old morality arguments rationally anymore, its proponents resort to rendering it all down to an elemental fear, that there is a Them, an Other, out there and that they are Coming For Your Shit. This requires framing a basic outlook on the world that presumes badness by dint of people just being there, not by what people have done — a presumption also known as bigotry.
We should all be able to agree that Dylann Roof is an asshole and then define why he is an asshole prescriptive of disincenting asshole behavior. But we can’t, because a specific American demographic insists upon the need to quibble over Dylann Roof’s motivations, or those of the Baltimore cops who killed Freddie Gray, or those of lily-white legal/policing apparatus that routinely used people of color as a revenue stream via arbitrary harassment in Ferguson, MO, and, in phalanx, gassed protesters when Ferguson cops went one corpse too far. It is the same wash of staunchly conservative, churchy white people’s — and only white people’s — voices that three years ago somehow found the moral position to say a kid named Trayvon Martin deserved to be shot for doing nothing in a subdivision in Sanford, FL, and three years later to suggest that Sandra Bland only brought it on herself when she somehow wound up dead in a jail cell after being arrested by a Texas state trooper for failing to signal a lane change.
In abeyance to that demographic, the official story must say that Dylann Roof was a sick, twisted loner acting independent of reason and politics. Yet widening the aperture a bit seems to suggest Roof keeps some esteemed company as pertains to the summary executions of unarmed people of color.
Roof, member of a loose regional patchwork of delusional white people with self-esteem issues called neo-Confederates, saw himself a valiant fighter in a race war he believed necessary to remedy the loss of white agency in a nation controlled by the whitest people on earth. Being these things, however, doesn’t make him an aberration. Roof killed people because he had glommed onto an absolutist view of the world traded breezily in mainstream U.S. culture. While on the surface we can groan and dismiss the grandly symbolic tchotchkes of zealots — e.g. the Westboro Baptist Church’s “God Hates Fags” signs or open-carry yayhoos fapping their assault rifles in shitty chain restaurants — as necessary ballast of our pluralist culture, there is a fervor to an absolutist worldview like Roof’s that makes those who hold it more inclined to violence, or to silently abiding it. The more stridently you believe something, the more likely you are to be a dick about it and violence is the mere continuation of dickishness by other means.
Few would actually argue this. What they would argue is whether their own peculiar dogma qualifies as absolutism in the way, say, the horrible Islamic State does, or the Khmer Rouge did, or the Klan or Dylann Roof do. Yet, a vast plurality of American evangelicals fear a nefarious gay agenda and even pass “religious freedom” laws to make LGBT neighbors second-class citizens while, with the next breath, they tell you those Westboro people are just total assholes. The thing is, I don’t see much of a difference between one or the other — but that’s only because there isn’t one and no one should.
While it may be heartening that in the wake of Charleston at least some conservative Americans who have long abided the Confederate flag suddenly decided not to anymore, it also proved impossible to ignore the gymnastic efforts of right-leaning “thought leaders” to deflect simple questions about Dylann Roof’s white supremacy. Per Fox News’ daily spin memo, every show in its lineup referred to Roof’s murders throughout the next day as an “assault on Christianity,” blending away the explicit racism of the act by dumping in into a pot of their audience’s victimization-narrative. Fox News conspicuously attempted to erase the Dylann Roof who killed black people he feared were Coming To Take His Shit. In his place they marketed a Dylann Roof who hated Christians and therefore was a threat to their fish-belly white, Evangelical audience. In this through-the-looking-glass framing, Fox News viewers became the target and Dylann Roof was the dangerous other Coming to Take Their Shit.
Not wanting to piss on that convenient agitprop, Jeb Bush, presidential candidate and former Florida governor, after being asked by reporters multiple times to assess the events, finally said: “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes. But I do know what was in the heart of the victims.” In the days that followed, quibbling bullshit echoed from candidate to candidate, many of whom did a dance-step to decry any “politicization” of murders that, by any rational measure, were nothing but political. From here the question we need to ask is: Why? Why dissemble? Why be disingenuous about any of this?
They dissembled because their own conclusions are unpalatable to hold, and shameful to say, outside of well-insulated cultural bubbles. They dissembled because the nemesis of the “culture war” they claim to have been fighting for 40 years are the agents of heterodoxy: difference, nonconformity, collective identities based on cultural marginalization, black people, Muslim people, LGBT people, Spanish-speaking people. Do the word substitutions and the shadows take form: immigrants, hippies, hyphenated-Americans, thugs, terrorists, sodomites, illegals. It is hardly happenstance that this second-language of codespeak, much less the need for it, has congregated around a specific political philosophy.
Knee-jerk as this bigotry might seem on the surface, it is the direct toxic run-off that philosophy’s economic orthodoxy. Which is to say, a stalwart belief in Social Darwinism — which underpins every aspect of puddle-deep conservative economics — requires a stratum of “losers” from which “winners” must be delineated. Human behavior, the orthodoxy suggests, can be broken down to the incentives of markets and the self-interest of individuals. Thus, success or failure bears no relationship to power structures, history, institutionalized violence or oppression of marginalized groups. Thus, if white people have more money or more status than black people, well, that’s just Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand of the market and to try and disrupt its judgment is to discriminate against the white Christians, the true victims in America. Under this regimen, any state attempt to tamper with the results of history is, on its face, evidence that undeserving people are Coming For Your Shit.
This is the foundation of the conservative “small-government” principle. As it is expensive to govern and requires a sense of empathy to make governance work, the obvious fix is: just don’t. This abides with “the natural order of things.” God made certain people certain ways. Fuck em if they don’t like it. There is no redress from either the Invisible Hand or God’s Order.
Successive blocks of behavioral research have broken this down: The conservative mind greets new agents outside its control with what researchers call “negativity bias.” As reported in Mother Jones in July 2014, research by Prof. John Hibbing at the University of Nebraska and his colleagues showed conservative subjects “physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments,” than liberals or progressives. Simply, the conservative philosophy reflects a predisposition toward defensiveness and tribalism, possibly, the scientists note, as a vestige of a developmental stage of man when he need to react quickly and decisively to a predatory environment. Hibbing’s paper, according to MoJo, corroborated and built upon a 2003 survey by NYU professor of social psychology John Jost. Jost, as part of the peer-review process of the Nebraska study, wrote of a growing consensus of research “that consistently finds that conservatism is positively associated with heightened epistemic concerns for order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity, as well as existential concerns such as perceptions of danger, sensitivity to threat, and death anxiety.”
This is not to say these studies don’t find programmed insecurities or imprints in those holding progressive-minded worldviews, nor does it say that all conservative-minded people are living in perpetual apoplexy. But even more indoor-voiced parliamentarian conservatives will tell you, and have, that the catalyzation and amplification of the Christian-Nationalist strain of conservatism in the last 30 years has taxed political civility to the breaking point.
In his book Conservatives Without Conscience, John Dean, the former White House counsel for Richard M. Nixon and now fierce critic of the current Republican party, quoted Barry Goldwater, the longtime staunch conservative Arizona senator and 1964 Republican presidential candidate, as seeing this writing on the wall as early as 1994. “[I]f and when these preachers get control of the party . . . it’s going to be a terrible damn problem,” Goldwater said. “Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise.”
This explains a lot. Conservative philosophy hews to hierarchy and order. It has matured around the notion of static roles (“producer” vs. “looter,” Christian vs. Muslim), suggesting the positive role must deal with the negative via a strict withdrawal of empathy in societal interaction because it presumes badness on the part of any tribe outside one’s own. Suspension of empathy enables demonization and/or dehumanization, the necessary condition for abject bigotry, which is, of course, politically useful to those who know and use the code.
American reactionaries have been working on this at least since the early Cold War, when, of course, it was the communists who were Coming For Your Shit. This, to their minds, enforced the invalidity of all notions of collectivity. Gatherings of people demanding rights under the law struck many as inspirational but the conservative lens saw, and sees, it as bone-chilling. Nixon’s Southern Strategy deliberately played pale poor people against the duskier poor people by telling the former that the latter were Coming For Your Shit. In doing so, conservatives transformed the South from an Old Line Democratic tract to intractably Republican territory. It has essayed from pamphlets to talk radio to, now, the leviathan relay tower of hatespeech, Fox News, which has become a projector and amplifier of the absolute certainty that They Are Coming For Your Shit.
Don’t take my word for it. Let’s ask Fox News viewers who posted these verbatim comments under a story on the arrest of Ferguson protesters, dated Nov. 21, 2014.
“Blacks going nuts claiming they are ALL owed something becasue[sic] they are black . . . Bet the food stamps and welfare office doesn’t get burne [sic] dout [sic]!”
“Black America! Look in the mirror and what do you see? Stop blaming the cops and the man for your social ills. Clean up your act! Stay in school, stay married, support your children and teach them how to work and behave in a civilized manner. Only then will you be accepted! And only then will you succeed!” [emphasis added]
“There are 3 absolutes in life;
3) Nigros [sic] gonna riot”
“White folks, buy guns and ammo, stock pile [sic]. Store weapons and ammo in various locations on your property. You may not be able to get back into your house to grab a weapon. Be ready to protect your family and personal property.”
Let’s jump ahead to June 18, 2015, on a story about President Obama addressing the previous day’s massacre in Charleston — an utterly resigned speech, by the way, in which he proposed no policy, gun-control or otherwise — Fox News viewers saw fit to offer these analyses:
“He is the BLACK president..not president of the U.S. Never was — never will be”
“I never voted for him at all but it was the black panthers that made people vote for him at the polls with guns by force”
“and its [sic] going to continue as long as Obama is in office sad but true he has accomplished what he has set out to do divide the country this is what happens when you have division with division comes violence”
“Obama is celebrating the deaths of 9 conservative Christians. If he really cared he wouldn’t throw politics into the aftermath…”
The standard apologia for this fecal matter scraped from the outhouses of Dogpatch, USA, is that it is not necessarily representative of Fox News viewership, simply the lunatic fringe of the lunatic fringe that watches Fox News and takes the time to type screed. What this misses, however, is that I didn’t select these passages for their incendiary tone, this is just a par-for-the-course sampling of walls upon walls of this shit on every story open to comment on the Fox News website. This makes through-line narrative of these very aggrieved, very white people not aberration but pattern. This goes along way toward making the case that galvanizing these people as a voting bloc, along the lines of that hate-paved narrative, is the very point of Fox News, just as was the Southern Strategy, just as it was for the John Birch Society and the Klan.
How do you create this vast, complex of demonization and fear, warning continuously that They Are Coming For Your Shit, and then act surprised when people take your terror to heart and start shooting other people in Vegas, in South Carolina, in Kansas City, in Pittsburgh, in Lafayette? How do you defend your shrieks of disapproval and, again, victimization, whenever the FBI or DoJ do a bit of research and, going on pretty obvious data, flag right-wing extremist groups as major threats to internal security? Still, Fox News and the usual suspects repeatedly throw national hissy fits and shout down actual law-enforcement metrics whenever someone shows concern about preventing right-wing extremism from becoming violent right-wing extremism.
Let’s reiterate this: the DoJ in 2009 released a report that full-well tracked and projected a rise in right-wing terrorism of the types committed by Dylann Roof, but because, hey, wait, American politicians and media identify as “right-wing,” they all had no choice but to join hands for a mass collective pants-wetting, effectively ending this avenue of investigation. Congresspeople even threatened hearings and funding sanctions should the DoJ stand by their “politicized” research. So: the DoJ predicted right-wing assholes like Roof, got shot down in a fervent wave of tribalist butthurt, and when Roof manifested, we all found ourselves encouraged to look past the obvious politics inherent in his actions.
In the weeks after the Charleston massacre, the think tank New America issued a study that found right-wing terror groups, including neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and sovereign citizens — the same ideological brethren the DoJ had been warning about for years before being shut down in 2009 — accounted for 48 murders in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001. That’s nearly double those killed by “jihadi” terrorists on US soil and it’s not even including the sundry plots by militia or white supremacists busted by the FBI or Secret Service since 2008.
Attune the mind to heightened fear of one thing and it becomes remarkably malleable toward hating other things that fit a generalized pattern. Opponents of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. were generally the exact same people who screamed the loudest about “the Reds.” They, in fact, tried to behead the former by suggesting their complicity with the latter. Christian arguments against interracial marriage in the 1960s are echoed by Christian arguments now warning that gay people marrying will lead to societal destruction. The Arizona asshole who organized the anti-Muslim rally in Phoenix this past summer turned out to be the exact same Arizona asshole who staged a raucous protest against Walmart refusing to carry Confederate battle flags in the wake of the Charleston massacre. None of this is happenstance.
And no, that flag is not a mere ornament of historical nostalgia. One needs to look no further than Dylann Roof’s citations for his weighty research into the plight of the white man, notably his regurgitation of talking points fed to him by the Council of Conservative Citizens. The CCC is a direct vestige of the Jim Crow era, a rebranded version of White Citizens Councils that had chapters throughout the South in the 1950s and ’60s and served as the Rotary Club-esque public face of the Klan. The group’s contemporary iteration has a history of chummy relationships with politicians in leadership positions in the GOP, such as Mississippi’s Trent Lott and Georgia’s Bob Barr. The GOP officially severed ties with the group in 1998, and yet somehow campaign donations kept finding their way into the coffers of an embarrassing list of Republican politicians, including GOP presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Rand Paul, the Guardian reported in the wake of the Charleston massacre.
The CCC, via its WCC forebears, helped bankroll all those magnificent monuments to Confederate Soldiers around the South — like the one in Charleston that a Confederate battle flag flew over until recently — and helped breathe new cultural resonance into that banner conspicuously at the same time as the Civil Rights movement began to disturb the order and hierarchies of the South in the 1950s. This also wasn’t happenstance. It was a reminder to certain people to know their place, and to not cross lines lest they face extraordinary reminders of it, sort of the way Trayvon Martin did in February 2012.
Even then, a kid, unarmed, carrying candy and tea to his father’s house, could be stalked and shot for that transgression, a murder which was upgraded to a lynching once a jury determined that, according to a contorted state law, it was okay for his killer to kill him. Amid glaring evidence that the event never should have happened, one “side” managed to invent a pro-argument: Sometimes a line in the sand needs to be drawn against “thugs” like Martin. It plays out again and again, from pointless killing to pointless killing. If you dare express awareness of the pattern, and understanding of the welling outrage in places like Baltimore or Cleveland, you can always look forward to sentiments like those of a Texas shitkicker who, amid the Ferguson protests, jumped onto one of my facebook threads to write, “All you thug-lovers go live there with em.” Notice there the mere wisp of a leap to this term from the classic-stage anti-Civil Rights epithet “nigger-lover.” This isn’t happenstance, either.
People can evince genuine shock at Dylann Roof’s murders, even at his white-supremacist motivation — but you don’t get to do that when you cheerled or mitigated Trayvon Martin’s murder. You can’t do it when you shrugged at the killings of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland. You can’t do it if you ever aped something like this template caveat brayed ad vomitum by conservative white people to qualify violence done in the confines of their sacrosanct hierarchy: “Oh, those are just tragic circumstances, but if only they complied and averted their eyes in proper submission to authority, then they would still be alive and free.”
Because, no, they wouldn’t be free in those circumstances, they would be living by a second shittier set of rules just for them. To say this is okay is to validate omnipresent, institutional, crypto-racist axioms that are the foundations for Roof’s more overt form of it. You’re saying Trayvon Martin’s summary execution by a dick vigilante merely trying to keep his neighborhood safe from a dangerous, dark-skinned Other is okay, but Dylann Roof’s summary execution of nine people wasn’t okay because he went too far in trying to keep his country and race safe from a dangerous dark-skinned Other.
This programmed failure of self-awareness assures that, when horrors like Charleston arise, we can’t engage in problem-solving because we can’t agree on the fucking problem. This is not a matter of “both sides” erring in perspective, it’s a matter of hate and fear pooling in a peculiar worldview because that worldview is based on hate and fear. Rebecca McCray, a journalist friend, came face to face with this recently. Covering social and criminal justice for the progressive-activist news site Takepart.com, McCray in late May posted a short item on a white cop in South Carolina being indicted by a grand jury after shooting a 68-year-old unarmed African-American man, and she had the temerity to point out how rarely such indictments occur. For this, a reader clicked over to McCray’s facebook page and left her a message:
“You are a loser who just wants to get a black dick shoved in her because you’re a whore. I hope you get robbed by the so-called ‘innocent’ black thugs you like to defend. I hope they rape your fat white ass, and then take your car, money, and innocent stupidity with them. Maybe one of these days I’ll read about you being found in a ditch bloody and dead . . .”
We probably can’t even agree that this asshole is an asshole, can we? He’s just standing up for cops, right? Or is a cop and does a tough job? Or he’s just went too far discursively with a totally valid argument based on the same Klan-cooked data cited by Dylann Roof? There are reasonably two sides to every act of utter assholery, right?
No. There aren’t. There are wrong, mean-souled people who act out of shitty motivation and bad information fed to them in a loop by a relentless machine designed to do just that. And they are legion. Once you agree with them, beat-down after beat-down, unarmed guy after unarmed guy, you don’t have to identify as neo-Confederate, white supremacist, Christian Dominionist, or Aryan Nation — not if the aggregate result of your fear and hatred is the exact same as it is with someone who does. Because, I hate to break it to you, but when you agree with bigots all the time, guess what?
And they wave that flag proudly, too.