Is This The Hill You Want To Die On? A Response to Intelexual Media

Attack on the US Capitol

So, I recently watch Intelexual Media’s video on the attempted coup at the capitol entitled The Attack On The Capitol Is MY America. Yes, I love being topical and on time. To my understanding, the basic idea behind the video is that although the narrative on the capitol is focused on the event being aberrant, from the perspective of a black leftist like Lexual, it’s part of a broader trend of racism that defines the American experience. The shock that people have demonstrated in response to this is representative of White moderate negligence and ignorance. This negligence is what allowed the riots to happen in the first place.

I disagree with a lot of the points Lexual made in her video and the general attitude it represents. Broadly, I think that many leftists are somewhat married to a narrative centered around anti-American messaging that eschews nuance and impedes efforts to mainstream leftist ideas. This messaging sometimes plays into the strategies and narratives being pushed by the right. While I understand the emotional core behind these arguments, I also think they are problematic in some ways. This video does a good job of outlining these ideas, so I’ll be responding to some of its major points.

White anger, White violence, and White entitlement are core tenets of American culture, and the accommodation of these things by White moderates and liberals is what gives way to the violent act of terrorism we saw on January 6th. The whole thing was as American as apple pie.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the premise of this argument. The majority of signers to the Declaration of the Independence owned slaves, and the legacy of slavery and white supremacy is integral to the modern functioning of the United States. My own article on the attempted coup at the capitol pointed out the complicity of conservatives in the events. Depending on what she means by moderate and liberal, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that everyone who called the left hysterical for their reaction to MAGA ideology or abetted the rise of the alt-right played some part in what ultimately happened. Being surprised by what happened at the capitol somewhat implies that you weren’t paying attention and weren’t doing your best to resist the rise of racist and fascist ideology.

I am not against shocking rhetoric. I think that the situation in the United States is far more dire than many would expect, and forcing people to deal with realities they would rather avoid is essential for preventing the collapse of all of the progress we’ve made up to this point.

This is where my problem with Lexual’s statement lies. Who gets to say what being “American” means? Are the works of Martin Luther King Jr, the Black Panthers, and Frederick Douglas un-American? Are they less American than waving the flag of a country that fought against the United States in the deadliest war in American history while breaking into the heart of American government? If what supremacy is a core tenet of our culture, does that mean we have to discard this culture entirely?

Saying that something is “American” is a normative statement, not a factual one. It’s a cultural construct, which means that we get to decide what it means collaboratively as a society. This concept means a lot of different things to a lot of people, but for most people in the United States, it represents how they see themselves and their communities within the context of broader historical and social trends. “What happened at the capitol is American as apple pie” is something you would expect someone trying to sell the attack as positive would say, because folks across the country see “American” as representative of their own culture and values.

When Lexual says that the attack is “American”, I think she means to break down the mythology around our modern understanding of racism and how it fits into American institutions. Racism has historical roots, and it’s important to understand how these roots continue to feed our modern institutions and ideologies.

This is not how I imagine most people read this statement. In fact, right wing propagandists have expended a lot of resources to ensure this is not the way that people read this statement. When conservatives say that America is “under attack by the left”, they’re implying that the left rejects all of the progress that has been made by the country, including any moves towards a more free, democratic, and representative society. This is something they will even say explicitly at times. When certain people see the left calling white supremacy “as American as apple pie”, they are reading it as an argument against all of American culture.

The left faces an uphill battle trying to explain our ideas to the general public. The right takes advantage of the institutional support of their ideas in the American culture and education system. They benefit from the conflation of “American” values with their movement, because American values are understood to include things most everybody likes, like freedom of expression, the opportunity to pursue human flourishing, and equality under the law. When you state that white supremacy is a core tenet of American culture, it implies to some extent people need to either reject white supremacy or American culture.

I cannot accept this. I like being American. America is the home of the blues, hip-hop, jazz, and egg rolls. The idea that all people are created equal with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a concept I hold dear, even if the words were written by a slave owner. We need to address systemic racism and challenge historical narratives that suppress the voices of so many who have done so much to build the country we live in today. This is the priority, not dragging America’s name through the mud.

Everyone has a line they’re not willing to cross for any reason. For some people, it’s never acceptable to use symbolism associated with the United States of America, because the founding fathers owned slaves and committed genocide against the indigenous peoples. This may feel right on an emotional level, but the position lacks nuance for what those symbols mean in a culturally constructed sense. More importantly, it’s a tactical blunder. Aligning yourself against the concept of the United States when our culture takes American exceptionalism as a given is not a winning strategy. It is not possible to mainstream the movement this way.

I am not saying that Lexual is taking this hardline position, but for those who do, I have to wonder. In our current climate, when so much is at stake, so many people need help, and the cultural consciousness needs to shift so dramatically, is this the hill you want to die on?

I am not cheered by the removal of white supremacists from sites like Twitter, though I do understand why many of my peers would rather such harmful people be swept out of sight and out of mind. But, that’s precisely my personal problem with erasing white supremacists from social media sites. They don’t have to be promoted, but do they have to be really deleted? The banning of Trump and other racists is a bandaid, one that allows many liberals and moderates to live in a safe cocoon where racism is less common, or at least more sneaky.

I could have ended the article with the last point, but as long as I’m talking about this video, I think this other point needs addressing. Censorship is a sticky subject. Like Lexual herself says in the video, marginalized people are often at risk of being taking off of social media just as white supremacists are. Undemocratic corporations shouldn’t be given the power to censor people at a whim, and at a certain point you have to wonder if your ideas will become “dangerous” and worthy of censorship, especially if they are critical of said corporations.

If this were the subject she focused on in her video, I would be much more agreeable to her point and would not have very much I could confidently contribute to the discussion. What she honed in on instead is very different. Her point to my understanding is that Twitter banning Trump and other dangerous people is little more than sweeping problems under the rug. At best it’s useless, and people will find new avenues of organizing. At worst, it’s harmful, and leads the mainstream to underestimate the presence of dangerous ideologies in American society.

Certainly, racist ideologies have always been present in the United States. What’s new is the presence and strength of blatantly racist terrorist movements. Ever since Trump entered office, White supremacists have been showing up in force in a way they hadn’t before, and hate crimes and terrorism have increased. Trump himself was a master of taking any attention whatsoever, especially negative attention, and spinning it in a way that benefitted his movement. I think that the alt-right only showed up in the way it did because they thought they could get away with it, as evidenced by the fact so many of them filmed themselves at the capitol and posted oodles of evidence on social media.

Social media access gives the alt-right a number of force multipliers. It gives them an easy platform to find each other, plan activities, and evaluate the size of their movement. It helps them easily amplify their message to reach past their own insular communities and bleed into the general discourse. Information can be effortlessly shared between large groups of people. Tactics, ideas, and propaganda techniques can be iterated and tested quickly. Social media makes movements more effective, and it makes their implementation simpler. It is not trivial whether or not dangerous people have access to this tool.

Innuendo Studios has a great video on mainstreaming that discusses the importance of language and visibility in taking a marginalized viewpoint into the broader discourse. Effective use of visibility and language is part of why one of the most successful left wing movements by far has been the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Reactionaries equate the mere presence of queer characters as shoving woke propaganda down their throat precisely because they understand how effective visibility is. They fight like hell over concepts like marriage and gender because they understand how important language is. Considering how often the right has taken tips from the playbook of the left, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of their own tactics were directly inspired by the success of the gay rights movement.

This links back to my point about calling white supremacy “as American as apple pie”. White supremacists desperately want to mainstream their movement. In a sense, if they mainstream their ideology, they win. This is obviously unacceptable, and it drives much of my concern. Why are we willingly giving them the right to call themselves American patriots? Shouldn’t we be doing that? Don’t we want to win? Don’t we need to win?

It is precisely because white supremacy has a deep history in our country that allowing it to become mainstream is so dangerous. We cannot let it be normal. This fight is sophisticated, and it is not one that anyone fully understands, but ultimately it comes down to winning hearts and minds. We should not hide what we believe, nor should we needlessly police our tone. What we do need to do, is be very considerate about how we explain and market our ideas. This includes when we make content meant for other leftists: you don’t know who’s watching, and you should expect that your audience will repeat some of the things you tell them when they’re trying to convince others.

I believe that Intelexual Media made her video out of a genuine desire to communicate her feelings about the current situation, and I enjoyed it quite a bit despite my objections to some of its content. I hope that this article sparks fruitful discussion and the left continues to cross-pollinate and challenge ideas. It is important that we all do as best we can to understand each other.

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.

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