Beyonce and the politics of Cultural Dominance

I confess, I am a culturally alienated, old, disconnected 1960s and ‘70s radical trying to live and struggle for revolutionary change in a world that might have passed me by, because I cannot for the life of me understand how Beyonce’s commodified caricature of black opposition was in any way progressive. Instead what I saw was the cultural power of neoliberal capitalism to co-opt opposition, monetize it and provide some mindless entertainment all at the same time. I didn’t see opposition; I saw the imagery and symbols of authentic black radicalism grotesquely transformed into a de-politicized spectacle by gyrating, light-skinned booty-short-clad sisters.

I am told that I am being too harsh. That there were positive messages encoded into Beyonce’s performance. In their rebuke of my interpretation, my friends return to that old canard that “we got to meet the people where they are at” and take every opportunity within the domain of popular culture to push positive messages.

This sad and reactionary position only reflects the deep cynicism and alienation of black radical politics that has never recovered from the systematic assault on our movement from the ‘70s onward. An assault that was not only military, but as a centerpiece of its strategy, pushed for a cultural and ideological assimilation of the Black/African working class and the artificially created middle-class. Understanding the power of ideas to shape consciousness, the objective was to “Americanize” the African American. Saner people would call that process genocide, but in the U.S. it is called racial progress.

The success of that strategy – the elimination of the “us,” an emerging “people” committed to radical transformational politics with a healthy psychological and emotional distance from “them,” the U.S. state, its racist and colonialist/imperialist history – was on display in Selma at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the march. In Selma, Barack Obama, the living personification of that strategy, delivered a version of the American narrative that was infused with all of the racist jingoism of bold settlers and the marginalization of genocide and slavery. But instead of Obama being run off the stage and out of town, his rendering of the story of white manifest destiny, U.S. exceptionalism and black advancement within the context of capitalism, was warmly embraced and praised by the new Negroes of empire.

In an era where the image is dominant and meaning fluid, what is still real, concrete and observable is the operation of power. Situated and controlled by an elite that bell hooks refers to as the White Male, capitalist Patriarchy, it’s a power that exercises with devastating efficiency its ability to shape consciousness through its control of the major means of communication and cultural production. It was those white men and their representatives that placed Beyoncé on that stage at the Super Bowl. It is incredibly naive to think that anything subversive or even remotely oppositional to the interests of the capitalist oligarchy would be allowed expression on a stage that it controlled.

Beyonce’s performance and her video is as conservative and accommodationist as the demand for justice for …, fill in the blank, after one of the defenders of the capitalist order executes one of our folks. Everyone can give lip service to the demand for racial justice or oppose the “bad apples” in the police forces that abuse their power, and most people, (except the most rabid racists) can and do get behind the idea that black lives should matter. That is why the movement has not been shut down, at least not yet!

No folks, real opposition to this white supremacist, colonialist/imperialist order is not cool, or sexy. Being a black revolutionary means the possibility of death, it can mean facing decades of incarceration as a political prisoner, it can mean exile or the inability to make a living because your liberal friends consider you dangerous. It is facing the naked power of the national security state with its power to engage in extra-judicial murder with impunity, surveillance and infiltration.

Those who claim that Assata taught them should have been outraged by the brazen, commodified blackness being pushed by capitalist marketers. Didn’t Assata say that we could never be free while the American government and American capitalism remain intact? That is a call for total resistance that can’t be co-opted by bourgeois culture.

I recognize that we are in a new era. Structural and ideological changes have profoundly altered the U.S. social formation. Even in the period of the most serious crisis of the capitalist order, the ethical framework of liberal capitalist individualism is still dominant. And within the black community, post- modernism is in open competition for hegemony with our ever-developing radical tradition.

In this period of media-driven pseudo-opposition in the form of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Beyoncé or even Bernie Sanders, it is increasingly difficult to make the distinction between image and reality, especially when the production of images and symbols is controlled by dominant forces with an interest in keeping us all stupid.

It is only through ruthless criticism and a commitment to struggling beyond the accepted paradigms that we can penetrate the BS and engage in a politics that is truly subversive. And that kind of politics will not be brought to you in living color in the safety of your homes while you stuff yourself with poison foods and spirits to dull the mind.

 

Ajamu Baraka is a human rights activist, organizer and geo-political analyst. Baraka is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington, D.C. and editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report. His latest publications include contributions to” Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence” (Counterpunch Books, 2014), “Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA”(HarperCollins, 2014) and “Claim No Easy Victories: The Legacy of Amilcar Cabral” ( CODESRIA, 2013). He can be reached at www.AjamuBaraka.com

 

Threats against Afro-Colombian Leaders from Buenaventura

Danelly Estupiñan, a powerful Afro-Colombian human rights activist and personal friend of mine, is now facing a mortal threat from the fanatical criminals aligned with powerful economic interests who are committed to keeping Black people subjugated in the port city of Buenaventura and throughout Colombia.

An activist and member of the Black Communities Process (PCN), Danelly joins a long list of woman, labor and youth activists who are facing death or have been murdered for daring to organize Afro-Colombians to defend their dignity.

At 5:30pm on November 23, Danelly received a death threat stating “Danelly you are close to the end.” Less than five hours later, she received a call from a friend where a distorted voice was interposed that stated “we know where you are, we know where you are.” These threats follow a November 22 visit by the community human rights ombudsman, UNHCR and PCN Congal members to the Inmaculada neighborhood. The visit was prompted by the November 19 threats against community leader Rocio del Pilar Segura. Neighbors informed Ms. Segura that personnel from the TCBUEN posted a sign outside her house without her consent. Ms. Segura moved the sign and on November 20 personnel from TCBUEN arrived at her door and told her daughter “that they will make Rocio pay for the sign.”

The Black Communities Process (PCN) Buenaventura office, Palenque el Congal, works to defend the rights and dignity of Afrodescendant communities located in the Bajamar area of Buenaventura’s Cascajal Island for decades. Afrodescendants living in this area, many of whom are the displaced and their children, who fled conflict and abuse in nearby river communities are living in sub-human conditions due to the abandonment of the State. Not only have they had to confront extreme marginalization, poverty, lack of basic services, and had little access to employment opportunities, but they have also become the targets of the armed groups. For years, these residents have suffered brutal homicides that involve torture and dismemberment, disappearances, and displacements. PCN has accompanied and advocated for a stop to these abuses and justice for the victims.

I know this community; have walked its street and broken bread with its inhabitants. The government wants this community to be gone because it wants to build a beautiful new boardwalk in the city that it hopes will attract more tourist dollars. The only problem is that the expansion requires the displacement the people living on that valuable land. Danelly and PCN’s Palenque el Congal represent the organized resistance to those plans and as a result have become the target of the paramilitary groups who protect and enforce the interests of the Colombian elite.

These threats are taking place at a time when more than 143 death threats against activists were reported in the region. On November 9, paramilitaries killed Afro-Colombian youth activist Jhon Jairo Ramirez Olaya in Buenaventura. They also coincide with numerous leaders of the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA), of which PCN forms part, receiving threats and being intimidated for their work promoting justice, peace and human rights.

We must stand with the people of Colombia. We must make sure that Black lives matter in Buenaventura and that our dear sister is protected. For more information and how you can help, go to http://afrocolombian.org/2015/11/25/the-lives-of-afro-colombian-leaders-from-buenaventura-must-be-protected/

 

The Paris Attacks and the White Lives Matter Movement

I received a message from one of my friends in Lebanon who asked with feigned curiosity why the U.S. media only gave a passing reference to the bombing in Beirut before turning to non-stop coverage of the attacks in Paris. Of course, like many of us she already knew the answer – that in the consciousness of the White West there is a premium on the value of White life.

Acknowledging this fact is neither new nor should it be particularly controversial. Its obviousness is apparent to anyone who is honest. We saw it in the response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks where the world (meaning the White West) engaged in a gratuitous expression of moral outrage against terrorism. But that outrage against terrorism didn’t extent to the two thousand Nigerians who were murdered by Boko Haram the same weekend that a massive rally in Paris took place to condemn the Charlie Hebdo attack. At that rally not one word of solidarity or condemnation of terrorism in Nigeria was expressed by the speakers or the thousands gathered that day.

What my friend and all of us who have been the victims of the selected morality and oppressive violence of Western civilization over the last five hundred years have come to understand is that non-European life simply does not have equal value.

How else can one explain the complete lack of attention to the humanity of the victims of ISIS attacks in Beirut and in Bagdad the day before or the lack of concern for the lives of the over 7,000 people in Yemen murdered by the Saudi Arabia dictatorship, with U.S. and NATO support?

And is it unfair to suggest that it is the diminished value of life of the lives of people in the global South that allows supporters of Bernie Sanders to dismiss his support for U.S. war-mongering policies in the global South?

The Liberal Roots of White Supremacist Psychopathology:

In the classrooms of Western universities and occasionally in civic courses in high schools, students are introduced to the ideas of liberal humanitarianism that are supposed to characterize the core values of the European enlightenment. The enlightenment is supposed to represent the progressive advancement of all of humanity by the thinkers of Europe who, of course, represented the leading edge of collective humanity.

But what is not sufficiently interrogated in these classes is the fact that while these grand theories of “mankind’s” inherent equality, rationality and even “perfectibility,” were being discussed, those theorists had already arrived at a consensus. This consensus was on the criteria for determining which individuals and groups would be recognized as having equal membership in the human family, what Hannah Arendt referred to as those people who had the “right to have rights.” According to the criteria, women and the non-European world were excluded or assigned to a lower order of humanity.

Eurocentric academicians, still a hegemonic force in the West, don’t historicize the “great” humanitarian theories of Europe and critically juxtapose the rise of those theories with the concrete practices of European powers. Those practices involved the systematic slaughter of millions of Indigenous people throughout the America’s and the African slave trade that made Europe fat and rich and allowed for the creation of a class of intellectuals freed-up from the struggle to earn a living and able to engage in the higher contemplations of life.

However, Eurocentric liberalism was never just confined to the academy. It became the hegemonic ideological force that embedded itself in the culture and collective consciousness of the Western project and with it the de-valuation of non-European life and culture. In other words, the white supremacist ideology and world-view, normalized and thus unrecognized by most, has become a form of psychopathology. It is the cognitive dissonance that Fanon talks about regarding white supremacy as part of the colonial mindset and what James Baldwin refers to as the “lie of white supremacy” that has distorted the personalities, lives and the very ability of many white people to grasp reality.

However, the contradictions in the spheres of ideas and culture are not the real threat. The construction of a Western collective consciousness that is unable to cognitively process information and consider knowledge beyond the assumptions of its own world-views and values is dangerous enough, but the ease with which humanity is stratified with Europeans and their societies representing the apex of human development is the real threat because that belief has resulted in the rationalization for the crimes of colonialism, slavery and genocide, and the politics of permanent war.

The White Lives Matter Movement writ large, played out on the international stage

Despite the spirited defense of the positive aspects of liberalism from John Rawls to radicals like Slavoj Zizek, the racist and sexist contradictions of liberalism was once again confirmed by the obscenely disproportionate response to the attacks in Paris that once again demonstrated that liberalism is no more than a racist ideological construct posing as trans-historical philosophy.

However, let me be clear, my critique of the moral hypocrisy of the West should not be read as a rationalization for the horrific crimes committed in Paris a few days ago.

The intentional murder of non-combatants is a recognizable war crime that can rise to the level of a crime against humanity and should always be condemned with the perpetrators brought to justice. That legal principle is based on the moral principle of the equal value of all life and everyone’s human right to life. The defense and enforcement of those principles requires, however, that all states and groups be subjected to the same legal and ethical standards and that all are held accountable.

But in the context of the existing global power relations, crimes committed by Western states and those states aligned with the West as well as their paramilitary institutions escape accountability for crimes committed in the non-European world. In fact some states -like the United States- proudly claim their “exceptionality,” meaning impunity from international norms, as a self-evident natural right.

And in that sense, while the victims of the violence in Paris may have been innocent, France was not. French crimes against Arabs, Muslims and Africans are ever- present in the historical memory and discourse of many members of those populations living in France. Those memories, the systemic discrimination experienced by many Muslims and the collaboration of French authorities with the U.S. and others that gave aid and logistical support to extremist elements in Syria and turned their backs while their citizens traveled to Syria to topple President Assad, became the toxic mix that resulted in the blowback on November 13.

Although a number of the dead in Paris are young Arabs, Muslims and Africans, in the global popular imagination, France, like the U.S. (even under a Black president), is still white.

So in Iraq the Shia will continue to die in the thousands from ISIS bombs; the Saudis will continue to slaughter Houthi’s with U.S. and NATO assistance; and Palestinian mothers will continue to bury their children, murdered by Zionist thugs in and out of uniform, without any outcry from the West. CNN and others will give non-stop coverage to the attacks in Paris because in the end we all really know that the lives that really matter are white.