Whither the Poor? Or, Why You Need to Vote!

August 10, 2016 § 4 Comments

I live in the second poorest county in Tennessee, as defined by median income.  That puts it in the Top 50 nationally, with a median income of $28,086.  Here, the near impossibility of farming on top of a mountain, combined with the long-term effects of coal-mining are all over the place, from the environmental degradation to the deep poverty.

On Monday, I published a post on Lyndon Baines Johnson and his Great Society.  The Great Society was really the last time the government made an attempt to confront white poverty in the US.  But that was half a century ago. They were amongst the constituency of the Democratic Party.  But they’ve long since shifted their allegiances.  But the GOP doesn’t accord them any attention, they’re taken for granted.  The people here are the forgotten people of the country.

Nancy Isenberg, in her fantastic book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, argues that class has been central to American life and American history.  And for poor white people, they have been marginalized here for four centuries, just as they have been in England.  Americans like to think they live in a classless society.  They don’t.  At the time of the Civil War, a grand total of 6 per cent of white Southerners owned slaves. Yet, they managed to convince the other 94 per cent of the justness of a war to protect their economic interests.  For the massive majority of the South, these poor white people, the war was pointless.  And they came to realize this pretty quickly, as soldiers grumbled about the wealthy who sent them to their death.

By the late 1960s and into the 70s and 80s, the Republican Party gained their allegiance.  This came about due to a response on the part of poor, white Southerners to the Civil Rights Era, combined with the rise of evangelical Christianity.  In the first case, there was both frustration with being forgotten by the federal government, combined with a residual racism that dates back to the nineteenth century, when the Southern élite kept them in place by telling poor whites that, “Hey, it may suck to be you, but, you know, it could be worse, you could be black.”  And yes, this worked (don’t believe me, go check out David Roediger’s excellent The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class; think Roediger’s ‘biased’?, read this).  In the second case, the GOP nationally hitched its horses to the evangelical movement, which had its greatest successes in the South.

Driving all over the county this weekend, I noticed where the Trump supporters live.  There are people in this county who are well-off.  There is even a very tiny middle class.  But the Trump supporters, as defined unscientifically by bumper stickers and lawn signs, are the poor.  Trump stickers tend to be on older cars in various stages of disrepair.  The lawn signs tend to be outside of trailers, tiny houses, and cabins and shacks.

But what fascinates me about this is not who they support, but that they do so at all.  This is a politically mobilized group in my county.  During the presidential primaries in May, voter turnout in both the Democratic and Republican primaries was over 60 per cent.  Despite being forgotten, ignored, and left behind, the people of my county are still voting.  Angrily, but they’re voting.  They’re voting for Trump for what I see as obvious reasons: he speaks their language, even if he is a demagogic, power-hungry, liar.

A politician who could harness their anger and frustration and offer hope, something other than the dystopian view of Trump, whilst building a coalition that offered something to other frustrated constituencies (I’m thinking primarily of inner-city African Americans), could actually make a real change in the United States.

But, instead, we get the same hollow language of the Democratic nominee, versus this horrible, Hunger Games dystopian, crypto-fascism of the Republican nominee.


On Uganda’s Homophobic Laws

February 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Earlier this week, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, signed a law that toughens the country’s already rampantly homophobic laws, making some sexual acts subject to life in prison.  Being gay was already illegal in Uganda prior to this law being passed.  This law had been under discussion since 2009, and originally called for the death penalty for some sexual acts, and was originally tabled when the European Union objected.  It was revived last year.  President Musveni had flip flopped on whether or not he would sign the law, at one point arguing that gay people were “sick,” but didn’t require imprisonment, but help and treatment.  And just to make it absolutely where Musveni stands on the issue, he clarified his thoughts in this CNN article.  Musveni says:

They’re disgusting. What sort of people are they? I never knew what they were doing. I’ve been told recently that what they do is terrible. Disgusting. But I was ready to ignore that if there was proof that that’s how he is born, abnormal. But now the proof is not there…”I was regarding it as an inborn problem.  Genetic distortion — that was my argument. But now our scientists have knocked this one out.

Charming.  Just charming.

Also in the past week, documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams’s new film, God Loves Uganda has been making the rounds.  It is based largely on the undercover work of a Boston-based Anglican (Episcopalian in the US) priest, Kapya Kaoma.  In the film, we learn that missionaries from the Kansas City-based International House of Prayer have been proselytising in Uganda, preaching that God hates LGBT people.  Charming.

All of this is deeply unsettling.  Yesterday, I tweeted this

I immediately got into a discussion on several fronts about the role of these American missionaries in all of this, on several fronts.  I maintain that the IHOP missionaries are disgusting and an afront to humanity, but Uganda is to blame for this.  But I’m writing this to expand what one can say in 140 characters on Twitter.  One, being gay was already illegal in Uganda when the IHOP missionaries began spreading hate.  Two, the IHOP missionaries capitalised on the already extant homophobia in Uganda in their preaching.  And three, Uganda is responsible for its laws.  The missionaries are a handful of people in a nation of 36 million people.

To argue that the missionaries are entirely to blame is wrong-headed to me for several reasons.  First and foremost, it reflects an imperialist mindset to say that American missionaries went to Uganda and taught Ugandans that being gay is a sin and therefore Uganda passed a law that toughened anti-gay measures already in place.  To blame the missionaries removes Ugandan culpability here.  It also says that Ugandans are not capable of forming their own thoughts.  Being gay was already a crime in Uganda before the IHOP missionaries gained a following.  And Uganda is hardly alone in the world in an anti-gay stance.  I point to, say, for example, Russia (interestingly, Russia’s anti-gay laws are also based on conservative Christian thought).  The new law just expanded on earlier ones.

Ultimately, Uganda is responsible for this new law.  Musveni is responsible for signing it.  No missionary held a gun to his head, or bribed him.  It’s his doing.  And it’s entirely consistent with his thoughts on being gay to start with.  And its consistent with Ugandan thought before the advent of the missionaries.


The Haunting of Patrick Okello

January 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, there was a fantastic article in The Guardian about Uganda and the long-term fall out of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army amongst the Acholi.  The Acholi live in northern Uganda, not far from South Sudan.  Joseph Kony comes from the Acholi.  One of the many things that struck me about the article is the story of Patrick Okello.  Okello is a haunted man.

In 1996, five years after a horrible massacre at Amoko on 6 December 1991, Patrick Okello and his brother came across the dismembered remains of his father about 8 miles away from home.  Another victim of the LRA:

My brother and I found his body cut up into small pieces.  There was a lot of blood. We buried him quickly in a shallow grave with sand near our home. Then we ran away in case the LRA were still in the area. I think my father is still vengeful about the fact that his last funeral rite has not been carried out. He always tells me he needs a proper burial. He is angry.

Journalist Will Storr posits that Okello suffers from PTSD.  But Okello, as Storrs notes, lives in a small village, far removed from the world of medical intervention.  Instead, Okello is haunted.  Storrs writes,

Demons have been visiting him in the night; he wakes to see a strange glow in his hut as they surround him, whispering Okello, Okello, Okello. Flies, rats and bats crawl over him. The other day, he stripped off all his clothes and ran up the hill. “That’s what makes him run,” says elder Martin Olanya. “Because they’re calling his name.” The villagers have a theory as to what’s behind the haunting of Patrick Okello. “Ever since the burials took place,” says Martin, “the people in this community have not been settled. We assume it’s the work of vengeful spirits.”

The Acholi believe in this spiritual world.  Like all cultures, they believe in elaborate burial rituals that allow the spirit of the deceased to journey onwards.  If those rituals are not observed, the spirit cannot escape and they remain to haunt those left behind.  And during the terror caused by Kony and the LRA, which visited the most destruction, death and mayhem on the Acholi because they wouldn’t, for the most part, support Kony, it was near impossible to observe these rituals.  Storrs tells of other survivors of the 1991 massacre who buried their dead in shallow graves, quickly, to avoid running into the LRA again lest they be killed as well.

I resent the tone taken by Westerners in describing these belief systems (though Storrs actually does a wonderful job in NOT taking the usual tone), which reflects this sense of Western superiority, that somehow we are rational (yes, I know, this is the entire mindset that justified imperialism in the first place).  As if we in the (post)modern world do not have such beliefs, we are entirely rational and modernised.

When I teach World History, I spend a lot of time dealing with religion for the simple fact that religion is, amongst other things, supposed to offer a means of explaining the chaos and disorder of the world, a means of understanding why bad things happen.  In other words, religious beliefs have long since ordered and organised cultures, including our own allegedly post-religious society.  And belief systems like that of the Acholi do exactly that, it explains why the world works the way it does.  And we all need belief systems that help us to understand the world, which is why this theme I’ve been exploring when I teach World History, the Terror of History, is so appealing to me.  Religion is one of the main means by which human beings have sought to escape the Terror of History, as religion allows us to rationalise it, to give us meaning for why bad things happen and why we are all going to die.

And so this is what the beliefs of the Acholi do: explain the world to them, and to help them understand why Kony happened in the first place.  Indeed, Dorina Adjero, one of Okello’s neighbours, says that Kony is possessed by demons, “That’s why he does all the killings and all these weird things.  A normal person who is acting in normal conscience wouldn’t kill people in this way.”  As for Okello, his demons appear to have been quieted by an exorcism of sorts performed by pastors from the local evangelical Christian church.

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