In 1995, when Louis Farrakhan announced his “Million Man March” on Washington, D.C., conservatives and liberals were alarmed. Farrakhan, of course, is a notorious black nationalist who has made a career of spinning conspiracy theories and spreading anti-white invective. The National Park Service estimated that 400,000 individuals gathered on the National Mall, a number the organizers of the march found frustratingly small. Though there were of course many things that were odious about the Million Man March, most obviously its association with the loathsome Farrakhan, one gets the impression that most attendees were primarily interested in achieving economic and spiritual uplift for African American men. The 1980s and early 1990s saw the rise of the crack epidemic and the deindustrialization of U.S. inner cities, phenomena that led to a steady deterioration in the labor market position of African American men. That hundreds of thousands of Americans from all walks of life — working class, upper middle class, native-born, immigrants, laborers, and professionals — would want to join together in the spirit of self-assertion but also celebration strikes me as entirely defensible in itself.
There were, of course, many potent critiques of the Million Man March, including many from the left. In December of 1995, Annalee Newitz took the March to task in Bad Subjects:
Of course, as critics such as bell hooks have pointed out, a march for blacks that deliberately excludes women is not really a march for black people, but rather a march for something like rejuvenated black patriarchy. And it is precisely for this reason, I would argue, that men’s movement supporters of all races seized upon the March as a potent symbol and rallying cry. Like many men’s movement events, such as Robert Bly’s famous “drumming” retreats, the March spoke to men’s feelings of social victimization in order to suggest that older, more spiritual, forms of male strength and bonding might be needed to change masculinity for the better. In the case of the black men who marched on Washington, social victimization takes the form of racism, and what Farrakhan called “the evil of slavery.” Strength, Farrakhan suggested to marchers, can be found in male identities associated with Judeo-Islamic patriarchal values, and the mid-century ideal of a male “head of household” role. Both identities are linked to forms of masculinity forged in the past: antiquity in the case of Biblical masculinity, and a mostly pre-feminist era in the case of the “head of household” male role.
This leads me to today’s Glenn Beck rally, which has also caused considerable consternation among liberals. One of the central figures at the rally, at least as prominent as Beck himself, is Sarah Palin, a working mother and former governor who identifies as a both a conservative and a feminist. The rally includes women and men, and the organizers have devoted considerable attention to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. There has been no discussion of politics, but rather a celebration of the U.S. servicemembers and veterans.
The parallels and contrasts with the Million Man March strike me as interesting. Farrakhan was a figure almost universally despised by elite conservatives and liberals, and for good reason. Beck is often accused of crypto-fascist tendencies, yet his core message seems rooted in ideas of self-help and self-assertion that would not be unfamiliar to black nationalists.
Thinking about the rally reminded me of writer Chris Lehmann’s references to society’s “are-nots,” which he discussed in a recent interview with Mediate:
I think the phrase—which I cribbed from political scientist Marc Landy, if memory serves—invokes the idea that our incomes and wealth-holding don’t match up to our status anxieties. So, for instance, if a Tea Party protestor was absolutely convinced that the Obama stimulus plan was a tax increase—when it was in fact a tax CUT for anyone earning less than 250K a year, you sort of have to conclude that person is protesting something other than their slipping economic footing. What that is, I could only guess at—but it would seem to involve a sense of exclusion from the so-called elites who lay out the economic aims of the liberal state, the Red Army in the lamestream media, the coastal lords of the culture industries and what not. The complaint, near as I can suss out, is that there’s conspiracy afoot among these remote figures to deny, well, something to the overlooked people in the American mainstream. To the extent that something is their own status or sense of self-worth, I think it’s useful to characterize them as “are nots.”
Bracketing the question of tax cuts — it could be that Tea Party protesters understand that debt-financed spending increases are almost by definition future tax increases, a concept that not everyone seems to fully understand — it does seem as though large numbers of Americans from micropolitan and smaller metropolitan really do feel excluded. They don’t feel as though their values are reflected by the country’s economic and political elite, and they worry about losing their economic and cultural autonomy, sensing that the further centralization of power will hurt rather than help that cause, a premise we can’t expect committed social democrats to understand.