Politics

Coded and Loaded: How Politicians Talk About Race and Gender Without Really Talking About Race and Gender

Screen Shot 2016-09-22 at 5.05.58 PM

Timed for the election, the new California magazine runs my exploration of dog whistle politics, from Nixon to Trump.

Richard Nixon had always been more of a rat-catcher than a heartthrob. All jowls and forehead, and sporting that rictus of a smile, he was a perennial runner-up. Willy Loman by way of Yorba Linda.

In the summer of 1968, though, with the country in flames, Nixon rolled out the strategy that would vault him into the Oval Office. Middle America was spooked by urban uprisings and draft-board bombings, bra burnings and street crime. The Great Society seemed to many a zero-sum game in which minorities won and whites lost, and as much as average white voters hated the Yippies, they feared the Black Panthers.

Nixon saw this bundle of resentments for what it was: a gift. He would speak to this “silent majority,” but he would speak sotto voce—the better to avoid criticism from the media.

Though the prejudice is much closer to the surface than it used to be, the vast majority of Trump’s tough talk still leaves at least a sliver of wiggle room, allowing the listener to fill in the blanks as he or she wishes. The anti-immigration rhetoric is ostensibly about public safety and American jobs, not biology or blood. In theory, Trump’s “border crossers” could be from anywhere. Most of them just happen to be from Latin America. For all of Trump’s bluntness, “He doesn’t say, ‘I’m here to represent the interests of white people against scary brown people,’” Haney Lopez says. “He doesn’t use the n-word. He says, ‘We’re going to take our country back.’”

To Trump’s critics, his strenuous denials of bias (“I am [sic] least racist person there is,” he tweeted) might feel like gaslighting. To his supporters, though, the denials make the coding more credible. Trump is telling it like it is, and if the media attacks him for it, well, that just means he’s doing something right. His status as an anti-PC warrior, meanwhile, serves as both sword and shield, allowing him to make over-the-top comments and refuse to apologize. That’s the Trump brand in a nutshell, says Berkeley linguist and NPR commentator Geoffrey Nunberg, “an incantation that allows him to say this crap and deflect criticism.”

 

Articles
Berkeley
Politics

Comments Off

Permalink

Bohemian Bridges

Slipcase_Bohemian_BridgesA2016

 

The good people at Guardian Stewardship Editions have included my piece on housing rights/squat activist Steve DeCaprio in their new anthology, Bohemian Bridges, which collects writing on American (especially Californian) social, cultural, and political change. I’m honored to be a part of the project.

Articles
California
Legal
Politics
punk
San Francisco

Comments Off

Permalink

Revolution’s end

-2

 

The latest issue of Pallet magazine has a piece of mine chronicling Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers’ exile in Algeria, and on what happens when the revolutionary fire burns out. As always, the magazine is gorgeous–you can pick up a copy here.

 

 

Africa
Articles
Middle East
Politics

Comments Off

Permalink

Angels, Protesters, and Patriots

photo illustration by Ethan ParkerMy new piece in California magazine is about the essential weirdness of patriotism, and its wildly varying meanings in our politics. It’s an article that takes in the Hells Angels and hippies, Regan and Obama, punk rock and Bruce Springsteen, and a bunch of other stuff as well:

It starts with a guy named “Tiny.” Tiny was 6’7” and 300 pounds. And he really liked to fight.

He was first into the breach that fall afternoon in 1965, punching his way through the front of the seven-block-long peace march on Adeline Street, near the Berkeley–Oakland border. Tiny was a member of the outlaw motorcycle gang Hells Angels, and more than a dozen of his brothers followed in his wake, ripping down antiwar signs and screaming, “Go back to Russia, you fucking Communists!”

The Angels, at first blush, seemed unlikely patriots. Though not yet well known, they had a reputation with law enforcement for drinking, smoking dope, and sacking towns like modern-day Visigoths, answering to no authority higher than their East Oakland clubhouse. But now there they were, waving the flag. Their form of patriotism was gut-level, atavistic, loyalty to nation through blood and fire. Their group persona, meanwhile, was the stuff of American mythology, a grab-bag of frontier clichés sprung to life—they were contemporary cowboys, John Wayne’s unwashed, scofflaw cousins.

Perhaps the truest thing anyone can say of patriotism is that it’s personal. I came of political age in the Reagan era, and in the hardcore punk scene that grew in response to it. I devoured righteous broadsides on apartheid, the prison-industrial complex, and Salvadoran death squads in Maximum Rocknroll, the Bay Area punk bible. I listened to bands with gleefully provocative names—Jodie Foster’s Army, Millions of Dead Cops, Dead Kennedys.

When, in 1984, Reagan adopted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a campaign anthem, my parents dragged me to a Springsteen concert. I suffered as only a 12-year-old can suffer. It was years before I realized that the song was actually an indictment of the country’s piss-poor treatment of its Vietnam veterans.

My wariness of patriotism comes from the tribalism that creeps alongside it and the Us and Them divisions it inevitably creates. There’s an undeniable appeal to tribal membership, of course. We all want to be part of the club, however we define it—Hells Angels, the GOP, punk rock.

(Photo illustration by Ethan Parker.)

Articles
Berkeley
California
Foreign policy
Politics
punk

Comments Off

Permalink

Intersecting Lives

palletitaly

My latest for Pallet magazine. A story of international espionage, murder, war, and a villain so brutal he’d make George R.R. Martin blush: just a few of the factors that led to the guy who painted the Mona Lisa hanging out with the dude who invented modern political science.

The travelers were unhappy guests of Cesare Borgia, the pope’s son and reigning dark lord of Italian politics. A ruthless plotter rumored to have murdered his brother and slept with his sister, the 27-year-old duke came on like a cartoon villain, Darth Vader scripted by Tarantino. People said he stalked the streets of Rome after midnight, murdering strangers for sport. Lately, he had begun dressing all in black and, owing to a syphilis infection that scarred his face, wearing a mask—moves that only enhanced his rep.

At the turn of the 16th century, Italy was like Game of Thrones minus the dragons, a patchwork of mini-states run by oligarchs, warlords, and titled thieves dressed in fine silk. The pope, an aficionado of orgies and assassinations, was merely one of the bigger warlords. Foreign powers such as France and Spain meddled freely in Italian affairs. Meanwhile, the Turks, who had been moving westward for centuries, watched hungrily from across the Adriatic.

Pallet doesn’t post its stories online (at least not yet), so here’s the pdf.

(illustration by We Buy Your Kids)

Articles
Politics

Comments Off

Permalink

Visit Palestine

visitpalestineA quick one for Slate‘s Vault: my piece on how a recruiting pitch for Jewish emigration in 1937 became, over the decades, an iconic image of Palestinian resistance:

“As Oslo soured and the second Intifada broke out, Palestinians began ​repurposing​ the poster​. The onetime Jewish recruiting pitch became an affirmation of Palestinian rights, hanging in coffee shops and government buildings all over East Jerusalem and the occupied territories.”

 

Articles
Foreign policy
Middle East
Politics

Comments Off

Permalink

The Dragon and the Dome

Photo by John Ritter

Photo by John Ritter

For this month’s “China” package in San Francisco magazine, I’ve written a history of Chinese-American politics in San Francisco–the story of how, as the subhed so succinctly puts it, “a ghettoized minority cracked the San Francisco establishment–and then became it.”

 

Articles
Politics
San Francisco

Comments Off

Permalink

Three Views of Modern Africa

I’m teaching this course at San Francisco State’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute starting next week–we cover the post-colonial histories of Egypt, Zambia, and South Africa. Check it out.

 

Africa
Foreign policy
Middle East
Politics
South Africa

Comments Off

Permalink

Economic Leverage: UC Students Fought Tooth and Nail to Divest from South Africa

photo(3)

Before the pro-Palestinian BDS movement, before the new push for fossil fuel divestment on college campuses, there was the anti-apartheid struggle. My new piece for California magazine chronicles its growth, from its beginnings amid the civil rights movement to the sustained pressure on the UC system to divest from apartheid South Africa to its eventual victory in the late 1980s.

When Nelson Mandela died last December, it seemed that the whole world mourned his passing. Twitter overflowed with love for the former South African president. South Africans of all colors and ages sat vigil outside his Johannesburg home. Leaders from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe traveled to FNB Stadium to memorialize Africa’s secular saint, and Barack Obama told the assembled dignitaries, “Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done.”

Indeed, 30 years earlier the prospect of a free South Africa was almost unimaginable. Mandela had been imprisoned for decades. Although black townships from Cape Town to Durban were in open revolt against the white-run government, the regime had all the money and firepower it needed to keep the rebellion in check. It also enjoyed the full-throated support of the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who considered Mandela a Communist terrorist.

It was against that backdrop in April 1985 that a few dozen anti-apartheid students launched a sit-in at the entrance to Berkeley’s Sproul Hall. They hung banners, organized teach-ins, and, as night fell, unfurled sleeping bags on the steps. Within days, hundreds were sleeping there overnight, and thousands were turning out for midday rallies.

A banner above the steps spelled out their demand:

END UC TIES TO APARTHEID

CALL TO DIVEST

Articles
Berkeley
California
Foreign policy
Politics
South Africa

Comments Off

Permalink

Radio Freedom, on the radio

I spoke to Johannesburg’s Power FM today about Radio Freedom, the ANC-in-exile’s revolutionary, anti-apartheid radio program from the 1960s through the ’80s. It was fun, though I wish I didn’t sound so sleepy at first–it was 4am my time. Here’s my piece on Radio Freedom from last year.

Africa
Politics
South Africa

Comments Off

Permalink