There have been some truly astounding and naive (and borderline racist) attacks on Rep. John Lewis, Civil Rights icon, by supporters of the liberal Vermont Democratic currently running for President. Sanders involvement in the Civil Rights Movement was very much an aspect of his radical student days, another notch in the belt of a budding white liberal intellectual. This is not in and of itself a bad thing at all, far from it, but to act as those this makes him some sort of equal to John Lewis, let alone MLK, is whitewashing history to the point if ridiculousness. According to Mother Jones (hardly a Clinton organ, that publication) Sanders was arrested while working for CORE and SNCC, but he quit both operations entirely when participation start to hurt his grades. Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy summarizes it this way:
“Sanders’ involvement was, by comparison [to SNCC Leader and future Congressman John Lewis] brief and localized, his sacrifices limited to one arrest for protesting and a bad GPA from neglecting his studies.”
Bernie Sanders had enough privilege to be able to walk away from the civil rights movement when it started to impact him in a negative way and to come back again when he had bored of his studies and it was more convenient for him to do so. Black activists and revolutionaries were not so lucky. They didn’t get to walk away when the going got a little tough. Just like I wouldn’t claim to be a civil rights leader because I am decent white person who tries to listen and better himself, Sanders and his supporters should not claim he was anything more than an enlightened bystander in the movement. And for Sanders supporters to use a discredited photograph and misrepresentation of facts and history to attack and discredit a true hero of the people like John Lewis, just because he didn’t remember Sanders or choose to support him, is reprehensible and the worst sort of politics, the sort of politics that is rightfully condemned when Trump or Cruz does it.
Again, I am so tough on Sanders not because he spit in my cheerios or anything (he’d probably have made a fun intro to Poli Sci professor back in my Junior College days) but because he has claimed a reputation as a “revolutionary” that he has not earned. At least Clinton, as cynical and establishment as she is, has never claimed to be anything other than a left of center Democrat at most. Sanders entire shtick is that he is going to rally the American people together to “destroy inequality and the 1%” and it’s grip on the levers of power in politics and economics. How do you do that as the head of the most power manifestation of that power and inequality? The U.S. Presidency is not, and has never been, a revolutionary office. It is an office of entrenched imperial authority, a powerful force for institutional change at best and of gross repression and exploitation at its worse. It makes me angry that Sanders is all but promising free college to a new generation of young people without any sort of honest discussion on how this is to be done in a congressional system that is jerry-rigged and gerrymandered in favor of incumbent, especially conservative Republican, elements.
My little brother is now excited about having his dream of a free college education come true…but it is a betrayal of his enthusiasm and hope, a crass exercise in cynical emotional manipulation, for Sanders to promise these things as quick legislative fixes instead of the monumental political and institutional slogs they are inevitably going to be. This is the hipster-ification of radical and revolutionary politics that emerged after the collapse of President Obama’s laudable Hope and Change platform. Sanders is a symptom of the cynical navel gazing savior seeking tendencies that have always bedeviled the left and far left; the admission that top down revolutionary change is not only possible, but desirable. This is the utopian tendency of the left in a nutshell. Reform must not be mistaken for revolution. In Sanders we that mistake is taken and turned into a political gospel, his base feeding off the reflected ego that comes from seeing what you want to see out of political ennui bordering on desperation. Electing Sanders would not tear off the chains that link us to an oppressive and inherently violent system: it would merely make those chains more colorful and comfortable so that a whole new generation can slip into them and be sanguine about the prospect of living forever in an exploitative monolith that occasionally gives those who whine the most and loudest a bit of relief from its deprivations. This is not revolution, this is acquiescence. People like my brother deserve a the truth, real hope, real ways to fight for a system that is truly just and democratic and revolutionary, with real opportunities that do not require a toeing of the institutional line. He deserves real hope, and real change, not a false hope and the mimicry of change. Revolution is not performance art, and it is not something that can be brought from the top down, no matter how many people vote for the man at the top.
The Sanders of the world would have us believe that racism is a class issue exclusively or primarily. This is wrong and perhaps even a deliberate obfuscation of reality. Racism is the exact OPPOSITE of a class issue! It violates the bounds and meaning of class at every level. Racism in the U.S. is an institutional caste system based on fear, exploitation, white enrichment, and power. The class element is secondary, or even tertiary to this. Sanders looks at poverty and sees a lot of black faces and white faces…what he fails to realize is that the black faces are there because they are SUPPOSED to be! The system is DESIGNED that way! How else does a convicted violent white felon have twice as much chance as getting a job as a more qualified black college graduate applicant? This is the trap FDR, LBJ, and the Bill Clinton fell into, seeing race as a class issue and thus trying a blanket approach to reform that neglected to even ACKNOWLEDGE that the inherent racist corruption of the system itself would keep the benefits of the social welfare programs and market reforms from benefiting all aspects of society equally. Clinton hit on that in he closing argument last night, and it quite impressed me. Not saying she “gets it”, because of course she does not, she is as much of a shill as Sanders, but at least she does not play up this class issue that has always been yet ANOTHER way for white liberals to avoid the giant rampaging elephant in the room that is institutional racism. Clinton, at least, has never claimed to be a revolutionary figure. As Emperor, at least she would be clothed. Do not buy into the Bernie as Revolutionary Savior meme. As the great Rebel Commander in Charge of Forces Orbiting the Forest Moon of Endor warned us all: “It’s Trap!”
If you want to read more about Sanders political activities in the 60’s please read this excellent profile by Tim Murphy of Mother Jones magazine: