Tuesday, October 26, 2010

capitalists, please stop appropriating Malcolm X

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a post about Malcolm X that I admire until its end, when he says,
I have sometimes remarked that Barack Obama reminds me of Malcolm, in his bearing, in his sense of irony, and in the almost epic quality of narrative. But mostly it's in his curiosity about the world, in his deep belief in intelligence and altering your views as evidence presents itself. The great tragedy of Malcolm X's life is how that curiosity was circumscribed and perverted. The great joy of Barack Obama is seeing that curiosity unbounded and rewarded.
That inspired a few comments from me, to him and to others. I'll edit them into a single narrative, cutting the chaff:

Malcolm X had very harsh things to say about capitalism and good things to say about socialists. Barack Obama, in many ways, continues the neoliberal policies of his predecessor. In Malcolm X's terms, Obama is a house nigger.

Three quotes to let the man speak for himself:
"They switched from the old, open colonial, imperialistic approach to the benevolent approach. They came up with some benevolent colonialism, philanthropic colonialism, humanitarianism, or dollarism."
“Most of the countries that were colonial powers were capitalist countries, and the last bulwark of capitalism today is America. It’s impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can’t have capitalism without racism. And if you find one and you happen to get that person into conversation and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political philosophy is socialism.”
“It is impossible for capitalism to survive, primarily because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck. Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture. It used to be strong enough to go and suck anybody’s blood whether they were strong or not. But now it has become more cowardly, like the vulture, and it can only suck the blood of the helpless. As the nations of the world free themselves, the capitalism has less victims, less to suck, and it becomes weaker and weaker. It’s only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely.”
Yes, people should not take quotes out of context for their agenda. It's wrong when capitalists do it, too. Malcolm X was far more than a cozy icon for neoliberal antiracism.

It's certainly possible that if he lived, he would've done the equivalent of selling a new style of pants with his name attached. But I doubt it. I think he would've continued to engage with the evolving nature of power. He would've seen that a war which primarily draws upon the poor as its fodder is wrong, whether the pressure comes from the draft or economic hardship. He opposed capitalism and imperialism and wars of aggression and anything that hurt the black working class. The absence of the draft today does not change the fact that the soldiers tend to be working class, which means the war has a greater impact on the black population. (Possibly of interest: on race and class in the current war.)

He confronted power, wherever it was. Today, it's in Barack Obama's hands. He might've been diplomatic in his criticism. He was very much into respect; he said, "Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery."

But he would not have watched working class black men and women dying in an imperial war against Muslims and said nothing simply because Obama is black. He would've thought that anyone advancing the cause of the military-industrial complex was a house Negro: Condi Rice, Colin Powell, Barack Obama, etc.

He tended to blame institutions more than individuals, but he was willing to criticize black individuals. He said of Martin Luther King, "He got the peace prize, and we got the problem.. ... If I'm following a general, and he's leading me into a battle, and the enemy tends to give him rewards, or awards, I get suspicious of him. Especially if he gets a peace award before the war is over."

To black folks who think whites should not speculate about a dead black man's thought: You may be all about what white folks may say to black folks, but this is where his thoughts took him:
"I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being, neither white, black, brown nor red. When you are dealing with humanity as one family, there's no question of integration or intermarriage. It's just one human being marrying another human being, or one human being living around and with another human being."
Ta-Nehisi is a damn fine writer and thinker, but he's subject to the same forces that the rest of us are. He works for a capitalist paper and gets paid well by it. He quoted Frederick Douglass recently: "A man is worked upon by what he works on. He may carve out his circumstances, but his circumstances will carve him out as well."

When it comes to analyzing capitalism, he's being carved, too.

ETA: Adding a shout-out to James Nicoll and Mary Dell. None are more certain than those who don't know their ignorance.

ETA 2: See also Malcolm X on Afghanistan, I mean, Vietnam.