It took me a long, long time to realize I’d been raised in a cult, because Southern Christian white culture is already so cult like. Conspiracy theories are treated as gospel truth. Evolution is considered a threat to faith. Women are second class citizens and everyone relies on their uncompensated labor. My cult didn’t stand out in the Bible Belt, it blended in.
So what can we do? First we can recognize this question isn’t new. Everyone in the United States has probably heard of one hate cult, Westboro Baptist Church. The WBC made themselves infamous by staging protests where they scream antiLGBT slurs at queer funerals and claim God loves IEDs which kill US soldiers at military funerals. They are loud and hateful, with garish neon signs.
Many people have counter protested these stunts. Motorcycle riders surround the bigots with their bikes, then rev their engines so the hate speech is drowned out. Queers and Christians and military families joined together to say “Fuck these guys”. That’s what’s needed here.
Queers and Christians, military and Muslims, juveniles and Jews need to join together to say ” Fuck these guys” about the Nazis, Klansmen, and white nationalists currently having a moment. Engaging with bigots one on one around the family dinner probably won’t do much. Actively looking after the needs of their targets, and joining together to fight the evil, can do so much more.
Usually when you see someone in a cult, I want you to show them kindness. Even the nastiest, most racist and abusive cult member is simultaneously a victim. But that victimization doesn’t forgive all their sins. Culpability in cults is a complicated question. Racism isn’t. Racism is bad and should be protested. If the cult member you encounter belongs to a hate group, I want your kindness extended to their targets instead.
We have a long road ahead of us but we can make the journey less dangerous by looking out for each other. There has always been a minority of whites who objected to our nation’s racism – Quakers, abolitionists, Freedom Riders. The only thing keeping good whites the minority is white culture. Hate groups are a centuries old tradition in the US, and their views are never quite as fringe as we’d like to believe. We, and only we, can change that. Let’s do it.
Some of my fascination with history comes from living in a cult. Because they are counterculture groups, cults often idealize a fictionalized past or imaginary future as superior to their own time. Home in Zion, my group, had common cause with the Quiverful movement of homeschooling, home birthing, and home churching. Quiverful Christians romanticize the past.
UFO cults idealize the future, when aliens will save us from ourselves. Rapture Ready groups do the same. What cults generally agree on is the current world is a mess. Why it’s a mess and how to respond varies by group and doctrine, but the sad fallen state of this sinful world is the common ground they share.
The present rise of Naziism and white racial hate groups in the United States can be understood in this context. They are a counterculture that idealizes a fictionalized past and thinks returning to that era will bring about a glorious change. They are also racist and horrible. Racism is a standard feature in white America, and even more so in white cults.
White cults include white supremacist terrorist and hate groups like the KKK, some motorcycle clubs, and Quiverful Christians who fear white genocide and respond with prolific breeding. They view having large families as obedience to God and service to whiteness. Even the People’s Temple, ostensibly an anti racist church, mistreated black members, who were overrepresented in the cult’s mass “suicide”.
I have written before about the necessity of kindness in the battle against cults. In the case of white racist cults, much of that kindness should be extended to Jews and people of color first or instead. Cult leaders rely on the world being ugly and unfair; it’s what they promise to change. When we show kindness to others, when we give money to widows and orphans and homeless, when we ensure everyone has their needs met, for many this will prevent them ever getting so ensnared.
But racism isn’t caused by poverty or need. It’s socially taught and encouraged at every stage of white life. Racist cults don’t arise to meet the needs of an oppressed people. They exploit the racist whites they claim to be looking out for, and terrorize or even kill people of other races and religions.
The ignition point for the Civil War was an election, where a fairly centrist candidate took more votes than those who wanted to expand slavery and those who wanted it ended. Abraham Lincoln ran on a “let’s wait and see” platform. Once his win was announced, South Carolina began the process of secession.
Hillary Clinton secured over two million more votes than her winning opponent, thanks to an electoral system enacted to placate slave states by granting them disproportionately large say in matters of government. The neonazi neo confederates threatened civil war and violence if they didn’t get their way. They promise world war if they do.
The US Civil War was one of our deadliest by far, because every casualty on every side counts as one of ours. We joined the world wars late and well rested. We didn’t start them before. I don’t want war. I don’t like war. I know that noncombatant women and children often suffer the most in war, and I know rape of such is used as a war weapon.
But. If we have to choose, I’d rather have a civil war. I’d rather contest this election, have faithless electors, and somehow NOT end up with a racist sexist fascist rapist-in-chief. I’d rather risk a somewhat equally matched battle than see the Russian and US military together invading the world. I’d rather have a president who might prosecute white terrorists.
I’d rather have Civil War 2 than World War 3. I don’t want war, but I don’t a peace that simply ignores violence and hate crimes and persecution. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail on the difference between “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” with “a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” I want to not be content with negative peace, but to fight for a positive one.
Many people wiser than I have looked at the current political climate in the US and brought up similarities to Nazi Germany. Fascism based in racial and ethnic hatred has a lot in common with fascism based in racial and ethnic hatred, after all. But there is another racially charged moment in history these days also resemble: the US Civil War.
We are a divided country with a white majority. More than half of white voters chose the most openly racist candidate in decades. More than a third voted for the much less racist alternative. White Americans today are divided on the Nazi question. In the mid 1800s, white Americans were divided on the “peculiar institution” of lifelong race based chattel slavery.
Plantation owners were at the top of Southern hierarchy – white, male, land owning, and rich. Fewer than 10% of white male Southerners enslaved two or more people, yet slavery was overwhelmingly supported by poor local whites. Plantation mistresses, wives and daughters of the master, were subject to sexist dictates, yet rarely supported abolition or feminism.
We see the same dynamic today. Poor whites support policies that keep them poor, so long as they keep black Amerticans poorer. Conservative white women who would benefit from feminism’s gains side with the sexism of white supremacy over anything that might help them be independent of overbearing men. They will vote against their own interests as payment for getting to vote against the intetrests of others.
Nearly every Confederate soldier was too poor to ever become a plantation owner himself. Southern white women were barred from inheritance, denied divorce, and treated as prized possessions but possessions nonetheless. Yet those groups still to this day glorify the antebellum period and the white male rule that defined it.
Although I am poor and white and work by writing for a living, I know I’m not meant to be included in the phrase or demographic. I live on the outskirts of an urban city. I’m disabled. I’m a single mother. I’m gay. I voted for Clinton. I don’t blame my poverty on social welfare programs or benefit recipients of color. They don’t mean me when they say it.
“White working class” means racist, rural, redneck, Rebel flag waving Southern (or Southern wannabe) hicks who disown their queer children and beat their kids after church on Sunday. I hate classism as much as the next poor person,but I don’t need to celebrate or coddle the worst aspects of white culture to say so. I’d rather work with other urban and suburban poor. I’d rather work with people of color than racist whites. I’d rather work with people focused on real solutions, not blame.
The “white working class” must be understood for what it really means: hateful bigoted rednecks who’d shoot themselves in the wallet before they’d see a woman president, or racial equality, or an end to transphobia. They didn’t get duped or deceived into voting for human rights violations and possible genocide because they thought they’d get a raise out of it. They sacrificed overtime pay and benefits they rely on in exchange for racial animus. They bought race war, at a high cost.
Because ultimately what’s happening in the US right now is not about the economy. It’s about white supremacy. White people as a whole voted for open racism. White men, white women, white rich, white middle class, white poor. Shifting all responsibility to poor white rednecks is a convenient way for whites in the upper classes to dodge it. If we pretend it’s all simple white country folk who don’t know better, we can try to ignore the giant racist elephant in the room a little bit longer.
The situation we now find ourselves in is the fault of white racism, period. Sexism, homophobia, and ableism all played their parts, but racism was the star of this electoral show. Racism ran for president and won, and white voters (and white gerrymandering congress members) are why. It’s not about money. It’s about racial hatred three hundred years in the making, stoked for profit by FOX News and other propaganda makers. It’s racism. The “white working class” are racists.
Over the last week the American press has been obsessed with the real and imagined concerns of the “white working class”. Before diving into these excuses for fascism, let’s take a moment to consider the rhetorical features of the phrase. “White working class” overtly excludes people of other races. Since it’s a demographic voting bloc, this isn’t a strange thing to do.
“White working class” also embeds the word “working” to not-so-subtly draw a distinction between the noble and detestable poor. We already have many phrases for praising poor whites that we’d never apply to poor blacks: salt of the earth, good ole boys, God’s own. This new phrase relies on those old stereotypes to evoke a God-fearing humble farmer who needs his guns to shoot varmints attacking his crops.
Poor US whites are not all paid workers. Rural white communities have the highest percentage of recipients on food stamps, Medicaid, and Social Security for Disability benefits. I’m a poor white who uses the first two programs myself. I’m grateful for them and no one should be shamed for using them, but most of that shame actually comes from poor and rural whites. Some of that is self hatred and the rest is hatred of others, and a jealous resentment that the others are better off.
The final word of the phrase “class” lumps in the elderly parents, pregnant wife, and non working children of the racist sexist bigoted uneducated white male factory workers and farmers this phrase is really for. It’s not just the workers, it’s the class they belong to. “White working class” tells us poor whites are hard workers, and suggests other poor people are not.
The real economic complaint of the “white working class” is that they believe only other poor people deserve poverty. They are not socialists who want to eradicate poverty: they are racists who want to transfer it. The phrase says “We are white and working! Those are two reasons we deserve not to be in poverty.” By contrast, “non working” black mothers do deserve it, to them.
When it comes to disability, cultural acceptance is always a right answer. Some fear that too much acceptance might end important medical research, stop doctors from looking for a cure, or convince the disabled to avoid opportunities for improvement. In short, they fear we can either have acceptance or a cure, not both, and that the cure is more important.
Disability is a tremendous range of illnesses, impairments, and oddities. Some of us need cures to survive. Some of us don’t. Some of us need special equipment, hearing aids or adaptative communication devices or prosthetic limbs. Some of us need specific diets or very rigid (or flexible) schedules. Some of us need marijuana and prescription medication. We all need acceptance of our basic humanity and right to exist as we are.
Mild to moderate vision impairment is, by and large, culturally accepted. Eyeglasses are common and old insults about “four eyes” aren’t as popular on the playground as they used to be. As a child one of my favorite Marilyn Monroe movies had her visually impaired character try to scout and secure a millionaire to marry, while hiding the fact she wore glasses. That seems outdated and silly now.
Eyeglasses have become acceptable, or even trendy. According to the fears of the anti acceptance camp, this cultural shift should have stopped or slowed research into vision restoration. After all, if eyeglasses help people see well enough and no one makes them ashamed, why would they want a cure? Yet laser vision surgery as a field is newer than fashionable eyewear frames. Acceptance didn’t prevent a cure or new treatments. Turns out many people want to see clearly even if no one is mistreating them.
I could argue that acceptance of homosexuality was a necessary step in addressing HIV, both prevention and treatment. Acceptance of fertility-challenged women as real women has been crucial to funding and supporting new fertility treatments. Acceptance doesn’t stand in the way of treatments and cures; it’s part of the process.
No matter the kind or type of disability – from mental illness to blindness to autism to cerebral palsy to Down Syndrome – acceptance is the first step. Validating the humanity of the disabled person comes first. That’s never the whole need, but the first one. We may need occupational therapy or emotional support animals or individual education plans or eyeglasses in addition to acceptance. Lack of acceptance won’t help with any of it.