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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

White Hatred (p. 266)

From chapter "Criminals"

Nearly all of my students at the prison are there, one way or another, because of drugs. There have been songs written damning— goddamning—the pusher man. But anybody who has been paying any attention at all for the last fifty years knows that the CIA has been up to its nostrils in the drug trade from the organization’s inception (and, of course, Britain used force of arms—and corporate structures—to addict generations of Chinese to opium simply to make money). Because World War II interrupted global shipping, the number of heroin addicts in the United States dropped to twenty thousand in 1944-45, only a tenth of what it had been twenty years prior. But after World War II the CIA allied itself with the Corsican underground against the communists and unionists in Marseille (just as the Gestapo had done during the war), which turned that port into a major supplier of heroin to the States. The CIA ran drugs out of Asia’s Golden Triangle, and then it ran them—or, at the very least, turned a blind eye as those it worked with ran them—into American inner cities. As Alfred McCoy concludes in his classic The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, “Over the past twenty years, the CIA has moved from local transport of raw opium in the remote mountains of Laos to apparent complicity in the bulk transport of pure cocaine directly into the United States or the mass manufacture of heroin for the U.S. market. Finally, America’s drug epidemics have been fueled by narcotics supplied from areas of major CIA operations, while periods of reduced heroin use coincide with the absence of CIA activity.”

So, the first reason I’ve been emphasizing different purveyors of hate in this book more than perhaps people would normally expect is that I think people have been looking in all too easy places, and thus blinding themselves to far greater dangers.

The second reason is that prison is just, as my student said, a fractured mirror of society anyway. A couple of years ago I talked to Luis Rodriguez, the author of La Vida Loca: Always Running: Gang Days in L.A., and a former gang member who got out through the literature of revolution. He said, “One of the reasons these kids are so violent is that they pick up and distort many of the values of mainstream society. ‘Survival of the fittest.’ ‘Kill or be killed.’ Gang kids always say this. But where did they get it from? They got it from the larger society. That’s capitalism in a nutshell. The whole social order. Now, most business people aren’t actually going to kill somebody—”

I interrupted to say, “Not with their own hands. . . .”

He nodded, then continued, “but they’ll find ways to step on people, undermine and manipulate them, crush them. Everybody does it. You go to the stock market, you go to the board room, and you see kill or be killed in action. People trying to oversell, undersell, trying to kill their opposition.”

He stopped, then started again. “If you think about it, many of these gangs are creating capitalist worlds in their own little marginalized, impoverished ways. For example, drugs become their industry. And they literally kill and allow themselves to be killed just to have the drug sales. They become very good and adept capitalists. They learn accounting, they learn about money and what to do with it. But their business ventures aren’t legitimatized by society as a whole, so they aren’t able to invest or hold on to the money, which means they won’t have much to show for it after all their years in business. But none of that really matters, because by becoming capitalists—illegitimate as their business may be—they’ve already bought into the whole system.”

“Yet they’re deprived,” I responded, “of what they need most, which is larger social esteem.”

He said, “They’re not given any approval. They’re not given college scholarships to further their business sense. So they stay in their own destructive business making money. Of course they make nowhere near the money most people think. Instead they often end up with a bunch of other people who don’t get approval, which is to say in prison. What this means is that prison is full of these entrepreneurs and others who know how to make money. They would be thriving capitalists in another environment. They’re not. They’re now sitting in prison because they bought into the system. And they’re the first ones to tell you, ‘I was just trying to make money.’ There’s a gangsta rap song called, ‘If it don’t make dollars it don’t make sense.’ I remember going to a juvenile hall and doing some poetry. Afterwards, this one guy got up and asked, ‘Is there money in poetry?’

“‘Actually there is, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because I have the love and the calling.’

“He said, ‘Forget that stuff. If it don’t make dollars it don’t make sense.’

“I looked at the kid and I thought, Who taught him that? The truth is that we all taught him that. Every commercial on TV, every Saturday morning cartoon, everything pushes him that direction. But instead of him being a thriving pillar of the community, he’s in prison. This is how far ‘If it don’t make dollars it don’t make sense’ has taken him. But he’s just trying to be part of what society says he should be.”

The third reason for my focus is that I’m far more interested in, and frightened of, hate allied with power than I am of less potent hate. And by any real measure, these prisoners, to take an easy example of some group hated for their presupposed hatefulness, are pretty powerless. Most of them do not even have the power any longer of movement. My student who got the eighteen-month SHU term for putting his shoulder into the guard’s belly had told me he wanted at some time to be transferred from level four to level three, because he wanted to have a night yard. He hadn’t seen the stars since he’d been arrested, and wanted more than anything to see again the night sky.

The question of relative power is also one of the reasons I write more about hatred as it’s manifested in mainstream white culture, and more about atrocities committed by this culture, than I write about hatred manifested by, and atrocities committed by, say, black males. I’m not suggesting black men do not hate, nor that they do not commit atrocities. To do so would be absurd. I have seen hate in the faces of some of my students, and in some of my black friends. But by and large black culture does not wield the same sort of power as does white culture, making on a social scale white hatred far more dangerous. Put me by myself in a room with five black men who happen to be partial to violence, and who, for whatever reason, hate me (either personally or because of my race) and, balance of power shifted, I will be immediately and vitally interested in the dynamics of black male hatred, especially as manifested by these particular men who are too damn particularly close to me right now. But it’s not black males who are enslaving the planet and its peoples. It is not the African cultures, nor African-American culture. It is white Western European civilization. I want to understand and disarm this more immediate threat. Just as, faced with these hateful and hypothetical black men, I would drop my concern for less immediate threats, to be picked up when the primary threat is gone, if we ever figure out how to get rid of our current hate-driven dominant culture, maybe I’ll start to pick on someone else.

This leads to the fourth reason I focus on white culture. I’m no fan of Christianity, but I think Jesus was a pretty smart fellow, and I’ve tried to take to heart what he said about not worrying about the mote in my brother’s eye while I’ve got a beam in my own. I’m white. I’m civilized. I was raised upper middle class. I was raised Christian. I’m not black. I’m not indigenous. I’m not Hispanic. I’m a man. I’m not going to write much about black traders in Africa who assisted white gatherers of slaves, nor black kings who conducted battles in order to procure these slaves for market (some contemporaries argued that the slavers were actually saving black lives because those captured would otherwise “be put to death [by their captors] if they had not the means of disposing of them,” while others argued that this logic was backward, that the wars “owe their origin to the yearly number of slaves … the island traders, suppose will be wanted by the vessels which arrive on the coast”). Nor am I going to write much about Indian scouts who assisted the (white) cavalry in their genocidal project against American Indians. Those are not the stories of my people. I want to understand my own people, and our shared history.

It is not blacks who have lynched whites, but whites who have lynched blacks. It was not blacks who enslaved whites, but whites who enslaved blacks, and other whites. It was not Indians who attempted to exterminate whites, but the other way around. I want to understand the social and cultural psychology that would lead to all of this.

I want to tell you two stories. The first is an account of a lynching. The second an account of a conversation. Before I started doing research for this book, I’d presumed, first, that lynchings were primarily a nineteenth-century phenomenon. Not so at all. Lynchings were an extremely popular form of entertainment, drawing crowds numbering into the several thousands—making them more a pastime or celebration than they were some more furtive pleasure on the part of a few perpetrators—from before the 1860s and at least into the 1920s, with sporadic encores into the 1930s. I’d presumed also that lynchings almost always consisted of black men, or occasionally women (and, rarely, a white man), being hanged by groups of white men, and, once again, occasionally women. The images that came to mind were from photographs I’d seen on the fronts of old picture postcards, a black man hanging from a lamppost or tall tree, his neck stretched perhaps twice its normal length, head cocked at that angle that lets you know the spine is severed, the life gone. What was once a person is now a sack of skin. In the background, the huge crowds, the smiling faces.

But I’ve since learned lynchings often involved fire. Sometimes the victims were burned after they were dead, and sometimes they were burned before. And sometimes when they were burned, nobody bothered to hang them. One of the latter is the story I want to tell now. Henry Lowry was a black man who died on January 26, 1921. It’s pretty clear that prior to that he had murdered the man who owned the farm where he lived and worked, and that he had killed that man’s daughter as well. He was apprehended for this crime, and, while being transported, was taken from a train “by a mob of determined men.” The men were comfortable enough with their plan of action—announced to everyone as taking Lowry to the scene of his crime and killing him at six that evening—to not wear masks, and to stop for lunch at a restaurant. They took Lowry inside with them while they ate. Although the scene drew some attention, a newspaper reported, “Nothing has occurred to mar the serenity of the party’s journey. The party ate leisurely and after finishing went to E.A. Harrold’s store, where a quantity of rope was purchased.”

The men took Lowry to the scene of his crime, where six hundred people gathered to watch the man die. The crowd included Lowry’s wife and children, clearly feeling something different than the rest of the people there. I do not think I can do better than the reporter for the Memphis Press, in describing what took place, who wrote, “The setting was a natural amphitheater between two bluffs, with the Mississippi River on one side and a huge lake, created by backwater, on the other. The negro was chained to a log. Members of the mob placed a small pile of dry leaves around his feet. Gasoline was then poured onto the leaves, and the carrying out of the death sentence was under way.

“Inch by inch the negro was fairly cooked to death. Lowry retained consciousness for forty minutes. Not once did he whimper or beg for mercy.

“As flesh began to drop away from his legs, and they were reduced to bones, once or twice he attempted to pick up hot coals and swallow them in order to hasten death. Each time the coals were kicked from his grasp by members of the mob.

“As the flames reached his abdomen, two men closed in on him and began to question him…. It resembled a courtroom scene, with prosecuting attorney and court reporter. . . . Words fail to describe the sufferings of the negro. Yet only once did he cry out. This was shortly before he lost consciousness as flames began to lick at his chest and face. He cried out some appeal to one of the many negro lodges of which he was a member.

“Then gasoline was poured over his head and it was only a few minutes until he had been reduced to ashes.

“After Lowry had been reduced to a charred mass, members of the mob headed in the direction of Osceola. It was whispered that they were planning to raid the jails at Marion and Blytheville in order to secure possession of five more negroes, in order to raise the total number lynched to an even half-dozen.

“The mob, after riding back and forth across the country for several hours, finally began to disperse and go home. It was evident that the leaders were practically exhausted after their long trip with Lowry.”

That is why I want to focus on white hatred.

The other story I want to tell is of a conversation I had a few months ago, with a documentary film producer for WGBH, the big public television station in Boston. She called me at 6:30 one morning, introduced herself, said she was thinking of making a film about whether Ted Kaczynski was representative of a new breed of environmentalist willing to commit violence, and asked if it was a good time to talk. I told her I’d been writing till about 3:00 that morning, so perhaps. . . .

She said, “Why don’t I give you ten minutes so you can have a cup of coffee, and I’ll call you back.”

Ten minutes wouldn’t help, so I told her that I could talk about the possibility of violence against the system on a moment’s notice. “Fire away,” I said.

She told me a very little about the project, and then said, “The one thing I know for sure is that I wouldn’t want to make a film that glorified a killer.”

“I’m glad for that,” I said. “I trust you’d hold other subjects to that same standard.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“George Bush. Bill Clinton. A1 Gore. George Bush the younger.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Sanctions against Iraq kill eighteen thousand people every month,” I said. “Half of them children under five. So far as Gore, his family goes way back with Occidental Petroleum, which as we speak is committing genocide against the U’Wa in—”

She cut me off: “That has nothing to do with what we’re talking about.”

“It has everything to do with what we’re talking about. What’s the difference between sending mailbombs or sending missiles, except that the missiles kill a hell of a lot more people?”

“Violence is black and white,” she said.

I’ve thought about her statement for months now, and I’m still not sure what she’s talking about. I said, “Do you pay taxes?”

“Yes,” she said, warily.

“Then you’ve killed tons of people, probably a lot more than Kaczynski. At least he didn’t pay taxes.”

“Don’t be insulting,” she said.

“I’m not. I’m just telling the truth, which is that your tax dollars have gone to the U.S. military. Just because you haven’t pulled the trigger, doesn’t mean you’re off the hook.”

“This is ridiculous,” she said. She got off the phone soon after.

That conversation is precisely why I want to focus on the manifestations of hate at which we normally do not look.