Condoleeza Rice. Colin Powell. Alberto Gonzalez. John Yoo. All the neocons from Paul Wolfowitz to Irving "Scooter" Libby to Eliot Abrams to god knows how many more. Add in the Supreme Court Judges: Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, as well as—though Clinton appointed him—old "Slam Dunk" Tenet. And suddenly, after thinking that perhaps the Bush Administration does indeed represent all that’s great about America—its ethnic and racial diversity, whose best and brightest all get promoted to positions of prominence regardless of the fact that the appointers are upper class privileged white males appointing those from well beneath their class—one begins to wonder. Who are these representatives of the oppressed classes? And under what constraints and disavowals do they actually serve their White House masters? And why?
Immediately what comes to mind is that lacerating term of opprobrium, "house nigger" (originally, "house negro," from a speech by Malcolm X, "Message to the Grass Roots," delivered in Detroit on Nov. 10, 1963). In the ante-bellum South, these chosen ones were the most carefully selected of the slaves—the best and the brightest and the least threatening, at least once they had been favored with positions in the big house. The ones who had agreed to a pact with the devil: serve and be servile, and get to live another day not just as a miserable survivor, but as one of the privileged. Enjoying at least some of the southern comforts: food, warmth, clean clothing, some education, and the protections of power and the powerful. Such insider status persuaded many to swallow the humiliation that came with proximity to the master in exchange for the safety and status the position automatically conferred.
And of course, what immediately comes to mind next is the benefit for the master as well. For power, the powerful cannot exist without the collusion of the classes over whom they rule. There are always too few masters and too many slaves. Too few lords and too many serfs. Too few and too weak to rule by force alone, the lords and masters always require some of the slaves to join them in return for favors, either overtly given or covertly promised. Come with me, join my household, my estate, my company, my army as sergeant or lieutenant, as overseer or counsel or financier, and in return, when our campaign of plunder succeeds, part of the spoils shall be yours. And in the end, there may even materialize a grant of gold, or jewels, or land, yes, an estate of your own to reward you and yours, even perhaps a title to be yours and your heirs’ for as long as titles and property shall retain their meaning. Which is forever.
And so we have Condi and Colin and Alberto and John, willing and eager to do the dirty work for their white benefactor, George W. Bush, master of the Whitest House on the planet. To make the speech ominously warning of "the smoking gun coming in the form of a mushroom cloud." To present to the United Nations the pack of well-rehearsed, visually-supplemented lies needed to justify an unjustified invasion. To write the legally illegal memos defining torture in such a way that torture can be applied promiscuously, universally, without any worry for, after all, "the Geneva Conventions have become quaint," relics of a more naïve time. To confirm for old Massa his megalomaniacal notion that the President of the United States is a "unitary executive," the man who alone, in a democracy, is above the law, equivalent to a king, no, more powerful than a king for the king had to submit to the Magna Carta, whereas our Massa, protected by the war powers granted him in the Ccnstitution, need not submit to anyone or any law for his power is unlimited and unlimitable. To dismiss the evidence, the intelligence from one’s own agency, and shout, when asked about evidencing Saddam’s WMD: "It’s a slam dunk." Or, when that dastardly special prosecutor gnaws ever closer to our inner circle, to fall on your sword as a good soldier must, remembering always: house niggers never do jail time.
And above all, to keep always in mind: when the dirty work is done, the land grant is at hand. Though of course in this, our democratic republic, nothing so obvious as land or gold can be proffered. The grant must be subtler: Condi knighted upward to Secretary of State; Alberto raised to the chief law enforcement office of all, Attorney General of the United States; John adorned with the plush appointment to the Boalt School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley; George crowned high with the Medal of Freedom; and Wolfie, dear Wolfie, mastermind of the war and related plans to enslave the new Middle East, Wolfie to rise like cream to the presidency of the World Bank, able, finally, to minister to his beloved underprivileged. To all of which American punditry says "Amen. All is as it should be. Who takes the heat for the Massa, deserves the rewards. It is the way of the world."
Though unstated, always, necessarily unmentionable, is the real subtext. The reward is rendered not alone in return for taking the heat, falling on the sword. The reward is rendered equally for the unavoidable betrayal of one’s class, of one’s origins. For when one thinks about it, what does Condi or Alberto or John or Colin say to their families, their friends, their compatriots below, in the old neighborhood? After all the congratulations and the pride in their success—that one of their own has "made it" and can perhaps, no must, sooner or later, throw a crumb or two from Massa’s table their way—after all that, what can these brightest of super Novae say to those they’ve left behind? For they are always there, the laggards, the "field negroes," always looming in memory, always lurking in the shadows, always ready to appear suddenly and demand at least the old grin, the old handshake. And of course, one rarely has time for that any more. After all, one must take the helicopter to Camp David, or the jet to Davos or Helsinki or Cairo, when one isn’t working 18 hour days, that is, on the latest position paper due yesterday, the latest interview or press conference needed to assure the masses that all is well, the President knows precisely what he’s doing and surely would not lie about so serious a matter as war or torture or spying on his own people. On my own people, on you, my people, whom I have certainly not forgotten and certainly do not place myself above in any way, nor—shame on you for even suggesting it—harbor contempt for, because why, why would I harbor that, allow that, think that? These custom-made suits mean nothing, these long black cars and private jets mean nothing, this well-groomed exterior is only a front and inside I’m still the same old me who knows how to get down and party with the crowd. Of course one can’t do that tonight, one has been invited by the President to his ranch, he loves to hear one play Beethoven on his piano which, he laughs, never gets touched except when one is there, this gorgeous Steinway, can you imagine, that just sits there untouched most of the time. But I’ll call, honestly honey I will first chance I get there’s a bill coming up that I’m sure…..
Yes. It is always thus. Class traitors always do the dirty work, always aspire to do the dirty work as the tried and true way of rising above the mud and muck of their origins. And the masters always have dirty work to be done, for after all, oppression goes down so much more easily when the oppressor is one of their own, because doesn’t the fact that one of you has risen give the lie to oppression to begin with, does it not offer to all of you, each and every one of you the same opportunity to one day, yes, rise up and join the club and become an instrument of oppression on your own? Of course it does. And the complainers and nay-sayers are only the green-eyed ones, the envious ones who want to tear everything and everyone down. Down to their level. It’s the way they are, everyone knows that, pay them no mind, they’re beneath you beneath your level your talents your capacities, cannot rise to the heights you have achieved and so wish only to drag you down, drag all of us down, pay them no mind. Rather, see them for what they are. The necessary cloth upon which we must work. Upon which you, now, having worked, must continue to work for they matter only as cloth, as material upon which we all up here, must work, must always work, to advance the work.
In a word, Contempt. That is what the whole system runs on. Contempt for those below, those whom one has left behind, the family and neighborhood and class one has left behind. Anyone who has risen knows this. Anyone who aspires to rise knows this, knows that the taste of personal advancement, the price of individual achievement, is always the same: betrayal and contempt. My father arrived in this country in 1914, an immigrant from the despised south of Italy, and thus despised by the America he came to as a 12-year-old boy. And he fed his fill of that scorn, somewhere along the line vowing that he would rise above it, though the path open to him was not schooling, of course, he was booted out of 6th grade for insubordination before he could take that path, so he trained as a barber, first, and then as a hairdresser, and got to a position on 5th Avenue where he strutted his stuff to the adoring glances of society matrons like Gloria Vanderbilt and stars like Gene Tierney. And it rubbed off eventually, rubbed off in scorn and contempt for the old neighborhood known as the Hollow in Bridgeport CT where he grew up, and which he forsook just as quickly as feet could carry him. In short, he took on the airs of the wealthy, pampered matrons he served. Tailor-made suits. Sulka ties. LaSalle convertibles. Like the upstairs servants lording it over those downstairs, he lorded it over his origins and cost himself part of himself in the lording for he always returned to the local bars and hangouts where he grew up, trying to re-connect himself somehow to the nameless something he had left, knowing all along it was no longer truly possible, or even nameable.
In my way, I did the same. A product of the lower middle class in a sordid industrial town, I aspired higher, and made it via scholarship to the Ivy League. A fish out of water, I took on all the accoutrements of the wealthy and the privately-schooled who were my classmates. Button-down shirts. Penny loafers. Baggy sweaters. But never inside. Because the inside accoutrements are not truly obtainable in one generation. Still, I learned to scorn the ways and preoccupations of those from whom I had come, felt I had earned the right (we always take credit for what we’ve had nothing to do with) to that flight, that betrayal, that contempt. And must, to this day, fight its recurrent eruption in my mind, my attitudes, my worldview.
That is the point here. We are all, always being trained in this contempt. In this betrayal. Those who are masters know this, know they must continually attend to this training. They know their survival depends on this training of underlings in contempt for their own, contempt for their origins, for those below from whom they derive, and who have become, relative to their ascension, "other." In a real sense, the Italian immigrants with whom my father arrived in 1914, knew this. They knew that even absent a diabolical offer, America itself would, whenever and wherever it could, train their children in contempt—for them. First by teaching those children its language, a language which they, the immigrants, would never master. And then in all the other manners and mores and customs which they, the immigrants, could not master either and so would reject and scorn in their turn: American food and American materialism and American lack of respect and American business with its concomitant heartlessness towards life and love and family. It was for this reason that my father periodically would erupt in his favorite curse, the immigrant’s curse of America: mannaggia l’America. God damn America. For at the same time that the immigrant needed, lusted after the survival and wealth that America offered, he hated the fact of his compulsion, the fact of his absolute need to beg for America to accept him which necessarily meant rejecting that from which he came, and could never stop longing for.
Constantly, then. We are constantly being trained in contempt for the "other." Which, in the end, becomes contempt for ourselves. (…To be continued.)