“Show Me Your Papers, Boy!” Composing, 19/09/2016

The past few posts on the blog have been me running over the horrors of nationalism from different angles and vectors. It’s not like I'm the only one. All the political instability the West is experiencing now – Trump and Trumpism, the rise of Russia as the globe’s worst meddler, Brexit and the wave of racism across Europe – has a nationalist expression, and is rooted in nationalism’s core concepts. 

Just yesterday, I was talking about Trump with some
friends who still find it hard to take him seriously. But
we have to – not taking him seriously led to his getting
the Republican nomination. If we don't take seriously the
threat of Trump and the American white nationalist
movement he leads, we'll have a kleptocratic
authoritarian regime in the White House.
When I eventually write and publish my second big non-fiction book Utopias, there will be some grappling with nationalism. The book will examine what moralities best facilitate community formation while optimizing human freedom – the tensions between individual freedoms and responsibilities to the neighbourhood. 

Here’s a walk-though of my thought process about one part of that moral investigation.

An important part of community formation is the exclusion-inclusion dynamic – who’s part of the community and who isn’t. When we say our society is a democracy (and try to build our institutions to make it one too), we mean that anyone who’s part of the community can access the levers of power.

Anyone in the community has the right to run for government office. In a technologically advanced, large society, you need a lot of money to run for office, which is why you need the backing of a political party. But anyone has the right to join a party where they fit in, and work that society to become a candidate for them. 

Or raise the money to run as an individual. Or however else you want to approach getting voted for a position. The point is, no one will say that a citizen of a democratic country doesn’t have the right to run for office.*

* Footnote. There are situations where you can disqualify yourself for that right, like a law invalidating you from standing for office if you’ve been convicted for some crimes. But even if you’ve lost that right, you still started with it by default, then messed up.

No member of a democratic state is illegitimate in her attempt to seek office or their holding the office. Now, one recent real-world example makes for an erosion of democracy.

The premise of Birtherism was that Barack Obama was illegitimately holding the President’s office – his lack of legitimacy was because he was black. 

Though he's no stranger to controversy for how he
expresses his ideas on race and black exclusion, Touré
has some illuminating insights about currents of
thought in Black American communities.
No birther – not even the movement’s chief cheerleader Donald Trump – ever openly said that a black person can't legitimately be United States President. But it was still a black President with an African name who faced this unique challenge. 

No matter how successful you are at denying that race was ever a factor in the extreme opposition Obama faced from the Republican Party – and even the most infamous manage something like a case – to oppose Obama by delegitimizing him as birtherism does inevitably makes race a factor.

As Touré explains in this clip discussing the birther movement, whether a birther has a racist intent doesn’t affect birtherism’s racial affects. Black American communities tended to see Obama’s election as a culmination of their finally gaining full citizenship. With all the work that remains to be done, having a black President is an institutional recognition of black citizenship.

Then Trump spearheads this movement that declares that black President illegitimate – taking advantage of his ethnically diverse heritage to sow suspicion about Obama’s identity and beliefs. “I want to see your papers, boy!”

Birtherism introduces a standard of legitimacy’s proof that only came up regarding a black person. It’s impossible to disentangle racism from this, even if racism isn’t even in every birther’s intents. Birtherism is a refusal to accept black citizenry. It’s the assertion of black exclusion from the community of citizens. 

Nationalist ideologies in action create internal minorities of the disenfranchised, the internally excluded. For all its ideals, America has long been an ethnically restricted democracy, a national community and a nation-state institution that excludes within it.

Introduced as "tough on crime" measures, it's no longer
a new idea to call restrictive drug laws in the United
States a new Jim Crow.
This exclusion’s most horrific and institutionalized form was slavery. But in those early days of the state, exclusion also functioned externally, through restricting migration to northern Europeans only, and ethnically cleansing indigenous people from land the government would annex.

Exclusion continued after the Civil War and the failures of reconstruction. Internally through Jim Crow and externally through continued migration restriction, though the latter eventually opened up to Europeans more generally.

Now exclusion continues internally through the carceral state and systematic police violence against dark-skinned minorities. The marginalization of the indigenous continues, though the territorial integration of the American continent means it’s become another internal exclusion. 

In the 21st century, systematic discrimination against Arab Muslim Americans has become a new internal exclusion. Popular paranoia and hostility to immigrants and refugees has become a new external exclusion.

Yet there remains a paradox in all these exclusionary vectors that American white nationalism powers. America remains the city on a hill, the shining beacon of democracy. But for the white nationalist, the democratic potential of America is only for whites. 

Nationalists say you can’t have democracy without limits, that you have to restrict membership in a community to safeguard the community’s freedom. But the whole spirit of democracy is about the collapse of borders between the privileged and underclass. 

That's why Barack Obama’s election was a victory for democracy – it was an erosion of privilege by a member of the underclass. He may speak and carry himself like an elite, but Obama’s skin marks him as part of America’s historical underclass. 

Oppose his policy, fine. But if you delegitimize his claim to the Presidency itself, you continue to exclude black people from the community of American democracy.

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