The Pitfalls of (White) Liberal Panic

by Dylan Rodríguez

(November 15, 2016)

[Photo: Trump protest in Pittsburgh, April 13, 2016, by David Kent – via Flickr]

There should be no shock at the success of White Nationalist revival.  A fog of liberal-progressive panic seeps across the closest quarters, oddly individualizing what some inhabit as a normal and collective disposition of familiarity with emergency under conditions of constant bodily and spiritual duress.  In the living room, kitchen, office, school, cafe, park, dorm room, gym, and library there is a steady-sad din:  How did this happen, Why such hate, There are so many of them, What will happen to our country, Will I be threatened, My uncle and neighbor lied, What does the world think of us, I do not feel safe, What do we do now, Who will protect those people from them, How could this happen my god my god…

Wrapped up in the noise, it is worth reminding that this alleged descent into new chapters of state-induced racial and sexual terror is not reducible to the serial reprehensible (though completely unsurprising) tweets, assaults, and grandstanding of the new President-Elect.  There are some who understand, because their wisdom is inherited, that the terror he embodies is both long-standing and carried in the thrust of a Civilization’s futurity.  This guy was always here, he is the persona his predecessors possessed but disguised so well (though you never fooled me, you assholes), and many of those in the throes of liberal-white-people-panic know this deep down because their revulsion to him is driven by a hatred of the intimate, the familial, and maybe the same.

I must admit: i suspect some of them are incapable of seeing and feeling past themselves, their own bodily integrity, this isolated moment in a long, long history.  The way they are spinning into prescriptions of how and why “we must resist” this particular abhorrence not only domesticates the liberal white riot, it threatens an infiltration of imagination in dislocated quarters that are accustomed to their negligence and generally thankful for their absence.  The white misery desires multicultural company.  Some of the ones panicking in public (online, on mic, on screen) are ready to tell the rest of us what to do, how to feel, and when to move—when in truth, if they felt so motivated, they would realize that their greatest contribution might be to shut the fuck up and get out of the way, because there has been some well thought-out, beautifully imagined, wild shit going on for years now, and some of it entails anticipation of their demise along with—because they are part of—the abhorrence.

And those of us doing this kind of work (teaching, singing, organizing, playing, conspiring… i will plead the Fifth) have long realized that the lines we draw (such as the one i am replicating here) are never so clean, that we cross them because they always cross us, and it never feels good until we get back to the other side.

Here we are again:  there are rapists, there are thugs, unruly women, incorrigible queers, “marauders in the streets” (as the new President’s far more liberal predecessor Barry Goldwater once said) who must be neutralized, humiliated, violated in the bask of national vanity.  It is to elevate to the level of assumption that the subjection of Black people to unbreaking proto-genocidal state violence is a generalized template through which other-others are periodically audited.  To be undocumented is to be Brown or Black, and if others might fall into this category, it is only by misfortune of official nomenclature.  “Grabbing pussy” is no longer a phrase that white women and old white men (or crusty-ass others) can condemn as the repulsive lyrical flourish of “those rappers” (whose names they rarely know), now that it has become the regular orientation of a ruler’s impulse-order.

Elsewhere you see the peoples’ fugitive broadcasts of the racist police threat, usually carried out by white cops, but sometimes by Black and Brown ones, even and especially under the Watch of The Black President.  (If they could kill this way under him, what will they be capable of doing now?)  Can we say that a certain Hope is dead, and there must again be vigilant suspicion of what some mean by Change?

Should we admit, now, that the “postracial” moment was a precursor (rather than a provocation) to a white populism that bizarrely insists on its nonraciality while it projects GIFs, memes, and clumsy puns invoking monkeys, taco bowls, and the Prophet Muhammad?  It is stranger still that old terms—racism, misogyny, homophobia, sexism—have flooded the national discourse as if this spectacle, this candidate, this President-elect is the catalyst of a doomsday that has in fact been long present in the seemingly limitless reach of white (male) entitlement to degrade, humiliate, and assert dominion over the field of zero consequences.

The morbid-cynical joyride of (white… multiculturalist?) liberal panic is neither merited nor, for some of us, fathomable.  One could learn lessons from the twentysomethings in my classroom—Black, Brown, a few white, working class and lower middle class, queer and trans*, one degree (or less) removed from an incarcerated and/or undocumented loved one—who do not lament a damn thing, and are simmering with urgent questions about the necessity of artful, collective rebellion against an order.  They are invigorating a truth that some older, wiser heads have generously shared for years:  that to live within an everyday understanding—and embrace—of emergency is to thrust liberal panic to the margins of an indulgence.  It is to say, without a hint of “i told you so” smugness or exaggerated rage, that such a political-cultural recalibration to the White Supremacist Normal (however absurd this version may be) is always to be anticipated.

The question is never “if,” it is “when” and “to what extent.”  The problem, every fourth year, is never one of electoral outcome, it is one of political culture and the nuances of repression and fleeting opportunism that may follow.

Despite outward appearances, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump are first cousins swaying to rhythms of progress and reaction, united by a commitment to negotiate and relate to the fact of white nationhood.  Pres. Obama will be remembered fondly in the liberal-national memory as the glimmering preface to an unexpected descent into the eighth bolgia of an American Hustle.  But what is most remarkable about this moment is not the instantaneous implosion of an electoral/governing regime nor the anticipated onslaught of official attacks on basic civil and sexual freedoms.  Rather, it is the possibility that every radical accusation against the United States Empire and the complex monolith of “White America” that could once be easily dismissed as paranoid and extremist, hateful and “reverse racist,” or even treasonous and “terrorist” is now reckoning sober consideration as being, at the very least, on to something.

Undoubtedly, the audacity of hope, the optimism of change, and the belief in the transformative possibilities of symbolic-charismatic leadership divined from the Executive Branch of the U.S. nation-building machinery should die a lonely death here, and should not be revivified anytime, ever again.  Liberal panic amidst proto-fascist ascendancy is the symptom of an insistent belief in the long-debunked narrative of (with apologies to the rest of the Américas) an American possibility that shines with justice and shared joy in the spoils of White Being.

Panic never lasts long, and once it dissipates, there is therapeutic (mal)adjustment to yet another new normal.  The modalities of sanctioned resistance to the worst of the normal become common, tolerable, negotiable, and finally ignorable.  Civil society (that is, this civil society) again reveals the non-negotiable terms of being human (in fact, of “human being”) in a rush to reconvene a spirit of nation, though possibly many more Other humans than at any time in the last half-century will refuse the call, despite the seductions of compulsory corporate diversity and official multiculturalism.  It is not worth the time and energy, because the moment forces yet another reckoning with that which cannot be assumed:  health, home, rights, respected personhood, and at times the future itself.  They don’t understand, will never understand, what it means to carry this stress, and those of us who do must talk about it as incitement on our own, complex terms.  It is always killing us, slowly and quickly, but maybe now is their time to suffer.

An insurgency imperative accompanies a revival that is White Nationalist in origin, and white supremacist-misogynist in form.  It is a different kind of invitation, one that thrills in living against, creating for, refusing impossible, renarrating the “practical,” catalyzing collective genius to shift a historical script.  As always, this is nothing new, although it might make sense to inhabit the thing as if everything is still to be done.


About the author:  Dylan Rodríguez is a Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies and Chair of the Academic Senate at the University of California, Riverside.