For the last few months, young American liberals have been writing love letters to a white-haired 73-year-old former mayor from Vermont who supports gun owners and worries about the threat posed by mass immigration to ‘American kids’. Only now is it dawning on them that they may have been sending them to the wrong address.
The love letters took the form of articles in Salon, Slate and dozens of other, like, really cool websites. The recipient was Bernie Sanders, the only US senator to declare himself a socialist. Which is also really cool, because it must mean he hates the Republicans and the One Per Cent. So what if he was born in 1941? Seniors are a ‘minority’, right? This man has been a social justice warrior for decades. Awesome!
And so the message went out from Salon and Slate to its readers: put down your latte and retweet the latest news about how a real progressive is going to humiliate fake-progressive Hillary and then lead the charge against the GOP (or, at least, wave it on with his walking stick. Does he use a walking stick? Quick, somebody Google it. Maybe he’s a social justice warrior with a disability, which is even more awesome).
The cool websites wrote headlines they could spray all over Twitter – or, if they were still in college or high school, slot between the hot chick and the YouTube clip of Jon Stewart on their Tumblr.
And then, last weekend, Bernie Sanders stopped being awesome.
The Daily Dot, a cool tech website, broke the sad news. On Saturday, Bernie and other candidates were being interviewed at NetRoots Nation, a gathering of progressive activists in Phoenix. Things didn’t turn out as planned:
When #BlackLivesMatter activists crashed the event to confront the candidates on police brutality, mass incarceration, and other issues of structural racism, Sanders quickly lost his patience. He was a couple of minutes into a stump speech about corporate control of media and economic policy changes when protestors demanded that he #SayHerName, referring to Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, and other black women who have died in police custody.
His response, according to many critics, fell short:
‘Black lives, of course, matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and dignity, but if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK. I don’t want to out-scream you.’
#BlackLivesMatter is a pressure group that campaigns against the ‘extrajudicial killings of black people by police and vigilantes’, a subject of intense concern to America’s black community. Its also ‘affirms the lives of black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all black lives along the gender spectrum’.
It’s fair to say that the gender spectrum isn’t high on the black political agenda – indeed, supporters of #BlackLivesMatter tie themselves in knots trying to explain away homophobia in the black community. But it does matter to the hipster students and white suburban teenagers who believe they can defeat racism and transphobia with the mighty hashtag. In other words, #BlackLivesMatter tries to bridge the gulf between working-class blacks and folks who shop at Whole Foods Austin (which I’ve visited and, yup, their granola is truly rad).
Their task isn’t made easier by the fact that these two social tribes don’t run into each other very often. Black kids being harassed by the police rarely show up in coffee shops in search of ‘perfectly blanked lattes’ made with ‘artisanal, hand-roasted beans’. And somehow I doubt that they’re greatly missed. In fact, there’s quite a lot of tension between racial minorities and their online champions with Instagram-archived bedhead hair – though you probably wouldn’t guess it from reading Slate.
Enter Bernie Sanders, who marched for civil rights in the 1960s. He was just the man to paper over the cracks. Or so it seemed to liberals who hadn’t read his Wikipedia entry, which records that as a congressman he ‘voted for a National Rifle Association (NRA)-supported bill to restrict lawsuits against gun manufacturers’.
Maybe that’s because, although born in New York, he lives in the hunting grounds of Vermont. More significantly, he’s passionately opposed to open-door immigration.
That’s because he’s a socialist, a concept that Whole Foods customers don’t understand: they just think it means a quaint old liberal with really radical opinions. He sees immigration as a threat to working-class jobs.
Now, it’s true that Sanders is liberal on social issues: he’s pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage and very green. (His brother Larry, who lives in England, was Green Party candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon in the 2015 general election.)
But his liberalism is an aspect of his socialism, not the other way around. He sees inequality in America as structural and economic: poor black and white people are victims of the same fundamental injustice.
To put it another way, he believes that black lives matter but isn’t keen on #BlackLivesMatter, with its overblown and distracting rhetoric about ‘white supremacy’. He’s opposed to rhetorical harassment by campus thought police as well as physical harassment by actual police.
That became clear on Saturday and liberal America is in shock. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders’s main opponent, for whom the only life that really matters is that of Hillary Rodham Clinton, has a new spring in her step.
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