Tim Wise’s game
by John Halle
As the mask comes off, revealing the Obama administration’s reactionary face, the spin deployed by its much vaunted media team is beginning to lose its power to confuse and misdirect. And with this, those whose business model involves selling Obama as a species of “pragmatic liberal” are gradually finding themselves parading their factual bankruptcy and rhetorical dishonesty for all to see.
A recent piece by Bruce Dixon excellently takes down two of the worst of this variety: MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid and Melissa Harris Perry. But it is important to recognize that they are not the only ones who have made careers for themselves in the marketing, sales and distribution of the Obama brand. One of the most successful, and arguably a more effective marketer than the MSNBC cheerleading squad is the self described anti-racist Tim Wise.
Wise would, of course, vehemently object to being characterized as an Obama apologist, though, as we shall see, the ultimate effect of most of his work is to promote a multicultural form of neoliberalism fully consonant with the administration’s views and which thereby strongly serves its political interests. His real beat is as an “anti-racist educator” with several books to his credit, a full schedule of speaking appearances at university campuses, public high schools and police departments leading racial sensitivity workshops as well as increasingly high profile media appearances including on mainstream national cable outlets.
Being attuned to racial sensitivity is a job Wise takes seriously, as can be seen in Wise’s blog entries and numerous tweets. A large fraction of these involve policing the left for any claim, phrase, indeed, any word which could be construed as insufficiently informed by the historical injustices and atrocities visited on POCs (to use Wise’s preferred acronym). Wise does not merely make note of these. Acting as judge and jury, Wise reaches a verdict, imposes a sentence on those he has found guilty, and the sentence is often death.
This is, unfortunately, not an exaggeration. When those who raised concerns-soon borne out-of the potential of objectively reactionary governance from the Obama administration enabled and aggravated by its deadening effect on mass movements, they were described by Wise as having “become such an encumbrance as to render (them) all but useless to the liberation movement” prospective recipients of “a burning they will richly deserve.”
The hanging judge
This is not the only death threat to be found in Wise’s oeuvre. Another was addressed to those who “insist they aren’t racist because they have black friends. I am going to shoot them,” Wise declared. While these were among the more unvarnished instances of eliminationist rhetoric, the violent tone of his discourse suggests that Wise fantasizes his targets being subjected to lynching, or at least necklacing, as poetic justice for what he takes as their complicity in crimes against peoples of color.
That Wise grants himself the authority to judge other’s motives and actions naturally raises the question of what his qualifications are to do so. These are often virtually non-existent with Wise simply inventing facts which are subsequently used to attack, denigrate or belittle.
A recent example found Wise charging Glenn Greenwald with “never hav[ing] sa[id] shit about racial profiling, or surveillance of POC/Muslims.” In reality, Greenwald has a long history of speaking out on this issue-easily obtained by a simple google search, as Greenwald noted in a 100 character rejoinder. This interaction subsequently revealed a third salient feature of Wise: neither a retraction or apology from Wise was extended. Having mounted his high horse, Wise not only exempts himself from the requirements of factual accuracy but from basic decency.
Wise’s tone and sloppiness might be rationalized as understandable overreactions to right wing provocations until one recognizes that these attacks are not directed towards the right, actual racists or those who promote objectively racist policies. Rather Wise reserves much of his ire for those whom Obama’s former Press Secretary famously referred to as the “professional left”. Included among these are left critics of Obama such as Greenwald, Paul Street, and other “barbituate leftists” who “preen as moral superiors because (they’ve) read Bakunin, and Zerzan, and Chomsky, or because (they) once called a cop a pig to his face in Seattle or some such thing.”
The purity of Wise’s animus towards the left was impressively displayed in a recent series of tweets provoked by the NSA disclosures and the Obama administrations efforts to retaliate. Rather than welcome the revelations, Wise was quick to minimize their importance, basing his dismissal on a transparently absurd claim by Wise that “NO people of color (are) shocked by Snowden’s revelations. None. POC assume this shit. #whiteprivilege lets u ignore till now.” When those who objected to this gross distortion responded, they were red baited as “white Marxists” who fail to appreciate that “white supremacy is the glue that holds the U.S. class system together, and if you don’t KNOW that, yr an idiot.”
These same “white leftists” according to Wise should congratulate themselves “on their irrelevance & wonder why most POC apparently think they r full of crap…” According to Wise, “I’d be effing amazed if any white leftists enamored of Snowden actually new shit about movement building and how its done.” And “Let’s b [sic] clear: Glenn Greenwald was a moderately decent college debater who thinks this is his moment. It isn’t. You nor Snowden r heroes.”
Smearing Snowden & Occupy
This final tweet removed the veil from the game being played by Wise.
As those who have followed the matter are aware, the “no heroes” designation of Snowden and Greenwald has been a staple of Obama’s apologists, Reid, Harris-Perry, and others, almost certainly circulating a focus group tested talking point devised by White House media specialists. By blandly parrotting this well worn establishment smear, Wise revealed his membership within this cohort, with the only difference between Wise and the others inhering in Wise’s primary demographic being not the liberal MSNBC left but the radical left associated with Zmag, Democracy Now and the Nation. For this constituency, full throated defenses of Obama’s policies have long since failed to pass the laugh test. And so Wise is always careful to note his disagreement with Obama’s policies, his service to the administration deriving from his reliable attacks on the “white privilege” of left critics providing an easy rationalization for complacency and inaction.
Wise’s political services were provided not only in the wake of the Snowden disclosures but, more predictably, in response to the Occupy movement about which Wise has had very little to say. Wise’s silence was predictable given that OWS seeks to reconstruct a unified movement directed against the plutocratic 1%, unifying rather than dividing, as Wise would, the 99%. Rather than participate in OWS, Wise contributed to a collection of essays entitled Occupying Privilege in which “readers will learn about white supremacy, media’s spin control, (mis)education, the criminal IN-justice system, cultural appropriation, and racism’s continued impact on people of color and white people.” No mention of Wall Street banks, housing foreclosures overwhelmingly impacting POCs, trillion dollar bailouts, as this would distract from the question of “So, um, what the hell is white privilege anyway, and do I have it?” According to Wise, “The short answer is if you’re white, yeah, you do.” By helping circulate the OWS/white privilege meme, Wise helped develop a much brandished rhetorical bludgeon for the defenders of plutocracy against what was the most successful attack on its foundations in many years.
Not just a potato chip
The above is somewhat misleading in that it suggests that Wise’s central priority is the promotion of the Obama brand. Rather it should be understood that the main product Wise is selling is himself, specifically his “racial sensitivity” franchise which he has indeed successfully marketed and profited from handsomely, as noted above. There is a connection between these two objectives: in order to be regarded as legitimate by mainstream institutions from which his bread and butter income derives, Wise’s criticisms need to remain within legitimate boundaries, which in practice means narrowly directed towards race. Attacks against white privilege are, for reasons mentioned above, welcomed by the establishment. In contrast, those directed against the real power in the hands of what is now an increasingly multicultural elite are out of bounds. Wise understands these rules of the game very well, and he plays it expertly.
That said, it should be noted that Wise’s rise to a position of public prominence was crucially aided by the alternative media, especially at the initial stages, most notably by Zmag where Wise first established a media perch some two decades ago. This brings up the issue of why was a figure who has so consistently expressed his contempt, or at best, a distinct lack of enthusiasm for leftists and core aspects of the left agenda continues to be welcomed by it with open arms.
I won’t attempt to address this here, as the subject is perhaps best left alone, though with the understanding that a similar trajectory was followed by Melissa Harris Perry who began her rise accessing authentic left outlets such as Democracy Now!, Laura Flanders’s GritTV, and The Nation. By this point, neither Wise nor Harris Perry has any need of the ladder which was provided for them, and so both are free to consolidate their positions by joining in establishment attacks on the left agenda.
While it is probably by now too late to matter in their cases, it is encouraging that a first flicker of recognition of the reactionary character of the Wise/Harris Perry brand of multicultural neoliberalism is beginning to be visible. As it has in many other quarters, the disclosures of Greenwald and Snowden provided the impetus for a broader examination of which side Wise is on. A good indication unearthed by Doug Henwood was Wise’s having been engaged by Teach for America a group which, as anyone with a minimal political awareness understands, is devoted to the undermining of inner city education and the whole sale layoffs of African American teachers to be replaced by TFA’s overwhelmingly white, underqualified, non-union recruits.
Wise’s having “Stamp(ed) TFA’s Anti-Racist Ghetto Pass” provoked a sharp response from Bruce Dixon at Black Agenda Report who circulated a petition calling for Wise to cancel his scheduled engagement with TFA. Unsurprisingly, Wise has rejected Dixon’s request. More significantly, Dixon went further, raising doubts about Wise’s competence, awareness and, ultimately, underlying agenda: “If this is how ‘anti-racism education’ works—giving cover to organizations and policies that hurt people of color more than anybody else—it might be time to re-think that whole contraption as well.”
From Bruce Dixon’s lips to all of our ears. It is indeed time to consider what use is served by the “anti-racist education” industry and for one of its main operators, Tim Wise, to find a new, preferably honest, and less destructive line of work.
John Halle is a professor of music at Bard as well as a political writer and activist.