Most pastors say they preach the truth. The Rev. William Barber also delivers sermons on another topic: “the trick.”
The trick is Barber’s term for something that he describes as a weapon of mass distraction. It stymied the leaders of the populist movement in late 19th century. It vexed union leaders who promoted workers’ solidarity. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died trying to beat the trick.
The trick is when white politicians persuade poor white working class people that the source of their pain is people of color, immigrants and other scapegoats, says Barber, who rose to national fame after helping lead Moral Mondays, a social justice movement formed in North Carolina.
“You have to show them the trick,” says Barber, his rich, baritone shifting into preaching mode when asked how he would address this challenge.
“The majority of people in this country who are poor are white people. You have to undermine the trick and say, ‘Listen, you want a living wage, but the people you voted for don’t want a living wage. You’re upset that you don’t have health care. Guess what, black and Latino people aren’t your problems. It’s the people who are voting against health care.’ “
Yep. Here’s how this strategy of envy works. Note the following extremely typical Right Wing class warfare meme:
In such memes we are invited to notice heroes and villains. Figures like soldiers, cops, firefighters, and EMTs are the heroes, valiantly saving lives and doing it for peanuts, in contrast to an obvious, greedy, selfish, cowardly, villainous French Fry Slinger who selfishly seeks a living wage for his job so he can selfishly support his family. The point of such memes is to generate a feeling (not a rational thought) of contempt for the French Fry Slinger, not to generate the thought “We should be paying soldiers, cops, EMTs, firefighters, and French Fry Slinger a living wage.”
Now, imagine another meme exactly like this, except that it reads:
McDonald’s CEO: $9,247/hour
French fry slinger: $7.25/hour
The contrast is clarifying, no? Suddenly, it becomes extremely clear that the purpose of such memes is to direct your attention away from so much as thinking about the executives who radically underpay all these people. The message, in obfuscated English, is “Let us all hate the Bad French Fry Slinger! He is selfishly demanding pay that is nearly the same as–or even more than!–these great heroes! Let us all take up torches and pitchforks and be very angry at this poor slob in his low-paying powerless job because…”Because why exactly? Because he’s responsible for depressing the wages of underpaid cops, firefighters, soldiers and EMTs? That’s rubbish. He has no power. He doesn’t sign their paychecks. He (and just as often she) is often on public assistance because the company he works for won’t pay him a living wage and pressures him to go on the dole to supply what they refuse to pay him (which means that, yes, you and I pay taxes so that the company doesn’t have to pay wages–effectively putting companies like Walmart and McDonalds on welfare). But the worker getting ripped off by his company and at the very bottom of the corporate food chain? He and she are struggling to get by on two or three jobs. Such people have, quite simply, nothing whatsoever to do with whether cops, firefighters, soldier, and EMT’s are not paid a living wage.
On the other hand, the McDonald’s exec has everything to do with how much the French Fry Slinger makes and a vested interest in ginning up public hostility to his attempt to raise his income. Which brings us back to the real purpose of such memes. For as long as you are heaping scorn on the French Fry Slinger for his imaginary greed in desiring a living wage, you are not heaping it on the exec for his real greed in denying it to him. Likewise, as long as you are aiming your outrage at the French Fry Slinger for somehow being mystically to blame for the shameful treatment of the cop, firefighter, EMT and soldier (and their families), you are not aiming it at the people who cheat the cop, firefighter, EMT, and soldier out of their just wage and neglect them to death in VA hospitals.
In short, it’s the old strategy of “Divide and conquer.” Don’t get played.
My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while you say to the poor man, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme that honorable name which was invoked over you? (Jas 2:1–7)
Image by Ben Popken for The Consumerist, used under CC BY 2.0.