The Trayvon Martin case is a wholly familiar one to residents of any major urban city. If you live in Chicago, New York or Los Angeles, then it's only a matter of time until an incident between a law enforcement officer, or more rarely a civilian defending himself, and a member of a minority group flares up into a citywide grievance theater complete with angry reverends on the steps of City Hall, women with stony faces holding up banners calling for justice and a media driven debate about police tactics and racism.
The grievance theater is never really about the specific case, the specific shooting, it's about the links between the social problems of the black community, the compromises of civil liberties necessary to keep entire cities from turning into Detroit and the inability of the media to address the sources of crime as anything but the phantoms of white racism. It's about a black leadership that is more interested in posturing as angry activists and shaking loose some money, than in healing their own community's problems. And so the same story repeats itself again and again without an honest dialogue or anything meaningful coming out of it.
But grievance theater has been going national. It's no longer just extraordinary cases like Bernie Goetz's Death Wish moment on the number 2 train that briefly catch hold of the national conversation. The obsessive coverage of the so-called Jena 6 case, an incident of so little internal meaning, signaled that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would no longer just be able to drive a local controversy, they now had the freedom to drive national controversies any time they wanted to.
Trayvon Martin is their big moment. It's no longer just grievance theater being used to influence the political fortunes of a municipal election, the way that Howard Beach was used to bring down Mayor Koch and replace him with the execrable David Dinkins. Now it's being used as part of a presidential campaign on a national level.
The fortunes of too many black politicians have been tied to white guilt and black rage. The worst sort of black politician channels black rage to score points with black supporters while playing on the guilt of white voters, promising to heal the social conditions that bring about that anger and protect them from its ravages. But never before has that game been played out of the Oval Office.
The last two Democratic presidents were Southern governors, but the current occupant is a veteran of the corrupt urban political machine where there are only two games in town and when the money runs out, this is the one you play. The money is running out, the polls are running down and accordingly we have been treated to an episode of grievance theater, with our beloved leader in the role of healer and inciter.
Obama helped Al Sharpton achieved an unprecedented national profile in order to marshal that part of his base which cares less about jobs, than about finding someone to blame. The Trayvon Martin circus is a bullhorn urging that all of us, black or white, to stop focusing on the economy and start focusing on race.
It's Community Activism 101 to divide and conquer the electorate by breaking them down and feeding local anxieties, whether it's about birth control or racial injustice. And it's a win-win for Obama, who at worst gains a distraction from economic turmoil and a few thousand guilty voters and at best, upends the national dialogue by asserting the dominance of the racial narrative. While his associates wield the bullhorns, he carefully plays healer and if there is violence, then his currency as racial healer increases.
What does it say about America that what was once a form of political theater rising out of the grimy urban blocks of the failed city is now a national art form? Nothing good. A local dysfunction has become a national dysfunction, not because every city has become New York and Chicago, but because the people at the center of power hail from New York and Chicago.
Chicago nearly went bankrupt in 1930. New York nearly went bankrupt in 1975. But states have bailed out cities and the federal government has bailed out states. When there isn't enough money to keep the dysfunctional political machine built on corruption and subsidies going, there's always some larger entity to foot the bill.
The problem with this current government is that it's operating at the federal level and there is no longer any larger entity to foot the bill. All the shopworn radicalism, the cries about making the rich pay their fair share, are old hat. The rich and the upper middle-class can pay more, but there's no amount of money that will cover a government that spends money as if there is no tomorrow.
That is the lesson that has yet to be learned from the cities whose dysfunctional politics have been transplanted to the national government. Along with the politics has come the grievance mob, the outrage machine, the outpourings of self-righteousness, the class warfare fought by corrupt pols and the rest of the bread and circuses show that have blighted the American city for a century and a half.
Grievance theater isn't about race, it's not about slavery, police brutality or separate lunch counters, it's about power and money. Black politicians are not fundamentally different from white ones. They have more in common with their white colleagues than they do with their own communities. The only difference is that they are playing with the race cards they have been dealt.
The ghetto didn't evolve naturally, it was created through a web of national and local government regulations that played with real estate, social welfare, voting districts and the manufacturing sector to achieve the desired results. We don't have to have ghettos, we have them because at one point they were convenient for a number of political interests and because they were the unintended side-effect of a number of socialist policies.
The ghetto farms black communities for votes and more importantly for subsidies. For every dollar that is taken to help minorities, a penny goes to the problem and ninety-nine cents goes to the hucksters, the administrators, the bureaucrats, the wives of influential pols hired on massive salaries to oversee some aspect of the program, the experts who monitor compliance, the affirmative action contractors who charge four times as much to build a school or provide meals, the unions who have the exclusive right to service the program, the slumlords who administer affordable housing and finally the politicians who have the money kicked back to them by all of the above.
When you look closely at where the school property tax money goes, why health care is so expensive and why so much money has to be spent on housing, a big chunk of it goes here. It's the hole in our budget ozone layer and it can never be filled, because it is designed never to be filled. For a sizable number of influential people, both black and white, the black community's social problems are a cash cow. The grievance theater is their way of collecting protection money and making sure that no one pays too much attention to what's really wrong.
The problem isn't limited to the black community. The same phenomenon crosses over different minority communities and some white ones as well, but the race card is still the best card in the deck. It carries too many emotional triggers, too much guilt and too much hope not to use it over and over again. The moral power of the civil rights movement still isn't exhausted as long as hopeful white people smile at the sight of a black man in the White House as if his political power testified to their innocence.
Grievance theater, like light-hearted musicals is one of those forms that works best when the economy is bad and everyone has trouble making ends meet. But while people voluntarily go to see musicals, or at least they used to, they have to be dragged to attend the latest grievance theater, the production numbers broadcast live on CNN and MSNBC, the programs printed in every paper that still hasn't gone out of business, and breathless announcements of the latest developments broadcast in between Dunkin Donuts commercials.
The local productions of grievance theater have gone national and we are all compelled to watch it play out. No matter what happens to George Zimmerman or what we learn about Trayvon Martin, the country has been turned into unwilling participants in a national drama that places a distorted idea of race at the center of our identity for the benefit of the same hucksters and politicians who have destroyed the city and are hard at work destroying the country.