Protesters at a rally for Trayvon Martin in Union Square, New York, 14 July 2013, the day after George Zimmerman was acquitted. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
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What ever happened to Martin Luther King's dream?

The horrors of segregation bound the US civil rights movement together. Fifty years on from Martin Luther King’s great speech, inequality persists – but in subtler ways.

In 1955, Emmett Till was fished out of the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi with a bullet in his skull, an eye gouged out and his forehead crushed on one side after the 14-year-old had said, “Bye, baby,” to a white woman in a grocery store. Everybody knew who did it. The two men admitted it afterwards. But it took an all-white jury just 67 minutes to return a verdict of not guilty. One of the jurors said they would have returned earlier if they hadn’t stopped for a soda.
 
Eight years later the Mississippi civil rights worker Medgar Evers was returning home just after midnight carrying white T-shirts announcing “Jim Crow Must Go”. Across the street, Byron De La Beckwith, a Klansman, was lurking in the honeysuckle bushes with a 30.06 Enfield hunting rifle. The sound of Evers slamming the car door was followed rapidly by a burst of gunfire. By the time Evers’s wife, Myrlie, got to the front door her husband was already dying. Everyone knew Beckwith had done it. But it wasn’t until 1994 he was convicted, after all-white juries twice failed to reach a verdict.
 
On the night in July when George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin, the Martin family’s lawyer sought to locate Trayvon’s plight firmly within the narrative of these heinous miscarriages of the civil rights era. “Trayvon Martin will for ever remain in the annals of history next to Medgar Evers and Emmett Till as symbols for the fight for equal justice for all,” Benjamin Crump said.
 
Yet even for those who agreed with the sentiment, the comparison bore one crucial flaw. Back then there was a movement that could take these tragedies, channel the frustration and bitterness into concrete political demands, and take them to the streets. Today the frustration and bitterness remain but the strategic and organisational means to act on them have dissipated. When news of Zimmerman’s acquittal came in I was at a party of mostly black folk in Chicago. The mood there turned quickly from celebration to wake. Then the crying started.
 
It is 50 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Martin Luther King made his “I have a dream” speech, and that should force a reckoning with how much was achieved in those tumultuous times, and how much there is still to do. America has a black president and a sizeable moneyed black middle class, which, for the last two elections, has voted more or less at the same rate as its white counterpart. But the disparity between black and white unemployment is the same as it was 50 years ago and this summer voting rights protections, a key victory of the civil rights era, have been gutted by the Supreme Court. There has also been a New York court ruling against the city’s stop-and-frisk policy, which terrorised lowincome black and Latino neighbourhoods.
 
For all that, America’s capacity for nostalgia, which borders on patriotic delusion in matters of civil rights and racial justice, should not be underestimated. When King died, he had become an increasingly marginalised figure. Twice as many Americans had an unfavourable view of him as a favourable one just two years before his assassination in 1968. Yet by 1999 a poll of the most admired public figures of the 20th century found only Mother Teresa to be more popular. And in 2011, when a memorial to King was unveiled near the National Mall in Washington, DC (where demonstrators gathered to hear him in 1963), featuring a 30-foot-high statue sited on four acres of prime cultural real estate, 91 per cent of Americans – including 89 per cent of white people – approved.
 
There has been the same shift in perceptions of the civil rights movement as a whole. A month before the March on Washington, 54 per cent of white Americans thought the Kennedy administration “was pushing racial integration too fast”. A few months after, 59 per cent of northern whites and 78 per cent of southern whites disapproved of “actions Negroes have taken to obtain civil rights”.
 
A few decades later, in 1999, a survey of leading scholars named “I have a dream” the greatest speech of the 20th century. In 2008, 68 per cent of Americans said they thought the speech was “relevant to people of your generation” – 76 per cent of blacks and 67 per cent of whites. Only 4 per cent of those surveyed were not familiar with it.
 
The near unanimity with which Americans now applaud the demise of formal, codified segregation belies the divisive, bloody and unpopular struggle it took to get rid of it. The nation’s ability to co-opt and rebrand resistance to past inequities as evidence of its own essential and unique genius is as impressive as it is cynical. Such sleight of hand is often exercised at the same time as attempts to correct the inequalities that made the resistance necessary in the first place are ignored or brushed aside. At the 2012 Republican National Convention some of the loudest cheers were for tales of immigrants and minorities overcoming obstacles to make great personal advances – even as the party platform sought to put new obstacles in the way of upcoming minorities and immigrants.
 
On the day of the 1963 march this process was already under way. Documentary filmmakers for the US Information Agency (a government body devoted to international propaganda) were hard at work on the Mall, depicting the peaceful protest as part of its broadsides in the cold war. “Smile,” they told the demonstrators. “This is going to Africa.” Michael Thelwell, a young activist at the time, later said: “So it happened that Negro students from the South, some of whom still had unhealed bruises from the electric cattle prods which Southern police used to break up demonstrations, were recorded for the screens of the world portraying ‘American Democracy at Work’.” 
 
In his speech King claimed: “Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.” It’s now clear that in terms of mass, non-racial activism against Jim Crow laws, it turned out to be the beginning of the end – a pivotal moment in the push for social justice. This, in no small part, is a testament to the achievements of that time. Within a year of the march came the Civil Rights Act; within two years there was the Voting Rights Act, which forbade discrimination in elections.
 
Yet these successes brought with them their own challenge – how to proceed in the struggle for racial justice. The shift from protesters’ demands to congressional bills limited the possibilities for radical transformation. Clear moral demands were replaced by horse-trading. Marchers cannot be stopped by a filibuster; legislation can. Bayard Rustin, the outstanding activist who organised the march, explained it thus: “We are moving from a period of protest to one of political responsibility . . . That is, instead of marching on the courthouse, or the restaurant, or the theatre, we now had to march to the ballot box. In protest there must never be compromise. In politics there is always compromise.”
 
The trouble was that, having conceded civil rights, the American political class was apparently unwilling to compromise on much else, particularly once Lyndon B Johnson left office. “A lot of people have lost faith in the establishment,” King said in 1966. “They’ve lost faith in the democratic process. They’ve lost faith in non-violence . . . [T]hose who will make this peaceful revolution impossible will make a violent revolution inevitable, and we’ve got to get this over. I need help. I need some victories, I need concessions.”
 
He would get precious few. Segregation may have come eventually to offend mainstream American sensibilities, but inequality per se did not. Indeed, at the heart of American mythology is the notion of class fluidity, social mobility and personal reinvention, whereby inequality in wealth is acceptable as long as equality of opportunity is available. That such equal opportunity was denied to Black citizens was not an issue with which most Americans were prepared to engage, so long as opportunity was not denied explicitly on the grounds of race.
 
In a much-noted essay in the February 1965 edition of Commentary magazine titled “From Protest to Power: the Future of the Civil Rights Movement”, Rustin summed up the new period thus: “From sit-ins and freedom rides we have gone into rent strikes, boycotts, community organisation, and political action. As a consequence of this natural evolution, the Negro today finds himself stymied by obstacles of far greater magnitude than the legal barriers he was attacking before: automation, urban decay, de facto school segregation. These are problems . . . deeply rooted in our socio-economic order; they are the result of the total society’s failure to meet not only the Negro’s needs, but human needs generally.”
 
And so it remains. In the absence of the clear and unifying goal of desegregation, the coalition of civil rights groups, trade unions and religious organisations that made the March on Washington possible splintered, and its aims were either diluted or redirected to goals much more difficult to define.
 
True, the signs are down and the laws have been struck from the statute book. But from the judiciary to health care and from voter suppression to education, the legacy of what those signs stood for – white supremacy and racial discrimination – remains. The statistics are stunning. Black child poverty is almost three times that of whites; life expectancy for black males in Washington, DC is lower than in the Gaza Strip; by 2004, there were more black men disenfranchised because they were felons than in 1870, when the black male franchise was secured. It’s as though Jim Crow conceived a son between the alleyways of de jure and de facto and then denied paternity.
 
What this means for contemporary campaigns around civil rights has become clear following George Zimmerman’s acquittal. In the immediate aftermath there were huge vigils throughout the country and interest in a new march on Washington, organised by civil rights groups and scheduled for 24 August. I spoke at a meeting in Chicago less than a week afterwards, called at very short notice, to which more than 200 people showed up. (And it wasn’t the only meeting on the issue that night.) Like the vigils it, too, was lively and impressive and yet, while the analysis was mostly coherent and on point, there was a lack of focus as to what we might demand. Some spoke of gun laws, others of stop-and-frisk and racism in the judicial system, others of the plight of black youth in general.
 
This says less about the participants than it does about the period, because the problem is by no means specific to race. The fragmentation was apparent during the Occupy Wall Street protests, in which any one protester could give any range of reasons for what had brought him to the streets. The systemic nature of the problem renders it both pervasive and elusive. We want something. In a sense, we want everything. But the specific route map as to how we get from here to there remains unclear, because even when the oppression we are fighting is blatant it nonetheless remains institutionally burrowed away and expresses itself in myriad ways. 
 
Fifty years ago, most of the civil rights leadership showed little interest in a march on Washington until the protests in Birmingham, Alabama, which drew international attention to segregation in the South. The huge upswell in activism that followed – 758 demonstrations in 186 cities, resulting in 14,733 arrests – required that protesters either lead an orderly mass demonstration or follow and explain something more chaotic. Back then there were clear demands in need of a national march at which to express them; this year there is a national march in search of clear demands to cohere around.
 
These contradictions and challenges were already apparent in the months following the March on Washington, though it was not clear then how long they would endure. For as America congratulated itself on the end of segregation, meaningful equality did not arrive. At a meeting in Chicago in 1966, King was shaken after being booed by young black men in the crowd. He recalled: “I went home that night with an ugly feeling. Selfishly I thought of my sufferings and sacrifices over the last 12 years. Why would they boo one so close to them? But as I lay awake thinking, I finally came to myself, and I could not for the life of me have less than patience and understanding for those young people.
 
“For 12 years I, and others like me, had held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream . . . They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.”
 
Gary Younge will present “God’s Trombone: Remembering King’s Dream” on Radio 4 on 26 August (8pm)

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era