Trade-Phobia: Finally, A Xenophobic Tool to Scare White Liberals

President Obama speaks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the most progressive trade agreement in history, and how it puts America's workers and middle class first. April 23, 2015.

Before I begin on the substance of this article, it is critically important to define the word 'phobia': an irrational fear of a thing or policy. As such, trade-phobia is a fear of trade based on blind faith that trade is bad for working families. And xenophobia is an irrational fear of immigrants based on the belief that immigrants will take "American jobs" or mess with "American culture" or way of life. With this essay, especially in the context of the liberal opposition to the Trans-Pacific Agreement, I wish to show the connection between trade-phobia and xenophobia (which is in turn a form of racism).

We will start with the president's speech on Thursday to the OFA. If you have not watched it, please watch it in full (video above).

The President speaks at once with a passion for working families and visible pain that people he considers friends are accusing him of selling out the American working class after many of them watched him dedicate not only his entire presidency but his entire career to improvement of working peoples' lives.

The President spoke from a place of near dismay that after everything he had done to help working families - from pulling the economy from the brink of disaster to health care reform to student loan relief, consumer protection and fighting for better wages and delivering them wherever he could - that people in his own party would lack the simple proof that whatever else this man chooses to do, he will not sign a trade agreement that hurts working people.

With his natural and precise brilliance, President Obama also touched on a key factor that has driven his determination to conclude what will become America's most progressive trade agreement as the TPP incorporates strong and enforceable labor and environmental protections, extending the rights of working people and a ban on child labor: that the lesson from past trade deals gone awry cannot be a futile and blind attempt to stop the global economy at our shores but that it has to be that the rights of working people to work with dignity and the rights of communities to live in sustainable environments needed to become integral part of new global trade rules that conformed to enduring American values that the rest of the world can aspire to.

But this - the part where the president implores us not to take the lesson of isolationism from the follies of past trade deals - may have also been the place where the usual ideological opponents of the TPP, largely white liberals, tuned out. Not only would the president's argument require more than a fleeting sense of intelligence to consider, it would also unravel a particularly virulent strain of xenophobic fiction the ideological white liberal has maintained for a long time: that America could simply sit out the global economic transition.

That begs the question: why would we have to, even if it were possible?

To answer that, we need to look at a particular era of fondness for the white liberal - at least the comfortable white liberal ideologue of today: FDR, his Public Works Administration and the advent of a middle class where a family could be raised in their own home with a single income.

Problem is, minorities by and large never experienced that sort of prosperity. For some 30 years after FDR, segregation remained the law of the land,  and President Roosevelt himself interned American citizens, a fact often conveniently omitted during various canonization rituals white liberals often perform for the late president.

Desegregation, of course, drove a whole bunch of pro-labor white liberals into the arms of the southern Republicans, the effects of which we are still suffering. Soon after desegregation, the era of Nixon and Reagan began, and their combined racism and anti-worker attacks meant that American history never truly experienced the white middle class' single-income prosperity spread across all Americans.

But it's important to consider why Nixon, Reagan and even the two Bushes succeeded so well with their veiled attacks on race. Both Nixon and Reagan were able to convince massive numbers of white liberals that colored folk weren't going to just be happy with the vote and sitting in the front of the bus but were going to come for their jobs.

So what, you ask.

And there is your answer to the earlier question of why the white liberal ideologue wishes to stop the global economy at our shores. Because he is afraid of the competition. He is afraid that even presented with a level playing field, the "other people" will get their jobs because they cannot compete.

Now, as President Obama pointed out, rationally speaking, the idea that the American worker cannot compete on a level playing field isn't simply offensive, it is hogwash. American workers have proven time and again - mostly recently auto workers who brought the industry back along with American manufacturing - that we can and will win the game of fair competition.

But remember, we are not talking about rational judgments here. We are talking about phobias. We are talking about irrational fears. Irrational fear that someone brown (from south or central America) or someone yellow (Asia) will take their job no matter what amount of labor rights protection is added.

This is why we see the opposition to the TPP coming predominantly from an old guard white liberal establishment: large unions which are still by and large run by white men and their water-carriers in Congress, the likes of Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren. There certainly are others, including some people of color, but (1) they are not nearly as visible a part of the opposition as the Senators from Ohio and Massachusetts, and (2) the phobia of the privileged often permeates to minorities.

And that is ultimately what the opposition to the TPP has thus far come down to: scaring white people that they will lose their jobs to people from countries without a white majority, making white people resentful of the fond memories of the ease of their previous generation - ease that nearly no one else got to share in - and making them afraid that America is itself becoming more international (let's face it, that's what all the dumb fearmongering regarding American sovereignty is all about).

As the President said, opponents rarely address specifics of the TPP. Their entire case is, basically, "trade bad" (not a quote from the President). And that case is based on trade-phobia. That case is based on xenophobia.

In addition, I have noted before that a trade pact, strikingly resembling the TPP is also being negotiated with the European Union and yet we have barely heard a peep from these same liberal white opposition leaders about the Transatlantic agreement known as the T-TIP. That the fear of trade isn't even applied equally to the European pact by the white liberal ideologue confirms yet again that the fear is irrational, and thus, a phobia. Now, can you guess just what factor is not so threatening from Europe but is from South and Central America and Asia when all other things are equal in the agreements themselves? 

Having a public policy debate based on xenophobia will not serve us well. As a country, we must rise above it. We must become rational stewards of our policy, not frantic phobics longing for an era that not only isn't coming back but never really existed for non-white folk to begin with.



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