In literature, a “red herring” is false information that is designed to obfuscate the truth. Red herrings are a favorite plot device of mystery writers such as Walter Mosley (Easy Rawlins), Dame Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Watson).
In “The Da Vinci Code,” author Dan Brown offers the red herring of Bishop Aringarosa, whom the narrative suggests is the grand conspirator. (Interestingly, the name Aringarosa is a rough translation of “pink herring.”) The phrase has a very long and interesting history, but its original meaning refers to a “stinking fish.”
People often use red herrings — knowingly or unwittingly — while making arguments against people or causes that they don’t like. For example, opponents of the Black Lives Matter movement have increasingly employed this tactic. Many of these opponents are now using the “S”-word (i.e., socialism) and the “M”-word (i.e., Marxism) to try to discredit BLM. They understand that those concepts are anathema to most Americans — especially those who are white.
Further, in making this charge, it’s not an accident that critics point to “brown” countries that have strong socialist leanings, such as Venezuela, rather than to “white” countries like Britain or Israel — which are America’s staunchest allies. This is notwithstanding the fact that few Americans are even able to define communism or socialism, much less to distinguish between the two. (They don’t understand that public schools, post offices, fire departments — and police departments — are all examples of socialist institutions.)
Of course, tagging people and movements as communist or socialist is a time-honored tradition in America. Indeed, the irony is that decidedly anti-democratic ploys — in some ways — are those that are the most decidedly American. The most infamous acolyte of this strategy is the late Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
While influential members within BLM, such as Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, identify as Marxists, the organization that is known officially as the “Black Lives Matter Global Network” does not describe itself as Marxist (or socialist). Of course, at a certain level, it doesn’t matter whether BLM actually is socialist or Marxist; it’s clear that the organization and most of its adherents are fighting for the dismantling of discrimination that is based on race, sex, gender identity and sexuality. The embracing of “liberation” ideologies is sufficient for many people to oppose BLM — irrespective of particular political labels.
I would hasten to add that other types of objectionable behavior — personal or professional — has rarely “disqualified” people from amassing power, wealth or influence in America. (Think Andrew Jackson or Bill Clinton.) This has been true since before the nation’s founding. Such privilege also explains why millions of people who ostensibly are “proud Americans” shed real tears as the remnants of the traitorous Confederacy are being dismantled, destroyed or simply displaced. In short, it is acceptable for one to be a scoundrel, as long as one is not perceived as a threat to capitalism.
Still don’t believe that “socialism” is just an excuse to minimize the influence of BLM? Consider the history of Reconstruction. As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in “We Were Eight Years in Power,” white Americans’ fear during this period was not that government run by Blacks would be bad; their fear was that government run by Blacks would be good. (The latter is precisely what actually happened.) Today, BLM is focused on the audacious goal of ensuring that America lives up to the promises that it enshrined in the Constitution — no matter who is in power. There are too many people for whom that goal is unacceptable.
In the end, the real issue (and fear) is not socialism; it is that Black people will increasingly demand full recognition of our humanity. To be sure, BLM is a flawed movement because it is composed of real people. The same can and should be said of all movements, including the 244 years of the American experiment. Still, the vehemence of many who oppose Black Lives Matter amounts to little more than stinking fish.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.