Suffering Sappho! Wonder Woman and Feminism By Jack Halberstam

5 Jul
wwearthone_sufferingsappho

Suffering Sappho!!

For those of you young enough to associate the term Amazon only with the corporate giant that slew the bookstores and sold the world, the new Wonder Woman movie may not evoke any earlier lesbian or feminist associations. But for people who still remember certain strands of lesbian feminism from the 1970’s, the term Amazon conjures fierce, one-breasted women who lived without men and who fought, hunted, made war and love and generally embodied a utopian feminist past. And while the Amazons so beloved of lesbian feminists tended to be figured as white, others may make connections to the Dahomey Amazons – not mythological figures at all but an all female military regiment started by the third King of Dahomey in the 17th century. These Black Amazons held political power and trained for war and were only disbanded when Dahomey became a French protectorate.

Dahomey_amazon1

Seh-Dong-Hong Beh, a leader of the Amazons of Dahomey

The now much maligned Michigan Women’s Music Festival used to open and close every year with a group rendition of Maxine Feldman’s  “Amazon” (“Amazon women rise, Amazon women weaving rainbows in the skies. Amazon women fly, Amazon women fly!”) And Feldman left no doubt as to what she meant by Amazon: “I am and once was called Amazon, now I am called lesbian!” That is clearly not the meaning of Amazon in the new Wonder Woman movie and indeed the Diana Prince who leaves Themyscira for London is no Dahomey style man-killer. She does not come to bury patriarchy, she just wants her place at the table. Indeed, our era’s Wonder Woman spends more time ‘leaning in’ than leaning on the bad guys.

Wonder-Woman-Comic-Con-Trailer-Breakdown-Steve-Diana-Washed-Ashore

Leaning in?

Too bad, because I had very high hopes for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. Jenkins, after all, made the fantastic Monster in 2003 starring Charlize Theron as famed rape revenge serial killer, Aileen Wuornos. And Wonder Woman as a character and a comic book hero has a long and colorful origin story that stretches back through early suffragettes, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and a domestic triangle involving psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston, his wife Elizabeth Holloway and his student/lover Olive Byrne (also Sanger’s niece). None of these details make their way into Jenkins’ superhero movie, alas, and instead we get a competent, conventional blockbuster with an alluring lead actress and long drawn out action sequences punctuated by a few moments of humor, a few leaden speeches and a rewritten version of World War One!

tumblr_inline_o1a2c1JDKB1r9o32o_500

William Marston with both of his female partners (Olive Byrne in white and Elizabeth Holloway in the right hand corner) and their four children.

 

wonder-2The Wonder Woman of the comic books from the 1940’s was a social justice figure – she opposed male dominance; she defeated the Nazis; she rescued people; and in one issue, she ran for president. In Patty Jenkins’ film, a blockbuster angling for franchise status and no doubt timed to coincide with what most people thought would be the first female presidency in the US, Wonder Woman is a romantic heroine, looking for a mate and fighting baddies along the way. For those who are so inclined, one could even read a Zionist narrative into Jenkins’ film given that Diana Prince is played by Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress, and former Miss Israel, who credits her time spent in the Israeli Defense Forces for her winning the part of Gisele in the Fast and Furious franchise. Her military expertise is fully on show in Wonder Woman. Also, Jenkins’ Wonder Woman moves the comic book narrative setting of World War 2 to World War 1, probably because an Israeli actress fighting Nazi’s in World War 2 would require some kind of discourse on the Holocaust!

Chris-Pine-and-Gal-Gadot-in-Wonder-Woman

The Germans are still the bad guys in this version and actually the first time Diana meets Steve Trevor he is wearing a German uniform for disguise and the Amazons ask him how they are supposed to tell the difference between him and the enemy. Good question! And would that the film had followed up on this Amazonian instinct that wars pit one form of violent and racist nationalism against another…but we lose sight of any kind of critique quickly as a heteropornographic conceit takes over in which a lovely woman has been stranded in an asexual community of women and then spies a naked man for the first time. After some banter about whether the naked Steve is a worthy representative of the male species, Diana Prince begins the inevitable fall into the sloppy clichés of hetero romance accompanied by bottom-feeding lines like: “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.”

la-1496338726-5j0jcjlbnl-snap-image

“Men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary.”

This is all very disappointing, if only because Wonder Woman began promisingly enough with scenes of Diana’s childhood in Themyscira: this was women-only territory and the women were training for war. In Amazon territory, viewers are treated to some bona-fide female muscularity in the form of Robin Wright, who plays Diana’s aunt, Antiope, and there are even quick explanations for the absence of men – “men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary.” Once she leaves her Amazonian isle, Diana is plucky and feisty enough and she quickly lets Steve Trevor know “what I do is not up to you.” She consistently out thinks, out fights and out runs him and he underestimates her at his peril. But his presence is intended to snuff out any fantasies of Amazonian love between women.

24BOOK-blog427-v3

Perhaps Patty Jenkins should have made the Wonder Woman film a narrative nested in the far more interesting story about the polyamorous threesome of Marston, Holloway and Byrne who, together, coproduced the fantasy that finally made it to the pages of DC comics. Jill Lepore, in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, tells this story  with verve and skill and she untangles this history from a straightforward account of comics and locates the emergence of Wonder Woman firmly within a scene of sexual experimentation, security porn and suffragette feminism! According to Lepore, Marston, who is also credited with the invention of the lie detector, first married a lawyer, Elizabeth Holloway, and then fell in love with his student, the boyish Olive Byrne. The three lived together and shared household intimacies, chores and inspiration and they had four children together. After Marston’s death, the two women continued to live together, suggesting that the intimacy was not simply an extended three way in which the women shared the man. Olive was the niece of the great suffragist and early feminist Margaret Sanger and it was she who brought Sanger’s activism and writings to Marston’s attention. Much of Sanger’s work fueled Marston’s imagination when, later in life, he was hired to create a female superhero for DC comics. According to Lepore: Marston’s comic, was meant to chronicle what he called “a great movement now under way—the growth in the power of women.”

imagesMarston’s Wonder Woman was fiercely feminist. She was bold and strong if also limited and liberal (she believes in “truth” after all!). But the Wonder Woman that he and Byrne and Holloway birthed was sexually inventive and gave voice to a kind of lusty relation to life, love and romance – romance for her often involved inverted gender roles, light bondage and a casual relation to violence. Many of the Wonder Woman stories played out Marston’s ideas about the power of men submitting to women and there was a non-exclusive representation of heterosexuality capacious enough to allow for a frisson between Diana Prince and her Amazonian sisterhood. Power dynamics, in the Wonder Woman comics, were full of eros and like Marston and Byrne, student-teacher dynamics were avowedly erotic rather than sources of anxiety and concern. Wonder Woman was a utopian who believed in a world made lousy by men and a potential world in which women kept everything in check.

wonderwoman

That the power of women might be linked to lesbianism is not a hidden theme in Wonder Woman. According to Jill Lepore and others, lesbianism was always a clear part of the narrative. Indeed, conservatives railed against both Batman and Wonder Women in the 1950’s on account of the clear implications of a gay relationship between Batman and Robin and the obvious association between Diana Prince and lesbianism. Most accounts of the comic book character refer to her as bisexual. And yet, in the 2017 movie, in an era of gay marriage and public recognition of LGT families, the plot makes no nod to Sapphic love at all! Indeed, Diana Prince only comes to life when she meets Steve Trevor, leaves the island and begins a romantic flirtation with him. He even names her, for god’s sake, when he cuts her off as she is explaining to a military man in London that she is Princess of Themyscira. She gets only as far as “Prince…” when Steve interrupts and says “Prince, Diana Prince…” She also gets her “love conquers all” and “only believe” lines from Steve and the film suggests that after Steve is gone, she still believes he will return to her. Diana’s relations to women are firmly situated in a mythic past and they are all firmly situated as kin rather than love interests.

Wonder-Woman-and-Steve-Trevor

While the Wonder Woman of the early years of comics regularly rescued her mates, now she relies upon them to do the heavy lifting. The female super hero who carried men to safety and punctuated many a particularly gnarly situation with pithy catch phrases – “suffering Sappho” but also “great Hera!” and “Athena’s shield! – is nowhere to be found in 2017, in a future world that early Wonder Woman could never have been pessimistic enough to predict. So, what is a contemporary Wonder Woman to do? Too queer for Hollywood, too powerful for male pornographic gazes, too militaristic for feminists, too feminist for Christians (probably too Jewish for Christians in the latest incarnation), too dangerous and castrating to be victim to Trump-like pussy grabbing activity, but too liberal to lead a freedom fight. While Wonder Woman in the past, and definitely in Marston’s version, strongly embodied the feminist aspirations and struggles of the day, does she represent any kind of feminism now?

0-ldh-bCi9PwE5sbvy

Marston’s Wonder Woman might be bewildered by the marketplace of ideas about feminism now and might not be sure whether she is a feminist or not, or what feminism even means in an era when Ivanka Trump, Angela Merkel and Cheryl Sandberg represent female accomplishment! Diana Prince is certainly no corporate feminist asking for a seat at the table; but nor is she simply Roxanne Gay’s “bad feminist” in the sense of finding herself outside its logic. Is she the womanist feminist of 1970’s radical feminism? A lesbian separatist stranded outside the Michigan Women’s Music Festival? Or is she the anarcho-feminist from my Gaga Feminism? Could she be the central character, with her raised fist and willful arm, of Sara Ahmed’s powerful polemic: Living a Feminist Life (Duke UP, 2017)? And will contemporary young feminists embrace the 1940’s Wonder Woman or ask for a trigger warning in relation to her preference for militaristic solutions to political problems?

29771377._UY630_SR1200,630_

To take just one of these options, Sara Ahmed’s sense of a “feminist life,” we might find only a very rough fit between Ahmed’s principles and Wonder Woman’s proto-feminism. And at certain points, they would have to part ways. Sara Ahmed’s book was written in the wake of her decision to leave Goldsmith, a hard decision that she made, as she puts it, “after three years of working with others to challenge how sexual harassment has become normalized in academic culture.” Deciding to give up the institutional life with its tendency to provide brick walls for us to knock our heads against in favor of a feminist life, Ahmed returns to the work of philosopher Marilyn Fry, Black feminists bell hooks and Audre Lorde and other thinkers often associated with 1970’s and 1980’s radical feminism and even argues that “we need a revival of lesbian feminism.” This return has Amazonian potential as does the book’s embrace of willfulness and killjoy tendencies. Reviving the call to see the personal as political, Ahmed quotes Fry’s notion of “lived theory” and even flirts with her separatist orientations (Ahmed declines to quote white men in this book).

But, Ahmed also positions feminism as an “archive of fragility” – she defines fragility as “the quality of being easily breakable” and feminism as “self-breakage” and a feminist politics of fragility as a model of “not only how to survive what we come up against but how to enable relationships to endure that can be easily threatened by what we come up against.” This fragile feminism has little room for a bondage-oriented super hero committed to fighting evil men in hand to hand combat (although Ahmed does conjure the image of a feminist army!). Ahmed’s book is beautiful in places, profound in others and it ricochets between pure anger, despair and a poetic conjuring of the inevitability of miscommunication, and the futility of institutional routes to multiracial and non-sexist education.

But ultimately Ahmed’s return to lesbian feminism, the reclaiming of the kill joy is not as inclusive as Ahmed makes it sound and despite reaching out to trans women with the definition of womanhood as “all who travel under the sign women,” the history of lesbian feminism that she draws upon is the exact history of feminism that made transwomen unwelcome in the first place! And the connection between feminism and fragility, along with Ahmed’s sympathy for trigger warnings and calls for safe space, and never mind her warning that humor “is a crucial technique for reproducing inequality and injustice” might ultimately leave readers with a depressive version of feminism – one that precisely lacks joy, pleasure and sex.

wonder_woman_holds_lasso_2_classic_round_sticker-rf6cfc9a11ec94291ba7499b08ead0a48_v9waf_8byvr_400

Wonder Woman, might balk at having to understand herself a part of what Ahmed calls a “fragile archive,” a record of the many slights and wounds that female-bodied people are dealt in a male-centric world. In Ahmed’s world, Diana Prince would not have much recourse to humor and she might have to issue a few trigger warnings before seriously kicking some patriarchal ass. Wonder Woman would be inclusive of trans women but she would ultimately have her fist in the air for safe spaces, sensitive students who are used and abused and a kind of femininity that does not want to hear about the erotics of bondage.

500-likes-for-wonder-woman-without-her-bra_o_1077200

Likely Ahmed would not accept Wonder Woman as a symbol of the “feminist life.” But if we return to the Black Amazons of Dahomey, we can find a better image for her book and for some compromise between the tough, gnarly, intersectional feminism that she offers us and the anarchic power of the super hero. Fortunately, Wonder Woman had a much more interesting twin sister – Nubia – a Black super hero sculpted from dark clay while Wonder Woman was sculpted from light clay by their mother! When the two meet, in a volume of Wonder Woman comics from January 1973, they engage in woman to woman combat – Nubia wins but does not kill Diana, instead she claims the title of the Real Wonder Woman and the two unite to defeat Mars. In another issue, Diana is battling to “free the women of Africa.” This is laughable when we remember the Dahomey militias, and luckily Nubia steps in to save “the women of Africa” from the promised emancipation at the hands of a white hero, and she gives Diana a lesson in anti-colonial struggle.

catfight

We might hope for some future Wonder Woman movies that hew more closely to the spirit of the original Wonder Woman than Pattie Jenkins’ safe and genre conforming film. Supposedly something is in the works about Marston, Holloway and Byrne and there are also rumors of a Nubia film with squabbles online about whether Nubia should be played by Serena Williams! Either of these has more potential to tap into super-heroic feminist powers than the film we have been given in 2017, a time when a few violent women willing to put male “heroes” in their place while fighting for justice could go a long way. If someone is sharpening her pencil and readying to write/draw an episode of Wonder Woman in which both Wonder Women – Diana Prince and Nubia – or even a multi-racial coalition of trans* Wonder Women are gearing up to fight an evil Overlord with yellow hair, tiny hands and an even tinier vocabulary, let me know. And when they are finished with him, how about fighting a host of Overlords like Google, Uber, Whole Foods and others and taking back the term Amazon for more righteous and queer utopian freedom dreams?

tumblr_okp06gmn8l1trnmgio1_500

 

Rapture and Risk on Campus in the Age of the Sexual Security State

6 Jun

Laura Kipnis and Jennifer Doyle Explain It All To You……

By Lisa Duggan

In 2013 I read a stunning short article on the notorious Steubenville rape case by Joann Wypiejewski in The Nation, “Primitive Heterosexuality: From Steubenville to the Marriage Altar,” with the subtitle “Straight culture teaches its children that sex is either of the jungle or the picket fence.” Wypiejewski rejected the stark melodramatic terms of reigning descriptions of “rape culture” to place sexual assault on a spectrum with the normative coercions and inequalities of heterosexual courtship. She then took an extra breathtaking step to indict the supposedly adult model of ideal marriage that ends courtship as the site for the very abuses assigned to “rape culture.” She closed by looking not to the expansion of marriage to same sex couples, but to queer sexual cultures for models of sexual ethics:

Frankly, heteros have nothing to teach homos beyond, maybe, how to endure childbirth. If the zeal to arrest toddlers for stealing a kiss and to lock away teenagers for having stupid, drunken, nasty sex is an indication, the lesson ends once the babe is through the birth canal. The opposite—that heteros have something to learn, from the history of gay liberation rather than marriage equality—is surely true.

This is not to romanticize homosexuality. Regardless of the subjects, sex is a mix of rapture and risk, sweetness and cruelty or something more humdrum. But because history did not present gay people with the open choice of the jungle or the picket fence, they developed an alternative culture, a relational language and set of ethics not just to avoid a trap but to have at least a decent experiment, a decent anonymous encounter, a decent first time—not necessarily a transcendent one (though maybe), but not an awful one—and a different sense of family. Gay kids may drink or damage themselves and others for all the reasons anyone in this society might and more, but gay culture doesn’t teach its kids that the surest route to sex is through a bottle and a lie. Straight culture teaches that.

So OK, maybe Wypiejewski romanticizes gay culture a wee bit, forgivable for a straight lefty feminist with a galvanizing point to make. She is also elaborating the point of Douglas Crimp’s famous defense of queer “promiscuity” as a resource rather than a scourge in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In the current continuation of the various crises over sexual assault, Laura Kipnis has weighed in with a book that shares some of Wypiejewski’s points, but misses others. Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (Harper Collins 2017) sounds a crucial, complacency piercing alarm about the way Title IX investigations of sexual assault on campus have veered widely afar from the goal of fighting gender inequality (as Title IX was designed to do when added to the Higher Education Act in 1972) to become an underground wave of secret tribunals with inconsistent and unaccountable rules and outcomes.

I think Kipnis is largely correct about what has happened since Title IX’s purview was expanded to cover sexual assault in 2011. Though the confidentiality rules prevent any of us from really knowing much, Kipnis makes illuminating use of a rare breach in that imposed silence—a cache of documents released by accused Northwestern professor Peter Ludlow, who left his tenured philosophy position midway through his “trial” without any confidentiality agreement. My own academic network confirms the widespread existence of Kafkaesque “investigations” in which “targets” are not given clear accounts of charges or allowed to defend themselves, in just the ways Kipnis describes via the Ludlow investigations. My informants are disproportionately queer studies scholars, far too many of whom are charged with sexual misconduct (which can include teaching “improper” materials in class) by unstable, closeted or homophobic students. Campus activists against sexual assault routinely ignore this dynamic and many others when they call on us all to simply “believe the students,” the current variation of “believe the women” and “believe the children.” Activist support for administrative procedures that empower accusers (too often simply referred to as “survivors,” a problematic slippage) without question, while minimizing the rights of the accused, is utterly wrongheaded and misguided. These activists do not imagine themselves in the role of accused “target,” but they should, they must. To imagine oneself as possibly accused rather than only as accuser can illuminate the stark imbalances at the core of current practices of investigation and adjudication. And this is one of Kipnis’ major points—empowering the administration to act under cover of confidentiality removes mechanisms of accountability. This is a dangerous path.

Unwanted Advances also makes a key point repeatedly: Narratives of endangered young women bent to the will of powerful male professors (even in the absence of any supervisory role) are not feminist. These melodramatic rescue narratives offer a hero’s role to administrators, who overreach in an old story of young women without agency violated and rescued. This is the territory of “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” the lynching narrative, the progressive era “white slavery” panic. Kipnis points out that efforts to educate young women about how to understand their milieu and defend themselves are too often interpreted as “blaming the victim.” Campus activists would do well to read feminist history and critically examine the emergence of what sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein has named “carceral feminism” and legal theorist Janet Halley has called “governance feminism”—political formations featuring a turn to often punitive state and administrative “solutions,” rather than organizing to address and transform social relations.

But here we begin to reach the limits of Kipnis’ book. The history of feminism that she provides actively erases larger framing contexts that are crucial to the dynamics the author wants to analyze. The story of the emergence of “sexual harassment” as an innovative feminist concept, eventually converted by corporations and university administrations into a military style anti-fraternization policy policed by liability lawyers and elaborated by paid consultants, is mostly missing as the important background to the current spread of Title IX investigations. In the world off campus the context of the feminist “sex wars,” the debates over sex work and sex trafficking, and the horrific years of the “Satanic” child sexual abuse panic in the 1980s, are barely mentioned. Kipnis takes the vocabulary and arguments of these earlier fights (the sex wars discussions of “pleasure vs. danger” and the debates about female sexual agency especially), but rarely credits them.

This narrow framing is symptomatic of the reversed melodrama at the center of Kipnis’ narrative, a frame that features the author in both the victim’s and hero’s role. She was the “target” of a Title IX investigation for an earlier article (and is currently being sued by one of the students she writes about in the book), and in response represents herself as fighting the good fight for free speech and sexual agency. In her book she rarely shares that heroic spotlight with historical or current figures. She likes to pose as the badass, throwing around provocative claims and standing up for those stricken silent by confidentiality rules.

This pose with its narrowing effect becomes especially clear when Unwanted Advances is read alongside Jennifer Doyle’s 2015 book, Campus Sex, Campus Security (Semiotext(e), 2015). Doyle was also involved in a Title IX case that did not go her way, but this experience does not center the analysis of the book. Doyle uses the “problem” of off the rails administrative procedures to widen her vision and take in the precarious state of “the campus” at this moment in neoliberal time. Drawing on the 2011 ‘incident” of campus police pepper spraying non-violent motionless students at the University of California Davis, Doyle makes a series of astute and revelatory connections between campus security and sexual politics through a series of short, staccato chapters filled with quotable insights. At UCD, the Chancellor worried that “non-affiliates” from Oakland (read young black men) would take advantage of “very young girls” on campus and put the university “in violation” of Title IX. From there Doyle looks at race and colonial legacies, the insecurity of students with high tuition and faculty with part time appointments, and the experiences of queer and racialized students and faculty under campus security regimes—considering the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal, the suicide of Tyler Clemeni at Rutgers, the Rolling Stone story of a gang rape later revealed as a hoax at the University of Virginia, the violent arrest of Prof. Ersula Ore for jaywalking at Arizona State, and more.

The point of Doyle’s analysis across all these instances is that the university finds itself vulnerable, positions itself as threatened, and deploys ramped up risk management and security measures for self-defense. In the Title IX cases the university is defending itself from being “in violation” and losing money, not protecting the “very young girls” who are imagined as the ideal accusers, without agency of their own. This comparative framing makes the exclusion of political economic context, and of critical race and queer theory, from Kipnis’ text very clear. Kipnis “includes” race and queer sexuality with a few random comments, one example involving black athletes (where the word “packs” is used), and a few same sex examples that are unintegrated into the analysis. Doyle’s book shows readers what it means to bring these analytic frames together, rather than just use add on unanalyzed examples.

But Doyle does slip into the insupportable “believe the women” posture occasionally. In concluding her account of the Rolling Stone rape hoax story of 2015, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely based on the unchecked facts of an unnamed accuser, she comments “Who cares, really, about what women say? For that matters, who cares about what women write?” (p.21) Um, what? Doyle twists herself into a pretzel trying to avoid criticizing either the accuser or the writer, instead going for the magazine’s staff. It’s a stretch, based on a melodrama of female innocence and male perfidy that she otherwise avoids.

This slip, and others like it, serve to illustrate how pervasive and apparently irresistible conventional sexual melodrama can be, all across the political spectrum. Though Kipnis is countering the melodrama of gendered sexual danger that frames the recent deluge of Title IX tribunals, she fails to note that this story is itself a reversal of another pervasive melodramatic tale—in which innocent men’s lives are ruined by scheming women. The tide of Title IX complaints is in part a justifiable effort to attack the assumptions that supported widespread dismissal of women’s accusations against serial harassers and attackers, who were often protected by administrators in the pre-Title IX era. The rage and frustration generated by decades of such dismissals in part fuel the relentless hostility to “targets” expressed by too many Title IX officers. Now Kipnis counters the counter narrative, with an again reversed tale of scheming women and falsely accused men. Though she acknowledges that this is not the whole story, that sexual assault on campus is real, and that harassers and rapists are sometimes excused and protected, these admissions are throwaway sentences that pop up now and then in the body of a text utterly devoted to a highly gendered melodrama featuring manipulative female accusers and vindictive unaccountable bureaucrats, versus men whose lives are unfairly ruined.

There is a moment in Unwanted Advances when Kipnis reports the events of one of her central cases to a psychiatrist friend, and recounts his speculative diagnoses for one of the young women accusers—borderline or hysterical personality disorder (p. 74). Arguably, this kind of third hand psychologizing crosses a line from hard hitting but illuminating critical analysis to personal invasion. Does this move justify my own speculation that Kipnis may have some unresolved oepidal issues? A father she wants to rescue from a controlling, scheming mother? Just guessing!

Ultimately, both Kipnis and Doyle, like Wypiejewski, want to replace the sensational, melodramatic tales of sexual danger with detraumatizing strategies for thinking about sexual assault (which would involve reducing the demand for anonymity and confidentiality, strategies that only reinforce stigma, and in the context of Title IX, prevent accountability). Doyle specifically calls for placing rape on a spectrum of normative sexual coercions including state regulated marriage and reproduction, while Kipnis points to the need to address “the learned compliance of heterosexual femininity.” Kipnis further calls for assertiveness training and self-defense—student initiated strategies for challenging male aggression. Why not organize, act up, create new contexts for social and classroom life, rather than call endlessly for more and better administrative procedures? Both books emphasize the danger of empowering administrators this way—and surely the example of the administrative persecution of Palestinian students and professors should show us that danger in action. Most broadly, it is the clear implication of Doyle’s book that organizing strategies need to reach beyond inequalities of gender and sexuality to address the context for them, in the political economic context of risk management and global securitization.

Another Day…..

6 May

Hypatia and Cultures of Critique

By Lisa Duggan

Image result for Hypatia journalIt was just another day in academia.  Another obscure journal, another specialized article. Another scholar publishing in a marginalized field, failing to cite the published work in that field.  Another peer review process ignoring the very existence of marginalized scholars and fields.  Ho hum…..

But then things got real.  Some readers noticed and complained, social media went berserk, some editors defended while others apologized, articles were written.  Things got a little crazy, tone wise.  Denunciations!  Accusations! Precious little good contextualizing analysis.

It started when the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia published Rebecca Tuvel’s “In Defense of Transracialism,” in their spring 2017 issue.  Tuvel, a tenure track assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, compares the Rachel Dolezal controversy over transracial identity with debates about transgender politics.  She does not engage critical race theory or transgender scholarship. This kind of exclusion is ripe for legitimate critique, especially as practiced by a feminist journal.  Legitimate critique there was galore!

On social media, things heated up in a familiar way.  The derision and denunciation so often found there migrated, mixed with legitimate critique, into an open letter that called for retraction of the article.  It was eventually signed by hundreds of professors, grad students and others. The letter generated an abject apology (reading a bit like a Soviet confession, to my ears) from the associate editors of the journal. This apology produced a disagreement and objection from the editor.  And by this time the whole shabang migrated away from social media and onto the blogs, higher ed press, and more mainstream media.

And so by now everyone is in role!  The academic journal has marginalized critical race and trans scholarship within feminist philosophy, many of the article’s critics are making self righteous demands and personal attacks, some of the apologizing is positively creepy, while liberal and conservative pundits eschew relevant context to cry Witch hunt! Call out culture!  Oy.

Meanwhile back on social media, a few brave souls are cutting through some of the shit.  We at Bully Bloggers have picked out a few posts that illustrate a range of thoughtful, regretful and exasperated commentary that appeared on The Book of Faces to share with you here.  We will add more as we find the good stuff online.  Below are comments from Ani Dutta, with a very nuanced critique, Treva Carrie with a sigh of exasperation and some advice, Talia Mae Bettcher with a cri de coeur and sharp intervention, and Lisa Guenther with some second thoughts after having signed the open letter.

Image result for everyone calm down meme
Ani Dutta:
On Tuvel, Adichie, Dolezal and the Privilege-Identity Distinction
 
I have a feeling that I’m not going to be riding any popularity waves with this one, but I wanted to register my discomfort with the way in which ‘trans / gender non-conforming’ and ‘people of color’ voices have often been essentialized and homogenized in the wake of the controversy on Rebecca Tuvel’s Hypatia article that defends ‘transracialism’ and makes analogies between ‘transgenderism’ and ‘transracialism’. I do not say this ‘as’ a trans/gender non-conforming person of color (categories I use with discomfort given their US-centric hegemonic senses), as I don’t believe that occupying those positions necessarily justifies or gives more credence to the points I’m about to make. But I am referring to these categories, in which I’m often socially placed, simply to make the point that some of ‘us’ (though there’s no ‘us’) might have differing takes on both the Tuvel article and the question of transracialism than the general stance of condemnation and dismissal that ‘we’ have been associated with. So here goes:
  1. The big underlying question first, I guess: I am an agnostic on the issue of transracialism and Dolezal’s identity, and frankly not very interested in resolving that debate any way or other, except to argue that I don’t think we need to dismiss the ontological question of transracial identity (and its defenses) in order to interrogate or critique some of Dolezal’s more problematic actions (e.g. lying about her family past, culturally appropriating the ‘Nubian soul’, taking on the NAACP leadership position, etc.), which are related to her position of white privilege. Though race and gender are obviously not exactly analogous, a similarity here is that one can occupy gender-privileged positions while strongly dissociating from related identities – and the Caitlyn Jenner analogy indeed applies here. Two months ago, Chimamanda Adichie made several extremely simplistic and problematic statements about (apparently all) trans women having ‘male privilege’ at some point in their lives, and many trans women in response pointed out that this was often not the case. In my humble view, the most nuanced responses were ones like Jen Richards’ piece where she pointed out that trans women (like any other gendered group) may have very different narratives and histories of gender dis/privilege. Some trans women or trans feminine / gender-variant people experience little or no male privilege due to early visibility or transition (e.g. Laverne Cox’s narrative), and others like Richards and Jenner have grappled with male privilege for much of their lives, both benefitting from and suffering due to their social assignment as upper-class white ‘males’. In slightly reductionist Marxist terms, in Jenner’s case, the surplus value she accumulated due to her erstwhile male- and continuing class-racial privilege literally enabled and financed her medical transition, over the backs of many less fortunate other (both cis and trans-GNC) people whose labor had gone to produce that surplus value. However, in diametrical opposition to Adichie, now it seems that any reference to some trans women’s past lives and erstwhile male privilege can be conflated with transmisogyny (a trend noticeable in some of the public posts/comments critiquing Tuvel). So, we’re stuck between either all trans women have (or have had) male privilege, or no trans women have male privilege and saying so is transmisogyny. I feel that one must remember that ‘privilege’ and ‘identity’ are distinct concepts and resist their conflation, both in the case of ‘transgender’ and ‘transracial’ identities / identity-claims. Indeed, gender is so crossed and constituted by class and race that many cis men might end up having less privilege than elite cis and trans women; and even cis maleness is not always a privilege in itself (as in the case of Black masculinity, often persecuted as a threat and enslaved through the US carceral complex). All to say that ‘privilege’ and ‘identity’ (social or personal) aren’t linearly correlated in any case, and thus, one can neither adjudicate identity claims based on privilege, nor dismiss mentions or critiques of gender privilege as being transmisogynist in and of themselves (unless one overgeneralizes and gaslights trans experiences of oppression, as Adichie did).
  2. As Tuvel has pointed out, several black/POC and trans scholars have taken complex positions on the question of transracial identity, and people like Kai M. Green and Adolph Reed Jr. have even taken sympathetic stances that inform my own argument in the previous paragraph. Though Reed’s argument, in particular, has problems such as biologically essentializing Jenner at some points, he makes a strong case for the privilege-identity distinction (he doesn’t exactly use that phrase), effectively arguing that one can’t dissociate Jenner’s womanhood from her (erstwhile) male privilege and politics, but the same time hold Dolezal to a rigid notion of white identity. Ultimately, these scholars underline the futility and impossibility of adjudicating ontological identity claims of any sort, and argue that one should rather focus on politics and actions – what one ‘does’ from any given positionality rather than what one ‘really is’. In that regard, as Green argues, the transracial-transgender analogy cannot simply be dismissed in entirety, and trans-POC stances on this issue can’t be essentialized in the ways they often have been in social media discussions during the Tuvel episode.
  3. This brings me more specifically to the Tuvel article: I agree that it is simplistic and problematic on several fronts, and especially fell short in its understanding of trans issues. As critiques point out, it reduces trans identities to a medical-surgical model of transitioning to another “sex” and ignores the trans-GNC critique of sex assignment (using phrases like ‘biological sex’ and ‘male genitalia’); further, it admittedly ignores non-binary subjectivities or practices, makes the sexed body the basis for both cis and trans identity, etc. Ideally none of this should have made past peer review, but these are far wider problems with entire biomedical discourses of transsexuality and are replicated across many academic disciplines, and even in some trans activism, rather than just this article in itself, and her article is not fundamentally making claims on trans identity anyway so they do not necessarily invalidate her main argument (which could still be critiqued, but that is a separate question). Her ‘deadnaming’ of Caitlyn Jenner – which she has apologized for – is again problematic but not reducible to the deadnaming of trans people in general, given that she mentioned the name specifically as a former appellation and not current description (which Jenner herself does on occasion, too), and also that Jenner’s past public identity and associated privileges are already very well known and hardly amount to violent exposure as such. Thus, to make the argument that the very existence or citation of this article amounts to ‘harm’ or violence against trans people and POC (as the open letter to Hypatia implies), to my mind, trivializes the concept of harm / violence and exaggerates the implications of Tuvel’s article (and inflates the importance and impact of paywalled academic articles in general). While I agree Hypatia and Tuvel should be held accountable to higher scholarly and ethical standards, I am uncomfortable with the scapegoating of this particular article and this (pre-tenure) scholar, sometimes by more powerful and institutionally recognized scholars, for much wider systemic issues that she did not initiate and which will not end with the retraction of any one (or multiple) articles. I also agree with critiques that Tuvel should have engaged more with TOC-WOC scholarship, but again this is a more systemic problem with (even feminist) philosophy and similar disciplines, and I wonder how many other Hypatia articles that deal with race in some form would fare on this count.
  4. Also, specifically responding to a public post by a colleague, the Tuvel piece has been accused of managerial whiteness and the violence of abstracting and controlling differences, deciding which differences are equivalent or not, etc. I do appreciate and agree with the argument that philosophy, and academic theorization more broadly, is often guilty of managerial violence and the violence of abstracting differences over material bodies and experiences that theorizers don’t inhabit or share. But again, it seems to be a stretch to zero in on Tuvel’s article as a particularly egregious example of a much wider systemic trend – especially given that she does not make a claim on anyone’s identity per se, nor lay out a cartography of valid / invalid identities, but rather, makes a more specific argument about the potential validity of transracialism as a phenomenon (which one could, of course, disagree with), in the face of widespread dismissals of the same. Further, we have to account for ways that many of us in academia are complicit with the violences of managerialism and abstraction even as we might be aware of and endeavor to work against material violence – for example, analysis or theorization of necropolitics and biopolitics (which I have myself done, among many others), is often literally enabled by the violences perpetrated on trans-GNC bodies, even as it lands us prestigious publications and helps us in the path towards tenure. “POC” scholars (such as myself) who follow the same academic-professional trajectories as whites, even if with more hurdles, are no less complicit in the governmental, biopolitical, managerial structures of academia and of academic knowledge production than anyone else. Further, queer-trans academics and activists – white and POC – have often made *careers* out of abstracting differences and laying out cartographies of identity and terminology. Moving beyond the aforementioned post, the general dismissal of ‘transgenderism’ as a potentially valid usage during the Tuvel episode is nothing if not a manifestation of such managerialism, abstraction and universalism – US scholars, many of them white, deciding for all of us which terms for gender-variance are politically+academically acceptable and which are not (even though white trans activists like Serano have themselves argued in favor of non-pejorative uses of ‘transgenderism’ as a term, as Tuvel points out). Many of my trans-kothi-hijra friends and sisters in India regularly use terms like ‘shemale’, ‘cross-dresser’, ‘transvestite’, etc. that are commonly outlawed in US trans activist-academic discourse. What are these tendencies if not managerialism and white / US-POC saviourism in the guise of protecting trans people from epistemic-linguistic violence, given that such attempts can invalidate people’s self-descriptions and alternative meanings? That a cis white ‘outsider’ scholar is being targeted in this particular case does not undo the wider potential ramifications of such attempts.
  5. Last but not least, moving beyond the specific Tuvel case, it seems important to introspect about why many of us (POC or not) have such a gut reaction to ‘transracialism’, racial self-determination and the analogy between racial & gender identity, while gender self-determination seems to be much easier to accept (even Adichie who generalizes male privilege onto all trans women seems to accept some degree of gender self-determination). Going by my preliminary and not entirely fleshed-out train of thoughts, part of it may have to do with the different ways in which ‘race’ and ‘gender’ are socially constructed, and these differences need to be interrogated more than they have been in recent debates. Broadly speaking, there is a relentless social demand that ‘gender’ be personalized and interiorized. Both conventional cisgender and more trans-inclusive epistemologies of gender (especially in the West) *demand* that we associate gendered embodiments, expressions, behaviors, words / terms, with a deeply *interior* identity (recalling the argument that Foucault famously makes about sexuality) – our gendered actions or embodiments must *mean* something in terms of the ontology of our inner selves, must correspond with a deeply held personal identity (even if that is genderqueer or fluid or agender, inasmuch as these are ‘identities’). Much of our hard-won struggles against biological essentialism and for gender self-determination often remain imbricated in this potentially oppressive ideology, being in some sense the obverse of the cissexist idea that social sex assignment ‘naturally’ corresponds to a gendered essence (inasmuch as an avowal of gender as a deep personal identity becomes the logic for social recognition). ‘Race’, in contrast, is etymologically linked with ideas of common descent and collective lineage, deriving from one’s position within a collective rather than a deeply held personal identity (indeed, US post-racial ideology asks us to [pretend to] forget that race matters for individual identification or social position). To my mind, this contrast between the personalization+interiorization of gender and the collectivization of race seems to be one of the underlying reasons for the discomfort with transracialism and the race-gender analogy. Regardless of the validity or otherwise of transracialism as a ‘real’ phenomenon, it ties us to the oppressive generalization of gender as an inevitable personal essence that all of us must ‘own up to’, in contradistinction to race or ethnicity that are assigned to us or derive from our collective social position. Inasmuch as many of us remain invested in and derive pleasure and validation from personal or ontological identification, I am not, of course, asking for ‘doing away’ with the concept of gender identity as per liberal humanist or TERF arguments. Rather, it is perhaps possible to bracket the question of personal identity in discussions of material differences, social positions and privileges, so as to enable the critique of social hierarchies and individual complicity in power structures, without needing to resort to an adjudication of identity through some external calculus or logic, or the attempt to fix an ontology that we can never really know (whether in the case of race or gender).

Treva Carrie:

this hypatia sitch. lordt.
 i’d like, in fact LOVE, to entertain and act on the idea that academic writing can and does do immense harm to people and communities.
but can we go all witch trials on someone good like George Kelling or all the Ivy league economists and mathematicians that created the financial instruments that facilitated the 2007 financial crisis?
or the inventors of predictive / algorithmic policing or the assholes who are still trying to make that hot weather and crime argument stick?

or if we’re feeling to need to cannibalize, I’d settle for going for someone like a Skip Gates, with his optimism for the molecularization race, his celebration of Linnean racist world geographies (find your roots, lose your healthcare!), or at least getting hyphy on the resurgence of retrograde cultural nationalism within critical race theory/theories of blackness?

Image result for becky with the good hair meme
 but Becky with the controversial argument?  ::yaaaaaawwwn::
Talia Mae Bettcher:

 I want to share my thoughts about the Hypatia controversy. But, I want to be clear that this controversy comes at a time of deep personal crisis on the home-front. This has meant that I have not had the time to process the Hypatia controversy as quickly as I would have liked. It also means that it has been considerably less important to me.

When I signed off on the letter to Hypatia, I didn’t agree with every point that was made. But I agreed with the spirit. For me, the chief concern (aside from the gratuitous “deadnaming” which should have been caught) is the following. It’s not merely that the article does not engage sufficiently with the relevant literature. It’s that while it explores both transness and blackness, it fails to adopt a framework that would centralize transness and blackness as loci of oppression and resistance.  And it fails to provide any evidence that the author reflected upon her subject position.  When non-trans people do trans philosophy, for example, they need to ask questions about their subject position – who are they are relation to oppression? What are their motivations in writing about the trans-related topics? What do they hope to gain? For me, the problem with the article is that there was no evidence of any interrogated subject position, largely because there is no real centralization of transness and blackness as modalities of oppression and resistance in analysis which would require such an interrogation. (If there were, I believe that results of the analysis would have been different).  Simply consider the fact that the author felt it completely appropriate to consider whether Dolezel could call herself black without asking questions about who she was and how she was positioned in asking such questions.
One way to put this is to say, evoking Stryker’s distinction, that while the article examines trans phenomena, it does not rise to the level of trans studies. After all, trans people have long been the objects of investigation. But to do trans studies (and trans philosophy) is to centralize the existence of trans oppression/resistance as a starting point. It is to recognize that trans people have long been curious objects, puzzles, tropes, and discursive levers on the way to somebody else’s agenda. It is to take seriously the idea that trans people can theorize their own experience while negotiating dangerous terrain.  To take part in such a project, as a non-trans person, requires careful reflection upon one’s own political power, one’s own epistemic limitations, and one’s stakes. To ignore all of this and to simply examine trans people on that way to securing some sort of agenda, is of course, to engage in a scholarship that leaves out the voices and the stakes of trans people.
But let’s be clear. This is hardly new. And I think it is important to place the Tuvel’s work within this broader context so that she is not selectively targeted. So many articles in feminist philosophy have been published that, on the whole, simply ignore the existence of trans oppression/resistance in ways that would have mattered. Definitions of ‘womanhood,’ for example, are laid down that implicitly exclude trans women or that take up the issue in ways that are deeply problematic from a trans political perspective. And those articles that do discuss trans issues in depth often fail to embrace the existence of trans oppression/resistance as a central organizing principle – as a core part of the analytic lens. If they had been held to the standard that we are asking for now, they would have never been published at all. This isn’t about Tuvel’s work, then. Her approach to trans issues is not new. This is clearly about feminist philosophy in general.
What is new is the fact that trans philosophy has come into its own.
I’m an old-timer. I was a graduate student when trans studies first began back in the nineties. I have been trying to do trans philosophy within and without professional philosophy for quite some time. When I first began publishing in trans studies there were very few trans people doing work in trans philosophy at all. It was a different time. I was speaking to an old sociologist friend of mine the other day about the controversy. She expressed some discomfort with the intense reaction to the publication of Tuvel’s article. It’s not as if this was J. Michael Bailey, she said! (We had worked together on a response to Bailey’s presentation of his work at UCLA many, many years ago). And it’s true. This is simply not comparable to hostile scholarship of that type.
As I worked, I also saw that some of the work being produced by non-trans people on trans issues were “off.” In part because I felt so isolated, I simply decided, either rightly or wrongly, to do my own work rather than engaging. If I didn’t do this work, who would? By now it’s clear, however, that trans philosophy has come of age. Trans philosophy is happening. And that means that it is imperative for (non-trans) feminist philosophers to ask themselves to what degree they recognize the existence of trans oppression/resistance in their analyses at all and to what degree they understand themselves within that framework. Is it okay to philosophize about trans people without doing trans philosophy? If it’s not, then what does that mean not only for Hypatia, but for feminist philosophy in general?
While this controversy may mark the coming of age of trans philosophy, it is also a bitter reminder of the continuous failure of many white feminist philosophers to centralize racist oppression in their analyses of not only gender, but race itself. After all, critical race theory/philosophy has be around since at least the eighties. These points have been time and again by feminists of color and yet the changes in (white) feminist philosophy have been breathtaking in their meagerness. Not getting the point by getting lost in the theory. Dear Trans* People (especially we white ones): If you think there’s going to be some huge change now, please prepare for disappointment.
All of this said, I care about Hypatia and I care about feminist philosophy. No doubt, different people have had different experiences with Hypatia. But mine have been positive. At time that I wrote “Evil Deceivers,” I doubt that there was any other venue in philosophy for publishing this type of work all. But Hypatia provided me with thoughtful and constructive feedback for improving the paper. And they provided me with this venue. They even went on to do a special issue on trans feminism. Because of this, my shift from my work in modern philosophy into trans philosophy became possible. Hypatia’s support of my work even played an important role in my getting tenure.
There are not many journals like Hypatia in philosophy. And I’m glad that it exists. And if (it’s a BIG if) we’re at all interested in doing work in professional philosophy, then we need journals like Hypatia. But this also means that we need Hypatia to hold itself to standards that are different from mainstream philosophy, standards that mainstream philosophers may not even understand. This puts Hypatia in a highly fraught position. On the one hand, it needs to be the kind of journal that secures reputability within the profession of philosophy. This is crucial in helping junior professors who do work at the margins be taken seriously. On the other hand, it can’t merely replicate the standards of reputability with the profession without annihilating its reason for existence.  Of course, this is precisely the dilemma that all of us who work at the margins face. It’s one of the many double-binds that characterize work at the margins.
All of this is underwritten by the deep intermeshing of oppressions. A journal that expressly takes up a single issues (feminism) is going to be compromised from the get-go. While work may be done to include other forms of oppression and to embrace an intersectional perspective, the very starting point inevitably yields a kind of distortion. Again, as anyone who tries to think intersectionally knows, their work will invariably have this same distortion. This is something that we work against. But it is also something that we, to some degree or other, fail at achieving. It’s the nature of the beast.
I don’t say any of this to excuse Hypatia for what happened. But I do think it is important to frame the issue within the larger context of a shared struggle in “doing philosophy” at the margins and to recognize the treacherous ground on which we attempt to work.
There needs to be accountability. We need to hear something from the Editor of Hypatia. And there needs to be the real work of finding a way to improve the review process that both holds to the appropriate standards without burdening trans people and people of color. This work needs to begin soon. But I do think that there are larger issues at stake.
This has been a painful time. Sea-changes of the type often are. And the fact that most of the discussion has occurred on social media has only made matters worse. I’m not a fan. I wonder if there’s a way to have a real conversation, face-to-face. I don’t even know whether that would be productive. But it would be better than what’s happening. The issues here are important. The changes here are important. And there needs to be something more than blogging and FB updates. Could there be an organized event/discussion to come out of this? And if so, what would that look like?
Lisa Guenther:

Over the past few days, I have posted a few thoughts about accountability.  A close friend (and a few strangers) have challenged me to account for gaps and failures in my own scholarship as a feminist philosopher, and for my responsibilities as a mentor to past and current graduate students.

Let’s start with my own scholarship.  My book on solitary confinement doesn’t engage _at all_ with the fact that queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming people, and also people with disabilities and mental illness, are subject to outrageously high rates of police surveillance, incarceration, and solitary confinement.  Nor do I develop an analysis of the way gender or class shape carceral systems, or the intertwining of gender, sexuality, ability, race and class.  While writing the book, I did my best to engage with the perspectives, analyses, and testimonies of people who have survived solitary confinement, and those who have been crushed by it.  But I myself have never been incarcerated, and the people who are closest to me – my family, close friends, and loved ones – are not, by and large, targeted by carceral power.  My life was not torn upside down from one day to the next by an encounter with the police, or the arrest of a loved one.  I still stand behind the book, but it has many flaws, gaps, and silences that I would want to address if I were writing it now, and that I would probably critique in a peer review process.  I’m thankful for criticism of the book, even when it’s painful or difficult to hear, and even though there’s nothing I can do to un-write the book.
But I have never had to contend with personal attacks or insults about my work or calls for retraction, and I don’t want to underestimate the very different kind of pain that this inflicts on a person.  And I want to express my admiration for those who have been supporting Rebecca Tuvel as a person throughout the past week.  I want to apologize to her personally for any pain I caused by signing the open letter requesting retraction, especially given that I was a member of her dissertation committee.  I did not sign the letter lightly, and I do not consider the call for retraction a personal attack.  The letter was addressed to Hypatia as a journal, and I continue to see it as a demand for accountability, made in a very intense, fraught moment, in an effort to stand in solidarity _with_ and _as_ black (and) trans feminist thinkers whose scholarship was marginalized in this article, but not only in this article.
So in the same moment that we condemn personal attacks, I think it’s absolutely vital for us, as a community of feminist philosophers, not to conflate personal attacks with substantive critique, and not to silence black and trans critics of Tuvel’s article by dismissing the critical response as a mob of haters who didn’t even read the article.  Structural inequalities in power and authority compound vulnerability.  White feminists can and have deployed our own vulnerability as a weapon against others whose position is more precarious than our own.  I say “we” here because I want to be clear that this is something I am deeply implicated in, and also because I want to participate in what will no doubt be a long and fraught process of abolishing white feminism and committing to a practice of feminist philosophy that is creative, responsible, and liberatory.

“The Asian was told to leave. He was given an explanation. Nevertheless, he persisted. So he had to be carried out on a stretcher.”

16 Apr

On Compliance, Complicity, and Beating Up Asian America.

By Eng-Beng Lim

UnitedYikes

For Asian Americans and other professional elites of color who think their class privilege or “whiteness” protects them from the racialized brunt of U.S.-America’s corporate-nationalist wrath, the bloody “re-accommodation” of 69-year-old Vietnamese American doctor, David Dao, on an allegedly overbooked United Airlines (UA) flight might be their “get woke” moment. Just to be clear, it involves police and neoliberal capitalist terror, corporate bullying, and Asian shaming. Dr Dao sustained “a broken nose, a concussion, two knocked out teeth and sinus problems that may require reconstructive surgery.” All for refusing to vacate his seat to accommodate UA’s administrative inefficiency.

But “getting woke” may depend on your level of subscription in the club of denial and complicity. Those with premier benefits might find it hard to relinquish their bad love. For denial has its own rewards, and complicity its wanton rationalization and even perfume.

Membership, afterall, has its privileges. What exactly is the cost of your membership’s privileges? Who is paying the price for your preferred status and clubby jaunt?

“Re-accommodation” is a term used by UA CEO, Oscar Munoz to characterize the forced extraction of seated passengers “randomly” selected by the computer to make space for four crew members. They had to catch a connecting flight that would otherwise be understaffed, delayed or canceled. The flight in question was not overbooked or oversold, as airlines officials originally claimed. That few if anyone is picking on this lie only shows our level of compliance with the fungible language of bureaucratic corporate procedure. We are so inured to gaslighting and alternative truth that a white lie is a just white lie (switch the color and you are most definitely a liar). Let’s give companies and the men who run them the benefit of doubt, and beat the crap out of consumers who do not comply.

Dr Dao was illegally ejected from the plane in violation of 14 CFR 250.2a. that prohibits giving preference to airlines employees over paying customers, especially if they have already been seated. Part of the dispute will hang on whether the employees who are considered “must-ride passengers” can unseat paying customers on a full flight. But it does not get to the spectacular violence against the doctor, and the seemingly inexplicable assault on the American consumer and Asian America. To sort out this mess, let’s start with a quick recap of the world we live in, and an earnest question:

Could it be that the corporatization of the Senate and the vindictiveness of male-centered egos exemplified by conservative and rightwing ideologues like Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and their cabal of mediocre apparatchiks, naysayers, white supremacists, 1 percenters and security thugs now go hand in hand with the thuggery of state-sanctioned oligopolies like UA that operate as their armed, air travel functionary disguised as service?

A nation’s divisions, arrogance and toxicity do not just spring out of nowhere. Their escalation has been facilitated by ultraconservative white supremacist rancor and gaslighting running the spectrum of racism/xenophobia, anti-gay/misogyny, anti-refugee/Islamaphobia. It’s almost mechanical at this point. But that we should entertain the idea that gaslighters are outraged that their crimes are “leaked” to the press rather than being outraged at their crimes is a real kicker. It is a rich ethical perversion that gives perversion a bad name. The vacuous shorthand, “a nation divided,” only compresses the deniability of those who start wars and fires by demagoguery or political poison. Enter the Bully-in-Chief with explicit instructions for his devotees and initiads, which include white nationalist groups:

“Knock the crap out of him, would you? Seriously.”

“I’d like to punch them in the face, I tell you, would you?”

“I love the old days. Do you know what they used to do to guys like that in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

More than just Trump’s expressive nastiness at his rallies, these opportunistic incitements to violence have a long history in U.S-American nationalist bravura, machismo, belligerence, imperialism and gun culture. But as corporate performatives, it is virtually unheard of unless we examine the violent deeds of corporations as the very enactment of these words.

Yes, those are exactly the words that UA is saying to Dr. Dao who is carried out on a stretcher, and by extension to Asian/America. You know, the time when Asian exceptionalism means you can be legally discriminated against because the law does not apply to you – the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese incarceration camp, just to name two – or, clobbered to death with impunity (Vincent Chin RIP).

Regarding Trump’s incitement to violence, multiple lawsuits filed against him state how “black residents were brutally attacked by a white mob,” including a plaintiff who was “kicked, choked, shoved, punched, scratched and referred to as nearly every racial slur known.” Though the racial violence is specific and contextual, the abuse is also generalizable of Trump’s treatment of African Americans, especially powerful black women like Susan Rice, Maxine Waters and April Ryan. The intersection of race, violence and corporations that has fueled Trump’s business empire and the rise of his despicable Presidential persona is also at the heart of UA’s treatment of Dr Dao.

To put it plainly, it’s about corporations punching people in their faces, sometimes without them knowing because it’s in the gut so to speak, and sometimes in the flesh, knocking them out senseless. The continuing fetishization of choice in this regard is laughable to say the least. Trump’s response to the incident is for airlines to increase the compensation for bumping passengers off the aircraft as if that would create more access and equality for air travel. And lo and behold, United has quickly announced an upper ceiling of 10k for those bumped out of their seats in the future. That is the solution? Some people are excited about how this is an enticing option to game the system. Who do you think will benefit from? The Dr Daos of the world or those “in the club”?

Let’s put it this way, you may think you are choosing or benefiting freely as a consumer but you have no say about the options from which you choose, and how you are treated in practice. When the options are lousy, they are lousier for those at the bottom whether it is U.S. air travel, healthcare or the school system. They are about creating insufferable conditions for the majority so that the super-privileged who can afford Platinum-level service can take up ever more space and resources just because they can. Because corporate entities love revenues more than anything else. Does this sound like a bloviating cheeto-maniac sucking up all the oxygen in the room, and making everyone parse his gibberish just because he can? That’s the kind of treatment we’re being trained to accept from POTUS Inc. which hails from the neoliberal business world where such disciplinary technique, from Walmart to Wall Street, is justified in the name of financializing everything. Cheap prices and ruthless profits rule the day.

Dr Gao’s plea, “I want to go home, I want to go home” resonates in this echo chamber of hell like a desperate, lonely cry in the woods. Like a bad Hollywood movie where a hero played by Harrison Ford/Liam Neeson/Tom Cruise enters an altered realm of reality where he is met by violence and punishment disguised as law enforcement, Dr. Dao found himself stranded in the limbo of the oversold flight. But while the white Alpha male Hollywood hero is always right and always vindicated, Dr. Dao was knocked unconscious for his efforts on behalf of righteousness and dragged unceremoniously from his seat.

Non-Stop-Liam-Neeson_MAIN

He was told to leave “politely” but he refused as a consumer who paid for his seat. He was given an explanation about how “we [United] have a number of customers on board that aircraft, and they want to get to their destination on time and safely, and we want to work to get them there.” No explanation was given as to why he was not one of the customers that UA wants to get to “their destination on time and safely.”

header

Nevertheless, the Asian doctor persisted in defiance of his extraordinary exclusion from the airline’s articulated customer base. So the airlines summoned the full force of airport security, including the Chicago Department of Aviation and Chicago Police Department whose officer promptly smashed his face, rendered him senseless, and eventually carried him out on a stretcher with blood oozing out of his mouth. All the doctor could say in the end was, “Just kill me now.”

david-dao

Now imagine Senator Elizabeth Warren being carried out on a stretcher for refusing to abide by Mitch McConnell’s controversial rebuke to silence her during the nomination debate about Jeff Session as U.S Attorney General. Or, for that matter, citizen Warren being dragged out like a rag doll through the aisle, her hair disheveled, and her glasses askew on her face as she is rendered incoherent. All because she refused to shut up or give up her seat. Not so long ago, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”?

image

For those who missed this political theater, Warren had sought to read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter regarding Sessions’s discrimination against black voters. The meme that went viral encapsulated the public’s response to the blatant sexism of the Senate that voted 49-43 along party lines to shut her up. Degrees of indignity aside, the different scales of violence tell a story of how gender and race are inflected by notions of privilege and proprietary that shape our political and social sympathies. It would be unacceptable for Senator or even Citizen Warren to be taken out the way the body of the limp and anonymous Asian doctor was treated. In fact, the discomfort of witnessing the Asian American doctor’s infantilization and breakdown struck such a raw nerve that reports have eschewed the racial spectacle unfolding before our eyes. He was some Asian man, maybe a doctor, no one was sure, and many commentators cast doubt about him being a doctor at all based, presumably on the way he looks.

bonnie-says-united-airlines-apology-dr-david-dao-ftr

In a sign of the times, a doctor standing his ground on a humanitarian appeal (he had patients to meet the next day) was of no consequence to UA in Trump’s nation where self-serving corporate prerogatives come first. There is a lot more to be said about the terrible entanglements of corporate personhood, profit, policing, and biopolitical regulation. Suffice to say, Dr. Dao’s treatment is not exceptional in the context of ubiquitous bullying and killing across the country. They are only intensifying under the toxic charge of Trump’s administration. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of those being bullied or killed are folks with names like Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Danny Chen, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, Isabella Cornell and David Dao.

We might return to take a closer look at the scene where Dr Dao is carried out on a stretcher with blood oozing out of his mouth, and notice this time a different set of actors laughing in the fuzzy background: Team Agent Orange oligarchs, politicos and airlines executives feasting on their bloodied meat. We might add Dr Dao to the names of those who are targeted for harassment and even gunned down because they refuse (or are perceived to be refusing) to comply with bogus rules, corporate prerogatives, heteronormative policing, and white nationalism. The violence produced at the systemic level between colluding regimes and corporations are enduring and far-reaching.

To what extent is complicity – “the state of being an accomplice; partnership or involvement in wrongdoing” – and especially the complicity of cluelessness, detachment or apathy an alibi of colluding forces? Now more than ever, raising questions about complicity’s new faces is also a crucial inquiry about our moral and ethical coordinates as an American, witness, neighbor, ally and friend not only in the U.S. but around the world.

The satirical jokesters at Saturday Night Live suggest that in Trump Nation, complicity is a political pathology for sale in a seductive package. Their metaphor is a bottle of perfume. In an episode that indicts Ivanka Trump for her foxy agendas, Scarlett Johansson’s hyperbolic portrayal of Ivanka vamping it up for a line of perfume makes clear the businesswoman’s product placement comes before the public office she holds (to everyone’s incredulity). One can only wish the public’s wishful projection for Ivanka to be the progressive women’s voice ought to have ended in a recent television interview where she declared, “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.”

Complicity Perfume

Complicity’s feminine two-face (Johansson is herself accused of being complicit in Israeli settler colonialism for defending Sodastream’s factory as legitimate in the illegal settlement on the West Bank) blurs the good and the bad with no commentary on women’s participation in compulsory whiteness, colonial violence and clueless privilege. What looks good and desirable, like Ivanka or the perfume, might help to obfuscate what is making the lives of the disenfranchised even more miserable.

It is nonetheless a club that draws many members, including bourgeois apologists of color, other white liberal allies, and the pinkwashing homo-matrimonial types who want to smell nice. Everyone in this club is trained to love an arsenal of amnesia-inducing denials and blindspots: “I cannot see what you see,” “It doesn’t rise up to that,” “I need more information,” “They did nothing wrong,” “He was belligerent,” “He’s an illegal,” “Who cares?”

To be complicit is to approve the collusion of corrupt power, money, and imperial projects. It is to give your tacit approval of using violence, harassment and assault on people to protect corporate mandates and personhoods, the belligerent police-military state, and colonial whiteness at all cost. The stakes are higher as bombs matching the egos of a bumbling and bloviating team in the White House are being detonated in Syria and Afghanistan to legitimize their violent and morally bankrupt worldview. To speak out as many did on the plane where Dr Dao was assaulted is to reject the normalization of complicity as our moral code.

As we bear witness to the return of an angry U.S. police-military state and the increasingly swampy topography of corporate malfeasance and assault, how many of us will turn a blind eye or do nothing at all?. How many of us will be caught in the victim-blaming, smear campaign against the next “Dr Dao,” or be bought off by the new 10k reward for bumping off passengers?

Do people care? Over 240,000 comments and 550 million views are recorded a day after Dr Dao’s assault on China’s Weibo (the equivalent of Twitter), not counting the millions of views on related YouTube videos. United Airlines’s share price has dropped, and calls to boycott the airline are stronger than ever. So, yes, people do care and they make a difference.

The centrality of the question of complicity tells us we are desperately, urgently needing a salvageable moral and ethical position to live and to flourish in Trump’s America. This is an America where witnessing violence against a neighbor seems to have become a sport, where apathy and cluelessness are quickly becoming the new alibis of complicity. It gives new meaning to sitting tight with privilege in the face of trouble, and sometimes a face says it all:

Calm Guy As Asian Doctor Screams

Screenshot of a widely circulated video of an unidentified man sitting calmly as Dr. Dao screamed in the background.

Exiting the Roach Motel

1 Mar

or What’s the Matter with the Democratic Party? https://ae01.alicdn.com/kf/HTB1XTK5NXXXXXb2XXXXq6xXFXXXP/Reusable-Plastic-Non-Toxic-Eco-Blue-Color-Cockroach-Bug-font-b-Roach-b-font-Motel-Catcher.jpg

By Lisa Duggan

Tags: Dexit, Demexit, Dem-olish, Demogrets

What’s a commie pinko queer feminist to do?

Trump is in the White House, the far right is gaining ground globally, the left is under siege in Latin America, the Arab Spring has been winterized, the police removed the water protectors at Standing Rock, illegal settlements are expanding in Palestine, and the new US administration just sent the gender police back into children’s bathrooms. As everyone knows, this is a long list. It revived my heart arrhythmia.

There is resistance! Lots of things to join and do, and more popping up daily. Here is one thing NOT to do—give one more drop of blood to the undead Democratic Party.

My social media feeds are full of debates between liberals and leftists, especially since Perez beat out Ellison for DNC chair. But these debates are frustratingly framed as comparisons between the two individual candidates, and disputes about the importance of the chair’s job. Wake up, people! It’s not about the candidates or the chair’s position! It’s not about the positions on issues taken by the contending forces. It’s about the money! Follow the money!

The Sanders campaign was a historic event, not primarily because of the stances the candidate took on issues. My own politics are substantially to the left of Sanders. I was never happy with his global vision, nor with his grasp of the dynamics of empire and settler colonialism, nor with his understanding of race, gender and sexuality as just an issue of populations seeking inclusion and representation instead of structurally embedded historical social formations. But I was all in with the Sanders campaign nonetheless for one primary reason: it was a campaign that achieved nationwide, energized mobilization with no corporate or mega rich donors. The Sanders campaign proved the settled wisdom–that there can be no successful national campaign without mega donors–to be wrong. Sanders almost seized the nomination and therefore the party apparatus. He might have won the presidency WITH NO CORPORATE DONORS. This is the crucial fact, not his views on the issues alone. This fact is what made that campaign a historic game changer.

Had Sanders won the nomination the Democratic Party might have become an organization worth fighting with and for. Without corporate donors, the parameters of the possible would be exponentially expandable. Small d democratic debate might have transformed the previous limits of the possible. This fantasy, of a Democratic Party without corporate donors, has only just now been finally, fatally crushed. At least for the forseeable future.

After the defeat of the Sanders campaign, there was still a wee chance to seize the party as a site for more expansive democratic debate. Keith Ellison planned to hew to the small donor funding model, and fire up the grassroots rather than empower the fundraisers. THAT is what made his candidacy important (though it was a nice plus that the party might have had a black Muslim chair). THAT is what made him a threat. THAT is why the Democratic fundraising machine sent in Perez as a spoiler.

Many commenters are busy on social media remarking that Perez and Ellison are similar on many issues. That is true! But it’s also beside the point. Perez supported a return to corporate mega donor funding, and voted accordingly. Ellison represented the alt-political universe of small donors and grassroots activism, vs mega-donor fundraising as the central task of the party apparatus. And this is why it matters: with mega-donor funding, the Democratic Party will never back single payer, never support justice in Palestine, never seriously interfere with business as usual on Wall Street, and on and on. Progressive party activists might get little wins, but as long as corporate funding and paid political consultants constitute the core apparatus of the party, they will NEVER get anywhere on most core issues.

The dead hands of the donor class strangle every living thing in sight. https://i2.wp.com/technuovo.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/zombies1.jpg

The best the corporate Democratic Party had to offer was Barack Obama, and he brought the Citibank boys into his administration the minute he was elected. He brought us drone strikes, kill lists, mass deportation, aggressive prosecution of whistle blowers, and a reformed health care system still in the hands of insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Obamacare didn’t even include the popularly supported “public option.” In fact, Hillary Clinton later sent Dem operatives to Colorado to defeat a proposed single payer system there. And this is the best the Dems, as currently constituted, will ever do, because the funders set the limits of the possible. Garbage in (big money), garbage out (bad policy).

Advocates of working with the Dems say that the Trumpocalypse is an emergency—and indeed it is! And they say we must work with the Dems because they have the organization to defeat Trump’s agenda. Here is where things go awry. Let’s face it: the Democratic Party helped create the conditions that produced Trump. Without Democratic Party supported trade and labor policies, deregulation of Wall Street, police and military actions and so on, the wasteland of misery that nurtures the resentments that in turn greased the wheels of the Trump machine would not exist.

Trump is not some singular disaster, and our goal should not be simply to dethrone him. He represents historical conditions that will only keep producing nightmares like him and other slash and burn Republican politicians like the ones empowered by this election. We need to alter the conditions. And the Democratic Party, given the funding structure it has just recommitted itself to, will never do this. If we work with the Dems against Trump, even if he goes down, we will only enable once again the continuation of the neoliberal policies that made his ascent possible. We will be living in the vest pocket of the beast, beating our little fists against its chest forever.

The Democratic Party is a roach motel for leftists. We go in full of vision and energy, like the Sanders kids, like the Ellison supporters, and we get crushed and stuck in the slime. Sanders and Ellison had to play by the rules and call for continuing support for the Dems after their losses. Having played the game, they were stuck with the rules in the roach motel. Once you go in, you may never come out. https://bullybloggers.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/60be1-screenshot2013-05-23at9-44-23am.png?w=255&h=286

But we do not have to keep doing that! It’s not entirely obvious yet what we should be doing instead. There is a lot of vision out there, and a lot of energy. The Movement for Black Lives Vision Statement is one breathtaking effort to bring some of that diffuse, creative political power together into a productive alliance. What an amazing start it is! But it’s still not enough. We need to build on that document, to realize its potential right now. We need the water protectors and indigenous analyses, the insights gained fighting for clean water in Flint, the visionary scope of the prison abolition movement, the innovative energy of queer and trans* organizations, the organizing acumen of the fight for fifteen and the progressive, global labor movement, the global connections of the environmental justice campaigns, the historical insights of anti racist and anti imperial struggles, the deep commitment of the Occupy veterans, the passionate throngs of the Women’s March, and so much more.

Our challenge at this moment is … can we bring these forces together? Not to “unify” them, but to build alliances and share resources? Can we identify some core issues, and support a widely inclusive and flexible interconnected field of radical democratic leadership? It won’t do to default to the anachronistic vision of one big labor union of workers—our situations defy such easy unity. We are debtors and sex workers, prisoners and street kids, artists and tribal elders. Alternatively, if we bring our collective energy into the Democratic Party, then we are doomed. We will die in the roach motel while “responsible” neoliberal elites reestablish control. We need what José Muñoz called, borrowing from Ernst Bloch, “concrete utopian” thinking.

There might be some room at the state and local level for insurgent left candidates to unseat the establishment Dems. But joining the party apparatus will ultimately suck the blood of such insurgencies. Alternative electoral party organizations like the Greens and the Working Families Party in New York also do not have the creative energy and momentum to move us forward right now. Perhaps we might abandon the whole idea of a “party,” and create an alliance project for street action, new thinking, and electoral insurgencies? Perhaps.

In any event, we need to abandon the empty shell of the Democratic party, where https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/c6/7f/5f/c67f5f3059583e06ff3ad99da96536d2.jpgfunctionaries and fundraisers would rather keep control than win elections. Trapped in the roach motel, stuck with Trumpublicans and Donorcrats, what we need to do, metaphorically, is crystal clear: we need to burn that shit down.

 

WHITE MEN BEHAVING SADLY by Jack Halberstam

22 Feb

White Men Behaving Sadly

MBTS_1545.CR2

Sad white men

At the end of a year in which men behaved badly, madly, and even gladly, how appropriate that an Oscar contending film appears in which men behave, yup, sadly. Indeed all the ladly behaviors that make up the repertoire of white masculinity have culminated in this – a film where we finally understand why the white man is sad, why everyone else is bad and why despite being sad because everyone else is bad, he learns to be a dad.

Manchester by The Sea (directed by Kenneth Lonergan) is a self-indulgent but pretty picture in which Affleck the Younger, Casey that is, mopes around for a full hour onscreen before we understand that something terrible has happened to him. His brother dies but that barely merits a tear from our sad sack chap. So could it be that he has a really bad job as a handy man that puts him in the way of verbal abuse from women and people or color and even an episode that comes close to sexual harassment from a woman of color? No, the sad white man mostly just takes the abuse and keeps on keeping on. He soldiers on because he is a white man behaving sadly and that is what white men do. So what is the terrible thing that has happened to Casey Affleck to make him move around in the world like a zombie, silent and brooding, angry and resentful. Well, spoiler alert, let me explain. Lee Chandler (played by Affleck the Younger), we find out in flashbacks, once had a wife and some kids. And he was a good man. And he behaved gladly and sometimes even a little badly. Like, one night he had his buddies over and they made too much noise. So his wife broke up the party and made them go home. Sulking, Lee makes a fire in the living room and then steps out into the night to get some more beer. By the time he gets home, his house has burned down with his children in it and only his wife escapes.

maxresdefault

After an episode in the police station where you think that maybe he might be charged with something, manslaughter perhaps, he finally wigs out about what has happened and tries to grab a police officer’s gun, presumably to kill himself. The police politely restrain him and he is released to his brother’s care. Well, wow. So he burned his own house down and waved a gun around in a police station and lived to tell the tale because…sad white men’s lives matter and so accidently burning your kids and waving a gun at cops is not a big deal and just requires a little TLC! Don’t you get it? He is hurting and we are expected to cry for him because it is all so sad…for him! Not for his wife, not for those kids, not for his brother, but for him. All the bad things that happen around him, are his bad things.

Why are white men so sad? Well, in this film, they are sad because women are fucked up shrews and alcoholics who drag them down, give them heart attacks and, for god’s sake, try to talk to them and offer them food. They are also sad because they work for very little money and do the worst jobs in the world. They clean other peoples’ toilets, fix their showers and live in small garrets alone and with very bad furniture. Poor sad white men. This sad white man also has to take on the burden of parenthood after his brother’s death. His brother left his only son in Lee’s care and Lee and the boy tussle about girls, sex and authority until Lee learns to see the boy as his heir, as another white man who should enjoy his adolescence because soon everything will be taken from him too.

sad-trump

Yes, reader, this is a film made to measure for the coming Trump era, a time when white men can stop being sad, feel very glad and grab lots of pussy with impunity. Like Trump’s entire campaign, this film does not need to trumpet its white supremacy because this doctrine is embedded in every scene, it saturates every shot, it controls the camera and it lives in every hangdog moment that Lee Chandler spends staring silently off into space. Whiteness, the film tells us, is part of the frayed beauty of America and its power hangs in the balance in a world where bad things can and do happen to white men…even when they themselves cause those bad things to happen! Indeed, off screen Casey Affleck has been cast as a serial sexual abuser and while accusations of sexual harassment brought Black director Nate Parker’s Oscar hopes to a sordid conclusion, Affleck’s history with sexual harassment suits barely merits a mention. This film gives us a clue as to how powerful white men see the world, women, love, loss and violence – it is all one tragic narrative about how hurt and misunderstood they really are.

manchester-sea

The world of “Manchester by the Sea” is the world imagined by white men in an era when a Black man was in the white house and women held public offices at many levels. It is a world where the white working class man has no power – he dies young (Lee’s brother), he lives alone (Lee), he cannot even enjoy spending time in his basement with other white men. His wife treats him badly and then later, after the tragic event (that he himself caused) his Black boss and his female customers abuse him. The white world of Manchester by the Sea is elegiac, brimming with a sense of tragedy that exceeds the events on the screen and asks us, begs us even to find a reason for why things should be this way.

manchester2

There are great tragedies written about women who have killed or been forced to kill their children – think of Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved who takes a hatchet to her baby rather than relinquish her back to slavery. Think of Medea who kills her children to take revenge on her husband and their father, Jason, for leaving them. Think of Sophie in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice who must choose to let one child live and the other die upon entering Auschwitz. These stories show infanticide as a deliberate action taken as part of a sacrifice or to prevent something worse than death from happening. No such logic underwrites Manchester by the Sea – the death of the children is almost gratuitous, it means nothing in the film except as its function as the source of irreducible melancholia for the white man. This same melancholia does not affect his wife (played by Michelle Williams) who quickly marries and has another child. There is no set up in the film to show us the bond between Lee and his children; there is little that explains the melancholia – is it guilt? Anger?

trump-supporters

While critics fall over themselves to give this film an Oscar, we should ask what the film is really about. If this film is an allegory then it is a perfect symbolic landscape of the territory that ushered Trump into office – the film sees the world only through the eyes of working class white men. It sees such men as tragic and heroic, as stoic and moral, as stern but good. The film knows that the tragedy from which the white man suffers is of his own making but nonetheless the film believes that the tragedies that they have created happen to them and not to other people. This is the same logic by which Dylan Roof took the lives of nine African American church-goers in South Carolina while claiming to be defending white people from Black criminality and it is the logic by which Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded fourteen others in Isla Vista near UC Santa Barbara in 2014. Rodger left a manifesto behind that represented him as a victim of women who had sexually rejected him. It is the logic of every lone white gunman in America and while the media depicts these killers as mad and marginal, American cinema romanticizes them as sad and solitary. Obviously, Manchester by the Sea is not about a serial killer who turns a gun on innocents and yet innocents do die by his hand and rather than seeing this as a tragic narrative about white male narcissism or about the dangers of centering one group in a complex society, we are asked to read the film as just another story about white men behaving sadly.

la-la-land-poster

And now, in Oscar season, we prepare to watch the films that celebrate white families, white song and dance, white grief, white music go up against films about Black families (Fences), Black grief (Moonlight), disaporic displacement (Lion), and win or lose, we can hear the storm troopers outside on the streets. Films that a few months ago just seemed to be about sad things or happy things, now appear in a new light and become part of our national tragedy in which all attempts to make diversity mean something, to resist systems that criminalize communities of color while representing white crime as law and order, to rethink sex, are quickly dismissed as identity politics, political correctness or authoritarian feminism. It is time, apparently to make America great again, to cater to the sad white man, to feel his pain, to lift him up and dry his tears. White men have been sad for too long apparently, now it is our turn.

Aside

Fidel: The Comeback / José Quiroga

14 Dec

 

CastroObit_848x480_818017859511.jpg

I had forgotten about Fidel, other things were on my mind:  a Trump piñata, the Frank Ocean CD, the North Dakota Pipeline. The economic collapse of Puerto Rico and the junta Washington imposed. Turkey leftovers from Thanksgiving. Not falling back onto “business-as-usual” after the election fiasco. Aretha Franklin letting the fur drop like a natural woman facing Carole King and Barack and Michelle Obama.

For three nights before the Event I had been waking up every other hour–those awful nights when I smoke and read and then  go back to bed. What was I reading that week? Cuban poets translated by Kristin Dykstra, an essay by Barbara Johnson that was extremely hard and superbly written, Lina Meruane’s account of temporary blindness titled “Seeing Red,” and every so often anything on “Moonlight,” because for a film conceived and taking place in Miami its refreshing to see that there’s only one self-confessed Cuban there, and a passing mention of black beans. We were not part of the picture, so magical effects of sand and skin and light could once again move to the front.

I heard the news from my lover, when I woke up at six or seven in the morning to read. But I left the book on the desk, took off my glasses and went back to bed. I mumbled to myself that I should turn on CNN, get immediately on the internet, wake up my nephew who was visiting from New York, and consume whatever visuals I could find. But sleep rules with upside-down ethics at moments like this, and I let myself sleep.cortina_roja

The room turned hotter by the minute, with the thick and sticky sort of humid miasma that, once upon a time, made flying insects easy to catch and pierce with a needle dabbed in alcohol for display. All around me the miasma turned into a black and white blob–like silly-putty but translucid–shiny from the inside. And the blob slithered down the stairs. It sucked up the pile of dishes in the sink, the roasted brussels sprouts, the turkey and the turkey sandwiches, the toy soldiers and the board games, the replica of Apollo 13, and the Lunar Module, the cast of Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel, the collection of postage stamps in the Citation album, a Davy Crockett hat with a matching vest, a velour sweater, vand a collection of Cuban LPs assembled over the past forty years, albums re-mastered and re-packaged in Mexico so that no revolutionary chants would ever find their way directly to any part of the U.S. mainland or territories.
fidel-castro-habla-en-la-asamblea-de-la-onu-el-26-de-septiembre-de-1960-1

I’ve been immersed in that blob for a week, unclear as to what part of me died, what part of me remains. I had a hard time visualizing that body in Havana, just as I had a hard time recognizing my father in that open casket in San Juan: death does a body no good, even the clothes look unreal.   We never got to see the body, but I’m convinced he was cremated in the uniform he used as a  Commander in Chief. After all, there were only three costume changes in the three acts of his life. First, the suit and tie, in two permutations: white suit and black suit.  With that outfit he was a student, a husband, and a lawyer; the father of one child, the man who raised funds in Mexico and in the U.S.A for an invasion aimed to liberate the country from the dictator Batista.  After that, and from 1959 on, he wore an olive green military suit, sometimes shiny for matters of State, at other times not so much a uniform but a radical interpretation of the priesthood–he was a jesuit with a gun and boots. (How many boots did he have?) The black suit and tie made a discrete comeback towards the end–just long enough to leave us with an idea that he could have been, under different circumstances, a “man of State.” But soon enough he settled into the jogging suit and sneakers that he wore the rest of his life.

Was it a stylist who came up with that jogging suit as a deliberate lack of style? It worked as absolute contrast to the heroic black and white and sepia photographs that sealed his place in x. It defined the present as an always a diminished past. It made him approachable, even if it lessened the gravitas.  In his old age, one could imagine him as a man on the move, stubborn in his ways, paying no attention to all those who counseled rest. In the end he was an old man in his comfortable but not luxurious house, with a purple rattan patio set, an easy reclining chair and a tray table to watch the Brazilian soap operas on TV, or write long “reflections” on the present state of the world.

 

gabinete-ordo-amoris-taxi-limusina-1998

 

Of course he had to come back, even if only to die. It was at the end of November when the hurricane season is over; when the days are cool and the nights are colder, and there’s only tourists on the beach. Others may question the true existence of that paradox–the Caribbean winter–but for us the magical, muted lights of December, invite us to ponder the future and the past–a past always lived anticipating this moment as the clearest notion of the future, hence, of change. All accounts agree that the mood in Havana was subdued; the few lucky souls that have internet at home posted videos of empty, silent streets–a ghost town in the land of music that has gone silent.

All the protocols had been put in place with military precision a while ago, in Havana and Miami.  “Cubans are volatile by nature,” I can hear this as the lead for an early  briefing at the police headquarters all around Miami-Dade and points beyond

 

tonelThe sum total of fifty-eight years under his rule will take some time to process. Those who visit Havana these days will surely understand one just doesnt leave a city like that without intending to come back, even if you have to fight for every last inch of territory. And yes, they left, they were kicked out, they escaped, they understood they had no other option. They were not all from Havana but most of them were.  In the 1960s they went to Miami, Elizabeth, West New York, or San Juan. In the 1970s some of them tried to turn exile into civil war and lived in a world of secret pacts, bombing raids and training camps in the Everglades.  In the early 1980s they turned up at La Escuelita in Manhattan–fabulous drag queens that couldnt walk straight, couldnt think straight, couldnt march straight, couldnt wear their hair short and part it on the side, or tuck their shirts inside their pants. The fact that in Cuba, of all places, “extravagance” was regulated by the legal code belies a twisted notion of social hygiene predicated on the narrowest and most obtuse delirium or desires of normative masculinity.

And in the end, the colosal failure of his plans and demands allowed Cubans to survive the revolutionary reassignment of the Nineties, as the State shed its old skin and created a “mixed economy” that’s closer to kleptocracy than capitalism. When the state legalized some private commerce it just moved it above ground, and when practicing religion did not count against you, its acts of resistance–it turned out–had been plain enough to see for those who had paid attention all those years. Homosexuals flaunting it and sashaying up and down the Malecón flipped the orthodox “New Man” dreamt by Che Guevara time and time again. In fact, only by defying the law did Cubans survive when the Soviet Union collapsed, and in the process laid to rest the idea that prostitution was solely a by-product of capitalism. When Spanish and Canadian tourists came to see what sort of utopia 40 years of Revolution had conceived, they had to pay a bribe to sneak the women into their hotel room and wait until they wrapped leftover restaurant food in a napkin so the rest of the family could eat. The tourists had front seats to an unravelling they could not quite understand, so they just viewed it according to their own “realistic” understandings, and reminded (more often, lectured) the complaining Cubans on the fate of the poor Haitians, or Bolivians, or even Mexicans.

belverdere_ibarra-cuba

 

 

 

But revolutions are not fought and won by populations dulled and overdosed on realism and the first decade of the Cuban Revolution is certainly an example of that.  In the give and take of survival, one side was always fooling the other, and that side in turn pretended to be fooled. Those who think that repression explains the survival of the Cuban state fail to understand that those old Chevys are still running in Havana as a result of an improvised mechanics capable of passing them off as the real thing.  In a similar fashion, by the time his rocking chair was placed on the terrace so that he could enjoy the smell of over-ripe mangoes falling from the tree in the patio, each and every one of his edicts and imperatives and policy decisions was undone, revised, annulled and forgotten.

That hundreds of thousands assembled to pay him their last respects should not surprise the citizens of a country that has now voted Donald Trump into office. Even if both make no secret of their dictatorial streak, it’s clear that to compare one to the other is absurd. Cubans were never suckered into voting or fighting against their own self-interest, by counting the pennies and cents that some “others” receive for social welfare and deciding it’s still too much for the richest country on earth to sustain.  Cubans, on the other hand, were seduced by the prospect of everyone having more, of distributing it fairly, and freely, for the good of all. If it was an ideology that called for sacrifice and frugality, it was built upon a foundation of largesse. Everything was bigger than big, every achievement surpassed previous goals, and every disaster was catastrophic. The particulars of his rule are overshadowed by such collective endeavours; his immortality was gained at the expense of individual lives coming off as accidental, selfish, blinded by petty desires–sore losers, after all, the scum of the earth, the “Cuban Mafia.”

GettyImages-625849002.jpg

“Making money was our best revenge,” said the losers, and they point with pride at two of their “rags-to-riches” sons taking center stage in a US presidential campaign heavy on xenophobia and racism. They were expected to celebrate, in order to make that death absolutely real, and celebrate they did– in the gaudy sandwich shop that sits on an otherwise lifeless avenue. Not because there are no suitable places in Miami where you can find collective redemption–the Freedom Tower comes to mind, where at least two generations of Cubans got their refugee checks upon arrival. But Cubans know better than to celebrate a political victory, they know that in spite of being the “model minority,” the “token whites” of the Hispanic world, they have to tread lightly.  Miami-Dade went for Obama and Hillary, and Marco Rubio lost his own state in the primaries. The Cuban Representative for Miami-Dade is the Republican staunch conservative Ileana Ross-Lehtinen who for years kept secret the fact that she had a transgender son until the Miami Herald published the story in 2010. If she had previously voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, she was later the sole Republican who voted to repeal it, and is the only Republican member of the Congressional LGBT Equality caucus. She has always supported her son, just as Gloria Estefan has done the same for her daughter. It’s not clear if the Estefans celebrated Trump’s victory but I would not be surprised if they borrowed an ordinary car to honk their horn around the streets of Little Havana.

In Miami the video of an old Cuban lady went viral: she suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s, was shown his official picture as one of the dead, and she immediately recognized him for what he was But her dancing and her joy are not the most important parts of this story.  as her daughter told her he was dead, She miraculously knew precisely who the Monster was, and jumped and danced and raised her stroller for the cameras. In Paris, in Memphis, Barcelona, Ecuador and Los Angeles, that same day, Cubans individually filmed their thoughts, as scattered as the diaspora of which they form part. A Cuban woman walking home from work in Rome, says she doesnt give a fuck about the corpse, because she has worked very hard to eliminate him from her life. And to all those that want him alive forever, she grabs her tits and slaps her ass and says “you’re never gonna have a piece of this.”

 

 

 

 

Before he died in Miami a couple of years ago, Lorenzo Garcia Vega, one of the greatest Cuban poets, was fond of stating that our Republican period, from 1903 to 1959, had been neither a drama or a tragedy nor a farse, but actually a light opera, a musical comedy, a cartoon strip on the Sunday paper. After the Republic collapsed like a soufflé,  Lorenzo left Cuba, found himself in New York, spent a brief period in Caracas and then moved to Miami where there have always been old Cubans and few poets. He worked as a bag boy in Publix and spoke about his job in many of his poems and books. He called himself “the great loser,” not with the sense of classical beauty that Elizabeth Bishop moulded into a perfect line (“the art of losing is hard to master”), but as the starting point for a slipshod, messy, dirty aesthetics of repetition and reiteration.

That was Cuba to Lorenzo–the trains never ran on time, cars kept breaking down and the traffic lights were out of sync. It was a complicated musical comedy with so many implausible twists and turns and plot devices that at certain points surely everyone becomes a martyr only to end up acting like a thief. And what about sacrifice, fatherland or death? It could be even funnier if it weren’t so tragic, if it didnt have such complicated grammar, if it weren’t aiming for nothing short of utopia. Lest we confuse Lorenzo with a cynic, let us underscore his time in Purgatory at Albino Beach (his name for Miami) where you may find a way out of poverty and lack of means because from poverty of spirit there are no survivors.

In the end, the world more or less survived his foolish play with the nuclear arsenal. And if the past sixty years have rendered Cubans into beings Cubans themselves fail to understand, by turning families against each other, and demanding that friends betray their closest friends and attack them for attempting to leave the country. In the midst of all this, it bears repeating one simple fact learned from these past five decades:  it is no small consolation that one can come out of material poverty and need,  while not even the Chinese doctor can cure you of poverty of spirit.

A nation overdosed on history can respond to solemnity with a pork croquette.After retracing the route of his triumphant march to Havana in 1959, his ashes were placed inside a brown granite rock that, they say, was not painted olive green lest it look like a turd.  And that’s the end of it all.  Like the great Maria Teresa  Vera said, “Play a rumba on top of that tomb”

for José M.

December 4, 2016

“Hiding the Tears in My Eyes – BOYS DON’T CRY – A Legacy” by Jack Halberstam

7 Dec
maxresdefault

Boys Don’t Cry, 1999

In 1999, just six years after the rape and murder of a young gender variant person, Brandon Teena, and two friends in a small town in Nebraska, Kim Peirce released her first film, a dramatic account of the incident. The film, Boys Don’t Cry, which took years to research, write, fund, cast and shoot, was released to superb reviews and went on to garner awards and praise for the lead actor, Hilary Swank, and the young director, Kim Peirce, not to mention the film’s production team led by Christine Vachon. The film was hard hitting, visually innovative and marked a massive breakthrough in the representation of gender variant bodies. While there were certainly debates about decisions that Peirce made within the film’s narrative arc (the omission of the murder of an African American friend, Philip DeVine, at the same time that Brandon was killed), Boys Don’t Cry was received by audiences at the time as a magnificent film honoring the life of a gender queer youth and bringing a sense of the jeopardy of gender variant experiences to the screen. It was also seen as a sensitive depiction of life in small town USA. Kim Peirce spoke widely about the film in public venues and explained her relationship to the subject matter of gender variance, working class life and gender based violence.

In recent screenings of the film, some accompanied by Peirce as a speaker, others just programmed as part of a class or a film series, younger audiences have taken offence to the film and have accused the filmmaker of making money off the representation of violence against trans people. This at least was the charge made against Kim Peirce when she showed up to speak alongside a special screening of the film at Reed College in Oregon, just days after the Presidential election. Unbeknownst to the organizers, student protestors had removed posters from all around campus that advertised the screening and lecture and they formed a protest group and arrived early to the cinema on the night of the screening to hang up posters.

reed

Posters at Reed College Protesting the Screening of Boys Don’t Cry, November 2016

These posters voiced a range of responses to the film including: “You don’t fucking get it!” and “Fuck Your Transphobia!” as well as “Trans Lives Do Not Equal $$” and to cap it all, the sign hung on the podium read: “Fuck this cis white bitch”!! The protestors waited until after the film had screened at Peirce’s request and then entered the auditorium while shouting “Fuck your respectability politics” and yelling over her commentary until Peirce left the room. After establishing some ground rules for a discussion, Peirce came back into the room but the conversation again got out of hand and finally a student yelled at Peirce: “Fuck you scared bitch.” At which point the protestors filed out and Peirce left campus.

82e7d16be887d89692c1dfd6efd0aca5This is an astonishing set of events to reckon with for those of us who remember the events surrounding Brandon Teena’s murder, the debates in the months that followed about Brandon Teena’s identity and, later, the reception of the film. Early transgender activism was spurred into action by the murder of Brandon Teena and many activists showed up at the trial of his killers. There were lots of debates at the time about whether Brandon was “butch” or “transgender” but queer and transgender audiences were mostly satisfied with the depiction of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry. The film appealed to many audiences, queer and straight, and it continues to play around the world.

5347657

Director, Kimberly Peirce

The accounts given of these recent protests at Reed College give evidence of enormous vitriol, much of it blatantly misogynist (the repeated use of the word “bitch” for example) directed at a queer, butch film maker and they leave us with an enormous number of questions to face about representational dynamics, clashes between different historical paradigms of queer and transgender life and the expression of queer anger that, instead of being directed at murderous enemies in the mainstream of American political life, has been turned onto independent film makers within the queer and LGBT communities. Since this incident at Reed, I have heard from other students that they too felt “uncomfortable” with the representations of transgender life and death in Boys Don’t Cry. These students raise the following objections to the film some fifteen years after its release:

  • First, younger trans oriented audiences want to know if Peirce herself is trans. And they understand her as a non-trans person who is making money from the representation of violence against transgender bodies.
  •  Second, they ask about the casting of a non-trans identified actor in the role of Brandon and wonder why a transgender man was not cast to play Brandon.
  • Third, students in particular have objected to the graphic depiction of rape in the film and feel that the scene is poorly orchestrated and the film is too mired in the pathologization and violation and punishment of transgender bodies.

These are interesting critiques and queries and worthy of conversation in their own right as well as within a clear understanding of the film’s visual grammar and representational strategies. It is not, however, a worthy activist goal to try to suppress the film, to cast it as transphobic and to target Kim Peirce herself as someone who has profited from the exploitation of transgender narratives. The film after all cost only 2 million to make and returned almost nothing to Peirce in profits.

2168c91819a2f1181fa5cef0d23ea297

How might we respond to these objections then in ways that do not completely dismiss the feelings of the students but that ask for different relations to protest, to the reading of complex texts and to the directing of anger about transphobic and homophobic texts onto queer cultural producers?

Here are a few thoughts:

1. We need to situate this film properly within the history of the representation of transgender characters. At the time that Peirce made this film, most films featured transgender people only as monsters, killers, sociopaths or isolated misfits.

dressed1

Dressed To Kill, 1980

Few treated transgender people with even a modicum of comprehension and even fewer dealt with the transphobic environments that were part of heteronormative family life. There were very few films prior to Boys that focused upon transgender masculinity and when transgender male characters did appear in film, they were often depicted as women who passed as men for pragmatic reasons (for example The Ballad of Little Joe, 1993) or androgynous figures of whimsy (for example Orlando, 1992).

Boys Don’t Cry is literally the first film in history to build a credible story line around the credible masculinity of a credible trans-masculine figure. Period.

 

2. We cannot always demand a perfect match between directors, actors and the material in any given narrative. As a masculine person from a working class background who had experienced her own sexual abuse, Peirce identified strongly with the life and struggles of Brandon Teena. Peirce is not a transgender man, but is gender variant. The film she produced was sensitive to Brandon Teena’s social environment, his gender identity, his hard upbringing and his struggle to understand himself and to be understood by others. If Peirce told a story in which the transgender body was punished, she did not do so in order to participate in that punishment, she did it because that was what had actually happened to Brandon Teena and it would have been dishonest to tell the story any other way. The violence he suffered stood, at the time, as emblematic of the many forms of violence that transgender people suffered and it called upon the audiences for the film to rebuke the world in which such violence was common place.

swank99

Hilary Swank in her break through performance in Boys Don’t Cry

3. Transgender actors should play transgender roles but that is not always possible and certainly was a long shot at the time that Peirce made the film. Furthermore, it would be more effective to argue that transgender actors should not be limited to transgender roles. Peirce conducted a national search for a trans masculine actor for Boys Don’t Cry. She did screen tests with many trans identified people and she ultimately gave the role to the best actor available who was credible as a young female-bodied person passing for male. That actor was Hilary Swank, known in some circles at the time for her role in The Karate Kid and occasional appearances on Buffy the Vampire. Given the dependence of the success of the film on the acting ability of the main actor, it was vital to have a strong performer in this role and Swank was cast accordingly. Also why should a transgender actor only play a transgender role – shouldn’t we be asking cis-gendered male directors to cast transgender men and women as romantic leads, protagonists, super heroes?

myphoto-8

4. We should not be asking for films to make detours around scenes of sexual violence instead we should be asking about what we actually mean by violence in any given context. In Boys Don’t Cry, the rape scene was brutal, hard to shoot, hard to act in and generally a difficult and emotionally draining piece of filmmaking. But it is also a deeply important part of the film and a way of representing faithfully the brutal violence that was meted out at the time to gender non-conforming bodies and it was true to the specific fate of Brandon Teena. The brutality of the rape also cuts in and out of scenes in the police station when Brandon Teena reports the rape. The police treat Brandon as a “girl” who must have been pleased by the attention from young men and they see the young men as normal, sexual subjects. 23Thus, the rape scene damns the police, highlights the role of violence in the enforcement of normativity and draws the audience’s sympathies to Brandon in a way that makes transphobia morally reprehensible. When we target scenes of rape and sexual violence in independent films about historical characters and call them unwatchable, we are making it difficult to grapple with all kinds of historical material that involves systemic violence and oppression.

But, we are also limiting the meaning of “violence” to physical assault. As so many theorists have shown, violence can also appear in the form of civility, empathy, absence, indifference and non-appearance. Violence is the glue of contemporary representation – we regularly watch films in which cars are blown up (every film with a chase scene), planes are shot down (many films with Tom Cruise or James Bond in them), superheroes sweep the streets of evil taking out hundreds of people at a time (Iron Man but also Ghost Busters), tidal waves sweep through entire cities (The Fifth Wave), colonies of fish are swallowed up by marauding sharks (Finding Nemo), a female deer is shot in front of her child (Bambi), aliens land and eliminate buildings (The War of the Worlds), zombie mobs chase humans and eat them slowly (The Walking Dead) and so on. To focus solely upon sexual violence and to ignore the more general context of cinematic violence and to take complaints only to queer directors who are struggling to represent queer life rather than to straight directors ignoring queer and trans life betrays a limited vision of representational systems and ideologies and ultimately leaves those systems and their biases completely intact.

walt-disney-killed-bambis-mother-because-he-felt-2-22995-1419951268-8_dblbig

“WHO KILLED BAMBI?” SID VICIOUS

At a time of political terror, at a moment when Fascists are in highest offices in the land, when white men are ready and well positioned to mete out punishment to women, queers and undocumented laborers, we have to pick our enemies very carefully. Spending time and energy protesting the work of an extremely important queer filmmaker is not only wasteful, it is morally bankrupt and misses the true danger of our historical moment. 

https-%2f%2fblueprint-api-production-s3-amazonaws-com%2fuploads%2fcard%2fimage%2f290464%2fscreen_shot_2016-11-18_at_11-39-06_am

STEVE BANNON/DARTH VADER

Winter in America by Jack Halberstam

10 Nov

maxresdefault

“And now it’s winter

Winter in America

And all of the healers done been killed or sent away

Yeah, and the people know, people know

It’s winter Winter in America

And ain’t nobody fighting

Cause nobody knows what to save.”

Gil Scott Heron, “Winter in America” 1974

 

“Winter is Coming.”

Game of Thrones, 2011

 

We do not know what to say or do. We who are usually so full of words, ideas, programs and plans of action, we too fall silent in the face of such devastating news. Donald J. Trump, the clownish buffoon who has been caught on tape berating people of color, women and even babies, for God’s sake, will be the next president of the United States of America. If we thought George W. was bad, wait until we see what a government stacked with right wing Republicans and led by an egotistical fool might do to all semblances of intellectual exchange, economic redistribution and racial justice.

 

hero_image_main_2

 

Is this how the Fascism starts, as a creeping, insidious mood of hatred slipping into everyday conversation? Does it begin with the eschewing of complex explanations in favor of simplistic ‘us against them’ accounting? Does Fascism begin when white supremacy is courted, relied upon, solicited but never named as such? Or did this particular political disaster begin when Donald Trump’s outrageous, sexist, misogynist, racist comments were played for the whole nation…and many people did not care because they hear worse everyday, in their homes, at their work places, in public? How about when FBI Director, James Comey, decided to revive the inquiry into Hilary Clinton’s email despite no new evidence compelling him to do so? Has this all been a coup initiated by the FBI, ratified by law and carried out by a rabid group of white men, endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, cheered on by David Duke and involving millions of mostly white voters, including a majority of white women, who happily, cheerily cast their vote for a liar, an avowed racist and a failed businessman who has cheated, shouted and shoved his way into the spotlight?

trumpcheckmate

We are in checkmate because we turned our backs for a moment and when we did Donald J. Trump moved chess pieces at will, taking the queen and cornering the king. We are down for the count, lost in translation, behind, bewildered, frustrated and legitimately scared. Trump’s election is bad for women, bad for all people of color, bad for business, bad for immigrants, bad for the environment, bad for the economy, bad for babies, bad and getting worse. Donald Trump is good for himself, good for his scary and much more ideologically extreme running mate, Mike Pence, good for angry white men, good for tax dodgers, global warming deniers, corporate elites, unrepentant white supremacists, good for nothing.

ct-photos-donald-trump-protests-20161109

As we near the end of the first day of the new order of Trumpocracy, we better ask ourselves what is to be done. We better meet and sound our outrage, we better establish a plan of action. We need to find better leaders – Hilary Clinton was not the leader many of us wanted even as we felt she would be a capable and reasonable presence in the White House. Where are the young, impassioned, visionary leaders who can, unlike Hilary, outline a detailed opposition to Trumpocracy, give people the argument for universal health care coverage, arm people with not statistics but a critical way of thinking? We need a representative who will actively assuage working class resentment without stirring up racial antipathy; someone who will explain why we pay taxes rather than boast about not doing so. We need someone who does not feel entitled to win office but who rides to victory on a coalition of explicitly leftist platforms. We need a smart, informed speaker who understands the history of race in America, who opposes prisons and demands gun reform and who refuses to apologize for working on behalf of the most vulnerable populations and in opposition to the most entitled.

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump’s Rally in Mobile Alabama

There have been many shocks this week, shocks that reminded us that “we” are not at all united and “we” will often be defeated. For example, Five Thirty Eight reports today that while Hilary Clinton won women’s votes by 12 points, she lost the votes of white women overall. This is a devastating reminder of how effective compulsory heteronormativity is in this country. Heterosexual white women, despite being regaled by audio tapes of Trump boasting about “grabbing pussy,” despite numerous women stepping forward to give accounts of being molested or harassed by Trump, despite his public and open contempt for women he dates, women he rejects and women he would not even consider, many of these women voted willingly for boorish, violent, contemptuous masculinity. They voted with their men; they voted their racial investments in whiteness, they voted against the security of Roe v. Wade, they voted to continue being helpmates rather than agents, they voted to be cheerleaders and mascots rather than players in the game, they voted against the first female president of the United States. They voted to continue being what Simone De Beauvoir called “the second sex.”

gil_scott-heron___brian_jackson_-_winter_in_america_1417004002_crop_550x550

We have faced political winters before and winter will come again. In 1974 in the wake of a horrifying series of political murders in the US, after the deaths of Martin Luther King, JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X, Gil Scott Heron penned, “Winter in America,” an anthem for dark times. Shana Redmond’s book, Anthem, provides a rich account of the adoption of anthems by Black groups in the diaspora. In the history that Redmond provides, the anthem is wrenched out of its role as a universal statement of belonging and national aspiration and transformed into a rallying cry for a disenfranchised group and a spiritual call to action. We need an anthem now and “Winter in America,” unfortunately, has become relevant again. In the liner notes for his album, Gil Scott-Heron explained his title and connected his music to the political climate around him:

Winter is a metaphor: a term not only used to describe the season of ice, but the period of our lives through which we are traveling…Western iceman have attempted to distort time. Extra months on the calendar and daylight saved what was Eastern Standard. We approach winter the most depressing period in the history of this industrial empire, with threats of oil shortages and energy crises. But we, as Black people, have been a source of endless energy, endless beauty and endless determination. I have many things to tell you about tomorrow’s love and light. We will see you in Spring.

We are now facing our own winter; we too have just put the clocks back to save Eastern Standard time; we too approach a deeply depressing season run by snowmen buoyed by a “whitelash” (Van Jones); we too want to believe that Spring will come but fear that only more winter lies ahead. In this our own “most depressing period,” we watch bankers and realtors and politicians convince working class people that callous disregard for the public good, outrageous extravagance and corrupt racially skewed economic practices will “make America great again.” They will not. They will confirm us as a confederacy of rogues, a global bully, a white supremacist nation committed to rewarding the rich, locking up the poor and handing everything to the clowns, the snowmen, the would-be kings, the small minded men with small hands, big wallets, self-centered dreams and willowy, empty women on their arms. Gil Scott-Heron looked to Black community for hope and termed Black people as a “source of endless energy, endless beauty, and endless determination.” He promised “love and light” in the potentiality of tomorrow even as he mourned the experience of “living in a nation that just can’t stand much more.” Now that democracy is once more “ragtime on the corner,” now that peace is out of reach, now that white men have their fingers on the scales of justice, now that white heterosexual women are standing by their men, now that we know that many gay people and some people of color must have voted for Trump, we better find some coalitions that will still offer the possibility of “energy, beauty and determination.”

gotquote22

As Game of Thrones warned us in season one, episode one, 2011, “Winter is Coming.” For the House of Stark, this was a warning that political peace is fleeting and unreliable. For us it is a terrifying future that we now confront. In Game of Thrones, winter came and went, men were slaughtered, spirits raised the dead, and women rulers rose up as fighters, witches, as young queens, as rape avengers. Even in this most patriarchal of medieval fantasy worlds, there is space to imagine female sovereignty and a better world forged out of a coalition of the very old, the very young, women, queers, native peoples, people of color, trans people, disabled people, wildings, wolves and dragons. We need to tap into our utopian fantasies now, our freedom dreams (Robin Kelley) to find small channels of potential running through the political architectures in which we are currently imprisoned. I am worried we will not find a way out, and I know you are too; but I also know that we are all ready for the fight of our lives.

o-game-of-thrones-facebook

Moonlight, the Sea Body, and the Color Blue by Macarena Gómez-Barris

3 Nov

moonlightIn director Berry Jenkin’s new film Moonlight (2016), the intimate view on Black queerness astonishes. While the film is a painful coming of age story, it is also a lively rendition of alternative frameworks of embodiment where the powerful ocean, or sea body, is omnipresent and rendered as a space of longing, transgenerational memory, migration, and witness represented by water and light. During a recent viewing of Moonlight with a group of friends at Lincoln Center, I was surprised to find myself so completely absorbed in the filmic experience as to feel saturated by the film’s sensuality, or what Laura Marks’ might call its haptic sensuality “where even small events are arenas for a universe of feeling” (2002: p.1).

Moonlight is not an easy viewing experience, not only because of the homophobia that is directed against Chiron (Alex Hibbart). It is also because the shy nine-year old rarely experiences relief from multiple forms of violence and subjectification that brutalize his psychic and physical form. The film is indeed organized around how Chiron’s Black queer personhood is conditioned by the drugs and violence of Reagan-era Miami and by the taunting racialized violence of adolescent masculine becoming. In a moment of janelle-monae-moonlight-compressedexteriorizing others prejudices, Chiron thoughtfully turns his head and asks his mentor Juan (Mahershala Ali) “What’s a faggot”? Even though he is the local drug dealer, and regularly supplies to Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris), Juan is also a gentle protector and ally. After exchanging glances with his girlfriend Teresa, exquisitely played by Janelle Monáe, Juan responds to Chiron’s startling, yet knowing question with a simple and profound statement, “It’s something people say to make gay people feel bad.” Teresa becomes a resonant presence in the film. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Chiron, aka “Little,” returns to Teresa’s house to eat, sleep, and to generally find a cocoon within an environment that otherwise offers little respite. With an ethics of care that is carried out with a playful tinge of an island accent, Teresa figures as the source of acceptance, hope, and loving support, especially within a US landscape where “being oneself” is anathema to a culture that devours and disposes of its Black queers.

If Teresa’s care for Chiron represents a rich portrait of island relationality and the ability to address differential power and political economies of difference through non-reproductive intimacy, there are several other moments in the film where Miami is thoroughly infused by what Jacqui Alexander refers to as diasporic crossings (2006). For Alexander, feminist and queer crossings are a site for trans-generational memory, where historical and layered crossings force open a reckoning with the embodied meaning of the sacred, and, the spiritual dimensions of experience. Amidst a hardened world where the worst forms of structural violence impose themselves upon Black queer bodies, there is an excess that looms large in the film, one that cannot be absorbed simply by naming Moonlight a coming of age story. Alongside and as a direct witness to Chiron’s story is the aliveness of the sea, the body of water that stretches between the Caribbean Islands to the Biscayne Bay, and it too becomes a protagonist in the film.

 

Whether as a view from the window, or lapping alongside Little and Kevin’s sexual encounter, or as an enveloping presence as Chiron first learns to swim, in a palette that moves between midnight black to light turquoise green the oceanic touch and feeling is never far. Describing the “newness” of Moonlight in a review for the NY Post, David Kaufman recently said, “There has literally never been a film like it.” US cultural criticism often contains this kind of hyperbole and ethnocentric management of racialized and gendered representations.342734c3-f1dd-4f41-b25b-a4fd6c07d71a We might counter such exaggerated declarations by noting Karim Aïnouz’s extraordinary Madame Satá (2002), a film that chronicles the life of legendary Queen and performance artist Joao Francisco, or point to the Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate (1993), directed by Tomás Guitierrez Alea and that complexly considers queer nightmares, although admittedly race is scantly addressed in the film. It may be true that Moonlight is different from many of the recent Hollywood films that feature Black masculine subjects, such as Nate Parker’s The Birth of the Nation and 12 Years a Slave, as The NY Post compares. And, it’s true that Moonlight clearly shares important resonances with Pariah (2011), whose cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed uses blue and pink hues in novel ways. However, if we considered a broader world of filmmaking and influences, a more apt comparison might include f5ff4fb3-49bd-4f13-8bdb-f2692e1fd77fGirlhood (2014), director Céline Sciamma’s coming of age film about a French immigrant young woman growing up in public housing in suburban Paris. Both Moonlight and Girlhood share how race, sexuality, desire, and vulnerability are central to the experience of living on the margins, and how every day violence in the lives of Black youth compounds the need for embodied modes of escape. Similar to Moonlight, where the color blue is a filter, a costume, a painted wall, in Girlhood blue functions as a contrast to the overseen use of murky palettes. In dominant representations, dull and mutated tones visualize “the margins,” “the inner city” and “the outskirts” as spaces of lifeless blight. To counter such conventions in both films the color blue, in all its shaded richness, becomes the medium for a parallel narrative of an outside to extreme pressure. In short, the color blue offers the potential space of freedom as the imaginative and the intuitive. In the case of Girlhood, a vibrant and pulsating blue infuses the most important scene in the film, a scene that is organized around a beautiful and exuberant dance amongst friends to Rhianna’s song “Diamond.”

e09bfc81-e60d-400e-8eb7-3acd07596b5b

In one of the most moving and much discussed scenes in Moonlight, including in Tavia Nyong’o’s piece posted on this blog, the camera lingers on undulating waves and Chiron’s black body as his head is gently cradled by Juan. Teaching Chiron how to swim, the two Black bodies float alongside and entangled with each other in a lingering choreography of embodied sensation, floating between jade and shimmering waves. At various points during the scene, the camera half submerges underwater, capturing limbs and embodiment both above and below the water’s changing surface. This submerged visuality is not only about the camera’s dipping below the overlay of human relations, or about forgetting the conditions of violence that surround Chiron. Instead, the scene of non-scripted intimacy offers another way to see Chiron’s supposed submission to the world of hetero-masculine tauntings. Juan teaches Chiron how to swim for himself in the sea, as the camera lingers over the touch of Black skin and the mesmerizing mutation of turquoise green waves. Indeed, the pastel tones and lush colors reflect the light of Miami, but also the dreamlike quality of what Jenkins has referred to as the “beautiful nightmare” that is this city. Drying off at the end of the scene, Juan reveals to Chiron that he is from Cuba, where there are a lot of Black people, despite the fact that you don’t see them here, an allusion to the visibility of white Cubans in Miami’s elite political and economic machinery. Through the blue-green glistening sea, we are reminded of the Middle Passage, its histories of collective death and commodification, but also the sea as a quintessential site of freedom.

The sea is visualized a dozen or more times in the film, as a lingering presence, a witness of adolescent sexual exploration, and as Little’s return home. Coming back for a visit to Miami in adulthood, Chiron meets up with Kevin, his adolescent friend and with whom he shares the powerful memory of teenage desire and touch. At a restaurant by the sea where he works, Kevin prepares Chiron a special dinner. Chiron asks, “Oh, you Cuban now?” “Only in the kitchen, papi,” Kevin responds. Given the ever present ebb and flow of the sea and the hovering moonlight, Kevin might have added “also by the ocean.” Within the arc of small exchanges and moments that are filled with dreamlike potential, the Caribbean is threaded through the main narratives of Moonlight. a589d215-eee2-4d80-ac7c-5249ada39747

In this sense, ocean water might be read as a powerful symbol of the Orisha and goddess Yemaya. In Santeria, Yemaya is the source of all, the constantly mutating and transforming force that is both protector and the mother of all life that rules over the seven human figures of the pantheon. Given the Yoruba-based worship that traverses Caribbean and Brazilian Afro-diasporic memory (Yemanjá in Brazilian Portuguese), Yemaya represents a powerful and even queer force of the natural world, untamable and in constant mutation and represented by the sea. In an early scene that takes place within Juan’s mother’s apartment, the ceramic and humanized figure of Yemaya is dressed in a blue and white robe and sits upon a simple shelf in the backdrop, a symbol of Paula’s possible immigrant and diasporic roots. In fact, the color blue as sea, in the openings towards the sky, and as painted walls within domestic spaces, as well as at Chiron’s high school, is so prominent as to become the powerful symbolic language of what might be called a “blue cinema” that color adjusts, to invoke Marlon Briggs brilliant documentary, for Black diasporic visuality and memory. Even amidst the alienating and violent environments that Chiron is exposed to and must survive within, the spiritual symbolic of the African diaspora explodes in the most of the scenic backdrops. Thus, while Moonlight inhabits the conditions of structural violence, it also invokes its spatialized transits — between the Caribbean islands, the economies of empire and sexual tourism, the non-spaces of historical memory. Meanwhile, the color blue, the sky, the ocean become the means of metaphorical escape. This secondary symbolic level, is where the director touches other dimensions of experience that pass through Black diasporic cultural memory and embodiment, reaching into the shadowy and liquid transits of the Caribbean basin and the trans-Atlantic. With the title “Moonlight,” other cosmologies are subtly made apparent, the reflection of the sea tides, the references to other ways of knowing, being, seeing and thinking that find routes out of hyper-visible political and material operations.

Moonlight exceeds the frameworks that criminalize queers, diminish Black life, and individualize the logics of racialized gender as determining of particular outcomes. Moonlight is the other space, the parallel world of ancestors, the shadow world, the porous line between living and dead, the drowned and floating worlds as histories of crossing and being otherwise. And, it is also the Orisha world where all is not ruled by the human condition, all is not tamed by capitalist materialism, and all is not predetermined by the structure of violence that forces Chiron to become a muscular man who dare not touch another man, even well into adulthood. The moonlight of the film is cast on Black male bodies, that during adolescence find their intimacy with each other. And in the last scene of the film, holding each other by the light of the moon is the moment of release and of finding one’s own and another’s sense of belonging.

bdd47e93-20f7-442e-8bbc-7012d05e7de1