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Necrocapitalism, Or, THE VALUE OF BLACK DEATH by Kwame Holmes

24 Jul

Kwame Holmes is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado-Boulder. He reads the history of modern cities and social movements through a black queer studies frame. His work has appeared in Radical History Review, Occasion and No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies. He is at work revising a book manuscript entitled, Queer Removal: Liberalism and Displacement in the Nation’s Capital. Follow him at @KwameHolmes

 

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If there is any axiom for home buying, it is that location is everything. Home prices flair up or down subject to factors that range from the convenience of mass transit in urban areas, one’s distance from highways in suburban ones, the availability of high-performing schools, access to natural beauty, cultural amenities, broadband service, a high-rise view and more. Because consumer demand drives land value in the residential market, the real estate industry translates visceral human response –“I love (or hate) this place”– into an “objective” home price (1).

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And few factors influence home price more than a listing’s proximity to violence. Given this, indulge me in a small bit of storytelling. On a hot July afternoon, along the major thoroughfare between a small, well-heeled suburb and a large Metropolitan area; a latino man in his 30’s becomes agitated at the sight of a black driver. The former closely tails the later, eventually forcing both cars from the road. The aggressor leaps from his vehicle and walks towards his target on foot. Adrenaline and cortisol course through his veins. He pays glancing attention to the shadow of a 4-year-old girl in a safety seat, strapped into the back of the black driver’s car. His hand hovers over the handle of a firearm, ready to draw and fire at a moment’s notice. Still behind the wheel, the black driver attempts to ease the tension, telling the aggressor of the gun in his glove compartment and warning against a violent encounter. But his pleas for sanity fall on deaf ears. Taking position at the front of the black driver’s car, the aggressor opens fire into the driver side window, shooting his victim in front of an adult woman passenger and her no-longer-innocent child. The wild and unprovoked shooting garners national media attention, and the once anonymous suburb finds itself infamous for a mounting trend in road-side homicide.

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A large body of literature within criminology tells us that home prices in the well-heeled suburb should react to this tragedy with a sharp downward turn. In a 2006 article published in Quantitative Criminology, George E Teta (et al.) assert that homicide, unlike other types of crime, most directly correlates with declines in home prices (2). Other studies indicate that homicide is particularly impactful in high-end neighborhoods where the rarity of violent crime draws an outsized media response (3).

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Nonetheless, in the year since officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile in Falcon Heights Minnesota, under nearly identical circumstances as I describe above, home prices in the St. Paul suburb rose at an impressive clip of 13%; the area’s most robust bull market since the sub-prime speculative bubble (4). Obviously, the fact that Yanez was a member of the St. Anthony police department at the time of the shooting differentiates my story from the sad reality of Castile’s death. But there’s a strong case that the real estate market should have put the brakes on Falcon Heights home prices. Diamond Reynolds’ widely viewed Facebook live video did not only make Philando Castile a globally trending hashtag, it brought unexpected infamy to Falcon Heights and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests threatened to further deteriorate the area’s desirability.

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Indeed, corporate actors across multiple industries often fret that recent attention to police violence and anti-brutality protest negatively impacts their bottom line. Earlier this year, “pro-business” legislatures in a dozen states debated versions of law that would charge activists with a crime should public protest drive revenue away from local business. Liability insurers are also concerned. Risk Management Inc. cancelled the Sorrento Louisiana police department’s liability policy after a series of pricey racial discrimination lawsuits made them too much of an insurance risk. Recently, a close friend who works in non-profit advocacy shared with me (on condition of anonymity) that insurers were unwilling to provide their organization liability coverage because of the “consequences” of “political involvement.” As one insurer put it, “you see on the news what’s going on.” Outside of concerns for personal safety, crime rates drive consumers away from a housing market because they place upward pressure on homeowner’s insurance rates and, undoubtedly, proximity to protest has the potential to do the same. And yet, in defiance of market logic and actuarial science, home prices in Falcon Heights only continue to rise. Why?

I argue that Castile’s death is not a failure of policing or a constituent of crime anxiety. Rather, Philando Castile was killed by our obsession with growth, and in particular, the middle class’ reliance upon property values for economic security. His killing sent current and potential homeowners in Falcon Heights a clear message: The state, via the police, will protect the long-term value of your home against the stain of blackness. Rather than counterintuitive, the market response to this tragedy becomes predictable when contextualized within the history of blackness’ forced association with value depreciation.

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Blackness, Visibility and Value

9780520242012Interest in the many tentacles of the carceral state has driven the lion’s share of recent academic scholarship on the outsized power capitalism wields over black life (5). In her foundational book Golden Gulag, Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes how deindustrialization left populous states like California with surpluses of finance capital, land and manpower amidst a political turn away from redistributionist welfare policy. Rather than pursue universal basic income or full employment, California built prisons; and expanded the punitive power of the criminal justice system in order to fill them (6). The militarization of municipal police departments—so powerfully on display during the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings—has strengthened the bottom line of private defense contractors at the expense of black suffering (7).

Still, the disposal of black lives into the carceral machine is an adjacent, but different, historical phenomenon from the deep association between black visibility and property value loss. Prior to emancipation, black “hands,” as they were counted, functioned as both units of currency and unmatched labor power. Under the control of white masters, enslaved people increased the value of their families’ property portfolio. However, as Khalil Gibran Muhammad notes, after emancipation, sociological and actuarial expertise collaborated to frame black people as congenitally defective–destined for early death and eventual extinction. However methodologically unsound, this new knowledge donned the shroud of objectivity and was incorporated into the first private life insurance offered to black families. Needless to say, this early means of quantifying human potential consistently paid less capital to black families less than non-black ones (8).

As American progressives brought scientific positivism to bear upon urban development, the earliest zoning professionals and planners mapped any neighborhood friendly to black people as a “blighted” habitat that threatened property values across an entire city’s “ecosystem” (9). The establishment of the Federal Housing Authority during the New Deal nationalized the production of risk-assessment maps—a mortgage lender’s guidebook to redlining—and put federal muscle behind the racial biases of urban planning science. Postwar federal urban renewal policy only made individual homeownership near black neighborhoods a riskier gambit, as local governments aggressively deployed eminent domain authority to acquire and demolish neighborhoods that stood in the way of “progress” (10). White homeowners took note, and took advantage of federal mortgage financing to escape into communities like Falcon Heights. These suburban safe havens were far removed from poor African Americans who found themselves without options; hemmed into subsidized housing within Metropolitan America’s most inaccessible geographies. So many of the black people who have lost their lives at the hand of the police—Oscar Grant, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling—lost their lives in those same neighborhoods, because police have been empowered to treat poverty with deadly force (11).

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Philando Castile, though, was killed in the suburbs and as I mentioned at the start of this essay, location is everything. To apply the “broken windows policing” frame onto his death is to over-privilege the American inner city within our conception of a global relationship between blackness and value that manifests differently in each local context. More accurately, Philando Castile was killed at a number of crossroads. He was killed in transit, on Larpenture Avenue, a crossroads between St. Paul and a number of suburbs in Ramsey county Minnesota, including Falcon Heights. According to an NPR analysis of the geography of his arrests, he was traveling between St. Paul and Ramsey county suburbs during many of the dozens of times law enforcement saw and stopped him in the Chevrolet that would become his tomb. He was also killed in one of the most well-watched communities in the state. A 2011 Falcon Heights community brochure tells readers, their town was the first community in Minnesota to boast a member of the neighborhood crime watch on every block. In that regard, Castile’s death echoes Trayvon Martin’s; who was killed by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Most pressingly, he was killed at a major crossroads in American history; a moment defined in part by the middle class’ mounting reliance upon the whims of the real estate market for their own survival.

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If there is any utility in distinguishing between neoliberalism and capitalism, it is that the former term highlights the cultural and cognitive shifts produced by privatization over time. For example, as deunionization and governmental negligence has left more Americans without access to public or private pension programs, those same workers have been forced to rely upon home equity to maintain their standard of living in retirement. Many working and middle-class workers have a fiscal interest in land value as most 401ks allow employees to funnel their contributions into Wall street’s real estate index. White collar employers, like the University of Minnesota, have their own stake in metropolitan land markets as recruiters dangle the prospect of long term real estate investment in front of potential employees. Much in the same way that taxation, welfare and military service produce (however coerced) citizenship and national belonging, the real estate market demands its own form of tribute as a condition of the distribution of equity and retirement income. In that sense, the housing market wields a kind of sovereignty over American life, assigning positive value and the right to live to those populations who contribute to its strength and longevity, and demanding the expulsion–to the point of death to those who threaten the same. What we face, in short, is necrocapitalism.

Necropolitics vs. Necrocapitalism

1399478464_4da5d1f5abThe Movement for Black Lives has generated the nation’s first popular conversation about the value of black life. Still, movement advocates tend to describe the police’s devaluation of black life as the state’s failure to recognize African American’s citizenship. Both the left and right’s focus on state agents’ behavior towards African Americans necessarily frames these debates in terms of citizenship. Police boosters claim that #bluelives engage and defeat “the thugs” bent on robbing us of our constitutionally guaranteed right to private property. Critics point out that programs like Stop and Frisk deny black and brown citizens’ due process and suspends their freedom from unlawful search and seizure. To ask if black lives matter, forces the state to account for its failure to protect the “natural right” to “life” black people are promised in the nation’s founding documents. Indeed, one could describe racially biased policing in the United States as an iteration of Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics. The ubiquity of police killings, the impunity which greets anti-black police violence, and the utter predictability of both reveal how often the American state rehearses its power to expose black people to death.

But we must expand beyond Mbembe and the Movement’s concern with the unfulfilled promises of the nation and position Castile’s death as signpost of a necrocapitalist order. Necrocapitalism refers to a powerful contradiction churning at the heart of post-World War II capitalism. On one hand, decolonization, racial liberalism and globalization have produced, quite literally, a narrow pathway out of poverty for once subjugated populations. Here, the ascendency of integrationism in American jurisprudence, professional codes of conduct and popular culture has encouraged black people to attend schools and search for jobs in majority white territory. In turn, across post-colonial Europe, African, Arab, Persian and South Asian migrants flooded into cities built by their natural resources and in search of lifestyles made possible by their labor. In London, these economic refugees were often forced into illicit “hidden homes” (black market rentals carved out of abandoned commercial buildings) or publicly subsidized tower blocks.

On the other hand, while multiculturalism has demanded more diverse Western labor markets, anti-blackness is still central to value assessment in global land markets. This means that liberalization drags black people into the very line of fire, figurative and literal. The 80 identified victims of the Grenfell blaze were not profiled by a police officer blinded by America’s unique history of anti-black racialization. But they, by proxy of their residency in a south London tower block, were similarly targeted for removal from public view. As Hip-Hop activist Akala told the BBC, the tenant management organization purchased highly flammable cladding for Grenfell as part of an aesthetic upgrade. For years, residents lobbied tenant management for funds to repair their building’s faulty electrical systems, and were met with a polite but firm stonewall. Those repairs would have had almost no impact on the building’s exterior—and by extension—the appearance of the surrounding neighborhood. Since the Tony Blair years, borough councils have strategized to remove the “eye sores” of tower blocks, as well as “hidden homes” from the urban landscape. More research needs to be conducted on south London’s hidden homes project, but a preliminary scan of media reports reveal that urban reformers hoped to help tenants “escape” exploitation by bringing them “out of the shadows” and “into the light of day.” These “regeneration” projects function similarly to urban renewal policy in the United States, displacing poor Londoners into various states of housing insecurity, including permanent homelessness. Once displaced, they are more vulnerable to attack from white supremacists, ill-health, street crime and police harassment.

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Though differently produced, Philando Castile’s death and the Grenfell tower tragedy were animated by the same economic order, one that requires black people to cross metropolitan and national borders to survive and countenances the removal of black life in tribute to value. In the wake of tragedy, pushes for reform have found new life. The English parliament is as focused on enforcing safety regulations in tower blocks as American city councils have been on forcing officers to wear body cameras while on patrol. Yet, as police killings continue and Grenfell survivors find themselves unable to trade sympathy in for permanent housing, a reform agenda feels like little more than wallpaper applied to rotting dry wall.

What then, can we do? We must grapple, simultaneously and at a cognitive level, with how we understand blackness and how we assess value. There may have been a time when we could say that markets quantify our desires and reflect them back to us. But our coevolution with capitalism has progressed beyond that sort of linear, direct relationship. Now to oppose the devaluation of blackness is to oppose how markets assess value itself. Perhaps then, the only way to break free from a necrocapitalist order is to demand a society that rejects any coherent system of value assessment. One that makes space for diverse and multiple modes of living; rather than demanding market territory for each identity category. Doing so may allow black people to choose whether or not it’s worth the risk to travel through any geography where the free market’s deadly logics are so densely concentrated.

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Notes:

  1. Here I am in conversation with Eva Hageman’s dissertation, “The Lifestyle: Economies of Culture and Race in Reality Television,” NYU 2016.
  2. George E. Tita, Tricia L. Petras, Robert T. Greenbaum, “Crime and Residential Choice: A Neighborhood Level Analysis of the Impact of Crime on Housing Prices” Journal of Quantitative Criminology.
  3. Joel Best, Random Violence: How We Talk About New Crimes and New Victims (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1999).
  4. Data drawn from Zillow.com on June 29, 2017.
  5. Recent exceptions include, Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor From #Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016); David P. Stein “This Nation Has Never Honestly Dealt with the Question of a Peacetime Economy”: Coretta Scott King and the Struggle for a Nonviolent Economy in the 1970s” Souls 18, 1 (2016); N.D.B Connolly, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (University of Chicago Press, 2014); Devin Fergus, “The Ghetto Tax: Auto Insurance, Postal Code Profiling and the Hidden History of Wealth Transfer,” Beyond Discrimination: Racial Inequality in a Postracist Era (New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 2013).
  6. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (University of California Press: Berkeley, 2007).
  7. Elizabeth Kai Hinton From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2016).
  8. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).
  9. David Freund, Colored Property (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
  10. I refer here to a significant literature in urban studies, but on the psychic trauma’s left behind by urban renewal. I most recommend Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It (New York: Ballantine, 2004). Whether or not one endorsed urban renewal policy, everyone was left with the impression that black communities could be leveled to the ground at a moment’s notice.
  11. Here I am referencing broken windows policing. For an excellent review of recent scholarship on broken windows see, Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton ed. Policing the Planet, Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (London: Verso Books, 2017).

 

“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

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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”?

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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.

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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.

WHITE MEN BEHAVING SADLY by Jack Halberstam

22 Feb

White Men Behaving Sadly

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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

7 Dec
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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“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. 

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STEVE BANNON/DARTH VADER

Winter in America by Jack Halberstam

10 Nov

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“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.

 

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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?

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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Papa Doesn’t Smell The Heat

10 Oct

Mykki Blanco – High School Never Ends (ft. Woodkid) (Official Music Video) from The FADER on Vimeo.

By Tav Nyong’o

My constant teaching has been this: live for the drama, but don’t let the drama live you.

You are not your gadget, you are not the face at the end of your selfie stick, or the Emoji, Bitmoji, Ebroji. You are not the little techAsian monster avatar that the sea of oblivious and negligent faces see you as. Put your phone away and talk to me. You are not the tone that is being policed, or the body that just got housed. Some of us go to protest wearing our graveyard suits, as Brother Corn likes to say. And some of want to be downlow hanging in them baggy jeans that give you nice dreams.

I can learn from you even if I can’t trust you: you just might get my stone face. But still, my teaching has been this: you are not your stoneface, your nervous giggle, your catalogue of embarrassments, or your family basket of deplorables. Get serious for a second, but not too deadly serious. Remember to breathe when you can. There is peace beyond passion, but that great gettin’ up morning already happened, and those who need to know it already do. I need the right to sing those blues.

Mykki Blanco knows it. Mykki has the right to sing those blues and swing them. I spent Sunday evening being happily triggered by his latest video, “High School Never Ends.” It’s off his excellent debut album. Debut album? I feel like I’ve known Mykki forever but we’ve only met once in an elevator. I saw him play out one night in Berlin this summer, while I was still in a cosmopolitan funk about lost dreams, the funeral circuit, fleeting youth, and black bodies getting shot down in the streets of America, hustled out of cabs for a beat down in Germany, or drowned unheralded off Lampedusa. And yeah, I kinda know how that all sounds.

High School Never Ends is “black queer studies,” as the academy wants to call it, no tea, no shade. But those theory drugs may not love you the way they love me, and that’s okay too. It is a raw video, in painful focus, and watching it on my big screen (trigger warning for class privilege?) was its own small drama in my living room. I had to turn it off before the end to spare my friends and my beloved, giving new meaning to the guest croon of French singer Woodkid: “Why don’t you just delete me?”

Why don’t you just delete me … talk about… a great pick up line! Ha! (I hope you laughed) If only, if only our lives could be blanked out like that, if only we could delete ourselves and get contorted and connected somewhere under cover of dark.

If only we could peace out just like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet did.

Loosely based on Romeo + Juliet (Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t the only one who has figured out how to get the mainstream to pay attention to black or brown lives by encapsulating them in white roles), High School Never Ends is really a love letter to the black bwoi or gal who may be planning his next ticket to Berlin after the “Get behind me Satan” moment last night during the debates.

I was that boy once. And, like James Baldwin  before me, I hoped that Europe would be a place where I could breathe. I didn’t want to assimilate, although ich spreche ein bisschen mehr Deutsche jetzt, so there. (Shout out to LaTasha Nevada Diggs for that courage to twerk the English tongue as she is spoke!) I wanted to interinimate, a word I learned from Fred Moten that comes from metaphysical poetry but could also apply to how we move through the world. Tickets, money, passport is the drill: get your life in the dank basement of a Neukölln bar, get bounced by the style fascists at the door to Berghain, do some “research,” and sun your nude ass by one of those lakes or canals that, quiet as it’s kept, the city is really known for. Stay woke, stay hidden, stay sleep.

Wear protective coloration, develop a tolerance for second hand smoke, explore polyamory, private FaceBook group sexscapades, and collective feminist accountability. Eat, pray, love or drink, grieve, fuck, and fuck up badly, as the case may be. Get your life and try not to notice how often protective coloration doesn’t really protect you, but is a ruse of your own making, a trip you may be on solo, an emotional aphasia in which you remain stone face everywhere outside the uchromatic dark. I can tell you; I’ve been there, and I will be again.

I feel Mykki has too: she is a transformer, a rager, someone who has left and returned to performing like so many of my friends, comrades, students, and intrigues. Like me, I think she finds the exit door from professional visibility is a revolving one. “I want to be here now,” I once heard her sing, “because the future is stupid!” And here we are, stupidly, in that present. Mykki is an alter ego, of course, a messy bitch who lives for drama. But don’t conflate her with Joanne the Scammer. Mykki will clock your nazi white Ass, and, if High School Never Ends is any indication, she also subscribes to the Frank Ocean mantra “I never ever fuck someone I wouldn’t beat up” or words to that effect. Call it black queer studies, or queer black studies, or black feminism. Or call it a troubling reverie up I had one night in my brown study: not the “brown” that is halfway to white, but the rocking posture you assume to keep the body thinking and feeling when you feel yourself trapped in some white supremacist freeze-frame.

I’m not the old head here to tell you “high school ends”, “it gets better,” or any mainsplaining shit like that. I refuse to be a man, and Mykki does to, (even when she is). In the video, she plays a game of fuck, marry, kill with the neo-Nazi youth that, quiet as it’s kept, the Left in Berlin has never stopped battling. I fuck with our Anarcho-Marxist dadbros so you may not need to: each one teach one.

After turning the video off after Woodkid’s sweet solo, my dear comrade suggested immediately I teach this video in my class next semester. I jumped up for a second, But then I thought about the student demand. I thought about triggering, boundaries, and this little thing called the traumatic kernel of the Real. (A little Lacan now and then does the body good, but I can also spare you). So I’m going to let that simmer a bit, and let this one circulate in the meantime out in what some smart folks down in Durham may have begun to call the Black Outdoors.

The Black Outdoors: Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman in Conversation with J. Kameron Carter and Sarah Jane Cervenak

The Black Outdoors tickles my throat; better hyperlink. Are we there yet? Are we here now? I may not be ready for it, but I want to be ready. And I can’t not want you to be ready to; you who I fall a little more in love with every look.

I need to learn the dark arts of black feminist refusal, which are my constant study, and I’m so grateful some one schools me in them every day. “Life is a school, unless you’re a fool,” Carmen McRae once sang. “But the learning brings you pain.” She added.I hear her, but I also hear Billy sing “hush now, don’t explain.” So for  now I end this appreciation to an album and the black feminist poethics that helped me listen to it by saying, bring the pain!

And, possibly, a small proposition: Worry the line, but teach to the letter.

I hear José listening, so I’ll shut up now and thank him for tuning in from an undisclosed Caribbean location. I can say it now: no one belongs here more than us.

And so, my constant teaching has been this, with a nod to the old gods whose language I won’t speak here or now: a greeting passed from mouth to mouth, head to head, from deepest darkest Africa to chocolate city. Let the master be your messenger. Let the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house. Just don’t let yourself be caught out up in it! Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

The sky is open. All the rest is commentary. And night moves.

Twinks and Trolls

4 Aug

By Tav Nyong’o

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Once upon a time, I began to write a blog post about the satirical “Twinks4Trumptroll that had started appearing in my Twitter feed. Finding much-needed gallows humor in the idea of a twink for Trump, I began to follow the account. Eventually, I drafted an explanation for the appearance of this latest little monster, and I even dabbled in the wishful thinking that Twinks4Trump might successfully bait Donald Trump’s official Twitter account into responding, thus exposing him to deserved mockery and scorn.

Back in March of 2016 (that more innocent age!) it was still possible to believe that parody might still hold the power to expose the inherent incongruity of a Trump candidacy, much less a Trump presidency, and bring the hot air balloon crashing back to earth before it could land in the White House.

 I sent my draft around to some of my friends on this blog, found myself in the curious position of having to explain what a twink was, met the lesbian feminist killjoy argument that gay men really do have fascist tendencies and this wasn’t funny, and, finally, made the unfortunate discovery of the existence of one Milo Yiannopolous, the latest gay darling of the racist so-called “alt-right.” Lesbian social theory, as usual, was unerring, and for those who can stomach it, Laurie Penny has given a complete account of Yiannopolous’ hijinks at the Republican National Convention. My jaw dropped several times while reading her exposé on the dark cynicism of the gay alt-right, and their dangerous predilection for anti-black and anti-Muslim violence. (And on this score, I will be reading Bobby Benedicto’s forthcoming essay on gay necroaesthetics — which he gave an excellent preview of earlier this summer, with great interest).
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Geert Wilders speaking at “Wake Up” event at RNC, in front of “Twinks4Trump” photo spread.

“Alt-right” is a fancy, internet-themed name, but the phenomena of right-wing, race-baiting gays is not new (just ask Roy Cohn)! Back in 2002, Village Voice editor Richard Goldstein wrote an entire book critiquing the media prominence given to a group of figures he dubbed “The Attack Queers” — professedly liberal Democrats (Andrew Sullivan, Norah Vincent, and Camille Paglia came under particular fire at the time) who nonetheless appealed to the conservative right by skewering “political correctness” and “liberal groupthink.” The alt-right is sort of a funhouse exaggeration and dangerous extrapolation of this kind of trolling behavior, with intelligence-free hate and fear now seen as viable career options for the nihilistic and attention-craved (one of the most frequent Google searches for Yiannopolous is “net worth”).

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King of Trolls?

Actual white supremacy and Islamophobia sort of spoiled the fun of Twinks4Trump for me, and brought me to question my long-held belief in the transgressive power of queer satire and invective. I even grew uncertain of my initial assumption that Twinks4Trump was a parody, and I wrote to the account holder, Cody Permenter, to be sure. To my relief, he confirmed his parodic intent, and we pondered a little where all this would go. Although he created the account to troll Trump and his followers, Permenter told me over email that:

“When I created the account, if I’m being honest, I didn’t have a clear goal in mind. It was more for humor and because I was bored. But I think I tapped into something, a kind of cultural critique that I can use for some good. And if not…well, at least it’s still funny, which also has value. This election is volatile and draining, and humor shouldn’t be lost no matter how ugly it gets.”

I agreed then and still do, although I increasingly wonder whether humor is enough any longer. In our email exchange, I had compared Twinks for Trump to earlier feminist and queer agitprop groups such as Ladies Against Women and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and we discussed what might happen if someone actually tried to troll the Trump campaign as “Twinks for Trump.” I think we both thought at the time that such a troll would have a disruptive impact on the Trump campaign, that it was possible to, in Permenter’s words, “troll America’s greatest troll.” As it turns out, the joke was on us: now self-avowed gay Republicans are claiming the hashtag, Permenter has been obliged to tweet out “We’re parody. And he’s…serious…oh god.”

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I know that sinking feeling. Things turned out a little differently than either of us expected. Internet lore states that no position, however outrageous, will fail to be mistaken for a sincere conviction unless clearly marked as satire. The subsequent takeover of Twinks4Trump by actual alt-right operatives and attention-mongers suggest that the obverse is also true: there is no online parody so obvious that someone will not try to make malevolently serious use of it. As Whitney Phillips notes (see below), the thing about Trump’s trolling statements, for example, is that “millions of people believe in what Trump is saying.”  And, unfortunately for us, there may be no real operative distinction between “serious” and “parody” anymore: we can no longer afford to think of either seriousness or parodic intent as having any automatic political valence or implication: both can be used (and in conjunction) for evil.

For me, Twinks4Trump stopped being funny for me the day actual gay conservative politicians like Geert Wilders began to embrace it. A least it was fun while it lasted.

But why didn’t it last? Why was it possible for the Trump juggernaut to incorporate “the young, dumb, and full of cum” among the constituencies that Trump now claims he will be a voice for? The Pulse tragedy was one obvious reason (see Eng Beng Lim’s excellent Orlando Syllabus and previous Bully Blog posts by QuirogaLim and Halberstam). It enabled Trump to fold “LGBTQ” into his rhetoric in a way that shouldn’t have been that surprising in retrospect. Why did anyone assume that just because Trump was racist, sexist, and a bully, that he was also homophobic? He is a lifelong cosmopolitan New Yorker who works in the entertainment industry, and he is not religious. He is also a narcissist enraptured by his own self-professed sexual charisma and endowment: why on earth would a creature like this be upset at being called “Daddy”?

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In Slate, Whitney Phillips even makes the compelling argument that it is counterproductive to call Trump a troll, however satisfying the resultant image of the Republican presidential candidate as an orange-skinned, fright-haired creature. Pointing out the origins of trolling activity on early internet newsgroups, Phillips argues that calling Trump a troll minimizes the harm he does by comparing it to online activity that, however infuriating, we can simply walk away from. While trolling has now spread beyond its online origins (and bullying and violence are hardly less real because digitally mediated) her point is well taken: the left cannot afford to encapsulate Trumpism as trolling, when that is just a part of what is going on.

Phillip’s argument suggests to me that the conventional (if oft ignored) wisdom — “Don’t Feed the Trolls” — does not fully apply in the case of Trump’s bullying, baiting, and chaos-mongering. “Trump deserves so much worse than troll.” Phillips concludes, “He deserves the harshest fate of all: to be described accurately.” But if feeding the troll is a mistake, is there any hope of trolling him? Twinks4Trump didn’t seem to work: is there another little monster waiting in the wings? Perhaps there is: queer irreverence and invective hasn’t yet exhausted itself, and there is nothing like the shock of the present catastrophe to stir up the creative juices. Stay tuned!
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The #Orlando Syllabus

24 Jun

Eng-Beng Lim

Orlando victims-collage-first-slide

Week 1 From Gender to Gun Performativity

Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

Think Gender is Performance: You have Judith Butler to thank for that!

 

Week 2 Surviving Killabilities

Gender” (Halberstam) and other relevant keyword entries “Race,” “Sexuality,” “Militarism,” “Brown,” “Queer,” “Empire,” “Religion.”

Jose Munoz, “The Future in the Present: Sexual Avante-Gardes and the Performance of Utopia”

After Orlando, Middle East Research and Information Project

LGBT People of Color refuse to be erased after Orlando

American Ugliness: Queer and Trans People of Color Sat “Not in Our Names”

Chelsea Manning, “We must not let the Orlando nightclub terror further strangle our civil liberties”

Start Making Sense Radio Program, “Life and Death in Gay Orlando”

“He’s Not Done Killing Her’: Why So Many Trans Women Were Murdered in 2015.

Queer Suicide: A Teach-in

Malik Gaines, We Are Orlando

Transgender man forced into clothes and jail for women settles with Toronto police

Understanding HB2: North Carolina’s newest law solidifies state’s role in defining discrimination.

Former Minuteman Militia Leader Found Guilty of Molesting 5-Year Old Girl

 

Week 3 Laughing at Masculinist Rage, Corruption and Mass Shooting

Helene Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa

Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger”

Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women

Chela Sandoval, “New Sciences: Cyborg feminism and the methodology of the oppressed

#SayHerName: why Kimberle Crenshaw is fighting for forgotten women

Wendy Brown: How Neoliberalism Threatens Democracy: YouTube video

Puar and Rai, “Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots”

Charlotte Hooper, Manly States: Masculinities, International Relations, and Gender Politics

Jacques Derrida on “phallogocentrism”

“I’m a gay man. Don’t use an attack on my community as an excuse for Islamophonia”

US House Oks Koch Bros Bill on ‘Dark Money’ Election Donations

Overcompensation Nation: It’s Time to admit that toxic masculinity drives gun violence

 

Week 4 Getting Toxic and Terrifying

Considering Hate, Whitlock and Bronski 1-71

Cairo, and our comprador gay movements: A Talk

Toxic Masculinity in the U.S Gun Phallocracy

The Hypermasculine Violence of Omar Mateen and Brock Turner

Terror Begins at Home

Toxic Masculinity and Murder

Student Op-Ed: Toxic Masculinity

Understanding Toxic Masculinity: Why Defending Men Isn’t Enough (a conservative take)

The Under-Discussed Role of Toxic Masculinity

Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam”

*

Considering Hate, 71-147

What the actual f*ck is going on with the Oakland Police Department?

Gun control’s racist reality: The liberal argument against giving police more power

UCLA Shooting suspect identified: Thoughts on Race, Violence, and Graduate Studies

Two Dead in UCLA

Berkeley gunman kills student taken hostage

25 years later: Henry’s hostage crisis remembered

Drag Queen: Anti-Gay Terrorist Omar Mateen was My Friend

Sullivan, “Troubled. Quiet. Macho. Angry. The volatile life of the Orlando shooter.”

Police: Man who killed singer Christina Grimmie was ‘infatuated’ with her

James Downs: Stop saying Omar Mateen was gay

“Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila tackles homophobia, Islamophobia on U.S tour

The perception of Asian dads and masculinity

“While Press Fawned Over Cops Guarding LGBTQ Bars, NYPD Charged Orlando March with Horses”

Racist at vigil sends online message

Queer, Muslim, & Unwelcome at the “New Stonewall”

 

Week 5 Empire, Trump

Andrew Hewitt, Political Inversions: Homosexuality, Fascism, and the Modernist Imaginary

Lisa Lowe, “The International within the National: American Studies and Asian American Critique”

Klaus Theweleit, “Male Bodies and the ‘white terror’” 143-269, Male Fantasies Vol 2

Trump says, ‘Ask the Gays,’ Gays make him regret it

Aaron Belkin, Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Façade of American Empire

Amy Kaplan, “Manifest Domesticity”

Amanda Taub, “The Rise of American authoritarianism

I can’t stop watching this bizarre, terrifying and beautiful Trump ad

The braggart with the ducktail who would be president

Meet the shock troops of Trump’s America

As Britain Mourns MP Jo Cox, Her Killer Is Linked to Neo-Nazi National Alliance and Pro-Apartheid Club

Activity among white supremacists continues to surge

States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016

A journalist went to a Donald Trump rally yesterday and came back shocked. Here are his tweets

How not to study Donald Trump

If more guns make America safe, why did Trump ban all guns from the GOP convention?

American Horror Story

A Note from Mike Davis about the Second Amendment

 

Week 6 Orlando

Junaid Rana, Terrifying Muslims

Paricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought

June Jordan Papers

Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here

Disney and Orlando: Creating the Happiest Place on Earth.”

Shanghai $5.5 Billion Disney Officially Opens

Gunman Pledged Allegiance to ISIS (titled changed from “Orlando nightclub shooting: 50 killed in ‘domestic terror incident’ at gay club; gunman identified”)

Orlando massacre was “revenge”, not terrorism, says man who claims he was gunman’s lover

The massacre at a Mexican Gay Bar that no one talked about

Orlando Victim says Shooter tried to spare black people: he said black people had suffered enough

Hoax: Canadian Prime Minister and opposition leader share kiss to denounce Orlando massacre

The worst mass shooting? A look back at massacres in U.S. history

How G4S incubated the homophobic hatred or Orlando’s IS Terrorist

Blood Ties: Queer Blood, Donations, and Citizenship

 

Week 7 Gun Phallocracy: Colonial and Capitalist Deadlocks

Taussig, “Culture of Terror, Space of Death. Roger Casement’s Putumayo Report and the explanation of Torture.”

Chong, “Look, An Asian!” The Politics of Racial Interpellation in the Wake of the Virginia Tech Shootings

1000 mass shootings in 1260 days: this is what America’s gun crisis looks like

The NRA’s Complicity in Terrorism

The gay rights movement could take on NRA, and actually win

The Next Time Someone Calls an AR-15 an assault rifle, show them this

The Orlando massacre was one of 43 shootings yesterday

Why the Orlando Shooting Is Unlikely to Lead to Major New Gun Laws

Stop the gun violence: Ban assault weapons

I was able to buy an AR-15 in five minutes

After Sending ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ to Orlando GOP House Chair Blocks LGBT Protections Bill

Strict military gun control should be our model

We need a radical movement for gun control

NRA Tells Parents to Keep Guns in Kids’ Rooms For Safety

The NRA’s Response To The Orlando Shooting Needs to Break the Pattern

Since Sandy Hook, a gun has been fired on school grounds nearly once a week

Connecticut’s Senators, Who Know Something About Gun Violence, Blames Congress for Orlando Slaughter.

Breaking: Senate Blocks Gun Control Measures and Accomplishes Nothing After Orlando Shooting

NRA-Owned Senate Just Told American People to go F*uck Themselves on Guns

Brock Turner and Me

Republicans Are Erasing LGBTQ People From Their Own Tragedy

The Democrats are Boldly Fighting For a Bad, Stupid Bill

The Use of Error-Prone and Unfair Watchlists Is Not the Way to Regulate Guns in America

 

Week 8 Performance & Patriarchal Pathologies

Bechdel, Fun Home

Tennessee Wiliams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Munoz, “The White to Be Angry”: Vaginal Crème Davis’s Terrorist Drag

California pastor celebrates massacre at Orlando gay club

No Way to Prevent this”: says only nation where this regularly happens

Halberstam, “Mackdaddy, Superfly, Rapper: Gender, Race, and Masculinity in the Drag King Scene” and Female Masculinity

Sylvia Plath reads “Daddy

Diana DiMassa, The Complete Hothead Paisan

Split Britches, Belle Reprieve (feminist lesbian adaptation of Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire)

No reason is a reason: Zabar’s customer accidentally shoots self while ordering bagel

 

Week 9 Queer nightlife: safety, joy, erasure and complacence

Ramon Rivera-Servera, “Quotidian Utopias: Latina/o Queer Choreographies”

Christina Handhardt, “Broken Windows and Blue’s: a queer history of gentrification and policing”

I was Born On the Dance Floor: A Playlist for Pulse

I knew 17 who died in Orlando

More than a Safe Space: The Meaning of the Queer Latin Dance Night

Gay Space Cannot Be Straight Women’s Safe Space Until It’s Safe for those who are gay

One kiss and 50 bodies: The Orlando shooting is a reminder that gay people are still hated

Only when I am dancing can I feel this free

Richard Kim, Please Don’t Stop the Music

In praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club

 

Week 10

Please add to Week 10 of the syllabus with your suggestions of a rubric, book chapters and articles in the comment section below. In solidarity #orlandosyllabus 

Who Are “We” After Orlando? By Jack Halberstam

22 Jun

 

whoarewe

In a recent response to the shootings of Latino gay men and others in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando Florida, on June 12 The Atlantic ran an article claiming that violence against LGBT people in the US was all too common and was even more common than violence directed at other minorities. The main argument of this article was repeated four days later in The New York Times under the heading “L.G.B.T. People Are More Likely to Be Targets
of Hate Crimes Than Any Other Minority Group.” Both articles cited the same source, namely research conducted by Southern Poverty Law Center, and both quote a senior fellow there, Mark Potok. In the article that appeared in The Atlantic, Potok is quoted as saying: “LGBT people are more than twice as likely to be the target of a violent hate-crime than Jews or black people.”

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This is an interesting claim in that it presumes both that LGBT people are neither Jews nor Black people and that killers target people only on the basis of one strand of hatred! It also creates a specious hierarchy of violence within which white LGBT people are cast as more vulnerable than other minority groups. These kinds of widely circulated claims support a generalized expression of LGBT vulnerability that appeared on social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, in the wake of the murders. But these killings were highly specific and as new material surfaces on Omar Mateen’s tortured relation to his own sexuality, we want to challenge this sense of an amorphous homophobic threat that separates homophobic violence out from the particular, convulsive expressions of racialized hate.

hate-crimes-against-lgbt-1466044414162-articleLarge-v6Both of the articles on hate crime bury contradictory demographic details about hate crimes against LGBT people towards the end of their reports. In The New York Times, for example, a chart representing the distribution of LGBT violence across race and class tells quite a different story than the sensational headline. When sorted by race, the charts reveal that, in the words of the reporter, “the vast majority of those who were killed were Black and transgender people.” And the charts show that even among those who were not killed, the LGBT people who were most often the victims of hate crimes and violence were people of color.

Obviously the shooting of 49 people in a gay club on a night geared towards Latino gay men shakes all LGBT communities to their core and reminds us of other violent and hate-filled attacks on other clubs over the past few decades. In other queer clubs, on other nights, other bodies have fallen victim to the toxic masculinities that imagine violence as the solution to shifts in the status quo that might shake up hierarchies of sex and gender. But on this night, in this club, the target of steroid fueled, militaristic, narcissistic, deeply conflicted masculinity was a group of mostly Latino gay men.

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Victims of an arson attack at the UpStairs Lounge in 1973. 32 died.

Justin Torres conjured the scene in the Pulse that night in a beautiful essay offered as a tribute to the slain and titled “In praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club”:

Maybe your Ma blessed you on the way out the door. Maybe she wrapped a plate for you in the fridge so you don’t come home and mess up her kitchen with your hunger. Maybe your Tia dropped you off, gave you cab money home. Maybe you had to get a sitter. Maybe you’ve yet to come out to your family at all, or maybe your family kicked you out years ago. Forget it, you survived… Maybe your half-Latin-ass doesn’t even speak Spanish; maybe you barely speak English. Maybe you’re undocumented.

Torres carefully and tenderly located the victims of the Orlando massacre not as a unified group of gay victims but as a happily disordered group of Latino queers with varying relations to race, language, class, citizenship, family and kinship. Using a second person form of address – “maybe you’re undocumented” – Torres talks to the dead rather than around them, about them, through them. He talks to the dead, recognizing their differences from one another and from the culture that too often threatens, excludes, exploits or ignores them, and Torres situates the club goers in relation to nightlife, to Orlando, to each other and to larger LGBT communities. In his next paragraph, Torres describes what lies outside the club – Christians, Trump, exclusion, racism – and then draws a magic line around the club that designates it as a safe space for people who are patently not safe elsewhere in the culture. Back in the world, Torres reminds the lost, struggle continues, but here, in the club you thrive, you dance, you live: “You didn’t come here to be a martyr, you came to live, papi. To live, mamacita. To live, hijos. To live, mariposas.”

Torres’ beautiful song for the slain mariposas recognizes the beauty and the fragility of this community and situates that fragility in relation to the multiple vectors of violence that exist outside the club and that always threaten to make their way inside. Some of those violators will arrive in the form of unstable men with weapons, some will come in the form of la migra or homeland security, some will and did arrive in the form of the police and others will arrive in the form of white LGBT people who see this violation as their own and incorporate this crime into a general narrative of anti-gay violence.

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Christina Hanhardt has written at length about the specificity of anti-violence claims in LGBT communities and the ways in which some of those claims lead to increased police presence in LGBT communities and increased jeopardy for communities of color. In a summation of her position in The Scholar and Feminist Online (S&F Online), Hanhardt
identifies the role of gentrifying gay male communities within neoliberal and post-welfare urban landscapes. Gay and lesbian gentrifiers, she explains, have often “been hailed as the remedy for urban problems.” And so, all too often, white urban gay populations replace racialized and poor communities and become sites of investment. She writes:

Central to the history of LGBT activism, in which the themes of violence and safety have been so prominent, is the calculation of risk: the risk of violence associated with a gay vulnerability that calls for anticrime initiatives as well as the risk of lost profit linked to real estate speculation. One outcome has been to redefine normative gay identity as an identity threatened by those deemed “criminal” (in particular, the racialized poor), while finding solutions in risk negotiations, including self-regulation and open financial markets.

In other words, urban development projects often depend upon and encourage an often white, gay creative class while displacing and endangering poor communities of color. In turn, white LGBT communities can imagine themselves as part of the nation and its prosperity while queer communities of color are situated as sites of crime, illegality and protest cultures.

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Given the different histories of white LGBT urban populations and LGBT communities of color in relation to space, property, policing and risk, we might ask who “we” are after Orlando. Does the attack on these brown bodies reflect a more generalized vulnerability experienced by LGBT communities as a whole? Is there, in fact, any connection at all between the vulnerability of white LGBT communities to homophobia and the ongoing violence that LGBT communities of color face within the current climate of anti-immigrant, anti-Black, pro-banks, pro-business, free market mayhem?

In the wake of Orlando, it might be time to break up the fantasy of the LGBT monolith not in favor of ever more precise calibrations of identity but on behalf of the urgent need to confront state violence whether it is expressed through a security regime that works well on behalf of bankers and politicians but not at all on behalf of poor people of color or whether it comes in the form of incorporative strategies aimed at privileged queers or increased policing aimed at queers of color. While gay marriage is quickly being offered up as the motivation for increased homophobic hate crime activity – the NYT proposed “Ironically, part of the reason for violence against L.G.B.T. people might have to do with a more accepting attitude toward gays and lesbians in recent decades, say people who study hate crimes” – a better way to understand gay marriage is as part and parcel of an incorporative logic in which opposition is gobbled up and turned into more of the same.

Dream-Town-LGBT

As middle class white LGBT people celebrate their access to normative social forms and agree to pay the price for such acceptance by consenting to new forms of violent exclusion, they/we cannot simultaneously claim to be the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, the most victimized of the victims, the most in need of shelter, protection and sanctuary. Orlando showed me at least that the security state we live in with its second amendment values and its shouty, crude formulations of “us” and “them” needs to be countered with complex, intricate, risky conversations about who “we” are and who “we” want to become.

9780814757284_DetailFor Torres, Orlando brings us face to face with the transformative power of Latin night at the queer club: “The only imperative is to be transformed, transfigured in the disco light.” In a similar way, Orlando brings us to José Muñoz’s conjuring of queer utopia as “a type of affective excess that presents the enabling force of a forward-dawning futurity.” Orlando is not a generalized and non-specific “we” it is a clearly situated “you” standing, dancing, living and dying in the wee hours of the morning, in a space at the very furthest edge of community, on the verge of a forward-dawning futurity into which other worlds, could and will come to be.

Straight Eye For the Queer Theorist – A Review of “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity” by Jack Halberstam

12 Sep

Straw-man-argumentStuart Chase’s 1956 Guide to Straight Thinking is sometimes credited with the first use of the term “straw man.” He used the term to describe the rhetorical practice of basing a strong argument on the misrepresentation of another position. The straw man/person represents a figure without depth or dynamism that is easily knocked down. And so if one represents feminism in terms of a unified group of man-hating, chainsaw wielding, separatist lesbians, rather than as a wide array of positions held by many different groups with or without chainsaws, then it is relatively easy to persuade a neutral audience that feminism is dangerous. Straw men, or in this case straw womyn, stand in for the complexity of a flesh and blood opponent. The term draws upon the image of the scarecrow on the one hand and on fairground games on the other – the term “Aunt Sally,” for example, is often used as a synonym for Straw Man and comes from the fairground game where a target (often an “ugly” woman or racialized in someway) is set up for others to knock down.

A recent issue of the journal differences engages in the production of straw people and does an Aunt Sally on queer theory. The issue, differences Volume 26 #1 (May 2015), edited by Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson, and titled, “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity” asks the question: “What might queer theory do if its allegiance to antinormativity was rendered less secure?” The answer goes something like this: if its allegiance to antinormativity were rendered less secure, queer theory would be…more complicated, more dynamic, and, broader because other important and pressing concerns that have been obscured by this singular focus would come to the fore. What are those concerns? What does this new, shiny, more complicated (queer) theory look like? We never find out. More interested in critique than in outlining new methodologies, archives or theories, this volume is content to say, repeatedly, that oppositionality is not all its cracked up to be; that the humanities orientation of queer theory has concealed the fact that the social sciences are important too; and that queerness as a category has an increasingly elusive relationship to activism, political change and social transformation. None of this is controversial, and it could even be the basis of some interesting new directions in the study of sexuality and gender. But this issue does not lead us there.

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What is queer theory without antinormativity, we may ask with the editors of this special issue? Without a critique of normativity, queer theory may well look a lot like straight thinking. And, without these clear alternatives, that is what this volume threatens to become.

Inexplicably sharon wasn't interested in a second date.

Inexplicably sharon wasn’t interested in a second date.

It draws sexy energy from a title that proposes a new kind of queer theory namely, a queer theory without antinormativity but, like a date with a lover who promised hot sex but falls asleep by 9pm, or like an iphone update that claimed it would transform your gadget but actually just ate up all the battery, the issue titillates only by virtue of nestling up to titillation, it thrills only by offering to declaw what is thrilling, it excites by promising to name the fugitive source of an entire genre’s critical excitement. But when push comes to shove, and there is a lot of shoving in this issue despite its seemingly civil tone, queer theory without antinormativity might just be…well, theory, theory about theory.

What’s the basic argument? Queer theory has been characterized by an antinormative stance that has gone unquestioned (until now) and that is the basis for the claims that queer theory lays to a radical political project. This commitment to antinormativity, Wiegman and Wilson say, characterizes the work of all kinds of queer theorists who might otherwise disagree. The problem with antinormativity, as far as Wiegman and Wilson are concerned, is that it derives from a fundamental michel_foucault_by_ivankorsario-d5qvsbtmisreading of Foucault’s theory or norms; it makes certain positions seem inevitable – a critique of disciplinarity for example; and, antinormativity’s uncontested rightness eliminates the possibility of taking up any other relations to norms or normativity. Furthermore, antinormativity, they propose, has become “canonical” in the field and therefore has acquired, ironically, the status of a norm, proving once and for all that norms are unavoidable and cannot be opposed.

Let’s take the first point in Wiegman and Wilson’s critique – the idea that antinormativity emerges from a misreading of the norm in Foucault. They write: “Even as it allies itself with Foucault, queer theory has maintained an attachment to the politics of oppositionality (against, against, against) that form the infrastructure of the repressive hypothesis” (12). By contrast, Wiegman and Wilson propose to offer a different methodology for reading the norm and they will do so through a return to the idea of the norm as it is found in Foucault “in order to revivify what is galvanizing (indeed what is queer) about its operations” (12). This is an odd claim at best – first, is it even possible to “revivify” what is not dead but is in fact “galvanizing”? Just asking. But, second, I cannot find this mythic other methodology anywhere in their text. Their anti antinormative methodology seems to amount to the claim that we are all subject to norms. Norms, they remind us, neither restrict nor ostracize, they are neither “controlling” nor are they “tyrannical,” and we are all equally subject to their powers (“we question the political common sense that claims that norms ostracize, or that some of us are more intimate with their operations than others…”). This claim is then followed by a series of quotes from Berlant, Edelman, myself, Sedgwick all clustered under the leaky umbrella of “queer theoretical ambitions” and organized by the common belief that norms are bad.

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Few of the theorists mentioned in this essay, if any, have advanced the theory that norms single out certain people or that they target only certain bodies and then tyrannically restrict their capabilities or legitimacy. Instead, the rather impressive group of theorists gathered under this capacious and yet nonsensical heading of antinormative queer theory (Berlant, Butler, Duggan, Edelman, Eng, Ferguson, Halberstam, Halperin, McRuer, Muñoz, Puar, Reddy, Sedgwick, Warner) have all published extremely complex accounts of the relations between nationalism and norms, sexuality and terror, identity and repetition, race and disidentification, sexuality and death, pessimism and optimism, negativity and utopia, recognition and failure. No single theory of norms unites these works either through their embrace of the antinormative or through their understanding of the political. They have no single object, they do not share a goal, they follow multiple methodologies and none of these theorists unambiguously embraces a singular, critical stance from which it unfairly draws energy and through which it proposes to change the world. The antinormative position is, I will say it again, a straw queer, an Aunt Sally, a rag and bone target for any straight thinkers who want to score points in an academic marketplace of diminishing returns.

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Like the bad critical theory essay in which everyone is wrong because the author is right, or in which the author notices something that everyone else in the history of critical thinking has ignored, or in which an intrepid and insightful author uncovers a fallacy upon which an entire area of study has depended, this journal issue requires big targets, thinkers united in their false assumptions who can finally be revealed for what they are – naïve, blind, simple folk who see tyranny where there is only discourse, who confirm the status quo through opposition, and who create a new canon while claiming to bring the house down.

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What, I ask you, do Wiegman and Wilson want? They tell us they want to “channel the energies of queer inquiry otherwise.” Ok – point us in the direction of “otherwise.” And I really mean that  – I want to understand the project here, but it feels elusive. They tell us they will promote scholarship that moves “athwart” rather than “against” (although they are clearly against antinormative queer theory, not athwart it…what is athwart, critically speaking?). And they offer to “rethink the meaning of norms, normalization, and the normal” while imagining “other ways to approach the politics of queer criticism altogether.” Let me translate dear reader: we critics, who read athwart not against, who offer critique without solutions, who know something is wrong but cannot offer to replace it, will keep thinking about this in the hopes of generating something that is not more of the same.

Ok, that sounds harsh so let me break it down:

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1. Most of the theorists assembled under the heading of the anti-normative produce the very 51TjyujvLxLscholarship that Wiegman and Wilson call for – namely a critique of simple notions of the political as oppositional . Consider Lauren Berlant’s idea of a relation of “cruel optimism” that “exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” Or think of Lee Edelman’s reminder that the impulse to call for a politics around the figure of the child ensures the reproduction of the status quo. Or look again at Rod Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black and his analysis of the way that canonical sociology requires the Black body as a foil for the production of the truth of statistical norms.

2. If you don’t want to commit to some kind of critique of norms you may be doomed to “straight

Normal and Strange directions. Opposite traffic sign.

Normal and Strange directions. Opposite traffic sign.

thinking.” Straight thinking is characterized by a matrix of rhetorical operations that support the common sense of the moment, commit to foreclosing on critiques of the status quo and reinvest in the ordinary, the good and the true. Such rhetorical operations have propped up the very distinctions between straight and gay/lesbian/trans or between abled and disabled or between whiteness and of color that have allowed for legal, social and political benefits to accrue to one group at the expense of the other. Abandon antinormativity and you slip quickly into acquiescence.

3. Antinormative thinking, as represented in this issue, simply means scholarship with an urgent, complex, politically explicit agenda. It is the opposite of the seemingly objective “deviance studies” scholarship that Heather Love writes about in this issue but it is in line with some of the writings by Evelyn Hooker, Mary Macintosh and others that she claims queer studies has rejected. Like other essays in the issue, Love’s piece works around a false claim and a false dichotomy. She claims from the start that there are “ongoing conflicts between humanists and social scientists” within the field of queer studies and that these conflicts turn on “the question of whether the empirical study of sexuality should be understood as social recognition or as epistemological violence” (77). Such conflicts were very common in the 1990’s but disciplinary skirmishes have long since diminished under the pressure of new insights about the arbitrary nature of disciplinary boundaries (Latour). Critiques of the social sciences from within queer studies by Rod Ferguson and others are not disciplinary quarrels so much as they are historically situated accounts of how non-heteronormativity gets located firmly at the heart of U.S. racial formations and links the “multiplication of racialized discourses of sexuality and gender” to the “multiplication of labor under capital” (12). By separating an account of sexual deviance from its imbrication in the production of knowledge on racial deviance in her essay, Love straightens the lines between sexuality and race in a way that literally undoes the work of queer of color critique. What Ferguson had intricately described as meshed, Love unties and analyzes separately.

And later in Love’s essay, she takes aim at the romanticism of The Undercommons to reveal how attached humanities scholars can be to their own subversive potential. What Moten and Harney describe as the role of the “subversive academic” in The Undercommons, Love rejects as a kind of unconscious political violence: “if we are in, we are also of” she writes. Championing the “queer ordinary” and describing the queer academic as a “professional knowledge worker,” Love settles into and accepts her role as observer of ordinary life. Her stakes are clear: the antinormative queer scholar or the fugitive scholar of the undercommons are just engaged in a “romantic disavowal of our position as scholars.” With no account of the activist worlds that informed early queer studies research, no recognition of the disciplinary violence that goes into establishing a definitive split between the “truth seeking” missions of the social sciences and the “civilizing” goal of the humanities in the first place, with no references to the difference that race makes to either professional knowledge production or the definition of deviance, this is an essay that refuses to grapple with its own site of enunciation – for whom is the ordinary smooth and even? For whom is it absolutely unattainable? For whom is it unacceptable?

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And so it goes, the straw person argument allows for the wholesale ransacking of several decades of exceptional work from a range of positions and disciplinary locations, emerging from different activist histories and focused upon various political and even utopian horizons. This issue claims to re-evaluate but it comes to eradicate; it claims to survey a field but it creates a position to lambast; it claims to speak for the ordinary but it colludes with the status quo. So, to clarify the argument here: if you still believe in the socially engaged academic and if, like them, your work continues to circle back to performativity, cruel optimism, intersectionality, queer of color critique, queer negativity, critiques of homonormativity, disciplinary critique and the undercommons, this mini-movement is not for you. And for those of you who are still wondering what the answer is to the question posed by this volume of differences in the first place, namely “what is queer studies without antinormativity,” I think I have an answer for you – it is disciplinary, neoliberal, no stakes, straight thinking. You’re welcome!