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“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.

Exiting the Roach Motel

1 Mar

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

By Lisa Duggan

Tags: Dexit, Demexit, Dem-olish, Demogrets

What’s a commie pinko queer feminist to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

WHITE MEN BEHAVING SADLY by Jack Halberstam

22 Feb

White Men Behaving Sadly

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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.

Aside

Fidel: The Comeback / José Quiroga

14 Dec

 

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

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

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

The room turned hotter by the minute, with the thick and sticky sort of humid miasma that, once upon a time, made flying insects easy to catch and pierce with a needle dabbed in alcohol for display. All around me the miasma turned into a black and white blob–like silly-putty but translucid–shiny from the inside. And the blob slithered down the stairs. It sucked up the pile of dishes in the sink, the roasted brussels sprouts, the turkey and the turkey sandwiches, the toy soldiers and the board games, the replica of Apollo 13, and the Lunar Module, the cast of Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel, the collection of postage stamps in the Citation album, a Davy Crockett hat with a matching vest, a velour sweater, vand a collection of Cuban LPs assembled over the past forty years, albums re-mastered and re-packaged in Mexico so that no revolutionary chants would ever find their way directly to any part of the U.S. mainland or territories.
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I’ve been immersed in that blob for a week, unclear as to what part of me died, what part of me remains. I had a hard time visualizing that body in Havana, just as I had a hard time recognizing my father in that open casket in San Juan: death does a body no good, even the clothes look unreal.   We never got to see the body, but I’m convinced he was cremated in the uniform he used as a  Commander in Chief. After all, there were only three costume changes in the three acts of his life. First, the suit and tie, in two permutations: white suit and black suit.  With that outfit he was a student, a husband, and a lawyer; the father of one child, the man who raised funds in Mexico and in the U.S.A for an invasion aimed to liberate the country from the dictator Batista.  After that, and from 1959 on, he wore an olive green military suit, sometimes shiny for matters of State, at other times not so much a uniform but a radical interpretation of the priesthood–he was a jesuit with a gun and boots. (How many boots did he have?) The black suit and tie made a discrete comeback towards the end–just long enough to leave us with an idea that he could have been, under different circumstances, a “man of State.” But soon enough he settled into the jogging suit and sneakers that he wore the rest of his life.

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

for José M.

December 4, 2016

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

7 Dec
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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

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

3 Nov

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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For Colored Boys who Have considered Hypermasculinity when the Gender Roles were too Tuff.

26 Oct

By Tav Nyong’o

(originally posted at Earthling.)

 

Halfway through the first act of Moonlight, the second feature film from director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), a hounded-looking boy turns to a man he thinks might be a father figure and asks him, “what’s a faggot?”

Sitting around the table, the man who has plucked the quivering child out of the mean streets several times already by this point inthe film, shoots a quick look at his girlfriend, who expertly guides him, with no more than a facial expression or two, through the right words to say. A faggot is a word people use to make gay people feel bad about themselves, he tells the shamefaced child, but it’s also a word that some gay people … here the woman, named Teresa, (played by afro-cyborgian rock star Janelle Monáe effortlessly transformed into a ’round the way girl for the film) quickly shuts down his attempt at queer theory 101. Instead, she nudges him let their primary message reverberate through the boy’s traumatized body: words are weapons, and in this place we all live in, they can certainly break your bones. But if you choose to go the way your blood beats, there will be people like us there to meet you.

There is no dad at this table. By the end of the scene, the boy has fled Teresa’s home, after wringing a humiliating confession from her boyfriend Juan (played by the steely Mahershala Ali, currently thrilling fans as the villainous Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in Marvel’s Luke Cage television series). Juan, the boy knows, is the drug dealer who is selling the crack to his addicted mom (played in all three stages of his coming-of-age by Naomie Harris). This is a plot twist that, in lesser hands, would reek of melodrama or blaxploitation. But Jenkins’ fearless and patient direction never lets the aching home truths of the screenplay that Tarell McCraney has adapted from his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue turn into a morality tale. Instead, we have in Moonlight (the film) a masterful three-acter that I left the theatre calling, in conscious nod to Ntozake Shange, For Colored Boys who have Considered Hypermasculinity when the Crack Wars got too Ruff.

A little glib, I know, but my alternate title does roughly approximate the story arc of the protagonist, played in each of the three acts of his life by a new actor: the prepubescent Little (Alex R. Hibbert); the teenage Chiron (an unforgettable Ashton Sanders); and, finally, as the adult man Black, at whose first screen entrance the audience may confuse for the reappearance of Juan, so exactly does actor Trevante Rhodes slip into the skin and corporeal schema of the man who, it turns out, maybe was Little’s father figure after all.

This is not a story about the “cool pose” young black men adopt in order to survive, however, nor a parable of how the “code of the streets” produce a wild violence that can only be tamed by the narrative arrival of white knight or white savior figure. It is a love story about two boys who found a way of touching each other once, in an impossibly brief beach idyll, and then careened through life as best they could wearing each others bruises under their skin.

Readers of Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets, or the DC poetry of Essex Hemphill, may recognize the world of dangers confronting Little/Chiron/Black in Messrs. Jenkins and McCraney’s Florida, a brown and black world achingly reconstructed from their own childhoods in that state. The chopped and screwed soundtrack is liquorice-thick with love for the bounce and drawl of a black Floridian life that is springing up from what we might think of, with the work of Alexandra Vazquez in mind, as the mudsill of the Caribbean. This mudsill sociality cannot be prettified, but it cannot be talked down to either. Moonlight grants no Scarface-like glamor to the drug-dealing, gang-banging life, choosing to spend its time lingering in the folds and fissures of the human clay out of which such soldiers are kilned.

As the gangly boy-turned-muscle mary (a feat so reminiscent for me of “Rocky” in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, an movie classic which has been on my mind because of  this week’s TV remake starring Laverne Cox), Trevante Rhodes looks so brittle he could break. His performance serves us the necessary reminder that as much as black boys and men are dying from police bullets, they are also dying to be touched. To be held, fed, sexed, and loved.

His love interest-turned-nemesis Kevin, also played by three actors, is the sort of freewheeling lothario we all knew at one point, the charming cad who hopes to wink through life on promises he never intends to keep. It is fully believable when he turns Chiron out one night, and then punches him in the face in school the next day. “Stay down!” Kevin whispers to Chiron after he decks him, in a tone that makes you desperately want to believe that his are fistfuls of love. It is a scene of abjection that Darieck Scott would call “extravagant”. If mudsill black masculinity entails a constant shadowboxing with the “big black buck” image that might save your life (when it doesn’t get you killed), then “staying down” might be more than a survival strategy. It might be an erotic pose of its own, a sexual compact with those bruising and battering fists.

Moonlight is a noticeably chaste film for an era of ubiquitous sex tapes and raunchy pop. But the poetry of its repression is never in the service of some figment of respectability. It instead works to slow down the “implicit bias” of the anti-black gaze, to stroke its itchy trigger finger, and force it to absorb the subtle changes the blueblack and redbone boy lovers must go through, if they would find their way to an adult reckoning.

That both (openly straight) Jenkins and (openly gay) McCraney can now publicly discuss their own personal trauma of being raised by crack-addicted mothers lends the film’s arrival in cinemas this weekend a deserved gravitas. Autobiography certainly raises the stakes around the performance of  Harris as the protagonist’s mom Paula, a role who could easily turn into a tragic spectacle or another exercise in blaming the victim. By no means is this Paula’s story; but the audience I sat with never turned against her as she struggled, with what limited means were available to her, to make a way out of no way for herself and her only child. That Theresa is able to step in as a surrogate with such understated and non-rivalrous capacity (the two women never share a scene) just speaks that much more eloquently to the enduring wonders of “love’s austere and lonely offices.”

There may be those who feel such stories of dereliction, abuse, and fugitivity are simply too dangerous to tell in public; to tell stories from the mudsill may be too pathologizing of black life in this moment of danger (but when is black life not in danger? When is storytelling not a risky act?). Notwithstanding, it is clear that Jenkins and McCraney stand with those who are ready to bring the pain that never hurts (those who believe, in Sufi terms, that one must feed the demon or, in self-help jargon, that one must “feel it to heal it”). This is a film that knows in its bones that only way out is through. And the honesty, measure, and  even the joy and beauty with which it takes us there, lends a vibrant new myth for bluegum boys of all colors, and those of us who want and need them in our world.

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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STRAW DOGS

27 Jun

On the massacre at Club Pulse

By José Quiroga 

June 27, 2016

“…in the struggle for mastery, the Negro is the pawn.”

James Baldwin

Orlando vigil in PRThe twenty-three Puerto Ricans that were killed at Club Pulse in Orlando had two things in common: they were Puerto Rican or identified themselves as such, and they were killed at a business that catered to the LGBT community in Orlando, Florida, by a man who had legally acquired his gun. These facts may not clarify the event nor shed light on its cause—they just make the sadness specific to stories I know, to narratives I’ve lived with. This is how my work of mourning begins.

Puerto Ricans have been moving to Orlando at least since the 1980s to escape the alarming criminality of an economically depressed island, where an exhausted political compact with the United States has produced mass unemployment and social insecurity. Talk to any Puerto Rican living in central Florida and she or he will recount a similar tale of options foreclosed, mass layoffs, and diminished expectations. And the story will most certainly include robberies at gunpoint, bullet holes in windows and cars, someone killed. “In the dead in Orlando, Puerto Ricans hear a roll call of their kin” was the title of a June 14 New York Times article written by Lizette Alvarez and Nick Madigan, which noted as a “bitter twist” the fact that a “spectacularly high crime rate” partially accounts for this migration.

At some point in the past, all of those Puerto Ricans killed had pondered the balance between reality and a life unlived, and had opted for the most difficult part of that equation, which is displacement. That we mourn the fact that they were killed because of their sexuality does not exclude the fact that we also mourn them because they had no choice but to restart their lives as lives defined by diaspora, exile, and bureaucracy: one-way plane tickets , a new home, re-localization and moving fees, mail forwarding, new license plates, voting rights lost and gained, taxation. And of course they took with them the traces of all those other migrations Puerto Ricans have collectively endured.

Peoples (and nations) are crafted out of the complexities of nostalgia and regret, homelands occupied, or lost, or re-gained at the end of some journey. But Orlando has not given us an image we can place alongside the great migrations of the past, perhaps because the middle-class flight of an educated workforce lacks the drama of poverty and survival inscribed in those heroic tales of hot rum in a small room with red lampshades, while snow flurries dance outside on uptown winter nights. Orlando doesn’t convey a dream of upward mobility, but an attempt to preserve a certain way of life, an alternative future out of the island and its endless struggle to re-define a political relationship at an impasse. Behind each and every one of Orlando’s well kept lawns there is the horn blasting dysfunctionality of pot-holed streets in the native land, incessant traffic jams, dirty beaches, roach-infested central plazas, and corrupt municipalities. Every Puerto Rican business in Orlando represents a successful middle-class escape from the whole mess of a U.S. colony in the midst of a massive default, and, because of those same colonial laws, without the legal benefit of bankruptcy such as was given to a city like Det Detroit.

Background SomosOrlando rainbowWhat does that all have to do with the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, one that targeted those who were partying and dancing at a disco in Orlando during “Latin night”? In the days following the massacre, the tangled, confusing plotlines that tie central Florida to a broader context were exposed. While Obama once again had to respond to a senseless act of violence abetted by the easy availability of guns, Hillary Clinton showed us how presidential she could be, and Marco Rubio announced that he was seeking a Senate seat. JetBlue offered to fly relatives to and from central Florida, and a local campaign called #SomosOrlando was set up to receive donations. Donald Trump, in the meantime, once again revealed how acrobatic the human brain can be, that it can talk and say nothing at the same time, just blame Muslims for not policing their fellow Muslim neighbors. In Puerto Rico, Governor Alejandro García Padilla extended the period of official mourning on the island, with all flags at half-mast, and the left-wing socialist pro-independence weekly newspaper had not taken note of the event two weeks after it happened. San Juan prepared itself for what turned out to be its biggest LGBT March on June 26.

Hurricane season in the tropics doesn’t care for complicated sets, or issues too complex to rhyme. At each and every invitation to grieve, someone collapsed. Students were given posthumous degrees. Desolate towns where every third person had already packed their bags and left, welcomed the bodies of men and women with the dignified acceptance such complicated crises invoke. Some of the victims, it was said, had not “come out” to their families, or didn’t identify as lesbian or gay. The toxic encounter of money, identity and sexuality ensured that only two Latino men were interviewed by The New York Times, in a massacre where 90% of the victims were Latinxs for a piece which in turn tried to balance race and gender. It was an attempt to give voice to a collective grief by recalling the gay bar as a refuge of the past, precisely the wrong thing to do at this point in time.

The whole messy, complex, unhealthy and toxic atmosphere of a bar, a disco, a speakeasy, or whatever, was never a quasi-religious “safe space.” It wasn’t safe back in the days when John Travolta ran off with the girl in “Saturday Night Fever” and it wasn’t safe back in the days of the Anvil or the Saint. And had it not been for the careful monitoring that every bartender at The Eagle bar in Boston had for this 17 year old Latino coming out of the backroom, who knows what sorts of negotiations would have had to take place when I opted for the Fenway instead of the Combat Zone.

So let’s remain for a while in this mausoleum, this sticky space of the gay bar that the Times seems to want to foreclose. Latin nights seem redundant in a city like Orlando on a Saturday night. Ten or twenty years ago Latin nights meant trying to bring in people on a Tuesday, or a Wednesday—enticing those seeking a midweek escape from the nine-to-five. They would pull in those young enough to stay up all night and up the next morning, perhaps with a hangover, and head to work after a hot shower with the borrowed shirt. That’s the world as it was back then. At this point in time when the finger on the trackpad can just click on a profile onscreen, zooming in on the full frontal, it’s difficult to draw them in even on a weekend. Waiting for a stranger naked in bed, ass up and lubed, sounds safe in comparison, if not more expedient.

Perhaps it is. But as we watch our affective lives fall under the regulatory zeal of the State, the police, the courts and private business; and our eccentric, fabulous and flamboyant social spaces give way to the demands of normativity, perhaps it is time to bring back the conversation to issues that were never resolved by marriage “equality.” Issues that include acceptance and recognition for our forms of kinship with our own set of rules and responsibilities, the right to be free, to have sex as often and as much as we want to, the right to dance in gay bars and straight bars, and the right to include a significant other to receive benefits, medical and otherwise, without having to produce the legal, normatized validation of a marriage certificate.

These days, Puerto Rico has no path other than civil resistance to a hostile Republican-controlled U.S. Congress imposing a fiscal control board—unbelievably known by the acronym PROMESA–that will not craft a sustainable economic base but on the contrary, defend the interests of junk bond investors. In Orlando, self-preservation once again will entail mastering the grammar of avoidance while busing tables, standing at the cash register, getting a perm, or going to the doctor. Last call will be hasty and swift with part of the crowd sobering up while the other tries scouts the room in one last ditch attempt at sex.

It would be a fine thing at this point to offer a message of hope. To believe that things will go back to normal, that our bars will not close down because of gentrification or fear, or more efficient ways of hooking up. But as long as lesbian or gay stands for the exclusionary site of a mode of isolation and not the inclusive site where different classes, ethnicities, pasts presents and futures openly put on display all of their perverse possibilities and their different ways of understanding sex and gender and kinship, we will just be left with some maimed possibility of ourselves, some phantom subject unhinged, with our tacit acceptance and permission.
José Quiroga is our newest Bully Blogger.  He is Professor of Comparative Literature, Emory University. He works on contemporary Latinx and Latin American cultures, queer and gender studies, Cuba and the Caribbean. Quiroga’s books include include Mapa Callejero (Buenos Aires: Eterna Cadencia, 2010), Law of Desire: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2009), Cuban Palimpsests (U Minnesota Press, 2005) and Tropics of Desire: Interventions from Queer Latino America (NYU Press, 2001). In collaboration with Licia Fiol-Matta he directs the series New Directions in Latino American Cultures for Palgrave, and is completing an edited collection titled The Havana Reader, and The Book of Flight. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012, and is always aiming to be a better escape artist.