I did not watch the inauguration. This is nothing new, though, I rarely do. I saw Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, I watched Obama’s, parts of it, after the fact. I would rather read the inaugural addresses than listen, but really the main reason I skip them is that for me they don’t mean much. This is the party after the fight, so to speak. Parades, lots of glad-handing, important people with lots of money doing a Hollywood red carpet thing. It’s show.
Show is important in statecraft, certainly, but it’s not important to me, so…
But the aftermath this time has been fascinating. It’s a show, so why lie about what went on? Why try to tell the national press corps that what they saw with their own eyes was not the reality? Why start with petty numbers games as if the show was the only thing that mattered?
Well, Trump does do reality tv.
However, I would like to say a couple of things here about some of the images I’ve seen—and some of the vitriol attached—after the fact.
I’m not going to say one damn thing about Melania Trump unless she starts getting involved in policy. Which from all appearances, she will not. Likewise for his kids, especially Barron. I don’t believe in that “Well, your dad’s a so-n-so, so you must be, too!” kind of schoolyard bullying. I rejected that whole sins of the father argument back when I parted ways with christianity. I won’t go there.
I will say this, though, about her supporters and detractors: hypocrisy runs deep.
The so-called Christian Right lent considerable support to this man. His wife is a former model and sex symbol. She’s done nudes. She projects an image which I had thought ran counter to the standards of that so-called Christian Right. Had Michelle Obama done anything like that, these people would have declared the advent of Sodom and Gomorrah and the End Times. (Many of them do that anyway, on a regular basis.) These are people who collectively have made it clear they see the sexualization of culture as a decidedly Bad Thing. But they voted for him anyway and got in the face of anyone who criticized Melania for being what till now they claimed to oppose. This is Through The Looking Glass Time for them and I won’t pretend to claim any understanding, other than recognizing the serious two-faced hypocrisy evident.
As to those critics who have held old photographs of her up for disdain, mocking her and her husband thereby, as if the fact that she pursued a career which many of them might have made apologies about (women have so few options, etc) has anything to do with her suitability to be something else.
Lay off. This is all part of the same bifurcated mindset that places sex in one room and everything else in another and then treats public examples of it as alternately empowering or a disease.
Just because her husband treats her like a trophy doesn’t mean the rest of us get to repurpose her for our own ends.
I have no problem with pointing out the hypocrisy of the Family Values crowd over this, but I will not blame Melania for it. We just bid farewell to a presidential family that had no sex scandals of any kind and clearly set an example as a solid, loving, neuroses-free family—who suffered ongoing derision for 8 years at the hands of people who have violated their own professed standards in that that regard to elect someone who has pretty much been a poster-boy for everything they claim is wrong with America. Well, clearly the whole thing was a deep, deep neurosis on their part. I will not blame Melania for their shallowness, lack of integrity, and evident moral malleability.
Nor will I support attempts to ridicule him by holding her up as some example of unsuitability based on the opposite neurosis attaching to women who—
Well, let me put it this way: all those who were (and are) madly in love with Hillary and feel the world has ended because she is not the president—would you have supported her fervently if nude photos of her from her college years surfaced? With all the rest of her qualifications intact, had she taken a year to do something that doesn’t fit with an image of “stateswoman”, would the love have been there?
Food for thought.
But for now, unless she gets involved with policy—and if she does, I will wait to see how and what she produces—I will not credit any shaming that goes her way.
In my previous post I talked about the use—misuse—of a term: Snowflake. It was brought to my attention that I myself may be misusing it or at least misunderstanding it.
It derives from Fight Club, as a negative. “You are not special snowflakes…you are not unique…” More or less. Tyler Durden exhorting the new members of a club no one is supposed to speak about. Which kind of automatically makes them special. Exclusive club, deeply hidden, secret, and very radical. How much more special can you get short of joining the Masons or being recruited by the NSA?
The term then entered the language by way of gaming, applied to people claiming unique privileges—usually unearned—in the course of some rule-heavy role-playing extravaganza. It went from there to an appellation attached to Millennials of a certain mindset who had absorbed the pseudo-Montessori-esque lessons of specialness and uniqueness and then took it to the next level as sinecure that they, being unique and special, can do no wrong and are allowed to exercise a degree of privilege and intolerance based on that assumed status.
Like all such terms, obviously, it has been handed on, re-purposed, reapplied, contorted, enlarged, expanded, and now, today, it is being used to label anyone even glancingly allied to that other wonderful term that has come to be applied as a derogation, the Social Justice Warrior.
That’s the problem with labels. They start out one way, they inevitably become something else, and then history gets retroactively rewritten to incorporate the new meanings.
Democrats belong to the party of Jim Crow.
Republicans freed the slaves.
As if those claims describe what they are intended to today.
What I have witnessed and heard is the appropriation of the label Snowflake by people who are unfriendly to messages and arguments about social justice, equality, political correctness, diversity, and related issues so they can apply it where needed to shut down debate. Classifying someone as a Snowflake (or a Social Justice Warrior) is little more than an attempt to categorize what they have to say as a specific kind of rhetoric which we are not obliged to listen to or credit because it only describes the presumed delicate, unique, and supposedly privileged character of the speaker. We don’t have to listen to them because, well, it’s just the way they are.
And somehow these delicate souls manage to harass the virtuous manly men (male or female) who have right on their side to the point of silence.
I haven’t, if you’ll forgive the mixed usage here, seen the silence. On either side, frankly. What I have seen is a big fat fence raised between the deponents made up of labels.
Now, labels can be useful. I like to know which aisle contains the pet food as opposed to the household drygoods as opposed to the liquor. I like to know which building houses what services and addresses are very handy. I even like knowing what kind of music I’m likely to find on what station and it is helpful to know where in the bookstore I can find History as opposed to Humor.
But when it comes to people, labels are useless impediments to dialogue and intercourse. And just because those people over there insist on using labels does NOT justify labeling by anyone else. Because it is the nature of such things—language—that usage is hijacked, meanings change, and context shifts.
Back in the Sixties, there was an event in San Fransisco. There was a funeral for Hippy. The label, the tag, the identity. Because the people at the core of the counter culture saw what was happening—that what they were, how they dressed, talked, acted, was about to be appropriated as fashion. They knew that all they intended, all they meant for themselves, all they held important was about to be changed by the normal misuse of the American dialogue. So they declared Hippy dead and they held a funeral. There was, after that, no authentic hippy.
It didn’t stop the entire country from assuming it knew what a Hippy was and that they were all around.
In the Fifties the label Communist was horribly misapplied. A wide net of philosophical and political opinions caught people up and labeled them and lives were ruined. Because it’s easy to think in labels. Action follows thought.
I don’t care for labels like that. Especially when deployed in such a way as to shut down meaningful dialogue.
What I am seeing is the use of a term that once described something quite different being applied by people who think they have the right to determine what is meaningful by excluding what they think is without merit.
Does this go both ways? Of course. Labels have universal utility. They are shorthand. The problem with them is they make it easy to not think.
Just in case anyone thought I meant something else.
The clown car rolled into the station, the occupants decamped, and the frollicks began in earnest. Lots of shouting, foot-stamping, and low-grade denunciations from the podium of this or that.
Trump is almost universally seen by all but the most ardent supporters as unqualified for the office of the president. We keep hearing that, squeezed in between all the other verbiage being spewed about him. That in fact the only reason for some to vote for Hillary is because Trump is so thoroughly unqualified.
And yet, it would seem that most people who support him have a “Yeah? So?” reaction.
Consider: that very accusation, leveled by people despised by Trump supporters, makes him all the more appealing. For many, the very fact that he is unqualified to fill an office which they have believed filled primarily by ideologues of the “wrong” stripe for decades is a bonus. His very unsuitability in comparison to all others is the whole point. So hammering on the “unqualified to be president” charge is counterproductive. You’re only reinforcing what they already know—and approve.
What Trump has successfully managed is to project as counternarrative an image of the ideal outsider. Not only is he outside the mainstream of political circles but he is outside the traditional bounds of informed citizen. The people to which this appeals most strongly are those who no longer believe in any kind of constructive dialogue. In their bones, they seem to believe that because they either don’t understand the system or the language of cooperative discourse, they are always shut out of any major public dialogue. They’re tired of the ongoing discussions because, for them, nothing ever goes their way.
This is not Trump’s doing but he has tapped into it very well. He knows his audience. Tell them you’ll put up a gigantic wall to keep foreigners out, any attempt at examining the merits of that proposal will be met with impatience and derision. “We don’t care about your ethics or even your cost-benefit analyses, we like the idea of a wall, so stop telling me it won’t work or shouldn’t work or—more to the point—that I have no right to feel that way!”
Trump won the GOP nomination very simply, by appealing to those who are fed up trying to understand “processes” or “paradigms” or “dynamics” or the intricacies of a system they feel—often correctly—is bent on screwing them, by telling them that he will be their John Wayne and clean up the town. Which usually means gunplay and some form of segregation.
Yes, it does come directly from the implicit “Make America White Again” which is the essential motor in his campaign car.
The reason this never works and only succeeds in making a lot of other people extremely angry is that it is a fantasy.
And Trump knows how to play this. His wife’s speech at the convention, clearly cribbed from Michele Obama, is a seriously twisted example of cultural appropriation that compares well with anything George Orwell might have come up with. An anti-immigrant candidate’s Eastern European wife steals a speech from an educated native born black woman and represents it as a model of what the GOP should strive for. This is done without the least hint of irony and the floor erupted with glee at the profundities they heard. Which they had heard before and, as with just about everything else attached to Obama, rejected. Rejected without any consideration as to content only with regard to who was saying it.
Of course, if Trump’s presumed policies actually went into effect, his wife might have trouble staying here. He’d have to give her a special pardon.
But his base doesn’t care. Melania will be fine, she can stay, because what they want more than anything is the power to say who fits and who doesn’t.
Hence the comparisons to Nazism. The Green Card will become the new Yellow Star. What’s in your wallet?
Shifting to the other side, the lukewarm support for Hillary is in some ways based on the exact same set of criteria. Qualifications. She may well be the most qualified candidate for president we have ever seen. On paper, I cannot think of any presidential candidate ever who brings more preparedness to the office.
And that very thing is making a lot of people very uncomfortable. Because America has developed, over many decades, a culture that exudes contempt for professionalism, especially in politics and especially in someone who is the wrong kind of person.
The reason Melania Trump’s plagiarism (and let me stress, I don’t for a second believe Melania did that, her speech was written for her, but someone knew exactly what they were doing) will pass through the Trump base without stirring a leaf of indignation is because Michele Obama should never have been able to make it in the first place. She’s the “wrong” kind of person to be smart and powerful.
So, in similar fashion, is Hillary Clinton.
Now, if she were a man…
How can I suggest that? Because the kind of subterfuge, oligarchism, and political insider creds for which she is being criticized is shared by just about any career politician who has moved for any length of time at those levels of power. Dig deep enough, you can find exactly the kinds of shenanigans of which Hillary is suspected, but in the main none of it ever gets before a Senate committee, because in the main all of them are men and the overwhelming majority are white. It only becomes actionable when the status quo is threatened, and here the threat is to the gender bias that should have gone away in the Seventies.
At it’s simplest, the choice is this: we have a candidate who will effectively execute the office of president and run the country; and we have a candidate who will run the country into the ground. The funny thing is, both of them are in equal measure cheered and reviled over the exact same question of qualifications. One is amply qualified, the other is profoundly unqualified.
As for the direction of the country, I suggest that the important elections this year are not for the presidency. If Hillary wins—and I suspect she will—she will be overseeing a political landscape that will either be in chaos or will be in the early stages of serious reform. Her job will be to keep it together in either case. Because it will be in congress that the real changes need to be made. If we send the same congress back, Hillary will simply be there to be blamed for the same stagnant nonsense Obama has been putting up with. If, however, we see record voter turnout and a massive overhaul in the Senate and the House, then a great deal of repair work will start, and that will be messy in a different way. I’d still rather see Hillary there that Trump.
One thing, though, that has to change—our indifference to education and our suspicion of ability.
Oh, one other thing—we need to vote.
First off, I would like to say that I work with some amazing people. I will address just how amazing they are in a different post. The reason I mention it here is that this morning I attended a meeting wherein we all discussed an extremely delicate, profoundly important issue in order to establish a protocol for a specific event and it was one of the most trenchant and moving experiences in which I’ve been involved.
In mid-July, Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set A Watchman, will be released. That I am working at a bookstore when this is happening is incredible. That I am working at a bookstore with the commitment to social justice and awareness that Left Bank Books brings to the table is doubly so, and one of the reasons I feel privileged is the discussion we engaged this morning.
It concerned a particular word and its use, both in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird and in the larger community of which we are all a part. Necessarily, it was about racism.
I’ve written about my experiences with racism previously. One of the startling and dismaying aspects of the present is the resurgence of arguments which some may believe were engaged decades ago and settled but which we can now see have simply gone subterranean. At least for many people. For others, obviously nothing has gone underground, their daily lives are exercises in rehashing the same old debates over and over again. Lately it has been all over the news and it feels like Freedom Summer all over again when for a large part of the country the images of what actually went on in so many communities, events that had gone on out of sight until television news crews went to Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia and the images ended up in everyone’s living rooms often enough to prick the conscience of the majority culture and cause Something To Be Done.
What was done was tremendous. That an old Southerner like Lyndon Johnson would be the one to sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law is one of the mind-bending facts of our history that denies any attempt to reduce that history to simple, sound-bite-size capsules and forces reconsideration, assessment, and studied understanding that reality is never homogeneous, simplistic, or, more importantly, finished.
It became unacceptable for the culture to overtly treat minorities as inferior and allocate special conditions for their continued existence among us.
Those who objected to reform almost immediately began a counternarrative that the legal and social reforms were themselves the “special conditions” which were supposed to be done away with, conveniently forgetting that the level playing field such objections implied had never existed and that the “special conditions” that should have been done away with were the apartheid style separations and isolations these new laws were intended to end and redress. Pretending that you have not stepped on someone for so long that they no longer know how to walk and then claiming that they are getting unwarranted special treatment when you provide a wheelchair is about as disingenuous and self-serving as one can get, even before the active attempt to deny access to the very things that will allow that person to walk again.
Some of this was ignorance. Documentary films of southern high school students angry that blacks would be coming into their schools when they had schools “just as good as ours” can only be seen as ignorance. Spoon fed and willingly swallowed, certainly, but the cultural reinforcements were powerful. The idea that a white teenager and his or her friends might have gone to black neighborhoods to see for themselves whether or not things were “just as good” would have been virtually unthinkable back then. Not just peer pressure and adult censure would have come in play but the civic machinery might, had their intentions been discovered, have actively prevented the expedition.
But it is ignorance that is required to reinforce stereotypes and assert privilege where it ought not exist.
Bringing us to the present day, where one may quite honestly say that things have improved. That African-Americans are better off than they could have been in 1964. That for many so much has changed in two generations that it is possible for both sides to look at certain things and say, “hey, this is way better!”
Which prompts some to say—and believe—that the fight is over.
And the fact that it is not and that the arguments continue prompts some to believe it is a war and that the purpose of at least one side is hegemony over the other.
Which leads to events like that in Charleston and Dylann Roof’s savage attack. He’s fighting a war.
The fact that so many people have leapt to excuse his behavior demonstrates that the struggle is ongoing. I say excuse rather than defend, because with a few fringe exceptions I don’t see anybody hastening to defend his actions. What I see, though, are people taking pains to explain his actions in contexts that mitigate the simple hatred in evidence. For once, though, that has proven impossible because of Roof’s own words. He was very clear as to why he was doing what he did.
He is terrified of black people.
Irrational? Certainly. Does that mean he is mentally ill? Not in any legal sense. He has strong beliefs. Unless we’re willing to say strong beliefs per se are indicative of mental illness, that’s insufficient. That he is operating out of a model of reality not supported by the larger reality…?
Now we get into dicey areas. Because now we’re talking about what is or is not intrinsic to our culture.
Without re-examining a host of examples and arguments that go to one side or the other of this proposition, let me just bring up one aspect of this that came out of our morning staff meeting and the discussions around a particular word.
After the Sixties, it became unacceptable in the majority culture to use racial epithets, especially what we now refer to as The N Word. We’ve enforced social restrictions sufficient to make most of us uncomfortable in its use. In what one might term Polite Society it is not heard and we take steps to avoid it and render it unspoken most of the time.
To what extent, however, have we failed to point out that this does not mean you or I are not racists. Just because we never and would never use that word, does that mean we’ve conquered that beast in ourselves or in our culture?
Because we can point to everything from incarceration rates all the way up to how President Obama is treated to show the opposite. But because “race” is never the main cause, we claim these things have nothing to do with it. We have arranged things, or allowed them to be so arranged, that we can conduct discriminatory behavior on several other bases without ever conceding to racism, and yet have much the same effect.
Because in populist media we have focused so heavily on That Word and its immediate social improprieties, we have allowed many people to assume, perhaps, because they’ve signed on to that program that they have matriculated out of their own racism and by extension have created a non-racist community.
That’s one problem, the blindness of a convenient excuse. Put a label on something then agree that label represents everything bad about the subject, then agree to stop using the label, and presto change-o, the problem is gone. Like sympathetic magic. Except, deep down, we know it’s not so.
The deeper problem, I think, comes out of the commitment, made decades ago, to try to achieve a so-called “colorblind society.” I know what was meant, it was the desire to exclude race as a factor in what ought to be merit-based judgments. No such consideration should be present in education, jobs, where to live, where to shop. We are all Americans and essentially the same amalgamated shade of red, white, and blue. (Or, a bit crasser, what Jesse Jackson once said, that no one in America is black or white, we’re all Green, i.e. all classifications are based on money. He was wrong.)
While there is a certain naïve appeal to the idea, it was a wrongheaded approach for a number of reasons, chief of which it tended to negate lived experience. Because on the street, in homes, people live their heritage, their family, their history, and if those things are based, positively or negatively, on color, then to say that as a society we should pretend color does not exist is to erase a substantial part of identity.
But worse than that, it offers another dodge, a way for people who have no intention (or ability) of getting over their bigotry to construct matters in such a way that all the barriers can still be put in place but based on factors which avoid race and hence appear “neutral.”
Demographics, income level, residence, occupation, education…all these can be used to excuse discriminatory behaviors as judgments based on presumably objective standards.
This has allowed for the problem to remain, for many people, unaddressed, and to fester. It’s the drug war, not the race war. It’s a problem with the educational system, not a cultural divide. Crime stats have nothing to do with color. Given a good rhetorician, we can talk around this for hours, days, years and avoid ever discussing the issue which Mr. Roof just dumped into our living rooms in the one color we all share without any possibility of quibbling—red.
We’ve had a century or more of practice dissembling over a related issue which is also now getting an airing that is long overdue. The Confederate flag. And likewise there are those trying to excuse it—that there never was a single flag for the entire Confederacy is in no way the issue, because generations of Lost Cause romantics thought there was and acted as if that were the case, using Lee’s battleflag to represent their conception of the South and the whole Gone With The Wind æsthetic. We’ve been exercising that issue in our history since it happened, with even people who thought the North was right bowing the sophistry that the Civil War was not about slavery.
Lincoln steadfastly refused to accept a retributive agenda because he knew, must have known, that punishment would only entrench the very thing the country had to be done with. He did not live to see his convictions survive the reality of Reconstruction.
So we entered this discussion about the use of a word and its power to hurt and its place in art. My own personal belief is that art, to be worthwhile at all, must be the place where the unsayable can be said, the unthinkable broached, the unpalatable examined, and the unseeable shown. People who strive for the word under consideration to be expunged from a book, like, say, Huckleberry Finn, misunderstand this essential function of art.
For the word to lose valence in society, in public, in interactions both personal and political, it is not enough to simply ban it from use. The reasons it has what potency it does must be worked through and our own selves examined for the nerves so jangled by its utterance. That requires something many of us seem either unwilling or unable to do—reassess our inner selves, continually. Examine what makes us respond to the world. Socrates’ charge to live a life worth living is not a mere academic exercise but a radical act of self-reconstruction, sometimes on a daily basis.
Which requires that we pay attention and stop making excuses for the things we just don’t want to deal with.