Have a Good Time

July 13, 2016

Summer, flags, unsettling John Brown

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“A great unrest was on the land. It was not merely moral leadership from above—it was the push of mental and physical pain from beneath;—not simply the cry of the Abolitionist but the upstretching of the slave. The vision of the damned was stirring the western world and stirring black men as well as white. Something was forcing the issue—call it what you will, the Spirit of God or the spell of Africa. It came like some great grinding ground swell,—vast, indefinite, immeasurable but mighty […].”
W. E. B. Du Bois, John Brown, Chapter V

“And if I make this Earth a metaphor I make a metaphor against the police”
Miguel James, “Against the Police”

I spent a good part of the last year thinking about W. E. B. Du Bois and John Brown. It wasn’t meant to take a year, but then I’m slow. The prompt for the form of the thought was throat surgery, related to longstanding chronic health conditions, which two summers ago resulted in slight but lingering difficulties with speech and subtle changes to the sound of my voice. Looking for ways to work through those changes, I returned to an old interest in Librivox, where volunteers create recordings of texts in the public domain, and for my first solo project I chose the 1909 edition of Du Bois’s biography of Brown (sadly missing the communist revisions of 1962) because I’d had my eye on it for a while, and because I was surprised to find no one had read it yet.

(I also missed my old, fuller, sharper voice—though how noticeable the differences are to anyone else I don’t know—and so, mostly for that reason, I restored some of the few recordings of it that I had first put online and then, like many things I put online, made private. One of them was a YouTube video from November 2013 which doubles as a kind of awkward sequel to an older post on this blog. It responds to some comments left on a clip by Mary Eng which had in turn engaged with that first post. My video focuses on Eng, Chelsea Manning, and Slavoj Žižek—who, in April of this year, did the world the favor of clarifying a position: “Transgenderism—I’m opposed to it.” Whether the world has sufficiently acknowledged that favor is another question. Free Chelsea Manning.)

I soon realized that this slow experiment—reading sentences over and over for the right emphases, seeking out other online sources for pronunciation and background information, spending hours editing each file—was a perfect way for me to get close to Du Bois’s text, to fall in love with his sentences, and to sit with the words he quoted extensively from John Brown and his contemporaries. It was also a linguistic education in settler colonialism, as my concern for articulation led me to page after page full of other white Americans disagreeing over the names of the cities in which they lived.

I wasn’t surprised to find echoes of the crises of Brown’s time in 2015that was why I had chosen the book. But for the specificity of some connections I was unprepared, and they’ve stayed with me. In June I was reading about Brown’s strategic debt to Denmark Vesey and his planned insurrection in South Carolina, days before Dylann Roof desecrated Vesey’s church and weeks before Bree Newsome removed the Confederate flag from the state capitol. (I want to come back to this later.) And flags were on my mind again in November. A few hours before I saw news of an attack in Paris, and a couple of days before Facebook was suggesting that I add a French flag to my profile picture and other users were eloquently addressing the colonial violence of that suggestion, I was reading about the 1858 Chatham convention, where John Brown and an assembly of black and white abolitionists from Canada and the U.S. drafted and debated the constitution for the “provisional government” they aimed to establish following the overthrow of slavery in the Southern states. Disagreements arose regarding the flag that this phantom government would adopt. Here, too, sympathetic intentions could not erase histories of violence. Du Bois quotes J.M. Jones’s observation that some black members of the convention, naturalized as Canadian subjects after fleeing slavery,

[…] said they would never think of fighting under the hated “Stars and Stripes.” Too many of them thought they carried their emblem on their backs. But Brown said the old flag was good enough for him; under it freedom had been won from the tyrants of the Old World, for white men; now he intended to make it do duty for the black men. He declared emphatically that he would not give up the Stars and Stripes. That settled the question.

I’m interested in the connection between this passage and another quotation from Jones at the convention, a few pages later, which ends on the same note and with the same verb:

A question as to the time for making the attack came up in the convention. Some advocated that we should wait until the United States became involved in war with some first-class power; that it would be next to madness to plunge into a strife for the abolition of slavery while the government was at peace with other nations. Mr. Brown listened to the argument for some time, then slowly arose to his full height, and said: “I would be the last one to take the advantage of my country in the face of a foreign foe.” He seemed to regard it as a great insult. That settled the matter in my mind that John Brown was not insane.

Du Bois makes no explicit comment on this discussion of flags, nations, and the borders of sanity. But one aspect of his book I value deeply is its consistent attention to the difficult interplay between moral leadership from above and pain from beneath: which entails an attention to the way John Brown’s position as a white man meant both a responsibility to unsettle some matters, and the unearned, almost unquestionable authority to settle others.

More than any other white man of his time, Brown recognized the responsibility. He knew that few things would disturb the slaveholders of the South more than a white American willing to die and to kill for abolition; he came to feel that his own death was necessary, as Du Bois again quotes Jones as saying, “to awaken the people from the deep sleep that had settled upon the minds of the whites of the North.” And Du Bois closes the book’s stunning final chapter with words that situate Brown as an abiding prophet of a great un/settlement to come—in 1859, in 1909, in 1962, and in 2016: “You may dispose of me very easily—I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled—this Negro question, I mean. The end of that is not yet.” Nevertheless, as the passages from Chatham and others attest, Brown also exploited the authority. He dismissed the voices of black men who hated the Stars and Stripes, who recognized those stripes as running parallel to the wounds on their backs. In the midst of planning what he knew would be understood—inevitably and not inaccurately—as an assault on the government that had authorized those wounds, Brown overrode their objections and insisted on flying the same government’s flag.

“Racism is decisive,” Sara Ahmed wrote in November: “It decides to whom we have an affinity (and to whom we do not).” The dissenters at Chatham knew that to define such affinities and distinctions, to make them material and to mark out which lives matter, is often a flag’s work. On occasion, even in the most radically aspirant settings, the established affinity can look like sanity, so that it is an affirmation of allegiance to a flag, or to the republic for which it stands, which can tether radical thought to the realm of the rational or the sensible. Flags can settle such matters, especially when flown, as the American and French flags were and are, by settlers.

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Most sources quote John Brown’s final words approaching the scaffold as some version of a sentence that can be seen to uphold a settlement: “This is a beautiful country.” Du Bois’s biography is to my knowledge the only text that has Brown say, instead, “This is a beautiful land.” And it’s true that the two sentences are nearly identical—considering that Brown wrote of “the crimes of this guilty land,” famously crimes to be “purged away with blood,” when he could have written “this guilty country.” Still, I suspect a wishful and affirmative gesture here on Du Bois’s part. “This is a beautiful country” is exquisite, of course, in the cruel optimism of its patriotic self-sacrifice. At the same time it lends itself to the merely optimistic recuperative efforts of, say, Richard Nixon—who closed a 1971 speech marking “the beginning of the Bicentennial Era” with a nod to Brown’s death: “[S]peaking to no one in particular, he said, ‘This is a beautiful country.’ If John Brown, with his own death imminent, just before the tragic War Between the States, could say that, then even more we today can truly say: America is a beautiful country…”

For Nixon to be able to employ these words in such a way, it’s surely important to believe both that Brown was “speaking to no one in particular,” and that his speech unambiguously referred and deferred to the authority of the state that was about to kill him. In this vision, John Brown’s life comes to an appropriate end while the beauty of the state goes marching on—a tragic beauty, perhaps, but also a self-evident one, and all-consuming. Du Bois, in contrast, pushes Brown’s words out beyond the state and onto the land, and shows him speaking, very particularly, to a history and a future of resistance against the state unfolding across that land:

John Brown rode out into the morning. ‘This is a beautiful land,’ he said. It was beautiful. Wide, glistening, rolling fields flickered in the sunlight. Beyond, the Shenandoah went rolling northward, and still afar rose the mighty masses of the Blue Ridge, where Nat Turner had fought and died, where Gabriel had looked for refuge and where John Brown had builded his awful dream.

Du Bois’s critical “beyond,” his refusal to let Brown’s words end with the state, and his orchestration of an echo of shared struggle across the land are consistent with a biographical approach which continually foregrounds the importance of the natural world in the development of Brown’s life and thought. And which returns several times to Brown’s beliefin no way a figurative or a rhetorically exaggerated onethat God had intended the Allegheny Mountains, “from the foundation of the world,” to serve as a refuge for those fleeing slavery. There’s something here that feels strikingly like Manifest Destiny in reverse: a land imbued at once with guilt and with the seeds of an unsettling absolution.

Du Bois also quotes William A. Phillips’s report that Brown, on one night spent under a Kansas sky in the summer of 1856, “condemned the sale of land as a chattel.” Another historian suggests that an error in transcription substituted “land” for “man,” but I’m not so sure. In any case, I would suggest that in amplifying Brown’s respect for the land and its emancipatory possibility over and against the state, Du Bois’s text—though it has little to say directly about the genocide of indigenous populations—sketches a drive for abolition that leaves crucial space open for the work of decolonization and climate justice. Such an openness quietly expresses itself in the difference between “a beautiful land” and “a beautiful country”; which might be compared to the difference between a sentence like “Give us back our land” and a sentence like “We want our country back.”

On June 11 of this year, Donald Trump was at a rally in Tampa, Florida, where his supporters began to chant “Build that wall” with such passion that he was prevented from continuing his speech. Faced with an enthusiasm for containment that had become temporarily uncontainable, Trump stepped back, gave the crowd a quiet thumbs-up, clapped along with their chant as he walked away from the podium, and hugged one of three American flags displayed behind it. This wordless embrace brought the crowd’s noise to a crest and then took it down. It was generally recognized for a moment that a flag meant a wall. Trump returned in triumph to the podium and summed up the moment: “Folks. Ready? America first. Very simple. America first.” That settled the question.

Hours after Trump hugged a flag in Tampa, a hundred miles away, forty-nine people were dead and another fifty-three wounded at the hands of one would-be police officer and a team of authorized police. The victims overwhelmingly looked like those whom Trump’s supporters demand to see on the other side of a wall (and whom President Obama has been putting there); and, as Che Gossett writes, their deaths were inseparable from “a context and cartography of U.S. colonial power in relation to Puerto Rico.”

Two days later it was Flag Day. On social media and offline there was an awful overdetermination in the air, with the specifically Latinx and LGBT context of the shooting stifled by echoes of Paris and Brussels and the extra resonance of the centennial of a lesser-known national holiday. George W. Bush, standing for the political establishment supposedly worlds away from Trump’s nativism, took the opportunity to post four sentences on Facebook in which he found his own way of putting America first, or his own way of saying that America is a beautiful country. The victims of the Pulse shooting literally figure here as “others.” The words “Latina,” “Latino,” “gay,” and “homophobia” are absent, but the word “freedom” appears four times, once in each sentence. (Now, I would suggest that the late revelation of Omar Mateen’s targeting for entrapment by a voracious post-2001 FBI means that George W. Bush bears a degree of personal responsibility for the Pulse massacre that might not have been anticipated. Even if that weren’t the case, though, there would be violence in this erasure.) Trump, meanwhile, merely repeated “AMERICA FIRST” on Flag Day, because he’s a machine built to repeat it. But his fans were circulating the same fact that his butler loves to recite: it was his birthday.

I wholeheartedly accept and endorse the symbolic conjunction of Donald Trump’s birthday with Flag Day. And, in the middle of a month when I’ve walked around a segregated Michigan city and seen flags lingering at half-mast and it’s become impossible for me to disentangle the Orlando deaths thereby commemorated from the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and millions of others, I want to take a moment to revisit some thoughts from six months ago. In the aftermath of an encounter with a white supremacist Trump had placated at another rally, struggling to process what had been an overwhelming experience, I wrote a post which, in retrospect, came closer than I intended to painting Trump as an exception. It approached exactly the claim I had hoped to avoid, namely that “society must be defended” against Donald Trump, when—for whatever it’s worth, and however difficult it might remain for me to absorb it and keep thinking with it—some of the intellectual work that has meant the most to me over the last two years has been work uncovering a constitutive antiblackness in American (and global) civil society, and a concomitant need for that society, as such, to end. And when every new day seems to uncover more.

So I would maintain that a good word for what burns through at moments like the rally in Tampa—a fine label, if not for the personal beliefs of a New York billionaire, then for the forces he has so effectively mobilized—is “fascism.” But I would set alongside that label the claim (commonly attributed to Walter Benjamin by way of Žižek, although the exact provenance is unclear) that every fascism indexes a failed revolution. And alongside the image of Trump hugging the Stars and Stripes in Florida in 2016, I would be inclined to set the image of John Brown in Chatham in 1858, on the verge of sparking a war between the states to be fought in many ways under his name, “declar[ing] emphatically that he would not give up the Stars and Stripes.” I want to hold two ideas here simultaneously, which Du Bois helps me to remember. First, in thinking through my own life as a beneficiary of white supremacy, John Brown is an ideal and a guiding light. Second, the violence that built and sustains the world I inhabit, from the Civil War through Reconstruction to Jim Crow to COINTELPRO to “superpredators” to President Trump and beyond, is the long index of a failed revolution. And the failure that might be flagged here is in an attempt at abolition which put America first, which was unready to abandon, even in martyrdom, the image of the beautiful country.

no flag

This is why I know I still have so much to learn from Bree Newsome’s action in South Carolina a year ago, from the way she responded to mass death not by raising one American flag but by grounding another. I remember the magnificence of the negative space where the Stars and Bars had lately hung, the pole then supporting only a June sky. And I remember getting into online arguments last summer, pointless arguments with Confederate apologists who seemed to find one trolling tactic more and more appealing as the summer went on. Wasn’t it absurd, they would ask, to get so worked up over that flag and not the Stars and Stripes? When they both stood for the histories they stood for? When one had flown over a secessionary movement for only five years, and the other had flown over a slaveholding nation for a century and more?

As if that were an irresistible argument for leaving all the flags up, rather than for taking them all down. As if an unspoken universal faith in the Stars and Stripes settled everything. Of course a refusal to admit any reason why the Confederate battle flag might have represented a more urgent strategic target in South Carolina in 2015 is a refusal of the obvious; but there’s no need to go as far back as the Chatham Convention to find radical voices explaining why the American flag, too, stands for terror. That can be heard from Newsome herself. There is no Law of Conservation of Political Energy here: the removal of one racist banner is not the de facto raising of another (just as opposition to one politician is not necessarily the endorsement of another, is not the endorsement of anyone).

And if John Brown, with his own death imminent, could say so, then even more we today can truly say: This is a beautiful land, and America is not a beautiful country. And if John Brown believed that “the old flag was good enough for him,” then I think one of the achievements of Du Bois’s biography—a book I would recommend to anyone in 2016—is to establish so thoroughly the broad sense in which “John Brown was right” that his wrongness on that point becomes all the clearer.

December 27, 2015

“Turn the camera”: On fascism, racism, and Donald Trump

I have a long story about my decision to interrupt a Donald Trump rally and its aftermath. The story touches on upsetting subjects and contains details of emotional distress I’ve experienced in the last week, which has not disappeared. As I see it, though, there are two crucial larger points. The first is about historical ties and morphological similarities between antisemitism and Islamophobia, and the second is about Trump’s own willingness to harness these two forces together in what he might regard as the coalition that will return America to greatness. In any case, that willingness now seems to me undeniable.

I had learned about a week in advance that on December 21 Trump would be holding a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I’ve lived for several years. Protest events began materializing on Facebook right away. Some were more serious than others, but, as organizers of the local Black Lives Matter chapter remarked, all too many were set up by white people who were not averse to policing the tactics and tone of other activists. At least one page was shut down after heated arguments both among aspirant protesters and between them and the Trump trolls. News started coming in, too, about stringent measures to be adopted by the stadium hosting the assembly. There was no way to know what the evening would look like. Everything was a bit of a mess.

I wanted to play a role in responding to the rally, though, because, of course, I fear Donald Trump. To my view of him I would attach no particular claim to insight or originality. I think he’s one face of angry whiteness in a settler-colonial state founded on white supremacy and genocide, and in this sense I’ve tended not to read him as a pure anomaly, or as somehow external to American political discourse. At the same time, I believe it means something when a public figure of Trump’s popularity and influence abandons even the facade of liberal-democratic values and draws virtually the whole of his support from openly professed racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and militarism. However one feels about American electoral politics, I believe resistance becomes necessary against the specific discursive shifts enabled by such a figure—and, as W. Kamau Bell and Adam Mansbach have lately been arguing, I think the responsibility for such resistance rests in a distinctive way with white Americans, in whose name Trump acts, and whose energies he presumes to channel.

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So I decided I would go to the Deltaplex Arena on December 21, quickly assess the protests outside, and, if I did enter the stadium, try to find an effective way of disrupting the speech. Drawing inspiration from Johari Osayi Idusuyi, I filled my bag with books by James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, and Junot Díaz, in case there was an opportunity to make myself quietly visible reading them. I also took a printout of a Brittney Cooper article that I might be able, I thought, to start reading aloud.

When I arrived outside the stadium just as the doors were about to open at 5, and saw for the first time how enormous the place was and how many people had already shown up, I knew that the books wouldn’t have much of a chance and that reading aloud from a paper would pose too much of a challenge. I stood for a few minutes in the light rain as a small protest got underway—which, following stadium policy, was situated a considerable distance from the building, by the entrance to the parking lot. Imagining that things there would stay relatively quiet, at least for a couple of hours, I walked toward the arena, waited in a fast-moving line that stretched up and down the lot, passed through the metal detectors in the lobby, and found a seat in the stands on the right side of the stage. For the next hour and a half I watched the stadium fill up, texted with friends, told them about the police on horseback outside and the Christmas music on the loudspeakers within, and fought off a panic attack.

The first interruption came about seven minutes into Trump’s speech, just as I was getting ready to say something. A young white man in the crowd in front of the stage got as far as “Trump, you’re a racist! You’re a bigot!” before the crowd shouted him down and shoved him out. After this it became relatively quiet as Trump started to discuss how it was only ever “one guy” crashing his rallies, so it felt like a good moment. I had been turning over endless things I could say, but I was grateful to have had “You’re a racist” as a kind of overture, and I decided to err on the side of specificity and to focus on one lie which, for the last month, had played a role in Trump’s myth-making that seemed to me axiomatically fascist. As best as I can remember, what I said from when I stood up at the railing in front of the stands to when I had been conclusively removed from the arena was something like:

There were not thousands of people cheering in New Jersey after September 11. There were not thousands of Muslims cheering on rooftops. That’s a lie and it’s racist. Donald Trump’s campaign is built on racist lies, it’s one of the faces of American white supremacy, and it’s our responsibility to fight racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. It’s our responsibility as white people to resist white supremacy.

I got a couple of words into the second sentence of this before someone on the stadium floor launched an impressive “Shut up” and a huge wave of boos followed, drowning out my voice. Around this same moment, the guard who had just reached me turned me around, gently but firmly placed his hands on my upper back, and began leading me down the stairs, back into the lobby (by which time I’d grown silent), and finally out of the building. I know some members of the audience near me heard more of what I said as I left, but, in the camera feeds I’ve found, what you can catch is mostly “New Jersey after September 11, there were not.” The video below has one of the clearest recordings of my voice, starting around the 9:00 mark, and it also briefly shows my exit.

It was over in seconds. Walking out into the evening dark—aware of myself as someone congenitally disposed to avoid both stadiums and shouting, who had just shouted in a stadium full of thousands who, in turn, had shouted at me—I was overwhelmed with relief, adrenaline, and pride. I’d been trying to quit smoking but I shared a cigarette with two protesters ejected minutes later, and I stood in the parking lot watching what felt like the beginning of a steady trickle of others.

After another cigarette I decided to rejoin the rally by the lot entrance. I had been there for a couple of minutes—clapping at honking cars, exchanging good wishes with others who had interrupted, preparing to leave but still dazzled by what had happened—when a white man in his forties or fifties, holding a video camera, approached the group I was standing behind and asked with enthusiasm if anyone had been kicked out. Assuming his good faith, and thinking that it couldn’t hurt to assist in documenting the night’s events, I fought back my aversion to other people’s cameras and raised my hand. He approached closer and positioned himself so that the arena appeared in the distance behind me. He asked me a series of questions about exactly what I had said and how I had been removed, and I answered as best I could while the protest continued several feet away from us. The man told me he had come all the way from Los Angeles to do something just like what I had done, and I nodded with surprise and pleasure. He agreed with me that on September 11 there had not been thousands of Muslims cheering in New Jersey, and I nodded again. He then turned the camera around to capture his own face, adding that the only people who had been arrested for cheering on September 11, as he had just told Donald, were “five Israeli Jews.”

I froze. This would have been the moment to refuse to engage further and to leave. Instead, in shock, I struggled to recalibrate my sense of the person who had been filming my face, and to argue a position. I tried to say that this sounded to me like another racist myth, that I had friends in the Jewish anti-Zionist movement, and that I was very critical of Israeli policy but rejected antisemitism. He asked if I “agree[d] with the slur where they try to say anti-Zionists are antisemites,” and I reiterated that those two words were different but that I saw antisemitism as a real and dangerous force. He swung his camera around for a second to capture some loud chanting and I took the opportunity to stutter, “I think I’m going to head out, but.” He asked for my name, and in my vulnerable polite stupidity I said, “My name’s JR.”

I got some distance from the man and his camera. Trying to collect myself, feeling betrayed and violated, I called Daniel, one of the friends who had kept me company through texts as I’d sat in the stadium. We agreed that the only thing I could do was to find the man again, make it clear that I would never have spoken to him if he’d been honest about his agenda, and tell him to delete his footage of me. I doubled back toward the now-dissipating protest and looked for him, asking several strangers if they’d seen a man with a camera. He was gone.

Over the next twenty-four hours I tried to hang onto the traces that remained of pride or satisfaction in what I had done that evening. I shared the video of my disruption on Facebook without discussing the events that had followed, to which I still felt dizzyingly close. I said only that I might write more about it later, and I welcomed supportive comments and praise from friends. But I was already starting to regret having gone to the rally at all, and feeling a growing fury at myself for having failed to research the false claims of 9/11 celebrations carefully enough to know that one persistent variant replaced Arab/Muslim with Israeli/Jew. (Joshua Keating writes for Slate about five Israeli nationals who were detained after filming the attack, and later deported amid unproven rumors of ties to Israeli intelligence: “The lack of evidence hasn’t stopped the ‘dancing Israelis’ from being a fixture of 9/11 conspiracy theories, particularly anti-Semitic ones, ever since.” I’m tempted to amend this a little, considering the shapes of paranoid thought, and to say that it’s precisely the lack of evidence that has kept the theories going.) I knew that if I had been conscious of that predictable modification—if I had been, in general, less naive about who might be in the Deltaplex Arena that night and about how my voice could be heard—then I wouldn’t have shouted something related to September 11 in any way. I could have shouted “Refugees are welcome here,” or “Borders—what’s up with that?” I could have said “Black lives matter,” or “Abortion is a human right.” Instead I had been the first of two people to invoke September 11, and the second, I assumed, had shouted something about Jews.

It wasn’t until late the next night that I found his YouTube account, when I searched for “trump 9/11” and limited the results to videos from the past week. The video I found—then half an hour old, with fifty views, and now with more than 13,000—was recorded by the man from inside the Deltaplex, and titled “Front-Row Protester Tells Trump ‘ISRAEL DID 9/11!'” At that point I couldn’t bring myself to watch more than a few fragments of it. I confirmed that this man, Martin Hill, who had bitterly lamented the “smear” of antisemitism, maintained a large online collection of videos featuring David Duke, Mel Gibson, and Father Coughlin. He had posted a clip in August of himself running with his camera among the stelae of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, laughing and repeatedly intoning, “Six million Jews.” Looking at his more recent videos and at his website, I realized that he had effectively been following Donald Trump around the country attempting to convince him of Jewish responsibility for the attacks on September 11. There were other interviews with anti-Trump protesters he had tricked into talking to him.

I was sick at the thought of my image appearing in this space. Given that I’d been as vocal as I knew how to be during my real-time recognition that we weren’t on the same side, I spent one near-sleepless night and then another hoping that he would see no reason to post our exchange. On the morning of Thursday, December 24, I found that he’d put it up, under the title “Michigan Leftist Says Dancing Israelis is an ‘Anti-Semitic, Racist Urban Legend.'” There were already a few comments from his Nazi friends, calling me brainwashed, a loser, and a rash. I spent most of Christmas Eve reading about YouTube’s privacy policies and preparing to file a complaint that I hoped would get the video taken down. Complainants are asked to identify an offending channel and video and are given just 200 characters in which to “provide additional information” on the infraction, and I wrote: “This man began filming our conversation without revealing that he is a Holocaust denier and a racist. I don’t want my face and name on his channel, where white supremacists are already commenting.” I’m waiting for a response.

Over the next few days that clip of me saw little activity, but I watched the view count for Hill’s other video rise as it got around in online white-nationalist circles. I noticed that the user “fascist lemming,” who had responded to the video of me with “what a loser smh,” had published a video of his own, now with almost 3,000 views, titled “Trump doesn’t mind if you name the jew!!” I returned to the clip from Hill that I had found too painful to watch earlier, as well as to footage of the rally from multiple news cameras, and I came to the same conclusion that Hill, fascist lemming, and their supporters had now reached with delight: there is essentially no doubt that Trump, who is no more than thirty feet away from Hill and pausing to make direct eye contact, hears him scream, “Jews were arrested on 9/11.” It’s caught easily by cameras much further away than Trump is—in the video above, at 20:15; or here, at 20:10; or here, at 21:01; or here, at 19:27; or here, at 53:07. Following that shout, some others in the crowd around Hill start to voice their disapproval: there’s less noise than I was met with minutes earlier, for the purely negative statement that thousands of Muslims had not cheered, but there is some. A man yells, “Go away, go away.” Trump hesitates for a moment, shrugs, and points to Hill with an open palm. This is his subsequent response, in full:

… He’s all right. He’s OK. Relax. Relax. Relax. Take it easy. He’s very committed—relax. He’s actually a Trump guy, he’s just … [gesturing] … got a lot of energy. OK, shh. OK, shh. OK, OK, sit down, come on. Relax. Relax. He’s on our side. Who would know it, but he’s on our side, I think.

The description of Hill as “very committed,” of course, echoes Trump’s defense of the “passion” of two Boston supporters who had assaulted a homeless Latino man in August, and his refusal to condemn the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester in November. Moments later, when guards come to remove Hill in spite of Trump’s protestations, Hill confides to his camera: “I’m getting thrown out of a Trump rally for talking about Israel. Donald said it was OK. Donald said I could stay.” As Trump moves on with his speech, seeing the guards hustle out the man he just saluted as a fan and attempted to placate, he reminds them to “be nice” and asks the crowd: “Is there more fun than a Trump rally?”

That question marks a space for me where many other questions emerge. I find it hard to know how to respond to them or even to give them a full articulation, but here is a start. It isn’t quite enough to observe that the anti-Muslim persecution advocated by Trump structurally resembles the anti-Jewish persecution in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust (though the logic behind this analogy is clear). Recalling what Hamid Dabashi wrote a year ago about a German newspaper that had mistaken an antisemitic cartoon for an Islamophobic Charlie Hebdo cover, I want to stress that one form of racial hatred has not simply or tidily taken the place of another. The two forces persist, rather, in a state of conversation and co-mutation. Trump, then, responding to the world with his clarifying opportunism, organizes his public statements and campaign rallies around the tenets of mainstream American Islamophobia, and asserts collective Muslim responsibility for terrorism; and, at the same time, he actively welcomes people at those rallies who raise their voices to proclaim collective Jewish responsibility for the same terrorism. The difference seems not to trouble him. He praises their commitment and asks only that they modulate it, so that he can continue speaking.

The white supremacists in online communities who now know this, and who feel emboldened by it, recognize certain complexities. They know that Trump’s daughter converted six years ago to Orthodox Judaism, that she and her father view Judaism and Zionism as closely intertwined, and that Donald Trump has spoken many times in favor of the Israeli state, even going so far as to accuse Barack Obama of “hating Israel.” (David Duke himself, in a video also released over the weekend, qualifies his otherwise wholehearted celebration of Trump’s campaign with regret at Trump’s support for Israel.) The white nationalists are nevertheless impressed by Trump’s patience for their own views, and cheered by the discursive opportunities that other Trumpian speech acts open up for them. In a phone interview on Morning Joe from earlier this month, for example, Trump performs a kind of fascism of ambiguity. He warns Joe Scarborough that “some of our so-called allies, that we work with and we protect […] militarily,” are “sending massive amounts of money to ISIS.” When a puzzled Scarborough asks if Trump means “the Saudis,” Trump replies: “Of course they’re doing it. Everybody knows that. […] There are [others], but I’m not gonna say it, because I have a lot of relationships with people. […] And everybody knows that, and nobody says it.” When the antisemitic conspiracy theorists of the alt right boast that Trump is signaling to them here—as if to reaffirm that his defense of whiteness has room not just for antiblackness, not just for anti-immigrant violence, not just for Islamophobia, but for their particular concerns, too—can that claim be dismissed?

I’m not sure it can, but, in any case, I’m not happy to have arrived in the position of asking the question the way I did. I want to have not spent a full week monitoring online white supremacists who might have watched a video of me. And I never wanted to devote this much time to considering Donald Trump.

I find it difficult to write anything about Trump without falling into the rhythms of a kind of purely additive logic of offense, indexing every line he has comfortably crossed and every marginalized community against whom he invites further violence. And it is, needless to say, important to catalog these offenses, as a record not just of what some Americans want, but also of what America is; and the list is overwhelming. Trump’s hatred of women understandably became one of the most prominent headlines from his night in Grand Rapids, after a calculated series of grossly misogynist remarks on Hillary Clinton. With the luxury of online mediation, which is to say without a lying bigot’s camera in my face, I feel somewhat more comfortable venturing a complex thought and affirming that I am not a supporter of Hillary Clinton while identifying Trump’s spectacularized contempt for her body as awful and dangerous.

As I’ve continued to reflect on my experience that night, though, and on what happened both inside and outside the arena after I was expelled, I’ve kept returning to another theatrical moment that resulted in slightly fewer headlines. This moment prompts questions for me about “fascism,” a frustratingly malleable but still necessary word, and about the historical memory which, whether explicitly acknowledged or not, shades the horizon of every discussion of the American fascism of Trump’s campaign.

About fifteen minutes into his speech—between my departure, then, and Hill’s—Trump complains that the media are against him. They never turn their cameras away from his face to show the size of his crowds. “Turn the camera,” he starts to instruct each photographer individually. Most of them oblige, sweeping up and down the crowds as if Trump were conducting an orchestra. (I don’t blame the camera operators here: faced with the sea of indignant Michigan whiteness they were now documenting, they might have agreed to do so for fear of incurring a riot.)

If only in aesthetic terms—that is, if only in the terms famously laid out by Benjamin in the epilogue to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”—this is a classically fascist moment. With an air at once harsh and gracious, Trump gives his audience a chance to contemplate the beauty of its own magnitude. This is indeed about me, he’s saying, but I will make them admit it is also about you. I am indeed a great man, but I am great largely insofar as I command your respect and channel your power. Look at that power now. I’ve been haunted for a week, and will be for much longer, by the rhyme between the moment when Hill turned his camera around to spit into it the word “Jews,” and the moment when Trump assumed control of those cameras to honor the anger of a full stadium. He would confirm minutes later that such anger could incorporate, with no direct resistance from him, “commitment” to a politics that begins with the sentence “Jews were arrested on 9/11.” This has been noted.

November 16, 2014

The watch: some notes on recent film

“Don’t use movie stills to illustrate your review,” suggested Jamelle Bouie, before anything else, in a piece for Slate in September titled “A Few Helpful Rules for Reviewing Books About Slavery.” He was responding, of course, to The Economist‘s soon-infamous defense of slavery in the form of a review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The movie still in question no longer appears next to the withdrawn article, which The Economist has kept online “in the interests of transparency,” but it’s an image of Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. It was originally captioned with the words “Patsey was certainly a valuable property,” and positioned just to the right of the review’s opening paragraph—a paragraph that begins, with no introduction, by reproducing the text of a mid-nineteenth-century newspaper ad quoted in Baptist’s book: “FOR sale: a coloured girl, of very superior qualifications.” The Economist‘s anonymous reviewer goes on to explain that “such accounts […] punctuate Edward Baptist’s grim history of the business of slavery.” The ascription of grimness to Baptist’s history, and not to “the business,” is already a sign of the direction the review will go in. Not contesting Baptist’s arguments so much as slickly ignoring them, it will come to focus on a claim that increased cotton production between 1800 and 1850 can be attributed to slaveholders’ supposed “vested interest” in “better treatment”—having adapted, to accompany this claim, the image of a character whose fate, onscreen and off, contradicts the claim on every imaginable level. Even before this, though, the original combination of the grotesquely captioned photo and the unattributed slaveowner’s ad copy has had the fleeting but unmistakably uncanny effect of making The Economist‘s article feel, itself, like an advertisement.

Bouie’s article was one of many necessary responses. Others include Jeet Heer’s tweets on The Economist‘s faux-contrarian history of apologism for slavery and posts by Will B. Mackintosh, Greg Grandin, and Chris Taylor on the inseparability of that apologism from the defense of capitalism. Ta-Nehisi Coates also tweeted about his memory of a stream of similar magazine articles throughout the 90s, articles for which “no one ever apologized”—a reflection, in some ways, of the same recent social-media developments whose radical potentialities are beautifully explored by Ashon Crawley in an essay from August, “Do It For the Vine,” on the occupation of Ferguson.

And it’s the appearance of The Economist‘s review at this precise time, in the wake of initial events in Ferguson, that has been on my mind for a while, along with Bouie’s crucial first rule: Don’t use movie stills to illustrate your review of a history of slavery. I’ve been thinking about why that rule was broken, why it will surely be broken again, and the implications of those facts for navigating a contemporary film environment that continues to engage, consciously or not, with the history and continuation of American white supremacy and antiblack violence. The intimacy of the connection between contemporary discussions of, respectively, America’s cinematic history and its racist legacy is suggested by the way The Economist‘s article—even while implicitly allowing a cinematic image to stand in for history—advances, almost word for word, the same evaluative claim about Baptist’s work as history that conservative American critics tended to make about 12 Years a Slave itself as cinema. (“If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave,” wrote James Bowman in the American Spectator, “as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that [Steve] McQueen does not want us to hear about it. This […] surely means that his view of the history of the American South is as partial and one-sided as that of the hated Gone With the Wind.” Like The Economist‘s, these are sentences to which it’s hard to know how to respond. One detail I would highlight, though, is the conflation of seeing with hearing about: Bowman’s cherished fantasy of an apolitical film about slavery—the basis of his whole non-review—can’t be sustained even on its own terms, thanks to his evident disinclination to approach 12 Years a Slave as a film about Solomon Northup at all.)

Movies are, it’s true, usually not works of history. Hence the acuity of the need to read them historically. What joins together for me an apparently disparate group of movies I’ve seen in the last three years is a feeling that they demand to be seen as documents of the same American moment for which “Ferguson” might have become one shorthand. I would hesitate to make too strong a periodizing claim, partly because I’ve also been spending time with Frank Wilderson’s Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonismswhich is, among many other things, a reminder that one name for a cinema persistently structured by logics and optics of antiblackness simply is and always has been American cinema. Still, the purpose of this post is to gather together some thoughts (other viewers’ and my own, with suggestions for further reading gratefully encouraged) about a period loosely bookended by two events: the release of The Watch, formerly titled Neighborhood Watch, in July 2012, which coincided with the immediate aftermath of the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the release of Let’s Be Cops in August of this year, which—as Wesley Morris observed in an essential piece for Grantland—coincided with the police murder of Michael Brown and the ensuing Ferguson uprising, as well as with the 25th anniversary of Do the Right Thing.

One undeniable feature of this period is its relative abundance of major releases by black directors directly addressing, from various geographic and historical angles, struggles for black life and resistance in the face of white supremacy. The last two years have seen 12 Years a Slave; Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station; Shola Lynch’s Free Angela and All Political Prisoners; and, from across the Atlantic, Amma Assante’s Belle—a dramatization of part of the prehistory of the English legal abolition of slavery that reaches one of several narrative climaxes with a scene of a woman looking at a painting, and thus a movie that might have a lot to tell The Economist. But in this post I want to see what emerges from close attention to three other films and to some threads that connect them and lead out elsewhere: The Watch; Jeff, Who Lives at Home; and After Earth.

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“The narrative strategies labor like responsible citizens, razing social barriers of the ‘past’ and democratizing the personal pronoun we. The cinematic strategies labor like watch commanders, sending the spectator out on patrol.”—Frank Wilderson, Red, White & Black

The closing credits of The Watch begin to the sound of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” It’s obviously not a film that could have known what was coming, or one that shows much of a desire, in general, for proximity to the political. Granted, some of the jokes in its first few minutes are at the expense of the privileged subjectivity of Ben Stiller’s hero, Evan Trautwig—a Costco manager and city councilor in Glenview, Ohio, struggling with his fertility and, as a result, with his marriage—who announces hopefully in the opening voiceover that he’s “on the market” for a black friend, and who can conceal neither his surprise nor his awkward pleasure when Jamarcus, played by Richard Ayoade, shows up to volunteer for the local patrol he’s organized after the mysterious killing of a Latino employee. (This is arguably one of the most remarkable signs of The Watch‘s pre-Zimmerman origins. The depiction of a neighborhood watch founded in order to investigate the killing of a Latino who had just become an American citizen—with a fresh tattoo to prove it—seems to reveal the movie’s assumption that the key suspicion it must allay within its audience is the suspicion that any neighborhood watchers would prejudicially target, first and foremost, residents suspected to be unrecognized as American citizens by the law.) Trautwig has advertised the patrol at a high-school football game, bribing an announcer so he can deliver a halftime speech in a scene that holds up a small-town mirror to Bane’s injunction to Gothamites to “take control of [their] city” in The Dark Knight Rises. The only volunteers before Jamarcus have been Vince Vaughn’s Bob, the paranoid and authoritarian father of a teen girl, and Jonah Hill’s Franklin, a kid with a knife who always wanted to be a cop.

White anxiety and white vigilantism are, in these early scenes, more or less satirical targets. And yet the movie’s ineluctable embeddedness within histories of racialized surveillance and violence starts to become clearer with the late revelation that Jamarcus is the only member of the team who is also a member, however friendly, of an invading alien species, and the only such alien we see in human form. The film’s position here is underscored by a certain correspondence between, on the one hand, the alteration of its title in the wake of events in Florida, and, on the other, the trajectory of George Zimmerman himself before the day he followed Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was not officially on duty as the local neighborhood watch captain that day; nor was he licensed, as that captain, to be armed; nor was he ever on duty as the policeman he, too, always wanted to be, the kind of cop whose heroic death is marked with the term that served as the title of another big movie in 2012, End of Watch. In short, it wasn’t even really in the name of any neighborhood watch that Zimmerman acted. He was simply watching. And the nature of his concern for a neighborhood meant that he was on the lookout for perceived threats not just against that neighborhood but against an entire world—just as, onscreen, Trautwig and his crew soon come to realize that Glenview is (as Bob says) “ground zero” for an inestimably larger fight. It happens to be a fight against aliens whose strength is displayed, in one sequence, by the way one of them resists the group’s chokehold (as Bob shouts “Bring him down“)—and who, in a scene emphasized in trailers released after the title change, must be shot many, many times, even as they lie prone on the ground, before they are dead.

Eventually, with one exception, they all are. Trautwig and his wife have apparently adopted a child and repaired their relationship, and Franklin has finally been accepted onto the police force, in what feels like an alternate origin story for Hill’s character in 21 Jump Street, released four months before, or a teaser for its sequel, released two years later. (Without which, as Wesley Morris speculates, Let’s Be Cops probably wouldn’t exist.) When he wanted to join the neighborhood watch, Franklin’s desire to “work through [his] emotional shit and bust some heads in the process” was an unsettling joke. His hard-won opportunity to realize this desire with a badge is one unspoken component of a happy ending.

If the violence of the second half of The Watch is shocking and obvious, it might be instructive to consider the appearance and the operation of the kinds of watching that undergird it. And not only in brash and spectacularly ill-timed comedies of policing, but also in the kinds of movies that see their purpose as something closer to the quiet documentation of the ongoing scene of everyday American life—movies like, say, a low-budget post-mumblecore comedy, with likable actors and a mellow vibe, which wants nothing more than to breeze away eighty minutes in Baton Rouge and give its audience a few reminders that everything happens for a reason.

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That’s certainly how the Duplass brothers’ Jeff, Who Lives at Home tended to be received on its limited release, three months before The Watch, in March 2012. It’s an unassuming movie that would never dream of advocating violence against anyone. It also obeys a narrative logic wholly incomprehensible without the premise that white men are licensed, by some secret law of a beneficent universe, to watch and follow people who are not white men.

The full weight of this law is revealed only at the movie’s end, but it’s most glaringly evident in the first twenty minutes. Jason Segel’s Jeff, the younger of two brothers and an unemployed thirty-year-old stoner, is introduced to the audience on the couch in his mom’s basement as he records a blissed-out monologue about his conviction (largely derived from another alien-invasion movie, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs) that everything happens for a reason. You just have to follow the signs. The movie’s world immediately seems to bend to accommodate his faith: an infomercial on TV urges Jeff to “pick up that phone,” at which moment the phone rings, and a stranger on the other end asks to speak to “Kevin.” When Jeff says there’s no Kevin there, the stranger angrily insists otherwise, spells out the name—kay ay vee eye en!and hangs up. While Jeff is wondering what “Kevin” could mean, his mother, played by Susan Sarandon, calls from her office and asks him to go to the store to buy some wood glue so that he can fix a shutter that’s been broken forever. On the bus to the store, Jeff sees, seated in front of him, a young black man (played by Evan Ross) wearing a jersey that bears, sure enough, the name “KEVIN.” The man soon gets off the bus, and, after a moment’s hesitation, Jeff abandons his errand to do the same. He stalks the man through a convenience store, as mock-ominous music plays on the soundtrack. Eventually he ends up hovering at the edge of a basketball court where the man has joined his friends for a game. When one of the other players is hurt, Jeff is invited to play, and then to go off and smoke some pot with the young man, whose name, it turns out, is Kevin after all. After a drag on a shared joint, Jeff is in the middle of praising the quality of the pot when—with the effect of a jump scare, a sudden intrusion into the space of the scene—two darker-skinned black men attack him from behind, beat him to the ground, and take his wallet, while Kevin looks on. “Sorry, Jeff,” Kevin says, and disappears from the movie, having fulfilled his twofold function: he has been briefly held in the film’s gaze as, first, a suitable target for the innocent and well-meaning Jeff to follow across town in his pursuit of signs, and, second, the bearer of an unpredictable violence depicted as fundamentally unconnected to that earlier pursuit. (Until the moment of the assault, Jeff thinks they’re just new friends smoking together, and the audience has been encouraged to think the same.)

In its sudden shift from whimsically scored humanist comedy into unscored, “realistic” violence, this sequence comes closer than anything I know to presenting someone literally mugged by reality. Even in the most generous possible reading of the sequence—where its goal, say, is a liberally informed gesture toward a social world Jeff has no knowledge of, delivered in order to stress his privileged naïveté, his unpreparedness for the cruelty of everyday life—the only realization of that aim the film can imagine is a blunt presentation of Kevin as a deceptive embodiment of that cruelty. (Evan Ross brings as much to the role as anyone could, but it’s precisely his affable charisma that the scene betrays.) And yet the movie finds a way to fold this “reality” back into a providential narrative, without ever returning to Kevin or his friends, and over the course of the next hour Jeff’s stoned-innocent approach to the world will be emphatically confirmed as the right one anyway.

That’s what really fascinates me about Jeff, Who Lives at Home, I think: that after Jeff is “beaten up by Kevin” (which is how he describes the event a few minutes later, though Kevin himself didn’t touch him), the movie obliges Jeff in the continuation of his quest for a Kevin-event. It ultimately allows him to find, indeed, another Kevin—one who looks very different, who happens to have a last name, and who redeems, in a single stroke, Jeff’s day-long search for “a perfect moment,” his previously aimless life, and, by implication, our experience as moviegoers. After the mugging, Jeff wanders across town and runs into his older and seemingly better-adjusted brother, Pat, played by Ed Helms. But Pat has his own problems: his marriage is collapsing, and he’s just bought, against his wife Linda’s express wishes, a new Porsche that she knows they can’t afford. Linda, played by Judy Greer, is unhappy about it. (Later it becomes clear just how cogent her analysis of the situation is, in a scene Greer imbues with a startling intensity: she doesn’t love Pat anymore, and, as she tells him, she’s glad they haven’t yet bought a house or had any kids, because that will make it easier to end the relationship. But the movie is not going to let this happen.) Pat also has reasons to suspect she’s having an affair, and so he enlists the help of a reluctant Jeff in a creepy pursuit of Linda across the city. There’s an interlude in a cemetery, where the two brothers’ bickering is briefly interrupted by the revelation that they’ve both been having the same dream about their father, who died in 1995. Events unfold from here so that the paths of all the major characters converge in the same traffic jam, on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, at which point Jeff realizes that another car has gone off the bridge; jumps into the water; saves two young white girls and then, with more difficulty, their father; and is saved, in turn, by Pat. After these dramatic developments, Jeff and Pat reconcile; Pat and Linda are implied to be back on track (perhaps with a child in the future); and Jeff is back on the couch, watching a news report that teases upcoming coverage of “the rescue tale of local councilman Kevin Landry.”

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Jeff’s decision to trust his instincts and follow that first Kevin on the bus, in short, began a series of events with a fantastically overdetermined resolution: the preservation of a marriage, the saving of three lives, and, as a function of the particular lives saved, a tangible civic benefit. A councilman lives to adjudicate another day. Satisfied, Jeff fixes the shutter. The camera’s shutter closes and the movie is over.

So it turns out that Jeff, Who Lives at Home and The Watch aren’t as far apart as they might look, with disparities in genre, tone, and critical reception starting to feel more like the elements of a good-cop/bad-cop dialectic—or, you could say, like the superficial fraternal differences between two movies that are having the same dream. Both are effectively comedies of remarriage in which the health of a white heterosexual couple’s relationship is tied to the health of their city, metonymized in the figure of a white city councilman. In order for this conjugal-civic happiness to be restored, Councilman Evan Trautwig must pump bullets into bodies in one city, while, in another, Jeff must stoically suffer an unprovoked beating at the hands of a Kevin who, despite actually bearing the name across his body, could never have been the Kevin he was looking for. To one viewer posting on an IMDB forum, this Kevin stands in for an urgently underestimated threat to civil society itself, a “racist” epidemic of young black men robbing “white guys or couples” in attacks that are never reported nationally, only locally. The viewer is upset by the injustice; still, he enjoyed the movie.

One other impassioned IMDB comment is worth noting: “This movie,” says a different forum member, “changed my stance on homosexuality.” This is the plot strand I haven’t mentioned (and in fact its separability from the main plot was a sticking point for other viewers), but the film’s vision of liberal community does have room for a tentatively established interracial queer couple. Jeff’s widowed mother Sharon has an online “secret admirer” at the office, gradually revealed to be Carol, the friendly coworker she’s been keeping apprised of the mysterious admiring messages all along, played by Rae Dawn Chong. The movie ends with Sharon maintaining on some level that she doesn’t identify as gay, while keeping the option of a relationship with Carol very much open, because, as Carol has said, they get each other. These scenes are sensitively played by Chong and Sarandon, and I don’t want to discount the remarkable effect they clearly had on one viewer, and maybe on others. I would just say that another way of getting at what makes Jeff, Who Lives At Home so interesting to me—what really makes it, I think, something like a defining movie of its era—is the way it seems to invite and to reward the reading practices of both of these IMDB comments simultaneously. The film is a careful shaping of an ostensible American everyday into a perfect moment, where “perfection” means the safe continuation of existing conditions and “the everyday” encompasses queer couple formation and contextless black-on-white violence. Watching Sharon and Carol find happiness with each other, it’s easy to see Jeff, Who Lives at Home as a document of a year when dramatic advances in same-sex marriage movements were taken to show the continued acceptance of LGBT people into American life. Focusing on the larger narrative that redeems Pat and Linda’s marriage, by way of Jeff’s progress through a raced teleology of Kevins, I think of Dan Savage—surely one of the most prominent champions of marriage in contemporary America—whose tendency to cast black citizens as ontological obstacles to the march of “marriage equality” garnered him appreciative citations in the fantasy fiction of (once again) The American Spectator. Here Trayvon Martin’s “homophobia” serves as an explanation for his fear of the man who was stalking him, and consequently as an excuse for his own death.

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“’I was like, “No, Quentin, please, I need to kill the bad guy!”‘ Smith said, spoiling the film.”—The Huffington Post

ghosting, noun. the appearance of a ghost or secondary image on a television or other display screen”—Compact Oxford English Dictionary

The prominence of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs as a motivating factor in Jeff’s odyssey through the everyday makes it all the more striking to find, in the Shyamalan film released the following year, a kind of sustained aesthetic resistance against the system of signs on which movies like Jeff, Who Lives at Home rely. Not that this did After Earth any critical favors. It’s undeniably a Shyamalan movie—in ways that Ben’s great post from last year investigates—though popular understanding of its authorship certainly tilted more than usual toward its star and coproducer. It was an M. Night Shyamalan movie but a Will Smith event, and, as such, it was met with roughly the same widespread derision and hostility as Smith’s decision not to play the role of a formerly enslaved bounty hunter in a movie that wouldn’t let that character kill the main antagonist himself. Smith had made it very clear that he’d declined the offer of Django Unchained not just because he could afford to, but because he’d felt—like the Academy, as it turned out—that the title character wasn’t the most significant one. In early 2013, everyone seemed to think this was evidence of hilarious vanity. (Around the same time, Smith was profiled, along with his son and After Earth costar Jaden, in a piece for New York that gave the impression of having been calculated to make him appear as out of sync with the world as possible; and he co-produced Shola Lynch’s documentary on Angela Davis.) So it was partly for this reason that a gleeful sense of karmic justice was palpable in the air when After Earth, the film Will Smith had turned down Quentin Tarantino himself in order to make, debuted to reviews like Joe Morgenstern’s in The Wall Street Journal, asking if it was the worst movie ever made.

The intensity of so many of the attacks on After Earth made every thoughtful response to the movie feel like a gift: Armond White’s review for CityArts, or Ben’s post, or Olivia Cole’s, or—one of the best things I read online in 2013—Nicholas Ochiel’s. And I don’t have much to add to these readings beyond a few more intertextual considerations, a few attempts to think through how the landscape the film is situated in makes it resonate all the more powerfully.

On the surface, the film’s premise and poetics might bring to mind an Afrofuturist echo of Fanon’s conviction, repeatedly cited by Frank Wilderson in Red, White & Black, that the end of white supremacy must mean nothing less than “the end of the world.” In its uncompromising interrogation of the antiblackness that saturates “the epistemic air we breathe,” and in its insistence on both the necessity and the incomprehensibility of the end of such a world, Wilderson’s book could almost have been titled After Earth itself. “To say we must be free of air,” as he writes near the conclusion, “while admitting to knowledge of no other source of breath, is what I have tried to do here.” From this perspective, the sight of Jaden Smith as Kitai Raige reaching for the “air-filtration inhalers” that will allow his temporary survival on an Earth with insufficient oxygen points toward a way of reading the dangers of this anti-human atmosphere (with White, Cole, and Ochiel) such that they come to resemble dangers much closer to home. The full setup clarifies the nature of this cinematic “end of the world,” and reveals a subversion of the decisive temporality promised by the title. Kitai has crash-landed on the planet with his father, General Cypher Raige, a thousand years after humans have been forced to abandon it. The Raiges’ ship is dead and there’s nowhere else to go. On the same ship was a captive member of the Ursa species, fierce creatures from the new homeworld, capable of tracking humans by chemically detecting their fear. (It’s General Raige who has led humans in the fight against the Ursa, but one of them, years ago, killed Kitai’s sister.) The captive Ursa has escaped; the general’s legs are broken; the other half of the ship is miles away. Kitai must elude unfamiliar predators, stay warm, conserve his limited oxygen supply, find the ship’s tail, and activate its beacon to send a distress signal into space, or—the line recurs—”we are going to die.” So he begins to make his way across the harsh landscape, digitally tracked by his father from the crash site, and wearing a skintight suit of “smart fabric” that senses threats, its darkness marking him out for danger: “My suit’s turned black. I like it but I think it’s something bad.”

Even this brief sketch of the action of After Earth suggests its radical difference from other movies of its period. It is a kind of apocalyptic mirror image of the settler-colonial kitsch of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, in which a white boy and girl in 1965 New England find romantic bliss against a pristinely empty natural backdrop that could only have been created for them, with Hank Williams on the soundtrack. (The confidence of a white at-homeness in the world extends into the name of one of Moonrise Kingdom‘s production companies, Steven Rales’s “Indian Paintbrush,” which also helped finance Jeff, Who Lives at Home.) It’s also galaxies away from the two other big post-Earth releases of last year, Oblivion and Elysium—or, more recently, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar—where, more conventionally, the Earth itself is what’s at stake, to be rescued or redeemed through heroic individuality. (Ben calls this “a whiteness of genre.” Hollywood’s inability to visualize humanity’s salvation without whiteness at the center has also resulted in a recent wave of egregiously white Biblical epics. What I tried to explore in the paragraphs above, triangulating from The Watch and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is how the sense of a world at stake can make itself felt as well in white American conceptions of the everyday. As for sci-fi, though, maybe it should be noted that Tom Cruise’s Oblivion—which, like After Earth, was mocked as a Scientologist vanity project, though with less vitriol—makes “vanity” feel like an odd verdict, too, with the news that Earth was destroyed by nothing other than an army of clones who all thought they were Tom Cruise.) And, finally, After Earth stands in sharp relief against Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, another speculative fantasy that grounds its story of a child passing through ruined earthly environments, and toward a climactic confrontation with unearthly creatures, in the child’s relationship with a critically compromised father.

ae01-2

The difference here isn’t just between the near-unanimous critical praise for one film and the near-unanimous dismissal of another. After seeing After Earth for the first time (and after reading so many reviews that seemed to locate a critique of Jaden Smith’s acting solely in a recognition of how much of the movie he spends looking terrified), I kept returning to a pair of brilliant posts from Social Text, by Christina Sharpe and Jayna Brown respectively, on the exuberance of the critical consensus around Beasts. And also on the movie’s “romance of precarity”—or how its effective reception as an inspiring document among largely white audiences depended on the blackness of its desperately poor protagonists “mak[ing] their precarity unreadable as precarity.” Responding to an Occupy-themed blog post by Nicholas Mirzoeff that had celebrated six-year-old Hushpuppy as a heroine whose “wilding” allowed viewers “a means to visualize climate resistance,” Sharpe is devastating:

How does a little black girl child orphaned and abandoned become a vision for climate resistance for so many people who watched the film? It is precisely this kind of misprision, this not feeling or seeing, that subtends an event like the death of Glenda Moore’s sons during Hurricane Sandy. Riffing on Invisible Man, optic white does not see your plight.

The film ends with Hushpuppy, six years old, motherless, fatherless, kinless, leading a group of black and white children and adults through a causeway after pushing her father’s corpse out to sea. She is caretaker, man, boy, girl, woman all within herself; she is part of the community but complete unto herself. Abandoned to precarious life.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, in this analysis, is unable to acknowledge or comprehend the burden it needs Hushpuppy to bear. It depicts an uninhabitable environment and at the same time encourages its audience to view Hushpuppy and her father as at home in it. In contrast, the specificity of After Earth’s sci-fi scenario allows it to go out of its way, from the opening shot, both to show the beauty of a digitally realized, wildly post-human planet, and to insist that this Earth is not where Kitai wants to be, or should be. His suffering is not in the service of saving it, because he is not The One, because no one is. There’s no Wall-Evian fantasy of repopulation here, no trace of the redemptive turn embedded in Oblivion‘s tagline: ”Earth is a memory / Worth fighting for.” Instead, Earth is a nightmare to be woken from (with repeated scenes of characters urging Kitai to wake up); in terms of structure and affect, everything is pared down; and the boy at the center is “a vision of climate resistance” only insofar as the experience of the film is that of watching him resist a climate.

In short, this is not a pretense of representing the social. As Nicholas Ochiel’s post in particular indicates so sharply, it may be more like a pretense of not representing it. And Ochiel’s reading of Kitai’s experience through the lens of the truth that “it has always been open season on black folk in America” enables, I think, a decisive response to one of the most popular and most tedious objections to After Earth on “scientific” grounds, voiced across the Internet even before the movie’s release: namely that its suggestion of a kind of malevolent evolutionary agency, articulated in Cypher’s warning to his son that “everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans,” reveals the movie’s ignorance of the laws of evolution. Now, under any circumstances, this objection would represent a notable failure to approach a work of art on its own terms. When Haley Joel Osment whispered “I see dead people” in trailers for The Sixth Sense, the utterance wasn’t widely received as evidence that “M. Night Shyamalan has no idea how death works.” But what the complaint misses here, crucially, is the very deliberate construction of a libidinal ecology—one whose surprising and willful distance from any coherent message about either evolution, or, as in Shyamalan’s The Happening, climate change, is indicated by its supplementation with a monster that is literally a fear machine, hanging bodies from trees. This ecology is not a happening but a structure, comparable to the libidinal economy of antiblackness whose irreducibility to the political economy of capitalism Wilderson is always at pains to emphasize. (In this sense, the notion that After Earth’s environment is more hostile than it has to be simply because the film “doesn’t understand the laws of evolution” is analogous to The Economist’s claim, against Edward Baptist, that slaveholders must have learned to practice “better treatment” because to do otherwise would have gone against the laws of the market. And I would say that one picture of an environment constantly evolving toward violence against a particular kind of body, even if direct opportunities for that violence remain temporarily absent, can be found in The Watch.) What the movie commits to putting on the screen, above all, is a world weaponized against a black teenager’s survival.

Following Ochiel’s and Ben’s readings, I would stress that it’s in this context that After Earth‘s study of fear needs to be understood. General Raige learned to defeat Ursas by “ghosting,” purging his body of any trace of terror. Halfway through the movie, in a monologue filmed largely in one medium shot, he gives his son an account of the events that led to his first learning to ghost, arriving at a formulation that was shortened and emblazoned on posters everywhere: “DANGER IS REAL / FEAR IS A CHOICE.” Armond White recognized this as “street hardness.” Reactions more commonly tended to be divided between, on the one hand, an assumption that any discourse of fear-management was necessarily Scientology, and, on the other, a dismissal of this assumption which also stripped the movie of its particularity altogether. “Saying that danger is real but fear is not is run-of-the-mill ‘brave warrior’ stuff,” claimed a Scientology scholar, in a Gawker article titled After Earth is Just a Shitty Movie, Not Scientology Propaganda.” And, divorced from its context, of course Cypher’s dictum is run-of-the-mill. But it’s also the thesis of a movie that is not quite After Earth itself, which holds more space for ambivalence about fear and about choices than its promotional campaigns. Ghosting, the technique that allows Cypher and then Kitai to survive, is just that—a survival technique: not an easily generalizable rule for managing subjectivity but a last-ditch affective gambit, undertaken by desperate people in order to face what was intended to destroy them. That it takes a psychological toll is obvious, if not from Cypher Raige’s name, then from Will Smith’s every word and gesture in a boldly uncharacteristic performance that so many viewers found baffling. In the closing scene, when the two are reunited, a near-dead Cypher’s rigid salute to his son collapses into an embrace, and into agreement with Kitai’s statement that he “want[s] to work with Mom” now, a scientist. Having had to become fearless is not, in this film, an enviable burden, and finally what matters is not that Kitai has become fearless but that he’s managed to stay alive. He’s managed it partly thanks to his father’s transmissible gift of ghosting; partly thanks to the unexpected maternal care of an earthly creature whose offspring had been killed; and partly thanks to a blessing and a warning received in a vision of his sister—which, further complicating the task of interpreting Cypher’s gift, might make After Earth the first Shyamalan movie since The Sixth Sense to feature an actual ghost.

In this vision of Earth, it’s a community born of ghostly attachments that enables continued life. (And even after the final defeat of the monster that most spectacularly threatened life, the ecosystem still has to be abandoned.) This, then, is not a Shyamalan movie without a twist: the twist is survival, in spite of everything, a survival that is alone worth the telling.

Against a white everyday that continues to sustain itself through criminalizing and policing black life, resistance in Ferguson and elsewhere is the necessary dream of an Earth after this Earth.

February 20, 2012

After Space Invaders

 

Like many others, I was both taken aback and intrigued by Mark O’Connell’s essay on Invasion of the Space Invaders, Martin Amis’s disavowed 1982 guide to early arcade games. But I seem to be drawn to the subject for different reasons than many of these other readers and commenters, or even O’Connell himself—because I’m not, as O’Connell professes to be, “an Amis fancier,” and because honestly I wish Amis-fancying weren’t still as widespread as it is. One detail O’Connell identifies as a probable reason for Amis’s desire to keep the book out of print is that its catalogue of all the weirdo types supposedly visible at arcades in the early ’80s includes “[q]ueasy spivs, living out a teen-dream movie with faggot overtones,” which is supplemented by a definition in the glossary at the back—”Faggot: gay.” But that isn’t even what I’m interested in, really. Though as a queer teen I would have loved to live out that movie.

What interests me is the gesture O’Connell makes toward situating this book within Amis’s career, which I think is worth briefly extending. Having quoted one of Amis’s thorough, matter-of-fact instructional passages on actually playing Space Invaders—”The phalanx of enemy invaders moves laterally across a grid not much wider than itself. When it reaches the edge of the grid, the whole army lowers a notch. Rule one: narrow that phalanx“—O’Connell ends the essay with some notes on the structural and thematic importance of games to Amis’s work as a novelist and public thinker. O’Connell’s way of describing Amis’s phobic, martial hostility toward perceived commonness of thought—his “war against cliché,” with its proudly explicit anti-democratic elitism (and its attendant, eternal fetishization of an unbelievably limited definition of “talent”)—is to say that Amis seeks “new ways of narrowing the ever-descending phalanx of cliché.” All value judgments aside, I think there’s something strikingly apt in this picture of the way a writer like Amis conceives of his vocation. And if (like me) you see Amis’s brand of aestheticism-at-the-barrel-of-a-gun as inseparable from, I don’t know, his concern that “feminism has cost us Europe,” or his regret at feeling unable to complete a novella about an “Islamist terrorist” named Ayed who “scour[s] all the prisons and madhouses for every compulsive rapist in the country, and then unleash[es] them on Greeley, Colorado”—if, in other words, you see Amis’s war as a war in defense of extreme cultural privilege, against a feared encroaching otherness, based in an imperial nostalgia which in the last decade has evolved into virulent Islamophobia—then it’s especially interesting to find, thirty years back in Amis’s own work, a proto-allegorization of the figure of the writer who’s literally engaged in the unending task of fending off the alien(s).

My aim here isn’t to make any simplistic claim about the cultural meanings of an artifact like Space Invaders, or to say that such a game can be read only in one way. (I’m sure folks who are better versed in game studies could offer many other points about this—but, for instance, see Sianne Ngai on the zany aesthetic of early arcade games as a model for post-Fordist precarious subjectivity.) I would only suggest that it’s worth setting the existence of Invasion of the Space Invaders (its jokey title implicitly asking, “What else would you expect space invaders to do?”) alongside, say, Amis’s current habit, when he’s pressed on the subject of Islamophobia, of talking about creatures from outer space. (Amis in the Guardian in 2007, in an article titled “No, I am not a racist,” denying he had defended the discrimination against Muslims that he had defended: “I would like London to be full of upstanding Martians and Neptunians, of reputable citizens who came, originally, from Krypton and Tralfamadore.” Amis to Margaret Wente, two years later: “I adore multiracialism. There can’t be enough immigrants in this country for my taste. I’d like to see immigrants from Mars or Jupiter. But multiculturalism, I believe, is a fraud.” This is Martin Amis’s way of saying, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, yellow, purple or green.” He doesn’t care if someone comes from the Middle East or from a made-up planet that no one would come from, because it’s made up: all he wants is to keep terrorists out of the phalanx!) And it seems worth adding that Amis and his lifelong comrade Christopher Hitchens (whose presence as “a friend, a hard-drinking journalist” O’Connell detects in one passage from Invasion) wrote, in effect, the same paragraph, about, respectively, the introduction of Space Invaders and the destruction of the World Trade Center:

The main innovation of Space Invaders was as follows: it gave you real drama on the screen. Who cares whether you can eliminate dots with an electric tennis ball? So what if you can knock down ten plastic cowboys on a shooting range? Who gives a toss when a toy car skids on a patch of toy oil? After Space Invaders, we were defending Earth, against monsters, in sublunar skies. Here they come again…

[from a PDF excerpt from the book, via a comment on O’Connell’s article]

On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, [my reaction] turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy—theocratic barbarism—in plain view. All my other foes, from the Christian Coalition to the Milosevic Left, were busy getting it wrong or giving it cover. Other and better people were gloomy at the prospect of confrontation. But I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.

[from the December 3, 2001 issue of The Nation]

Granted, Amis’s own immediate reaction to the attacks didn’t have Hitchen’s undisguised glee, his “exhilaration” at knowing he would now be able to stave off boredom forever, as if he actually were blurbing an arcade game. (Amis may even have been one of the “better people” Hitchens was taking a swipe at for feeling “gloomy” about watching the Global War on Terror kick into gear.) But it’s difficult for me not to interpret the image of a young Martin Amis self-consciously slumming it in a video arcade in 1982, and taking a sharp satisfaction in the new responsibility of “defending Earth,” as an eerie prefiguration of the way Amis, Hitchens, and so many of their generational peers would seize on “the struggle against Islamism” as the revitalizing force that would give new meaning to their lives and their countries’ lives. Here was a chance to start defending the West—finally, here was real drama on the screen.

December 5, 2011

There never was a time

“But perhaps it is a misnomer to label this a progressive or liberal movement at all.”—Stephan Jenkins, lead singer of Third Eye Blind, in the Huffington Post

I really enjoyed The New Inquiry‘s recent dialogue on the occupations and pop culture, in which Max Fox and Malcolm Harris begin with the seemingly undeniable premise that the Third Eye Blind song “If There Ever Was a Time” fails to claim the space of soundtrack-to-a-crisis that’s already been happily occupied for a while by Rihanna, Ke$ha, and other pop music. For a few days I’ve been trying to put together some speculations in response to this piece—about a kind of rhyme between the respective sounds of the “long 1989” explored by Joshua Clover in 1989: bob dylan didn’t have this to sing about and the long 2011 that Fox and Harris point to; about some other great things people have written about love songs, love in politics, and the “ugly feelings” of those who are or are not occupying; and about attending, not only to those pieces of mass culture that seem to represent a preemptive appropriation of resistance as such, but also to those that might be helpful for thinking through the other feelings, the quieter political affects (which may or may not be traceable along genre lines). And I’m still hoping to finish that post. But yesterday, for the first time, I actually screwed up my courage and listened to “If There Ever Was a Time” all the way through, and there’s something in that I want to address briefly, first, because it strikes me as pretty extraordinary.

“If it were opportunistic,” Harris says of the song, “it would have a better beat.” So it’s appropriate that the one moment of real opportunism in “If There Ever Was a Time” should be the sampling of a better beat from a better song: it comes at the very end, after Stephan Jenkins’s repeated injunction, “Come on, meet me down at Zuccotti Park” and a guitar solo, as we continue to hear the voices of selected American protesters while the music lurches from blithe sunshiny rock into the beat (and only the beat) from Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

Let’s remember, this is at the end of a song that earlier said:

and i saw a sign in the oakland spring
it said “occupy everything!”
or by and for and of won’t mean a thing

To which I have a few reactions. First, are we in Oakland or New York, and does the song think that matters or not? Second, isn’t there something almost too perfect in the lyrical reflection of a certain kind of liberalism here—in the way that, at the moment of articulating the danger that democratic ideals will become meaningless, what’s actually revealed is a fetishization of the ideals so abstract—merely “by,” “for,” and “of”—that they’re close to meaningless already, because anything resembling “the people” has disappeared from view? Third, and most important: the audacity of quoting “Fight the Power” in a rock song that insists the time is now, because only now are “by” and “for” and “of” (“the people”) at risk of losing their meaning, is incredible. It feels like the precise musical equivalent of Naomi Wolf suggesting that Occupy Wall Street has faced “unparalleled police brutality.” And the title of a brilliant response to Wolf from DJ Ripley—”change comes from connection across difference not by erasing difference”—expresses an insight that was already embedded in the song whose radical energy Third Eye Blind tries to appropriate. (“People, people, we are the same / No we’re not the same / ‘Cause we don’t know the game!”)

A fuller explication of the politics behind a song like “If There Ever Was a Time” can be found in Jenkins’s piece for the Huffington Post, which situates the recent police violence against students at UC Davis as, again, unique and unparalleled (or as an example of bad policing, rather than as an example of policing), and responds to it with statements like “We need to take care of our cops so that they can take care of us.” Or, maybe even more remarkably: “every time a protester throws a bottle at a police officer, or breaks a window, or spray paints a tree, he or she does exponential damage to the Occupy movement.” Is Jenkins aware that he sampled a song from a movie that bravely refused to condemn a riot in the wake of racist violence? No, more than that (as Daniel pointed out): a song explicitly written to emblematize resistance to police violence in a movie about resistance to police violence. And if every protester really means every protester, then did Mookie with his trash can in Do the Right Thing do “exponential damage to the Occupy movement” twenty years before it began? Questions like these are part of why I think “If There Ever Was a Time” is actually a perfect anthem for (some aspects of) the Occupy movement, in depressing ways that were not intended—as a making-audible of the racial, cultural, and national blind spots that so many people are doing critical work to address. And in this case a kind of political failure makes itself felt dramatically as aesthetic and historical: a song that wants so badly to be the sound of 2011 can end only by leaving us feeling cheated out of hearing Flavor Flav and Chuck D herald “nineteen … eighty … nine!”

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