Defense and Resistance

On election day, I tweeted #breakthewall, which turned out all too optimistic, America choosing instead to reinforce its defenses warranted in important ways (given the economic convulsions wrought by globalization and automation) but ultimately alarming (resistance to the system culturally expressed through reactionary nostalgia—“make America great again”—at its limit white supremacy, but which is not just about race, constituting, rather, a powerless attempt to get back at power through simple solutions, including race, by those who feel like “strangers in their own land”). When the realization dawned on me that this was actually happening as I listened to the news in between bouts of writing, I wrote, We’re going to have to live through this for decades to come, as if the campaign wasn’t bad enough: explicit white supremacy, sexual assault, tax evasion, worker stiffing, the narcissistic cult of personality, vicious and resentful law and order, the undoing of justice in the Supreme Court, schadenfreude as political discourse, the authoritarian desecration of democracy—Trump promising to buttress the wall (ironically enough the “middle” rather than the “establishment”) that proclaims itself as America.

I had to go to work the next day. Even though I couldn’t sleep the night before and didn’t want to get out of bed the morning after, I forced myself to follow my routine, thinking that this was precisely the moment in which I should be with other people. True enough, I had good conversations at the office (not to mention texts, calls, and emails from family and friends), if cloaked (for me at least) by this sense that apocalypse had just happened, and threatens to come soon. I had to teach at the end of the day, and I was worried about what I would say, if I should say anything, and how I would be … With most students overly quiet as if containing something within themselves and at least one so visibly distraught, I decided I would address what had happened before anything else. It was really hard to talk, to say something coherent, especially with a student (one of the smartest in the class) smiling mockingly, as though shaking his head and asking, What’s the relevance of all this?, Aren’t you blowing this out of proportion?, and I hadn’t cried yet so was worried that I would, right there, in front of the class, but after repeating the same phrase quite a bit (“Sad day, dark day …”), I ended up introducing the term “negative emulation” (don’t know where it came from): If you see them up there, doing something bad, something you don’t agree with, something you think shouldn’t be, or maybe you agree in which case this doesn’t apply to you, but if you don’t, then do the exact opposite. If only at the level of personal interactions, your immediate environment, foster a world different from that which they want to recreate. Try to be kinder, more open, genuinely interested in those who are different. Do something different, if only in your local world. Be different.—Hopelessly naïve, I know, but I’d prefer hopelessly naïve or even double-faced over explicitly injurious any day.

As the initial shock starts to wane, I find myself thinking about what’s next. The simultaneous protesting (the electoral college, election conditions, media coverage, systemic rigging by the establishment blowing up on itself, the reactionary ideology that may claim to but, despite post-election demonstrations of crossing across the aisle to uphold the so-called “peaceful transition of power,” is not intended to represent all or, for that matter, “America”: #notmypresident) and acceptance of loss (when we can least afford it, given global warming, race and gender relations, the new Gilded Age, etc.) may lead, especially since it’s “painful, and will be for a long time” (given the legislative damage it will inflict, the cultural reversal it promises, the symbolic injury of the campaign legitimated by the vote), to long-term strategizing beyond electoral politics (in which, yet again maybe I’m being naïve, the humanities can be a focal point, especially in the age of fact resistance) and in electoral politics, which, however, requires that the Democratic Party (the one upended by Trump, after all, registered Democrats crossing over to vote for him) and, more broadly, the left take a long, hard look at itself (even if Clinton won, despite their behavior—the stubborn determination to make Obama fail, the obstructionism, the shutting down of the government, re-districting—the Republicans still won everything: the Senate, the House, Governor’s Mansions, soon the Supreme Court; and they did so under the magnification of the worst, brinksmanship already their order of the day; there remains, of course, the question: would the magnification work with, be had by, or upend the worst?), its tendencies (opportunistic corporatism and progressive marginalization; idealistic self-fragmentation and cynical conflation of all liberalisms), and a way forward (which necessitates, I argue, against defense, polarization and [fact] resistance, that we form the Resistance [as social movement]).

[Update on 11/20/2016]

After the election (11/9 like 9/11?), everything feels different. One of the ways in which this manifests for me is how I can’t seem to brush off the question, Does white mean white supremacist? (Of course it does not, it can’t be, but after the election, it’s harder to tolerate its truth.) It seems to me that the only way this can not be true—and it cannot be—is for those who are identified as white to fight white supremacy. Saying that “I’m not racist” or “No, white supremacy is just a fringe tendency” or “It’s just the ‘culture’ where I belong” or “It’s just a preference” is too easy—racism more insidious when it’s disavowed, racism more able to do its work through a bearer unaware. And “white” is not just an identification of those who are identified as white, white supremacy an investment not only of whites, direct or indirect. In this way, the election calls on all of us to consciously fight white supremacy. This does not necessarily mean fighting whites, who have fought supremacy in the past—but never by themselves. Likewise, this does not mean that racism will not unconsciously outwit us. However, vigilant awareness (which does not have to be paranoid suspicion) of our own complicity may be our best safeguard against the tide that, through simplicity, has already given white supremacy a major victory.

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The Courage and Limits of Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair

I must admit that when Bruce Jenner first came out as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair (7/2015; see full article), I took notice but didn’t think of the act as particularly significant. In the context of the other news of the day—the police killings of unarmed black civilians, the enduring recession, currently coming to a head in the Greek debt crisis—my gut instinct was to criticize the moneyed and celebrity position from which Caitlyn is coming. My first thoughts went something like: of course she can afford to do that, unlike others who might feel the same way, indeed others who have more urgent medical concerns, but do not have the resources of the top 1%; of course she can think about being “who she really is” rather than settling with a given he can’t change, indeed can’t even think about, given more grounded preoccupations, say, with daily material needs; of course she would have a commodified response to a crisis revolving around gender felt as personal, given his own commodification as an Olympic athlete and American hero.

Jenner’s acceptance of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at ESPY (see clip) dispelled these reservations. This award was a necessary follow-up to the Vanity Fair cover as it situated Jenner in context, both where he’s coming from and where she plans to go, in the process driving home the significance of Caitlyn, all this taking place in an especially pertinent setting. Yes, there are other problems that do need our attention, but those pertaining to gender and sexuality, as highlighted in this case by a sports event, are not to be ignored. The harrowing statistics of trans violence in this country alone highlight the political urgency of trans justice, which Jenner claims was a motivation for her to come out. The same goes for arguments that question whether Jenner, and not some other athlete who has gone through more significant hardship, deserves the award (see brief profile of Arthur Ashe). There are, indeed, other minorities who are also oppressed, perhaps more than the subjects that Caitlyn represents, certainly more than Jenner herself, but pointing this out is less an argument against giving Caitlyn a public platform than an argument for devising more ways to grant recognition. This is so especially since subjective recognition, like struggle itself, is not exclusive, but shared and contagious. As such, the complaint, “What about X? Don’t they deserve it more?” (contrast to: “Our fellows won something they needed!”), is counterproductive. Among other things, it resentfully and unwittingly participates in the divide-and-conquer strategy by which the dominant keeps the oppressed, well, oppressed.

As for Jenner’s privilege and celebrity, first, when it comes down to it, it means nothing; and secondly, it is, in fact, an advantage, and not only for Jenner. Everyone who is privileged in some way (thanks to background, talent, looks, etc.) knows that such privilege proves cheap in the face of an attribute that could be exploited as a weakness. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points out in Epistemology of the Closet, there is always a closet in which one finds oneself in, no matter how out one thinks him/herself to be, no matter how open the environment. This is because you can be respected for something in which you are considered “good” or “strong,” and lose all that respect because you’re gay, or be respected only despite being black, Hispanic, or Asian, or be excluded and ridiculed for not being one of the boys. At the same time, Jenner does have privilege, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, because she is privileged, Jenner has the resources with which to fight, and, it must be noted, for a group of people deemed and treated as the lowest of the low, including in the gay community. Privilege buys (some) power (in some contexts), and it is the use to which power is put that is to be judged, not privilege by itself.

In fact, Jenner’s performance of the ex-“American hero” now identifying as and standing up for gender outcasts—already ironic—ironically makes him more critical than the mainstream LGBTQ movement. After all, the current thrust of the gay mainstream is heavily weighted toward marriage and the “proper” “type” of gay, undoubtedly a compelling factor leading to its recent victories, its acceptance in the mainstream. The price of this has been the disavowal of the less proper type of queers, notably trans, despite the fact that it was trans activists in Stonewall that gave birth to the modern LGBTQ movement. Similarly, of course ESPN has a vested commercial interest in presenting Jenner the award and that such presentation involves her commodification, but why single out a transgender woman, and not the other athletes, heteronormative or not, as the object of televised exploitation? And so what if Jenner is commodified as she is publicly recognized? Does commodification necessarily blunt the critical force of her public performance? In fact, doesn’t commodification, given its speed, its shock or seduction value, its mass dissemination, propel Jenner’s performance? In a world where capitalism attempts to penetrate virtually everything, does pointing out that something is entangled really amount to a critique? More importantly, does entanglement necessarily foreclose critique of that to which one is entangled and, it must not be forgotten, of the other operative axes of power that may or may not be aligned with capitalism, say, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and patriotism?

These attempts, ostensibly well-meaning, to dismiss or minimize the significance of Caitlyn Jenner miss something crucial about her. Criticisms from the right make up a reactionary backlash (what else is new?) against the way in which Caitlyn has deconstructed the American hero, proving him not only to be unknown (as expressed by Caitlyn’s constant remark, “Before this, nobody really knew me”), perhaps unknowable, because hollow—a mere ideal, a fantasy—but, indeed, as the opposite of what he’s thought to be, i.e. as deviant, wretched, monstrous, as someone undesirable and unworthy of admiration, at least not in the conventional sense, in other words, as queer. These reactionary criticisms, in other words, root from a nostalgia for something that’s not there but is believed in, an anchor of identity that Bruce used to be, but which Caitlyn has shattered. Whereas these nostalgic criticisms do everything they can to erase what Caitlyn has revealed, more sympathetic criticisms, including those coming from the fellow oppressed, miss what it was that Caitlyn showed the world. For in courageously standing up there to flamboyantly parade her gender for all the world to see, what Caitlyn Jenner has showed, in these times of enduring racial persecution, unending economic recession, and the institutionalization of gay marriage, is the centrality of sexuality itself, not against but along with other axes of struggle.

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