The Stainless Presidency

In 1863, the Confederate States of America adopted a flag that has come to be called the “Stainless Banner.”

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Eventually they realized that it looked like a flag of surrender.

A white flag with a St. Andrew’s Cross in the upper-left corner, the flag was dubbed “the White Man’s Flag” by one of its proposers, the Savannah Morning News editor William Tappan Thompson. What, exactly, is stainless about it? As Thompson wrote, “As a people, we [the Confederacy] are fighting to maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored races.” The previous Confederate flag, called by some a “servile imitation” of the Union flag, by implication, subordinated the “heaven-ordained” masters. The “stain” that was represented by the previous flag, it’s clear, was the presence of non-whites in the national fabric.

Thaddeus Stevens, a Republican member of Congress in the 1860s and one of the proponents of Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War, was seen by Southern Democrats as racially corrupt, owing in part to rumors of his longstanding relationship with his African-American servant, Lydia Hamilton Smith. The Radical Republican member of Congress Austin Stoneman in the KKK-apologist film Birth of a Nation draws on the insinuations of Stevens’ racial “stain” through his almost ape-like appearance, recalling the racist depictions of those of African descent as less “evolved.” (A disturbingly popular belief still among the self-described “alt-right.”) Stoneman’s relationship with his servant, Lydia Brown, is depicted as manipulative and treacherous. His “cruelty” against his “own” “white” race is the result of the stain of racial conspiracy, his stupidity (emblemitized by his sloping forehead and the associations of “Stone-man”

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with a historical remote era, “Stone Age” having been a term invented in the period between the Civil War and the movie’s premiere) becomes the theater for the machinations of the minorities who influence him. Like the many colors of the Union flag, his ultimate fault is trying to further relations between different races. But, though he is “stained” by racial manipulation, he remains, on some level, innocent, due to his apparent stupidity, his evolutionary inbetweeness, and the multi-racial influence of Lydia.

Since Charlottesville and the outrageously racist presidential address that followed, I have been trying to piece together two seemingly unrelated elements of modern Republican politics: the racist strand that has become increasingly important since Barry Goldwater, and the dumbing down of Republican Presidents. Since Nixon (an asshole, but a clever one for the most part), each successive Republican President has been stupider than the last (George H.W. Bush, 41, being a bit of an outlier). Ford, though not elected, kicks it off, Reagan cements this direction, 41 is a fluke, Geo. W. Bush, 43, was famously dim (and also had the simian charm of an Austin Stoneman), and the current President is stupid enough to look directly into the sun even after being warned by onlookers not to do so.  Why are they so dumb?

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“A lot of people are telling me ‘Don’t look at the sun.’ Maybe I won’t, maybe. We’ll see.”

The connection was revealed inadvertently by a caller to Tony Schwartz, the co-author of The Art of the Deal. In a six-minute-long voicemail message, the caller, who claims to be a supporter of the 45th President, excoriates Schwartz for opposing his former “writing partner”. Among the many absurd, conspiracy-driven fantasies the caller lays out, one stuck out to me: “You corrupted the system, and don’t think that we don’t know that George Bush was set up and that was intentional by Barack Obama. And don’t forget Mr. Soros, John Kasich, all the usuals.” Referring to the bank bailout after the crash of 2008, the caller somehow pins the legislation signed by Geo. W. Bush, 43, and supported by both of the then-Senators and presidential candidates Obama and McCain, on the first-term Senator from Illinois. The conspiracy/fantasy operative here also ensnares Jewish people (“Mr. Soros”) for good measure. The import is clear: Behind the curtain of white power, a black man and his Jewish benefactor pull the levers.

The caller concludes with the statement that the Tweeter-in-Chief will “never leave the American people, and we’ll never leave him.” This is pretty questionable, given that he lost the popular vote and has only become more unpopular since taking office. And though we can’t take this anonymous call as representative of any group as such, the message is chilling. It is clear that the stupidest President is also a racist and an enabler of racist demagoguery. But this caller insists she’ll support him no matter what, even if his policies harm huge numbers of whites. Why is support for this dim bulb so strong?

In truth, his stupidity is a part of his appeal, as his ignorance and illogic is an alibi for his white supremacy. It allows him and the Republican presidents before him to do unmitigated harm to the working- and middle-class whites who enable their electoral wins while appearing to be free of blame. It becomes the fault of the black, brown, and Jewish bodies that are the objects of racist derision. To the extent these presidents are complicit in white supremacy, they “don’t understand” what they’re doing. To the extent they harm poorer whites, they are being manipulated by Jews and blacks. They remain, as white people, stainless, as Austin Stoneman did, despite his corruption under the influence of his multi-racial mistress. Whiteness: the ultimate alibi.

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GET OUT and the Invention of the Social Thriller

***(Sort of) SPOILERS BELOW (nothing that bad)***

Many commentators wonder how Jordan Peele’s representation of interracial romantic relationships has gone over with his family, seeing as his father was black, his mother was white, and Peele’s own wife, Chelsea Peretti, is white. Robert Jones, Jr. wonders “if this film operates, in some ways, as Peele’s cry for help.” This is based on his reading that the protagonist, Chris, represents “both an indictment of black men and our possible savior. … He’s a guy that sees a white woman as the only thing he has left.” Michel Martin of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered asked him if the relationship was meant as a commentary on his relationship with Peretti. (A: Um, no.)

Law Ware, in the excellent conversation with Jones linked above, claims that in Chris “Peele gives us a protagonist who is just as unwise as the protagonists in your typical horror film, but his problematic actions stem from a desire to enter into this white world.” Terri Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air, when interviewing Peele about Get Out, completely missed this reading. She suggested that Peele avoided having a dumb protagonist and that this was different from other horror movies. In fact, anyone who watches horror knows that the best protagonists are both smart and dumb. They are clever, but they try to solve too much, or fix the situation, rather than just fleeing it. Chris, consumed by the desire for white acknowledgement, refuses to abandon the insufferability of his girlfriend’s family or the pathological blandness of Rose herself. Rose is the most disturbed one, as Aisha Harris over at Slate has pointed out, because she’s “not just a psychopathic racist; she’s also a canny manipulator of the subterranean, systemic racism in the world at large.” Chris’ allegiance to whiteness prevents him from seeing this, and the audience relies on his friend Rod to expose it through his phone conversations with Chris and Rose. (Rod is only once depicted physically close to Chris and Rose, near the end.)

Chris’ illusion of the possibility of coexisting with white supremacy is, perhaps, most clearly demonstrated by his encounter with the blind art gallery owner. Here, Chris’ desire for white acceptance reveals that it’s the necessary means for Chris (and black people more generally) to achieve his other desires, namely admission to the art world, future career prospects, artistic expression, etc.

That’s why one of the most fantastic aspects of Get Out’s popularity, for me, has been watching Peele determine his own genealogy. Peele cites a wide variety of films whenever he’s interviewed on mainstream, predominantly white media. (He’s been interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered and Fresh Air, and a report on Get Out’s success also appeared on NPR’s Marketplace program). He frequently cites Night of the Living Dead as another horror movie that deals with race, the only other “woke horror movie,” but claims more directly the psychological horror of Rosemary’s Baby, the slow-burn drama of The Stepford Wives, and the social commentary in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He’s essentially invented a term for this collection of filmic forebears: the “social thriller.” The “social thriller,” he says, “is a genre I’m particularly obsessed with. To me, it’s about the notion that to find the scariest monster we need look no further than the human demon. And when I talk about the human demon, I’m talking about the evil we’re capable of collectively.” These films have been around for a long time, and many of Peele’s favorites are from the 1960s and 70s. But by uniting this rather diverse set of films together under a new generic denomination, Peele claims a singular critical approach to his own film, which has largely been followed by the laudatory mainstream (white) press (at least at NPR, the Guardian, and the Village Voice; Richard Brody at the New Yorker views Peele’s film as “radical,” thus breaking it from antecedents all together).

Peele is the first black writer/director to make a debut film that grosses $100 million dollars, an impressive feat. As Ware and Jones point out in their conversation, this is likely due to the fact that it is a movie for black audiences that white people happen to like, too. At the same time, we should acknowledge another incredible achievement: Jordan Peele, a black man of multiracial heritage, invented an analytic category for his own art. This is something the character Chris can’t do, instead accepting the appreciation of the white art dealer who physically embodies Chris’ own ideological blindness.

Rachel Dolezal Is not Trying to Be Black; She’s Trying to Be the Whitest Person You’ve Ever Met

Despite protestations to the contrary, Rachel Dolezal is the whitest person you know. From her stance that she “knows” black culture, to her recent adoption of a string of African names from different traditions, to her love of bronzer, her obliviousness, self-deception, and self-righteousness are just manifestations of her total and deep whiteness.

For a long time we’ve been talking about her like she’s some sort of delusional weirdo, but the truth of the matter is that she’s just every damned white girl you knew in college who studied abroad in India, volunteered in Rwanda, or just grew out some white-locks.

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Yes, this one.

She told you about samsara or something and all of you at the party just look at each other with the small eye-rolls that people like her never seem to see.

Now she’s changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo, which strings together some Igbo and Fulani names like a cultural appropriation rosary and which, along with her forthcoming book, allow her to take up more space with her savage mediocrity.

The absolute kicker is the conversations conducted over Facebook that were shared with Awesomely Luvvie anonymously by a former colleague of Rachel D’s at one of the institutions where she taught. In the screenshots, she initially blasts the colleague for teaching a course on intercultural communication for which she feels she’s more qualified than him, despite his having a degree in communications and her having a background in art.

Thinks she deserves opportunities without qualifications? WHITE

Then, when she finds out the dude is indigenous, she fetishes his tribal belonging and then tries to school him on diversity and systemic racism within the academy.

Explanations to a non-white person about what racism is and how it manifests in their life? WHITE

The thing is, we all know people like Rachel D, it’s just that most of them keep their belief in their Inner Otherness on the DL and just adopt the extensions and nails. Their attempts to appropriate otherness is a way of refusing to acknowledge their own implication in white supremacy, an involvement in which white people, even against their will, are necessarily caught, no matter how much they work with the NAACP or how many black guys they have sex with. (Wasn’t this Milo’s schtick, too?) Loving Beyoncé doesn’t get you out of being a part of the problem of racism. Encouraging your nanny to speak to your children in Putonghua doesn’t get you off the hook for your family’s xenophobia. Adopting your black brother doesn’t prevent you from looking like a white fool.

The Tragedy of Milo Yiannopoulos

A tragedy has befallen Milo Yiannopoulos.

Aristotle, the finest literary critic of ancient Greece, defined “tragedy” in part by the protagonist’s “hamartia,” or “fatal flaw.” Aristotle claimed that this flaw was intrinsic to the character, who would exhibit it in the narrative in such a way that their downfall was clearly foreseeable from early in the story, though it may have appeared as a logical or forgivable action initially.

Yiannopoulos has built his career on the principle that he can say whatever he wants, whenever he wants, to whomever he wants. He can do this, in part, because of his homosexuality. As Daniel Penny has written, “What makes Milo so vexing to the left and successful among young people on the right is the way he manages to utilize his ‘deviant’ sexuality as a political asset rather than a liability.” Additionally, his recent tour has depended on the notion that a democratic society must not only accept his comments, but support him in making them through the subsidy of public venues—such as universities—and public infrastructure—such as radio waves and television bandwidth.

But that career appears in jeopardy after an interview first recorded in January, 2016, resurfaced in which Yiannopoulos makes comments in defense of relationships between “younger boys” and “older men.” Many took these comments to refer to sexual abuse of minors, an interpretation enhanced by Yiannopoulos joking about a priest’s attention to him as an adolescent. The fallout so far has included the Conservative Political Action Conference disinviting him from a speaking spot at their 2017 event, cancellation of a book contract with Simon and Schuster imprint Threshold Editions, and his resignation from right-wing website Breitbart.

Yiannopoulos’s comments have included attacks on the idea of women needing to grant consent for sex, public outing and shaming of transgender individuals, denunciation of immigrant students at universities in the United States, and the encouragement of his followers to harass women and minorities online. His activities last summer got him banned from Twitter for the coordinated racist and sexist campaign he led against comedian and actor Leslie Jones. Despite all this, it was only the appearance of videos in which Yiannopoulos makes arch statements about sex with adolescent boys that seems to have dimmed his wide-spread popularity on the right.

It has long been a myth of social conservatives that homosexuality and pedophilia are linked, despite the fact that, statistically, most perpetrators of child sexual abuse are male and most victims female. (The idea that child abuse could be linked more directly to asymmetrical power relations seems to be too frightening a reality to comprehend.)

In the wake of the reemergence of these videos, Yiannopoulos’s hamartia is laid bare. Like other tragic Greeks, Yiannopoulos is brought down by the very thing he’s famous for doing: making provocative statements. Tragically, the downfall of a guy who made his career on the principle he could say anything he wanted comes about by saying the exact thing his supporters always secretly feared he desired to say the most.

Rogue Twitter Accounts and the Spectacle of Governance

As the Trump Administration has sought a media blackout for government agencies and employees, a crop of “rogue” Twitter accounts has sprung up to replace the now-silenced official ones. Tweets from @RogueNASA and @AltForestSer, @AltNatParkSer and @altUSEPA claim to be from federal employees working outside of government strictures, providing information and statistics pertinent to areas of federal policy to which President Trump has shown hostility, most notably climate science. That’s right; to combat the Tweeting President, we have Tweeting whistleblowers.

Most interestingly, a slew of accounts claiming to be from White House staffers have appeared, including at least one that has been taken seriously by established (if not mainstream) online media outlets such as the Daily Kos. Their information is essentially unverifiable, as are their identities, yet they have accumulated hundreds of thousands of followers.

In the wake of the media blackout of federal agencies, many traditional news outlets established secure dropboxes for whistleblowers, including the Guardian and the Washington Post. Twitter accounts, however, bypass the editorial standards and information vetting that would be required for publication in mainstream media, seeking to involve the public directly in their own activities. In other words, they are exactly like President Trump’s Twitter account, which seeks to avoid media “dishonesty” (his word) by giving us direct access to his every thought as it occurs to him. (It has been demonstrated, for example, that on at least three occasions since November he has Tweeted phrases or statistics verbatim as they appeared mere moments earlier on Fox News.) Both President Trump and the “rogue” accounts seek to make what is public seem private, and what is private seem public. Everything that would normally occur behind closed doors has been put up to our judgment and demands our response, while information that is publicly subsidized is presented as treasonous. When President Trump is called a “reality television president,” it is this cloak-and-dagger comedy played out before our eyes that is really meant.

Being a part of an informed citizenry is one of the bases of our Constitution, but it is now laced with a sense of subversion, even espionage. Though the information shared on these accounts is generally public knowledge or (in the case of the White House accounts especially) confirmation of existing biases, the atmosphere of censorship that the President has brought to US culture in less than a month at the helm makes each 140-character missive seem like the Pentagon Papers. By linking our publicly-funded knowledge to the drama of government intrigue, these Twitter accounts further the work of the current administration to turn governance into reality television, only now we are not merely the spectators, we are a part of the drama.

45 and Local Ravanchism

I’m starting to think a lot of support for 45 has to do with the diminishing political power of local elites, which used to determine most elections and porkbarrel spending in their districts. Exit polling suggests that the election result was due to white people and people making over $50k/yr (two groups that heavily overlap, since white households are worth, on average, something like 16 times what black households are worth). At the same time, Republicans have so heavily gerrymandered districts throughout the midwest and south that these states are essentially one-party states. As the RNC sought an agenda that would increase wealth for the 1%, who are tied to global trends much more than local trends, the local 1% in these areas, who are wealthy in local terms (these states also being the poorest), but left out of macrotrends globally started to get mad.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation, too, to the devastation of local news media and the centrality of national news media. Local news media used to be the way that local elites kept control of their voters, but now they have no direct means. This might explain why investigative journalists have found that supporters of 45 don’t read the news, like at all, and continue to support someone whose grasp of political economy is as small-scale and limited as their own.

A friend asked me how national right-wing news media (Breitbart, Drudge Report, Fox News) plays into this. I don’t have answers for that yet, but I’m betting that it has something to do with the conspiratorial worldview that “will convince you the world is terrible” combined with how President Bannon’s apocalyptic worldview appeal to an elite that feels it should be or used to be more important than it is.

Latte Art and Coffee Kitsch: On Third-Wave Coffee Culture (2/3)

It shouldn’t be a surprise that as coffee taste has shifted increasingly to single-cup methods and slow-brewing (cold brews, “Kyoto-style”), espresso culture has moved from the artisanal practices of Second Wave coffee to kitsch in Third Wave. After the corporatization of Second Wave culture (Starbucks, Peet’s) led to the mechanization of the labor of espresso (epitomized in the push-button home espresso machine and McCafé), Third Wave culture had no way to express the laborer in an unalienated manner. (More to be considered here: The transition from espresso as expression in the form of pull times, pressure, heat, etc. to the infinite customizability of the Starbucks menu, that is, the transition from artisan craft to post-Fordist consumer commodity.) This labor is therefore sublimated into the expansion of a new sense for coffee: Sight. No longer are the products of the barista judged by taste, smell, or even touch, but by their ability to make visual art of an edible good. Certainly, the role of crema in earlier espresso cultures had a visual component, but crema’s function in the estimation of a barista was more judged by the sense of touch, seeking out texture and thickness. With automated espresso, crema is now standardized and its value in the eyes of the consumer has plummeted, even for those pulling shots by hand, who are a victim of the broader trend.

What has replaced it is “foam art,” the rendering of visual images in the play of foamed milk and espresso crema. Local, national, and international competitions are now held to judge a barista’s visual art. Representational art is widely admired, populating Instagram feeds and Flickr collections , though abstract art has a dedicated following among an elite. Coffee culture has thus invented a new category of experience in the enjoyment of caffeine: Its similarity to other arts, namely painting.

By expanding the possibilities of the medium beyond its cohesion as a medium (that is, by adding sight to the taste, smell, and touch of food), and specifically by trying to invoke other arts through the artistic medium of espresso, the labor of the barista is no longer exclusive to the position of barista. The labor becomes undifferentiated, and the medium comes to seem a judgment on itself. Espresso thus becomes kitsch, as it presages the audience’s judgment of (lingual) taste and smell and diffuses it by focusing attention on a more established repertoire of signs, namely those in the realm of the visual. Since visual signs can be viewed by many while the espresso drink normally has only one consumer, the visual performs better as a means of establishing an objective standard. Objective here is derived from the Kantian notion of that property of an object which is trans-personal and intersubjective. This sensorial sleight-of-hand renders all judgment ironic, distanced, and absurd, as well as conforming it to other objectives, namely those of verisimilitude.

Foam art competitions are the most obvious way in which Third-Wave coffee culture expresses its kitsch sensibilities, but there are other ways in which the entire culture is saturated with this sense. In addition to foam art, there are competitions for roasting, brewing, and cupping. The arena of competition makes kitsch of its subjects, as the purpose of their labor is no longer the judgment of the product, but the judgment of the labor itself. The perfectly roasted bean doesn’t win the medal; the roaster does. The beautifully floral cup of coffee doesn’t receive the ribbon, the cupper does. These competitions therefore also diffuse all judgment of the product, removing it from the realm of art and placing it in the territory of kitsch, cultural productions that are meant to be judged for their conformity to criteria established by previous art. (This is Clement Greenberg’s early formulation of kitsch in his famous if uncomfortably strident and pedantic 1939 essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch.”)

In its transition from artisanal craft to standardized commodity to kitsch, the cup of coffee seems to parallel smoking tobacco. In the nineteenth century, tobacco was smoked primarily in the form of cigars, hand-cut and hand-rolled, with particular rollers achieving quite decent pay and notoriety. Cigarettes, each identical and anonymous, developed with the advent of mechanized cutters and rollers, expanding the consumer base while alienating the labor and undercutting laborer rights and protections. The cigarette is increasingly being replaced with the vaporizer, where tobacco has been removed from the experience of its enjoyment, distilled, purified, and blended with other flavors. Smoking now resembles most closely the medical inhaler, the model for vaporizing technology. Though it therefore shares with coffee a turn towards kitsch, the denaturalization of smoking embodied in its distillation and blending has run the opposite direction from coffee.