I am always struck by how common the refusal to question. This has come up recently with a sort of mini- war in the media regards conspiracy and the Boston Marathon Bombing.
Rachel Maddow, the branded “out” lesbian liberal at MSNBC, established clearly that she knows who signs her paychecks. (see below).
The Gay Pride parade announced that this year’s Grand Marshall was Bradley Manning, only to very quickly announce that no, that was a mistake and the perpetrator of said mistake was being disciplined. No word yet on who Bud Light and the other corporate sponsors DO want as Grand Marshall. I was reading a number of responses at a number of places on the topic of the withdrawal of Manning as symbolic head of this, now, rather tawdry spectacle of branded homosexuality. Much of it from the *gay community*. And it went something like…”what has Manning ever done for the LGBT community, anyway”? I’ve been pondering that because it cuts to the essence of the problem of identity politics. I mean, I don’t know, revealing torture and war crimes seems to be doing something FOR EVERYONE. But often, everyone is not ME, not MY identity… and so once again we return to the topic of identity.
Then we come to the Speilberg satire “Obama”…har har….made for the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Har har har…This is perhaps the quintessential moment in the blurring of theatre & politics. It is also the blurring of reality and non reality. Who is more important here, Speilberg or Obama? I think we know the answer. I feel a sort of existential horror overtake me when I try to watch this two minute bit of satire. The sources of this psychic pustule, go back a long ways. Moral seriousness has flown away, on the wings of a culture so infused with the ironic, that a man who orders drone attacks that will almost certainly kill civilians, including children, can be part of a sketch and worse, have a willing audience, ready to lap up a sort of mental fusion cuisine, an ideological parfait and testament to the psychological torpor of today’s mass populace. We are children. That is the message, and it is Maddow’s message, and it the message of 90% of corporate entertainment.
It is something else, too. The reflex desire, yearning, to like Obama (or almost any authority figure..though it is more intense in specific cases) is the desire for your father’s approval. For certain, for women, it is paternal approval. They may KNOW Obama is a monster. But Dad’s smile means more, it trumps the horrors of war. This experience of paternal approval is filtered through other prisms of course. It is also a desire to for the ‘other’ father, Speilberg, to have fun. Look, Dad is enjoying himself, having fun, letting his hair down. Isn’t that great…etc. For men, it is much the same, although shot through probably with more ambiguity. It won’t change much, but there is lots of variance in all this. The need for authority to “like” is something I’ve seen every single time I was ever in jail. The chatting with the enemy. Smiling, making jokes with the guards, with the police, with the DA.
So maybe we are children, I don’t know.
It is easy to forget the grotesque nature of the colonial project. That *human zoos* were part of every Colonial Exposition from the 1890s to the 1930s. Even the United States participated, desperate to belong to the club of Empire. The exhibition of 1931 included a diorama of Mt.Vernon and Washington’s bedroom — all of which seems strangely dysfunctional in a way. But this is not so long ago, between the Great Wars, when such hymns to Empire were hugely popular, and millions walked the grounds able to view these ‘human zoos’…so advertised, with Negro Villages, *real* Congo crafts factories, and Indo-Chinese teenagers dancing *native* dances, a real Hindu temple, or learn how native workers harvested sugar (well, not the part where they had to wear iron masks lest they sneak a bite of cane, or the pouring of burning sugar down their backs).
This is how people receive their information, via I.V. feedings of snark — the tone here is one that formally was reserved for game shows, but is increasingly the tone of the master discourse. Mainlining snark.
One aspect of the Maddow rant is that she is praising the “accessibility” of these books…well, one book and one COMIC book…er….Graphic Novel. Accessible is code for childish. I mean who the fuck needs one of those big ol’boring books with a lot fifty cent words in them. Accessible. What does that mean? Does it mean anything beyond childish? Infantile? I don’t know.
Here is Mira Kamdar writing on the 1931 Colonial Exposition:
“The only non-European nation present was the United States—presumably delighted to be considered a colonial power in 1931. The US pavilion featured a reproduction of George Washington’s house at Mount Vernon, which was supposed to showcase the American colonies of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Samoa, Alaska and Hawaii. (The latter two were not yet states of the union.) French visitors were thrilled to find in the faux Mount Vernon a bedroom outfitted for General Lafayette, ally of the American revolutionary forces. The irony of a former colony that had successfully fought for its independence from British colonial rule exhibiting at an international fair dedicated to the virtues of empire—and paying homage to the French general who helped them fight the British—was lost on both the French and the Americans. Nor was the American pavilion meant to inspire the French to come to the aid of any other British colonies, least of all India, which might wish independence. The French had managed to cling to a few small territories of their own in India after their defeat there by the British at the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. The French possessions were Pondicherry and Karikal in what is now Tamil Nadu, Chandernagor in what is now West Bengal, Mahé in what is now Kerala and Yanaon in what is now Bihar. They would not give these territories up until after India’s independence. But, more than a threat to France’s tiny possessions in India, Gandhi’s movement was an affront to an empire that, while not quite as great as the one on which the sun never set, saw itself on the side of the conqueror rather than the conquered. The last thing France wanted was for Gandhi to inspire colonised subjects in Indochina or North Africa to embark on similar quests.
French fear of India’s potential to lay low the British Empire was fanned by hysterical articles filled with overtly racist views on European superiority and misinformation about India and India’s independence movement. The 23 September 1931 issue of VU magazine, published just after Gandhi landed in Marseilles, carried a lead article by Edouard Helsfy entitled ‘Why the British Will Lose India’, which warned French readers that India’s bid for independence represented nothing less than a threat to the fate of the West. Deploying a rhetorical bombast that still finds great favour among contemporary prophets of civilisational doom, Helsfy declared that Britain’s loss of India would be “grave, very grave, not only because it [England] cannot lose India without shaking up our colonial empire, but still and above all because old England, as we have known it, represented one of the major pillars of the whole of Western civilisation.”
The problem, according to Helsfy, was one of simple demographics: women outnumbered men in Britain, creating a growing population of old maids. “Do you know what an English spinster is?” Helsfy asked. “There is nothing more fantastical, more enthusiastic, more chimerical and, above all, more gullible. They are charmed by idealism and unreason. Yet, ten or twelve years ago, like all English women, two or three million spinsters became voters. What’s more, for the most part they are angry voters.… For the past ten years, these millions of old girls govern England absolutely.” (France did not give its women the right to vote until 1944.) Real men, Helsfy argued, could govern India’s hordes without much trouble—but the British had gone “soft”. The Indians, Helsfy continued, in a litany of tired arguments for European dominance, were like children; they were physically weak because they didn’t eat meat and most of them were born into abject poverty; they were divided by a multitude of different languages and by religion. The English had bettered Indians’ lives immensely by building railroads and schools and improving sanitation—and what did they have to show for it? An ungrateful, uppity population.”
I will quote Gyan Prakash here, too:
“With the help of the Idea, the ugly facts of conquest can be tucked away from sight. We encountered this recently during the Iraq War. While the American invasion and occupation consumed more than 100,000 Iraqi lives, the ideologues implored us to keep our eyes on the supposed benefit. Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian, encouraged the American establishment to perform its imperial role, drawing its attention to the record of the British Empire and extolling it for bestowing the gift of progress to the colonies. Christopher Hitchens, an erstwhile radical and raconteur, was also seduced by the Idea. He cosied up to American neocon ideologues and policy makers and offered full-throated support for the invasion. Not that George Bush and Dick Cheney needed encouragement in bludgeoning Baghdad. The “War on Terror” had already prepared the ground for a trumped-up case against Saddam Hussein. Critics charged that no “unselfish belief” stood behind the war. The US dressed up the war in lofty language to conceal something altogether crass—reiteration of American hegemony, control of the Iraqi oilfields, and removal of a counterforce to Israel. But that is precisely the point; what redeemed these vulgar motives and the carnage of the invasion in the eyes of the neocon ideologues was the goal of asserting the power and values of a US-led Western coalition. So much so that they were prepared to—and did—massage intelligence reports and lie to the UN. The “War on Terror” was a cynical ploy because the invaders knew, thanks to the anti-colonial legacy and anti-war mobilisation, that outright conquest without justification was not an option. The Idea was crucial.”
The idea, the notion of progress, domination, is the currency of the Spectacle of Empire and it has, over the last sixty or so years. merged with corporate take over of media, and the ascension of marketing. Electronic media infuses daily life in the West — and within this structural truth can be seen the constant reiterating of certain themes. Most pronounced is the idea of white superiority– whether liberal or reactionary, the message is the same. Paternalistically or fascistically, the West is there to control the less developed peoples of the world. The petty used car salesmen of empire, Maddow or Brokow, or Chris Mathews or Speilberg, create and re-create the same story. And that story is *White Male Power is natural, it is not ideological, it is simply Universal Law*.
Glenn Greenwald wrote a nice piece on the Gay Pride/Bradley Manning affair:
“News reports yesterday indicated that Bradley Manning, widely known to be gay, had been selected to be one of the Grand Marshals of the annual San Francisco gay pride parade, named by the LGBT Pride Celebration Committee. When the predictable backlash instantly ensued, the president of the Board of SF Pride, Lisa L Williams, quickly capitulated, issuing a cowardly, imperious statement that has to be read to be believed.
Williams proclaimed that “Manning will not be a grand marshal in this year’s San Francisco Pride celebration” and termed his selection “a mistake”. She blamed it all on a “staff person” who prematurely made the announcement based on a preliminary vote, and she assures us all that the culprit “has been disciplined”: disciplined. She then accuses Manning of “actions which placed in harms way [sic] the lives of our men and women in uniform”: a substance-free falsehood originally spread by top US military officials which has since been decisively and extensively debunked, even by some government officials (indeed, it’s the US government itself, not Manning, that is guilty of “actions which placed in harms way the lives of our men and women in uniform”). And then, in my favorite part of her statement, Williams decreed to all organization members that “even the hint of support” for Manning’s actions – even the hint – “will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride”. Will not be tolerated.”
” the authoritarian, state-and-military-revering mentality pervading Williams’ statement is striking. It isn’t just the imperious decree that “even a hint of support” for Manning “will not be tolerated”, though that is certainly creepy. Nor is it the weird announcement that the wrongdoer “has been disciplined”. Even worse is the mindless embrace of the baseless claims of US military officials (that Manning “placed in harms way the lives of our men and women in uniform”) along with the supremely authoritarian view that any actions barred by the state are, ipso facto, ignoble and wrong. Conduct can be illegal and yet still be noble and commendable: see, for instance, Daniel Ellsberg, or most of the leaders of the civil rights movement in the US. Indeed, acts of civil disobedience and conscience by people who risk their own interests to battle injustices are often the most commendable acts. Equating illegal behavior with ignominious behavior is the defining mentality of an authoritarian – and is particularly notable coming from what was once viewed as a bastion of liberal dissent.”
Lisa Williams of course worked for the Obama campaign, so her reaction is hardly surprising. But what is worth focusing on here is the through line from Speilberg, to Lisa Williams at Gay Pride, to Maddow. The co-opting of liberalism never took place because it didn’t have to. Thus it has always been. And identity politics; gay rights in this case, are steadfastly in the service of Empire. Cue Josephine Baker and Le Danse Sauvage.
The world hierarchy of power — the system that perpetuates the same values that created those human zoos, creates Speilberg’s satire (sic) and brands Maddow as “left liberal”. The men who built those ‘authentic negro villages’ in Paris and Marseille and elsewhere, now order the building of sets on the back lot at Paramount, or sit in air conditioned offices in Century City and green light reality cop shows or order another ten episodes of Blue Bloods. The sit on congressional panels and in offices in Washington, or in board rooms on Madison Avenue.
Those “negro villages”, those “authentic Congo workers”, on display in the Exhibition Hall in Paris, or London, or Stuttgart, took place less around 80 some years ago. My father could have gone and seen that.
That was NOT long ago. One of the features of forgetting history is to make all history seem distant. Something that happend last year is relegated to the vast dust bin of history, alongside ancient Rome, or Attila the Hun, or Thomas Jefferson. Television creates “That 70s Show”…a piece of nostalgia kitsch that traffics in style codes from what is, really, the very very recent past.
I continue to insist on the importance of culture and of aeshtetic education. One has to be able to ‘read’ the images of Empire, has to know, to feel, the odious horror lurking as backdrop to the Speilberg satire. One must see the racism. But more, see the smug sadism of power. Oh, ha ha ha, I have big ears…..chortle, chuckle….but then one remembers Boston in total lockdown, and one remembers SWAT teams shooting another unarmed black man, and one remembers the bodies of children pulled from charred rubble after another drone strike. You can read this brutal ruthless arrogance in the faces of Empire, in Obama or Netanyahu, or any of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as you could in Franco or Mussolini, or Bush or Hillary. But one must learn to read it when it is mildly camouflaged serving as backdrop, or off screen or off stage referent. For it is sadistic, but it is insane as well.
I often, when teaching aesthetics or film theory, or writing, try to ask students to see what is in Bresson or Bunuel or Godard — in the image, the sense of duration in a shot, or in the pace — what is it that feels human and not vicious and robotic. What is different from a studio project. One must know the sentimental is only a form of sadism…or that kitsch cliches are the husks of an ideology of domination. Snark is what you see in Maddow. The latent Snark is there in the first seconds of listening to Speilberg in the clip above. The Empire has no worries. What is it in the line of the mouth, the outline of complacent and self satisfied power. It means learning that emotions are manipulated. Crying means nothing. You can cry at the worst crap, the worst melodrama, that doesn’t elevate it. You can laugh …but laughter is pernicious. I find the laughter of the post modern west to teeter on the edge of hysteria. Is it laughing or crying? Often I cannot tell. Laughter is intertwined with cruelty. But also with compassion. Noting the balance is important…Richard Pryor is getting a different laugh than Speilberg’s satire with Obama. These are subtle things, however. I have caught myself laughing, only to stop…thinking, feeling, this is maybe not funny, so what AM I laughing at? Aesthetics form a complex of awareness that allows one to continue a form of intellectual curiosity. It forms a set of psychic signposts — it allows an easier recognition of ideological codes. Art is not theory. Art can work with theory, but it also operates on another more almost prehistoric level. A chemical level, probably. And it is exactly the role of kitsch, or marketing and propaganda, to KILL THAT awareness, to eradicate that entire range — the better to put one to sleep. Waking up is bad for business. I have noticed a lot of very smart people, people I know a little, people who I think of as possessing sharp minds; I have noticed the one area many of them suffer deep confusion is art and culture. I think this is because it is not deemed transformational. And I understand this. If you work all day, you dont feel like transformation. You feel like a sort of suspension of self. A blank screen to reflect the blank screen that is you.
One cannot find the Obama satire amusing, if one also criticizes drone attacks. For one resides within the other. Or rather, one can, and one can even laugh (perhaps) but not without an attendant shudder of revulsion. Rachel Maddow is simply a brand. She is not a human being. Bill Maher is a brand, even Jon Stewart is a brand. And under the heading *Even a blind Squirrel gathers some nuts*, Stewart and even the others can, on occasion, say the right thing, criticize hypocricies perceptively, but they will not, any of them, step outside the bounds of bourgeois propriety (and values). None will ever say, Obama is a war criminal, the U.S. is destroying lives and lands around the planet. They will still join in ridiculing a Chavez, or Castro, while gently and warmly poking fun at Bill Clinton. Ergo, they are not on your side. Remember, too, that token criticism serves as proof of a democratic press. They are millionaires. They lead lives very distant from most people. They don’t wait in lines, they fly first class, if they fly commercial at all, and they use valet parking. (aside #2: one of the signs of noveau riche pretensions, or just fake specialness, is use of valet parking. I knew people, collecting unemployment….broke….if they went to a party in Hollywood, would use valet parking.)
Culture must be adversarial. If something is popular, becomes popular, one’s first reaction should be distrust. WHY did it become so popular? This is not the same thing as saying only the obscure is of value. It only means, in an Empire of hyper-branding, signs are everything. This was not always true, and even fifty years ago, was not really true. If there is a trigger that affords a particular artwork (product) immediate popularity on a wide scale, then it’s useful to try to define what that trigger might be.
Let me just add an aside here. Niall Ferguson, the reactionary (nay, fascist) historian so popular on TV news shows, wrote this recently:
“Nevertheless, the fact remains that no organisation in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And no organisation has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world. For much (though certainly not all) of its history, the British Empire acted as an agency for relatively incorrupt government. Prima facie, there therefore seems a plausible case that empire enhanced global welfare – in other words, was a Good Thing.”
It is hard to believe that anyone who wrote such a grotesquely distorted and morally challenged paragraph would not be only out of work, but sent to seek help from a mental health professional.
When one thinks of Colonialism… the phases of Imperialism — from the conquest of the Americas and the genocide of Native Americans, the ethnic cleansing in Australia, the absolute total genocide in Tazmania, then the Industrial Revolution which expressed itself in the domination of Africa and parts of Asia, which intensified an already thriving slave trade, as well as total subjugation of peoples and the erasure of indigenous culture and community. What Ferguson calls the movement of goods and capital and labor is really movement of goods to an elite class in Europe, and labor is, of course, slave labor. Impose western norms of law….like chopping off the feet of runaway slaves? The list could easily go on. Ferguson concludes empire enhanced global welfare. Only for the ruling class.
“Today we see the beginnings of a third wave of devastation of the world by imperialist expansion, encouraged by the collapse of the Soviet system and of the regimes of populist nationalism in the Third World. The objectives of dominant capital are still the same–the control of the expansion of markets, the looting of the earth’s natural resources, the superexploitation of the labor reserves in the periphery–although they are being pursued in conditions that are new and in some respects very different from those that characterized the preceding phase of imperialism. The ideological discourse designed to secure the assent of the peoples of the central Triad (the United States, Western Europe, and Japan) has been refurbished and is now founded on a “duty to intervene” that is supposedly justified by the defense of “democracy,” the “rights of peoples,” and “humanitarianism.” The examples of the double standard are so flagrant that it seems obvious to the Asians and Africans how cynically this language is used. Western opinion, however, has responded to it with as much enthusiasm as it did to the justifications of earlier phases of imperialism.”
Who is on TV the most, Amin or Fergusson? Hahahaha, that’s a joke….hahahahaha…..chuckles…..oh, its Fergusson of course…..(wipes tears of laughter from face)…and he teaches at Harvard for fuck sake. I don’t think Amin has ever been on network TV news. Niall Fergusson, the man who thinks Empire was good, Imperialism is good, Colonialism instilled discipline and legal norms….yes…he TEACHES AT HARVARD.
He is the celebrity historian du jour. The trains ran on time.
So, it is time to question even the most offhand remark. And to sensitize onself firstly to the narrative of the state, and once digested, to look for corrections. More on that topic I hope next posting.
Here is a footnote for Maddow: