The Necessity of History, the Tragedy of Aesthetics

When we tear down statues, it is an attempt to alter the trajectory of history. Not history as just “what has happened,” which we can never change as much as reinterpret. No, this is history as a great unfolding, as something that is taking place and will take place on one route or another depending on what is done in this moment. You can hear it in the reactions of the right. In their barely contained apoplexy, their cries of “you can’t erase history,” they are, however unwittingly, announcing that there is consequence to how that history is experienced in the here and now.

Aesthetics, particularly those that exist as part of public space, are never merely about how something is rendered. Symbols and tributes that are hegemonic enough cannot simply have the channel changed on them. The more all-encompassing an aesthetic is, the easier it can hide in plain sight, the more urgent it becomes to reveal their machinations and expose the possibility of ripping it up and starting again.

A book everyone should read (daunting though it may be given its density) is Tom Bunyard’s Debord, Time, and Spectacle. Summing up the book here in any detail that does it justice would take more space than I currently have available to me, but, briefly…

Bunyard examines the thought of Guy Debord, the primary mover and theorist of situationism. Probably the most referenced aspect of situationist thought is that of “the spectacle.” Primarily, this is understood through a media studies or anti-consumerist lens, and this version of it is best captured by slick advertising, the kind that is designed to paper over the inequities of a product or service by making us feel we have an emotional investment in it. The product is fun, it will fulfill you, so best ignore that it was made in a sweatshop on occupied West Bank land and that its CEO has his name in Jeffrey Epstein’s little black book.

It’s a useful understanding on its own terms, but as Bunyard argues, it’s also exceedingly narrow. It siphons off art/culture/media from economics/politics/sociology, as if each general realm responds to wholly different laws. Bunyard excavates, through Debord’s study of Hegel, how the concept of the spectacle was a critique of all aspects of life under capitalism. In essence, the spectacle is full-spectrum, the ways in which culture, economy, politics, and aesthetics all conspire under the sway of capital to divorce the individual from history and therefore control over their own lives. It is not so much that media comes to replace politics as it is that politics becomes highly mediated, aestheticized, the illusion of being under our control so that our own subjugation is more easily consented.

In this respect, the toppling of statues is of profound importance. We might understand such acts as de/re-aestheticization from below. Or, bringing in Walter Benjamin, the way in which fascism’s penchant for aestheticizing politics is inverted by communism’s ability to politicize aesthetics.

In this framework, no artistic work or gesture is politically neutral. Any signifier that comes from a moment of uprising can be co-opted and rehabilitated by the establishment. But unlike some who see this as a reason to surrender the realm of aesthetic struggle, who insist such engagement is a fool’s errand, Bunyard’s argument necessitates we do aesthetics better, more collectively, attempting to get in front of detournement whenever we can, just as we always have to do with our understandings of economics and politics. Aesthetics are not divorced from these realms. Ceding them to convention can have serious implications.

The kerfuffle over the “Black Panthers Revolutionaries Atlanta Chapter” reveals in a painfully trenchant way how the spectacle, the aesthetic uncoupling of people from their subjectivity, plays out. It’s surely one of the most bizarre episodes of this current resurgence in Black Lives Matter. Pictures and reports of young mostly black women and men dressed in all black, wearing berets, and carrying semi-automatics at a BLM march in Decatur, Georgia two weeks ago went instantly viral. To some it was a sign that the spirit of black militancy had revived the most iconic black revolutionary groups in American history.

To others it was confusing. They seemed to dress and carry themselves quite differently from the anti-semitic poseurs of the “New Black Panther Party” that have been around for the past twenty-five years. But they had no web presence, nobody seemed to have heard of them. Some observers pointed out that their patches were not those of the original Panthers but of the 66th Infantry Division. That there were also photos of these Atlanta Panthers posing arm-in-arm with police (!!!) was just doubly confusing.

Then came the truth: the small group of armed Panthers were, in fact, actors. They had purchased the clothes and guns, and had shown up at the demo to, essentially, cosplay. All seem sincere in their apology, and going out of one’s way to denounce them seems a waste of energy. But the fact that remains that the whole sequence is utterly baffling. What could possess this group of young men and women, presumably in sympathy with the aims of Black Lives Matter, to do something like this? It would be one thing to attempt a refoundation of the Black Panther Party, however confused such an attempt might be, but this wasn’t that. These were people pretending to be Panthers, consciously choosing to do so. What’s more, they were doing it badly. Nobody who knows anything of substance about the Black Panthers would ever think any of its members would pose for a smiling photo op with a police officer. The cops, after all, were their most well-known and visible enemy.

There is at least a partial explanation in the fact that they are actors. I don’t say this as any kind slight or dig against actors themselves. The entertainment world applies immense pressure to conform to an ahistorical view of the world. I was told by acting teachers that the best actors know nothing about history, politics, or current events.

This is not unique to acting though. In fact it’s inevitable in the commodification of any craft, which is to say literally everything. The breakdown of skill into measurable and hyper-rationalized components removes each gesture and action from their context. Everything becomes an empty signifier. Flowing inevitably from this, events and history become performance, the blurring of the lines between actually making history and just, well, acting like you are. As a friend and comrade said, “I hate when Baudrillard is right, but Baudrillard is right.”

The flurry in Atlanta confirms this as a phenomenon that goes well beyond the ranks of the left, but it also presents a specific challenge for us given that it is our job more than anyone else’s to change history. There is nothing wrong with cosplaying or LARPing in general, but when the shape of this same practice comes to shape how you do politics, it becomes at best laughably ineffectual, at worst dangerous. The “best” are those who have read enough books about this or that revolution and think that all that is needed now is rote replication, a practice recognizable in any innumerable toy-Bolshevik group today. As for the worst examples, it is best captured by the practices of the Red Guards. They think they are recreating Shining Path; all they’re actually doing is the cops’ job for them.

There is, to be sure, a liberal version of this confusion, and it is one that most corporations are becoming very good at lately. Spotify and Netflix release Black Lives Matter selections and playlists, though they obviously won’t call for the abolition of police. Chase gives its employees half a day off for Juneteenth, but won’t pay reparations despite having demonstrably profited from slavery. That these companies are saying anything at all publicly has everything to do with the arrival of sustained mass protest, but they are also done out of cynicism, in the hope that appearances can be mistaken for substantive concessions.

If events are ultimately the real content of history, we can take heart in the fact that it didn’t take long for the Fake Panther story to fall off people’s timelines. They are replaced by far more consequential, significant, history-making stories. Not just the bringing down of statues (and the profound transformation it brings to public space), but the move by teachers unions to ban cops from schools, or by labor councils to kick out police unions. Or the Supreme Court rulings which bans the firing of queer and trans folks, or blocking Trump from ending the DACA program. In the grand scheme, they are small victories, trivial compared to the wholesale abolition of police or the closure of the ICE detention centers. But they will also make material difference in people’s lives, how they view and experience the world, their notion of what it is to fight and win. And they also came courtesy of a moment of mass protest.

Which brings us back to the toppling of statues. What exactly is it that makes this wave so different from cosplaying or the corporate push to co-opt? For one thing, bringing down a statue has less to do with how we change ourselves and more to do with how we change ourselves by changing our surroundings. It is a radically ontological act first and foremost, effectively acting upon the unique and specific role that aesthetics plays in politics.

When our public lives are lorded over by celebratory likenesses of slave owners, genocidal colonists, and murderous eugenicists, it enforces a kind of floating spatial apartheid. Even outside of redlining and other forms of physical segregation, in spaces that are supposedly neutral, their presence affirms the dominance of one version of history over another. The “great men” of a society killed, tortured, raped. And when enough people grasp this, particularly people descended from those who were abused by these men, then they become less welcome in this space.

To reject and reverse this ethereal domination, to tear down these specific symbols, is not merely symbolic. It leaves a hole in the perceived order of a space, a hole left by the people who did the toppling. Ponder that hole long enough, and you start to wonder what other parts of everyday life are informed by exploitation, by vicious repression. If you brought down this part, what’s to stop you from doing so with the others? What might you replace them with?

From Plague to Rebellion

“When history is written as it ought to be written, it is the moderation and long patience of the masses at which men will wonder, not their ferocity.” – CLR James

Already the air is febrile, anxious, begging to move. It is easy to find the demonstration, with so many walking in the direction of the park. Everyone wears masks. Most wear black, many carry signs: “George Floyd did not deserve to die,” “ACAB,” “Fuck12,” “Defund police,” and, of course, “Black Lives Matter.” A police helicopter hums overhead, the first of at least five we will see over the next few hours.

It’s Saturday. Six days since George Floyd died, the wind squeezed out of him by a vicious, petty cop. Six days since Floyd gasped those haunting words, “I can’t breathe.” A week ago, the defining factor of American politics was the pandemic that still has most of the world – including the US – in its grip. Now it’s different, strange, new. What started as protests in Minneapolis became mass protests, then showdowns with cops, then looting of a big box store, then finally the burning of a police station. Young people – mostly black, but also Latino, white, and others – jump, cheer, dance, their fists in the air, as the flames consumed the precinct of the officer who killed Floyd.

It moves. Other cities are now ignited. New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, Memphis, Phoenix, Louisville, Los Angeles, so many others. The return of urban rebellion to LA is auspicious. There are inevitable comparisons with the uprising that followed the Rodney King verdict in 1992. Also Ferguson and Baltimore. This is on a far more massive scale, far more widespread, not isolated to just one city. It is the largest nation-wide urban uprising since the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. LA is one of many today.

In each city, George Floyd is naturally at the front of people’s minds, but so are other victims of police violence and racism from the past several years. Breonna Taylor, shot in her own home in Louisville, two weeks before Floyd’s death, while police served a “no-knock warrant.” Laquan McDonald, Tony McDade, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Oscar Grant, Philando Castile, countless others.

In each city, police attempt to drive protesters back indoors, inflaming outrage and provoking pushback from protesters. Many times, the cops are driven back. Urban space is, at least temporarily, reclaimed.

The march today is touching off from Pan Pacific Park. Perched on the southern edge of the Fairfax District, it directly abuts the famed Grove shopping center. Other high-end shops and boutiques are peppered throughout the district, and the average price of a home around the area is $2 million. Beverly Hills is not far. Dr. Melina Abdullah, a professor at Cal State Los Angeles and founding member of the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter will later tell LAist that the choice of venue is “very deliberate.”

“Going to Pan-Pacific Park was absolutely about letting white folks who are from more affluent backgrounds understand or get a little glimpse of what we experience as black people every day,” says Abdullah. “White folks who are from affluent backgrounds aren’t going to experience that, but at least they can experience the frustration of not being able to make it through traffic. And so those are the kinds of things that we try to do when we go to affluent spaces that way.”

There is a remarkable sense of fearlessness among demonstrators. Entering the park, several tables are set up by high school students and community groups. Some handout free food and water. Others are handing out masks, while still others are giving away bottles of water and baking soda, for use in case of tear gas. Very few of us are shaking hands or otherwise touching, but we are talking and introducing ourselves to each other. Given that we have spent the past two months socially isolated – either shuttered indoors or only traveling outside for our “essential” work – there’s a certain thrill to being around other people.

At the baseball field where the starting rally is held, people climb the cage at home plate to listen to the speeches and hold up their signs. There are now two police choppers overhead, as well as a small drone buzzing around, ten or twenty feet above our heads, adding to that hackneyed and tiresome feeling of cyberpunk police state.

On Friday Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd, was arrested in Minneapolis. The other three officers who stood by and watched are still free. It is an attempt to placate, to convince protesters that they have won and therefore consent to the “bad apples” thesis of police brutality. It does not work.

“We have a right to our rage,” Abdullah tells the crowd at the park. “We have a right to our rage and them arresting one officer and then saying that’s justice, that shit doesn’t settle well with me. And it’s about those four officers who killed George but it’s about all these officers including the ones who are standing in our midst.”

By the count of Black Lives Matter LA, police have killed 601 people during the Democratic administrations of mayor Eric Garcetti and district attorney Jackie Lacey. Lacey, the first black district attorney in the history of Los Angeles, has yet to prosecute a single cop. She has repeatedly promised to meet with BLM and the families of victims, but has yet to make good on that promise. Over the past few years, BLM has escalated its visible tactics against Lacey. They have held weekly vigils outside the city’s Hall of Justice and crashed fundraisers for Lacey. They have even showed up at her house, the day before elections in March, only to be greeted by Lacey’s husband pointing a gun in their faces.

That was three months ago. Since then, forty million have lost their job. The real unemployment rate is predicted to surpass twenty percent in June. Aided by Donald Trump’s blustering incompetence, Covid-19 has killed over a hundred thousand people in the US. This is more Americans than died during the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the entire “War on Terror” combined. Hospitals have been pushed to the breaking point. With no meaningful investment in healthcare or the social safety net, the White House has pumped trillions into the stock market, into banks and airlines and the luxury cruise industry. Aid for ordinary people has thus far been limited to a single $1200 check (unavailable to the families of immigrants) and $600 supplemental unemployment insurance through the CARES Act, expected to expire in July.

With no expectation of a vaccine anytime soon, and with very few safeguards in place, most states are reopening their economies. For the past two months we’ve listened to unhinged public officials and elected representatives tell us we should be grateful and eager to die for the economy. Herds of braying far-right psychopaths have egged them on, strutting around state capitols with fascist signs and AR-15s.

Trump has called the high number of Covid cases a “badge of honor” for the US, said that we should expect as many as 3,000 deaths a day. The reopening of states and businesses will effectively kick millions of workers off unemployment and force them to work in conditions that are literally contagious and deadly. The danger is amplified for black and brown workers, disproportionately represented in low wage work, the public sector, and the service sector, all of which have either been working through this pandemic already or are now being pushed back to work. If you want to know what it looks like when poor and working people have nothing left to lose, this is it.

It would be a mistake to view the fallout from the pandemic as altogether separate from police racism and brutality. There has always been a highly racialized necropolitical calculus in American capitalism, formulae by which it can be determined who is expendable and who is not. See, for example, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s frequently referenced definition: “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” All Covid has done is bring this out into the open.

Speeches wrap at 1pm, and the march starts. By now the crowd is probably 20,000 strong. We flood 3rd street, just south of the park, and head west. We are all angry, fed up, but also looking out for each other, knowing that it very likely is going to go down and that when it does we will need to have each other’s back.

Very few are outwardly fearful. Protesters break out spray-paint cans and start tagging street signs, shopping centers, luxury condos. Even buses and postal vans are tagged as their drivers lean out the window to show support, willfully looking the other direction as their vehicles are scrawled with slogans. “RIP George Floyd,” “I can’t breathe,” “ACAB,” “Fuck the police.” Considering how often youths of color are targeted, even killed by police for being caught drawing graffiti – from Michael Stewart to Israel Hernandez – this is significant. It is being done in broad daylight, and can only be interpreted as an act of extreme defiance.

When we have marched about a mile and a half to the corner of 3rd and La Cienega, we stop. We are in front of the Beverly Center, an upscale shopping mall with stores for Fendi, Prada, Gucci, and other expensive brands. Through megaphones, organizers ask us to take a knee. We yell, in unison, “I can’t breathe!”

We stand up and turn north onto La Cienega. Chanting continues. So does the tagging. When we turn back east onto Beverly Boulevard, there is a noted shift in the crowd’s mood. After a few blocks we see the first line of police. They tell us to go back the way we came, and we comply.

A comrade calls a member of the small group I’m with. He’s in another section of the march, back at 3rd and Fairfax. There, police officers are firing rubber bullets at a crowd of demonstrators with their hands in the air. A few minutes later, an unmarked police car drives through a crowd of people taking a knee. The cops have officially gone on the offensive.

The march splits. As our group heads back going east on Beverly, we start to see billows of smoke. Windows are busted along the high-end shopping district. Same at the Beverly Center and the Grove. Tear gas is launched at crowds of demonstrators, with some hurling the canisters back at the police lines. As we keep going up Beverly, we find lines of police cars, still burning.

Then, a convoy of police cars, sirens blaring, heads toward us. We think they are headed for our contingent, but when we look closer, we see a huge crowd running behind them. This is another fragment of the march, possibly the one fired on just twenty minutes earlier, that has circled back around. After the cop cars pass, we run to join them.

“Did you chase them off?” we ask. Several reply: “Hell yes.”

We later learn this is half true. Some reports have the cops fleeing because they were unable to stop the wave of people, others that they were needed at Beverly Hills. The largest remaining contingent of the march – still several thousand strong – is marching on Rodeo Drive, chanting “eat the rich.”

Later that evening, the mayor imposes an 8pm curfew. He announces the closure of all public Covid testing facilities through the weekend. On Monday, Los Angeles County does the same. Official excuses are concerns for public safety and the like, but it is hard to see it as anything other than punishment, particularly given the disparity in cases among black and brown communities. Similarly, curfew notices are sent out with little warning, with public transport shutting down almost immediately, leaving many people – again, disproportionately people of color – stranded.

And yet, the stories from around LA and the country are the same. The marches are peaceful before the cops intervene. The only way to make this untrue, the only way to paint protesters as responsible for violence, is if one conflates violence with the destruction of property, a durable trick of bourgeois morality.

There has already been so much said regarding property destruction during this uprising. Most of it, at least coming from the media, has been simpering moralistic dreck. Protesters can read between the lines. The shrill denunciations of smashed windows and stolen merchandise are an extension of the arguments used to put people back to work during a pandemic: “If you don’t do as we say then you are worth less to us than what you should be producing.” This by itself is enough to justify the looting, regardless of who struck first.

At midnight, the National Guard arrives in Los Angeles. Same in several other cities. The same National Guard that somehow can’t be mobilized to distribute testing, water or medical supplies during a pandemic.

On Monday, news breaks that Louisville police have shot and killed David McAtee, a black man who had been providing protesters with food. The police chief is immediately sacked. In Omaha, Nebraska, the owner of a bar shoots and kills a 22-year-old black demonstrator. The county announces that the bar owner will not face charges. In Philadelphia and Chicago, there is news of armed white vigilantes looking for looters, with the blessing of the cops.

In Washington, DC, battles between protesters and cops in front of the White House become so pitched that Trump retreats to an underground bunker designed for shelter during terrorist attacks. The next day, cops tear gas protesters so that he can cross the street and hold up a bible in front of the church that hates him. He plans to invoke the Insurrection Act, deploying military to disrupted cities. This would be the first time that act has been used since the ’92 uprisings in LA. He tweets that Antifa is to be designated a terrorist organization, criminalizing any dissent that smacks of anti-racism, anti-fascism, or anti-capitalism.

Neither, it turns out, is actionable. In the case of Antifa because Trump lacks the legal authority and in the case of the Insurrection Act because the military brass has publicly lined up against the idea. Rank-and-file troops are already exploring legal recourse if they refuse to go point weapons at their own communities.

Whole swathes of government, state, local and national, are caught on the back foot. In the following days, the other three cops who stood by and watched while Chauvin killed Floyd are also arrested and charged. Minneapolis city council considers disbanding the police. Riots, it seems, work.

This is a volatile situation. It is also one that has produced an unanticipated level of solidarity and support with the movement for black lives. It is obvious to sectors of society well beyond the radical left that the police in America are out of control, far too militarized, clearly racist and quick to use deadly force. Owners of ransacked small businesses and restaurants are supporting the protesters. “We can rebuild,” they say, “but George Floyd cannot be brought back.” Reality TV stars – people whose job it is to be politically inoffensive – are posting Angela Davis memes. Even major corporations – including Target, one of the first major stores to be looted in Minneapolis – are releasing expressing support for BLM; a cynical and opportunistic move for sure, but one that reflects how dramatically the ground has shifted.

This means that there is clear room for the movement to spread, evolve, capture other spaces physical and political. Bus drivers in Minneapolis, New York and Cincinnati have refused to transport arrested protesters on their buses. What other cities can replicate this? What role can teachers and their unions play in demanding that their school districts follow Minneapolis terminate their contracts with cops? What links can be fostered to the ongoing workplace and rent strikes across the US?

The idea of this movement deepening, spreading, throwing open new doors of possibility, contrasts with recent history. The neoliberal era – which we may or may not be exiting now – has shown a talent for isolating, co-opting, and fizzling out movements, with those who build them left wondering how to ignite wider layers in conditions of demoralization.

Compared to this, we are very much in uncharted waters. This current moment has presented people with a distinct and unfamiliar feeling: the freedom of being ungovernable. Whatever happens in the coming days, weeks, months, it is not a feeling easily forgotten.

Twenty-Five Things You Can Call a Concentration Camp Other Than “Concentration Camp”

Pity the middling white ego. Noticing nothing but oppression as far as the eye can see. Having its drive back from the Hamptons interrupted by marching Black people, hearing people speak Spanish at the grocery store, encountering homeless people in broad daylight who refuse to decrease the surplus population. Oppression is positively everywhere for this poor, disgruntled soul! 

Now, there’s a new addition to the long list of oppressors of the white ego: the act of definition. The dictionary, the thesaurus, the mutability of the English language that somehow still refuses to let you speak to the manager, even the guy who invented Godwin’s Law. Whose name I can’t seem to remember… 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez thinks that, just because people of a certain racial and ethnic background are being separated from their families and detained without trial at the border, she can draw some kind of historical parallel to other times when people of a certain racial and ethnic background were separated from their families detained without trial.  

How dare she? Doesn’t she realize that if we want to defeat the right then we need to appease the right? That the fragile ego is best when it is coddled and that it won’t by any means take advantage of our generosity? Maybe it’s just me but I don’t think we are going to get anywhere by riling up the likes of Dick Cheney’s daughter. We all know she’s learned how to waterboard by now…  

And so, in that spirit, in the American spirit of compromise and reaching across the aisle, here are some alternative names for that loaded, ugly phrase “concentration camp.” 

1. Civility Camp 
2. America Was Already Great Camp 
3. Euphemism Camp 
4.Trump International Hotel Rio Grande 
5. Plausible Deniability Camp 
6. Camp Where People Are Concentrated  
7. Liz Cheney’s Wacky Fun Time Camp 
8. Freedom Camp (with fences and bars) 
9. Friendly Neighbor Camp 
10. Concentration Lamp 
11. The American Prison System
12. The Circular Route of History Makes Me Uncomfortable Camp  
13. It’s Not a Concentration Camp Because You Don’t Like to Think You’d Have Been a Nazi In the 30s But It’s Definitely a Concentration Camp and You’d Definitely Have Been a Nazi In the 30s Camp 
14. ICE Bucket 
15. Camp of American Exceptionalism 
16. Mean Puerto Rican Lady Made Me Cry Camp 
17. Gary 
18. The American Public School System 
19. Guantanamo 
20. The American Mental Healthcare System
21. I Can’t Believe It’s Not a Concentration Camp!
22. We’re Still Charging You $1850 a Month In Rent Camp 
23. Actually, They Were Fascists, Not Nazis Camp 
24. Ignore That FDR Also Called the Japanese Internment Camps “Concentration Camps” Camp 
25. Disneyland 

Disclaimer: Lest anyone think I am “making light” of all this, I’ll simply paraphrase Stewart Lee and point out that the aim of this post is to use the rhetoric and implied values of the American moderate (and by extension the American right) to satirize the rhetoric and implied values of the American moderate (and by extension the American right). And even if you’re made squeamish by that, perhaps this explanation will nonetheless save you the trouble of writing an angry and useless email. 

Here In the Empire

Poway, California. The final day of Passover. 

According to one eight-year-old child in attendance, the shooter aimed for the kids first. 

The rabbi was shot through the hand, losing his index finger, and reports say that at first he attempted to continue speaking from the front. A member of the congregation, sixty-year-old Lori Gilbert Kaye, the only one to die, jumped in front of him.

The rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, will later write in a New York Times op-ed, “today should have been my funeral.” 

Anyone who refuses to feel some combination of shock, despair, and absolute rage at all of this has no business reflecting on the politics of it. 

* * * 

To what degree is America willing to let antisemitism simply exist as part of its landscape? How often must something be “unfortunate” and “senseless” for it to finally be deliberate and structural?  

The former two are in the vocabulary of rehearsed dismay, of those who see bigoted violence as sorrowful but inevitable. There is a deception – unconscious or not – in such a routine. It obscures the way in which atrocities always fit somewhere into a system’s necessities. 

Make no mistake: antisemitism, the oppression of Jews, is very much a structural phenomenon. Though it predates capitalism, it took on a very specific role in its rise and the concomitant spread of European imperialism. Sai Englert, in his 2018 article for Historical Materialism, illustrates how the rise of capitalism and the modern nation-state subjected European Jews to “colonial processes of racialization,” excluding them from the national identity while conversely promising political liberty through assimilation.  

That process reached its crescendo in World War II and, inextricably bound up with the conflict itself, the Holocaust. The demotion of most European nations to, at best, junior partners in an ascendant American empire after the war’s end was part of a global rearrangement in the geopolitical terrain. Maps were redrawn, new walls were thrown up that in some cases left the most powerful nation-states in disarray. But the images of the ghettoes, the concentration and death camps, of industrially perfected genocide, left a mark on global consciousness that took the form of the refrain “Never Again.”  

Of course, refrains always run the risk of being empty words. Plenty of antisemites and antisemitic ideas ran and continue to run through the halls of American industry and politics. Look at any strain of reactionary thought over the past seventy-five years – anti-communism, opposition to civil rights or queer liberation – and you’ll find tinges of the same modern/classic judeophobia. 

Antisemitism never went away. It merely had its place in American life shifted. Its current “return” is both an intensification of this shift and a reemergence of the old in the age of a very troubled empire. 

Empire, it should be emphasized, is not a conspiracy. Conspiracies are conducted and decided behind closed doors. Empires are hidden in plain sight, built in the brazen light of day, sewn into our routines and perversely grafted onto our sense of a stable future. As such they push and pull on our conceptions of self and other, on the boundaries of identity and subjectivity. It also, quite frequently, weaponizes them. 

* * * 

John Earnest, the man who shot up Chabad of Poway, made his motivations clear in his manifesto. He praised Tree of Life synagogue shooter Robert Bowers, and Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant. Like them, he sees Jews as operating in concert with Muslims, non-whites generally, “cultural Marxists” and others as undermining whites and Christians.

Against the backdrop of Christchurch, Tree of Life, Charlottesville and beyond, ignoring the obvious is impossible. But you can still minimize it. It is unsurprising that Meghan McCain and Ted Cruz are blaming Ilhan Omar’s criticism of AIPAC for the events in Poway, brushing aside the proof that Earnest was also likely behind the Escondido mosque arson in March. It is a narrative that deliberately ignores the assault on Muslims, as well as the rejection of AIPAC by so many American Jews.  

It is not simply that it is easier to convince an Islamophobe of antisemitic ideas. Islamophobia is deeply entangled with contemporary processes of racialization, the delineation between “good Jew” and “bad Jew” proffered by the establishment right. These same processes, it should be noted, are also pushed by an Israeli apartheid government that is cozying up to the global far-right

Fascism is by its nature a distillation of imperialism’s most virulent logic; each sees in the other a funhouse mirror version of itself. If it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the rhetoric of the mainstream right from its fascist counterpart, this is why. Both rely on a vision of the repressive state as the only reasonable bulwark against the brown hordes lapping at America’s gates. 

Consider how Trump responded when he learned that Jonathan Morales, the Chabad member who chased off Earnest, is a border patrol agent. “Sincerest THANK YOU to our great Border Patrol Agent who stopped the shooter at the Synagogue in Poway, California,” he tweeted. “He may have been off duty but his talents for Law Enforcement weren’t.” 

Capitalizations are Trump’s own. 

* * * 

More news as I was still writing the above: a shooting on the last day of classes at University of North Carolina – Charlotte, killing two and injuring many others, and the murder of a Sikh family of four in West Chester, Ohio. The suspect of the UNC shooting is in custody but there is no word of a possible motive. There is no known suspect for the West Chester killings.

I could write that this is one of those weeks where America appears to be coming apart at the seams, but that would be to imply that there is something unique in the terror. There isn’t. It is by now utterly quotidian. Utterly American. 

Debating gun control offers very little. Yes, this country has become a murderous parody of itself, the place where André Breton’s eighty-year-old description of “the simplest surrealist act” has come to life. And there are influential political forces who have aided in making this a reality. 

But what we are witnessing would eventually, even if all guns were to vanish tomorrow, find some other equally violent expression. Empires are ruthless places while in turmoil; they require outsiders, an us and a them, and the kind of atomization that makes these acts inevitable. 

Similarly, the liberal ideal of multiculturalism is a poor ideological defense against racialized terror. A different conception of identity is called for. There is something to be said in what Robin DG Kelley refers to as “polyculturalism,” a framework that allows for both the autonomy of cultures and the inevitability that they will converge, morph, and redefine themselves.  

All cultural transgressions create new foci and axes, which then collide and bend and create new ones still. What this points to is an interpretation of culture not as a series of untouchable monoliths but as a process (a cultivation if you will) ultimately shaped by humans. The question then becomes “which humans?”

Recent years have seen a renewal of interest in pre-war Jewish radical ideas, those that informed and came out of the socialist Bund and other similar groups. It’s seen in formation like Jewdas in the UK, the Jewish Solidarity Caucus of DSA, in books like the recently republished Revolutionary Yiddishland. Prime among these ideas is that of “doikayt,” the Yiddish word for “hereness,” expressed more lengthily in the slogan “vauhin mir lebn, dos iz aundzer khoumland” … “Wherever we live, that’s our homeland.”

Again, refrains always run the risk of becoming no more than rhetoric. The critical charge of this one, its actionability if you will, is in its implication of militant recognition. A rejection of the meek quietism of “thoughts and prayers,” “tolerance” or “acceptance.” If it echoes other mantras of revolution and self-determination – the Black Panthers’ “community control” or the Zapatistas’ “¡Ya basta!” – then all the better. Those who survive the empire can also redefine themselves without its permission.

Lewisham. Charlottesville.

Today is the 40th anniversary of what is remembered in Britain as the Battle of Lewisham. On August 13th, 1977, anti-racist demonstrators, organized primarily by the Socialist Workers Party, faced down with the fascist National Front organization. The NF had been growing in influence and gaining votes by doing exactly what fascists do: exploit acute economic anxieties by pointing the finger at immigrants and people of color. On that day in the London Borough of Lewisham, they were organizing what they called an “anti-mugging rally,” claiming that Black and Caribbeans were responsible for a disproportionate number of muggings and assault. Lewisham, a majority Black and brown area, was chosen for the site as a deliberate provocation.

The National Front were thoroughly routed that day. Five hundred of them tried to march to the town center; they were met by 4000 counter-demonstrators. Many were members of left-wing and anti-racist groups, but they were primarily youth from the surrounding neighborhoods. Police attempted to protect the NF march, but the anti-racists broke through the line several times to chase them off. The fascists ended up having their final rally in a parking lot before being escorted to the train by police. The cops, furious at being humiliated, continued to attempt taking back the streets, but in the end it was the counter-demonstrators who won out.

Here’s David Widgery, writing in his book on Beating Time: Riot ‘n’ Race ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The mood was justly euphoric. Not only because of the sense of achievement – they didn’t pass, not with dignity anyway, and the police completely lost the absolute control [Police Commissioner] McNee had boasted about – but also because, at last, we were all in it together.

In the end there was a lot that came of Lewisham. The Anti-Nazi League was formed, Rock Against Racism (formed a year earlier) gained greater exposure and momentum, and the NF were faced down several more times before drifting into the background of organized politics. Some anti-racists and Leftists were locked up. Others, like Misty in Roots singer Clarence Baker, sustained life-threatening injuries. Still others, Blair Peach for instance, were killed. But there were also moments like those described by Widgery, including (sometimes literal) carnivals of the oppressed. There were intense and beautiful moments of victory, of seeing an ugly racist threat pushed out of public space and giving way to multi-racial crowds becoming unavoidably aware of their own power, feeling a freedom that is all the more thrilling for it having been fought for. The movement didn’t end racism in Britain of course, but it created space for a multi-racial resistance that was able to push back its worst manifestations.

There is something breathtakingly eerie about this anniversary falling when it does. Calendars have no will of their own of course, but the commemorations they allow are what give us the ability to change the meaning of the past. To see where the unfinished business lies and perhaps identify the link that, if broken, might prevent future history from going in the same destructive circles. Present struggles unearth different meanings of past events that have been hidden under the rubble of ideology. 

Historical parallels are imperfect things and severely limited in what they can teach us. Partially because there is a temptation for them to become inert and predetermined. But if we can step back and look at the possibilities of not just what did happen but what might have happened had participants chosen a different way, the dynamics of what is playing out now start to seem obvious. Watershed moments do not merely happen. Their meaning is shaped and reshaped over time by those who step into a breach.

Lewisham. Charlottesville.

National Front. Alt-right.

Thatcher’s fears of Britain “swamped by people with a different culture.” Trump’s ravings about “bad hombres.”

Blair Peach. Heather Heyer.

The raw organizational materials of the Anti-Nazi League. Those who marched and ultimately outnumbered the fascists yesterday.

There are plenty of open questions thrust upon us by the realities of notions like unity or, more pointedly, a united front. These questions are hard to answer when your own are in the hospital or in the morgue. But they also must be asked. History must be engaged. Not just as the past but as something currently unfolding. Possibility refuses to present itself unless we do. 

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.

Detroit’s Exterminating Angel

Before RoboCop was released in theaters thirty years ago this month, it was given an X rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. Director Paul Verhoeven, knowing that this was guaranteed box office death, went back and scrubbed his film no fewer than eleven times trying to achieve its eventual R rating. He toned down at least three execution scenes and cut out countless blood spatter shots. He also, in what would prove to be one of the film’s most ingenious features, added in the humorous advertisements for such products as the 6000 SUX sedan (8.2 miles per gallon!) and the Nukem board game.

The MPAA relented and RoboCop was a box office success. The irony of Verhoeven’s addition of the satirical commercials, however, is that their flagrant profiteering off of degradation and suffering made the violence in the rest of the film register as more callous, less remorseful, and the world that formed it less worthy of redemption. Verhoeven knew this. The MPAA didn’t.

There is a similar irony to watching RoboCop today, as world events have apparently transformed it from a cautionary tale into a rather twisted blueprint for salvation. Consider how riot cops dressed in 1990, three years after the film’s release:

And compare that to today:

(This is to say nothing of last month’s underreported story from Dubai, in which one of the world’s richest cities is now pilot-testing a robot to patrol and identify criminals. Though unarmed, the real-life RoboCop will be the first of many. If the pilot is successful then the aim is for the robots to eventually make up 25 percent of the city’s police force.)

Adopting the dominant logic regarding crime and policing today, RoboCop watches as a fun-mirror equivalent of how it was intended. The militarization of police is no longer read as an exacerbating factor in the rise of cruelty and crime. Instead, these points of reference can very be easily seen as reversed, the militarization justified by street thug depravity. There was certainly, in the midst of Reaganite “law and order” rhetoric, always the possibility of this misreading. But it is important to acknowledge that the a priori setting of RoboCop – a bankrupt Detroit hollowed and devastated – seemed far less real than it does today.

Verhoeven’s choice to set the film in Detroit was deliberate. There was, by 1987, plenty of worry regarding the future of America’s car hub, spurred on by jingoistic fears of Japan’s seemingly unstoppable entry into the world auto market. (The embarrassing third entry into the RoboCop franchise shamelessly tapped into this jingoism; thankfully Verhoeven was long gone by then.) No doubt, anyone who was honest about it could see that Detroit was in decline. But even as it was released twenty years – almost to the day – after the urban rebellions that rocked the city, RoboCop appeared to emphasize the “if” in “what if” by an extent far more measurable than today. That, along with an uninspired script, are likely why the 2014 remake failed to gain any substantial praise.

There is of course a narrative relentlessly pushed by establishment politics as to what caused the collapse of America’s fourth largest city and center of industry. The dominant take is a mixture of social irresponsibility and indulgence of greedy union workers swirled together into a world where the untamed hordes have to be kept in check. Any institutional excesses toward that end are merely a necessary evil.

It’s here that a few speculative thoughts are merited for the upcoming film Detroit. An attempt to portray the social explosion of the rebellion through the murders that took place at the Algiers Motel, critical reaction has been mostly positive. Plenty have noted how impossible it is to view the film without thinking of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile.

It’s more than a passing temptation to assume the worst of this film considering its director and writer. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal are the team also behind The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Whatever handwringing they as generally liberal artists might have exhibited over the notions of militarization were long finished by the time they began making these films. It would be truly monstrous of them to use one of the turning points in the transformation of civil rights into the Black Power movement as an excuse to promote that same notion. It seems clear that Bigelow and Boal acknowledge American racism as a reality, but the usage of the revolt as context (and therefore its being painted as somehow “senseless” instead of as a reaction to that reality) seems to create problems in the filmic portrayal of a structural problem.

K. Austin Collins at The Ringer:

In Boal’s script, it’s easier to imagine that there were good cops – even amid what the movie characterizes as systemic police violence – than it is to imagine just what effect this event had on the black community. History, it seems, stands in for all of that: We apparently already know how the community feels. This is how I felt about David Simon’s HBO limited series Show Me a Hero, too; it’s how I generally feel about the work of liberal artists who seem much more invested in wrestling with how to represent black victimhood than they are in wrestling with what comes after. These are two parts of the same story. And the gaps here more or less mean this movie isn’t really about black people as people, nor history as a lived experience, but is instead invested in a dutiful, “just the facts, ma’am” reenactment that pretends those other things are already a given. Boal, and Bigelow beside him, refuse to speculate about – or imagine – the rest.

If Collins’ review accurately captures the film’s shortcomings, then he is describing a blind spot that most of Hollywood suffers from: namely that it has no clue how to tackle themes related to the institutional or systemic because it accepts the fundamental narrative of those systems and institutions. Even when liberal filmmakers attempt to take on “issues,” they end up sliding into trite and sloppy ruminations on human nature.

This isn’t to pass premature judgment on Detroit, but merely to illustrate how well-meaning liberalism constructs an aesthetic rationale (a myth if you will) around its fundamental belief in how the world works. Bigelow and Boal exemplify this rationale. Zero Dark Thirty is not intended as a pro-torture movie, but purposefully or not it becomes one through the course of its story of a good person trying to do right in a world spun by vicious anti-Americanism. Likewise if the bigotry of Detroit is one of personal belief then we are left with demands that the system merely “do better” both in regulating its own racism and in quelling social unrest.

This logic constitutes a very slippery slope in a world where policing is increasingly used as a substitute for a social safety net. Basic rights like food and healthcare are increasingly framed as “benefits” and those who demand them as adding to social discord. Stability is found in social regulation, by force if need be. Rather than fix the broken infrastructure of New York City’s subway system that is leading to massive delays and overcrowding, MTA head Jake Lhota proposes removing seats and adding more cops. The decay of one institution allows for the further ascendance and bolstering of another that simply speeds up the process, creating new problems that exacerbate the old in all-too-familiar ways.

RoboCop, at its strongest, both illustrates and anticipates a step in this spiral. Its sympathetic portrayal of Alex Murphy, Anne Lewis and other Detroit police officers doesn’t reflect a sympathy for police so much as it poses a very unsettling question: What happens when the only industry with any stable investment left is that of policing? In real life, police unions behave more like organized crime than any kind of organization dedicated to the defense of labor, but in RoboCop they are pushing back against another, far worse institution directly fomenting and profiting off the chaos. RoboCop/Murphy is a conduit for this tension, an avatar both for a human nature that is far more complex than many of Verhoeven’s contemporaries can muster and what happens when this nature becomes entangled with a very inhuman (or at least anti-humanist) drive.

For sure, there is a lot of money to be made off chaos. And a lot of political clout to be built off playing it up. Donald Trump’s speech earlier this week made that very clear. Verhoeven, when he originally made RoboCop, intended its satire and grotesque violence as a method of achieving critical distance from the cycle that pathologizes violence both materially and ideologically.

The very real militarization of law enforcement in the thirty years since its release reveals how little it was listened to – or, perhaps less sensationally, how limited the impact of art really is on policy. The artistic pranksters who have for the past six years been planning and assembling a giant RoboCop statue in Detroit may have been couching it in at least a healthy dose of irony, but they also (perhaps inadvertently) exposed something rather troubling about the embrace of the idea by their city’s government and police department. In 2014, Detroit decided to put on a “RoboCop Day,” coinciding with the DVD release of the mediocre remake. A costumed RoboCop threw out the first pitch at Comerica Park on that day. Though ultimately canceled, a ceremony was planned to unveil the molds for the bronze statue… in front of Detroit’s police headquarters, and attended by hundreds of police officers. All less than a year after the city declared bankruptcy.

The point here is not to say that there is some conscious decision on the part of policy makers to mold the world in the image of a 1987 movie. Nor is it to say that Paul Verhoeven – a director of definite left sympathy – has the ear of these same politicians. Capitalists have their own angels of history, their own archetypes adopted and memed through their universe in order to mediate the wreckage and rubble thrown at their feet. With the late capitalist imagination becoming more and more enfeebled, is it too great of a stretch that, to some, the logic skewered in the figure of RoboCop becomes that angel?

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.