ICARUS: MELTY WINGS

She bawled her eyes out over the phone
As her mother was on the other line eating
Chocolate Chip Mint Ice Cream
Melty like her wings tied back with assorted pastel colored rubber bands
Mother said it could be worst
It could be better
Much better
She tried to fit all of her belongings in a pale blue plastic bag from Walmart but it had too many holes
And her toothbrush and a torn up flip-flop were already poking out
Toothpaste was the only thing that made her feel clean these days
In fact it was keeping her alive
She needed the minty smell
Refreshing taste on her tongue
That tingle on her gums
Since all her teeth had fallen out
And she had been trying to pick them up one by one with broken bruised finger tips
To place back into her holey bag
Only to fall in between
Dropping
Making tiny little pinging sounds as they hit the white & black tile floor
Found
Her kneeling down on the ground looking up at me with a pained smile
The kind that makes your insides pang
While trying to hide her crying eyes
But the eyes reveal everything
And she wasn’t getting away from me this time…

084

 

Mixed Media by MMM

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Behind the Fear of Sun

One day I was driving with my British housemate to a local market in Ha Noi, Viet Nam.  I was actually sitting on the back of her bike. I do not drive motorbikes and that’s often funny to my Vietnamese and American friends because motorbikes are the main transportation here; and they seem to associate motorbikes with Asians in general. Anyway, it was spring here in Ha Noi, and it was rather sunny so we saw many Vietnamese bikers waiting in the shade of some trees at a red traffic light. The trees were a few feet back from where the traffic light stood, so that the short, sun-drenched, stretch of road directly in front on the light was almost empty.  I simply looked at the mass of people under the trees, turned away and remained silent, but my housemate, as she  pulled up to occupy the large empty space in front of the traffic light,  looked back at the people waiting under the trees, then at the largely unoccupied space either side of her and said:

I do not understand why they choose to stay far behind rather than right here where they could  move faster?’

My housemate’s question was not surprising, nor was it the first time I had heard it. I have had friends from Western countries who came to South East Asia [SEA] and voiced similar thoughts when they saw people in the street, fully shrouded in  a long-sleeved jacket, a hood and a face-mask  (or other similar apparel) during scorching, summer days. “Doesn’t it make them feel hotter?” They said. “It probably feels like in the sauna,” others remarked.

Image by
Image by Tố Nga Trần Thị

To this, my Vietnamese friend Ngoc Anh Pham replied: “The fact is that when you dress like a ninja [the jacket, hood & mask combination], it hurts less, as the sun’s rays do not touch your skin. Even if you have sunscreen on it’s still too hot to not wear a sun coat.”

 I have been living in Vietnam for over one and half years, and such a scene is so common that it is no longer surprising, although early on, it certainly was. I even thought the hoodie-like fabric that Vietnamese ladies wear on sunny days was a veil, like those some Muslim women wear.  Initially I was thrilled, because I had never seen Muslims in Viet Nam and I even planned to do a small research project on them. Then a few Vietnamese friends from different regions of the country told me that wearing jackets, or stopping in the shade is a kind of sun protection. I understood it then, partly because I had seen such practices a lot during my younger years in Indonesia. Also I can assure you, that this phenomenon is not exclusively Vietnamese, nor Indonesian at all. I have seen it also in Myanmar, Thailand, and even Cambodia during my short stay there. Whilst there are various reasons of doing so, most of my Vietnamese friends say that their primary reason for doing it is to protect their skin from darkening- that is to say,  to stay white. To that end, many Vietnamese ladies will put on their jacket, or ankle-length coat, with hoodie-like fabric when they are driving or walking on sunny days; even on very hot days when it might seem more appropriate to wear fewer clothes, rather than more. This method of sun protection is by far the most common one employed; and it is interesting to note that, despite the region’s frequently hot and sunny weather,   sunscreen is not so popular in SEA for one reason or another. The fact that it hasn’t really caught on, compared to other countries with sunny climates, can be mostly attributed to its cost, its inability to cool you down (unlike a sunhat for instance) and its perceived ineffectiveness at preventing bronzing of the skin. Other popular ways to stay white include avoiding outdoor activities at the noon time. That is likely why you will find, for instance, local tennis court or swimming pool in Ha Noi, empty and cheap during these hours.

To this, my Vietnamese friend Ngoc Anh Pham replied: “The fact is that when you dress like a ninja [the jacket, hood & mask combination], it hurts less, as the sun’s rays do not touch your skin. Even if you have sunscreen on it’s still too hot to not wear a sun coat”.

So why do the people of SEA (and Asians more generally) fear the apparent curse of high melanin concentration? And; conversely, why is pale skin often considered so much more beautiful and desirable? After all, these standards of idealized beauty stand in sharp contrast to those valued by Caucasians in The West, who will frequently go to absurd and frankly dangerous lengths to obtain a golden-brown tan (the enduring popularity of tanning salons and their UV sunbeds, despite the now widely accepted evidence that they cause skin cancer, is a case in point).

Like with many other seemingly irrational and prejudicial beliefs, the current Asian preference for white skin over darker shades of pigmentation is likely to be rooted in reasoning pertaining to racist and/or classist thinking. In South Korea for example, it was reported that having white skin is considered favorable as it represents ”Western” qualities[1]. Imelda Tesalona, General Manager of Fine Nutrition company from the Philippines made a similar remark, saying that after centuries of colonization “White supremacy probably stuck and that became our standard for beauty”in Filipino culture which goes some way to account for her fellow citizens’ obsession for white skin, because “they also want to look presentable and be physically attractive just like our former colonizers”[2]. Here you see whiteness associated with beauty, refinement; and in some other cases, with intelligence, purity, and power.

The origins of such an association is debatable. My former academic advisor once told me that racist thinking could be traced back to ancient times, when untouchable non-caste status Dalits people in India, (smaller, darker people from the South)  were invaded by the northern peoples with their Vedas many, many centuries ago. Other scholars like Hannah Arendt noted in Race Thinking before Racism the appearance of race thinking in the 17th and 18th century France. She recounts in the The Portable Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, and the Origins of Totalitarianism how such race thinking is then developed into racism in the 19th century  and manifested itself in  European countries  in the same century, and subsequently brought  Asia  through the various colonial projects of those countries. The works of Frantz Fanon the Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks also explain the mechanisms by which such modes of thinking  remain in the culture of colonized countries long after they gain their independence, and continue to condition the way the people of these regions think and act.

Whilst the history of European colonialism in Asia may play a significant part in Asian’s current differing attitudes towards varying degrees of skin pigmentation, the obsession for having white skin could also be tied to class-thinking that seems to have pervaded each country in Asia long before colonialism came around. I know that adherents to the Brahmanic Religions of South Asia (such as Hindus) have practiced the caste system long before the arrival of the British Empire in the subcontinent. Moreover, in respect to Indonesian milieu, as far as I am concerned a more open type of class system than the caste system has also been around long before western colonialism came, which is still supported by many to this day. This system is rooted not in perceived notions of racial difference, but in economics. Thus, it was no surprise to read McDougall’s finding, “Asian countries look down on dark skin because they don’t want to be perceived as poor. Historically, dark skin was associated with people who worked in the fields. The upper class stayed indoors and under the shade”[3]. Thus, having whiter skin may be less about not wishing to look Asian, and more about not wishing to look poor.

Either way such a prevalent obsession for having white skin is not merely about physical beauty. The longing for white skin is more about a yearning for social emancipation; to move up to a higher social rank in relation to the prevailing class system in one’s respective living environment, or perhaps in relation to a racial hierarchy; which invariably favors white people [to put it blatantly, in relation to white people]. The end goal of this game is to attain a change in lifestyle, to assume a life which frees people from the sweat and toil of meeting their daily physical needs, and in doing so, grants them the freedom to do what they wish to do. Such an aspirational goal is normal and, in fact, advisable. However, because a great many countries in Asia have at least some history of colonial oppression (either in a traditional sense or, in a much broader sense of globalization), one needs to take into account the possibility that such an obsession with white skin could be an indication of a latent problem Frantz Fanon refers to as collective inferiority complex.

This inferiority complex, put simply, denotes a feeling of not enough: not smart enough, not beautiful enough, not worthy enough, not big enough and et cetera. Such a neurosis results from the colonial practice of systematically undermining the self-worth of the colonized peoples.  The colonizing, “developed” people,  in varying ways, constantly tell the colonized, under-developed people  that their knowledge systems, culture, ways of life, educational systems et cetera are not [good] enough compared to that of the developed peoples’. Therefore, the new, modern, and supposedly better practices are “imported” and imposed on the colonized peoples to replace those of the natives. Consequently the conquered peoples internalized such inferiority-superiority doctrines and acted them out so wholeheartedly that they become the living embodiments of such doctrine; the artifacts of I am not enough mentality, in Fanon’s terms. Such cultural trauma has not yet been addressed properly and thus, it remains with, in this case, Asian culture in Asia to this day and asymmetrically manifests itself whenever the underdeveloped people come in contact with the developed [white] people, to follow Fanon. More perniciously, still to Fanon, this internalized sense of cultural inadequacy not only affects interactions between colonizers and their oppressed subjects, but also interactions between members of the oppressed, colonized group, causing the colonized groups to, in some situations revere and favor their colonizers over their fellow victims of colonization, who are often treated with relative contempt. Such manifestation of I am not enough spreads across various aspects of life from the economy, to tourism and even to romantic relationships.

From a romance perspective, one could ponder over the phenomenon of the so-called “bule hunters” in Indonesia, in which some locals (mostly ladies) “hunt” white looking fellows to date, or to marry. This phenomena in fact has been documented in a book called Kisah Para Perempuan Pemburu Bule [Bule Hunter: the stories of women who hunt for white men] by Journalist Elisabeth Oktofani. “Bule hunter” is supposedly equivalent to the “câu Tây” in Viet Nam, a Vietnamese woman told me [ some Vietnamese girls may  refer to it as “Săn Tây”]. I first encountered it in a city in Central Viet Nam where some Vietnamese ladies I know would compete with each other for the affections of the limited number of white men. As for Ha Noi, I have had a few Vietnamese friends asked me to hook them up with my white friends. I obliged – and it regrettably made me feel like a pimp.

Are white men aware of this? I suspect that they are. At least, that’s what I have learned from a few different sources: one of my bule hunter friends in Indonesia and, a former American housemate who admitted that part of his reason to come to Viet Nam was to find a local girl. I heard the phenomena of a marked preference for Asian women by non-Asian men referred to by an American expat as Yellow Fever. A more disturbing trend is that of the sex-pat, a usually white, usually middle-aged, non-Asian man who comes to Asia for the purposes of Sex Tourism or simply for sex with Asian women. This phenomenon appears to be becoming a problem for some countries like Thailand and Cambodia; and Thailand has responded by revising their immigration laws in a manner aimed mainly at keeping away the expats who stay for sex, a Canadian expat once told me. This is possibly why Thailand now has “good guys stay in, bad guys out” signs in DMK airport. As for Cambodia, you will find some hotels in Phnom Penh will have sign on the wall “No drugs, no guns, no women allowed.”

Meanwhile, the manifestation of such the post-colonial inferiority complex in the professional sphere; (particularly in relation to teaching English as Second Language –TESL) and tourism is obvious, at least for those who have been living in Viet Nam for a while. It is not uncommon for white tourists in SEA (with the exception of Singapore) to be approached by locals mostly either for photographs, chatting, or even to be invited to stay in locals’ house, be offered free food and generally to be treated like royals. Whilst this level friendliness and generosity is of course very charming, it is important to note that it would be very unlikely for Asian tourists to receive the same courtesy. In my personal experience, there were times when I went out with my white friends to restaurants or other public spots in Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam and I noticed that locals would treat me differently from my Caucasian companions. Thus, I was not shocked when I read of a Vietnamese-Australian girl who complained of being treated different from European looking customers by the manager of the salon she visited. She ascribed the discriminatory treatment that she received to her Vietnamese appearance[1]. By the same token, I tend to be skeptical about my white friends’ remarks about hostels or other public spots on the basis of their apparently wonderful service and friendliness, until I check it for myself. Meanwhile, from TESL working setting, the inferiority complex seem to have led to some blatantly discriminatory practices. My former housemate once told me that his Korean-Australian girlfriend had difficulty finding teaching jobs because of her Asian appearance, despite the fact that she was a native speaker of English, just like any other Australian person. In a similar story, an African- American friend of mine was told by a prospective employer that they could not hire him because of his skin color. Instead, they chose to go with white-looking candidate, who’s imperfect grasp of English meant that he unfortunately needed to look in the dictionary when he talked with me. Clearly this was a decision bound to not only negatively impact upon my friend, but also upon those students who hoped to learn an English with a qualified and competent teacher.

—————————————–

By now, I hope I have made the case clearer that the obsession with Whiteness and having white skin could be the symptom of the collective inferiority complex; and that striving to be white is an attempt by Asian peoples to complete themselves by attaining something that they have been conditioned to they think they lack: be it beauty, self-worth, power or intellectuality.  This inferiority seems to have become so deeply entrenched into the social system that you could see it manifested even in children, who instinctively “hold white-looking people to be smarter than they are”, as a volunteer from the Netherlands I met in Cambodia told me. Moreover, employers in China might have incorporated whiteness into the criterion to look in their future employees[1].

For those who wish to see an end to this self-imposed, self-perpetuated and self-denigrating racism, there are no quick and simple solutions. For example, the fact that many scientific facts about the danger of chemicals substances in whitening products apparently do nothing to lessen the  popularity and ubiquity of skin whitening products is a troubling puzzle; and whilst the availability of safer skin-whitening products might ostensibly improve matters, this is a simple solution that masks a much more complex societal issue.

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Image by Tini

Instead, the first step towards finding any solutions would first require this inferiority complex to be examined   critically, Fanon advised. Only by doing so, Fanon says in White Skin, Black Masks: one is able to see that people of color’s devaluation of their fellow colored peoples is a form of self-alienation; that the fact they hold prejudices or act discriminatorily toward their fellow Asians or other colored people is actually an attempt to overcome or disown what Asian identity is perceived to represent – an “inferior” culture. It is then foreseeable, perhaps even reasonable that people may attempt to overcome such a matter by running from it towards “whiteness”, which supposedly represents all encompassing “superiority”, he adds. Accordingly, in Fanon’s terms, having white skin or actively attaining some other feature of “whiteness” in one’s life  – be it language, manner, or Romantic partner- could be interpreted as achieving this goal of casting off or masking an identity seen as gauche or inferior in relation to the dominant, white cultural hegemony. But, this is false consciousness, loaded with self-destructive notions of inferiority; and reliance upon it should be shattered using the second step.

The second step consists of coming back/returning to yourself, in Peter Berger’s terms. Be yourself, no need to change your skin or hair color, in my housemate’s terms, which I understood as finding that aspect of yourself, in your Asian-ness, that you like the most and nurture it. These aspects are your beauty features which could lift you up when you have that moment in which, Fanon described,  your ego collapse, your intellectuality shrinks, your self-esteem evaporates, and you have stopped being a self-motivated person in the presence of white fellow. After completing both these steps you will truly understand that you do not need to change your skin or hair color, or emulate white people so as to be like them or be liked by them. Or, if you do, that action is better meant for yourself. On national level, such advice could be executed through, for instance, cultivating local wisdom in relation to education or tourism projects which could help other national projects. Once this step is completed, more effective secondary solutions such as choosing healthy beauty products or even unsubscribing from mainstream beauty standards would come more easily.

 

[1] “Racism in Asia”, last modified 19 August 2017, last modified on 19 August 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism_in_Asia.

[2] Pe, Roger. “Yes, Asia is Obsseed with White Skin”. INQUIRER.NET, August 25,2017.  http://business.inquirer.net/215898/yes-asia-is-obsessed-with-white-skin.

[3]Ibid.

[4]https://tnhvietnam.xemzi.com/tw/spot/7050/q-cut-hanoi. Retrieved on July 28, 2017.

[5] Martin, Phillip.”Why White Skin is All the Rage in Asia”. PRI, November 2,2009.

]https://www.pri.org/stories/2009-11-25/why-white-skin-all-rage-asia.

What is the United States of America?

 

“Has it been like this in the past or is this something new?” my friend Pádraig asked.

We were sitting in one of the coffee shops close to Purdue’s campus, and around us I could hear the familiar chatter one associates with a café that caters to college students, professors, and artsy town folks. For the past three years Podge and I have had a standing coffee date where we mostly discussed the field of history, and where we were in our respective research projects. But on that day intermixed with the chatter of planning the upcoming fall semester, I could hear the words “Virginia,” “Nazi,” and “Antifa” swirling about the tables as if it were an espresso machine mixing seemingly unrelated ingredients together in an uncomfortable froth.

It was the Wednesday following the white supremacist rally and neo-Nazi terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia. Several pro-democracy protesters were injured, one was dead. And Lafayette, Indiana, like much of the rest of the country, was discussing what it meant.

“Yes and no,” I answered. Three years earlier, Podge had immigrated to the US from Ireland. He was somewhat familiar with American history, but it was not his primary research focus.

I explained to Podge that such attacks and demonstrations of white supremacy were, in fact (and unfortunately), not unprecedented in US history.

As I explained the history of the US, framing it as a larger project of British imperialism that made use of (and in many ways created) white supremacy to justify the white English speaking people’s conquest of North America, I remembered back to the class I had just finished teaching for the summer. It was the first half of US history, and as I explained to Podge the long, sordid history of events like Bacon’s Rebellion, American slavery and apartheid, and the southern Confederacy, all the previous lectures I had just finished flashed through my mind.

Throughout the class I had encouraged my students to think of the first period of US history, roughly the 1600s to 1860s, as a period which provided a way for us in the present to understand how nations formed.

“What is nationalism?” I asked in several lectures. “It is an imagined community, a social and cultural space in history that gives rise to a sense of shared purpose, identity, and cause.”

(Benedict Anderson, obviously, had been the honorary theorist for the semester)

“But how does that shared identity and community work,” I asked in one lecture, “if the US is built on, and perpetuates, a system of white colonial settlerism?”

The easy answer would be to say that the US national project was unachievable, that any push for democracy or revolutionary change in the US context was impossible at best, a dream meant to dupe the naïve at its worse.

But, as I explained through the course, such a cynical reading of American history erased the very people who had been subjected to that colonial hierarchy, and who had fought, resisted, and rebelled against it. From the Enclosure Acts, to the forced removals of Indigenous Americans, to chattel slavery of Africans, peoples on multiple continents had been brutalized and resisted the broader rise of global capitalism in the Atlantic World. Rebellions, “Frontier” Wars, and uprisings were as much a part of the early history of the United States as was the history of upper class colonial rule. In so far as the US was a civilization dedicated to revolution, liberty, and democratic equality, it was such a society because of those who fought back and rejected the broader project of imperialism.

My major point for the course, therefore, was that at the very heart of American national identity sat a deadly contradiction, one that had never been fully addressed.

“Understand that,” I explained to the class, “and you will understand the rest of US history. We are a national community based on high ideals of equality, self-determination, and a democratic political ethos. But the US was also born out of white supremacy and imperialism, and that history is just as important as any democratic ideal.”

A revolutionary democracy and a colonial settler state. A dichotomy that generated historic conflict, and which framed US history. This understanding drew a bloody red line from Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676 to the “Unite the Right” fascist rally in Virginia in 2017.

Once I finished explaining it, how Richard Spencer and company misused history to falsely claim that whites had been “noble” explorers “taming” the “New” world, Podge sat for a moment quietly taking it in.

“So,” he said at last, thinking about his own home of Ireland, “it’s all the fucking British Empire’s fault.”

“God save the queen,” I replied dryly.

+++

Prior to the fascist terrorist attack in Virginia I had already planned on organizing my survey classes by asking a series of overarching questions that would hopefully lead to a broader understanding about past and present periods, and what had led to our current moment.

Modern World History, 1490-2000s would focus on the question “What is modernity?” and would use the class to get students to understand that the concept of “modernity” was in large part a socio-political ideology which argued for a certain trajectory of historical development.

The two other sections, History 151: US History Until 1877 and History 152: US History From 1877, would deal with the question “What is a nation?” and “What is democracy?” respectfully.

This pedagogical approach would steer my survey classes away from the typical slog of facts, figures, and dates most textbooks followed, and instead encourage the students to see history as a complex and everchanging conversation between the past and our own present period. But in order to do this I first needed to frame the classes as a conversation, and not a few weeks of me preaching an established set of information. Instead, for the conversation to take place, we would need to begin with a basic question, the first step in any process of learning via dialogue.

By understanding that modernity is a political ideology, students would be able to question the entire project of our current civilization, one that many in power want to convince them is a steady march toward unending, automatic, progress. Next, by asking what historically is the basis of a modern nation they would see how events that occurred in the past radiated into our own period, informing the very way we relate to one another on a cultural, social, political, and economic basis. And finally, after having seen that an ideology of modernity created an unquestioning faith in progress, and that this “progress” helped sustain the very white supremacist colonial project at the heart of US nationalism, students would be able to take a third class that completed the exercise by asking “What is democracy?” exactly, and as a result begin seeing that the social, political, and economic movements to win dignity, power, and security for people were a broader historical project to alter society and move beyond history’s longer shadow.

It remains to be seen how successful this approach will be, but the hope is that once I am working full time as a college instructor, students would be able to take all three of the survey courses and develop a broader set of historical skills and comprehension.

It is a set of skills that I think are vital for us in the present. After Podge and I finished our coffee and he headed out, I began reading for a project I was working on, and couldn’t help but overhear the two men behind me.

“I’ve been hearing a lot about Antifa,” the first guy said.

“Yep,” the other answered.

“I mean, look, I am against the Nazis, but Antifa just goes too far.”

“What? Why?” the second guy asked.

“Well, you know… they destroy property and stuff,” anti-Antifa guy answered.

“Fuck that shit,” the pro-Antifa guy responded. “That is neoliberal bullshit. Property? Who gives a fuck. Nazis are talking about genocide, literally murdering people, and society wants me to think some business’ profit is the most important thing to worry about? Antifa is fighting to try and stop these fascist pricks from getting more power. If the state did what it was supposed to do, then Antifa wouldn’t even need to exist.”

I went back to taking notes. Online and on campus the sentiments expressed by the two friends arguing over “Antifa” were nothing new. Antifa was literally just the “antifascist movement,” but it was typically meant to designate the more radical anarchist street groups who engaged in direct militant actions, such as physically fighting back against the fascists in places like Virginia. Antifa was getting more attention as their tactics to intimidate and stop Nazis gained more attention, and were credited by people like Cornel West with having saved lives.

The two friends continued to argue some more, mostly about what was most effective in stopping the spread of fascism, but instead of focusing on the anti-Antifa guy, I was genuinely curious about the pro-Antifa friend. Although perhaps not a majority, he was voicing something that I was finding to be a growing opinion.

Fascism is evil. Those who fight it should not be chastised, but thanked.

Again, it got back to what I hoped would be achieved by asking students to ask the broader question, “What is democracy?” By showing them that past actors had been forced to fight, sometimes with force, for basic rights they would hopefully see that US history wasn’t predetermined with the “good guys” being endorsed by society at large. Instead, activism in all periods had been met with some form of opposition, be it government, religion, or corporations. Therefore, activism then and now, was not about automatically being on “the right side of history” but instead it was a longer engagement with society to win major concessions to expand democracy, centering sovereignty and dignity in the individual, and not government power.

Democracy is therefore a way of life, and as such it is more than a political system to delineate power. It is, in simple terms, an ethical and moral outlook that imbues the people of a given community with automatic and inalienable rights. These rights are normative claims that position the individual as a being deserving of dignity. We afford these rights to one another not out of fear that someone may eventually try to harm us, or because humans are alienated individuals who must go it alone, but because as ethical actors we acknowledge that beings have a fundamental dignity to help guide and shape the community we share. In other words, democratic rights serve a dual purpose of empowering an individual and bolstering a democratic civilization.

Democracy, in other words, is not apolitical. It is not an arena where “anything goes,” and it sure as hell shouldn’t be a “marketplace of ideas” where popularity alone determines the validity of a principle. It is a socially constructed sphere where we engage in meaningful dialogue, decision making, and self-exploration so as to improve ourselves, our societies, and our collective knowledge.

One could not trust the weight of “modernity” to carry this forward, anymore than one could assume the relations of a modern nation would sooth over continuing issues of oppression. Only through conscious effort to expand the democratic sphere, pulling out of history’s death grip gravitational pull, could people in a particular period hope to better themselves and future generations.

As such, not all political views are compatible with democracy. Some are, in fact, anti-democratic. Authoritarianism is anti-democratic. Fascism is anti-democratic. Religiously based terrorism is anti-democratic.

Therefore, when people fight authoritarians, or fascists, or religious extremists especially in the cases where those ideologies have a historic legacy of hegemonic power, then the person in question is not “just as bad” because they fought. Fighting and resisting evil is not itself evil.

The the Antifa, BLM, and left-wing socialists and liberals are not evil for fighting Nazis.

Decades of reducing historic understanding to shitty B-movies where John Wayne strutted around on camera talking about “fighting the bad guy” has produced a widespread ethical outlook that simultaneously celebrates violence when it is the US military blowing things up, while shrieking in terror when people organize and protest actual Nazis.

In fact, one could argue that the celebration of such American figures, like John Wayne, has not just produced a confused ethical outlook on violence, but has in fact created a cultural script that normalizes certain types of violence, even celebrating violence when it is violence in service to the broader imperial project of the United States. As we all know, the western portions of North America were not “settled” in any real sense of the word by English speaking colonists. Indigenous people had long lived in the multiple areas the US eventually claimed as territories. Yet even beyond this, the Spanish, French, and Latin Americans had a long standing presence in these areas, in some instances dating back centuries.

That history is still present in the very words we speak.

Los Vegas. Los Angeles. Baton Rogue. New Orleans. Santa Barbara.

All of this makes the present day cultural essentialists, freaking out about multiculturalism and multilingualism, all the more ridiculous.

The US discovered nothing, no matter how one looks at it, in its economic and geographic expansion. Instead, the “settling” of the West was really an incorporation of these areas into the East coast’s rising industrial corporate capitalism. In so doing, the US established a multicultural sprawling empire that had a bizarre relationship with violence as a political and economic tool.

Violence in the expansion West? This is typically treated in many mainstream understanding as just an unfortunate by product of a “clash of civilizations,” as unavoidable as a planet’s gravitational pull.

Violence used against foreign governments, such as the US’s use of violence in the Allied cause against German, Italian, and Japanese fascism? That is not only tolerated, but is in fact celebrated, with movies, monuments, and holidays dedicated to the organized violence the US deployed.

How, then, can the current inhabitants of a country like the United States, especially those who take part in celebrating and honoring certain expressions of violence, retreat in terror when they hear groups make the argument that white supremacists and fascists need to be forcibly opposed?

A movement, such as the fascist movement in modern America, is fundamentally anti-democratic. As such, if that movement were to ever gain widespread power (and take a hard long look at many elected officials to see how possible that is) then the very democracy we say we cherish would be destroyed.

To further illustrate how ridiculous saying fascists have democratic rights, imagine the following:

We do not debate whether or not Christians should be put to death, just as we do not have a dialogue over how many rights we are going to strip from heterosexuals, just as we do not have a friendly discussion over how many white people will be murdered after the next election. To entertain any of these ideas, especially in a political movement, would be met with alarm and terror. And that is the cognitive disconnect many white people have when they say “Nazis have a right to march and try and convince people in the public sphere.” It reeks of privilege, because for the white person there is no widespread danger that should the fascists succeed they would be harmed. Their nation, their imagined community can survive it. In fact, it was built on that very delusion.

In other words, it walks up to the question, “What is democracy?” and fails miserably to answer it.

Now, granted, even the white liberal and conservative would not be safe should fascism ever succeed. Fascism is never content with just a moderate amount of power, since as an authoritarian movement it believes in stripping the individual of any and all dignity (i.e destroying democracy). Only those with the savagery to will themselves to power via violence are to be respected. Compassion and tolerance are weaknesses to them, and that is the world the white moderate would permit to come into existence by tolerating fascists to first be normalized, and then gain power. It is why the pro-democracy movements have been so vital in US history, and it is why I hoped that by being able to answer the question “What is democracy?” historically, students would have a basis for a usable past to construct ethical and meaningful actions in their own lives once they left the classroom.

Perhaps that is far too naïve on my part, but it is what I hope nonetheless.

+++

The day after the fascist rally and white supremacist attacks in Virginia, Allison and I went to the vigil activists in Lafayette had planned. We met at Riehle Plaza with hundreds of other community members to protest and resist both what had happened in Virginia, and what was happening in the larger Trumplandia, USA.

To put it in perspective: It took months of planning for the American Nazis to get only 500 people to the University of Virginia. Yet, in less than 48 hours after their vile acts, over 700 counter marches sprung up around the country. This obviously does not equate to an automatic victory, but it shows that those committed to justice, equality, and democracy are not weak or few. We, as denizens of this moment, have the ability to change the world and move beyond the US’s long shadow of hate and oppression, be it a shadow cast by history, the current President, or a statue of a Confederate general.

Of course, current attitudes are not permanent, and over time this broad support could evaporate.

But this is a concern that is far from new. To me, the issue of opposing fascism is not some “new” issue that we are suddenly charged with undertaking. Instead, it speaks to a much longer history in the US of struggling to define exactly what “The United States of America” means as a civilization, a nation, and a historic political culture. Much of the work of what that antifascist movement looks like has been pioneered, both by previous generations of social movements, and even in more recent times with platforms and agendas put out by broader coalition of groups, like those associated with BLM.

In those platforms calls for transgender rights, global justice, reparations from governments which have benefited from theft and oppression of people of  color, and a broader multi-racial alliance against racism have been clearly articulated.

As one such site for the Movement for Black Lives (#M4BL) argues, “In response to the sustained and increasingly visible violence against Black communities in the U.S. and globally, a collective of more than 50 organizations representing thousands of Black people from across the country have come together with renewed energy and purpose to articulate a common vision and agenda. We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”

The BLM group continues by contextualizing the fight to define and control what the US should be is a project with global implications.

“While this platform is focused on domestic policies, we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation. We also stand with descendants of African people all over the world in an ongoing call and struggle for reparations for the historic and continuing harms of colonialism and slavery. We also recognize and honor the rights and struggle of our Indigenous family for land and self-determination.”

In other words, the fight against fascism and white supremacists is a fight with historic precedent. We will continually return to this point, where the very worst elements of the US are highlighted by fascists in the streets and white supremacy in the government, and the very best is demonstrated by the people’s of the US who push for greater democracy, greater inclusion, and sustained fights for social justice.

We are not a species doomed to repeat the past. We are just historic actors in a period of time that have inherited a society. These issues will eventually be resolved. The US will, eventually, cease as a civilization (that is the nature of historic change). I just hope that the better angels of the US prevail in that time.

As we met in Riehle Plaza for the antifascist rally, a few of the locals spoke about the importance of fighting fascism and racism on all fronts. One couple even framed their justification for fighting white supremacy by explaining in very broad terms how “whiteness” was something colonial elites created centuries ago to keep people apart and control the masses. It was far from a perfect retelling of US history, but it was essentially right. There, in the streets of a small town in Indiana everyday people were voicing a fairly radical critique of US history.

Again, one counter march does not win any victories, but it is a reminder to me that a united popular front against white supremacy is not only possible, but in fact already exists. We simply must figure out how to utilize it for ourselves and future people. Our efforts will go a long way in defining the US.

20/20 at the Carnegie Museum of Art

20/20: An exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA, July 22nd through December 31st 2017

REkOGNIZE: An installation by Bradford Young at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA, June 16th through December 31st, 2017

When you explore the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of images on display. That this museum connects to others—scientific and historical—and a grand library—filled with books with images as well—only adds to this effect. One knows as well that there is always more. In this sense of the museum as a collection of horded paints and statues, it is easy to miss the little contexts that ascribe the material place behind the unworldly image in focus. In particular, it is easy to look over the smaller squares of text in small-caps on the identifying tags and museum guides that explain how a particular piece came to the museum. A women’s collective raised the money to place a Greek statue of a naked, male torso in the museum in the early 20th century, a time in which female artists would be denied access to male nude models for life study. Dozens of paintings appeared in Carnegie International shows and were bought for the permanent collection, with a yellow tag to indicate the year they appeared. (Marie Cassatt’s Young Women Picking Fruit [1891] is an interesting example, having been featured in one of these shows but not purchased until several years had passed.) Many pieces offer a history in which the art was an exchange in which the artist was personally involved and had a notion of what was going to happen to the artwork once it was purchased. In a small area of the museum dedicated to African and pre-13th Century art—a deep red, narrow hallway—the identifiers become more elliptic. A large sarcophagus covered in carvings of gods in sensual pleasure scenes offers no information on where exactly it came from, though it is clear that this was removed from a grave site. What has happened to the body? The Asian, Egyptian, and Roman art contains identifiers that tell the story represented in the images, naming the gods and their relationships to each other. The African pieces—several of which are from the 20th century, and are mingled with little to distinguish from older works—often are described only as headdresses, masks, or sculptures. There is only mystery, not mythology. A 20th century mask from the Bamileke culture, Cameroon, is just “Mask,” followed by a list of materials that it’s made of, including human hair and shells which were weaved into the hair to create a beaded cloak. The description of the way it got to the museum is as follows: “Gift of Walter Ogrodnik, Peace Corps Volunteer, 77.16.” There is no volunteering of information.

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Mask. Carnegie Museum (Photograph by the author)

There is an uneasy relationship between Western museums and non-western—or “not-white”—art. The praise brought about for artistic representations from non-white cultures has often focused on the “primitive” or “unrefined” aspects of a piece of statue or a mask, rather than focusing on the merit of the image itself. The primitivist craze of early 20th century modernism had the effect of both creating new space for artists of color within the white gallery space, while at the same time compounding and reinforcing racist and eugenicist ideas about intelligence and development in those who wanted their ideas validated. “Whiteness is a kind of cultural canvas upon which American existence is depicted in myriad artful visions of the possible,” Patricia J. Williams writes in a preface to Maurice Berger’s White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art (2004). “And blackness has been for too many generations whatever was left over” (19). The space allowed does not offer much room for movement, and the tolerance that can proclaim and justify Duchamp’s readymade can, in the same paragraph, damn artworks made from found material by contemporary Brooklyn artists as “not art.”

The 20/20 exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of art, a collaboration with The Studio Museum in Harlem, is a means of addressing the schism between “white art” and “not-white art,” specifically black art. Inspired by a portrait of the young Lincoln by Horace Pippen from 1944, the exhibit attempts a fractal portrait of representations of blackness through the last century. The artworks are varied and travel in subject matter to address centuries of misinterpretation and the voluntary ignorance of assumption. Artworks in this exhibit have a tendency to lean towards the simultaneous depiction of multiple histories, commending on past and present in equal measure, occupying two spaces at one time. As the title implies, one of the aims of the exhibit is the correction of vision: not only the images of the black body in art, or what these images lack, but the black artist—particularly in their previous absence.

The photographs of Gordon Parks are so clear and crisply constructed that his images have the feeling of movement, emotional development, and existential resonance the longer one looks at them. Emerging Man, Harlem, NY, is a 1952 photograph taken to represent a deleted passage from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a literal representation of the protagonist’s return to the surface after descending into the sewers. Even with the sense of motion in the early day rising behind the subject, his eyes do not blink; nor do they break our gaze. The viewer breaks contact first. This image is contrasted with images taken for the Pittsburgh Courier by Charles “Teenie” Harris, documenting the lives of Pittsburgh’s black community. The subjects of Harris’s photographs look out at the viewer in many cases, looking out at our looking. I was reminded of a passage by bell hooks, from “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination”:

In white supremacist society, white people can “safely” imagine that they are invisible to black people since the power they have historically asserted, and even now collectively assert over black people, accorded them the right to control the black gaze. As fantastic as it may seem, racist white people find it easy to imagine that black people cannot see them if within their desire they do not want to be seen by the dark Other. […] An effective strategy of white supremacist terror and dehumanization during slavery centered around white control of the black gaze. Black slaves, and later manumitted servants, could be brutally punished for looking, for appearing to observe the whites they were serving, as only a subject can observe, or see. To be fully an object then was to lack the capacity to see or recognize reality. These looking relations were reinforced as whites cultivated the practice of denying the subjectivity of blacks (the better to dehumanize and oppress), of relegating them to the realm of the invisible. (168)

In the Harris photographs as well, the range of expressions and “looks” is worth mentioning. A woman looks out from a distance as she mounts a motorcycle. Another woman, looking tomboyish and ambiguous, rests against the front door of Kay’s Valet Shoppe. This pose is mimicked in one of the last images of the exhibition, Untitled (Gallery) by Kerry James Marshall, which features a stylish black woman posed in front of a gallery wall. In both cases, the look is a challenge, demanding attention and asserting the subject’s own attentions directed at the viewer.

Kara Walker is represented by four large images taken from her larger series, The Emancipation Approximation. These shadow pictures revise the myth of Lela and the Swan, placing it in the context of both narratives of enslavement and narratives of reconstruction. These images recontextualize mythical sexual violence within the too-real history of sexual violence in slavery. Walker’s work is exceptionally difficult to address. Working primarily with the high-contrast of black silhouettes against a stern white backdrop, the details of these delicate pieces contrast with the subject matter. By Any Means Necessary, by Tim Rollins and K.O.S., takes pages of the Autobiography of Malcolm X and places the pages side by side on a giant canvas, covers them with a thin layer of white paint, and then creates a new signature across the surface with the M and the X coming together on a downward slope to spell his initials. Once more, the high contrast of black on white addresses the phenomenon of binary existence, in which all other racial identities are subsumed by the dialogue of race relations as a black/white thing. In the same way, this piece also makes a comment on the revising—the whitewashing—of black figures after their deaths by a white narrative.

Ellen Gallagher
Deluxe by Ellen Gallagher (Photograph by the author)

Ellen Gallagher’s 60-print series DeLuxe, presents a collage of images featuring beauty products marketed towards black women, mostly from the 1940s to the 1970s. Gallagher covers the advertisements with paint, clay, even pasta, to heighten surreal undertones of the images, turning these ideas of how beauty should-be into a different kind of beauty, one that questions the audience of the original advertisements. The scale of this work adds to the overwhelming sensation it produces: there are many ways in which one should “do” beauty; the advertisements proclaim that this product will make you look more white, this product will make you look less black, this product will make you look “authentically.” Beauty is beholden, and the contradictory messages about whether or not to embrace a sense of black-as-beautiful create a tension around the receiver.

Meleko Mokgosi’s text installation, Walls of Casbah, is a reflection on the way in which art historians and curators have perpetuated the cultural subjection of non-white cultures in both the gallery space and academic discourse. An exhibition catalog from the 2009 exhibition Walls of Algiers: Narratives of the City becomes the basis of this work of critical theory and artistic engagement, in which the artist’s hand-written notes on the catalog—ranging from questioning word choices and sentence structure to pointing out the demeaning attitude behind particular words—are reproduced and enlarged on several canvases. In one example, Mokgosi’s notes break down and meditate on this sentence:

“Seen from the sea, European Algiers is nothing but crumbling walls and devastated nature, the whole a sullied blot.”

Focusing on “sullied,” Mokgosi’s commentary works from the definition of the word in order to express its impact and the general attitude it conveys:

“defiled or damaged integrity

‘soiled’

Shat on or shat on themselves

Blot (dark stain)

A region “belonging” to Africans (whatever this means) and associated with colonial rule—had been soiled—shat on—made into a dark stain.

Dark stain in the dark continent that only Le Corbusier could fix—bleach out and purify.”

This is a seminar of graduate theory represented in a few pages. It directly addresses issues of appropriation and the frequent missteps white audiences have slipped into when discussing non-white art. The legacy of colonizing attitudes and racist assumptions of superiority are very hard to erase, even when the white writer is attempting to demonstrate how they are “enlightened” to the problems of racism. Mokgosi’s engagement with the exhibition guide is a scene of reassertion not only of the artist’s power over those who write about them, the ability and the need for artists of color to respond to misappropriations of historical narrative, and the necessity of making black art that documents, invents, and cites the lives of the unspoken.

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Walls of Casbah by Meleko Mokgosi (Photograph by the author)

Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire) [Miss Black Bourgeoise] was a performance artwork by Lorraine O’Grady, documented in this exhibition by four photographs of her in the guise of artist-as-Miss America. These images contrast the notion of glamour in beauty pageants and the frequently racist (or racially-based) ideals of beauty remarked upon in Gallagher’s piece, while also calling attention to the relationship of black artists to the history of art. A successful beauty contestant is, by and large, not expected to be known for their ability to speak, but rather, to become a representation of vague ideals such as “beauty” and “purity.” In appearing as this fictitious representation, the artist is embodying a concept of tokenism as well as questioning the importance of patronage in the art world.

Basquiat is represented by a collaboration with Andy Warhol, a portrait of a dollar sign featuring Warhol’s signature silkscreen techniques and Basquiat’s devotion to graffiti and folk/traditional art techniques. The inclusion is mildly confusing to me, not because of Basquiat, but because his work with Warhol is, by comparison to his own, so slight. At the Warhol Museum, for many years these collaborations—which included videos, sculpture, and paintings—were represented by a large canvas (a commissioned portrait of a car that looked as though it was abandoned halfway through) and a sculpture piece of punching bags with each artist’s designs on them. Warhol, who in many respects represents the whitest of white artists, seems detached from Basquiat’s connection to lived experience; Basquiat seems detached from Warhol’s antiseptic and clinically repetitive late-80s work. The disconnect between the two artists, as well as their closeness, shattered by Warhol’s sudden death, was one of the few redeeming aspects of the otherwise troublesome bio-pic Basquiat. (Jean-Michel would die of a heroin overdose less than 18 months later.) Their collaborations feel often like two artists arguing with each other, rather than playing friendly, although this does not seem to be the biographical case. This is, perhaps, the reason that this collaborative work was included over a solo work of Basquiat’s, to represent the black artist’s engagement with the (then as now) majority white art culture and art establishment.

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Dollar Sign (Don’t tread on me)  Basquiat & Warhol (Photograph by the author)

Experiencing 20/20 before walking through the remainder of the Carnegie’s collection produces a (perhaps unintended) side-effect of refocusing the white viewer to the pervasive entity that is whiteness on a museum wall. It is, by and large, only with the movement towards 21st century art that we witness an increased range of representations in the visual arts, not just of the subjects on display, but also of the artists themselves. REkOGNIZE, by Bradford Young (June 16-December 31), a visual installation project running concurrently with 20/20 explores documentary photography and the history of violent images in American racial history. Many of the images I saw do not contain explicit violence as the center point, but the cutting between images and the pieces of computer code used to translate the images into a film creates a sense of violence in every moment. To the left and right of the main screen, footage of a streetlamp, barely demonstrating the motion that comes with the passage of time, contrasts with the central images and the score. The score, which is inspired by and modeled after the “raw data” that makes up the images, builds into a cacophony on the level of late Elliott Carter. The effect between the photography, the lines of code flashing on the screen, and the music, is such that the viewer is pushed to the point of having to leave the work within a few minutes. This is a cumulative artwork, a representation of the stress and emotional drainage that comes from violent histories and histories under erasure. The viewer leaves not because they do not want to see what is happening before them, but because the viewer can no longer stand it. It is interesting to contrast this with Howardena Pindell’s video piece, Free, White and 21, in which the artist discusses her experiences with institutionalized racism, starting with her mother’s being burned by a babysitter through to her experiences with institutionalized racism in the art world. The piece ends with a white-faced figure pulling a cream-colored stocking over her head and obscuring their eyes with large sunglasses. What should I care for all of these stories, the figure speaks, for I am free, white, and twenty-one! The declaration of not having to care, of the ability to deny attention, sympathy, and indignation to Pindell’s history, serves as a cruel reminder of the distance an observer can place between themselves and the oppressed.

Screenhot from Free white 21
Screenshot from Free, White and 21 by Howardena Pindell (Photograph by the author)

When looking through the Carnegie Museum of Art, after the experience of 20/20, the temptation to inverse the portraits became very strong. It was not a question of parity—to say that for every white artist, a black artist should be included; for every man, a woman, etc. It is not just a question of numbers, and including art for the sake of meeting a quota often results in the inclusion of disjointed and frankly just bad art. The drive to include a range of artistic representations seems often to be derided as a political stance, rather than an aesthetic one. (I have not noticed in the discussion of Charlottesville a great many people point out that treating whiteness as the norm is also an inherently political stance.) That-which-is-not-there in the gallery space remains a powerful force to be reckoned with. Whether this exhibition marks a start towards including a wider experience of artwork, or whether this is, like the rages of experimentation plucked by modernism, a moment for reflection before it is dropped for a new object, one does not know.

Rethinking Relationships: Monogamy & Polyamory

The modern Western culture is grounded on identity dualities: man/woman, heterosexual/homosexual, white/black, virgin/whore, to name a few.

These dualisms encourage a hierarchial structure between the former and the latter, which then enforces a sense of cultural, political and social inequality in our society. This sense of inequality is obvious when one looks into the structure of human relationships. Except for heterosexual monogamy, other forms of relationships are often marginalized and marked as abnormal by mainstream society. However, this kind of thinking is wrong because all forms of relationships are equal; as long as the parties involved in the relationships are healthy and happy, there should be no problem with the relationship style.

So, how does monogamy gain its power? As Mint (2004) suggests, besides jealousy, monogamy is enforced by the cultural ideas of cheating. In general, we are taught that the act of cheating is bad. As we can often see in dramas or movies, those who cheat often end up being dumped, divorced or punished because they are regarded as morally corrupt. Also, through mass media, we are taught that any triangular relationship is going to be unstable, short-term and competitive. This conception leads us to think that in order to have a healthy relationship, monogamy is the best (and perhaps the only) option that we can have. Furthermore, it is suggested that the myth of one true love upholds the ideology of monogamy. Under the myth of one true love, monogamy comes to mean not only that one person can only have an intimate relationship with one person at a time but also the concept that a particular person is really only attracted to one other person during the course of their entire lives.

However, in reality, numerous surveys have confirmed that the number of people who cheat counts for almost one-third of the population (see Women are now cheating as much as men and Infidelity rates in UK). From these infidelity statistics, one comes to understand that the myth of one true love is a sociocultural (romance) constructed idea, that not everyone is suitable to this kind of relationship style. From this aspect, those who cheated in the monogamous relationship are not only cheating their partner but also the system itself. Among these cheaters, some would choose to cheat again while some would choose to uphold what they view as the truth about what would bring the most benefit to everyone involved. For instance, the polygamous community is facing off against the system of monogamy and the myth of one true love.

In the practice of polyamorous relationships, one needs not to give up one partner in order to be intimate with another because it is not morally or ethically wrong to have sexual and/or romantic relationships with more than one person at a time. Also, bisexual and polygamous communities have come to reclaim the stigmatized three-person situation as cooperative, long-term, and positive for everyone involved. More specifically, polyamorists strike to expand the definition of monogamy through promoting an alternative perspective towards jealousy and the act of cheating. Regarding jealousy, many polyamorous individuals are happy to see their partner meet and enjoy the company, passion or whatever of someone else (Moosa, “Why You Should [and Shouldn’t Be] Monogamous”). This reaction is grounded on the conception that one can attempt to meet the desires of others but one does not rule over their desires.

Moosa further explains, for polygamist, a relationship that expects “complete sexual or emotional linking might be not only impossible but immoral: why can’t we have multiple individuals meeting us in our multiple desires?” As to the system of “cheating,” it serves a different meaning in polyamorous relationships. According to Kakdera, “If there is a concept of ‘cheating’ or ‘infidelity’ in polyamory, it is usually lying or being deceptive about one’s activities [with any other partner].” In other words, not the act of having sex with the others but the act of hiding it from the others is ethically wrong in polyamorous relationships.

Whether it is monogamy or polyamory, the most important thing is to stay happy and healthy in that relationship style that one has chosen. It is also important to note that there is no hierarchy between monogamy and polyamory, as each form is created and applied in order to suit the needs and desires of human beings. So, mono or poly: your choice.

Whether it is monogamy or polyamory, the most important thing is to stay happy and healthy in that relationship style that one has chosen. It is also important to note that there is no hierarchy between monogamy and polyamory, as each form is created and applied in order to suit the needs and desires of human beings. So, mono or poly: your choice.

References:

Freaksexual. “Jealousy, Monogamy, and Power.” 11 August 2010. Retrived from https://freaksexual.com/2010/08/11/jealousy-monogamy-and-power/.

Kakdera, Raven. Pagan Polyamory: Becoming a Tribe of Hearts. USA: Llewellyn Publications, 2005. Print.

Moosa, Tauriq. “Why You Should (and Shouldn’t Be) Monogamous.” Bigthink. 2016. Web. 19 July 2017.

Pepper Mint. “The Power Dynamics of Cheating: Effects on Polyamory and Bisexuality.” The Journal of Bisexuality 4.3/4 (2004): 55-76. Plurals Loves: Designs for Bi and Poly Living, ed. Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio, Haworth Press, 2004, pp.55-76.

 

We Can’t Rely on the Oppressed to Do the Work

Due to the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia there has been (and rightfully so), a reaction to the public demonstration of white supremacy and preservation. Yet, the focus isn’t on those who are remaining silent. No one is talking about the level of organization and protection of those people who assembled and demonstrated (without fear or veiled appearance) in Charlottesville, Virginia. Historically, these groups would assemble at night or wear hooded or veiled vestments to conceal their identity but now racism and the institution that it rests upon is overt. Yet, their unveiled appearance proves that it is not the historical white supremacist pageantry of KKK robes, ski masks, or bandanas. Instead, it is 21st century racism, complete with white polo shirts, baseball caps, khaki pants, and loafers.

Don’t let their J-Crew appearance fool you into thinking that a polite conversation will eradicate their racism. It is the responsibility of white people to talk to, ostracize, and lash out at white people about racism.

And no, a Charlottesville Syllabus is not enough. A Charlottesville syllabus is a) problematic, b) won’t work, c) places the responsibility on the oppressed to educate and articulate their suffering to the oppressor, d) makes white people feel better about their inherited privilege.

It is time to unapologetically confront and call out white supremacy and systems of institutional oppression. If these people can show their faces then we should not veil, code, or “diagnose” their behavior. That thought experiment is exhaustive and the moment has passed. These people are not only demonstrating in plain sight their hate but they are doctors, lawyers, educators and law enforcement. They are not these mythic coal miners or uneducated “backwards” folks that are located in discarded towns in America. These are influential people that can and do decide the fate of a lot of people in this country. I am tired of apologetics that excuses their behavior. And for the record, it isn’t just white men who are racists. There are white women and the people of color that either comply or condone their ideology.

It is easy to hide behind the singular narrative of the white male or because of Marxist theory: wealthy, debt free, middle class white men that are hetero-normative. We must remember that they have female associates and alt-right/conservative LGBTQ folks that prove that women and non-heteronormative white people are just as racist and oppressive.

Nor should the hands of people of color be the ones to eradicate images and ideology of white supremacy and oppression because it relies on the oppressed to do the work of those who benefit from privilege.

For example, when Brittany “Bree” Newsome removed the Confederate Flag from the flag pole in front of the statehouse, in Charleston, South Carolina didn’t go unscathed. First, a black maintenance work replaced the flag which is the example of the labor and hands of supremacy. Second, she was fined and faced the possibility of having to go to jail for tampering with federal property. Therefore, there is a cost for physically dismantling these institutions. I have yet to see what is the cost for the woman who climbed the statue in North Caroling and placed the rope in order for other protestors to pull it down.

We don’t talk about Ramsey Orta, who filmed the horrific police strangling of Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York on July 17, 2014. Ramsey has been arrested numerous times for filming police arrests and at Black Lives Matter protests. He (Orta) is serving a four-year sentence for the selling of Heroin and illegal possession of a firearm.

Orta’s criminality is the focus of his life in the ways in which countless black and brown people who fight back or are killed through law enforcement are profiled. For example, Sandra Bland was blamed for her death because she wouldn’t extinguish her cigarette and questioned law enforcement as to why she was being pulled over. Whoopi Goldberg and Raven Symone et al. defended Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s erroneous question on Sandra Bland’s cigarette could have been used as a weapon on The View.

I won’t go on a long pontification on the politics of respectability and how Bland and others assertion of selfhood is a politics of ‘(dis)respectability.’ Yet, the narrative of people of color in influential positions of power or their exceptionalism proves that in modes of resistance people and especially women of color vacillate between maintaining mythic images of respectability which can retain systems of oppression. While those that don’t retain those images are often marginalized as being social pariah and the downfall of communities of color and labeled ‘disrespectful.’ Yet, these ‘respectability’ police don’t realize that they are retaining a gate-keeping ideology that doesn’t shake up white fragility and their need to retain their positions of power. Because they are just happy to have a seat at the table that they will remain silent or police people who question white authority.

Nor will I contribute to a narrative, that racism is regional, and that only a small sect of the population plays in the role of racism. There are alt-right rallies (Better Known AS) 21st century racism scheduled across the country.

It is easier for people to look elsewhere than it is to look locally at oppression. This isn’t just a piece on Donald J. Trump and his cabinet because white supremacy and oppression is a long and sufferable form of socio-political amnesia. This amnesia is what plagues The United States of America.

Instead, this is a time in which the actual conversation of abolition needs to happen. Not just reform. But actual abolition. What does it mean to abolish white supremacy, the prison industrial complex, educational debt, drastic poverty vs drastic wealth? What does it mean for citizens that work to receive social benefits that will retain their well-being? What does it mean that regardless of your ancestry you can have a fair and equal opportunity to not just survive but thrive? These are the questions and ideas that need to saturate the minds of this country.

A syllabus is an elitist and dismissive form of window dressing the elephant in the room. I am all for education but the student must want to learn. It is not my job as a member of the historical and very presently oppressed to educate my oppressor when their lives are valued above my own. It is not my job to place myself on the front lines of protests and demonstrations in an effort to dismantle power structures that me nor my ancestors did not create. Instead, I have the write to maintain my safety and position as one who works to create archives of information that will survive longer than my life expectancy. For self-care and archival creation is the legacy that my fore-parents in the fight for freedom have left me and others.

PLAYGROUND RULES & PHYSICS

Tables turn
Moving around and around
Seesaw goes up while the other one is down
Just so you can push your friend back up again
To take the turn
The Swing goes Backward to move Forward
Then Back & Forth
You go up the Slide just to drop back down, again
Upward & Downward
Your hands in the air while waiting for your feet to touch the ground
To become grounded, again
Laughing uncontrollably on the Merry-Go-Round as you start to lose grip
Grasping onto the bars with all your might
Spinning fast Counter-Clockwise
Off you go
Flying and head smashing into a stranger kid
Scraping both your knees and both your elbows in the dried mulch flakes
You grow up to look back on what childhood was for
Maybe…
To learn about Playground Rules & Physics
049
Mixed media by MMM

Shutu Stays with You

Trigger warning: suicide, sexual violence

As a seven-year-old, one of the poems I loved reading and performing at elocution competitions was Rabindranath Tagore’s Puratan Vritto (The Old Slave). I do not know why it felt so easy to remember it, maybe because I realized irrespective of all the mechanical readings for the sake of memorizing, every time I reached the end of the poem, I had tears in my eyes and the process never felt monotonous or cumbersome. It felt cathartic. My mother would be surprised to see that the poem touched such a chord with me, and she would say, “You are a sensitive kid.”

The poem is about this old senile slave, who would not leave the master, even after repeated attempts of both the master and the mistress to drive him out of the house. Every time the master threw him out, he would return the next morning, with a smile on his face and a hookah for the master. Eventually, they give up and the master plans a pilgrimage to Vrindavan ( a small district in India), invariably with the old slave in tow. The mistress is doubtful about this arrangement, afraid that the old slave will not be able to take good care of the master, but the master convinces her otherwise. On reaching Vrindavan, the master contracts chicken pox ( the poem was written in the 19th century when chicken pox had no cure in India), and is forsaken by all his friends who had been traveling along; all except one, his old slave. He brings his master back to life, with his love, care, and affection, but contracts the contagious disease from his master, and succumbs to it. The master confides in the audience that after all the repeated attempts to get rid of him, he finally succeeds and how…

As Konkana Sen Sharma’s directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj ends, I had the same feeling I would have while reading the last two lines of Puratan Vritto. If you have ever felt unwanted, unloved, invisible, or small you will know what I mean.

Growing up, I was a fat kid, a fat sensitive kid. From facing ostracization in school, being laughed at and ridiculed for my thinning hair which someone equated with a lizard’s tail in our neighborhood to having this horrific experience of going on a trip with my mom’s colleagues and being bullied and dragooned by their kids, the Shutu in me was howling inside my head as I watched the character on screen brought to life by the brilliant lead actor, Vikrant Massey.

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A Death in the Gunj tells a story in each frame. The first scene sets the tone of the movie as we see two men stowing a dead body in the boot of a blue ambassador that they are driving to Calcutta. Then the story unfolds in the flashback when we see Nandu, Bonnie, Mimi, and Tani, arrive at McCluskieganj in erstwhile Bihar to spend the New Years at their family home where O.P. and Anupama Bakshi, Nandu’s parents live. There is one other person who accompanies them, Shutu, Nandu’s maternal cousin, but from the very onset he is treated as the ‘other’ in the narrative. The family greets and hugs each other, while Shutu, a young, lanky shy boy, is asked to unload the boot and bring all the luggage inside.

The narrative establishes Shutu as this reticent, sensitive almost to the point of being vulnerable, young boy, still trying to cope with his father’s untimely demise, whose favorite words are eulogy, esoteric, and eclectic, and the only person he can relate to is Nandu and Bonnie Bakshi’s young daughter, Tani.

The director beautifully juxtaposes his shyness with the machismo of Vikram, Nandu’s friend, who is seen as someone continuously making fun of Shutu, challenge his masculinity, and belittle him on account of his physical weakness and emotional vulnerability. There is a scene in the movie where a friendly game of Kabbadi, a contact team sport,  in the backyard of the Bakshi’s, ends into an unequal scuffle between Vikram and Shutu, as Vikram mercilessly starts kicking and strangling Shutu to win the game.

Vikram as the quintessential alpha male, who is physically superior, who has a sexual relationship with the ‘foreigner’ Mimi but chooses to marry a Khasi girl from a wealthy royal family because women like Mimi, the ‘fallen women,’ are only meant to be made love to and not loved, as Anupama Bakshi opines in one of the scenes, establishes a world of scary polarities in the filmic narrative.

And to all these people, Shutu is the punching bag, the subject of their blames and disappointments, failures and shortcomings. This is beautifully captured in the scene where one day Tani goes missing and the entire family blames Shutu for the episode, because Tani usually follows him every where. But when they go searching for Tani in the forests, Shutu falls into a ditch, and Nandu leaves him behind in the wilderness and returns home without even, so much as sparing a thought for Shutu. I will never forget the look on Shutu’s face as he returns home that night, having rescued by the Bakshi’s servant, stands at the door of the Bakshi residence and looks at the rejoicing family having dinner inside, without him, having reunited with their daughter.

Perhaps it is Mimi, who drives Shutu towards the final resolution of the drama, as she ‘rapes’ the ‘girly’ Shutu (She tells him in one of the scenes that he is pretty like a girl), and leaves him to his fate.

The scene where, Shutu, filled with passion for Mimi, leaves Tani behind, asking her to keep searching for her lost puppy so that he could go riding with the seductive and misleading Mimi, establishes a brilliant dynamics between the puppy, Tani, and Shutu. The puppy sits dejected on the balcony as Tani forsakes him to run after her beloved Shutuda, and see him ride off with another woman, having tricked her. Heartbroken, she stands there with tears rolling down her eyes. The re-imagining of the age-old love triangle bears the testimony to a moving masterstroke from the director-artist.

That is the moment Shutu looses all, even himself.

That Shutu is a brilliant student, that he might be physically weaker than Nandu but every time beats him at chess, that he is so full of compassion, that irrespective of all their neglect, jibes, condescension, Shutu runs errands for them with a smile, that all he wants, needs, and desires is a little love and understanding from the world, runs as an undercurrent throughout the film.

There is a scene where Tani and Shutu are playing in the garden, and Tani notices that all the names, that of her mom, dad, Mimi, Vikram, are inscribed on several tree trunks populating their garden, but not that of Shutu’s, establishing the fact that they were childhood friends, and although Shutu belonged to the same group albeit he was the inconspicuous and ‘othered’ part of it.

The final scene has such a relaxed banality about it that the end comes as a surprise. O.P Bakshi is busy cleaning his old gun when Shutu expresses his desire to just learn how to hold it. The gun runs as a motif in the film, it appears in many a frame and also in one of Shutu’s nightmares. As O.P. Bakshi reluctantly tries to teach Shutu how to use it, he overpowers the old man and snatches it away from him. Meanwhile the entire family comes running to the spot and Shutu points the gun at Vikram, his biggest nemesis in the movie, soon realizing that probably he himself is his most formidable adversary, at least that is what years of neglect and ignominy in the hands of his own people, drives him to believe, something that he realizes he is too weak to resist. So he holds the barrel of the gun right under his chin and shoots himself.

The blood splatters on the nearest tree forming a sinister pattern.

Shutu finally does inscribe his name on a tree trunk.

Shutu says little in the movie but every fold on his forehead, every look in his eyes, every twitch of his body seems like an entry out of Sylvia Plath’s journal,

“Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.”

 

The Origin of Madness : A Philosophical Review of the Film “In the Mouth of Madness”

Manipulated image from John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness

Do you ever wonder how people go from completely sane to wholly mad? Or, think about how each of us is equally exposed to the possibility of catching insanity every time we open ourselves to the outside world?

One of these answers can be found in the film In Mouth of Madness (1995) directed by John Carpenter. The film understands madness as “that thing [which is] messing with the church [values]”; “that thing that offers pain and suffering beyond human understanding.” Madness is an abstract being that “wasn’t here [in this material world] before l wrote it”, says the character Sutter Cane. The question is how this very abstract matter known as “madness” manifests itself into material form, and thus becomes viewable, spreadable, discussable, and perhaps “curable”.

Such a journey can be seen in the character John Trent, who has gone from a “sane” insurance investigator to a patient in a psychiatric hospital. Trent is one out of a number of people who show schizophrenic symptoms after reading Sutter Cane’s horror books, including the Hobb’s End Horror and In the Mouth of Madness.  Books that are known for their success in generating a kind of seed of “madness” in the mind of a “less stable reader”. These seeds range from “disorientation, memory loss, to severe paranoid reaction”. Trent’s case is significant in that it may offer a potential clue to the outbreak of mass murders and riots in the city, which are claimed to only involve those who read Cane’s book.

At this point, it is safe to say that “madness” made its way to be among us by finding representation. “Homecoming instrument (s)” the film calls it. I would say that its first representation is in the mind of Sutter Cane. Then it manages to move Cane to write about his encounter with “madness” in the form of books. These books then could be considered as the second form of representation of “madness”. This second representation is special in that it signifies the presence of “madness” in the material world. With Cane’s books, “madness” is now viewable, discussable and spreadable to each individual. It will keep spreading until it achieved its fullest form, Hegel would say.

The fullest form of which every single being strive for is equal to life because it supposedly represents an achievement of completely being oneself, as Hegel implied in the Phenomenology of Spirit. What is often forgotten is that the way to the fullest form is violent and painful in that it constantly requires analysis of what one already achieved. In this analyzing process, the defective representation must be abandoned and destroyed, Hegel would further assert. Only by doing so, one can continue to find a new and better representation.  In the case of this film, we can see that only when Cane [as first representation of “madness”] sees the book Hobb’s End Horror is not perfect, he then can proceed to write the new one, that is In the Mouth of Madness. This new book [and other new form of representation that might come later] supposed to be better representation of “madness” as it corrects flaws of the previous book. Thus, the quality of this new book is stronger than that of the previous one. The new book In the Mouth of Madness is so strong that it “will drive you absolutely mad; choked [you] with the gleaming white bones, the hideous unholy abominations, countless unhallowed centuries”, says the character Cane when persuades Trent to open himself for “madness”. Trent does open himself for “madness” and, thus, rendered as insane.

Trent’s case shows that the desire for self-examination, which “madness” inspires in whoever come in contact with it, is more challenging with human beings than with the madness being [the abstract matter called madness].  This is partly because human beings reflect social values. Identifying some of those values as “wrong” and abandoning them not only challenges the individual’s inner stability but also disrupts the stability of the society in which one lives. As a consequence, once society classifies a person as “insane”, the individual may find himself lonely and isolated, or he may even be killed for such apparent “deviation”, Berger warned us in his Sacred Canopy. There are plenty of examples of killing done on the basis of “deviation,” and one of them is the religious conflict involving the Ahmadiyya community. To anticipate such horrific effect of madness, society advises those who are infected by madness, like Trent, must be made named, isolated from the healthy society, and cured before sent back to society.

The film even prescribes that to survive the influence of madness, one must do what Trent did. ”He did not shriek. He stared into the illimitable gulf of the unknown. And refused to close his eyes”. He continually refused to subjugate his life to the power outside himself i.e. the influence of Cane’s book and the label “insane” from a medical representative. He does it by often announcing his self-knowledge that he is a rational, independent and happy man who has control over himself and that no one will have a chance to control his mind.  In short, he fights madness by maintaining his ability to think for himself. Otherwise, madness will seep in and take control over his mind and dictate his body to do things he may not like doing.

The film is indeed very intellectually stimulating in that it not only portrays the origin of madness, but it also alludes to the insidious violence inherent in the transformation of knowledge. The film shows that knowledge transformation is violent because it requires the potential receiver to first destroy what he already knows before this new knowledge rests in their mind, a Foucauldian would say. However, such violence is mostly tolerable, if not acceptable, in almost every society. Why? Because such insidious violence, like the kind that Cane’s book generated, represent “senseless, seemingly unmotivated acts of violence”, says Trent. Only when it obviously threatens the life of the larger society, as in the form of a riot, will the power representatives act.  Again, the key to survive both the violence inherent in the madness and in the transformation of knowledge is to maintain the ability to think for oneself.

Braving the Days: The Seasons Are Changing

 

It’s only early August and there’s a briskness to the air on the East Coast. Last year, there was blistering heat, and I craved the cool, foggy days of San Francisco, but this season has changed, and so have I. I mean, on a fundamental level I have not. I was talking to my mother about love, and I told her ever since I was a little girl, I never felt the need to prioritize love. I didn’t have the capacity to put friends before a pet, or lovers before colleagues or acquaintances before old friends.

It took me 30 years to learn the term “non hierarchical” in terms of relationships until I was 30 years old, but I immediately connected to the idea, because I’d been living it my entire life. I have always loved people, I’ve always loved life and books, writing and traveling but have never been able to say that I loved something more than the other. I understand that there are times in my life when I may be more comfortable writing a book than a music album, or when I’d rather teach than perform. There are times when I’d like to be alone, and other times when I’d like to be very social, but the emphasis of my feelings towards the phases of my life was never anything that caused me anxiety. Outside of earning a living, and work to keep social and relational conflict to a minimal, I never felt like there was something I needed to be doing that I was not doing because something came first.

A large reason for this is because I have chosen to not have children yet. I think a child is the only human being that I absolutely know would not fit into a non hierarchical structure. With this said, in my teaching career, I believe I have been successful because I treat adults and children as if they are equal beings. No, I don’t use inappropriate language, but I do not value children’s thoughts, presence and even advice over adults. I think kids give the best life advice. I think they are observant, and wise and enjoy spending time with them.

The seasons are changing and maybe I am on some levels, or maybe I am just refining what I’ve always known about myself. The weather and the Earth don’t function by the construct of hierarchy. All things are equal. I believe life and love should be fluid.

a post-avant grindcore narrative assemblage