Is Trump Evil?

I believe Donald Trump’s policies are evil. I also believe the person who selfishly won’t let me into their lane on the freeway is evil. Both of these are what I would call “disfavored actions.” But what is it that propels the first belief into a national discussion on the nature of immorality and the latter into unsolicited referrals for counseling?  

If we consider locking children in cages to be evil, what do we say about the killing of six-million Jews? Is it possible for evil actions to be ranked comparatively? Is Hitler “more” evil than Trump? If so, by what standard?

How do we decide which actions are “wrong” – selfishness, lacking empathy, etc. – but not necessarily “evil.” The freeway driver may embody these negative qualities, but we wouldn’t say they rise to the level of immorality.  What is the calibration – the measurement – that forms the line of demarcation? 

For large swaths of social media, there seems to be little question as to whether Donald Trump’s policies reach a level they denote as “evil.” This certainty usually emerges from a calculus which evaluates Trump’s specific actions against an abstract set of “moral principles” – equality, liberty, justice – which have no definitive meanings.

But “evil” is not a compilation of policies, measured and compared to politically malleable tenets of “natural law.”  Evil is a strategy; it is the refusal to acknowledge the worth of others and to exclude them from the processes which determine the quality of their lives. Evil is not a hierarchy of disfavored actions; it is, at its core, the insidious belief that there are differences in human value. Evil seeks not only to divide, but to erase.

This strategy infuses all levels of our social, economic and political lives. It is a Hydra; the face it displays – the policies it produces –  depends on the context in which it functions. Evil is a highly adaptable shape-shifter on a constant search for unguarded spaces and unseen opportunities.

The killing of six million Jews and locking children in cages are based on the same strategy; the erasure of the “other.” One action is no more or less evil than the other; in each case, the strategies of evil expanded into the social and political spaces allowed to it.

The Trumpian erasure occurs on many levels. In its most overt form, erasure shapes Trump’s views on immigration in which non-whites are rendered invisible by imperious exclusion and contemptuous rhetoric. The Trumpian constructions are not merely hierarchical; they generate a distinct dichotomy of human value. 

The Republican agenda is premised on the delusion that there are two different kinds of people; the very wealthy and everyone else. This economic division becomes the marker for differences in intrinsic worth. The non-super wealthy, comprising over 99% of the population, are considered to be less fully human than the very well-off. Respect and dignity are based on a sliding scale of net-worth. 

In the Right’s strategies of erasure, one group – extremely wealthy, white, heterosexual males – dwell on a higher plane of existence; while all others – the poor, people of color, the LGBT community, anyone immigrating from a non-Nordic country – tumble into an abyss of nothingness. Unrecognized and unacknowledged, with a potentially dwindling ability to participate in processes of self-determination.

Within the strategies of erasure which constitute evil, individuals with power validate their own sense of intrinsic worth; not merely through hierarchy but through the forced non-existence of others. That is why these strategies are so prevalent and so difficult to dislodge.

Strategies of erasure are not eliminated from our lives by outlawing specific actions and relations. But rules and regulations do provide barriers against these strategies; they ultimately construct the maze through which evil slithers. Change the laws on sexual harassment – alter the walls of the maze – and the strategies of erasure will quickly adapt, finding new unguarded venues and targets. The more de jure rules deflect it, the more de facto openings it will seek.

It can be comforting to point at Donald Trump and scream “EVIL!”  In the cathartic moment, immorality is contained within a singular orange-tinted vessel; the product of a particular warped psyche.  

But even the most egregious displays of evil shouldn’t blind us to the strategies of erasure which course through our social fabric. We must continuously churn the soil of social and economic relations, rooting out those strategies wherever they occur. Trump may be the not-so-bright light of erasure, but his glare should not obscure the micro-fissures of indignity which twist through so many of our lives.

–TGR–

Image from Universal Studios, “Village of the Damned.”    
Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;   thegoldinrule@gmail.com

Democrats Dream of a Capitalist Truth

The leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties share a belief that the institutions of corporate capitalism are America. The institutions are like well-worn buildings with deep metaphysical foundations.

The vast majority of people are ephemeral. We are temporary. We are moved through some of the buildings, and not others, or sometimes denied entry to all of them, by forces over which we have little to no control. We are separated from those who guard the institutions and who are allowed to traverse them at will. We are told that this separation represents the “free” part of free market.

The Republicans work assiduously to make sure the majority of people have as little access to the buildings as possible. The Democrats decry this exclusion and then spend years debating whether they should open a small room in one of the outer structures. Neither question the origins, or supposed immortality, of the buildings themselves.

The leadership of both parties believe that institutions of finance are eternal – they precede us and will outlast us. When the Big Bang occurred, out flew leptons, quarks and free-market capitalism. But the masses are eternal only as an abstraction; collectively we are viewed as an endless shuffle of easily replaceable parts. 

The Republicans delight in taking billions of dollars from the many in order to enlarge and embellish buildings most people will never be allowed to enter. Republicans imagine themselves as the reincarnation of Khufu, the Egyptian pharaoh who subjugated tens of thousands to build the Great Pyramid. The Democrats have the same goals, but they are convinced they’re the new Plato, aligning the masses with the Truth of neo-liberal capitalism

Plato was a philosopher in ancient Greece who believed that an ideal society should be ruled by an extremely small, select group of Philosophers who were capable of understanding metaphysical Truths embodied in what he called the Forms and the Good. Philosophers should be kings. 

The vast majority of people had no philosophical abilities. No matter how much they learned and studied, they would never become Philosophers, and shouldn’t attempt to do so. Plato, didn’t hate the people, he simply didn’t care much about them. They were his version of the endless shuffle – an indistinct gray mass which needed to be directed and constrained.

Through their Platonic prism, Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer aren’t blindly attached to a deadened, morally bankrupt, economic system which has been a cudgel of marginalization and pain throughout history. Instead, they’re 21st century Philosopher-Kings, excreting the Truth of wealth, opportunity, and free-markets onto the masses.

One of the methods by which Plato’s Philosophers pacified the many to accept their place in society was through what is now called either The Myth of the Metals, or The Noble Lie.

Plato believed that the people should be told a story that they are all born from the earth. Some are born with gold in them (philosophers), some with silver (soldiers), and some with iron (the masses).  An individual’s place in society was determined by innate attributes and limitations present at birth. In Plato’s ideal society, inherent inequalities in philosophical capacity result in a rigid, hierarchical society.

Economic inequality now serves the same purpose as Plato’s philosophical disparities. Capitalism sorts out the masses. There can be no “winners” without “losers.” Financial stratifications allow political leaders to point to wealth as a reflection of innate differences in intellect and work ethic. 

Free-market capitalism is premised on the claim that “everyone has the qualities to succeed” while at the same time its resultant inequalities are rationalized as “nothing wrong with the system, must be something lacking in the people.”

The Capitalist Noble Lie has transformed capitalism from historical effect into metaphysical certainty. The ravages of plunder and conquest out of which capitalism emerged, and the structural inequalities which maintain it, disappear into the conviction that neo-liberalsim, like the Forms, was “always there,” in its perfection, waiting to be revealed. The forces which direct, and limit, access to the buildings of capitalism are subsumed into a glorification of the buildings themselves. 

The Capitalist Noble Lie is a torrent of water inundating desert sands. It moves in unexpected directions, forming intertwined tributaries as it covers, and drowns, all that is beneath it. The river is self-maintaining; it thrives by re-interpreting, mocking, or pushing aside, any attempts to divert its course.   

For Democrats, the free-market is a manifestation of a Truth which they will not allow to be challenged. Any small amelioration of the effects of capitalism must never fundamentally alter the system itself.

One political party revels in force, the other claims knowledge. But they both end up in the same place.

The certitude of Truth is far more dangerous than the love of power. Once Truth is invoked, the poor are no longer subjugated; they become the flawed discards of a race to enlightenment.

It is difficult to argue individuals out of their metaphysics. You can’t point to the actual lives of the majority of people because capitalism-as-Truth isn’t negotiable. The effects of neo-liberalism will only dissipate when we take power away from Plato and the Pharaohs.

–TGR–

Richard W Goldin; Lecturer in Political Science; California State University; thegoldinrule@gmail.com

The Crumb-Pushers Won’t Help Us

A massive mansion sits on ten acres of over-groomed lawn. An odd combination of faux classical Greek and Las Vegas-style Roman architecture, most of its too-many-to-count rooms have never been used. 

A lavish party is taking place in the Milton Friedman banquet room. Republican and Democratic party leaders enjoy a sumptuous feast encircled by the wealthy and well-connected. The leaders sit across a table laden with the kind of expensive, esoteric cuisine the rich pretend to like when they graze together. The Democrats and Republicans sit on different sides of the same table, enjoying the same food.

The non-wealthy are all locked in a small, cramped basement room. Small slivers of light and air enter intermittently from a row of slightly-opened windows near the ceiling.

Every so often, a Republican appears at the basement door and eagerly installs a bigger, stronger lock.  When some in the room shout “let us out!” the Republican replies, “I’m going to put locks on the windows.” 

Occasionally, a Democrat wanders down to the basement, carrying a small plate of leftover crumbs. The Democrat pushes the crumbs under the door, whispering words of sympathy and sorrow.

When the people cry out – “remove the lock, let us out of the basement!” the Democrat responds, “Oh, I don’t do that. But I do offer crumbs.”  The Democrat trots up the stairs with the empty plate, convinced that a crumb-pusher is a far better person than a lock builder. With one final glance back to make sure the door is still locked, the Democrat leaves the basement, proud of their journey into generosity and compassion.

In the basement, people fight over the little they are given. They separate themselves to different corners of the room, accusing each other of taking extra crumbs. Those who claim that the lock could be broken if everyone worked together are exiled to a tiny curtained-off area. People from all corners point to the veiled space and laugh derisively before returning to the battle. 

As the sounds of endless fighting drift upstairs, the Republican and the Democrat smile across the table and prepare to tell each other how much they love the sautéed ladybug wings.

–TGR–

Richard W Goldin; Lecturer in Political Science; California State University thegoldinrule@gmail.com

The Perils of Moderation

Moderation offers a seemingly attractive, common-sense approach to the political that inevitably disappoints when roused into (in)action. It’s the Ford Edsel of American politics.

Moderation contains no specific ideas or vision of its own, nor does it provide a process for balancing competing claims. Moderation is more a matter of faith; a kind of religious experience. 

Moderation is the character in a horror movie who stays fearfully inside the cabin while others are outside fighting evil. And is immediately devoured by the demons.

Moderation functions within political contexts it neither guides nor shapes. It is a dot on a pendulum it does not control; each wild swing producing a new center. Yet its main selling point is “stability.”

Moderation perverts the polarities of change. The perfect isn’t the enemy of the good; one only achieves the good by aiming for the perfect.

Moderation is a passenger trying to stop a runaway political train by moving everyone to the center car.

Moderation is a malleable sliver of metal seduced by the magnetism of the extremes. Expanding private health insurance only appears centrist in the face of forces which aim to take away any form of health care from all who are struggling economically. To include the latter in a calculus of “centrality” is to confuse mathematics with morality. 

Moderation is a strategy in which a thirst for the “center” replaces the parched materiality of people’s lives.

Moderation dims the aspirational shimmer of Progressives with the gloom of lowered expectations offered by Democrats.

Moderation is both Conservative and Leninist. As in Conservatism, it seeks only incremental change and exhibits a general disdain for progressive movements. It is the politics of “no.” Like Lenin, moderates view themselves as members of an elite Vanguard  – a small group of people who have risen above the false-consciousness of Progressives and will lead us all to the promised land of “let’s not do anything.”

Moderation is a place where people drive Edsels, worship the deity of the “center,” and, in the most dire of times, seek shelter in a rickety cabin of moderation while political monsters draw ever closer.

–TGR–

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;   thegoldinrule@gmail.com

If Tom Hanks Had Died, Would Thousands More Have Lived?

Let me be clear at the outset – I am in no way calling for, longing for, instigating for, or in any way recommending, the death of Tom Hanks. How could anyone wish that on Hanks?  He is a beloved figure in this country. He is our everyman, transcending social and political differences.  And it is precisely this distillation of America diversity into the singularity of one individual which underlies the question posed in the title of this essay.

Would the death of Tom Hanks from Covid-19 have forged a single iconic moment, overwhelming both the complexity of medical evidence and the sharp-edged blades of American politics?  

Throughout the history of this country, arguments calling for Americans to change the way they interact with the world have been subsumed by the habitual forms of everyday life. A rousing of the nation from the slumber of the customary has rarely been generated by appeals to rationality or philosophy. Action is generated by emotion not reason.

In the 1980s, the onset of AIDS seemed, like the coronavirus, to be a distant and foreign enemy. AIDS was viewed as an obscure disease that only attacked populations already cleaved from the norms of American society. It was that disease killing those people.

The death of the actor Rock Hudson in 1985 profoundly altered the nation’s view of the AIDS epidemic.  Hudson projected the kind of warm, self-effacing jocularity that is now bestowed upon Hanks. To many, Hudson wasn’t one of “them,” he was one of “us.. If he could be struck down by the disease, so could anyone.

In the early days of Covid-19 – meaning a few short weeks ago – the virus was portrayed as having the same quality of otherness as had AIDS. The Trump administrant attempted to construct a narrative in which the disease was only spreading in other countries, carried to our shores by  “foreigners” who could be quickly separated and isolated. 

When the virus first manifested itself in America, it was conceptually framed as being limited to particular sub-groups such as “those people” on cruise ships who “really should have known better.” If you were willing to avoid boarding a large boat serving questionable shrimp, you were safe. 

Though the voices decrying this narrative were numerous and varied, to many the medical arguments seemed complex and arcane. Just as in the early months of the AIDS epidemic, the coronavirus was something that happened to “other people.”

The subsequent change in the attitude of Americans came not from sifting through the medical evidence, but from the sheer quantity of people being infected and killed.  Absent a single, galvanizing “Rock Hudson” moment, the disease had to begin its rampage through cities and communities before Americans acceded to the reality of “hey, this could happen to me.” 

Hanks was one of the first nationally known celebrities to be diagnosed with Covid-19. His diagnosis seemed for a moment like a clarion call to action, but his recovery may have furthered a framing of the disease as being far more innocuous than it is.

The impetus for national change often requires the transmutation of an individual’s anguish into the realm of the symbolic. In the case of Hudson, the “everyman” had to die in order to arouse the public to its own vulnerability.  

A long happy life to Tom Hanks. And to a world which doesn’t require any individual to be transformed into an icon of suffering for the country to find its own moment of transcendence.

–TGR–

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science, California State University; thegoldinrule@gmail.com

Opening the Overton Window: A Strategy for Progressive Political Change

The political right is currently smitten with a concept known as the Overton Window. Named after Joseph P. Overton of the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the core of the Overton Window is that there are, at any specific time, a particular collection of ideologies, ideas and policies which are acceptable to the general public. This assemblage of legitimacy shifts over time; ideas which were once considered unacceptable can become commonplace.

The Overton Window was introduced to many on the Right through a Glenn Beck novel of the same name. (A novel in the sense that it was a bounded stack of paper with words scattered across it.) In Beck’s hyperbolic “faction” an evil genius shifts the window and is able to use the government to bring tyranny to the people.

The alt-right is convinced the nation is in the midst of an immense, anti-tyranny, rightward shift in the Overton Window. Conservatives delight in this movement and the centrality of power which they believe generated it. Liberals, who once also rhapsodized about cultural change when it flowed in their direction, waffle between decrying the shift and arguing for its emulation.

The current composition of the Window will not be altered by a call for structural change, as “democratic socialists”  would hope. Shifts in the Window over time are an effect of strategically linking “new” ideas and policies with America’s “fundamental values.” Significant social, political, and economic transformations can be accepted by the public if they are portrayed as conserving more crucial, underlying tenets of  American society.

—  Political change is all about coding a redesign of the social fabric as necessary to its preservation.

American “fundamental values” emerged from a murky clutter of principles that were shaped by the uniqueness of our history. The political theorist Louis Hartz claimed that America is “exceptional” in that we avoided the feudalism of Europe. His contention is that we were “born equal” – not empirically, but as a shared historical ethos of individual rights, reason, and rationality which still suffuses our culture.

Hartz called our absolute devotion to the principles that we are all reasoning, rational, “self-owning,” sovereign individuals entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” the “American way of life.” He argued that the New Deal succeeded because Franklin Roosevelt was able to code his “radical” reorganization of government as merely pragmatic, rational, responses to existing circumstances. According to Hartz, “[Roosevelt’s] ‘radicalism’ could consist of ‘bold and persistent experimentation’ which…was perfectly compatible with Americanism…Americanism was gospel…and any conscious transgression of it…was highly unpalatable.”

Progressive politics should not be situating itself outside the consensus of “Americanism,” attempting to lure or propel it towards a socialist utopia. A politics for social change should be positioned squarely inside the consensus of American values, using it is a gravitation core to absorb progressive ideas and reshape the Window from within.

Any incantation of “socialism” by the Left runs counter to the broad American consensus of individualism. A progressive politics should work to reinterpret this consensus rather than attempting to undermine it.

In terms of the current corporate configurations of health care, progressives should argue that the nation is witnessing an abandonment of the historical, fundamental, “Americanist” values of individuality upon which the country was founded. It should be emphasized that we are no longer “self-owning.” Instead we are owned by corporations; reduced to mere digits on a spreadsheet. Our health and our lives discounted to fractions of pennies on the bottom line.

Universal health care should be presented as a rational response to defend the essence of individualism our founding fathers gave us. It shouldn’t be framed as a shift in the current fundamental values, but as a necessary protection against their dissolution. Those pressing for universal health care, and a deeper anti-capitalist agenda, should point to the loss of the individual as a fundamental danger – a looming specter requiring practical, rational “defenses.”

The battle for progress will not be won on the terrain of the visionary. Moving forward depends on morphing the future into the past. In a viable progressive politics, everything new is old again.

—TGR—

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political TheorY; California State University;   thegoldinrule@gmail.com

The Siren Song of the American Dream

Sheltering in our homes, we watch the myth of the American Dream slowly unravel, burying (as usual) the most hard-working amongst us. The unquestioned certainty – the truth – that hard work leads to a richer, happier life has become another victim of the virus.  

We are adrift, far from the comforting shores of the social norms of hard work and success that gave meaning to our lives. We stare back at those shores, like a drowning man, yearning for the solidity of the familiar. 

In these times, let the shore recede. Swim further out to sea, dive beneath the surface of our previous contentment. All the way to the bottom, to the sea floor of why we ever believed that financial success and happiness were the same thing. 

We spent most of our lives in jobs we didn’t like, harmonizing with workplace demands, comforted in the knowledge that it is rational to devote ourselves to skillfully negotiating the often tortuous landscape that will lead us to the financial ladder of success. 

We became proficient at shaping our beliefs and behaviors around the dominant societal norms of a free enterprise system that was never free and never rewarded enterprise. We didn’t need to be coerced to conform; we did so willingly.

We turned our ears to the siren song of the oligarchs; its lyrics are familiar: “money, more money, obscene wealth, a house, a bigger house, two bigger houses, a mansion with twenty-five bathrooms you will never see or use, this is what will make you truly happy.” We regulated our lives to achieve this happiness. We obeyed its devious demands because we believed in it; it functioned as knowledge, it was truth, it was reality.

We were comforted in the conviction that we had recognized, and adhered to, a truth of life. If others didn’t agree, that merely enhanced the stew of satisfaction with the spice of superiority.

We received pleasure not from any absolute truth; we had no idea if other more egalitarian forms of life would bring us greater happiness. The siren song never values the contemplative life. So we floated on the surface, distracted from what lies exist beneath the waves. The surface seemed so tranquil and glisten-y.

Entranced by the shimmering waves, we jumped through the hoops of life we’d been conditioned to believe in. We procreated to produce a new generation to whom we earnestly imparted our knowledge of the financial hurdles that lead to a successful life. Happiness is a race, a competition, we told them, and there can only be one winner. 

It was crucial that our children believed that what we had given them was the truth.To doubt our truth was to doubt that we were the truth-givers. It was to question our beliefs about ourselves. 

Most parents would be devastated if they paid four years of tuition at a university only to be informed by their child they wanted to live in an ashram seeking spiritual truth. A spiritual life is not a successful life, the parent would declare, you’ll never be truly happy without the bigger house, the BMW, and at least 2.3 kids. 

We repeated that mantra often enough that our offspring came to believe it. And they were grateful that we had opened their eyes to this reality, to this truth, to which they eagerly conformed. And we found contentment knowing that we were the kind of parents who could recognize, and impart, the truths of the world to our children. 

But the calm surface has now lost its luster. The virus has shoved our heads beneath the waves. This is where the creatures lurk. Below the seductive incantations of the American Dream swim the monsters of the deep; in constant motion, devouring the many to feed the wealth of a few.  

When the virus is over, when we eventually rise above the surface, will we remember what we have seen? Will we remember the atrocities we have obediently floated upon for so many years? When we once again stroll casually out of our homes into waiting arms, will we finally tune out the siren song?

Artwork by Bryan Syme

—TGR—

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University; thegoldinrule@gmail.com

Sarah Silverman, Blackface, and the Death of Postmodern Irony

The comedian Sarah Silverman recently acknowledged that her career has been damaged by a decade-old episode of The Sarah Silverman Program in which her character appears in a highly satirical version of blackface. Silverman has vociferously apologized for the episode, declaring “I don’t stand by the blackface sketch. I’m horrified by it, and I can’t erase it. I can only be changed by it and move on.”

Many have defended this particular usage of blackface by placing it within the contexts of comedy and satire. However, the episode represents more than the mere undulations of comedic boundaries. It is pointedly situated within two very different approaches to ameliorating social divides and hierarchies.

The blackface episode sits, self-consciously, at the crossroads of modern and postmodern politics. At one point, a crowd of supporters, also brandishing Silverman’s absurd version of blackface, are asked the typical protest question, “What do we want?” Their answer, however, does not reference the usual modernist tropes of equality and justice, nor does it refer to any specific markers of race. Rather, the crowd responds that what they want is “the freedom to explore issues of race in American culture through the use of postmodern irony!” The denial of this freedom from within the film/television industry, and the larger political community, raises the political implications of the death of postmodern irony, and the loss of an important political tool to fight injustice.

Postmodern politics arose in the late sixties as a response to the perceived inadequacies of modernity. The argument was that claims of “reason,” “rationality,” and “evidence” always served to further undermine marginalized peoples. The belief was that individuals divide the world into categories and that any attempt at reasoned refutation of existing dominant norms simply collapsed into, and reinforced, existing categories.

We see this prominently today in the use of “socialist” as a linguistic denier of rational discussion. The postmodern approach would not be to argue the merits (or inadequacies) of socialism, its supposed substance, or the irrationality of some. All such attempts would simply reinforce the category and allow for its continued manipulation by others. Instead, postmodern politics seeks to disentangle and deconstruct the category of “socialist” itself – to “de-rationalize” all categories – often through the use of parodic embellishment.

The attempt by early postmodern political theorists was to deconstruct existing norms by creating “events” – such as the “die-ins” and the “kiss-ins” – which the viewer couldn’t easily define, categorize, and then discard. Judith Butler wrote, “subversive practices have to overwhelm the capacity to read, challenge conventions of reading, and demand new possibilities of reading.” In other words, they have to overwhelm the categories and undermine their ability to define and subsume “rational” arguments for structural change.

Butler also noted that once “you know how to read them in advance, or you know what’s coming…they just don’t work anymore.” Every attempt at subversion is met with the creation of a new category which will be constructed, maintained and patrolled. Thus the rise of “hipster racism” which combines contested categories, and links disparate comedians and performers, into a singular denotation which functions to both obscure and abjure.

The point is neither to support nor defend “hipster racism” or any specific category; rather it is to examine the construction, usages, and political implications of all categories. A category is not a mere recognition of the pre-existent metaphysical sameness of its components; rather the category itself defines and coagulates its substance. The substance of a category is shaped, defined and compared by the need for the simplistic comfort of the category itself.

Silverman’s use of blackface was designed not as a counter-category, but as a means of undermining all categorical constructions. Those who criticize Silverman’s postmodern approach replicate the futility of modernist politics – the very kind of politics which has brought us to the political precipice upon which we now teeter. Silverman attempted to deconstruct the category of blackface; the modernist response has been a re-assertion and condemnation of the usage of blackface anywhere, anytime, and a fierce denial to those who would not merely critique but attempt to demystify and disempower through parody and satire.

At one point, as Silverman’s character is leaving the apartment with her new blackface makeup, she places a bandana on her head – another sign for the modernists of an obvious racial stereotype. Except that, as she leaves, Silverman declares, in an exaggerated New York accent “New York this is your last chance.” This line is a reference to the old Rhoda show in which Valerie Harper played a Jewish woman from New York. (Each episode began with a short “history” of the character read by Harper, the last line of which Silverman is citing.) Silverman is attempting to undermine the power of a particular category by dis-entangling it from a singular set of substances and re-entangling it within a host of disparate signifiers. Silverman’s blackface episode points in many directions, criticizing not only racism but also those liberals who believe that they can easily “live” the plight of others by being “black for a day.”

In the 1970’s the African-American comedian Godfrey Cambridge starred in a movie entitled Watermelon Man in which a white man (Cambridge in white-face) suddenly turns black overnight. The film is earnest in its depiction of what befalls Cambridge’s character as he loses his (white) wife and kids, and his home. The film is a highly modernist refutation of racism as the character is transformed from a white racist into a black militant.

Watermelon Man is comforting to modernists as a clear, reasoned, refutation of racism. But such approaches have been limited in their political effect. Postmodern irony and parody as evidenced through The Sarah Silverman Program is an attempt to place another arrow in the quiver of the fight for social and political justice. The defining, categorization, and repudiation of Silverman is, itself, an ironic and parodic performance of the modernist defense and reinforcement of an exhausted politics.

–TGR–

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Theory; California State University;  thegoldinrule@gmail.com

“Jew-ish” Identity in a Time of Violence

When speaking with my students about “identity,” I often refer to myself as “Jew-ish.” The term is always accompanied by a slight rocking motion of my hand – a small gesture emphasizing an ambiguous attachment to my own self-description.  

For those of us who, in our daily lives, are far more “ish” than “Jew,” the kind of religious connection we feel with the victims of the recent synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh can be complicated. Are we to feel a wave of disgust, and fear, beyond that of all caring human beings? Are we suddenly supposed to feel more Jew than ish?

“Jewish” is a particularly complex identity as the term seemingly represents both a religion and an ethnicity. If hearing about Jews being shot doesn’t  transform the ish into devout practitioners, does it still momentarily alter our ethnic identity and our attachment to it? Are we to believe that a designation we never perform, and rarely even conceive of as an identity (let alone our own), has always been who we truly are?

The recent shooting compels the ish to locate ourselves on the terrain of a Jewish identity which is now under attack in America while simultaneously fueling atrocities abroad. The attack in Pittsburgh touches us in a personal way, even as the ongoing attempts by Israel to destroy the Palestinian people further a detachment from what appears to be the inevitable outcome of merging religion and ethnicity into a singular Jewish identity.

The French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser wrote about what he called interpolation – a process by which ideologies “hail” or “call out” to individuals, offering them a particular identity. Interpolation is not necessarily voluntary. It is a hailing which can often wrench us away from our already conceived and functioning sense of who we are.

Interpolation can be extended to a myriad of daily occurrences, such as the first time someone in their twenties refers to you as “sir” or “ma’am.”  Suddenly feeling old? Congratulations, you’ve been interpolated.

The attack in Pittsburgh is a form of hailing. But who or what is it calling out to? Are the Jew-ish free to turn away from this momentary re-shaping of our identity, or is there something that persists within us which inevitably responds?

The ish may need to think of our identities not as expressions of a stable essence or history, but as highly contingent and contextual. The feminist Judith Butler once told friends she was “off to Yale to be a lesbian.” Butler didn’t mean she wasn’t always a lesbian in her life, but that, at the particular conference she was attending, the complexity of her being would be reduced to a singular aspect. Her over-riding momentary identity as “a lesbian” would be a temporal, contextual effect.

The ishness of being a Jew complicates even Butler’s nuanced understanding of the contextually of identity. At certain moments in history the ish are called to an identity which, though unobserved and unacknowledged, seemingly lingers in our being. Jewish is not our identity, but we possess the raw material for its temporary construction.

As the attack recedes into history we will again be more ish than Jew. Until the tragic cycle repeats. The descriptions we offer of ourselves are not measures of who we are but, rather, where we are positioned at a particular moment and time in history.

—TGR—

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political TheorY; California State University;   thegoldinrule@gmail.com